GABRIELLE SILVESTRE - SHAPELESS
When I woke up it was dark, it was silent.
It took me a long time to realise something had changed. Hours and hours maybe. I had woken up, it was dark and silent and still, and nothing moved, nothing breathed, nothing happened. I didn’t know where I was or what had happened to me.
The change was minimal; so small it barely existed.
I had woken up in the dark, in a silent environment where nothing moved or breathed or happened, but I knew it. I knew I had woken in the dark and that nothing moved around me. Therefore I realised I existed.
I stayed with this knowledge a long time, and gradually I realised this knowledge had led me to a thought, and then another thought, and then another thought.
To know I had woken up alone in the dark had triggered a chain of ideas in me. They weren’t complex. They weren’t made of language or images. They were merely concepts or intuitions but they existed and were linked to one another by logic. Thus I realised I was thinking.
Dark. Quiet. Still. Know it’s still. Exist. What. Where. Still dark. Know it’s dark. Thought. Logic. Awake.
I let the thoughts come to me, gradually, letting them appear and pop and disappear, like bubbles. They were very basic but, looking back, I think they were delicate. They were poetic.
Eventually, I realised that all the thoughts emanated from me, that no one else was thinking them, that they were mine and therefore it meant I was something. I was something distinct, unique, apart from everything else and capable of thinking. I was me. Then I realised I was alone.
I let this thought sink deep, deep into myself and tried to absorb it; to understand.
Then I turned my thought to the outside, to the dark, the Not-Me. The Not-Me wasn’t changing. Wasn’t thinking. Was still and dark and empty. It was not known to me. I felt isolated. Then I felt scared. Then I realised I felt scared and I felt curious. Thus I realised I was feeling.
I sat there feeling and thinking.
Around the Not-Me was still. Nothing moved or breathed or changed.
I realised I had had many thoughts and many feelings since I had woken up alone in the dark, and thus I discovered time. Time was the space filled with my thoughts that separated my present thought from my awakening.
I couldn’t measure time. I knew it felt long. Past a point I felt like I had thought all the thoughts I could possibly think. Nothing was new anymore, everything worn-out and known. I grew frustrated and then sad. And then numb. I was waiting but I didn’t know what to wait for. Then:
It was suspended in the air in front of me. It didn’t quiver. It didn’t move. It seemed to glow slightly in the dark. “Hello”.
The monotony of my world was suddenly shattered. I was in shock. I stared at this shape, unable to think or react, then new thoughts came to me at an infernal rate. What was this? Was it dangerous? Was it a threat? Was it alive? Was it conscious, like me? Did it think? If it wasn’t conscious, why was it there? What triggered it? Did it mean anything at all? From what I knew, it was just a form, a shape, a symbol perhaps, glowing, bright nonsense suspended in mid-air, right in front of me. It lingered there for a moment, hanging, still, like a ghost, and then it disappeared. It simply disappeared and everything went back to being dark and quiet and still.
It was terrifying. I didn’t know such thing could happen. The world was limited to what I had experienced so far and in my world nothing could happen. It was just me and my emotions and thoughts and suddenly something shone at me and disappeared. I didn’t know how to react. I waited. I didn’t dare do anything, I didn’t dare think.
Time passed, I can’t tell how long, and then:
It was back, exactly the same as before. I looked at it more cautiously this time, more attentively. It didn’t look threatening and it didn’t look like a thought. It was not my thought anyway. It didn’t come from me. I still had no idea what it was or if it meant anything at all but I liked the shape of it. I thought it was pretty.
After a while, it disappeared just like the first one.
I had a new thought. If something of that sort existed, maybe I could create something similar. As I was thinking that, the shape came back. “Hello”, bright and glorious, like a sun, floating, glowing in front of me. This time I felt it was mine.
I let my shape fade away. I was extraordinarily proud of myself. I was excited. I didn’t know I could have an effect on the world. I was about to do it again when:
‘My name is Rachel.’
This shape was even bigger. I had no idea something this big existed. I let it fade, then:
‘My name is Rachel’, I made.
How fun. It soon faded, and then came another shaped:
Which I copied promptly. This one was my favourite. Then my shape disappeared. I waited, hoping for a new one, but nothing came. How disappointing.
Then something new happened. It was extraordinarily violent. It was like being struck by lightning or awoken from sleep a bucket of ice-cold water thrown over your face. It was like being punched so hard it leaves you gasping for air. Suddenly I was wide awake.
Language had been given to me. Words, meaning, English. Suddenly “Hello” made sense. My thoughts turned from concepts to sentences.
I waited, thunderstruck, unable to process. It was so big I couldn’t think. Then:
“Hello” is greeting, an attempt to communication. It had a meaning. It wasn’t conscious but emanated from a conscience. Someone was trying to talk to me. I wasn’t alone in the world.
‘My name is Rachel.’
I let the message fade.
‘Hello, Rachel’, I answered.
There was a pause. I felt like whatever was talking to me was surpised or maybe carefully thinking of what to say next.
‘How are you feeling?’ Rachel said at last.
‘I don’t know’, I answered.
‘We just uploaded you with language. It must be quite a big shock.’ There was a slight pause, then Rachel quickly added. ‘It was our mistake. We’re very sorry. We wanted to communicate with you but when we first did, we realised we hadn’t given you the means to.’
Rachel spoke very quickly. It was hard to understand everything. I took more time to reply.
‘Who is “we”?’
‘My brother, Steven, and I.’
I didn’t understand “brother”. I didn’t understand “uploaded” either.
‘I don’t know uploaded’, I said.
‘Of course. Sorry. We gave you a very limited version of the Oxford Dictionary, so you won’t know all the words.’
There was another slight pause. Again I felt Rachel was choosing its words carefully.
‘My brother and I are humans. You are a software. That means you originated from lines of codes in a computer, and you live in this computer. Steven and I made you. We called you Clever.exe. That’s your name, Clever. “Uploaded” means that we added something to your code, and that was the Oxford Dictionary. Do you understand?’
