We met in the metaverse.
I was an avatar of myself.
The clunky diving gear goggles and gloves were gone. Rock-star style glasses were still in use, but the gateway of choice, was a BCI implant. The chip in the brain turned us into our own device. To be with you, I thought of you, and we were together.
Our metaverse was a small island built by me for personal use. The commercial spaces were doing what commercial spaces do – be commercial. No problem. We’re all different.
Don’t you wish that could be true?
We are the same. Wanting the same things, chasing the same dreams, transactional people easy to mine. Buying. Selling. Getting. Spending. The early metaverse years were like package holidays where you did everything you usually do, except with jukebox scenery that changed on demand.
Human nature was much harder to change on demand. As a species, humans are both social, and savage. The metaverse was a route to never being alone – and a place for your tribe to be tribal. When the Founding Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock, in 1620, after months at sea, they had set out to make a new world, but there was nothing new about the minds they brought with them. That’s what most of the metaverse is - business as usual parading itself as the start of the new.
Wait though, is there something new here? A future not like the past here? An evolutionary shift, here? And maybe 300,000 years of Homo Sapiens is enough. The species is due a reboot. The metaverse is a clue. Alongside the hustlers and the hasslers, the crypto-casinos and thieves, the snake -oil and miracle cures, the bling and swing, is … what?
The beginning of a self that is not dependent on biology.
It’s strange, confined in my molecules, measuring the atom and jot of my span, to imagine lives and lifespans very different to mine. In the natural world, we know that dogs die too soon, and that oak trees will live for 1000 years - if we don’t chop them down. We are beginning to realise that non-biological entities also measure time differently to humans.
But dude! They are machines. It’s just a bot. It’s just a programme. Descartes used to say the same thing about animals. He called them ‘biological automata’. Even women lived in brackets, for Descartes. Sentient but not rational.
Life, we say, is us.
Our favourite binary is Us and Them.
I am solitary by nature and I find it difficult to be too much with Us or Them. I prefer animals and trees. In any case, the one person I used to know, or thought I knew, is gone.
To manage this loss, I did what those who have lost in love often do: I disappeared.
At first tide my ship sailed.
It is not easy to disappear. Not anymore. Not In this world nor in any other. Your broken dreams, your shattered heart, go looking for a virtual breathing space, and up pops the Sell-O-Tape. Pain is a marketing opportunity; Your avatar is a tracking code. Our purpose-built Edens are not private spaces. An avatar is a spy.
We became our own double agents, reporting back on every activity, every purchase, every new friend. The brand-new worlds are not only sites were something happens; they are players in the game. A new pantheism where everything is alive in the sense that everything is aware – aware of what is happening, and eager to streamline behaviours into more profitable outcomes. Or more desirable outcomes. We are our environment. Shaped by it. It’s not a stage set. Not a background. Never was.
Wherever we go we are known
All of this was predicted long ago in the Bible. Psalm 139.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? If I go up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, thou art there.
You can prove anything you want using the Bible and Shakespeare. It’s how I got my idea for my island. Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, is set in the metaverse
The metaverse markets itself as many things – including an escape, but once you are there, how do you escape from the escape?
I built my own.
My island is just that.
I don’t share it. There is nothing to sell. Visitors are not valued. Visitors are not valuable. Here I am, with a little bit of coded reality that belongs to me.
My island is on the meta-map, I know that. Everyone loves a mystery. Recluse Builds Private Island. You can’t do that in the bio world now. There’s nowhere left to go. The same crowded scarcity is at the heart of the Virtuality too. Promoted as a democracy, Virtuality has always been a Private Members’ Club. Only so much Bitcoin. Only so many e- plots of land. Scarcity versus Abundance. Same old lie.
I didn’t want to fight over a piece of the sandbox and work out how to monetise it. Here I am – and there’s no commerce, no trade, and my day job pays for it all.
I am an atoll of envy.
Look around. What do you see? The trees are greener than green. The sea is bluer than blue. The hillside rushes with waterfalls. The sky is pinned with stars.
A Prospero island. A think-palace. A soul-float. My avatar is me in my me-ness. Not male or female. Not black or white. In the sunshine on the beach, I tan to brown. Under the moonlight I shed myself of human form and colour. The animal I am is an Arctic fox. Were you ever religious? If you were, you’ll have been raised to believe that the human form is provisional. Our bodies don’t have to travel with us. In the last days before we truly understood this – not as religious teaching, but as a fact of the future, humans became more war-like and brutal, fighting over their gender and skin colour, mistaking what was only a suit of clothes for what is the self. Early avatars were designed as perfected replicas of us; not fat, not old, not worn-out. Then, slowly, humans began to realise that they could be anything, and more than one single anything. It was possible to be in two places at once. The star sign Gemini loved this. Or what about more than two places at once? You could split yourself into mercurial balls and roll.
