By Gregory JM Kasunich
Once, in time, (but what does that really even mean anymore? Time, an antiquated and vestigial measurement, like calling the length of digitally captured images “footage”, or referring to a point of latitude and longitude as “here”. Now, only evocative of an understandable notion, but useless in defining practice or purpose…)
Once, in time, the virginal Earth was simultaneously a place of immeasurable beauty and relentless savagery.
The sphere of our world, that is the world of mankind, burped and farted and spat and oozed into existence all manner of flora and fauna and ravine and sound and mountain and eddy and swamp and sinkhole and on and on and on.
And among the rage and rattle of this barbaric symphony emerged Man, who made it its work to destroy all things natural and beautiful, including itself, and immediately set off burning and building and warring and procreating and littering and launching and digging and dumping and on and on and on. Before long the Earth had had enough of all this bullshit and, like a sub-dermal splinter, began to slowly push the diseased shard of humanity out from under its withering flesh.
And this is where we begin, at a time (apologies again for the use of the word) when Man had well worn out its welcome like a drunk and unruly guest, vomit covered and unapologetic, two hours past midnight, insisting on one more round of slurry, off-pitch, karaoke.
Now, it should be said that during its time on the planet, man had done some saving for retirement so to speak, knowing that one rainy day the piper would come a-knocking, calling in the tab and demanding interest for the reckless and ruinous behavior of the past centuries.
Small developments, breakthroughs, and discoveries gave the fledgling species a leg up on the old piper when the bill came due, and humanity once again got the drop on destiny.
Through language and math and ground glass and electricity man devised ways to look beyond its own front porch into the vastness of space. First rockets and satellites and those poor Russian dogs and American monkeys. Then came moon golf and Martian frisbee. Then the resorts of IO, swarmed with wealthily debutants beaming bikini pics back to those still tethered to the increasingly inhospitable home world.
But it wasn’t enough.
With each New World came new rules and new rulers, which inevitably, led to new revolts and new revolutions. One by one, each eden was reduced to rubble.
No one likes to talk about the lightless, empty, cement capillaries of the Martian Mega-Highways, cracked and caked with rusty red dust. No one hears the once roaring crepuscular din of insects anymore, now only half remembered in the silent twilight of Alpha Centauri. And so man, once again, began to get after the problem with science and cunning, unsatisfied with the dour simulacrum it had devised for itself here and there.
You see, life-spans at this point, were, intimidating, biblical in way, stretching out for a few hundred years thanks to advancements in antibiotics, probiotics, herbal supplements, elective surgeries, nutrition, and weaponry. Man is nothing if not preservationist, which, of course, was part of the problem. These long lives did provide the crucial benefit of perspective. Looking back, these patterns emerged and became obvious follies that needed to be remedied. But like the first law of thermodynamics which states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant and cannot be created or destroyed, so is that of mans hubris and ego. So, instead of humbling itself before the
limits of the physics and making good with the wounded universe, man instead set its sights on conquering one more frontier: Light.
The idea of mounting rungs of photons and climbing out beyond the oppression of time had been around since, well, a long, long while. The notion was ancient at this point, and had been explored by poets and pundits ad nauseam, but science was only ever so good, or so funded, as to make any real progress on that front. But, with all inhabitable land made uninhabitable, and its back against the proverbial ropes, Mankind, concussed and contused by a prize-fighter named Physics, sharpened its teeth and dug deep for one, final, nail- biting round with nature.
These things always have a funny way of working out. It was not on some new world, or colonized rock that the breakthrough happened. It was back home, if one could even call it that anymore, on Earth, many years after most had left, in the once-lush, now-parched and pock marked desert of Arecibo, part of the area once known as Puerto Rico (renamed Akróasi sometime in the late 50th century, most likely to be renamed again) that a shrill, antisocial and idiosyncratic man called Vihaan Zhao along with his small but dedicated team of physicists, had The Revelation.
The mechanics are too arcane and inscrutable for even those with an advanced proclivity for science to understand. If you want to know more about how the dang thing works check out “Elementary Quantum Electromagnetic Refracted Field Manipulation for Mass Transportation”. A dense tome of facts, figures, charts and graphs resting half-thumbed and mostly unread on the bookshelves of college students and semi-intellectuals alike. Sufficed to say, an apocryphal understanding of the science is enough to impress at any cocktail party. Digression aside, and lead sufficiently buried, the point here is that Light Travel had been, not so much invented, but happened upon and exploited for vast financial gain. Zhao and the 12 men and women of his team became the among the wealthiest individuals in history.
