Amerika

Armchair Socialism

Abraham Lopez-Carpenter lounged in his deluxe armchair, his eyes blank and shrouded as he looked back over his life as a series of connected incidents leading up to the present state.

He often expressed to the friends the view that he was living in the best timeline. Democracy had beaten back the authoritarians, disease had been conquered, and now, the Replicator enabled world Socialism to thrive. In the corner it hummed, the size of a small refrigerator.

The bad old days from history books told the story of a humanity which lived by subsistence farming, hunting and foraging, constantly beset by disease and attacks from other animals, including other humans. Any great society which arose was quickly bashed down and remained only as ruins. Idiocy won, whether by heartless rulers or fools en masse at ballot boxes.

It reached its lowest level in the twenty-first century when an unstable economy built on value bubbles colliding with an over-expanded populations. Whole continents roiled with conflict, culminating in the “sledge wars” (from Middle English slegge, to hit or slay, cf. German Schl├Ąge, impacts) where whole nations rushed at each other armed with only rusty assault rifles, machetes, hammers, bats, and spears. Several cities vanished into ashen toxic wastelands through nuclear terrorism.

But despite these setbacks, the fledgling species had risen above its conditions, inventing germ theory, the printing press, the internal combustion engine and finally, the digital computer. With that it rose to a new level of power: it could model its world accurately, and through that, undertake an understanding of physics and chemistry it had only dreamed of before.

And from that, he thought, came the third great revolution in technology: the Replicator. Named for its inspiration on a science fiction television program back in the blood-soaked twentieth century, this device took in energy and spat out objects. Abraham could summon a steak, perfectly medium rare and steaming, or ask it for a circuit board or even oxygen.

He recalled thinking what a victory that was, when he first heard of the Replicator, at age nineteen.

Now he hobbled into the kitchen on unsteady legs after rising from his sofa. He had not worked for years since, with the Replicators and the zero-point energy used to fuel them, there was no scarcity. Everything was free. He could work for a few months and have enough to buy a Replicator, then print himself a house and any food, tools, books or other goods he needed.

Even more, he could do it anywhere he wanted. What was heat, when you could have a Replicator spit out a hundred-kilogram block of ice every time minutes? You could live in the desert, on a floating barge, in a cave or far from the big cities. In fact, the cities had given way to a sort of worldwide suburb of apartment buildings.

Any work that did need doing mostly involved communicating with robot workers in distant factories, and this required people to be accessible but not solely devoted to a task. It was common for people to pick up the phone while watching video, or have to step aside while out in the world to make a quick adjustment through their mobile devices. But not that common; things mostly ran themselves.

He reached over to the Replicator and hit one of the preset keys. Lunch — an exact replica of the pastrami sandwiches made at Gallatone’s Deli in New York during the latter half of the previous century — appeared, with a glass of beer from a random small brewery in Austria as selected by the computer within the Replicator.

Inside of the unit, he knew, a dense and fan-like structure assembled zero point energy, using nanoscale structures to sample it from the space surrounding us, which scientists learned some time ago is pulsing with energy constant, just waiting to be sampled and used. Free energy meant free materials with the Replicator, which meant the death of scarcity and oddly, property.

But for many years, the Replicator was nothing more than a rumor. The powerful had them, some said, and others said that they were still not quite working right. He imagined that for someone who was super-rich, a Replicator would actually be nothing more than a novelty. And then he looked at his faded jeans, ragged sneakers and bologna sandwich lunch.

The day that Abraham turned thirty-one years of age, World Federalist Socialism had been declared on the basis that, with the end of scarcity, not only capitalism but nations themselves were obsolete. Governments and banks were abolished. Everyone would get a Replicator. The world shuddered with three days of celebration.

At the time, Abraham had been a schoolteacher and he was trying to explain biology to bored tenth-graders who were just marking time until they got jobs and careers took over their lives. “Yeast are small organisms related to fungi,” he told his students. “They produce blooms, or sudden explosions of population followed by die-offs, when confronted with an unlimited food source, like this bucket of sugar. But that is how we get alcohol, which is toxic to yeast as well as us, but we can handle a lot more of it, so we become drunk instead of dying, usually.” Someone fell out of a chair, asleep.

When he went home that night, finding his spacious but expensive apartment empty as usual because his wife left him on his birthday the year before, he wondered what the future would hold. Socialism, taboo after the twentieth century, now seemed possible. The full impact of the Replicator hit him.

