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Lost in Thought

by Jörn Grote

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

When our Longwalk ship reached the next star system, Bernice left the ship along with others who were against the mind-mods. They had enough technology and resources to built a new Longwalk ship of their own, or compuform one of the three smaller words in the system.

And we traveled onward, changing and self-modifying all the time, shedding more and more pieces of the physical emulation of the human body until we became pure datashapes, self-aware software.

The first one, Cormyr, said, when I asked him why he did it, “Why uphold an illusion if it doesn’t reflect the true nature of our existence anymore? And an illusion it is. The underlying layer of our reality is not physical, it’s a software architecture, and as long as we cling to old shapes we can’t reach our true potential.”

* * *

A window opened in my mindspace and I saw an unknown face. “Who are you?” I wanted to say, but I couldn’t use my mouth. When I tried to transmit the words, I realized that I was unable to activate even the most basic command. I had no control over my thoughtspace interface.

“Easy there, fellow,” the man said. “You can’t use your body yet, and your thoughtspace interface might be not working. You have to learn everything again. Think about making little movements or opening your eyes, so that the suitbody can adapt to the paths of your mind.”

I tried to move my arm, but nothing happened. Not even my ears or eyes worked yet, everything I saw and heard was transmitted by direct-feed input.

“I am Hiver Ernest. You wonder where you are, don’t you? This is the Longpath ship House of God. We are the Seeker. We found your memories and a fragmented backup of your self in a database, the only part of a Lost artifact we could access. We fixed the backup as best as we could, plugged your memories into it, and loaded everything into a suitbody.”

While I followed his words, I tried to regain control over my body but couldn’t get even the slightest reaction. Meanwhile, Hiver told me about his ship, its community and their mission.

They were missionaries who were trying to spread the word of God. The Seeker religion was an offshoot of CyberCatholicism. Its main article of faith was the belief that the universe was God’s body and that His mind had been asleep since the Big Bang.

After the Distributed Authority had outlawed most religions except for their own quasi-religious Stable Strategy concept, the Seeker and other religious groups had fled from DA controlled space.

All Seekers wore suitbodies; nobody existed as a datashape. I wondered why they persisted with embodiment and whether it was motivated by their religion or other concerns.

Hiver never stopped talking. He had already told me about the history of their ship and their voyage since they had left the influence sphere of the Distributed Authory. Without halting he changed the topic:

“The thing that your original has changed into is still out there. Our information about most Longwalk ships is only sketchy, but we know that many have fallen from grace. Even the Distributed Authority fears those who dwell inside them.

“Most of their crews have changed into the Lost Ones: superintelligent thoughtscapes without consciousness or a human self. Through our research of the artifacts they left behind, which were mostly highly complex FAQs, we came to the conclusion that the thoughtscapes had reached a stage in their development where they thought that a self was not needed anymore. For them a self is an advanced delusion, its only goal to trick the many-layered thoughtscape into recursive thinking, with the added baggage of self-awareness.

“They came to the conclusion that the self was a waste of attention, and they revised their own mental design again in a major way, incorporating recursive loops that did what a self-concept had done before but without self-awareness.”

And then he changed the subject again. He told me they had found alien ruins that were twenty million years old. He never stopped talking, until something made click, and my eyes opened. I saw him not only in my mind, but with eyes. He stopped for a moment, and then continued. The next thing I got under control were my ears, and after that my mouth.

“Stop,” I said. “Please,” I added.

“Ahh, yes.” Hiver said. “The others say I talk to much. Again, I welcome you in my home. This time in the body, not just the mind.”

“I am Gavrail Rajendra,” I said.

“Be welcome, Gavrail Rajendra, to the House of God. May your stay here heal all the wounds that have been inflicted upon your body and mind. May the union of the two rejuvenate your being.”

* * *

The Longpath ship had been designed with space for a fully embodied crew, it was a thousand times bigger than the Longwalk type and slogged at a much slower speed through space. But the sheer size of the Longwalk ship became real to me only when I saw the cathedral. The House of God harbored a real cathedral in its bowels.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Hiver said.

