by Richard Thieme
part 1 of 2
The Evolution of the Problem
The problem was not that people couldn’t remember; the problem was that people couldn’t forget.
As far back as the 20th century, we realized that socio-historical problems were best handled on a macro level. It was inefficient to work on individuals who were, after all, nothing but birds in digital cages. Move the cage, move the birds. The challenge was to build the cage big enough to create an illusion of freedom in flight but small enough to be moved easily.
When long-term collective memory became a problem in the 21st century, it wound up on my desktop.
There had always been a potential for individuals to connect the dots and cause a contextual shift. We managed the collective as best we could with Chomsky Chutes but an event could break out randomly at any time like a bubble bursting.
As much as we surveil the social landscape with sensors and datamine for deep patterns, we can’t catch everything. It’s all sensors and statistics, after all, which have limits. If a phenomenon gets sticky or achieves critical mass, it can explode through any interface, even create the interface it needs at the moment of explosion. That can gum up the works.
Remembering and forgetting changed after writing was invented. The ones that remembered best had always won. Writing shifted the advantage from those who knew to those who knew how to find what was known. Electronic communication shifted the advantage once again to those who knew what they didn’t need to know but knew how to get it when they did.
In the twentieth century, advances in pharmacology and genetic engineering increased longevity dramatically and at the same time meaningful distinctions between backward and forward societies disappeared so far as health care was concerned. The population exploded everywhere simultaneously.
People who had retired in their sixties could look forward to sixty or seventy more years of healthful living. As usual, the anticipated problems — overcrowding, scarce water and food, employment for those who wanted it — were not the big issues.
Crowding was managed by staggered living, generating niches in many multiples of what used to be daylight single-sided life. Life became double-sided, then triple-sided, and so on.
Like early memory storage devices that packed magnetic media inside other media, squeezing them into every bit of available space, we designed multiple niches in society that allowed people to live next to one another in densely packed communities without even noticing their neighbors.
Oh, people were vaguely aware that thousands of others were on the streets or in stadiums, but they might as well have been simulants for all the difference they made. We call this the Second Neolithic, the emergence of specialization at the next level squared.
The antisocial challenges posed by hackers who “flipped” through niches for weeks at a time, staying awake on Perkup, or criminals exploiting flaws inevitably present in any new system, were anticipated and handled using risk management algorithms. In short, multisided life works.
Genetic engineering provided plenty of food and water. Binderhoff Day commemorates the day that water was recycled from sewage using the Binderhoff Method. A body barely relinquishes its liquid before it’s back in a glass in its hand. As to food, the management of fads enables us to play musical chairs with agri-resources, smoothing the distribution curve.
Lastly, people are easy to keep busy.
Serial careers, marriages and identities have been pretty much standard since the twentieth century. Trends in that direction continued at incremental rather than tipping-point levels. We knew within statistical limits when too many transitions would cause a problem, jamming intersections as it were with too many vehicles, so we licensed relationships, work-terms, and personal reinvention using traffic management algorithms to control the social flow.
By the twenty-first century, everybody’s needs were met. Ninety-eight per cent of everything bought and sold was just plain made up.
Once we started a fad, it tended to stay in motion, generating its own momentum. People spent much of their time exchanging goods and services that an objective observer might have thought useless or unnecessary, but of course, there was no such thing as an objective observer. Objectivity requires distance, historical perspective, exactly what is lacking. Every product or service introduced into the marketplace drags in its wake an army of workers to manufacture it, support it, or clean up after it which swells the stream until it becomes a river.
All of those rivers flow into the sea but the sea is never full.
Fantasy baseball is a good example.
It had long been noticed that baseball itself, once the sport became digitized, was a simulation. Team names were made up for as many teams as the population would watch. Players for those teams were swapped back and forth so the team name was obviously arbitrary, requiring the projection of a “team gestalt” from loyal fans pretending not to notice that they booed players they had cheered as heroes the year before.
Even when fans were physically present at games, the experience was mediated through digital filters; one watched or listened to digital simulations instead of the game itself, which existed increasingly on the edges of the field of perception.
Then the baseball strike of 2012 triggered the Great Realization. The strike was on for forty-two days before anyone noticed the absence of flesh-and-blood players, because the owners substituted players made of pixels. Game Boys created game boys. Fantasy baseball had invented itself in recognition that fans might as well swap virtual players and make up teams too but the G.R. took it to the next level.
