Living in your dystopia 15: unconscious connections or mass manipulation…

Tutting, shuffling and huffing; the bus queue showed its disapproval of the man smoking a cigarette. They shot him semi-furtive glances, but said nothing.

‘What’s the problem?’ I whispered to Tommy.

‘He’s smoking.’

‘Is it illegal?’

‘No, but it’s not very nice is it?’

‘Why does he do it?’

‘Too thick to realise it’s the twenty-first century, I guess.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Forget it,’ he said and turned away.

The cold clean edge to the air contrasted beautifully with the cigarette smoke. On the roof of a café a metal chimney reflected the sun, like an urban lighthouse warning of the fatty smoke from burning flesh.

The bus arrived and the queue inched forward. We sat down in the last two empty seats.

‘That’s better,’ said Tommy, unbuttoning his coat.

‘Better than what?’

‘I was starting to freeze to the pavement.’

I smiled. ‘I could tell you were finding it hard to appreciate the crispness of the day.’

He stared at me, smiled and shook his head. ‘Sometimes…’ he said and took out his phone. ‘Do you mind if I check this?’

‘Sometimes…’ I said, smiled back and shook my head in an attempt at humour, but he was too engrossed in swiping and pressing the screen to notice. I sat back and looked around. Almost without exception the passengers had their heads down and their thumbs on phones. Occasionally someone would show a neighbour something, as if the virtual world was more interesting than the one around them.

‘Tommy, these phones haven’t been around long, have they?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘And yet they’ve taken over your lives.’

‘That’s a bit severe, don’t you think?’

‘Look around.’

‘I see people on their phones.’

‘What did they do before they had phones?’

‘Well, they… do you know, I can’t remember. I guess they must have… read newspapers? Talked? That’s spooky; I honestly can’t remember.’

He fidgeted, repeatedly taking his phone out of his pocket and putting it back almost straight away.

The bus trundled along, passengers got off and passengers got on, but their behaviour remained the same – heads down and thumbs swiping.

‘We’re here,’ said Tommy. The bus was still moving, but he stood up and walked to the back, swaying as it weaved its way through the traffic. I followed.

The pavements were full of couples and families walking along slowly, stopping to read the menus in restaurant windows.

‘What do you fancy?’ asked Tommy.

‘I’ll leave it to you. No meat or fish though. You know that don’t you?’

‘Yeah, Purple, I know that. Wouldn’t be right to eat your equals would it?’ He laughed.

I knew he thought I was wrong and that the lower classes were born to be eaten, but I didn’t rise to his jibes. One day he’ll understand my point of view. One day your whole universe will understand my point of view. But not until I’ve fully understood you.

We meandered along the street, pausing every now and again for Tommy to check a menu.

‘How do you decide?’ I asked.

‘Well, they’ve got to have a veggie option haven’t they?’

‘Do any of them?’

‘They all do, actually they’re almost identical to each other.’

‘Is that why you’re looking inside as well?’

‘Yes. You don’t want an empty one do you?’

‘Why not?’

‘There’s a reason it’s empty.’

‘What sort of reason?’

‘You can just tell that something’s not quite right.’

It was fascinating to watch everyone choose where to eat, congregating in a few select places.

‘Tommy…’

‘I know that tone of voice… what have you discovered about us now?’

‘The phones and forgetting what it was like before… the way you concentrate into a few restaurants without discussing it with each other… do you think you’re all connected in some way? On a higher level? Or are you being manipulated?’

He laughed and slapped me on the back. ‘You’re precious,’ he said, but was silent for quite a while afterwards.

Living in your dystopia 14: your prohibition lacks purpose…

I was walking through the streets thinking about the young girl Lesia and her dad taking pills to stop drinking. The shop windows were bright and sparkly and the crowds meandered slowly with the drooping shoulders of tired humans. A waft of cannabis smoke drifted by; I could see its journey by the heads that turned. A group of young girls were passing around the source of the smoke, laughing and waving at anyone who looked at them.

‘Stupid girls,’ I overheard a man say to his girlfriend.

‘Why?’

