This is not my usual political commentary. It’s a short story. I’m not sold on the title so if you have any better suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
The Next Big Thing
“You really must get the new chip!” insists Peta.
I tell her that I’m not sure; I hear that there have been some issues with it.
“You’re talking about the beta version. Since they sorted out the bugs and put in a few fixes, it’s fine. There haven’t been any real problems with the one I had embedded, and apparently the myBrain 2 is coming out next month, which is even better.”
“Better? How?” I ask.
“Well, with myBrain 2 you don’t even have to ask Toso, you just have to think it and it happens automatically. Like, say you want to call your mother, you just have to think: ‘Call Mum’ and Toso will do the rest for you. No problems with her misunderstanding or anything like that.”
“I don’t know. I’m still reluctant to have a chip embedded in my brain like that.”
“Yeah, I felt the same way at first, but then someone pointed out that it was no riskier than riding in one of those old human driven cars, which we all do from time to time. Now that I’ve done it, I just can’t imagine how I ever functioned without it.”
That’s true, I think. Peta is a changed woman. Back last year, before she had the myBrain chip inserted, her life was a mess. She blamed her relationship break-up with Steve, but she’d always been a bit disorganised. But after Steve dumped her, she just lost all ability to function: She missed deadlines, was constantly late and was on the verge of losing her job when she decided that she needed to have the insert.
I remember discussing it with her at the time and she seemed to think that it was worth the risk.
“Ok,” she told me, “you think it’s a risk, but what have I got to lose?”
“Your brain?” I suggested.
“The way it’s making me feel at the moment, I don’t see that as much of a loss.”
I must admit I was worried about her, but there’s only so much you can do for someone. I suggested counselling or maybe some of the new anti-depressant drugs might be a bit less extreme than the brain chip, but she assured me that more and more people were getting them and they made your life so much simpler.
“You just hold up your hand and say something like, ‘Tell my brain to go to work at seven o’clock’ and it gives you a reminder.”
“Does it know whether that’s a.m. or p.m.?”
“It knows everything!”
And I must confess that was, for me, the big drawback. I knew that there were no people actually involved and that it was all done through algorithms, but the thought of something knowing my brain so intimately was a little scary.
“You’re so last century sometimes,” Peta told me.
“Not compared to some of the people I teach with,” I told her. “Mr Whitney still uses an electronic whiteboard and I suspect that his animations haven’t been updated since 2002 when he started teaching.”
“Did they have electronic whiteboards then?”
“Probably, I don’t know. That’s not the point I just that meant that old Whit’s stuck in the past and he refuses to embrace the new augmented reality lessons which give the student a full interactive experience.”
“I guess he’s scared that he won’t know what they’re doing if he doesn’t have them staring at the whiteboard.”
“No, it’s not that. We have monitor technology. We can always use our surveillance tools to check what they’re doing in their augmented reality sessions. He just doesn’t want to go there. As he put it, ‘I don’t want to find out what’s going on in their nasty little teenage brains. I’m happy just delivering the content and testing them!’ Apparently, according to the rumours, he had a bad experience early in his career where he caught some kids with virtual porn.”
“What’s the problem with that?”
I shrug. “He reacted pretty badly. He called the kids all sorts of names and from what I heard, he was lucky to keep his job.”
“I would have thought that the kids were the ones who’d get into trouble.”
“Of course they did. But he still had to apologise. He’s always been quite vitriolic. With everyone. Not just students. One of the parents threatened to sue and it was all very… Anyway, I’m sure he must be ready to retire. I’m actually surprised that he’s stayed in teaching this long given the way he feels about the whole thing.”
“Maybe he’ll get myBrain 2, and keep going forever” laughed Peta.
Over the years, I’d had a strange relationship with Whitney. When I first started teaching he was my “friend”. There was a protocol of matching new young teachers with older teachers in the expectation that there’d be a mutual benefit. The benefit of experience would be passed on to the young, while the older teacher would pick up the latest ideas. That was the theory. However, Whitney was positive that he didn’t need to change. “My students all perform well in tests and satisfaction surveys are as good as most people’s!” he told me, “Why should I change?”
