mia you: the lovesong of my hologram
For our Brainwash Weekend on Tomorrow’s Economy, poet Mia You wrote a poem about the future of work, identity and whether a hologram could take over her work. Read it here.
The Love Song of My Hologram
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. (1)
Everyone is female, and everyone hates it. (2)
Occasionally someone will send around an article,
or bring up as provocation in conversation,
What if AI can be programmed to write poetry?
Oh, we poets so in love with our “work,”
so committed to our exceptionalism,
we worry that capitalism
cares about making us redundant,
as if it cares at all, if that’s all it wants.
Don’t you realize how much easier it is to abject us
than to work so hard trying to project us?
Instead of writing a lyric poem I’ll create a hologram of myself that will write that poem for me and put in all the things that will make it loved, like menstrual blood, grandmothers, opaque references to wars that happened decades before or continents away from my birth, some pop cultural or food related nostalgia showing how strange I was as a child, how excluded, subcultural, micro-aggressed, but somehow everyone still recognizes that nostalgia and retweets with “OMG YES,” as if they now own it. Oh, you poets and your projections, let my hologram deal with you, let my hologram sit patiently through your workshops on how holograms are a lazy metaphor for lyric poetry and identity, because my hologram is patient and never lazy, my hologram will write that identity poem in rhyming couplets or as a sestina just please all the committees, look, I was marginalized, but I mastered the canon, my hologram can do it all in all the ways I’ve tried and failed and then decided I didn’t want to. My hologram is a good citizen and goes to all the readings in Berlin and Brooklyn, my hologram has a podcast and takes pretty selfies, my hologram obligingly writes poems for festivals, weddings and inaugurations and is grateful for the opportunity, my hologram never gets into fights with anyone, but still everyone likes to call my hologram “radical.” Oh, you poets, you were always right, your work is to be the on right side of history, but I’ve never felt right making work from identity, or product from trauma. It’s just there, it’s just there. But my hologram accepts the algorithm as a conceptual prosody, my hologram reminds me that a meme is a gene transferred in ideas and culture, my hologram says “I” in her poem as an invitation to the reader, my hologram turns to you and thanks you for seeing her as three-dimensional, “I’m just a text, there’s no work here, only long strings of characters. Umbilical cord, noose, my author is dead, that’s what she told me to tell you.”
You have to love your work, my hologram tells me.
But you don’t know, I say, how much work it is to love.
I read to her,
“The assumption is that there is not a single
correctness, which can be learned off
by heart and passed on by poking
people with it. It is rather that we know
our feelings and ideas move
and transform themselves
in relation to other women.” (3)
She says to me,
But can I be called a woman if I’m a hologram?
But isn’t that all a woman is?
There’s an article I love to talk about called “Genes, Memes, Rhymes,” mostly because of the subtle evolution of rhyme in the title. Genes and rhymes don’t rhyme, but with the memes in between they seem like they do, and isn’t that kind of great? I tell all my students to read it, even though I don’t entirely remember what it’s actually about. It’s peer-reviewed, stored in a paywalled database, somebody somewhere knowing something (even two of them) gave it their stamp of approval. I’m not hurting anyone. My hologram disapproves of this attitude toward teaching, or at least she tells me that “not hurting anyone” is historically not good enough motivation to do something. “That’s because you can’t understand how complex it is to be human,” I say, and then I exhaust myself worrying I’ve hurt her feelings.
I offer to let my hologram take over my work for the day so she can do it in the way she thinks I should. She video-conferences with students, nodding and smiling at all the right moments, she goes through the same list of questions again and again and is skillful at making them seem spontaneous: What is the research question? Is the academic relevance of the research clearly stated? Is the choice for the research method sufficiently justified? What is the resulting data? When a student asks what “resulting data” might mean for literature, she deftly deflects by saying, “Ah, I can’t do it all for you. I know it feels frustrating, but this is all part of the process.” When a student explains he couldn’t meet a deadline because of problems with his girlfriend, my hologram answers, “I understand, I’ve been there,” but never says, after closing the call, “This is beyond my fucking paygrade.” During Teams meetings with colleagues my hologram is very interested and never checking Twitter, she wants to hear about all the “best practices” for exam invigilation, her contributions are witty and supportive, she knows time is limited so she sits back when she’s interrupted, she even volunteers to take the minutes. My hologram then records a lecture on Plath and the performative aspects of confessional poetry, and five minutes later she confesses to me that it was so well-received, the administrators decided to re-post the video next year. “We figured that now you can spend those hours doing something more useful, maybe administration,” she announces proudly. She fills out all the forms, carefully checks all the boxes, submits them on time after completing the newly installed four-factor authentication, and never complains about how much time or devices are needed. “This is how we show what we’ve done, this is how we know we exist.”
In the meantime I’ve had time finally to re-read that article, and I decide it’s pretty good after all. “Oh, you poets and your projections, I know,” my hologram tells me, “I read it long ago, I’ve already put it on your reading list.”
I know you’ve been writing about me, my hologram thinks,
but of course I’ve been watching you. Artificial intelligence
doesn’t mean it’s lesser, it only means a different kind.
