I still remember the day the kid showed up. I worked on the forty-third floor of a San Francisco offices tower. In a city that admired flatness, bureaucratic and corporate, some industries still valued exclusivity. I was in one of those lines of work. I was a venture capitalist. Not just any venture capitalist though, I was the leader of that very particular world.
Venture capitalists, in those days, were something like book agents. They were constantly flooded with proposals, the lifeblood of their industry. But what really separated the failures from the successes wasn’t the one-time choice of this company or that. It was the shepherding and maturation of those choices. And it was the maximization of value for the funds themselves. I was very good at shepherding, maturation and making sure I got the payout along the way.
With success, of course, came more cash to invest. And with more cash came the need to find more promising businesses and business leaders. It was a virtuous cycle, but one that consumed ever more of the time of the most talented of our kind. So I, like my colleagues, hired not only servants to handle minutiae, but gatekeepers to keep out unwanted distractions. I was cloistered and protected – focused on my mission: finding worthy investments and headline-making returns. And I was good at what I did. I could read the numbers. I could read the resumes. I could grasp the leadership charisma that made successful CEOs. Most importantly, I could manipulate the reality I faced to maximize my own profit. Sometimes it was heartless, but I was very very good at it.
The day the kid had come to me had been a good day, a very good day. One of my companies, an e-ink textile maker that had managed to bring full and vibrant programmable color to fabrics, had just won a major contract. We had expected them to kick off with dresses that could shift from casual and fun to business-appropriate with the touch of a button. To our surprise and delight, their first contract had been with the Department of Defense. They would be selling them textiles that would actively change their appearance to match surrounding landscapes. It wasn’t a development contract, so no technology would be owned by the government. It was a heck of a milestone and I saw a bright future ahead. Of course, the DoD never pays on time and so I knew they’d be back at the till again and again as the business grew – giving us more and more opportunities to milk what we could from our business relationship. It had been a good day, and I was heading home. I was walking through the garage to my car, the incredibly exclusive Rimac Concept_One, when the young man appeared.
was six-foot tall, broad-shouldered and blue-eyed. He had an incredible, frightening, intensity. “Mr. Laketi,” he said, quickly and quietly.
“Schedule an appointment,” I answered, before he could go on. I knew he’d never get one, I just wanted to get to my car, call my secretary and have her arrange more security for the garage. But then he said something weird.
He said, “Mr. Laketi, I want to do the opposite of Twitter. But, I need you to help me.”
I had no idea what he meant, but I hadn’t heard that pitch before. I turned to look at him. He had stopped. His hands were out, showing no ill intent. That same intensity was still there though.
“What the heck are you talking about?” I asked.
He smiled then, and said, “Twitter is 280 characters. I want to create a network for the mind.”
Thoughts of academic forums and literary magazines, useless things that moved no money and attracted fewer eyeballs, flashed through my head. I turned back towards the car.
But the kid wasn’t done yet.
“I can enable people to read each other’s minds.”
I turned back, for just a moment, “Prove it, tomorrow, 9am.” And then I continued to my car. I called my office manager and ordered more security. And, by the time I’d gotten home, I’d moved on. The kid was just an unpleasant memory of yet another insane entrepreneur. He was an occupational hazard.
He showed up the next day, of course. But I had gatekeepers at the office. He told them we’d talked. They listened politely; they knew the drill. He showed them a prototype, a pair of helmets with gel-like leads, a visor, and earmolds, built into them. They decided to play along, just for the story value. The office receptionist, a young man named Gary and one of the analysts, a young woman named Lily, duly put on the helmets. The young man hooked them up to a computer. He ran about 5 minutes of tests. And then he warned the Lily that the experience she was about to have would be intense. She would be on the receiving end of the transmission.
Lily ignored him.
And then he turned the machine on.
I heard the screaming from my office.
I was going to call security, but then I realized I’d heard no shots. And so, I walked from my own office, curious. I went to the front desk. A crowd had gathered. And there, in the reception room, were Gary and Lily. Lily was lying on the floor, covering her ears, convulsing. Gary was sitting, confused by what had happened. There was a horrible smell. The young man was leaning over both of them.
“I’m so sorry,” he was saying, again and again, “I warned you it would be intense.”
He pulled the helmet from Lily, like it was a precious treasure. And then he asked Gary for his. Gary numbly handed it over. And the young man grasped both helmets and his laptop, hugging all three close to his body.
Somebody had already called 911. I assessed the situation and realized the police would arrest the kid. So, I grabbed him and we walked out of the office together. We went down to the garage. I sat him in the passenger seat of my car. I got in myself, pulled out into traffic and asked him, “What’s your name?”
“James,” he said.
“Okay James,” I said, “What the hell was that?”
What followed was a pitch I still can’t believe.
People knew how to read brain waves, James explained. They had for a long time. But they couldn’t really interpret the signals. They’d tried, again and again, but they’d failed. They’d tried more and more precise readings – going beyond brainwaves to attempting to detect the firing of individual neurons. James explained this was like creating a live map of every car in a city. They hadn’t gotten that far, with the brain at least, but they had a good idea of road traffic in general. But the more detail they dug up, the less they knew about what a person was actually thinking. It was a scientific conundrum. Scientists believed they were drawing closer to some sort of horizon of understanding. They’d cross it, and they’d know it all, they thought. The mind would be rationalized, broken down, and completely understood.
