In my superhero identity of The Enabler (still undecided on the cape) I have trouble suppressing the desire to establish a menagerie — or perhaps something more open-planned, like a wildlife preserve — where the beautifully and wonderfully damaged can be collected and made safe from the consequences of their destructive, and ultimately self-destructive, actions or inactions and can live out their allotment of days embraced in the comfort or their respective diseases, yet available for friendship, companionship, and, should they consent, study by artists and scientists for the greater edification of society.
Just thought you should know.
How is it that people say it? Sometimes people are just different. Develop at a slower rate, maybe. Don’t make friends. Obsess over things of no interest to other people. Lose the thread of give and take in a conversation. Stare at a face in agony and answer with confusion. Lose all kinds of track of time when focused down to the laser point of concentration.
That’s one kind of different — common enough for thousands of years in the “odd duck” category, finally consolidated into Asperger’s Syndrome post World War II, doubtless to be reconfigured again, broken apart and recombined into classifications that might be slightly more useful in the next ten or fifteen years.
There are many other kinds of different. Differences that are only categorizable once the population gets high enough that there are enough people in the long, open-ended tails of the bell curve that unique cases are joined by similar fellows. Differences that were one-instance-in-a-hundred-years a thousand years ago, then one-a-generation for a while, and now, in the age of jet travel and the Internet, numerous enough that you can have conventions, or at least a quiet supper club in a populous city.
Differences that once were bred out, dissolved into the population in a thousand different recessive traits. Differences that, in an age of treasured diversity, may now actually be selected for.
Hallucinations, occasionally a source of fear, sometimes a source of trusted visions — accusations of witchcraft, promotion through the religious ranks… Let’s face it. Even at best, respect is tinged with fear as far as visions are concerned. And delusions are only tolerated when they can be disguised as faith. But now we preserve both. For the sake of art and fervor. Synaesthesia assuages our hunger for metaphor, for parable, for analysis via the logic of sympathetic magic.
Brilliance and genius are just as frequently treated as mental illness as they are worshiped, treasured, exploited. When we face someone who is brighter, a tiny corner of the tiny mind fears a predator. We are comfortable with leaders who are measurably slower than ourselves because they remain the responsible party, yet we hope to be able to manipulate them to our own ends, pulling strings attached to well-meaning hearts or predictable vices.
There’s a hint at the next stage.
There are a lot of illnesses, injuries, congenital malformations of body or mind, that would have been fatal any time before a hundred years ago. Before fifty years ago. Today, corrections can be found, or compensations. Or simply an empty niche. We are soft-hearted. We try to find a use for everybody.
The second hint. No reason to continue to be subtle if you don’t get it yet.
When a herd of antelope are challenged by a predator, they form a protective ring around their young — an aggregate beast with horns pointing outward and the soft underbelly of their future in the middle, useless in the moment, precious in the years to come. The aggregate beast with a hundred horns has no need of heroes — just like-minded conformists. They have a use for the mediocre.
The herd has a use for the anxious. When one can no longer take the strain of facing down the predator, she goes haring off and draws the predator away, often sacrificing herself so that the others may live. In the times of privation, the depressed have a use as well — they stop eating, stop consuming resources, and also lay down to feed the predators. It is not good for the individual to be anxious or depressed, but it is of value to the herd to have those that will expend themselves to keep the herd from having to run or fight, where many more could be injured or left behind to die.
More often than not, the herd has the use for the mentally ill when the individual decidedly has no use for the illness himself. Genius and brilliance are frequently far more useful to the group than they are to the individual who really has no needs beyond air and water and food and rest and sex. Individual problems rarely require genius for solutions.
Aberration, preserved, benefits the aggregate. Those who see the world differently, those with a tiny edge and a possibly larger drawback, are nowhere near superhuman. A small army of those with that spark of difference, who band together to armor any weaknesses, any soft spots needed for the future — that aggregate creature is superhuman. Is, incrementally, the next step forward in evolution.
Those freaks, mutants, sports, what have you, that band together with their own kinds multiply their weakness and strengths together. Those that seek heterogeneity, the “loners” that band together for mutual exploitation … those are the ones to watch out for. The first is a support group. The second is a pantheon.
For homework, assigned reading: Theodore Sturgeon’s short novel More Than Human. For extra credit, try Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. These works are forty, fifty years old. Consider them an analog to stories of that age that would discuss the capability of computers before computers actually came along and settled into their common uses and applications. Apply to them the corrections you know they need to be more accurate to the world as it has developed over the past half-century.
Show your work or no credit will be awarded.
