I should mention that the IEET staff read the fiction submissions without the authors’ names on them. So the fact that a submission from our former Managing Director was selected was not the nepotism that it might otherwise appear to be. Mike reflects here thoughtfully on the generation gap we already see playing out between those accustomed to more-or-less attentive face-to-face communication, and the younger generation who are growing used to a fragmented attention that makes little distinction between face-to-face and virtual presence. - J. Hughes
“I read a good book today.”
“Hmph,” he snorted, “I haven’t read a novel in ages. Short fiction, yes, but who has time for novels? There are too many important nonfiction books to read, not to mention – ”
“But, Dad – ” I began.
“Not to mention,” resumed my father in his usual authoritarian style, “articles, essays, reviews, opinion pieces, current events. If you don’t stay ahead, you’ll fall behind, and things are moving too fast to allow that. You don’t want to fall behind, do you?”
“No, of course not,” I sighed. After being my father’s son for nearly 60 years, why is it still so difficult for me to have a simple conversation with him?
“Well, then, spend time pursuing useful knowledge instead of reading novels. That’s my advice.” He nodded conclusively, as though his point was won.
My father is a successful and respected businessman. His people skills, however, leave something to be desired. I smiled at him, despite my frustration. He gazed back at me.
I saw myself in his face. The same blue eyes, high forehead, swept-back blond hair, strong chin. His nose is not as prominent as mine, although mine has been reduced from its former proportions. Befitting his stature, Dad allows himself to look a little older than most men. He has the hairline and wrinkles of a man of 40 or so, while I prefer to look 25.
“But that’s just it, Dad. I do keep up with those important articles and books and immersions. My interests are not necessarily the same as yours, but I’ll bet I spend as much time or more with nonfiction than you, and I also spend time reading novels. You could too, if you weren’t so stubborn about it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, multi-tasking.” He shook his head. “I suppose I am too old-fashioned in that way. I still like the idea of being there myself instead of in some synthetic astral presence.”
“Well, in practice, it’s no less real than the conversation you and I are having now. It’s all about perception. Today, for example, I was able to read a novel – I usually read one every day – and I attended a prison reform conference in Washington, plus I had my regular graduate classes, one at UCLA and the other at Oxford, and I spent my usual seven hours working at the homeless shelter. On the way here to see you, I assimilated my experiences. Shall I tell you what I did yesterday?”
“Uh, yes, in a minute. Let’s order first.”
A holographic waitress appeared beside our table. She was lovely. I stored her data for use in a future erotic immersion. Dad ordered a cheeseburger with jalapeño peppers, fried onion rings, and a chocolate milkshake. I ordered pizza with Italian sausage and pepperoni.
“And to drink, sir?” asked the beautiful blonde apparition. I decided on a root beer float.
After she vanished, Dad continued, frowning. “But is it really the same as being there? I mean, how could it be?”
I paused meaningfully before asking, “I’m sure you must have experienced VR sex more than once in your life. Is that really the same as being there?”
“Uh,” he cleared his throat, embarrassed. “It’s…it’s just as real, that’s for sure.”
“Of course it is. Now let me ask you another question. Is studying a topic digitally really the same as holding an actual book and reading it through your eyes? Answer that.”
“Oh, well, of course it’s not the same. You know perfectly well that it’s better. It’s much faster and you learn more deeply. It’s…” he paused and I smiled at him, raising my eyebrows.
He went on, “I guess I can concede that reading a novel digitally is probably just as…as satisfactory as holding the book in your hands. Okay, you’re right about that. I’ll admit the reason I don’t read novels is not that I don’t have time. It’s just that I don’t enjoy them as much as nonfiction.”
“Okay, fair enough. That’s a legitimate reason.”
A bot rolled up to our table and placed our orders in front of us. “Enjoy your meal, gentlemen,” it said in a pleasant baritone.
“Thank you,” we both answered, without even considering that we were addressing a non-sentient entity.
Dad picked up an onion ring. “Reading an article or a novel or even having sex is one thing,” he pondered, “but attending a meeting is another. Where did you say you went today, to a conference somewhere?”
