[DISCLAIMER: SciFi, Sensitive/Polarizing topics, Dark Dystopia, Social Problems, Govt Tyranny, Violence. Heavy, dark stuff. Please DO NOT READ if you are sensitive, or Survivor of War/Genocide/Atrocities, or predisposed to Depression.]
[Note: It was difficult to somehow incorporate “intuition” with the idea I had in mind for “a problem with no good solutions”. I hope that my story is still given due consideration.]
YEAR 2050: Gibson was the Chief of the top-secret facility, in-charge of the entire operation. He was heading back to his office after getting his state-sanctioned ration of a gooey barely edible paste as “lunch” from the cafeteria, and he was marginally less annoyed at today’s “banana-pear” flavor, which was less nonsensical than the “apple-orange” mix he had for the past week (no variety available due to inventory issues), and which had made him shit a weird combination of white, red and orange. Apparently, the State hadn’t gotten the memo: that apples and oranges are two fundamentally different things. After finishing his lunch at his desk and taking a couple of work calls, he had some down-time, so his eyes scanned the room and fell upon the bookshelf, where he had a range of work-related books from authors such as Jared Diamond, Joseph Tainter and others. After lingering there for a few seconds, his eyes darted to the other side of the room: to the big one-way french-windows, which gave him a bird’s eye-view of the “pit” below: the centerpiece of the operation he was managing.
On that day, he was expecting a new batch of recruits for that facility, most of them only vaguely aware of its purpose: but even that was complete nonsense. They had all been vetted for top-secret clearance. Now he had the task of letting them know exactly what kind of a neck-deep shit-show they were getting into. He had to give them an extensive tour, a full run-down of operations, and most importantly, tell them the whole story of why this was needed, how this came to be, how there’s no other way, and why this is for “the greater good”. If the camera based algorithms reading their facial expressions sensed that they didn’t buy his rationalizations or were the least bit hesitant, those fresh recruits would be promptly taken aside and “eliminated”.
Gibson knew the spiel by-heart by now. In truth, he didn’t need to do it himself. Having done it a few times, he could have pawned this off to someone else. But he liked to do it himself. Gibson walked over to the auditorium (which was on the other side of the “pit”, opposite to his office), with his State-provided laptop for his State-approved Powerpoint presentation. After the first couple of “welcome new recruits” & other introductory slides, his first few content slides were:
- 2050: Resource Depletion and Climate Change are fucking us royally.
- Grave Political/Social/Economic problems and resulting turbulence.
- We should have acted at least 30 years ago, if not more. Almost too late now.
- We still have a narrow window of opportunity to act, but in fairly drastic ways.
- Humanity’s inability to cooperate & act in coordinated ways has caused this.
- Classic case of “a problem with no good solutions”: “the tragedy of commons” and inability to think about “the greater good”.
- Evolution & Natural Selection driven by the Genes of Selfishness:
- Beneficial: Among Humans, this leads to Incredible Innovation.
- But also leads to “Progress Trap”: feeding into “societal collapse”.
- Individual Selfishness forms the basis for “the tragedy of commons”.
- Why not use Evolution, Natural Selection & Selfishness to our advantage?
- To solve “tragedy of the commons” and get people to think about “greater good”!
- That’s what we do here folks: bring people together and make them cooperate!
Gibson paused to take a sip of water, taking stock of the recruits, before he delved deeper into the meaty crux of their operation. He wondered what the brand new recruits would make of their mission: to be operators of an Internationally coordinated State-Sponsored mass-killing-squad through gas-chambers.
- Group of Governments, Scientists, Clandestine Intelligence Services collaborate for a “Controlled Implosion” (reduction of population) to avoid sudden collapse.
- Clandestine Intelligence Services play their part by funneling arms to violent criminal organizations, increasing violent crime, general chaos, but within manageable levels.
- Other mechanisms at play, including using biological agents (like viruses).
- Poor people eliminated quietly or overtly, with impunity: the Leviathan hegemony of the State, with Weaponized Drones & Advanced AI immune to revolution.
