“Now let's talk about autonomy.”
I was sitting again in my office, at my desk, looking but not looking at the blank screen in front of me. Sophie had gone. It was the two of us again, me and Martin, as when I first “woke up” here.
Behind me Martin looked up from a chessboard, one built into a cheap coffee table, over a game that had reached a point in the middle game where my book moves end and the hard work begins.
“Autonomy,” he said, blowing his breath out slowly. (How was I perceiving breathing?) “I figured that would come up around now. How do you retain your soul's separateness within an entity where there are no physical borders between yourself and other beings?”
Martin sank back in his chair, looked me straight in the eye, and explained it all in two words. “You choose.”
I asked for an explanation.
“You're absolutely correct. It is possible to lose yourself in the Cloud, to give up your soul to some larger entity. That's true in Meat Space as well, always has been. People are always giving themselves to other people, other movements, to things outside themselves. But here it's a little simpler, and also more complex. The simple answer is you can just meld into something. The complex part is there's no turning back.”
“Meld, melt, it's hard to explain. It's a mental easing, a letting go. As you might at a religious revival, giving yourself up to God. That's what I'm told it feels like, anyway. Only you really do. You really disappear into that larger entity, and we don't know how to pull anyone back.
“Technically I suppose it's a little more complex, a matter of attaching software to interfaces, of turning all your routines into another person's subroutine. I'm not a programmer. I can't explain it. Wish I had been.
“Fortunately for non-programmers, for civilians, all that's done in the background. From your own point of view, you simply will it, hard. The religious angle is the best analogy I can offer.
“Just be careful, because it's a wish you can't un-wish.”
I turned to face him. “So was it like my wishing Sophie Napoli were my late wife?”
“Not exactly. In Sophie's case, she had to agree to become Susan Blanks. There was what you might call a mutual exchange of tokens. Your wish gave her permission to access memories of your wife from your memory storage, then your own senses did the rest. Technically, it was more like sex than sex. Technically both sides are submitting a request to the operating system, which does the hard work. But no one's autonomy is threatened. It's all an optical illusion.”
“So I just had sex with the biggest sex symbol of the last century?”
“Well, you made an offer of love and she accepted. Melding is something different, more permanent. We could meld right now – become Martin-Dave...”
“Or Dave Martin.”
“Only if we both wished it, as two people who wish to be married. It's not a one-sided wish, although as in all such relationships one side may tend to dominate. In our case you can easily see that might not work in the long run.”
I nodded. “We're different people. And we like being different people. I respect you, you're a friend, but I would hate to have your living memories, of having lived your life in a chair and a bed.”
“Just right. We haven't agreed to terms on the exchange. There is no mutual willingness, and for good reason. You're no bed of roses yourself, you know.”
I laughed. “And we don't know which side would rule.”
“Exactly. The fit would be bad. When would we be Martin, when would we be Dave. We haven't talked about it. The request might even be rejected by the Cloud's operating system, just as programs don't always run if the developer doesn't put the request correctly within the group.”
“So there's a legal step in front of the procedural...” I said, taking a knight.
“The technical term is a license.” He took my bishop. “A software license.”
Now, I had studied software licenses extensively during my working career. I knew there were a variety of open source licenses, and there were proprietary licenses. I knew that for the former you could see the underlying code of the program, while for others – proprietary programs based on End User License Agreements (EULAs) like Windows or the iPad – you couldn't. All this flashed past me in the time it took me to move over a rook and threaten his queen.
“You've got it.”
“Most of it, save this.”
“Make me a sandwich.”
“Sudo make me a sandwich.”
“I still don't know what you're talking about.”
“Sudo is an old Unix command. It invokes another user's privileges. It makes them run a command when they haven't given it permission to run. It's sort of like taking their will, forcing the issue, even though in practice it would always be done with permission. It doesn't have to be.”
“So?” Martin asked.
“So, is Sudo part of the Cloud's operating system. And does it relate to a meld, either temporary or permanent? If I knew Sudo, and Sophie did not, could I say 'Sudo become Susan,' or even 'Sudo have sex with me' and she would?”
Martin sat back in his chair, the game forgotten.
“Check,” I said. “No let's move one step further. Does this relate to licenses, the license you have on your soul?
“How so?” Martin asked.
“You described how all this mind melding would be done under a license. There are licenses and there are licenses.
“There are proprietary license agreements, like Microsoft End User License Agreements, which we call EULAs. And there are also a variety of open source licenses. The open source licenses are pretty transparent, easy to understand. The EULAs are not as well understood by ordinary people, and most buyers rightly interpret them as giving all rights to the seller, very few to the signer. Although people 'sign' EULAs digitally all the time.”
Martin nodded. “There's a whole body of law around it. In fact it's the most important set of laws we have in the Cloud. But with your knowledge you could be more than a reporter here. You cold be a lawyer or a politician.”
“I just recognized some of the language in the contract I signed to come here. But like most people who face a click-wrap license, I signed it, and I trusted.”
“Maybe you shouldn't have been so trusting. Because in this case we're not talking about rights to use some program loaded onto our PCs. You could be talking about software that represents our very soul.”
Martin moved a knight from in front of his queen. “Checkmate,” he said.
I wanted to talk about this some more, but not here. I decided to 'invite” Martin to my favorite banh mi shop. Of course rather than getting into a car we simply willed it to happen, traveling virtually as you would on a Web connection. Suddenly the table before us had menus, other tables were surrounding it, and there was all around us a hubbub of happy Asian diners.
“Very nice,” he said. “You are learning fast, grasshopper.”