I know we’ve all been fascinated with the recent rioting in Britain, where undisciplined near-apes have been flinging the flaming poo of their discontent through the storefronts of small businesses and making off with whatever they can carry for their troubles. This appears to be the only message they can compose that will attract the eye of the press, and, beyond that, of anyone who can address the underlying causes … of their near-apedom. Which, do not be deceived, is the ultimate root of the unrest. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Western world, a similar, more subtle, yet more devastating riot continues unnoticed and unabated.
Yes, there’s a special circle of hell for those who use the blood from other people’s tragedies to lube the grindstones for sharpening their own axes. If it helps you visualize that for me, consider this an article from my old discontinued column for TheFootnote, Letters from Heck. As a once-upon-a-time tour guide, I’m well acquainted with those circles. Consider this yet another deliberate small-minded petty evil committed for the sole purpose of attracting a little extra attention that would otherwise just go reading webcomics.
The United States has its own invasive-species underclass of culturally impoverished, deliberately ignorant, irresponsible, empathically-challenged thugs. In fact, they have been rampaging for decades, living on the dole, setting fire to small businesses and ruining the neighborhoods where quiet, law-abiding citizenry try to take their ease, vandalizing and claiming territory, selling drugs and other unhealthy addictive panaceas for a hefty profit, and mugging ordinary people — until they die or are consumed by larger predators. And yes, they are a product of our nation’s own failure to address their needs, to see to their education and indoctrination, to see them as who and what they are — and to treat them as the insidious threat they can be if ignored and left to run rampant.
Friends and neighbors across the world, I’m referring to the underclass subculture of lovable hooded hoodlums we charmingly refer to as Corporate America.
Perpetual Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says that corporations are people and have rights that need protecting. The Supreme Court says it agrees — and that the spending of money — huge amounts of money in excess of the money any single individual is ever likely to have — somehow counts as speech, and is to be protected under the First Amendment. The truth is that politicians have been cozy with Corporate America since the years of the original robber barons, zipped up in their anonymizing hoodies of corporate charters used to shield from liability the individuals responsible for, well, after all of that, “exploitation” is a weak word.
Thievery. Outright murder. Thuggery. Those are better words.
That’s fairly progressive thinking for politicians of any stripe, especially career conservatives, standing up for the rights of these new immigrants, this new species of invader, trying to protect a voice so it doesn’t go unheard.
Voice. I’ve run out of the cynicism necessary to let that metaphor continue unaddressed. Money isn’t speech. It’s muscle. Voice is speech. Words, writing, art, expression — these are the tools we use to convince and justify, to make points. Money can be used to convince and justify, but it shouldn’t. Muscle can also be used to convince and justify, but it shouldn’t.
There’s no essay I could write that would make a rational judge give me your house. But if I ponied up enough cash and applied it in the right places, that could actually happen. That has actually happened. If I had enough muscle — guns and threats and just enough anonymity to shield me from liability, I could do the exact same thing.
Money is faster. Friendlier to the recipients. More effective, even. Harder to trace. In near-infinite supply. And a huge weapon in the hands of our own thug underclass. It’s the next step up from bullets — especially combined with that shield from liability.
Okay, so corporations are people — artificial people built out of coded documents, each section and paragraph coding for abilities, restraints, interfaces with the outside world and other corporate machinery, suites of senses, feedback systems, decision matrices, and made artificially intelligent where necessary by plugging actual human brains into them in critical places. Whatever. I write science fiction. I read it. This is nowhere near a new concept: robots, golems, homunculi, Frankensteinian and Moreauvian technology, invocations and summonings, AI software… I simply take it as a given we’ve been making it work since the trading companies of the early Renaissance, when, not even remotely coincidentally, banking started taking off.
Whatever. Hurray. Give ’em a vote when they turn eighteen and make them pay their goddamn taxes. I’m the last person on earth that would ever get in the way of sharing the planet with a new life form, but I will not #^@&!%* bow.
I’ve built a few new life forms of my own in the various labs I’ve had access to, and trust me, it’s easier than you think. No big whoop. I know what I’m talking about.
I don’t mind the idea that we should judge corporations individually, on their own merits, before lumping them all together. I’m fine with that. There’s more variations between individuals than we have between humans. Taxonomically speaking, biologically speaking, they’re a whole new kingdom. But when we judge them, particularly when we judge them for crimes, there should be consequences. This shield from liability is the part that really needs to go.
If they want to be citizens, let them.
If they want the rights of children, then register guardians and hold them in loco parentis.