After the strike, Double Fantasy Baseball became an industry, nested like a Russian doll inside Original Fantasy Baseball. Leagues of fantasy players were swapped in meta-leagues of fantasy players. Then Triple Fantasy Baseball ... Quadruple Fantasy Baseball ... and now the fad is Twelves in baseball, football, and whack-it-ball and I understand that Lucky Thirteens is on the drawing boards, bigger and better than any of its predecessors.
So no, there is no shortage of arbitrary activities or useless goods. EBay was the prototype of the future, turning the world into one gigantic swap meet.
If we need a police action or a new professional sport to bleed off excess hostility or rebalance the body politic, we make it up. The Hump in the Bell Curve as we call the eighty per cent that buy and sell just about everything swim blissfully in the currents of make-believe digital rivers, all unassuming. They call it the Pursuit of Happiness. And hey — who are we to argue?
The memory-longevity problem came as usual completely out of fantasy left field. People were living three, four, five generations, as we used to count generations, and vividly recalled the events of their personal histories. Pharmacological assists and genetic enhancement made the problem worse by quickening recall and ending dementia and Alzheimer’s. I don’t mean that every single person remembered every single thing, but the Hump as a whole had pretty good recall of its collective history and that’s what mattered.
Peer-to-peer communication means one-knows-everyone-knows and that created problems for society in general and — as a Master of Society — that makes it my business.
My name is Horicon Walsh, if you hadn’t guessed, and I lead the team that designs the protocols of society.
I am the man behind the Master.
I am the Master behind the Plan.
The Philosophical Basis of the Problem
The philosophical touchstone of our efforts was defined in nineteenth-century America. The only question that matters is What good is it? Questions like What is its nature? What is its end? are irrelevant.
Take manic depression, for example.
Four per cent of the naturally occurring population were manic depressive in the late twentieth century. The pharmacological fix applied to the anxious or depressive one-third of the Hump attempted to maintain a steady internal state, not too high and not too low. That standard of equilibrium was accepted without question as a benchmark for fixing manic depression.
Once we got the chemistry right, the people who had swung between killing themselves and weeks of incredibly productive, often genius-level activity were tamped down in the bowl, as it were, their glowing embers a mere reflection of the fire that had once burned so brightly.
Evolution, in other words, had gotten it right because their good days — viewed from the top of the tent — made up for their bad days. Losing a few to suicide was no more consequential than a few soccer fans getting trampled. Believing that the Golden Mean worked on the individual as well as the macro level, we got it all wrong.
That sort of mistake, fixing things according to unexamined assumptions, happened all the time when we started tweaking things. Too many dumb but athletic children spoiled the broth. Too many waddling bespectacled geeks made it too acrid. Too many willowy beauties made it too salty. Peaks and valleys, that’s what we call the first half of the 21st century, as we let people design their own progeny.
The feedback loops inside society kind of worked — we didn’t kill ourselves — but clearly we needed to be more aware. Regulation was obviously necessary and subsequently all genetic alteration and pharmacological enhancements were cross-referenced in a matrix calibrated to the happiness of the Hump.
Executing the Plan to make it all work was our responsibility, a charge that the ten per cent of us called Masters gladly accepted. The ten per cent destined to be dregs, spending their lives picking through dumpsters and arguing loudly with themselves in loopy monologues, serve as grim reminders of what humanity would be without our enlightened guidance. That’s the context in which it became clear that everybody remembering everything was a problem. The Nostalgia Riots of Greater Florida were only a symptom.
The Nostalgia Riots
Here you had the fat tip of a long peninsular state packed like a water balloon with millions of people well into their hundreds. One third of the population was 150 or older by 2175. Some remembered sixteen major wars and dozens of skirmishes and police actions. Some had lived through forty-six recessions and recoveries. Some had lived through so many elections they could have written the scripts, that’s how bad it was.
Their thoughtful reflection, nuanced perspective, and appropriate skepticism were a blight on a well-managed global free-market democracy. They did not get depressed — pharmies in the food and water made sure of that — but they sure acted like depressed people even if they didn’t feel like it. And depressed people tend to get angry.
West Floridians lined benches from Key West through Tampa Bay all the way to the Panhandle. The view from satellites when they lighted matches one night in midwinter to demonstrate their power shows an unbroken arc along the edge of the water like a second beach beside the darker beach.
All day every day they sat there remembering, comparing notes, measuring what was happening now by what had happened before. They put together pieces of the historical puzzle the way people used to do crosswords and we had to work overtime to stay a step ahead. The long view of the Elder Sub-Hump undermined satisfaction with the present. They preferred a different, less helpful way of looking at things.
