The recruiter was a chipper woman with a master’s degree in English. Previously she had worked as an independent bookseller. “Your experience as an English grad student is ideal for this role,” she told me. The position was at a company that made artificial intelligence for real estate. They had developed a product called Brenda, a conversational AI that could answer questions about apartment listings. Brenda had been acquired by a larger company that made software for property managers, and now thousands of properties across the country had put her to work.
Brenda, the recruiter told me, was a sophisticated conversationalist, so fluent that most people who encountered her took her to be human.
But like all conversational AIs, she had some shortcomings. She struggled with idioms and didn’t fare well with questions beyond the scope of real estate. To compensate for these flaws, the company was recruiting a team of employees they called the operators. The operators kept vigil over Brenda 24 hours a day. When Brenda went off-script, an operator took over and emulated Brenda’s voice. Ideally, the customer on the other end would not realise the conversation had changed hands, or that they had even been chatting with a bot in the first place. Because Brenda used machine learning to improve her responses, she would pick up on the operators’ language patterns and gradually adopt them as her own.
On a Wednesday morning during an unbearable late-summer heat wave, I sat in the back seat of my mother’s car, my three-month-old baby beside me, as we cruised along the 85, which runs from San Jose up to Mountain View. My mother was at the wheel, and we were on our way to pick up an assortment of Taiwanese snacks—taro cakes, red bean rice cakes, green mango sorbet, and shao bing—from an outpost of a Taiwanese specialty store called Combo Market. Outside, on the freeway, the tall, yellowed grasses and perennially faded shrubbery looked prehistoric, as if they had been there for decades unmoved.
We decided to take a short detour before picking up the food. My mother made her way toward the 237, and then exited onto Lawrence Expressway in Sunnyvale. “Mumu Hotspot,” she murmured to herself, as we passed a new hot pot restaurant. We pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript one-story complex: a group of bitonal buildings, cream on top and taupe on the bottom. Each office was marked by a sign whose formatting must have been mandated by the property managers, because the company names were in all-caps, uniformly rendered in a bland and unstylish serif font. I looked around to see what types of businesses were here now: LE BREAD XPRESS, KINGDOM BRICK SUPPLY, BIOCERYX TECHNOLOGIES INC. One would not have guessed we were in Silicon Valley.
There was only one office that appeared empty, with a company placard that was blank. The door to that office was emblazoned with the numbers 1233 in white. When I peered in, I saw no one, no furniture, nothing. It was a small room that might have been a reception area once, with brown carpet that appeared at least a decade old. There were two closed doors adjacent to each other, one of which had a sign that read EMPLOYEES ONLY. An ominous white camera blinked on the floor in the far corner, likely a deterrent for grifters and interlopers.
“Time — a few centuries here or there — means very little in the world of poems.” There is something reassuring about Mary Oliver’s words. Especially in an era of rapid change, there is comfort to be had in those things that move slowly. But oceans rise and mountains fall; nothing stays the same. Not even the way poetry is made.
The disappearance of the author in 20th-century literary criticism can perhaps be traced back to the surrealist movement and its game of “exquisite corpse.” The surrealists believed that a poem can emerge not only from the unconscious mind of an individual, but from the collective mind of many individuals working in consort — even, or perhaps especially, if each individual has minimal knowledge of what the others are doing. Soon the idea of making art from recycled objects emerged. In the realm of literature, this approach took the form of found poetry.
To create a found poem, one or more people collect bits of text encountered anywhere at all, and with a little editing stitch the pieces together to form a collagelike poem. Examining this generative activity, it may be difficult to identify who if anyone is the “poet” who writes the found poem (or for that matter, to be confident that “writing” is an apt name for the process). Still, even if no one’s consciousness guided the initial creation of the constituent phrases, one or more humans will have exercised their sensitivity and discrimination in selecting the bits to include, and the way these pieces are ordered and linked to form a new whole. The author (or authors) at a minimum must do the work of a careful reader. Can the human be pushed still further into the background, or even out of the picture?
There is a leaflet I remember reading compulsively when I was in primary school. I would have been 8 or 9 years old and got it from one of the booths set up by anti-choice protesters who would often gather in town. The text was neon pink and printed on silky black paper, design choices that made the content seem sensational, even pornographic. Across one corner there was an image of a tiny human body blurred by a glowing outline. The religious imagery I grew up with was full of saints portrayed similarly.
