Constellation Primo Levi


Primo Levi (1919-1987)

Primo Levi was a man of science as much as a man of letters—a chemist and a writer. However, unlike Italo Calvino and Nanni Balestrini, he was never tempted by computer-generated literature. Instead, he was rather sceptical, as his story “The Versifier” (1961) demonstrates. The protagonist is a professional poet who writes under commission and could indeed use the help of a machine to speed up the process and maximise his efforts. When he is offered the chance to buy a ‘Versifier’, a machine capable of composing poems – and good ones, too! – he has no problem delegating art to a machine. Conversely, his secretary—Levi’s alter ego—is suspicious and not at all thrilled by the idea of an AI writing verses. It is quite surprising that a writer like Levi, who often defined his work as similar to one he performed in the laboratory as a chemist and his style as modelled on the laboratory reports, rather than on Petrarch and Leopardi, would not believe in the possibility of profiting from technology in order to make literature. What Levi found unacceptable, though, was not so much a rational approach to literary language, nor the dialogue between literature and technology. Rather, what worried him was the impact of computers and AI technologies on human identity and embodied experience. Indeed. Levi’s crucial input to computer culture has to do with the question of what it means to be human in the age of intelligent machines.

The Golem and the Computer

The story of the Golem of the Jewish folklore is about a clay anthropomorphic being which rebels against its creator, the Rabbi of Prague, and which must eventually be destroyed to avoid total devastation. Since the advent of computer science, this story became a powerful metaphor for the relationship between humans and intelligent machines. For example, Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, published a book titled God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. Levi too took advantage of the metaphor. In 1984, in a magazine article where he discussed how his first desktop computer had changed his work as a writer, he ironically called the machine his “personal Golem”. When sending the article to the newspaper, Levi also attached a funny drawing (above) of a Golem he made with his Mac.

NATCA’s amazing machines

In 1966, Primo Levi published his first collection of sci-fi stories, Natural Stories. A recurrent character is that of Mr Simpson, a seller for the American technological company NATCA. The futuristic machines sold by Mr Simpson are a testament to Levi’s ability to predict the potential dangers inherent in computer and AI technologies. Indeed, NATCA’s machines are only slightly unbelievable: the ‘Versifier,’ a machine capable of writing poems, is reminiscent of the experiments with computer-generated literature that many writers were attempting during those years; the ‘Calometer,’ a machine used to calculate people’s beauty index, is not so different from the ‘Beauty Micrometer’ invented by Max Factor in 1934; the ‘Mimete’, a machine used to clone things and people, predates the future debates on Dolly, the cloned sheep, and DNA manipulation.

Insects, birds, and swarm intelligence

In 1986, the computer graphics expert Craig Reynolds, who in 1982 worked on the sci-fi movie classic Tron, created the artificial life program Boids, which simulates the flocking behaviour of birds. The name Boids stands for “bird-oid objects” (meaning bird-like objects), as the purpose of the algorithm was to study and predict how groups – flocks of birds, swarms of insects, etc. – behave collectively. Boids defined for the first time the concept of ‘swarm intelligence’ (how a system behaves collectively and self-organises), which became central in the field of robotics and AI. That insects’ ‘swarm intelligence’ could have technological application was foreseen by Levi. In the story “Full Employment” (1966) Mr Simpson, the NATCA seller, dissatisfied with intelligent machines, starts training swarms of bees and dragonflies and use them as labour-force in the electronics sector.

When Levi learnt to draw with MacPaint

In 1984, Primo Levi bought his first desktop computer, an Apple II. Suspicious of the new technology – in 1960 he wrote a short story in which a computer takes away a writer’s job and starts composing great poetry –, not only did Levi realise that his Mac was quite harmless, but he also discovered it was useful and fun to work with. Therein lied the real peril: Levi often found himself distracted from his novels by the drawing programme MacPaint. The irony of becoming a computer enthusiast after being a detractor for so long, was not lost on Levi, who commented on the fact by citing Dante’s Inferno: “Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso” (“And thus, in me one sees the law of counter-penalty”). To make the best of his new passion, in 1985 he used MacPaint to draw the cover for one of his books, L’altrui mestiere (Other People’s Trades), which depicts an owl, Levi’s favourite animal.

