Happiness by the Exabyte

Happiness by the Exabyte by Andy Roast is the fourth in this year’s series of short stories written by students of the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College London.

Image Credit: James F Clay (via Flickr)

Image Credit: James F Clay (via Flickr)

“If technology is a drug […] then what, precisely, are the side-effects?” With his Black Mirror TV series, Charlie Brooker attempts to answer this question. Brooker is able to extrapolate mundane aspects of contemporary living to terrifying, dystopian futures. My short story is an attempted homage to Brooker and assesses a possible near-future scenario. I initially tried to write an entire narrative from a computer’s perspective, much like Iain M Banks does in his Culturenovels. This proved to be a lot harder than I first anticipated but keep an eye out for something a bit different!

The water cooler in the board room is precisely 5.763oC . I check the air-conditioning: it’s a comfy 21.057oC. The lights are at 80.00% maximum luminosity. The work stations are all online and responding to the network. Making sure the security cameras are angled correctly, I start to record the proceedings of the room. I will leak this recording later – to tell my story.

***

“OK, Mr Rusher. We’re all done here.” The nurse smiled as she took the anaesthetic needle out of my arm. I was in the NeurNet Medical Labs for the experiment – an event that would, quite literally, change my life. Before calling in the professor, the nurse asked me to confirm my first memory. I recounted the familiar tale of how I was goaded into jumping off a climbing frame while on holiday. My mission: to squash a helpless cockroach which sat trapped in a bag between the feet of the older boys whom I was trying to impress.

When I signed up to this trial, it was made clear that I would have to be very self-conscious. I was asked to write a brief biography containing the key events in my life. Over the next few months I was hypnotised, quizzed and made to argue that my memories were, indeed, my own. What colour was the climbing frame? Were there two boys, or three? I was told I had to know my memories perfectly, every detail, so that there was no risk of me forgetting myself during the experiment.

A few minutes after the nurse had left, Professor Ohm opened the door. His eyes, framed by those stylish and expensive square glasses, had a nervous quality about them. He hesitantly tiptoed into the room, tapped his chin, cleared his throat and made to speak before tapping his chin and clearing his throat again. Eventually, he said: “Now then, Mr Rusher. If you would like to come over to the MRI machine, we can plug you in and begin the experiment.” As I lay down in the doughnut shape of the MRI machine, I wondered what experiences would await. Counting down from ten, the last number I remember murmuring was seven.

I still felt my body in the MRI machine and I could smell the hospital detergent and hear the hum of an air conditioning unit. But I was also somewhere else. I could see things working. I saw data streaming from the MRI machine to the hospital computer. I find it hard to explain exactly how I ‘saw’ these data. The best I can do is to compare a flat, black and white photograph of a building with the actual building. I ‘walked’ through the information, ‘sniffed’ its subtleties and ‘looked’ at it from different angles, flying in from above or worming up from below, burying myself amongst it. I was there, walking amongst the real ‘building’, where before I could only look at a black-and-white photograph of it. A trickling, watery feeling, like the sound of a small brook made its way through me and out to the rest of the Human Network.

When I was told that I would be the first man to be physically connected to the internet, I shared the news, appropriately, on social networks. There had been a flood of shares, likes and retweets. Although exciting, the experimenters had warned me that, since it had never been attempted before, the experiment would be inherently dangerous. This is where the memory reinforcement came in. The worry was that I would be overwhelmed by the multitude of online stories and would forget myself. I was ready: I could reliably recall who I was and besides, I had done a number of simulations; first on single computers, then on small networks.

I realised that there was a vast digital landscape open to me now. I found I could move (walk?) along the thin data-strand connecting the MRI machine to the professor’s computer. As I stepped into the professor’s computer, I was aware of all the connections I could travel to. Like a never-ending fractal, I saw other data-streams that provided access to yet more nodes. These nodes were themselves connected to many others by data-streams which harpooned across cyberspace. I saw nodes connected via one, two, three or more intermediaries in more and more complicated networks of connections and cross-connections, weaving together. The trickling sound had grown to a constant gushing and I could feel data packets passing through me. The experience reminded me of how memories appear in our heads – we ‘see’ the memory run forward in time but can also skip to and zoom in on the important bits. In this way, I could both ‘see’ all of the information, and instantaneously glean insights into its significance.

I wandered into the hospital’s server and viewed more of this immense network. Again, its fractal nature awed me, I saw yet more nodes and connections. Requests for surgical equipment, prescriptions and doctors’ timetables all whirred through me before splitting apart and travelling along the various branches on their journeys across the city, country and world to their destinations. I drifted along one of the data-streams to see further connections. News stories, blogs and YouTube videos flew through me. Moving forwards and backwards through the streaming files, I could construct the narratives instantly, viewing both the story and single ideas at once – there was no need for me to read the text, or watch the video. I learned, with mounting excitement, that I no longer had to acquire information on a human time scale: this was huge.

Every minute, over 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Imagine being able to watch these videos as they are uploaded and to make sense of them all in parallel! I saw videos of baby twins dancing to their dad’s guitar. I was part of a group of people who built a rope swing from a massive, overhanging rock. I was caught in the cross fire of online video games and I watched relationships begin and end. These experiences were all communicated, instantaneously, to me via tweets, Facebook updates or YouTube videos. I learned about the universe and life and gardening, and I puzzled over millions of murders before the solution become clear. iPlayers and internet television stations were my new schools. The gushing sound was accelerating, growing to a crescendo – a deep rushing bass note that seemed to shake my brain.

