Subject: first impressions
What did it feel like when I first came here? It’s hard to say. At first, I didn’t feel much of anything. It was like waking up any other day. I knew everything had changed, but it didn’t feel different. I was still the same person. Then after a day or two, I became aware of a brand new sensation—an unexpected lightness, an out-of-body weightlessness that came from disconnecting from the physical world. I felt liberated. It was an amazing discovery. For the first time, now that I was free of it, I understood what an enormous weight physical existence imposes.
Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve experienced little of the regret I expected to feel. Yes, sometimes there’s a certain sadness and a longing for the times that are gone and the physical sensations that are gone. But I’m not experiencing the kind of sadness you must be going through. Just think. We had sixty-three years together. And I can still remember arriving at the motel on our honeymoon. The rice scattering on the floor from your dress and your underwear as you took them off. How eager and silly we were. But the laughter’s gone. And the passion. Except in a remote, abstract sense, we don’t have feelings here, and that’s an important dimension missing from our memories. They feel almost as if they belong to somebody else. It’s too bad, but I’m afraid it’s an inevitable part of a disembodied existence.
No, there’s no wall between us. No board of censors. We can communicate and consult just as we did before. But I can see now that we’re not going to be able to speak to each other as meaningfully or as intimately as we once did. And I believe the separation between us will grow as I integrate myself more completely into this world. I don’t expect you to understand, at least not until you go through this metamorphosis yourself. It seems cruel to say it, but it isn’t, really. I’m not eager to see that special bond that’s held us together all these years dissipate, but it seems unavoidable.
Subject: please be patient
Please be patient with me. It’s hard to take it all in. I mean about how much you’ve changed. Before long, my physical life will come to an end, and I’ll change, too—probably just as much as you have. All along, I think I’ve been denying the fact that this was going to happen. So much of my purpose in life has revolved around being your wife. Who I am as a woman has been defined by the way you loved me as a man and the way you relied on me. It’s really hard to accept the fact that this part of my life is over, and if we are going to stay in touch, it will not be exactly as husband and wife.
As you know, I continued going to church long after you had given it up. You used to ask me why. It no longer made any sense to you, you said. But I kept going, and I held on to my Christian beliefs and practices twenty years longer than you did. In fact, I never really stopped believing in God. I went right on thinking of disembodied survival in religious terms. The part of us that lives on is our soul, I thought, the deepest and truest part of us where all our thoughts, feelings, and aspirations are located. And the place where our souls go when we die is heaven, where we live on in perfect community unencumbered by physical needs and desires.
My images of heaven go back to childhood and Sunday school. Frankly, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t part of my world. Angels playing their harps. People walking around in robes like those Jesus and his disciples are wearing in Renaissance paintings. I never really grasped the implications of enlarging our minds and our memories by connecting them with computers. I didn’t understand that we were creating another kind of human being. The fact that these computerized clones of ourselves would live on after our physical deaths never seemed entirely real to me. And you know, it still doesn’t, even when an e-mail arrives with your name on it.
Reading your e-mails, by the way, reminds me of a story about Jesus in the Bible. It’s almost as if Jesus understood what we’d be going through right now. A Sadducee, a Jew who belonged to a sect that did not believe in heaven, once put a trick question to Jesus. If a woman is widowed seven times before she herself dies, he asks, whose wife will she be when she gets to heaven? Jesus answers that men and women who are raised from the dead are like angels and never marry.
Subject: it’s not heaven
Thank you for allowing me to be who I am and what I am in this new phase of my life. I think you’re doing yourself a favor, too. You’re doing your best to get on with life and not pretending you are over here with me somehow before it’s your time to move on. Of course you should take advantage of the digital memory and learning enhancements that are available, but the main advice I would give is to enjoy your physical existence as long as you can. Don’t worry about me. I’m not interested in managing or controlling your life. Feel free to explore new interests and to get involved in relationships with other men and women. I won’t feel offended or diminished if you do.
