“You own your own brain!? I had no idea.” Without thinking, I touched the cerebral implant at the base of my skull. It was a cheap, server-based model and like the brains of 99% of Americans, it was rented. The advertisement finished with the famous tag-line, “My love, I love your iDentity.”
Alhough the actors in the ad were fake, their message was all too real: I knew that because I did not own an expensive personal brain, no trophy woman or man would give me a second glance. But how could regular people afford to own their own brains? Wages had not increased in a century, yet the cost of food, rent and energy just kept rising.
There was a crash of lightening from the storm that was approaching from the north-east. I looked out the window of my car. Even though it had started to rain, the traffic on Interstate 80 seemed unaffected. If my car drove well, it would take at least another 20 minutes to get to the George Washington Bridge and after that another 30 minutes to get to my home in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan. It was just after five. I had plenty of time, the polls closed at eight.
I am normally not one for politics because most of the time it doesn’t matter who the big companies tell what to do. But to be fair to myself, I pay attention a little bit, because if there’s a candidate I’d like to have a drink with, y’know someone I resonate with, I’ll vote for him – or her. I’m sure you know what I mean.
I was paying a little more attention to this election because of Proposition 10. You probably know about it – the ballot initiative to allow businesses to force their workers to wear electronic brains. It is a big question, whether we should all have brains. Some people think that it is the biggest question ever, in terms of what humans are and where we’re headed. And here it was election day and I didn’t know how I was going to vote.
… end of excerpt …
While my car drove I surfed the Net, to get informed, or it at to try. So far the only thing that had informed me was an ad about how do get a discount on Zantrax, which was good news even if cheap meds have nothing to do with my vote. You see, I have Inchoate Acquisitive Disorder, and will bankrupt myself shopping if I’m not properly medicated. That’s hard to do what with the price of everything always going up.
Today it seemed like the goal of news was to avoid scratching the surface of reality. Even the NJ Governor’s controversial decision to turn the city of Camden into a correctional facility provoked only the shallowest debate. Not that I could dig deeper, but I depend on the news for my opinions, so I want them to be the best.
But shallow is better than nothing, so I stuck around because I knew the show would get around to my issues, Prop 10. And sure enough it did. The woman host, a slight, pretty simulacrum, got the ball rolling with a question about the Cognition Gap. The Cognition Gap is how conservatives argue that all American workers should have brains.
I don’t remember how the round headed guest with thinning hair answered, all I remember is thinking that the simulacrum’s breasts must represent a large fraction of her body weight, given how slender she was. I even thought about how silly it was to think about simulacra in sexual terms at all. But her question must have been tough because the round headed man’s face grew red as he answered it. I don’t remember what he said, but I’ll tell you it made sense. I know because of the ping of clarity his words gave me. If you own or rent a brain you probably know what I mean.
My news show only had one speaker in favor of Prop 10, not one against. Even though I liked the speaker, I wanted to hear another point of view. When the show cut to ads I made my car change the channel to Pacifica. That always took some effort, because the data feed from progressive stations to my brain was always choppy, probably because progressives can’t afford good bandwidth.
The host was Amy Goodman, who is the only female simulacrum news host I can name who isn’t slender and pretty. They say that’s because she was once real. Her guest was a thought artist. I still don’t know what that is and I watched the whole show. He had very strong opinions about Prop 10, his face when white when he voice them.
The artist talked a lot about what he called the Phenomenological Web. That’s an academic way of saying how the physical world is becoming indistinguishable from the Net. Not surprisingly, the artist hated bio-glasses and even plug-in translators. Which seems like banning fun and usefulness at the same time, but I sort of understood what he meant. But only sort of. You know how when some people speak clearly you hear a ping – I mean metaphorically, like I explained before. Well there were no pings with the thought artist. His words confused me. On reflection that’s part of what I liked. I don’t get confused so often, since I upgraded my brain to a Shuffle.
Amy ended her interview with a signature question, “What is your advice for our viewers?”
