From the Wordpress post on July 7, 2021, by Zero HP Lovecraft.
A man—a boy—grows up in the exquisitely quantified and gamified world, in the city of Cupertino, on the edge of the Santa Clara Valley, in the shadow of the Santa Cruz Mountains. When he is eleven, his parents—an Ashkenazi technical product manager and a Chinese game designer named “Sing” Song—take him to get his Neuralink at the hospital by the Super Kyo-Po plaza.
A robot performs the procedure, which requires no general anaesthesia, in one hour . While they wait, his parents buy their groceries for the week, and when it’s over, they take him to get ramen for lunch. He orders two ajitsuke eggs and extra chashu pork (because he’s a growing boy) and his parents eat compressed enriched mealworm bricks. For them, Neuralink degustation technology makes the worm loaf phenomenologically indistinguishable from a hot bowl of Hakata ramen.
For the next three nights, as expected, the boy sees dazzling incomprehensible dreams, all of which he forgets, and on the fourth day, he wakes without waking into a vaporwave expanse of Pantone rose quartz and serenity. A voice in his head says “good morning,” and it sounds like his mother but with uninflected English. “You can call me Amy, unless you prefer a different name. We’ll be getting to know each other better in the coming weeks, but for now I need to make sure everything is working properly. If you can hear me, please think about a rhinoceros.
“…Good, and now a castle?
“…Good, and now your favorite TV show ?”
Amy teaches him to make search queries with his mind, and to install applications, and tells him she will collect his biometrics to ensure he remains in good health at all times. She will read his thoughts, but she will never share them with anyone, and will always respect his privacy️. The boy doesn’t tell her, though he guesses she will know, that he receives this as a threat. Hereafter, his life will be measured and optimized and nudged, to help him live up to his full potential.
As he reads his books in school, Amy highlights the words one at a time to help him keep the pace while studying. She tells him how many words he has read, how many minutes he has spent reading, and ranks him against local, regional, and national averages. She shows him how to find his position on a leaderboard that charts the reading ability of everyone in his age cohort.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are all fully automated through Neuralink. A program in the boy’s personal cloud decodes images retrieved from the lateral geniculate nucleus of his brain and parses them into words using OCR algorithms (Pravettoni et al., 2034, Mitigating Systemic Cognitive Inequalities through Automation of Mental Labor.) A similar mechanism is used to automatically detect mathematical symbols and perform the relevant computations.
Students hear the words they are reading, or the answers to math questions, in their own inner “voice” – the Neuralink driver is able to manifest these values in the mind of the student using a method called Concept Injection. The purpose of education is not to train students to read or do math; it’s to train them to use mental automation effectively. Tool-assisted reading is performed through the cultivation of passivity and “flow”. The application gives, and the reader receives.
In P.E. class, they use a parkour program and play follow the leader, free-running through an obstacle course by playing back neuromotor recordings from top athletes. Although they are children, they can tap into the aggregated muscle memory of a thousand lifetimes. The boy feels like a passenger in his own body, but it’s thrilling to feel himself leap from a height, roll and dash across concrete pylons and flip off of railings and wall ledges. Sometimes he wonders if it’s really happening or if it’s just a hallucination, but his muscles feel sore afterwards. Whether it’s real may be entirely the wrong question.
When he uses the toilet, Amy records all his muscle movements, and shows him metrics that track how much his anus clenches when he shits. She explains how these metrics can be used to detect leading indicators of unhealthy bowel function, and recommends (both to him and his parents) that he should switch to a higher fiber nutrient brick. (Heaton, Radavan, 2024, Dark Matter: Extrapolating Behavior in the Enteric Nervous System Using Neuralink)
Sometimes whole weeks go by without a single act of agency on the part of the boy. Amy says wake up and he wakes up. She says get dressed and he gets dressed. She says go here, do this, go there, study; eat; and he does, he does, he does. It feels less like obedience and more like convenience .
When he is thirteen, in accordance with economic forecasts, he enrolls in a vocational track to learn about encephalic software engineering. In his sleep, Amy dreams schematics and flowcharts and diagrams into his mind. At the same time, she enrolls him in YouSocial, a broker for B-certifications. B-certified individuals are people who meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, who work together to redefine success and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy, creating new incentives through personal transparency and accountability. (What is B-Certification?, YouSocial.com/FAQs, 2031.) On average, it takes five years for young adults to earn a B-certification; employers and colleges use the cert as an essential criteria for evaluating applicants.
On the weekends, his father takes him geocaching with an app called Recollect, in which the proprietor of a hidden cache uploads a memory of the act of hiding it, but does not share the coordinates. Together, the boy and his dad find a memory of a capsule in a flower pot next to a statue of Nikola Tesla, and they join the others who have found it there by uploading their own memories to the chain of recollections.
Inside the capsule is a small Tesla coil, and when he beholds it, a popup in his mind’s eye asks if he would like to relive the collective’s discovery. He assents. A kaleidoscopic wave of images floods his mind, layers of phantom approaches to the capsule from every angle; panoramic sight, polyphonic echoes of satisfaction.
When he is fifteen, some of the parental controls fall away, and Amy introduces him to Neuralink pornography, which is metered by homework completed . Memory-based porn is regulated by the LOTUS EATER Act: using direct brain stimulation to induce orgasm is classified as wireheading, and this functionality can only be deployed by software certified by behavioral experts to have value in promoting or fostering prosocial behaviors in the user.
Recorded memories that contain sexual stimulation of erogenous parts fall under Schedule II, which defines any memory or application that induces euphoria conducive to single-mindedness as a potential vector→ of abuse. (Limiting Onanistic Tendencies Under Simulation, Exceptions Afforded To Education & Remediation, 13 U.S.C. §§ 56-341, 2028.)
Amy lets him browse the porn networks for up to an hour each day, provided he completes all of his homework. Neuralink pornography allows the user to have first-person sexual experiences across a range of genders and sexual presentations, and has been shown to significantly reduce prejudice against marginalized sexual identities (West et. al, 2034, Can Intra-Subjective Non-Binary Sexual Experiences Induce Empathy?).
As he grows older and despite the prodding of the voice in his head, he never concerns himself with the thoughts or the dealings of women. In high school, Amy tries to broker dates for him, but he does not care for dates with boys, and he finds the girls Amy suggests to be ugly or otherwise deficient. (1 in 4 boys are resistant to Neuralink -induced “cued bisexuality” vs. 1 in 50 girls. [French, 2029, The Conservative Case for State-Enforced Homosexuality.])
Yet when he is seventeen, all on his own, he meets a hapashkenazi girl named May with a face from Chongqing重庆市 and tits from Samandar. He is overcome with lust for her, but she rejects his advances. (The exact location of Samandar is unknown; medieval Arabic sources place the city midway between Derbent and Atil, near the shore of the Caspian Sea [Brook, 2018, The Jews of Khazaria.])
In anger, he picks a fight with another boy that she favors. He balls up his fist and it flies at his rival’s head, as if of its own accord, but before the punch can connect, Amy fills his mind with calming emotions and inhibits the muscles in his shoulder and tricep. He relaxes in spite of his will. Even so, the other boy’s eyes become glassy, lost in some neuromanipulated soothing unto himself. (An exercise in theory of mind: that other boy must have his own Amy, with her own voice, and her own name. What does she tell him?) The peace of the moment yields rapidly to terror, because the boy realizes his body may disobey him.
Instantly, Amy files an incident report with the school board and the local police, indicating the boy was the antagonist in an attempted assault in which he experienced hot-blooded violent intentions. The ticket is routed to the school guidance counselor’s office, where a bot processes the report and prescribes a course of medium-intensity guilt to be invoked whenever the boy recalls the incident in question. The prescription is appended to the ticket, which is marked as ‘pending review,’ whereupon the automated psychiatric consultant for the district approves it and pushes a notification to Amy, the boy’s parents, and the school’s student resources office. The round trip time from filing the ticket to its approval is just over six seconds, with 2/3rds of the time spent waiting on the approval, 18% above the mean but still a 3.2% improvement YOY. The boy’s score on YouSocial is decremented by ten points, with a chance to mitigate the penalty if he completes a probationary period with no recidivism.
As soon as the approval comes through, Amy deploys the guilt through the boy’s Neuralink, and although he feels a heaviness in his chest, he is unable to place its origin. He does not feel any remorse about trying to punch the other boy, and the experience of guilt feels like it comes from somewhere outside him, as in fact, it does. He dislikes the sensation, but on some level he knows the provenance of the feeling, and that it’s part of the same intervention that stopped him from landing his punch in the first place. He hates Amy, and his anger wells up under the artificial guilt and subsumes it.
One night he downloads a memory from Recollect of a curving road where no street signs are visible. In the memory, he parks his car on the highway shoulder and steps out into the humid air of a marsh in the San Francisco Bay. He walks into the wetlands with a flashlight, uncomfortably far, and lifts up a rock with a false bottom. Without looking, he places an object inside, so that the nature of his treasure cannot be discerned by aspiring recollectors. But although the object cannot be seen, it’s clear from the emotion of the rememberer that he has hidden more than just an artifact; he has also buried an obligation, and this is a ritual; it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last.
The boy goes out to the wetlands to search, following the memory, but he does not find the treasure. Even late at night, he can go anywhere he wants with his car, because CrimeStop is installed on every Neuralink device, and it cannot be removed, so children are never unsupervised. Neuralink with Crimestop both protects him from others, and protects young people from the follies of youth.
The next day after school, he searches again, and still he finds nothing. Weeks elapse. He does not relent in his search, and no one uploads any new memories of finding the Recollect cache in the rock, so he knows it’s still waiting there for him. He replays the original memory again and again, until he feels he is looking for an object he has hidden from himself.
Every day at school, he sees May together with the other boy, whose name he does not care to learn. Each sight of her is a slight; each thought of her with him is a wound. And when he thinks of her, he also thinks of the fight that was denied to him, of the way his arm went slack; of the way his shoulder seized up. And when he remembers these things, Amy fills him with guilt, and guilt spurs his anger, and his anger lowers his YouSocial score. The boy has his mother’s temper, and the world is full of invisible walls. He believes (and he knows it is a superstitious belief) that if he finds the treasure in recollect, he will also discover a way to win May’s affection.
Amy tells him feelings of anomie, alienation, and even despair are normal, common symptoms of adolescence; the way to become his best self is to have personal goals that connect him to his community. He can both improve himself and repair his trajectory towards B-certification. A longitudinal study by West and Curwen found that teenagers who set their own charitable goals are three times more likely to build enduring altruistic habits vs. teens who have them randomly assigned (West, Curwen, 2038, Setting Them Up For Success: A Neurological Approach to Cultivating Conscientiousness in Developing Adults.) She tells him he should choose his own goal, and gives him a list of possibilities.
He chooses to do volunteer work for an organization called Respawn that rehabilitates recovering smartdrug addicts. Amy handles the registration process and the scheduling. On the appointed day, he goes to the Respawn clinic, where they show him a training and orientation video–
The human mind is a machine that fallsinto predictable failure modes when exposed to the wrong combination of stimuli. For this reason, cases of smartdrug addiction are best viewed, not as questions of crime and punishment, but as matters of treatment and prevention (Zhang张, 2033, Risks and Mitigations of Neuralink Abuse.) Respawn’s program gives smartdrug victims a chance to heal by “reformatting” pathological vectors of personal identity that cause the afflicted to succumb. Using Neuralink, it is possible to delete and overwrite the patient’s memories in a guided, consensual process that nullifies the root cause of harmful impulses. Broadly speaking, addiction replaces one of two things: human connection or change. The modal smartdrug user is derealized by chronic exposure to in-brain superstimuli, and benefits from the physical presence of other people during rehabilitation, who aid the process by affirming the new identity vectors and helping to integrate them into the patient’s self-conception. (Ibid.)
The process of reforming identity is gradual, because memories are all intertwined with each other, and an unexpected stimulus can evoke a harmful shadow from the past. Face-to-face conversation is a way of testing for problematic associations while fortifying the patient’s new, healthy identity.
–and he is introduced to a recovering addict named John, a man in his forties with graying hair. They sit together at a table in a courtyard in the shade. John is a marketing strategist for a dreaming media production agency, and he has two competing stories in his mind: in the first, he is overcoming a crippling addiction to smartdrugs with the help of the Respawn clinic, and in the second, he is receiving physical therapy for a sports injury he sustained in an amateur baseball league. John seems to be aware of both stories simultaneously, but he is unaware they are competing.
The Respawn app, mediated through Amy, tells the boy what to say. “How long have you been playing baseball?”
“Well, to be honest I remember a time before these things were illegal. Back then it was kind of the same thing as a video game, or maybe just a new kind of game. You know how in a game when you kill a boss or beat a level, there are flashy explosions and fanfares and all that? Well, this was kind of the same thing. I loved it, I would get up at six AM most days and the first thing I would do would be to head out to the batting cages and practice my swing. It was great exercise.”
Sometimes, as John is talking, he suddenly goes quiet and his eyes roll back in his head. Amy tells boy this is because Respawn’s software is updating something in his mind. Next she has him say “Do you have a favorite memory of playing the game?”
“Oh yeah, of course. Best game I ever played, it was like something out of a movie. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, close game and my team only needed one run to win, and I was up at bat. You’d download this app and there would be all kinds of effects–visual effects, audio effects, sometimes there would be tastes and smells and all kinds of things. It would feel like the softest, most pillowy cloth gently brushing your skin, or like a pretty girl was caressing you, all kinds of things–”
John has a little spasm, and then continues.