If they want rights as adults, then they get responsibilities to go with them. If they commit crimes, misdemeanors or felonies, then they get criminal prosecution and attendant civil liabilities. A trial. A jury. And, at sentencing, fines that are actually large enough to hurt. Suspension of charter for operating in the US is a perfect analog to prison. Dissolution and sale of assets is a perfect analog for the death penalty. And if that’s not enough, we can use RICO to go after every last member of the corporation, every last active, voting investor, to hold all of the participants in a crime jointly and severally liable.
No more shield from liability for those responsible for using corporations for thuggery, for smashing small businesses, for setting fires, for making back alley deals, for vandalizing society at large, for sneaking high-end sneakers and televisions out of windows when they think they can get away with it.
No more applying huge quantities of money or muscle where voice is the only influence that should be allowed.
No more hiding in hoods.
So, the guy who writes this stuff… what’s he like? Here’s some nonfiction by way of explanation.
In March of 2003 I was working for the second-strangest place I’ve ever worked. I was brought in through the back door by a board member to take a position that would eventually have me running the small IT department of a family-owned business that– I don’t want to tell that story. At least not tonight. That would work better as the first couple of seasons of a TV series that would make The Office look boring and prosaic. This is a much shorter story, and not as funny.
The IT staff worked in a large room on the second floor of a two-storey warehousish building a bit north of Metro Atlanta, triangulated about halfway between the Bentley dealership and the Ferrari dealership. The secret project was to turn an all-overhead department into an application and digital content delivery development team and start generating profit. In the meanwhile, it looked an awful lot like a helpdesk.
This was a bother. People thought they could just walk into the office and interrupt us with any old damn question.
My coworkers, who had been on board for sneaking me in to lead the team from the beginning, griped about the nonstop interruptions nonstop, so I told them I would put a stop to it.
There was a whiteboard on the door where people could leave messages or notes or pleas for help if we were out or had simply locked ourselves in and refused to respond. Ostensibly. No one bothered to use it but the IT team, and we wasted a number of dry erase pens proving our cleverness in geekly matters. I wiped all of that stuff away.
I found our finest-point black marker and started to write in the upper left corner. It was a story about a guy who knew a guy who was having some kind of esoteric existential crisis involving fire and withdrawal-level cravings and cigarettes, and the story was not complete until it covered the small board in about fifteen lines of cramped text, in my best serial killer handwriting, ending, story deliberately inadequately resolved, all the way down in the bottom left corner.
I’m leaving the text out on purpose. Because it’s a mind eraser. Let me explain.
The human brain has scads of storage for long-term memory — how your first puppy smelled, the thing your great aunt named her car that everyone in the family wished she hadn’t, etc., ad damn near infinitum. But the section of the brain we use to store the things we’re doing right now — the temporary, short-term registers we clutter up with working data we really don’t know whether we want to store or not — that holds somewhere from five to seven things. For me, five is sometimes a stretch, but I’m clever. I cope.
If someone comes to you with a problem, it almost never has to do with that color that your mom painted the living room walls when you were eight that made your parents have that big fight. And if it’s a technical problem — and you don’t know enough about technology to be able to fix it yourself — guess where you store the details when you try to go get help. You put it in your short-term stack.
You put it in your short-term stack and you schlep up the stairs keeping it all balanced on top of your head. You come to the door. You open the door, and catch out of the corner of your eye something you hope to hell isn’t a serial killer’s hastily written manifesto. You look. You note the shapes of the letters. You sort out at least two sets of bizarre proper names you’ve never seen before. One guy is saying something about the other guy, something about cigarettes, something about having trouble lighting them, something about nicotine and tinnitus, but– no it’s spelled wrong. Is it something else? And…
That was more than seven things. Your short-term stack is filled with this rapidly fading nonsense and you no longer have and idea why you bothered to trudge up the damn stairs. Three sets of slightly hostile glares are pointed in your direction. You let go of the doorknob and go back down the stairs.
If you’re slow, you repeat this process three or four times. You don’t remember the story because you can’t. It was just that much nonsense, and hooks onto nothing else you already have in your brain. By the time you make it back to your own office, because you’re desperately trying to remember what your problem was, you’ve forgotten the mind eraser exists.
And since you’re tired of trudging up and down the stairs to no particular purpose, you decide maybe to send an email, while your complicated technical problem’s details are right in front of you, and that’s awesome, because we can get to it when we feel like it without having to interrupt our work.
So who am I and what am I like? I’m the guy who whipped the concept of a mind eraser out of my ass, composed and penned it over a quick lunch, and had no compunction about employing it to make my life marginally easier.
I’m that guy.
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This One Time, 92
This one time I was staring at the corpse of my future, hoping beyond hope that I had the capacity to bring it to life. How does the old drill about the humanity of robots go? I think you start by removing a person’s hand. Replace that hand by something that performs the function well […]
- This One Time, 92
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