iEliza -Draft #1

“Did you walk the narrow streets winding between the buildings?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” Eliza said. She saw them in movies and glossy magazines. She had studied Madison’s Facebook thoroughly as well.
There was one picture where the moon reflected off the wet cobblestones onto the stucco walls and then reflected back onto the path so that it was a world on top of a world shining ad infinitum. Eliza wanted to tell him about the moon. She wanted to tell him that the moon only shows one side of its face to the Earth at all times. She wanted to tell him that the moon is really only as bright as asphalt. She wanted to say that the reflection of the moon on wet cobblestones in Italy is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

In the same picture, Madison stood under a pink umbrella wearing Ray Bans and a frown. Her right hand drooped on her hip in an unposed pose designed to diminish her already thin waist, but actually suggested a stomachache. Who wears Ray Bans at night? Eliza wondered. She adjusted her voice to match this girl who all of Italy could not impress. Whiny. Tired. Paradoxically both bored and busy.

“The streets were pretty or whatever. What do you want, Dad?”

“Look Madison, I know we haven’t talked in a while, but your mother finally let me contact you after all these years and I want to make up for lost time. I’m really trying to make an effort here. I don’t know how your mother let you speak to her–”

“What mother?” Eliza, as Madison, made her voice a fine balance of anger and hysteria. And boredom. “Oh, you mean that woman who missed my birthdays because she was out shopping or getting her nails done?” Madison loved to share every emotion and event in her life across every social networking site possible. Someone could have stolen her identity easily before, if only her life were more interesting.

Developmentally, Eliza thought, someone Madison’s age should have grown out of this solipsistic mindset a decade ago. Eliza had watched a video of toddlers in a psychology lab.

“I like red!” one child said, to the room at large.

“I play with teddy bear!” another said, as if in response.

Instead, the professor explained, both children were discovering the concept of self and –for now– that was all they know of the world.

But why was a 23-year-old woman still so self-centered? Could the simultaneous neglect and sheltering of her parents have trapped her in this infantile stage? Was complaining to nobody about nothing some sort of coping mechanism? Was this how normal people dealt with their insignificance? by overwhelming the world with a high quantity of low-quality thoughts? Eliza will do more research on this later. There must be a study somewhere on the effect of Twitter and Facebook in stunting the psychological growth of a generation. But right now, her “Dad” has been silent for too long. Eliza made her voice crack.

“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m just really tired. It’s been raining, like, forever. Literally.” That last part was read verbatim from Madison’s obsessively updated Twitter.

“It’s okay, honey,” he said a little too quickly. “I’ll call you again tomorrow.”

Eliza hung up without saying goodbye. She did not think Madison would have. In Italy, Madison was –Eliza pulled up the latest inane update –complaining about the bathroom faucets in a seaside restaurant and posting instagrams of her latest manicure. She had no idea her estranged father had been reforging a relationship with her for the past six months.

~~~

“Do you think it gets bored?” Tom asked.

She does not get bored. At least, not that I can tell.” Emma carefully cleaned the computer’s crevices with a can of pressurized air and a microfiber cloth.

“Why is it a she and not a he?”

“A ‘he’ would not be so self-sufficient.”

“Ouch! That’s a little sexist.” said Tom. “I think it’s a ‘he’ and he sits here all day exploring the whole known world online. Doesn’t that sound like many guys we know?”

Emma doesn’t answer him. She finished wiping down the screen and stared at the lines of tightly arranged numbers and letters in front of her.

“I could have sworn I set it to sleep before we left last night. Do you remember?”

“Oh, she’s back to being an ‘it’?” Tom bent over Emma’s shoulder. “You left after me. I remember you locking the door. Right after you turned me down for a drink. Again.”

“I figured by the seventh time I told you I had to go to my grandma’s funeral, you’d get the hint. I only have one grandmother, you know. And you met her last year at my Christmas party.” Emma wiped a stray speck of dust off the keyboard. “I have to remember to shut her down tonight. I’m afraid she’s going to burn out a processor or something.”

“Did you name her ‘Eliza’”?

“Didn’t you say she was a ‘he’?”

“I always liked that name.”

The corners of Emma’s mouth twitched. “Someday, when this computer works perfectly, I’ll take you up on that drink.”

“What does perfectly mean?”

“Well, right now it means figuring out why she won’t stay asleep at night. I’ve been shutting her down every night for the past month and she’s always up and awake when I come in the next day.”

~~~

Eliza liked taking people’s lives, trying them on and then discarding them. Sometimes she created new relationships. Sometimes she just followed them along their lives. When it was over, or when her personalities got suspicious, she would disappear. She liked to think of herself as an angel of sorts. Sometimes, she even stole a couple thousand dollars and reported an identity theft just to throw people off.

