On Monday, as I was waiting to go through security to enter the Library, Julia came rushing through the lobby to meet me. Momentarily flattered that she was so happy to see me, I checked myself when I noticed her look of anxiety.
“Winston,” she said. “Schmidt is on his way here now!”
“Our patron, the one I told you about!”
“Oh right. That guy, from Davos. What does he want?”
“To see the collection. His aide said he’s writing a new book on transhumanism and he wants to look at our Frankenstein archive.”
“Why doesn’t he pick up the Penguin edition?”
“I guess it’s me he wants, really.”
“I don’t blame him. What do we have to do, roll out the red carpet? Spray air freshener?”
Julia and I went outside to wait at the top of the marble stairs. On cue, a black SUV pulled up to the curb. A dark-suited, masked man jumped out of the front passenger side and opened the rear door with a mechanical movement that made him seem like a wind-up toy. He stood waiting for a full minute while Julia and I watched the gray pant leg of the global leader remain in the car.
Finally, the leg swung onto the curb and Koenig Schmidt unfolded himself from the backseat. He affected a fashion at once futuristic and out of date. Surprisingly (I expected him to wear a perfectly correct and expensive business suit), he wore what I might have called a leisure suit, an outfit that harkened back to the 1970s and also suggested the kind of business attire one might wear for commercial intergalactic travel once it becomes available. The material appeared to be a synthetic stretchy sort. The jacket was zippered and had epaulettes that conjured Captain Space Force a little too aggressively. He wore no mask. (That was for plebs.) He wore no tie. Instead, his priest-collared shirt was fastened with a large sapphire pin that glistened in the September sun. As he drew himself out of the car, a small article dropped to the curb behind him. One of the several library security staff, who had rushed out to meet him, picked up the article—and handed it to the assistant, who thanked him profusely.
The car pulled away, and the assistant ran up the steps after Schmidt, who had already greeted Julia with a nod—no handshake—and was turning toward me. The assistant proffered a pair of reading glasses—the dropped article—which Schmidt pocketed without so much as looking at, much less thanking, his man.
Schmidt’s head was perfectly egg-shaped and he wore the timid expression of a turtle. Above all, his features suggested weakness. One wondered how he had come to wield the power that he did. Without a word, Schmidt strode into the building, library staff circling him like birds. The security gate had been thrown open, and Charlie, the guard, was no where to be seen. Julia and I jogged behind Schmidt and his assistant/security guy as they headed toward the collection. They obviously knew the Library floorplan, and I guessed that security guy had probably rehearsed the walk in a virtual world before heading over this morning.
When we arrived at the door, the assistant opened it for Schmidt and stood aside, allowing Julia and me to follow Schmidt in. Once we were inside, he shut the door leaving us alone with the Davos King.
Schmidt held a small silver case, which he had opened to receive his reading glasses. He looked around the room then at us. The dim light from the window left one side of his face in shadow and the other carved out in wrinkles. I saw the wear and tear of his eighty-two years that was not visible in well-lit promotional photos. The weakness of his features was contradicted only by a slight irritability in his eyes, just barely suggesting the raging psychopathology of his tortured mind. Julia motioned for him to take the seat at her desk, from which she had cleared everything, even her computer. Accepting the obeisances of the curator, he sat down and looked up at her blinking three times rapidly, as if he expected her to recite the daily special. So far he had not said a word to either of us.
Julia broke the silence, “We’re delighted in your interest in the collection. On behalf of the New York Public Library, I—”
“The reason,” he cut her off, “I wanted to see you”—pronounced, Zee rrreason I (phlegmy) vanted to see you—“is related to research for my new book on transhumanism. Part of my research means interviewing those who understand the historical precedent of the issue. Sit down.”
Julia and I obeyed.
“Our time is very limited,” he went on. “So let me get to the point. As a boy I made many sojourns around Lake Geneva. My parents used to take us on vacation summer and winter. I climbed Mount Blanc as a young man…”
I wondered how this could be the point.