His fellow teachers often discussed their own topics, and one of his conversation partners was a history teacher. He frequently opined, and told his students, that socialism was great in theory, but was impossible in reality for two reasons: human nature and scarcity. The latter, he said, was obvious; limited resources forced people to compete for them, but it was the former that really doomed it. Humans just like to own things, and because they compete, they want more than others, he would say with a shrug.

Abraham often returned to that idea. He felt comfortable in the environment of a school where every person had an assigned role and was graded on it but otherwise had no consequences to deal with. It was a welcome break from renting apartments, buying cars on time, filing taxes, figuring out health insurance and planning for retirement, and he thrived in it.

He liked the notion of socialism for that reason: everyone would stop worrying about money and focus on learning. For adults, maybe school was not the model, he thought, and tried to conjure up an image of a hybrid between a church, farm and factory but his mind gave up on the jagged dimensions formed by trying to fuse those extremes. But he wondered if his colleague was actually correct.

For a biology teacher, life seemed to be a tension between the desire to be nice, and natural selection. We could help everyone, but then we might have a lot of people standing around doing nothing. If the vicious got ahead, at least we selected for competence. Abraham tired of this thought as soon as it popped into his head, and it usually left a lingering headache.

The Replicator changed his view of socialism. Suddenly we could have it all, and everyone could have it all. Replicators could even make other Replicators. You could give one to a friend and lift them out of poverty forever. If their house was in the ghetto, they could print a new one. If they found open land, they could build one. No one would ever starve or go without again.

Abraham watched the news segments announcing the change over and over again, using his ability to record video on his television. This could be a new era, he thought. People would have all the time in the world to learn, to improve, and to do the right thing by their families. He felt as if human evolution had finally begun.

The next day, his alarm clock squalled for ten minutes before he could get out of bed. A great pressure had been lifted. When he got to school, it seemed like everyone else was in the same mood; half of the students were not even present. And in the teacher’s lounge, there was a Replicator standing there. He walked up to it and said, “Gimme a beer.”

As a bottle of Pilsner Urquell materialized in the unit, he heard cheers from the other teachers. They got almost nothing done that day, their minds working overtime to grasp the changes that had happened. But the next day it was back to the grind because no one wanted to become one of those people who had no role except sitting at home, huddled by their Replicator with no purpose.

Looking back to those days from his forty-fifth birthday, Abraham managed a wry smile. How naïve they had all been! How little they had understood! Life had changed, indeed, but not in a way that anyone could have predicted.

World socialism made great changes at first. Half of the workforce just went home. The armies disbanded, governments abolished themselves, and people basically lived for their own sense of purpose. It took two weeks for people to understand it, and then they started to live it. Abraham remembered going to work every morning with shaking hands, excited for the future.

What was it like to live in a time where no one needed anything? And more importantly, where owning stuff no longer made you important? If he needed gold, he could print it up by the ton. Since he could do this anywhere, the cities were no longer important, and so land was not particularly valuable either.

But at the two week point, something changed in humanity. At first, there had been a frenzy of activity as people left jobs, abandoned cities and set up homesteads. But then, a new form of scarcity emerged: importance. If you packed up the family, moved to a desolate spot in Texas, and built a great home there, no one would care. This was good, in that the society that Abraham always felt was oppressive no longer had a way of controlling you; on the other hand, it also deprived you of any kind of role and left you alone, watching videos, reading books, and playing games in your own little nation of one.

This left most people without a social group. At first, people made grand plans about what they would do with the time. But hobbies, given infinite room to expand, tended to run into heat-death; there was only so much that the average sculptor, musician, writer or designer could do with their time.

Even more, however, no one knew what to do with the product. You could print yourself up a copy of any classic album or artwork, since the Replicator stored a digital blueprint for every object that existed at the time it was invented. People would hit a few buttons and get any book, game, movie, music, or art from any time in history, so there was no real need for the massive surge of stuff that people created.

In fact, it seemed that the classics and popular works just got more popular, at least with classic rock, which was what Abraham enjoyed, along with some alt-country, sometimes. He thought that having access to all of the music made by humanity would entirely change the canon, but instead, more people would enjoying the classic bands. They were just better.

