A Short, Happy Life
by Simon Smith
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
My initial acquaintance with Auto-Mate technology came by way of an article in The Modern Epistemologist. It was at some time back in the mid-2040’s. Biotech was still evolving, and cerebral augmentation was largely a pursuit of dreamers, tech-fetishists and the profligate rich. The article, I’m afraid, was something of a publicity piece, and my response was predictably sceptical. I have since been able to retrieve said article and have here reproduced it in full:
In 2043 a team of experimental scientists working at the ICC (Institute of Cognition and Consciousness) developed an electro-cerebral device which could be surgically implanted within a living frontal cortex. When activated it produces a strong depolarising effect, effectively shutting down the user’s capacity for conscious experience.
Interestingly, and after extensive tests, the user’s ability to perform mental or physical tasks was thought to remain unaffected. Test subjects were even seen to exhibit some level of volition, demonstrating an apparent ability to shut down the device at will.
Following deactivation, they retained near-perfect recollection of what had transpired during the period of unconscious action. A participant in the experiment later described the sensation as being “like waking up after a particularly lucid dream.”
After funding for the project was stalled, several of the team broke away to form their own commercial venture. The product is being launched onto the burgeoning application market under the brand name Auto-Mate.
Commercial Director Harvey Leg tells us, “We think Auto-Mate is going to revolutionise the way people think about their work-leisure balance. Think of a job you hate doing. Clearing the gutter? Mowing the lawn? I know I hate my morning commute. With Auto-Mate you can just switch off and let your unconscious take over. When it’s time to come back ‘online’ you feel refreshed, energised, and ready to work or have fun.”
Auto-Mate is currently undergoing stringent consumer testing, but if it does come to market you can be sure the scientific community will be watching.
Once this news had entered the public sphere, there naturally followed a degree of debate. Much crowing was heard from triumphant epiphenomenalists and proponents of electromagnetic theories of consciousness. Sceptics and instrumentalists faced them down, and eventually discussion tapered to a desultory exchange of articles in little-read periodicals. As with all such revolutions nothing really changed, and the experiment was soon relegated to an interesting footnote in the history of the philosophy of mind.
Several years passed before I was next exposed to the concept, by which time Auto-Mate was on sale as a full commercial product. I had completed my studies in pure mathematics and was intending to further my education with a doctorate in applied transfinite logic.
In those times state funding was hard to elicit, and in order to support myself I was obliged to find employment. Reluctant to forgo the comforts of academia, I took work as a sub-librarian for the university mathematical archives. The bulk of my work consisted of assessing papers submitted for review.
My colleagues at the library were an extroverted lot. I am retiring, myself, and found them difficult company. I made several attempts to engage their conversation, but whatever I said only seemed to confuse them. I soon came to realise that I didn’t fit in.
I sat apart in the office and did my calculations in silence. The rest spent their time chattering and joking, as if they were being paid to have fun. My outcast existence soon became unendurable. I needed to find a solution or leave.
I decided the answer was to cultivate an interest in which my workmates and I could find common ground. After all, the only topics I had attempted to broach concerned hyper-dimensional objects, and nobody likes to talk shop.
One subject I knew aroused their interests was the fashion for cerebral augmentation. The implant market was booming, and the prohibitive installation costs had tumbled. Every city now boasted a clinic, and for a one-off payment I could have a universal interface fitted, discretely located at the top of my spine. I arranged a week’s holiday and booked myself an appointment.
* * *
I became increasingly nervous as the day of the installation approached. Arriving at the clinic, I had strong reservations. I braced my determination, but once inside things only got worse. I was brusquely requested to sit in an unfurnished room and left waiting past the time of my appointment.
Eventually a man entered and introduced himself as my surgeon. He gripped my hand and shook it vigorously. He was shaven-headed, tattooed and had piercings on his face. I knew I had made a mistake. This was no sort of person I should trust with a modification of my brain. He looked more like a convict or some kind of street thug. If only I had followed my instincts and bolted from the room, but the moment of opportunity passed, and my fate was set in motion.
