The Milgram Hypothesis

by Oonah V Joslin


“A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.” — Stanley Milgram (1965)


Angie rummaged through cupboards and drawers looking for all those “must haves” she’d bought on the shopping channels that she must now sell on eBay.

9K gold pendant set in handcrafted, princess-cut, orange and white sapphires from Madagascar and Sri Lanka — never worn. Thank God she’d kept the certificate of authenticity. Jewelry, lamps, humidifier, Super-slicer Bread Baker, Pasta Prince. The apartment was full of them. She should get a few credits back for these.

One day it was called retail therapy, the next it was shopping addiction. The screen had informed her that access had been denied because of low credit. Perhaps she would like to divert to Quiz Quest. Well at least on Quiz Quest you could win. She switched.

It was all done for you. You just found a prize you’d like and answered the questions, played the game, competed against others, whatever, and if you won... Angie never seemed to win, but she kept trying. In fact she didn’t know of anyone who’d ever won.

Sitting down at her Multitasker Mediamaster she logged in to Quiz Quest.

“Access denied.”

“Why?”

“Records show that you are neglecting your work in favor of this activity.”

“Damn!” she said and logged in to work.

She worked for Photo Lexicon, a company that specialized in modernization and modification of images for publishers, the media, and private individuals who could afford it. All her work was fed via admin, and there were always careful instructions. They didn’t allow for much creativity. It could be tedious. She’d spent weeks removing all traces of cigarettes and smoke from a twentieth century archive so that it could be used in a new History of Famous Wars.

The image of a young man appeared on the screen. Her task was to make his eyes look closer together, thin his lips and introduce a factor 3 asymmetry to his features. They also wanted versions with stubble and with full beard — routine stuff. Angie made the adjustments and posted the images back. Then she touched up the sky and grass for some nutritional ads promoting health and happiness.

Later on, Angie logged into News. They couldn’t object to her watching that surely? Her interest was captured when she recognized the photo she’d been working on earlier. Her work was on the news. This was great! Of course she couldn’t tell anyone it was her work. Nonetheless, satisfaction surged through her. He was a notorious violent criminal, it seemed, and they had him in custody awaiting trial.

What bothered her was that, in the original photograph, he’d looked quite nice. It was she who’d created this image. Angie logged in and voiced her concerns to Photo Lexicon Queries. They acknowledged and said they would deal with it. She followed the trial. He was convicted.

“You have been selected for judgment duty,” the screen informed her. She knew what that meant. She was going to be asked to pull the switch. Citizens never got to know who they’d pulled the switch on, if anybody, or what the punishment was. It was simply your duty and right. She had no choice but to attend.

Angie was perplexed by her own discomfort as she was ushered into the Switch Room. There was no seeing who was behind the mirrored partition. But what if it was all a lie, like retail therapy and credits and Quiz Quest and the photograph? Angie couldn’t pull the switch. “I won’t,” she said. “I won’t!”

They led her behind the mirrored panel and strapped her to the chair.


Copyright © 2007 by Oonah V Joslin

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