Really popular music, the stuff on the big radio stations that had millions of dollars in hype behind it, did fade quite a bit, but not as much as he thought. As it turned out, people liked participating in the next big thing, so any musician who rose to be popular found themselves more in demand than ever before. This made them important.

For some, this created a great opportunity. The few artists and musicians who were naturally gifted found themselves able to influence billions of people at the same time by releasing their work to the internet, where the Replicators could download it and reproduce it. Everyone else just faded into the background, and soon their instruments, paints, typewriters and cameras were languishing in disuse.

Even more surprising to Abraham was how competitive jobs became. Society had split into two: the relevant people, and those who dwelled alone in obscurity and were essentially forgotten, relegated to unperson status through a lack of anything to offer. So people became beggars, worse than with jobs, and went out to find places where they were socially important again.

Long lines formed outside workplaces. The salaries remained at zero because anyone could print up a hunk of gold or a Mercedes-Benz if they needed one. But to have a title and a position of power made people feel less like they were pushing up against the cold inexorable nothingness of the void, and so people ran screaming toward jobs with wild terror in their eyes.

Worse, jobs shifted entirely toward popularity. It used to be that a teacher strove to make sure the students, at least those who could, would learn the material. Now, the emphasis changed to whichever teacher was more entertaining, personable, quirky, and interesting. No one taught straight history or biology anymore; they invented an obscure theory, like that mitochondria were self-aware or that all of history was a quest for foodie-level cuisine, and re-interpreted everything through that. People thronged for whatever was the new latest thing, and inconsistency expanded.

Abraham could no longer count on his students knowing much about basic biology that they could connect to other ideas because their heads were full of these clashing novelties of different theories, and many had participated in school mostly as a social event anyway. Education became a competition for attention, just like jobs, and the actual goal of it was forgotten.

Fearing that this would consume humanity, the inventor of the Replicator made a tweak: he removed the inability to clone humans. Now, he reasoned, people would stop being so manic about popularity, which he interpreted as a search for suitable mates; they could just clone themselves an Elizabeth Taylor, Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, or Taylor Swift.

Apparently other motivations were behind the work expansion. People no longer bothered with the family, nor even really with long-term relationships. What mattered was being in a relationship with someone important. Children sort of happened, but they were easy because parents could print up a robot nanny, send the kids to school, and then set them up with their own Replicator and push them out into the world. Parents were viewed as friends more than anything else.

There was no point making laws about the Replicators, either. The cops were busy doing what made them socially important, and that meant publicity stunts and rescuing cats from trees, not chasing down the people who would follow their ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends, hoping to snag some DNA so that they could clone the person and then use or abuse the clone. People had been motivated by money for so long that there was no way to motivate people except to help fill that existential void with friendship, attention, and name recognition.

People became less inclined to be helpful, more narcissistic, and more bloated with excess than ever before. The species reproduced rapidly, taking up essentially every square inch of natural ground, and then taking to the oceans by printing themselves giant floating barges upon which shipping-container apartments were piled. Litter, once limited by purchasing power, exploded as people Replicated themselves objects, tired of them, and flung them out of their dwellings.

Frenetic activity gripped the world as people tried to become important. Abraham waited it out, then took retirement, which paid him zero in benefits. It was better to be alone and forgotten than part of this raging madness.

He found a patch of ground and printed himself an average-sized house, then spent his days puttering around in the garden. He took up knitting, for something to do as he watched the endless stream of movies that humanity was generating, and stopped reading books entirely. There was no more wisdom, only moments of attention or endless silence.

At some point he read that the last natural species had gone extinct. Humanity could print its own air, meat, pets, and clothing, so it had no use for nature. There were no longer forests, just a world covered in apartments, between which were vast piles of what looked like garbage, but which were really simply discarded objects that the previous generation would have fought over.

New cities cropped up, based on being important. The capital of them was Las Vegas, where people went for the bragging rights at having gambled for no money and Replicated themselves free cocktails far into the night. No one showed up for the icky jobs, like housemaid or sewage engineer. But bartenders and directors of urban planning, each of whom got to demonstrate how fascinating their personalities and ideas were, were hard-fought positions, sometimes literally as fistfights broke out in employment lines.

The billionaires faded away, replaced by a celebrity culture in which anyone could become famous, and everyone wanted to. To be famous, however, you could not be functional, because that was boring; you had to invent new ideas, and they needed to be not obvious, so most of them consistent of subtle ironies, or objects which did not fulfill their actual role in order to take on an aesthetic one.

