Doppelgänger stories came into fashion during the Industrial Revolution, as an archetype in Gothic horror. The term was coined by Jean Paul in his novel Siebenkäs in 1796, and came of age in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Doppelgänger (1821). Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson was published in 1839. Later, in 1886, we get Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and in 1908 Henry James’ The Jolly Corner. In every case the doppelgänger is identical in appearance but opposite in character and ultimately inimical to the protagonist. The trope is still very much with us — more so than ever, did we but realise it.
Feodor Dostoevski’s novella Двойник (Dvoynik), published in 1846, is an excellent example of the genre. The central character is Golyadkin, a shy young office clerk working in a government department, who meets his double on the way home from a party he’s been asked to leave after a series of embarrassing social gaffes. They become friends and the double gets to meet all his colleagues. He is identical to Golyadkin except in character, being confident, outgoing and charming; everybody loves him and soon it becomes apparent that the pseudo-Golyadkin is taking over Golyadkin’s life.
In Jean Baudrillard’s simulation theory, the industrial revolution gave birth to new orders of simulation which infiltrated our experience and became inherent to our existence. Mass-produced objects are copies, but copies of what? They no longer refer to a real original, as a portrait does to a real face or a map to a real place. In the industrial age, a tide of mass-production overwhelms authentic making, and eventually destroys even the concept of originality. A mass-produced product is a second order simulacrum: indistinguishable from its ‘original’, the image now threatens to displace reality. Such second-order images are described by Baudrillard as being of the order of malefice. This dramatic word-choice resonates with the strange anxiety reified in the stories.
Automation-anxiety found violent expression in the hammers, torches and and rifles of the Luddite uprising in England in the early years of the nineteenth century. A mechanised loom is a highly specified mimicry: it simulates the skills of a human artisan. According to tradition, when an apprentice weaver Ned Ludd, or Ludlow, took a hammer to two looms in the 1780s, he was merely venting his frustration at being criticised for the quality of his work. But as machines progressively took the place of skilled artisans in England’s textile industry, his act of destruction became an inspiration to a growing movement of under-employed weavers whose livelihoods were threatened. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, machine-products were still inferior to the real thing, but the machines were growing in sophistication. From 1804 there was the Jacquard loom, fitted with a device that was essentially a punch-card computer, which could co-ordinate the execution of sophisticated weaves and embroideries such as brocade, damask and matelassé.
By 1810, Ludd had become the folk hero and fictitious leader of a resistance army using sabotage and arson to roll back mechanisation in the textile industry, or at least to force negotiations over the role of skilled labour in the new economy. The Luddites attacked mills and factories across the North of England, smashing machines and scrawling NED LUDD DID THIS on the walls.
As the rebels grew in daring and violence, Ned was promoted to Captain, then General, and finally King. His soldiers were organised and disciplined, meeting at night in the woods or on the moors to train and plan. Eventually twelve thousand British troops had to be diverted from the Peninsula War — so for a while, King Ludd was a more urgent threat than the Emperor Napoleon. There were several pitched battles before the movement was finally put down in 1813, with the imposition of the death penalty for machine-breaking. There were mass hangings and deportations, and eventually the mill-owners could sleep easy in their beds once again, without fear of arson or assassination.
That’s the kind of vengeful, life-or-death ferocity that tends to spill out in the end, in these doppelgänger stories.
Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near (2005), invented the first text-to-speech reader for the blind, among many other software applications. He is known now as a futurist, transhumanist and prophet of artificial intelligence, and occupies a position of significant influence as Google’s director of engineering — his brief, to gift the machine with natural language.
Kurzweil wrote his first computer programme at the age of fifteen. The programme used pattern-recognition software to analyse the works of classical composers, then synthesised new compositions on the basis of those patterns. In 1965, at the age of seventeen, Kurzweil appeared on television playing one of these synthetic compositions on the piano, and later that year the invention won first prize in the International Science Fair.
Once his career in information technology was well-established, specifically in the area of text recognition, Kurzweil returned to the subject of electronic music. He was lucky enough to get to meet Stevie Wonder, who complained to him about the poor quality of electronic instruments at the time, and this inspired Kurzweil to apply himself to the creation of a new generation of music synthesisers. In 1982 he founded Kurzweil Music Systems, and in 1984 unveiled the Kurzweil K250, the first synthesiser to use sampled sounds from real instruments, coupled with improved methods of storage and recall. In tests, professional musicians were unable to distinguish its piano sounds from the real thing. With the K250, a composer would be able to produce an entire symphony without any recourse to real musicians or musical instruments.
Kurzweil’s work on the synthesis of musical sounds and the simulation of musical composition typifies a mindset which seems entirely animated by the spirit Baudrillard tried to define. This mindset can do amazing things, and seeks its ultimate expression in the creation of synthetic worlds indistinguishable from reality. But despite its vast confidence, its self-apotheosis, the doppelgänger-mindset cannot create, only recreate: it can simulate, infiltrate, subvert, and displace, but it cannot truly make — it can make no sacrament.
It may do some good in the world along the way, as with Kurzweil’s reading machines for the blind, but these are stepping-stone applications, emphasised purely for PR reasons — golden rice with terminator genes. The fundamental drive is the fetishistic compulsion to map, analyse, copy.
Kurzweil was lucky not to have come to the attention of that other Dr K around this time, as a leading contributor to a particularly insidious form of information technology. Kurzweil helped make manifest the machine-music hitherto only imagined by Orwell and Huxley in their satirical dystopias. It might seem a trivial thing; but music is inherent in reality, and human music a vital thread in our connection with the universe.
Reality, in Baudrillard’s dispiriting definition, is ‘that which can be simulated.’ To the doppelgänger-mindset, it appears, nothing that exists in this creation is of interest except in as far as it can be mimicked, replicated and put to the uses of sorcery. Now, according to the hype surrounding artificial intelligence, the ultimate simulation is just around the corner: a machine-intelligence so sophisticated that it awakes into sentience, into consciousness — a simulacrum of the order of malefice — a doppelgänger for the human race.
Featured image: “Double” by Lena Mikulinskaya.
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