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No justice, no thank you, no prizes.
“The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being desirable as means to that end.”
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1861)
“Ben, come in, please. It’s good to see you,” the man said with a welcoming smile.
“Thank you, Praetor Guardian,” replied the boy as he walked nervously into the office.
The man, who was in his early sixties, shook the boy’s hand and sat back down behind his desk. “Take a seat.” The boy did so and waited for the man to continue. “I wondered if this day would come. I’ve been watching you for some time now. You’ve stood out in more ways than one. Your report says that you are undecided.”
“That is true, Praetor Guardian.”
“Call me Michael, please. There’s no need to be so formal.”
“Well, Michael… I must say I feel very privileged that you asked to see me. I would have thought that the Praetor Guardian had…”
“Oh, I take an interest in everyone, Ben. I don’t like to lose a single one.” He paused before continuing.
“In conversations like these I like to start off by asking for your definition of the Mind Machine. I know the official one, of course, but I’d like to hear it from you.” The man, still smiling, leant back in his chair and waited.
“Well… I’ve little more than the official one,” blurted Ben. “ The Mind Machine, it’s the answer to the quest for happiness. Once connected to the machine, it reads your brain, works out what will make you happy and fools your senses into thinking you’ve got it.”
“Ah, ‘fools’, you said.” The man sprung forward and leant over the desk. “You see, that’s not in the official definition. You do know that it’s perfect, don’t you? The Mind Machine provides a world indistinguishable from this one. No one ever knows they are connected. The world is just as real for the Connected as it is for us.”
“But, it’s just not!” exclaimed Ben, coming forward himself and then instantly shrinking back.
“Well, no, you’re right, but the Connected think it is,” said Michael calmly. “Technically, it’s another layer in, but who’s to say how many layers in we are already?”
“At least this world is another layer less.”
“But at what price? And for what gain?”
The man, pleased with his succinctness, returned to leaning back in his chair. “There are always a few like you, you know. Every so often we get someone who is undecided. ‘Reality Criers’ I call them. I remember one from my very first year as Praetor Guardian. A couple, actually, though we try to discourage that, as you know. Very much in love, wanted to be together, but of course the Mind Machine can’t do that. Total happiness for one is not total happiness for the other. We are all unique after all. Oh, we had great declarations that love was everything, but as I pointed out, their love only gave them one choice. ‘If you love each other,’ I said, ‘you must want each other to be happy. If you want each other to be happy, ensure you’re both connected. The Mind Machine is the only way you can make each other truly happy. If that is what you want - become connected.’ Their happiness ratings are both in the top 10% now.”
The boy said nothing.
“Officially, the cut off is 18, as you know, but actually most people get a little longer. I checked your file; you’ve got three more days. Three days in which to make your Decision.” The man paused to allow the boy to consider the seriousness of his last statement. There was no need. The Decision, even though for most people it never really was one, was ever present. It had been mentioned at least once in every day that Ben could remember. His entire schooling had been based around it; everyone’s had. Its history, its consequences, its science. After all, it was the most important decision one ever made, maybe the only important one. On its 18th birthday, every child had to decide between asking to be connected or to join the world of the Lost. Of course asking to be connected didn’t mean you always were. An honoured few were asked to spend their lives as Guardians, to sacrifice their own happiness to ensure that of others. It was the Guardians who did the work of raising the children and keeping the Mind Machine working. They were relatively few in number and lived comfortably, but theirs was a sacrifice indeed, for they could never be connected, their chance of pure happiness had passed.
Of course, in the early days of the Mind Machine, people of any age could be connected. However, as the science became better understood, it was realized that the potential to be happy varied from person to person. Some people were able to get closer to perfect happiness that others. To make things fairer, the Mind Machine was made responsible for choosing which people’s genes would be used to produce the next generation and it purposefully sought out those better adapted to be connected, or, put simply, those better adapted to be happy.
