Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Networking in Big Sur

Editor's note: This segment, detailing Harry's encounter with a Silicon Valley billionaire, is missing entries both earlier and later, so that we don't know what "passionless passion" Harry fled the night before, or how it left him sleeping on Moonstone Beach in Cambria, or where Harry told the Uber driver (paid by the billionaire to take Harry anywhere) took him, nor do we know if he took the pink pill in the millionaire's gift box, or, if he did, what happened.  Possibly the Time Lords, or lords of a more secular origin, judged the redacted passages a bit too real?  D.L.

I was not very presentable after trudging up from Moonstone Beach after my night of passionless passion.  I spotted the Cambria Coffee Roasting Co. on Main Street and headed in, spent some time in the restroom then ordered coffee and a roll.  I looked at the news on my cell phone for a while, but it seemed repetitious: Person kills another person; famous person dies of old age/drug overdose; person who wants to be a famous politician attacks another such person; military of one country bombs another country.  I was staring dumbly at the newsfeed when I heard the jingle of the front door and a large man walked in.  He looked in his forties, tall, maybe 6'1", disheveled graying hair, something of a potbelly, wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. You would not have known he was one of the richest men on earth.  He sat at the counter near my table and that might have been the end of it, except that he turned around and looked me in the eyes.

"Harry the Human?" he asked.

Under some circumstances I would have felt pleased and reassured at the recognition, but this morning I was pretty numb, and for a second I wasn't sure I was Harry the Human.

Nevertheless I said "Yes" with a faint smile.

He beamed and stuck out his hand, leaning forward so I could shake it.

"A pleasure!  I heard you in Frisco back in the day; I was about 10, and you made a big impression.  Name's Tom Kettleman."

Yes, it was the Tom Kettleman, founder and CEO of JerkMonkey, the crazy successful dating app (used often by bisexuals who have never experienced half their nature) that was just bought by Google for $11 billion.

Kettleman, used to throwing his "weight" around, lurched over and sat across from me.

"So what have you been up to, Harry the Human?"

"Harry is fine."

"Ok, Harry.  What brings you to Cambria?"

"I'm on my way to Big Sur.  Just a meditative trip, to unwind myself."

"Sure, I get it.  I'm going to Big Sur too. You look like you're hitching.  Why don't you join me?"

I accepted and spent the next twenty minutes watching Kettleman eat his eggs. Mercifully he took care of the conversation.

"So I'm going to the WTF at the Ventana Inn.  Heard of it?" Kettleman asked as he crunched his toast.

"I don't think so."

"Counterintuitively it stands for 'The Weekend to be named.'  Clever huh?  Started about ten years ago as a forum to commune about the Valley's latest thoughts and inclinations. The main event is in December; this is just an excuse to sojourn in Big Sur."

"Sounds interesting."

Kettleman gave me a searching look, his fork poised in the air.

"Can you still read minds?" he asked.

"Yeah, I can."

Kettleman put down his fork and stared into my eyes.

"Read my mind now, would you please."

"Right now?"

"Yes, please."

I read his mind and gave a report.

"Ok, Tom, you are very excited about some new ideas."

"What ideas?"

"Well, you are tired of hawking the Internet for what you've come to see as 'superficialities' aimed to make civilized life more efficient, like helping people book rooms or find taxis and dates.  You want the internet to be civilization, to lie at its heart, and at the heart of humanity."

"Damn, you are good, Harry!  That is exactly what I'm thinking about!  Anything else?"

There was something else: Kettleman was on a drug that I could not identify.  It wasn't pot or a prescription drug.

Before I could answer, Kettleman threw some money on the table and stood up. I followed him out to his car, a red Tesla Model X.  I plopped my grungy self down on the white leather passenger seat, feeling that, after my night with nature, I was defiling this car, which looked and smelled like it was two days old.  I picked up a stray thought from Tom about the car.  He had been struck by and memorized a promotional line about the Model X: "It is ludicrously fast, accelerating from zero to 60 miles per hour in as quick as 3.2 seconds."  Kettleman, like most of the Valley's young billionaires, was not born into money and he liked the idea of acceleration.

We tore out on Highway 1, and, yes, achieved 60 miles an hour in about 3.2 seconds, ludicrously.

"So how about it, did you pick up anything else besides my new idea?"

"Yes,  I sense that you're on a drug, but I can't identify it."

He chuckled.  "Uh-huh.  What do you sense about this drug?"

I watched the meadows north of Cambria speed by as we approached 100 mph on the straightaways.

"It seems to produce ideas...that you wouldn't have had otherwise."

"Yes, but what's unique about it?"

"A drug that produces ideas is not unique.  But this one produces...I'm not sure, there's something different about the ideas."

He smiled broadly.  "You're on the right track.  After my first billion I started meeting all kinds of people.  Now I'm connected to the world of future drugs and to scientists who are not ready to roll these suckers out yet- they're too powerful, too much potential to change society.  I let them use me to test their latest."

There was a silence while he remembered that a stranger was in his car listening to him.

