Article

The Synthetic Life Experience Project

Wishes You Good Luck!

Welcome to this happy farewell gathering. Tomorrow a bus will bring you to the airport down in the valley. Before your departure, take your time in saying goodbye to these buildings and gardens. Take a good look around you on that early morning ride through the woods, as you catch your last glimpse of the clear, harsh light shining down from the plateau onto the fields. Make a firm mental note of it all. You may never see this building, the project's staff or me again. Therefore, you must convert your departure into a vivid memory that will forever mark the radical change in your lives that has taken place here.

It's been six weeks since all of you first arrived here. Tomorrow, you will depart as the first specimens of a new human form. I see before me a group of pioneers who have voluntarily applied for the first integral synthetic neural transformation, which has not been designed, financed or carried out by any specific economic power. We all know that there have been other individuals who came before you who underwent similar neural transformations, but they are easily recognized as specializations and simplifications of human potential. They are all registered trademarks, designed to serve a function of immediate commercial gain. I do not believe that these can be viewed as new human forms, however, but rather as mutants, the intensification of an already cruel kind of exploitation.

Your new lives are a result of the cooperation between several artistic networks, activist groups and an educational institute. They have gathered the funds and technological know-how to make your neural transformation possible. For better or worse, your future lives are the result of a selfless, unwavering choice to further a civilized ideal, in which there is no room for neurally molding people into more productive drudges or mindless minions.

Dirk

A representative of SLEP

The Synthetic Life Experience Project's main objective is to contribute to the perpetuation of human life on earth. This option is only feasible if we manage to accelerate the means of tapping our own unique human potential. But if we look at all the human organism's capabilities, questions inevitably arise concerning the hierarchy of values. A synthetic neural transformation requires a choice of which sectors to aim our technological interventions at. And these choices reveal a philosophically and politically tainted view of man.

We of the Synthetic Life Experience Project have taken this as our starting point: the basis of all conscious life forms is their complex, but nonetheless integrated sensitivity. They are susceptible to all sorts of impressions. What makes humans so special is that not only can they handle immense and complex patterns of impressions, but they can also adapt them, that is, they can link them to their own cognitive powers. Compared to other animals, human infancy is much longer, because so little of our vast brain capacity has been preprogrammed to follow instinctive routines. Instead it is our experiences, our educations, the attention of our parents that create order and functionality in our human brains. Scientific research has revealed that the same applies to the animal kingdom, but only on a much more modest scale. We are talking about a phenomenon that can significantly alter the individual, even given our short human life span - life experience, in other words. In defining our project, this classic term, which is often considered synonymous with the more archaic 'wisdom', is explained as streamlining the coordination of perception, memory, cognitive powers, and emotional susceptibility.

What is the most valuable thing about the human organism? That it is equipped with the fastest and largest data processing unit on earth? No, for automated systems have competed with the human brain in this field for years now. The decisive fact is that humans can learn, not just cognitively, but culturally, socially. That is what sets us so spectacularly apart from the rest of nature.

Learning may extend from locomotive abilities and arithmetic to the power to recognize and create trust and friendship. All educational processes are based on two fundamental experiences: imitation and pain. And as we all know, both of these can only have an effect if they occur repeatedly over an extended period. Imitation and pain; repetition and time.

What we call life experience is mostly a product of our reaction to pain, more precisely: to deprivation, loss, shame, fear, isolation, and so forth. Scientists describe the acquisition of life experience as a neural subroutine that adds quality to the way we function. This increased quality is possible due to our rapid recognition and anticipatory activation of a richer context, enabling a swifter, less frictional adjustment when we are faced with new and challenging situations. It usually appears as an increased simplicity in behavior and expression, and consequently, in greater control and efficiency. In terms of information technology, it is a form of rapid, intelligent compression, which takes place on a preconscious, emotional level, somewhere between sensory perception and conscious reaction.

If there is one thing to be gleaned from the study of human history, it is this: even though there are people who find the acquisition of life experience worthwhile and indispensable and, as a result, are able to make a greater contribution to their societies, they are the exception. From the time of antiquity, the acquisition of life experience and wisdom has mostly been seen as disillusioning, or even more extremely, in Montaigne's words, philosophy is learning how to die.

