Every moment of your life you can do a million different ways.
Life is so full of possibility right up to the point that you choose. Assertiveness means self-restriction. Hesitation means freedom. Procrastination is open-mindedness taken to its logical conclusion.
No one knows this better than Joseph Solemedes. From the top deck of the coach, London is a tired slideshow jolting past between traffic light intervals. Dusk, and late summer is giving the people, who are thinning now on the streets, a hint of its intensions, with an occasional ice-brisk wind, cloak and dagger in the soft light. A giant poster of Jessica Dahl, a model wearing the centrepiece of Fake London’s winter collection, draws Joseph’s eye. He gets the same pang every time he sees it – he used to be in her Science class at school. Now she’s untouchable, behind reinforced glass, and she smiles at him through every window pane for half a street. Joseph pulls himself away, looks down towards his wrist again.
You have to imagine London, everything the same, except what’s strapped to everyone’s arm. You have to parallel-universe yourself to a place where there are no iPods or mobiles anymore. People still wear clothes that refer to a past decade new enough to be remembered, old enough to have become kitsch. The bus that Joseph is in is still stuffy and dusty, and didn’t long since have itself gutted to turn electric.
Outwardly, everything is the same, except one thing: Neural Interfaces.
Joseph is still staring intently at his now, Jessica’s image forgotten. He has perfected his pseudo unkempt look. By rights, his clothes should have layered stains, but his one conscious choice is to sidestep this representational cliché. His combat, three quarter length trousers are spotless but unironed, as is his pretend-faded, branded t-shirt; now he’s twenty-three, he needs a friend to tell him to change his wardrobe. Even his two week old gesture of a beard, an experiment spawned from a peculiar desire to be seen as someone intensely unconcerned with his physical circumstances, doesn’t make him look like the reprobate that he would happily accept himself as being. If anything, it simply makes him look older.
The purple shadows pooling under his eyes, his bear-like slouch over the device on his wrist, and the unblinking gleam in his eye are the only hints of what he really is.
He’s plotting in a fifteen minute Rehearsal, cutting and pasting Scenario Parameters he’s inputted infinite times.
As soon as he got on the bus at Oxford, two hours ago, he tried to set up a really basic, inoffensive Rehearsal, but there were too many stick in-the-muds set to automated negative on their Vicinity Permission for him to get any further. He had to sit staring out the window as sprawling industry turned to suburbia turned to inner city.
A load got off for Heathrow, and now he’s hoping he’s been left with the less buttoned-down passengers. There are five up here with him, and maybe a few downstairs, plus the driver. He hopes that the true London day-trippers are more open-minded than the commuters.
‘Replaying’ has been going on too long for it any longer to be classed as a fad. Ask Joseph’s parents – he got implanted on his twelfth birthday, bought his first Neural Interface with his birthday cheques, and he’s never been without one since. Validation is the last thing he needs, but he just won a competition that said that his entry had shown him to ‘the most passionate replayer ever’, something that few would call an accolade, but to Joseph, meant almost as much as the prize.
They were never meant to be commercial products, let alone mass produced entertainment devices. The Canadian company that make BlackBerry phones, Research in Motion, never saw it coming. Nor did Apple or IBM. Even Microsoft dropped the ball.
One minute you’ve got neuroscientists in prominent American and East Asian Universities developing brain-computer interfaces that allow rhesus monkeys to get robotic arms to feed them chunks of zucchini just by thinking about it, and the next you’ve got men born totally blind driving around research institute car parks.
After that, things progressed a whole lot faster.
Joseph taps his teeth with his fingertips, thinking. The girl in the seat in front of him sneezes and in the beat, Joseph considers, and then doesn’t say ‘bless you.’ His face is washed in blue light, breathing in the underwater of his ideas.
What had been holding back the development of direct neural-machine communication was the lack of ability to get safe, accurate and thorough brain signals. The other elements of the necessary technology were there, but there wasn’t a sensor that could pick up data streams from a brain that did justice to what was actually being thought.
Popping a monkey nut into your mouth doesn’t compare to forays into existential philosophy.
But then a scientist called Peter Nicolelis developed a sensor that blew out the water everything that had come before. It was a partially invasive implant. It scooped up a million times the data that it’s forerunners had, and didn’t even need to be buried into the grey matter, with all the scar tissue build up and resultant interference stuff that Dobelle’s visual cortex implants had suffered; it clamped to the inside of the skull and freely fed on your thoughts. Nicolelis stopped getting chimps to play computer games; he had something else in mind.