He would, of course, have been considered a great teacher in earlier times. And I suspect that was why he was so popular with the parents. He was the sort of no-nonsense, “just do the work and call me sir” deliverers of content that people used to think was your ideal teacher. He may well have been using his teachers as role models. Even some of the students liked him because he was a novelty. Once the twenty-first century arrived and our role began to change, Whitney had trouble adjusting. Or rather, he saw no need to adjust. And as long as he continued to meet all the benchmarks, nobody was going to compel him to make any changes.
I’d always known that the day would come when he’d be shown to be the dinosaur that he was, but it was still a surprise when I found him in the staffroom, head in hands, looking distressed. At first I was inclined to do what he would have done in such a situation: pretend not to notice and quietly leave the room. However, I felt that this was so out of character for the man that I needed to check that he was all right.
“Not really,” he replied. “I think it’s over.”
I nodded. “What is?” I asked.
“My career, you idiot!” he snapped. I was relieved. It was good to see that he was still his old, irascible self even when one was showing him sympathy.
“Oh… Well, nothing lasts forever.”
He gave me a look.
I continued. “So why do you think your career is over?”
“It’s these bloody chips. Some of the kids are getting them, and…” He waved his hand.
“What’s so bad about that?”
“You really are very slow sometimes,” he told me. “With the chip, they can access anything. I mean, what do I have to teach them?”
“Teaching isn’t just about delivering content. It’s about helping them work out how to use what they know… And about showing them what they need to know. That’s even before we perform our role of turning them into well-rounded individuals capable of taking their place in the world.
He smiled wanly. “Like I said. My career is over. I’m no good at that sort of stuff.”
There was a silence.
“Retirement can’t be that bad,” I suggested.
“I’m too young to retire,” he insisted. “What would I do with myself?”
I almost laughed. Whitney had always struck me as old. To hear him suggesting that he thought of himself as too young for anything was ridiculous to me.
“You’ll be right!” I told him.
“I have my performance meeting with the head next week. I’m sure he’ll suggest that I…” Whitney’s voice trailed off. Even though I personally felt that he should have left teaching long ago, I couldn’t help feel sorry for the man.
And the next few days helped me to understand why he’d been so distressed. Some of my students were also getting the myBrain chip embedded. At first it had been the better, more conscientious students, but as the price of the procedure dropped, more and more students were arriving in class ready to demonstrate their new found abilities. When the first chips appeared on the market, nobody thought about the implications for education, but once they were becoming more ubiquitous, various schools had discussed banning them, believing that they gave more affluent students an unfair advantage in exams and tests. While there was a widespread consensus amongst teachers like Whitney that this was a good idea, it didn’t happen for two reasons: First, the whole system had been moving away from testing things that simply relied on memory for a number of years and, second, nobody had the first idea how to check whether the students had the chip or not. The latter reason was also what was stopping the push to have a two division system where students with the chip were treated differently from the others.
While personally I had no problem with anything which lead to a more relevant education system, the next few weeks changed my mind entirely. It wasn’t that the students were able to research by simply asking, for example, “Toso, give me all the relevant information on the American Civil War for the following questions!” No, my concern was the effect that it was having on their personalities. Students who were once diligent researchers were now sitting back and saying that there was no need for research, the chip could do it for them in a flash. Of course, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with that argument, but it somehow disturbed me, even though they were still completing work and still getting good marks.
And it wasn’t just the better students who were changing. Some of my more difficult students were now being utterly charming. Whereas once they would have told me that they didn’t see the point of what they doing and it was my job to coerce them into giving it their best shot, now they were handing their work in on time and saying please and thank you. They asked for feedback after completing a task. In short, both the best and worst students were just like everyone else.
When I next met Peta for lunch, I asked her point blank.
“The chip. Do you think it might have changed your personality?”
“Definitely,” she told me. “It’s the best thing that even happened. It’s helped me to be organised and I don’t know…”
“No,” I interrupted. “I don’t mean did it help you get your life in order. I mean, you don’t think that it could be making you into someone different?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Ok, think of it like this. Imagine you’re always worried about money and somebody gives you a billion dollars, well, of course that’s going to change your life. Change what’s possible. But it doesn’t necessarily change who you are. You just have more choices and you may or may not change. But, if someone puts a drug into your system, you might find that you start hallucinating and imagining things, or you might grow incredibly euphoric, but that’s not you changing. It’s just that your behaviour is being controlled by someone else.”
