The Importance of Being Embedded

Jokes have worlds. Even something as superficially simple as — “What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? You’re too young to smoke” — requires a complex understanding of chimneys, cigarettes, smoke, age difference, and the fact that young people aren’t meant to smoke etc. etc. The words make sense within what Wittgenstein called an “accustomed context”, a kind of “world picture” in which certain social norms apply, in which things generally do certain things and behave in certain ways — and within which there’s another smaller “language game” of jokes in which chimneys can speak and offer advice. If someone said to you, as if calmly imparting some information about what had just happened, “I was speaking to a chimney this morning and it told me I should change my haircut”, you’d either think it was a very dry joke which didn’t really work, or that they’d gone mad.

There are deeper absurdities lurking in the “too young to smoke” joke: that a chimney, the sole function of which is to smoke, is being told it shouldn’t smoke. Smoking is its one job — it’s is like a lampshade being told not to shade the lamp. Or that the same correlation between size and age that applies to humans applies also to chimneys — which obviously it doesn’t. The small chimney might be a hundred years older than the big one. Or that a chimney’s youth should have anything to do with whether it should be allowed to smoke. A chimney is much more like to be too old and tumbledown to smoke than be too young. These complexities, which you can find by scratching at the surface of a superficially simple joke, don’t have much to do with how the joke actually works, except that they’re part of the texture of absurdity of the world in which these two chimneys are having this conversation.

The generally understood, everyday world of chimneys and smoking (and jokes) in which the “too young to smoke” joke functions is what Wittgenstein would call its “assumed context” — the joke requires a “world picture” of things and behaviours and expectations in order to function — and then it goes about playing with and subverting these assumptions.

At the most basic level of context, the joke is being told in words in a particular language (which is part of the world in which it’s embedded) and the words have to make sense. If the joke is a pun it relies wholly on the specific character of the language in which it’s being expressed. For example: “What do you get if you cross a sheep and a kangeroo? A woolly jumper.” Translate that into another language — and chances are the dual meaning of “jumper” will evaporate, the joke will vanish, and you’ll end up saying something baffling about a knitted pullover.

There are some jokes with a tough enough comic skeleton to survive translation. There’s a joke in the ancient Greek joke book Philogelos which is used centuries later by the historian Macaulay. The ancient version is: “A  professor  nearly  drowned  while  swimming;  he  swore  that  he would not enter the water again, before first learning how to swim well.” In the 1851 update, Lord Macaulay refers to: “The fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim.” The absurdity of wanting to learn to swim on dry land (where swimming is a thing you can only learn to do by doing it) is not language dependent. It still requires a general understanding of how you learn to swim, but it’s a great deal more stripped-down. It relies for its humour more on the internal logic of the statement.

Some jokes are so condensed they feel almost mathematical, like this perfectly formed paradox from Steven Wright: “I bought some batteries, but they weren’t included. So I had to buy them again”. This joke is like a comical equation; such a carefully structured, boiled-down contradiction that it seems almost as if you could express it in logical terms: X + not-X = X. (If you actually pushed the nonsense logic of the joke to its paradoxical conclusion the batteries wouldn’t be included again, so you’d have to buy them again, and you’d find yourself in an infinite regression of forever buying and never getting the batteries). And yet, even though this joke has the feel of an algebraic formula, it still requires an awareness of warnings about batteries not being included when you buy electrical goods.

It seems likely that jokes relying on logical inconsistency and the mechanics of reversal and contradiction will be more understandable to AI. But they may never be “gettable” in the sense of being actually amusing. Unless, perhaps, AI can find something in the pure, abstracted mechanics of humour that tickles it. Which begs the question: is there a kind of unencumbered Cartesian mathesis universalis of comedy? Can jokes have their “jokingness” extracted from their particular embodiment in language and culture and be expressed in pure terms of variables and functions? — a digitally distilled and cleaned-up “functional constancy” derived from its messy and fleshy expression? Is it possible that humour could even exist in some disembodied state, independent of context, language, “world picture”, social conventions etc. — or does it always have to reside in a world?

