She has been sullen for days on end and I can’t stand to see her like this—so unlike herself, utterly demoralized by the recent accomplishments of her peers as if they’ve declared a referendum on her abilities. Her sense of self-worth shouldn’t be so debilitated by the success of others. It’s unbecoming and unhealthy.
So I make her a social comparison blocker: custom-crafted cognitech packed into a hair clip, an alligator-style barrette that she can easily wear as an unobtrusive accessory to constantly, preemptively inhibit her mind’s habit of benchmarking herself against others. Once it’s done, I meet her in the rose garden to hand off the hair clip. Reticent with despondency, she simply accepts the glossy blue barrette with what muted appreciation she can muster, then uses it to hold back a lock of hair she usually tucks behind her ear. I watch intently as her mood improves in mere seconds; she perks up, eyes wide, poise regained—like she’s fully awake now with a lucidity that brightens the already luminous swath of flowering shrubs behind her.
Delighted by this transformation, she keeps the clip in her hair all throughout the following days, perched above her left ear, an ornamental good luck charm she’s unwilling to risk being without. Thanks to the cognitive noise cancelation the blocker provides, she soon becomes more than just self-assured, turning unequivocally breezy—to the degree that she blows off work responsibilities and embarks on an impromptu tropical getaway.
Her sudden departure leaves me with the impression that she didn’t really care about making her mark in the field of chronopsychography. Which leads me to think that through their negation, I’ve revealed her fervent ambitions as being ultimately rooted in the desire to outdo colleagues in her discipline—the manifestation of a competitive streak the social comparison blocker has obliterated.
The following week, I receive a postcard from her. A picture of a lush cove with a rocky waterfall nestled amid palm trees, with only a large smiley face and my address in blue pen on the back.
Is she going to be nonchalant toward everything now? Maybe I need to make a new hair clip that includes a passion amplifier, to get her in touch with deeper motivations. And a focus enhancer also, if I can fit one in. A few hours later, I’m prototyping in earnest, seeing how many bells and whistles I can cram together.
Finally, she returns after weeks spent on sun-drenched beaches and sultry sea cliffs. I meet her for coffee, ready to stage another intervention. But before I can venture into further cognitive modification, she slides a manuscript across the café table towards me. Its bold title seems to stare up at me from the tabletop.
What Consciousness Is For
I flip over the cover page to find a single line of centered text that dedicates this work to me. Just me.
“Couldn’t have done it without you,” she says, her words melodious with glee.
Scanning through the abstract on the following page, I learn that what lies before me is a treatise on the nature—if not the very purpose—of consciousness as a means of expanding causal power, augmenting agency by putting deliberative distance between stimulus and response.
“Wow,” I murmur.
“It’s amazing what sunny days by the ocean will get you thinking about when you have a clear mind,” she says, as though relaying a message from a part of herself that lingers on in those days.
“You think that’s what consciousness is really for?” I ask.
“Yes. To riff off Steven Pinker, consciousness was the real innovation in our biological evolution. Everything since has just made our thoughts travel farther or last longer.”
Then what about our technological evolution? Is cognitech also making our thoughts travel farther or last longer? And if so, how far can they go? How far will they take her?
But I mention nothing of these questions, expecting her to say more, even bring up ideas related to them. Instead, she turns to the wide pane of window beside us, casting her gaze skyward, as though it will arc over the low clouds and into the distance, toward some faraway destination. Still her constant companion, the barrette glints with afternoon sunlight. And I become uncertain whether next time she will return and tell me about her thoughts. But how much does—should that matter?
“I’ll be right back,” I murmur.
In the restroom, I remove one of the new barrettes from my pocket. I run the tip of my index finger over its surface four times, back and forth over the same shiny blue coating as the one she’s wearing. Pressing it to my forehead, I close my eyes and wait for the brief buzz that tells me it’s in recording mode. When it trembles against my skin, I focus on the kind of presence she’s been in my life: that reassuring warmth even when she’s not around—as though the yellow from the flickering candle was her in the alpine hotel’s reading room during that off-season evening. Once I’m done, I set the replay strength and frequency of my recording to quiet and sporadic. Just a light reminder. Just in case. Then, for good measure, I make the necessary adjustments to the other barrettes, recalibrating the discretion of the autonomous modulators—the loop breaker, obsession mitigator, inner voice filters, self-image stabilizer, social validation emulator.
When I return to my seat, I lay out the retuned barrettes on the table, in the space between her coffee cup and monograph on human cognition. I can feel her gaze following my hand as I place these hair clips end to end, forming a line.
“I made a few more for you,” I tell her. “Now you’ll have a couple matching pairs. And when you feel like livening things up, you can wear the red ones.”
“Those have a nice pop to them.”
“I think so too.”
“Thanks, I love them already.”
I look at these things on the tabletop, that we’ve brought for each other as though we had agreed to meet here for an exchange of bespoke gifts. Crisp, white paper with sharp, black letters. Smooth, colorful plastic encasing tiny circuitry. Ideas that once only existed in our minds made physical to exist in the gulf between them. Souvenirs we’ll each have of this coffee date—of one another.
I lift my gaze, seeking out her eyes with mine, to look into them just because I can, just because she and I are still here, just because we are close enough to do that for a while.