It was as if the fashion industry took over the world. The bartender at his favorite watering hole became famous for a line of drinks that used cruciferous vegetables and sap from an obscure Japanese maple, and the director of urban planning became a household name for designing cities around the concept of the housing shaped like Egyptian spiral patterns. The plans were free on the net and anyone could Replicate them.

He began to see this process as an inverted “tragedy of the commons.” As everyone competed for attention, any sense of unity of task or even participation in the same reality went away. The world began to look like an explosion of art projects and design portfolios, each more bizarre than the next, and inevitably clashing. Abraham felt relief in shutting the door on the multicolored chaotic mess that his neighborhood had become.

Now in his late 60s, he felt that he lived in the best timeline, but that it had some of the worst results. No one needed anything, but they craved attention even more than the objects of their former needs, and the result was a chaotic mob of people covered in flamboyant tattoos, wearing deliberately nonsensical clothing, talking about irrelevant ideas, and chasing whatever trend was having its fifteen minutes of fame.

Abraham instructed the Replicator to make him a Cohiba cigar, pre-cut, and lit it with a gold lighter he had just laying around with the other junk in his place, none of which he gave half a tinker’s damn about. Someone had said that somewhere out there, people were inventing the ability to replicate yourself organs and other body parts, so that you could live forever. “Screw that,” he said sourly.

Standing before the Replicator in a cloud of blue smoke, Abraham felt something more intense than anything he had experienced out in the world for some time: regret. He regretted teaching biology so that students could go on to lucrative careers, and wished he had taught literature instead. Fiction focused on meaning, and that was the responsibility of each individual, and could not be achieved with popularity or relevance to a conveyor-belt culture of incessant distraction.

Ironically, he thought, evolution had backfired with the Replicators, and maybe digital computers or the internal combustion engine. No one knew what to do with themselves, and for most, it revealed that they never really had anything going on inside anyway. Abraham sighed. Somewhere out there he had a daughter, covered in tattoos and probably the semen of a dozen men, lost to her own soul.

He walked over to the Replicator, resisting the urge to smash it as that would pointlessly result in his starvation. Instead, he began programming it to reach back to the point before the stepping-off moment that led to the Now. When he was satisfied, he fired up another cigar and shuffled over to his favorite chair.

Cool air swept over him in darkness. He had not been aware of awakening, which means that he must have dozed off in his chair — one of the hazards of being fortunate enough to become old, he reflected — and come back to consciousness through the same easy path. The door to the next room was shut, and he did not remember shutting it.

Standing up, he went to the door and listened. No sound. He twisted the knob, and the door swung open silently. In the darkness, he saw the gleam of a dozen eyes, with the open window showing him more in the backyard. He backed away slowly, then picked up the stack of books from his end table.

“This is for you,” he said, handing a book to the first, then the next. He went back several times, giving away a hundred books to the results of his Replicator program, which had resurrected the DNA code of a distant ancestor, the Northmen who had raged over Europe with a fierce hatred for those they saw as weak.

Sitting back down in his chair with another cigar, he became aware of the eyes around him in the close darkness. “The people out there,” he said, drawing in smoke, “are weak. They do not have souls. They cannot understand these books, which tell you how to have a soul, and why you must fight for it. All the gold in the world cannot buy us honor, clarity of purpose, or self-respect.”

He felt his creations nod although he could not see them. “I want you to go out there, into this world, and do what you see as right,” he said. The air moved slightly as they departed through the open window, leaping down onto the hard packed earth and spreading into the night.

At an apartment down the street, the first of his Vikings stopped. The structure, made of cubes of different colors of orange arranged in a yin-yang, housed several tan-hued people covered in tattoos who were wearing charade ball costumes, complete with exaggerated plastic phalluses and breasts, decorated with feathers of many colors.

Next to his creation, the first of these products of the end of time simply looked puny and ordinary, with none of the composure of the barbarian.

“Hey man, we got a party going, and the latest mixtape, with the most extreme orgy you have ever seen,” the product said. “You’ll fit right in, it’ll be great — ”

He trailed off in a gargling of blood. The Viking turned back to Abraham, holding a glistening object, which he raised to the light so all could see. It was a human spine. Abraham nodded. The Viking threw back his head, emitted a bloodcurling howl from a time before language, and with his compatriots, rushed into the night. The revolution had begun.

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