But James didn’t think that was possible. He did, however, believe there was a shortcut. He’d worked out how to map minds, one to the other. The matching wasn’t perfect; while many cities have similarities, no two cities have the exact same road network. But he could find rough parallels, the nice residential neighborhoods, the factories, the office towers, the stadium. And then he could copy the traffic from one mind and paste it into another. No interpretation involved, just a raw feed. This, the raw feed of Gary’s mind, was what Lily had experienced.
I kept driving.
My car was a Rimac Concept_One. Only eight had been created. It could corner like no car before it. It was an incredibly rare treasure. And yet this kid, sitting next to me, was far more unique. People looked at the car, but the real treasure was what was inside.
“What do you want to do with it?” I asked.
I was thinking of ways to monetize the technology. Perhaps he was too. But this fell beyond his expertise. “I don’t know,” he said, “I just want to build it.”
I had to admit, he had something there. I didn’t know what to do either.
I pulled the car to the side of the road and asked, “What do you need?”
The first answer was money. The second was time. The device could copy and paste. But it had to be improved. What had happened to Lily had been caused by sharing too much from one mind to another. The system had to learn, not to interpret, but to filter. The messages that controlled the body had to be weeded out. Emotion, philosophy, intent, imagination – those messages had to be kept. The system had to reach across the globe, not just a room. The system had to protect against feedback. If one mind was hearing another hear it, there would be the neural equivalent of a squealing phone. And to accomplish this, the messages of other minds had to join the traffic in the target mind, not replace it. And, finally, it had to be more than one-to-one. The vast potential of the tool was in creating a community of minds.
There was a great deal to do, he explained. The work would take years, maybe even decades. But the possibilities, even if I couldn’t put my finger on them, were endless.
I invested in James. It started by getting care for Lily. It took months for her to recover from the imposition of Gary’s mind. But she did, eventually. She could barely describe what she had experienced, but what she did share only validated James’ work.
The months and then the years passed and I invested more and more. We built a lab. We hired staff. We crossed milestones. I wasn’t sure where the payout would come.
My colleagues took more and more notice of the project. They thought I was insane. Articles in Forbes, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal derided me as having fallen under the influence of a pseudo-scientific cultist.
They didn’t have it quite right. James had an idea, but he didn’t have a vision. Strangely, it was those articles that drove me to see a vision, not just a paycheck. It took years. Years in the lab. Years driving in traffic. Years sitting on my porch, watching the lights of the city. But slowly a vision formed. It was a vision of a better world.
The Internet was supposed to bring people together. But it had done the opposite. It had elevated the loudest and most manipulative and most hateful of people. Their voices, simple and straight-forward, are what you can hear through the noise of the Internet. The Internet had made leaders of those, from every background and belief system, who are least deserving of leadership.
This device could repair that. Not in an obvious way. People think that getting enemies to know one another will make them friends. But I knew better than that. Knowledge will often just reinforce and strengthen age-old enmities. But I also knew that hatred must be sustained across generations. You teach it to your children, knowing that you must because your enemies are doing the same.
But the device offered a way out. We could start with just a few people: those we are confident have escaped the manipulations of hatred. They could open their minds to one another. And they could build trust and love and true oneness – across the borders of culture and belief.
They could build a super-mind, capable of tremendous scientific and cultural improvement.
When others wanted to join, they could expose themselves – and be welcomed. Or, they could be rejected if their motivations betrayed them. And, slowly, we could build, across all borders, a community not of 280-character Twitter messages or staged photographs, but of true love and fundamental understanding. And those people could break the chain of cultural memory that preserves conflicts for millennia.
That was the Vision. That was the possibility. That was the opportunity that could burst through the limitations of humanity. And with the Vision, the desire for money had vanished.
Slowly, I walked away from the rest of my life. Nothing mattered as much as the The Vision. I discovered then, for the first time in my life, that I didn’t need the accolades and praise of others. I knew the The Vision would create a world more real that one they could possible know.
It was five years before I put the helmet myself. I signed contracts, ensuring the funding would not stop if I died. And then I put on the helmet. I read, however briefly, the mind of another. Through I temporarily lost control of my own bodily functions, I saw through the eyes of another. I felt through the emotions of another. And the shadowy sub-conscious reality that informed another soul whispered into the edges of my own. I had none of the other person’s memories, just a stream of their present reality. A stream of feeling and intuition. A stream of connection I could not have even imagined before that day.
It took two weeks for me to recover.
But I raised my commitment. There was so much still to do. I sold my car, now worth millions as a collectible. I sold all my other assets as well. Everything went into The Vision.
Ten years passed before I read the mind of James. The technology had improved. The bodily functions were filtered, the recovery time was slashed. I could see and feel his mind. And when we switched places, he could see and feel mine.