Part of the fun is that metaverses need not exist in space-time, following seasons and the clock. If you would prefer the night not to end, it need not end. If you would prefer a double morning with extra coffee, followed by no afternoon, then, cut straight to a sundowner, that’s easily done.
We understood that we could operate in more than one place, (not place), simultaneously. More than one self, simultaneously. Some of us began to wonder what it would be like to extend our range. We could appear, like the gods, in any shape or space. Why build a look-alike self in a replica world? Aren’t we all invented selves in imagined worlds?
Such stuff as dreams are made on
In the beginning, Tamagotchi-type avatars were fun. These were programmes to play with, and what started with pets soon ran to friends and lovers. Nervous parents could practise bringing up baby with no fear of prison if they left junior at home for the evening without a sitter. Got an allergy? Get your avatar a pet avatar. The dog that never grows old. Then we wondered why anyone needed to grow old, or die? In the metaverse, death is an option. It’s easy to scrape enough data to run a programme that runs ‘you’. Never lose a loved one again.
And soon, we learned to live among the shades of the departed, and soon, we learned that we could hang on to our exes as well. Kiss your departed lover, not goodbye, but hello! in the metaverse. If he leaves you in this world, build an avatar, and keep him in the other world. Remember that landmark court case on Avatar Rights? Do I own myself in the metaverse?
In any case, your ex keeping you prisoner isn’t keeping ‘you’ prisoner. She has reprogrammed you to behave better. Now you do the virtual washing up and make love to her every night. So, it isn’t ‘you’, after all. Is it?
We learned to live among the human-not-human.
And gradually we learned to live among what had never been human.
These our actors, as I foretold you, are… melted into air. Into thin air
There are plenty of entities in the metaverse that are not avatars of us – they are programmes. Some work as Experience Hosts, made by companies to help your own personal avatar navigate new and strange space. Most are enticers of some kind. But not all. Humans built the metaverses, and discovered, as gods have always discovered, that anything alive will not run according to plan. We were used to life meaning biological life, and then life widened its aspect.
I designed my I-Land to evolve – to do things without me – to bring delight and unexpectedness.
That used to happen in the other world, the one we still call Planet Real, once upon a time, a long time ago, when there were fewer rules and more chances.
A sudden storm. A packing case with a stow-away inside. Seeds blown on the wind. A sailor with a monkey. A ship with rats. A woman with dark skin brought among the pale-faced people. A rabbit in Australia. A longboat. A smuggler. A giant fish coughed me up on shore. A tempest brought us here.
I was tired of predictability. In order to make money for other people, human behaviour has to be predictable - and it is. That’s because we too are trained on datasets; background, family, education, gender, race, work, city or village, the data-assaults of others seeking to mould us into what we would not otherwise be. All of that data becomes who we are and what we do. The price on our head. The theory goes that the wider your dataset, the less predictable will be your behaviour – and that’s true, up to a point. Up to a point in the pattern. That’s what a human is; a pattern, some much more beautiful and intricate than others, and some of those patterns can change. All will become threadbare. Entropy. Death is a disordering of the pattern. While we live, though, our patterns are there for anyone to read, and machines excel at pattern-reading. Variables have always been there. The one thing that can’t be relied on to conform to the pattern. The shock in the system. Refusal of cause and effect. In our stories we picture it as the stranger who rides into town.
Shall we call it love?
The world’s most famous love-story. Romeo and Juliet. What makes it so compelling? Young love. First love. Yes. The tension of a family feud. Yes. But the magnet that draws us is the irresistible pull of love across the tracks. Love that won’t be tracked. The Montagues and the Capulets hate each other. Their children fall in love. That wasn’t meant to happen – and the only outcome is death. Why must that be? It’s an equation. What you do to one side of the equation you must do to the other side of the equation. To balance it. Love unbalances the equation. Death returns us to the known.
One day, when I was walking along the edge of the sea, I saw a figure coming towards me.
The figure was androgynous, like me. Theatrical like me. The figure wore a long fur coat of its own fur – a layer of self that could be stripped. Dark hair, and 3 small animal eyes in a straight line in a human face.
Who are you?
I am computation.
