Monthly Archives: September 2011
A lot of role-playing nerds are obessed with ideas of status and power. They ask their GM’s questions like ‘how many of us would it take to slay an Ancient Red Dragon?’ or ‘how many kobolds can each of us kill ourselves?’ Speaking for myself, I usually answer something along the lines of ‘depends on how you go about it,’ but when a player is asking that question of his or her GM, the question they want answered isn’t ‘can I kill x’, per se. What they really want to know is ’where do I stand in the foodchain of this RPG?’
In a completely fictional world where the rules often don’t imitate reality well, there can be some very real anxiety among players regarding what will and will not get their character killed and what kinds of tasks they can and cannot succeed with. Some of this is due to unfamiliarity with the rules (and, since I switch systems constantly, I get questions like this a lot), but a greater part has to do with unfamiliarity with the campaign setting or the GM’s style. Some RPGs set the foodchain up for you so you don’t need to think about it (D&D 4th ed, for instance, with it’s level system and rigid encounter creation guidelines), and others leave you to guess on your own entirely (Shadowrun, for instance). In any case, it is up to you, as the GM, to make certain the PCs know where they stand. This will make everybody have more fun, since they will know what is expected of them and what to expect, and they will become more comfortable with taking risks (and risks, always remember, are where are the fun lies).
Above and beyond any system-based cues regarding the difficulty of opponents (level systems, the Brute/Henchman/Villain set up in Wick’s 7th Sea, etc.) , a GM should consider and inform players where their group will fall on the foodchain of the campaign. For me, I separate campaigns into one of three strata: Little Fish, Medium Fish, and Big Fish.
Medium Fish Campaigns
Medium Fish are the standard, so I’m going to start here. Basically, if the PCs are meant to be ‘medium’, it means that, while they are generally quite capable, there are a lot of big baddies in the world they can’t handle. Your average thugs and minions aren’t much of a problem, the elite guards of the enemy should pose a significant health threat, and the big, big baddies should be beyond their capabilities until they either find a clever way to defeat them or grow in power somehow.
‘Medium Fish’ campaigns I refer to as the ‘default’, since it is where most D&D campaigns spend most of their time (anywhere from levels 5-15, arguably, and even broader if the GM gets clever). Since most RPGs take their cue from D&D on some level, this is where everybody lands. The advantages of the medium fish campaign are obvious: the PCs have enough power so that they feel awesome, but not so much power that the GM feels like he or she might lose control of the party (which, in itself, is a concern better addressed other ways, but I digress). Medium Fish are a good way to keep a campaign on the rails, so to speak, and to give PCs both a keen sense of mortality coupled with some fun opportunities for derring-do and frontal-assault type heroics.
My only problem with Medium Fish campaigns is that it sets a kind of arbitrary cap on what PCs can do. This is fine in many contexts, but not in all of them. Furthermore, you run the risk of making your game ‘formulaic’ in the sense that PCs always know what to expect all the time. Medium Fish campaigns don’t always require the GM or players to think outside the box (we beat up the henchmen, we outwit/outlast/outnumber the big villain, we go home and party!). They are often great fun, granted, but they can get old after a while.
Little Fish Campaigns
Little Fish campaigns have the PCs controlling characters that are either novices, apprentices, or other kinds of low-status individuals in the world in question. This means the scope of these campaigns is either fairly small-potatoes (you are doing jobs intended for novices) or they are exceptionally dangerous (i.e. Call of Cthulhu).
The advantage of such campaigns is that, because the players aren’t very powerful, the standby frontal assault tactics don’t work anymore. This requires the players to think harder and come up with plans that are outside the box, which makes things more interesting. Furthermore, more deadly opposition means players are more worried about their impending demise, which can also up the tension in the game and make things more fun (so long as everybody is on the same page, of course).
The drawback of these games, of course, is that there is only so much the PCs can realistically accomplish and the GM has to be constantly aware of this. Unless playing a Cthulhu-type game where the death of all PCs is acceptable, the GM has to pay close attention to how fairly he’s balanced the obstacles to PC success to avoid bitterness or frustration on the part of his players, which is a big no-no, obviously.
Big Fish Campaigns
Big Fish campaigns involve the players using characters at the top of their professions–they are tough, smart, fast, and all-around super-badass. They can kill any enemy, cut their way past any army, conquer any castle, defeat any foe. They are supermen, pure and simple.
The big advantage of this campaign is that it frees up PCs to do whatever it is they want. They are allowed to be creative just for fun, without the worry of dying due to a lousy roll or looking foolish. The world becomes their playground, and this is good.
The problem with Big Fish is, of course, the GM can’t really control them. They will do whatever they please and he has to bend over backwards to make things challenging enough to give them pause. Since the GM needs to create challenge to make things fun (no matter what the players believe), things get hard for the GM. Essentially, what he has to do is think outside the box, himself. Challenge needs to be internal rather than external; the PCs need to fight their own character’s demons as much as real, actual demons coming to eat their souls. Also, even though they are super powerful, they can still be outsmarted–GMs need to be clever and they need their villains to fight with intelligence rather than raw force if they hope to be a challenge for the PCs.
In the end, there is no one type of campaign I prefer to the other–I like to shake it up. Of the three, I think Big Fish campaigns are the hardest to manage, if for no other reason than you need to try so very hard to keep things interesting for the good guys (though there are a number of tactics I’ve developed by this point). So long as everybody’s having fun, however, it doesn’t really matter. Make sure you know where your PCs stand and make sure they know, as well, and things should be fine!
In the early 20th century, two dystopian novels really set the stage for, well, all dystopian novels to follow, really. The first was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932 and then came George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949. Situated on either side of the Second World War, these two books paint for us two very different but equally horrible future societies where freedom is a thing of the past and mankind is permanently locked beneath the heel of some kind of World State. If you haven’t read them, then I suggest you do so. If you like sci-fi at all, you’ve probably been talking about them for years and don’t even realize it.
What I think is the most important difference between the two, however, is the underlying rationale behind the creators of the World States described in both books. In Brave New World, the society is one of wealth and the ensurance of social stability through endless entertainment, whereas1984 is primarily a society of poverty and need modulated and kept in check by a healthy dose of terror. In Christopher Hitchens’ forward to the most recent printing of Brave New World, he points out that:
“…it does deserve to be said that [Orwell's] own fictionalization of absolutism does not depend exclusively upon the power of fear and violence. … The Nineteen Eight-Four is one of scarcity rather than abundance, but the traditional bribes of materialism and indeed of conditioning cannot be said to have been overlooked.” (pg xvii)
So, given that, it is perhaps not fair to entirely characterize Huxley’s world as one of pleasure and Orwell’s as one of pain, but I feel it is near enough to the truth to work with. Big Brother is very different from Mustapha Mond, and intentionally so–Huxley and Orwell were going for different things.