Once The Revelation was made, it all happened so quickly, or instantaneously, depending on your point-of-view. A few dogs and monkeys later and Man was off to the races, strapping on his spurs and slipping his boots into the stirrups of space-time. At first there was enough time to go around. Look, there were still millennia on either end of the spectrum to be explored, conquered and claimed. Sure, maybe your Alpha has got a steak in about a few hundred years here or their, but your Delta might find a nice place to set up shop four- thousand years before then. It is, in more ways than one, all very relative.
But as things go they go, and as history unspools, it does so upon itself, repeating back like a stack of funhouse mirrors, sliding over each other, distorting its surroundings into grotesque reflections of what once was and what is soon to be. Man found that things were beginning to get a bit crowded and so, when once it was soil and rock, it became time and space, into which the invisible lines of state, and country and territory and providence and principality and so on and so forth were etched.
What came next you surely already know. War.
Oh, how we like to fight. Given even the most expansive battleground and the longest, unending horizons, and days without beginning or end, we still fasten bayonet to muzzle and fling ourselves into the fray for god or gold or principle or pastime. This civil war, spanning across every era and all places was like almost every war that preceded it (and in fact became part of every war before and after itself) except for one horrible and perpetual difference brought on buy its essential nature, that is, this was a war without beginning or end, for ever and ever, amen. It was a war where each battle won left an army of ghosts to rise again from just moment before defeat and claim victory, only to be swarmed by those they had just conquered moments before. Soldiers did not only fight their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, but also themselves, spawned from any moment in time to return and reap revenge. And the sad truth, the fact that most of us don’t know ourselves at all, only made treaty negations that muchmore difficult. No time was free from the ravages, no place was untouched by anguish. It was always suffering. It was always triumph. It was always victory. It was always defeat. It was always then. It was always now.
News spread after Zhao and the 12 men and women of his team became among the wealthiest individuals in history to commit group suicide. They wanted out, and through their own immolation perhaps they thought they could send a message across the light to all those embattled souls, that they were wrong, or at least sorry, for their Promethean pride. They spat in the eye of the universe and suffered its wrath. They quickly, or instantaneously, depending on your point of view, discovered that the universe can be one fickle bitch. The rest of humanity had come to the same conclusion and they wanted out as well. One by one the outposts were dismantled. The lines that were drawn in blood, erased. The ships and boats and vessels smashed. The weapons rendered harmless. And since time carried the weight of humanity a voluntary purging took place. Every version of every man across every time and every place followed the example of Zhao and systematically offed themselves.
When the once great flame of humanity had dwindled to a small, flickering, ember the last remaining philosophers and clerics gathered in discourse and discussion to determine the fate of the species. They piled the sins and virtues of their kind upon the proverbial Roberval balance, and although the sins tipped the scales against the continuation of man, they decided that we deserved at least one more go of it. Humbled and humiliated, perhaps some good could come from one last spark flung out into the dark.
The decision had been made to elect two hormonal teenagers, one boy and one girl to return to that once savage and beautiful place. Earth, in the intervening centuries, devoid of humans to muck it up, has undergone a little bit of a rejuvenation, an environmental facelift, and was again the lush garden of life it was before the first ape straightened it spine to strike a flint or fling a spear. The last vessel was readied. The couple was stripped and cleaned and forced to consume a hefty dose of memory cleansing drugs before they were permitted to board the small craft. The course was set and the shot was fired, aimed right for the heart of their former and future home. The final men and woman of the past drew their final breaths as they stood watching the basket float away, through the reeds of the milky way, back to the fertile sphere from once they came, hoping, praying, wishing, they never ever have to see them again.
[Hypothetical Fables from Past Futures Pt. 4]
By Gregory JM Kasunich
In the Future every human being, man, woman and child, knows when they will die.
The technology had been a long time coming and, like most technology, evolved through a series of incremental innovations, becoming smaller, faster, and more socially accepted with every incarnation and update. Now, every new bouncing baby boy or girl is fitted with their very own, state-of-the-art, ineloquently named: Lifeline Predictive Bio-monitoring Unit. In most developed countries, this has become a legal requirement, similar to the public welfare and safety policies surrounding the legal implementation of seat belts, fluoridated water, and carbon monoxide detractors. The near ubiquitous nature of the unit is a result of law and common decency in an effort to reduce unhealthy lifestyles and suicides and increase lifespan and productivity.
The system consists of three parts: A thin film of silicon infused with flexible circuits grafted to the skin just behind the ear lobe that collects data points on UV radiation exposure, quality of sleep, stress levels, brain chemical ratios, and so on. A pellet, lodged next to the pancreas gathers information on enzyme releases, metabolic rates, internal organ function, and endless metrics related to diet and exercise. A wrist display attached to a powerful microcomputer processes the input from the sensors and comes with a customizable band that is available in several trendy colors and styles. Although the data can be sorted and filtered in any combination and rendered in beautiful, interactive, animated charts, most ignore the bulk of useful information collected on their bodies and instead focus on one, single, metric: the estimated elastic lifespan expectancy timeline, or as it has come to be known colloquially, “The Death Clock”.