‘It’s illegal, it’s bad for them and it’s addictive.’

The girls disappeared out of sight and I carried on walking. Slumped in a doorway was a man with scraggly hair poking out from under his grey stretchy hat. A tattoo of an eagle’s head stood proud above the collar of his tattered shirt and his battered shoes were neatly placed next to him on top of a dog-eared book. His jacket and jeans were shiny with grime as if they hadn’t been cleaned in months and his feet were filthy.

I squatted down next to him. ‘Are you okay?’

He looked at me quizzically. ‘Yeah…’

‘Aren’t you cold?’

‘A bit, you get used to it.’

‘What happened?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘How did you end up living in a doorway?’

‘You’re a bit nosy, aren’t you? What business is it of yours?’

‘None, I guess. What’s the book?’

‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying.’

‘Any good?’

‘I read it all the time to remind me of the slow living death that I escaped.’

‘Wow, that’s severe. Why do you think that?’

‘Oh come on… in the so-called normal society you’re so bound by the rules and by other people’s expectations, you can’t breathe. Do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that…’

‘Is that how you ended up here?’

‘Sort of… I stepped outside of it all. As far as I was concerned the rules no longer applied, but then I was disowned, pushed away and punished.’

‘Tell me more…’

‘Once you step outside you have a different view of what’s normal and what should and shouldn’t be allowed. I started using illegal drugs rather than the legal ones like alcohol and that annoyed them. They forced me further and further into the wilderness, treating me as a troublemaker rather than someone who just didn’t want to play by their rules.’

‘I have to say, I still don’t understand why some things are prohibited and some not.’

‘You and me both, I didn’t harm anyone; I just got on with my life in the way I wanted. It’s not just the chemicals we choose to digest though, is it? It’s more fundamental than that – deciding you don’t agree with their rules, let alone not wanting to play the game, is tantamount to high treason.’

‘It’s a strange world you live in.’

‘There, you’re doing it now. We live in the same world; it’s a strange world we all live in.’

‘Yes, sorry. Thanks, it helps me understand.’

‘No worries. You seem like you’re on the fringes too.’

‘More than you could ever know.’ I smiled, shook his hand and stood up. ‘Bye.’

‘Bye.’

I was about to turn the corner at the end of the street when I heard a commotion behind me. A group of six well-dressed and very drunk young men were shouting abuse. One of them spat at him and the others joined in. Before I could get back to help, they’d gone. It made me wonder again about the purpose of prohibition – why are some things legal and others not when the problems seem to be with the person not the substance?

Living in your dystopia 13: you need a festival of enhancement…

‘You’re purple,’ said Tommy’s niece.

‘He’s from another universe. He came here to see how we live. Like a space explorer,’ said Tommy before I had a chance to explain.

‘But why is he purple?’

I put my cup of tea down on the sitting room table and beckoned her over. ‘Where I come from we change people so they’re cleverer and stronger – we call it enhancement. Sometimes it goes a bit wrong and that’s what happened to me.’

‘Does it hurt?’

‘No. Not anymore. Do you like it?’

‘It’s cool. Will you help me?’

‘Of course.’

She grabbed my sleeve and pulled me across the room to a child-sized green plastic table. ‘Help me make some invites,’ she said as she sat down on the matching chair.

I looked across at Tommy who nodded to let me know it was okay. I knelt down next to her. ‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘Lesia. What’s your name?’

‘It’s really hard to pronounce, so just call me Purple.’

She giggled nervously. ‘That’s wrong, calling someone by their colour.’

I shrugged. ‘It’s what everyone calls me.’ I rummaged through the cards, glue and glitter. ‘Did you say you’re making invites?’

‘Yes.’

‘Invites to what?’

‘A party. Silly.’

I smiled. I love the directness of the young humans in your universe. ‘But what’s the silly party for?’

She chuckled. ‘You’re funny. It’s not a silly party, it’s a Christmas party.’

‘Sounds fun.’

‘It’ll be great; lots of games, presents and cake. Shall I show you what to do?’

I nodded.