That leaflet lived in my pocket for a while. I unfolded and refolded it until the shininess faded and it was quartered with thick, white veins. I only vaguely remember what it said, the usual gory myths about infertility and vacuums and the capacity a fetus has to feel pain, always using the word baby instead of fetus. The feelings it evoked I recall much more clearly: revulsion, shock, and fascination.
That was in Belfast around 2001. You could not get an abortion and the entire concept was taboo, shrouded in secrecy and misinformation. Until 2019 — thanks mainly to the Democratic Unionist Party, which used the issue to appeal to its fundamentalist Presbyterian base — it was a criminal offense to have or perform an abortion in Northern Ireland unless the pregnancy was deemed to be life-threatening or to pose a risk of permanent damage to mental or physical health. I never knew of anyone who met that criteria. There were no exemptions for sexual crimes or fatal fetal abnormalities. The best you could do was order pills from the internet, which you could be prosecuted for, or travel to England. You had to pay for an abortion in England even though this procedure was free for English people on the NHS and we paid the same taxes as they did toward funding it.
The unfairness of that particular element — paying taxes toward health care that you are barred from — only struck me in my early 20s. Why only then? In theory, I have been pro-choice, just like my parents, for as long as I can remember. But growing up immersed in a culture with an abortion ban influences how you feel, if not how you think.
ARQUÀ PETRARCA, Italy — In the mirror-flat valley of the Po River, the Euganean Hills stick out of the vast landscape, their shallow peaks topped by sloping vineyards and groves of olive trees. Nestled between them is the tiny medieval village of Arquà Petrarca, where a microclimate created by the shaded hills and their abundant water produces perfect conditions for one of Italy’s rarest crops.
The giuggiole, or jujube fruit, resembles an olive and tastes, at first, like a woody apple. After withering off the vine, it takes on a sweeter flavor, closer to a honeyed fig. Among the medieval elite, the fruit was so popular that it gave birth to an idiom: “andare in brodo di giuggiole” — “to go in jujube broth” — defined in one of the earliest Italian phrase books as living in a state of bliss. Every fall, the handful of families that still cultivate the fruit in the village gather in medieval garb to celebrate the jujube and feast on the fine liquors, jams and blissful sweet broth they create from it.
Italy is full of places like Arquà Petrarca. Microclimates and artisanal techniques become the basis for obscure local specialties celebrated in elaborate festivals from Trapani to Trieste. In Mezzago, outside Milan, it’s rare pink asparagus, turned red by soil rich in iron and limited sunlight. Sicily has its Avola almonds and peculiar blood-red oranges, which gain their deep color on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. Calabria has ‘nduja sausage and the Diamante citron, central to the Jewish feast of Sukkot.
All these specialties are encouraged by local cooperatives, protected by local designations, elevated by local chefs and celebrated in local festivals, all lucrative outcomes for their local, often small-scale producers. It’s not so much a reflection of capitalismo as campanilismo— a uniquely Italian concept derived from the word for belltower. “It means, if you were born in the shade of the belltower, you were from that community,” explains Fabio Parasecoli, a professor of food studies at New York University and the author of “Gastronativism,” a new book exploring the intersection of food and politics. “That has translated into food.”
In many ways, it’s this obsessive focus on the intersection of food and local identity that defines Italy’s culinary culture, one that is at once prized the world over and insular in the extreme. After all, campanilismomight be less charitably translated as “provincialism” — a kind of defensive small-mindedness hostile to outside influence and change.
Italy’s nativist politicians seek to exploit deep associations between food and identity to present a traditional vision of the country that’s at risk of slipping away. In 2011, a politician from the nativist Lega Nord party named Pietro Pezzutti distributed free bags of corn polenta, a northern delicacy, emblazoned with the phrase “yes to polenta, no to couscous” — a swipe at the region’s immigrants from Africa, where couscous originates. “We want to make people understand that polenta is part of our history, and must be safeguarded,” Pezzutti explained.
All across Italy, as Parasecoli tells me, food is used to identify who is Italian and who is not. But dig a little deeper into the history of Italian cuisine and you will discover that many of today’s iconic delicacies have their origins elsewhere. The corn used for polenta, unfortunately for Pezzutti, is not Italian. Neither is the jujube. In fact, none of the foods mentioned above are. All of them are immigrants, in their own way — lifted from distant shores and brought to this tiny peninsula to be transformed into a cornerstone of an ever-changing Italian cuisine.