As technology gets smarter and smarter, the human brain is forced to reflect on itself in the mirror of the future and question what value it will have in a world in which wet tech, cerebral hacking and commodified consciousness could reign. A world not of enhancement or augmentation, but replacement. Authors will enquire what the future of our most precious organ will be, while they still have one. Virtual Futures
The Skull Is More Transparent Than We Think
Keynote speaker: Alexander Vladimirov of London Brain Hackers
At Virtual Futures, self-described ‘DIY brain hacker’, Alexander Vladimirov provided brain hacking definitions and rationales; then outlined the short and long-term risks of the practice, before positing likely future extrapolations from the techniques he described.
Unlike mind hacking, which seeks to ‘reprogram’ the mind to improve performance, Alexander explained that brain hacking measures and alters brain activity. Brain hacking is not surgical; it is based on open-source, crowd-funded neuroscience that employs low-intensity signals for stimulation.
Brain hacking has a variety of goals, including potential treatments for anxiety and stress; adaptation to requirements we did not evolve to deal with, such as processing enormous quantities of information; exploring personal identity; the enhancement of gaming and entertainment; and finally, to explore possibilities out of sheer scientific and technical curiosity.
A key brain-hacking stimulus, and one which Alexander employed during his Virtual Futures keynote speech via a device he wore attached to his head, is direct electrical current. Often, the equipment is low-tech and easy to make. It can consist of a 9v battery and two electrodes that create, then direct converging magnetic fields – although costs accrue when the kit is certified. Alexander explained that London Brian Hackers build on these basic principles to invent and test new stimulation protocols, like the equipment that converts music into rhythmic electrical pulses. The resulting pattern depends on the music; Beethoven will have a different resonance than Judas Priest.
Alexander described other protocols used by London Brain Hackers; such as encephalography to reveal insights in relation to local metabolism. These ‘potentials’ could be a comparison between the left and right temporal cortex, or they could result from more indirect biological measurement, like galvanic skin reactions or the responses of peripheral nerves.
Drugs are another significant tool in the brain hacker’s kit; for example, in the creation of a method to gauge whether the effect of a drug can be recreated. While Alexander explained at Virtual Futures that such re-creation is possible, he assured the audience that direct transfer of heightened experience from one brain to another was not. Instead, it may be possible in the future to use brain hacker techniques to ‘activate’ drugs when they reach the right place in the body, thus optimising their effects.
Brain hacking is part of a growing nootropic movement, with many commercial interfaces, like Midwave, Mus and Insight/Epoch+. There is potential for integration with virtual reality, and Alexander told Virtual Futures that he is building the protocols interface for a game that uses augmented reality with a full haptic enhancement.
Alexander’s view is that neurosocial networks will join with existing social networks; he said that this blend was inevitable as it has proved impossible to get rid of the existing platforms. The next stage will be the sharing of devices with brains, and then the same device with more than one brain. Ultimately, a way will be found to safely correlate brain data to enable the emergence of a true noosphere; thence on to everyday use and the realisation of the Singularity, which Alexander thought would be in 2044, a year earlier than Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurtzweil, who says it will be 2045.
In the meantime, both brain hacking and the technology that might evolve from it face, and present, significant risks. Alexander split these risks into two categories: adaptation and use. Risks to adaptation, according to Alexander, include resistance by the public due to fears of imagined invasive surgery, or superstition around mind control; and over-regulation by governments whose caution is based on appeasing their own ignorance and that of an ill-educated or religiously indoctrinated electorate.
The risks to do with use are more numerous and existentially disconcerting. They include: the development of addiction, abusive neuro-marketing, political manipulation, and brain data privilege escalation. Access to the shared measurement of emotional reactions to politics and products would be, as Alexander described, ‘like Cambridge Analytica on steroids’; while those who already possess a disproportionate percentage of the world’s assets would be able to use them to leverage access to ever-more sophisticated means of social engineering. Passwords would become easier to decrypt by triangulating information and psychophysiological responses, and people themselves would become subject to malware like Trojans and worm attacks. Even now, Alexander said, the skull is more transparent than we think.
In Forever Live by Mark Huntley-James, New Dad is buried in the garden next to the hamster. The story compares the two known versions of Dad; there’s also Old Dad, who seemed more rational despite – or perhaps because of – being less ‘enhanced’. More straightforward still was Grandad; when Grandad died he didn’t bitch about it afterwards. Indeed, life and death used to be so much simpler; now people must consider the tax implications of an afterlife, which are complicated further when dads of any kind skimp on nano-circuits and forget to pay the cryogenics company…
Frances Gow’s Brain Dump examined the fallout from a bad marriage through the fate of Mrs Malady and the digital remains of her obnoxious ex-husband. Their society is one in which ‘sequestering’ occurs at birth; when brains and bodies are separated, with the rich getting the flesh and the poor ending up in ‘receptacles’ like that worn by Risible the Postbot as he delivers a parcel to Mrs Malady, one that will change her mechanical life into one that occupies a ‘live shell’ with its promise of long-denied sensuous pleasures. The story explores a class system with angry echoes of our own: equality for robots is not the mission we might expect, given that ‘equality didn’t work out that well for women’. This story is elucidated by the chilling line ‘any mind that outstays its welcome is sucked back into the system’.
Drug of Choice by Adrian Reynolds is another story that looks at the clever ways existing class hierarchies might upload themselves into the even vaguer and less tractable realm of cyberspace. It too charts the end of a relationship, this one between Udo and Carl, as Udo decides to take advantage of one of the many new opportunities to make the rich happier by hocking his future for a widget called an Axiom Wafer. This device is meant to enhance the wearer ‘like contact lenses for the mind’, although there is a hint that it might be a placebo, and even if it isn’t, questions the line at which Udo ends and the Axiom Wafer begins.
