Review by Alex Carrigan: instrument for distributed empathy monetization by William Lessard
William Lessard’s instrument for distributed empathy monetization is a new experimental chapbook from Kernpunkt Press that plays with the idea of autonomy and self-awareness in poetic form. The book’s description says it “seek[s] duende in the age of corporate personhood and algorithmic capitalism.” The result is a very odd, but strangely fascinating work of literature.
The chapbook opens with a schematic of what appears to be some kind of mask over a person’s face, resembling a gas mask that has more straps and features. The next page states, “When the Company achieved personhood, it sought empathy to emulsify its being. See: artificial person. See: infrastructure.” What follows reads like an instruction manual filtered through an internet AI program, with surveys and figures that befuddle the reader, but suggests more about the Company and the setting.
This chapbook reads like the Company, now that it is achieving personhood and autonomy, is trying to understand human nature and the world around it, but fails to understand the significance of it. Even the mask, which is apparently to monetize and distribute empathy, can’t seem to explain how or why this thing works. This results in odd survey questions like “How should we ask the bee to live inside the pill?” or “Please describe experiences you have had problems with.”
This suggests that this chapbook is a satire of monetizing or trying to teach intangible concepts to non-autonomous forms. Instead of being something charming like teaching a robot to love, it reads more like a critical backlash to entities that try to claim personhood or advantages in society that don’t fully understand the world around them and whose attempts to highlight the futility of an act. One survey even ends with a range question like this:
5) How would you rate the mechanism? (Circle one.)
|--------------- |---------------- | ----------------- | ----------------- |
Snow Mountain Pearl Whisper Rain
To the reader, these words elicit memories, nostalgia, sensory feelings, and more, but for something with no real understanding, it becomes gibberish. If anything, Lessard’s chapbook is intelligent for how the choice of words throughout are words that can target feelings out of empathetic beings like the reader, as anyone can think of a moment or a sensation through experience.
Rather than a collection of absurd gobbledygook, instrument is a biting, clever chapbook of experimental poetry. It isn’t the easiest collection to read, but it asks the reader to remember how their human nature allows them to experience a range of emotions and feelings that makes their lives and experiences unique. In this day and age, it’s important to remember the value of empathy and what it means, and Lessard’s work only reminds us how important it is to hold onto that instead of asking for pennies in exchange for it.
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