“You’re just being paranoid. No. Definitely not. The chip is just like being given a billion dollars. It just gives you more opportunity.”
“It’s just that some of my students seem really different.”
“Well, they are. Don’t underestimate what this is like for some people. This gives them the opportunity to be their best self.”
“I suppose so.” It was then that I noticed.
“Is that a new dress?” I asked.
“Yes, do you like it?”
“Mm, it’s… colourful.”
“Yes, I suddenly noticed how drab my wardrobe was. All browns and blacks with a couple of dark greens. I saw this and thought it was just what I needed.”
“Was this before or after the chip?”
Peta laughed. “It was…” She hesitated. “Yesterday.”
“You don’t think that…”
“No! I don’t think that it was mybrain controlling me. It doesn’t work like that. You give Toso the commands and it finds what you want. I just wanted some colour. I’m feeling happier in case you haven’t noticed.”
“I don’t see how you can rule out the idea…”
“It’s hard to explain. You don’t understand because you haven’t experienced it yet. There’s a slight period of adjustment, but after that it’s just like using a mobile phone or turning on the Virtual Reality set. The only difference is that so much of it happens without effort. Let’s just order.
We looked at the menu.
“I think I’ll have the hamburger,” Peta announced.
“I thought you were a vegetarian,” I told her.
“I’ve given up… And it’s nothing to do with myBrain. I was just missing meat, that’s all!”
I smiled and shut the menu. “I’ll have the vegan special.”
“But you’re not a vegan.”
“If you can change, why can’t I?”
She laughed. “There is no vegan special. I’m ordering now. Have what you like?”
I touched the hamburger button on my menu.
“I don’t even have to touch the menu any more to order,” Peta informed me, “I can get Toso to order for me.”
“Actually, I don’t find touching an item an a menu all that challenging. It’s hardly a reason to risk…”
“There’s no risk!” she insisted.
We left it at that and started talking about something else.
When Whitney was absent, I presumed that the meeting with the head hadn’t gone well. I wondered if he’d simply stay away for a few more days and then quit. So when he turned up the next day, it was a mild surprise. But the big surprise was when I saw him at lunchtime. He wandered into the lunchroom, whistling some tune, with a smile all over his face.
“Ah,” he said, “how are you?”
“How are you?” I replied.
“Excellent,” he told me. “Never better.”
“Good. I mean after the other day…”
He held his hand up. “An abberration. I was just having a bad day.”
Of course it should have been obvious to me there and then. It was only when one of my students asked me directly that the penny dropped.
“Um… you know Mr Whitney,” said Sam.
“Yes. What about him?” I asked.
“Do you think he’s had the chip inserted?”
“I wouldn’t know. Why are you asking?”
“Well, he’s just so… helpful. I don’t know, friendly. You know. Just not like himself.”
“Why would the chip make him…” I struggled for a word. “More agreeable.”
Sam shrugged. “I dunno. I mean he just might feel… you know… less pressured or something. Or maybe he’s been getting Toso to give him motivation strategies, or something.”
“Look, he hasn’t told me anything. And even if he did, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”
Yes, it made perfect sense. And it was further evidence for my belief that the chip didn’t just help one function; it was capable of radically changing one’s personality. I was right and Peta was wrong. And, if I needed any further proof, it was the fact the students who had been so lazy when they first got the chip had also undergone a transformation. They were now motivated, inquisitive learners who were not just keen to do well, but determined to understand what they were learning. They weren’t even motivated by the marks. “I just find it interesting,” one girl told me when I asked her why she was bothering to do extra reading on a topic which we weren’t even going to test. This wasn’t normal.
The next time I saw Whitney, he offered to make me a cup of coffee. In all the time I’d known him, this was a first. In fact, I couldn’t remember him ever doing anything for me. I said thanks and when he brought it back, I decided to bring up the elephant in the room.
“Thanks,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Can ask you something?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Have you had the myBrain chip inserted?”
He smiled. “No,” he replied.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve had myBrain2 inserted.”
“I feel like a new man,” he told me.
“You don’t think that it changes you, do you?” “Of course it does. What would be the point of getting it otherwise?”