Udo works as a chef using printed steaks, a technology that recurs in Dreamtime by Near-Future Fictions’ co-curator Vaughan Stanger. In the latter story, however, it’s palliative drugs that are printed, along with copies of ‘Bud’: the avatar of a Partner; one of the AIs that supplanted human government in seconds. Now there is universal income and utility, but anything more advanced needs to be earned. Jerome is living with cancer, and pays for his drugs by allowing the Partners to utilise his brain to work out complex problems. This process takes the form of a nightmare about a faceless woman dancing on the beach; could she be linked to Jermone’s long-ago decision to remove some of his memories? The Partners, who are approaching data overload, need to delete some memories of their own, and need Jerome to help them decide which ones. Once the Partners forget, however, they begin to dream; and their future and humanity’s begin to look increasingly similar…
The theme of universal basic income as the Faustian pact is also explored in Viraj Joshi’s Anomaly in the Rhythm. In return for a regular basic payment, society has allowed the government to impose a more efficient means of dividing and managing the workforce. This new control system is called ‘Dexterity’, which is worn as a glove and enables the remote operation of human beings to do a variety of different jobs. Sally, for example, works as a tailor; last week, she did something else. The story depicts the inevitable conflation of social media, cultural mores and state control; peer-groups are committee approved, Sally has her social credit reduced for lying, and when she meets an ‘anomalous’ chef called Julian on the train is persecuted for having a conversation. Dexterity buzzes away at Sally like those incessant smartphone vibrations, whittling down her patience until she tries to turn the glove off, with suitably bleak results.
Two poems formed part of Virtual Futures’ Post-Brain Salon. As well as the theme, the pieces were linked by images of the brain as being somehow abandoned, like an old castle along the nebulous coast of past and future. Paul Green’s Brain Gun explored the capacity of this most delicate of organs for destruction, with images of it trapped inside the dome of the skull, swelling and then shrinking ‘like a nuclear mushroom in reverse’; its technology ticking back from the ultimate weapon to a machine gun stuttering in the void, before consignment to an ignored case ‘under dark museum glass’.
_16 bit brain drain by Hallidonto looked at how time only really exists because the brain uses it as a measurement. The poem compares life’s chronology to a bad journey on a bus, full of anxiety and pressure whose source is not clear. Like Brain Gun, _16 bit brain drain is concerned with the physicality of the brain and its relationship to memory; instead of Proust’s biscuit dipped in tea, however, the organ is compared to Flaki: brown soup with tripe. Both poems are concerned with consumption; either entropic or literal, and the clumsy, desperate attempts of analogue psychologies to sustain themselves in the virtual age.
Along with absurd but lethal class hierarchies, another regular theme of May’s Near-Future Fictions was doomed romantic relationships. In George Dimitriades’ All We Hear Is, pioneering scientist Kirsty rebels against the religious authorities who, as Alexander Vladimirov predicted in his keynote speech, have stifled ideas and progress so that no one can prove their dogmatic overlords wrong. Kirsty’s research team, filled with hotheads and imaginers, has been put together to solve the biggest problem facing humanity. Willing to risk their lives through the research itself, volunteer human test subjects undergo brain injection with bacteria that connect to form filaments that use brain electricity as a power source. Hitherto secret meanings are then revealed through a combination of ego loss and euphoric state, with no further chemical additions needed. Memory can be controlled and even manipulated, but the risk of the religious authorities getting hold of the technology is brought dramatically home when the subject – Kirsty’s lover Anna – turns out to have been already infected. The story asks the question: how do you deal with a spy who is the love of your life, and the most important person in history?
There is a streak of proper Douglas Adams humour running through the Virtual Futures stories of Near-Future Fictions regular Jane Norris. A letter from my Celia could be described as a monologue, in that it appears to be just one voice, even though we soon realise it is made up of many other entities. The voice details the attempts of a race that has shared the Earth with humanity from the beginning to warn us about the destruction our present course will bring about if we do not change our ways. In Adams’s So Long & Thanks for All the Fish, it was dolphins trying without success to communicate with us idiot bipeds; but what is it in A letter from my Celia that has been building strange broken circles to depict the damaged earth? Whatever it is came up with their version of the internet 2,000 years ago, with the narrator the outcome of a biological Singularity who has come to regard Anthropocene humans as a cancer. As people begin to succumb to Candida Oris, a fungal ear infection that spreads fast, lives on everything and is immune to antibiotics, we realise that our existential end will not be an asteroid or some evil supercomputer we’ve lost control of, but our own technological rapacity and the bemused solution of a viral hive mind that was here all along.
Random, even unwitting cruelties abound in the Post-Brain Salon stories. Stephen Oram’s Cracked looks at what happens when someone who is part of a unified sentience decides they can no longer bear the tedious barrage of other people’s thoughts. It wasn’t harmony, the unnamed narrator says, it was boring noise. There was also a coercive aspect to this noosphere that sounds much like contemporary drivers to be happy, work hard, seize the day and so on. The narrator hacked the system, but lost in the end and now sits on the same street corner day after day, begging to be touched because as part of this joined-up consciousness humanity has been genetically modified to deteriorate with no physical contact. The story subverts the familiar, conflicted ‘homeless/beggar’ trope and presents the plight of someone who is literally cracking up. A series of kind encounters ensures that the narrator will live another day; at one point, his skin even goes smooth and silver. However, as everything becomes warm and fuzzy, is he becoming compromised?
Virtual Futures, next event: 25 of June New Dark Age – with James Bridle