This is Your Brain Online

Submitted by Ben on Wed, 07/29/2009 - 16:02

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[Author's note: I wrote this story in the fall of 1995, inspired by a summer internship at a public/private laboratory (that shall remain nameless), so the technology references are all specific to 1995 -- we're talking Windows 3.1 and Mac OS 7.  Software was still distributed on floppy disks -- of 1 MB apiece -- and often cost a lot.  Note in particular that the Web was brand new and still widely viewed as frivolous, and that wireless networking was unknown. The title is a reference to a popular public service announcement at the time.

For the next two years, I submitted the story to a number of science-fiction magazines (under the pseudonym "Zane Rokklyn,") but despite winning the NESFA Short Story Contest in 1996 (see plaque at right), no editor wanted it.  It was finally published in a Grinnell College student publication in 1997, I believe.  In any case, it's long overdue to be posted on the Web.]

Fred wasn’t surprised to see his brain appear on the desktop, because he’d always considered himself a Mac person.  Now he wondered whether he dared to look inside it.

That morning he had answered the call of a distressed accountant named Theresa in Building Seven who had logged onto the network and gone to get coffee as usual, but when she returned had been confronted with a “T:” prompt.  There had never been anything assigned to T: before, but that in itself did not distress Theresa.  What upset her were the files she found there.

Fred opened his brain and studied its contents on the screen, then sighed with relief.  It had worried him when the F: drive on Theresa’s computer had showed no contents, but now he could see the reason: the contents of his brain had file names longer than eight characters, making them invisible to DOS machines.

His first reaction to the news that people’s brains were appearing on the computer network was to tell everyone to make backups.  After seven years of working with users, he had learned how to keep his rear covered.  Even his peers in the computer-support department sometimes worked without spare copies, and this way when they came crying to him for help, he could keep a clear conscience.  Granted, the human brain is known for its resourcefulness and built-in redundancy, but he really didn’t know whether his disk tools would work with something that was definitely not a disk.

His second, similarly conditioned reaction was to tell everyone to change their passwords.

Fred selected “By Date” from the “View” menu and saw that the first file in the list was called, “Brain- view by date”.  He tried “View By Kind” and saw applications, folders, utilities  …   all the usual stuff.  He found a folder called “People,” opened it and selected “View By Name”.  Some were listed by first name, some by last name, but it didn’t take long for him to find one of his ex-girlfriends.  He double-clicked her icon and saw yet another list of files: still pictures, animations, transcripts and sound files of conversations they had had, every single memory of her.  He dragged a particularly bad memory into the trash can but hesitated before deleting it.

“OK,” he thought to himself.  “Time to get serious.  How did this happen?”  Yesterday he had worked through lunch and most of the afternoon installing new network software on every computer on the laboratory campus.  That meant that even if he and his software had had nothing to do with this …  phenomenon, several hundred users would now assume he had done it on purpose -- even the other computer people, and especially the management.

He started to look up the phone number of his representative at the networking company using the organizer he kept in his pocket, but then he decided that as long as his brain was so easily accessible he might as well use it instead.

“People’s brains, appearing as file servers?  Uh-huh.  Fred, are you sure you should be working today?”

“Look, I’d prove it to you by tapping into somebody else’s, but I told them all to change their passwords.”

“Is it limited to your site?”

“Far as I can tell,” said Fred, flipping through the lists of servers and brains on his screen.  “They’re organized by department as if they were just plugged in at their desks.  What are you suggesting?”

“Well, since they’re not plugged in at their desks, maybe this is affecting the networks of the companies next-door.”

“We’re in a residential neighborhood.  There is no network next-door.”

“How about the Internet?  You are on the Internet, right?”

Fred thought about this for a moment.  His job as network administrator didn’t involve connections to the outside.  All the Internet work was done by a thirty-year-old kid named Benji.

Benji came scampering into Fred’s office.  “Hey, dude, check out my new home page!” he cried and then popped out the door again to spread the news.

“I’ll find out and call you back,” said Fred to the phone as he hung up.  “Benji, wait!”

 

 

“You didn’t actually put your brain on the Internet, did you?” Fred asked as he waited for Benji’s home page to appear on his computer screen.  The title of the page had been changed to, “Welcome to Benji’s Brain!”