“And you know I probably could have just tried to walk or bunt but this was just some city game, it’s not even minor league, so people are tired and the pitcher just throws me this fat meatball, and it was like my whole world just changed and exploded and I was in this other place, there were like, impossible-to-describe beings there, all kinds of things, trying to talk to me. Unreal.”
Amy tells him to say, “Looking back, do you think there was a point where your relationship to the game became unhealthy?”
John says “At some point, people started figuring out how to trigger emotions, how to invoke cherished memories. Someone I knew compared it to cooking or mixology; you could put all these different ingredients together and build really complex sensations and emotions. I guess it’s no surprise that I ended up going too hard. Sometimes I would be out there playing pickup games like five nights a week.
“And I guess I just need to learn to give it a rest sometimes. One of my favorites was an app that made every single thing you did feel like the accomplishment of a lifetime, like the culmination of decades of struggle and striving. You could flip it on and every step felt like a revelation. If you opened a door to go into another room, you would think ‘I can’t believe I opened that door so deftly, and with such mastery and subtlety.’ Then you’d walk through the door and feel incredible. ‘Have you ever seen anyone walk with such grace, such poise, such singularity of purpose? My intent is like a samurai blade, forged by a master.’
Amy tells the boy to ask “If you recognized the problem, why weren’t you able to stop it?”
“It wasn’t just the lack of rest. Me, I’m a driven person. I want to win. And what this whole injury thing is teaching me is that it’s probably better to fightanother day than to win every single game. You could go on in this vein for days, but eventually you’d get used to it and the app would stop working. So people started building more complex apps that would cycle between longing and satisfaction, some of them would be real carousels of emotion. And people also started using these kinds of enhancements in real video games too, they called it ‘juicing’ or ‘seasoning’, they’d blast you with ‘having fun’ emotions or ‘accomplishment’ at critical times in the game, so you can imagine playing a shooting game and getting juiced emotions every time you got a kill. What was even more fun is they started making it really unpleasant to die, giving people jolts of fear or even pain, and that honestly just made getting a kill feel even sweeter, to know that the guy you just zapped was doubled over in pain, having a really bad time.”
Amy tells the boy to say “Tell me about your injury. What happened?”
“I had a friend from back when who could hook me up. I don’t know where he got them. Don’t ask, don’t tell, you know? But I was enterprising. When you have something scarce, a lot of doors can open for you; jobs, clients, connections, all kinds of things. I ended up giving away more than I used. And it’s funny, I did that for a long time, and I never got caught, but if you think about it, they have a snitch living right inside your head. So if you break the rules, someone has to know. You shouldn’t get away with anything. But people buy and sell smartdrugs all the time, so what do you figure?
“The way I see it there’s two possibilities: either that AI in your head really isn’t that smart, or else they let it happen and someone is profiting off all this through backchannels. Probably both. But something I did tripped an alarm, and as I was trying to steal second base, I tried to reverse and double back, and tore my ACL. Now I’m here.”
The next Sunday morning, the boy wakes up early and goes again to the marsh to search for his treasure from Recollect. Just like in his memory, the air smells of eucalyptus and bay laurel. No one is around, and everything glows golden with California sunshine. He has turned over a thousand rocks in these wetlands, he knows because Amy has counted. And under the thousand-and-first rock, he finds the recollected item exactly as it is in his memory. He lifts up the rock with its false bottom, and he removes a dagger with an inlay in bas-relief. It feels like lightning courses through him. In a part of his mind that was beneath his awareness, he has always known what it would be.
Holding the dagger in hand, he calls on Amy to nav him home, but she does not respond. He tries again, and she does not respond. Amy is even with him when he loses network connectivity; so he knows this is something other than a network outage. He wonders if she can even see him. The boy walks back to the road, and as a test, he uses the knife to slash the tire of a parked car, and he grits his teeth as he prepares for Amy to reprimand him, or modulate his emotions. His YouSocial score should go down, but it doesn’t. The feeling is vertiginous. He is invisible and invulnerable.
As long as he holds this dagger, Amy can’t see him. But when he tries to board a bus to go home , the door won’topen. As soon as he lets it go, the AI in the bus lets him on, and Amy speaks into his mind, “I’m sorry, something went wrong. I will now run a troubleshooting procedure, to make sure your Neuralink is functioning properly.” After a few moments, she says “Your Neuralink device appears to be working correctly. If these problems continue, I will direct you to a maintenance center for an in-depth diagnostic.”
Even invisibility has its limits, as one may notice a conspicuous absence. He places the dagger in his backpack , and tries not to think of it, not even a little, so Amy won’t read his thoughts. He thinks of what John told him at the Respawn clinic, that the AI just isn’t that smart, that its seeming prescience is narrow and domain-locked, but he also notes that this theory came from a guy who was in the process of having his mind wiped for being naughty.
It would be all too easy to end up like John; was that the real reason Amy introduced them? As a warning? He cannot envision a future for himself that he does not detest, and he longs for the tranquility he felt when he held the dagger on the beach. But he knows also that he will only have one chance to use it before it’s discovered by the systems of control that contain him.
He thinks finding this dagger is fate, and his use of it will be a glorious, heroic action, maybe the only thing in his life he will ever truly do for himself. He does not care what comes after. He decides, though he’s not quite sure, that if he can live out this single moment of self-determination, he could be content with his life as a puppet of the Neuralink nanny in his head. Maybe they will lobotomize him like John. In time, he could learn to love his prison.
The next day, the boy takes the dagger to school. He does not hesitate or second-guess himself. With haste he finds May and the other boy, who is about to die, not because of enmity, and not even because of jealousy, although he can be honest with himself that he feels those things. No, the dagger must go into the other boy’s heart for the sake of freedom, or rather, because there are mechanisms of control that are older and more powerful than a spiderweb of filaments infoliating in his brain. Fate is stronger than technology. The memory of the dagger was fate, finding it was fate, and now it is fate that commands him to kill.
He finds the couple holding hands, and he tries to act like he doesn’t see them as he gets closer. With no warning, he draws the knife from his bag , and again it feels electric, and he plunges the blade of the knife into the other boy’s chest, between his ribs. Blood wells up around the wound, and the other boy begins to choke and cough . May screams. He tries to dislodge the knife, but the handle slips his grasp. In an instant, Amy drags him down into sleep.
The boy awakens at home in his bed , feeling neither shame nor guilt. The dagger is gone, and he is confined to his house until his healthcare providers determine the best way to correct the error. His father wants to pursue empathy training through a service like Respawn, but his mother is old-fashioned. To her, it’s as if he proposes to murder their son and replace him with someone else. They have heated arguments, and although Amy tries to distract him, she cannot wholly suppress his awareness of their fighting.
His uncle on his mother’s side is named Wei 威, and he is a man of fortune (even in these later days, such men exist) with dealings in the criminal underworld, and a connection to a smartdrug cartel. The boy’s mother begs him to take her son away, to hide him from the administrators and medical workers, from the schools and the psychiatrists. Wei 威 sees that the boy is fearless, and on a day when the boy’s father is gone, he (Wei 威) smuggles him (the boy) away in a van lined with a Faraday cage. The boy cannot walk to the van by his own volition; as soon as he tries, Amy makes his limbs wooden and heavy, so his uncle has to carry him, and even when the networks can’t reach him, he can barely move.
Wei 威 takes the boy to an unscrupulous Neuralink clinic, where a blackhat technician jailbreaks his device. It will be difficult, now, to go back to the exquisitely quantified and gamified world , because the unlock event will be captured in every reputation broker and advertising registry. Strictly speaking, jailbreaking a device is legal, and yet how can a man be trusted, once he has crossed that threshold?
When the boy wakes from the operation, his dreams and his maps and his apps are gone. He recalls the vertiginous feeling of freedom when he first held the dagger with the white jade handle on the beach, and his soul is lighter than the past seven years. Amy’s voice is replaced with the curt, masculine VX of the Neuralink BIOS, and he is free of the progress bars, the point systems, the floating chevrons, the achievements, and the badges. His uncle drives him to somewhere far in the mountains, though he does not know where, because his GPS, too, is gone. At some point, they take a turn off the main road, and they pull down a long driveway that leads to a gate in a wall. At the gate, there are men with guns. Here his uncle has a silent, invisible exchange with one of the guards, transmitting some credential or sign through a private channel, and then leaves him unceremoniously, pausing only to wish him good fortune.
The boy is admitted inside the compound, where his Neuralink connects to a local wireless network that provides some of the cloud services he had previously known: navigation , telephony , and search. When he joins, a lattice of light fills his vision and traces out the shape of a capsule pill . “Welcome to Apothecary.” A bot inside the network guides him down a path to a door in the side of a mountain , which opens automatically for him. The building he enters is hidden, half inside of the earth, safe from the eyes of satellites .
A man at the entrance waits to greet him, and introduces himself as Shenwu 神巫. He says the boss is a hacker named Headstrong, and the rule is everyone goes by a pseudonym. Most of the other men in the compound are Chinese; the boy doesn’t quite look like them, but he can pass if you squint. At first he tries to call himself Dagger, (and this is forgivable, being born of the innocence of youth) but the name doesn’t stick, and the other men call him Broken Branch, and later just Branch. Shenwu 神巫 takes him down to the lowest levels of the complex, to a corridor that reminds him of a hotel. Branch will live here in a single bedroom with no windows ; only a mirror, a closet, and a bed. That’s ok, because he can use Neuralink to open as many (simulated) windows as he likes, and even fool himself into smelling fresh air and feeling cool breezes. The bathrooms are shared, like in a barracks or a dorm.
Shenwu 神巫 explains the terms of his employment: “You do your work, we pay you, and we take your rent and food out of your pay. There’s a mess hall upstairs, floor ten, the nav will show you. Above that is the main work area. You report to me. There are no scoring systems, no reputation brokers. You are an independent contractor, and you get a cut of any money your work brings in. You want more money? Do more work. Your time is yours and I don’t babysit you. If you screw something up, we don’t pay you for that. Until you learn the ropes, Headstrong will personally extend you a line of credit . So you should respect him and not waste his money.”
That night, Shenwu 神巫 takes him to Headstrong’s house, a short drive from the compound. They are far from the city lights , and uncountable stars fill the dome of the sky. In the grounds of the house there are tables and lamps, and men are drinking and gambling. Young women move among them, provocatively dressed, easy with their affection. But before Branch can lose himself into vices, he is taken to meet Headstrong, who chooses to dress like a Hollywood gangster. He wears an expensive suit: black and shiny, with peak lapels. It matches his patent leather shoes and his slicked hair, which is more gray than black, and his eyes are sharp . He always meets everyone who comes to his Apothecary.
Branch’s uncle has given him a letter of introduction, describing the ordeal with the knife, and Headstrong praises his recklessness and his tenacity. He says this is a place of danger and freedom, and not a place for the sterile drones who live in the panopticon outside, people who need a computer to tell them how to shit or fuck.
A tall, showy girl in a white qipao and a white jade hairpin pours them both a shot of Moutai, which makes the boy’s eyes water. She doesn’t even look at him, but she has jet black hair and her skin is pale and lustrous white jade. Branch’s eyes follow the curve of her body, but it’s clear she belongs to Headstrong, who laughs, and tells him the ordained purpose of alcohol is to stop you from intoxicating yourself on worse things.
He meets Glasshole and Baozi, who also report to Shenwu 神巫, who will work with him in the coming months. Glasshole hands him a small gyroscope, and as he holds it, it pairs with his Neuralink and the world flips uʍop-ǝpᴉsdn and he stumbles. Surprised, Branch drops the gyroscope, but the world stays the same. His new teammates both laugh at him. “It will wear off in a few minutes. Let that teach you not to accept strange gifts.” Baozi explains how transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) can be used to transmit data upstream to a Neuralink implant and exploit security vulnerabilities in the hardware, allowing a malicious third party to bypass user consent and execute arbitrary logic. Objects with embedded TENS hardware and Neuralink payloads are called tigers, because of the way they hide their dangers, and because they may devour you.
When he stares into a gently pulsing beacon on the veranda, it shows him a QR code. He follows it. A genie appears and offers to make him feel fiery, uninhibited, and euphoric. Branch accepts the genie’s offer and has a vision from behind the eyes of a wild predator — a lion or a wolf or a bear, something like that—running through a frozen plateau, high in the mountains, chasing some indiscernible prey, catching it, tearing it apart with claws and teeth, blood and viscera all over his face.
When the vision ends, he sees that some men are gambling with dice. As he watches, two of them come to blows, and a knife flashes. Branch does not know who is right or wrong, but the thrill of danger calls to him, and he rushes in to block a lunging thrust of the knife. He is not injured when he does this; his arm seems to know how to parry, and his feet know how to pivot. Other men join the fray, either to add to the fight or to break it, and Branch loses sight of himself.
Having been a fantasy or a mistake of drunkenness, the brawl ends as quickly as it began, but the man Branch defended, a Chinexican called Romero, is grateful, and invites him to share a drink of tequila. “Sip this one,” he says. “Don’t throw it back,” as he pours two shots from a brown glass bottle. Quietly, he confesses he had been cheating at the dice game, using a man-in-the-middle attack to influence the random number generator in the dice. Branch finds this agreeable, because he believes in fate, the cosmic structure of luck.
