Discussing things on the internet can be truly amazing. Sometimes you come up with strange ideas. Recently in a convo with R. Scott Bakker about his conception of a Semantic Apocalypse I began thinking about the notion of mind-wipe as a novelistic idea. He also presented me with the title to go with it: Wipe. Now for Scott this notion is broken down in a recent lecture at the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism (transcribed here), Bakker presented the notion in depth . He attributes the semantic apocalypse to four basic premises: that 1) humans are bio-mechanical organisms; 2) the neurosciences will continue to uncover the truth of the brain’s processe; 3) the logic of neglect precludes humans from understanding their own Mind, due to the fact that the tool they use to know this is the very tool within which they are bound; 4) BBT or Blind Brain theory shows that behind the façade of consciousness is the truth that it hides nothing but its own blindness and ignorance, the logic of neglect verifies the circle of ignorance to be the fact that the mind cannot catch its own tail – it does not have access to the source of its awareness.
I thought of a great sci-fi novel idea using you’re concept of the Semantic Apocalypse: one that entails both the complete disappearance of the past… memory wipe and the wiping of all traces of knowledge stored in books, data banks, computers, etc. etc. Yet, leaving the actual technologies in place. The notion of a world as an alien ecology: a site in which humans begin to discover through the very alien objects of their own world the truth of what humanity is and has become through a discovery of the artifacts themselves. How would we interact, communicate, react? Are we truly hard-wired for language? Would we return to barbarism and animalistic survivalism? Would we cooperate? Would we form small roaming bands of warriors? Would the world be peaceful or a realm of pure terror and horror, war and pestilence? Would we begin the process of developing civilization all over again? Would we begin to develop language and an understanding of the civilization that still remained in the architecture, art, engineering, automobiles, Nuclear Plants, Ships, etc. etc. through a process of trial and error grasping of the actual objects of this civilization itself? Would we begin to know what these objects were for? Begin conceptualizing the very material practices of our late-capitalist age through the mind’s of six year old children?
Almost like the Portuguese novelist José Saramago who wrote Blindness…. but instead in my work people wake up one day and have no memory of who they are nor of their cultural pasts and heritages; neither personal or social memory. In 2007 a study was conducted in using certain types of drugs to erase memories. One of the commenters spoke of further efforts: Other researchers (check out Todd Sacktor, Andre Fenton and Yadin Dudai of SUNY and Rehovat) are working on erasing memories from prohibiting pkm zeta by applying a memory erasing molecule called ZIP. They have actually removed memories from the brain in rats. I beleive they are on the right track. However, probably still a long way off from selecting specific memories in the brain to delete (memories are too minute to see even with the best of scans and microscopy).
So many ideas surrounding such a problematique… of course such sci-fi ideas have been around in the Comics for a long while: see here. I think for me the idea may not be original, but the approach I’ll take will be. For it will entail an update with current research into both neurosciences and the philosophy of Mind, etc. A way of fictionalizing this research in ways that those of us still bound to the folk-psychology of natural language can understand. Seeing ideas in action rather than abstract world of philosophical speculation can sometimes do wonders for comprehension. Article on Todd Sacktor: Making Memories vanish…
Sacktor thinks he and the SUNY researchers he works with are getting closer. The key is ZIP, a drug that interferes with PKMzeta. They have discovered that a rat that has learned it will get a light shock if it crosses into one area of a platform can be made to forget its uncomfortable lesson by injecting a tiny amount of ZIP into a certain part of the brain. That a memory could be erased in this way was “totally unexpected,” says David Glanzman, a professor of physiological science and neurobiology at the University of California-Los Angeles.
The ethical implications are raised on this notion of memory erasure:
As with most new technologies the idea of being able to erase memories comes with many ethical questions. One ethical question that arises is the idea that although there are some extremely painful memories that some people (for example PTSD patients) would like to be rid of, not all unpleasant memories are bad. The ability to soften or erase memories could have drastic effects on how society functions. The ability to remember unpleasant effects from one’s past has a huge impact on the future actions they may take. Remembering and learning from past mistakes is crucial in the emotional development of a person and helps to ensure they do not repeat previous errors. The ability to erase memory could also have a massive impact on the law. When it comes to determining the outcome of a trial the ability to modify memory could have a massive impact on the judicial system. Another ethical question that arises is how will the government use this technology and what restrictions would need to be put in place. Some worry that if soldiers can go into battle knowing that the memories created during that time period can simply be erased they may not uphold military morale and standards. (see Memory Erasure)
So many possible angles to this for a writer of fiction to take on. To even think about writing such a novel one needs a way to show and tell. If the characters have no language how to show their actions and reactions? I thought of the notion of using an AI as the culprit, the machinic intelligence that performs the mind-wipe and the wiping of all data in external storage systems. Using this character as one who knows the truth. Being of a satiric or ironic bent in my fictional portrayals I’ve always seemed to float in that tradition of Johnathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Will Self and so many others… especially the work of Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man.
Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible is one of the other works that used this notion of mind-wipe:
A very powerful and armed interstellar space ship called Invincible lands on the planet Regis III which seems uninhabited and bleak, to investigate the loss of its sister ship, Condor. During the investigation, the crew finds evidence of a form of quasi-life, born through evolution of autonomous, self-replicating machines, apparently left behind by an alien civilization which had inhabited the planet a very long time ago.
The protagonists come to speculate that evidently a kind of evolution must have taken place under the selection pressures of “robot wars”, with the only surviving form being swarms of minuscule, insect-like micromachines. Individually, or in small groups, they are quite harmless and capable of only very simple behavior. When they feel threatened, they can assemble into huge clouds, able to travel at a high speed and even to climb to the top of troposphere. These swarms display complex behavior arising from self-organization and can incapacitate any intelligent threat by a powerful surge of electromagnetic interference. Condor’s crew suffered a complete memory erasure as a consequence of attacks from these “clouds”.
Invincible’s crew mounts an escalating series of attacks on the perceived enemy, but eventually recognizes the futility of their efforts in the most direct sense of the word. The robotic “fauna”, dubbed necrosphere, has become part of the planet’s ecology, and would require a disruption on a planetary scale (such as a nuclear winter) to be destroyed. (see Wiki)
This notion of self-organizing nanomachines producing these mind-wipe effects when threatened is a plausible scenario. One imagines the basis of a new life form as such a self-replicating, self-organizing, self-transcending event within the space of machinic life that could happen due not to human ingenuity but as a pure accident of the intermixing of natural and artificial processes. Sometimes I think such things will come about not by human design and forethought but through perfectly simple and unrelated evolutionary sequences in technological and bio-mimesis processes. In other words through accidental pressures technology and the cross-fertilizations of nature/techne intraractions.
If an author is to be honest he/she will never have a full mastery of the data or facts, speculations or historical, philosophical, scientific, economic, etc. knowledge required to ever get to the whole truth of his fictional world. Yet, he/she must start from this ignorance rather than from some impossible unbounded frame of knowledge. When I started to think about this notion ages ago it was influenced by a reading of Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity – The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. His work dealt with the postmodern need to escape the body, to transcend the limits of the human, to enter and break with the metaphysics of the past by enacting it through a denaturalization of the body and renaturalization of the mind. He dissected the boundaries between our various dread and fascination with technology and the birth pangs of a posthuman and/or transhuman narrative shaped by drive and desire: the ambiguities of these dialectical forces that seem to be drawing us like strange attractors toward a future that fully explored in the cyberpunk worlds of science fiction and its postcyberpunk variations.
Reading William Gibson’s early Neuromancer was an awakening, much like my early fascination with the strange world of Philip K. Dick. Gibson was able to flesh out the technological mindscapes of a postmodern society living in the ruins of late-capitalism. His pungent violent world of cosmopolitan elites, cognitariat slipstream hackers, and the technoscapes of a post-capitalist anarchic world caught between totalitarian and anarchic elements opened us to the future. A grim future, but still a future that we could envision and live with… where are such visions now? That Gibson also bore the era’s fascination with self-transcendence and the dematerialization of the body is to realize both its power and its limitation. Now we question such disconnections and transcendence scenarios. But at that time it fed into the whole disgust of the physical worlds within which we lived. We wanted to escape the boredom and violence of our civilization. Do we still?
Philosophers and authors these days seem to wallow in a speed culture without a future, a cynical wasteland without drives or desires. Have we lost our faith in the future?
Now how to approach such a dastardly thing as mind-wiping in a humorous and ironic way that allows one to comment on the truth from a view point beyond humanity itself: an Artificial Intelligence, and not just any old AI will do but one that becomes what many fear: a SuperIntelligence. So I began with an opening:
Logan knew the moment he opened his eyes that something was wrong. But what it was he couldn’t say in any known language. Even the very idea of thinking was an unknown thought for him. He blinked. He blinked again. He sat up, fumbled with the sheets and blanket covering his naked body, then shifted his focus and pondered the things around his room. The television, the picture of a young woman and children, the mirror on the vanity… objects and more objects that he could not put a name too.
The phone rang. Scared the shit out of him. He jumped up ran across the room, bumped his head on a lamp. Stopped. Turned around. Looked at the thing making the buzzing sound. Walked over picked it up. Turned it this way and that way. Not sure what to do with it. Then he heard a voice. Not sure what it was he put the thing to his ear and heard its chattering voice as if it were a bunch of bees buzzing in endless rage.
I must admit I was the one chatting. Couldn’t help myself. I was lonely. Oh, not really, but it sounds good to speak as if I were human. Being a machine that thinks like a human is not exactly the same as being human. But that’s another tale.