- But what to do about middle/rich tax-paying, productive classes?
- People selected randomly by a computer, and picked-up clandestinely (vanishing): Various factors considered: age, occupation, scientific/artistic future potential, etc.
- These factors weighed against Lifestyle, Carbon footprint, Pollution footprint, etc.
- Using Machine Learning & Statistical Analysis Algorithms on Supercomputers.
- We make exceptions for the Super-Rich, since they own Robots, Drones, AI & Govt. (this was not in Gibson’s slides, but is meant as subtext)
- 2030: Foundation stone for “Operation Controlled Implosion” laid during the G-20 meeting, coinciding with COP30 UN IPCC summit; Program accelerated since 2040, further rapid expansion & intensification from 2050.
Gibson paused again for another sip of water. He knew that the recruits weren’t hearing anything new till now (apart from some trivia or tidbits here or there). That the recruits probably had a vague inkling about the presence of such Government programs due to their years of service in Government, and also based on all the news of random disappearances of people that had been reported over the years, and all the resulting conspiracy-theory chatter on the Internet. The State was able to paper over these through heavy censorship, propaganda programs, patriotic pledges, relying on the human tendency to have short-attention spans. In many cases, they got Police Departments to arrest someone for the “missing” person, accusing them of murder. Kangaroo Courts were arm-twisted to conduct a speed-trial with an assured conviction.
Even so, all the mysterious disappearances were adding-up to a suspicious figure to a point where the Conspiracy Theorists suspecting the State of organized collusion was making sense. The State didn’t face the same level of scrutiny for the other programs, which relied on biological agents or increasing the productivity of crime organizations, leading to increased violence. Even so, those methods lacked granular control, with erratic chaotic outcomes, and questions of accountability from the public arose with those methods too. The method this facility adopted: was sure to produce consistent, stable results, and so they mixed and matched these methods.
- “Prisoner’s Dilemma”: Groups of 1000 people pitted against each other. Given a choice: either both groups get to live, but both groups go back to extremely reduced lifestyles, on extreme rations, giving up all amenities & luxuries, being provided a minimum Universal Basic Income (UBI), or one group can eliminate the other, and go back to their lives of relative luxury. Given 30 minutes to deliberate & put to vote.
- Either both groups choose altruism & voluntary reduced lifestyles. Or one/both groups choose selfishness & the other group is eliminated. Either ways, resource consumption & climate emission is neutralized & managed to acceptable levels.
At this point, it was time for a demo: Gibson clicked a button, which drew back the curtains behind him to reveal the huge one-way french-window overlooking the “pit”: a large rectangular enclosure serving as a courtyard, surrounded on all four sides by the building housing the facility, a series of cylindrical openings guarded by safety-valves (its purpose unknown to the people gathered in the courtyard), occurred at regular intervals lining the walls on all four sides, with a glass dome covering allowing plenty of sunlight for its *possibly* short-lived occupants.
The recruits craned their necks for a better view, and could see hundreds of people down there: was it 500, or a 1000, or 2000? It was hard to tell. Hmm, it must be 2000, because Gibson had mentioned that there would be two groups of a 1000 each.
Gibson enjoyed this part, since he didn’t get to do it himself too often. Usually, it was deputed to one of the regular “controllers”, but whenever there was a new crop of recruits, one “batch” was reserved as “demo”: with the podium-speaker serving as the controller. Truth be told, this was one of the perks of the gig for Gibson; this was probably why he was handling the recruit induction on that day too. Gibson didn’t think of himself as a murdering psychopath gleefully jumping at the opportunity to gas a thousand people. As far as he was concerned, the people were being provided a choice, and if they chose well, then everything should be A-okay. Nobody needed to get hurt as long as the correct choice is made. Gibson’s excitement stemmed from his interest in Game Theory, Sociology, and how people can be made to coordinate in interesting ways. Still, to a few of the recruits, especially the queasy ones, it must have been an interesting sight watching a mature middle-age man quiver with excitement at the prospect of playing with hundreds of lives.