I had just taken a big bite of my pizza. It tasted deliciously fattening; obesity, of course, is a thing of the past, at least for people who have accepted the free treatments. I used my napkin to wipe some of the spicy tomato sauce from my chin. The napkin instantly became clean again. After swallowing, I answered, “Washington DC. A conference on prison reform.”
“Yeah. Well, now, how can you be sure that the you attending that conference is the same you that’s working at the homeless shelter? It just doesn’t sit right with me.”
“I know, Dad, it seems strange, at least until you try it. I guess the two or more me’s who are in those different places are not quite the same person. They are, after all, having different experiences, at least for a short time.
“When I’m in two places at once, I usually don’t maintain simultaneous awareness. It’s too distracting. I can synch up during the day as often as I want, and sometimes I will, especially if I’m attending two or three events that are especially interesting. But most days I just wait until a convenient time to assimilate and review everything at once. It only takes a few minutes.”
Dad’s tall glass was empty. He picked up the frosty metal container that held the rest of his milkshake and gave himself a refill. “And another thing,” he said, “how can you be sure that the virtual people you see at a conference are the same people you spoke to the week before or you’ll talk to the week after?”
“That’s an easy one. They’re not the same people, any more than I’m the same person I was a week ago. And a week from now you’ll be a different person than you are today. It’s all a matter of experience. You know that as well as I do.”
“Philosophy. Words. Phenomenology. You academics are always talking about ideas as though they were the same thing as life itself.” He paused expectantly, as if waiting for me to pick up my side of the argument.
“No, I’m not – hold on a minute…” My phone was ringing. It was Sanji, one of my wives. I clicked my teeth together twice to answer the call. Sanji’s countenance shimmered into place in front of my eyes, projected there by microscopic nano-imagers. “Hi, sweetheart, what’s up?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt while you’re with your father, but I just had to tell you the good news!” Her dark eyes flashed with joy and elation.
“Did you get it? You got it?” I asked, as excited as she was.
“Wonderful! I’m so happy for you! Hang on, let me tell Dad.” I clicked my teeth once to put her on hold. Her image disappeared and I was back in the restaurant.
“Sanji got the assignment! She’s going to Titan! Isn’t that great?”
“Yes, that’s fantastic! Titan! Just think of it! Tell her how proud I am of her.”
“Just a minute, Dad.” I clicked back to Sanji.
“We’re both tickled pink by your good news. What would you like to do tonight to celebrate?”
“Oh, let’s see,” she lowered her eyes demurely, “how about if just you and I find a nice little deserted tropical island somewhere?”
“Mm, sounds perfect, babe. I can’t wait. I’ll make all the arrangements. Let’s meet back online in, say, two hours? Is that good?”
“Two hours is just right. See you then, love.” She blew me a kiss. I gave her a final big smile and clicked off.
“Isn’t that something, Dad? She’s going to Titan! In a few years, of course, we’ll all be able to go there whenever we want, but first the bots have a lot of work to do setting up the gear, and in the meantime there’s plenty of hard science to tackle.”
Dad put his hand over mine. “I’m so happy for you both. But won’t you miss her?”
“No,” I laughed, “she’ll still be here in person. It’s just one of her virtual personalities that’s going on the trip.”
“Oh, of course, I should have known,” chuckled Dad. “The world is changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up. And here I am, lecturing you about not falling behind. What an old blowhard you have for a father!”
Two hours later, Sanji and I were walking hand in hand along a white sand beach, feeling the warm surf lapping gently at our feet. We would swim together, naked, then make love in the sand. We were alone in our own private paradise. We would enjoy a delicious dinner and a magnificent bottle of wine, and then we would fall asleep in each other’s arms beneath the shimmering stars. It was a virtually perfect way to celebrate.
Meanwhile, Sanji visited her mother in Delhi while I had dinner at home in Greenwich Village with my other wife Anne and our son Eric. Later, Sanji would spend time with her other husband, Li, in Beijing, and I would attend a demonstration in Tel Aviv for peace between Israel and Palestine.
All in all, it was a good day, fairly quiet and uneventful. I wonder what tomorrow may bring?