As human beings became better adapted, it also became apparent that connection was impossible after an individual reached a certain age and that this age was dropping with each generation. It was never allowed to fall below 18, as this would have removed the moral validity of the Decision. Along with absolute equality, one of the cornerstones of the Mind Machine society was individual choice. The Mind Machine had been created by democracy and by democracy it continued. At 18 an individual was deemed mature enough to be able to make the Decision in full consciousness.
“Let me tell you about the beginnings of the Mind Machine,” said Michael, forcing Ben to snap back to attention. “You’ve had the history lessons I’m sure. You know it was a democratic choice, but… but it was more than that. It was a demand, a begging. The first mind machines were made during the beginning of the third millennium. Unbelievably primitive, of course, but they gave a taste nonetheless. The first work had actually been done on rats. The simulation the mind machine produced was so powerful that the rats had actually let themselves starve to death rather than decide to disconnect from the machine. The technology developed, in the hands of private companies, and gradually the machines became better, deeper. Deeper in probing what it was that you wanted and better in providing it. At first it was an expensive toy, a luxury. Those who could afford it would be connected for 10 minutes as a pep up in the lunch break. Later, the durations were extended until people were being connected for whole evenings or even entire weekends.
The problem was how good the mind machines were compared with how bad reality was. People were happy while connected but their external lives were pale and dull in comparison. The inevitable question was, ‘Why be happy for only a few moments of each day when you could be for every minute?’ It became used more and more and for longer and longer stretches. Eventually, a millionaire came along, handed over all he owned and asked to be connected for the rest of his life, and he was. There was outcry, of course, but who was the government to stand in the way of individual choice? He wouldn’t affect anyone else while he was connected, so why couldn’t he do what he wished?
That was when the pressure on the government first started, not to put a stop to the mind machines but to improve them. Why should only the wealthy be happy? Surely it’s the government’s duty to help people in their pursuit of happiness? And what the people wanted, they got. The technology rapidly improved and the price dropped until it became feasible for governments to provide permanent connection to those that wanted it. And who didn’t? People were faced with the choice between the daily struggle, which for many even included looking for food and water, and, on the other side, a lifetime of total happiness. Many already took drugs in search of happiness. It was such a small step to take the perfect one. No side effects, no cost, no come down.”
“Tomorrow, Ben,” said Michael, making his tone less serious, “I’d like us to meet somewhere different; at the border, the border between the world of the Connected and the world of the Lost. I’d like us to have our next discussion there. How does that sound?”
“I’d like that very much, sir,” replied Ben.
“Well then, till tomorrow morning. Be happy, Ben,” said Michael as they shook hands.
“Be happy, Praetor Guardian.”
The next morning, Ben made the hour-long journey to the border. He’d never been this close to it before and it was with some anticipation that he knocked on the door. Michael opened it and they greeted each other, shook hands but remained standing.
“I guess you’ve been waiting for this for some time now,” said Michael.
“Indeed,” replied Ben.
Michael flicked a switch and the blinds on the three walls opposite the door lifted up to reveal an exceptional view. The room was about 50 metres from the ground and positioned exactly on the border. To the left and right a metal fence ran off into the distance. Ahead of them lay a yellow desert; rolling hills and sparse vegetation were the only detail. This was the world of the Lost.
To the sides and behind them lay the vast banks of the Connected. As far as the eye could see in any direction, even up, individual blue glows emanated from the walls of steel. Each one represented an individual body, stationary, but in total happiness. It was to these that Michael was looking. “Twenty billion happy people and the number’s growing. It’s amazing how little space people take up when they stop moving around.”
Ben turned his head and saw the working cells for the first time. There they all were, living out their happy lives. It would be so easy just to join them. And hey, he’d be happier than he was now. He turned back towards the desert. “What do you know about the lives of the Lost?” he asked.
“Lives? Hmm, very little,” said Michael, also turning. “Every few years we lose someone. Out they go and that’s the last we hear from them. We can only presume…” He lowered his eyes, paused and then raised them again. “Obviously we don’t send them out with nothing. But… well, it can’t be easy, can it?” Gesturing forward he asked, “Is that really where you want to spend the rest of your life? Do you really think that your life will be better just because it will be based in reality? Real problems, real pains…”
“But real pleasures,” interjected Ben.
