Day 1 :: Sean :: No surprises

Okay, so we’re in. After two years or more of talking and planning, this has finally happened!

The project officially started at 9.30am. (In a sense it actually started three days ago, when those who drink coffee had to stop drinking it. We also all had to try to sleep for a solid eight hours a night. And last night alcohol was completely verboten, as it is for the duration of the project.) I was the first to arrive, as is my wont, and met Kelsey, who later took us through our tests. (I also took some photos of the control room and the inside of the rooms, which might be attached to this post. I won’t know until I emerge.) Vicki Sowry (ANAT) and Laura Kroetsch (AWW) arrived with Fee and Thom, and Xuan, who’s a research fellow here. Then came Jenn, and thus The Subjects were assembled.

First up were introductions, broad outlines of what the week would entail, and farewells from Laura and Vicki, our last contacts with the ordinary world. (They promised to bring champagne for when we emerge.) Xuan gave us a detailed tour of our rooms, bathrooms, and common area. The latter, we discovered, is off-limits except for meals, so our explorable space is highly restricted, consisting of our bedrooms, basically, plus the hallway. Bathrooms too, I guess—the only spaces not covered by cameras—but there’s not much to do in there (not for long, anyway: showers are capped at a generous 15 minutes, and there are no baths). The facility is absolutely new. We are the first subjects to inhabit it. So everything smells fresh and clean, and there’s the occasional line of duct tape where something is missing.

The rooms are small but comfortable, containing a single bed, a small cupboard, a desk, two small tables, a comfy chair, a desk chair, and the Testing Chair (which is just a dining chair but we use it for the most annoying test so that’s what I’m calling it). There’s a TV that doubles as a stereo, a computer, a complicated machine for plugging our leads into, an intercom and an internal phone. The lights are low and the air is cool. The only sound is the hum of air conditioning. Each room is a different colour. Mine is purple.

I’ve brought my own keyboard with me, and a trackball, both to stave off RSI as much as possible. I’ve also brought drugs, but managing dosages will be tricky without know what the time is, so I guess I’ll make that up as I go along. We have no phones, no windows, no clocks, no iPads. There’s nothing to connect us to the rest of the world.

No surprises there. That’s the whole point.

After our tour and intro, we settled in for a practice run. (Have I used “practice” right? This is something I always get wrong, and now I can’t check. Life without the web is going to be tough, particularly as the protocol kicks in and our brains melt into mud. As Jenn says, let’s have an embargo on typos, okay?) The tests are not especially riveting, but that’s not unexpected either. The first is a test of our response times (“PVT” it’s called, I found out later: Performance Vigilance Task). We hold a box and push a button when the screen lights up. A number tells us how fast we reacted. I already hate this test, because the box is heavy and it involves both my hands, and I have to sit grimly in place for ten minutes. It feels like an hour. At the end of the first run, my muscles were screaming. My results were slightly slower than average, but that could be because I was using my left hand. Or I was too distracted by the discomfort to pay attention properly. Or I’m just rotten at it.

The second test was simple maths, which I enjoyed. It’s called the Serial Addition/Subtraction task, I think, or SAS (but I could be wrong on that, and I’m wary of asking Too Many Questions). The third was the Stroop test (identifying colours) which was familiar to me from the internet, and is utterly hypnotic. Test four involved handwriting (curse my aching fingers) but involved a substitution key and was quite amusing (it’s the Digit/Symbol Substitution test). The simple driving simulation that came next reinforced my feeling that we’re trapped in 1993, before the internet, smartphones, and decent graphics. (But I didn’t crash. Whew.) The last test in that training session was another handwritten one that proved quite difficult. We were given a household item and asked to devise alternate uses for it. In this case, a pencil. (A weapon, right? After that it gets kinda difficult…)

We broke for lunch. The staff provided us with lovely fresh ingredients for sandwiches and wraps, plus options to have noodles or soup. (Sandwich and noodles for me, with some of the chilli flakes I smuggled in to spice things up.) Our portions are controlled in the sense that they ask us to eat no more than two sandwiches or the equivalent. That is way more than I’d ordinarily eat for lunch, so that shouldn’t be a problem. I will, in fact, get fat, as there’s no means of exercising beyond pacing back and forth, and doing the usual stretches required to keep my aching body functional.

Afterwards, we stood around talking about this and that. The details have escaped my mind now (why wasn’t I keeping notes?) but everyone is chatty and friendly. I think we’re all going to get along just fine. Until day six, when we’ll be eating each other’s faces off, of course.

After the dishes were done, Kelsey cut short our getting-to-know-you time in order to return us to testing. The Karolinksa Sleepiness Scale came first (you can look it up, unlike us!), followed by a list of emotions and a scale to indicate how we were feeling (I was irritated by the numbers of times I had to say I wasn’t feeling irritated). Then came the opportunity to estimate on a sliding scale how alert we were feeling, and how well we thought we were going to do in the remaining test. It was the reaction time (PVT) test again (I was right: I do hate it) so I figured I went badly at it (and I did).

Which brings us up to the present. We’re in our separate rooms now, and I’m tossing up whether to start reading the final pages of my novel Twinmaker or work on something new. Or watch an episode of Buffy. Decisions decisions!

General thoughts:
It doesn’t bother me that our rooms are dimly lit, since that’s how I like my office and bedroom to be, but I’m struck by the gloominess of the bathroom every time I go in there. Bathrooms should be bright and clinical. How am I going to see my giant pores in this murk?

The ink of my purple pen looks black. Weirdly, the purple colour scheme of my room doesn’t look black. Maybe in normal light it would look completely different.

