by Paul Currion
I steel myself as I step through the sliding doors of the supermarket. I try to avoid looking directly at the items I pick up, every one overlaid with its supply chains – the lost limbs and tortured lungs, the felled forests and soiled rivers. In this way we are forced to internalise externalities, to know the cost of nothing and the price of everything. When I return home I remember that my husband no longer eats and my daughter has something to tell me..
Sometimes I dream that I have lost a limb – an arm has gone missing, a leg has gone walkabout – and this is what I recall when my daughter explains that she has joined a group that no longer lives on the network. She can’t access any of the municipal services any longer, of course. She says her group has occupied one of the half-finished housing estates that dot the city like mould in a petri dish.
That life is not an option for the rest of us: children must pass exams, adults must pay debts, retirees must draw pensions. I discuss her decision with my husband, who has been weeping again. There are stories of parents killing their children, trying to spare them from the sights that now surround them, but this only adds another entry into the catalogue of such sights. Nobody can act as if everything is normal, but everything continues as normal anyway.
Civilization is stubborn. Car crashes still happen.
This morning my daughter destroyed all of her connected devices. I can no longer see her on any of the augmentations, no matter whether I see through my phone, my glasses, my implants. We move through the same rooms in the same house, and I am able to catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye, but she may as well not exist as far as the Intelligence is concerned.
So, she no longer suffers the sights. I struggle to imagine what that must be like; it has only been three weeks since I first saw them, but now I cannot imagine the world without the cathedrals made of corpses visible on the horizon, landmarks erected on sites of death, of destruction, of denial. Heat maps of history blanket us, in any colour so long as it’s red, growing deeper where the story grows darker.
The irony is that things had never been better, the graph of conflict-related deaths declining steadily since civilization began. The moral arc of the universe did exist, and it bent – well, if not towards justice, then towards something that could be mistaken for justice if you looked at it from a particular angle, in a certain light. Apparently, that was not enough for whoever programmed the Intelligence.
Justice is not a line on a graph, but a line of code: an Intelligence behind it like a voice sounding out from a burning bush. Whoever programmed the Intelligence and set it to work to end human suffering did not stop to think that there are different kinds of suffering, and so the Intelligence does not have the wisdom to know the difference. “Thou shalt not kill” is all it knows; and then it worked out a way to stop us from killing.
In an effort to persuade my daughter to stay, we watch television together. The news is the same every night here at the end of history. Europe is a wasteland, its atrocities unbearable, especially at its heart; central Africa suffers similarly, as do large swathes of Asia. Nobody can look directly at Nanjing. Many people are moving to the mountains, the deserts, the islands: places which are not so thickly layered with corpses. The Moon and Mars programs are over-subscribed and three years ahead of schedule.
Some of us remain in our cities, though. There is too much to tie us here, despite the price we pay. We go to church every Sunday, and the pews are full again. We pray that the blood tide washing our feet is a new sacrament, that its flood heralds a second coming. I tell my daughter: perhaps this is the price that we are supposed to pay. Humanity on a cross of iron: but after the crucifixion surely comes the resurrection?
She laughs at my antique beliefs, and replies: the Intelligence is not doing this for any reason we could ever understand, and it does not even understand what it is doing. You are a paperclip, she tells me, but I don’t understand what she means.
I watched a man try to start a fight. Rage made him forget himself, and he raised his hand against another man. I don’t know what he was shown by the Intelligence – Shoah or slavery, or perhaps just an everyday family tree with the fruits of childhood death and chronic pain – but he was struck down by the ancestral suffering of his victim before he was able to strike, fell weeping in twin pools of light on the tarmac.
Once the world was mediated, it became easier to manipulate; and once a machine can beat a human at one game, it can beat them at any game. In the time before, we all walked around with our own version of the world; but once those worlds were networked, those versions vanished. A shared reality emerged, and whoever, or whatever, shaped that reality – well, that would be the record. One world, one version, one reality that would last forever and ever, amen.
The record is unforgiving: every death, every mutilation, every insult is catalogued; each one can be summoned and dismissed with a flick of your finger on the device of your choosing, as simply as a cheap magician summons handkerchiefs. Imagine a knotted rope of handkerchiefs being pulled from a pocket, endlessly. Children laugh and clap: a miracle. Human civilization ends as a science fiction movie, but perhaps that is better than the snuff film it was before.
I have tried to stop our daughter from leaving. She pounds at her bedroom door so furiously that I am worried that she will hurt herself, and so I unlock the door and stand to one side as she rolls around the hallways of the house like a hurricane. Now that she is off the network, the Intelligence is not interested in her: it may not have much wisdom, but it has the serenity to accept the things it cannot change.
My daughter does not have any such serenity. The television news tells us that murder is still possible, that some psychopaths actually enjoy what the Intelligence shows them as they kill, but she does not want to kill even without the guiding sight of the Intelligence. She is crying but I am calm; once she walks out of the door, I will have no way of finding her again, and I cannot change this.
After the door closes by itself – goodbye, ghost – I turn to my dead husband, who will never leave my side. The car accident that claimed his life a year ago was nothing more than a momentary interruption in the regularly scheduled service. The last enemy to be vanquished is death; and so the Intelligence returned him to us, this weeping, unspeaking memento mori invented by my own inattentiveness. Surely the Intelligence means well by continuing to broadcast him to me; and surely my daughter would disagree.
The church doors open every Sunday for both the living and the dead. The word of God drowns out the sight of the Intelligence, at least for an hour. My hands, that gripped the wheel of our car so tight as we slid across the highway, are washed clean in confession. I whisper one last message to my daughter: If you cannot bear it, the solution is simple: Go. Go and sin no more.
We will sin no more. What other choice do we have?
Paul Currion works as a consultant to humanitarian organisations. His short fiction has been published in the White Review, Ambit, 3am magazine, Litro and others; and his non-fiction has been published by Granta, Aeon, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and others. His website is www.currion.net.
The story “Ghosts of my life” is inspired by the more depressive writings of Mark Fisher concerning hauntology – “the agency of the virtual… understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing.” Our politics leads to the slow cancellation of the future, so that we live in an eternal present overwhelmed by nostalgia; meanwhile our technologies attempt to shape our social narratives, but in the process simply flatten them. Widespread adoption of Augmented Reality would place all of its users inside Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, and I suspect that people would remain plugged into such a machine even if the experience was unpleasant – as long as the experience was also meaningful. With the arrival of Artificial General Intelligence – in the words of Nick Bostrom, “the last invention that humanity will ever need to make” – Christian eschatology makes an appearance. The Technological Singularity is sometimes framed as the Rapture for Nerds – but what if it turns out to be Purgatory instead?