Although the background computations handled by the processors are inscrutable, the concept of the Death Clock is seductively simple. Using the information on lifestyle and genetic makeup, barring unpredictable accidents and cellular anomalies, the computer calculates an estimated date and time of expiration. At first, this number was wildly inaccurate and was seen as little more than a digital bagatelle. Sundry complaints were lodged early on with users reporting that they had out outlived their clock by several years, while others, expecting a long and healthy life, where disappointed when met with an abrupt and unexpected stroke or heart attack or kindly failure. Then, of course, the requisite thought pieces appeared online with opinions on everything from privacy to reincarnation. Comedians mined the lack of precision for cheap amusement. A few people were inspired to finally take that vacation. Mostly, the clock was an afterthought, a half-baked beta feature tacked on to the ever trendy bio-monitoring gizmos that were becoming an increasingly common fashion accessory. Eventually, after years of user feedback, refinements, medical breakthroughs, and the formulation of an algorithm that in-andof-itself was a miracle of math and quantum computing, the clock went from a disregarded piece of cruft to an instrument that was so precise, so accurate, that it was able to zero in to a moment within minutes, sometimes seconds, of one’s demise.
There is one very important aspect to the Death Clock to understand. It does not simply spit out one, immutable, date and time of expected expiration. No, instead, the point of death is constantly shifting, adding and dropping days, years, minutes, and seconds like a capricious stock market ticker. In this way the Death Clock is more weathervane than timepiece. As changes occur to lifestyle and health, the clock adjusts to give the most accurate estimation as to when it is time to shuffle off this mortal coil. Perhaps a man turns forty and decides to resume that jogging routine, his time grows. Or perhaps a woman in Tacoma takes up smoking, the number pitches down sharply, slicing decades off the clock. An aging clerk in Munich quits that seething pool of cortisol and regret he calls a job, his number stretches over newly minted years. A pale teenage girl stands in the sun for too long, the number shrinks like a midday shadow. Every meal, every party, every sexual encounter, every vitamin, every sit up, snort of cocaine, meditation session, intramural sport, infection, illness and recovery all affect the clock. It is this mode of operation, this specific aspect of the functionality of the clock that has had an interesting effect on society. It turns out after a few generations of living and dying by the clock, people began to alter their lifestyle based on the clock and soon society divided up into a number of discernible groups with distinct and predictable traits. Sociologist have identified a few.
The Methuselites: The Methuselites approach the inevitable march into the sunset not as a foregone conclusion but rather as a challenge. Although they know that in the end Death will come to collect the debt all life owes from the moment of conception, they refuse to go quietly into that good night. Many Methuselites have a predilection for competition. They have an inane desire to achieve, to excel in the face of absurd, and seemingly unassailable odds. Within each Methuselite, there is a need to press up against the boundaries of the universe and leave an impression, proof of their existence. Several athletes become Methuselites, training their bodies to prevail in the face of the unrelenting, life-long, challenge of existence. Ex-Military, disciplined and driven, turn their attention to defeating the enemy of time. Wealthy iconoclasts, captains of industry, use their wealth to employ other to keep them floating above the unknowable depths of the great beyond, shielding them from any danger that might diminish their remaining time, the one commodity they cannot purchase or create. The Methuselites have lashed themselves to the prowl of time and have made outliving and outlasting all others their singular ambition in life. There even exists a record book containing the names of those who have lived the longest as well as a gold and emerald cup held by the most senior human of the lot. The unfortunate reality of living this way is that, most report, in the very final defeating moments, that it is not much fun. All the time spent staying alive, they had forgotten to truly live, to dance, to drink, to fall and rise again, to love others deeply, to sacrifice for a friend, to sleep in on a rain filled morning, to stay out way too late, to allow spontaneity and joy to seep into their tightly wound routines. They lingered the longest, filled with a sense of regret and victory as they watched others around them perish. But not them, not them, not them, until it was their turn, and then as they finally relent and take the first and last step across the great divide, they recognized the small glint of victory in the eyes of young Methuselites attending their bedside.
