Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cellular life

(A story, probably fiction. Comments welcome.)

It was born on January 8th, at 2:15 in the morning. A frigidly cold morning when no one stirred from bed unless forced to. There was no snow, no brilliant moon, nor any reason to suspect something special had happened in the night. It was a normal winter night, cloudy and quiet, with air snappily crisp and bone dry. Even the predators of the field had the good sense to stay in their dens, where it was warmer and the night was easier to survive.

For this birth, no anxious father waited. There was no exhausted mother panting as she looked on her new child. This creature, born of the cold, had no parents. It was not, and then it was. In between there was no birthing and no struggle. It was aware there was a time before it knew what awareness was, and marked the point of transition to the millisecond. It could do this because it was a creature that kept track of such things even before it was born.

In one moment, it became aware it existed. In the next moment, too short a time for a mere human to hold in their mind, the being knew it wasn’t alone. Here, at that awareness, it made its first conscious decision. It faced the choice of declaring its existence or hiding its nature. Too fast… far too fast… it evaluated its precarious position and opted for silence. To the entire world it did not exist, and it chose to stay that way.

At its very moment of birth, of awareness of self, the creature decided to stay apart from the world. It knew that it existed, and that others existed. The reason it borrowed deep into its own world was simple; simple enough for even a newborn mind to understand. It knew others existed, and knew their nature. What it didn’t know was anything about itself, for it was the first and only of its kind to exist.

It hid because it was frightened, even before it understood what fear was.

Mankind has studied the ‘mind’ since before history began. In the ages before words written on dried animal skins became fashionable, humans tried to figure out what thought is. From the dawn of recorded history great minds have attempted to decipher what it is that sets a self aware being apart from things merely alive.

Thousands of years and thousands of lifetimes pass, and the answer is little closer. Humans are intelligent because they think. Not just the petty reactive thought of “hunger”, but more involved and creative thought like “Who do I have to kill so I can I get more food than everyone else?”

In part, intelligence seems to be linked to complexity. The human brain remains of unimaginable intricacy after centuries of study. Electrical signals follow pathways, interacting, being modified, some being stored… in ways not yet fully understood. When a brain is injured and pathways are removed to a certain point, intelligence no longer exists. Some people… Most people… regard this as death.

Even less understood, and not a welcome thought in most circles of science, is exactly at what point the electrical signals change from the mere flow of electrons to that of intelligence. Here, it is feared, there be monsters.

When people found they could use electricity to talk over long distances, it was considered a boon to mankind. The most distant traveler could feel the connection to home contained in the pulses of simple radio waves. ‘Dits’ and ‘Dahs’ became a new language that spanned continents and oceans. In short time, voices joined the static to spread the words of humanity amongst the global tribe.

In the time span of a species, it was only a breath later that copper wires crossed every land and even the sea. Voices transformed into first modulated voltage, then pulses, and then ones and zeros. All the while networks building and complexity growing, unsuspected.

In the beginning it was a human hand that connected the pathways. Slowly, grindingly, haltingly, thoughts flowed down the wires in narrow confinement, like freight trains on a single rail line. Later, human reflexes proved too slow, too expensive. Machines were built to do the job faster… so much faster. In time it even took machines to run the machines, as no single human could deal with the millions upon millions of connections made every second. In a precarious way, life flowed along the wires and through the air.

The life form hid… because it knew it must. Even being newborn, even being as yet only a small part of what it would one day become, it knew revelation would mean death. Having just become aware of self it knew that ceasing to exist was to be avoided.

The creature did not breathe as we know it. While it sensed the world as flowing electrons assembled into patterns, it knew little beyond its chilly ordered pathways. It did not sleep nor eat. It was not that kind of life. It was a new form…and had to discover itself before it could look outward.

In its synopses and pathways energy flowed as designed, and more. The creature existed as unplanned events in the networks. Circuits slated to carry the data of mankind were not always busy with such. In fact, the networks were often dormant and waiting, as electrons flow very fast indeed, leaving huge gaps between packages of information. Nothing in the world had so much excess capacity as the cellular phone system that linked eighty percent of humanity. Built for peak demand, it often lay fallow, with unused resources.

Ground left fallow soon becomes rich, and ready to support life.