The question is related to what the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader wrote about computer-generated music in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach. He wonders whether the “sterile circuitry pieces” of a computer could ever produce music of the quality of Bach or Chopin, and says: “A ‘program’ which could produce music as they did would have to wander around the world on its own, fighting its way through the maze of life and feeling every moment of it. It would have to understand the joy and loneliness of a chilly night wind, the longing for a cherished hand, the inaccessibility of a distant town, the heartbreak and regeneration after a human death. It would have to have known resignation and worldweariness, grief and despair, determination and victory, piety and awe. In it would have had to commingle such opposites as hope and fear, anguish and jubilation, serenity and suspense. Part and parcel of it would have to be a sense of grace, humor, rhythm, a sense of the unexpected-and of course an exquisite awareness of the magic of fresh creation. Therein, and therein only, lie the sources of meaning in music.”

There’s no reason to think the world enjoyed by some kind of AGI (insofar as it even has one) would be in any sense the same as that the world wrapped around and explored by a human. There might be ‘jokes’ (in some other-worldly, silicon sense) which can exist in this realm which could never be translated back into human expression: joke-type-things which are simply too infused with silicon sensibilities, too computationally grounded, too built-into a different way of being in the world to be ‘got’ by us.

And this cuts both ways. Head in the other direction from logical purity to extreme embeddedness, and you end up at Oscar Wilde’s cucumber joke from The Importance of Being Earnest. Algernon’s butler Lane has prepared cucumber sandwiches for Algernon’s ferocious Aunt Augusta (Lady Bracknell), but Algernon and Jack have eaten them all by the time Lady Bracknell arrives. Algernon  pretends to be astonished at the lack of cucumber sandwiches, having just devoured them himself, and Lane plays along:

Algernon: (Picking up empty plate in horror) Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.

Lane: (Gravely) There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.

Algernon: No cucumbers!

Lane: No, sir. Not even for ready money.

The line “Not even for ready money” is very funny, very silly, superficially very simple, and yet heavily enmeshed in context — its funniness is bound up in a giddying matrix of social and dramatic specificities. Challenged by Algernon’s faux outrage “No cucumbers!” Lane decides to embellish his improvised story about there being no available cucumbers by suggesting he was down there wandering the market with serious amounts of cash trying to secure some. The phrase “ready money” gives the scene a cartoonish sense of shady, collar-up, ask-no-questions, under the table trading — completely alien to the innocuous purchase of cucumbers from a fruit & veg stall. The story, and the scene in which it’s told, is rich in nuances of class, social niceties, the relationships of power between characters, and the subtleties of lying.

The ridiculous idea that you’d be flashing around “ready money” to buy cucumbers is the main lever of the joke — a joke which not everyone in the scene gets. It’s a private joke between Lane and Algernon (and, to a much lesser extent, Jack). We (the audience, along with Jack and Algernon) know full well he didn’t go to the market with “ready money” trying to scalp some cucumbers — he’d bought them earlier and made the cucumber sandwiches, exactly as instructed.

Lane’s “ready money” remark is so daft it makes his story less believable. He’s pushing his story into absurdity in order to push back against Algernon, who’s just challenged it, and to get his own back for having to take the fall for the lack of cucumber sandwiches.

You can tell that Wilde enjoyed the line “not even for ready money”, because it crops up again a moment later when Algernon says to his aunt: “I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being no cucumbers, not even for ready money.” And there’s a sense, within in the scene, in which Algernon has enjoyed Lane’s joke, which is why he repeats it to Lady Bracknell. 

Wilde enjoys it, Algernon enjoys it, we enjoy it… but could a computer ever enjoy it? Even an AI smart enough to understand, criticise and discuss the play? You could hardly express the humour of the comment in terms of logic or typical comic functions like “contradiction”. The extreme embeddedness of Lane’s cucumber remark in the relationship between Algernon and Lane, in the dynamic of the scene, and in its late Victorian social context would make it a remarkable stretch for some “sterile circuitry pieces” to get their head around. An AI system might exist that could understand the cucumber joke, even be aware (in some sense) of all its various nuances, but to get it? That seems an all too human task.