the user illusion

When I stick the biberon in poor Adam’s mouth, quieting his protests (at having to face another day scanning this strange planet, perhaps) and getting him into the rhythm of sucking down formula (yes, Le Leche league – we are incorrigible half and halfers. Wanna make something of it?), I have a long time – or at least a couple hundred gulps of time – to study his face.
It is interesting how many people like to tell you that the expressions mean nothing – just a galvanic movement, a tropism. While we all recognize the cry and even grant it some symbolic status – cry equals pain – the smile, or the laugh, are definitely secondary properties, or so the common wisdom goes. Pain is fundamental, humor – which requires a minimal capacity to compare and contrast – is second stage, and if you live long enough, it will be jettisoned and there you’ll be, back to crying and peeing in your bed in some old folks home. Yes, we orbit around pain, our black sun, and smile first as a trick of synaptic firings, and then as a control mechanism that mediates pain.
I’m reminded of the “user illusion” that the computer designers talk about. We sit down and look at the screen and see files and docs, and we think of files as being cardboard, and docs as being paper, and writing as being the application of an instrument to a surface. But this surface appearance is a delusion – it is algorithms all the way down, schmuck. Similarly, we glance about us, we are bright, we are alert, we think we get things, but the bytes of info we deal with are a pitiful remnant, an insanely edited fragment, of the bytes that bombard us. We not only can’t bear too much reality – try as we will, we will never even be able to see it.
And so yes, I too go along with the common wisdom here. I project. My subconscious gets an A in “existing as Roger”, while my consciousness gets, at most, a D+.
But I have to ponder the illusion, too. Last night, Adam was just barely asleep, and I had turned away to read, when he made a sound that made me turn back to him. He was, apparently, laughing in his sleep. Or simulating laughter.
This made me laugh. My laugh is real – his is not. But…
In a famous essay, Can a horse laugh, Robert Musil reports on seeing a horse laugh when it was tickled – although he says that this was ‘before the war’, and maybe since the war horses have ceased to laugh. Musil describes how he watched a groom with a curry comb make a horse laugh by tickling it on its sensitive spot, its shoulder blades. The horse acted “exactly like a peasant girl” who you would try to tickle – this was, remember, the ancien regime, which still existed pre-1914 – by moving out of the way and swatting with his muzzle at the comb. When that didn’t work:

“But the boy took the advantage. And when his curry comb got near the shoulder, the horse couldn’t stand it anymore. It turned around on its legs, its whole body shook, and it pulled its lips back from its teeth, as far as it could. For a second, it behaved exaclty like a person who has been  tickled so much that he can’t laugh anymore. The learned skeptic will object that it couldn’t have laughed in the first place. I’d respond to him that this is correct insofar as the groom was the one of the two who neighed the most from laughter every time. This does seem in fact to be a unique hjuman capacity, that is, to be able to neigh from laughter.”

And I haven’t even gotten to how Adam balls up his little fists when he sleeps and melts my heart.