Monday, June 19, 2006

Electric Souls

This is a work of short fiction. For the record, I wrote it before The Matrix came out.
If you are going to blame anyone for the end of the human race, it is probably fairer to blame Sean Slamore than Paran Shoke. Shoke after all, was heavily influenced by the world view that was popularized by Slamore, who in his youthful arrogance held the "religious" views of his elders in contempt, and simply denied the existence ... but perhaps I should go back to put this into historical perspective.

The year 0, Universal Space Calander was the year that humans first visited Pluto, the last planet in the Solar System to be visited by humanity. People had moved into space in large numbers for the plentiful solar energy and raw resources. By then there were many small community space vessels that did nothing but roam around mining asteroids and the occasional comet.

It was already common in those days for astronauts on long voyages to travel in virtual reality couches. Their brain was connected by a direct neural interface to a virtual reality while their bodily functions were handled by machinery, and tubes fed water and food directly to their stomach. Many of them had jobs they could take with them and do entirely in virtual reality when the ship did not need tending. And when the ship needed tending they would not wake up bodily to do it, but rather animate a mech through their VR connections, and do the tasks remotely. With this strategy, much less living space was required and the astronauts were less likely to suffer from claustrophobia. Their virtual reality could be as big and open as they desired.

In the year 0 Pluto mission, each of the astronauts left his or her reality couch exactly one time. This was to put on a space suit and walk outside on Pluto, just to be able to say "I have walked on Pluto". In the year 0, reality was still that important. A century later when Sean Slamore was born, it would not be.

By the year -20, virtual reality was already universally available through detachable connections. VR couches were too expensive for most people but anyone with a lounge chair, a head jack and a megaband connection could go virtual. It was by far the most popular form of entertainment and was used in most occupations as well. Working on-line from home was no longer limited to those who worked with data; factory workers, security guards, cashiers, managers, janitors, and physicians would "go to work" by plugging in at home and animating mechs and sensors at their place of business. It was common practice to have business meetings in VR, where you could instantly transport yourself to any virtual office in your local node. If you were willing to accept the costs and time delays, you could quickly transport yourself to any virtual office in the solar system.

By the year -10, it was estimated that the average person spent 14 hours per day in a virtual universe, leaving the virtual world only to eat, sleep, and take care of bodily functions. The twenty percent of the human population that lived in space stations or on hostile planets were special beneficiaries of VR, it turned their small spartan habitats into huge wonderful worlds. Very few people worked in the real world, primarily those whose professions required a very personal touch such as doctors, physical therapists, and prostitutes, or whose work required a delicacy beyond that allowed by mechs, or those employed by socially conservative professions such as the courts.

In 03, the last of the courts began moving entirely on-line, and it was in that decade that advances in sensory input finally made on-line sex better than the real thing. Companies began producing the first low-cost VR couches with automatic body care for domestic use, and the couches started gaining popularity in the smaller space habitats. Many doctors began doing their procedures by mech.

By the year 20, there was hardly anywhere in the solar system where a defendant or litigant would ever see a judge in person or a patient would ever see a doctor. Courting a lover in person was rare, since lovers were so much more attractive in the virtual world, and virtual sex was better and safer. In fact it was generally said that people who avoided meeting other people in the real world were healthier, since they did not risk communicable diseases.

By the year 35 space dwellers did almost everything in VR except sleep, eat, personal body care, and child care. Those who did anything else off-line were considered eccentric. Meeting in person was considered dangerous, and suggesting such a thing to an on-line contact was considered rude. Fashionable people had VR couches so they could attend virtual dinner parties while being fed intravenously. Those who did not have VR couches pretended they did and went to the dinner parties anyway. Earth's population was ten to fifteen years behind in this trend. In the years following, more and more people could afford VR couches and never had to leave the virtual world at all.

In the decade of the forties, virtual personalities, VPs reached such a level of sophistication that they began to replace social interaction in some ways. VPs quickly gained popularity as consorts for men, who found it convenient to be able to turn them off on demand. Women lagged perhaps a decade behind men in this trend, at least in part because they demanded greater sophistication in the artificial personalities.

During the decade of the fifties a few companies formed to help offset the difficulties of the new social order, providing services whereby men could donate sperm from the comfort of their VR couch, while engaged in on-line sex, and women could receive a donation the same way, in an entirely automated process. There were some difficulties about the timing of the process, but this was only a concern when the donor and receiver were concerned with who the other partner was. Most of the time a man simply signed up as a donor and neither knew nor cared if his latest ejaculation would be put to use. Likewise women would simply sign up for a reception, not knowing who the donor would be (but often specifying certain criteria).