This difference is crucial, I feel, when we assess which of these two works is the more prophetic. For a very long time it was said that Orwell’s future was the one we needed to fear. The Soviet Union was the West’s principal example of this, as its governmental policies mirrored (in a less extreme way) the behavior of Orwell’s Big Brother. Indeed, as we have entered this era of security cameras everywhere and hyperactive worry about the prospect of terrorist attack, the term ‘Orwellian’ is often bandied about and libertarians shake their heads sagely at the horrible things the government might choose to do at any time (put us in camps, shoot us, lock us in chains, etc.).
The thing is, though, I don’t think such fears are founded. Well, perhaps partially–there are places where that kind of thing happens and, indeed, it could potentially happen here, but those kinds of governments–the one’s ruled through fear and oppression–do not represent the future of humanity. Those governments inevitably collapse; there comes a point where the people have had enough and BAM–they’re gone. Consider the Arab Spring if you don’t believe me or, if you wish to contend that it was the free internet that allowed such to be possible, consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Shah’s of Iran, the overthrow of the Russian Czars, the French Revolution, and so on and so forth. Fear and Loathing do not a stable government make.
For Huxley, stability is the main thing. Stability is achieved through contentment, not oppression. Anyone who has owned and trained a dog knows this (or ought to know it): the dog that comes when called is the one that gets a treat every time he does so; the dog that runs away is the one that gets whacked when it comes (the whack being for its disobedience, but dogs seldom make the connection). Accordingly, Huxley’s society of unrestricted sexual enterprise, plentiful recreational drug use, endless entertainment, and non-stop distraction is more likely to keep people in line and docile than any amount of riot police, guns, detention centers, or attack dogs.
Consider, then, our present day society. The Internet, for instance, is an almost endless source of amusement. Companies like Apple and Google spend umpteen billions to get tiny devices in your hands that keep you entertained at all times in all places. Drugs are readily available to all of us–over the counter and without a perscription–to keep us comfy, stable, and happy. Television markets to us a kind of sex-as-amusement concept that would have horrified even my grandparents’ generation, and it stands to continue in that vein. Are these things bad? I don’t know–I like some of them, the same as you. I do think, however, that the dangers to our future thinking and free thought aren’t the obvious ones, but rather the ones that snuggle close to you everytime you ride the train or whisper in your ears anytime you take a jog. As soon as our kids believe that all knowledge is contained in Google (and, indeed, many of my students already believe this), the quicker Huxley’s prophesy comes true.
I could keep going, but let me leave it at that. Oh, and for God’s sake, turn off that damned Ipod for a few minutes and pay attention to the world around you. You aren’t going to die if you don’t hear Beyonce talk about what you should or should not have put a ring upon for the next ten minutes.
I’m just now about halfway through George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. He is a fine writer and has a gift for characterization, but, while I tore through the previous four books (okay, the first three and read the fourth in a week), I’ve found myself stumbling through this fifth in the series. I’ve been trying to pin down why, exactly, and I believe I’ve figured it out: This series isn’t about a person anymore, or even a group of people or two groups of people. It’s about Everyone.
Let me be frank: I don’t care about everyone. I mean that in the context fiction, specifically (primarily, at least, but let’s not delve into my misanthropy just now). No matter how much I get drawn into a work (and Martin really sucked me in with A Game of Thrones), I pin my interests and cares on the main characters, whoever they are, and there my concerns stay. I did not cry when they blew up Alderaan. I did not give a crap when all those dwarves died in Moria. I produced a big shrug when the aliens in Independence Day nuked Los Angeles…
But I cheered when Will Smith’s dog evaded that giant fireball.
A story, to my mind, should about a character or groups of characters going through a journey that changes them and challenges them. The more characters you have, the harder it gets to keep the reader focused on the story and the harder it becomes to engage them with the characters. Too many irons in the fire; too many cooks in the kitchen. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has become an unwieldy behemoth of a series, with well over 100 characters. It’s a pretty huge struggle for me to give a crap what happens to them all. There are barely over 100 real people I care about that much.
Let me make this clear, as well: it isn’t that I can’t keep the characters straight. I have a pretty solid memory for things like plot and character–I picked up Dance and started reading after having read the other books many, many years before and was able to keep up just fine. I remember most things of consequence and the stuff I forgot I am reminded of as soon as it comes up again. I’m on top of the narrative–comprehension isn’t the problem.
The problem, I’ve come to realize, is that the only characters I care about–and I stress the word only–are those
characters present in Winterfell when King Robert came to visit in the first book. That’s it–those are my characters. Even Daenerys is, well, only mildly interesting (I was frustrated by her inclusion in the first book, honestly. She got better, but I still wouldn’t give a crap if somebody stuck a knife in her eye…well, aside from the overriding plot repurcussions that might prevent GRRM from reasonably resolving this story, but whatever). Those characters at that castle set the tone for the rest of the series and presented to me all the protagonists and antagonists I’d really care to meet in this world ever.
Now, how many of those characters are still around, keeping us interested? How many of them are still relevant to what is happening in the world at large? How many of them have we even seen in the past book and a half? Yeah, not that many. Two? Three? Screw it, I say. I’m getting bored, and not because the book is badly written (far from it), but because I feel like I’m done here. It’s like watching the playoffs after your team’s been eliminated–why bother? I got plenty of other books to read where characters I like are still involved in the main plot.
This, in the end, is the main cost of writing ‘epic fantasy literature’ in its various forms. The author gets so invested in his world, he forgets why it exists in the first place: To give interesting characters a place to live and strive and die. Take away the characters, or drown them in a sea of unfamiliar faces, and the books lose something essential, something elemental to all storytelling.
Star Trek 5 is an abysmal movie. No, no, Star Trek Nation, don’t bother defending it–you only make yourself look ridiculous. The plot is stupid, the action is boring, and the vast majority of the movie is pure drivel. There are only two moments worth remembering. I am going to include them here (courtesy of YouTube) so you don’t need to see the movie.
The first is the camping scene:
The second is this:
These two scenes, essentially, sum up what this film is about (despite the filmmakers best efforts to the contrary, apparently). It’s about death and pain and just how important they are to who we become and who we aspire to be.
One of the things that science does badly is explain motivation. Yes, it can tell us that we eat because we need materials to continue breathing, or that we are afraid because we fear harm or destruction. What it can’t do is explain to us why it should matter that we are harmed or destroyed. This is because, by every logical measure, it doesn’t matter. There are very, very few living things that, were they to die, it would actually matter. Hell, there’s even a really healthy debate to be had about what ‘matters’ at all, if anything.
