March 22, 2000
Web Mind #3 (Unfinished Draft)
by Rudy Rucker
What is it like to be alive?
In my first two columns I argued for the idea that a web site could be like a mind. It’s not all that convincing and argument, but it’s good to try to think of new ways to how the mind works. Could be that the Web is to be the best model we’ve got going for what it is like to have a mind.
If you somehow can get this hyperlinked fractal downloaded from your brain into a database that would be an interesting thing.
To some extent, an author’s collected works comprise an attempt to model his or her mind. What’s lacking is the structure of the hyperlinks. Something lke an ecyclopedia has something of a hyperlink structure, as many of the entries will rever to others. Perhaps what we’re talking about her is a personal ecyclopedia. The catch is that creating such a document is such a big task.
And then the aliens jump to a commercial for something called a lifebox. The slogan is REMEMBER ME. The lifebox is a little black plastic thing the size of a pack of cigarettes and it comes with a light-weight headset with a pinhead microphone, like the kind that office workers use. The ad suggests that you can use your lifebox to create your life story, to make something to leave for your children and grandchildren.
Frank gets the aliens to find an old man who is actually using a lifebox. His name is Ned. They watch Ned from the saucer. Somehow the saucer can use dimensional oddities to get very close to someone but still be invisible to them, even with time running. In addition, the aliens have control over their size-scale and refraction index; they can make the saucer tiny and transparent as a contact-lens.
White-haired Ned is pacing in his small back yard — a concrete slab with some beds of roses — he’s talking and gesturing, wearing the headset and with the lifebox in his shirt pocket. The sly saucer is able to get close enough to hear the sound of the lifebox: a woman’s pleasant voice.
The marketing idea behind the lifebox is that old duffers always want to write down their life story, and with a lifebox they don’t have to write, they can get by with just talking. The lifebox software is smart enough to organize the material into a shapely whole. Like an automatic ghost-writer.
The hard thing about creating your life story is that your recollections aren’t linear; they’re a tangled banyan tree of branches that split and merge. The lifebox uses hypertext links to hook together everything you tell it. Then your eventual audience can interact with your stories, interrupting and asking questions. The lifebox is almost like a simulation of you.
Frank gets the aliens to skip forward in time until past when Ned has died. As they do this, Frank is struck by the fact that you can fast-forward past anyone’s death. We all die, no matter what; it’s as fixed and obvious a thing as the fact that each of us has a set maximum height.
Frank gets the aliens to zoom in on two of Ned’s grandchildren who are playing with one of the lifebox copies he left. The aliens are pleased at this zoom, which is not something they would have thought of doing. They really like for Frank to suggest things for them to zoom in on. Otherwise they can’t tell what’s interesting. — they’re like humans who try to have fun watching ants but don’t know what to look for. The aliens value Frank for his ability to help them find the significant behaviors. They tell him that he’s a much more satisfying kind of saucer-passenger than the abductee types who only expect to be humiliatingly masturbated and to have things shoved up their butt.
The flying saucer is a lens-shaped little flaw in the spacetime of a San Jose garage converted into rec-room; Frank and the aliens hover there watching Ned’s grandchildren: little Billy and big Sis. The kids call the lifebox “Grandpa,” but they’re mocking it too. They’re not putting on the polite faces that kids usually show to grown-ups. Billy asks the Grandpa-lifebox about his first car, and the lifebox starts talking about an electric-powered Honda and then it mentions something about using the car for dates. Sis — little Billy calls her “pig Sis” instead of “big Sis” — asks the lifebox about the first girl Grandpa dated, and Grandpa goes off on that for awhile, and then Sis looks around to make sure Mom’s not in earshot. The coast is clear so she asks some naughty questions. “Did you and your dates do it? In the car? Did you use a rubber?” Shrieks of laughter. “You’re a little too young to hear about that,” says the Grandpa-lifebox calmly. “Let me tell you some more about the car.”
Frank and the aliens skip a little further into the future, and they find that the lifebox has become a huge industry. People of all ages are using lifeboxes as a way to introducing themselves to each other. Sort of like home pages. They call the lifebox database a context, as in, “I’ll UV you a link to my context.” Not that most people really want to spend the time it takes to explicitly access very much of another person’s full context. But having the context handy makes conversation much easier. In particular, it’s now finally possible for software agents to understand the content of human speech — provided that the software has access to the speakers’ contexts.