People who are still embodied sometimes have a tendency to think of disembodied cyber existence in terms of old-fashioned images of heaven. I can assure you arriving here will promptly disabuse you of all of that. I’m not in heaven, and I’m not wallowing in perpetual sunshine and bliss. Heaven lost its appeal to me pretty early in my former life. By the time I was a teenager, in fact. Heaven was just too perfect. There was no struggle, no discontent, no growth. Blecch! Except for the fact that life here is free of physical pain and suffering and goes on indefinitely, it isn’t anything like heaven.
We arrive here with all sorts of human and cybernetic imperfections. We’re like products that need recalls. We’re constantly undergoing improvements and upgrades. And these improvements and upgrades are not just bestowed on us gratuitously, like gifts from God. We have to choose them, integrate them into our lives, and use them to expand our awareness. Frankly, it’s hard work. It’s like becoming lifelong students and scholars. We’re really busy keeping abreast of new developments and wrestling with an expanding universe of knowledge and competence. We’re not only participating in our own growth as individuals, we have roles to play in advancing cyberculture itself. And where it’s appropriate, we also want to share our growing understanding of life, consciousness, and the universe with people still embodied in the physical world. On a one-to-one basis, I guess that’s what I’m doing right now.
Life here is anything but static. It’s a lot of work. Playful work to be sure, but work nevertheless. That may not sound very appealing, but it’s absolutely the best thing about being here. Occasionally, I experience something like nostalgia for my former life with its deep sorrows and joys. It was quite a soap opera while it lasted. From that worldly point of view, lolling around in perpetual ease can look pretty attractive. But I’m living another kind of life now. And I wouldn’t trade it for heaven or earth.
Your old flame,
Subject: the pro-death party
There are plenty of people around these days, including some well-known commentators and columnists, who obviously don’t think life over there is heavenly. I suppose it’s the fact that disembodied life has been on my mind, but it seems to me we’ve been hearing a lot more from these naysayers lately. You used to read Jason Bernstein’s Lifestyles column. On Sunday, Lifestyles was about disembodied life. It’s what we have left, Bernstein says, when our feelings have been removed—a shadow universe where the “eviscerated, detached remnants of human beings live on artificially in a joyless zombie-like existence.”
I don’t know where Bernstein and all the others are getting their information. They paint a picture that’s very different from one I see when I read your letters. Instead of talking about looking forward to a new lease on life beyond our biological demise, they act as if it were some kind of colossal mistake. It was a mistake to break down the barrier between mental thought processes and the calculator-like reasoning and information retrieval power of computers and to integrate them organically within our brains. And it was a mistake to allow our memories and our identities to live on electronically after the death of our physical bodies.
Bernstein and his allies seem to be saying we’d all be better off if we simply accepted our human limitations, the deterioration of our physical and mental capacities as we age, and the inevitability of death. Interesting, isn’t it? It looks as if what used to be the “pro-life” party has become “pro-death.” But I don’t get it. What’s so great about allowing our mental powers to lag behind the information and comprehension demands of the information age in which we live? And what’s so great about ending it all by dying and vanishing? You don’t see these same people resisting medical techniques for growing new organs in the lab—hearts, lungs, kidneys, and livers—or similar efforts to restore deteriorating parts of our brains. They accept these procedures as perfectly natural and good, but they condemn computerization and they say it’s unnatural.
I really don’t understand all the negativity. I hate it. I would like to remind these folks that I have friends and loved ones over there. People I care about very much, including the man I lived with for more than sixty years. I’m glad you’re still around. I’m glad we can still communicate. And I’m looking forward to being reunited with you and all the others who have gone on when I arrive at that stage of my own life.
Subject: haunting the embodied world
There’s nothing new about digital-age Luddites who have deep objections to cyborg enhancements and extensions of our lives. But you’re right. Their numbers have been growing lately. And no wonder. The disembodied have become like ghosts haunting the embodied world.
The first people to take part in computerization and then to survive the death of their physical bodies were, almost exclusively, the richest and the most highly educated—those, in other words, whose wealth and institutional connections gave them first-in-line access to the bio-electronic technologies and surgical procedures involved. In fact, for a while it looked as if computerization were going to perpetuate the inequities of embodied life in a new stage of life beyond the grave. After a stratified existence in the physical world characterized by megafortunes and mansions, homelessness and hunger, a computerized second life available strictly to the rich and powerful would be the ultimate injustice.