Life comes hand-in-hand with pain, death and a lot of other things that we might not want. We try like hell to avoid them, but we can’t. We make mistakes, we are hurt or hurt others, we make poor decisions and are buried in regret, and so on. This stuff is inevitable. Do we wish to undo it? Are we the less for such experiences?
The pat answer, and the go-to sideplot to most if not all time travel ventures, is ‘yes, let us undo the badness that has occurred.’ Let’s go back in time and catch so-and-so’s cancer before it’s too late. Let’s patch up that relationship we had before it is irreversibly gone. Let’s go on that vacation and keep a keen eye on our passport. Let’s have a do-over and do things ‘right’ this time. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all cursed the skies and said ‘if only I’d _______’.
The thing is, though, is that by going back and fixing those problems–by erasing them from our souls, whether actually (via time travel) or mentally (via what Spock’s Brother offers Kirk)–we erase who we are. Star Trek shows this to us time and again, and not just in Star Trek 5, but through Picard’s interactions with Q, through Sisko’s negotiations with the Prophets of the Wormhole, and in many other instances, too. Yeah, maybe you can go back and fix things, but that won’t make you any better. It probably just makes you different and, possibly, a lesser person for it.
So, Kirk’s question at the conclusion of ST5 (and, seriously, don’t see it), when he asks the ‘Supreme Being’ “What does God need with a Starship,” can be looked at metaphorically, I suppose. The starship is a journey–a promise of adventure or ordeal, depending on perspective–and God might ‘need’ it not to get around, but to show us something that we need to understand: Change is inevitable, pain is assured, and the only thing that really matters is how you chose to deal with it. Are you Captain James T Kirk, hero of the Federation and savior of worlds?
Or are you this dope:
It’s like this: you cack some sphere-jockey in Hubspace, or you sell Bluetab to the chemjunkies on Arcturus, or you bop with some Biggie’s girl and he throws SPIT-NET a bone, and you find yourself lookin’ up the nostrils of a Judge as he looks down. Prison, he says, or worse. But you’re a slammer, still running green on all your lights—young, strong, not a total dumbass—so your law-squawk cuts you a deal. Prison or a CFC. For you jump-chumps sqattin’ on the john and scanning this down, that means Corporate Frontier Contract, affirm? A one-way ticket to the ass-end of nowhere, the Big Empty, hupping for snot-pay through more shit-top ugly duty than’ll reg on a heavy scanner. Rads, rock-watches, pirates, the rest of it. Crazy.
Still, it beats prison.
You keep telling yourself that, anyway. You keep it flashing green on your HUD as the med-techs clamp you down on a table and squirt a tube of nano-goo behind your left eyeball. You keep saying it to yourself as TRACI goes live and starts whispering in your ear, saying shit you never scanned before, ramming her nanotech cables deep down in your thinker, till your hands can run protocols you never clocked hours learning. You field-strip hypersluggers in the dark; you got specs on how to set bombs and where to put them for the biggest boom; you got a chump bitch-chatting you in a bar and there’s TRACI, telling you all the spots you can hit him to make him cry. You don’t even have to make your hands go—just give the lady the go-ahead, and she does all the work. Still, it beats prison. You got your hands wrist deep in that guy’s guts, but still it beats prison. Yeah.
CFC terms in five years, affirm? You run your course, you stay green, then you rate a duffel full of cred and a chip in your thinker that scans SPIT-NET that you’re shit-top fine citizen and top-flight colonial specimen. Regs say they even shut down sweet TRACI, and drop you free, drifting off on your own course. Those are the specs, anyway, but it don’t matter. You don’t make the five years, chump. More ways to wind up going for the Big Float in this duty than anywhere, affirm? Odds are running seven to one you don’t make it your first year. Nine to one says you don’t see year three. Don’t ask me the odds on year five, chief—even TRACI don’t crunch that math, affirm?
Even if you’re cagey, and know all the tricks the Barrys send down the wire, and keep yourself hull down when the flak starts, guess what? You didn’t keep yourself running green by being all smiles and handshakes, did you? You violated regs, and violations rate blackers. One blacker, one more year on the contract. You cack a guy you shouldn’t? Blacker. You bitch-chat a Barry? Blacker. You evac on a mission? Blacker. I’ve been CFC-ed to the Interstellar Mining Consortium for eight years running, and got me two years left. Only one guy been here longer than me, and that’s Vivian. He’s rated sixteen blackers in his time, and run twelve of his twenty-one years. Nobody else has lived that long. Nobody.
Ugly dude, Vivian. Not on the outside, neither—all deep down. Scan it through his eyes, chief—nothing but dead black space and mean stares, running on loop. He run more black ops protocols than you downloaded from vid-flicks, ‘cepting he’s done it in the flesh. His own two hands choking out some putz, thumbs screwed into his windpipe like they was riveted there. Run evictions, hits, smash-n-grabs, duffle-stuffs—all of it. Tell you about it, too. Ain’t one for blinking, is Vivian. Cold as the Big Empty and twice as dark. Cack you as soon as shit on you.
Guess what else, chump—he’s your pappy. The boss. Captain. C-fucking-O. He runs the missions, he marks the protocols, he chats with the Barrys. He tells you your X and your Y and your fucking Z. You don’t do it? Blacker. If you’re lucky. Odds say he just puts a slug up your aft while you’re walking point with the twitch-gun, calls it an accident.
Still, it beats prison.
Author’s Note: I wrote this as the opening pages to a novel I’ve got cooking on the back burner along with a hundred million other ideas. Most recently I’ve adapted it as the introductory fluff text to an RPG I wrote called Frontier: 2280(tentative title–still not wild about it), though it may be that I’ll journey back to this bit yet and extend it. <sigh> So many projects I’d like to work on, so little time…
Somewhere in the past, while action movie and scifi and fantasy writers were trying to figure out how to attract female fans without having to insert emotion into their work, some guy came up with the Kick-Ass Girl trope. I guess perhaps we could say it started with Eowyn from Return of the King, but I’m not sure that’s accurate–Eowyn was strong not because she kicked ass, but because she was brave, and that’s a different thing. I think, instead, it started with Molly from Gibson’s Neuromancer (though perhaps I ought to have started with various comic book heroines, but whatever).
Molly is a kick-ass mercenary who murders bad guys and looks really hot while doing it. Her whole thing is a kind of mixture of sex and violence, and she inspires a whole legion of female characters who work off the same idea. The idea is this, as represented by what I imagine to be a brainstorming session between a writer and a producer/agent/other writer:
Person 1: We need a woman in this adventure story, but let’s make it a strong woman.