He glanced at me.  "This drug is the most potent one yet."

We passed Hearst Castle, built by another wealthy man.  Someone should author a study showing whether the contributions of the wealthy outweighed the unfairness of their wealth.  Personally I would conclude that it depends on the contribution.  I searched Kettleman's mind again, trying to get a fix on the drug.

"They call it Test 1124," he said, "and it's a doozy.  Under its influence, I'm visualizing how the Internet can be an organic part of us.  The drug is actually stimulating technical ideas that I don't think I would have had without it.  My mind is bionic, dude!"

We sped on in silence for a while until we started to hit the tight curves that follow the steep mountain walls to Big Sur.  It seemed that Kettleman calculated the Tesla's speed to be the maximum possible short of fiery death. I'm not a fan of speed and my heart sank at the thought of seventy miles of hairpin curves ahead.  To distract myself from the peril, I concentrated on my new friend's idea-producing drug.

He seemed to sense my focus and said, "Whatever you already know about, Test 1124 magnifies your knowledge.  It's almost like an auxiliary brain that you can attach to your own brain.  I'm going to pop one tonight when I present to the group.  Fucking shit!"

We were stuck behind an ancient camper driven by a well meaning but cautiously slow elderly couple.  Slowness is the quality most hated in old people.  

"Damn, fucking shit!" Kettleman howled as he was continually unable to pass the slow camper on the blind curves.

"Hey Harry, can you use your telepathy to gauge whether a car is coming the other way?"

It was the drug talking, giving him ideas. I saw that part of him was testing the drug's efficacy: If there was no oncoming car and we survived then the drug worked.  If there was a car and we and the other car's occupants died, then Test 1124 needed further testing, but not by us.

I was horrified at the idea, but I sent out my mind and was surprised to find that, indeed, if a car was approaching I could sense its passengers, and when I sensed no one, no car came.  I was reluctant to try it out, but it seemed the price of freeloading off this billionaire.

"Ok, I can do it," I said with fake assurance.

"Fan-fucking tastic!  Give me the word."

We tested out my abilities a few times, until it seemed a safe bet that my predictions were reliable. And then I called, "Ok, go!"

He burned rubber and passed the van on a completely blind curve, to the horror of the old couple.  I went into a state of suppressed terror that was not relieved until we swung back into our lane in front of the fast receding van.

"Harry, you the man!"

I confess a certain pleasure at having been useful to such a mover and shaker after my degrading night of libidinal angst [refers to missing document, D.L.].  Kettleman needed my assistance one more time on the drive, behind a green 2001 Ford pick-up that had seen better days, and then, presto, we were in Big Sur in an obscenely short time.

Kettleman pulled into the Ventana Inn's lot, and I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do.  I made a few tentative steps toward the highway, but Kettleman stopped me.

"Where are you going?"

"I don't have a reservation."  The cheapest rooms at the Ventana go for $300 a night.

Kettleman laughed.  "Nonsense, you're my guest.  You'll be a hit tonight. Come on."

The lobby was dark and lush, with bowls of mixed nuts on coffee tables, and recent issues of trendy magazines piled nearby (there was a preponderance of tech and science mags, suggesting anticipation of the WTF conference).  A wood fire burned in a huge stone fireplace.  I could have lived in that lobby for months.

Kettlman's room featured two bedrooms (at considerably more than $300) and he showed me my room.  Its open window looked out on an ancient redwood forest whose aroma drifted in.  It was disturbingly wonderful and self-indulgent.  I really must learn to enjoy myself.

I lay down on the bed and slept.  A few hours later I was awakened by Tom, who was sitting by the side of my bed.

"Harry, sorry, it's almost time to get ready." He paused and looked out the window at the tenebrous forest.  "You know, Harry, there must be a reason that everyone isn't telepathic."

"I've thought about that," I replied.  "If everyone were telepathic we wouldn't be able to lie, and society probably could not function."

"Or society would have to change so it could function.  I want to talk about this now while I'm feeling the Test 1124 I just took.  I'm having an idea about telepathy now."

"What's the idea?"

"We need to quantify it, to see what biological features are in your brain that enable your telepathy, then make it transferable.  FYI, I'd like to be telepathic."

"Wouldn't that be tough for you in business?  You'd have a huge advantage over all your rivals, and they might not forgive you later, when everybody becomes telepathic."

"You have a point, but making everyone telepathic has its own problems.  Have you seen the fifties classic, Forbidden Planet, with Leslie Nielsen before he was funny and Walter Pidgeon?  It's based loosely on Shakespeare's Tempest."

"Yes, I love that movie!"

"Right, huh?  You'll recall that the planet where Walter Pidgeon has been stranded with his foxy daughter for twenty years is full of amazing advanced technology, like giant power plants that have been functioning and maintaining themselves for thousands of years.  They were built by a vanished race called the Krell who learned how to be telepathic.  The problem was that they harnessed their minds to machines that empowered their thoughts and turned them into actions.  The Krell expected telepathy to be a boon and make them a great force in the universe, but they forgot how much even the closest allies secretly worked against and often hated each other.  In the night, while they slept, they wiped each other out."