In fact, the operation went smoothly and was over within hours. I left the surgery feeling vastly more positive and not a little proud of my high-tech enhancement. I felt like a very modern person indeed.
I now thought of the surgeon as a first-rate engineer, a worker in the vanguard of biotechnology, and I felt ashamed of my conservative reaction. He still haunts me today, and with fifty years hindsight I see him as the pivotal agent (and somehow all the more sinister for his unwitting complicity) in my sorry demise.
On my way home I stopped at the market to look at the different applications I could connect to my new interface. The rack of garish brochures at the biotech counter bore titles such as Robogirls, Mutant War and Friendship Roulette.
At first I felt a little deflated. Nearly all that was offered was virtual-reality games and social tools. I am diffident by nature and found few of them appealing, preferring solitary thought to the frenetic excitement of communal activity. I had hoped I could use my implant for a more practical purpose. Only one of the applications seemed suited to my needs. It was Auto-Mate, of course.
I feel strangely uncertain: had I remembered beforehand, or did reading the brochure trigger my memory of the ICC experiment? Regardless, as soon as the two were conflated, my interest was decidedly piqued.
I had had a longstanding fascination for the consciousness problem, finding few things more tantalising than an insoluble question. The opportunity to experience one of the odder experiments in this centuries-old debate was impossible for me to refuse. How ironic that seems now, personal experience being the very thing I was paying not to have.
* * *
I came home to an empty house and unpackaged my purchase with trembling hands. I scanned the instructions, which didn’t seem too difficult: Fit to interface and await activation.
With the device between my fingers, I reached around to the socket on the back of my neck. The device slotted in with a satisfactory click. I held my breath. My heart beat fast.
Disappointingly, nothing happened. Frustrated, I sat at the kitchen table. I hoped I had bought a faulty device rather than a botched installation.
My thoughts were interrupted by a soft voice which appeared to be speaking from somewhere inside my head. “Thank you for purchasing Auto-Mate. Please pick an activation code. Choose an unusual combination of words you would not think of in the course of a normal day. When you have made your decision, please think the words as clearly as possible.”
I took a few minutes to decide on something suitable. “Green elephants.” Absurdly, I said it out loud.
“Thank you. Your code is ‘green elephants’. When the application is fitted, you can think these words to activate or deactivate Auto-Mate.”
Now my mind was in a whirl. Could it really be so easy? That just by thinking of some words I could switch off my consciousness? I suddenly felt I had done something dangerous. The code was now known to me. I could use it at a whim. But what if I used it by accident? What if it entered my mind unbidden? What was to stop that happening now? I could feel its presence, hovering at the edge of my thoughts. I felt as though it was fighting for my attention. I panicked and quickly removed the device. I put it on the table in front of me and tried to regain my composure.
Now more questions came flooding into my mind. What if I lost consciousness but wasn’t able to deactivate the device? Would I spend the rest of my life as a zombie? There were things I had not thought through. I didn’t yet feel ready to use Auto-Mate, and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to. I started to wonder if I had been rather rash in my choice of application.
Half an hour passed before I was ready for another attempt. I had now read the instructions thoroughly and been given some pointers on how to use my thoughts. I was also reassured to learn that the device had a safety timer. After twelve hours in the unconscious state, the application would automatically shut down. I felt a lot calmer and decided to at least test it out.
I devised a simple exercise. With Auto-Mate active, and my thoughts switched off, I would brew myself a pot of tea. Once I had poured a cup, I would deactivate the device and return to the world of consciousness. I refitted the device and summoned the words with all my might: green elephants.
The next thing I knew I was sitting at the table with a full cup of tea before me. I tentatively took a sip. It was hot and real. Just as the article had said, I felt as though I had awoken from a strange dream.
It was not that I was unaware of what I had done, that is, the act of making the tea. I just did not recall it as phenomenal experience. The memory was devoid of interiority, as though I were remembering a movie or a photograph. As if it had been an event in the life of an entirely different man.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Simon Smith