Frankenfodder (or, Coming to Terms with My Crystal Ball)

I have to say I love modern technology – that is, when it works like it should.  It just amazes me how much things have changed since I was young.  I still remember telephone party lines, and phone numbers that were less than seven digits.  In our town, you still had to call the operator to make a long distance call in 1966.  And I remember slide rules, that I used for math, physics, and chemistry classes.  And old fashioned typewriters, correction fluid, carbon paper and mimeographed copies.  And 45 RPM records and 8 track tapes.  Well, I’ve certainly dated myself.

Once when I was young and was in love with movies, including watching old movies from the 1930s and 1940s when they were shown on TV, I used to fantasize about being rich and successful enough to have a large grand house with a separate room big enough to have theater seats and a projection room, so I could show movies in my home — when movies were on those big metal film reels. I would be able to invite friends over if I wanted, or watch a movie over and over any time I wished.  This was over 50 years ago, long before the concept of the modern home theater.  And now it is not even a real luxury.  It seems a lot of “just regular folks” can easily afford to have a home theater in a large common room, or a den, playroom or basement.  At least if Best Buy or HGTV is any indication — I see such rooms being designed or remodeled for that purpose often on various design shows.  Models of home theater set-ups are in design centers and big box stores in most malls.

And Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio, and Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone — we’re way past that now.  I remember when my mother was still alive in the early 1990s and she asked me what a FAX machine was.  And as I explained that it enabled a person to send copies of documents across a telephone line in just a few minutes, she looked at me with wondrous astonishment, like I had just told her that time travel had been perfected, or that trains were now going to the moon.  And now faxing is almost old technology.  You’ve probably heard that old story about the US Patent Office.  In 1899, so a certain legend goes, the head of the U.S. Patent Office sent his resignation to President McKinley urging the closing of the office because “everything that could be invented has been invented.”  Well it may be just a legend, not truth, but that was the thinking of the time by many back in those days.

I don’t believe for one minute that everything has been invented or discovered.  I think outer space and interplanetary exploration is just one example of a frontier that has huge possibilities, along with oceanic research and medical discoveries and treatment of disease.  Just recently I went to a special Halloween showing, in a big-screen multiplex theater, of the original Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein, together as a double feature.  I had never seen either in its entirety, though I’d seen many brief clips of the walking, lurching Boris Karloff/monster with the screws in his neck, lurching across the laboratory floor shortly after being brought to life by his “mad” God-playing creator.  And now we have stem cells being grown into nerve cells and various other types of cells, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and organ transplantation.  We’re able to create monsters out of whole cloth every day, in a manner of speaking.  More is on the horizon soon.  If folks in 1931 thought Dr. Frankenstein was playing God, then would they be horrified about today’s advances?  My mother used to say that every good has the potential for abuse.  And so I say, on the flip side, let’s keep exploring, experimenting and see what great things we can discover, keeping in mind the responsibility we have to take on in order to use the discoveries wisely.  Like that other double edged sword, nuclear energy. 

I can’t wait to see what technology will turn up for my delight and amazement in the next ten years.  Some have said that if you can imagine it, you can create it.  So I’m going to let my imagination have some wide berth, and see what if anything I could envision, and then in ten years I’ll check back, re-read this essay, and maybe have a good laugh. 

It seems to me that the human brain has a huge amount of potential.  You read in articles, and hear on documentaries, that we don’t use anywhere near the full capacity of our brains. So what about the possibility of somehow infusing or instilling knowledge by some process similar to a biological VCR or computer hard drive, but your brain matter would be the hard drive.  You would be hooked up at night, perhaps via some new type of cable or port, to a knowledge data base, a computer with all sorts of information, like Encarta software, or encyclopedia type software, or the Merriam Webster dictionary, or the Oxford English dictionary.  And then, you’d wake up in the morning knowing great amounts of detail about everything, like overnight education with degrees in five specialty areas.  You’d know about opera, and science, and biology.  You could learn several new languages in a matter of days.  In a matter of a few nights, or a few months, we’d all have the potential to be Renaissance men or Renaissance women.  It would level the playing field.  So many more folks would be able to be so much more interesting, chatting at cocktail parties, and playing Scrabble and going on Jeopardy!  It would then be up to how you chose to use your knowledge, for what purpose.  And you’d be able to understand your doctor when he told you about your medical issues.  Or understand braniacs and Nobel prize nominees.  It would change the field of education — instead of teachers doing so much mundane recitation of facts, they could spend time directing and facilitating discussions and “what if” and “consider this” type scenarios.  What if the Normandy Invasion had failed?  What if Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had never been born? 

