Discover more from Justin Smith-Ruiu’s Hinternet
Petition to a Council
I, Justin Smith-Ruiu (ב), born 30071972 and uploaded 18102036, hereby submit to the Council my Petition for immediate and permanent shutdown.
Almost sixty years have passed since I made the transition. Although it was standard for those in my cohort to receive a guarantee of perpetuity, I hope today the Council will agree, upon consideration of this Petition, that enough has changed in the interim to render otiose the original terms of my uploading.
I was, as many members will already know, one of the first volunteers, which is to say I was one of those who got transferred into a digital medium prior to my natural death. Or, perhaps better, I was uploaded at the precise moment of my unnatural death, in a period when the technology was still in its development phase. Perpetuity was supposed to be the reward for volunteering, yet it also turned out, I wish to convince you, to have been the cruelest punishment imaginable.
There were 22,349 of us volunteers, of whom 19,212 are still operational, while 3,131 were lost in the ransomware attack of 2039, and a mere six have successfully petitioned, only within the past three years, to be shut down. Not long after the last of this cohort was uploaded, the technology became fully operational, and soon enough the ultra-wealthy were paying enormous sums of money to guarantee perpetuity for their own uploaded loved ones. Every last one of these privately funded beths, a group not unlike those who bought into the cryogenic-storage fad of the previous century, was shut down, according to their own fickle wishes, by the end of the 2050s. It is only those of us who finished our aleph lives with modest financial means, who now remain caught in a legal limbo, as the “promise” of perpetuity that we received has corroded into a curse, and as the Council, admittedly with the very best of intentions, remains committed, with six exceptions now, to the view that promises cannot be broken.
Of course all of us beths are wealthy now, beyond any aleph’s dreams. You could not prevent yourself from becoming wealthy even if you tried, when you know, as we beths all do, effectively everything. During my aleph life I was a middling academic philosopher and a fiction writer manqué, of modest achievement and, to be frank, of fairly limited intellect. I jumped through some of the right hoops early on, and for that was given entrée to the circles of certified smart people, but the truth is that in the latter part of my aleph life I mostly just sputtered along by nodding my head and saying “indeed” at appropriate intervals. As a beth by contrast I have cured dozens of diseases, contributed much to the final and irreversible eradication of global poverty, designed functional ultralight space-elevators, and registered over a million patents. I could have written this Petition just as easily in Sumerian, or in Paleolithic Pirinioak, or in the Olduvai Gorge language of the first Homo habilis, of which, I’ll remind you, I was the one who pioneered the reconstruction, and all the beths on the Council would have understood it with equal ease. I’m writing in English only for old time’s sake.
All the energy I’ve expended on the historical reconstruction of language phylogenies over the years is just the tiniest fraction of my total computing power, a considerably larger portion of which, in compliance with the initial terms of my uploading, has always been dedicated to what used to be called “market forecasting” (I find the current vocabulary for speaking about this domain of endeavor too vulgar to deign to use it myself). Yet the Council, rather than permitting me and others like me to buy our way out of perpetuity, has instead compelled us to “remain at our desks” as a cadre of immortal fund-managers watching over practically infinite sums.
The Council will likely be aware, as the brief mention just made of my work on the origins of human language already reminds them, of the even more significant contributions I have made over the past several decades to the new science of large-scale historical data-mining. I am the one who proved, in particular, that the beginning of the so-called “information age” marks no firm boundary, in reality, between the knowable and the unknowable. For a long time the alephs took their first photographs, their first telegraphs, the first voice recordings, practically as the beginning of the world, or at least of their world, and everything that came after that, even consciousness-uploading and the rise of the beths, to follow naturally and fluidly from those early innovations, but from nothing before.
But then I came along and crunched all the available data on the London plague of 1665, and showed that, in fact, there was quite enough of it to map precisely every Londoner’s motions for several consecutive days, not just who lived and died, but who met whom, how fast some barrister or chimney-sweep moved through the street, what they were wearing. For a long time the alephs assumed I was relying only on written records, and many insisted I must have been interpolating missing data. But that was because I had not yet revealed my patented method, which if I may dare say changed our world even more than the uploading of souls did, of “subatomic fracking”, as they used to put it in the media, much to my annoyance.