“No deeper than those for the Connected. In fact, less so because yours will be incomplete, and how few and far between.”
“There would be more if we all worked for a better life in reality rather than just in the mind.”
“But still far less than now. Do you really want to go back to the way things were? To keep everyone in reality? You’ve had your history lessons, why would things be any better the second time around? Sure, some people were happy some of the time. But this way, everyone is happy all of the time; 97.3%, that’s the latest average happiness rating across all age groups. The highest we’ve ever had. I can honestly say that there is more happiness on this earth now than ever before. Why would you want to go back?”
“But look at them. Look at them. How can that be the meaning of life?”
“How can the pursuit of happiness be the meaning of life, is that your question? What else can it be? Not to pursue happiness? You say, ‘Look at them’. I do, and I see happy people, and I’d rather see happy people than sad ones.”
“But they’re not doing anything, they may as well be dead.”
“But it’s what they want,” Michael exclaimed. “The Mind Machine was democratically chosen by…”
“That was centuries ago,” interrupted the boy. “You can’t get much more tyrannical
than ruling from the grave.”
“Do you want another vote today? You know what the result would be. Every day tens of thousands of people actively choose to be connected. Individually, knowing the consequences, and…”
“But what choice is it really? The world of the Lost isn’t a real alternative. Every piece of education assumes that one will be connected. I mean, people are only alive because they’re pre-disposed to want to be connected.”
“But connected is still what they want to be. Just because the choice is easy doesn’t make it any less valid. People may be brought up to fit the mould that this world provides but that simply means that when the time comes they welcome the mould, they want to fit it. Everyone is happy.”
“But you could be if you wanted to,” appealed the man. “You do want to be happy, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course, just… just not in that way,” replied Ben weakly.
“Well then, in what way do you want to be happy?” asked Michael, earnest in his desire to help the boy.
“It’s difficult,” replied Ben. “I guess I just want to be fulfilled.”
“You will be when you’re connected.”
“No, no… I want to be challenged.”
“Then you will be when you’re connected. Very few people’s lives are lying back and eating grapes. Very few want their life on a plate. Most people are like you, they want to be challenged and the Mind Machine provides that. Everybody gets the chance to do what they want, to do it well, and to be fulfilled by their doing of it.”
“But I want to really do something with my life,” Ben declared, throwing an arm towards Michael. “I want to be unique, to be remembered, to make a difference, to save the world!”
Michael shook his head. “Do something, you say? Do what exactly? Improve the lot of others? Make them happy? They already are, Ben. Become a scientist? Invent new technologies to make people’s lives happier? There’s no need. You say you want to be unique? Your world will be. You say you want to be remembered? But by whom? You say you want to save the world? The world says we don’t need to be saved. Shall we make a few people unhappy just so that you can get a kick out of helping them? Is that what you want, Ben? If you want to make a difference to the lives of the inhabitants of this planet and to all future inhabitants, get connected! The life and happiness of every one of the Connected is monitored and analysed. Every new person who gets connected, and every minute they spend connected helps to make the Mind Machine better. It learns from humans, it learns about humans and it uses that knowledge to make the life of every one of the Connected better, happier. Now that is doing something. That is how you make a difference in this world. That is how you make people’s lives happier. That Ben, is how you should be fulfilled. Are you so selfish that you will not help make others happier?”
“It’s not about being selfish, it’s about reality. Reality! Reality must count for something!” pleaded Ben.
“Why? Why must it count for something?” Michael snapped back. “What on earth could it count for? Let’s say you’ve reached the end of your tough, difficult, unhappy life and you go, ‘Well, at least I lived in reality’. What do you think is going to happen? What will be your reward? A gold medal? A big round of applause? You’ll be dead, that's all. There are no bonus points to be had by living in reality, because life is not a competition. There’s no tally, no justice, no thank you, no prizes, no second round. The only happiness you’ll ever get is the happiness you take from this one life. So why not take as much as you can? What is the point of you not being happy? No one will thank you for it and no one will benefit from it, not even yourself.”