“No, dude, the ‘firewall’ won’t allow anyone outside to get into our network.  They just connect to the Internet server, ‘cause it’s outside.  So I programmed my brain to copy stuff to the outside box whenever I want.  Isn’t that cool?”

Benji’s Brain contained links to “My friends’ home pages,” “My awesome memory collection,” “All the best computer jokes,” and “My favorite bands.”

“Aside from the ‘memory’ thing, this looks just like any other home page.”

“Yeah, it looks the same.  But I can change it around without ever touching a keyboard.  Click ‘Reload,’ dude.”  Fred clicked the ‘Reload’ button on his screen and a link to “Video clips from concerts where I was sober” appeared after “My favorite bands.”

Fred pointed his mouse at the new link to see the name of the “concerts” file.  It had four periods in it.  Fred was sickened by the thought that someone’s brain was actually organized in UNIX.

“You don’t have to write a program or convert to HTML or anything.  You just think about stuff, and and your brain just does it.  ‘Cause it’s your brain, dude!”

Fred found himself thinking about a frying egg.

 

 

It was less than a week later that other departments began to question Fred.  Property wanted to know who, in violation of union contract, had installed cabling to connect several hundred new servers to the network.  Procurement wanted to know where that cabling had come from.  Fred answered that there was no cabling, but that answer only got him tangled up with Document Conversion and Security.  When he told them that no one off-site could use or even understand the technology, he was asked by Patenting how he planned to keep that information proprietary.

Then, after nearly a week of telephone arguments, the nagging abruptly ceased -- on a direct order from the Laboratory Administrator.  Fred was summoned to her office.

“I want to congratulate you, Mr. Reynolds” said the elderly woman, somewhere between her sixties and her eighties, as she swung slowly from side to side in a leather chair of more than twice her mass, “on dealing so well with this situation.”  Fred nodded his head silently.  “From time to time, someone here in the Lab makes a discovery of revolutionary importance.”  She gestured at a trophy case on the wall.  “When a discovery cannot be explained, it must be reproduced and verified before anyone outside hears about it, lest we have …  shall we say, a Cold Fusion controversy.  Your discovery has been repeatedly reproduced, but we have yet to explain it.”

Fred cleared his throat.  “Perhaps the, um, next course of action would be to invite networking experts to investigate … ” he began.

“Yes,” said the Lab Administrator.  “But that would be complicated by the fact that we do government contract work as well as commercial research.  The government would never allow an inspection from the private sector because we have a great deal of classified information stored on the network -- particularly in some of our brains.  And yet, considering certain corners we have cut in order to compete commercially, a government inspection would be …  undesirable.”

Fred gulped.  His coworkers’ use of pirated software was assumed to be a secret from the management.  Maybe other departments were doing the same things.  If the laboratories had let their equipment go uninspected to save on costs, a single government inspector could close the whole lab.

“While you think about that, I also want to congratulate you on the -- what did you call it? -- ‘optimization’ of my own computer.  It had become so slow and unreliable that my staff was joking about it going ‘senile.’  Now it’s as good as new again.”

Fred waved off the compliment.  “Just part of my job,” he said.  It was technically part of someone else’s job, but that someone else had been on vacation.

The Administrator leaned forward.  “Mr. Reynolds, they’re saying the same thing about me!  They say I forget things.  They say I don’t learn new information as quickly as I used to.  They say I’m paranoid,” she said, gesturing to a closed-circuit TV screen near her desk.  “They’ll soon be saying I should retire.  I want to see them eat their words.”

“With respect, ma’am, you want me to optimize your brain?”

“That, Mr. Reynolds, is precisely what I want.”

“It’s not …  quite …  the same, ma’am.  No one understands the current organization, much less the optimal one.  Only your own brain can know that.”

The Administrator smiled tightly.  “But my brain, Mr. Reynolds, is the one being accused of mistakes.  If I must carry out this procedure myself, I will want complete confidence that I can return to my present state if anything goes wrong.”

“A backup, ma’am?  That, I can do for you.  Just log in at your computer and I’ll take care of it.”  Fred started up one of his usual disk-copying programs which would leave the organization of any storage device unaltered.  He had had to backup several users’ brains in the past two weeks when they admitted, predictably enough, that they had never backed up anything before.

He told the program to copy the Administrator’s brain onto her hard disk.  “Surely it won’t fit,” she protested.

“Brains store things …  very compactly,” said Fred mysteriously.  “Benji -- Mr. Clifford -- has already had to restore his brain from backup once, so I can assure you it works.”

The program clicked and chuffed away for about a minute before presenting its first error message.  “Could not read from sector 68382,” it said.  “Bad sector.  Abort, Retry, Ignore?”  Fred quickly selected “Ignore,” and the program continued.

The Administrator resumed breathing to say, “Bad …  sector?”

Fred licked his lips.  “We use only a small fraction of our brain capacity.  If cells in one area die, the brain usually moves that information somewhere else.  When you go through with the optimization you can keep everything important away from those bad spots.  I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.  Ma’am.”

The computer gave the same error message for sectors 93285 to 93298.  Fred pressed the “I” key every time.

The Lab Administrator began to pace.  “It doesn’t say ‘naturally dead cells,’ does it?  It doesn’t say ‘killed by alcohol in your youth’ or ‘breathed too many fumes at the gas station.’”

“The program doesn’t know it’s copying from a human brain, ma’am.  It just knows it can’t get data from those spots.  I’m sure Mr. Clifford had at least ten times as many --”

“It says ‘Bad sector,’ damn it!  It could be a tumor!”

“I’m not a doctor,” said Fred sheepishly.  “A doctor could tell you.”

The Administrator sat down in her chair.  “I apologize,” she said after a pause.  The computer was unable to read from 23 more sectors.  “I’ll get a CAT scan,” she decided quietly.

 

 

The Lab Administrator took two days off from work, and in her absence more people approached Fred for favors.  An executive whose secretary had just quit wanted to install a spell-checker in his brain, but Fred had to explain that even if he were sure the file format was compatible it would be a violation of copyright.  A college student employed for the summer wanted help reorganizing her mental notes from the previous semester’s classes, but Fred claimed that wasn’t part of his job description.

A reclusive draftsman who had never played chess before in his life won the annual employee chess tournament but at the last minute, torn by conscience, refused to accept his trophy.  Word spread from one coworker to another that a few hours before the tournament he had copied a computer chess program to his brain.  Fred found out about it the next morning from seven happily scandalized friends.

 

 

When the Lab Administrator returned to work, she immediately called Fred to her office.  “The tumor,” she said, “is small.  It does not appear to be malignant, though I’ll need to return for another scan to be sure.  In the meantime, I have gone through with the optimization and copied everything away from the affected area.”

Fred licked his lips.  “I’m glad to hear it, ma’am.”

“So am I,” the Administrator smiled.  “You and your network have saved me from a rather unpleasant surprise.”  She swiveled back and forth in her chair in silence for a while.  “Mr. Reynolds,” she said abruptly, “have you researched the philosophical implications of your discovery?”

“No, ma’am, not seriously.  I’m very busy, but I could look into it.”

“Consider it an assignment.”

 

 

Fred had gotten rather adept at using his brain.  Undaunted by the number of years that had passed since he took philosophy in college and the tiny amount he consciously remembered, he found his old mental notes from the class in more or less intact condition.  They were in a cerebral folder named “Philosophy.”  He had been a very organized student.

He found what he was looking for in the notes about George Berkeley’s Idealism.  At the point in the dialogue when “Philonous” triumphantly proved to “Hylas” that all minds and ideas exist within the mind of God, Fred had scribbled in the margin, “God is the ultimate file server!”  In his mind, and on the screen before him now, he had developed this analogy further until he finally wrote a paper on it.  His professor had given him a C, but he was still fond of the concept.

After demonstrating that matter cannot be proven to exist except as ideas within minds, Berkeley had had to explain where ideas come from.  From the mind of God, he had answered, as if this were obvious.  Berkeley’s god puts ideas into minds and takes them away again in such a systematic manner that people perceive them as a physical, material world.

Fred’s philosophy class had tried for two hours to refute Berkeleyan Idealism, but since all their evidence for the existence of reality fit within his framework, it was impossible.  But how did that apply to the current problem?  Surely the Will of God hypothesis could not be refuted, but just as surely it should not be assumed!

Fred tried to think, distracted by the philosophy notes on his screen.  How were people’s brains connected to the network?  Nobody knew.  How was it possible for them to interface with computers?  Well, these brains had experience with using computers.  Then how could the computers affect the brains?  Well, Theresa’s brain had adapted to MS-DOS, Benji’s to UNIX, and his own to Mac OS.  That suggested a certain amount of cooperation on the brains’ part.  But why had it happened?  That was the real kicker, worse even than “how.”  The “how” question could at least be hedged.  There was no easy answer to any of the “why” questions -- “why us” and “why now” included -- except the Will of God hypothesis.

Fred knew this was bad news, but it had been an assignment.

 

 

“This is bad news,” said the Lab Administrator as her chair glided from side to side.  “We do government contract work.  We can’t take favors from God.  It’s un-Constitutional.  Someone will want to know which god we made a deal with and why we rejected the others.  If we say it wasn’t our choice, people who believe in free will will think we’re promoting fatalism.”

Fred tried to think of a way out.  “We still haven’t had an inspection.  Perhaps there’s another explanation.”

“But if we even suggest that we’ve considered a theological explanation, there goes our credibility, and our contracts with it!”

Fred wanted very much to remind her that she had assigned him to consider that sort of explanation.  In his desperation to say something else, he suggested, “But for all we know it could be …  space aliens!  Some sort of technological gift, and they want to see how we react before they give it to the rest of the planet.  I hadn’t thought of that before, but it makes just as much sense … ”

“I think, Mr. Reynolds, that it would be in the best interests of the laboratory, as well as myself and yourself, if this discovery returned whence it came.  I no longer want to know whether it was a gift from God or aliens or whether you somehow wished it into existence.  I don’t want to have to worry about whether it will affect our government work or our commercial work.  I don’t want it to affect any of our contracts.  I just want it gone.”  Fred stood up.  “Consider it an assignment,” the Administrator added.

 

 

Fred sat down at his desk with a can of cola and a halfhearted determination to find a way to separate his users’ brains from their computers.  By the time a draftsman timidly entered his office, the can was sitting empty atop a pile of three open manuals.

Fred glanced up from the fourth manual.  “Can I help you?”

“Um, hi, Mr. Reynolds?” said the draftsman uncertainly, his eyes wandering over Fred’s cluttered bookshelves.  “I’m Salerno? from Drafting?” he said with an inflection that rose uncertainly.

“Oh, the chess champion.  Congratulations.”

“Well that’s what I’m here about?  See, I was wondering if you could help me forget it?  I mean with the computer?  I want to forget that any of it happened? ‘cause I can’t sleep? and it’s all I can think about?  I just wish I’d never done it?”

Fred turned back to his manual, where his thumb was marking a place on the page.  “I’m really awfully busy, but you can do it yourself.  Make a backup to your hard disk just in case, and then delete anything from the original you think will remind you.  If there’s anything about the incident you do want to remember, write it out on paper before you start so you can read it when you’re done.”

Salerno shifted his weight for a few seconds.  “Um, I was also wondering? if there was any way you could …  help other people? to forget it too?”

Fred looked up again.  “Other people’s memories aren’t yours or mine to change.  You’ll just have to do it the old-fashioned way: play fair from now on.”  He held up the manual for Salerno to see.  “Look, if I can figure out how to do this, your computer access to your brain will last only another few hours.  So any changes you want to make will need to be soon.”

“Thanks.  Mr. Reynolds,” said Salerno dejectedly as he crept back out the door.

Half an hour later, Fred had started another can of cola and was looking through a seventh manual.  He was on the phone navigating a technical-support voicemail system when an alert appeared on his computer screen.  “Virus detected on network!  Intercepted while copying itself from SN-3225 to SN-4268.”

Fred hung up the phone and brought up his virus-protection utility.  When he was sure the computer virus had been destroyed, he pulled a notebook off his bookshelf and connected the offending serial number 3225 with a room number.

As he stormed down the hallway, he tried to think of all the ways a virus could have entered the lab’s network.  Everything that came over the Internet was checked at least once.  Employees’ disks of documents were classified as government property and should not be leaving the laboratory.  And disks of legitimate software would be write-protected and certified virus-free.  Plus, every personal computer was set up to scan every disk.  So someone must have not only brought in an illegitimate software disk, they must have disabled the virus-checking program.

The room number Fred had found in his office led him to the drafting room -- a honeycomb of unnumbered cubicles.  On a hunch, Fred looked for Salerno’s desk …  and found the chess-playing draftsman sitting there semiconscious, staring vacantly at the center of his computer screen.

Fred stuck his head into the next cubicle.  “Do you know anything about Salerno?” he asked.

The other draftsman leered.  “Our chess champion?  How much you wanna know?”

“Did he say anything a few minutes ago?”

“Yeah, he said he’d deleted something important by mistake, and he was gonna restore from backup.”  The man gestured at the complex blueprint on his own screen.  “Happens all the time.  Why you ask?”

“Do you know if he disabled his virus checker?”

The man shrugged.  “Probably.  He’s always muttering about how long it takes to scan a disk.”

Fred returned to Salerno’s cubicle and turned the virus checker back on.  He told it to scan the hard disk for damage, and it dutifully began the slow process.  While waiting, Fred searched through the man’s disk box, looking for the carrier of the virus.  He found a blue one without a label, but when held up to the light it read, in shiny pencil graphite, the word “UltraChess.”

“Isn’t UltraChess a commercial product?” Fred asked of the cubicle wall.

“Yeah,” came the voice from over the wall.  “Hundred and fifty dollars.  Salerno said a friend of his brother gave him a copy.”

The virus checker finished its scan and reported that the only damaged file was the one called “Brain Backup.”

Fred waved his hand in front of Salerno’s eyes, then shook his vegetative body.  He tossed the UltraChess disk into a wastebasket and called an ambulance.

 

 

The afternoon sun peered through the office’s tinted glass, over the Lab Administrator’s shoulder, and directly into Fred’s eyes.  Her guest chair was becoming very familiar to him.

“To what extent,” she asked him, “do you estimate the laboratory is responsible for this accident?”

Fred cleared his throat.  “I estimate not at all, ma’am.  We provided him with a virus checker, but he chose not to use it.  If it gets to the point where we have to explain how a computer virus was able to affect his brain, you and I know it wasn’t our doing.  The only thing I’m worried about is that I was the one who told him to hurry up and do the job himself.”

The Administrator smiled.  “In government work, Mr. Reynolds, anyone who encourages efficiency should be sainted.  I’ll see to it that martyrdom is not necessary.”  She allowed her smile to remain for a second before her face fell back to seriousness.  “However, now that we know that computer viruses can incapacitate our employees, the risk must be removed.  I followed your instructions as well, Mr. Reynolds; Mr. Salerno could have been me.”

“With respect, ma’am, only if you were pirating software.”

“I don’t share your confidence.  I’ve seen things go wrong with our network in the past, and the next time it happens I want every employee’s brain safely off-line.  I expect to come to work tomorrow morning and see everyone’s brain only where it belongs.”  She tapped her forehead.

 

 

Fred finished a memorandum and sent it by electronic mail to all employees.  He had tried to explain in it that the “network modifications” over the past few weeks had been “a temporary experiment,” and that, regardless of how anyone felt about it, the experiment had now ended.  The clock read 5:15; nearly everyone would now have left the lab for the day.

The ‘phenomenon’ had appeared just after he installed new network software on every computer in the lab.  Now, after searching manuals and interrogating tech-support operators for hours, his only remaining option was to banish it by undergoing the same process in reverse.  He would have to reinstall the old software on every computer, and it would probably take all evening.  He picked up a box of CDs and floppy disks and sat down at the computer nearest his own -- personal sentiment requested that his computer be the last one affected.

He tapped his neighbor’s mouse to wake up the monitor and saw that she had left her computer connected to R: -- her brain.  On a whim, he decided to do one last DIR command and watch her memories scroll by.  Instead the computer beeped, and its prompt changed to CURRENT DRIVE NOT VALID>.

A strange bubble formed in Fred’s stomach as he tried to think of an explanation.  He heard his own computer beep from across the room.  He leaped up and saw the Mac OS version of the same ominous message: “‘Fred Reynolds’: The file server has closed down.”  He clicked the only choice, an ironic “OK.”  The icon of his brain, still on the desktop, turned gray.  He double clicked it, only to be told, “The shared disk ‘Fred Reynolds’ could not be opened, because you do not have enough access privileges.”

Fred’s eyes teared at the very thought of having insufficient access privileges to his own brain.  He clicked “OK” again and watched helplessly as his brain fell into the trash can and disappeared.

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