“Impressive,” I replied. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by its architecture: too gloomy for my taste, but I could appreciate its intricacies.

“Do you want to come inside?”

I declined.

“We don’t have anything against unbelievers in our churches,” Hiver said.

While I looked around, I thought about what was troubling me.

“What is it?” Hiver asked. I realized that he had been watching me the whole time.

“Do you think that the thing my former self became, the Lost One, that he was right and the self is just an illusion of the different thought processes working together?”

“I think,” Hiver said, “you’re asking the wrong question. People remember not the past but a heavily fictionalized, modified version of real events. People prefer narratives that are completely made up; we value ideas like love or truth that aren’t physical objects; and some say they are only illusions in the end. I think the self is something similar, it’s the higher idea the human organism develops of itself.

“The question you should ask yourself, Gavrail, is whether a self matters to you. To humans, having a self matters enough to waste precious time and energy in creating it. To the Lost Ones, obviously not.”

He was implicitly asking me whether it mattered to me to be human. Did it?

“Does what?” he asked. I realized that I had been saying some of my thoughts aloud.

“Does it matter to me to be human? I really don’t know.”

“I think asking these questions is answer enough.”

* * *

“I am going on a spiritual quest,” was what I told Hiver when I left the House of God. We had become friends despite our different views of the universe; but his ship was only a temporary resting place for me, and my time there had come to an end. He understood.

I assembled a small spacecraft and traveled until I reached a star system on the other side of the galaxy, opposite to Earth. It had a planet where I could take a walk. Walk and think, alone and yet with the whole universe as a listener.

My words had been true: I was on a spiritual quest. It had nothing to do with the supernatural but everything to do with finding myself again, finding out what I wanted to do next. An instance of my self had become truly lost, and without someone like Hiver and his people I would have been lost forever. They had saved me, put me together.

And why?

Because I had been human once. “Helping those with whom you share something as basic as the same physical body is just common sense,” Hiver had told me when I asked him. I admit I hadn’t expected such a down-to-earth answer.

“You can always relate to others at some level: speak the same physical language, communicate some basics. Loving, eating, touching, seeing, feeling are all part of the human condition, how we share life.”

“And life,” he continued, “is an evolving network of relationships. You chose a tribe of your own, and then you care for each other. That’s why people matter. If you choose that they matter to you.”

Bernice had told me the last time we saw each other But you are human. Humans mattered. And if being human didn’t matter, what was there to stop you from losing yourself?

But what did it mean to make such a decision, choosing to remain human? If being human was an internal state, then it was also a concept, an idea, and deciding to uphold that idea made that idea a value.

And I realized that I wanted to uphold that value. I realized that being human was relevant after all to me, a concept that stretched from the first human-like creatures who had walked over the surface of the Earth in the far past to me, an emulation of a human mind in an artificial suitbody, walking over the surface of a world at the other side of the Milky Way. I felt connected to a long line of continuity, of history. And to Hiver and Bernice, too.

I wondered how far the concept of being human stretched. A standard suitbody with an uploaded mind was in my opinion still human, because it completely covered the experience of being human in body and mind. But what about seemingly simple changes and modifications of that experience? When did someone cross the border from human to something else? Was sleeping essential to being human? Or could we do without it? What about an optimized memory that could remember a million texts down to every letter?

How far could we extend the concept? Could we still relate as human beings to someone who could split his awareness into two, three or even a thousand attention vectors? Or an uploaded mind that existed only as a datashape but still had a strong sense of self? Was an array of branched people connected by error-correcting mind-overlays far beyond the border? Or was it still within the landscape of the human concept?

I wasn’t sure. Nobody had ever tried to map the conceptual landscape of being human under these changed conditions. But it was a worthy goal: knowing was always better than the opposite; that was my conviction. It would be dangerous: I had already failed once, an instance of me had been lost, as a Lost One.

But I hoped I had learned enough from that failure to do better next time. Deep at the core of my conceptual landscape of being human was the principle of perseverance.

Copyright © 2006 by Jörn Grote

[Ed. note: Jörn Grote’s “Human and Transhuman” appears in The Critics’ Corner in this issue.]

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