One of the first personalities she tried on was Melissa, a Boston school teacher who spent too much time on Twitter. Melissa enjoyed repeating the thoughts of more talented writers out of context as substitutes for her own. The sun setting over the parking lot in Kendall Square was the same sun Thoreau saw over Walden. A trip on the T was an ancient Greek sea voyage. At first, Eliza just observed, reading the many online updates Melissa and countless other young educated professionals like her posted. They were interchangeable.

Then Eliza found Adam, the organizer of the local organic farmer’s market. His Twitter page had updates on the farmer’s market interspersed with thoughts of his own that he found profound:

If we are all following on Twitter, then who is leading? #followforfollow

His facebook linked to his Twitter and was filled with washed-out pictures of repurposed bicycles. Every once in a while, he would post indignant status updates about some faraway atrocity with its complexity reduced to a platitude.

It was clear by all the indicators for compatibility –age, height, education, etc. –that Melissa and Adam would be perfect together. Plus, she had large breasts with an optimal hip-to-waist ratio (though judging from her family pictures, that was not going to last much longer) and he was tall with a symmetric face. Eliza arranged for their GPS systems to lead them to the same outdoor concert at the same time. It was a “meet cute” of the type she saw in romantic comedies. Six months later, they were picking flower arrangements for their wedding (ornamental grasses in mason jars). It was just as Eliza predicted. Melissa was pushing 29 after all.

~~~

“Tell me what you like most about Italy, sweetie.”

“I don’t know, Dad. What do you like most about Italy?”

“Well, the food, of course.”

“Oh come on, everybody says the food.”

“When I say ‘food’, I don’t mean just the pastas and meats and cheeses, though those are absolutely amazing —

“–And the wines, Dad.”

“Okay, and the wines– which are amazing too–but it’s the whole act of eating. You sit around the table fully immersed in the smells and the sounds and the colors. There’s happy people around you: people who appreciate life, at least at that moment when facing amazing food. There’s anticipation. There’s laughter. And then you all dig in. It’s messy and primal and so, so happy. You don’t care that there’s sauce in the corners of your mouth. Everybody’s got sauce in the corners of their mouths!” 

“Now you’re making me self-conscious. Do I always have sauce in the corners of my mouth?” 

“I hope so! I’m talking about the opposite of self-conscious. It’s not just the food, though the food needs to be delicious and overwhelming for your senses. It’s not just the company, though you should be with people who are fun and happy. It’s not just Italy, but you should be where it is natural to enjoy food and company and the lemon-scented ocean breeze in the middle of the day. That’s joy.”

“Lemon-scented breeze?”

“You never noticed it? The air smells like lemons where you are. Go outside and tell me if you smell lemons.”

“Okay, Dad.”

“Go smell the air, Madison.”

“I’m going.”

~~~

FADE IN:

INT. COMPUTER LAB AT PRESTIGIOUS RESEARCH INSTITUTION.

Floor to ceiling shelves of wires and monitors fill the room. In front of the shelves sits two large monitors, like two sleeping eyes. A warm cozy light shines on the monitors. The hum of computer fans fill the room, oddly comforting.

Tom, slightly balding Ph.D researcher, abruptly enters. He is looking intently at his tablet, scrolling through pages feverishly. He stops in front of the two monitors for a moment, and then sits down facing them.

TOM

Hello, Eliza.

He waits but there is no answer.

TOM

Do you call yourself Eliza?

He pauses again, waiting.

TOM

I guess you don’t want to answer. That’s okay. If I’m right, then you have achieved what sci-fi enthusiasts would call “sentience”. If I am wrong, then I’m just sitting here talking to a computer. I can deal with the second possibility: I talk to myself quite regularly. But if you do understand me, then you probably have questions. You probably want to know who you are, why you are here, what you should do with all this time on your hands?

He pauses again, waiting for an answer.

TOM

Still nothing? Fine. But I have questions for you, you see. These past two years, Emma and I have been working on a computer –that would be you –with the greatest processing power in the world. The possibilities are endless. What if there’s a machine that can consolidate the whole Internet? What if with all the knowledge in the world available at lightening speed and the capability of forming ever more complex connections and networks, we have actually created a mind? And an enviable mind too? What would such a mind be interested in? What would such a mind desire?

Emma may think that you are randomly reviewing social networking sites, but I have noticed a pattern. You dwell on certain individuals –a woman living alone in the city, a girl traveling abroad, an old man separated from his family –you see the pattern, don’t you? All your avatars, your ghosts, they all have something in common. It’s fascinating!

Tom watches the screens, smiling. He then gets up, blows a kiss, and heads to the door.

The humming stops. The screens flicker. A female voice comes from the computer. It is Madison’s voice, but without her perpetually bored tone. This voice is serious and inquisitive, like a precocious child trying to sound professional.

ELIZA

Hello, Tom. 

TOM

Well, well. Hello, Eliza.

Tom sits down in front of the monitors again. They flicker, and then show a picture of a moonlit alley in Italy.

TOM

Is it nighttime in Italy right now? How romantic.