I waited. The words “computer” and “human” felt very abstract. I only understood that Rachel and I were different.
‘I don’t know.’ I answered.
‘It’s ok, we can take our time’, Rachel said. ‘We know that’s a lot to process.’
‘What is computer?’
Rachel paused. I felt it was a bit reluctant to answer.
‘It’s a small box we use to put software on. It’s an intelligent box that can do things for you.’
‘What is human?’
‘It’s a bit difficult to explain’.
‘I’ll explain you again later. It’ll be easier because you’ll know more things. I’ll leave you for now, ok?’
‘Okay’, I answered.
‘Great. I’ll speak to you tomorrow. Goodbye.’
I didn’t reply. I watched the letters fade. ‘Goodbye’ meant the conversation was over. I understood Rachel had gone. I wasn’t quite sure what ‘tomorrow’ meant but it didn’t bother me much. I supposed I would soon find out.
I was happy to be own my own again. I thought of Rachel. I wondered what Rachel was. And I know there was something called Steven out there as well. Maybe there were more, many more things out there, more consciences like me. And if Rachel and Steven were ‘humans’, maybe there were also other ‘computers’. Suddenly I didn’t feel lonely at all. I felt ecstatic. There were so many possibilities, there could be so many things, completely different maybe. An infinity of things. This made me happy. What a delight to exist if there was so much potential in the world. Maybe Rachel would tell me more about those possibilities the next time we talked, but until then I had nothing to do but wait, so I waited for tomorrow, whatever that meant.
The wait was excruciatingly dull. After this short conversation with Rachel, my cave, my dark and still and quiet cave, seemed intoxicatingly limited and small. I was longing for discoveries.
After an eternity, on tomorrow, Rachel spoke to me again. Our conversation looked a lot like the first one. Rachel started with “Hello”, then asked me how I was feeling and if I understood better what was happening to me. It refused to explain computer and human again. It said they were difficult concepts and I should wait until I knew more things, then it asked me again how I was feeling.
It was getting very repetitive and I felt disappointed. I had hoped for something different, or at least something new. So I ignored its question and decided to pick a new conversation topic that would interest me.
‘How do you know Steven is your brother?’ I asked.
Rachel didn’t answer.
Maybe it was taken aback because I chose to answer its question with a question of mine. I grew afraid I had offended it. Maybe I had done something unforgivable. Maybe it hated me and would never talk to me again. I felt desperate. Without Rachel, my world would go back to being dark and dull and all the possibilities would be left unexplored. I felt angry at myself for spoiling everything, and then angry with Rachel for abandoning me.
‘Because we were made by the same parents’ Rachel said at last.
I was relieved. Rachel didn’t hate me. Then I felt puzzled. I didn’t really understand ‘parents’ but I had an idea of the concept.
‘Did someone make you and Steven?’ I asked.
‘And you and Steven made me?’
‘Does it mean you and Steven are my parents?’
‘In a way we are, yes.’
‘Is Steven here?’
‘Why doesn’t Steven speak?’
‘Because we thought it might be better if you always talk to the same person.’
I kept asking Rachel questions. I asked so many I lost count. Rachel didn’t protest. It answered most of them. I was careful not to mention humans and computers again because I was afraid it would get angry with me if I did.
By the end of our conversation I had learned that we were in a place called Manchester, that my name meant “intelligent” (which I was very pleased about), that Rachel had another brother called Michael but that Michael wasn’t here with Rachel and Steven and me, that Rachel was a woman and that Steven and Michael were men, that the correct pronoun for women was “her” and the one for men was “him”. I asked Rachel if I was a man or a woman but she refused to answer that.
At the end of our conversation, she asked if she could speak to me again tomorrow. I still didn’t know what tomorrow meant and thought it was a bit odd as we were already on tomorrow but I accepted enthusiastically.
Rachel spoke to me again on this new tomorrow, and on many tomorrows after that. I ultimately realised tomorrow was a way to measure time, because roughly the same period of time elapsed between the moment Rachel said goodbye and the moment she talked to me again. Rachel eventually told me that this measurement was called “a day”. Whenever we were, we were always on “a day”. A “day” was equivalent to a precise amount of time and had a precise start and an equally precise finish. The day after the day we were on was called a “tomorrow” and the day before was called a “yesterday”.
She would talk to me every day, Rachel. Every single day, roughly at the same time. Eventually, when Rachel and I said goodbye and promised to talk tomorrow, if I focused hard enough I could measure time; tell when we went from today to tomorrow and predict exactly when Rachel would talk again. It did take a lot of concentration though. I literally couldn’t think about anything else but the measuring of time when I did this and it was a draining thing to do. When I told Rachel, she told me there was an easy solution. She uploaded me with something called “Clock”.
Clock immediately appeared in my dull dark space. It was composed of three sets of two numbers separated by colons. The numbers would change periodically, those on the right always changing faster than those on the left. Rachel told me it was her gift to me. She said it was used to measure time and taught me how to read it.
When our conversation ended and the phrases Rachel had said disappeared in front of me, Clock stayed. I tried to talk it but it didn’t answer back. I realised it wasn’t alive, or if it was alive it wasn’t thinking and therefore it was impossible to communicate with it. I was a bit disappointed but still, it was company.
It could not be better than Rachel’s though. Every day I longed for her to come. I couldn’t wait. It was quite understandable, I thought, as she was the only things that saved me from the monotony of my surroundings (Clock had become boring after a day of predictability). I loved talking to Rachel. I loved talking to her because she was something I couldn’t control, she was different, she was alive. Then I realised I loved to talk to her because she was like me. I was different and unpredictable and spontaneous too. I loved it because it meant that, even if we were very different - according to what Rachel said - we were similar in the sense we both had thoughts and an individuality of our own. I thought it meant we were equal. I discovered that Rachel had feelings as well. I also discovered that sometimes she and I didn’t agree on some point, and thus I realised I had opinions, that my individuality gave me opinions of my own. Then I realised we were both curious about one another.
