Inattention and power

Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) provides one of the most enduring depictions of machine intelligence, a spaceship that exhibits sentience. HAL, the onboard computer provides an interface to the ship’s functions. In his chapter “Toward the sentient city,” Mark Shepard identifies the conversational aspect of HAL’s interface,

“symbolized by his iconic and omnipresent red eye and reinforced by his conversational acuity” (33).

After HAL murders one of the crew, the remaining astronaut shuts it down, slowly. It’s worth focussing on the decline in HAL’s conversational acuity as it (he) is shut down.

We hear HAL’s descent from a helpful adult to the demeanour of an infant, gently pleading, fearful, eventually singing the words of a song taught by its inventor as if from childhood. Dave the astronaut evinces no sympathy for these weak protestations as he deactivates HAL’s processing units one by one. He doesn’t hear. Dave exhibits his power in the situation through wilful inattention.

Talking with celebrity

I’m drafting this on the day of HRH Queen Elizabeth’s funeral (19/9/2022). I’ve never met royalty, but I’m sure I would be deferential if I did. Amongst the many tributes are videos of conversations in which HRH’s words seemed always to be met with deference by those in her presence. I think that’s normal. We smile or laugh when we think our “betters” have just made a joke, smile when they smile, respond to their quips and questions, and look at them when they speak. In other words, we pay attention to them when in their presence.

A play of attention and inattention is normal, and roles shift depending on the situation and the power relationships in play. The relationship theories of the psychologist Eric Berne come to mind. I found his book What Do You Say After You Say Hello? on my bookshelf. It was amongst a collection of self help books that must have had some influence on my thinking, let alone relationships. His key text was Games People Play.

Parent, adult, child

According to Berne’s transactional theory, it’s as if each one of us can assume one of three “ego states” when interacting with another person: that of a parent, a child or an adult. In parent mode we at best present ourselves as authoritative, responsible and caring, at worse censorious and controlling. The child can be wide-eyed, innocent, eager to learn, adaptive and compliant, or immature, impulsive and out of control. The adult is in the middle position, altogether balanced and reasonable.

In speaking and interacting with another person, either of us can assume the role of parent (either nurturing or controlling) or a child (either adaptive or impulsive). You slot into those roles out of habit or custom, or as either of you tries to establish those roles against resistance from the other. Here is the self-help message of Berne’s books: the ideal transactional state is where you are both acting as adults, though there’s scope for shifting through different states as in offering support, learning and seeking support.

Artificial sentience

To my knowledge Berne makes no reference to supposed machine sentience. Applying Berne’s theory to the 2001 scenario, HAL reverts to the ego state of a child, while Dave, the gentle torturer, assumes the role of a controlling parent in extremis, a silent executioner, inducting HAL into a fatal sleep. Importantly, Dave pays no attention to the words of HAL the infantile artificial sentience.

Deference to a monarch, leader, celebrity, or teacher provides similar role play, also prone to a play of attention and inattention. Whether of benign or controlling demeanour, we are bound to pay attention to someone who we assume for that moment holds power in the situation.

That’s the lens through which I’m trying to inspect conversation and power, through attention, and by that route understand claims of artificial sentience.


  • Berne, Eric. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. London: Penguin, 1968. 
  • Berne, Eric. What Do You Say After You Say Hello?: The Psychology of Human Destiny. Ealing, London: Corgi, 1986. 
  • Foucault, Michel. “Truth and power.” In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, 109-133. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
  • Shepard, Mark. “Toward the sentient city.” In Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, edited by Mark Shepard, 15-45. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

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