"Overtoasted" Write-up

It’s the 1930s in the United States. The Great Depression and confusing times continue. Through this, one man has perfect vision: Aaron Maglue. Aaron, a professional detective, inhabits a city rife with crime, mysteries abound. On a slow day, however, a woman comes into his office, claiming her appliances are trying to kill her. Seconds later, a phone electrocutes her, and she dies instantly. Aaron and his trusty assistant, Watson James, follow the trail, finding leads and meeting characters. Our amazing detective is understandably skeptical, but the further he goes, everything seems to point to the appliances. Is this it for Aaron? Are these appliances truly behind this crime?
“Overtoasted” is a classic detective short story, with my poor sense of humor added. Aaron meets representations of people from our texts; Raoul is Rene Descartes who wrote Treatise of Man, Julian is Julien Offray de la Mettrie who wrote Machine Man, and Lizzy is Eliza Dolittle from My Fair Lady. Raoul and Julian intrigue Aaron with the idea of intelligent machines and argue for their capabilities in crime, yet ultimately, Aaron must decide whether he can truly blame a machine for the crime.
Raoul, the helpful neighbor of Rachel (the murder victim), appears first, and he presents the idea of the electricity linking the appliances and providing the impetus for the system. This, like Descartes’ animal spirits, both binds the parts of the larger machine together and seems ridiculous today. If the appliances could behave like a human, it would assumingly need a motive as well to murder Rachel, and therefore emotions to have a motive. Descartes states that emotions can rise out of the spirits as a reaction to surroundings and conditions (Descartes 73). People today often attribute emotions to higher functions as a purely human characteristic, such as in Blade Runner. By embedding the emotions in the machine, not the rational soul, Descartes suggests that a non-human machine could also have emotions. Aaron never discovers any motives for the appliances to strike, but in the story, that is not his main challenge. Typically, a detective faces a list of suspects and determines guilt through motive, method, and opportunity. The appliances are unique, however, as he wonders not whether they collectively are the guilty suspect, but whether they are a worthy suspect at all. From the Raoul/Descartes perspective, the appliances lack even consciousness. However, he would argue that an entity does not require consciousness, which is seated in the rational soul, to perform actions—such as murder—like a human (Descartes 96). This creates a moral quandary for Aaron, as it is entirely legal in the United States to accuse a human for his or her actions; accusing a cake mixer is another issue. He moves on to the next person with this issue unresolved, allowing it to grow and soon consume him.
Julian is the next target of Aaron, and he presents himself largely how I conceived La Mettrie: intelligent yet arrogant, talented yet eccentric. He initially appears only to perform an autopsy and explain how Rachel died. Aaron, however, asks for his opinion on the sentience of the appliances. Julian also accepts the idea of the appliances being a suspect, but advances it further. He echoes La Mettrie’s belief that the organization of matter alone creates emergent intelligence (La Mettrie 26). The appliances individually still remain less than aware; together, they could form a single being with similar mental capabilities to humans. Through their grouping and complexity by association—perhaps as tools in Rachel’s culinary experience—“they” would become a collective intelligence. Not only could it feel, it could think, and would therefore be no different than a human in guilt for a murder.
Lizzy is the last person Aaron meets, and is an unusual savior for an intelligent and wholly capable man. She is a victim of the Depression, thrown to the streets and apparently without any formal education. By this point, Aaron’s perspective has sufficiently narrowed that his only suspect is the machine, and he is stuck wondering how to deal with this unexpected criminal. Lizzy, however, speaks from her own experience of deception. As Professor Lowood explained, in My Fair Lady, Eliza manages to deceive the people at the ball because they want to accept her. They see a cultivated, beautiful, impeccable woman and believe that only royalty could behave like her. Zoltan Karpathy is immediately impressed by her, and in his arrogance, never lets his opinion waver. Her presentation affects his pride, and he proclaims her Hungarian. He knows her English is artificially clean, yet twists this fact into his own belief. Similarly, Lizzy relates how she arrogantly assumed she could accurately determine the rich from the poor. In her pride, she never considered that she might be mistaken and effectively deceives herself.
Aaron falls into the same trap as many people who speak with chatterbots. He, perhaps unconsciously, accepts it as a human and treats it as such. Suddenly, a collection of circuits or lines of code turn into a human. The question of guilt for Aaron then surrounds not what it is, but what it is seen to be. Aaron becomes locked in this paradox of dealing with his perception while trying to develop a concrete case to close. Fortunately for our detective, however, Lizzy breaks him out of the ideas of Raoul and Julian and the misdirection of James to solve the case.
Aaron escapes the primary controversy because the true culprit is human, but he ultimately reaches an important conclusion: a machine is as human as one wants it to be. Julian and Raoul make convincing arguments, yet he ultimately rejects both. The appliances would be as guilty, as human, as people would accept, regardless of how they truly, physically manifested themselves.

2 replies on “"Overtoasted" Write-up”

Neat idea. Did it make it to a book or…?

Did you read “Kirk Gently’s Detective Agency” by Douglas Adams? He also did the more well known “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”.

This story didn’t make it any further than this blog and a class project, but at least I did well in the class!

I haven’t read that book, but I’ll keep it in mind. I have been meaning to re-read Hitchhikers Guide as well…

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