What with the lighting and the hum of the aircon, I feel as if I’m in a giant aeroplane. An aeroplane that won’t land for another week. All those years of travel anxiety dreams have prepared me well.

What time is it now? I’m unsure. Could be around 2pm, but there’s literally no way to tell. Even with this detailed list of everything we’ve done, I couldn’t tell you how long it all actually took. Amazing how slippery things get when there are no tics or tocs to keep us in line.

Another round of training is about to begin. I am primed to hate the reaction time box already. I give it low odds of lasting a full week without being smashed against the wall.

The results of our earlier session came in. I scored well in the maths and the colours, but I’m slow on PVT because of my RSI. I felt okay about this second round of training, but I was aware that everything I did this time wasn’t as fast or as accurate. God knows what it’s going to be like by the end of the week. (I found out later that some of my tests results actually improved, so what do I know?)

The driving test simulates a night-time scene in the country. There’s only ever one car on the road, so it’s not so different to actual driving in the outback, but it’s weird that this solitary vehicle only ever appears at the same time every time, and it doesn’t appear in your rear vision mirror after you’ve passed it. Perhaps just once that’ll change, and we’ll all totally freak out. (I’ve started speeding up to overtake it earlier, to avoid the bend. I’m sure that’s costing me points. Oh well. We’re all finding ways to subvert the system, whether it’s dimming our screen or changing our Windows wallpaper. I’m sure this is just the beginning.)

I find that my mind drifts during the tests, as it does through other menial tasks, but the “End of Test” announcement is just enough of a surprise to erase anything I might have come up with during that drifting. So it’s not like showers or doing the dishes, in that one can emerge with interesting thoughts or insights while the mind wanders. This is dead time. So far, anyway. Maybe my mind will adjust. Art always finds a way.

I was feeling sleepy after the training, but I couldn’t tell if that was because it was nighttime outside or afternoon naptime. It came as a relief, then, that a “sleep opportunity” was announced. An opportunity that was mandatory, it turned out, but that was okay. I dutifully hit the sack, without the leads in place, this time. (I suspect it was designed to mess with our sense of when was when.) The lights went out, and I dozed for what felt like an hour or two, but could have been any time at all. I didn’t dream, and I didn’t have any big ideas.

Just as I decided I’d had enough, the lights came back on and I got up. I had an earworm: Jamiroquai’s “Cosmic Girl”. No idea where that came from. “Dinner” arrived (a tasty stir-fry; inverted commas only because the names we attach to meals are time-related), over which we agreed that it was somewhere around the 8-10pm mark, plus or minus who knows how much time. We’re in a zone now. I feel like we’ve passed Pluto and are on our way out of the solar system. Thank goodness the atmo and artificial g is holding up.

The testing is beginning for real after dinner, as I’m typing this. (Instructions arrive to try harder at the PVT. SAS and Stroop are “very good” and improving, for now.) I’m fitting in this account in dribs and drabs between everything else. Hopefully I’ll have time for something else later.

General thoughts:

We get a treat after the tests batteries. I find myself looking forward to that, even though I’m not hungry. Less than a day without chocolate, and I’m already a Pavlovian robot. If chocolate isn’t on the menu, I might die a little inside.

Things I find myself thinking about, apart from the time and my family, include the supplements I’d normally take with my meal. This will be the longest I’ve gone without a multivitamin for, well, ages. I have my treacherously non-vegetarian fish oil tablets, and that’s it. I give my body two days before imploding.

Related to my earlier comment about the bathroom light: it bothers my reflexes (and my energy-saving sensibilities) that I can’t turn the light on/off as I enter/leave the room.

Adding to a sense that under some circumstances this could feel like heaven, I’ve been told I’m moving around a lot. This is mainly to stretch. I’m certainly not doing anything strenuous. A world where movement is discouraged sounds absolutely brilliant!

While doing the SAS (maths) task just now I was thinking how I could totally do it all night, and my wish almost came true. So powerful was my love for this task, I broke the program, and it literally would have gone all night had not Melissa come and shut it down. Sad face. The rest of the testing really was testing, particularly the PVT, which I know I’m getting steadily worse at. By the end of the week, I’ll just be staring at the box and pushing the button at random, a terrifying rictus where a human face once resided.

On a cheerier note, I’ve started seeing patterns in randomness. I swear all the tasks follow pre-programmed sequences, but I am afraid to ask. What would be worse, if that was the case or if it wasn’t? How long until I start hearing messages from the cables when the lights are out?

Oh, and we filled in another round of food craving questionnaires (which I forgot to mention earlier). This, I suspect, is my chance to say “Feed me now or I will die” but I keep being honest and saying I’m actually not that hungry. Still, that didn’t stop me taking a packet of Chilli Grain Waves when the basket went by just then. This was for my friends at Dymocks booksellers in Rundle Mall. I’m thinking of you!

We’ve just entered a period of free time, during which I’ll tinker with this document, write a letter to my wife, and work on Twinmaker. It’s been hard to fit things in so far, but I’m assured it’ll be less interrupty now the training is done and we’re nice and disoriented. No idea when we’ll next be sleeping. I presume the wires will go on then, to measure our brainwaves and the movement of our eyes and jaws. My fingers will be crossed that I have a whopper of a dream, one that will fuel a new story, generated and written entirely in this odd place. I want those needles to go off the charts!

If I don’t, I’ll just have to find something else to write about. Stay tuned . . . and please don’t be having any zombie apocalypses while we’re in here. I’m really looking forward to that champagne.

Sean Williams

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