You get exactly zero guesses why I felt the need to share this story from Afrofuturist Ytasha L. Womack this week.
This place serves no coffee and if you’re looking for a quick snack, forget about it. This is a hall for drinkers. If we were in Beowulf, I’d yell for someone to pass the mead. This place is all red light bulbs, shadows, flashing balls on screens and intoxicating electrically charged house beats. I’m a sparkling disco ball in a place like this. But everyone’s so chill. They’re such a been there, done that kind of crowd that my arrival is an afterthought.
So I pull up to the bar, order tonic water, and the regulars shake their heads. Being diet conscious is a no go at this calorie laden spot, but I’ve earned the privilege of ordering an occasional nonalcoholic beverage and as a result I’m not tossed out of my seat with VIP.
And I worked hard for this privilege.
Just as I was guzzling my tonic, between cheering for the March Madness star of the hour, a figure pulled up beside me and slid another tonic my way.
“Pour toi,” he said.
His name was Andrew, he said. A tall, attractive lanky brown man with a blond buzz cut and black rimmed glasses, he rocked red skinny jeans and a matching jacket with silver buttons, high top black All Star kicks and a vintage Harold Washington button on his red blazer.
Andrew said he was a newcomer, an Iowa state grad who moved to Chicago to launch his start- up dreams. He didn’t follow basketball much. But he was a tonic water drinker too, he said, and felt that the two of us should bond over fizz and bubbles. I’ve talked to men who like fizz and bubbles, but I’ve never talked to a man who didn’t follow basketball. Hmmm.
“What’s your start up?” I asked.
“It’s a little complicated,” he whiffed, shoving a handful of popcorn in his mouth from the trough they serve in the back.
“Try me,” I said.
“It’s a brain trust,” he said matter-of-factly, like it was some kind of insider trading terminology that stockbrokers use.
“Like a think tank,” I said, thinking of the DC policy wonks and their political foibles.
“Not quite,” he said, sniffing. “We upload neural data for safe keeping.”
“You file research?” I added, not quite sure what he meant, but still trying to eye the screen and keep pace with the too cute frenetic players on screen. Swish. But my halfhearted attention wasn’t doing it for Andrew, who swiveled on the swivel-less bar stool to devote his full energy to the explanation.
“Imagine,” he said, “a loved one has critical information for you. An answer to a question, a key to a lock, and directions to something lost, but they never had an opportunity to share it with you. They passed on and the information is gone.
“Um hmm,” I said.
“Gone,” he repeated, emphasizing the “g” like some frat boy dance stomp at the end of a step show phrase. “What if you could retrieve that information?” he said, his eyes twinkling.
What if you could? I thought. I looked to the flat screen for comfort, but the players running up and down the court couldn’t outrace my uneasiness at Andrew’s speculations.
“Modern man has walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “And with each new generation, we gain as much information as we lose. You can’t tell me that no one in human history ever had the cure to cancer or the true map of the pyramids. Libraries have burned. Cities have disintegrated. Files and discs destroyed. With death, we lose data and each generation is forced to chug along building from what’s left. There’s got to be a better way.”
“So you want to stop death?” I said, my voice hovering just above a whisper. We were interrupted by cheers from the revelers. Someone dunked, but I was no longer paying attention to the screen. Andrew had me captivated. He leaned into my ear.
“I wish,” he said. “My company has acquired a technology that encodes messages and memories, like uploading your brain onto a database.”
“No way,” I shouted. The VIPers looked my way. They were suspicious of the tall stranger and perked up just in case. And like good protective men, they should be.
“We’re past the testing phase,” Andrew continued. “Several hundred people have already gone through the process. They’re mostly seniors who want their families to have access to family history. But it’s just the beginning, and we’re growing . . . fast.”
One of the VIPers, the former athlete who doubles as bar big brother tapped my shoulder. I nodded, indicating that I was safe and he returned his gaze to the racing dribblers on the screen.
What Andrew was talking about was pure madness, but something about his work and easy going demeanor kept me glued. Was he a government agent? Was he a specialized scientist who’d seen the unseen?
I felt like I was getting classified information and tried to remain as calm as possible, as if this was the most normal conversation in the world. And maybe in today’s world it was. “How many people you looking to upload?” I asked.