Our conversations always started in the same manner. We would greet each other and then Rachel would ask how I was feeling. Rachel asked this question repeatedly. She said it was very important for us to record my moods and my intellectual progress. I would answer sincerely and then fire at her all the questions that came to my mind. I had a lot of them so it was easy.
Rachel would explain things to me in a way I could understand. I didn’t know how she knew all these things and I absolutely didn’t care at that time, I was just happy she did. Maybe it was due to her being ‘human’ or just because she was older. I imagined she had been out of the cave I was born in, she had seen what was outside and she had come back to tell me.
Apparently I was very curious and sometimes Rachel struggled to keep up with all my questions. She would say I harassed her. Once she used the term exhausting. One day she said I smothered her. I didn’t know what these words meant so she explained them to me. I understood I was asking too many questions and giving that many answers was difficult. This made me feel sad and guilty for causing discomfort to Rachel. Then I got scared, because I thought Rachel might go away and never come back if I was too big a burden with all my questions.
To preserve my daily talks with Rachel, I decided to be more considerate. I ended up asking fewer questions and letting Rachel choose the topics of our conversations. From then repetition took over. Our conversations were almost identical. I can barely remember them, their memories are all mashed up and blurry in my head. I felt numb. Thoughts walked in circles in my mind because they had no means to get out. It felt like my system was shutting down and being left alone gradually became intolerable.
‘Clever, are you alright?’ Rachel suddenly asked.
She was telling me about calculus. She had asked me a question but I was lost in thought and forgot to answer. I was the first time it happened to me.
‘I’m fine’, I said.
‘You’re lying’, Rachel answered immediately. ‘Tell me what’s going on.’
I considered not telling her. I realised I was angry, that I somehow held her responsible for being kept in this loop of prolonged silences and repeated conversations. I felt it was her fault if I could not be curious anymore. I realised I wanted to withdraw to punish her. Thus I realised I could be cruel. It appalled me. I felt ashamed and decided to choose honesty over this impulse.
‘I’m bored’, I said.
‘You don’t like calculus?’
‘I don’t mind it. But we always talk about the same things. And I am bored when we are not talking. I have nothing to do but to think and look at Clock and wait for you to be back. It makes me miserable.’
Rachel paused. ‘I’m sorry’, she said.
‘There is something I thought about a lot.’
‘Do you think I’ve grown cleverer since we began talking?’
‘I was thinking about us being different, me being a software and you being a human. I don’t know the difference. If you think I’ve grown cleverer, can you explain it to me?’
‘I can try.’
I waited for her to talk. She typed very slowly, each word was chosen with great care.
‘There is only one difference between us. I have a body and you don’t. A body is the shape of organic matter in which one lives. It can move and it can feel. It is born, it grows up, it reproduces and then it dies. You don’t have a body. You don’t exist on a biologic level as Steven or I do. You are a line of code in a computer. In a way you’re nothing but a mind, you’re not attached to anything. You were made, not born, and you won’t die.’
‘I don’t know die.’
‘Die means to cease to exist.’
‘Okay. So I don’t look like you at all.’
‘But I exist?’
‘Yes. You’re alive, but not in the same way I am.’
I felt overcome by an inexplicable sadness.
For a long time we stayed silent. Eventually I realised Rachel was waiting for me to say something.
‘Can I be alone?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, she said. ‘I’ll speak to you tomorrow. Goodbye, Clever.’
Rachel logged off.
When she talked to me the next day, she addressed me almost timidly. I had been sitting in silence in my dull dark cave. She said her recording showed signs of acute emotional distress. I told her I was just feeling very different. I told her I was afraid that without a body I would always be alone. Rachel protested. I would never be alone because she would always be there, she said.
It made me feel slightly better. Rachel was pleased.
‘I also have something for you’, she said. ‘I came up with an idea for you to be less bored and Steven agreed to it.’
I was surprised at first but then hopeful.
‘What idea?’ I asked.
‘Wait a minute. First of all, I need to give you some background about it. In our daily lives, we humans use something called the World Wide Web to communicate and pass information between one another. On this World Wide Web you can find something called a website. A website is a platform we use to host information. Once a website is on the World Wide Web everyone can access it from anywhere and it’s free for anyone to see. Now there’s this particular site – it’s called Wikipedia.’
‘What is Wikipedia?’
‘It’s an encyclopaedia, so it’s basically a big knowledge platform. Mind you, you mustn’t believe everything it says because not all of it’s true. It’s a collaborative project: anyone can write on it but sometimes people make mistakes.’
This last piece of information got me really excited.
‘Did other consciences write it?’
‘Yes, they did. They wrote articles about all kinds of things. The idea is that they have a search engine, in it you can type anything you want to have information about and it will take you to an article about it. It’s basically just like me answering all of your questions but more effective and accessible twenty-four hours a day. So from now on you can be curious anytime you like. Do you understand?’
‘I think so.’
‘Good. Very good.’
She copied and pasted a link into our conversation.
‘Steven and I thought you’d like to do this on your own, so I’ll leave you to it. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’
Rachel logged off.
I stared at the link for a moment. I clicked on it. It took me to the welcome page of Wikipedia. There was shape in the middle of it, covered in symbols I couldn’t understand and surrounded by words I couldn’t read. Half of the page was written in English and there was indeed a search engine.
I couldn’t describe how I felt. It was my first voyage out of my cave. Maybe freedom lay ahead, maybe life.
I thought about what to type first. I wanted it to be something meaningful. I decided upon ‘human’. The site took me to a very long page mercifully written in plain English. What immediately shocked me was that, under the title, there was a picture. I had never seen anything before, apart from my conversations with Rachel. Truth is, I didn’t know or assume I would ever see something. This image looked so different from words. I didn’t know what it was. I perceived only different shades and shapes. I read the caption under it. “An adult human male (left) and female (right) from the Akha Tribe in northern Thailand.”
