We took our seats at the back of the hospital’s lecture hall as they carted it in on a gurney, though what it was was as of yet not completely clear. It was hard to get a good look at it from my vantage point, concealed as it was behind a thin drawn curtain. What I could make out was but a shadowy outline, the general form of what appeared to be a rounded, semi-transparent case, possibly filled with a fluid of some kind, with something moving, that is to say, floating inside it.
A whole slew of wires, presumably attached the case in some fashion, ran out from behind the curtain and connected up to a small machine positioned on a nearby table, resembling a portable radio with an elaborate, glowing interface, the small patch of light shining brilliant and profound in the darkly lit room.
Out of the handful of lab coat-clad doctors and researchers standing before the small assembled crowd, one eager gentleman with a shock of white hair stepped forward.
“Velcome, velcome, everyone. And thank you for joining us today on dis, a very special occasion. My name is Dr. Verloop, and I ‘ave the ‘umble privilege of presenting to you the latest advancement in consciousness preservation. This device behind me vich my colleagues an’ I ‘ave vorked tirelessly on, spending years perfecting, represents nutting less than a revolution in human consciousness as ve ‘ave come to undastand it.”
Dr. Verloop used the platform to explain to those in attendance, many of whose faces were transfixed by the curious curtain behind him, how the mysterious machine functioned.
He explained how it could maintain the brain’s vital functioning without the need of cumbersome flesh-and-blood encasing. Through the use of specially configured sensors that allowed it to receive incoming sound waves, it was able to then transmit those same sound waves back to the bodiless brain bobbing around safely in its new solid shell compartment. Once received—and this was the part he was most excited about, as indicated by his animated face, broad gestures and booming voice—a counter signal, generated from the electro-induced stimuli, would then be sent out, to create a response which the device could then convert into discernable speech, translated into any of hundreds of different languages. Taken together, this new device would in effect act as the free-standing brain’s ears and mouth.
Some time after the presentation drew to a close, to a rousing ovation all round, I found myself seated in the hospital’s waiting room. With me from the event was a friend from school, a fellow Ph.D. candidate, and our Professor, who had brought us along at his urging, and had since spoken with one of the presenters and arranged for us a meeting, a face-to-face of sorts. A nurse soon appeared and escorted the three of us down a long corridor.
Inside the room, a curtain was drawn around the bed, the device from the presentation arranged behind it in some unseen, undisturbed fashion. The only signs of life came from the voice that echoed through a nearby set of speakers. The voice spoke clearly and precisely in perfectly formulated sentences. Refined really. Its nuanced inflections and authorial tone were like that of a television or radio announcer, only without the self-conscious projecting to a large, generalized audience—to entertain, to capture, to draw in others with a conceited display of elevated oratory. It was a cold voice, computerized. But there was also the hint of something else, something that could almost be construed as human.
My professor, a double Ph.D. in the field of philosophy and critical theory, began by conversing with the voice, engaging it in matters related to everything from history to linguistics to psychology to analytic philosophy. The voice never missed a beat, was there to meet all of his points and opinions with a quick, informed response, and, moreover, had its own share of original knowledge and ideas to impart.
A nurse came in. She leaned in behind the curtain, making a few adjustments before sealing the curtains tight with a sharp flick of her wrist. She played around with a few settings on the machine next to the bed, and as quickly as she had appeared, was gone.
I looked over at my friend and he looked back at me with an expression hard to read but insistent all the same. It was my turn to speak. Nervousness overtook me. I felt something I to this day cannot fully explain. Was it just nerves, being put on the spot like this, or something else entirely? I wish for the life of me I knew.
Or maybe not. Maybe some things are better left unknown, left to operations beyond our honest comprehension. Cosmic strategies long ago put in place, since time immemorial. Who’s to say? Discretion is a tricky mistress. At the time, all I could do was work at a nonexistent itch behind my right ear.
Sudden movement from behind the curtain. A shadow stretched up along the thin fabric and curved along the ceiling. But it was an empty shadow, indistinct; like it was waiting to be filled with something, given form.
I addressed the voice finally, as best I could, in all my scattered incoherence. And it responded in turn. It responded automatically, without much in the way of forethought, its general language sinking back into the soft seas of complacence, the turtle receding into its shell. I pressed on, trying to coax it out, attempting with everything I had to generate some form of meaningful discourse.
It was no use. The voice continued to respond but its pop was gone; the sense of intellectual curiosity it showed earlier had weakened, grown flat, bored. I kept on talking, trying to fill in the gaps, but it was all for naught. Like trying to resurrect the dead, hold up a crumbling structure, as if my words were the pillars supporting a collapsing expanse of impenetrable silence.
I was growing desperate. My words spilled out carelessly like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle tossed out at random in preparation of the tedious task of being fitted together into a connected whole. What could be said to correct this, set things straight? Nothing seemed to make sense. I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks causing them to flush as I became acutely aware of the others, my friend and our Professor, in the room with me, the thoughts and judgements they were forming about my performance. My hurried speech, now verging on hysteria, careened forward, word upon word spit out with reckless abandon, toward some unforeseen end at which point—my hope held out in vain—all would be made clear, lucid.
“But what is thought, insight, all the powers of the intellect at your disposal, what is its worth without, without experience. You are limited to yourself and yourself alone. Don’t you see? Without some connection to the world how can you measure your theories, go about implementing them into concrete reality? How can you even conceive of a concrete reality? How can anybody except to be in it, a part of it? This is the point where theory is put into practice, the theoretical measured against the actual. I ask of you now, how can you speak with such certainties about matters that only ever operate within your own mental self-conception? Every theory seems pure and infallible until it inevitably meets with the chaotic, murky waters of life. Life as it is lived not just imagined.”
I cut myself off. Breathless, spent. It had all tumbled out of me at once, out of my control or reason, as if I had been overtaken by a force outside—or even inside—beyond myself.
The room again fell silent.
I waited for something, anything in the way of a response, from either my Professor or my friend or even the maddening figure behind the curtain. No one spoke. The shadow shrunk down from the ceiling like it had been dropped into a hole, a grave. The light from the machine's interface went off and the room was thrown into darkness.