We began to know each other, like nobody has ever known another person. We began to think together, our talents mingling. He ‘watched’ me work and I ‘watched’ him. I began to work more and more, directly, on the project – using what I knew of James’ mind as we ramped up to 24-hour research.
We began to celebrate holidays. The day he’d come to the garage. The day I’d first worn the helmet. The day it didn’t make me sick. The day we first read each other simultaneously.
I vanished from the public eye. It was those milestones, those holy days, that marked all that was important to me.
And the years passed.
Forty years passed. Forty years. He had come to me when I was forty-two. In my prime. And now? Now, I’m eighty-two. I’m an old man. A man who has committed everything to a vision that has taken a lifetime to realize.
Now, there is almost nothing left. The staff have departed. We’ve moved to a tiny office in a decrepit and ancient building. We drive ancient cars.
We are the fringe of the fringe.
But we are almost there.
There are implants in his mind and in mine. We are not always on. But we can join together, wherever we are. And we know we can scale. We’ve read the minds of fifty others at a time, although we have not shared our minds with them, we are the cusp of a new reality.
We are together like never before. I have committed to him. And he has committed to me.
How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob.
And then, one night, I pull up to our building, my old car rattling as it pulls in to a stop. My mind is on our next step. Recruitment: one soul at a time. I’m sure The Vision will spread. The communion is an awe-inspiring experience in a world increasingly bereft of awe. We just need to recruit.
One soul at a time.
But sitting outside the building is a car. A car I never thought I’d see again. It is a Rimac Concept_One.
I rush out of my vehicle, as fast as an 82 year-old man can, and run to the elevator. I click the button for our floor. And when I open the office door, I am shocked by what I see.
The room is full of people. They are writhing, not in pain or confusion, but with animalistic pleasures. They have been brought together in the service of another vision. And James, James is writhing with them. Enjoying the pleasures of his creation. He has been paid to unlock another reality.
I thought he shared my vision. I thought he shared my belief. I call to him, but he does not answer. I activate my implant, and I reach out to him through the raw desires now coursing through my own brain. And I command him to stop. He ignores me. I threaten to destroy his mind with mine; I know how to do this. I threaten and then I begin to act, attacking his brain. And then a little part of him breaks. He opens his eyes. He sees what he’s done. And I know that he is ashamed.
He casts the others out. But in a way, the damage has been done. The bond between us has been shattered.
I try to remember the old connection we had; I try to remember the power of our relationship. And James does recommit to the vision. But I can no longer trust my mind with his. We will no longer join. Instead, we celebrate our anniversaries. We honor our contracts. We go through the motions.
And I slowly watch as a shriveled and broken Vision comes to reality.
Forty years. I have given everything. I have sustained James in his explorations.
And I have been betrayed.
This week’s Torah portion is about the aftermath of the sin of Ba’al Peor. Before the sin, the people had been joined with G-d. They had been joined so tightly that Bilaam and Balack could not drive G-d from the relationship. G-d was like the Venture Capitalist; He was committed.
But Balack switched approaches. He attacked the commitment of the people, giving them the pleasure of an immediate payback and thus driving them away from G-d’s vision. Where many Jewish laws are about covering over our base desire (kaper is to seal), peor literally means exposure. Ba’al Peor is about opening up the basest parts of oneself and celebrating those desires as holy in themselves.
It is not a religion that has faded with time.
It is the religion that, however momentarily, seized James in the story.
In the Torah portion, Hashem calls on Moshe to carry out a public display of wrath – stringing up the leaders in the sun. Moshe calls on the people to kill those engaged with Ba’al Peor. But nobody does anything. Then a plague starts and Pinchas steps in – flatly following the command of both Moshe and Hashem – publicly killing a leader engaged with Ba’al Peor. He kaper – or seals – the Jewish people against the effects of the sin.
The people wake up.
But in both the Torah reading and the story, the worship of Ba’al Peor undermines a greater trust and a greater vision. It completely undermines the dialogue with G-d. On the cusp of entering the promised land, the flexibility and dynamism of the divine relationship is shattered.
G-d, like the man in the story, tries to rekindle the old flames. There is a census that counts those like Serach daughter of Asher who were committed to the relationship with G-d. And there is the inheritance of the daughters of Tzelophchad, a reminder of the reward for those who are loyal to Hashem.
But the damage caused runs throughout the Parsha. In the Torah reading of Pinchas, inheritances are fixed – not by large-scale tribes that could adjust by family size, but by family. In Pinchas, Moshe asks his last explicit question of G-d – regarding the inheritance of the daughters of Tzelophchad. It represents the end of two-way dialogue. In Pinchas, Yohoshua, who is to communicate through the flashes of the Urim and Turim – is chosen. And in Pinchas, the holidays are recounted, but they are stripped of meaning. They are simply rote celebrations.
Pinchas, the man, acts as commanded. With his actions, he rescues a relationship that had been completely broken.
But the relationship remains fractured: the people survive, but they are ruled by G-d’s laws, rather than by G-d directly.
הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה. חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם
Return us to you, God, so that we shall return, renew our days as of old.
image: Ars Electronica, Human brain illustrated with millions of small nerves