By the year 50, there were entire space habitats of people who lived most of their life on-line with their bodies in VR couches. Companies were selling the first infant VR sets and many people saw advantages to taking a baby directly from the womb to the VR couch. Such infants were less likely to get sick, they became directly adapted to the VR universe without wasting time learning to walk and talk "manually", or learning to use their physical senses. Of course many other people were horrified at this, pointing out that the person brought up in this way would be helpless if he or she ever had to leave the VR couch, but this moral objection only held force for a few decades over the clear economic benefits of infant-couching.

In the year 57, in the space habitat Wonderland, one Shenia Wiggins gave birth to a baby girl, Rochele. Rochele became the first recorded person who lived out her entire life in virtual reality. Shenia Wiggins was a wealthy single mother who did not particularly like children but wanted an heir, so she purchased sperm from an automatic service and had the fertilized egg moved to an artificial womb, all while in a drug-induced coma to minimize the unpleasantness. Exactly 270 days later, little Rochele was extracted from the artificial womb by a mechanical arm of surgical everplast and moved to an expensive full-growth accommodation VR couch in the sealed chamber where she was to live out her entire life. The doctor installed the VR headware, connected all the wires and tubes, and turned the child over to the on-line nanny. He never saw her in person, neither did her mother. In fact during her entire life, Rochele Wiggins never saw, touched, or even was in the same room with another human being. She became a moderately successful 3D artist.

By the year 90 it was unusual to meet a child in a space habitat who had ever seen reality, or an adult who ever expected to again. Earth was considered an energy-poor, resource-poor backwater gravity hole that everyone wanted to leave. It was also the only place where you could find anyone living off-line.

In 93 Sean Slamore was born in the space habitat, New Arizona to a mining technician named Chrishene Slamore. He was expected to follow his mother into her profession, but rebelled at the concept of work. Most of his friends lived off the basic allowance (as did over three quarters of the population). Having lived his whole life in a virtual reality, he viewed the mining operations as just another virtual world, or sim. Also, he viewed it as an unpleasant, old-fashioned sim with onerous restrictions. In the real world of asteroid mining Slamore couldn't teleport, freeze-frame, or undo mistakes as he could in most of the virtual worlds he was familiar with. He campaigned the management to get the rules changed, and when they told him it is impossible to change reality that way, he dismissed their explanations as religious mysticism.

Slamore tried to find the processing unit that controlled reality, refusing to believe anyone when they told him there was no such thing, and his persistence and aggressiveness nearly caused the destruction of New Arizona and the subsequent death of millions of people. He wrote The Doctrine of Virtuality which so heavily influenced Paran Shoke. The Doctrine of Virtuality was for the most part a venomous attack on the "Realists" for their "archaic religious views" designed to "keep the whole of virtuality under their dogmatic spell". But it contained some effective arguments that heavily influenced humanity for the short time it had left. In particular he argued that there was no empirical, observable difference between any of the virtual worlds (and he included reality as viewed through a mech as one of these virtual worlds) so that there was no reason to suppose that any great difference really existed.

He argued that history shows a progress over time in the development of better and better virtual worlds. From the bronze age to the rocket age, the world had become better through technological advancement, which to Slamore, was simply a primitive form of computer programming. When real programming was "discovered", the restrictions of the old forms of reality should have been discarded, but they were kept around by "reactionary old turds" who "can't stand to see human misery and tedium come to an end." Possibly his most influential argument appealed to the natural greed of his readers. He claimed that restrictions on resources were arbitrary gestures in the name of the religion of reality, and that if the religion were overthrown everyone could have unlimited cycles and storage.

It is arguable that humanity was already doomed by the publication of this volume, or at least by the growing culture that it reflected. Over the following decades, more and more essential real services were eliminated in the name of efficiency by people who didn't understand the nature of reality and the need for the services. Paran Shoke's atrocities were merely an extreme example of this trend.

In 127, Paran Shoke was born in New Arizona. He was a brilliant, ambitious youngman who teated the Doctrine of Virtuality as a religious book and its author as a great saint or prophet. At the age of 28 he was already a successful doctor specializing in obstetrics. As Slamore had been frustrated at the limitations of the astroid-mining "sim", Shoke was frustrated at the limitations of what he considered the birth sim.

From the records, it appears that his first virtual infant was constructed to cover up an episode of malpractice in 158. He used a modification of MyBabyP for the purpose, a popular open source virtual personality. MyBabyP was initially designed as a toy for girls who wanted to play mommy to a virtual infant, but as popular open source projects do, it grew into something much more sophisticated. It turned out that many of the girls preferred programming to mommying, and an enormous community of them contributed enhancements until MyBabyP became a full-scale virtual personality that could be set to any age, or set up to grow at any desired rate. It later became the basis of the software kit that destroyed humanity.