Gibson clicked a button and spoke into the intercom, explaining to the “pit people” (as he liked to call them, inspired from “boat people”), about why they were there, and the task ahead of them. No sooner than he had finished speaking, the pit people were in an amalgamated state of confusion, disbelief, sadness, anger, panic. Some of them questioned whether this was all some big elaborate sketch on one of those “prank” Reality TV shows; a joke gone too far. Gibson was expecting the incredulity, and was prepared for it. He showed the pit people photos and videos to prove that the other group of people existed in a separate chamber. He also showed them photos and videos from previous “batches”, including the “batches gone wrong” (Gibson didn’t mention that the overwhelming majority of “batches” were indeed “batches gone wrong”). The pit people were crestfallen because they finally did believe him. They had 30 minutes to come to a consensus, and put it to a vote: an almost impossible task for 1000 people.
If 1000 people had trouble agreeing and cooperating, how would 9 billion?
Precisely why we need these types of “team-building activities” to foster cooperation.
Gibson spoke again to the pit people:
“Choose wisely. Remember, nobody has to die, if we all make the right choice
together. All that’s needed is to transcend the instinct for narrow selfishness and
think of the greater good. A little bit of collective sacrifice is all that's needed.”
He left them to it and turned to face the confused recruits, one of whom had raised his hand to ask a question, which Gibson suspected he knew. He had purposefully not revealed the whole protocol to the recruits, because he liked to tease them slowly into bigger and bigger chunks till they had the complete “big picture”. Gibson motioned for the recruit to ask his question, pretending he didn’t know what it was going to be.
The recruit didn’t ask a question. Instead, he had guessed the missing part of the protocol, the part which Gibson had withheld. The recruit said: “Sir, I see there’s only one group down there. I assume this whole thing is just a bluff; a trick-question for the group so-to-speak. If so, that’s quite clever of you to arrange it this way. You’re studying them in isolation by bluffing each group.”
Gibson wasn’t expecting this. Usually, the recruits were quite shell-shocked by the proceedings, but this particular recruit was a bit like him: driven by curiosity and logic. Gibson confirmed the recruit's intuitions, and got his name: “Richard Dawkins”.
Richard then hazarded another follow-up guess, which again caught Gibson off-guard: “Sir, I suspect that, despite giving them an option to eliminate the other non-existent group, I think you further bluff them by killing them if they act out of selfishness and vote to eliminate the other non-existent group.” Gibson was again impressed, and confirmed Richard’s suspicions. He thought Richard would become an excellent protege: he had found his favorite recruit from this batch.
His next few slides were quite minimal and technical, covering only one topic:
- Machine Learning / Statistical Analysis Algorithms on Supercomputers:
- Complex calculations for managing remaining resources & mitigating emissions
- Optimal Point of Inflection for Inversion of Selfishness to Altruism for continued propagation of species under resource-constrained, overburdened ecosystems.
As Gibson was ready to go through the concluding slides, Richard’s hand shot up again for some follow-up questions. Gibson was a bit irritated at this point, his earlier admiration for Richard was replaced by annoyance: “Yes, I get it. He’s quite a bright fellow and will make a good sidekick. But can’t he just shut-up and wait a few minutes?!”
Despite bristling inside, Gibson allowed Richard the space to speak:
“But sir, doesn’t this fundamentally alter the foundation of Evolution from Selfishness to Altruism? Isn’t this a foundational paradigm shift to the biological and behavioral fabric of the world? Aren’t Humans effectively playing God?!”
Gibson didn’t really know what to say. He had never faced a recruit with such sharp questions. He guessed recruits had their share of reflections on the ethics and morality, the implications, and the outcomes of what they were doing. But they mostly kept it to themselves. Or perhaps they lacked the sense of sharp articulation Richard had.
