Woman at computer, thinking about her life

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

Is Your Secret Sharer a Human Being?

31 May 2023. Her name was Anne, but she always signed her emails “The Audience.” And the audience she was.

It was 1999. The year of my disgruntlement. I’d adopted a secret identity and gone online to bleat my complaints to the universe. The universe didn’t notice.

But one day I got an email from “The Audience.” She was a Danish journalist, she told me, a resident of Copenhagen, who was stuck at home on disability. She found me by browsing the internet for people, like her, born in 1948. Me.

Subscribe to get my newsletterFor months, in her broken English, she responded to all my posts. She gave her take on my subject matter and told anecdotes of her own, sometimes forgetting to be the Audience and signing as Anne.

In my posts, I referred to her as my Secret Sharer, after the Joseph Conrad story about an inexperienced ship’s captain who had conversations with a stowaway in his quarters.

She kept me going.

And then she was gone.

After my writing became less overheated and I’d begun to connect with online journaling rings, my Secret Sharer disappeared. My notes all bounced back with that old internet message “mail box full.”

Had she died? Had her disability become fatal?

Losing her made my heart ache. But life rolled on…

Why am I telling you this story?

Because, what if it was 2023, and the Audience turned out to be a chatbot?

How would I feel?

Would it make a difference? Would I be any less encouraged to carry on with my lonely trek out onto the thin ice of the public internet?

Would I feel betrayed? Duped?

With the explosion of artificial intelligence in chatbots and image-generation, most tech-savvy journalists are telling us to calm down. AI is just another tool.

But other commentators tap into a primal fear. What is going on here? Is it possible for machines to be sentient? What evil intelligence lurks behind our conversations with…who?

I’m reading The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson. As she explores the history of such phenomena as immortal mummies and talking statues and human interactions with automata, she discusses the “spookiest of plots.” It involves the uncertainty about whether your companion or loved one is human or a simulacrum–all too perfect but being operated by an evil puppeteer. Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”? Or “The Omen”? Chilling, for sure.

Oh, but don’t we long for that tiny friend in a box, a sentient being who understands us completely and helps open a path through the tangled forest ahead? But oh, how we tremble at the possibility that our new friend is a changeling, setting us up for betrayal!


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.