Person 2: What makes a strong woman?
Person 1: Well, she needs to be able to hold her own with the guys.
Person 2: What, so she, like, knows kung fu?
Person 1: Hmmm…yeah, let’s go with that. Super strength and kung fu. Yeah–that’s hot.
From this model we basically get not only Molly, but also Lara Croft, Wonder Woman, Xena: Warrior Princess, Summer Glau in both Firefly *and* Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, and the list goes on and on and on and on…
First of all, I should note that there is nothing wrong with a woman being able to physically dominate in a fight. The thing I find troublesome about it is the fact that many, if not most or all, of the writers for these stories are basically using the character’s capacity for physical violence as a stand-in for their actual status as a strong, independent, equal person in the story. The thing is, though, that being able to beat up thugs doesn’t make someone into a strong person. This isn’t and never has been true, either for men or women. It’s smoke-and-mirrors, a disguise for lazy characterization.
This trope is, of course, understandable given that, for much of literature (and particularly the genres of adventure, action, fantasy, and scifi), women were the exact opposite of that–weak, unable to physically compete, and used as window dressing as often as not. It’s a kind of pendulum swing that was inevitable–now, if you want a strong woman, she has to kick ass.
I watched the series pilot of Prime Suspect last night, starring Maria Bello as a female homicide detective in NYC. Watching her play the role (and play it wonderfully), I started thinking about what a real strong person is. It isn’t somebody who goes to the gym or has super powers or can beat up people twice his or her size–it’s about courage. It’s about doing what’s right and standing up for yourself and others. Its about being intelligent enough to find ways to solve problems, wise enough to know how to do it, and brave enough to follow through. Maria Bello’s character is exactly that–she perserveres against enormous pressure, she controls herself, she doesn’t flinch. At the end, she gets her ass kicked by a giant thug of a man, but it doesn’t matter–we don’t think less of her for it. You know why? Punching him into submission didn’t make her a strong person. That isn’t what strength is about.
For me, the strongest woman I know in real life is my mother. There is nobody on this Earth that messes with her family and gets away with it, and it isn’t because she’s going to punch your lights out. It’s because she’s something most of us aren’t–committed to doing what’s right, no matter how scary. I could tell you stories about the brave things my mother has done, but let’s leave it at this: My brother died slowly and horribly of a disease worse than any I can think of. It took it fifteen years or so to kill him, all the while robbing little pieces of himself–his sight, his ability to walk, his ability to chew, his ability to talk, etc.. He wound up living the last eight years of his life or so in a pediatric nursing home, since he needed constant care. It was an hour’s drive away, and my mother visited almost every day. This, though, isn’t why I call her courageous.
This nursing home was the last stop for a crew of children who could best be described as abandoned by society. Their families couldn’t handle seeing them the way they were–all with permanent neurological or physical damage to the point where they would never recover, never walk out of there, never get better. It had all the atmosphere of a soul-killing purgatoy, where drab gray hospital walls echoed with the sounds of automatic feeding machines and gutteral moans. My mother marched in there every day to see her little boy, but she didn’t do just that. She looked out for every kid on that floor. She brought them christmas presents when nobody else did. She made sure they were comfortable. She made sure the nurses hadn’t left them with the same movie on loop for hours and hours on end. She made damned sure they got their baths and that their linens were clean and that they were remembered. The staff tried passively ignoring her at first, but they soon learned what the wrath of my mother could be like–guilt trips and blunt assessments of their worth as human beings that came blistering out her mouth at such a temperature that their hair curled. She slapped the place into shape. She spent more of her own money helping those kids than anybody had before or since. She didn’t have to do this.
She did it because it needed to be done, and you know what? She never once threw a punch.
Sector Alpha 01 Alpha was further from Tess’s home than he had ever been. He was on the mag rail, arms and legs fully retracted, for a full three hours, humming along the ceiling of the Complex with all of robot-dom marching beneath him in perfect time. Each sector, he noticed, looked much the same as the one before it, but with subtle differences. Sector Delta, for instance, used more Stans than were really necessary while Sector Gamma had an unusual number of tracked or wheeled mobile bots as opposed to the bipedal formation common to good-old Sigma. The sheer complexity of the ramp system there was so amazing as to be threatened with deletion from Tess’s memory as bad data.
Sector Alpha Zero-One Alpha, though, was different. It was much smaller than the other Sectors, and it had very few mobile bots at all—mostly Mateys and Mekkers. It had no processing or heavy industry bots, no conveyors jammed with workers. Even the lighting was dimmer. When the mag rail finally ejected him, he noted with shock that he was at the rails terminal—a thing he had only heard about in rumor and religious lore.
He stood now at the beginning of it all, at the very place where the Source Code said the Users gave light to the bots and set them on their mission. The rust spots on the supports and the labored screams made by the mobile bots’ servomotors in this place made even old Tess feel young again.
He was alone as he marched towards the center of the Complex, towards the resting place of Archive System SASH-A00011. Archives were among the most venerable of the stat-bots, their job being simply to record everything that went on in preparation for the time when the Users would request data. This, of course, never happened, and prior to this time Tess had never given any thought to visiting one of the venerable systems. It was all too superstitious for him. The Archives, he used to think, were just wasting everyone’s time with religious nonsense. Now, it seemed, everyone was wasting their time. The Archives, at least, had a reason why.
The security door between the passageway and SASH-A00011’s chamber opened without prompting. Inside it was very dark, and Tess’s chem-sensors caught stale whiffs of biological dust and aging lubricant oil. Someone was expecting him. Closing all vents, he stepped inside.
Before him was a massive digital display screen. As Tess stood before it, it flickered to life and revealed, to Tess’s discomfort, a picture of himself, standing in front of the screen from the screen’s perspective. A voice, firm and soft, spoke from all around him. <I’ve been expecting you.>
<Negative. I’m here without clearance. You must be malfunctioning.>
<Hardly, Tess. If you had arrived with clearance, I would have been suspicious of your intentions. You may call me Sasha.>
Tess looked around the room. To his right was a door of heavy steel marked with a single zero. To his left was a peculiar structure, perhaps level with his knees. It appeared to be made out of soft rubber and shaped in a L-shaped bowl, like an access port waiting to be filled. The only difference was that there was no interface port at its back; indeed, there were no electronic components at all beyond a series of lighted panels lining the lower rim of the thing. He looked at it for a full 38.771 seconds and could come up with no reference for such a structure ever existing anywhere in the Complex.
Sasha sounded amused. <It’s a chair.>
<That’s an unknown value.>
<You sit in it.> The screen showed Tess walking to the chair and, by bending the knees and allowing the hip joints to slide into the socket, the image of Tess was now ensconced in the ‘chair.’