My hand, unconsciously went to touch the power switch on my iDentity Shuffle. I touched the power switch but did not press. Of course not. Why would I turn off my brain? I wanted to make sure the power switch was still there, just in case.
As I removed my hand from my brain’s power switch, my Net monitor went blank and my car shuddered to a halt. My iDentity reported a cluster of distress signals as all of my personal electronic devices fell into a pile on my feet. Then it went silent.
There was no electronic noise in my brain.
And a blank space where all the facts usually are.
I knew the facts would still be there once I was plugged in again. But for now I was on my own.
What should I do next? I hadn’t thought about it before but server brains aren’t just about facts. They make suggestions, too. Like the best way to walk to Inwood from Fort Lee. For the first time in a decade the thought of a route didn’t result in a map appearing on my eye-glasses; my meat brain was a seldom used backup. I had crossed the George Washington Bridge on foot a dozen times, but barely remembered how to do it. After a minute I did. The memories were in there alright, but because they had not been retrieved very much, it took time to find them. It was slow, too. You get spoiled by the access times of the new brains.
I made a map in my head about the route I was going to take home – over the bridge to Broadway, and then north 10 blocks to Hillside Ave. Details calm me down. I needed to calm down because it was crazy all around me. Did I mention that the toll Plaza was full of dead cars. And people. Not dead people, just confused people who didn’t know what to do now they were disconnected.
I know New York is full of people and Lord knows I know crowds: The 1 train is my train, and its always full. So you’d think no crowd would bother me. But when you’re plugged in you don’t notice people so much and when you’re unplugged you notice them more. And not just as lumps taking up space. You notice them with all your senses, hearing and smell and even touch, if you get too close.
I didn’t want to get too close to anyone, not even someone who could help me. So even though there was a group of people trying to tether a personal brain to their satellite phone, I stood back. Not because what they were doing was a waste of time, even though it was. I didn’t want to go near those people because I didn’t want to be near anyone.
Or anything, for that matter. Thank God my car can take car of itself.
There were too many people on the pedestrian walkway to Manhattan so I looked around and found a service catwalk. It was
for workers only, but I figured given the current emergency the rules could be bent. The catwalk was a find, not just because there were no people on it, but also because it was above the pedestrians. I could watch everyone while I walked. That made me feel safe.
And what a view.
The west coast of the Hudson River was shadowy because it was evening. The breaks that protect the Hudson River from surges – you know, those giant, rusty tubes they added a few years back – were red-brown because they were tall enough to catch the setting sun. I’d forgotten that red-brown was a color. I think I’ve been in my head too much, lately.
The best part of my walk over the bridge was the cormorants. They were resting on the roof of the tiny, red lighthouse, the one that pokes up from the Hudson River immediately beside the eastern shore. I’d never seen a flock of birds from above. Its different from that perspective because you get a sense that up is a place you have to fly to. From the ground birds are already up so you don’t think so much about how they got there.
The salty ocean breeze calmed me down. Manhattan is an island on the Atlantic Ocean, you know. That’s another thing I’d forgotten and remembered. Or never knew. By know I mean understand, not just the way you know a piece of data that’s in a database glued to your head.
When the breeze had blown away enough of my nervousness I got some space in my head to think. I thought about why I was nervous at all. Most of the time I’m quite sedate.
I was startled by the smell of ozone.
How could a smell startle me? It was because now that I was unplugged my sensations were more intense. You’d know that if you read the instruction manual on your brain; brains filter data to help you think, in the same way sunglasses polarize light to help you see.
I remembered that I was wearing bio-sunglasses. I removed them. It was brighter outside than I realized. It was over two hours before the polls closed at sunset. I wasn’t in that much of a rush. I decided to drop by a local bar for a pint and a burger.