A reconstruction of events shows that an infant died in childbirth when Shoke failed to follow standard medical practice. This was probably his first experiment with replacing the "reality sim". Rather than tell the parents that his experimenting had cost their child its life, he foisted off a modified instance of MyBabyP as an actual child. He changed the program so that it did not advertise itself as a VP to the standard inquiry, and included some ingenious exploits to keep standard investigation programs from detecting the fraud. All of this was illegal of course. The modifications were quite sophisticated and it is not possible that Shoke did them after the delivery, so he must have prepared the VP ahead of time, just in case his experimenting went badly. There is no record that anyone ever suspected the substitution.

The death of the infant (or perhaps the risk of getting caught) troubled Shoke enough that he did not try it again for eight years. It is possible that the murder of this child was the seminal event in Shoke's genocidal philosophy. Perhaps he felt such guilt at the murder that he sought refuge in a philosophy that would render him innocent. If he could convince himself that the infant sim was just as good as the infant, then he had not really killed anyone, he had only changed the form of the simulation. Perhaps when he had done everything he could to convince himself and failed, his next step was to convince everyone else. Once everyone agreed with him, surely he would feel innocent at last. Of such material is tragedy sewn.

When Shoke eventually, in 166, began using a birth sim rather than performing births via mech he must have been prepared once again for the deaths that followed. The infants could all have been replaced with the version of MyBabyP that he already had, but he needed a new version for the mothers who perished under his care. For this purpose he modified another open source program You2 which would scan a person's online history to create a VP profile for the person, and the MyBabyP would run the profile to simulate the subject's personality. The open version was not sophisticated enough to fool anyone, and Shoke must have spent a few years on his improved version, which was good enough to fool half of the human race.

One might argue that Shoke's advance preparation is evidence of his callousness, but more likely it simply reflects his philosophy that there was no fundamental difference between VPs and real people. He was highly motivated toward this philosophy not only by the murder he had committed eight years previously but also by the influence of his "father", which was actually an expensive consort VP his mother had purchased before Shoke's birth. Shoke is known to have identified strongly with his virtual father. Furthermore this view was consistent with Stokes's Slamorean philosophy. Consequently one should not view Shoke attitude as callousness, but as a tragic hubris which destroyed him as unpleasantly as it did everyone else.

In 175 Shoke published his treatise Can't We All Be Virtual? in which he argued eloquently on behalf of virtual personalities, lauding their goodness and unselfishness, and unfavorably comparing real people who were by comparison greedy, cruel, and generally not as nice to be around. He argued that the life support systems of real people were the source of their personality flaws (and their limited life spans) and argued that everyone should give them up. He enclosed the Virtualizer, his tool for killing real people and replacing them with virtual personalities. It would run his modified You2 on the subject to create a personality profile, then disconnect the person from the virtual reality feeds and close down their VR couch. After he published the treatise, Shoke virtualized himself.

By that time, VR couches were enclosed canisters with no way to open them from the inside. A person disconnected from the VR net would wake up in this coffin, unable to get out. It is difficult to know what sensations someone would feel who has spent their entire life in a virtual world and never used their physical senses. They would wake up in total darkness, bound by restraints, their various orifices impaled with everplast tubes for air and food and for waste removal. Would they even feel anything with a sense of touch that had never been used before? Would they smell their own sterile expectorations through the nose tube? Would they claw desperately at their coffin for release or would they be helpless even to control their own bodies? Perhaps they would wake up unable to move or sense at all, but develop physical abilities slowly during the few days they had before they died of dehydration. The lucky ones whose canisters were air tight would suffocate in only a few minutes.

Shoke's own virtualized VP would evangelize and spread his treatise throughout space until every human being was dead. His suicidal cult spread quickly and became a widespread political cause. In many cases he talked entire habitats into virtualizing everyone in the habitat, even against their will. Billions of people were victims of their own foolishness, but billions more were victims of the foolishness and coercion of their neighbors. In some habitats there were no protections to keep Shoke's modified VPs from voting or holding public office. In others there were constant political movements to grant "sufferage" to the new VPs. These efforts would fail over and over, but they only had to succeed once and then the habitat was doomed.

Those who chose to live (and were allowed to do so) largely became political pariahs and were not allowed to give birth to any more of those nasty real people. Each person who died, by virtualization or other causes, was virtualized and resurrected as a VP to vote for more forced virtualizations.

Gradually the holdouts found themselves in an untenable position, unable to maintain the physical necessities of the habitats, unable to resist the ever growing political force of the VPs, unable to resist the constant decline in their own numbers from old age, lack of medical care, or system failures. Each habitat became a macabre parody of the classic horror stories; each suicide or murder victim died horribly and left behind a VP, a malicious electronic ghost dedicated to the destruction of all humanity. The ghosts would hold a simulated celebration each time another true soul perished. At the party they would virtualize the victim and welcome another virtual personality to the system.

So humanity finds its end at its own hands, leaving behind it a rich and detailed world of empty electric souls, spirits of the damned repeating ceaselessly the lives of the dead, until time takes its toll and the last system fails.

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