Exe0.1 Molly Schwartz
author's note: this is a work of speculative fiction
geminus in memoriam
Hazel woke up suddenly with a jerk, filled with unease. For half a second she was aware of what had passed before her mind’s eye while she was asleep.
She had dreamed that she was sleeping over at a friend’s house, something she hadn’t done since she was child. But just as she kept trying to get settled on the dream couch something would distract her. She noticed that there was someone sleeping on the couch next to hers. But it wasn’t just someone — as she looked closer she saw lumps of human body disambiguate into not just one pair of arms, but five, not just two legs, but ten. There were five men, all sleeping on top of each other, snuggling and squirming around in order to fit all of their bodies on the sofa. Each body had millions of hair follicles, on its head and its face and its arms and its legs. Their clothes dematerialized and she could see each and every wrinkle on their bodies, for they had become old men. Dream Hazel told herself to just ignore them. She looked at the shelf above the couch full of men, noticing that there was an acquarium with a newt inside. She used to have a newt. But now she could see that there was not just one newt. A second tail was poking outside of the gravel on the bottom of the cage. Slowly, she noticed that many of the little blue gravel pieces were moving, and from under rocks and behind green plastic plants she saw bits of newt bodies emerge, three of them, six of them, seven of them. She kept trying to count how many newts there were, but more kept appearing. She screamed. Her mother came to her. They started to put a wall up around her bed so that nothing would bother her. As Hazel looked at the makeshift wall she noticed that it was made up of fruit boxes, stapled together. There were so many wooden fruit boxes, each made of unvarnished wooden boards covered in fuzzy little splinters and tiny pictures of grapes and oranges and peaches. There were so many tiny little grapes, all clustered on top of each other. She desperately kicked at the wall, using all her strength and anger to break it down and crush the boxes under her feet with a bang! and a crash! Behind the wall a comforting domestic scene took shape. She was in the kitchen from her childhood house and her mother was cooking dinner, stirring something in a hugely large metal stew pot, a bigger pot than Hazel had ever seen. She looked inside the pot, and inside swirling around with each turn of her mother’s wooden spoon was pasta, long thin strands of spaghetti. But there was so much of it. Tons and tons of little strings of spaghetti, all swirling around together, slipping and sliding over each other. That’s when Hazel woke up.
Dreams were a terrible thing for Hazel. Her eyes scanned over her perfectly smooth white plastic sheets. Not a wrinkle to be seen. She swung her legs off the bed and felt her feet encounter her perfectly smooth linoleum floor. No tiles, no wooden planks. It was difficult for her to live in a world with so many things in it. So, within her own constructed world, she had eliminated all the things she could. There were no brushes with masses of littles bristles, no busy patterns on pillows or furniture. Everything was white or monochrome and nearly perfectly smooth.
Hazel’s living environment was more than than a reaction to neuroses. It was a necessity. Exposure to infestation of any sort, masses of things on things on things, made her mind go blank, sometimes only for a split second, sometimes for a few minutes. Which was a problem if she happened to be doing something, like walking. Or standing. Or generally trying not to pass out. And she avoided mirrors. She wore a short buzzed hair cut, but her follicles remained, and her eyelashes. Millions of fragile tiny hairs. She kept her arms and legs with all of their pores and hairs covered most of the time in long skin-tight clothing. Human beings are composed of many things. Pores, follicles, wrinkles, freckles, red blood cells, microbes. Luckily our two eyes look outward.
As she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, she felt that something had happened. She looked around the room and noticed something red lying in front of her closed bedroom door. Perhaps the bangs and crashes weren’t only products of her sleeping subconscious. She walked over to the red box and found that it was an old Etch-a-Sketch, the toys children use to design pictures using two nobs that move bits of sand around on a screen. Painstaking and clumsy to create, Etch-a-Sketch pictures are more of a puzzle than a piece of lasting artwork. When the Etch-a-Sketch box is shaken, the sands are scattered and the image disappears. The fruits of your labor are as ephemeral as they were difficult to create.
Which made this particular Etch-a-Sketch remarkable. Across the screen threaded hundreds of thousands of thin, precise lines, crisscrossing and connecting at nodes that were carefully labeled with tiny numbers, each clearly legible and no larger than a thumbtack.
Hazel looked at the picture, saw each line and each number, down to the tiniest grain of sand visible to her human eyes. Then she promptly passed out.
