A Message of Unknown Purpose

Tao Lin
9 min readOct 20, 2020

Directed Apparently to the People of 2014 from an Elderly Man in Prison in 2042 That Was Discovered by an Anonymous Source and Has yet to Be Read or Analyzed and Will Now Be Read Aloud Verbatim for the First Time

*This was written in 2014 for BBC Radio 4

In 2042, after major worldwide catastrophes in the second and third decades of the 21st century, the world is drastically different. It’s much, much worse and maybe more exciting, depending on who you ask. If you asked me, I would probably make the joke that I usually make in conversations in which I’m pressured to compare the present and the past. The joke I usually make is that the only improvement in the world is that a machine that can make you fall asleep immediately has finally been invented.

There’s some truth to my joke. It’s 40% a joke. It’s actually around 34.5% a joke. I usually will make up a new number (between 30 and 50, usually to one decimal place) each time I get to that part of the joke, which I rarely do anymore in prison, where I have no romantic prospects or friends. Anyway — yeah, I usually lack the motivation to get to that part of the joke, where I imply that I’ve analyzed the percentage amount that it’s a joke. I have to really like someone and feel that they would appreciate every part of my joke and that they won’t feel unresolved discomfort or boredom as a result of my joke, for me to get to the third-part of a many-part joke, usually.

I will now make a variation of my joke for you, a person who is listening to these words via radio in the year 2014 on Earth, probably in the UK. The joke will begin right after this sentence, which will end now. Actually, or not ‘actually’ but maybe ‘arguably’, I now feel the joke began in the sentence before the sentence ‘The joke will begin right after this sentence, which will end now.’ So, the sentence you will hear after the sentence you are now hearing will be the 6th sentence of the variation of a joke that I sometimes will automatically make when pressured to relate an opinion regarding the past as compared to the present. By the way, before I continue with the main part of my joke, let me just say that, yes, the future is very confusing, so if you feel confused right now, that’s part of my communication to you. The confusion is necessary. The confusion is part of it. 2042 is confusing. I didn’t consciously begin using very short sentences — when I just said ‘The confusion is necessary’ and ‘The confusion is part of it’ and ‘2042 is confusing’ — sorry if that seemed condescending, it’s meant, if anything, playfully.

Anyway — continuing now, with what I was doing. I was going to use a variation of a joke on you.

One last disclaimer before I continue with the joke. Don’t expect it to be funny. Expect anticlimax, if anything. If you don’t like anticlimax, prepare for disappointment, maybe.

Okay, here it is — the joke. Here is the joke, which is something like 33.2% a joke: The only improvement in the world, comparing how it is now, in 2042, with how it was when you heard this story on the radio, in 2014, is that a machine that can make you fall asleep immediately has finally been invented. In other words, the only aspect of reality, as experienced from the perspective of my body, that arguably can be said to have improved, when comparing, in a general way, the state of the world, on average, in the year 2014 with the state of the world, on average, in 2042, is that ‘a device with the ability to cause a person to immediately change from a state of being awake to a state of being asleep’ has finally been invented and is legal and relatively affordable and easy-to-use.

The first model of this device, released in 2036, looked like earmuffs and was controlled via hand-held remote-control. By 2038 the best-selling model was one you downloaded and controlled mentally. I currently use this quote-unquote invisible model. If I want to sleep five minutes I think the words ‘sleep five minutes’ in a robotic monotone. After five seconds I feel sleepy. After five more seconds I’m asleep. These numbers are adjustable. The legal limit for the smallest amount of time between deciding you want to be asleep and being asleep is ten seconds, but most people have illegally deactivated the ten-second delay on their machines and are able to fall asleep immediately, at any time, in any situation, simply by thinking the word ‘sleep’ and the amount of time they want to be asleep.

The maximum amount of time that most sleep machines can legally keep a person asleep is sixteen hours. There are some specially built ones that can keep a person asleep indefinitely, but these are officially illegal. I once owned one of these specially built ones and, in a vague effort to end my life, used it on myself by thinking ‘sleep forty thousand hours’ while laying supine in a grassy, somewhat crowded expanse of mostly NYU students in Washington Square Park at 2PM on a sunny day last year. I was woken around midnight when an elderly man fell on me. It’s rare for a person to successfully end their life using a sleep machine. The body usually wakes when it needs to urinate or feels some other desire or urge, like hunger or boredom or loneliness or depression.

The much more common method of somewhat privately and non-violently ending one’s life in 2042 is via the next-next-next generation of the class of ‘benzodiazepine’ drugs you had in 2014, which was the next generation of the class of drugs that I think were called ‘barbiturates’, which I think Marilyn Monroe was ingesting around the end of her life. In 2042, we’re on the next generation of the next generation of the next generation. But the family is the same. It’s the same family of drugs. Yes, that’s one thing that’s still kind of the same in 2042. But it’s not really the same, it’s just one aspect that has remained active in the world.

