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12 Bytes (by Jeanette Winterson)


“There’s a new kind of quasi-religious discourse forming, with its own followers, its creed, its orthodoxy, its heretics, its priests, its literature, its eschatological framework. Even its own Singularity. It’s AI.”

Title: 12 Bytes
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Published by: Grove Press

ChatGPT, everyone’s favourite purveyor of bad poetry, was released in November 2022, with OpenAI’s generative AI tool altering the landscape of work for a number of industries. 

This of course extended to indie authors who, long-acquainted with having the odds stacked against them, found Kindle Unlimited flooded with bookish sewage overnight as a clutch of have-a-go writers and grifters took advantage. Fortunately, Amazon would eventually restrict them from only publishing a mere 3 books a day. That’ll teach them.

This brings us to 12 Bytes, a brilliant piece of non-fiction by witty wordsmith and all-round literary rockstar, Jeanette Winterson. Published as a series of topical essays, she guides the reader through key developments in tech.

And whilst it helps if the reader is familiar with AI, this is by no means mandatory – this is pure Winterson; informative and hilarious in equal measure.

Welcome to the metaverse

From sex robots and metaverse avatars, to transhumanist biotech such as Neuralink, the future is digital, whether you like it or not. 

And 12 Bytes offers a great insight into this from the perspective of a writer. Winterson speaks on the topic with a prescience, having immersed herself in the worlds of big tech, automation, and AI for a number of years.

In fact, her 2019 novel Frankissstein was a retelling of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, with the monster less a physical manifestation and more a discussion on the ethics of AI, transhumanism, and cryonics.

Likewise, as generative AI develops in leaps and bounds, it poses a number of questions for society, including the future of creativity and employment. These are big, emotive topics with rival pro and anti-AI camps emerging in creative circles.

Binary opposition

Because our society thrives on binary opposition, the subject of AI has pitched tech evangelists against artists in public discourse.

Artists and publishers are (understandably) concerned that their work is being used to train AI tools, whilst the tech sector has to make the case that regulation (such as the EU’s AI Act) must be applied in calm and informed moderation rather than in a reactionary manner.

Fortunately, Winterson doesn’t buy into this adversarial discourse – engaging with the topic of artificial intelligence with, well, intelligence and nuance.

It’s worth noting that 12 Bytes was actually published in 2021, over a year prior to us mere mortals gaining access to generative AI tools. 

I asked Winterson at Manchester Lit Fest whether her thoughts had changed since the dawn of publicly available generative AI tools. 

Her answer? 

“Well, I have to be optimistic, because what’s the alternative?”

In 12 Bytes Winterson envisions a world where AI could help transcend human limitations and biases. Is this overly optimistic? Time will tell.

Womens’ erasure from tech - A tale as old as time

We live in a world of ‘tech bros’. Think Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Sam Altman. 

Tech Bro Spirit Halloween Costume - Stuff Tech Bros Like
Source: StuffTechBrosLike

And yet Winterson drops a series of truth bombs throughout 12 Bytes. The forerunners to modern tech innovations such as AI and automation lie in the work done by women. 

12 Bytes analyses the history of tech, bringing the women responsible for our current advancements into the public consciousness. She pores over the work of Ada Lovelace in particular, taking jabs at the notion that tech is predominantly for men (a myth invariably propagated by men).

To be clear, this isn’t a polemical book – it’s just the facts. And because of this, 12 Bytes is important. It’s a chronicle of history that simply isn’t taught or discussed, arriving at a time in which artificial intelligence models are being trained en masse in a sector lacking in diversity.

And from a historical perspective, 12 Bytes is a fantastic chronicle of the erasure of womens’ roles in tech. Even those familiar with the subject will find some of the passages astounding.

Final Thoughts

12 Bytes is an excellent piece of non-fiction that manages to inform and entertain in equal measure. 

At times Winterson, a sharp thinker, falls foul of the ‘looking at screens is inherently bad for us’ trope when discussing technology, which doesn’t hold up under any meaningful scrutiny.

Still, 12 Bytes is a witty and highly competent analysis of the tech sector’s history, and a must-read for anyone curious about the past, present, and future of the industry.


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