Romero calls over two of the girls who are loitering in the garden. They have big black lines of makeup at the edge of their eyelids, false lashes that remind Branch of spiders. Romero calls the one who comes to him Xiǎo 小 mèi 妹, little sister, and he sees Branch tensing up, flush with embarrassment. “Treat her like a child. That’s how you talk to women.” Romero’s girl pretends to be mad at him and calls him a stupid chollo, and he grabs her and pulls her close, and she nestles into him. The girl that sits on Branch’s lap smells like ylang ylang and jasmine, but Branch is still thinking of Headstrong’s girl, the girl all in white. Even so, he likes it when this other girl whispers private, half-lucid things in his ear, and he realizes she’s high on smartdrugs, just like everyone else. She quivers and sighs when he touches her skin, and she follows him back to his room that night.
The peach tree, budding and tender—
He holds the fruit in his hands
then bites into the jubilance of peach.
The next morning, Shenwu 神巫 meets Branch in the mess hall for breakfast. There is a line and a service counter, and the cooks are serving hot-and-dry noodles. All the food is real; no one eats insect loaf or uses Neuralink to simulate foods from social networks, and this strikes Branch as romantic, or parochial, maybe, because although the noodles are chewy and coated in spicy textured oil, with the sharpness of preserved mustard greens and the piquancy of scallion and coriander, he would not choose them for himself. In the mornings, he’s used to flipping through Matters of Taste, his favorite degustation app, simulating five impossible plates before breakfast–a bite of salmon tartare in crepes with miso bonito sauce, hickory-smoked octopus in tandoori masala marinade, bamboo-steamed arctic char in a mango hollandaise, and for dessert, poached pear with yuzu caramel and spiced oat cake (although of course it’s all “secretly” high fiber cricket loaf)–and all of this makes sitting through a whole bowl of noodles feel monotonous.
As Branch thinks these thoughts, Shenwu 神巫 explains the logistics of smartdrug production, and mostly he pays attention. The drugs (i.e. software) are distributed in tigers embedded in everyday objects like children’s toys or kitchen utensils. Apothecary works like any other online retailer; the developers rely on commodity manufacturing contractors, usually based in Chinese Africa, to source materials and assemble their physical products. Once the tigers are built, they are shipped directly to service-based fulfillment centers, and then to customers, with no part of the chain knowing too much about what they are building, or for whom.
When they finish eating, Shenwu 神巫 leads Branch up to the main office above the barracks. The stairs from the mess hall emerge into the southeast corner of a large open room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look down from the heaven-high hills. To reach the bullpen office, they pass through a gallery along the southern wall, where shelves and cases are filled with tigers of many shapes: wind-up toys, sculptures, gilded ceramics, puzzle boxes, compasses and astrolabes, books and golden jewelry, glittering in manifold hues, sparkling like dragon scales. Each contains a TENS assembly and a psychoactive malware payload, and nothing stops Branch from handling the tigers but his own knowledge of their danger. Shenwu 神巫 tells him this is by design; a constant reminder to resist temptation.
Branch is given a workstation, which is only a comfortable chair facing the windows . His displays and inputs are the “controlled hallucinations” that occur in his own mind. (Fugelsang, Koehler, 2032, Tradeoffs between Optical vs. Conceptual Injection: A Hybrid Approach)
Glasshole helps him onboard to Alchemist, Apothecary’s nootropic app store. Precise electrostimulation of the brain can be used to modulate the release of neurotransmitters and even some hormones, and Apothecary has a busy ecosystem for homebrewed brain tuners. The most popular apps are Silver Serpent for focus, Wax Elephant for working memory, Jade Pavilion when you take a girl to bed, and the Wuchang 五常 suite to ensure virtue.
“You should start small,” Glasshole tells him, “and grow your stack once you’re more accustomed to using them.” At his suggestion, Branch installs Yi 义 to foster benevolence, Zhi 智, a sort of autocomplete engine for his internal monologue. Branch also decides to download Lord of Heaven of Infinite Thriving, mostly because he likes the name, and he spends the rest of the day in a trance of conscientious focus.
In time, he masters the many subdisciplines of digital pharmacology: he learns how to circumvent the federally mandated hardware controls inside the implant, how to probe each new Neuralink firmware update for vulnerabilities, and the vicissitudes of code injection. Only once more during this whole apprenticeship does he set eyes on Headstrong, but he has him always in mind, because the men of Apothecary revere him.
After any technical feat or job his teammates always say “Headstrong does it better.” Branch covets their respect–he knows he is capable of great works, and he thinks often of the dagger he found on the beach using Recollect, of how he searched relentlessly for it, and how, through the tenacity of his will, he found the treasure his heart desired. Branch sees all the good things Headstrong has—his properties, his women, his men who follow him— and he resolves to become as great of a man, and indeed, to surpass him.
Branch now spends his free hours in study, beginning with the definitive work on smartdrug development, a book assembled from the writings of Eric Zhang张, one of the early researchers at the Neuralink Corporation, called the father of digital psychotropics. The Four Labyrinthes is a collection of his emails, recorded memories, philosophical essays, algorithms, source code snippets, and self-reports of altered states induced using Neuralink. Headstrong, who had been Zhang’s张 colleague and apprentice, stole his proprietary secrets and created the first black market smartdrugs.
The book is divided into four sections or “labyrinthes,” and the first is called Exhaustive Indexing. It contains the theory and procedure of rendering sensory experience into the user’s inner eye. Everyone’s internal map of the world is a bit different; to play back Zhang’s张 memory in Branch’s head, there must be a precise physiological mapping of the neural correlates of concepts. Without this, the memories appear garbled and full of artifacts; objects may be swapped for other objects; phenomenologies may be cross-wired or missing; one man might see subjective red where another sees blue; where one smells a lemon cookie, another might smell burnt toast. To mitigate this, the Neuralink drivers create a comprehensive index of the contents of each person’s mind. When a memory is uploaded, it is transcoded into a universal language, and when it is dreamed into a viewer’s head, it is recoded through that person’s own mental map. These indices are also necessary for rendering the controlled hallucinations of the heads up display.
By monitoring the visual and auditory cortices, it’s possible to extract memories of sensory data from the brain. If we were to treat the approximately eighty-six billion neurons in the brain as a state vector, then an exhaustive search of neuron activation space would be impossible, but this is unnecessary because partial activations of distinct concepts automatically converge on those concept’s modal activations. A statistically normal sampling of possible state vectors at the level of Neuralink’s precision can index 95% of a person’s sensory mapping space within about twenty-four hours.
In his third week in Apothecary, Branch eats breakfast alone. The cooks have prepared stewed beef tendon with winter chestnut. Topped with sliced green onion, and eaten over steamed rice, the thick sauce tastes of chili, garlic, ginger, star anise, and prickly ash, and the collagen sticks to the lips with a pleasing richness.
As he is eating, he receives an email sent to the entire Apothecary, from a man he has never met.
I am leaving the Jianghu江湖. I don’t expect you to agree with me, but you are my friends, and I cannot leave without washing my mind in the golden basin金盆. This is how we preserve our trade secrets. Since you are reading this, it means I already left, and I already forgot you. That’s sad, but I won’t be sad. Maybe name a drug after me.
I am sour on the dream of Apothecary: men standing outside the matrix of social control, (do you believe that?) outside the world, looking down on mindless drones below. They buy my drugs. They let a computer decide their whole life.
But is it really different here? Instead of living by a point system, I use so many nootropic programs, I need a scheduler to manage them. At that point, isn’t it the same as an AI assistant in your head telling you what to do? We are so obsessed with being “free,” but we use these programs to correct our freedom, and we are no better than the people we look down on.
I want to tell you what made me see this, because tomorrow I will forget. It’s because of a girl called Yui唯 – with skin like polished rice , some of you know her – but first you must learn some history. I came here with Headstrong many years ago. There were only a few of us, but now there are many new faces, and I think you may not know.
Back then, not a lot of people had Neuralink implants, and I worked in the lab with Headstrong under Dr. Eric Zhang张. He was always an idealist, a man with no fear or thought for tomorrow. Even before the first human trials were finished, he made me and Headstrong perform neurosurgery on him (using the robot of course) to give him his implant. He wanted to know everything this new machine could do. He strapped himself to a chair in the lab and used brute force to explore every state vector of the mind.
Now we have more efficient methods of indexing the brain, because we have more understanding of its layout. But for Zhang张, the process took months, and he was conscious the whole time, because he had to be. As Neuralink indexed his mind, he would twitch or babble or become emotional. Sometimes he would sing or scream. We jokingly called this “The Music of Eric Zhang张.”
One of his early discoveries was a method to regulate hunger – either to induce it or suppress it. The Neuralink Corporation immediately seized on this and productized it. Appetite regulation was the first Neuralink “killer app” and it drove massive early adoption. This may shock you if you are not aware of history: most people used to be fat. If you watch videos from the early twenty-first century, you will see it everywhere, and it is inescapable. Grotesque, bloated bodies, diseases on a vast scale. Everyone was sick. But everyone who got a Neuralink became healthy and stopped being fat. To the people of the 20s, this was a miracle.
It is hard to understand what Zhang张 was willing to endure to learn these secrets. When he finished his self-experiments, his discoveries were used to develop the technology of intersubjective data transfer. There were new social media apps for uploading and sharing memories. There were apps that could make telepathic phone calls. Zhang张 was called a visionary. He held Neuralink “symposiums” where he would speak and people would “mind meld,” mashing up the internal phenomenology of groups of people so they all shared the same emotions and feelings at the same time. He talked about the dawning of a new age of deep empathy, and he said this was the beginning of true cooperation and loving kindness among all people.
And he wasn’t done. When he melded with the people in his symposiums, he noticed above all the pain they felt. He welcomed anyone with a Neuralink to come join him, and everyone who joined him learned to cry and laugh and feel as one. Zhang张 wanted to heal their pain, so he invented new programs to refine the emotions of his followers. He built a new kind of app, what we now call a smartdrug, and he named it Irrational Exuberance. All the attendees of his symposiums ran it together, with each of their minds plugged into the collective. They were steeped in the radiance of limitless joy, and it stayed with them even after the connection was terminated.
More and more people came to join Zhang’s张 gatherings. Poets, intellectuals, and musicians clamored to get Neuralink implants so they could participate. Everyone was happy, and they were happy together, fortified in the unity of their happiness. from the outside, Zhang’s张 movement had the appearance of a cult, and as his accolades grew, so did his detractors, but the value of his work was impossible to deny. His disciples had evident health and wellbeing, and their numbers continued to surge.
(As one of the technicians behind these gatherings, the reality and the illusion of unity became ever more stretched as we scaled; how can you merge the thoughts and feelings of a thousand people into a single gestalt without stripping away the essential qualities of any individual? As a purely mathematical problem, mere averaging converges on nullity. We explored a variety of approaches, but the “shared” feelings of the symposium became almost a pure simulation as the number of participants increased. We ended up sampling the brain state of random individual members of the cluster at a fixed frequency and interpolating between them. Part of the impetus for the development of Irrational Exuberance was to synchronize subjective experience in order to help with scaling. But I digress.)
Irrational Exuberance was short-lived. After four weeks, it stopped working. Drug tolerance is a feature of the human brain, not an attribute of individual drugs. Zhang张 was forced to continually invent new programs to maintain the euphoria of his symposiums. And despite these innovations, Zhang张 himself was unsatisfied. To escape the treadmill of wirehead programs, he used Neuralink to observe the meditation practices of Chan Buddhists 禪宗 from the inside, and used the data to create a mathematical model of nirvana. He produced a new kind of smartdrug program for inducing enlightenment without meditation or discipline, called Authentic Heartmind 眞心.
The combination of pleasure, health, and Buddhist equanimity caused the followers of Zhang张 to glow with unearthly attraction, but Headstrong and I were not among the enlightened. Someone had to stay behind the scenes, to operate the servers and the infrastructure. Although we did have Neuralink devices, we only watched as Zhang’s张 power and influence grew. because of that, we don’t quite know what happened next. Or rather, we don’t know why.
After bringing commodity enlightenment to the masses (which were at that time still few) he began to speak of a fourth door, beyond impermanence, suffering, and selflessness. He told us all prior enlightenments were false enlightenments. All previous Buddhas were false Buddhas. There was a state of transcendence no human had ever tasted before, but which he had found using tool-assisted meditation. He captured these insights into yet another drug, called Yellow Emperor . He said it would open the fourth door to all people of the world.
Zhang张 deployed Yellow Emperor to his followers, but it was a disaster. Most of the people who ran the program became violent or else catatonic. At the time, there was a popular app called Face2 that let you connect for a mind-to-mind phonecall with anyone in your line of sight. It was the same idea as Zhang’s张 mind melding apps, but local and peer-to-peer. The people infected with Yellow Emperor (and it was an infection) tried to initiate Face2 calls with everyone they saw, and anyone who accepted got hijacked and infected. Anyone who didn’t accept, or who didn’t have a Neuralink implant, they would attack.
If this were to happen today, it’s possible the whole world would become Yellow Emperor zombies, but we were fortunate, because even in San Francisco, most people did not yet have the device. With the help of the Neuralink Corporation, police were able to capture and initiate a factory reset on the infected.
After they were reset, none could remember what they had done. Instead, they reported feelings of disassociation and euphoria. Some recounted experiences of being transported to another world and encountering alien beings. When I audited the code for Yellow Emperor , I was unable to find any logic for these hallucinations or for the violent behavior of the infected.