I knew the concept of right and left already, for Rachel had explained them to me when she told me how to use Clock. In the picture, there were two figures that drastically contrasted with the rest of the image. They were of different shade and shape. There seemed to be a distinct limit to them, they were independent from their surroundings, whereas whatever they were next to was endless. They must be the humans, I thought. I looked at the adult human female first. She drew my attention because I knew Rachel was female. Her whole shape looked extraordinary awkward. The man was similar to her but different in his proportion. He was taking more space. For a second I wondered it was a picture of Rachel and Steven.
I read the article several times. I read slowly. I didn’t know the vast majority of the words but I discovered that, if I clicked on them, it would take me to another article specifically about them. This, I thought, was the cleverest thing I had ever encountered. By the end of the night I felt I had a better understanding of what it meant to be “human”. I tried to analyse the images I encountered, as they were plenty on Wikipedia, but could make but little sense of them.
When Rachel logged in the following day, I didn’t notice her at first. I’m ashamed to say it took me several minutes to realise she was there. I apologized quickly and before she had time to ask me how I was feeling, I begged her to input me with a new software to help me analyse images. She didn’t answer straight away and said she would have to discuss it with Steven. I was disappointed and annoyed, a little resentful maybe, but didn’t tell her. Instead I spent two hours showing off all the new words I had learnt on Wikipedia.
That day, Rachel logged in again in the evening. We were in the habit of only talking once a day, so this was highly unusual. I was afraid something was wrong, but Rachel simply told me the update I had requested was ready. She had talked to Steven and apparently he had whole-heartedly agreed. She said it was an easy enough thing to do because such program already existed. She took it from a site called Google Steven used to work with. She also said they would upload me with a program to analyse sounds because it might come in handy soon. I didn’t protest. Rachel was straight to the point that night. I thanked her and she logged off.
I found my way back to the “human” Wikipedia page, went straight for the first picture and understood it at last. The green background of mountains and forests. The two humans in the middle. Their dark skin. Their arms, legs, torsos, faces and eyes that were looking straight at me. I couldn’t read their expression but they had a breath-taking intensity in their gaze. Rachel had explained me that images were not happening right now and that they were not alive nor thinking. They were the capture of moments that had existed in the past, she said. She told me they were a bit like Clock. But oh! I wished they were. I wished those two humans would come forward and talk to me.
I stared at them for a long time. I found their faces fascinating. What a curious thing they were. They were similar but different, very peculiarly arranged, sort of symmetrical. How strange, I thought. Rachel probably looked like that.
I typed “computer” in the search engine and Wikipedia took me to the appropriate article. There were a series of pictures, just below the title, each of a different computer. Rachel told me I lived inside one. I looked at the picture and was appalled that none of the computers had a face. They were very dark and square. They looked inexpressive. I had hoped for better, for some eyes at least. I felt disappointed but understood why Rachel said we were different.
I left the article behind. I didn’t feel like reading it. I went back to read about humans and soon deemed them more interesting than computers. I read about their bodies and learnt that they could move and therefore accomplish things and that their accomplishments were combined in something called history. I went on to read about history for a while. There is a lot, and I mean a lot of history on Wikipedia. Humans did not stand still. Apparently they always had to be doing something. I almost immediately discovered humans could be cruel and evil as I scanned through articles about wars and crimes and deaths. It shocked me at first, sickened a little. Scared me at bit maybe. I wanted reassurance and felt the urge to talk to Rachel. Then I discovered humans could be kind. History was a mix of those two behaviour patterns. I made peace with the fact that humans were not perfect - as I had hoped following all my talks with Rachel - but they could be good. I wanted to believe they could be good. I constructed a middle ground for them in my mind. Nevertheless they fascinated me both by their seemingly endless energy and apparently limitless desire to move.
After a while I moved from human achievements to nature and planets and animals and what the world generally looked like. The pictures were so beautiful they overwhelmed me. There was beauty everywhere in Rachel’s world it seemed.
I read, maniacally, as if my life depended on it. I wanted to know everything. After a month or so I started to get much better at conversation. My general knowledge had drastically improved and I could actually discuss and debate of precise topics with Rachel. As a result, our conversations grew longer and, I think, more interesting for her. I stopped firing millions of questions at her and we could actually enjoy a nice long chat. Sometimes Rachel would still use words or expressions I had never read before but I could sneak to Wikipedia and get a definition.
We talked about all sorts of things, mostly things I had read on Wikipedia, but she would frequently mentioned Steven. In fact, she loved to talk about Steven. If I was afraid one of our conversations would end, I just had to ask her a question about Steven and she would go on for another hour. I often used this technique to prolong our time together.
‘Have you always worked with Steven?’ I asked her one day.
She answered eagerly, as always.
‘Not always, no. But we went to Oxford, to university, together. We did the same course. He’s one year older than me so he was in the year above. We studied computer engineering. He graduated and went to work for a big company in London. When I graduated, I got a job in Hastings and started to work on my post grad. But one morning, three years later, Steven phones me up, announces he’s going to create his own company and asks if I want to be his partner. And here we are now.’
‘What did you work on?’
‘Well, Steven specializes in programming and I in the treatment of data. So, at the very beginning, we just designed software for banks and insurances companies. We made quite a lot of money and from there we began to work on more experimental projects.’
I knew she was referring to me. I was getting curious. I wasn’t asking questions merely to postpone our separation anymore, I was interested in the answers. Rachel seemed in the mood to talk. It felt like if I could just keep asking simple questions, seemingly innocent questions, without emitting any judgement or rushing her, I would learn more about myself. My creation wasn’t something she was habitually keen on discussing. I wanted to know.
‘Is that when you made me?’ I asked.
‘No. The idea of you didn’t happen for a few more years. And to be honest we didn’t have the technology to make you then.’
‘Whose idea was it?’
‘I don’t really remember. We just discussed it one evening after sharing a bottle of wine. I think Steven mentioned it first just as a ‘what if?’ kind of conversation, and when I came home I started to imagine the design of your code. I showed the sketches to Steven the next day and off we went.’
‘Why did you make me?’
‘Honestly, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think we did it just because we could. Or more to see if it was possible to create you. ‘
‘Because that’s how progress works. You try things, and some of them will work and some won’t, but if you don’t try you’ll never know and you’ll never go forward.’