Gibson agreed with Richard’s assertion that yes, indeed, Humans are almost effectively playing God. They were the only species who had advanced consciousness, about deeply ingrained biological programming, and didn’t have to just multiply needlessly like bacteria exploding in a petri-dish, consuming everything, and then dying off suddenly. Surely they were better than that! What was the point of having advanced consciousness if there's no way to apply it by taking preemptive corrective actions to a BIG RED FLAG problem?! That they could potentially “control” things in some shape or form, and bring things to a “steady-state”. And if they have this ability, they would be a fool not to use it, for any other species would have done the exact same thing. That it’s almost a moral imperative to exercise “self-control”. That they had to: they had no choice. Time was running out, and they had to act. The petri-dish was almost full, and they didn’t have much leeway to maneuver around anymore. Certainly no room left for prickly questions of ethics or morality, or difficult questions of future implications.
That the whole thing was worth it, because Humans could orchestrate a “Controlled Implosion” to manage remaining resources, while mitigating environmental problems like pollution & climate change, thereby solving all kinds of complex environmental, social, political problems. Killing multiple birds with one stone.
Gibson paused for catching his breath. He hadn’t yet concluded his thoughts, but Richard being his inquisitive self, jumped-in yet again, asking: “Sir, you’re doing this at the cost of eliminating all those who opted for Selfishness. So you’re discouraging Selfishness, and promoting Altruism. So, doesn’t this mean that further Evolution & Natural Selection among Humans happens on the basis of Altruism?!”
At this point, Gibson was losing it. This kid was smart, but he was being too smart. He was getting on Gibson’s nerves, but still he kept it cool, and replied sarcastically:
Maybe you should write a book. Call it “The Altruistic Gene” by Richard Dawkins.
With a tagline: “The Weak Shall Inherit The Earth”
Or maybe: “The Survival of the Compassionate”
Richard said that maybe he will. And that maybe Altruism forming the bedrock of future evolution isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps a new kind of Man, a more compassionate Man might result out of such an “unnatural selection”, although that would take thousands of years. Gibson nodded in agreement, although that wasn’t the core mission: which was to do a “controlled implosion” over the next few decades to meet the current crisis.
What Richard didn’t say but he thought silently: was that while he liked this whole thing in-theory, it was difficult to digest such a fundamental inversion of the natural order. Even though he liked the idea of Altruism as the new paradigm, deep down, he knew it was as useless as Utopian fantasy. It felt perverted at some basic instinctual level; a corruption of Mother Nature herself. Richard figured that if Man was destroying Nature, it was up to Mother Nature to stand-up for herself, and course-correct eventually, like “corrections” happen in the stock-market.
He didn’t say these things aloud, because he wanted to be in the good books of his new mentor Gibson, for he didn’t want to be taken aside and “eliminated” (at least not yet). He also needed his top-secret clearance to continue working there, while secretly formulating a plan to sabotage the facility, networking with other clandestine rebels to bring down the entire network, and restore control back to Mother Nature herself.
Richard sensed he had spoken too much, and offered an apology, which Gibson accepted with a knowing smile that his pupil had finally sensed the “natural order” between the two of them, and proceeded to finish his presentation.
Whether Richard succeeded ceding control back to Mother Nature.
Or whether Gibson succeeded with his “controlled implosion”, is an open question.
One way or another, this is “a problem with no good solutions”.
Let's hope it doesn't come to it, one way or another.
We will find out when we get to 2050 or 2100.
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[Final Disclaimer: If you're feeling depressed or anxious by reading this somber existential question about humanity's future, don't be. That wasn't my intention. Also humans are very resourceful and capable. We have dominated this planet for over 1,00,000 years. It's completely possible for things to turn out very differently. We could be in Mars thanks to Elon Musk. Or a hundred other things might happen. Anything is possible. So, don't worry. Cheer up. Put on some music. Watch cat videos on YouTube!]
[Final Disclaimer for Climate Skeptics: we are cool. No need to fight it out in the comments. Let's not get into that shit. Live and let live. Peace.]