Ben was silent. Michael’s logic was undeniable. What was the point in him sacrificing his own happiness for nothing? Worse than nothing, what Michael had said about the Mind Machine’s ability to learn was true. By being connected he would make the lives of others happier. Outside the world of the Connected, his life, as far as anyone else was concerned, would be futile.
“Ok,” he said, sounding decisive but actually thinking as he went along. “I want to be happy, and I know that the Mind Machine will make me happy, but… but to agree to be connected, it’s just a cop out.” Ben suddenly snapped straight. “I’ve got it! The reason I don’t want to be connected is because I want to accept the challenge of life. I want to see if I, Ben, with the abilities that I have, can make a go of life.” He said this slowly at first but gradually he picked up speed, the light was finally dawning. “ The gauntlet has been thrown down and I want to pick it up and see if I, Ben, can succeed. I don’t want help, I want to try and succeed by myself.”
“By yourself,” said Michael severely, staring into Ben’s beaming face. “By yourself. Well Ben, I’m sorry we gave you an education. What a challenge that’s removed. All those scientific discoveries we taught you, why didn’t we let you figure them out for yourself?” Michael was mocking now. “The buildings we have, get rid of them, there’s no challenge to life when you live under a roof. The painkillers we make available, do they make life too easy for you? All those book you read? You’re not looking for help, are you? I mean, when you were born, why didn’t we just kick you out onto the dust and let you fend for yourself? Let you pick up your bloody gauntlet then. Don’t give me this pathetic line about not wanting to be helped, Ben. You need help, we all do, right from the word go until the very end. You take help from teachers, cooks, farmers, scientists, doctors, writers. You take help to increase your happiness everywhere you can find it. Why not take it from the best source, the ultimate source, the Mind Machine? I’m sorry if we’ve made life too easy for you Ben, but actually, I think you should be grateful.”
Ben was reeling, “But the challenge…” he pleaded quietly.
“Oh yes, the challenge,” Michael said softly. “Just think for a moment, Ben. This challenge of yours, the challenge of life; how will you know when you’ve succeeded? How will you feel?”
Ben knew the answer even before Michael had finished asking the question. “I’ll feel happy,” he cried, and, disgusted with himself, he collapsed back onto the couch. “I feel so strongly that reality is best. More than that, I feel that without reality we have nothing! And yet I can’t explain it.” Mentally drained, he hid his face in his hands. “I just want to be in reality. Can’t I become a Guardian?”
“Ben, there is nothing else in the world that I would like to do than to let you live here, in reality, as one of the Guardians, but you know that that would be impossible. The Decision must be the same for all. It must be fair. Some of the would-be Connected are chosen to be Guardians, but the Mind Machine makes the choice: impartial, unbiased, fair. And besides, only those committed to the Mind Machine and its ideal can be Guardians. You must want to be connected before you can be chosen to be a Guardian. I am only allowed to be Praetor Guardian because I believe so strongly in the Mind Machine and its realisation as the ultimate goal of society, as the answer to the meaning of life. When my Decision came I chose to be connected. I did not want to be Praetor Guardian, but I am honoured to be chosen, to be allowed to make the sacrifice.”
At the word ‘sacrifice’, Ben awakened from his trance. He turned and stared inquisitively at Michael. Briefly, he scanned the room and slowly it dawned on him what had been bothering him ever since he had entered. “Do you ever come here on your own?” he asked. “The bookshelf, the desk; someone must come here. It’s you, isn’t it?”
“I find it relaxing, it’s a good place to study,” replied Michael defensively.
“What is it you like about being here?” said Ben, thinking out loud. “The view, or the idea? Do you like to look at the world of the Lost? Does it make you feel superior?” Then suddenly it hit him. “You do feel superior, don’t you? But not to the Lost, to the Connected.” He pointed at the glowing pods. “And it’s not because you’re the Praetor Guardian, is it? It’s because you live here, in reality. How much of a kick is that? Knowing that you’re in reality when billions of others are just sleeping.” Ben was triumphant; he felt that now he had his answer. “ How much happiness do you get out of that?”