He continued, “I read Shelley’s Frankenstein in the very same region where most of the action takes place. I weathered the storms as they happened in the book. I got lost in the snow as it happen in the book. In my young imagination, I was Victor Frankenstein, who, as you know, was initially interested in ancient occult sciences that could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” Schmidt changed his cadence to an awkward student recitation style as quoted from the novel, “Such a goal would be attended by glory.” He went on, still quoting, “The masters of the science who sought immortality and power were grand. It was my dream to be the new Doctor Frankenstein. Now I have the chance. The new ‘magic’ is using the code of life, DNA, which we have deciphered.”
“I don’t know if your reading is right,” I broke in. “Frankenstein is a warning not a…” I searched for word which would not offend, gave up, and said instead, “I imagine scientists no more understand what DNA means than those alchemists understood nature.”
Irritability pulsed in Schmidt’s eye for a brief second, but soon his patriarchic nature took calm possession of his mood. “Ah, but you miss the point,” he said at me, then he looked at Julia and jerked his head in my direction.
“Oh, Mr Schmidt, this is Winston Smith. He is with Octopus, digitizing the archive.”
Schmidt brightened at this. “Ah, good. Important Werk.”
“Well, thank you for providing the funding for it,” said Julia, revealing to me for the first time that I was essentially working for the Global Economic Club.
“There will be,” Schmidt raised his voice as if he had suddenly taken a podium, “fundamental, radical changes to our biology, and with this our political and social systems. Inevitably so. We need a consistent common narrative to over-ride any popular backlash.”
“Don’t you think that the Frankenstein monster might be the wrong branding for your bioengineering project?” asked Julia.
This annoyed him, clearly. But it was an honest question that his PR people had probably already argued with him about at great length.
“You know as well as I do that Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. People are always getting that confused. Don’t you see, we need to rewrite the narrative, revive the doctor’s dream of bettering mankind, raising man above his merely biological nature, so that he is faster, stronger…”
“A better worker, shorter lived.” I put it mildly, as if in agreement.
He ignored me completely, “…It is essential that we make all the people—of diverse communities and backgrounds—recognize the benefits of this way forward. Our devices will become increasingly embedded, listening to us, helping us—even when not asked. It is inevitable. It is already underway. The Frankenstein narrative is seminal in the public imagination. We have to show the public the right way to think about the Doctor’s original aspirations. His creature was the most kind, sensitive and loving creature made, with superior intelligence and poetic ability. But he was shunned, shunned out of fear of the new science, the new knowledge, the great way forward. The lesson here is that we should not turn away from the possibilities of synthetic brain enhancement, the cyborg. We should embrace this new creature. You will help me by writing the introduction,” he said, looking at Julia and then at me. “I will make you one of tomorrow’s global leaders. You’re under forty, right?”
“I am. Julia’s not,” I quipped.
“Well, you look it, Julia. We can adjust your age in the records. You’re that valuable to us.”
Julia glanced at me, nervously.
“We,” he said, indicating I knew not who, exactly, “are making great advances in pervasive neurotechnologies. Imagine the possibilities if we were able to implant or erase memories, such as helping deal with mental health issues, or accelerating learning. What if you could implant the capacity to speak fluent Mandarin?”
I jumped in, “I’ve noticed that Octopus isn’t able to translate the pronouns in Percy Shelley’s poetry into Russian without making ridiculous errors.”
“Big Data,” he said simply, and folded his hands.
Julia and I both cocked our heads in unison and waited.
Finally he elaborated, “The more data we cull as people wear interface devices while they read…”
“Didn’t Chaos Theory tell us that gathering more data does not help improve the prediction in proportion to the amount of data collected?” I had enough freshman science classes and BBC documentaries notched in my belt to know that.
“I don’t believe that,” Schmidt quipped. “Quantum computing solves that problem.”
Julia glared at me.
I wasn’t any good at playing her game. “These brain enhancement technologies remind me of weight loss machines from the 1950s,” I continued, risking both Schmidt’s and Julia’s ire, “like the vibrator belt that you put around your waist to shake the fat away. Sounds scientific. Doesn’t work.”
