Who Am I?
Fred A. Reed
It came as a surprise. My death at age 85 in August 2021. Even greater was my surprise to learn that I was born 78 years ago, in 1945. Doesn’t add up, you’ll say. Well, a lot of things in life don’t add up and I’m just now beginning to appreciate how. The ‘why,’ in this case, will have to come later.
There are other—how can I put it delicately?—inconsistencies. For all these years I’d believed I was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in Pasadena, in the idyllic semi-wild world of Rancho San Rafael. Attended elementary school there, and went by bus to junior high school and then, high school.
Not so. Though my parents are not identified, I was born in Montréal and studied French literature at the Université de Montréal before undertaking a career in France, the Maghreb and the Middle East.
I’ve long believed that I have been married to the same woman for sixty years. Not so. My third wife, I now learn, was Algerian; the other two are of unknown nationality.
So being dead for two years gives me a unique yet dispassionate perspective on my past. I can contemplate my academic achievements, list the works of major French, Algerian and Moroccan authors I’ve translated into English, and take modest pride in having joined the Rassemblement pour l’indépendence national, the Québec nationalist party founded by Pierre Bourgault in the 1960s.
Except that, to the best of my knowledge, I have done none of these things.
At this precise moment, writing in Agadir, Morocco where I now “live”, I am unable to find out where I am buried, even though I “know” where I will be buried. Details of my funeral are not available but I am remembered for my dedication to such noble causes as opposition to the Vietnam War and Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, both of which have been—“were”—constants in my “life.”
When I departed Montréal to take up permanent residence here, in Morocco, I left my entire library behind, including the books I’ve always been convinced I’d translated and written. But those were not the same books I wrote and translated. I was active in cultural and political affairs, I learn, and helped found the Montréal International Literary Festival, which, if memory serves me, still exists under the name ‘Blue Metropolis,’with which I had only casual connections.
But my memory is not serving me, and not only because of incipient dementia.
My last book, on the Israeli occupation of Gaza, was published in 2018, but I’ve only just now realized it. I would have liked to read it, but cannot locate a copy. Does it exist only in the parallel dimension I seem to have entered?
I wasn’t terribly startled to find out that I was considered a ‘controversial’ author in certain political and intellectual circles, for my positive prejudice toward the Arab and Islamic worlds, and drew fire for my writings on the construction of a mosque in Québec City in 2017.
Wasn’t that the same mosque where a lone gunman shot in the back and killed six worshippers in 2017?
To put it briefly, it’s been a life I might have been able to be proud of. Sure, some details are lacking.
Except that it isn’t mine. Not exactly.
No. I have slipped into something resembling but not identical to a time warp. No, not a memory warp, for much of what I read about my life could be “true.” Could have happened. Some kind of warp, though.
A friend has shown me the new biography that I herein quote extensively. His only action was to ask an Artificial Intelligence site to produce a succinct account of my life. The result is at once preposterous and terrifying, extreme and somehow plausible.
In AI’s capacity to produce alternate lives, “lives” that bear some resemblance to actual lives lived, “lives” that draw on events that occurred but then re-order those events, “lives” that reflect a person’s interest, “lives” that seem entirely credible, “lives” that may well supplant what we term the Real Thing lies a threat that belies its promise.
Now that this virtual biography, the one imagined by AI—as if AI had an imagination—is situated somewhere in the Cloud, out there in Cyberspace, it can be read and replicated almost infinitely and will, even during my lifetime (providing it can still be taken as ‘real’) be used to redefine who “I” was and what I did.
This, I am convinced, They are intent on doing. Seizing control not only of thought processes, as has already happened through Social Media, but recreating, first, the general self-awareness of an individual and second, substituting that general self-awareness for the individual’s own, private world, memories and, ultimately, being.
No, what bothers me is that I may not be the only one currently caught up in a temporal and/or identitarian dystopia. We all may. No, will be.
If you go looking for information about a person, most probably you will seek her or his name out via a search engine on the Internet. And if, perchance, you want to learn more about the author of these lines, you may well soon encounter the biography I’ve extensively quoted above, and duly noted in passing that I am well and truly dead following a semi-illustrious career parts of which may correspond to events and accomplishments I’ve always thought were mine.
David Sherman, Earl Fowler, Susan Kastner: will these and other blogging luminaries soon be outfitted with synthetic identities; will their crusty personalities, writing styles, their lives and stories be replaced by narratives that seem overpoweringly convincing, perhaps even to themselves?
Finally, I wish to assure the faithful readers of this Blog that I have indeed written what precedes. But, given what I know now, or think I know, doubt has crept in. Has AI written it, cleverly disguised as me, after all?
Quick! The ground beneath our feet has begun to shift.