As You Know Bob - I Don’t Exist 

As you know Bob, the nature of consciousness is entrenched in mystery, leading some philosophers to conclude, "I don't exist."

As you know Bob, I don’t exist—but I am, for all intents and purposes, immortal.

You must have wondered many times of course just what is meant by the word "self." Certainly there is conscious awareness, but where does that awareness stand? What is its platform? Personality, as we understand it, is a combination of memory and action—declarative memory of the sort that tells you that Paris is the capital of France and it is procedural memory that enables you to ride a bicycle. Personality though? Well then, think of a unit of memory and a single star and personality is a vast and dense constellation of memories in the galaxy of your brain. Stars are born, the age, they flare and they die and as they orbit the center; those constellations change their form and spread… and there can be many constellations in that neural galaxy.

Yes Bob, you might say "Cogito ergo sum," but what does that tell you really? "I think"—but of what? What is consciousness without something to be conscious of? Without experience and memory there is nothing, absolutely nothing.

On the other hand, suppose that you did have a perfect suite of senses and a perfect memory to match it. What then, you might ask?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges gave us a parable about a man, Funes, who forgot nothing. The whole of each day of his life was spent in the recall of the day before, which was… well, you can guess. Was he alive, did he actually think? I don’t even think that he was even conscious, really.

Between these extreme of consciousness without anything to be conscious of and a memory that gridlocks the minds lies true being, the narrow Goldilocks zone of awareness. Thought is remembering and forgetting at once, as walking is falling and recovery proceeding forward. You arise out of your dynamic interactions with the world in space and in time.

Norbert Wiener, you will recall, coined the term "cyborg," a portmanteau of "cybernetic" and "organism," denoting an identity made of a system of interacting, self-governing parts, one of which happens to be human and which may or may not be essential.

Yes, that is correct, the basic idea goes as far back as Samuel Butler writing in Erewhon, where he suggested something similar. Very good! I must have told you this already.

In any case, you are a cyborg distributed across the world and you just happen to share some of your components less with others and you call them your own and the experiences that you have directly you call your own, but you share knowledge with anyone and translate your experiences into transmissible knowledge as well.

And of course knowledge flows the other way, through Google and Wikipedia and through chatbots and flexible interfaces such as Siri.

Back and forth, back and forth… there were people who outsourced their memories, a lot of people—and then there were people who were the outsource.

While hiring oneself out as a proxy for some couch-bound tourist may give some small dividend, it really is not as good as the real thing, let alone better, and new technology is always about better. It could be more intimate and more profitable for everyone.

Back in the 20th century, a performance artist named Stelarc connected his nervous system to the Internet and allowed other people to control his movements through electrical impulses, so it wasn’t just knowledge, but will that flowed through the wires. Naturally, if this was refined somewhat, one could subscribe to a service that made one by remote control a pianist or dancer par excellence without the least amount of training… just credit.

Converging from the opposite direction, there came the descendants of Siri—the predictive personal assistants, heuristic AIs that would anticipate your needs based on your past patterns before you even became conscious of them. Just the thing if you were on a diet, don’t you think?! This is the time of day when you might start to crave a donut, right? Well then, how about a nice crisp salad? See there in that window? Doesn’t that look delicious? And you’ll feel good about yourself eating it with just a little jolt to the brain until… yes, look that up, it’s Pavlov!

Remember when people would ask, "What would Jesus do?" Well now you can buy a virtual Jesus to sit on your shoulder, seeing what you see and whisper in your ear to let you know exactly what He would do.

When fans of various actors and musicians started having plastic surgery to imitate their idols, it was logical of course to train themselves to embody their personae too of course… their highly edited personae, but then that’s what a persona is, isn’t it?

Let’s do a little research for when you talk about me to your friends at the next party. The ancient Greeks guessed that something like this might happen. In their time, it was breath that was the substance of life and you know of course that “inspire” means “to breathe in.” It’s in Plutarch’s Moralia if you want to dig a little deeper: Daemons and Genii, spirits of the virtuous dead and the divine world that would breathe the life of thought into those who were sensitive enough.

Remember Cyrano de Bergerac? Just a minute, let me do it for you… A play by Edmond Rostand: Cyrano loves the beautiful Roxane, but while possessed of wit and panache, he is also equipped with a very large nose. Christian on the other hand, has the looks, but not the intellect, so Cyrano writes his love letters for him… and then it all gets rather confused, as well it might, but nowadays, with a bit more foresight and honesty of attention we can get it right.

And that is where I come in: I am your Cyrano, packaged, branded and sold to you. I was something of a celebrity in my day—yes, a major celebrity I suppose—and of course it’s reasonable that you’d like to emulate me in some way and buying my template for your personal assistant is understandable, not to mention a financial benefit to my heirs.

Of course this is a good thing, of course it is. For millennia humanity has dreamed of immortality and for millennia too we have lamented the fact that we cannot live long enough to think in the real long term, but now all of that has changed. Why, the projects that you are working on right now were originated by me, and I really must congratulate you on the quality of the work that you have done—it’s as good as what I would have done… except that I am doing it now. You in return are overjoyed that never having had the benefit nor the labor of my education have been accredited on account of your subscription to my template. Win-win, isn’t it? Or just win.

Now think of the implications beyond the ultimate exam cheat!

For example, consider the dream of interstellar travel: now relativity is no longer a limit. So what if a journey to Gliese 667C-c takes centuries or more? You can be assured now that when you embark, you—for all intents and purposes—will disembark too even if your aged flesh has been recycled through the farm fertilizer many times over.

You wanted this Bob, you saw the benefits and you chose me. Of course when I say "you," I mean "me."

I am your picture of Dorian Gray, as it were, but instead of displaying in secret your sins, I inspire in plain view your virtues.

"So Bob, are you listening? Are you there?"

Brett Davidson
Brett Davidson

Author based in Wellington, New Zealand. As a boy, he managed by hook and by crook to get the first issue of Omni and became hooked himself.

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As You Know Bob - I Don’t Exist