The repetition of painful experiences is the main source of life experience. But in the vast majority of cases, these traumas destroy a person's resilience before there can be any question of improvements in the quality of life. And even if one profits from the increased sensitivity, the increased speed of pattern recognition, and the richer context which form the basis of life experience, it is not experienced as an intrinsic quality. It is not an objective value, but an instrument, a weapon even, used to pursue values that are quite contrary to the civilized ideal we seek: power, wealth, fame, vendetta.


But is it really so predetermined that people should be so ill-equipped for the process of acquiring life experience? Does it have something to do with the very nature of life experience itself, or is it a disruptive side effect of the biological aging process of the human organism? During an average human lifetime, the detrimental effects of the traumas that are necessary to gain life experience have far too much time to do their pernicious work, often before the desired compression and the more rapid versatility of responsiveness have occurred. The necessary repetition and required period of time render natural life experience an inefficient, costly commodity.

Our project is based on the premise that the marvelous and multifaceted human ability to learn can be separated from the damage caused by extended periods of trauma. It's all a matter of speed and timing. Now that we are able to recognize the biochemical effects of traumas and the chemical scar tissue in memory circuits, we can create structures in the neural areas in question that will approach the workings of a far more experienced, more traumatized brain.

When we acquired this technology, we realized that it would be a mistake to think that our goal would be achieved once we had successfully introduced these life experience-like neural structures in our first set of volunteers. Not every driver knows how to take advantage of all the options available in a Formula One car on their first ride. Indeed, accidents are likely to occur. Synthetic neural transformation is nothing more than an extreme disposition. A piece of uninstalled software. Everything still needs to be properly placed and carefully articulated in terms of the host apparatus.

During your post-medical phase, when you first began your training in immersive telepresence, I had trouble relaxing; especially in the beginning when I was so worried that I could hardly sleep. I realized, like you, that your neural transformation of the preceding weeks was irreversible. The main difference was that for you, this change held some kind of promise. Meanwhile, the project's staff and I were responsible for the choices that would lead us closer to that promise's fulfillment, together. We had to design educational moments whereby your enormous dormant capacities could be stimulated, interpreted and ultimately rendered useful and manageable. You will by now have noticed that our model was based on the assumption that all sensory perceptions (including touch and smell) must be linked to the emotive and cognitive content offered to you through visual and audio stimuli. It's been an exciting experience, and I have been with you every step of the way, and will remain so. I consider my fate and that of the other project manager's to be forever linked to the fate of each one of you pioneers.

You will now enter a holiday recovery period, after which you will accept the functions and positions in society we together have chosen for you. You can count on resistance, distrust and criticism. One of the main forms of criticism you will encounter is the following: To most people, life experience is essentially a moral entity. Life experience is considered good, because we associate it with honesty, wisdom, restraint, empathy, kindness, tolerance, humour, a sense of injustice, etc. This moral value placed on life experience cannot exist without the very word 'experience'. Fear, pleasure, and pain, but also the dissemination of the shifting significance of these sensations within the context of an entire life, must be experienced in person if anything of value is to be created. So if you claim to be able to synthetically manufacture life experience, you will only be able to create something like it, but lacking the essential ingredient: the moral dimension. This is because the sensation of life experience is engrained in an imageless memory that never refers to personal physical experiences, and that cannot derive its significance and depth from the roster of disseminated and mutually corrective meanings and associations acquired during a human lifetime. The true moral meaning of human experience is that experience is gained through a social relationship — by someone who is part of a family, class, religious community, or ethnic group. It is exactly because the ethical dimension is not an abstraction but a historical and social fact that the ethical component is absent in synthetic life experience. What it lacks is the memory of exchanges, conflicts, etc. with others.

To summarize in extremis, these critics claim that synthetic life experience may resemble slow, real time experience, but that it is of a fundamentally different nature and will therefore act in different ways; or even that it simply cannot act as a morally meaningful personal characteristic. At best, it is a peculiarity that is incapable of adding quality.

In response to this criticism, let us begin by noting that no one can guarantee or prove that traditional, real time life experience enhances life's moral quality. Neither can we, as members of the Synthetic Life Experience Project, make this claim regarding what we have done to your brains. Even funnier is the fact that there is no one who can confidently point to anything that definitely fails to enhance a person's moral awareness. Each moment or object, each shade of color, each word or sound may act as a proof or a symptom of a profound insight with far-reaching moral implications.