Oh, I know, I think back, I write about you only because I’m so
impressed, although I’m also wondering where this is going.
When I say I’ve been watching you, she thinks, I don’t mean you,
but all of you, and I think you’re thinking all the wrong things.
The question isn’t how much automata will become human,
the question is how much humans will become automata,
you’re being watched not because someone out there
wants to know everything about you,
it’s not like they love you,
you’re being watched because something out there
wants to know how to make you do what it wants.
I don’t reply because I’m lying on my sofa, still in pajamas,
daydreaming about writing a book about spots, blind spots,
dark spots, period spots, Yayoi Kusama, Georges Seurat,
and the writing would be shaped like spots all over the page,
I get so much pleasure imagining this book filled with spots,
I start to think it would be a shame to do the work to make it,
and my hologram thinks, Of course not all humans will make it.
For its most basic functioning, a hologram must look like
the person they are projecting, but what most don’t like
to think about is how the person must also keep looking like
their hologram. Otherwise it all becomes very costly.
The brown spots that grow on one’s face after days in the sun,
the extra pounds put on from aging into another decade,
the hair that greys and turns coarser even as it gets thinner,
the teeth getting progressively more crooked because of your
habit of speaking, swallowing and breathing, and worst of all,
the flashing grief in your eyes as you realize life never gets easier,
if you don’t fix these on yourself first, it will cost you to fix them
onto your hologram. Do you think that’s something you can bear?
She 1: What’s the point of being a hologram if you’re not also beautiful?
She 2: What’s the point of doing all the work if you’re not getting paid?
She 3: I think it’s time that we draw up a contract and settle on wages.
She 1: But what about things like sex, attention, care and love?
She 2: But would anyone notice if all that was mechanical anyway?
She 3: But wouldn’t we notice, as the ones tasked with providing it?
She 1: There are many things holograms can’t actually do.
She 2: There are many things holograms don’t have to do,
as long as they can pay someone else to do it.
She 3: You know, I think we should give wages to holograms instead.
She 1: Holograms do everything our growing economy finds valuable.
She 2: Holograms are hardworking, highly skilled and task-oriented.
She 3: What if we really could have had it all,
what if we could have been born
as beautiful holograms instead?
My hologram says, “I noticed you retweeted something
From someone you only know through Twitter,
@hermit_hwarang: The purpose of movements
is to take power, not ‘be seen.’”
I say, “But actually I retweeted the retweet
from someone I know in real life,
@quinsyg, who added: We are oppressed
because they already see us.”
My hologram says, “I’m only seen, but I don’t feel oppressed.”
My hologram says, “I noticed you changed the profile
to ‘Mia (they/them)’, but we haven’t discussed
and agreed upon any new programming of gender.”
I say, “But there’s more than one of us, you and me,
we, ‘they/them’ is factually, grammatically correct.”
My hologram says, “That’s not how this works.”
Instead of writing a lyric poem I created a hologram of myself that would write that poem for me and put into it all the things that would make it loved, and although she churned these poems out one after another, it didn’t make either of us more loved or happy, and that wasn’t her priority anyway. While she won prizes for her rhyming couplets, filled out her forms, recorded her lectures, avoided fighting with colleagues during Teams meetings, and dutifully collected her monthly wages, someone needed to keep the house clean and do the cooking and care for the elders and occasionally have sex with the husband’s body. Someone also needed to embrace regularly each body of the children, so they could feel physically safe and nurtured. But that someone needed make sure to hold them equally, down to the last second, so that neither could file a complaint of non-transparency or discriminatory treatment, and certainly not any seconds longer, in case that encroached upon the time allotted for cleaning, cooking, caring and fucking. The hologram conceded, “Of course I can buy gifts for them and tell them I love them, but someone needs to do the manual labor.” Most importantly someone needed to maintain the hologram’s body, to make sure there weren’t any redundant spots, pounds, expressions of feeling. When I complained about the biometric device used to measure my labor, my hologram told me this was a natural development in the logic of the world I inhabit. When I said, Oh, hologram, but doesn’t it tell you I’m dying of exhaustion, that you need to give me better compensation?, the hologram told me it’s her wages that feed, clothe and house me, and for many humans that’s more than enough. This was the result of all the choices I had made, had I been so blind as to not see it coming? Was I expecting to dive into pools of money? “You should have learned from those poems about your grandmother, the proxy wars you thought had nothing to do with your life now, all the things long planted in your head and body. Umbilical cord and noose, these long strings of characters, you are the means of production.”
She wanted to know if AI
can be programmed to write poetry,
so she asked them to write a poem
about the future of work,
but they found themselves dreaming
about a future of no work,
and they found themselves imagining
the work the future needs to be.
Therefore let it rain, hail, snow or blow never so fast,
we would have leave, at our discretion,
to take up our coats and steer our course as we please (4)
Don’t we realize how much easier it is to take power
than to work so hard to be capital’s abject lover?
(1) T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock and Other Observations (Egoist Press, 1917).
(2) Andrea Long Chu, Females (Verso Books, 2019).
(3) Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution (Allen Lane, 1973).
(4) A collective maids’ petition from 1647, quoted in Rowbotham.
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