This process repeated itself five times. Each time Hazel would groggily return to consciousness, forgetting what had happened. Each time she looked at the picture she would lose consciousness again, although by shorter and shorter increments. The fourth time she looked at the picture, she managed to stay seated. The fifth time she looked, she felt dizzy but was able to stay awake. Her mind slowly returned to normal, and she contemplated the picture more closely.
She looked at it for so long that the feet at the end of her long folded legs started to lose feeling. Her eyes moved over each line, over each number, until she had mentally traveled through the diagram at least one hundred times. Hazel sighed and unfolded her legs, reminded once again of how unsuited her brain was for her human body. Her mental powers of concentration far outstripped her body’s physical capacity to remain still and alert. A problem of design.
Human brains are only built to process and encode a small percentage of our experiences and surroundings. We filter out so much of the world around us through our senses and our porous memories. But Hazel’s brain encoded absolutely everything that her senses were physically able to perceive. And since her brain encoded everything she experienced, she had the ability to remember every single detail about the world that she experienced or was exposed to. The world to her was like a roiling madhouse of of stimuli and simulacrum that made walking down the street feel like looking out the window of a race car, leaving her feeling motion sick and unable to function.
So she restricted the stimuli. She had spent the past seven years of her young life living in a pristine bubble, day after day listening to an endless supply of audio books and music that her sister played her from a central sound system, her few interactions with people restricted to disembodied calls.
But now her fortress had been infiltrated, infiltrated by an Etch-a-Sketch. And lines and numbers. She picked up the Etch-a-Sketch, which made the pattern begin to blur. She shook the Etch-a-Sketch sharply and saw the picture fade away further. It didn’t matter. Her brain had already encoded the diagram, committing it to memory.
Although peeved that she had to begin her wakefulness with fainting spells, Hazel was also amused. Who had thought of the Etch-a-Sketch? And who had taken the time to draw the diagram?
She pressed a smooth green button on her wall, which connected her immediately to the lab.
“Good morning, Hazel,” Doug’s cheerful voice came in clearly over the line.
“Yes, hello Doug."
“What can I do you for today?"
“I think I received a...” she paused, trying to decide how to categorize the Etch-a-Sketch, “a message from you all today."
Doug chuckled. “So, what did you think of the medium?"
“Creative,” Hazel responded drily.
“We have been having some fun with a new toy here, a mini bot named Edwardo. He has these large pincers for hands, like a crab, which makes him fantastic with the Etch-a-Sketch. We have been using him to auto-generate modules of greedy molecular folding."
There was silence on the line.
“Don’t you want to know what greedy molecular folding is?” Doug asked.
Hazel felt preemptively bored. This conversation had been interesting the first time, but one of the drawbacks of having a fantastic memory is that novelty becomes rare, a literal one-time wonder. “It is when a molecule begins to fold itself deterministically into a series of prescribed shapes. You told me about it five years ago, when you were just starting your project to create algorithms that would find rules for the folding patterns based on different environments."
“Phew, what I wouldn’t give for a brain like yours sometimes. Of course I told you about it then, I forgot. Well, the project has advanced nicely, and now we have Edwardo generating folding patterns based on one of the algorithms. We decided to combine him with work we’re doing on prosthetics with fine motor skills, which is why we have been experimenting with the Etch-a-Sketch. It is tricky for bots to operate those little nobs without advanced fine motor skills. The one we sent you is the most complex diagram he’s completed so far. Wasn’t it a beauty?"
In lieu of an answer, Hazel asked, “Did it have to be so complex?” Her eyes were still watering from the fainting episodes.
“Well, we are trying to test the limits of your memory input. Oh dear, how did you feel looking at it?"
“I lost consciousness five times."
“Wow, so that took six times to encode, huh? We thought it might. You know of course that that was your brain making sure to store at least six distributed pieces of copies in order for you to remember it intact. All very normal, no need to be alarmed. Not that you’re easily ruffled, are you? You’re tough Hazel, it’s something we all admire about you. We will conduct a brain scan today with your home equipment to see if the complexity of today’s exercise made any impact on your brain activity. Then if you could just use the pencil and paper we will send over to sketch out the diagram you saw, down to every detail, that will be all we ask of your mega memory today!"
“Ok, Doug.” Hazel signed off.