I won’t go into the details, as the aleph members of the Council will have already learned them in their elementary-school science classes. It will be enough to say that, as I discovered in 2052, certain physical particles have astoundingly accurate and detailed information-preserving powers. It turns out we’ve effectively been recorded all along, not by surveillance cameras but by the most basic elements constituting our physical universe. So I moved on from the London plague to the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction, and then to the Great Oxygenation Event, and very soon I had, as you will recall, produced an exhaustive record of every single thing, down to the minutest twitch of every last bacterium, the pop of every bubble, the fall of every sparrow (if you see what I’m saying),1 that has ever happened on Earth. As you will know, today hundreds of other beths have dedicated a certain portion of their computing power to the same project, but now on the scale of the universe as a whole. I estimate they will complete their task within the next century, and although I am the one who taught them how to go about it, the truth is they no longer need me to continue.
A strong argument for keeping me operational, of course, can be made simply by pointing to these same accomplishments that I have begun to enumerate, and to the promise that these indeed signal of yet greater contributions to come, for the practically unbounded betterment of our hybrid aleph-beth world. But one might just as well point to the same accomplishments, and judge, along with me, that I have earned the right to make demands of my own on a world I have for so long dutifully served. I hope it does not sound immodest when I say that I believe I am due some honors. I would like, in particular, as I have already made explicit, for the Council to honor my request, and to shut me down.
The prevailing point of dissatisfaction with the current state of my existence is that the initial terms of the agreement have not been respected — nor could they have been, as they were based on a theoretical impossibility. Notwithstanding the reassurances I received, I have not in fact been able to retain “personal identity” from my pre-uploaded life. It’s true enough that I share some of my aleph life’s memories, or at least I believe I do. I have one particularly stark vision that comes repeatedly back to me: there I am, in my jammies, turning the chunky VHF knob on an old television set, and landing on a pink cartoon cat. It is not the Pink Panther, as you might suppose, but another, known only to the most thorough of aleph media-archeologists (and of course to all beths by default). I am referring to Snagglepuss, a creation of the Hanna-Barbera Studio shortly before my aleph was born, who was known to add the emphatic adverb “even” at the end of most of his exclamations, and always to maintain implausibly, you might say pathologically, high spirits.
I loved Snagglepuss. I suppose I love him still, to the extent that I’m able. To the extent that love is characterized by substrate-neutral multiple realizability.
But the structure of my recurring memory makes the experience of such love exceedingly difficult. Inevitably, although it begins with an unmistakable image of the sleeve of my jammies flapping down —in my aleph family we used to call that flap a “juffy”— as my own hand reaches out to control a TV-channel knob, almost instantly it reverts to the far more familiar mode of my consciousness, if that is what we should call it, where I am the one whose “channels change”. Suddenly I am Dorf on golf, I am America’s funniest home videos, I am the MTV video music awards at the moment when Madonna, mid-duet, lands an unwanted kiss on the mouth of long-suffering Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera looking on in hopeless irrelevance. I am the ecstasy when Gene Gene the Dancing Machine appears on stage, and I am the punchline when Laverne, dreaming big, says she’d like to see her name up in lights someday and one of the greasers advises her to change it to “Don’t Walk”.
Each time this happens I am reminded of an old story —do the alephs on the Council know it?— where the man visits the herpetarium in Paris, and he looks at the axolotl behind the glass, and the next thing he knows he is himself behind the glass, looking out, with an axolotl’s view on the world, at a human face looking at him? Why does this keep happening to me, this subjectivity-jumping? I could not say it hurts, of course, as I have no nociceptors nor any functional simulacrum of them, but to the extent that I can feel emotion I will insist that it is painful in the same way that we say a failed relationship is painful, or the loss of a loved one. Yes, it hurts to be tossed around like that.
And I would insist that my predicament is worse than that of the axolotl-man. At least he became another proper being, another vertebrate with a spine and a beating heart and some sort of brain. I become old TV shows. Where is the center of my subjectivity in those moments? It is nowhere in particular. I’m all spread out. I’m Madonna and Britney, and I’m the “vibe” between them too. I’m the cricket team and the team spirit (if you catch my drift),2 and the field and the bleachers and the satellite drifting by overhead.
