Thursday, 26 September 2013

That Sound Gave Me The Creeps: Virtual Obsession

In 1998, Hallmark Entertainment, purveyors of life-affirming greeting cards and myriad made-for-TV movies about wild hearts, newlyweds and strawberry summers, decided to make a film about a small group of research scientists on the brink of a full-on Ray Kurzweil singularity. Peter Gallagher and Pete Sampras's wife, Brigitte Wilson-Sampras, succeed in uploading the brain of a rat onto a computer with access to all human knowledge and experience. The real rat immediately dies and the digital rat "hides" somewhere in the system… "What if the stripping the consciousness from the body is agony?" asks Gallagher (as Dr. Joe Messenger), speculating that the digital copy of the rat "sensed competition with the living rat" and murdered its own organic original.

Before the rat dies, however, it does one thing: it emits a sound. A strange electronic squeal, like the film-makers had recorded the sound of an actual rat and treated it with digital filters and effects. "The sound first, then the discharge," confirms the computer (‘Alfred’). The sound and the ‘discharge’, we are told, were "contiguous, sequential events." That is, "the end of the sound marked the beginning of the discharge." Where did the sound come from? "Sound came from rat's brain."

"That sound, that sound…"Messenger obsesses over that sound the rat emitted from the computer before it died. The sound gives him "the creeps". The sound was the rat's "response" to its new digital consciousness, he concludes. "It was not the sound of joy. It was pure agony." Albert also starts to feel "ill at ease" with a little bit of rat consciousness running around inside of him muddling up his literary quotations.

Finally, we are afforded a glimpse of the virtual "Eden" of infinite knowledge into which the new post-biological men (and women) are uploaded. According to a venerable sci-fi tradition, everything is white as far as the eye can see. But there is a strange sound and it is not the sound of joy. We hear a deep rumble, like a bass-heavy band pass filter's been applied to one of Ligeti's choirs. At once sound effect, sound design, and music; the sound is distinctly ill at ease.