On the other hand, might such a possibility turn us all into a race of arrogant pedants and pundits, all talking like William F. Buckley, or a Nobel laureate or Ben Stein (now that’s scary!)?  We might bore one another to death with one-upmanship run amok.  And if you wanted to be as smart as one of the more learned, another alternative might be to “scan” parts of someone else’s brain and transfer knowledge to your own brain, much like burning a CD or transferring data to secondary storage.  If someone else asked you “how did you learn that?” you could say “Oh, I just scanned Bob’s brain.  He is an expert on birds.”  Or, perhaps you might find, after scanning someone else’s brain, that they didn’t know as much as you thought they did, they were just good at BSing and so you don’t know much more as a result. 

But, like my mother said about every good thing having the potential for abuse, some megalomaniac would get too full of himself and decide to use all that extra knowledge for an evil purpose, a la Dr. Frankenstein, or Adolf Hitler.  Or an acquaintance might say things like “you really ought to scan in some European history.  You’d then know that the British invasion of Norway was a much bigger threat than anyone realized, and you’d stop saying such silly things.”  And you could reply, “I’d rather not.  If I clutter my brain with too many facts, I’m likely to become obsessive compulsive or a colossal bore.  I like being dumb.  Less is expected of me.”

And what if, in the process of scanning someone’s brain, you not only acquired knowledge, but the other person’s memories and feelings.  What if, in addition to Bob’s knowledge about birds, you also acquired Bob’s memories of war in Afghanistan or Pakistan?  And that caused you to have horrific nightmares.  And memories of the time Bob was jilted by a woman when he was in his thirties, and he never got over the emotional pain.  Imagine, having your own emotional baggage and then someone else’s too on top of it.  Or, perhaps it would cause you to have great empathy for Bob.  You just never know with these double-edged technological advances.  Be careful what you wish for.  But, there might be medical possibilities too — what if a stroke victim has memory loss.  A lot of their missing memory might be supplied by a re-scan of some other persons’ brains, thereby filling in a lot of missing spots.  It might speed up the cognitive retraining process appreciably.

There is also the real possibility of micro-chipping everyone at birth, much like they do with pets so that owners can find them if they become lost.  I’m sure the ACLU might consider this too invasive, and who knows about HIPAA compliance (intended to protect everyone’s privacy), but it might come to that.  Our chip could contain basic information like name, date of birth, social security number (since they are now assigned at birth), and blood type (not unlike a military dog tag, only electronically encoded).   And then, perhaps, you could add certain voluntary information if you wish, like organ donor info.  It would be a great help to identifying crime victims and would change crime/detective fiction considerably.  It would be one more piece of information to add to a data bank, along with fingerprints and DNA.

I love multi-faceted conundrums.  So much more interesting to contemplate than just spelling words, or wondering what is the capital of Angola, or trying to remember who won the Oscar for best actor in 1992.  I’m hoping this sort of “what-iffing” will be good exercise for my brain and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s or prevent it altogether.  Or, make for more interesting daydreams on my commutes to and from work.  Or make me more interesting at parties.  But, it might just make people stare at me in puzzlement and back away.  You can predict some things some of the time, but not everything all of the time — not profound, but it has a ring of truth.  Might go well on a license plate frame too.

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About Connie

Connie Pursell is a baby boomer and a technical writer in the world of healthcare claims. Did Jesus Have a Cat? is her first book of essays. Connie misquotes Shakespeare: “Some are born quirky, some achieve quirkiness, and some have quirkiness thrust upon them.” She thinks she was born quirky but didn’t find her voice or full quirky potential until her later years. She grew up in Lancaster, California and earned a BA and an MA in English from Cal State University, Long Beach. In addition to essays, she also writes poetry – a couple of poems are included in the book. She is active in volunteer activities, makes beaded jewelry and lives in Laguna Niguel, CA with her three cats.