On a typical day I would have avoided Broadway because of my medical condition. But today Incohoate Acquisitive Disorder didn’t seem like a problem so I took a commercial route, in order to save time. There were no issues, with me, I mean, because the traffic was totally messed up. It was all a coordination problem – lots of different Net nodes were back up, but were struggling to re-sync. A classic machine, problem. Nothing much for humans to do. Which explained why my local bar was so crowded.
The first thing I noticed when I entered was all the smells – beer, burgers, and a lot of cologne. The smells overpowered me, not because they were gross or cloying, but because they were so much more intense than my usual perceptions.
And soothing. Which was a good thing because the crowd made me buggy.]
I ordered a burger and beer and took a seat in the corner. While I waited, I took out a napkin and a pen. I drew a line down the middle of the napkin. The left column I gave the heading Yes, the right No.
It was time to decide about how I would vote on Prop 10.
In one way, brains were no big deal. I had one myself, so obviously I did not mind them.
In fact, to a certain extent I was more curious about what quality brain the big companies were talking about making their employees use. It would be a shame if workers were forced to have stupid, cheap brains, and ironic if they were made in China.
That wouldn’t happen. The big companies get volume discounts. They’ll buy nice brains.
Check mark for the Yes side.
The Yes case seemed so clear. The No case less so. All it did was stir up a mess of emotions within me.
I was sitting on a stool at the edge between the bar and a curved mirror. It was one of those old tavern mirrors that have little copper smeared lines visible like glass wrinkles.
A movement reflected on the mirror and caught my eye. I turned toward the mirror. I looked different than I had when I dressed myself for work this morning. … It wasn’t that there were pale purple half circles under my eyes, or that my short hair was skewed and spiky. I was different. The skin at the side of my face had begun to sag – not to any great extent, but enough to let me know I could have jowls. There was a small brown spot, in the smile lines near my right eye. And 100 other details I didn’t remember from this morning.
I turned my head slightly, so that it was nearly parallel to the mirror and then looked at where the iDentity connected to my real brain via my cochlear bone, just below my right ear. Even though it was disconnected from the Net, I pressed the off switch. My image did not change. That’s what I looked like when my brain was turned off.
My mind was made up, but I know myself and how I forget the decisions I’ve made and why. So I laid my decision-napkin flat on the table, carefully circled the No heading, and then folded it in half and put it into my breast pocket. I was careful, as if the napkin was my franchise.
I caught a reflection of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away. I paid my bill and prepared to leave.
Before I left I went to the back of the bar to the rest room, to clean up after lunch. There was a lineup. The hallway we were standing in was beside the security center for the building. I could see vid feeds for the entire building, including the hallway I was standing in. I looked for myself in the video of the line, and found myself. Actually, I didn’t see myself, exactly. Not the self I’d just been looking at in the bar mirror. I saw the iDentity version of me. The one I’d seen in the mirror when I’d shaved this morning. This unsettled me. I touched the napkin on which I’d written my voting intention, for solace.
The moment I squeezed passed the crowd outside the restrooms, I raced out of the bar onto Broadway. There were three ways to get home from where I was. I choose the route that curved along the side of Fort George Hill. I felt comfortable going that way, with the granite and tree hillside to my right. A feral cat disturbed a flock of morning doves. I stopped transfixed to watch, listen, smell as the birds flew up into the sky.
The twenty-one story rectangular concrete building I live in sits on the side of Fort George Hill, and so is rarely flooded even when there are ten foot surges. That’s its big selling point, aside from how good the superintendent is about cleaning up the litter that gets blown into thin band of garden and asphalt that passes for the building’s playground. A long line of people stood outside the service entrance, which led to the polling station. I wasn’t surprised. With so many people unplugged of course voting was delayed.
Voting was really delayed as it turned out. I was still in line thirty minutes later when the lights flickered and everyone sighed, afraid that the entire electrical grid, and not just the Net, was failing. But the flicker was from the Net coming back up. I knew because the hum of electronic noise in my head and how all the colors and sounds became muted. And the flashing red icon disappeared from my glasses.
I thought I’d turned off my iDentity yet it was now back online.