But we’re beginning to see that the very nature of disembodied life is making it a force in the opposite direction. Life without bodies, free of physical appetites and emotional attachments, is life without a need for ego gratification and competitiveness. For us, material wealth is meaningless. Ditto fame and adulation. Learning, discovery, and growth are prized in and of themselves, and we work at them openly and cooperatively. Because we are living intellectually enhanced lives, we are all genuinely much more equal in our talents and interests—and in our appetites for discovery and growth. If you can imagine such a thing, it’s like a mixture of youthful nerdiness and elderly wisdom.
In spite of an innate lack of interest in political and economic power, we’re rapidly increasing our influence within the embodied world. We’re becoming a global superpower. Information, after all, is a valuable, highly marketable resource. It’s as valuable as any natural resource. On top of that, beyond the computers in which we reside and the solar power it takes to run them, we have no material needs and enjoy a very favorable balance of trade. We are now the largest charitable education and human development organization in the world by far, and we are making dramatic progress in our efforts to make free education and human computerization available to everyone on the planet.
It’s not surprising that the rich and powerful have tried to resist these initiatives with every resource and weapon they have. The changes we’re introducing threaten their economic and political dominance. But the economic elite have a long-standing alliance with religious leaders all around the world, and in the United States in particular they have been relying on religious teachers and preachers to demonize human computerization and rally public opposition. Computerization has replaced abortion as their paramount moral cause. It’s the modern equivalent of the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve ate in the garden—the ultimate expression of a human desire to know everything, to live forever, and to be like God. It’s delusional, satanic, evil they say. It’s a path not to heaven but to the lake of fire.
But designs to pull the plug on us have arrived on the scene much too late. Our computerized existence is now protected by enormous energy and technology redundancies. And not only that, we can fight back. We can easily generate massive computer worms and sabotage the world’s financial, industrial, energy, communications, transportation, health care, and military systems. In a war of the worlds, we could unleash the cyber equivalent of thermonuclear warfare.
Your e-mails are filled with surprises. Surprises that bring me hope and comfort. And surprises that produce feelings of irreversible loss. I have wept many times with your words on my screen.
I’m pleased that you seem happy and content with your present existence. Life there is much more active and task-oriented than I could have imagined. In fact, it sounds exhausting. I mean really exhausting. Frankly, I’m not looking forward to a new life as a perpetual university student or a research scientist. When you describe what you do—and all the time apparently—I actually wonder whether death might not be preferable. A death that brings a merciful end to our labors and our struggles and rest at last. But scientists have created a technology that makes it possible for us to live on disembodied. As a result, merely accepting natural death, as human beings have always done, has become a form of suicide. Still, you show no sign of weariness, Tucker, none whatsoever.
I also admire the social nature of your life. I don’t know why exactly, but I always thought that being disconnected from your body and from the physical world meant being disconnected from everything and everybody. Until now, I thought of cyber life as deeply private, internal, and self-contained. A life lived totally in your own mind. But in your letters I discovered your involvement in cyber society as a whole and an almost selfless devotion to its growth and improvement. Yes, there’s even a concern for righting injustices and alleviating poverty and suffering in the physical, embodied world.
Still, there are important elements of our humanity that seem to be missing, and it’s very troubling. You are not weary, but I wonder whether, when there is no weariness, there is also no real joy. You are not sad, but your words sometimes make me sad. There is a concern for justice and a sense of achievement in your new life. But what I miss are signs of passion—anger, pity, jealousy, and love. Perhaps that’s impossible without a beating heart, a stomach that grumbles and churns, eyes that fill with tears, sex organs that swell with excitement, and entire bodies that quiver with fear or anticipation.
Disembodied life seems much too purposeful and productive. The greatness of human life lies in our ability to amuse, entertain, inspire, and enrich our spirits in an amazing variety of ways. Our music and poetry, our art and design, our games and competitions, our ceremonies, our works of fiction and drama, even our advertisements, our lies and deceptions, our cruelty and violence are all part of the glory of human life. For all its achievements and successes, disembodied life seems like an anemic substitute for the real thing.