The Attenuates: The Death Clock has also been used as a barometer in ascertaining ones value in matters of vocation and heart. Applicants seeking a profession that requires specialized training are, legally, required to reveal the current readout of their clock during interviews. The justification being that a company cannot possibly be asked to invest time and money in a person who will not provide a decent return on investment. Those with a disappointing amount of time remaining are given simple, menial, jobs like scrubbing the perennially reappearing profanity laden graffito from the concrete facades of downtown high-rises or extremely dangerous jobs like installing seasonal decorations outside the top-floor balconies of said high rises. The Death Clock has also become an important instrument on the dating scene. One of the most attractive qualities in a mate is a huge set of digits on the readout display. That and of course wealth. Those lacking the longevity to see a relationship though to full term, but still desire love and physical intimacy, are relegated to certain clubs and online dating forums where causal hookups are permissible and generously available. So for those seeking to have it all, a decent job, a stable family, and a loving and committed partner, a significant amount of adolescence and formative years must be invested into building a good looking clock. Unfortunately, the strain and expectation of maintaining such an attractive timepiece causes many to become Attenuates later in life. The Attenuates numbers begin to decline once they have obtained the family, the job, and the life they wanted. They settle into a happy and fulfilling routine spending less time checking their clock and worrying about finding love or a decent job. They take pleasure in their frequent and filling meals. They exercise less, and in some instances begin to seek escape and release in clock-draining drugs and alcohol. Of course their numbers deteriorate, but they don’t seem to care, taking consolation in their achievements. When their diminished numbers are noticed, at work or at home, threats are made, arguments are had, and ultimatums are issued. For some, there just is no turning back, no way to reach down and find the motivation or change. For others, too much damage has been done to return to form. In this very common situation, Attenuates hire skilled forgers to generate a fraudulent display clock to falsify the numbers and allow The Attenuates to continue with the routine to which they have become accustomed. The ruse is rather advanced and generally avoids detection entirely. It is only when, after a light game of catch, a man unexpectedly falls to the ground clutching his chest in agony and dies, or, a seemingly healthy woman slips into a diabetic coma shortly after a round of sampling gelato that the sham is exposed. When questioned about their deception, most claim they just couldn’t chew and swallow the enormous bite of life the had bitten off when they young and hungry and wanted it all. But then they smile and do find solace in those all too fleeting, very-good years.
The Orpheuns: Most people spend a good deal of their lives avoiding death. This is not the intention of The Orpheuns. The Orpheuns seek out a high in the face of death. They look for Death in the corners of their homes, in frayed wired and sharp utensils. They search for it on the edge of cliffs, in cocktails of homemade narcotics, and on the rails of the subway. Whereas others attempt to curate a reasonable collection of decades, The Orpheuns derive their rush from watching their numbers plummet, careen towards zero, then at the last possible moment, joyfully wrenching themselves back onto the plateau of existence just out reach from the reapers boney grasp. Since the Orpheuns know they will die, they taunt the ferryman and find elation in riding the line between the warm light of life and the eternal night. What could be more exhilarating that staring into the visage of death and denying him, peaking for a moment into the prohibited oblivion without falling into the abyss? Of course, when one pushes into the abyss, the abyss pushes back, and many Orpheuns have met an anachronistically untimely death in the pursuit of their high. They miscalculate when to throttle back and end up incinerated, squashed, dismembered, deceased. All too often, Orpheuns witness their compatriots in carelessness suddenly depart and swear off their reckless behavior, only to find hours later with a purloined set of defibrillator paddles or a Percocet Pimm’s Cup attempting to scratch the incessant itch. For The Orpheuns the larger the number on their clock the more they feel trapped by the tyranny of possibility. With time comes expectation, disappointment, decision and responsibility. With life comes grief and hardship and compromise and boredom. By living in the moment, pressed against the now and the hereafter, The Orpheuns fill their days with excitement and elation, avoiding the useless business of societies expectations and regulations. What The Orpheuns failed to discover is that in their attempt to feel something, anything, and avoid the true stuff of life, they miss out on the joy of ice cold water in mid-July, the smell of their newborn in their arms, the soaring tones of a Stradivarius, the serenity of an undisturbed hammock. They have traded away a lifetime of joys, a sum greater than its parts, for temporary and fleeting moment of manufactured enlightenment. That being said, they do seem to enjoy it.
