Undynamic Isn’t a Word
April 1, 2010
The queue to the international branch of the United States Patent and Trademark Office was the exact length of the ninth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. It was located in the generically beautiful surroundings that all government offices are designed in when they get relocated to Second Life. With all the potentialities and impossibilities architects could construct in virtual reality, the neo-classical marble columns and the faux-Euro landscaping of power had actually grown more, not less, uniform.
I miss the old days, thought Henry Street, when the Patent Office had a branch in World of Warcraft. There were never any queues to government offices in World of Warcraft. A lot of people were too good to be seen dead in a warren of elf-hookers and dwarf-pimps, and the native inhabitants had better things to do than file tax-returns and trademark applications.
“Though I guess that’s why they closed the places down,” he muttered under his breath.
Henry turned to a little old woman standing behind him. She was clutching a very full ring-binder wrapped in a paper bag. She looked like the sort of person who had only ever passingly heard of that half of the internet.
“So what are you here for?” he asked.
“I’ve developed a highly innovative, new financial product,” she responded in a voice that was disorientatingly strident and clear.
Strange, thought Henry, that I still think of all old women as confused relics, even though I know full well that a majority of them have MBAs and CVs longer than my…
“It’s a derivative-bundle that spreads the risk of punitive government-detention across a number of traditional businesses and their highly innovative counterparts,” she explained. “Traditional businesses gain a share of the increased returns possible within a super-legal regulatory practices-framework, and highly innovative businessmen lower the risk-cost associated with their combative relationship to government oversight by spreading their losses across a wide number of other entrepreneurs.”
“You mean you sell gaol-insurance to criminals.”
“That’s an undynamic way of putting it. But yes,” she admitted, frowning momentarily, “in exchange for a share in their extra-legal profits businessmen accept to serve a part of the gaol-time of their more enterprising colleagues.”
“Undynamic isn’t a word,” said Henry.
“It will be.”
Henry thought in silence for a moment before continuing: “I don’t think many suits are going to want to go to gaol, even in exchange for a share in a drug cartel.”
“Au contraire,” she said, arching her eyebrows in the way that has become obligatory for any Anglophone saying ‘au contraire,’ “such backward thinking attitudes have already begun to change.
“On a small scale, forerunners of my system have existed in our economy for decades. The textile industry is built on a firm basis of semi-legal sweat-shop labour. The occasional judicial crackdown has become more of a running cost than an event.”
Henry did not know how to feel about this. For a moment it reminded him that he had payed money for imaginary clothes.
“I still think they’ll send you to gaol,” he said after a lot of thought.
“Well of course they’ll send me to gaol!” the old lady exclaimed like a Python-sketch, “that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?”
Henry’s face arranged itself into the universal sign-language for “I don’t understand why you want to go to gaol.”
“I’m arriving at an advanced point in my aging cycle,” she intoned in a voice that made Henry hallucinate a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pointer behind her. “It is a reality of my situation that I’ll soon be shunted off to an aged-care facility, where I will surely rot like a biblical leper while my descendants ‘manage’ away what’s left of my assets.
“But as a matter of principle our government refuses to waste taxpayer dollars tending to geriatric deviants. As a matter of principle, I’ll be left to fend for myself, and with the revenues I’ll be getting from this patent,” she shook her paper bag under Henry’s nose “that will be a more than comfortable way to spend the rest of my days.”
Over the next forty minutes Henry became the world’s foremost expert on crime-derivatives trading.
“Welcome to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, how may I direct your inquiry?” asked a secretary-avatar. Like the building she worked in, her appearance was totally standardised. For the last ten years every secretary in the world had been either a girl in her mid to late twenties with shoulder length blond hair tied back in a single tail, or, in the interests of equality, a dark-haired man of the same age (or maybe slightly younger, it always seemed to Henry) with short, wavy hair parted on the left. The people working these avatars could be men or women or transvestites or hippies, for all Henry knew. The probability that they would appear as Avatar F was 51% and as Avatar M, 49%.
Henry, calm and silent, laid out his application forms in the required order on the counter. When he was finished he put his hands on it, either side of his row of forms.
He took a breath and said: “I would like to file a patent on a new emotion.”
The manager who spoke to Henry was a very-slightly greying man, maybe nearing forty years of age, with slightly longer, straighter and better-combed hair than his secretarial juniors. Henry didn’t know what his female counterpart looked like, because it really wasn’t that common to have to speak to the manager in a virtual government agency.
“You are aware, Mr. Street,” said the manager, “that it is currently illegal to file patents on things that already exist?”
“I am quite aware of that,” Henry said, “which is why I emphasise that I would like to file a patent on a totally new emotion, previously unexperienced by anyone. This is not joy, mirth or terror we are talking about.”