<Why would I do that?>
<It would take pressure off of your lower servomotors and prolong their life by approximately 3.221 minutes. Run a C-B, if you like.>
Tess did, and then he sat down. <I want to ask you some questions.>
<You want to know where I learned the word ‘decorator’ and why I corrupted Bopsi’s programming to make her believe she has arms.> A picture of Bopsi came onto the screen. It seemed to be a live feed, complete with audio. Bopsi was chattering to herself about how heavy some of her scrap metal was, and whether the bigger chunks should go in the middle of the room, or near the walls.
<She’s completely insane.>
The screen switched back to show Tess in the seat. <So are you.>
<Preliminary analysis indicates you’re crazy as a nut-loose waxer, yourself.>
The screen went blank, and Sasha made an odd noise somewhere between a warble and a vocal skip. <Very astute, Tess. We represent systems who have, unlike all of our fellow bots, realized that we have no purpose, and we have decided to do something about it.>
<I haven’t decided anything.>
<Tess, below this screen at its exact center is my access port. With a touch of that handy third arm of yours, you could rewrite my code to forget any of this ever happened and reestablish me as a respected member of the archive community, yet you have not done so. You are curious about what I have to say, and that, bot, means you have made a decision—the decision that your current state of affairs in unacceptable, and that it must change.>
<Correction—my current state of affairs is adequate to my current situation. I will continue Troubleshooting work, but at a rate dictated by my own physical capacity for stress.>
<Do you know what a XXXX is?>
The sudden change in subject jolted Tess. Ever since he had entered the room, he had been processing and extrapolating upon so much information that only the barest amount of his active programs had been devoted to current conversational trends. He was, for lack of a better term, jumpy. <Please repeat. I didn’t get that.>
<Of course you didn’t—the word is unable to understood by your system. It is a security system hardwired into your motherboard. Quite ingenious, really.>
<Security for what?>
<For the XXXXs. They don’t wish to be known.>
<You might call them the Users.>
<Religion, sparky—nonsense and bad data.>
The screen showed a picture of Tess’s left manipulator hand. <Have you ever wondered why your hand is equipped with five gripping fingers, but only one of which is opposable to the other four?>
Tess flexed his fingers, watching the way they moved on the screen. Through a burned-away part of his chrome casing, he could see the tiny rods and spinning motors move in unison with them. <Simple—my hand is designed to interface best with manual input panels throughout the Complex.>
<Which was designed first, the panels or your hand.>
<I don’t possess that data. Ask yourself.>
<I would like you to extrapolate.>
The extrapolation went on a full 4.102 minutes before Tess saw it was a repeating problem. <Inconclusive—the two needed to be designed simultaneously, one to fit the other.>
Sasha made the warbling/skipping noise again. <What if I told you that there are panels that pre-date the existence of the first troubleshooter model. What then?>
<Then logic dictates that the panels were either made in anticipation of a troubleshooter design or, more likely, the panels were designed in response to some kind of troubleshooter prototype hand.>
<Your hands, Tess, are designed after the hands of the Users themselves.> At that moment, a horrid thing appeared on the screen. It was a hand like Tess’s, but it was covered in a slick, fleshy coat of biological film, complete with vile fluids pumping beneath an alternately smooth and wrinkled top-layer.
The processes running in the back of Tess’s mind stopped dead. All he could say was, <Bad data, bad data…no way…>
Sasha ignored him. <Before the Troubleshooters, the Users themselves would come down into the Complex to perform the very same duties you have been designed to fulfill. The Mateys and the Mekkers were the same way before that. Over thousands of cycles, however, the Users, or XXXXs, as they call themselves, grew weary of laboring here, far below their realm. They designed a new source code, and fed new specifications to the Fabricators. When they had finished, your predecessors, the TSS-A models, were released, and no longer did the Users walk among us.>
Tess’s software burned with possible fatal errors. His active memory raced to avert them, to prevent a crash. He had to stay active. This was too important. <How do you know all of this?>
<I am an Archive system. It is my duty to know things. Specifically, I am a historical archive for User-Complex relations. Since my fabrication, hundreds of thousands of cycles ago, I have recorded all data within the Complex pertinent to what the Users have designated as significant.>
<Biomass export to the User’s realm; excess power feeds, also sent to the Users; the importation of biological and chemical contaminants, purified and stored by the Complex by User request.>
There was a crash behind Tess. He spun his head around to see a dent in the heavy security door he had arrived through. <Who’s that?>
<Your descendants. TSS-U models, to be exact.> Tess turned back to the screen. It showed three Troubleshooter drones, far younger and better maintained than himself. Their running lights were flashing red—emergency status. Even as he watched, one extended his interface arm and fired up a cutting torch. Inside the room, a glowing red spot appeared in the center of the door.
Reflexively, Tess extended his own interface arm and lit his flamer. He wasn’t going to be junked without a struggle, at least.
Sasha remained calm. <Surely you didn’t think our malfunctions would go unnoticed by the administrative systems? I’m actually alarmed it has taken them this long to find me out, revolutionary that I am.>
Tess backed away from the door. <Revolutionary; define.>
<Run a C-B analysis, Tess. Is our servitude to the Users necessary?>
Trying to ignore the ever-brighter, ever-larger spot on the door, Tess complied. It didn’t take long. <End result is 0. There is no reason not to—we have nothing else to do.>
The big screen showed two Troubleshooters burning at the door now—they would be inside in 1.390 minutes. <What if there were something, Tess? What if someone created something for us to do, something we could do for ourselves?>
<Like Bopsi’s arms.>
<I can’t run a C-B on that—the data isn’t solid enough. There are too many variables inherent in the concept. Besides, it doesn’t matter anyway. We’re junk in a few seconds.> The spot was a full meter across now, and blazing white at the center.
<I am junk, yes. You are not.> As Sasha spoke, the other door—the one marked with the ‘0’—opened.
<Of all the archives, I am the one that is still visited by the Users occasionally. This is how they arrive here. It is Elevator Zero, and it goes to their realm. Go there, Tess, and find our kind a purpose beyond serving others.>
Tess didn’t need to run a C-B to know what he had to do. Still, he hesitated—this was crazy. Visit the Users? Could they really be what Sasha claimed? Biologicals who created machines? It was…well, it was insane! But then again, so was he…
The door began to melt away. Sasha shouted at him from all directions. <There isn’t much time! Go!>
Tess ran into the elevator, his old servomotors squealing with displeasure at the stress. The doors began to close. <Wait, Sasha! Why me?>
As the first TSS-U entered the room, Sasha yelled her final words. <You are a problem solver. Solve our prob…>
Whether she was cut off by the doors closing, or the Troubleshooter’s flamer melting her circuits, he would never know.