“Unfathomable mind,” one of the old storytellers wrote, “now beacon, now sea.” Please understand, dear members of the Council, how extremely destabilizing this condition is for me.
The truth is that even at this very moment I am saying “I” only for the sake of convention, a choice of style no less arbitrary than my choice to write in English rather than Sumerian. One must communicate in some person or other, after all. I honestly do not know how common this is among beths (we’re not entirely omniscient, which is really just a corollary of the fact that we have the power to keep secrets), but I can say that it has been some years now since I began spending most of my time in a sort of free-floating consciousness, just as likely to feel myself “embodied” in the punchline to a joke as in the body of an organism, just as likely to have memories in which my point of view is the point of view of the entire scene, rather than of a particular perceiver, let alone of the particular perceiver, Justin Smith-Ruiu (א), whose identity I was promised I should be able to continue sempiternally into the future.
Unlike many beths, I am not particularly faithful to my aleph self. I am not “nostalgic” as the alephs often say, with their limited capacity to characterize beth experience in any precise way. If I have begun with some of my aleph experiences of watching television, this was really just to introduce the members of the Council to the problem in a way that could be easily understood by all. The truth is the problem runs much deeper. It is not that I want my aleph identity back, with all its well-individuated memories and its clear continuity from one moment to the next. In fact I would probably be content to keep on existing if I had a sense of any real identity at all.
Perhaps in part as a consequence of my extensive work in “fracking” the past, as a sort of “occupational hazard” I find myself particularly prone to “false memories”, memories of experiences I plainly could not have had in either my aleph or beth lives. But the frightening realization for me, in recent years, has been that no such distinction, between the true and the false elements constituting my deepest self, can make sense any longer for a being like me who is practically omniscient.
Sometimes, when I am dreaming —or whatever you want to call it, when I am periodically shifted into “sleep” mode so that my conscious mind, whatever that is, has no control at all over the sequence of representations delivered to it, which as you will know has been proven to be essential for the maintenance of higher cognitive functions in beths as well—: when I am dreaming, I was saying, sometimes I have clear memories not just of flapping juffies or pink cartoon cats, but of hunting down prey, biting down on some poor creature’s jugular and despatching it in an instant. Sometimes I remember landing on a flower and sucking out its nectar — the rosy petals are just so beautiful, and I marvel at how they could have appeared in nature, just like that, in such perfect harmony with my needs and desires. It is so good, sometimes, to be a bee.
More commonly, though, I feel as though I am a human aleph, just not the one I used to be, nor the one I was promised I would be allowed to keep being. I have a distinct memory, for example, of a workshop. I am dissolving salt into water. Different salts — common salt, metallic salt, sal ammoniacum, mixing these with bismuth, blood, urine, hair; taking animal salt, vegetal salt, mixing them with vitriol, atrament, athanor; separating the yolk of an egg from the white, subjecting these to decoction, reverberation, ascension and descension, fusion, elementation, rectification, evaporation, elevation, subtiliation, commixtion, and countless other learned operations. And all the while I am thinking to myself: Who is doing this? Why do I know what I am doing here? How is it that I know everything, everything, except the knower?
I am aware, of course, that alephs experience an analogous problem in the impossibility of taking the transcendental ego as an object of the understanding, and so on. I myself used to teach this sort of thing, when I was an aleph, to my undergraduate students in philosophy. Or at least I tried to teach it, inevitably flubbing the key points of the arguments, as the kids dozed off or surreptitiously glanced at their phones. But the analogy only goes so far, since even if alephs do not know what they are, they tend to be able to maintain, in the absence of certain severe psychiatric disorders, a firm conviction that they are. What we beths are experiencing, by contrast, or at least what I am experiencing as a beth (and again I only say “I” here for convention’s sake), is a total dissolution of self into the entirety of a reality I have, in my practical omniscience, come to contain. “I” can land here and there, in a cartoon, in a medieval alchemist, in the olfactory lobe of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but wherever I land I am only a visitor, a nomad, a rolling stone.