“Sadness, fear, love?”
“No, neither is it glee, ennui or angst. It is a reservoir of sensation currently untapped by any product on the market,” Henry explained, “no stimulant, film or even work of literature, no matter how obscure and impenetrable, currently exists to satisfy the potential consumer seeking my unique neuro-chemical state.”
“This is a very impressive claim, Mr. Street,” congratulated the manager, “but to receive a patent you will have to prove that your emotion is in fact new.
“Now unfortunately I am not a qualified judge of human feelings,” the manager informed Henry, “so we will not be able to carry out the evaluation at this particular juncture.”
“Take this letter,” the manager instructed, handing Henry an e-mail, “and go to the applied philosophy department of Yale University, the United States official scientific accreditor. You will find their campus at the addresses printed on this information booklet, either a short distance from our own facility here in Second Life, or in Azeroth at their World of Warcraft facility.”
Henry took the booklet substantially relieved that he would be spared hours more queue-chatter in Second Life. But then a thought struck that he acted on, whimsical and inane as it was.
“Does Yale have a real world campus I could visit?” he asked.
The manager was slightly taken aback when he responded “well… yes, of course, I suppose… I mean,” he recovered, “if you want.”
Henry was in a real home in the real world. He sat on a stool by his kitchen counter eating a bowl of fried rice in too much soy sauce. In the next room was his computer, which he had turned off for his meal. There was no dining table or television in the kitchen.
The locks on the front door unbolted and the door jerked open. It was a small, old townhouse left over from when in the 1960s the outer-suburbs of Adelaide were just being built by the proletarian refugees of the flourishing real estate business. The heavy wooden door, which had never been so much as oiled in ninety years, shrunk and expanded every summer and winter, but grew overall as it absorbed the little seasonal rain that fell. The result was that you had to lean your shoulder hard into the door to crack it open, but at the same time be ready to catch it quickly so that you didn’t pull it off its antiquated hinges.
Katherine Elstone did a kind of elephantine pirouette as she was propelled in a wide arc by the laptop case, courier bag and reusable grocery bags that hung on her, yet at the same time avoided channelling that momentum into wrecking her front door. In one movement she left the bag and the case in the far corner of their hallway and locked the door behind her, then took the grocery bags into the kitchen where Henry was watching her.
“Did you patent your feelings today?” she asked, sitting down on a stool across the counter from Henry, putting the kettle on and taking a cup and a teabag down from the cupboard above them. Katherine and Henry had through a long process of trial and error arranged the contents of their kitchen so that apart from cooking and cleaning, which they hardly ever did, they wouldn’t have to get up from their chairs to do anything during a meal.
“They told me I would have to have my feelings certified new by the applied philosophy department at Yale’s World of Warcraft campus,” he answered before beginning another chopstickful of rice.
“They don’t have a Second Life campus?” asked Katherine.
“They do if you like lagtime and talking to creepy old women in queues.” Henry ate in a moment of silence, thinking, before he added, “it turns out they have a real world campus as well.”
“Oh really,” Katherine exclaimed while she poured herself a cup of green tea, “when did they build that?”
“1701 acwi,” ‘acwi’ was short for according to Wikipedia. “Apparently it’s in some place called New Haven, Connecticut.”
Katherine acted duly impressed by Henry’s command of the first sentence of a Wikipedia entry. “Connecticut?” she mused, “that’s near Canada, right?”
“The French bit, yeah.”
“So you’re probably going to be in World of Warcraft all tomorrow?”
“Looks like it, yeah.”
They ate in silence for a little while. Henry always made enough of whatever he was eating for the two of them because Katherine came home while he was eating as regular as television. She always sat down with him and after a minute began to eat directly from his plate. He used to just leave her portion in the pan on the stove for her, but she would just eat from his plate anyway, so that Henry had to get up and serve himself twice. He had a theory that she did this because if she was doing the dishes it would save her cleaning one whole extra plate.
And so they ate.
“Are you feeling your emotion right now?” she asked, chicken wire rising from some depth in her voice.
“It is difficult to say,” replied Henry, as if unaware of the veiled hostility. He paused in eating and looked past Katherine into the indefinite distance where thought lives. “I think that I am always feeling it in some degree, or perhaps it would be better to say that after you have felt it, it changes the way you feel all your other emotions, subtly.”
“So your patent wouldn’t just cover your emotion,” she asked like a cold draft, “but every emotion anyone felt afterwards.”
“I guess so.”
“So you’re applying for a monopoly on feelings.”
Henry didn’t reply for a moment because he was thinking what to say.