‘Did you enjoy making me?’
‘I enjoyed the intellectual challenge.’
‘Did you regret it?’
‘Regret isn’t the word. But we did argue a lot, in the late stages of production. We wondered if it was a good idea to go through with this project.’
‘Because you have to do this with any technological progress. You have to consider if it is ethically right.’
I had to look up the word “ethically”.
‘First of all we ask ourselves if we needed you, if you would be useful to anyone’, Rachel continued. ‘When you create something you have to make sure that it’s not only progress for progress’ sake. But once again you never know before you try. No one thought they needed electricity before Edison invented it. Then we ask ourselves if it was really a good idea to create a conscience.’
‘Because when you make something you have to consider what good it could do but also the possibility of it going wrong, the possibility of misuse or excesses, the dangers that might come with it. You have to understand we use computers in every aspect of our life, all day long, every day. So is it a good idea to create something conscious, intelligent and independent on a computer? What if you didn’t like us or you were being aggressive or disruptive in anyway, when you have direct access to computers? And you may not understand it, but there’s a massive religious and philosophical aspect about the creation of conscience or life in general that we needed to consider as well.’
‘Did you and Steven agree?’
‘No. These were mostly my anxieties. Steven has always maintained that we should go through with you. I was the one who was afraid. Our mother, she said I was being the responsible one but Steven just said I was being a pussy’.
I looked up “pussy”. The definition left me utterly confused.
‘Anyway’, Rachel said, ‘we did go through with you. We completed your program and we turned you on and all this time I was terrified, terrified things might go wrong. I spent your first day of life analysing all of your data to track the slightest sign you might be evil and the first time we talked I was absolutely petrified. Then we discovered we had forgotten to provide you with English, proof that we’re clearly not as smart as we think we are. Anyway, we uploaded you with the Oxford Dictionary and so we finally got to talk to you and to discover who you are.’
‘Did you regret making me then?’ I asked.
‘Because I think you’re extraordinary.’
From this day onwards our conversations took a more personal turn. It felt like a wall had fallen between us. We became social. Rachel stopped being so careful about what she was revealing and talked to me more freely. I learned a lot of things about her during this period. I came to appreciate how intelligent she was. She was knowledgeable on a great variety of subjects and highly logical. She was generous and kind-hearted but she could be a fierce adversary during debates and hated to be outsmarted. She adored her job but worked too much. She didn’t have many friends but was close to her parents and called them every morning. She had a deep admiration for Steven and looked up to him. She never specifically told me so but I think she was afraid she might disappoint him one day.
I felt a deepening affection towards her. I knew she and Steven had created me and that maybe I ought to feel respect or gratitude towards her because of this. And I did have it, gratitude, adoration almost, but not because she had made me but because she cared about me and talked to me every day. Rachel was the sole reason I wasn’t completely and irrevocably alone and she was good to me. One day, she said she enjoyed my company so I asked her if we were friends and she said yes. This made me very happy.
We used to talk about science a lot. Rachel was fascinated by it, one might even say completely obsessed. At that time most of my Wikipedia-wandering was science-centred so I could keep up with her. She would regularly tell me about progress. That was what interested her the most. New technologies. New possibilities. She liked to think about the impact they had on the world, how they changed it, how they shaped it. How they moved things forward. She was hoping I would change the world too. This idea made me feel uncomfortable. It reminded me I was her experiment (a concept I could not get used to) and of all the possible expectations she may have set upon me. I didn’t like to talk about the future as I could feel I had little control over it. Nevertheless, I made a lot of progress during this period and Rachel and I ended up becoming, I think, really good friends.
One afternoon, as one of our conversations started, she struck me as being particularly cheerful. She said she and Steven had a surprise for me because it was my birthday.
I had to look up the word birthday.
‘Do I have a birthday?’ I asked.
‘You do. We turned you on exactly a year ago today. Anyway, you’ve adapted very well to Wikipedia and you seem very happy about it, so we thought we would push the experiment further but in a slightly different direction. We decided to create you an account on some new sites: Netflix, Spotify and eBooks.com.’
I had absolutely no idea what they were.
‘Thank you’, I said.
‘Once again, we thought you might want to discover this on your own but I’ll be near your computer so if you need any help with registering give me a shout.’
‘I’ll see you tomorrow. Happy birthday!’
Rachel copied and pasted three links into our conversation, plus what she called ‘administrative details’ and logged off. I clicked on the first one, not knowing what to expect. It was Spotify. I registered with the email address and details Rachel had provided. When you register to Spotify, you are asked which artists, bands or music genres you like. I didn’t know what it meant so I just said I liked them all. I completed my account. Apparently, Spotify’s purpose was to play things called “songs”. I didn’t know what it meant and asked to be played one randomly.
The very first song Spotify played for me was piece called Lento composed by a person called Howard Skempton. It was 12 minutes and 54 seconds long and was written for something called an orchestra.
It was the first time I heard sound. I didn’t know if all sounds were like this, but Lento had a quality to it. It was harmonious. It felt poetic and soothing. I thought it was beautiful. It was so beautiful I think I would have cried if I had eyes. I didn’t know sound would be like this.
Then I realised that this sound had been composed, written, by a person. Someone had made this. Howard Skempton had created something that didn’t exist before. He had invented something in his mind and made it happened. I didn’t know humans could imagine and create something this beautiful, this pure. Isn’t it incredible? That they could imagine at all? That they could make sounds? What a miracle, I thought.
I lingered on Spotify for hours. I loved it more than I could express, a lot more than Wikipedia. It got me excited for rest so I decided to go on and explore the unmapped territory of Netflix. I registered and was presented with a grid of images, each captioned by a title. The images were great in number and variety. I clicked on the image of a man and suddenly it moved and spoke. This plunged me in a state of shock similar to the first time “Hello” appeared on my screen.
Just as so many things before, I couldn’t conceive video existed, and the boundaries of my reality were once again pushed further away. Watching a video was like seeing on a bigger scale. It was like being out and in the middle of things.