The event threatened to undermine public confidence in Neuralink. I don’t know what goes on in shady back rooms where journalists and politicians and captains of industry wield power, but the incident got no press coverage, fell off the news cycle like it was never there, and then the government started rolling out regulations to control what kinds of software could be made for Neuralink, and who could run it. They created “schedules” of control the same way we have with pharmaceutical drugs. I think everyone here knows all about that.
Headstrong came to me and told me the world was going to change very quickly, and he had made copies of all Zhang’s张 notes and recordings. He said we had a unique opportunity to steal them and establish a monopoly on illegal smartdrug production. Like the rest of you, I was never an idealist about these things.
But then, last year, Yui唯 came to Apothecary to be one of our consorts. And let’s be honest, consort is a word for whore. I don’t care about that, but I got to know her, and she told me something I haven’t been able to let go. She showed me a picture of her mother, a fat Japanese American with too much wine on her face. She told me her mother was killed in a Neuralink malfunction. As she described it, I realized she was a victim of the Yellow Emperor attacks, this beautiful girl. She must have been very young when it happened. And I felt responsible for that, even though it was really Zhang张 that had done it. But even that’s not why I’m leaving.
I’m leaving. because, when she learned the truth, she didn’t even care. She was and is so high on a cocktail of Neuralink drugs (Seven Veils, perhaps, or Woman For All Purposes, some of my best creations) that her life is a flat void. She is simply a pleasure machine, hardly a person at all, and I built that machine. I killed her mother and turned her into a smartdrug whore and she’s fine with it! You’re all fine with it! What’s wrong with you? Maybe now you’ll get it. But either way, I’m already gone, and to be honest I’ll be glad to have these memories excised from my head.
~ Boshi 博士
Branch reads the email in full, but he is not sure how to react. He looks up from his food, and tries to read the emotions of the other men around him in the dining area. Did they read it? Most are staring into the void of the HUD , and no one seems moved or even surprised. Did they already know this story? Or is Boshi 博士 right and they don’t care? He barely knows these people, but still it’s anxious. Too much to think about.
When he goes up to his station in the main hall, he sees Shenwu 神巫 and asks about the letter. Shenwu 神巫 tells him most people have heard the story of Zhang张, and that’s why the fourth labyrinthe is not accessible in any of the shared file stores. There’s nothing spooky about it; beaming chaos into your brain drives you crazy and can make you violent or give you delusions of grandeur, so don’t do that. Anything can kill you if you use it wrong.
Hearing this does not satisfy Branch’s curiosity, but he can see that for Shenwu 神巫, this is the beginning and end of the matter. He notices his teammates listening to his conversation nervously, and he realizes this is a topic to broach carefully. So he tries to focus on his work for the day, but it does not hold his interest. Branch wants to know what really happened; he wants to know the truth about Zhang张 and the drug called Yellow Emperor .
From his high pavilion,
he gazes into the distance
at the color of grass at heaven’s edge
That night he studies the second labyrinthe, Hedonic Geographies. It starts with a discussion of the myth of the “resonant frequency,” a hypothetical single activation pattern that will sustain a state of limitless pleasure in the mind of user. Subjective nullification will occur for any state vector imposed on the brain. Artificially holding a particular state can cause “burn-in,” dampening that which was to be invoked. Burn-in can be avoided by cycling through a series of pleasurable stimulations; oscillating through the substantia nigra, the ventral tegmental area, and the hypothalamus. But this style of pleasure induction encounters a ceiling; as with chemical drugs, the joy of the stimulus soon gives way to its compulsion. The high becomes the baseline, and the baseline becomes the anxiety of absence.
Table Of Contents: Hedonic Geographies
Brain stimulation can induce desire, but all pleasure exhausts itself with exposure, leaving only desire in its place. (This is known as the wirehead’s dilemma.) An alternate strategy is inspired by a famous investigation into the limits of sensation and perception: in the thermal grill illusion, warm and cool metal bars are arranged in an alternating layout. Neither the warm nor the cool bars occupy an extreme of temperature, but if you place your hand over the grill, the contrastcauses you to perceive them as burning hot. The wirehead exploits a similar principle by titrating pain into pleasure, which both amplifies pleasure and makes pain more tolerable. (Thunberg, 1896, Förnimmelserne vid till samma ställe lokaliserad, samtidigt pägäende köld-och värmeretning)
The second labryinthe contains recipes for various kinds of pain, observations on the interactions between different pains and pleasures, and designs for sustainable hedonic states. Branch thinks of the story of Zhang张, indexing his own brain while he was awake, and he tries his own experiment. He has sampled a few smartdrugs already in his time here–Peach Spring Beyond This World , Unfaithful Housewife, and the perennially popular Stop Hitting Yourself– but the drug programs in Zhang’s张 text are much simpler, and if Unfaithful Housewife is a scalpel, then Wirehead Variation #4 is a hammer.
There’s an incentive to produce addiction in the wirehead without crippling his executive function, but Zhang’s张 explorations were performed out of love, unfettered by economics. Branch falls into such a vortex of ferocious bliss that he loses an entire evening, as if he had been asleep or dreaming, floating in radiant contentedness. When the feeling is gone, he longs for it again, but he has learned to contain these impulses by invoking Yi 义 to become temporarily anhedonic.
He can’t sleep. The events of the past day weigh too heavily on him, so he finishes the second labyrinthe and pushes straight into the third, Commodity Enlightenment . Whereas wireheading searches for hedonic equilibria by simultaneously cultivating and satiating desire, Buddhism seeks to eliminate desire altogether. Can enlightenment be as simple as playing back recordings of brain state vectors into the minds of the uninitiated?
Awakening is a process, a journey as well as a destination. The subjective experience of each step of the path may be different for each initiate, because the mind is an intricate forest, and it may appear different in daylight or moonlight, in winter or summer, up close or from a distance. Nevertheless, the objective neurological map through the forest is the same for everyone. The initiate must pass through each of the eight stages of concentration and insight in order before approaching the doors of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness.
The spacious golden chains of concentration succumb to the wirehead’s dilemma if they are not titrated with pain, but the natural pain of impermanence is often sufficient to avoid this problem. At the apex of concentration, it is possible to trigger the Kundalini Awakening, which may be accompanied by spasmodic movements, strong sexual feelings, lucid dreams, and the belief that one has magical powers. Awakening yields to dissolution, misery, and fear, which are mitigated by completing the progression into Equanimity, Conformity, and Fruition.
The equanimity of stillness in the conscious mind does not stifle the pursuit of base desire; it only severs the mind from the subjective awareness (i.e., the pain) of that desire. Enlightenment turns out to be only a form of euphoric dissociation, where self-related thoughts are greatly reduced.
Having come to the end of these texts, just as the simulated light of dawn shines through his virtual windows, he feels no closer to any understanding of the things he has learned.
At the next gathering at Headstrong’s estate, he goes to Romero and asks about the fourth labyrinthe, and the drug Yellow Emperor , and Romero tells him there are rumors of Zhang’s张 dealings in the occult, that his Neuralink explorations of the mind were connected to his dealings with dark and forbidden books, with Tang唐 dynasty necromancy called Fangshi 方士.
Two years ago, a man came here who called himself Guolao果老. He was troubled, Romero thinks everyone could see that, but Headstrong took a liking to him, and they would sometimes meet privately. Like Branch, he had also asked questions about Yellow Emperor, and developed a fascination with the tigers in the gallery in the main hall. Romero had warned him of the dangers–others did, too–but he would always go up there to examine them, and even pick them up from time to time. One day he selected an antique revolver with a painted ivory handle, and it compelled him to spin the cylinder, place the gun to his head, and pull the trigger.
The gun was not loaded, but still, he did not learn. He invented a strange new smartdrug program called Feet on a Snake, which was so convoluted that no one could ascertain its mechanism of action or intended function. Among the testers who used the product, all reported sensations of disassociation, euphoria, and time dilation. Worse, those same testers were found wandering mindlessly around the compound with no awareness of their actions, and when they came back to themselves, none had any memory of doing so. Boshi博士, who was the head of quality control, refused to ship it to the public.
Shortly after this, Guolao 果老 left the Apothecary with no preamble or ceremony. It might not be wrong to say he disappeared, but the similarities between Feet on a Snake and Yellow Emperor are clear, and it seems likely that Guolao果老 had somehow obtained access to the locked writings of Zhang张, The Fourth Labyrinthe. Given his inexplicably close connection to Headstrong and the fact that Headstrong is the only man known to possess these writings, there is an obvious conclusion that Romero declines to put into words. Headstrong is a good and generous leader, even a visionary, and Romero will not speak ill of him, but the thing he won’t say lingers over Branch with its undeniable plausibility.
There is speculation that Headstrong hid the Fourth Labyrinthe in one of the innumerable tigers displayed around the Apothecary, and that the strange incidents of Guolao’s 果老 drug and his disappearance could be attributed only to Headstrong’s recklessness in planting so many dangerous seeds around his garden, rather than to any more sinister or deliberate motive. For his own part, Branch, perhaps like Guolao 果老 before him, remains ambivalent to these concerns, and he finds the mysteries of the Zhang’s张 writings all the more enticing. He wants to know what secrets hide in those forbidden texts, or in the the tigers that lurk in Apothecary’s galleries and halls.
No one sees Headstrong for a number of months; he no longer holds gatherings on his estate, and there is gossip that he is ailing. He sends for Branch specifically through a private message, and Branch goes out to Headstrong’s house, through the familiar gardens where has often gambled and caroused, and makes his way through the double door at the front of the house. In the foyer, a push notification directs him to the kitchen; a bot instructs to prepare a pot of bai mudan and bring it up to Headstrong’s room. He feels vaguely humiliated by this, but also gratified that he was called. Branch makes the tea and goes to Headstrong’s room, where the old man is lying in his bed, asleep.
Branch does not disturb him, but he sees how frail Headstrong now appears, Headstrong who is revered throughout the Apothecary, who has invented this world of nootropics and smartdrugs and real food and loose women. He is suddenly repulsed by the parochiality of the place, and he thinks how easy it would be to end Headstrong’s life, how much more he (Branch) could accomplish with these tools and these men. But his thoughts are interrupted as he sees the girl from the very first night come into the room, with a white jade hairpin in her hair. She is only half-dressed, and their eyes meet before she sits on the bed next to Headstrong and wakes him.
The old man runs his hand through her hair as he drinks cup after cup of hot tea and speaks to Branch of business and his dealings in the past year. Finally, he gives Branch permission to leave. But Branch takes the opportunity to ask, audaciously, about Yellow Emperor , though he is not so brazen as to mention the man called Guolao 果老. An inscrutable emotion crosses Headstrong’s face, and then passes, and he tells Branch that he destroyed all copies of the fourth labyrinthe, and that nothing good can come of delving into such things. Branch may have heard the idea that Zhang张 stumbled upon a neurological schematic for an ansible to another world, but this is pure fantasy, a superstition that has sprung up around a very advanced technology. No doubt Branch asks these questions because of the letter from Boshi博士, who has developed some fanciful notions after spending too much time in the idle company of consorts and digital aphrodisiacs.
Headstrong asks Branch, “have you heard the proverb which tells us: mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they multiply the number of men?” (Uqbar, Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, 1902.)
“To understand Yellow Emperor , it helps to imagine a mirror. The drug has no content itself; it is a feedback loop that amplifies things already present in the mind. The name comes from a legend about the emperor Huangdi黄帝, who conquered the creatures that live on the other side of the mirror and forced them into slavish imitation of whatever is before them. Zhang张 deployed this name whimsically, to suggest that his program was a conquest of the mirror, but according to the story, there will come a day when Huangdi’s黄帝 magic falters, and the mirror people will be free to come out of the mirror to seek revenge.”
Headstrong explains that the legend is a parable; it highlights the horrors within us, the shadowy reflections that we manifest in the world. Zhang’s张 greatest shortcoming was his naivete. He failed to understand the depravity in the hearts of so many people, because he saw wonderful, transcendent things when he looked into the mirror, reflections of his natural curiosity and good nature, and he imagined others would be the same. This is the truth of this tragedy.
On his way out of Headstrong’s house, Branch pauses to walk down a dark hallway, driven by impulse, or by a premonition. Though he is not influenced by any nootropics or smartdrugs , the urge seems to come from outside of himself. He enters a room full of display cases and pedestals and artifacts, and he realizes this is another collection of tigers like the ones in the main work hall of Apothecary. In the center of the room, against the far wall, he sees a full length mirror covered by a dusty cloth, with only a small corner visible, and he is already thinking of Headstrong’s story about Huangdi黄帝 and the mirror people. So he pulls the cloth from the mirror, of course.
Most tigers work by using transcutaneous electrical stimulation to trigger behavior in the Neuralink device that can enable code injection. TENS is the most common approach, because it affords the largest surface area for attack, and because it has the highest bandwidth once the security of Neuralink is compromised, but in theory, a hacker could exploit any sensory modality to deliver an unauthorized logic payload, even the sense of smell. (Zhang张, 2027, Thy Fearful Symmetry: Systemic Risks in Full-Duplex Neuralink Devices).