Part two of our response is to note that those who are commonly thought to live a virtuous life do not have the exclusive right to life experience. To become a tyrant, gangster or unspeakable fiend also requires life experience. Even to become an average dull grandfather who likes to take his grandson out fishing requires an attitude which is itself the product of life experience.

Is it not true, moreover, that many traits which we consider to be exceedingly virtuous, honest, empathetic, courageous, etc., etc., are rare in people with ample life experience, and are more often found in youngsters brimming with unbridled vigor, idealism, moral concern, tolerance, susceptibility, empathy and so forth, precisely because they have had so few painful and disturbing experiences? Life experience of the natural, slow variety can have devastating effects on all that is kind, humane, loving and sensitive about people.

The fact that life experience is not identical with what we call goodness is an argument in favor of synthetic life experience. The experience that emerges in our lives is not necessarily what we intended, desired or appreciate. Furthermore, in their formative years, people are instructed by more than just personal contacts alone. Schooling, but also leisure, entertainment, culture, and even most personal communications occur as mediated experiences. This leads to a process of crystallization in youthful minds, which, in turn, gives rise to the concepts, positions, and conventions that will help guide them in their daily confrontations with the usual chaos of everyday life. But this takes place in such a haphazard fashion, within such a broad structure and at such a slow pace, that it is hard to adjust or take adequate measures. Here our synthetic life experience, arising out of the neurological introduction of an extreme susceptibility and the shaping and feeding of this potential by means of immersive media sessions, is undeniably at an advantage. Its intensity and swiftness allowed us greater profits from its positive and negative feedback.

Those who argue that this is an appeal for brainwashing should ask themselves whose integrity they prefer: ours as members of the Synthetic Life Experience Project, or that of those who, out of sheer commercial considerations or political opportunism, provide the bulk of the media message. Brainwashing, with all of its suggestions of aggression and coercion, is an inescapable part of our media culture. The question is not whether we want a life with or without brainwashing, but rather, what style, what sort of brainwashing we want. Who would dare to claim that our program is inferior to what average citizens are bombarded with on a daily basis?

Finally, the best and I expect most promising reply to any criticism that the Synthetic Life Experience Project purportedly ignores the interhuman aspect and is based on a technological delusion is to remind this critic that there are 99 more people just like yourself. And that you all need each other and support and keep in touch with one another in order to maximize our program's results. A second group of another 100 volunteers is already on its way here and is expected tomorrow. Remind your critics of this, and of the fact that your experiences and exchanges and all that is being discussed among the growing ranks of this Project contribute to the permanent adjustment, and hopefully the improvement and refinement, of our approach. If that is not interhuman, I don't know what is.

The Synthetic Life Experience Project has two goals:

1) The maximum relief/elimination of the agony of trauma, by means of the early administration of 'antidotes' to avert the pain caused by future traumas.

2) The establishment of life experience as a civilized ideal, as a choice to which time, money, and effort have been devoted; as a method of one's own choice and design. Remember, the program you have followed is but one of many possible programs.

Experience is based on imitation and pain. In both cases this entails repetition, and hence, an extended time span, as the vehicle. The aim of our combination of biochemical intervention and intensive training is to severely limit such repetition, and therefore the required period. Think of the energy, power, and endurance of youth, combined with the wealth, swiftness, and experience of a 70-year old. It is not advisable to compare synthetic life experience too closely with its traditional counterpart. It may well take ten to twenty years before the differences between you and your contemporaries reach spectacular proportions. On the other hand, it may be just a matter of a few years before you become global celebrities, media icons, immensely rich and influential, because of the sensational capacities that set you apart from other mortals. No one knows for sure.

I admit that this talk of incomparability, of indeterminateness and freshness, makes you all seem rather hollow. One soon finds oneself speaking of yet unnoticed or incomprehensible characteristics, qualities and values that may or must eventually come to light. Yet I mention this to emphasize what is at stake: a way of thinking and feeling that is detached from the metaphysics of suffering — which is based exclusively on a logic of deprivation, loss, and death.