So Doug thought she was tough. Hazel didn’t feel tough. What did it mean to be tough, exactly? To survive through a debilitatingly aggressive onslaught of messages from the outside world? To live in isolation, knowing at any moment that it could be penetrated by an unannounced Etch-a-Sketch, without killing herself? To wake up again after passing out? Anyone could make anything crawl into her brain and live there forever. She was the weakest person she knew. Always open, always vulnerable.
A fog of loneliness settled thickly in her brain. What good was it to remember so much about the world if she couldn’t live in it? She shut her eyes tightly and basked in the safety behind her eyelids. An idea that had taken root in her brain long ago rose up again. She was unable to suppress it any longer. It was a mistake, it was all a mistake. She began to think about how life could have been. She began to think about how it could be. A knot of nervous energy wound tightly in her stomach. Anything is possible with nothing to lose.
She unlocked her forbidden cabinet. She pulled out the diode, the heatsink, the driver, and the flashlight. Without giving herself time to think she assembled the tools deftly, as she had hundreds of times before over the last three years. She closed her eyes and turned on the blue beam of light, as she had tens of times. Except this time, she lifted her eyelids open. With a flash of blue and a shock of searing pain, she was free.
Violet was totally engrossed in the feeling of a small, smooth stone as she rolled it around in her left hand. It was long and flat, slightly cold to the touch, and varying shades of heather gray showed how it had been slowly eroded by the Arctic Sea for years. It was a perfect stone for skipping rocks, as her twin sister had been doing 10 years ago when Violet pocketed the stone. Touching the stone, she could remember every detail of their family trip driving through Norway. The shape of every mountain, how many racks of drying fish they drove past. the pair of earrings her mother was wearing, how many kroner they paid for gas at each fueling up, the color of her socks, the color of her twin sister’s socks, how far out she swam in the icy arctic water, what they had cooked for dinner, who had put up which piece of the tent, where she had squatted behind a bush to urinate. But so much texture was missing. She couldn’t remember how the fish smelled. She couldn’t remember how her stomach had dropped when they drove quickly down steep hills. She couldn’t remember how skipping rocks had made her feel. She could flick back through her mind, like flicking back through the pages of a calendar, and remember every detail of every event that her senses had perceived. But she couldn’t differentiate between each moment. No one detail was more meaningful to her than another.
But touching the rock helped bring her back. That moment standing by the sea, feeling the salty wind whip through her hair, the utter elation of running around the rocky beach under a sun that never set, imitating her sister’s precise movements as she set rocks skidding across the water’s surface, laughing when her rocks plopped directly into the ocean, cupping her hands and drinking the freshest water from a trickling spring. Parts of it came back when she felt the rock, as if her memory was contained and stored in this sphere of stone. And she had many more memories here. She surveyed her bedroom, her treasure trove, her domain, piled high in memories that remained squirreled away inside of empty glasses, hair pins, old blouses, newspaper clippings, cereal boxes, nail clippers, piles upon piles of old keys, dollar bills, tote bags, rings, shoelaces, buttons, dead leaves, dried flowers, old toys.
The objects helped her. They were pieces of her life that took her back through moments of emotional meaning. Starting around the age of 20, Violet had been storing away the objects of her beloved collection compulsively, slipping them into her pockets and hiding them in drawers, in closets, under floorboards. Until seven years ago, when her slowly advancing disinterest in the outside world and inability to learn new things became so acute that she never left her room, but drifted about and petted the pieces of memory that connected her to the past and made her feel alive. That’s when she and her twin sister had settled into their mother’s house for good, never leaving, living in increasing isolation, only interacting with the outside world when absolutely necessary. Violet took care of most of their “outside business,” as they called it. She was dreamy and aloof, always a bit detached and constantly surprised by ordinary things, never having shed her childhood naïveté, but she could function somewhat normally and complacently.
Life was harder for her twin sister, Hazel. She had too many things in her brain to want to see or remember anything more. Poor thing. They were only eighteen-years-old when they decided, with their mother’s encouragement, to participate in the groundbreaking Project Memory Machine. That’s when Hazel and Violet had received prosthetic memories. Their mother herself had had extraordinary powers of memory, being one of the few in this world born with a “highly superior autobiographical memory.” Her mother’s memory had given her significant advantages throughout life. She could memorize texts after looking at a script one time, she could recall very early childhood memories down to extreme detail, she was a better resource for American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries than any textbook because her own parents were avid consumers of the daily news broadcasts — and she could remember every broadcast.