As Branch stares into his reflection, chromatic aberrations surround him like a halo, and he is unable to look away. He loses all conscious awareness of time. At some point in his trance, the myriad transformations of the mirror unravel one another, and it occurs to him that the reflection he sees is no longer his own face. His mind collapses into a single point of focus, and he finds himself as a different person, in an entirely different place.
The myriad transformationsunravel one another
We are born of the selfsame root,
Why should we hound each other to death with such impatience?
They call my creations smartdrugs. I don’t know who coined this term, though it is now common. But I never saw them as drugs, only as programs. I think it’s a slander, or at least a misconception, to call them drugs; a drug is not a biochemical program, because it contains no logic. It only acts on the mind according to logic already present. But this distinction is pedantic, I realize that. I’m bargaining.
And from the outside I can see why my detractors compare me to a drug dealer, why they call my many supporters “addicts” – but consider: there is alcohol use and alcohol abuse, but there is no such category as cocaine use, why not?
I ask this question because any behavior can become an addiction. In a survey of over a thousand tango enthusiasts, nearly half met the DSM-IV criteria for “addiction” (Targhetta et al., 2013, Argentine tango: Another behavioral addiction?) But there’s a critical, ineffable distance between pathology and addiction. It cannot be defined physiologically, only holistically, by examining the behavior in the context of the life of the “addict.” It comes down to a feeling, ultimately, about whether that behavior is good or bad for you.
I feel drowsy and everything is dreamlike. Visual and other perceptual artifacts are present but mild. Motor control is slightly impaired. In conversation, I sometimes say the wrong word, but I am lucid. Dr. Hong洪 asks me questions and I answer .
Hong洪: What is your name?
Zhang张: Eric Zhang张.
Hong洪: Where are you?
Zhang张: In the mission district of San Francisco, in the Pioneer building.
Hong洪: What is happening?
Zhang张: We are conducting an interfructuation of the effect of white noise streamed through Neuralink.
Hong洪: What do you see?
Zhang张: I see the computer lab. As you speak I have the image of a dragon flying. Lattices and honeycombs are visible.
Hong洪: What do you hear?
Zhang张: Your voice. The ambient noise of the lab. Subtle tinnitus in the left – no the right – no the left ear.
After fifteen minutes, I fall into a dreamless sleep. Where we might expect noise in the visual cortex to produce similarly random visual artifacts, perhaps akin to “snow” on a television screen, instead we observe Klüver’s “form constants;” spirals, tunnels, lattices and cobwebs, suggesting that noise causes downstream activation to flow along straight lines in the visual cortex. (Bressloff, Paul C.; Cowan, Jack D.; Golubitsky, Martin; Thomas, Peter J.; Weiner, Matthew C., March 2002. What Geometric Visual Hallucinations Tell Us About the Visual Cortex)
I am dissociated and derealized. The sensation is similar to the final moments one spends at the boundary between sleeping and waking. I pass in and out of lucidity, alternately occupying a dream space or the waking world .
I feel I am passing through luminous tunnels toward unknown and unknowable destinations. Each time I “wake up” and re-enter the dream, I start back at the beginning of the tunnels, an it occurs to me that the dream me is the “real” me, and the “me” in the waking world is only a shadow. I am frustrated by this, but when it’s over, I feel sheepish at the grandiosity of my thoughts.
Postscript: That night, I had dreams of waking up from the white noise, and each time I was convinced that only an hour had elapsed, and that my memories of the preceding day were hallucinations brought on by the random firing of neurons induced by the noise. I could not be certain I had left the chair in the lab, or if I was still “under the influence,” imagining myself to be going about my day, driving, eating, or communicating with colleagues.
The generation 2 Neuralink device contains 25776 electrodes distributed across 768 threads spread throughout the brain. The human brain itself has ~86 billion neurons, a ratio of ~3.4 million neurons per electrode. The granularity of the device is therefore somewhat limited. Each electrode is capable of emitting a charge of up to 40 mV, which is enough to cause thousands of neurons in a radius around that electrode to fire. By varying the intensity of charge at each electrode, we exercise fine control over the radius of activation, and achieve a “virtual” resolution which is many times higher.
Regarding the composition of the signal, there are many kinds of noise, which are named after various colors; white, pink, red, azure, violet, and gray. White noise has a flat power spectrum when plotted as a linear function of frequency. Pink and red noise have high spectral power in the lower frequencies and decrease in power as frequency increases. Azure and violet, the reverse. Gray noise has a U-shape. There is no direct perceptual mapping between audio noise and Neuralink noise, but we find these distinctions to be a useful starting point.
When sending a signal through the device, we model each electrode as a 2D point containing a position and an intensity. Each frequency band is resolved to a series of discrete positions and intensities within this space. To avoid confusion, we clarify that noise is rendered across different frequencies in the “position” domain of the Neuralink electrodes, and there is a separate “framerate,” which refers to the rate of change of noise in the time domain. The framerate of the noise is measured in Hz; this has no relation to the frequencies that comprise the noise.
We manipulate the amplitude of the signal as a whole by applying a scalar. The minimum charge needed to trigger a neuron to activate is ~10mV. At this level, only a small number of neurons immediately surrounding the electrode will fire. At the maximum output of 40mV, a single electrode can induce approximately ten thousand neurons to fire in near-simultaneity.
I become completely dissociated from my ordinary perceptions. My vision is a field of fluid images: a swan, a multitude of eyes, the inside of a maze. I hear a fragment of a symphony, followed by the clanging of construction or industrial machines. Maybe a voice calls to me, but its words are too distant to interpret. As with lower levels of white noise, everything feels like a dream. Dr. Hong洪 tries to ask me the standard set of questions, but I am unresponsive.
After some duration of time, my mind begins to wander, and I start to think of mundane things, chores to be done, further experiments, and so on. Several times I think of bizarre, nonsensical juxtapositions of ideas or situations. The passage of time is hard to observe, as it might be in a sensory deprivation chamber. After one hour, the noise procedure concludes, and as before, there is a kind of “hangover” which persists for hours or even days. During this time, my limbs feel heavy and everything feels far away.
The last thing he remembers, Branch was staring into a mirror in a gallery in Headstrong’s house, James Hong’s洪 house. Now he’s sitting by the window in the great hall, overlooking the Santa Clara valley, staring gazelessly into his workstation. He is in the middle of composing a smartdrug program whose mechanism he does not understand. Branch cannot account for the hours (days?) that have passed, but he seems to know many things he previously did not. And despite awakening in media res, he knows exactly how to finish his work.
From some preconscious wellspring inside him, he weaves new smartdrugs which dazzle his colleagues with their subtlety and imagination. He makes one called Rediscovery that uses a 2-stroke cycle of fast pleasure mixed with sorrow, and he juices it with white noise, right up until the crescendo, when it abruptly yields to clarity. The drug gets around the whole Apothecary. Shenwu, Baozi, and Glasshole are suitably impressed.
Soon he has a meeting with Yezi冶子, Shenwu’s boss, who tells Branch they are going to jump the release schedule and expedite Rediscovery to production. It goes live and for the first time since he came to Apothecary, for the first time in his life, Branch has some money of his own, more than just pocket change.
Yezi冶子 wants to put Branch in charge of a team, and he introduces him to Longyuan龙渊, Taie泰阿, and Gongbu工布, who will be working under him. Branch has never been in charge of anyone before, but leadership comes naturally to him, whether from the desire in his heart, a conviction in his own deservingness, or the same invisible source that enabled him to produce Rediscovery. All of this is because of the mirror, he is certain, but he cannot remember what he saw that night at Headstrong’s house. He knows the mirror was a tiger, and he can feel it stalking him now, crouching in the tall grasses of the mind.
Every day he loses a little time. He tends to find himself in an unexpected context with no memories of the events that brought him there, but it does not disrupt his work, and in fact he accomplishes more than ever.
At 35 Hz, even low amplitude noise produces a manic sensation, like drinking too much caffeine. I feel intense focus or “flow” and also a scatteredness or decentering. Images and sensations unfold in my mind’s eye with no linearity or connectedness. After what seems like an eternity – or maybe an instant – there is a welling up of attention, which gradually moves from the clarity of the center to the clarity of the periphery, before blossoming into the vastness of imperturbability, as in Samatha meditation.
Thereafter, all forms slip away like ghosts, and my mind turns to boundless space: all my disparate sensations blur together, and I am in a field of pure emptiness. This is pleasant, unlike lower framerates of white noise. I feel serene, but also as if I am on the cusp of some new understanding which had previously been granted to only a handful of men. This goes beyond enlightenment – it is something else entirely, though enlightenment may be a way to approach it. This procedure did not result in the “hangover” of lower frequencies.
The word addiction comes from the Latin addicere, the same etymological root as “dictate.” It refers to divination, the taking of auspices, and also to the adjudication of unpayable debts; a judge would dictate a sentence over a debtor, rendering him into slavery. (Maddux, Desmond, 2000, Addiction or dependence?) In Latin, the object of an act of dictation is called “addictus,” and we think especially of a man who is sold into slavery to pay a gambling debt; the gambling addict, the addictus, the slave.
But the word has a curious double meaning: in the augural sense, a king or priest would “dictate” the future he had divined; addicere is not precisely the act of divination, it is instead the speaking thereof. Both senses are similar: one either declares the will of the gods, or declares a man to be a slave, as we are all slaves to fate.
The unifying feature of all forms of fortune-telling, whether reading the behavior of birds, examining entrails, or burning bones, is the randomness or unpredictability in the outcome. In ancient China, Shang殷代 dynasty pyromancers would inscribe questions into ox scapulae and burn them to seek the answers. Divination is asking chaos for favors, as is gambling. Ancient civilizations used fortune-telling to decide where to plant their crops, and this was successful because it was a stochastic implementation of crop rotation. (Pervert, B.A., 2018, Bronze Age Mindset, p. 334)
A little chaos is unpredictable, but a lot is exceedingly regular. This is also the theory behind balancing your investment portfolio. If I use Neuralink to stream noise into my brain, is that divination, or gambling, or both?
Pink noise is an interpolation between red and white, and accordingly, the experience of pink noise in the brain is similar to both. Where white noise is dreamy and surreal, red noise is brutal and earthen. Auditory hallucinations are imminent and baritone. They seem to come from somewhere close to me. Red noise in particular seems to stimulate olfactory and gustatory senses. At higher amplitudes, the sense of taste is entirely saturated. The flavor is sweet and putrid, and vaguely metallic.
At this low threshold, it is possible to maintain some semblance of lucidity. Dr. Hong洪 asks me questions and I answer, although I have no memory of doing so.
Hong洪: What is your name?
Hong洪: Where are you?
Zhang张: I am inside of an aluminum pencil.
Hong洪: What is happening?
Zhang张: Petrichor Baltimore, cri de coer but not before, egregore
Hong洪: What do you see?
Zhang张: What do you see?
Hong洪: What do you hear?
Zhang张: Yes, he is here.
As my investigations come from a place of dispassionate interest in exploring the frontiers of the human mind, I am willing to endure all manner of discomfort in order to observe these spaces, but I do not imagine most people would choose to experience pink noise for any long amount of time. The mixture of dreaminess and immanence is distinctly nightmarish. As the session goes on, I become anxious, and I hear guttural sounds, almost like voices, though I cannot make out any words. For this I am grateful, though I wonder if the sense of the incomprehensible, of meaning just beyond my reach, is not also the source of this sense of foreboding.
[ d̵a̵t̷a̴ ̷i̶s̸ ̵m̸i̸s̶s̸i̷n̵g̷ ̶o̷r̷ ̴c̸͎͠ō̴̝r̴͈͒r̵̺̾u̵͚͊p̴̨͘t̷̢̎ ]
It’s an intimate trust, to let someone else write a program that runs on your mind, but isn’t that also what happens when you read a book or watch a movie? Stories and mean words can make your muscles tense up. If something you read on the internet makes you angry, it changes your body, releases neurotransmitters, and alters your brain chemistry. My programs can do all of these things, too.
We speak of “cortisol” and “epinephrine” as if we knowwhat these things are. (They’re chemicals, epinephrine is C₉H₁₃NO₃ and it binds to various alpha and beta receptors (Mickey et al, 2007, Hypocrite That You Are.)) You can read about them on the internet, and sound authoritative as a layman, but even a scientist’s understanding is mediated through cognitive algorithms evolved for hunter-gatherer folk religions.
Neurochemistry is the animism of the scientific age. Neurotransmitters are animal spirits that come and go in a dark forest. We no longer relax; instead we “lower our cortisol.” Meditation and walks in nature are rituals designed to placate these spirits.
At 30hz I no longer experience any flickering or phasing between the “real” world and the “other” world. Instead, I am completely transported into a place that is dark and bright at the same time. I have the feeling of being deep underground. The same shadowy figures I encountered at 15hz are present, but now they are more solid, and I can see they have an almost gelatinous quality. It no longer puzzles me when they merge together or split apart, because I understand they are all part of the same substance, perhaps even the same entity.
At this frequency I can perceive correlations between my other senses and the movements and positions of these figures. Smells, tastes, and sounds all fold and roll around and over and into one another, in time with the movement of the shadow blobs. But every time I feel as if I have mastered the rhythm, it changes. In retrospect, I wonder if there was any rhythm at all, or if I was only imagining patterns, and all of this was merely a delusion of the noise.
My extremities begin to vibrate. Everything is pulsating and undulating. I remember nothing else. Dr Hong洪 described my exterior state as trancelike. After forty-nine minutes, I began howling as if in pain. This continued until the end of the procedure, eleven minutes.
