Thursday, October 26, 2006

A click of recognition comes from an unexpected place

I saw this message a few days back on one of email lists I am on. A guy asked how to do a certain thing in Linux. His question wasn't all that interesting: it's the P.S. that attracted my attention:

If you want to know *why* I want to do this, google "my life bits
gorden bell" or just go strait to...

MyLifeBits is a project to capture, digitize and organize all the information a person comes across or generates in his/her lifetime. Ambitious, to say the least. And I find this idea very tempting. Many times I have wished that every piece of information that ever crossed my horizon, every thought that ever popped up in my mind, was searchable and accessible. I feel this most acutely while writing. I know I forgot too many metaphors and dialog bits by not writing them down on time. It would help to have a digital map of brain. A brain equivalent, if you will. A brain dual. The latter word came to my mind when I read somebody's response to the above-quoted email:

This reminds me of the story "Learning To Be Me" in Greg Egan's collection Axiomatic: "I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to be me." An interesting story if not about Linux.

In this story, the term "jewel" is a bastardization of "dual". The jewel/dual is a little device that carries an exact copy of its owner's personality. It creates that copy over a period of time, by recording its owner's every thought, emotion, memory, or sensation. It takes decades, but it winds up containing a mind that's indistinguishable from the one contained in a brain in which the jewel lives.

Then, when copy is considered to be complete, the owner undergoes surgery to remove his or her brain and to enable the jewel to take over all the functions of the brain. The owner doesn't notice the difference, because the copy contained by the jewel is identical to his/her brain down to the tiniest detail. Nobody else notices a difference either. The owner still looks the same from the outside -- no one can tell that his/her brain has been scooped out and replaced with plastic filling. Most importantly, he/she still acts like the same person. There's no way to tell a person with a jewel from a person with a biological brain.

These "jewels" are enormously durable and indestructible; for all practical purposes they exist forever. Hence, the human lifespan has been extended into centuries and millenia. (I don't remember, though, if other parts of the biological body are similarly replaced by indestructible equivalents, or if not, what is done to prolong their lifespan. But that's not very important. If the humankind has figured out how to extend the longevity of the brain, one can assume they would have solved the problem of longevity of other body parts.)

Replacement of brains with jewels has been deemed safe; pretty much everyone on Earth has undergone this operation, and no one has complained. But... a lot of things have unintended consequences, and potential problems with brain replacement can lead to some of the most chilling consequences one can ever imagine. While this story probably does not belong to the genre of horror, it is one of the most viscerally scary stories I've ever read. The horror lies not just in the circumstances experienced by the protagonist -- although the situation he ends up is definitely very disturbing -- but also in the fact that his situation follows logically from the setup, yet is nearly impossible to predict or prevent.

Consequences that are logical, yet hard to predict, are to me the Holy Grail that any SF story should pursue. It's very hard to achieve. But "Learning To Be Me" achieves it brilliantly, and in the process disturbs you so profoundly that for a while you just want to push it to the back of your mind and not think about it. (Or maybe I'm just being hypersensitive. :-)) All this makes "Learning To Be Me" one of the best SF stories I've ever read.

How interesting, then, it was to hear about it from a stranger in an unexpected context. And how interesting that some stranger on the mailing list tied this story to something that has been one of my innocuous pet fantasies -- digitizing the contents of my brain. Not that I ever dreamed about having it replaced with a "jewel". :-) MyLifeBits is a far cry from what Greg Egan's "jewel" was supposed to accomplish, but my pet fantasy has suddenly revealed a much darker facet. :-)

No comments: