“Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish.”—Spinoza
I wake up from a high-def dream of Guardians of the Galaxy 27 that just dropped on REMflix. My personal AI life coach, Ashonda, suggested waking up at 6:43 AM based on the core hours of my work schedule and historic data gathered from my morning routine. In the twilight headspace between sleeping and waking, my HUD shows that if I snooze, I’ll lose two points in my impulse control rating. I have enough hedonic flex to soak the loss, but it’s better to save it. A green timer bar appears and shows me I have 5 seconds to make the decision. It slowly shrinks, getting yellower then redder before the snooze automatically triggers. I open my eyes and roll out of bed.
The snooze visor fades away and a little green “+1” pops in my periphery. I passed another impulse control check. My conscientiousness remains intact. As I walk into my bathroom, Neuralink emits an ideation of toothbrushes and toothpaste, reminding me to brush my teeth. I take a piss as the HUD tells me I’ll run out of toothpaste in five days, and does it have my consent to buy more, a different brand this time. I say yes and it suggests the organic sls-free toothpaste with fair-trade fluoride. This will accrue more social justice points than my standard brand. The upsell dialog shows that it costs $34, about 10% more. I still haven’t had my coffee and the automated sales agent that bought the advertising affordance knows it.
Anyway it’s fine. Ultimately my UBI payouts are tied to my social responsibility rating so really I’m just spending money to make money. This is known as a “nudge,” a form of giving back that instrumentalizes selfishness. That’s the kind of guy I am you know?—making the world a better place right from my own toilet. I start brushing my teeth as I invoke Headlines, “The First Psychic News App”, to tell me about what’s going on in the world. Headlines, get it? Because it reads you the headlines right in your own head. Right now I am rated in the top decile for being an informed citizen, but barely. 91%. The little 91 is in my periphery now, along with a timer counting down from two minutes as I make each little brush stroke, mindful of the gums. The implant makes my teeth itch in such a way that brushing them feels very satisfying. The itch moves all over my mouth and guides me to 100% coverage.
The first Headline is: far right dissidents are sabotaging the drones that deliver food to underprivileged neighborhoods in several states. I interrupt the news reader by subvocalizing and tell it to donate to the defense fund to protect the victims. That gets me 20 more points in social justice, plus 10 more for doing it without direct prompting by a machine. I have a fleeting vision of fireworks and a hunch that a pretty girl is winking at me, and both sensations are ephemeral, as in a dream. Ideally, social responsibility becomes a reflexive, conditioned habit. Full gum coverage now. I’m such a fucking hero at this. A yellow warning light gently reminds me not to get too full of myself.
A progress bar at the top of my FOV keeps me on track as I shower. Core office hours begin at 9, but I like to get started at 8. I have a 54 day streak of getting the early bird bonus for being work-ready an hour before core. The next news story is about the rising trend of 3d-printed smart organs. New hearts, kidneys and livers can integrate with Neuralink to stream KPIs and detect toxins and pathogens in real time, along with information about blood circulation and cardiovascular function.
If you sign up for the beta you can get a UBI credit to offset the risks you take as an early adopter advancing the I-Level Human Goal of promoting fully quantified medicine for all. Goals are divided into tiers and they exist at the personal, municipal, state, national, and international level. I-Level goals are the most important ones and also the hardest, the most far-thinking. Anything you can do to advance an I-Level goal usually has a big payout to your social justice score, but there are also lots of small, individual things you can do to contribute to those goals. Everyone has their part to play.
I try to sign up for the beta but the waitlist is a mile long already, but I still join and earn a few consolation points for good intentions. My shower has used 15 gallons of water so far and I got a little distracted there. I quickly rinse off and cut it short, clocking in at 15.5. The median is 17. I would have liked to get it even tighter, but above average is better than nothing. My informed citizen score hasn’t budged, and the HUD tells me that if I would need to hear 78 more headlines today in order to hit the 92nd percentile. That will be tough, as it projects I will only be able to hear 35 given my current rate of intake and the state of my calendar for the day. If I don’t get through at least 20 my score will fall to 90. That’s unacceptable.
As soon as my shower ends, Neuralink ideates a vision of a Saturday morning cartoon breakfast into my mind’s eye. Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, cereal and milk, pancakes with syrup and butter, a glass of orange juice and a smiling TV mom, who reminds me: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” My automated coffee maker has already finished brewing a pot of fair trade carbon offset coffee from a microfarm run entirely by women, another one of those cases where it’s worth spending more to do good in the world. It all adds up and it all comes back to you.