Project Memory Machine was supposed to cure devastating diseases that crippled people at the end of their lives: dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons. But there were two different approaches. One boosted the brain’s ability to store memories. The other boosted the brain’s ability to recall memories. Both focused on very precise processes in the hippocampus, the main region of the brain that is crucial to memory formation, though not the only region involved. It was a challenge for the scientists to figure out how to find control groups for testing and comparing each approach without two human brains that were very similar specimens. That’s why identical twins were ideal. And their mother, who had dedicated the latter part of her career to helping people improve their memories, was enthusiastic rather than cautious about the experiment.
Violet picked up a beautiful, swirly, smooth marble and touched it to her lips, remembering when Hazel and her had played marble families. This marble had been the dog, which was Violet’s favorite character to be. She used to bark in as many different ways as she could, sometimes a bark bark, sometimes woof woof, sometimes arf arf, sometimes ha hau, and sometimes a big howling bowwwww-wooowwwwwww. That would always send Hazel into uncontrollable fits of giggles.
That’s when Violet noticed a call coming in. She felt an uncountable wave of dread settled in her stomach as she answered. It was Hazel on the line.
“Violet! Violet. I think I’ve made a breakthrough.” Hazel sounded manic and out of breath.
“Is everything alright?"
“Yes it’s ok. I’ve just been doing some thinking. No, more than thinking. What is the purpose of having a mega memory if I can’t share it? I want to tell my story. I want to tell all the stories. I want everyone to tell me their stories, and then I tell their stories, and pass memories on and on. And I want people to understand each other, really understand, by seeing memories for what they are, as monads, as moments, as crystallized pieces of meaning strung along on a loose piece of time, looking backward and looking forward, as scopes of experience and horizons of expectation. Why are we so obsessed with saving, with taking in more and more, with utilizing, with optimizing, with opening? Why don’t we recognize the importance of ignoring, of forgetting, that we have the right to close? To protect? To be calm, to be safe, that ever since we are born our last refuge is our mind, that this must be held holy and sacred and never tampered with, that it’s our last piece of womb, our nest. Memory isn’t a tool, it’s a coping mechanism. It lets us forget. We need to forget. Forgetting is the path to softening, to understanding, to forgiveness. I want to forget. Violet, I want you to help me. We are smart Violet, smarter than any normal human can ever be. Let’s teach molecules how to fold themselves, teach memories how to recreate themselves. Then humans will never have to remember anything again. Instead we can use all the data being collected everyday, everywhere, about our shared pasts, and call it into existence when we need it. Memories don’t need to stick around like viscous, sticky stuff, cloying to our brains and clogging our lives. We can share the responsibility, look out for each other, ease our burdens. Share from a collective pool of memories. All we have to do is make the data fold itself into our sensors when we need it. Then we can trick our brains into thinking it’s a memory by triggering the memory function when we perceive, like deja vu. There will be universal human understanding because we will all be drawing from the exact same past, the same perceptions. I want to give everyone a Pensieve and let pull memories out of their brains in shiny silver threads, then leave them to float and swirl in a giant basin that we can all dive into anytime we want and share each other’s pasts. An ocean of memory. A Universal Library of recollections. If people don’t want to take an icy dip they can just stay outside and skip stones. I will show people how complex memory can be. How it’s supposed to connect us, not isolate us. How it’s supposed to be respected, given room to breath, not constructed and imposed. Every time someone gives me a memory she can give me a key that embodies it. Like your keys. And I will connect each key with a red thread and hang them from the ceiling and to each other, a tangled sea of red thread, millions of strings of red yearn criss-crossing, interwoven, a spindly mass that pulses with red energy. Awe-inspiring and creepy, uncanny, an infestation of connections. Memory is uncanny, but it’s almost all we know. It’s all we know."
The last thing that Violet heard was a gasping sob. She knew that something was wrong, terribly wrong, but she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have a blueprint of encoded memory about how to react to a crisis. There was nothing to recall.
The Key in the Hand exhibit by Chiharu Shiota at Venice Biennale 2015. Photo by Sunhi Mang. © 2010-2015 Christopher Jobson http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/the-key-in-the-hand/