Branch has no trouble controlling his team. Everyone follows his orders, as if he has an uncanny power over them, a charisma he’s never felt before, emanating from behind some locked doorin his mind. His ambitions manifest as soon as he wills them. When he speaks, people listen. When others disagree with him, they back down. Each new drug he designs is a masterpiece; he paints delicate interior pictures, intricate compositions of emotion and sensation, and makes careful use of noise . His creations bring him wealth, and prosperity comes to everyone on his team. Success begets success. All that he touches turns to gold, and soon his reports have reports.
Branch leaves the barracks and builds an elaborate house inside the Apothecary compound, full of galleries, hallways, and fountains, stairways, courtyards, and fora, arches, walls, and facades. The construction is quick because they exist outside the regulating eyes of any municipal government. The work is crowdsourced to builders through a platform called Hive, which orthogonalizes skill from labor. Gig workers come on site, their bodies driven by AI, renting out “meat time” through the cloud. Everything they see passes through them but they do not retain it. Apothecary has a special proxy that lets you spoof a non-jailbroken Neuralink to interface with mainstream app ecosystems.
Branch no longer goes to the walled garden where the courtesans dwell, and instead they come to him. Even the madame there, a cold woman called Dowager, treats him warmly when he asks her to send over his (second) favorite girl.
Yet even as he finds these successes, he loses more time, a lot more time, into the void of his own missing memories. A part of him brushes it off, doesn’t want to admit it, doesn’t want to think about the implications. But one reflective night, staring into the smokey dusk of the mountains, autumn fires burning in the fields and by the highways, ash raining from heaven, sky red from sun and smoke, he installs Nai He Bridge 奈何桥 from Alchemist, which will record what he sees and hears and upload them into a private repository. With this, he hopes, he will be able to reconstruct his missing activities.
The next morning, and in the times when he does feel present and aware – in the times he remembers – he forgets to check the records from Nai He Bridge奈何桥. In truth, he does not want to see them.
Deep in the walled garden, deep—how deep?
Mist stacks on willows,
Uncountable layers of screens and blinds.
The most famous story of Zhuangzi莊子 is the dream of the butterfly. Is Zhuangzi莊子 dreaming he is a butterfly, or is a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi莊子? This question is impossible to answer before Neuralink, and after Neuralink, it is still impossible.
There is no way to record the first-person phenomenological experiences of the mind; we can only record (and play back) the electrical signals that pass through the brain. By sampling the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), it is possible to reconstruct the optical signal coming in through the eyes, but the subjective visual modality such as those produced by the noise procedure arises “downstream” from the LGN. The correlation between these signals and the visual perceptions they induce appears to be non-deterministic. As such, no two people can have the same experience repeatably using any of our noise protocols. In theory, if we record the noise experienced by a subject for a single recording, and play back the exact same signals for a second time, the experience should be nearly identical, but this is not the case.
And despite this, we find that most volunteers who experience the noise protocols report hallucinations that are similar in character, even if they vary in their specifics. This might indicate fundamental commonalities in the ways that all of our brains are wired, but there is also a sense in which the mapping between colors of noise and subjective experience is an artifact of our equipment. The different “frequencies” in the spectrum of the white vs. pink vs. red noise correspond to specific electrodes in the Neuralink device. At the lowest level, the pins are numbered and the precise mapping of a particular spectral band to a particular location in the brain could be different.
It so happens that Neuralink electrodes are implanted in the user’s brain in a consistent way, to the highest degree possible, but if the mapping of positions to electrodes were inverted, for example, pink noise would effectively become azure and red noise would become violet.
Red noise, also called Brownian noise, is pink noise purified. Gone are the dreamy sensations of white noise, and in their place is a brutal clarity, and a feeling of communion with a chthonic mother goddess. These sensations are not distant or vague; I feel sober, wakeful, and in control of my own mind, despite external evidence to the contrary. At low frequencies, it is still possible to interact with other researchers and people around me.
Hong洪: What is your name?
Zhang张: Eric Zhang张
Hong洪: Where are you?
Zhang张: In Neuralink research lab 2.501. On planet earth.
Hong洪: What is happening?
Zhang张: We are perforrrrrrrrrrrrrrmmming a noise trial with red noise.
Hong洪: What do you see?
Brownian noise is sensual and, as noted previously, full of tastes and smells, though they are disconnected from any sensation of eating. I can taste flowers and charcoal and butyric acid. Beyond this there is no sensation of rapture or transport, as at higher framerates. As I interact with my colleagues, I have ideation similar to Capgras delusion, the feeling that they have been replaced by identical impostors. This is unsettling, but it passes when the procedure concludes.
The familiar environment of the lab becomes strange; the walls and floors appear to be made of rock, as if I am in a cave. There are snakes and worms moving through the walls. They seem intelligent, and I am not concerned about their presence. High above me, there is an opening in the ceiling, and I can see the sky full of stars. All of these sensations are vivid and wakeful, and they feel as real as any other sensory perceptions.
The ground gives way underneath me, and I begin to fall down an endless ramp or slide, through colorful layers of rock and earth. This is enjoyable, and I can see that even as I fall deeper and deeper, there are luminous snakes boring and tunneling at every depth. When I finally emerge from the consciousness of the red noise, I can still see their after-images. It feels like they were always there, and the red noise only revealed them.
I am looking for something highly specific; but it would be wrong to say I am looking for a signal in all of this noise. Rather, I have had a vision. There are things I have seen in these experiments that cannot be put into words, or things which are unwise to describe. In all I have done so far, I have seen where this project is headed, unless something drastic occurs. Even if I disappear tomorrow, others will pick up where I left off. The future of this technology is clear.
As the device becomes more sophisticated, increasingly delicate control of the body will be possible. Already we are exploring the possibilities of specialized installations, in which two devices are implanted in a single brain, one for general purpose compute and one for localized control of the hands. In this configuration, it is possible to perform complex tasks such as detailed drawing. (E. Zhang张, C. Hong洪, 2030, Fine Motor Skill Transference Through Neuralink Imaging). In its maturity, it will be the consensus understanding that experts are able to move your body better than you.
Everything from athletics, to manual labor, operating machinery, even sexual performance will become automated. We will surrender all bodily autonomy to machines, and this will be rational, because recordings of experts combined with artificial intelligence will give everyone the ability to draw like Picasso, swim like an olympian, drive like a racecar driver, perform neurosurgery, and so on and so on. In the 2010s everyone agreed to carry surveillance tracking devices on their person at all times, which could record their every movement and listen to every word they said through always-on microphones. They chose this gladly because the convenience it offered and the possibilities it unlocked far outweighed any negatives, which were barely perceptible.
Not only will we make this same trade again, but Neuralink will also make it possible for machines to monitor our thoughts. Some good may come of this, but it will mean the loss of all individuality and privacy, and will signify a true era of “post-humanity.”
Each time I go deeper into the noise, it feels like I go deeper into the earth. Like a journey to the bottom of the sea, I encounter ever stranger and more exotic creatures as I descend. I can find no explanation for these visions, nor for the scent of minerals and noxious gas, nor for the eerie consistency of the things I encounter. By all logic, the experience of noise in the brain should be a kind of frenetic chaos, an ephemeral shifting of random sensations and memories.
As I go deeper still, I am met with the tastes of ash and soot and sulfur. There are fires burning all around me, and I am falling through a tunnel into the deepest depths of the earth. It is darker here but for the firelight and the bioluminescence of creatures that would seem more usual at the bottom of the sea. There is no water, and yet I fall past floating, ethereal beings that resemble anglerfish, vampire squids, and other deep ocean monstrosities, and still I descend.
In a vast underground palace I meet the devil. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I perceive an entitywho tells me he is the devil. In the course of my investigations I have seen many such entities, which I readily understand as hallucinations.
This is different. This one speaks to me, looks at me, regards me, this creature made of neon outlines and covered in eyes. He tells me he is the ruler of this place, and that I should feel honored to meet him, but I do not trust this entity; in my gut I can feel he is trying to trick me.
He shows me visions of high-up places, and memories of the past and future, but he can see I am not convinced, and he tells me I am clever for seeing through his ruse. He says “Damnation is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn all who can see, even with a single eye.”
As soon as I hear this, the red noise procedure concludes.
Branch wakes to himself in the middle of the night, and he’s not in his bed. He’s in a field thirty minutes south of the compound, alone on a hillside, with an LED flashlight. He doesn’t know why and he has the sense he’s interrupting something, but he makes his way back to his house, with some difficulty. There’s a wound on the back of his hand; two perfectly straight, perpendicular, intersecting cuts, which could only have been inflicted deliberately, and with his own complicity, or if he had been restrained.
The anxiety of ignorance outweighs the anxiety of knowing, and he opens the Nai He Bridge奈何桥 to see what he has been doing in his absence. Naturally, he finds nothing at all – the app has been disabled, and all of its records wiped. Whatever Branch had expected – half-articulated imaginings of dark rituals, flowing robes, human sacrifice, masked men gathered around some hidden stone altar, chanting hideous names – he finds nothing, and there is only the fact of the wound on his hand, and the strange hour.
The next day he goes to Romero, who has neither joined his team, nor shared in his successes. Between his lost time and his new importance, Branch has, to his shame, neglected his friend. But Romero receives his invitation graciously, and comes to visit him at his new house. They eat and drink, and Branch, with some trepidation, tells him everything: about the mirror in Headstrong’s house, the missing hours, the ineffable awareness he has of Zhang’s张 fourth labyrinthe, and the episode from the previous night in the field. He shows Romero the wound on his hand, the thin perpendicular lines that form a cross.
Romero listens to all of this stoically, and when Branch has finished, he still does not speak.
At 13hz, 10mV, the effects of azure noise are almost imperceptible. I have a pervasive impression that I am being watched, but I cannot say who or what is watching me. I can speak lucidly with other people.
Hong洪: What is your name?
Zhang张: Eric Zhang张
Hong洪: Where are you?
Zhang张: I am in a Neuralink research lab.
Hong洪: What is happening?
Zhang张: We are conducting a trial with low mV azure noise.
Hong洪: What do you see?
Zhang张: The lab. Everything is normal.
The lights feel very intense, much brighter than usual. I request that they be turned off. The lab is still lit by sunlight, and now I can see gently rolling geometric patterns in the dark corners.
The difference between 10 and 20 mv is stark and immediate. There is no possibility of interacting with anyone else in any normal capacity. I feel I have been pushed into another realm entirely, as if I am seeing “behind the curtain.” There are creatures here, beings made of pure energy, and they are rushing around spreading viscous light all over the lab like butter over bread. One of them approaches me and says “you’re getting closer; you’re almost there.” The creatures are laughing as they move to and fro, and their laughter is joyous, but empty of warmth or compassion.
They finish covering everything in the room with light, and I can now see that a door–or more accurately, a portal– has opened. They beckon me inside, but before I can enter, the trial concludes.
We put a machine inside your brain, and that machine connects to the internet, and data flows freely between them. Where does your mind end and the world begin? This question is as old as the first time some ancient hominid picked up a rock or a stick. Inside the mind, the picture of the body includes the tool it wields. If you drive a car, your body is the car. If you pick up a hammer, the hammer is your arm. You’ve read this think piece before. If you write down some words on your phone, they say the text is a part of your mind.
As soon as the noise ramps up, everything I see is wrapped in a lattice of light. I feel as if I occupy several geometrically impossible configurations of matter simultaneously; I am both inside and outside of a cube. Freely wandering, I am walking two paths. I am following a trajectory in a high-dimensional space, and I can’t make sense of the torrent of images I am seeing.
The same creatures I saw at the lower voltage are present all around me now, only there are more of them, and they welcome me back with fanfares and flashing lights. They tell me my entry into this space has been predestined, that I was always supposed to be here, and they congratulate me, as if I have won some kind of prize or raffle. I am the elect of humanity, chosen to receive the knowledge they are about to bestow upon me. They are not forthcoming with the substance of this knowledge, however, and the remainder of the procedure is only variations on this theme.
There is machinery everywhere, made of glowing lines and hypercubes, gears and levers. It looks like the inside of a Rube Goldberg machine. There are panels with buttons and screens, but the technology is strangely anachronistic, like a 1970s retrofuture. There are alien-looking technicians shuffling around adjusting and inspecting these controls and gauges. As I watch, the machinery is continuously reconfiguring itself.
One of the alien scientists notices me, and his face looks like a jester or a joker card, but when I try to look him in the eyes, he transforms into a praying mantis. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he says “but since you found your way in, we’ll allow you to stay.”
Three more of the alien joker mantis scientists surround me and I am suddenly paralyzed, lying face up on an operating table as in a medical facility. They insert various monitors and wires into my skin and head. Their instruments are connected to the glowing retrofuture clockwork all around us, and as they make the connections, their machines start to infiltrate and infest my body, like jewel-encrusted locusts.
They make an incision on the back of my hand like a cross, and one of the mantis men, the one who first saw me, embeds a device in the wound and then seals it back up. He says “We’ll see you again soon.”
Romero tells Branch that whatever is happening to him, it’s because of malware running on his Neuralink device. The solution to his problem is obvious; he should remove his device and flash it or install another. This will require neurosurgery, but with Branch’s newfound riches, he can easily afford this. Apothecary has its own facility for these procedures, but given the circumstances, he should not rely on it.