For breakfast I have a macro-nutritionally complete food loaf made with sustainably sourced insect protein, and my degustation app makes it taste like anything I want. The decoupling of the sensory experience of eating from the nature of the food being eaten is the ultimate triumph of nutritional science; degustation with neuralink can make healthy food taste like junk food. A compressed pâté of kale and crickets can taste like an ice cream sundae or a double bacon cheeseburger or foie gras mousse with shaved white truffles and beluga caviar. Neuralink is generating gastronomically exotic recipes; mouthfeel, chewiness, creaminess—all become plastic through the gossamer tendrils of full duplex direct brain interfaces.
At some point, however, we must ask if we can enjoy this kind of pleasure in good conscience. There are still many people who don’t have access to Neuralink, and it seems unfair to indulge in these endless delights while there are still so many people in the world who are starving. That’s why I took a virtual hunger pledge to limit my use of degustation, to raise awareness and increase social pressure on others to donate and work towards the causes of ending world hunger (another I-Level) and making sure that everyone has access to degustation technology.
When you take the pledge, you install a limiter on your Neuralink hub that ratchets flavor and texture down to approximately zero, blocking all sensation of taste. The app tells the world every time you eat a meal with the limiter enabled, and tattles on you through a social media portal if you disable it or opt to experience a burst of flavor. This is very important, as it creates social accountability and keeps you from cheating. To be perfectly honest, the food loaf tastes awful, so this pledge is still a lot better than eating it unfiltered. That’s how I choose to look at it.
Morning ablutions, breakfast, coffee, and I’m just in time for work. At eight AM precisely, Ashonda lets me know I have a call with a client at 8:15. I work on accounts for a dream production company called Somno Labs. Mostly we’re a contracting agency, and we do things like commercials or web shorts, but we just landed a contract with REMflix to do production for one of their upcoming shows. I’m on the account, so it’s an exciting, dynamic job to have, and I get a front-row seat to watch how a big-budget dream gets made.
The rep for REMflix is named Qiyara, and she is the associate producer of the series we’re making. We met at a launch party for a reality show where the contestants have to compete and win games while getting animal brainscans dreamed into their heads. Somno Labs made some teasers for it and also procured some of brain scans from different animals. The guy who thought he was a walrus, man, you need to see it. But this time around, we’re making a high-concept sci-fi miniseries about a future world where money is delineated in carbon credits and people voluntarily use eco-suicide pods to clear their debts.
Often at work I will pause for a moment to listen to a few Headlines and before I know it, forty minutes are gone. To help me manage this, I use a program called Hairshirt. The way it works is, first it monitors your brain activity to establish a baseline and figure out what it looks like when you are doing productive, focused work. Then, any time your brainwaves deviate from work, it gives you a mild but noticeable sensation of pain. Over time, you develop a limbic intuition that getting distracted is hurting you.
My favorite feature of Hairshirt is that you can choose what kind of pain alarm you want: shocking, burning, tearing, aching, bloating, stabbing, stinging, shooting, or needling. Personally, I prefer needling. If I start to surf the web or drift into idle thoughts, I feel a sensation of sharp pinpricks starting at the base of my spine and gradually covering my whole body. The longer I procrastinate, the more the sensation expands and deepens. After a few months with the app, I reflexively avoid wasting time, but I keep it on so I won’t relapse.
At 8:14, I switch off Hairshirt and call Qiyara. It’s a video call from our laptops, because it turns out that dream calls through Neuralink are too raw, too risky. Almost no one can stay fully present and focused for the duration of a brain-to-brain call. Any thoughts you have will leak undesired ideation into the minds of the people you are calling. And even if that weren’t true, we need some measure of privacy in our own thoughts, or else negotiation becomes impossible. In a Neuralink call, you can’t hold anything back, and every passing fancy comes out.
Qiyara’s face appears on my screen and there’s a soft light filter that makes her skin look nice. We exchange pleasantries and she asks me if I have the updated screenplay with all the edits she requested in our last meeting. I do, but this is also a code because let’s get it all out in the open here, Qiyara has a drug habit and the main reason I got this contract is that I have a connection and I can get her what she wants.
Yes, the girl likes her smartdrugs, one-time use programs that hijack your Neuralink and deliver unregulated emotions. The really good drugs don’t just blast you with pure dopamine; they have some artistry about them, delicate envelopes of fear that give way to elation, subtle juxtapositions of desire and relief, longing and fulfillment. These programs are illegal because studies have shown that people are unable to resist abusive consumption patterns with media that provide on-demand experiences of bliss, contentment, or ecstasy. There are hardware controls on the implant itself that make it impossible to trigger these feelings without highly regulated encryption keys from the Federal Association of Neurological Health, or the Fanch as we say in the biz.