She scrunched her face with concentration and cut out some trees and some stars, glued them on to card and then sprinkled them with silver glitter. ‘Do you have parties?’ she asked.

‘Of course, every universe I’ve ever visited has parties. It seems to be one of those things that happen wherever you are.’

‘I bet ours are the best, aren’t they?’

‘I haven’t been to many of yours, but I think the best ones are where I come from. Although you might find them a bit strange.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Shall I tell you about one?’

She put the remaining half-made invites in a pile and turned to face me with her chin resting in her hands. She glanced at the adults on the other side of the room. ‘Go on,’ she whispered.

I shifted a little closer to give her the impression that I was sharing a secret. ‘Where I come from we don’t have Christmas but we do have a special party once a year – at the festival of enhancement. There are lots of other parties and they’re great fun, but this one is compulsory.’

‘Does everyone in your world go to the same party?’ she asked with wide-open eyes.

‘No. No. No. There’s a lot to choose from and you only have to volunteer for one.’

She nodded wisely without really understanding, in the way that I realise is typical of you humans.

I beckoned her to come even closer and whispered. ‘When we get to the end of the year there’s a list of all the new enhancements that have been developed. It tells you what they will do to you and which of the previous ones they can’t be mixed with.’

‘I don’t understand,’ she whispered.

‘In my universe everyone has things done to them to make them better. We take medicine and have bits of our bodies altered to make us super-beings.’

‘Oh,’ she said, nodding wisely again. ‘But what’s that got to do with these parties?’

‘Well, it’s at these parties that they experiment with real beings to see if the new things work.’

She frowned. ‘That’s sad.’

‘You shouldn’t be sad – it’s great fun. We arrive at our party and they take you into a special room to do what they have to do and then we all sit in a big hall waiting for the changes to take effect. One-by-one it starts to work and you can see people experimenting with their new power.’

‘What’s yours?’

‘Last year, just before I came here, I was given more empathy. That was amazing. As each change took effect on the others I could sense what it was like.’

‘Is everyone happy?’

‘Even when it goes wrong people are okay because we do it together and share the experience and there’s no shame if it doesn’t work. It only goes wrong on very rare occasions and someone has to be taken away. The festival organisers try their hardest to make sure it doesn’t react badly with something else they’ve done to you, like turning you purple.’ I winked.

‘My dad takes pills to cheer him up but that means he can’t drink beer. Is it like that?’

‘Exactly, and in my world if you’ve had your brain enhanced then you wouldn’t be invited to the parties where your body is improved; when you’re born your parents have to choose between your body and your brain.’

She looked at me for a while and then looked away. ‘Can we finish off these invites?’

I laughed. ‘Of course we can, silly.’

She smiled and handed me the glue and the glitter.

Living in your dystopia 12: celebrating the magic and the murder of your universe…

The sky was lit up by multi-coloured sparks and fires burnt all around us; Tommy had brought me to watch the city on its special night. There was a sharp nip in the air but our own fire burning inside the drum of an old washing machine kept us warm. The flames flickered and the broken wooden pallets glowed.

‘Isn’t this great?’ he asked.

‘It is but I don’t understand it. What’s going on?’

‘It’s Guy Fawkes night. It’s a celebration.’

‘A celebration of what?’

‘That’s a good question. It goes back a long way, all the way back to the early seventeenth century when an Act of Parliament decided that on 5 November we had to give thanks for “the joyful day of deliverance”.’

‘Are you telling me that you have to do this by law?’

‘Not any more, they stopped it in the mid-nineteenth century. But we carried on doing it anyway.’

‘So what were you delivered from?’

‘Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators failed to blow up Parliament with their gunpowder plot.’

‘I see. Was he a terrorist?’

‘Sort of. He wanted to replace the Protestant King with a Catholic one.’

‘Did they do that burning alive thing?’

‘No, it’s worse than that. They decided to hang him after cutting off his genitals and burning them in front of his eyes. And a load of other unpleasant stuff but he managed to kill himself before they had a chance.’

‘And you celebrate this?’

‘Yeah. Sick isn’t it?’

