Universal Cognitive Maintenance

Dismayed by the narcissistic downward spiral of today's social media? Imagine a world where memory is just another redactable, remixable commodity.

After its inception, everyone was both happier and more distracted.

Fear of forgetfulness, of the forgotten itself? Gone! Gloom about the ephemeral nature of experience? Also gone.

On the other hand, every citizen spent a lot of time rummaging through the labyrinthine stacks of Storage & Retrieval — no simple task, considering the chaos of each person’s memories, sensations, and speculations. 

Often, it turned out that other forgotten thoughts seemed more desirable than the one the seeker wanted to locate, so it wasn’t uncommon to trudge through the exit gate later and more laden-down than one had anticipated. Everyone could fully delve into their own life experience instead of scurrying across its surface like old-time movie characters running across the top of a high-speed locomotive.

As one commentator proclaimed, We are at last endogenous to ourselves.

Before long, a new psychiatric disorder became common: “Anxiety when forced to spend time away from Storage & Retrieval.” 

Paid S&R-leave was the first benefit people checked for with every employment package. 

And so many people found it convenient to schedule meetings on the premises (since they were there much of the time anyway) that Starbucks set up a network of locations throughout the facilities.

When it became popular to camp out among the stacks, instantly accessing each night’s dreams each morning, a host of hotels and AirBnBs sprang up; these eventually gave way to houses, then villages, and finally, cities complete with business districts, suburbs, and gated communities.

The outer world has become increasingly depopulated, except for a few resisters. Some are uncomfortable about the very idea of an inner life, some cultivate a spirituality of impermanence, and some are simply too impatient to engage in all that sifting and sorting — but all enjoy the luxuries of the abandoned residences and shopping malls.

Then there’s the little community in the old neighborhood that outsources their connection to their mental past. When one of them needs to retrieve a particular cognitive event, they send out a list of specifications to a day laborer who trudges to S&R to select a half-dozen or so according to the target-thought’s general characteristics and hauls them back across the border to be examined. This occurs as many times as it takes; afterwards, all the near-miss thoughts are returned only slightly worn from handling.

Most significant of all, however, are the racketeers working the shadow economy who engineer artificial cognitive data to be smuggled into Storage by stealth operatives, often middle-management double-dippers. In the early years, these counterfeits were relatively simple — a mother wanted her daughter to cherish a few brighter images of sophomore year, for instance, or a District Attorney needed several witnesses to discover a particular memory when called to the stand. 

But as increasing numbers of consumers demanded synthetic recollections (some ordinary, some ecstatic or depraved, others ecstatic and depraved), these fictions became more and more elaborate.                                              

Clusters of adult siblings purchased family narrative do-overs going back generations. Various interest groups used their collective buying power to purchase what came to be known as “consensual histories” which themselves were subject to alteration as internal dissensions arose. 

Of course, authentic memories that contradicted fresh fabricated ones had to be identified, isolated, and destroyed by “the extricators,” a network of stealth operatives who had their own profiteering structure. 

With all these layers of financial opportunity, no one was surprised when organized crime moved in. Now the mob and the police strive to thwart each other in a sequence of intimately choreographed maneuvers; after every successful raid, more thought labs pop up behind different fronts.

Most citizens look back on their pre-Cognitive Maintenance selves with a gratifying mixture of compassion and condescension — of course they were always misplacing all that mental content, which ranged from the previous night’s dreams to great swathes of their childhoods! 

Nothing could be more forgettable than the artifacts of a fixed, immutable past languishing in a solitary brain.

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Claire J. Bateman

Claire J. Bateman

Claire Bateman is the author of eight collections of poetry, prose poetry and flash fiction, most recently SCAPE (New Issue, Kalamazoo), and the forthcoming collection WONDERS OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD. She has received two Pushcart awards and a NEA grant, and is the poetry editor of Weekly Hubris. Her stories in The Fabulist are part of "The Pillow Museum," a chapbook of fabulist flash fiction that is seeking a home. You can find Claire at pw.org/directory/writers/claire_bateman. She is also a visual artist — some of her work can be seen at instagram.com/clairejbateman/

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