“Sleeping!” the man screamed angrily. “Sleeping! They’re more alive than we are. The things that they can do, that they can achieve, the life they can experience. Their lives are a hundred times more complete than ours.”
Ben held his ground, unperturbed by Michael’s outburst. Calmly and slowly he said, “How many people have your job in their perfect world?”
“What do you mean?” snapped the man, but Ben could see he was already whitening, that he had already understood the question.
“How many people are the Praetor Guardian in their virtual world?” Ben said slowly, enjoying Michael’s discomfort. “How many people like the feeling of being in reality when everyone else is not?”
“You know we never reveal the worlds of the Connected. Privacy is one of the cornerstones…”
“Don’t give me the bloody rhetoric. How many?” Ben demanded.
“It’s a lot, especially initially.” Michael fell back into a nearby chair. “It’s the ultimate irony. Give people happiness by having them live outside of reality and what they want is to be the one giving happiness to others but live in reality themselves. It’s the desire to be unique. They come from this world, from reality, and they can’t forget it.” Michael suddenly looked up and then stood up. “But that’s the whole point!” Reanimated now, Michael grasped onto the lifeline. “In this world everyone can’t be the Praetor Guardian, but with the Mind Machine they can. Everybody gets the chance to feel smug that everyone else is just asleep and it doesn’t matter that they’re asleep themselves because they don’t know. This way everyone gets to be happy. In fact, the Connected are happier than me, happier than they would be in reality.”
Earlier, this might have convinced Ben, but not now, not now that he knew he was right and that deep down everyone else felt the same.
“They’re happy, you say, that’s true. But they don’t think. They don’t act. I mean, they never actually do anything. They don’t create. They don’t learn. They don’t progress. You may think this is the perfection of human life but in reality it’s far from it. It’s like some dead end. Name one great piece of art that the Connected have produced. In fact, just name any piece of art. Name a song, a scientific theory. Can you name a single piece of philosophy to come out of the world of the Connected? You can’t, can you? Because there are no philosophers in the world of the Connected, they only think they’re philosophers. In reality, they’re not doing anything. They’re stagnant. That’s what the Mind Machine is - stagnation. The human race has been stagnant for hundreds of years.
“Oh, I see,” said Michael, “if we’re not philosophers, we’ve no right to live. Is that it?”
“No, not at all. Everyone can choose to be who they like, but so long as there are some philosophers, some scientists, some artists, some people trying to move life forward, then there’ll be progress, we will all progress. Now, I know that life isn’t a competition, that it’s not our universe against anyone else’s, but it’s about self-judgement, self-respect. I want to be proud of our world. If there was a competition, I’d like to be able to say ‘Look, look at what we’re doing. We’re creating. We’re progressing. We may not have a 97% happiness rating but our living rating is one and not zero.’ That is how I want my world to be. That is how I want my life to be.”
“But you said it yourself, there is no competition,” replied Michael, pleading.
“No, I know, in reality there isn’t. But that still doesn’t take away my wish to actually, and I mean actually, do something with my life. I want to be able to look back on my life and say, ‘Look, this is what I did. This is what I did with the opportunities that I had.’ And it isn’t to justify my life to others, but to myself. I want to be able to say that I deserved the chance to live because this is what I did with it. If I can’t justify my life to myself, what’s the point in having it? ”
“Fine,” said Michael, almost nonchalantly. “Fine, I won’t argue with you any more. Walk out the door, follow the signs and you’ll have your reality.”
“I will,” replied Ben firmly, “but as a last request, if someone else, no… when someone else, when the next person walks out the door, you tell them that I headed for the largest hill that I could see and that I’m waiting for them.” And with that, Ben walked past Michael and out of the door.
Despite taking a rucksack of food and some tools laid aside for his departure, Ben was completely unable to handle life outside the confines of the Guardianship. He starved to death four months after his last meeting with Michael.
Michael himself finished his tour of duty as Praetor Guardian three years later, without losing a single other person. He finished his generally happy life surrounded by those leading even happier ones.
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