‘I’m finding it hard to understand.’

In front of us an explosion of white sparks with tails of fire soared into the sky. As they reached the top of their arc they burst apart. It was like a meadow of fiery flowers rapidly blooming in the night sky. The birth of each new spark was accompanied by a loud bang and as each one burst apart the noise grew louder and louder. One by one the sparks shrunk to nothing leaving a mist backlit by street lights.

It became eerily silent.

‘Wow, that was some spectacle,’ I said.

Tommy lifted his finger. ‘Wait and see.’

A deep boom bounced off the nearby buildings and the sky was lit up by a ball of red sparks expanding outwards leaving a black hole in their centre. They fell gracefully and silently. As they touched the ground a set of six launchers pumped green fireball after green fireball into the air.

I whispered to Tommy, ‘I thought they foiled the plot?’

‘They did,’ he whispered back.

‘Why the fireworks then?’

He grabbed my arm and pointed towards the sky. ‘Can’t you just enjoy something for once?’

I nodded. I’d obviously upset him. The cacophony of bangs and booms, the smell of smoke on the wind and the bright light of the explosions filled the air. Layer on layer of noise built up and built up and then once again it subsided until it was silent and only the smoky mist remained. I turned to leave but he caught hold of my sleeve. We stood for a few seconds and then there was the most almighty boom followed by a dense cushion of tiny white dots and then bang after bang after bang as the sky filled with a blanket of white light and white noise. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time.

I felt as if I was surrounded by the best and the worst of humanity; that cold night sky reflected the magic and the murder of your universe.

‘You look stunned,’ he said as the crowd clapped.

‘I am. I don’t understand the symbolism of the fireworks.’

‘It’s a bit of fun.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, really.’

‘Okay. Can I ask another question?’

‘Of course. What’s one more in your long list of enquiries?’

‘Those protesters we saw the other day. The anonymous ones with the Guy Fawkes masks. Is that a Catholic revolution?’

He smiled. ‘No, Purple. At least not as far as I know.’ He patted me on the back. ‘It’s a confusing old world isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ I replied and turned towards the fire.

It had been a beautiful and extravagant night although it seemed strange to base it on so much pain and suffering, but then that does seem to be the basis for most of your celebrations.

Living in your dystopia 11: you smell, which is a shame because I like you…

All sorts of horrible smells pour out of your bodies. You scrub yourselves clean at least once a day and try to disguise your odours with deodorants and air fresheners. You politely ignore the stink of your excrement as if it wasn’t there. I can’t hide my disgust any longer. Where I come from we’re chemically altered at birth to rectify this particular problem – our bodies simply don’t produce anything that smells.

You have such a weird relationship with your bodies. According to the googlebox you have a well known phrase, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ which implies that other people choose whether you’re beautiful or not. Another is, ‘Beauty is only skin deep,’ which implies your outer wrapper is the only part of you that can be beautiful and yet conversely, you say that, ‘Beauty comes from within.’ I can assure you that until you sort out your pungent smells, your insides are anything but beautiful.

A few days ago I discovered that an extremely high proportion of your human females between the ages of eleven and twenty-one think they are judged more on their looks than their ability. A quarter of them have considered plastic surgery which is something your popular media despises, while at the same time, and often on the same page, they promote physical beauty as one of the most important attributes to have.

When I look at your magazines and your television and listen to your conversations, it strikes me that although you talk about beauty not being a superficial thing, you don’t really believe it. The amount of drivel that’s pumped out about how someone looks is enormous and it extends to the middle classes, to beauty parades for your pets. It even extends to the lower classes, in nature programmes where you describe birds and animals as beautiful and insects and rodents as ugly, which really reflects the amount you like or loathe them.

Why don’t you let individuals decide their own form of beauty and let them get on with creating it, using technology to enhance themselves in whatever way they want? I can see how altering physical beauty might be considered superficial but if it wasn’t for the pressure to conform would it be that bad? Although, I have to declare a self-interest in your acceptance of difference – back home my purple tinge is ignored but here it attracts some unpleasant interest.

