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The Singularity and children’s literature

17 October 2019

I was looking at the question and answer web site Quora, and came across a question: What is the most horrible children’s book ever written?

My answer, without hesitation, was Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. My cousins, who were staying with us when I was about 8 or 9 years old, had a copy of it, and it gave me nightmares. It was full of extremely moralistic stories where the actions of naughty children had the most horrifying consequences. As horror stories go, they were, without doubt, the most horrific and horrible I had ever read. The story of Doris’s voicebox has haunted me ever since.

I was somewhat surprised, however, to read some of the other answers to the Quora question. This one, by Trevor Farrell, answered: May I introduce you to Tootle?

The subtitle of the book was, I think, “the little train that wouldn’t stay on the rails”.

Tootle went to train school and learned all the lessons, like stopping for red flags and so on. The only lesson he could not learn was the importance of staying on the rails no matter what. He really liked to go off the rails into the fields and smell the flowers. So the people made a plan and next time Tootle jumped the rails there was someone behind every bush waving a red flag, and so Tootle learned his lesson about how important it was to stay on the rails no matter what.

I was introduced to Tootle in Standard 1 (Grade 3) at Fairmount School in Johannesburg when I was about 7-8 years old, and I loved it. For as long as I could remember I had loved trains, and I had written my own stories about trains. So I loved the story of Tootle and my only regret was that the book belonged to the school and I couldn’t take it home and read it again and again.

I did have another book about a train, Choo-Choo, the little engine who ran away. Unlike Tootle, Choo Choo did not go off the rails, but instead went off to explore a section of disused track, ran out of steam and got lost in the dark.

In addition to trains, I liked trams and trolley buses. I wasn’t so fond of oil buses, because their routes were not visible. In fact I liked trolley buses so much that when I grew up I got a job driving them.

I liked Choo Choo better than Tootle because Choo Choo, unlike Tootle, had learned the lesson of staying on the rails no matter what, but still had the desire to explore. When I drove trolley buses we used to get warnings, reprimands and severe reprimands for dewirements. My grandfather was an engine driver and once had a derailment at Drummond in the Valley of 1000 Hills, and went 220 yards off the track. His leg was broken so badly that he was unable to drive trains again, and spent the rest of his working life as a storekeeper in the workshops.

Bur Trevor Farrell writes in (1) What is the most horrible children’s book ever written? – Quora:

When my dad first read this to me as a child, he could hardly finish it before he set it aside in disgust and bashfully asked if he could find a better children’s book to read to me. It might have just been that Dad grew up as a pot smoking hippie, but for whatever reason, he stressed to me the importance of questioning leadership, demanding respectful treatment, and rebelling against unworthy authority.

For that matter, this was the same sort of goal he hoped to achieve with the generic “Dad Jokes”. By making claims that always held the same validity and structure, (which is to say, no validity and predictable structure) he’d hoped to make me a more critical thinker from a young age, from virtually every angle in my everyday life.

So what I ask myself is: did my enjoyment of reading Tootle as a child make me less of a critical thinker? What effect did such books have on my thinking?

I recall another book that I read in Standard 1.

I don’t remember the title, but it was a story about a country in which there were three shapes of people — square, round and triangular. One day the squares developed a machine to turn all the triangular and round people into squares, and forced them to go into that machine. Eventually they rebelled, put the machine into reverse and gave everyone their proper shapes again. That was in the late 1940s, and I’m sure it was written to warn kids about the communist totalitarian threat at the beginning of the Cold War, and the Nats hadn’t been in power in South Africa long enough to purge such pink liberalist indoctrination from the schools.

But even at the age of 7 or 8 I was pretty clear about the distinction between people and trains. That trains should stay on the rails was right, that people should be forced on to mental rails was something else, and wrong. . I never interpreted the story of Tootle in the way Trevor Farrell’s dad seems to have done.

I retain my fascination with networks. I’m sure that the same thing lies behind my interest in family history. Last week I followed up a link that someone had sent to me at the beginning of the year and discovered that we were fifth cousins once removed, and I discovered about 100 cousins that I hadn’t known I had. The web of kinship is also a network, like rail routes or bus routes.

So what is the relation between freedom and structure?

Can one actually have true freedom without structure?

Could we walk at all and move from place to place if we removed our rigid skeletons and were just jelly-like blobs?

A friend and mentor of mine, John Davies, former Anglican bishop of Shrewsbury, once gave the analogy of a competent pianist. He is free to play any piece of music he likes. What he is not free to do is to propel the piano at the audience like a tank. That is contrary to the nature and purpose of pianos, just as cavorting in the fields and smelling flowers as Tootle did is contrary to the nature and purpose of trains, and my grandfather’s broken leg was the result.

Which brings me to The Singularity.

Yesterday I finished reading a book called Singularity, in which one of the characters is a singularitarian, Singularitarians believe that a time is coming soon when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and autonomous machines will be making decisions about their and our future. Already there is talk of military drones deciding which targets to attack or not attack, independently of their human controllers.

I think that Tootle is a parable of exactly that scenario.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 23 October 2019 12:29 am

    Great title! Good question.

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