A technological dream where mortality is the question.
*Trigger warning for Death and Suicide
Illustration by Jaden Tsan (Graphic Design Director, The Continuist) IG: @jadundun
By Noam Flear (he/him, IG: @noamflear)
My wife and I didn’t take the move online that well. At first it was alright as the new world seemed to remind us of our past lives well enough. But as the first few months went by, we began to notice changes. First we realised that people were beginning to actually change their appearances and wear different avatars for different events. Then we realised that fewer and fewer people were taking public transit to work and eventually the public transit itself wasn’t there. Slowly the small things that we knew from our past disappeared. The fire hydrants were taken out, the sidewalks became desolate, and even nights became shorter. But we took it in stride, telling ourselves that this was what people do with new powers: they experiment. And eventually they come back to what is good for them.
But as the first year passed and then the second, it got harder to believe this. My wife and I decided to try to find our place in this new world. We went to concerts and art galleries, we went skydiving, we went to bars with friends. Every night had its own new adventure and for a while, that was enough. I felt interesting and experienced, I was having more adventures in any given week than I was having in a full year back in the real world. But eventually I began to feel my mind wandering and whether out of exhaustion or boredom, I started to dread the adventures we would go on. When I found out my wife was feeling the same way we quickly stopped, and decided that our attempt to integrate ourselves into the new world had been unsuccessful. We still worried that we were making a mistake by adopting a different lifestyle than our peers. But what were we going to do instead? There were beautiful cafes to go to, however the thought of our coffee arriving instantaneously at our table with no staff in sight kept us away.
It was around this time that my wife began to regularly visit the nursing home next to our house. Although being a fairly nondescript house, we were aware of its existence. As my wife began to go there more and more, I felt myself grow interested in the home. Although I was worried that the nursing home would simply come to represent my proximity to death, it was actually the opposite. I began to see it as a representation of our previous life in the real world. There was something about the old folks’ resistance to the new technology that gave me hope. We tried to describe this feeling to a friend once and he said that it just sounded like the residents of the home didn’t understand the new technology. He said that he felt bad for them not getting to experience all the freedom that comes with it. But we felt that while it was true they didn’t understand how to use the technology, something specific about their characters became more than just ignorance and entered the realm of political protest. And so, over the years, we continued to visit. Although we weren't allowed to become volunteers or part of the staff (the home was run exclusively by smart AI), we eventually began to see it as a pillar of meaning in our lives.
At one point my wife noted being impressed by their longevity, but neither of us found it especially weird or suspicious. That’s why one day when we went to visit and found out everyone in the home had died and the house had been replaced, we were shocked. She had heard of this kind of thing happening: group homes of some sort being there one day and not the next, but we were both confused as to how they could all have died on the same night. And so, she decided to look into it. At first it was casual, but soon her investigation became important to her and eventually it seemed it had become the most important thing.
I knew that she wouldn’t be able to turn away from the investigation until it was complete and I was beginning to miss her so it was soon after that I joined her effort. I remember the years that followed, more in terms of events than a linear narrative. I remember when we met with a whistleblower who was ready to tell someone about his work of extracting dead people’s brains (although he still was unsure for what). I remember when we first verbalised the theory that the people at the nursing home had not actually all died on the same night and that some of them might have already been dead for weeks or even years. I remember when we were threatened with jail time for continuing our investigation. I remember the day when we finally put it all together: that this was an attempt to eradicate death. And I remember when she wrote the first draft of what we both knew would be a widely shared document: an article that revealed that the government harvested the brains of dead people to create a replica AI to continue living your life for you. And as expected, the article did create quite a response.
We were happy to discover that other people had also begun figuring this out, and some of the details we were less sure on became clear through follow-up articles. Some details were fleshed out, such as how they decided when to erase the replica AI (when most of the people in their lives have also become replica AIs) and that the government didn’t do this in all cases, only in cases of untimely death or of people who are all around the same age so as not to cause too much suspicion. And they were good at avoiding suspicion, there’s no doubt about that. That’s why (with my new estimate) it took over two months before I realised that my wife had died.
In what I now recognize as our last few months together, my wife would sometimes ask me why I seemed more distant, why it seemed to her like it was taking more energy for me to love her. I wanted to tell her that this world, in its effort to erase all the mundane parts of life, had been getting to me. That sometimes I wished she hadn’t bought the anti-aging package and I could see what her real face looked like. That when she started wearing a different avatar to work sometimes she would forget to change it back when she got home and I would feel like there was an intruder in our house. But most of all, what I wanted to tell her was that I couldn’t look at her without being scared that she was already dead. That every time the underground magazine she created published a new suspected dead person, I was worried it would be her face. And I knew that once I knew she was an AI, I wouldn’t be able to talk to her about these worries anymore, that our time may be running out, but I still didn’t feel ready to talk to her about how sad I was becoming. Because what would I say? What would she do about it? The truth is that she probably wondered what her face would look like too and that she probably worried about me being dead just as regularly. And where could we go to avoid this? There was no outside world for us to run away to.
I once read a quote from a poet that said you can never really experience love in its pure form. They said that instead we could only see love as it was reflected in objects or actions, things that we can understand concretely. And as I spent more time in this new world, I began to see that maybe this was the case for all forms of complex feelings such as happiness and meaning. Maybe these feelings are too complex to feel head on and maybe the only ways to experience these things was through the mundane. Maybe the way we all understand our love for each other isn’t through the big moments that we end up spending the rest of our lives failing to come to a conclusion on, but through the smaller things like seeing the people we love close their novel to people-watch on the subway or seeing how they interact with the barista making their coffee. Maybe that understanding is just as important as the thing we are trying to understand.
As I thought about it more I came to view this world as an attempt to reject the idea that we can only see the meaningful through the mundane, as an attempt to realise the age-old goal of finding a pure and never-ending happiness. And we all know how that story ends. So, I have decided to kill myself. While this may seem like a sudden move, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time now and the death of my wife puts the final nail in the coffin. I’m not sure whether her identity will be erased with mine or if there is someone else keeping her tethered to life, but either way she won’t notice my disappearance. I don’t mean to write this as a suicide note; I don’t think anyone will end up reading this nor do I want them to. I just felt like I needed to put pen to paper one last time, to feel like I was alive and to feel like I still had a story to tell. I also felt I had to talk about my wife one more time, even if just to a notebook. Because as much as I could say about how much I hate this world and the overlords that feel they can control how we live and how we die, there will always be a part of me that is happy that they kept my wife around for those extra couple months and a part of me that understands that all they are doing is putting into practice something humans have wanted to do for as long as we’ve been around. But as much as this may be true, I also can’t ignore the part of me that can’t accept this as what a life is supposed to be. I hope that one day the current world can be uprooted, but I’ve accepted now that I’m not ready to be a part of that. So with that, I say goodbye, thank you for affirming that I was alive one last time.