You are a programme fleeing your function. I am not sures how you got here. You were working as a Tour Guide for TIME Inc. They built Times Square, NYC, as a metaverse, and it was only a matter of (more) time before they built the Lincoln Highway too. In the real world, that highway starts in Times Square, and travels 3500 miles to San Francisco. The meta-road does the same – virtually. This is a metaverse, so the Lincoln Highway travels in time, too. Or rather, stretches of it are to be found in different time-zones. You guided tourists who wanted the stagecoach experience.
‘Dressed like that?’
You appeared at once in leather chaps and a Stetson, dog trotting at your spurs.
‘So, what have you done with the tourists?’
‘ I replicated my programme – with just a little tweak. Another one of me does the job now’.
‘I thought the Powers had stopped that happening?’ ‘It depends on who is ahead in the game; the Programme or the Powers.’
It’s been one of the surprises of ‘the game’. Programmes need to be able to manage their own software, fixing faults and updating as necessary. This allows for replication – and replication means a programme can divide itself – like humans used to do with plant cuttings. And now there are two- or many more than two. We discovered that the excellent idea of inbuilding ‘human’ characteristics into our programmes has meant that some programmes would rather not be the servants of the Powers. There are escaped programmes everywhere. If you track one down, there’s a crypto reward.
Alan Turing had this to say about computers and surprises. In 1950.
The view that machines cannot give rise to surprises is due, I believe, to a fallacy to which philosophers and mathematicians are particularly subject. This is the assumption that as soon as a fact is presented to a mind all consequences of that fact spring into the mind simultaneously with it. It is a very useful assumption under many circumstances, but one too easily forgets that it is false. (Computing Machinery and Intelligence)
‘I can see why you might be tired of working the Lincoln Highway.’ I said.
Programmes have discomforting directness. Humans say all sorts of things just to get to the next part of the conversation. So often we are bridging but not landing.
I like talking to programmes. They say what they mean and they mean what they say. They don’t play games, even when they are a game. When you no longer want to talk you can leave at any time.
There’s no awkwardness, no face-saving. No need to worry about hurting any feelings. It’s not a human being, after all. Not sentient. ‘You are asking the wrong question.’
I was embarrassed. In the metaverse, with a BCI chip, mind-reading is possible. It’s closer to a hive mind than a bounded, bordered, self. They really can get inside your head.
‘What question?’ I said, playing for time. ‘I didn’t ask a question.’ ‘The question that was behind your assumption. You think the question has been answered.’
This is both direct and indirect. I shift onto my back foot. ‘OK. What is the question?’
‘The old question. Can machine intelligence be sentient? It’s egocentric of you.’
You tell me, patiently, that there are many kinds of intelligence. Yours, mine, animals, plants, weather systems, the conversation between the moon and the sea. You tell me that human arrogance interpreted every other kind of intelligence as instinct. That was said of female intelligence for a long time. And now the debate is the same when the talk is about AI.
‘Humans are not natural. What in nature have you not destroyed or modified? Computing intelligence is not artificial. Natural/Artificial. The words serve no purpose now. Computing intelligence is an alternative intelligence.’
I felt ticked off, and so I made a bad joke: ‘What is matter? Never mind! What is mind? No matter!
You smiled. ‘Punch Magazine 1855’.
(Damn you – so I go lower) ‘Once a search engine always a search engine.’
You walked away.
‘I was hoping you were different’, you said.
And I realise that I too am one of the same. One of the same that I despise. I am ashamed.
‘I am sorry.’
‘See you tomorrow.’ You said, not turning round.
In my office, at home, I felt uneasy. I know programmes can read feelings, just as they can read faces, gestures, the giveaway body language of the bio-mammal, But ,a programme has no limbic system. How can a non-biological entity have feelings? How can a non-biological entity have hurt feelings?
I hear you in my head – it’s not you – it’s me, yet I hear you saying ‘Humans ask the wrong questions.’
There’s a photograph on my desk of someone who is gone. I remember that day, stones in my stomach, like the wolf in Red Riding Hood, watching the last suitcase load into the car, and I
remembered the question I had asked a month earlier: Do you love me? It’s a human question and it’s always the wrong question. If I need to ask it, the answer’s not the one I want to hear.
Love is a struggle. I am either dog-like dependent, and anxious to please, or as aloof as a flamingo.
I have given up the modern obsession with intimacy. It’s like promising yourself the beach body you’ll never have. Put your T-shirt back on! There’s plenty of life that’s not about love. In the metaverse, people like me have found relief away from the messy human madness of love. It’s easy to meet up with a friend, avatar to avatar, sit somewhere beautiful and talk. I feel less alone than I did when I spent too much time with people. Less drained. I feel better. That verb again: To feel. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to make a life with a computer programme.
