The MW files: Die Another Day

(First published in Man’s World, 2002. Appropriately, it was the last ID column.)

My friend Mather died several months ago. I consulted him yesterday on his opinion of Bush’s Iraq policy, and of course he was as intransigent as usual. “It’s all about the politics of oil. Here, read these articles: they give you the full picture, something you won’t get from the New York Times, which as we all know sold its soul to the Establishment several centuries ago.”

Elsewhere, there were other deaths–2002 has been an especially cruel year. I reach back through my memory, trying to access the many conversations I’ve had with a bright, articulate, Leftist woman–let’s call her Tanya–and there they are, her opinions just as fresh as they were the day she first made them.

Let me get this straight. I don’t believe in reincarnation or life after death, and have visited a medium only once, reluctantly, in the company of a credulous friend. (The medium did herself no favours in my eyes by summoning up the shade of my “deceased” grandmother, with whom I had a long conversation–after which I informed the medium that the dear old lady had not, as it happened, crossed over to the Other Side yet, and so it perplexed me somewhat that her “ghost” was already there!)

Mather’s an old Internet acquaintance, whom I’ve never met in the living flesh. He and I have been members of the same online reading group for well over four years. A month before his “death”, Mather requested a private conversation with me and two other group members. He had a problem, he said: the group’s composition had changed to the point where he was no longer interested in the issues being raised. Two other chat groups that he was also a member of, using the same username or handle, were also in the doldrums or occupying too much of his time.

He’d been mulling over the problem for a while; he thought it would be terribly rude to just drop out of sight, and also perhaps unsafe. Like all of us, he had multiple online identities that he took great care to keep separate from each other; he didn’t want a hacker friend, puzzled by his absence, to come looking for him. He had come up with a solution: he was going to kill Mather off, citing a sudden and unfortunately terminal illness. There were, however, two or three people in each group whom he’d like to stay in touch with, so he was here to tell us that he was a) about to “die” and b) give us the other identities through which we could contact him.

People who try to pull this sort of stunt off in meatspace rather than virtual space tend to be serial polygamists or refugees from the law, so you might have expected that those of us in the know would have reacted with disgust or horror. Not so. Every one of us understood and sympathised with Mather’s dilemma, and indeed, some of us felt that he was taking the politest route out–this way, none of the groups would feel rejected or slighted.

It was instructive to see how the various groups responded to Mather’s “death”. The ones whose members were relative neophytes on the Internet expressed the most shock and grief–they bought into Mather’s story with no lurking scepticism. The shock was muted, naturally, by the fact that few group members had ever met face to face. The groups composed of more seasoned Netizens reacted with more caution, though they were careful to express sympathy as well. They were more aware that Mather might be committing virtual harakiri so to speak, and they followed a sort of unspoken samurai code that honoured him for choosing a way out that was actually less painful for the group. They expressed cautious sympathy in case Mather was genuinely dying.

Some months afterwards, I and two other group members conducted a poll among one of the more seasoned groups: it turned out that at some stage or the other, well over 75 per cent of the group had also “killed” off an online identity. (This is a probably a good time for me to mourn the loss of silk_rustle, one of my favourite personal alteregos. Her name was taken from a Pauline Kael essay on Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth (Throne of Blood), where Kael referred to the sound of the “silk rustle” of Lady Macbeth’s skirts. Some months after I adopted the name, I discovered an impostor masquerading under the same handle, who ran an extremely graphic porn site. The confusion played so much havoc in my life that I had to kill off my alter ego; but even today, silk_rustle, I miss you.)

Tanya, unlike Mather, didn’t kill herself off–she died, and in one of those peculiar twists of irony, she died of the same thing that Mather had so blithely invented. She was struck down by the sudden onset of an unsuspected cancer; her partner kept us updated as the disease took a slow stranglehold on the life of a truly wonderful human being. We experienced a sense of loss at Tanya’s death that was not ameliorated by the fact that we’d never “met” her: she had been an active and vibrant group member, and over the years, we probably got to know her better than we knew most “close” friends in meatspace.

In the oddest way, she’s also more alive for me than some other friends who died in the real world are, and this is because of the vagaries of technology. Time and the human memory tend to blur the edges of what you can remember; even with close friends who’ve died in the real world, I can summon up perhaps just five or six complete conversations, fragmentary memories of some perfect days. But every conversation, every heated debate and every exchange of emails I ever had with Tanya is preserved on my computer’s hard drive. All I have to do to summon her up again is to open that file and search, either by date or by keyword, for what I want to recall–and there she is, passionate, humorous, the force of her ideas untarnished by any lapses in memory on my part. It’s a strange feeling, to have at once nothing tangible of a friend and to have simultaneously everything, from the first opening bars of dialogue to the last quiet goodbyes. Life’s moved on in that particular group, but outsiders might find it unusual if they saw how often we referred to Tanya–not in the enshrined way we normally speak of the dead, but to her actual conversations. This is what she would have thought, we say, and we know that it is true, because her past thoughts are so much part of our present.

The New Scientist reports that Microsoft is working on software that could virtually back-up your entire brain–record every phone conversation, email, online transaction or photo taken onto digital files. As Rashmee Sachdev speculated in a Times of India story, combine the back-up brain with the kind of human-computer connectivity (you plug in your computer, then you plug your nervous system into the computer) envisaged by “I, Cyborg–You, Wetware” Kevin Warwick, and you have a very different way of being “human”.

If Microsoft’s back-up brain works as well as its other products, expect a few glitches along the way. Instead of merely wiping a few files out of your PC, a Microsoft-targetting worm could cause strange error messages to pop up that would, for instance, delete your memories of your first day at school, or of the entire year you turned seventeen. You might have to “reboot” your back-up brain four times before it allowed you to access the first job interview you ever had. Ominous warnings might inform you that you needed to add new memory, now, before the B-u-B will allow you to save the memory of your ultra-hot date tonight. You might even die twice–once in the flesh and once when your B-u-B develops unrecoverable hard drive errors, in which case you might hope fervently that the meatspace brain dies before its software counterpart.

These are huge risks, of course, and they pose huge barriers to the sci-fi junkie’s ultimate wet dream–Becoming One With the Internet in One Easy Upload, and thereby achieving a kind of immortality. But today’s Mather or Beth, one “dead” while still alive, the other “alive” while dead, could go much further tomorrow–could even choose to die another day, or not. The risks will always be there; in fact, without the software back-up option, we’re already familiar with them. We call them by different names–some might have a “bad memory for faces”, others might at some stage experience full-blown “amnesia”, and “Alzheimer’s” haunts many of us with its threatened loss of the self we know–but they’re just error messages all the same.

Nilanjana S Roy

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