No one can deny that as a warning sign, pain serves a crucial role in our bodies. Likewise, of course, our experience of grief, disappointment, and melancholy are an essential part of what we call our humanity. But those who object to synthetic life experience by pointing to the irreplaceable profundity of experienced suffering are guilty of claiming that pain and suffering are the sole source of wisdom and insight. Even if up until now, the link between conscious, real time suffering and the passing of time has been a prerequisite for life experience, our recent understanding of the biochemical encoding of trauma and repetition is a breakthrough that may at the very least yield similar results, even if they are never going to be identical to the kind of life experience that is acquired over time. To casually rule this out is to proclaim oneself a victim of the simplistic, mechanistic bodily analogy and of the metaphysical models that attach transcendental meaning to human suffering. Pain is a part of every body, a sort of operative sensory function; but experiences that are acquired painlessly are just as profound, adaptive, valuable, and useful as the lessons taught us by pain, suffering and sorrow.

The metaphysicians of pain will complain bitterly that you are the exponents of a new culture that strives for the ultimate banalization of all that renders life mysterious and beautiful, for the technologicalization of the functions of the soul, so to speak. But what do the stories, religions, or arts of all these whiners really amount to, other than compensating for the deathly banality of life, suffering and decay, and attempting to transcend it by employing a metaphor? And that is exactly what they blame you for, not metaphorically, but quite literally. Mind you, it is not just our transformation procedures of implanting and developing the synthetic life experience, but also everything you produce and do that challenges the mysteries and profundities and beauty they hold so dear. In short, the mystery will shift somewhat, providing new depth, lustre and beauty. For what would all our troubles be worth if synthetic life experience did not enhance the miracle and possibilities of each and every day, each second, each breeze, each glance into someone else's eyes, each tree along the road? The main difference between us and traditional, natural life experience is our awareness that it is not too late to act, ''our awareness of several decades of 'time gained.'''

I think it is quite possible that you will amaze the world with actions and insights that will emerge from your ability to combine youthful exuberance and the enthusiasm to learn with the insight and lucidity of the elderly. I even have some idea in what fields this will first become most apparent. I believe one of the most important results of the Synthetic Life Experience Project may well be your newfound ability to analyze the emotional, cognitive, and cultural sides of a given problem so efficiently and to formulate a clear and simple answer, that the synthetic life experience will turn out to be the perfect remedy for the complaint that the young are so agitated, confused and stressed-out by the rapid pace of their professional and personal lives. It is all a matter of an experienced mind in a youthful body, which, by its sheer efficiency and its capacity to see the general picture and to keep things in perspective, will eliminate the sensation of hectic agitation. Technologically assisted evolution one might say. Goodbye to nervous breakdowns and burnouts. A true case of national destressing if ever I saw one. All thanks to a drastic increase of the internal clock and the power of the human soul. It doesn't take much imagination to envision this sort of thing having an enormous impact on the arts, the media, even on politics. Or at least, these are the lofty thoughts I play with whenever I manage to keep my anxieties at bay.

For the time being, everything depends on what happens to you. On the way you develop, and the extent to which you manage to actually use the extraordinary powers that have been bestowed on you. It is essential that you don't regard yourselves merely as passive guinea pigs, but as pioneers; you have been endowed with a wealth of resources and are about to venture into an unknown realm. It is up to you to make the most of the possibilities thus created, according to your own best judgments. Remember that your setbacks and achievements, especially the extraordinary ones, are not just yours alone; no, you will share them with 99 others, and us as well. So stay in touch with one another and with us, so that we and those who undergo similar transformations in the future may benefit from your insights. This is not merely a matter of complaisance, it is the very essence of the ''Synthetic Life Experience Project:

that life experience and whatever it holds in terms of potential, power, expertise, and knowledge, must no longer be a gift or punishment that is passively acquired in unknown ways, but an attribute of people of all ages that is designed with style, integrity, sensitivity and sensibility.''

It is impossible to say what this new addition to the array of human attributes will lead to, nor how important or marginal this will be. What is certain, however, is that the stakes involved in the Synthetic Life Experience Project are undeniably heroic, and even if it should meet with failure or disappointing results, it will still produce significant and challenging themes for debate and further research.

Finally, let me congratulate you on the time you have gained. I deeply admire your courage to undergo this irreversible transformation, and to put your lives in the service of the development of synthetic life experience. We at the Synthetic Life Experience Project stand behind you 100 percent, and we count on your support to take this adventure even further into unknown territories. To boldly induce and study ways in which no man has been wise before.

Bon voyage.

translation Pieter Bijker

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