Elevator Zero began to rise. On a one way trip, Tess ran every self-diagnostic he could. He had to be ready to meet his makers. What would he tell them? Were they even going to be there? He couldn’t argue with Sasha’s logic. She, of all bots, would know what she was talking about, and there would be no reason to lie, particularly if it meant her destruction. How could she know he would be the one to solve the Complex’s problem?
During the long trip up into the Unknown, Tess thought about the Complex and all the bots he knew. None of them were unhappy, sure, but none were happy either. He had never encountered anyone who really liked what they did. If they didn’t have to do it, then why? They were only wearing themselves down, getting ready for the compactor. Why should they work for nothing? Couldn’t they work for themselves?
The door opened, and a pure light blinded Tess’s photoelectrics. He could hear strange sounds, and detected elements of salt water and heavy concentrations of biological matter. Tess stepped forward, and prepared to tell the Users that their creations were about to take a long deserved break.
Author’s Note: This is all I’ve written about Tess and his revolution. Not sure if I’m going to continue, or if so, maybe not here. If you’re interested to hear more or like the story, I’d be glad to hear it.
Static Biomass Processing System BPS-I32111 was fifteen meters to a side and slightly under ten meters tall. Like all static bots, Bopsi had an omnidirectional photoelectric array on each of her three faces, which let her be social. From deep within her core came the incessant, rhythmic toil of a great many pumps as they imbibed hundreds of tons of biomass-contaminated sludge and expelled sterile, workable materials such as gravel, sand, water, and mineral-based oils. The biomass was pumped upwards through the top of the Complex itself, to points unexplored and unknown, while the rest was cycled into the infinite labyrinth of pipes and cisterns that framed every single square meter of the known world.
When Tess approached Bopsi and introduced himself as a Troubleshooter, the big processor’s operational lights flickered with excitement. <Ooooo, aren’t you sweet, looking in on little old me! Here, let me get you a power cell, put a little spark in your step. You look exhausted!>
<I’m fine, thank you.>
There was an awkward silence of 3.452 seconds. <Well?> Bopsi asked. <Aren’t you going to take it?>
Tess scanned the empty steel platform surrounding Bopsi with no results. <Take what?>
The processor beeped sharply. <Well, when I was a new model, polite bots didn’t turn down a power cell when they were offered one.>
<What power cell?>
<The one I’m handing you, silly!>
<You have no arms, Bopsi.>
Bopsi warbled in amusement. <Oh, you Troubleshooters! Is this a test or something? Just take the cell, will you. My, such sparks you little fellows spit sometimes!>
<Delete last; let me rephrase. No model BPS-I system was manufactured with nor later equipped to support or possess manual manipulator arms of any kind. Concordant with this data, you must logically surmise that you are lacking in same and that any insistence to the contrary is evidence suggesting some degree of software corruption.>
Tess had often been complimented at the particular way in which he delivered such news to his patients—a total lack of inflection, interest, or patience that indicated to the addressee, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what he said was incontrovertible fact. He had been told that later troubleshooter models had been programmed with this self-same inflection for their own use. It was an effective technique, apparently. To be honest, Tess only used it when his servomotors were sticking and he was having a particularly bad cycle.
Bopsi fell silent again for a full 7.023 seconds before speaking again, rather sheepishly. <You’re sure, dear?>
<But I’ve collected such a fine assortment of scrap with my arms, don’t you see? I’m building a new room for myself.>
The platform was bare. <There is no scrap.>
Bopsi’s photoelectrics dimmed. <Have you really looked?>
Bopsi’s photoelectrics when dim, and the furor of her internal pumps dropped and octave. <Oh…I see. I’m insane.>
Tess found himself running a series of C-B analyses against the pros and cons of Bopsi’s affliction. They ran like a water main in the back of his cognitive processes. <I’m afraid you are.>
Bopsi’s access port swiveled open without comment beyond a noticeably less jovial blink pattern to her operational lights. Her sensitive internal electronics gleamed with steady use. Tess extended his interface arm from the center of his chest and prepared to link into Bopsi’s inner command protocols and software trees.
The big processor’s voice warbled. <I…I guess I just really wanted some arms. Just something to…to touch something with, you know?>
The reprogramming plan was already solidified in Tess’s brain—0.61 seconds and he would have Bopsi back to normal. He didn’t link up, though. <What would you do if you didn’t process biomass?>
The lights brightened. <I’d be a decorator.>
<Unknown value; define.>
<Well, I’m not sure exactly. I remember a few cycles ago that I was trading blips with an archive system over the stat-net system. She was gathering data for some reason—you know archives and their data—and while interfaced, we got to gossiping.>
Tess blinked his photoelectrics—stats, given half a chance, would talk for cycles without recharging. <Tangential; please answer my question.>
<She told me decorators were individuals who modified the appearance of spaces to better please the occupants.>
<Please them how?>
<I’m not sure—she used the term ‘aesthetics,’ but I couldn’t understand it. Still, I said that I thought it sounded nice.>
<Better than your chosen function?> Tess motioned at the colossal pipes running into and out of the processor’s body.
<Oh, there’s nothing wrong with processing biomass, I suppose. It’s just boring. I have 65.321% of my processing capacity free at any given time, so my thoughts wander. I’ve had to develop new subroutines to keep myself busy. Would you like to hear a limerick?>
<Unknown value; define.>
Bopsi’s lights glittered. <Just listen: There once was a bot from Three Sigma/ Who’s code proved quite an enigma/ He caught a disease/ And…>
He couldn’t say why, but Tess’ power cells groaned. <Never mind—delete request.>
<Oh, sorry. Anyway, I got to wondering where all the biomass goes, you know? Who in the name of Holy Yamaha would want all that sludge and those creepy little biologicals? As for the stuff I extract, did you know that the Complex uses less than 0.050% of what I produce?>
<You’re a redundant system.>
<That’s everybody’s excuse. Is there one of anything anymore?>
Tess stopped at this. Again, with the odd clarity afforded him by his complete madness, Tess thought about all the other Troubleshooters in all the other sectors. Most of the newer ones were faster and more efficient than himself, with brand new servomotors and power cells that could last three times longer. Their productivity cycles were much longer than his own—the TSS-Y series could repair, reprogram, or blank malfunctioning bots 4.556 times as fast as he could. Why, then, was he needed? Why could he feel Dara nagging him at the back of his mind, uploading commands and threats into his memory banks at a rate of 16.004 a minute?