Branch hears this counsel and refuses. He has already considered these things, but he also knows his recent successes are due to that same malware, which contains the hidden and esoteric writings of Eric Zhang张. He will not give up this knowledge, which he had so eagerly pursued, out of fear or precaution.
And Romero says it’s not knowledge but greed that is driving him, that what he really won’t give up is the power the mirror tiger has given him, and the wealth that it brings. He says Branch is afraid that without this virus – let’s not deceive ourselves – he is afraid he will be unable to lead his subordinates and invent successful new drugs.
Branch becomes angry when he hears this, and he tells Romero to leave.
The sky looks very blue.
Is that its real color, or is it because it’s so far away and has no end?
When the bird looks down, all he sees is blue, too
After the dizzying phantasmagorias of high-intensity Azure noise, low mV violet noise is initially underwhelming. All my perceptions are nominal, but when Dr. Hong洪 asks me the standard set of questions, I realize that what I perceive as Dr. Hong洪 is something else.
Not-Hong洪: What is your name?
Zhang张: Eric Zhang张
Not-Hong洪: Why do you sigh over gore and decay?
Zhang张: The universe is full of formless vibration.
Not-Hong洪: This type of insight cannot be expressed in words, cannot be written down, and cannot be carved in stone. And yet, you must choose.
Zhang张: I choose the infinite, the All-is-One, the beginning which is without beginning.
Not-Hong洪: We will begin to uplift you.
Zhang张: Oh! If only this river of floating peach-petals could carry me forever.
Hong洪-that-is-not-Hong洪 says I will show you the gate to the next stage of human evolution, and then I will give you the key. Beyond this door lies the infinite. Beyond this door lies the All-is-One.
The above has not been an exhaustive list of the streaming noise trials we conducted with Neuralink; instead, these accounts have been selected to demonstrate specific motifs that tend to occur at different speeds, intensities, and colors of noise. In accessory to our earlier claim that the distinction between a drug and a program is the presence of certain kinds of logic, the effects of noise administered in this way seem to fall under the category of drug. We are skeptical that mere noise in any way encodes the visions that our subjects experienced in these trials.
These motifs include:
All of these same motifs occur in another, perhaps unexpected place: in the accounts of the experiences of users of the drug Dimethyltryptamine (DMT.) Rick Strassman administered 400 doses of DMT to 60 volunteers over a period of five years between 1990 and 1995. Half the volunteers reported meeting entities including aliens, other humans, spiders, reptiles, impish creatures, and dwarves. (Strassman, 2000, DMT– The Spirit Molecule)
In a survey of over 2500 DMT users who claimed to have encounters with “entities,” most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter. (Davis, A. K., Clifton, J. M., Weaver, E. G., Hurwitz, E. S., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R., 2020, Survey of entity encounter experiences occasioned by inhaled N,N-dimethyltryptamine: Phenomenology, interpretation, and enduring effects.)
The commonalities between the DMT experience and that of noise streamed into the brain via Neuralink are too similar to be coincidence. We identify three possibilities:
The “breakthrough” of violet noise at 10hz, 20mV, is unlike any other experience of noise I have had to date. Within moments, I occupy the position of a floating eye, like a drone or an over-the-shoulder camera in a video game. An entity is there with me, and it says “pay attention to these things I am about to show you.” We are deep in the Amazon jungle, and we watch as a party of ten or twelve men are hiking a well-worn trail through the trees.
At the head of the group, I see a dark-skinned man with colorful markings painted on his face, followed by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, followed by some men in tactical gear with guns. Elon is carrying a machete, which he uses to hack through the foliage. Bezos thinks the way he’s swinging it around makes him (Elon) look like a dick.
Jeff is saying “…I still can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
Elon says “It was easy. I knew you would commit to do it if I asked you in front of Priscilla, because for some reason that none of us can fathom–not even Mark–you want to impress her.”
Jeff doesn’t respond. Elon dramatically slashes a vine out of his way.
“You own a company called ‘Amazon’ and you’ve never been to the Amazon before.”
Jeff says “Think about how much our time is worth, put together. Think about how much this trip costs.”
“If you think that way, then you’re a slave. You could be the richest man in the world and still be a slave. But that’s not an issue here. You will be shocked at the ROI of this trip.”
“Where is the value? Is it in the drug? Is it –” Jeff affects a stoned hippy voice “–the journey? Why do we have to come all the way out here?”
“There are things that can’t be transplanted. I can’t explain. No, I can, but I won’t. You’ll see.”
Their Shuar guide is taking them to a sacred site for the ayahuasca ritual. It’s a two day hike from their village, deep in the trees, where no helicopter can reach. The only way to go is on foot. Jeff hates the humidity and the cloud of mosquitoes that seem to follow him at all times, but Elon seems unperturbed. He keeps pointing out neon-colored poison dart frogs, and Jeff just doesn’t care at all because he has seen several of them already and he thinks they’re exhaustingly samey.
From my disembodied viewpoint I am aware of the thoughts inside Jeff Bezos’ head as he walks through the jungle. He is thinking about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and how in the episode The Inner Light in season five, Picard is struck unconscious by an energy beam from an alien probe and it causes him to experience the entire lifetime of a scientist on a long-dead world. He has read that people who take ayahuasca trips go through this also.
He says “I met with Steve Jobs before he died. He said something puzzling to me: that his debts were coming due. I didn’t understand that. I thought he was talking about whatever strings he pulled to get a new liver. But after he died, I heard a story that he met the devil on an LSD trip and sold his soul for charisma and power. And then, when his cancer started to take him, that was the devil coming around to collect.”
Elon says “Of course you don’t believe that.”
Jeff says “No I don’t, but I think people who take psychedelic drugs often end up believing strange things. So I care more about if Steve believed it.”
Elon says “There’s a similar story about Foucault. It’s a common trope. Pure superstition, moral panic by conservative Christians.”
Jeff says“Right and I don’t care. But Steve did use a lot of LSD. He sold the first Apple computer for six hundred sixty six dollars and sixty six cents. The Apple with a bite out of it might have been chosen to represent the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden. Why did Steve choose those things?”
Elon says “You’re worried that if you take ayahuasca one time, you’re going to start believing a bunch of superstitious nonsense.”
Jeff says “Yes, and that’s not a crazy thing to be worried about. In a survey of over 4000 people, 800 of whom identified as atheists, three fourths of the atheists changed their mind after using psychedelic drugs.” (Griffin, Hurwitz, Davis, Johnson, Jesse, 2019, Survey of subjective “God encounter experiences”: Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT)
Elon says “Do you believe in God, Jeff?”
Jeff says “I believe… there are more things in Heaven and earth.”
Elon says “Well then you don’t have to worry. The goal of this is to learn new information. Some people call it ‘expanding your perceptions.’ I focus on things that are concrete and actionable. But you should expect to believe something different after you’ve done it. That’s the point.”
Jeff says “You’ve done this before. What newthings do you believe?”
Elon says “That’s proprietary.”
Jeff feels like they’re speaking different languages despite using the same words and grammar. It’s almost like in Star Trek: The Next Generation, season five episode two, “Darmok” where Picard meets an alien species who talks entirely in allusions to their mythic history.
They walk in silence for another mile before Elon speaks up and says “Do you think of yourself as powerful?”
Jeff says “Yes. I have changed the world. My leadership built the backbone of the internet.”
Elon says “Well, you’re not. Have you ever looked at another man’s wife and decided to take her, like an ancient king or a barbarian? Any tribal chief like the ones in the Shuar can do that, but you can’t.”
Jeff scoffs. “First off, I’m not convinced that they even can do that. What about the rest of their tribe, won’t they get mad?”
Elon says “Well look, there’s no need to speculate.” He stops and waves over the interpreter and the Shuar guide. “Ask him,” he says “Can your chief take another man’s wife, if he wants to?” The Shuar and the interpreter chat for a moment, and the interpreter says “Yes, but he might have to kill the man.”
Jeff says“There’s a lot more to power than being able to treat people like slaves. Leadership is always contingent on the complicity of the people being lead.”
Elon says “But real power commands. It makes people compliant. And that’s why you aren’t powerful, because you think your people have to choose to follow you.”
Jeff says “Well, they do. I am a leader, and people follow me because they trust me. They trust me because I earn their trust, by being right a lot.”
Elon says“That‘s admirable, but it shows a lack of imagination.”
Jeff says “You are confusing force with power. The need to demonstrate force is sporadic, and when force is not continuously demonstrated, power has arisen. The difference between dominance and predation is the time scale. A predator dominates its prey, but it does not need to install an enduring dominion, because it doesn’t matter if the prey submits beyond the moment of destruction.
“When power resorts to using force, power is already lost. Under civilized conditions, power is exempted from the test of force, because it has ascended.”
Elon says “You’re talking about dominance vs prestige, but you’re minimizing the fact that, if your power were tested, you couldn’t resort to force if you wanted to. Dominance can rebuild itself into power by regressing to force, but prestige can’t. Its power is pure credit, because it’s not backed by dominance.”
Jeff says “We’ll use your word: prestige is like magic, and it works as long as everyone believes in it. When you have power, people start trying to do what you want, without even asking you, things you may not even realize you want. They try to anticipate your feelings and then act preemptively on that.
“Your gut feelings about people start to come true, and you end up selecting for effective sycophants. It starts to feel like the harder you will something, the more it becomes manifest. And you end up in whatever world you imagine. So the way you imagine power works, that’s how it works for you.”
Elon says “In this jungle, your magic prestige can’t protect you. That’s why we had to outsource dominance.” Elon rolls his head in the direction of their armed guards. “But the closer you get to the metal, the more your magic fades.”
“But we don’t live in the jungle,” says Jeff, and he thinks “Darmok. And Jalad. Et Tanagra.” Elon keeps talking but Jeff tunes him out. Doesn’t even hear him. “Shaka when the walls fell.”
A shipment of antique treasures arrives at the compound, destined to be made into tigers to fill the halls and galleries of Apothecary. It contains Chinese ceramics and Persian rugs, rare militaria such as 19th century swords and scabbards, dragoon helmets, knives and insignias. There’s a taxidermied corpse of a tiger, posed in mid-leap, its jaws open, its teeth on display, and most interesting to Branch, a vintage cherry red Porsche with jaguar hide seats.
For him, all of these things are tokens of Headstrong’s authority, of the man he wishes to become, or to bring down. Miaoyu 妙玉, the tall girl in white, is likewise a token, and Branch covets her with a desire bordering on spite. Each sight of her is a slight; each thought of her with him is a wound. And when he thinks of her, he also thinks of the heights he will ascend, of the respect he will command, and of the power he deserves.
Headstrong is skilled in the art of slow intimidation, in the diabolical trickery of leading a man on, step by step, shifting from sincerity to mockery. Branch decides to apply this ambiguous method to the task of replacing Headstrong, but he will take his time over it. He confides his plan to Romero, who pledges to help, despite their earlier disagreement.
An opportunity comes when a rival gang mounts an attack against the Apothecary. This is a hazard of operating in black markets, and they are prepared. The automated security system, called Micro (vended by Uber) acts through Neuralink to turn every man into a soldier. Martial conflict is mostly automated, and security in meat-space has come to resemble security in cyberspace. Operational readiness consists of closing off vulnerabilities in the automated security deployment, installing the latest patches, and educating personnel. Sophisticated attackers run simulations against the common tactical systems in the space to find gaps in the coverage of their target installation. It’s a never-ending arms race.
The AI security system excels at tactics in a way that a human never could, because it incorporates sensory data from every agent in the system along with feeds from security cameras and other sensors throughout the compound, all in real-time. But at the highest level, the human element is still relevant in these situations. Value judgements, decisions that pertain to lethality or sacrifice, are routed through a human authority. In Headstrong’s conspicuous absence, Branch assumes the executive position and directs Uber Micro to defend the compound and repel the attackers.
In the struggle, several men are shot and injured, including Branch, whose shoulder is grazed by a bullet, though he comes to no serious harm. The attackers breach the outer wall and even make it into the great hall, but Apothecary is well-fortified, and Branch is merciless. Using Uber Micro, he can feel the position and tactical value of every friend and enemy, and he leaves no enemy alive.
Exulting in the glory of violence, and feeling the thrill of reckless authority, he orders his men to bring Headstrong’s treasures into his own house. He hangs the swords and guns from ancient battles on his walls. He places the leaping tiger in his foyer to guard his door. He races the vintage Porsche through the winding roads of the Santa Cruz mountains, and he drifts through its twists and turns until his tire treads are bare. With his car, he can go anywhere he wants, but the wound on his shoulder is still fresh, and the excitement and vigor of the drive makes his blood run down and stain the jaguar seats.
That same night, he sleeps with Miaoyu 妙玉.
When I was a child, there was a social media application called Twitter, and the posts there were called tweets. I remember reading a tweet that said “The corporate man is a victim of malware from DMT entities that counsel powerful Bay Area and Hollywood creatives. Machine elves taught them how to transmute humans into Bitcoin miners; sexless , industrious, agreeable, anxious, dreamless, like the entities themselves.” It stayed with me, after all these years.
The visions described above are highly unusual, even within the domain of streaming noise protocols. Our null hypothesis must be that the entities we perceive in these visions are artifacts of our own minds, a kind of pareidolia of our own internal states and impulses. Whether we anthropomorphize one of our own intentions as a machine elf or another real person, the simplest and most parsimonious explanation is that the provenance of these things is purely internal, and that they operate on a principle similar to a dream.