Why would I want to be unplugged from the Net? I wondered
Who won last year’s Superbowl? I got the answer in an instant.
It was good to be back online.
Voting did not speed up after our server-based brains reconnected to the Net. It took a full hour to get to the front of
the line but I wasn’t fussed. I felt calm. Calmer than I’d felt in I don’t remember how long. I’d forgotten how comforting a fully operational brain can be.
I thought about this afternoon’s adventures, and realized that I didn’t remember much of anything at all. Funny how you can get so much in the moment, and then realize that the last moment you remember was 8 hours ago. I was like that now. I’d nearly forgotten my walk from over the George Washington Bridge, and whatever I did for lunch. But like I said, I didn’t care.
I finally got near the front of the line, but then the line stalled. I looked around and caught a reflection of myself in a
security mirror. The mirror was curved, so my face looked silly. That didn’t worry me because my skin was looking good.
I spent the next few moments thinking about the many merits of a skin cream I’d recently bought.
I was handed my ballot. I just stared at it for a moment – I had forgotten why I was in line at all, that’s how
deeply I’d been thinking about the cream.
A woman with a badge that sad, “Polling clerk” scanned by Social Security Number straight off my iDentity and pushed me half-way into a voting booth. That’s when I got it figured out. At least sort of. My arms and legs felt like they weren’t part of me. Or maybe my brain felt separated from everything else. Its kind of the same thing.
I was in what my shrink calls a fugue state. That’s when I forget my intentions and even who I am.
I took a step back from the booth, placed my knapsack on the floor and pulled out the napkin on which I had written my voting decision. I could see the words No to Prop 10 boldly circled and underlined at the top.
Vote No to Proposition 10. That’s what I would do. Great.
I stepped forward to the voting machine and quickly tried to vote my intention. The gambit failed: when my right forefinger approached the No button, some outside force took over my hand and jerked it away toward Yes
I tried to vote Yes again and failed.
This made me angry, which is not good because anger triggers IAD. I could afford to vote Yes or No but not both. What I mean is my vote had become a shopping decision. That’s what the Acquisitive is in IAD, which I had bad.]
I started to hallucinate.
The Yes button turned into an image of a tiny porcelain doll. The doll wore leather overalls cut-off above the knees, a sporty green alpine hat and had painted, blonde-brown hair. I could think of nothing else but buying the doll. You could do that with a Yes vote. That’s what my brain told me.
What happened to the No button? I couldn’t see it anywhere. Oh well. I shrugged. Who cares? I’m going for the doll. I’ll just read the slip of paper here …
Vote No. I saw it clearly written on what I knew was a reminder note. The words made no sense. What could I buy with No?
Fugue state. I must be having an attack of IAD. I had to stop thinking of my vote as a product. I had to think of it as something else. As ..
“Mr. Are you alright?” It was the poll clerk wondering why I hadn’t done whatever it was I was here to do. She helpfully said, Have you voted? I told her that I was having a problem with my iDentity and that was delaying things. She helpfully suggested I turn it off and vote without it. I could always get it fixed tomorrow.
Good plan, I thought dully.
The poll clerk whispered, “You have to turn it off before you think about doing it. Otherwise you iDentity intercepts the thought and it doesn’t …”
I turned my iDentity off before I thought about it. I tore out its battery just to make sure. I was a little rough with the battery, and broke my skin. My glasses flashed a red warning light as I did so, and my collar was stained with my blood.
But I was unplugged.
I voted No.
The bleeding at the nape of my neck provoked a few askance glances but no comment when I left the polling station and took the elevator to my floor. For the next few days I felt profoundly alone as I sat unplugged in my apartment. At first I kept my sensations to a minimum. Gradually I turned the lights back on, uncovered my mirrors and plugged in my machines. It took me a week to get up enough courage to read the news. I connected to the Net manually. I felt a fear that bordered on terror when I did. Although the vote was close, Proposition 10 was defeated.