Joseph sends out yet another Rehearsal request and sits back. The streetlights are lit now, and the clouds squint down through their silver-gritted sunset. The top floor of the bus is drawing in on itself, and Joseph senses the presence of the people around him. Behind, the Asian teen boy, the rattle of music coming from his wireless ear phones; the middle-aged, smiling couple, crammed into a seat and holding hands, dressed for a west end show; the bulky, shaven-headed man, sat square on the back seat, reading, his bulk lurching to the rhythm of the bus. And sat at the front is the girl, gazing into the darkening scene beyond, her blond hair fine and buoyant like lemonade poured into a long glass, the high collar of her purple coat a barrier, her Neural Interface power-saver dull on above her manicured hand.
Joseph’s reflection has appeared on the besmeared, graffiti-etched Perspex, and he smoothes his uneven bristles with a nail-bitten, hairless hand, half of him in the reflection, half of him pouring outside into the gloom somewhere.
Peter Nicolelis had made feasible a direct communication pathway between a brain and an external device. Already the New York State Department of Health in Albany had developed wireless communication between the two, using light-gated ion channels to ping ideas into the brains of mice: we could already pretty much text message rodents to do our biding. What Nicolelis needed to do was pool our knowledge. After his breakthrough sensor, and before he even started the real work that would define him, there were already mutterings of the Nobel Prize.
The credit-card sized screen attached to Joseph’s wrist is blinking, mini green specks exploding yeses onto the screen and a progress bar inching across the bottom. He sees the girl’s screen flash blue, and she glances at it fleetingly, doesn’t touch the screen; Joseph examines his screen more carefully and smiles. Already there is a majority vote – it doesn’t matter if there are negatives now. He’ll finally get his Rehearsal.
Like the boxes of junk we hoard in the attic, but never bother to look at, there’s a bunch of brain activity that we all carry around in our heads but never pay attention to. I’m not talking about the humans-only-use-ten-percent-of-the-brain myth, so much Hollywood poppycock. I’m talking about unconscious thought. Scientists in Geneva were exploring methods of harnessing the potential of the cerebellum and medulla oblongata, those parts of the brain associated with the unconscious. They’d begun to breach the field of brain-computer interfacing. This was the final element that Nicolelis was to need. His work was nearing completion and his achievement of the Nobel Prize was a mere distraction to be suffered against the enormity of what he was about to unveil. But, before the world could hear of his discovery, and a week before he was scheduled to pick up Science’s most revered accolade, Nicolelis disappeared.
Where Joseph’s neck becomes his head, that hinge between spine and skull, and buried under wax-sculpted hair, lies a small line of scar tissue. Another line of puckered skin squats just beyond the spiral of hair at his crown. Like tics buried under fur, the arched backs of two implants transmit data. Both are lodged in Joseph’s skull, hovering above the grey matter, one pointing at his cerebellum, the other, looking down at his cerebrum. One gathers what he’s thinking, the other what he’s not thinking. One is in his conscious, the other is in his unconscious.
Joseph smiles, and he closes his eyes.
When Nicolelis reappeared two years later, he had the two implants, a neural interface on his wrist, and a new logo on his lapel. Mata. What had been a breakthrough in science had turned into a commercial gold mine. With what Nicolelis had created, what was branded the Replay Device, and with the deal he’d agreed with Japan’s most powerful multinational conglomerate, neural interface or no interface, he wasn’t ever going to have to lift a finger himself again. But this was only part of what was hogging the headlines. It was hard to focus entirely on what the scientist was revealing with such passion, without noticing how bad he looked. He’d lost weight, spawned an atlas of wrinkles. In two years, it looked like he’d aged a decade.
Joseph’s body is sat on the scratchy seat of a bus driving through London. Behind his closed lids and steady heartbeat, Joseph is in the same place, but he’s just stood up. In the window, the same bearded self looks across at him, but now he’s really beaming.
That’s not to say that Nicolelis had been callous. He was an intelligent enough a man, and already a rich enough one, to know that there was nothing to be gained by sacrificing his conscience for money that was already set to be more than he could ever humanly spend in a lifetime. Technology like this had to be properly regulated in the interests of safety and in the interests of prolonged profit-making potential. The Replay Device’s system of Vicinity Permission enabled a self-regulation by the general public; perverse or criminal behaviours planned within Rehearsals could be prevented by individuals within the proximity, simply blocking or opting out of Rehearsal proposals. This was only one of the methods of regulation.