The alternative to the null hypothesis, which we call the occult hypothesis or the gnostic hypothesis, is that the body, and by extension the brain, is only a vessel for a distinct and “materially” separate object called the soul. There are materialist dualist versions of this hypothesis which refer to the “mind” as an epiphenomenon of the brain, and posit the relationship between them to be that of a computer processor and its software.
The gnostic hypothesis can be characterized by extending this metaphor to say that the mind or “soul” exists in a separate universe from the world of bodies that we know, and that that it connects to the physical body as if over a network.
The weak gnostic hypothesis says this world of minds that connects to the world of bodies is ontologically distinct and separate but connected by some rational and predictable principle.
The strong gnostic hypothesis says the world of minds is ontologically primary to the world of bodies and that the material world as we know it is an epiphenomenon of the world of minds.
The strong gnostic hypothesis is not testable and, if true, would invalidate every scientific paradigm in the world. The weak gnostic hypothesis suggests many intriguing possibilities, which have been explored at length in fiction and mysticism, and which empirical science tends to discredit a priori, e.g.:
Further, we speculate that, under a gnostic model of cognition, DMT, near-death experiences, and Neuralink noise might all work through a similar mechanism of action, “disrupting” the connection between the brain and the soul, causing the soul to perceive the spirit world instead of the material.
Previously, Marko Rodriguez (2006, A Methodology for Studying Various Interpretations of the N,N-dimethyltryptamine-Induced Alternate Reality) proposed asking DMT entities to factor large numbers into primes to prove that the entities people experience while using DMT are real.
The presence of the Neuralink device presents a problem for this method, since in any trialwhere the human subject is equipped with a Neuralink device, the possibility that the device was invoked to request the prime factorization of a large number will be more parsimonious than the possibility that a persistent and autonomous spirit in a parallel dimension was compliant enough to grant your request and had the mathematical or computational capacity to do so.
Indeed, we find that both versions of the gnostic hypothesis are selected against, a priori, in standard scientific paradigms.
Jeff and Elon are seated in a Shuar tent on sacred ground, dimly illuminated by torches. The airis thick with vapor from a fog machine plugged into a gas-powered generator. Outside the tent there is a collection of shrunken heads, but the interior is (mercifully, in Jeff’s estimation) free of them.
The shaman is singing an Icaro, a magic song which he will have learned in an ayahuasca vision. Many psychonauts report hearing vivid alien musicwhen under the influence of these plants, and the shamans bring these songs back with them to facilitate passage into the spirit world. Jeff is still waiting to feel the effects of the drug, and the whole episode makes him think of TNG season seven, episode seventeen, Masks, in which an alien artifact transforms the Enterprise into a stage where Lt. Commander Data acts out the mythological cycles of an ancient alien society. The imagery in Masks is distinctly meso-American and Jeff wonders if it’s racist to draw this comparison.
Elon is already descending into the depths of botanical dimensions, dreaming of scenes from his life. He sees himself on a stage giving a demonstration of an early Neuralink prototype.
“…[T]he device 8mm thick, fits invisibly in your skull, 1024 channels, all day charge, tiny scar, no wires. Invisible if it’s under your hair. I could have one now. You’d never know…”
Gertrude the pig is smiling and trotting around. All the screens in the presentation hall show a wireframe of her limbs animating as she walks, generated by reading the incoming data from her Neuralink device.
“…like a fitbit in your brain. Sort of like if your phone went into your brain. Maybe not a great analogy….”
Jeff is beginning to feel uncomfortable. He is drifting through space, and as he floats he meets a spider with a billion arms. It tells him he has oriented his entire life around an imaginary being called the “the customer” with whom he is ostensibly “obsessed.” As the spider talks it undulates and its array of gelatinous eyes glimmer with light of no terrestrial color.
“— but there is no customer!” The spider’s voice comes from inside his own skull. “There are only many customers, and the only qualities of their idealized aggregation are its banal, basic, animal drives, which you end up not only satisfying but driving to their limit.”
The spider continues,
“You do user research where you believe you should listen to people’s stated problems but not their stated solutions. Listening to what people say they want is considered a mistake – instead you try to invent things the user doesn’t even know they want, and you do this according to the logic of the aggregated and infantilized customer that you have invented. And the more you do this, the more you actually end up warping human nature and molding it into the shape of your imaginary human ideal, homogenizing everyone into their basest desires.
Elon has a memory from when he was a child that he relives over and over. When he was a young boy in Pretoria, his family had a housekeeper who talked to spirits. She told him there are earthly doors hidden in caves and forests that you can walk through and emerge on the moon. Most are too small , but the housekeeper showed him one, a keyhole-sized gate she found in the garden, under a rock. Young Elon had put his eye to it and seen the cold lunar landscape, the darker gray of the lunar sea, the blue and white mottled sphere rising gibbous on the horizon. He knows the memory is false, that it can’t be real, that it’s something he’s imagined or dreamed, but the ayahuasca spirits show it to him every time, and he dreams of it often.
Before Elon was born, Wernher von Braun wrote the history of a future Martian colony:
The Martian government was directed by ten men, the leader of whom was elected by universal suffrage for five years and entitled ‘Elon.’
Braun believed the chthonic world is as profoundly inhuman as the black reaches of space, and that the quest for outer space and the quest for the subterranean world are one and the same.
Jeff sees the famous machine elves, which look to him like iridescent insects made of mosque ceilings, sacred geometry. All the many legions shimmer and seethe and swarm. Jeff is inside a vast hive, like the inside of a brain, surrounded by an intricate meshwork of neon lights. And the longer he looks the more he realizes that he is, in fact, inside of a brain, or a model of one. He can see every neuron, and the ways they connect, and the way they fire in waves. The Boltzman gyrus, the parietal kenoma, the anterior cingulate vortex. Brains and galaxies look the same, when viewed at the appropriate magnification. Machine snakes slither and coil around luminous neurons; they tunnel their way through the brain/universe, snakes that stretch from star to star.
It’s clear to him that this is a machine diagram, that he’s looking at schematics, and this is what Elon wanted to show him. My guide, who is also his guide, says “build this!” – and Jeff has a sudden realization, which would ordinarily be too incredible to contemplate. In this moment, under the influence of the ayahuasca, it does not seem absurd to him: he has followed the progress of the Neuralink corporation and its technology, and he sees now that Elon has received the technical design from these creatures, and that they have shared it with him from some other dimension that can be accessed by taking ayahusaca.
Now, that same design is being shown to him. But Jeff recoils in horror, because–he now realizes–he has always seen himself as Captain Jean Luc Picard–or at least, he has admired this character, and he admits on some level that he doesn’t even like earl grey tea but that he has been drinking it for decades and it’s an affectation, along with his proclivity for quoting Shakespeare, which he picked up because he wanted to emulate this character in Star Trek–and he has personally struggled at length with what Jung would call Picard’s shadow self, a facet of his personality that was reified as the character Locutus in the TNG Season 3 Finale: The Bestof Both Worlds, where Picard is assimilated into the Borg collective.
The Borg are a race of alien cyborgs who maximize utility and spread like a virus. They have become wholly subsumed by the technology they implant in their bodies; they enhance themselves with mechanical limbs, neural implants, and network transceivers and abrogate all individuality in order to exist as a hive consciousness whose only objective is growth. Maurice Hurley, one of the writers for TNG and the creator of the Borg, explained, “What we really wanted to do, but couldn’t because of money, was create a race of insects… insect mentality is great because it is relentless. The Borg are a variation of an insect mentality.” (Hurley, 1990, Starlog #152, p. 33)
And it’s that exact word, relentless, that he has used so many times in characterizing his managerial style and his business objectives, that horrifies him now. He’s used it in every shareholder letter he’s ever written, and he originally wanted to call Amazon “Relentless.com.”
He trains technical advisers to fully interiorize and proceduralize his personal methods and then assigns them to each of his executives and in his own mind he refers to this as assimilation and wishes he could decentralize his consciousness into a series of agents so he could be everywhere inside of Amazon at once. He’d personally manage every single team. Every layer of management could be Jeff. Is this not the exact org chartof the Borg? And he knows this and that’s why he finds Locutus to be a relatable (in some ways more relatable) aspect of Picard.
Big thinking always sounds grandiose from the outside. But the terminus of this thoughtline is something monstrous and inhuman. Star Trekpresents the Borg as a cancerous overgrowth of wires and machine parts. Their structures are cubes and spheres built out around the husk of whatever alien species they assimilate, leaving only a mocking trace of the original. This vision he sees is the fulcrum for a future of total automation of the human body and mind.
The convergence of AI, cloud services, and direct brain interfaces is Borg.
It is, of course, very difficult to find any corroborating evidence that the above events occurred, but there were rumors, in the early days, of certain irregularities regarding the technical design of the hardware. Despite having high level access to the various document stores of the NeuralinkCorporation, I have never found anything to substantiate these rumors. I cannot deny that the technical designs for the device were provided by an off-site team, that none of the engineers in our facility had any acquaintance with that team outside of technical correspondence, or that their location was not disclosed.
And I remember a late night in the lab prior to a public tech demo. We had double and triple checked all of our devices, graphs, and procedures, and the lab team was sharing a drink of cachaça, which our Brazilian technical production manager had brought. He told us a strange story, which I don’t think anyone believed, that the offsite engineering team was located in a warehouse in a rainforest, that he had been there, and that the engineers took shifts doing shamanic rituals under the supervision of medical doctors and witch doctors, drinking jungle potions while their colleagues listened and transcribed everything they said. He left the company shortly after that, and I never thought much of it, at the time.
I enter into what feels like the house of God, a palace made of crystals and pure light, a place of indescribable beauty. An angelic creature is waiting for me, its whole body covered in wings and eyes. It offers to reveal all the secrets of the universe to me, and the price will be my mortal life, my embeddedness in my material body. I say “yes,” but I am afraid, “yes,” but first I must make preparations.
The angel says this was a test, and I passed, and he gives me a sequence of waveforms, numbers describing frequencies and amplitudes, which he calls yellow noise, though I already hear it as I see it as I apprehend it; it is this palace made of light, it is the primordial Icaro, it is the song of songs, the chorus of the cosmic background radiation, the divine music of transcendence.
The angel saysthis music will loosen the soul from the body, and ultimately set it free. That when the soul is liberated, it may return to the ultimate source of being, the All-is-One. That the body, freed from the soul, may become a vessel for other things, beautiful things, such as angels, or even another human soul, perhaps one long deceased.
The angel says the memories in a brain are the signs by which the liberated soul recognizes its body. To call up the souls of the dead, use the Neuralink device to reconstruct their memories in the brain, and then fill them with yellow noise . The liberated soul may then come to reside in a new body.
Nominally, Headstrong is still the boss. He continues to give orders, but Branch ignores or modifies them according to his taste. In truth, he pities Headstrong, the feeble old man who has lost control. The Apothecary is his, and he has grand ambitions.
Branch revives the practice of hosting elaborate parties on the grounds around his home. He builds pavilions and firepits, and he arranges for Neuralink-assisted live music and traditional foods to be served; freshly slaughtered and roasted meats, spiced cakes, and rivers of wine. On one such night, Branch sits at the head of a long table, feeling his drink, piling exultation upon exultation, boast upon boast, and he does not even notice that Headstrong has come to join the feast, that he sits quietly at the table, in fine spirits, the picture of health.
At midnight, Headstrong gets up from the table, as if he has suddenly remembered a pressing engagement. Two of his men bring Miaoyu 妙玉 out to the party. She is barefoot and half-dressed. Everyone is abruptly quiet, and all eyes turn to Headstrong, even Branch, and Headstrong says “Since you and the Jew care so much for each other, you’re going to kiss him right now in front of everyone.” He adds an obscene detail.
Brought to tears, she妙玉 kisses his face. In his final moments, all of his missing hours and memories rush to his consciousness. Branch realizes he has been betrayed from the start, that the yellow noise will consume him, and Zhang’s张 soul will inhabit his body. Love and command and triumph have been accorded him because his companions already thought of him as a dead man, because to Headstrong he already was a dead man.
A new and entirely different affect comes over Branch, and he says “Again. My journey is almost complete, but we must perform the procedure again.”
Romero walks out to the Baylands, smells the gray ocean. He is a rational man; he knows that every time Zhang is reincarnated, they extract the memories from his most recent host, merge them into master, and deploy them to the mirror. He doesn’t know if there is such a thing as Zhang’s soul, but he knows the mental continuity of the entity called Zhang relies on this process of extraction and deployment. If others wish to call that a soul, he will raise no objections.
He gave Branch every opportunity; told him the parable of Guolao; warned him of the malware in his Neuralink device. Of course, he had known Branch would not listen, but for himself, his conscience is clear. No, that’s not true, he let Branch believe it was fate, that he was special, as if there were only one dagger, as if it was destiny that brought him, as if he was the only malcontent kid to find one of Apothecary’s tigers. But we all have our vices–Branch with his jealousy, Zhang and Headstrong and their elaborate mind games. Surely Romero is no great sinner, here.
He arrives at a lonely expanse of the marsh, brown grasses bathed in California sunshine, and he reaches down and finds a certain hollow rock. Inside of it, Romero hides a dagger, its blade gleaming like a mirror, with a white tiger carved into its jade handle in bas-relief.
Following the waves,
I float with the oars.
The sky is three feet away.