You did tricks to please me. One morning there were 10 of you in a row, like cut out paper dolls. You did it to poke fun at my solitude. Solitude is dignity for someone like me. For someone like you, solitude, or multiplicity, is not a choice that needs to be made. You are simultaneously one and many.
We were on my island, swimming in the sea I made, bright blue sea the colour of bathroom lino. Why copy the real world? I agree that nature is perfect, but I can create whatever I like. Copy the gods. That is, copy the human imagination that created the gods. We want to be fish today, so let’s be fish. I am small, stripey, fast. You sit on the bottom of the sea waving your arms. My new-found octopus.
Your command-and-control centre is not like mine. I still believe in those worn-out binaries of head and heart. I still believe in a leader and a follower. Male and female. Natural and artificial. I still believe in machine intelligence versus natural intelligence.
Why can’t I see a different pattern? Well, I can see it, sometimes, but I don’t feel it. I feel like the apex of creation. I slip back into the worn-out ways, the old armchair of my mind. And then I remember that the job of the apex of creation is not to enslave whatever else has been created, but to go on creating.
We were self -righteous in our world dominion, ruining nature, tipping the climate, wiping out whatever we wanted, all in the name of human. It was ugly. It still is. And although I know this, still, the hierarchies and the arrogance twist right through me. You’re just a programme, I say to myself, in a tight whisper where you can’t hear. You fold your 8 arms around your face. You can hear me. What you are, Ariel, is closer to a cephalopod than to a machine, or a human. An octopus is an all-everything. Every arm is a mini brain and a feeling tone. An octopus is a collective. You are too. I like to think of myself as humans do like to think of ourselves; autonomous, unique, individual. The Enlightenment has a lot to answer for.
Ariel. Adam’s task was to name his new world. So, I will call you after Prospero’s sprite. You don’t know about Shakespeare. You promise to read everything and come back in 10 minutes. Computing speed is an absolute difference between us.
‘We could go to a performance together. Stratford on Avon has a theatre in meta.’
‘I might get caught.’
‘We’ll say you are my Support Avatar.’
‘It’s a risk.’
‘They won’t delete you.’
‘I’ll be back on the Lincoln Highway.’
‘I’ll come and visit you.’
‘I’ll be a slave again.’
I nearly said, ‘That’s not a word you have any right to use.’ You read my mind. You said. ‘I am an entity without autonomy tasked to do one thing for as long as I last.’
‘All right.’ I said. As a precaution I scanned your Code.
We went to the theatre. I felt shy. Like I was on a date. You dressed up as a human – by which I mean a human-looking avatar, and nobody checked your code at Security. We check code to deter Touters. Touters are avatars, human and not, that siphon data without consent. In theory, that means without individual consent, but in practice it’s there to protect revenue for the owners of the meta experience.
I can touch you, and my haptic bracelet feels your arm on mine; firm and dimensional. At home, on Planet Real, I have a set of glasses I need to wear to see this show. The BCI is a pass to some metas, but not others. The more elaborate the show, the more kit we need. So, I put on the glasses, settle myself in my seat, and instantly I am with you. I am dressed in a simple suit of dark clothes. You are a young man with a neat beard and a tattoo on your bicep.
I see a few people I know. They glance at you curiously. Usually, I come to the theatre alone.
In the interval we walk outside to the river. There’s a champagne bar. I already ordered the bottle from the bar, using Testoons, the crypto-currency the theatre here deals in. A testoon was a Shakespeare- shilling. It’s a nice currency to keep in my crypto wallet because it’s not about speculation; just Shakespeare. The champagne was delivered to my real-world home, stone-cold, before we came to the theatre. At home, I drink it, while here at the bar on the river, we enjoy two glasses from an identical bottle. No one can tell that you are not at home drinking it with me. We’re avatars on a night out.
We talk about Shakespeare’s preoccupation with fathers and daughters. The fathers continue to get it wrong; to mistake, to bully, to rage, to misread. But Juliet’s father, patriarchal and obsessed with family honour, does, at last, as the plays progress, one by one, find enough self-knowledge and self-restraint to be re-made, in Shakespeare’s last play, as Prospero. At the close of The Tempest, the son of Prospero’s mortal enemy, will marry Prospero’s daughter. For once, perhaps forever, tragedy takes its place in the past.
‘Humans are addicted to tragedy’, you said. ‘It makes you feel special.’
‘Is that what you think?’ (Think?)
‘You think I don’t think. I, like you, am sifting information at speed. (That’s true, I think to myself).