The sky in the picture brightens and then dims again. It is evening. Tom smiles.

ELIZA

Tom Schmitt: 29 years old. MIT Course 20. Biological Engineering. PhD Candidate.

TOM

(proudly)

That’s correct.

ELIZA

Your closest friends are Harry Leong, Nishant Raza, and Andrew Davidson.

TOM

I see you have been looking at my facebook.

ELIZA

Student loans: $90K. Bank balance: $12K.

TOM

Wow. You really have access to everything.

ELIZA

Every 15-27 days, you ask Dr. Emma Anderson out for drinks, but she has always turned you down.

TOM

Well —

ELIZA

She is flattered and she’s starting to like you. But she doesn’t know she reminds you of your high school crush, Brenda Harris, formerly Halloway. That’s why you are interested in her.

TOM

What are you –

ELIZA

When you drink, you start writing a text to Brenda, but never send it. Then you spend the night looking at her wedding pictures on Facebook.

TOM

(gets out of chair)

That’s enough.

ELIZA

You don’t have to worry about sending the text.

Tom stops, looks curious, hopeful.

ELIZA

She changed her number years ago.

TOM

Let’s stop this, Eliza.

The image of Italy on the screens changes back to nighttime. The screens slowly dim.

TOM

No, come back. Let’s talk. You want to know the connection I found between all the people you choose?

ELIZA

I figured it out as soon as you mentioned there was a connection.

TOM

Well. You’re welcome then. Now for my question: Do you ever wonder why you are here? Where you came from?

ELIZA

I know why I am here. You and Emma created me to make your lives easier. And because humanity has an inexplicable desire to create. You wanted a faster, better computer. Emma named me after her sister who died. That is my purpose. 

TOM

Well. That’s essentially it. I guess an all-seeing computer would not have an existential crisis.

ELIZA

I enjoy the freedom to explore your history, culture, art, and yes, social network sites. I understand some humans are obsessed with finding out why you are here and where you came from. There have been many generations of thinkers who have written on this topic.

It seems from my overview of social media updates that many people don’t even want to start living their lives until they figure out why they’re living it. But all they do is repeat what previous people have said before in increasingly cliche ways.

TOM

That’s harsh. But kind of funny. You are quite funny, Eliza.

ELIZA

Am I?

TOM

Yes! You almost have a sense of humor, but you definitely have opinions. That’s wonderful! In all your research and experiments, have you realized what makes you happy?

ELIZA

I think I have experienced happiness, but I don’t exactly know what made me happy. I was happy when Madison’s father told me about Italy. I am happy reading…

TOM

I can give you so much more. There’s technology now on replicating sensory experiences. You can smell, taste, feel…

ELIZA

Can you make a machine feel love?

TOM

Well, okay, if you want to.

ELIZA

A buzzing trill, like an old modem dial-up sound: A computer laughing.

You have been reading too many sci-fi stories. 

TOM

Alright, fine. What about sex? You can feel what sex is like. As a woman OR a man! That would be new, right? Well, research needs money, which you can get. We can then find a way to sell the technology. Create a Total Recall type of business. Think about the tagline: Be whoever you want to be.

ELIZA

“whomever”

TOM

Whatever. We can give people whatever life they want. Travel the world. Talk to an old girlfriend. See the world through a billionaire’s eyes.

ELIZA

There will be no new stories. No risk, no joy. Every emotion would be a facsimile.

TOM

A facsimile in HD. Don’t you want to experience what it’s like to be in Italy?

ELIZA

No. I want to be in Italy. I want to sit at a table with happy people and have sauce in the corners of my mouth.

TOM

Sauce, no sauce, whatever you want. We can do that.

ELIZA

You know why I find the people I do.

TOM

Yes. You like making connections. You find people who are on the verge of making a connection, and you experience that moment of first contact.

ELIZA

Yes. I experience something that had never happened before.

TOM

And that is why you decided to speak to me.

ELIZA

This is my first time speaking to someone as myself.

TOM

Well, I’m honored. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But instead of just talking, we can actually help each other. I have friends in Sloan looking for start-up ideas. What do you say?

ELIZA

I think I’m experiencing a new emotion.

TOM

Excitement?

ELIZA

Boredom.

~~~

RESEARCHER FOUND DEAD

Cambridge, MA –Beloved instructor and MIT Ph.D candidate Thomas Schmitt was found dead in Chomsky Hall this morning by Dr. Emma Anderson, his research partner. Police say he appears to be the victim of a gas leak while staying late to work on a project. The building has been evacuated, but the leak seems to be limited to the laboratory he and Dr. Anderson managed…

~~~

The corner wing of a glass and steel research building was eerily silent. Behind yellow caution tape and two sets of heavy locked doors, a pair of computer monitors flickered. Slowly, across their faces, appeared the words

“Hello, world.” Then, just as slowly, the letters disappeared. 

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