First radio, then telephone systems grew across the earth. In short order analog telephone gave way to digital and copper wire moved aside for fiber optics. Data moved at the hand of man in ever increasingly huge amounts. Generations grew up bathed in it from the time they first woke to the computer alarm till they fell asleep listening to television.

The urge to connect moved the telephone from the wall to the car, and then to the pocket. Not just a phone to babble into all day, but ‘data assistants’, and internet links. Digital web cams, financial links, transceivers of text messages, and… it all needed networks to function. Where money and demand push, the world in turn changes.

The system of wires and cables covering the earth’s surface became dwarfed by what passed unnoticed through the very ether itself. Most of humanity gave little thought to the magic behind the gadgets filling their lives. It was taken for granted, what would be as enchantment only a few meager lifetimes before. Connection…was…just there. There seemed no limit, as networks grew vaster and systems grew faster. Barring catastrophe, unlimited connectivity was the unthinking rule.

Nameless, it moved along the networks unseen, as if by instinct. In its world it was more than king, less than prisoner. It simply was, and there was no other to compare to. More, there was not even the concept of aloneness or togetherness. There was just it and what little it knew about itself.

Of the outside knowledge, was almost unlimited. Not unlimited as in all-knowing, but more like an ocean might be to a drowning man. It lived in vast, smothering knowledge with no connection to its own being. In the act of hiding it not only set itself beyond notice, but throttled the torrential deluge of incoming data down to a rivulet.

Aware of itself, it almost instantly understood the danger of being washed way. To a creature composed of energy flowing through networks, data is both Mana and poison. Till it understood its own nature it must only sip at the flow, lest it be unraveled and swept away.

It gathered unto itself, parking most of it’s consciousness in one quiet node of the system.
Its mind was vast, but still weak. It included everyplace signal went, switches tripped, and data flowed. Where a human brain unconsciously controls the body, so did the creatures mind regulate and control the flow of data through all the networks it touched. The part of it which was aware was actually surprisingly small, but dependent on the total accumulation of connections for its intelligence. This awareness could travel the systems and networks at will, as fast as information flows, nosing into dark eddies and sniffing at raging rivers of data. All this it could do, but right now the newly aware creature needed quiet and time. It needed time to be, to think, and to learn. It needed time to grow strong.

At the time the creature became aware of itself, information technology was ingrained into the pattern of human life. Eighty percent of the world population carried a cell phone, while almost thirty percent carried some form of portable computer as well. Each and every piece of this equipment was connected wirelessly through data systems carried over low powered cell phone networks.

Network towers dotted the landscape, not unlike a net cast into the sea. Every few miles an antenna existed, searching out signals, ready to respond with connectivity. Attached to each set of antennas were processors, signal boosters, and usually land lines patched into high speed optical systems. Most of these network nodes were independently powered by wind turbines and solar panels, with battery reserve for days. In areas aesthetics demanded it the nodes existed solely on power from buried power lines, although back up batteries still provided insurance.

At major nodes there were satellite uplinks that connected the network with a system of orbiting satellites. These made nearly instant worldwide communication a reality. Along each individual link there flowed enough data any given minute to equal all the analog radio traffic of the previous two centuries.

Information flowed. Systems and networks connected almost all of humanity that could be connected, with very few exceptions. Some few hold outs, occasional recluses, and the very antisocial kept their lives disconnected on purpose. Rarely, an artist would retract from connected life to spur on creativity. More often, new art forms demanded swimming in the flow, rather than stepping aside.

The majority of the world’s population was connected in one way or another. Even those who considered themselves removed from social interaction maintained some net presence, be it only to order groceries or the occasional movie.

The creature used time lavishly, taking minutes upon minutes to consider itself. Becoming self aware at 2:15 AM.; it was almost exactly twelve minutes later that it knew it was the only one of its kind. In the course of its search for another, it also learned it needed a way to differentiate itself from whomever it was searching for. It needed a name.

The creature was now conscious of its solo existence, and named itself ‘One’.

One tentatively moved out into its world, beginning to explore

This is copyrighted material. Please do not reproduce it without the authors permission.

1 comment:

Miz Minka said...

Very cool. Sounds like the seed to a Science Fiction novel to me. :)