"Yes," I said, "Walter Pidgeon cries, 'My poor Krell!'  That's something to ponder."

"It sure is.  Ok, I'm going to shower and get ready.  The conference starts in an hour.  You might want to do the same."

"Yes, thank you."  I did indeed want a hot bath, a shave and a change of clothes.  Tom left and I performed my ablutions, wondering if Tom's point about the Krell was that, for everyone's safety, only one person should be telepathic, and that person should be Tom.  That couldn't be right though, because I'm already that person.

An hour later, as Tom and I walked towards the banquet room, he pulled me aside and pressed a chew-tab into my hand.

"Test 1124, my man.  I want to see what it does to you."  Like the dope I am, I ate it.

We entered the banquet room and there were the big names from Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Airbnb, Uber, Facebook and a lot more I hadn't heard of.  As I adjusted to being among such men, I noticed that they were men.  Then I noticed that they were white men.  And then I noticed that I am a white man.

Tom did a lot of backslapping and kibitzing as he introduced me to people with enough money to buy the world.  He was a big force in the room, it turned out.  He approached the podium and started things off."  

"Gentlemen, welcome to the tenth WTF," (applause)  "I'd like to start by introducing my guest, whom many of you will have heard of, Harry the Human!" [scattered applause and a few calls of recognition]  "As those of you who've lived in the Bay Area for a while will know, Harry was a popular coffee-shop presenter in the Haight back in the '60's, where he was known as a telepath with far-out ideas.  I can vouch for his telepathic abilities, so watch your thoughts!" [some slightly nervous laughter]  "Please welcome Harry the Human!"

Tom waited for the applause to stop, then continued.  

"We are here to discuss what the Internet can be, not what it is.  What it is, is a facilitator of the quotidian, the mundane, our everyday chores and challenges.  What it can be is a new template for civilization itself, a new template for our species."

At least he didn't say "...for mankind."  I settled in my seat.  Tom's vacant seat was to my right.  To my left was the head of a big tech firm whose name I hesitate to mention. I scanned his mind and found that he was overcome with anxiety that I would scan his mind.  I gave up trying and nibbled on the salad.  

While Tom talked about the evolution of the Internet, I started to feel a strange sensation, as if my brain had spread out around the room like a cosmic octopus whose tentacles were snaking into all the moguls' heads.  Suddenly data started streaming into me from all those heads: secrets, plans, attitudes, lies, truths, ambitions, delusions, discoveries.  It was too much; my brain felt in danger of buckling.  Then what seemed like a complete schematic appeared to float in the air.  It was a diagram of a system with which I could process the thoughts of everyone in the room, sorting and prioritizing them and not being overwhelmed.  It was the Test 1124 at work, I realized.  I checked out the schematic and it looked workable.  The weird thing was that it didn't feel like I had thought of it.  That's not the kind of thing I think about anyway.  The drug did indeed seem to be an auxiliary brain.

Then the experience took a disturbing turn.  I started to feel emotions generated by my brain-sucking octopus, arrogant and dominating emotions that I'm not accustomed to having.  The chemical activities this drug induced in my brain appeared to have a consciousness, and a desire to control.  I found my new brain calculating how I could dominate everyone in the room, their thoughts and actions.  It was a megalomaniacal state, which, to put it mildly, I was not comfortable with.  The power hungry entity within me began to grow stronger, and I felt I was being taken over by something possibly evil, as well as highly impractical, but I could not fight it.  Panic rose in me as I felt my personality overwhelmed. I started sweating and shaking.  Soon my heart was pounding and I had to do something.  For want of a better plan I ran from the banquet room, out the double doors to a patio at the far end of which I found a winding trail lit by subtle ground lights, through the steep dark forest past the restaurant and finally to a circle of redwoods, the mystical and expensive venue of many weddings.  I charged into the circle and collapsed in its center, rolling onto my back and staring up into the dazzling starry sky looking down through the redwood canopy.  I basked in the absence of other minds tempting me to control them, but soon I started to think about controlling the redwoods by finding their secret psyches.

I remember shouting, "No!" before Tom and a party of moguls arrived to tend to me. That is my last memory before waking up in the hotel bed the next morning.  On the nightstand next to the bed was a note from Tom: "Rough night, Harry?  Sorry about that- I blame myself for pressuring you to take the pill.  Hey, it was great talking to you and you really helped me get my thoughts together.  Let's meet up sometime soon and start the conversation where we left off- no unwise diversions this time!  Check at the desk for your ride.  Cheers, T.K."  Under the note was a small gift-wrapped box, which I put in my pocket. 

When I got to the front desk a crisp young woman pointed out a man sitting on a couch who had been waiting for me.  He was an Uber driver who had been secured and paid for by Tom, with instructions to drive me anywhere in the U.S. that I wanted to go.  Soon we were headed for San Francisco.

Some adventure I'm having, huh?  I guess I can't complain, but, you know, I probably will. 

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