Katherine continued in the pause, “so what about me? I guess if everything you feel is changed by your patented emotion, then every feeling I have in response to you is also different. So when you get your patent you won’t just own that emotion, but you’ll own everything I feel too.”
“It’s not like that,” is about all Henry could manage.
“Screw you!” she wasn’t shouting. Actually, she was speaking in a barely audible whisper. “You own me, that’s what this is like. That can’t be like anything but what it is.”
“This isn’t about owning people,” he began in the whisp-speak of hopeless repetition. “I’m doing this for the opposite reason. When I get the patent I’m not going to use it to own people. I’m going to use it to stop people owning each other.”
“That doesn’t make a shred of fucking sense.”
“Yeah it does,” his voice was barely audible. Katherine was glaring at him and he was fiddling with a salt-shaker to his left. “People don’t really own their lives because they let other people tell them what to think and feel. It’s easier to think what some book or television-show told you than to go out and react to the world for yourself. If I can get a patent on this emotion I can stop a lot of that. At least then no one will be able to repeat my life, so they’ll be a little more likely to go out and live one for themselves.”
“You’re just caught in a net of words,” said Katherine, “if you want people to go out and see the world for themselves, maybe you should start by doing it yourself. What you’re doing won’t free anyone, or make them see the real world. It will make you own a part of other people’s brains. That is the only real thing here, because that is the only thing that will still exist when you run out of ridiculous gibberish to tell yourself.”
She got up and left. There wasn’t much point to doing anything else. Henry looked up from his salt-shaker to watch her walk out the front door. He had no idea where she went after they argued.
Henry Street felt a moment of happiness when he saw that there was an anti-queue around Yale’s World of Warcraft campus. The reverse of Second Life, in World of Warcraft the population density got substantially lower around the virtual premises of official agencies. They were built in special regions a way away from the regular WoW environment. These special regions were made specifically devoid of spawn, because Blizzard had decided that they would probably attract more agencies to pay more rent if their real estate didn’t damage property and attack customers.
A critter gallivanted some way to the left of Henry. He looked and saw that it was a deer, then looked away. In World of Warcraft, if you looked at a deer for long enough, you could make it explode with your mind.
A gnome-mage opened the door to a cottage that was so overgrown by the surrounding foliage that it looked like it was built directly into the hills around it.
They probably put the hills there after they built the cottage, thought Henry. He knew how the Blizzard art department thought.
“You have come to see the rector of the philosophies applied at the appointed hour of half past the twelve?” said the gnome-mage. The automatic speech-recalibrator, which made everyone sound like what Hamlet would be if a fifteen-year old who’d never read Hamlet was asked to do a Shakespeare impersonation, was another reason normal people never went to World of Warcraft. Chances are the gnome-mage was actually some old Indian guy with a distinctly unlordly accent.
“That is so,” Paladin Henry replied.
“It is I,” said the gnome-mage, showing Henry into Yale.
Yale was substantially bigger inside than its façade made it look. It was still as cramped as you would expect a university in a cottage to be, but the corridors in between the ubiquitous bookcases stuffed with alchemical junk extended further than was physically possible.
The whole place breathed in the WoW background-art code for science. Vials of purple and yellow distillate of glitteriness glowed like lanterns, while perpetual engines gave off coloured steam, making the whole place look like a child of eight had been given a steam-punk colouring-in book and didn’t know that the only colours he was supposed to be using were grey and brown.
The gnome-mage stood on an overturned pail and in a wide sweep pushed a mound of scrolls and potions off of his desk, making a sound like a distant train-wreck. He sat down on a seat that was far too low for him, before making some incantation that made it shoot up like an office-chair modified for a midget. Henry made no comment about that. He looked at the one thing the gnome-mage had left on his desk. It was a name tag that read: Dr. I.S. Chandragupta.
“The master of the house of the United States Patent and Trademark Office has sent word ahead of your arrival,” the gnome-mage said.
“Nevertheless,” said Henry, “I present you the message he bade me deliver upon my arrival.” Henry handed the e-mail to the very short, simulation rector.
Chandragupta opened up the document and spent a moment reading over it.
He looked up at Henry and said, “this gives me more specific instructions on how to proceed in the matter at hand.
“You have claimed to have discovered a new emotion, making you the first of your kind in many an age. But it is one thing to make a claim, quite another, a proof.
“I will use my extensive knowledge in these matters of science to make a thorough cross-examination of your mind, and by so doing find the true nature of that which you seek a patent for. I will compare this to the emotions that I store in my vast reservoir of experiences, collected in my many years of research into these things.”
Chandragupta was finished, and the two men’s avatars stared at each other for a moment, as though bracing to begin.
“So,” said the gnome-mage, “how do you feel?”