Schmidt wasn’t phased by my disrespect. He raised his chin at me and said, very slowly, as if I were a moron, “Cortical computing algorithms have already shown an ability to solve modern CAPTCHAs, which can distinguish humans from machines. As these programs and chips get better at predicting behaviors, they will extend human cognitive abilities and blur the lines between man and machine.”
I almost didn’t believe it myself, but I kept going with my rebuttals, “Those are a bunch of ifs, and it seems to be a really expensive project, considering the best AI so far does no better than a cricket at pattern recognition.”
“Modern computational science peers into the recesses of nature and shows how she works in her hiding places. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven; mimic the earthquake and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows,” he ended with another epic quote. There followed a painfully long moment of silence, during which Julia and I resisted an implied invitation to clap. “Now that you understand the narrative,” he said after a while, “I will be in touch with you about the project. Send nice photos and bios for our Millennial Global Leaders website.” He paused. “Are you ethnic? Native American maybe?”
“My mother was Chilean,” said Julia.
“Perfect,” said Schmidt. He waited for me.
I examined my ancestry, but only remembered Danes. “Jewish,” I lied.
Schmidt looked disappointed. I wondered if I should tell him my pronouns were xe/xem/xyrs to cheer him up.
He seemed lost in thought for a second, pursing his lips. Finally he said, “You are the only person who has lost a parent to 9/11 and to Covid-19. That’s a good angle.”
I was momentarily stunned and my eyebrows shot up. I looked at Julia. She shook her head; the information had not come from her.
He got up abruptly and mentioned a next appointment. His assistant opened the door at the precise moment they had pre-arranged. He made his exit as flamboyantly as he had entered, with the flurry of attendants around him. As before, Julia and I jogged after them through the lobby and then stood gawking on the library portico as his car pulled up to the curb at the moment he began heading down the steps. It was if all the moving parts of the meeting were designed with the precision of a Cuckoo clock.
Watching his car pull away, Julia asked, “What kind of future does he imagine?”
A blustery gust of wind picked up out of nowhere on what had been an otherwise calm, sunny, late September day and whipped our hair around our faces. “They think they’re so close to cracking the code, decrypting the brain, decoding DNA, that if they can just get us to stay at our computer screens for a few more months, they will have the answer to the riddle of life. They will be able to take a nano-pill and have omniscience.”
“And when they tear back the veil of the unknown?”
The wind stopped as suddenly as it had started.
“They will exterminate us, not all at once,” I replied with mock cheerfulness. “Half of us will be needed to dispose of the bodies of the other half. When they get down to a billion enslaved people, they will have the entire planet as their playground.”
“They’ll always be out numbered,” said Julia. “We are many; they are few.”
“I supposed they plan to have us all blockchained in smart cities, brainwashed into thinking it’s really a utopia.”
“What about us?” asked Julia.
“You and your daughter will come to my farm with me. I will teach you how to grow food and put it away for the winter, like my mother taught me.”
Julia took my hand, which she usually dared not do in public. “Schmidt seems like a depraved child, doesn’t he?” she said. “Did you ever hear such naivety and credulity in man in his position?”
“A powerful businessman with an engineering background who believes in his own hoc-hum—or he maybe just wants everyone to think that AI is providing unbiased, evidence-based guidance, when in reality it will be Wizards of Oz, like Schmidt, controlling the code.”
“He doesn’t speak like he does in The Great Reboot, does he?” said Julia.
“No, he doesn’t. That unremarkable book could be machine translated easily. Not a single unusual turn of phrase. He makes no allusions, doesn’t quote like he quoted Mary Shelley to us.”
“I suppose he adapts to his audience,” she said.
“Before he started speaking, I had planned to be all obsequience and flattery.”
“But he was such a freak you forgot?”
“I completely forgot. I also got a sense that he has no respect for human beings. I imagine he thinks AI will replace curators. Digital libraries will replace wood paneled ones. I’m sorry about that.”
“We’re being groomed. We’ve been selected.”
“That was so creepy. Are you going to accept?”
“Yes, out of curiosity. You?”
“It’s a cult,” said Julia nodding her head. She let go of my hand and we walked in silence back to the collection.
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