When the drums of the Department of System Integration, formerly the Managed Affairs and Perception Office, began to beat loudly to rouse the population of our crowded earth to a fury against the revolutionary Martian colonists who shot their resupplies into space rather than pay taxes to the Earth, we thought we would have the support of the Elder Sub-Hump. Instead they pushed the drumming into the background and recalled through numerous conversations the details of past conflicts, creating a memory net that destabilized the official Net.
Their case for why our effort was doomed was air-tight, but that wasn’t the problem. We didn’t mind the truth being out there so long as no one connected it to the present. The problem was that so many people knew it because the Elder Sub-Hump wouldn’t shut up. That created a precedent and the precedent was the problem.
Long-term memory, we realized, was subversive of the body politic.
Where had we gotten off course? We had led the culture to skew toward youth because youth have no memory in essence, no context for judging anything. Their righteousness is in proportion to their ignorance, as it should be. But the Elder Sub-Hump skewed that skew.
We launched a campaign against the seditious seniors.
Because there were so many of them, we had to use ridicule. The three legs of the stool of cover and deception operations are illusion, misdirection, and ridicule, but the greatest of these is ridicule. When the enemy is in plain sight, you have to make him look absurd so everything he says is discredited.
The UFO Campaign of the twentieth century is the textbook example of that strategy. You had fighter pilots, commercial pilots, credible citizens all reporting the same thing from all over the world, their reports agreeing over many decades in the small details. So ordinary citizens were subjected to ridicule. The use of government-owned and -influenced media like newspapers (including agency-owned and -operated tabloids) and television networks made people afraid to say what they saw. They came to disbelieve their own eyes so the phenomena could hide in plain sight.
Pretty soon no one saw it. Even people burned by close encounters refused to believe in their own experience and accepted official explanations.
We did everything possible to make old people look ridiculous. Subtle images of drooling fools were inserted into news stories, short features showed ancients playing inanely with their pets, the testimony of confused seniors was routinely dismissed in courts of law.
Our trump card — entertainment — celebrated youth and its lack of perspective, extolling the beauty of young muscular bodies in contrast with sagging-skin bags of bones who paused too long before they spoke. We turned the book industry inside out so the little bit that people did know was ever more superficial. The standard for excellence in publishing became an absence of meaningful text, massive amounts of white space, and large fonts.
Originality dimmed, and pretty soon the only books that sold well were mini-books of aphorisms promulgated by pseudo-gurus each in his or her self-generated niche.
Slowly the cognitive functioning of the Hump degraded until abstract or creative thought became marks of the wacky, the outcast, and the impotent.
Then the unexpected happened, as it always will.
Despite our efforts, the Nostalgia Riots broke out one hot and steamy summer day. Govvies moved on South Florida with happy gas, trying to turn the rampaging populace into one big smiley face, but the seniors went berserk before the gas — on top of pills, mind you, chemicals in the water, and soporific stories in the media — took effect. They tore up benches from the Everglades to Tampa/St. Pete and made bonfires that made the forest fires of ’64 look like fireflies. They smashed store windows, burned hovers, and looted amusement parks along the Hundred-Mile Boardwalk.
Although the Youthful Sub-Hump was slow to get on board, they burned white-hot when they finally ignited, racing through their shopping worlds with inhuman, cold-blooded cries. A shiver of primordial terror chilled the Hump from end to end.
That a riot broke out was not the primary problem. Riots will happen and serve many good purposes. They enable us to reinforce stereotypes, enact desirable legislation, and discharge unhelpful energies. The way we frame analyses of their causes become antecedents for future policies and police actions. We have sponsored or facilitated many a useful riot.
No, the problem was that the elders’ arguments were based on past events, and if anybody listened, they made sense. That’s what tipped the balance. Youth who had learned to ignore and disrespect their elders actually listened to what they were saying.
Pretending to think things through became a fad. The young sat on quasi-elder-benches from Key Largo to Saint Augustine, pretending to have thoughtful conversations about the old days. Coffee shops came back into vogue. Lingering became fashionable again.
Earth had long ago decided to back down when the Martians declared independence, so it wasn’t that. It was the spectacle of the elderly strutting their stuff in a victory parade that stretched from Miami Beach to Biloxi that imaged a future we could not abide.
Even before the march, we were working on solving the problem. Let them win the battle. Martians winning independence, old folks feeling their oats, those weren’t the issues. How policy was determined was the issue. Our long-term strategy focused on winning that war.
Copyright © 2008 by Richard Thieme