[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.
By Gregory J. M. Kasunich
He wanted the full cowl, not the rinky-dink eye mask.
He wanted the long cape, not the one that only came to his waist.
He wanted kick-ass utility belt with the spring loaded suction dart launcher and battery powered laser sight, not the two wire hangers and length of twine that made up his pathetic excuse for a grappling hook.
He wanted more than to be the sidekick.
He wanted more than to be the #2.
When it was “Cops and Robbers”, he was never on the right side of the law. When it was “Explorer”, he ended up the savage native. When it was “Cowboys and Indians”… well, let’s just say he wasn’t wearing a ten-gallon hat.
He brought up his discontent once or twice before, but after a lighting game of Okca-Bocka-Soda-Crocka or Bubble Gum Bubble Gum in a Dish, (the later he still believed to be rigged as he was certain he counted out the right amount of pieces when asked how many his sister wished), he would still end up as the evil villain and Brad would end up the secret agent, fair and square.
Something had to be done.
What did it matter that Brad’s dad was some sort of something important, leaving the house every morning just before the bus came, wearing his suit, his hands juggling the Times and a briefcase and a silver coffee mug? Who cared that Brad got all he new toys? The repeating Nerf Gatling gun. The Lego pirate ship; the big one, the one that came with the colonials and he castle and had, like, ten masts. The Spy-Tech Jr. Forensic Kit that had the black light and the fingerprint dust.
After he got that, Brad was either James Bond or Sherlock Holmes.
He ended up as Q or Watson or the dead body racked with clues.
It sucked. Just because Brad got the better stuff and he had to fashion his accoutrements out of sticks, and glue, and rope, and old bed sheets shouldn’t have any bearing on who is the leader and who is the #2. So that Tuesday, the first Tuesday of Easter Break, he decided the ranks had to change. It was two days in the planning and he had decided not to comit his preparation to paper, just in case his mom or dad found it. Unlike Brad, his mom was always home and his dad always saw him off to school or was there shortly after he got back. No real privacy. The risk was too great; he had to commit the plan to memory.
He made the call; soon Brad would be on his way over. Everything was set. The box fort stood strong in his basement, the lights were dimmed, in a few minutes, he would have Brad exactly where he wanted him. He would spring his trap catching Brad in the sheets that hung above the boxes, and in an instant, make him scream uncle. Uncle! The sweetest word, the word that meant he could call the shots. He felt lucky Hasbro didn’t make a friend trap or else Brad might have already gotten the deluxe model.
Finally he would no longer be the villain, he would be the one in charge. He would no longer have to play in Brad’s shadow. No matter what, no matter how, he would never again be the #2.