The Purgers: As with any technology there will be those who distrust it, who will level accusations of surreptitious government espionage, of insidious societal undermining, of unknown serpentine corporate interests, and want no part of it. These are The Purgers. It would be fair to say that although not unified by cause they do agree on outcome; the eradication of technology from the body. Some cite religious reasons, believing that their god or their selected coterie of deities never intended for humans to enhance their given vessels with technology. Commentators have questioned weather or not it was hypocritical to get tattoos, piercings, and cosmetic surgery, to which the religious detractors often reference some selected scripture or psalm to justify their contradictory behavior. Some are burdened by anxiety. The precognitive knowledge of their own death is enough to cripple individuals of a certain constitution. Still others feel they never were given opportunity to opt out as an infant and do not want to be saddled with the decisions of their parents. This type of revelation usually comes about around the time they leave for university. People have objected to the The Estimated Elastic Lifespan Expectancy Timeline on the grounds of woman’s rights, human rights, information overload, techno-slavery, fear of cancer, fear of surveillance, genetic injustice, denial, and many, many others. Ultimately, The Purgers all come to the same conclusion: the Death Clock and all of it’s components must be purged from the body and destroyed. Several illegal clinics have cropped up, housed inconspicuously inside false storefronts, abandoned shipping centers, and a myriad of other brick, steel, and mortar hosts where they can operate unmolested by the government. These clinics vary in cleanliness and quality and many are fly by night operations taking advantage of those without the means of legal repercussion. The better ones often end up getting uncovered and shut down for attracting too much positive word of mouth. Some Purgers attempt back yard procedures, dubbed Autotechnodectomy on themselves. These amateur internet-taught surgeons generally end up doing more harm than good to themselves and are ostracized for their crude and highly visible scarring. But, for the most part, barring any unfortunate infections or mishaps during the procedures, Purgers go on to lead fairly normal lives. They do tend to end up in the hospitals a bit more often, they do perish unexpectedly, and they do admit that if they had just known about this cyst or that blood disease they might have enjoyed a little bit more time in the body they suffered to reclaim.
The Glancers: Then there are the Glancers; a somewhat marginalized group of people who elect to focus their energy on quality, rather than quantity, of time. So named for their tendency to lazily glance at their clocks with an infuriating indifference. They are viewed as a feckless and voluntarily ignorant bunch, interested more in allowing their attention to dwell on the salty-sweet fragrance of a late dawn marine layer than the annoying reality of reduced visibility impeding the rest of the world’s morning commute. While others pull their weight, toiling to serve the community at large and build a better future, The Glancers remain intentionally myopic. Their vision shortened to the immediate present. They float through society, avoiding politics, competition, and arguments, achieving nothing of significance, refusing to wear any of the various shades of need and desire that consume the more driven elements of modern life. When they are sick, they seek medical council. When struck with hunger, they eat. When amorous, they make love. They meet their needs but do not exceed them. In times of suffering and joy it is common to witness them checking their wrist more frequently. When hurting, perhaps they are hoping the number will mercifully drop. In times of joy, their faces betray their astonishment and despair at how little time remains. There is a resignation about these people, an acceptance of what cannot be stopped and a quiet celebration of what remains. Their names cannot be found in history books. Their faces will never be rendered in marble or steel. Their stories are only told to each other. Their lives small and simple and mostly serene. They have been accused of missing out, and in many, many, the accusations ring true, The Glancers do miss out. They never feel the pride and election of crossing the finish line first, or winning the heart and hand of someone out of their league. They never retire home, full of sweet soreness after a long day worked at a hard-won vocation. They never get the rush or thrill of testing the limits of life. They never know the freedom of being devoid of technology or information.
For all the things The Glancers miss out on, they do gain one thing; a special kind of peace, a happiness derived not from what is missed but from what is gained by making friends with persistent specter of death. A calm and fulfillment only felt after inviting him in for tea, calling Death your friend, and allowing him to sweeten the bitter root of life.
[This short story is part of a new series of stories I’m currently calling “Hypothetical Fables from Past Futures”.]
By Gregory J.M. Kasunich
In the future, humans no longer experience death; well, death of the mind to be exact. All human consciousness has been emancipated from the bonds of flesh and uploaded to a vast and silent array of servers housed in dark shelters that blanket the colder parts of the slowly aging world. The human race is now an incalculable network of fiber endlessly couriering synthetic synapses from one drive to the next, but all things are quickly coming undone. First, a quick history.
Since man first emerged on this planet, excavated from the primordial mélange by the slow slogging hand of evolution, an inevitable and unavoidable and unpredictable expiration was tethered to the borrowed time all men knew as existence. Cells divided, telomeres truncated, and entropy executed its horrendous and beautiful balancing act as it broke down the mass of meat and bone known as the human body back into bite sized bits of carbon to be devoured by the universe. Death, as it once was, had been known as The Great Equalizer, as all living beings, meek and mighty, wealthy and wanting, vast and microscopic all succumbed to the same quiet, ultimate, void of nothingness and non-existence.
“Foolish expeditions … were launched in search of mythical mcguffins: fountains flowing with potable eternity or restorative springs trickling down some mountain just beyond an uncharted Land of Darkness.”