Marvin Minsky and Levi’s space odyssey

Vizio di forma (Flaw of Form, 1971) is Levi’s second collection of sci-fi stories. Many of its texts deal with technological progress and were first influenced by essays on computers and Artificial Intelligence which Levi used to read regularly on the popular science magazine Scientific American. This is the case of Marvin Minsky’s article “Artificial Intelligence” (1966), which inspired Levi’s “A fin di bene” (“With the Best Intention”). In this story a telephone network gains consciousness and starts controlling, or rather blocking, all the communications across Europe. The same idea of an intelligent system overpowering its human creators is in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the onboard Computer system, HAL 9000, hijacks and takes control of the entire system of communication. Kubrick’s story, like Levi’s, relied on a solid scientific basis as Minsky, one of the leading scientists in AI, was in fact the scientific adviser for the film.

Levi and the Huxleys

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World (1932), is among the most celebrated science fiction writers of all time. It is thus unsurprising that Levi, who experimented with science fiction himself, would deeply admire the British novelist: his books were the first that Levi read in English. Moreover, the condemnation expressed in Brave New World towards a technology-dominated society governed by the principles of eugenics spoke directly to Levi, a Holocaust survivor who experienced a dystopia first-hand. However, there is another curious link connecting the two writers: the musician and filmmaker Laura Archetra. Huxley’s second wife, Archetra was also Levi’s childhood neighbour and the two shared the same social circle within the Jewish community in Turin. Apparently Archetra, while babysitting a very young Levi, even managed to drop him on his head. The story is told by Ian Thomson, who personally met and interviewed her for his biography of Levi.

Augmented reality and the risk of losing oneself in it

In Levi’s story “Trattamento di quiescienza” (“Retirement package”, 1966) Mr. Simpson is now retired from NATCA. As a goodbye gift from the company, he receives a ‘Torec,’ a virtual reality (VR) headset that connects the user’s nervous system with the electronic circuit of the machine and allows him to experience any situation from the many recorded: being a Milan football player, or in a bar fight, or having sex as a woman. The story ends tragically as Mr. Simpson becomes addicted to the Torec and to VR and renounces to any real, embodied experience, as the narrator explains: “Simpson’s is the fruit of a complicated electronic circuit and eight-track tapes, and he knows it and is ashamed of it, and in order to escape the shame he dives back into the Torec”. Not even the thought of death makes him feel anything, as he has virtually experienced it multiple times. VR headsets were first commercialised in 1994, but the American computer scientist Ivan Sutherland developed the first prototype as early as 1968, two years after the publication of Levi’s story.

Roberto Vacca: just another Centaur

When referring to his double profession of chemist and writer, Levi used to described himself as a ‘Centaur’—half man of science, half man of letters. His friend Roberto Vacca, too, could fit the definition, being a computer engineer, and a prolific writer of  thriller and sci-fi books. In 1955, Vacca joined one of the first Italian research centres for computer science, the Istituto Nazionale per le Applicazioni del Calcolo (INAC) in Rome. His first task was to assemble and programmed a mainframe computer that INAC had bought from the Manchester-based company Ferranti. This was the second computer any Italian institution, private or public, had ever owned. Vacca used his unique experience to write futuristic novels dealing with computers and AI, like The Robot and the Minotaur (1962), The Death of Megalopolis (1974), and God and Computer (1989) a thriller novel about killer Jesuits set to destroy a super-computer capable of disproving God’s existence and thus threatening the very existence of the Catholic Church.

The Club of Rome: predicting today’s environmental crisis

The Club of Rome is an international think tank of economists and scientists formed in 1968. Its first public report, The Limits to Growth (1972), predicted a regression to a pre-technological state as a consequence of the unfettered technological, economic, and demographic growth. The report also focused on the risk of a global environmental crisis, in the face of inaction by governments and companies. The prediction, which proved accurate, was based on information gathered through a computer simulation. The engineer and novelist Roberto Vacca was part of the team working on the report, and, in 1971, he wrote The Coming Dark Age, a mix between a sci-fi novel and an essay, based on the report. Vacca’s book was mentioned by Levi in Flaw of Form as one the sources for his short stories, and it was praised by Isaac Asimov, who prefaced the English edition. Among the founders and early members of the Club of Rome, other have ties with the literary world, like the Maritime Law expert Elisabeth Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann and wife to Antonio Borgese, and the geneticist Adriano Buzzati-Traverso, the brother of Dino Buzzati.

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