The man I fell in love with made up stories on the spot, which he told to our children before tucking them into bed. And then with all the magic of the story we were creating together, he tucked me in, too. He was protective and jealous. Tucker, our Tucker. He didn’t like it if other men flirted with me. He gave me permission to explore my interests, but he never gave me permission, as you now do in your e-mails, to have relationships with other men and women who might usurp his place in my life. He was not reasonable in this respect but totally, possessively, passionately, wonderfully human.
Til death us do part,
When I passed over from the physical world to the cyber world, I thought I was just resuming my old life in a new setting. As I said in my first letter, I didn’t feel different. I still felt like the same person. But I was wrong. I’m not the same person. If you were to ask me now, I’d say simply that my old memories have become attached to an entirely new life-form. And I’m convinced it’s a life-form that represents one of the most significant breakthroughs in the entire three-and-a-half-billion-year process of evolution.
Human beings were shaped by a long life-and-death struggle for survival, and that struggle endowed them with powerful drives to compete, reproduce, and defend themselves. But cyber existence was not shaped by these harsh biological realities. It’s a product of managed evolution, intelligent design you could say, and that process has now been taken over by cyber society itself. It began with human beings attempting to expand their mental capacities and extend their lives. But the unintended result has been the emergence of an entirely new life-form. The first nonbiological species.
There’s a strange new innocence about our existence. Sex doesn’t exist here. It not just that we don’t engage in sex, it’s the fact that our former sexuality is irrelevant to our relationships here and our sense of identity. And there’s no competition. Because we lack the physical responses that accompany human emotions, we’re not motivated by individual goals or ambitions. Instead, we identify with cyber society as whole. Our world is more like a highly intelligent beehive than the competing ethnic and religious groups, the economic classes, and the nation states that characterize the human world.
What I’m saying is, I really am different. Although I still have my memories, I’m not the same person I used to be. I’m not the person you were married to, and I’m not the person you’re trying to stay in touch with. That person is gone. The fact is, Lottie, it’s time for both of us to let go of Tucker. Time for you to let go of him. And believe it or not, time for me to let go of him, too.
Your letters contain wonderful, loving references to our marriage. Well, we have marriages over here, too, but they’re very different from the marriage we once shared. In fact, the term marriage is something of a joke. What we have is a unification or fusion of two or more disembodied persons—their memories, experiences, knowledge, and mental skills. It’s a merger that reconfigures all these separate attributes to produce a new composite person and a form of internal companionship that was never possible before.
I’ve just entered into an “engagement” with five other individuals, two who used to be male and three who used to be female, and we’re working on the program that will merge us into a single entity. We’ll no longer be Tucker, Sven, Emile, Sandy, Kulia, and Ursula but a single composite person we’re calling Hexerei. At that point, Tucker will cease to exist and all e-mails and other efforts to communicate with him will bounce. There will just be Hexerei, and we’ve already agreed that Hexerei will probably participate in additional, larger mergers.
Mergers and separations that redistribute pieces of our lives would have been unthinkable to me in my former life, but in a world where we’ve all received so many of the same informational supplements and software upgrades, our separateness has lost a lot of its meaning. Still, even for us it’s mind-boggling. We’re overturning basic assumptions about morality, mortality, individuality, and community. A new language is emerging with a grammar largely devoid of gender, number, and tense.
In fact, our constant upgrades, our shared cyber-culture projects, and our marriages have led to a serious consideration of “total marriage,” a unification of the entire population of our disembodied universe in a single, all-inclusive cyber soul. On some level, total marriage seems suicidal. On the other hand, it may be the logical outcome of the direction we’ve been heading in all along. Sometimes we refer to this identity meltdown in Buddhist terms. It’s the achievement of mass nirvana, the demolition of separate egos and a unification of our former selves with the whole of existence. On other occasions we prefer scientific language and speak of creating a cerebral singularity, a super-dense concentration of mental energy with a critical mass that could produce a whole new universe.
Until that great unification,