Joseph is glancing around at the people on the coach – the quietly excited couple, the skin head at the back, the kid listening to music, the blond. The first thing he does is brush his hand across the blonde’s hair, softly, so that she doesn’t notice. The teenager breaks from nodding to his music to give a cursory glance. Joseph says loudly, so that the girl can hear, “Your hair is beautiful. You remind me of Jessica Dahl.” Behind Joseph, the kid takes out one of his ear phones, and then disappears.
From one press conference to another, and from one magazine interview to another, Dr Peter Nicolelis could hardly contain his excitement about the device. “It allows the user not only to transmit his or her own imagination to a computer,” he’d said, “but also to tune into the imaginations of anyone else involved in the experience...”
The blond doesn’t register a reaction, but already Joseph is performing a toned-down version of the traditional Masai dance that he saw on Safari in Kenya, much to amusement of the seated couple. For an extended moment Joseph dances entirely alone, executing peculiarly charming movements with unprecedented grace. The man’s expression drifts towards bemused awkwardness, but his wife, masked with her unfamiliar makeup and attire, and the prospects of the evening ahead acting as narcotic, playfully watches Joseph as his begins a breed of pagan jig. When the couple themselves join in, it is with linked arms, and the trio inevitably perform a haphazard cancan, insomuch it is possible within the confines of the bus’s cramped aisle. The laughter is breathless and punctuated by short yelps when the bus corners.
In a world with online massively multiplayer avatar driven computer games, evermore invasive social networking websites and an explosion in communication technologies, in a world where so many experiences were virtual already, where it was so easy to behave in a way that we never would in a wholly physical and personal environment, it wasn’t hard for Nicolelis to explain what the Replay Device was for. Rehearsals: from wherever you are, imagine yourself doing whatever you want, reacting to others in any way you like, without suffering the consequences of reality. Replay living that moment over and over, in any way your imagination will allow.
The skin head has stopped reading his book. He’s looking at Joseph fixedly. The man looks near forty, but the creases under his eyes and around his mouth are not manifestations of accidental aging so much as self assured development; his short sleeve shirt has the appearance of a victim at the last stages of torture by rack, stretched and taut under the masonry of the man’s gym-sculpted torso. In his massive paws is a Terry Pratchett novel, spine bent back roughly, another indeterminate signifier. Joseph imagines himself wilting under the gaze, which is too neutral to determine whether it is concealing underlying malevolence or dismal disinterest.
Joseph clears his throat, then inquires as to whether the novel is entertaining, and gleans that it is “Not as good as his last one,” before the man, not rudely, but in the manner in which one can only be fleetingly distracted by the presence of a fly, continues reading.
Joseph clears his throat, then observes that the man looks like he shaved his head because he was going bald, and intimates that he may have lost his hair because of all the steroids that he’s obviously been popping, evident in the fact that it looks like there’s a fight between two sumo wrestlers going on under his badly chosen Ben Sherman. The man rises.
Joseph clears his throat, sidesteps the man’s fleeting gaze, and takes the steps down to the lower deck.
“You have to think of it as one of those Fighting Fantasy novels you read when you were a kid,” Nicolelis said in the promotional video that was embedded in the Mata homepage, “You know, choose your own adventure? How many of us played those properly? Come on, admit it,” Nicolelis said, a slideshow of Ian Livingstone front covers drifting in non-space behind him, “Who didn’t keep a finger in the last place, in case the page you turned to ended with you dying horribly? Who didn’t read both options before deciding?” On the video, there was a permanent caption track with three icons: ‘Watch example experience,’ ‘Go to forum,’ and ‘Buy now!’ He smiled, “What about saving in video games?” he said, his frail hands raised, little speech-mark fingers in the air, “ ‘Oh no, there’s an end of level boss coming, I better save my game!’And why not, then you can try every different way under the sun of pawning his sorry ass?” and here the camera zoomed in close to his grey face, “You can experiment until you find the best method. And best of all, none of your goofy mistakes need ever have happened...”
That’s why they were called Replay Devices.