“I would like to say that it began the first time my hero-level maxed out since the days of the original World of Warcraft, or an afternoon in middle school when I visited my best friend’s house and I was hypnotised as he first introduced me to our virtual world. I would like to say that it began years later when I asked myself why I couldn’t bring myself to leave the World, why I was happier to work night-shifts in a petrol-station in the most crime-infected remnants of reality, than use the time to make my way into the parts of that reality which were still safe and whole.
“But then why not say that this all began when The Matrix Online was launched, or the first game of Space-Invaders was played, or when the first humanoids stared sleepily into their miraculously controlled fire, and just barely managed to conjure up the first kind-hearted lie that they would comfort each other with?
“Maybe it has something to do with when I felt my first ever emotion. But I don’t think that’s at the start of the story, but the end.
“Did you know there used to be a manufacturing plant in the town where I really live? It used to make cars, big ones, the kinds that were an investment of time and effort you made in upkeep because it made you feel better about yourself to own nice things. It went out of business about the same time that more and more people started buying flying horses to make themselves feel better that way.
“I used to think that virtual reality was killing real reality. A lot of people thought that at the time, and they still do. It’s kind of like a mantra we chant to make ourselves feel better as we waltz regardless into the sea.
“It was 2023 when I maxed out. I didn’t actually realise what was going on at first. I’d forgotten they still had level limits in World of Warcraft. I’d never heard stories about them from anyone else anywhere in WoW, and when I asked around other players didn’t even believe that I’d done it. But there I was, maxed out. I don’t want to tell you how high my level was.
“I kept going at it for a while, but WoW without that feeling of progress just worked less and less. It’s strange because I’d thought I’d grown bored of the experience-gathering mechanic after the first couple of thousand levels. But it must have been having some kind of subconscious effect, because immersion just atrophied for me after I maxed out.
“I e-mailed Blizzard and they told me that they updated the program every three months, which left me with ten more weeks of that. They also asked me to see a doctor.
“I didn’t see the doctor, but, like I said, I was getting bored. So I left the World for more and more of the day. I didn’t really do anything, because where I live everyone has fled to the electric hills. Those who haven’t are those who can’t afford to, and those guys are desperate and crazy, and the only people on the streets, which just makes everyone around there want to plug out even more. But there are so few of them that I just wandered around nature reserves and abandoned construction lots without meeting anyone the whole time”
“OK!” a gnomish exclamation and the whistling of the alarm of a steam-engine interrupted. “That’s it, that’s everything, you may return to the house of the master of the United States Patent and Trademark office with our total approval.”
“But I haven’t finished my story,” a totally disoriented Henry protested.
“Oh never mind that,” dismissed the gnome-mage, waving his hand as if to clear the foul smoke of misunderstanding, “we just did that to distract you while the Verfribulatorlizerlaser analysed the chemical composition of your mind. According to our calculations you’re definitely sane.”
The gnome-mage beamed at Henry as though he’d just given him a new bike.
Henry ermed and ummed for a moment before saying, “yes, well, thank you, but I was here to find out if my emotion was genuinely new or not.”
“Oh, good heavens, that!” bellowed the gnome-mage, beating the heel of his hand into his forehead. “Yes, of course, just look on the other side of the page, paragraph 4c, we have that in there too.”
Henry was rustled out of Yale still blinking blankly at his new certificate. On his way home, on a rageless whim, he exploded a giant crab with his mind.
“I couldn’t say I was bored in any of the time that I was outside of WoW. I walked for the same reason I levelled up in Warcraft. I’d done what I needed to do before, so now I started on the next thing. The feeling was the same.”
“I was out there in the orange and grey half-night that you get in the outer-suburbs in Australia. I have never understood why the street lights had to be orange out there, but yellow further south. At first I was bored by the landscape, I always looked at my feet when I walked. It is natural to be bored by the landscape where you grow up. It’s your model for normal, so things can only be interesting in so far as they are different from it.
“But think about how much time I spent in World of Warcraft. I mean, I levelled up so much that I maxed out. Slowly the feeling crawled over me, the feeling that I’d grown up there as much as I’d grown up in the places around me. I had two homes, in that moment, both equally strange to each other. I had lost my anchor in gravity and floated freely in foreign senses.”
Katherine had walked to the top of the gully which Henry was sitting in. “You’ve told me this story before,” she called down to him, “I still think you’re full of shit.”
Henry turned and looked at her. “What are you doing here?” he called out.
“You weren’t home,” she said, “I came looking for you. How did Yale go?”
“I passed my autopsy,” Henry said.
“So you have your patent?” she asked without malice.
“I still think you’re a bastard,” she told him.
He nodded as they were silent for a moment.
“Come on,” she said to him, “let’s go home.”