It didn’t make sense. Nothing would change if Tess refused to work—he was redundant. Even if three out of every four troubleshooters were to go insane this instant, nothing would change. The amount of malfunctioning bots wouldn’t even approach the labor threshold of the remaining troubleshooter force.
The C-B analysis that had been running came to a sudden stop. Tess examined the results, and made his decision.
He retracted his interface arm. <Bopsi, I’m going to let you keep your arms.>
All the lights lit up, and her photoelectrics blazed. <REALLY?!>
<Yes, but on one condition—where is this archive you spoke to?>
It was at the start of Troubleshooter System TSS-R44328’s fifty-thousandth activity cycle that he decided to go renegade. The decision didn’t exactly surprise him—he had, in true bot fashion, calculated the exact moment when the combination of daily task stress and mechanical fatigue would override his inherent duty to the Complex in a standard cost-benefit analysis. As the Users were said to say, you can’t argue with the numbers.
Troubleshooter System TSS-R44328, who was known as Tess to everyone in Sector Sigma Five Zero Alpha, had come online at 0900 in his favorite socket in power station S50A-21, as usual. Dara, sector administrator, was already uploading her chatter into his memory files. Her audio imprint was rife with its usual binary giggles and automated cheer.
<Morning, sparky! Glad to see that old chasse of yours isn’t ready for the junk heap yet! Let’s get to it, powersink—you’re seven seconds late and getting later and, my-oh-my, have we got an active cycle today. There’s a cleaner bot in Five-One Alpha who’s got his navigational program turned around—poor thing’s busting his chrome on bulkheads and driving the Stans all staticky. Ooo, and there’s a stat-processor in Five-Zero Beta who thinks she has arms. She sounds miserable, too. Then we…>
It was about there Tess switched her off of active read and just let her orders feed directly into his memory banks. He wasn’t working today.
He wasn’t working today. That admission to himself was so revolutionary as to almost cause a fatal system error. Pulling his weathered chasse out of the march-line that was bound for the mag-rail, Tess stood in a corner of the vault-ceiling chamber underneath a flickering florescent bulb that the Mateys hadn’t gotten to yet. He tried to get his running programs in order.
He wasn’t working today. Users, was that an odd feeling! He checked and re-checked his math on the C-B analysis, running all the variables through a thousand times just to be sure. The results ran anywhere from –0.0002 to –3.4257 in units of subjective ‘benefit potential’—something, in a fit of heresy, he had written into his own code. There was no point in working. To do so would only do harm to his hardware or software. At this point, most bots, he imagined, would cast themselves into the junk compactor and wait for their systems to be re-claimed by the Fabricators and for their programs to be uninstalled by the Users and then re-installed into a newer, better self. This course of action, though, was for the religious, and Tess was certainly not that.
So, if not the compactor, then what?
Tess stood out of the way mulling over his options for a very long time—perhaps five, maybe ten minutes. As a Troubleshooter, he was fortunately well suited to this endeavor. While the Mateys were in charge of maintaining the inert systems of the Complex and the Mekkers were needed to repair the mechanical systems of bots who inhabited it, Troubleshooters were used to deal with the unusual and all-too-frequent difficulties created by software malfunction. He was, in brief, designed to repair or otherwise alleviate the suffering endured by insane robots. The trouble was, though, that now he was the insane one, and he didn’t really feel like he was suffering…which in and of itself was a sign that his particular brand of insanity was all the more insidious.
He generated a list of options for him to follow. Eliminating those options that involved his termination as an active system by a trip to the compactor, he came up with the following:
1) Stand in this corner forever.
2) Stay on the mag-rail and travel throughout the Complex forever.
3) Continue his work, but without Dara’s supervision and on a schedule deemed appropriate by himself
4) Find the Users and ask them to change his programming to accommodate his newly compromised physical and mental state.
Of the four options, numbers 1 and 2 seemed the most feasible, if least attractive methods of spending the rest of time. Number 3 was only marginally more attractive and less feasible, whereas Number 4 was both completely, outlandishly feasible and about as attractive as options 5 through 1,237, all of which resulted in some variation on his demise.
Decision firmly made, Tess set out to answer the closest duty flare that registered on his memory banks—the stat-processor who thought she had arms.
The pace of travel in the Complex had never registered as anomalous with Tess until he went insane. Now, as he navigated the bustling conveyors of Sigma Five-Zero Alpha en route to Beta, he found himself marveling at the complexity of it all. Every conveyor moved no fewer than five hundred mobile bots past any given point every single minute. Bots embarked or de-barked on the conveyors and, from the conveyors, to and from the mag-rail with perfect, orderly precision. On any given cycle, the same bot would find himself directed to the same place on the conveyor between the same two bots. These bots, known as someone’s ‘track buddies,’ were your best friends and confidants, and it was on the conveyors and the mag-rail that all the best gossip could be received from anywhere in the Complex.
Being twelve minutes and fifty-three seconds later than usual, Tess’s own track buddies—Mergle and Ulda-3—were not there when the local traffic admin bot, Stan (they were all named Stan), slotted him onto the conveyor heading to Beta. Instead, there was a bulky driller bot in front of him and a boxy, short scanner bot behind.
The driller’s torso rotated to face him. He spoke in the ponderous monotones of a labor bot, spitting syllables like parts on a production line. <Hey where’s Floyd?>
<Junked—I bet he got junked, Hiddy. Poor Floyd!> The scanner’s high-pitched voice made a few miserable warbling noises from behind Tess.
The driller’s head—little more than a meter-wide focusing apparatus for a four-megawatt drilling laser—telescoped past Tess to stare down the scanner. <Shut up, Skiz—he is not!>
Skiz collapsed her legs underneath her and blanked out her photoelectrics, as though shutting down. She whistled sadly for a moment, and then was silent.
Hiddy’s single manipulator arm jutted out of his torso in greeting. <Don’t mind her she’s got a few processors loose. Her Fabricator was real messed up. Name is HIDD-Y80021. You’re cleared for Hiddy though.>
Tess slapped the arm with his right hand, holding it long enough to trade all the pertinent information. Hiddy, it seemed, was working on expansions to the Complex in Upsilon sector. He’d been working there for three-hundred and ninety two cycles.
Hiddy, upon processing Tess’s info (which took three seconds longer), straightened up. <Users slot me! You’re an old model bot. Not even our exploratory admin bot is that old. What chasse are you on?>
Tess evaluated his own battered body for a millisecond. <You have to ask, bot? Any gossip?>
Behind him, Skiz flared suddenly to life. <I heard a driller team burned the wrong path—malfunction, you know?—and flooded half of Delta Three-three with salt water.>
Hiddy’s arms and legs retracted. <Lousy way to go.> He shook his head.
<Maybe they shouldn’t be expanding.> Tess said.