“Yes, but doesn’t it worry you that you’re a different person?” “No, I’m not a different person, I’m just a changed person.”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t get what you’re driving at!”
And then I suddenly understood completely. I was uneasy because it was like joining a cult. When you’re a member, all its rules and rituals make perfect sense but, to the outsider, they’re just evidence of the cult’s control over you. And, just like with a cult, Peta and Whitney and the others were all in desperate need of rescuing, but the real battle was getting them to understand that.
I sipped my coffee. Yes, they all thought that they were controlling the chip, but it seemed to me that the chip was controlling them. Maybe Peta had changed her style of dressing on a whim, or maybe Toso was sending signals to her brain that she needed to buy a whole new image. Maybe she was getting subliminal ads. Maybe Whitney was just nicer because he felt under less pressure. But maybe he was now being controlled by some unseen force which was making him more like the twenty first century teacher. On the whole, I doubted that people could undergo changes like that.
As one person, there was nothing I could do. I’d just have to wait until more people started to realise the dangers. Surely, it’d only be a matter of time before someone else noticed what was happening.
Peta sits down. I hand her a menu.
“Don’t need it,” she tells me. “It’s all in here.” She taps her skull.
“Right,” I say.
“Would you like me to order for you? It’ll be quicker than asking the waiter.”
“I’m not in any hurry. I mean, I haven’t seen you since…”
“Since last October. The tenth. We had lunch.”
“Right. I was beginning to think…”
“Look, I’m sorry, but I find it so hard to organise things with people who don’t have the chip because it’s just so hard to coordinate.”
“It’s not that hard.”
She sighs. “You don’t understand. If you’re not connected then…” She lets her thought trail away, before quickly adding, “And you were getting so fanatical about how people with the chip undergo a personality change! God, you were sounding obsessed.”
“Anyway, here we are. It’s good to see you.”
“Yes,” she says, “Toso just sent my order to the kitchen. Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to…?”
“Ok, I’ll have a hamburger.”
“Right!” She pauses for just a second and it’s done.
“I still can’t get used to this. To someone from the twentieth century it’d seem like telepathy.”
“It’s a whole new world.’
We sit in silence for a moment.
“So how did that teacher get on?” she asks.
“He’s fine,” I reply. “He had myBrain 2 inserted and he’s teaching better than ever.” I pause. “It’s me who’s in trouble.”
“A few weeks after I last saw you, I was called in for my review. Normally we just check kids’ results and the satisfaction surveys then we identify an area for improvement. But, as the head says, every now and then, he has to put a teacher on probation.”
“Which means that they have to demonstrate improvement within a month or else they’ll be dismissed. Well, I wasn’t put on probation. He said that I’d been an excellent teacher over so many years that the latest results could just be a glitch and he’d wait until my next review.”
“So your kids weren’t performing?”
“No, they were doing fine. They’ve all had the chip inserted and they all do… brilliantly. No, it was the satisfaction surveys that were down. All the kids said that I lacked empathy.”
“Yeah, I didn’t understand them because I’m chip-less.”
“That makes sense.”
I looked at her a long time. “No,” I eventually said, “it doesn’t!”
She gave me a concerned look. “You can’t function in this world any more unless you have the insert. I understand where you’re coming from, I really do. But things have changed and you have to either change with them or accept that you’re not really one of us any more.”
“I don’t think that I want to be one of you. I think I want to still be free. I want to be able to think for myself. Even if I’m the last human left.”
“Last human left! No wonder your kids think you lack empathy. Do you really think that we’re all being controlled? That we have no free will? You’re just showing how limited you are now!”
“But how do you know that you’ve still got free will?”
“How does anybody know that? Look, life would be easier if you just get the chip. myBrain 3’s coming out next month and you can get a great deal on…”
“That’s just it. I don’t have a choice. I’ve been told unless I do something, then I’ll be on probation. And by ‘do something’ it’s clear that they mean get a chip inserted. They’re not allowed say that, of course, but it’s pretty clear.”
“So you’re going to do it?”
“I can’t see any other choice.”
Peta smiles. “That’s great. Then you’ll be just like everyone else.”
I smile back. “That,” I tell her, “is exactly what worries me.”
My hamburger arrives.