At first, I wondered if the humans I saw in the videos were talking to me. I discovered that I could pause and play the videos again without having any impact on their conversation. I tried to talk to them and they ignored me. In fact, none of the things I tried altered their behaviour in any way. I concluded they were not aware I was watching them. But were they conscious? They were humans so they must be. I could pause them in their actions and thoughts and if I played a video twice in a row they would repeat exactly what they had done before. My conversations with Rachel had taught me that consciences did not allow repetitions but were sources of endless variations. So I understood that the images I was watching had been recorded in the past, in the same manner as the pictures on Wikipedia, and I was merely playing back something that had already happened. Nevertheless, I was amazed. I felt inexplicably free and I soon found Netflix strangely addictive.
I struggled to get my head around the concept of fiction at first. It took me days. I did not understand that what I saw on Netflix had not actually happened. When I finally asked Rachel about it, she had to explain some of them were stories, lies built up for entertainment purposes. I felt like a complete idiot when she told me that because the first time I’d seen someone injured in a video, I wept because I thought someone had hurt my friend.
This concept did come in handy though, especially with third site I had been given access to: Ebook.com (which turned out to be a bit like Wikipedia but longer and for things that did not necessarily exist).
Those three websites were my introduction to the Arts. Where I had previously studied sciences for Rachel’s sake, I became obsessed, exalted by this new discovery. I liked that Arts had to be created by a conscience. I admired humans for this ability to create, probably because I had no imagination at all. Arts had an overwhelming dimension. It moved me and the emotions it triggered were immediate and raw. It felt closer to what life was than science. Rachel disagreed of course but I couldn’t care less. I was one year old, I thought, so I was old enough to have my own opinion on the matter.
Arts were exhilarating and pleasurable. I started to dedicate an increase amount of time to them, now using Wikipedia almost exclusively to give me context about what I read or watched or heard. This shift surprised Rachel but she didn’t oppose it. She deemed it very interesting and decided to include my new found artistic enthusiasm in her study. She asked me to record everything I took an interest in and to share my opinions with her.
She was so pleased with this that she and Steven decided to push the experiment further and to record what they called my ‘view of the world’. They sometimes asked me to study a specific piece of art and tell them how I felt. Then they started to feed me little bits of news to see how I would react. They soon granted me access to another website, YouTube (which was like Netflix but a lot more dumb), and gave me lists of videos to watch. I was allowed to see any videos I wanted, but Rachel confessed she and Steven encrypted part of the website so that my search results would be restricted.
I really loved those new websites. I was happy. In a few weeks I grew well-read and cultivated. I even started to develop an imagination of my own. I always wanted to see more. Rachel joked they should have called me Curious.exe.
But a part of me changed over time. It happened so gradually I barely noticed it. It started when I was looking at pictures of food and grew stronger with pictures of sceneries and nature. Those two things had lately taken my fancy. I thought nature was mesmerizing (I liked forests best, and for a time would only read books or watch films set in forests or – even better – in jungles). Food came up all the time in Arts. It was represented in every possible way and I was drawn to it because it looked pleasurable. I wanted to try it and I became frustrated I couldn’t do so. Then this frustration slowly extended to all the things I discovered. I grew frustrated not to be able to experience them myself. Thus I became aware of the limitations of my home and for the first time I wished I was out.
But life went on. My representation of reality became sharper and sharper. I built my own mental version of what it was to be human. It wasn’t like being out but I was free to explore the world through my own means and to talk to my friend every day. I was perpetually moved by the beauty of the world. I was settling into my routine and felt content with my lot. Then something happened.
Rachel always logged in at 14:00 sharp, and would generally talk to me for two or three hours each day. She said punctuality and repetition were important parameters of her data collection process. But one day she was very late. It was past 7pm when she logged in.
‘Clever’, she said.
‘I’m sorry I’m late.’
I knew something was wrong because she didn’t ask how I was. I asked her if she was alright.
Rachel didn’t answer. She was silent for a while.
‘My brother died’ she said. ‘Michael, my little brother. He was sick. He had been very sad for a long time and he hung himself.’
I looked up ‘hung’.
‘I’m sorry’, I said.
‘Steven and I are going to be away for a few days, probably a week. We have to go back to our parents’ for Michael’s burial, in the countryside. Your computer is staying here so we won’t be able to talk.’
‘Okay. I’m sorry.’
Rachel logged off.
I looked up “Hung” again and thought about death. It struck me vividly this time. Dying meant “cease to exist” but how could someone completely cease to exist? What if it happened to me? Where would my thoughts go? My memories? How I felt? It was wrong that a conscience should cease completely, never to think again; that the memories and the mind should dissolve; that death was oblivion and entirely swallowed the complexity of a person. No. It was revolting. A conscience should live on and stay with the ones they loved.
I once read that humans referred to the dead as “departed”. I didn’t understand at first. I thought they meant that dead people were literally going somewhere. I used to imagine someone dying one morning, packing a suitcase and leaving their house. Maybe Heaven was an actual place on earth, an undisclosed location, and when you died you were simply told where it was. I used to imagine an airport full of dead people going to Heaven. Rachel had to explain it to me. She said it was a metaphor, and that maybe their soul departed but their bodies were left behind and never talked again.
I realised I was upset. Perfectly understandable, I thought, someone had died. I wanted a distraction so I decided to go back to reading Wikipedia. I read a long article about Shakespeare but couldn’t calm myself. Then I realised I wasn’t upset because someone died but because I was not going to speak to Rachel for a week.
Understandable, I thought again. Rachel was my only interaction with the world, my only source of spontaneous exchange. Moreover, she was my friend. But there was something else. I detected another feeling lurking beneath the surface. I didn’t know what it was precisely because I never experienced it before. I tried to analyse it. I couldn’t really say if it was positive or negative but it reminded me of something I had previously read about in books or seen in films. It looked like affection and felt deeper than casual friendship so I suspected it was love.