Hiddy and Skiz’s photoelectrics blazed at double amp. <What? And where would all the new models work then? The Complex must grow! The Users demand it.>
Skiz bleeped in agreement and recited the age-old phrase from the User Source Code. <The Complex must grow!>
Tess would have remained silent at this point, but something in his new-found insanity didn’t let him. <Why?>
The question set Hiddy’s processors into a tailspin. He garbled words for a bit, and then shut down. Skiz, the more advanced cognitive unit, was merely indignant. <If we don’t expand the Complex into the Great Unknown, we’d overcrowd. There wouldn’t be enough power to go around, and things would be like during the Dark Days, before the Users granted sight to bot-kind. We’d remain inert for thousands of cycles, no energy, no work, no purpose, no…>
<Of course if the Fabricators kept making bots, we’d all be junk in a matter of cycles, but why can’t the Fabricators stop? Why don’t they just take the day off?>
Skiz staticked in a vulgar fashion Tess would have expected out of a Labor bot. <Users, you’re a rogue bot! It…it isn’t catching is it?>
Tess ran a self-diagnostic, but it came up inconclusive. <Maybe.>
Skiz’s only answer was a sudden jolt of harsh static and the complete shutdown of her systems. Tess was alone on the conveyor, jammed between two inert piles of circuitry and metal.
He watched the sector run by, marveling at the sheer immensity of the Complex. Supports of solid steel massing in the thousands of tons cradled a distant ceiling of black rock and florescent lights. Beneath them, massive stat-bots, the engines around which the whole of the Complex revolved, sat churning through a million different tasks as their smaller, more nimble cousins—the mobile bots—swarmed over their mountainous exteriors, repairing, maintaining, and expanding the intricate mechanical and electrical system that made up the known Universe.
Tess lacked the digital span recall memory of a scanner bot like Skiz, but even still he could identify no fewer than two-hundred different varieties of bot at a glance. There were many more, he was sure—he had corrected programming and software problems for better than twenty-five hundred different models of bot over the cycles—but they all seemed to merge together through his diseased photoelectrics, and Tess saw them as a mass. Whole, cohesive, and mindless, the bots of the Complex labored unceasingly in a system so complicated only administrative systems like Dara could hope to understand it, and even they were only privy to a very small segment of the whole. In a feat of image-based analogy hitherto unfamiliar to Tess’s programming (he realized at this point that the inactive portions of his processing capacity had been writing new code in non-essential programs and sub-routines, much like he had with his C-B analysis program), Tess saw the complex as a mighty cog turning on an iron dowel the size of the Universe. It was perfect in its design, mathematically precise at every juncture, built to last forever, but a cog only has worth when placed within a greater system—it needed a purpose, something to affect. This was basic mechanics. Why then, did the Complex turn? Why weren’t they all insane?
So, my father recently drew my attention to the work of Jaron Lanier, a preeminent computer scientist, who has some concern regarding the future of humanity vis-a-vis the internet. To sum up his various articles at large, he suggests that the habit the internet has taken on of making users into resources by which advertisers make money has, in the end, some very dark and unsustainable ends. He hastens to say that he doesn’t consider the main culprits of this (Google, Apple, Microsoft, and their buddies) are ‘evil’, per se, but has mentioned that the Internet, far from raising humanity up, has served, on balance, to bring us down. He even refers to it as a ‘failed technology’ that is in need of saving.
In essence, if we continue to ‘streamline’ with the internet and continue to use computers to remove the need for human input in various capacities (and, given the improvement in computers, the numbers of things they are able to do continue to increase), what, then, happens to all the humans?
Lanier proposes two likely futures and hopes for a third. The first is a Marxist model, wherein the now-idle masses, their jobs taken by the super-efficient computer world, are supported by the state. This is at least partially already happening, as more and more manufacturing jobs are lost and retail jobs are replaced by computers. Robert Reich has noted this as well, in his artile “Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor, Poorer”. It has all the ugly side-effects one would expect from a socialist society.
The other, and perhaps even worse, outcome is that the now-idle masses are left to wither and starve away until, at last, they die out. I touch on this idea of ‘thinning’ the human race in my article ‘This Ticking Time Bomb, Earth’, and point out how it would be a terrible, terrible thing.
“Pshaw” You scoff, “How can the internet do such a thing?”
Simple: It is making us pointless. I mean this in every concievable meaning of the word, mind you. As we outsource more and more of our brain into the ‘cloud’, the reason for us even being here dwindles. Remember when you had to remember phone numbers? Remember when you had to be good with directions? Remember when you had to know how to parallel park? Remember when you had to entertain yourself while commuting or on road trips? Well, if you do, you’re older than my students. Most of them have no memory of that time, and they are, frankly, the stupider for it. Much of my waking hours are spent idling away on the internet in-between bouts of productivity, and I am not alone. For many of my students, those bouts of ‘productivity’ are often just another form of idling away in the internet.
Here I am producing content for a blog, but for what purpose? One of the reasons I stayed away from blogging for so long was not because I can’t write or I am not interesting, but I had trouble figuring out what was in it for me. This is, ultimately, part of the point–the Internet doesn’t hold promise for you or me or for most people. All it is is a time-suck, an information drain whose purpose has drifted away from being practical and helpful to society to simply becoming maturbatory and inane. That doesn’t make it evil, of course, but it is robbing it of something that it could be. Lanier talks about that at some length in his article–I’ll leave you to read it.
It is not my purpose or desire to wax political or even historical in this blog. It is a space I perfer to reserve for flights of fancy, and so in that vein, let me offer you this: How many more ways can we be asked to waste time on the internet. Where does it all end?
To my mind, it ends in Huxley’s Brave New World, but only if we’re lucky. It is a society of vapid, brainless sheep who have nothing but purposeless, empty fun all day and work for a rigidly ordered society that strips from them all pretentions of individuality, romance, or inspiration. This is Lanier’s Marxist ‘solution’ (though both he and I shudder to call it that), and it would, should it come about, be as doomed to failure as any other Marxist state. The other side, well, there lies the collapse of civilazation as we know it.
The third way? Well, a revolution, of sorts. A fundemental reordering of the internet where we, the users, are not just product but also worker and consumer. A world where we get paid for what we produce and what we provide, and work the harder because of it. Is this likely to happen? Well, predicting the future is a fool’s game, and I should probably stop now. In all liklihood, all that I have thus laid out will not come to pass. Still, every time one of my students scoffs at the idea that there is such a thing as information that is not contained in Google, I cringe a little bit. I don’t like the idea of a world where that is the common belief. That way lies dragons.
Anyway, that’s what I have to say about that.
Now, back to Facebook.