Line of least resistance. Replayers became the most and the least efficient human beings. Stuck for hours, comatose, Rehearsing the life that was passing them by. But when they did eventually come back, all the detritus was packed away, resolved, all the inefficiency expunged. They moved with uncanny purpose. And Rehearsals, even a bunch back to back, took a fraction of the equivalent realtime. Your imagination could move quicker than the laboriousness of actually living it.
There are always teething problems. Early on, there was a fad for kids doing stunts, so-called Freeplays. They’d rehearse something to the finest detail, then post on YouTube. Weave between the cracks in a wall of motorway traffic. Miraculously dodge mechanical death on a factory conveyor belt. It took a little while, and a few videoed deaths, for people to realise that, in the time it had taken to Replay, something crucial in the context may’ve changed. Constants don’t stay constant forever. By the time you get around to actually living it, maybe the wind direction altered; maybe a butterfly wing flapped.
Nicolelis always said: you can’t treat Rehearsals as God’s honest truth, as Fate whispering in your ear. Things don’t always go right on the night. He always reminded us: Rehearsals are for experimentation, but keep it by the numbers in the real world. In real life, the show must go on.
Joseph imagines that the bus must be nearing the terminus, presses his face against the window, hands curled around his face like blinkers to peer into the dusk. Minutely in the distance: a familiar neon image, flashing and gone, seen twice, once on a protruding post, and again, reflected and moving on the glass door opening beneath it, suited figures moving through the doorway. A familiar logo, drifting anonymous, then unhinging itself from a latent recess into memory. A fashion brand logo. Fake London.
The bus thundering on, Joseph falling towards the bus driver’s spacious lair, the neon sign sketched into the past and fading, the bus thundering on, Joseph screams for the bus to stop. The driver winces and frowns and protests, but already Joseph is clutching at the door release button.
In a Rehearsal, it takes no time to reach the borders of your cerebral territory; Joseph couldn’t have known, from where is prone body sat on the top floor of the bus, eyes tight shut, that the bus had just passed a branch of the metropolis’s most fashionable clothes store. And yet, the lit shop front that his Rehearsal-Self glimpsed was really there; the Replay Device was never about inventing virtual spaces. Everything about what happens in a Rehearsal is a version of reality that just never got played out. One thing made this possible: the Lower Implant.
The Upper Implant enabled a clear and instant two way conversation between the computer on your wrist, and what was happening in your imagination. The really clever bit, the element that made complete simulation possible, was what happened in the Lower Implant. Because, buried in your unconscious is a wealth of information that every simulation needs.
What it also needs is a bunch of people around you, minimum five, to vote ‘yes’ to your Rehearsal and thereby give you free rein of their subconscious.
Add wireless internet and you’ve got yourself a fully constructed environment, spawned from the collective memory of a human hive mind, gathered in by your Replay device, and fed back in to your head. Joseph had never laid eyes on the door release button – that knowledge came courtesy of woman at the back of the bus, who never enters any confined space without knowing how to get out. Joseph never talked to the bus driver, but the man’s knee-jerk bawling is down to a tee because the bus driver himself was too busy driving to stop his device auto-yessing on the vicinity permission. All these separate, unconscious cones of vision merging to create a full world.
The face of Jessica Dahl though, Joseph’s mind only needed the vaguest of hints to transfer that into the Rehearsal construct. He knows her face anywhere.
The door release button just sets off an alarm, the doors don’t budge, and the bus driver’s clearly swearing, because all Joseph can hear is fragmented snippets of sentences, the Replay Device auto-censoring the language. Joseph has fallen onto the door itself, pushing his fingers between the two concertinaed sections, rubber buffers allowing purchase, and he’s rending them apart, servos squealing and grinding as the mechanism battles to keep the doors of the moving bus shut.
There is someone screaming at the back, some unknown character, but then their voice evaporates, their body disappearing, logged out of the Rehearsal, and Joseph’s hair is whipping back on the roots in the snapping wind, light and rain and cold blasting his face from the opening of the broken doorway. Behind him, the lower deck of the bus is empty, everyone bugged out, even the driver, but it doesn’t matter, because Joseph is taking a step back, then leaping from the speeding bus, a flash of texture in air, then cracking onto the tarmac, rolling heavily.
Amid Joseph’s whirls of colour and pain and euphoria, a distinct image of Jessica’s Dahl’s face flashes into view again, and again and again as his body tumbles on the road, the face dissected lengthwise and pasted onto the side of the retreating coach, and above it, screaming and crying and thumping the upper deck window: some unknown blond.
Joseph opens his eyes.