What confuses me is why you’re against any form of drug or physical enhancements to extend your abilities beyond the so-called norm.

At the moment you place the beauty of the body on a pedestal as if it’s the main passport to success, but then you vilify anyone who has the courage to use surgery to change the way they look. And, you use a massive amount of drugs to alter your bodies for things you consider a sickness or a disability but have a ‘war’ against their use to enhance life more generally. Until you sort out these deep-seated hypocrisies I don’t see how you can progress.

Your debates on transhumanism are interesting and a few of you believe it’s inevitable within a generation or two, but you’re a long way from understanding how the mainstream use of drugs and technology to improve yourselves will change your society. In my view, coming from a universe where enhancement is taken for granted, I think your future hinges on how well you develop laws to govern its development and use – who gets it, who pays for it and who trials it.

I’m watching with interest and hope you work it out because I like you. And please please please sort out those smells.

 

Living in your dystopia 10: being a rabid vigilante is no worse than being ignored…

We’d been walking along the canal for twenty minutes before I broached the subject of the conversation from a month ago, the conversation that Tommy had cut short, the conversation where Brian had started to reveal his lack of empathy.
‘Tommy, remember when we were discussing if it was okay to mug an old lady and you stopped us?’
‘Yes…’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’
‘No.’
‘Don’t you think it was getting a bit one sided? Maybe picking on Brian a bit too much?’
‘He didn’t seem to mind.’
‘I don’t think he realised.’
‘But he was only saying what he believes. Why shut him up? Unless you think there’s a risk he’ll influence my assessment of your universe?’
Tommy laughed. ‘Never occurred to me. Do you really want to know what was going on?’
‘Of course.’
We walked in silence. The bushes, the trees and a black metal bridge covered in the scrawls of a language I was unfamiliar with were all reflected in the static water – a portrait of the combined urban beauty of the organic and the industrial. Three boats, each with a bicycle chained to their chimney, were moored on the other side of the canal and the towpath stretched out along the bank until it disappeared under the bridge and around the corner.
‘It’s so peaceful down here, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Yes.’ I said simply; I was afraid to say more in case I distracted him.
He coughed. ‘I’ve known Brian since we were lads. When we were teenagers he stopped eating meat and fish and was totally convinced that everybody else should too. We all thought he was doing it for effect. His parents thought it was teenage angst and that he’d grow out of, but he was convinced and took every opportunity to tell people why it was wrong to eat flesh. When he left home it got worse. He banned all animal products from his house.’
‘Did he live alone?’
‘No, but all of his housemates were vegetarian. Sometimes, after a night out, people would come back to the house and carry on partying. Inevitably they’d bring late night food with them and often one of them would have meat. He’d go ballistic, call them murderers and cannibals and throw them out of the house. As time went on he became more extreme – he couldn’t even be in a pub or a shop that sold meat without telling them how evil they were. I’m sure you can guess where it all led?’
‘Gradually they listened to him?’ I asked.
‘No. The opposite. He was banned from almost everywhere and one-by-one his friends disowned him; he was too disgusting to be around. I was the only one that stood by him.’
‘So what changed?’
‘He decided to keep his views to himself – he reckoned the only way he was going to influence anyone was to be a role model rather than a rabid vigilante.’
‘And did it work?’
‘No it didn’t. Nobody takes him seriously anymore because he doesn’t have the passion. He simply accepts that everyone else’s opinions are as valid as his own.’
‘But why did you stop him the other day?’
‘He was heading down a path that the others wouldn’t condone and I couldn’t bear to see him lose his friends again. Do you know how difficult it was for me to get people to change their minds about him?’
‘But if he can’t be honest, what’s he meant to do?’
‘I don’t know. Somehow he needs to find a way to talk about his beliefs without upsetting everyone. And that’s something we all want to be able to do, isn’t it?’
‘Maybe, but from what I’ve seen it’s not going to happen without those empathy drugs. Your culture is forcing people to the same extremes that Brian has tried – the liberalist and the absolutist. They’re both dangerous you know. Neither allows for any serious conversation.’
Tommy picked up a stone and skimmed it across the canal. ‘I’m afraid you’re probably right,’ he muttered.