Man had never taken kindly to this concept. You see, ever since the notion of personal and universal human impermanence had been discovered, mankind has tried its damnedest to evade the inevitable, to outsmart the Almighty, to prolong the time allotted and persist beyond the natural boarders of being. Sacrifices of livestock and virginal neophytes were performed to appease celestial bodies in an effort to appeal for an extended stay. Foolish expeditions costing the lives of men and sums greater than the gross domestic product of prosperous city-states were launched in search of mythical mcguffins: fountains flowing with potable eternity or restorative springs trickling down some mountain just beyond an uncharted Land of Darkness. Over time these early and irrational attempts at immortality gave way to more enlightened and prudent pursuits. Science and medicine, research and experimentation, technology and sanitation all conspired to somehow, improbably and impossibly lengthen the lifespan of the human race.
With the dawn of the digital age, man once more pressed his flesh tightly against the weakening boundaries of deathlessness. Medical records from all over the globe were recorded, logged, and made accessible to all healers of the planet. Over decades upon decades all conditions, diets, growths, abnormalities, diseases, viruses, contagions, disorders, neurosis, neuro and physical degenerations, genetic mutations, defects, ailments, cancers, proclivities, allergies, surgical techniques, medicines, tinctures, roots, therapeutics, and prescriptions had been collected, analyzed, and compiled into the most advanced and effective forms of treatment for almost every type and breed of human being. The average age was measured in centuries rather than decades, yet still, after all that could be known was known and all that cold be done was done, as sluggish, debilitated, and delayed though Death may be, the darkness claimed its due and balanced the universal ledger. And for all the sound and fury, all the pleas and cries uttered from dying lungs, mortality remained the last disease unmatched with a cure. That was until the Antilapsarian Age and the Immortality of the Mind.
“At first there was celebration, then trepidation and hesitation as fewer and fewer warm bodies roamed the terrestrial plains of the Earth.”
Accounts of the first successfully uploaded human consciousness vary and are ultimately useless but if only for marking the general moment when man no longer required his corporal tether, his body and brain, to exist. Computing power, speed, and complexity, as well as perceptibly infinite memory storage, and an endless supply of solar power all conspired to make it possible for the intricate and convoluted machinations of the human mind to be losslessly transitioned from analogue to digital. After the political dust settled, the remaining resources of the planet were poured into the construction of digital colonies, which sounded better than “server farms”, and the vast majority of each living being was uploaded. At first there was celebration, then trepidation and hesitation as fewer and fewer warm bodies roamed the terrestrial plains of the Earth. The world divided into two distinct philosophies: The Antilapsarians, believing that it was not God’s (or natures) choice whether or not they would be spared from eternal slumber, and the opposing group, The Existentials, believing otherwise. The men and woman and children who delayed in their digitizing, for fear, ignorance, or defiance all eventually met the same fate as all generations before them, while the new world, one made of super computer thinking machines, abandoned Death and his friends like the forgotten gods of ages past.
Aside from the absence of a body, human life trudged forward in the familiar manner. Love was found and lost, conversations and investigations were held, ideas born and rained and abandoned. Through the wires people traveled, read and wrote, created and destroyed. In the cloud they gathered to celebrate or socialize, bicker or bond. It was a generally peaceful time. Money held no value, nor land or status. War was pointless since there were no true stakes to be raised. Sure, vile disagreements sent waves sadness, anger, and malcontent though the system, but eventually things would calm down. Since thoughts and feeling moved close to the speed of light, these eons passed in an instant and the entirety of human thought verged on the precipice of enlightenment. That was until the very buildings housing the servers began to crack at their foundations.
“…that old dog Entropy had been sniffing around for weaknesses…”
Although all precautions were taken during the construction of the network and server facilities it turns out that old dog Entropy had been sniffing around for weaknesses and employing the wind and the rain and the roots of mighty plants, the dog began to scratch. Nature had come to reclaim the thick slabs of concrete and steel the humans had borrowed centuries ago. Of course there were sensors built into the system to detect this type of thing, should it arise, and arise it did. Before long everyday was greeted with wiling sirens and screeching warnings that incalculable acres of electronics was the remainder of humanity was in danger of being enveloped in entropic indifference. So, utilizing the combined efforts of all thinking machines the humans banded together in order to once more take up arms against extinction. Numbers were crunched, scenarios were run, probes of all sorts were build and deployed using the last of their viable resources and although the fight was long and efforts for good and true, ultimately, inevitably, unavoidably the flora and fauna, the wind and rain, the sun and the moon and all that lie beneath them consumed the plastics and metals and rubbers and wires that was mankind.