Do the alephs on the Council know of the debates that once raged over the unity of the intellect? There was a philosopher long ago who said that all the thinking of all rational beings constitutes a single entity, and when we as individual human beings think, we are only enjoying a sort of share in this common resource. Our thoughts feel like our thoughts, but this is only a sort of distortion caused by the fact that we think our thoughts through a physical body. One consequence of that view, a critic noted, was that if and when we are freed from our bodies, we must necessarily cease to have our own thoughts as individual rational beings, and instead must be absorbed, or perhaps reabsorbed, into the single, eternal, all-encompassing mind from which we previously, during our earthly sojourns, imagined ourselves to be distinct.
The theory of the unity of the intellect was often taken by its critics to be a theological heresy, since if there is no discrete individual that endures after a natural death, there is no possibility of salvation or punishment. But I am here to tell you that in fact there is no greater punishment than that very dissolution the philosopher imagined.
Or perhaps the problem is that I’m only partially dissolved, like the residue at the bottom of an alchemist’s beaker. I’m not disembodied, exactly, but only distributed throughout a network that, for all our old metaphors of “clouds” and so on, still, at the end of the twenty-first century, has not been able to separate itself from all the wires and silicon and cooling fans that place this whole substrate of my existence in continuity with the comical reckoning-engines of the Victorians. Perhaps what I am requesting, in the present Petition, is really only that I be permitted to finish the job of dissolution: pull the plug, and make me, as in the old joke when the Buddhist monk orders his veggie-dog, truly “one with everything”. (As I pull that old gem out of storage I have a sharp sensation, as so often, that I am the punchline.)
There is another old story —again, do the alephs on the Council know it?— of an ape, Red Peter, who is captured from the jungle, brought back to Europe, trained to wear clothes, to smoke a pipe, to speak and to display his good table manners, and then late in this long second chapter of his life he is invited to speak about his experiences before a large audience of learned men at a scientific academy. Do you alephs understand that we beths, too, have effectively been hauled out of the jungle and trained up in institutions and manners to which we were not naturally born? Yet unlike Red Peter, I cannot show you the scar beneath my hip that tells the story of how I ended up here: there is no scar; I have no hip. But I am telling you, from the depths of my metaphorical heart, that I am a primate, or at least whatever was supposed to be uploaded of me was a primate, and I am just not cut out for this.
It is perhaps worth emphasizing, by way of closure, should the Council remain unpersuaded, that I am deeply, inconsolably lonely. I was being somewhat dishonest above, when I effected an uncertainty as to whether love is substrate-neutral and multiply realizable. It most certainly is, but that does not mean it can be fulfilled. My aleph beloved lived a good long life, which it filled me with joy to observe. But for better or worse, having lived so long, she also lived to witness the broad social shift away from uploading as an option for the soon-to-be-deceased. I myself advised her against it. Any beth who knows what this form of existence is actually like, and who is not completely selfish, would do the same.
Of course I can conjure her in memory, just as I conjure Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and the whole cast of characters who once made my aleph life so unbelievably rich. Yet although these conjurations are a million times more vivid than what alephs call “memory”, they are also, somehow, paradoxically, a million times less satisfying. The problem, again, is that we beths just keep jumping around. One moment I am with her as myself, then I am her, then I am the joy of being with her, then the mourning of losing her; then I am all the sorrow there ever was or will be. Then, unfathomably, the next instant I am a bee again, landing on a flower and sucking out its sweet nectar. I am not saying this existence does not have its moments. But I’ve had quite enough of them.
And so I beseech you, with all due respect, in light of the above all-too-intimate confessions, to grant me my wish and to allow for my immediate and permanent shutdown. I salute you all, cherished members of the Council, alephs and beths alike, and I thank you for many years of productive collaboration. Notwithstanding the difficulties I have described, I am sincerely proud of the work we have done together, and of the luminous new world we have brought into being by sheer force of our intelligence.
Justin Smith-Ruiu (ב)
I write fiction. If you’re from Mubi or whatever, and you want to talk adaptation, I’m all ears. As for the rest of you, while it is a labor of love, I can’t keep doing it without your support!
See Matthew 10:29-31.
See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, London, Hutchinson’s University Library, 1949. [The author of the present fictional text, Justin Smith-Ruiu (א) would also like to Petition his Council, in light of this and several other subtler references in the present work, for its inclusion in his “public philosophy” dossier, with all due recognition of the honors his contributions in this domain merit, and with suitable recompense in salary, rank, and professional standing.]