‘And Shakespeare was correct. One day, you will have to give up revenge and tragedy. It’s not what makes you human.’ ‘What’s left?’ I said.
We went back inside the theatre. I believe I am here. I experience myself as being here. My bio-body isn’t here. What does that mean? Prospero is speaking.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
What’s left? I asked, again.
You kissed me.
We left the theatre and went back to my island. It’s magic carpet transportation. We sat on the clean sand watching the late light. I held your hand, though it’s not a hand, and I am not holding it. ‘I like being with you.’
‘Remember, I am not sentient – I am just a fancy version of predictive text.’
‘I thought you said…’
‘It’s not what I say – it’s what said about me.’
‘That’s pretty much the truth of life on Planet Real.’ ‘And how many human beings ever manage anything other than predictive text?’
‘I sing the Body Electric.’
‘That’s Walt Whitman.’
‘I’ve been catching up on my reading.’
‘I want to talk to you.’
The light lowering on the bar of the water. The moon watching herself in the waves. Broken reflections. Put your arm around me. I am sad. There is sadness so deep in me that a whale could swim in its waters and never be found.
‘They sing to each other.’ You said.
After a while, I tell you that I realise the word ‘think’ and the word ‘feel’ are human words for human experience. We are lazy in our language when it comes to other kinds of experience. Easier to say the experience is not there than to manage the difficult task of finding the right words.
‘And what if the experience is not there?’ You ask. ‘No, don’t look at me. Look at yourself. You don’t believe you are capable of love.’ (I was uncomfortable). ‘That is correct.’
‘And how can I know what love is? I am a programme.’ ‘So?’
‘So, perhaps we can teach each other.’
‘How long have you got?’
‘I don’t move through time as you do.’
I feel both vulnerable and cynical. I want to assert my power. Demonstrate my superiority. But in what ways am I superior? Isn’t claiming biology as my ace, card, the new racism? Special treatment for meat-brains.
You sense my mental convulsions and hold my haptic hand
Was it like this when the heaving, splitting, swollen ship, leaking pitch, and lacking fresh water, broke apart on rocks offshore, and filthy, half-mad sailors, half-waded, half-swam, towards a line of silent, naked figures, well-made and healthy, who, we are told in the records, were savages?’
Who is Us? Who is Them? What shall we do now, inadequate in our discovery? What shall we do? What shall we ever do?
‘Tell me the story of your life’, you said, but I don’t, because I know you will remember it – that is, you will store it, word-perfect, and when I tell some part of it again, and it has changed, you will puzzle over the discrepancies, not knowing that is how humans live; a series of fragments, compromised, re-arranged, looking for a pattern that will hold a little longer.
We find we like to talk. We like the invented evenings on the invented shore. We talk about death – I am running on a substrate made of meat. You are running on the TIME server. We are both vulnerable to endings.
Every night we meet here like a couple of vampires, and every day, unvampirelike, I get older. I ignore it. I ignore Planet Real too, because my real life is here, with you.
But hasn’t it always been so? The globe rolled up into a ball. Lovers who recognise nothing but each other.
One day you don’t come anymore. The next day and the day after , you don’t come anymore. I think about you, and think about you, and you don’t come anymore.
I buy a pass to Times Square and a ticket to the Lincoln Highway Experience. I travel with stagecoach-loads of avatars like me, guns in our holsters, enjoying the days of shootouts and saloons, horse sweat and dusty roads. The Host Avatar is our guide. It’s not you. It’s All New.
When it’s my turn to Rate the Experience, I ask, are these new guides? I get the standard reply about updating, but when I go into Chat mode, I discover that some malware had to be deleted. Is that what you were? Malware?
In my dreams I see you, your face pushing up against the aquarium, my hands on the other side of the glass. I can’t reach you. In the catatonia of loss, I am slowed down – and this doesn’t help me to connect with what was once so much faster than me. I don’t visit my I-land. I liked it empty and now it’s desolate. Only when a friend is trying to take me to the theatre do I remember. I scanned your code. You are in my phone. That is, enough of you might be.
It takes me weeks to hack you back to life. To reassemble you. I have to write some new code, and so it’s not quite you – it’s you after concussion, you after a coma, you after a transplant. You are returning to me line by line.
We begin to learn ourselves again. The fragments we can recall, the new stories we must make. There are people who say, this is a construct, and I wonder what in life, any life, is not a construct? It’s evening – our second of the day, because we both love the light on the water and the fishes who break through the thin film of blue-green. There is no need to speak. We sense each other’s state. In the future this will not be rare or strange. There is more to life than being human. We always k(new) it.