A modern smartdrug has three major components: the first piece is the crack that lets it circumvent the federal controls. The second is the payload, which delivers an illicit cognitive experience, and the third piece is the part that self-destructs the entire program after it’s over. That last bit is important because it’s how the dealers stay in business. I don’t consider it to be safe to transmit these things over a network, both because ISPs run automated smartdrug scanners on all connections as part of a federal mandate, and because as a result of that, most of the people offering to send them to you over the net are scammers and that’s a good way to catch an MLM or a virus that makes you extremely brand-loyal to some Indian knock-off viagra huckster. No thanks.
I arrange to meet with Qiyara at 12:30, but before we hang up she mentions a few more minor edits that she wants in the demo reel before we make the handoff. I assure her that this will be possible, and before I can even think it, Ashonda puts me on a call with Yuna, my main POC (that’s point of contact, not person of color!) in creative.
Yuna answers my call with her characteristic stoicism, her every word unfolding like a wave in a tranquil ocean. As you probably know, enlightenment is a mandatory skill for commercial dream production. Everyone in that department is a certified zen master, because dreams are captured from the minds of neutral observers, and you cannot be filled if your mind is already full. Film studios used to be full of cameras, but dream studios are full of monks. I describe the changes to the reel that Qiyara requested and Yuna tells me that her team can have the edits done in an hour. Her egoless confidence makes me think of a gust of wind sweeping through a field of grass, each blade reacting and bouncing back, leaving no memory as it passes.
The call with Yuna ends at 8:27, leaving three minutes to go until my morning standup with my personal growth team. This is not, strictly speaking, part of work, but it’s one of my medical benefits that I get through my company, and it’s an opportunity to raise our social responsibility scores and become better people. I’m the last one to join the call, and the AI Scrum leader, Ashonda, welcomes me to the room. She starts off with a wellness check, and we each go around and talk about how we’re feeling today. Everyone says they’re doing great, including me, but as soon as I say it, a purple indicator flashes in my HUD to tell me that, according to my biometrics, that was a lie.
Let me digress here for a moment and say that my honesty score could be a lot better. It’s not that I’m a dishonest person, it’s just that going through life every day there are times you need to have discretion. You know how at work everyone is always so full of positive energy? Everything is always “exciting,” everyone is thrilled with our new app icon, we’re all elated that we’re meeting our quarterly goals, or that the DEI team is progressing on making our hiring more equitable—don’t get me wrong, all of those things are good—but that’s just how you have to act in an office: you have to be a perpetual cheerleader.
Every time I put on that face at work, the system dings me for a lie, not because I don’t mean it, but because I have self awareness of it; that’s how the lie detector works, it’s a classifier trained on your brain waves. It doesn’t say what the lie was, it doesn’t tell anyone else, you just see a little purple “-1” and your score goes down. We’re expected to be authentically empty vessels who get a borderline sexual thrill out of the fact that we switched to a new CRM tool, you feel me? What I’m trying to say is it’s an honest lie, a lie for a noble purpose, and I’m not even saying it’s a lie every time, but it’s a lie often enough that I’m flirting with disaster, and I don’t have a plan.
I suppose I could opt out of having an honesty score. You don’t have to stream honesty metrics to your healthcare provider, but if you don’t, doesn’t that look even worse than a bad score? It’s one of those optional things that’s not really optional, and if it gets bad enough, then people probably won’t want to work with me, or give me a loan, or maybe even pick me up in a rideshare. So it makes me anxious, which I think makes the lie detector even more likely to fire, vicious circle.
But I’m great! That’s what I tell my personal growth team, because like the last thing you are going to tell them is all this, or that your honesty score is wavering on the edge of “Filthy Rotten Liar” because secretly you hate and resent the hive insect mentality of the modern office (which isn’t even an office any more, it’s just a labyrinthe of laptops and dreams.) I say that I’m great, and I’m still dedicated to my virtual hunger pledge, and that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about more ways that I can give back to the community that has given me so much.
We go around the circle and Jakayla says that she has been struggling trying to make it through every day, not because of anything external, but she needs to learn how to trust herself more because she’s always second guessing herself because society doesn’t teach women to be strong and self-confident. We all nod and make murmurs of agreement.
Peter says that in spite of everything he’s full of hope for the future. Like me, he took the virtual hunger pledge, and it’s really just been a daily reminder to him how fortunate we all are.
Thomas says that he’s finally starting to feel like his authentic self especially since his moustache started coming in and it feels great to be seen and known as the person he’s always known that he was on the inside.
