29 May 2003
Karen looked at me seriously, directly into my eyes, frowning gently: - You're sure you want to do this?, to which I nodded, slowly, once, and so she lowered the helmet over my head.
I wish I could remember what the Third World was like, the world I was born in, that day I stepped over the threshold that was so long ago. But I'm not sure that even at the time I could tell the difference. There was a momentary weight on my shoulders before the helmet's electronics interfaced with me and airbrushed itself out of my environment... but other than that, could I tell that moment when my filters started stripping away? No, I don't think I could.
Possibly there were things so nuanced I didn't notice their absence. Karen's face was easier to read, but that could just have easily been the relief at a decision made. And since then certain random events have never occurred: my shoelaces never tangle into a knot in the Second World. That's not the kind of thing you notice though; that's not the kind of thing you miss.
She explained it like this, with computer mice:
- You move the mouse, the cursor moves on the screen. The cursor is like your hand, the mouse is like part of the brain... it transforms movement of the mouse into movement on the screen. Each transformation is a decision point, right, a kind of intelligence. So where is this kind of intelligence, where is it located? (Well, I said, in the mouse of course.)
- Okay, she said.
- Okay I said.
- Now an optical mouse, one of those ones that scans a grid on a special mouse-mat and uses it in its little decisions. Where's the intelligence then? (- Well, I start to say, but it was a rhetorical question and Karen carried on.) - In the mouse, and the pad? Smeared across? Okay, she said.
Then, - Okay, she said again, saying it for me.
- If the grid was on a piece of paper, so that if the paper tore you could just xerox another grid, where's the intelligence then?
- (I said nothing.)
- So if we're agreed that intelligence isn't contained in objects, that integral parts of intelligence aren't carried by permanent physical things, how about that original Englebart mouse? Couldn't we say that intelligence was also in the table the mouse rested on, in gravity, in physics?
- And, she continued, if that's true of a mouse, then why should your intelligence only be inside your head?
The way it feels, these last forty years, is the Second World is only a middle world. Two long strides, each spanning two decades. The first, easing me gently out of the complexities of the Third World. The helmet silently intercepting all my senses, rewriting them, removing ambiguities, removing anything my brain finds difficult to understand.
For twenty years I lived in a world with no catastrophe theory, no chaotic growth, no knots that wouldn't untie. There was no wind; the stars were always in the same place. Everything was predictable; for some things this was a little harder, others a little easier, but over that length of time, with the Exhuberance to help, the world became as clear and understandable as that mouse-mat grid.
Exhuberance, I should mention, is a hormone pill taken daily. It stimulates the growth of grey matter in the brain, makes it change faster, makes its branches bushier. Remember being a teenager, when you could be everyone all at once, everyone you wanted to be? That's what Exhuberance is like. And that feeling as you grow up, when you settle into a single personality, the branches get pruned back, the bush revealing the intricate structure within: that's what it's like when you stop taking the pills and your brain settles into its new configuration. It's just like you were before, like you were in the Third World, only this time your internal model of the universe is just like the one outside. I mean, is exactly like it.
Because that's the idea of the transition to the Second World. The helmet strips off the complexities of everyday life, strips away the variation until the world is simple enough for your brain to model it precisely. Only this time, when that grey matter dies back, your brain discovers that actually the world outside and the world model in your head are identical. And given then, why bother keeping the model? Keep stripping back!
After two decades with the helmet, that's where you are. My brain then - I saw the scans - was half its old size, only the very core parts of my personality kept in there. Of course, the world it dealt with was much simpler than the one evolution had designed it for, but that's what the second stride was about. So it comes to this: where does the intelligence in my brain really reside? Hebb says that memory is isomorphic with a physical change in the pattern of the neurons, which makes sense. And it's tempting to think that every mental event is accompanied by a physical change, somewhere in that spongey ball.
But as I think (the synapses flicker, the neurons reconfigure) that, I think: why would the brain bother to store something extra in the brain if it's also coming in in another way?
For instance, it seems the brain doesn't store the information about you being happy in your brain -- it stores it on your face. If you smile, that's happy, right there. That's how your brain decides, translates the mouse of your emotion into cursors of endorphines. If your face, then why not further afield?
What I mean is: If you had to remember "7 x 5 = 35", then you might not remember the 35, you could work it out. And if the "7" always hovered infront of your left eye, and the "5" always hovered infront of your right eye, you might-as-well only remember the multiplication sign, only the kernel of the sum.
And so it is with reality. Cause and effect, the way levers work, the inevitable results of our folk ethics (all provable with game theory): why should the brain store these when they're all just out there, always, as reliably as if they were stashed in the left-bottom corner of your frontal lobe itself? Why should it? It doesn't. The Second World is an extension of that.
The second two decades: the helmet recomplexifies the world. It examined my brain, analysed decision points, then reintroduced them, mirroring into the outside world aspects of my programming. Doses of Exhuberance continued the process of branching and simplifying, my brain constantly reducing into itself, shifting functions into the Second World.
after twenty years
it found that the Second World it was projecting to me was just like the world outside the helmet; and also,
my residual brain was finally a single function, one last remaining knot of decision points. This tiny nest of axons the sole remnant of me that still had to sit inside my skull.
- You can print a circuit of copper on a piece of paper, was the way Karen put it, before she crossed into the First World herself. - It's called an RFID. It's just a pattern. But send a radio wave pulse at it, and electricity sluices through that circuit and a computation takes place. It could be adding two number or calculating your biorhythms for the year. Whatever.
Then she said: - But if that copper pattern was a forest. And if that radio pulse was sunlight. What then?
But still, forty years since I last saw her worried face, I mean her actual born-with Third World face, I can't help thinking of Karen again. I'm scared of stepping out of the Second World, of completing that stride. Intellectually, I know that what I call Me, what feels like Me, is sprawled across the universe as shown to me by my helmet, and that universe is identical now to the one outside the helmet; each event a factor in what used to be my brain:
the way a leaf falls from a tree
the way a crowd surges
the way a leopard leaps
and the way the light from the Sun glistens on its fur, illuminating every hair, every hue
the way Karen's gently furrowed brow shows her love for me.
And that's the clincher. I prepare to cross. Afterwards I'll not see the world like this, from one point, I'll be spread out over cities, over deserts, through the stars that turn with the millennia. I'll be embedded in every feather that grows, every knot that works loose, in the sun that crosses the sky every day, and the clouds that are always different. My moods shall be the weather, my deep held beliefs the molten iron core of the Earth itself. I'll see the world as one, from every position, every second simultaneously. I shall be immortal.
There's one last thing to do. The Popper helmet has identified a totem for me, an object in the world whose physics correspond exactly with that last nugget of me-ness left inside. Once placed in the place calculated, that'll be it, my copper become forest, I'll be free.
It's an acorn.
I remove the helmet - already I feel wispy - my body is older, drier than I remember - like dust - caught on the breeze.
I put the acorn in my mouth, its mouth. I am every blade of grass in the wind. I am every whitecap on the oceans. Let it grow there.
18 December 2003. George writes: This List
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