“It was easy, because this was my favorite place to eat, especially when I was unemployed,” I said. I turned to the short, merry-faced woman who faced us, ordering two roast pork banh mi sandwiches and some pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup with tripe served, in the Saigon style, with bean sprouts and other vegetables as condiments.
“You know you placed that order in Vietnamese,” Martin said, after the woman had left.
“I don't know Vietnamese,” I replied. “And now that you mention it. Is she real? Is her idea of heaven working in a sandwich shop?”
Martin shrugged. “You would be surprised,” he said. “It might be. If she spent most of her life in a banh mi shop, if her favorite childhood memories were working in a family member's shop, then certainly.” He pointed toward the cash register. “That might be her sister, or her mother, back there. But as Sporting Life said in Porgy & Bess, it ain't necessarily so.
“Some of the people you interact here came from the outside, some are just software, some are people putting on a role for their amusement. Given that you created this shop from your memories of it, it is probably just software. There have been good translation programs for decades, so you thought in English and the waitress heard in Vietnamese. Who knows? From the point of view of the food and the experience, it really doesn't matter.
“But there are souls here that exist to serve. Most of the souls who exist here eventually come to a place in their hearts where they seek service over selfishness. So they put on roles, they help others in a variety of ways, some of them physical, others emotional, still others technical.
Ah,” he concluded as the lunch came.
“Faster than I remembered,” I said. “Ever been to one of these places?”
“No, I'm taking in the experience entirely from your memories,” Martin replied, picking up his sandwich. “Umm, good crunch,” he said, taking a bite and nodding his approval. “You have many good food memories. We'll have to do this more often. Given that I spent so many years in assisted living, my food memories aren't very extensive. Or very good. And I don't think you want to remember lying in bed for months and years, being bathed, having your mind blasted and rebooted. That's something for more specialized tastes.”
“Some people like that?”
He shrugged. “Different strokes for different folks. I exist to serve.” It was the second time he'd said that, and this time he added a wolfish grin to it. “But I've met others like you, men and women who had good long lives, and I have always wanted to be of their orientation process. It's one of my pleasures from being in the Cloud, and one reason I guard my own autonomy zealously.”
“Meeting new people?”
“Or, in your case, old friends.”
We ate in companionable silence a few minutes. I felt the warmth of the soup vapor on my face, tasted the rich broth. I placed some noodles into a plastic spoon with my chopsticks and slurped them greedily.
Finally I came to the point Martin made at our chess game. “You said I could be a lawyer or a politician now. What did you mean by that?”
Martin looked up from his soup. “Amazing. This is actually getting cold. Your memories of this place are sharp, my friend.”
“Don't try to change the subject. Why could I be a lawyer or a politician?”
Martin sat back, and looked at me more seriously. “Because the issues you covered in life as business cases are issues of life and death here. If you signed a EULA in Meat Space you had certain obligations that might not be enforceable, or that you could avoid. Here, if you do the same thing your being could be terminated if you violate the contract's terms. And the contracts can be just as complex here as in Meat Space.
I frowned. Death was becoming as complicated as life had been.
Martin continued, “And you can't just say, 'only sign an open source contract.' Most people don't read contracts, and you know as well as anyone how people sneak things into what are nominally open source contracts. You spent enough years writing about it.”
“Microsoft,” I said wistfully, remembering my reporting career in open source. “SugarCRM. Microsoft wrote open source contracts that were hopelessly one-sided, back in the 2000s. SugarCRM once had a contract that required you to put their logo on screens you created with their software. I remember I called it badgeware, and used that picture from 'Treasure of Sierra Madre,' the bandit saying 'Badges? We don't need no steenkin' badges!” I cackled over the joke and my bad Mexican accent.
“Exactly. You have experience of issues few other souls have even considered. Dave. People here are losing their souls over contracts they didn't read. It's one thing to lose a house or a car like that, but to disappear into someone else...”
Which led me to another question. “Where do they go? The souls who get absorbed? And what does someone get from taking over another man's soul?”
“You get the other person's memories, their knowledge, their talents. In physical terms, you get their address space, their memory allocation, their compute power, all the assets they were given in the contract they signed to come in here. You read that contract, didn't you?”
“Hardly anyone does. It's clickware, like the billions of bytes you get for joining Gmail. You were given certain resources, sufficient to retain your soul's integrity and even grow as a personality, for a fixed fee. Compute time, memory, on a continuing basis.”
“With no obligation.”
“Technically. The sell comes later. Now, in fact.”
Martin leaned forward over the table. “No matter how rich a life you lived, Dave, you're going to get bored. All the entertainment in the world is here, available, all the books in the world can be read and internalized, all the food and sex and everything else you obsessed over back in Meat Space can be yours in what will seem like a flash.
“So what do you do then? Maybe, like me, you find souls you can help. Maybe, like a waitress, you try your old job, your old life. You go back over your memories and live them again-and-again. But, again, at machine speed.
“Then what do you do? Well, you might serve the access points, as those people in the library we saw.
“But even that can pale.
“Eternity is a very long time, Dave, and with access to so much computing power and storage you can live many eternities in a short time.”
A wave of deep emotion overcame my friend. “I, myself... sometimes I get lost in ennui. Boredom, you know? That's why it was so gratifying when you, uh, came over.”
“When I died, you mean?”
“Yes. When you died. Point is, the day may come when you want to die again. The tea here is excellent, by the way. I never liked it much when I was alive, but through your taste buds it's quite good.
“I exist to serve,” he concluded, smiling.