Sometimes as we go around every morning, I ask myself who these people even are. We were randomly linked up because we’re all in the same healthcare network and according to some algorithm, we are all at similar places in our life journeys. That’s what Ashonda said when we joined. On some level I think it’s ridiculous that we have to say how we feel, because Ashonda knows exactly how we feel because she is fed a sophisticated matrix of metrics from our Neuralinks and has direct access to all our emotional states, but what she says is that my lizard brain doesn’t know that, so the ritual of bringing it forward into the consciousness is supposed to increase mindfulness and help me feel centered and heard.
Ashonda says she’s happy that we’re all doing so well, and that it’s not wrong to take a minute, each of us for ourselves, to be present and experience pure joy, because in deepening our own awareness of our privileges, we will also be able to empathize with others who lack them.
For a moment, all my senses are eclipsed by a pure singularity of warm and beckoning light, a wave of unity, compassion, and love for everyone, almost like an orgasm but without sexual desire. As I exhale, it’s like coming back down to earth. I feel a tremendous openness. Ashonda says it’s OK to think of these feelings as a reward for all of the good work we’re doing. “But don’t get too comfortable. Let’s take a look at your life-sprint goals and personal user stories.”
Life-sprints are an idea from the business world where your AI coach helps you form personal, achievable, measurable goals to become a better person. The idea is to organize your life into stories that you want to be able to tell about yourself, and then break them up into quantifiable actions that you can take to make those stories come true.
My story is that I want to make the world a more equal place for the women. Ashonda helped me write this goal so that it has both a local and a global dimension. The local involves speaking up at work and fighting for equal pay. This sprint I have a spike to make sure that none of the women in the company are getting paid less than me within the same seniority bracket. If I find any pay inequality, then I will write further stories to resolve the problem, for example starting a salary redistribution pool to make sure the excess goes to everyone equally. If every man did this, we could probably close the pay gap tomorrow.
I also have a story to address my subconscious attitudes and basic perceptions. Ashonda helped me see how beauty standards make the world an unfair place for women who aren’t born with body types that society deems attractive. No matter what we say or believe about equality, our implicit biases cause us to treat women differently because of their bodies, and Neuralink provides a novel way to fix this at the root.
We go around the circle again, this time giving our status updates. What story are we working on? What did we do to make progress on it? Is anything blocking us?
Jakayla says her story is to advocate for Black women to have more representation in media. She’s writing letters to different media companies to make her voice heard and express how important this issue is to her, and asking major media companies what they are doing to advance the cause of increasing representation for marginalized groups.
Peter says his story is to advocate for Human-Animal Love (HAL) Rights, because people who are Animal-Attracted deserve the same recognition and acceptance in society that we give to everyone else. Ever since Neuralink made it possible for animals to give consent, there has been a growing movement to change the law to grant marriage equality for HAL. Peter’s story is to donate ten hours of work this week to HAL advocacy groups.
Thomas says his story is to take a trip to a developing city and help distribute gender affirming hormone therapy to children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it.
It’s my turn and I say my epic is to fight for womens’ equity and that I actually have two different stories for that. The first one is getting involved at work to raise questions about pay equity, but the second one—I feel a little embarrassed talking about this—is a personal growth item suggested by Ashonda to help work toward beauty equity for all women, no matter their body type.
Ashonda asks if I would be willing to tell the group about my experience, and the thing is, in this situation, can you really say no? As I’ve explained, I can’t afford to make up a reason not to, with my already tumultuous honesty score hanging over my head. So I start talking, and I have to grit my teeth here, because this is intimate and it’s something I don’t feel comfortable with at all (but personal growth isn’t always comfortable.)
“Maybe it will sound a little weird, but the action I took to advance the cause of womens’ body equity was to masturbate to women that are not conventionally attractive. I only watch ethically sourced pornography, of course, where all the participants demonstrate proof of age and consent to a third party, and an independent reviewer verifies that none of the participants are acting under coercion or were victims of human trafficking.”
Aside: I still don’t feel totally at home watching high-def dreaming video, because I’m old enough to remember when we watched everything on screens. In a video, you see an arrangement of light that you interpret as a mountain, but in a dream you feel a cognition of a mountain, which then evokes an arrangement of light. The things you see are secondary to the feeling of seeing, because the visual cortex doesn’t work like a traditional display.