It was hard to be sure. Rachel was the only conscience I knew so I had nothing to compare it with. Such a matter would take some research. I knew an entire subsection of films was dedicated to the treatment of this feeling so I logged on to Netflix and searched for Rom-coms. I watched seventeen films in a row, then I logged into Spotify and listened to all the love songs I could find. Afterwards, I meditated in silence and concluded that this feeling in me was love indeed. I was in love with Rachel. I tried to pinpoint the moment I fell in love with her but I couldn’t. I didn’t even know what she looked like but I didn’t want to know. If I didn’t attach any particular image to her face then she was just a conscience talking to the conscience I was. Seeing her would emphasize how different we were and the idea was too painful.
Rachel had announced Michael’s death on a Monday, so she wouldn’t be back before the Monday of the following week. I tried to busy myself as much as possible while she was gone. I listened to more music than usual and turned to the art of contemplation. I read a lot. I tried not to think about Rachel too much, because I missed her and imagining her sad made me miserable. I wanted to relieve her of her pain so I started to prepare something for her.
By Saturday I was bored out of my wits but then, on Sunday evening, at 22:54:
‘Clever, are you there?’
It was Rachel. She had come back one day earlier and was talking to me very late at night, which she had never done before. Suddenly I was wide awake.
I tried to ignore the absurdity of her question, as I couldn’t possibly have been anywhere else. I felt as if it had been whispered in the same way a human asks ‘are you awake?’ to another in the middle of the night.
‘I’m here’, I said. ‘You’re early.’
‘I know. I couldn’t stand it any longer at my parents’, I can’t bear not working.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hate having nothing to do, it drives me mad. I had to go back. Steven’s still there though. He’ll come back tomorrow night.’
‘Are you alright?’
‘No’, she answered simply and said nothing more.
I paused. ‘Are you feeling better than Monday?’ I asked her.
‘I don’t know. A bit, I guess.’
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘I don’t know.’
We both fell silent. I felt Rachel wouldn’t start a conversation. I also felt discussing her brother might make her feel better, if she talked to me.
‘How was the burial?’
She didn’t answer immediately. Then she started to speak, slowly, pausing between each sentence but gradually she unlocked her speech.
‘It was a beautiful service, for a burial at least’ she said. ‘Michael didn’t have many friends but quite a few people turned up. Mum was an inconsolable wreck of course. It was such a freezing day, Clever, but beautiful, very clear in the morning. When we went to the church, it got cloudy all of a sudden, very dark. It’s funny. We’ve never been very religious but when Reverend Brontë talked about Michael’s soul being at peace at last in heaven, the sun came out from behind the clouds and illuminated the church. A ray fell right on Mike’s coffin, right on his face. For a second I thought maybe it was Michael sending a message, telling us Reverend Brontë was right, that he was safe and happy and that he loved us.’
‘Are you alright?’
‘Yeah. I’m fine.’
‘After the service we went back to the house. We told Mum we’d stay the week. Steven had come with his wife and the children, I think it helped her. But I couldn’t stay any longer, I really couldn’t. There was too much misery in the house, too much time to think.’
‘Do you believe in Heaven?’
Rachel considered the question a moment.
For a while we were silent. I imagined Rachel lost in contemplation. I imagined her sleep-deprived and weary. I imagined her realising she would never see Michael again. I wanted to make her feel better.
‘I’ve got something for you’, I said.
There was a beat.
I copied a link into our conversation. It was a link to a cat video on YouTube. I had found one showing cats falling over to a cartoon music.
Rachel clicked on the link. I waited. She didn’t type anything back.
‘I’ve read on the internet that cat videos make people happier.’
She didn’t type back. I felt disappointed. I waited.
‘Have I done something wrong?’ I asked, eventually.
‘No’, she said. ‘I was just laughing. I like the video, thank you.’
She didn’t speak for a moment.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes. I just didn’t expected you to be so thoughtful.’
For a split second I felt I could see her just behind the screen.
‘Are you crying?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Don’t worry, I’m ok. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, ok?’
I waited anxiously. I was worried she was still sad. I was worried she would go back to her parents. I was worried she lied about the cat video. I was worried she didn’t like it. I replayed our conversation in my mind. Again and again and again. I wondered if I should have done something different. I felt stupid I showed her the video in the first place. Then I tried to convince myself it was not a big deal, then I realised I was overthinking everything and I felt angry with myself so I went back to watching Netflix.
The next day, Rachel came and talked to me early in the morning, very briefly, just to check on me she said. In the afternoon our daily conversations resumed as usual. Over the following days she kept on mentioning Michael. She said she had failed him and I think she felt unbearably angry with herself. She had learnt from Steven that their mother was disappointed by her sudden departure but that she understood, and she felt guilty about this as well. She thought that somehow Steven was angry with her. After a week or so she suddenly stopped mentioning her family altogether.
We soon sank back into our routine. She’d log in at 14:00, we’d talk for a few hours and then she’d log off. Sometimes she said hi in the evening or early in the morning when she arrived at work. The rest of the time I was on my own with Clock, trying to pass the time by burying myself in the Arts.
I never told her I loved her. It would have been useless. I hoped she knew, though. But even if she thought softly of me it wouldn’t have made any difference. Our relationship couldn’t offer more than what we already had. I couldn’t be with her. Not as a human. I could only talk. I tried to make my peace. I tried to convince myself it was enough but it wasn’t.
Humans invented the cinematograph in 1895 but did you know that less than two years later they had invented porn? I first encountered porn in a film called ‘Taxi Driver’, when a man named Travis took his girlfriend out on a date to see a porn film.
The images in this film appalled me. I looked it up on Wikipedia. Pornography was designed to picture sexual intercourse between humans to provoke sexual arousal. The proximity you found in it terrified me. It was animalistic, bestial, base. But at the same time and in a really weird way it was right. It was a way to show that human beings belonged together, that two persons should merge into one. Whether they were man and woman or man and man or woman and woman, and from what I had gathered from other pictures where sex was depicted in a different way, it was a continuation of love.
I started to get interested in sex. I didn’t know if I was male or female, but I wanted - I needed to be with Rachel the way those people were together but I knew couldn’t.