Living in your dystopia 9: you need empathy drugs to be allowed your freedom…

I was in the pub again, testing some fresh observations on Tommy and his friends. I’d just finished reading Quantum Confessions, a new science fiction novel by Stephen Oram, which had made me wonder what a truly liberal society would look like here, in your universe. Back home in mine we’re encouraged to hold our own individual views without judging anyone else’s, but we have to take drugs that heighten our empathy to make it work. I wanted to get a sense of how liberal your world could be without these empathy enhancements.

It was late in the evening and we’d all had our fair share of alcohol when I introduced the topic. ‘Guys. If you found fifty pounds on the street would you keep it or take it to the police?’

They all groaned. ‘Oh no, here we go again. More questions,’ said Brian.

Tommy scowled. ‘Leave him be. You should be pleased he’s asking us and not some stupid politician.’ A couple of them nodded. ‘It’s a good question,’ he said, smiling at me.

‘With a very simple answer. Keep it!’ said Brian.

‘That’s all very well,’ said Tommy. ‘But the law says you should hand it to the authorities. Like that couple who found a winning lottery ticket for thirty thousand pounds, spent half of it and then got done for theft. And they had to pay it all back.’

‘Can I have a show of hands?’ I asked. ‘Who’s for keeping it?’ All six of them nodded. ‘Even though it’s illegal?’ They all carried on nodding. ‘What would you do if you saw someone drop the fifty pounds? Would you still keep it?’ One of them said no, but the other five, including Tommy, nodded again.

‘Why is that different?’ I asked the guy who’d said no.

‘You know who it belongs to. But, if they were filthy rich I’d probably keep it.’ Tommy gave him the thumbs up.

‘What about stealing a wallet from a table in a pub?’ I asked.

‘If they’re stupid enough to leave it lying around,’ said Brian.

‘And from their coat pocket?’ I asked.

Brian snorted. ‘Bit dodgy but yeah, if I had to.’

Tommy joined in the questioning. ‘What about robbing from a house?’

‘Very funny,’ said Brian. ‘You know I have.’ He turned to the others and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Only when a window’s been left open though.’ One of the guys got up and walked away.

‘And mugging?’ I asked Brian.

‘If they’re rich and cocky and you only threaten them, then that’s kinda okay. They’re probably some city slicker who’s been robbing you blind in some legalised way anyway. You know – insurance, banker or something.’

‘And would you hurt them if they refused?’ asked Tommy.

‘In self-defence I would, yeah.’

‘So… you come across a rich, cocky old woman in the street who you know has been ripping people off for years as a financial adviser. Would you mug her? With violence?’

Brian didn’t answer.

Tommy pressed him. ‘Well, what would you do?’

‘I’d try not to hurt her, but if she gave me no option then I’d have to, wouldn’t I.’

‘And if you came across her while you were robbing her house and she tried to stop you?’

‘I’d walk away. You don’t hurt an old lady in her own home, do you. You’d have to be sick to do that.’

I interrupted. ‘Brian, why does it make a difference if it’s in her own house?’

Tommy answered instead. ‘We all draw a line somewhere, don’t we.’

‘But who decides on where that line is?’ I asked.

‘You have to decide for yourself. You’re the one that’s got to live with it.’

‘So, you decide what’s right and what’s wrong?’

‘Yeah, I guess so,’ said Tommy.

‘If someone hurts an old lady in her own home that’s fine by you, so long as they think it’s okay?’

‘No! Of course not.’

‘So who decides?’

Brian put his pint down, gripped my jacket collar and pulled me towards him. He whispered. ‘If some piece of scum goes too far, we deal with them. Get the picture?’

I lifted his hand off my jacket. ‘I get it. There’s one set of agreed rules, the law, but you have another set of rules that sometimes you impose.’

‘Leave it there,’ said Tommy. ‘Who wants another drink?’

It was a fascinating conversation and I’m a little closer to understanding what a liberal world without effective empathy enhancements would look like. And I don’t think it’s very pleasant.