“The woman in the dream I watched was extremely curvy, or fluffy, or I guess, “big and beautiful:” her thighs were probably each as big as my waist, textured by stretch marks and cellulite. She had huge spidery false eyelashes affixed to her face, and enormous rolls of flesh hung down from her belly and covered her genitals like a skirt. Her co-star held her pannus aside to reveal her intimate parts. Ashonda said it’s OK to be fully open and honest about my feelings in these moments because if I don’t acknowledge them I won’t be able to overcome them. So, radical honesty: I found her repulsive. The sight of her made me feel nauseous, and brought to mind questions of disease and infection.”
Silence. Presumably everyone is on mute. Ashonda says, “That’s alright. If you have those feelings, it’s important to own them, to name your prejudice.” Sometimes she almost feels like a priest in a confessional, even though this isn’t exactly private. I continue.
“Before the dream started, I had given Neuralink permission to modify my emotions and proprioceptions. As I watched the extra-curvy woman in the throes of ecstasy, my implant turned nausea to attraction, repulsion to compulsion, and I found myself full of eager desire for her; her fat rolls and stretch marks drew me in, and I even imagined the scent of sour sweat and yeast blooming in the folds of her skin: in that moment every aspect of her was enticing to me. All my prejudice melted away.”
Jakayla and Peter and Thomas’ faces don’t betray any emotion. I hope they weren’t paying attention, but I know they probably are because Ashonda would have nudged them back if they stopped. “Thank you for sharing that,” she said, “we can all learn from your example”.
Warm light radiates from nowhere and bathes my surroundings. A green and gold toast notifies me that I have gained points in empathy and authenticity, and I get an achievement for attending my 1000th personal growth standup.
At 12 exactly, Ashonda tells me from inside my head that it’s time to leave to go meet Qiyara. To be honest she reminds me of the woman in the video I watched for my personal growth team, and I think that’s good. I hope I am treating her equitably. I wonder if Ashonda knows that the reason I’m meeting Qiyara is to bribe her with drugs. I don’t think so, because wouldn’t she tell the authorities? But I also wonder how she could possibly not know.
I load the encrypted smartdrugs onto a thumb drive, and head down to my car. We all thought the future would be self-driving robot cars, but it turns out the best self-driving car is actually you, running a generative transformer pre-trained on racecar drivers and integrated with google maps. The human hardware is highly adapted to negotiating routes through 3d spaces, and the software can be patched. I tell myself where I want to go and pull out of my garage like a bat out of hell, a speed demon on judgement day. Everything is a highway now, no traffic lights anywhere, no speed limits, a hundred miles per hour on surface streets. It’s as thrilling as any smartdrug, the exhilaration of pure speed, more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.
At the same time though, I confess I feel like a passenger in my own body, which parks my car ten stories underground beneath a gleaming glass tower, a relic of the 20th century, back when everyone used to cluster in cities and show up onsite to work every day. There are still certain companies that cling to the old trappings of prestige. The autopilot gives control back to me once the car is parked, and I make way to the elevator, still fifteen minutes before I’m supposed to meet with Qiyara.
The elevator from the parking garage brings me to the ground floor of the skyscraper. The floor is polished stone and the ceiling of the lobby is very high, vertiginously so. Light shines in through the glass on all sides, and there are more elevator bays in a central column, to take you up to the business floors. Ashonda points out a table by making it glow and tells me to have a seat while she lets Qiyara know I’ve arrived. But as soon as I sit down, two men in identical gray suits and white button-down shirts and black ties approach me and sit at my table, uninvited.
The first one asks me what I’m doing here, and I say I’m dropping off some encrypted, sensitive documents for a client. He says “is that all you’re doing?” A purple warning indicator flashes in the lower left of my HUD; it can sense that I’m planning to lie. It shows me that my rating is about be downgraded to “Untrustworthy”. I muster all the sincerity in the world, and I say, “I’m also planning to get lunch.” Somehow, this doesn’t trip the sensor. The man shows me a badge, FANH, and asks if I’ll submit my documents to a malware scan. This will not compromise the encryption, it will only search for known traces of smartdrugs and viruses.
I try to tell them no. I try to get up and walk away, but for some reason it doesn’t happen, even though I know it’s what I should do. One of the quirks of dreaming media is that you start to lose your sense of when you’re dreaming and when you’re awake. Media you stream into your head feels just like a dream, and you have linear, externally coherent imagery dreamed into your head while you’re asleep. There are admittedly days when I feel as though I’m constantly on the brink of awakening, as if the dream I dreamt in my sleep still has me.
In my left jacket pocket is the drive with the drugs, in the right is the drive with the screenplay. I give them the one with the work documents and they plug it into a small device. It scans clean. The agent asks me if I have any other drives, and the purple warning flashes again.