Digital Selves

When I was younger, I spent a few hours a day training myself to think multiple thoughts at once. I would visualize a single dot zipping around erratically and eventually breaking into two different pieces that moved independently. I found that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't conceptualize more than one object at a time; however, I could achieve the same effect by imagining a single, large system with multiple objects inside of it. It was a subtle change, but made all the difference in how I perceived the world.

From then on, I imagined myself in the third-person, as if my body was a puppet being controlled by my mind. My mind was then free to explore whatever avenue of thought it wanted without focusing on my physical needs or desires. In effect, this meant I could always remain a few steps ahead of my peers, but during university, I stopped this exercise altogether to live more "in the moment."

A few years after my PhD, I was contacted by an organization that wanted to create a purely virtual world where people were limited by only their imagination. They were looking for intelligent and creative people to join their beta-test and thought I would be a good candidate, especially considering my research was in a similar area. After giving it some thought, I agreed to join the project and began working with them to create the appropriate software and experimental methodologies. A few weeks later, I found myself on a hospital bed.

A nurse entered the room along with one of my interns and began briefing me on what to expect. If I'm honest, I wasn't paying too much attention to the discussion. I had created the experimental protocols. I knew how this would work.

The nurse would attach electrodes to my scalp to read EEG signals while my intern would locate the exact frequencies necessary to overwrite each individual sense. They would then disable my motor skills while rewriting my senses to match the virtual world. I closed my eyes, mentally preparing myself for what was about to happen, but my intern snapped me out of it.

"Professor, wait." She looked at me as if she were about to discipline a child, "Remember, we are routing you to your own personal server. It's a clean slate with no identifying information. You are free to change it as you see fit, but do not try to create any living creatures. We do not really know how multiple conscious actors will be re-interpreted into your brain when we end this experiment."

"Right, Right." I waved my hand, "My objective is to go in, make a few trees and try not to get bored."

"Right. You will be in there for 1.5 hours. We expect this to be about 1 REM cycle, so 30 minutes in the virtual world." She looked at me, still a bit concerned, "We can monitor what you are doing on your own server, but we cannot talk to you directly, so please follow protocol."

"Ok. Got it." I nodded before closing my eyes again. "Ready when you are."

Within minutes, all the electrodes were attached and the nurse and intern were behind an observational window. I then heard my intern's voice, "Professor, we will remove motor functions in the next 30 seconds. Please be patient."

I gave them a quick thumbs-up before my hands went limp. Soon, I could not move anything apart from my face. I could hear my heart beating faster than normal in the EKG feedback, but took a deep breath, rationalizing the situation. This was my experiment. I signed myself up for this.

"Professor, we will move on to the next stage of the experiment. Your sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing will be transported to your home server in that order." The intern hesitated, "If you want to leave the experiment, now is your last chance. Please confirm you wish to continue by saying either 'continue' or 'stop.'"

That last bit wasn't part of her script, but I did not think anything of it and said, "Continue."

In that moment, I found myself within a white void, still unable to move or look around.

"Sight confirmed on server. Moving to smell and taste." She paused, "Smell and taste now online as well. Moving to touch."

At that moment, I remember thinking, Wait, my senses of smell and taste have changed? I breathed in deeply trying to discern a difference, but could not really tell. Maybe there was something wrong with the code or maybe it's hard to recognize the absence of those senses altogether. I then rubbed my nose with my hand, realizing that I could move freely and sat up, looking around the vast emptiness.

"Touch online. We can see you on the monitor professor. Please give us an OK sign if everything is alright."

I did so, recognizing that even though I felt like I was moving freely, my real body was actually motionless in the hospital bed.

"Ok." The intern said, "Are you sure you wish to remove hearing as well? This will disable contact with the outside world completely. Please give the OK sign if you wish to continue."

I gave the sign and my intern continued, "Ok, remember that you will be on your server for a total of 1 hour..." She cut out. Silence.

There I was. The first person in a virtual world all on my own. I wasn't sure if my intern was still speaking in the real world or not, but I gave the OK sign and stood up. There really was nothing around me, but in principle, anything could be created with a simple thought.

I didn't want to overload my server, so I started with something simple: a blueish-purple ribbon that waved in the air around me. I sat back down and watched as I forced it to dance around before letting it disappear and thinking of more complex objects. I knew I was not permitted to create animals, so I started with a tree by imagining bark growing from the ground and stretching out into several broad branches with nondescript green leaves forming a beautiful crown.

I nodded, proud of my work before walking towards it and feeling it. Outside of the fact that it was in an empty, white void, it felt real. The brown trunk felt rough and tough, when I shook it, I heard leaves rustling above. Some of them even began to fall delicately towards the ground.

Ok, so that's sight, tough, and sound down. What about taste and smell? They were somehow the hardest to get right in the simulations, so I found myself quite curious about whether they were actually working correctly.

I imagined a small, round pizza, hot out of the oven with red sauce and cheese. Sure enough, it appeared before me and smelled wonderful. In that moment, I realized I was actually quite hungry and shoved as much as I could down my throat. It was genuinely the tastiest pizza I had ever had.

I remember chuckling to myself, proud of the work we had done to get to this stage of the experiment. My stomach was still hungry, but my mind was full of ideas! I sat back down, looking out into the great white expanse and thinking about future possibilities while imagining a blue sky and clouds.

It was then that I realized the tree I had created earlier was gone. I guess I forgot about it while eating pizza and it disappeared. Logically, this was something that could be fixed in software after the experiment was over. It was simply a matter of figuring out how to more easily save what users created.

Still, it bugged me a bit. I felt I couldn't call the experiment a success without an entire forest of trees, so I hatched a plan. I imagined a single black dot moving erratically in space before splitting into two, then four, then eight, and so on. Eventually, the entire sky was filled with black dots and I was a spectator watching them buzz about with the digital representation of myself standing among them all. I slowly imagined the dots turning into trees and placed them on the ground. At the same time, I imagined a blue sky and clouds forming above them and a brown earth of decaying foliage and dirt below.

It looked absolutely wonderful. I found myself zipping through the trees as the god or my new domain, excited about new plants and animals I could create in the next experiment. In that moment, I was happy. The experiment was successful and I had kept myself from going beyond the scope of the experiment. It was time to relax and think about new strategies for the future.

I decided it was about time to return my consciousness to the digital manifestation of my body, but as I returned to where it was before, I found it was completely missing and it was then that I began to panic. Where was it? Where was I? What happened?

I could only think of two possibilities:

  1. In my quest to create a giant forest of trees, I had lost sight of my own person and own server erased it
  2. While I was inspecting the trees, the experiment finished and the intern tried to return my consciousness to my real body by transferring it's digital representation back

Either way, I was here, stuck in my server for eternity while my body was left lifeless in the hospital.

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