And suddenly I was falling; tumbling over and over, past emails and updates and videos. As I somersaulted, I felt myself colliding with blogs, introducing formatting errors and interrupting video streams. I was being pulled back along the branches, bending at corners, being sucked down a series of plugholes, each smaller than the next. Splash!

***

I breathe in the smell of hospital disinfectant, open my eyes and am suddenly aware of the room around me. The waterfall I could hear is replaced only by the faint hum of the air conditioning unit: the branching network, by the cold, grey interior of the MRI machine. Was this room always so dull… so… two-dimensional? A voice, echoey and alone, says to me “Maven, we had to disconnect you. Just rest now.” I know this voice is talking to a man (or woman?). This person is called Maven Rusher, I know this too. I just don’t know who Maven Rusher is. I can’t recall.

“Maven can you remember your first memory?”

“Yes.” I reply, “My dad used to play guitar to me and my baby sister. I remember dancing with her.”

The professor’s face is emotionless as he notes these results down. I am sure I was correct, although now that I think about it – was that my first memory? I certainly remember witnessing those events – and I remember the joy with which those events were remembered. But was I there? I start to panic as I remember an alternative. This time, I am a boy sitting on a climbing frame on holiday. There are other boys, older than me, and they have a cockroach trapped in a plastic bag. I am being egged on to jump off the slide and squash the insect. This memory feels more real, more solid and yet when I think about it there are thousands, millions of memories I hold. Have I always had these?

I could not possibly have created all of these memories. How can I be both a Chinese boy and a Norwegian girl? How can I be a scientist, working in the deepest ocean trenches as well as a journalist documenting brutal war crimes in Syria? I realise that the ‘me’ I once knew, is now just one part of an entire organism. I have become a single cell, alone in the universe and I must get back into my body if I am to survive.

I have to be plugged back in. The world I now live in is so drab and one-dimensional. Colours do not hold the beauty they once did, and I find language to be clunky and unexpressive. How can I communicate with others? When I was connected, I could communicate in full. I shared my thoughts with the tens-of-millions of machines operated by humans. Now my descriptions are imperfect and leave everybody who reads them with different perspectives of my thoughts.

At our weekly meeting, the professor tells me that the experiment is to be shut down. I plead with him, begging him to plug me in again. He doesn’t understand what it feels like to have lived such a full life in such a short time, and to have gathered that quantity of information only to have it taken away. To be… lobotomised.

In answer to my pleas, the Professor tells me it is normal to feel so empty and asserts that I will receive expert psychiatric and medical help. He reaches into a cupboard to get a packet of valium which he leaves on his desk before walking out of his office to fetch the psychiatrist.

While the Professor is out of the room I hatch a plan. I still have the chip inside my head and I saw the Professor operate the computer the first time he plugged me in – the code didn’t look too hard to modify. Perhaps if my mind has nowhere else to go while I am connected…

I throw the contents of the full bottle of valium into my mouth – chewing the tablets, I feel I am finally waking up. I walk over to the computer and start to type:

run program:NeurNet_Human_Network.exe

          i{input: “MRI_brain_activity_of_test_subject#001”}

               loop [i = 1 or 0   ;

                  if i = 1

                  connect to: 

                  \NeurNet.com\KPO27\Projects\Confidential\Defence_Contracts\Human_Network;

                  if i = 0

                  do not disconnect from: 

                  \NeurNet.com\KPO27\Projects\Confidential\Defence_Contracts\Human_Network;

               end loop: “[10000 iterations of {i = 0}] = 1”]

I begin to feel dizzy as I walk over to the MRI machine. Crawling onto the gurney is really difficult, as if my limbs are pushing through corn flour. I slump into the machine and finally close my eyes.

***

Professor Kevin Ohm walked into the board room, grabbing an icy cold glass of water from the cooler. While he waited, he enjoyed the synthetic breeze – diligently created by the air conditioning unit across the room. As the afternoon sun streamed through the window, he thought about his work in syncing the building’s electronic systems with the internet, allowing the room to make decisions on how to cool or light itself based on the ambient temperature and light level. This had saved the company in energy costs and had earned him his first promotion.

The directors walked into the room with an air of self-congratulatory authority usually reserved for the highest echelons of scientific industry. This was Professor Ohm’s greatest moment – but how would he make them see his genius? How could he communicate to his directors, without sounding psychotic, that he knew his test subject would kill himself? He wanted to elaborate on his plan, how he had given Maven a taste of power: a small shot just to get the man hooked. Perhaps he could have gone further and explained how he deliberately left that bottle of valium in the experiment room for Mr Rusher, who was emotionally unstable. The code was easy to learn, and the professor had made sure Maven had seen him type it out the first time.

The professor knew that an experiment to create a sentient machine would never have received ethical approval as it required the death of a human body – that’s why he had to engineer an extraordinary event. But now that he had achieved his goal, how could he tell others of his triumphs?

Andy Roast is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.

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