The Mechanics of Fate


What will our wager with the universe be? The more exhausted we are the more we look for signs. Or at least, the more signs take on a meaning for us. Where sometimes we are protected by a thin veneer of distance, the universe can always pour in. How can we make sense of this overwhelming feeling? We can make a bet – if the next car to come around the corner is red, then everything will be okay; if this object remains unbroken, then things are not so bad; if the cat says hello back, then I know that I exist. We rationalise our losses as we exaggerate our victories. To bet on the universe is to make a bet with all that which exceeds our control. We need to mediate our relative powerlessness – all the more so when we feel that our grip has gone and our skin faces only outwards.

Machines that look a bit like us, or mechanised versions of our movements – the relationship between the mechanical fortune teller and the paper game we play as children, say – are technologies of distance as much as they are of fate. If we pick green or blue will we fall in love? Will we have a boy or a girl? Will we be rich or poor? What does the machine know about us that we do not? We want to fall in love with things that resemble us a little bit, but also we want to embrace their fate, even as we demand they tell us ours.

What is the sex of the machine? This seems to have some bearing on how we feel about things. The fortune-tellers at arcades, those dilapidated boxes that still remain occasionally at ‘amusement centres’ on sea-fronts are very distinctly men or women, both orientalised, mysterious, powerful, with a headscarf or a turban – Zoltar or Zelda or Zoltan or Zita, the ‘Z’ waiting for us at the end of the universe – spitting out a card, hands jerking brokenly over a ‘crystal’ ball. Your mood is orange, you are feeling stressed, you will marry and have three children, your lucky numbers are 15, 29, 63, 77 and 91. The complicity of meaning you enter into with the machine is both ironic and completely earnest: I do not believe you, and yet…

What is sex with a machine? As sex dolls become sex robots, with ‘realistic’ responses and AI voices, will they still be able to predict our fate? If we spend a fortune on our fortune teller, do we at the same time lose our connection to the universe? Zoltar and Zelda are cut off halfway down, or at least their other half, we might hypothesise, is hidden, boxed. We do not have access to their privacy precisely because they have insight into ours. If we make our fortune tellers too much like us, we might start to look for meaning in all the wrong places. Perhaps we already do. Perhaps our fate is already here, and we have forgotten that we were supposed to put some distance between us and our fateful machines.

The origami fortune teller is, on the other hand, a paper poetics – it abstracts fate from form, it disembodies destiny, while remaining firmly on the side of meaning. 1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 4, 6, 8, red, blue, yellow, green … can we even remember anymore how they work? Fingers pushing together and apart, the body the mediation of the teller, making vocal the silence of the paper. Sometimes the mechanical fortune teller will speak, lights will flash, a voice will ring out. Do Zoltar or Zelda wake us up or put us to sleep? Our curious desire to bet against the possibility of the wager itself means we both want to believe and not believe in the machine at the same time. Is the lesson one of suspension? The mechanical fortune teller is the other, in all the wrong ways, but at the very least we know that it is a conduit or a medium of the universe, and not the universe as such.

Published by Nina Power

Writer, Philosopher

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