Monday, October 14, 2019

Mythical mirrors

My post about Twins, digital and mythological got me thinking about magical mirrors.

The belief that the soul of a person reflected in a mirror was somehow entangled with it goes back a long way (see Sanofsky). It underpins the superstition that breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck; the duration comes from the Romans, who believed that breaking the mirror would damage a soul for the seven years it took for life to renew itself.
The closed control loop of a two-way mirror world provides this kind of entanglement. I can easily imagine that breaking the link between a system and its mirror twin would bring bad luck to the operating entity for quite some time – though hopefully not for seven years.
 According to Sanofsky, some ancient cultures believed that mirrors revealed the true nature of the person being reflected in them.
With mirror worlds it’s more mundane and more arrogant: the developers are implicitly claiming that their model represents the essentials of the real world system. They would probably argue that “essentials” here are merely an effective abstraction rather than a claim to ultimate truth. However, it’s very easy to get carried away by one’s model, and even easier for credulous users to be beguiled.
The mirror metaphor is also apt when it’s used to describe models used for prediction: real mirrors were, and presume are still, used for fortune telling. The mirrors could be conceptual rather than real: tarot cards are “read” to divine the future, but the meanings seen in them come from the mind of the reader, not the cards.
Since any model output requires at least some – and usually a lot – of interpretation, mirror worlds can function in the same way.
 According to Sanofsky, some cultures cover mirrors at night so that dreamers’ wandering souls aren’t trapped in them.
This reminds me of all the sensors that would be sucking up data in order to train and operate mirror worlds. Arguably, our souls are in (or just are?) the clouds of metadata we emit. I would hope – and perhaps we should insist – that the mirror worlds should be “covered up” some of the time so that not everything about us is sucked into them.
 Mirrors can generate evil on their own. In the story of the Snow Queen, the trouble starts with a hobgoblin that “made a looking-glass which reflected everything that was good and beautiful in such a way that it dwindled almost to nothing, but anything that was bad and ugly stood out very clearly and looked much worse.” This mirror fell and shattered, and shards flew all around the world: “if anyone had a bit in his eye there it stayed, and then he would see everything awry, or else could only see the bad sides of a case”. One splinter lodged in the hero’s eye, and the other in his heart – making his eye critical, and his heart a lump of ice.
In a dark mood, I can see digital twins could become like the hobgoblin’s shattered mirror: everywhere, and taking the magic out of everything. (IoT = Internet of Twins ;-)
 Mirrors are often considered to be portals; one legend says that “viewing a mirror by nothing but candlelight will show you your reflection – and that of any entities inhabiting your home, be they ghosts or otherwise” (Sanofsky).
If mirror worlds, or the systems holding them, become big enough, it’s easy to think of them becoming populated by gods: cf. the Haitian voodoo deities in Count Zero.
 An article in Strange Ago on Mirrors in Myth and Literature includes a reference to one of the prototypical technology gods, Vulcan, who “forged a magical mirror that could show him the past, present, and future.” In the nature of technologies, it had an unintended side effect: his wife Venus used one of these mirrors to successfully cheat on him with Mars. The story Medusa being turned to stone by looking into Perseus’s mirror prompts the speculation that staring into mirror worlds may freeze us into fascinated stasis. For eight more stories, see the article; the analogies to mirror worlds are easy to make, and are left to the reader as an exercise.

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