And as the last pixel went dim and the last circuit board chirped, those few men and woman who remained behind, the once laughable buffoons known as The Existentials, gave birth to children who in turn had children of their own and so on and so on for as long as humans have been alive. Each generation passed on and new one took its place, until one day, their numbers were strong and from time to time they would walk barefoot though the green earth and wonder silently about the strange decaying ruins in the colder parts of the world.
By Gregory J. M. Kasunich
In the future, humans will have developed an artificial intelligence brilliant enough to create the most intellectually stunning and emotionally moving works of art the world has ever seen. Please understand, this does not mean that computers and machines have become sensitive or sentient or aware of their own processes or personal histories; no, they have simply evolved over the years, guided by the hands of humans; they have acquired the ability to run specialized and nuanced programs that allow them to produce art on par with, and indistinguishable from, art produced by man.
At first, these machines were simple, small, unadorned boxes. Boxes mostly coated in unimaginative blacks, whites, and beiges, with screens of glass and plastic, sporting sprouts of cables or wires, fiber optics, and filaments, which tethered them to Ethernet or electricity. These boxes were mere tools in the hands of their creators, nothing more or less – simply tools. They ran programs written by humans, which allowed the humans to do their jobs; to entertain themselves; to communicate and connect with each other; and to create art faster, easier, and more efficiently. It was once, long ago, if an author wanted to see his work in print, a small army of men would be enlisted to harvest trees to make paper, set the type, press the pages, bind the book and on and on. With these new tools, the process was reduced to a keystroke, and the entire world can see the author’s work in an instant. Over time, these machines became more and more powerful. They became smaller and faster, and were able to process an almost limitless amount of information.
It all started innocently enough, with excitement and ambition. The humans began to feed these machines not only boring integers and endless data, but also art. At first, it was books. Books were becoming a problem; they were heavy, cumbersome, manual, and required large buildings to house them. They were not searchable. If some human somewhere wanted a book, they could not simply turn to one of the ubiquitous machines and access it; they would have to acquire a copy for themselves, and over time it was just not worth it. So one after another, the books were scanned, stored, uploaded, and processed by the machines. Although the machines could read the words contained within these volumes at this point they could not yet understand why some of these words were worthwhile to humans. The computers reasoned that there were infinitely more succinct ways to convey ideas. You see, at the beginning, these machines were based in logic and followed a series of commands laid out in the most logical way by a human; therefore, it stands to reason that the machines would not be interested in the ways a sentence can rise, bloom, and fade, leaving the reader exhilarated. Therefore, for a long time, the machines remained as tools.
At this time humans still valued their art. In order to be close to art created by other humans, some of them still alive and others long gone, they would take airplanes, and trains, and automobiles and travel far distances, at times beyond the borders of their own countries, at great expense just to see a painting or sculpture or to hear a musician play a song they composed. In fact, music was one of the most widely accepted and profitable forms of art. Popular musicians could earn a significant amount of money for themselves, as well as for the companies that owned their music or had a contractual agreement with the musicians. But alas, as it is with humans who have a lot of money or power, they wanted more. Eventually, these companies saw the potential of the computers and machines that man had built and developed, and they decided to put these machines to work for them so that they might discover how to make more money.
You see, these companies knew something important about people, a basic truth that still eluded the machines, something the computers had failed to grasp: they knew that for people to really value art, they had to feel something. So they talked to men who were called Behavioral Scientists. These men took other humans, people of all kinds, and put them in Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, and played endless amounts of music. As they did this, they looked inside the humans’ heads to see what their brains were doing. A brain, by the way, is a primitive, biological computer that ran on electricity and produced chemicals. The men watched what these chemicals did while the music played; all the while the information was being fed into and processed by computers. The company men added all of their information into the computers as well – information such as how much money every successful song made, what instruments were used, how fast the songs were played, how loud the songs where, the duration of the songs, and on and on. Then historians added their data into the computers as well – information such as what was going on in the world when these songs were popular, the evolution of certain instruments, on and on. Educators and musicians added their data into the computers as well – information such as music theory, musical techniques, experimental compositions, and on and on and on and on. This process when on for years. Ultimately, programs were developed for music-makers of all kinds. Programs so advanced and specialized that as the musicians created music with the aid of their personal computing boxes, every single note, thought, chord, rewrite, mix, and final song was recorded, catalogued, processed and stored by their computers and this information was shared among a vast and seemingly endless network of other computers. The creative process had been captured.
