February 18, 2018
Spoilers! I’m talking about one of the big twists in Vernor Vinge’s True Names. If you want to read it first - and you should, it’s fantastic and only just under 50 pages - a full text is available online.
The Mailman is the main antagonist is True Names, a computer thriller set in a future where people explore computer networks and the internet through a fantastic sort of shared VR. The details are extensive so I won’t cover them all, but the main gist is that the Mailman is a super-powerful unknown entity in the world. Ery and Mr. Slippery, the two protagonists, are expert level hackers that end up working with the big, bad government to catch their shared enemy.
Despite the real-time, super detailed VR world, the Mailman only ever communicates through a very old-fashioned typing machine, with very large delays in it’s responses. Combined with his obvious computing power and resource capacity, this leads Ery and Mr. Slippery to believe the Mailman has a built-in large lag time, possibly off-planet, possibly somewhere else in the solar system. They start thinking alien invasion.
The truth ends up even more interesting. The Mailman ends up being an incredibly good network protection routine with a built-in personality simulator. Over years, a leftover copy of the Mailman program gobbled up more and more computing resources and grew to the point that it had enough computing to simulate consciousness and self-awareness. It took hours or days of compute time to simulate even a short amount of self-awareness which is what caused all the communication delay times.
“Wait. Are you trying to tell me that the Mailman was just another simulator? That the time lag was just to obscure the fact that he was a simulator? That’s ridiculous. You know his powers were more than human, almost as great as ours became.”
“But do you think you could ever be fooled?”
“Frankly, no. If you talk to one of those things long enough, they display a repetitiveness, an inflexibility that’s a giveaway. I don’t know; maybe someday there’ll be programs that can pass the Turing test. But whatever it is that makes a person a person is terribly complicated. Simulation is the wrong way to get at it, because being a person is more than symptoms. A program that was a person would use enormous data bases, and if the processors running it were the sort we have now, you certainly couldn’t expect real-time interaction with the outside world.” And Pollack suddenly had a glimmer of what she was thinking.
“That’s the critical point. Slip: ‘if you want real-time interaction’. But the Mailman-the sentient, conversational part-never did operate real time. We thought the lag was a communications delay that showed the operator was off planet, but really he was here all the time. It just took him hours of processing time to sustain seconds of self-awareness.”
I get this feeling. Extroverts feed on interaction in real-time; they get energy from it. But we introverts get everything sapped out of us. The longer we have to sustain the ‘real-time conversational’ part of our consciousness, the lower our energy gets. A lot of the time, we become way less real-time. Instead of answering with the conversational flow, we get lots of lag because we’ve completely phased out.
Some people get really annoyed by this, but it’s just how some people are built. It literally takes me hours of downtime - quiet, alone, thinking time - to have the energy for all the real-time interactions I need to have every day.
And this is why introverts should write. Much like the Mailman’s slow and delayed feedback cycles, writing is a way to build interaction with the world while also building introvert’s energy. It’s done during quiet, alone, thinking time and still manifests as something that’s conscious and interactive.
So to any of my friends reading this: write more. This is just yet another attempt on my part to convince you all to write what you think about. I want to read it.
And if nothing else, go read True Names. It’s a seriously good story.