I’ll be direct now and tell you that, for a person in 2014, it’s unimaginably different in 2042. The future is unimaginable. It’s the realization of a unique and surprising world, and the unique and surprising is unique and surprising because it’s unimaginable. It literally cannot be imagined. Language is an information technology, and information technologies double exponentially by year, or something like that. Your language, which I’m using to communicate with you, is a language of 2014. And a language of 2014 might stand in relation to a language of 600AD in the manner that my language, a language of 2042, stands in relation to a language of 2014. I’m somewhat arbitrarily estimating these numbers. Anyway, my point is that in 2014 you’re thinking mostly linearly in a world that is changing exponentially and fractally, so you will be surprised by the future, and it cannot be conveyed to you in your own language.

The philosopher and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who died of brain cancer in 2000, often said something to the effect of this: Life is not only stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose. And, when speaking of the future, or at least certain aspects of the future, he often used the word unimaginable. He was right: it’s unimaginable, it’s in a different language, it’s in its own language. I don’t want to lie to you and say otherwise. I want to tell you that I currently feel like I’m actually being more informative and helpful to you about the future than anyone else who might try to tell you what the future is like by superimposing their narrative onto yours in a manner that is disempowering, but I’m not sure I feel that anymore.

I apologize if I haven’t been as informative as you might have expected.

Maybe you would like to learn more about the ‘sleep machine’ which I’ve been mentioning. I can tell you a little about how the sleep machine works, and how I use it personally.

The sleep machine was invented in 2036 in Mexico. The current best-selling model is invisible, and operated mentally. Once you have it downloaded into your system, whenever you desire, you simply think, for example, ‘sleep five hours’, and you stay asleep for five hours, unless you’re disturbed awake.

I would like to illegally turn off the ten-second delay on my sleep machine, but I’m currently one of the estimated 18 million people in prison — all of us victims of a worldwide conspiracy which, for you, would seem insanely, insanely, unbelievably absurd, but for me, in 2042, is routine and of low-to-medium-low notability — for illegally turning off the ten-second delay on my sleep machine.

The average person with a full-time job used their sleep machine around 40 times a day last year. In prison, I use my sleep machine exactly 8 times a day.

After breakfast, which I eat at a leisurely pace without thinking anything, I put my head down on my arms on the table and think ‘sleep fourteen minutes’. I wake and do my job, which is to pick up cigarette butts in the outside smoking area. This usually takes fifteen minutes a day. After work, I go to my room and lay on my bed and see how much time there is until lunch — usually there’s 2 hours 43 minutes until lunch. I use my sleep machine a second time — usually for 2 hours and 40 minutes, leaving 2 to 3 minutes to walk to the cafeteria. Immediately after lunch I use the sleep machine again. And so on. In prison, I sleep 8 times a day. When I’m awake, I try not to think about anything. My strategy while in prison is to be unconscious as much as possible, so that my 8-month sentence will not seem like 8 months, but like a vague dream composed mostly of leisurely eaten meals. I tell myself this is a temporary strategy regarding how to live my life, only to be used while in prison — that, after I’m released, I’ll only use my sleep machine two or three times a day, and hopefully never to escape reality, but primarily to rest myself so that, when I’m awake, I can be a functioning member of society (or at least a functioning member of various, shifting sub-subcultures of 1 to 5 people). But I suspect I’ll continue using my sleep machine whenever possible after I’m released from prison, like an estimated 14% of people on Earth did last year.

Around half of the 14% estimated number of people on Earth in 2041 whose lives were officially judged by some other people to be completely centered around sleep-machine usage used their sleep machines only once or twice a day, waking famished and thirsty, eating and maybe cleaning themselves and using the bathroom, then returning to sleep for fifteen or twenty-five hours.

I’m not one of those people. I suspect that, after I’m released from prison, in June 2043, I’ll eventually get a part-time job at which I will covertly use my sleep machine in such a manner that I’m conscious less than 5% of my time while at work. I’ll likely be conscious less than 10% of my time while not at work. Maybe I’ll fall in love with someone or something or the world and be conscious for hours at a day every day, but probably not, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anyway, everything I’ve told you is pretty much irrelevant to my experience of life in 2042, but it’s what I can tell you in a language you’d understand, and I hope you’ve found some of it interesting.

I now would like to gently direct your attention to the next 28 years of your life. I feel funny thinking that we’re separated by 28 years, which you are currently traversing in your unique way.



Tao Lin

I’m the author of Leave Society (2021), Trip (2018), Taipei (2013), other books. Visit my website at https://taolin.us.