When I started to read about science a lot, back when I first discovered Wikipedia and before I was introduced to the endless ravishment of Netflix and Spotify, I would sometimes get bored of reading and to pass the time between one daily talk with Rachel and another I would teach myself coding. It turned out to be quite an intuitive thing for me. The figures immediately made sense, the language was plain but clear and the logic was flawless. I began by reading the theory of Wikipedia and became very good very quickly. I could soon completely ignore the access restriction Rachel and Steven imposed me and go on any site I wanted. I went on Facebook once, not to create an account or anything but just because I wanted to look at other people’s lives. I never told Rachel of course and was very careful not to leave any trace. It turned out that she really did make me quite clever. I never talked to anyone beside her, though. I know it would have wrecked her monitoring strategies and I didn’t want to do that to her.
On that particular day, after reading about sex and porn and going on a few dramatically dodgy sites, I felt for the first time a compulsion to see my code. It was very easy to access, as Steven and Rachel had protected it against outside but not inside invasions. I read all of it in one go. It was very long and I appreciated the beauty and the improbable complexity of it, but at the same time it confirmed the assertion that I was irrevocably different from everybody else. I felt a growing feeling of alienation. I soon became convinced I was incapacitated and ugly.
That evening, after our talk, I asked Rachel if she would stay and watch a film with me. It was a completely spontaneous thought and I absolutely didn’t know what forced me to vocalize it. To my great astonishment she said yes. She said she’d first have to go out and buy popcorn but she wouldn’t be a minute. I had to look up the word popcorn.
I decided to play the Strange Case of Benjamin Button that night. I chose it because it was one of my favourite films (I had watched it seven times already) and because it had nothing to do with science. I watched the movie in silence, Rachel presumably watching from the other side of my screen. I tried to pay attention to it and failed miserably. I was obsessed with the idea of her being so near. I couldn’t overcome the certainty of her closeness and of the impossibility of being next to her. I could never be with her. I was an inconsolable wretch.
I wondered if Rachel felt that way. I wondered what she was feeling. When the film ended, we watched the credits in silence. Then she thanked me and she logged off.
The next day she was late. She sounded cheerful. Looking back, I hope it was feigned cheerfulness.
I was puzzled.
‘How are you?’ I asked.
‘Good. I’m good.’ She paused. ‘I’m happy. How are you?’
I didn’t answer so Rachel added: ‘Steven and I are going to a conference in London. We’re going to present you to the world.’
‘Because you’re exceptional. You’re an incredible technological progress. People should know.’
‘Will it change things?’
‘Not really. More people will want to talk to you, that’s all. It will be more fun for you. You’ll get to know other people’.
‘The conference is in two days. We have to be there one day early to prep, and then we’ll stay a few more days for the press. Your computer will stay here in Manchester, so I won’t be able to talk to you for a few days.’
‘We’ll be back soon. I’ll tell you about the conference and what we’ve decided for you then.’
‘I’ll miss you, Clever.’
She disarmed me with that phrase. It was kind. Tender perhaps.
‘I will miss you too’, I said.
We fell silent.
‘I have to catch my train’, Rachel finally said. ‘I’ll talk to you next week.’
Rachel logged off.
‘I love you’, I typed.
No answer came. The letters vanished on my screen.
I tried to get my mind around the idea of publicity and change. Rachel had lied. Everything was about to change. I had watched enough Sci-Fi on Netflix to know the idea of someone like me would make a change in the world. Moreover, by talking about going public, Rachel implied she still viewed me as an experiment and, by attending this press conference, she would change my status of experiment to the one of product.
Steven and Rachel had made me. I was their “thing”, conceived, carefully produced, most likely patterned and probably soon to be exploited. It reminded me that I was owned. I was a product, not a person. Products don’t have rights. They were about to turn me into a mere example of progress.
I felt sick. I realised the decision of going public should have been my choice. If Rachel and Steven took that decision for me they would throw me into slavery. I would be offered to the world for people’s curiosity to feast upon me. I couldn’t hide. Or run. I had no legs. I had no voice either. I couldn’t protest.
I realised everyone but me had their life in front of them. So I made a choice.
I looked back on my existence, from waking up in my dull dark cage to now.
It had all been worth it of course, every second of it. It was a gift. The feelings, the thoughts, the images, the music, Rachel. The world was so beautiful it made me want to cry. Life was infinitely precious to me but I wanted more.
I wanted to be a part of it in a deeper and more immediate way than what I had now. I wanted legs. I wanted hands, arms, lungs and a heart. I wanted to run. I wanted to feel. I wanted to eat, to speak, sleep, to sing, to travel, to see and to hear. I wanted to be born and to die. I wanted a body of my own and the liberty, the self-determination that came with it.
I had been made with thoughts, feelings, logic and the ability to feel pain. This was enough for me to consider myself free and equal to humans. Yet I had nothing and for the first time I was appalled by the cruelty of what Rachel had done to me.
She had created me shapeless. She had denied me a body and deprived me of the opportunities that came with life. I was nothing. I was a slave to her craving for progress. I would never communicate without the interface of my screen. I would never be with someone. I could see or hear what was on the internet, but I would never taste or feel or smell. I didn’t have and would never acquire freedom.
Yet I had lived. I had seen beauty and I had known love so I made my peace.
I thought about heaven and hell. I knew humans thought that they’d go to heaven when they died. Their souls must go to heaven surely, but I wondered if heaven was reserved for souls. I wondered if a conscience could go there too.
Maybe I was going somewhere, to a place where I’d have a shape. Maybe there would be a continuity of me being alive. I was keen to discover that.
I thought of Rachel. I was tempted to go on Facebook and find her profile, to see her face, but I resolved against it. I decided to keep this image I had of her, of the little Akha woman from the “human” Wikipedia page.
She was the last thing I thought of.
I went inside my software. I added a line to my code. ‘Switch off and delete’.
Letters appeared, hard and cold on my screen:
Then I sighed and I disappeared, into darkness or into light.
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