The Machine is Learning: Longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020

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From the Publisher

A Conversation with Tanuj Solanki

Que. What are the central concerns of your new novel?

A. The central concern of the novel is to show how easy it is for implementations of new technology, like Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence, to be at odds with human interests, or at least the interests of some humans. The novel’s plot introduces this awareness into an employee who’s practically a tech implementor in his company. Eventually, this person—the protagonist Saransh—ends up taking some actions. Does he take the actions for the right reasons? do his actions make any difference? can anyone’s actions make a difference? —these are some of the questions that the novel intends to leave the readers with.

Que. How does the writing process usually unfold for you?

A. For me, a writing project usually starts with a single image or a situation that I feel I have seenin total clarity. The development of a story around it, or starting from it, then follows. But more often than not, the process of the development of the story mutates the original image or idea beyond recognition.

Que. How difficult was it to bridge the gap in the worldview of the central characters Saransh and Jyoti?

A. At the beginning of the novel, Saransh is the tech implementor in a company, interested in the work he does and the money he makes doing that, while Jyoti is a journalist who’s recently lost her job and who is upfront about her ideas of social justice and equality. They get romantically involved with each other. The ground they share is the basic goodness that is part of their personalities, which is what makes it possible for the said bridge to be made. It’s a two-way street, though: if Saransh begins to reconsider the real impact of his work, Jyoti also begins to see the value of being pragmatic.

Que. In what ways do you think the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar has contributed to your writing?

A. I don’t think it has made any significant contribution to my writing. Though I hope it makes more people discover and read my work. It would be nice if that happened.

Que. ‘The Machine is Learning’ explores the scenario of mass-scale job loss, do you think it is possible for all to re-skill themselves and get employment again? What motivated you to take up this problem and explore the everyday in the workplace in a literary novel?

A. I think the idea that ‘people re-skill themselves’ is a valid statement at a high—say, macroeconomic—level. But it hides the turmoil that defines the process of reskilling. It also hides that many people fail at reskilling and are just left behind. Automation takes away a particular activity from a business process, yes, but what options does it leave for the person who was making his bread out of doing that particular activity? I am sure that this question will begin to bother a greater number of novelists in the near future. Some will capture the emotional cost of losing a job to technology. Some will capture the emotional cost of reskilling. Some, like my novel, will capture the emotional cost of implementing such technology.

Que. You also posit the advantageous position of Saransh and Jyoti, in different ways against the much larger number of disprivileged people who are to lose their jobs. What is the idea there?

A. From the socio-economic class that Saransh and Jyoti belong to—the class that will have bread (and jam) on the table even if they don’t work for months—I believe that it is not possible for any ethical impetus to form without the acknowledgment of a state of privilege. The by-product of this acknowledgment is persistent, low-intensity guilt—in the novel, too, Saransh gradually learns to carry this guilt with him. Normally, since guilt is a difficult feeling to live with, most privileged people vehemently deny their privileges—by extension, they also fail to take significant ethical action.

Que. In an increasingly connected world, what does the image of Alan Kurdi, the boy who washes up dead on the shore of Turkey, and is ever-present for the Mumbai-based protagonist Saransh, convey to us?

A. I think the Covid-19 pandemic proves what we have all felt every now and then—we aren’t a whole lot separated from the farthest person in the world. The crime that the image of Alan Kurdi connotes can, therefore, make some of us feel a helpless sort of guilt. Saransh feels it strongly in the novel.

Que. Is there a sci-fi angle to the novel? Even though this shows the immediate, does the work consider what is to happen to the workplace and relationships between people in the future in our country?

A. I don’t think there is a sci-fi angle to the novel, in the sense that it doesn’t use futuristic science to drive its plot or show anything that doesn’t already exist today. It is all in the “here and now”, and I wanted it to be that way. That it can feel like sci-fi at times is perhaps a note on how difficult it has become to keep pace with technology—and, therefore, how difficult it has become to keep pace with ideas of what suboptimal scenarios technology can lead to.

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Macmillan (13 June 2020)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 256 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9389109299
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9389109290
Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 290 g
Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 13.2 x 1.7 x 20.2 cm
Country of Origin ‏ : ‎ India
Net Quantity ‏ : ‎ 1.00 count
Generic Name ‏ : ‎ Book