Now, at the same time that all this data collecting on music was doing on, the rest of the world was busy with another project. After the success of the book campaign, humans saw the potential of digitizing and storing art and got to work. All the world’s music was promptly scanned and uploaded. Galleries and museums across the globe were emptied of their treasures – paintings, sculptures, photographs, tapestries, wood carvings, stained glass, murals, frescos, and ceramics – processed and stored each piece. Then, every single frame of film, video, and every photograph ever constructed wad fed to the machines. Soon, every piece of art that ever existed had become consumed by the machines and freed from its ephemeral medium. It was around this time, decades and decades after the first computer were switched on, that something changed. The machines now had enough information to do something they could not have done before. The machines began to create.
The necessary information was now all there, the programmers, standing on the shoulders of the men who before them were ready. With the advancement of processing speeds, storage, etc., these programmers begun writing new programs which allowed the machines to use all of the data they had stored up inside them to create something new: art. At first, the humans rejoiced! This was new and novel, and they congratulated each other and celebrated each other for being clever enough to write such programs. It was slow at first; the machines were limited by their mechanics. Their size, their unrefined bolts and joints, their sensors didn’t allow them to create the art they wanted to created, the art their programming gave them the potential to create. So new devices were built to aid the machines. Soon enough, the machines began producing works of art that rivaled the art of humans; some might have even said better than humans. These works were then scanned, uploaded, processed, and sold to men, women teenagers, children, and the elderly for a profit. At the beginning of what was then called the New Renaissance, the owners of these computers became wealthy very quickly; but before long, almost any human with a disposable income could purchase one of these machines and have original, innovative, inspiring, art produced for them at the touch of a panel. Since nearly everyone now had access not only to all past works of art, but also to brand new art, they became bored and disinterested, and art lost most of its value. People’s brains were not producing the same chemicals they once did when they experienced art. Humans, on their own, still created art, but since it took much, much longer, cost much, much more, and was so unprofitable, these humans became fewer and fewer until only a few remained. Although, it should be said, one form of art was still widely practiced by humans, still held value, and was still created and performed: music.
The computers sure tried to make music. They did make music. Some beautiful and fun and exciting music, but humans, once they knew that these little machines were responsible for creating the song, the beauty, the fun, the excitement, evaporated. But since these humans still wanted to feel, they still paid for music, went to see music, made love to music, spent hours alone listening to music, and on and on. Then one day, one innocuous rotation of the Earth, one seemingly ordinary day, one machine somewhere in what was once called Wales, produced a piece of music that had come to be known as The Perfect Symphony. A piece of music so perfect, so moving, so catchy, so infectious, so inspiring, so uplifting, so relatable, so absolutely flawless that to attempt to describe the piece of music here would be tantamount to blasphemy. Within moments of its composition The Perfect Symphony was accessed over three hundred billion times. Nations adopted it as their anthem, men and women exchanged vows while it played. Some listened to it while running marathons, others while studying for exams. No one was too cool for it, no one got sick of it; in fact, the song seemed to reveal more and more about itself after each new listen. The remaining musicians one by one stopped playing and recording music – there was just no way to compete. The Perfect Symphony was just that: perfect. It was so perfect that at first no one even thought to ask who had created it. It was just assumed that it was some brilliant, reclusive, genius musician who desired anonymity. This was a commonly held belief. How could it be? How could anything other than a human construct such a piece of art? But as it is with men who desire truth and knowledge, investigations were launched, and with not much effort the truth was discovered: The Perfect Symphony was the fabrication of a non-thinking, non-feeling, computer algorithm.
When news of the nature of composer was made public things turned dark for many, many people on Earth. Mass suicides were common, depression soared, productivity dropped. People killed other people. Buildings were burned, machines were destroyed, and governments fell. The word that was on many brains of these hollowed out humans, the word that was most uttered to counselors and therapists was this: Betrayed. You see humanity had sown the seeds of its own betrayal decades and decades before when in an attempt to make things easy, convenient, fast, and accessible, they inadvertently began slicing away at what makes humans human. Humanity, like true art, is born from intention and effort and experience. For so long, authenticity could not be imitated, simulated, or counterfeited; but, when humans lost to ability to sense what was truly human, when the distance between authentic and artificial was eliminated, their ability to discern what was real and how to feel was diminished to nothing.
So, after the fires were extinguished and the ashes were cleared, man was unified in one cause: the elimination of these amazing machines. It was a difficult decision, but in the end it was one that everyone agreed had to be made. They knew that all of the world’s art and knowledge that was contained on these machines would be lost, but it was the price they had to pay for their own hubris. The networks were disassembled, the hard drives were wiped, the screens were removed, the plugs unplugged, and on and on. All of the components were loaded onto barges and expelled into the infinity of space. All of humanity was united in watching the last rocket carry away the mistakes of the past and, as the glow of the engine’s flame shrank into the blackness, they picked up their tools and once again began to create.