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Meritocracy
Tuesday, 2017-06-27, 3:30 AM
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Ethical Futures

‘Work, worry, toil and trouble are indeed the lot of almost all men their whole life long. And yet if every desire were satisfied as soon as it arose how would men occupy their lives, how would they pass the time? Imagine this race transported to a Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted, where lovers find one another without any delay and keep one another without any difficulty: in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another, and thus they would create for themselves more suffering than nature inflicts on them as it is. Thus for a race such as this no stage, no form of existence is suitable other than the one it already possesses.'

Schopenhauer

The Experience Machine

(07 October 2007)

‘Help us, for God’s sake. I think they’re planning to…’

Planning what? Steve Hamill had played back the recording six times, but he was no surer. Why had the message ended so abruptly? He raised his binoculars and gazed out over the ocean. He’d never seen it so calm. In every direction, it sparkled in the sunshine as though someone had overlaid it with the finest layer of diamonds. ‘We’ll lose the race if we go off on this detour,’ he said. ‘Mallory is only eight hours behind.’

‘It was a Mayday,’ Tom Cooke said. ‘We can’t ignore it.’

Hamill glanced down at his chart. ‘I told you, there’s no land for a thousand miles.’

‘We have to check it out, skipper.’

Hamill shrugged, put down his binoculars and prepared to alter course. He barked out orders to his four crewmen, but he couldn’t shake off the creeping foreboding spreading through him. He half expected to see an albatross fluttering overhead. Years from now, he thought, he’d be the new Ancient Mariner telling his wretched story to anyone who’d stand him a drink.

*****

Hamill couldn’t believe it. How had they managed to conceal it? In this day and age it was inconceivable.

‘That’s the super-rich for you,’ Cooke said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Haven’t you guessed yet, skip? – this is a secret resort for the platinum-card club. They probably paid for the island to be removed from the navigation charts. It’s Paradise Island.’

Hamill turned away. Whatever it was, it was no paradise. There wasn’t a single creature to be seen, nor sound to be heard. Wherever he looked, he saw perfect vistas, as if he were looking at a computer-designed island. Long beaches of immaculate white sand, flanked on one side by exquisite azure water, stretched off into the distance. Designer sand, designer sea, designer palm trees.

‘Don’t go wandering off on your own,’ he said to the others, ‘and grab a knife. We don’t know what’s out there.’

They made their way up a sandy track. When they reached the crest of a small hill, Hamill took one look at what lay beyond then lost his footing as he nearly vomited.

‘Jesus Christ,’ crewman Ben Vernon gasped.

The other crewmen scampered down the hill and started zigzagging through the corpses.

‘I think they’ve taken poison,’ Vernon announced.

‘But they’re so beautiful.’ Cooke took off his skip-cap and rubbed his head.

Hamill, catching up with the others, stared at the scores of naked women scattered over the white beach. They were stunningly beautiful.

‘This is nuts,’ Vernon said. ‘They’re practically identical.’

Hamill squinted more closely. Vernon was right. They were all long-legged, narrow-waisted, with prominent breasts and doll-like faces. They could easily have come from a factory producing supermodel clones. He crouched down and studied the face of one. ‘She can’t be more than twenty-five,’ he said. He tried to piece together what had happened. Scores of beautiful young women had gathered on a beach in a perfect bay on a mysterious island and killed themselves. Silver wine goblets lay beside the bodies. Some kind of suicide cult? This had to be what the Mayday was about. A man had tried to stop them. But where was he? There were no men in sight. None at all.

‘Let’s check out the rest of this place.’ Hamill stood up. ‘There must be homes somewhere. Maybe we’ll find some clues.’

They soon found a complex of buildings, mostly luxury villas, all constructed around a shimmering blue lagoon. One of the buildings was set back from the rest. With gleaming aluminium cladding and a roof of solar panels, it resembled a Silicon Valley high-tech facility.

‘Frankenstein’s castle,’ Cooke muttered moments after they’d entered.

Hamill kicked away some of the broken glass that littered the floor. He studied the smashed glass pods, with snapped tubes sticking out at odd angles. The withered foetuses lying at the centre of each pod told their own tale.

‘Artificial wombs,’ Vernon said. ‘These crazy people were growing babies.’

‘Let’s get out of here,’ Cooke said.

They emerged again into the sunshine, heat-hazes rising all around them. They were glad to get inside the cool villas. They wandered around the immaculate homes, all fitted with the most expensive fixtures and fittings. And all deserted.

The whole island was a playboy’s dream. The wealth, the glitz, the beautiful models, the ideal setting. Heaven on earth. Yet something must have gone horrifically wrong.

They reached the most scenic villa: perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the lagoon. Presumably the leader of the community lived here. They stood in the centre of a glass viewing room that sparkled with watery reflections. A view fit for a god.

Then they heard footsteps.

*****

As he listened to the man’s story, Hamill kept thinking he was staring at a ghost. Harry Plummer was supposed to be dead, lost at sea months ago on his last single-handed sailing expedition around the world, trying to beat his own world record. What he was saying now was either lunacy or an introduction to hell.

 'The technology doesn’t exist,’ Hamill said. ‘We would have heard.’

Plummer sniggered. ‘You think the super-rich want plebs like you getting in on the action? When I washed up here, I thought they were going to kill me, but I seemed to amuse them; a reminder of the old world. The women said I was Adonis.’

Hamill shook his head. Plummer was short and ungainly, with a red face and thinning hair, yet he claimed he’d been able to enjoy any woman he chose. All those supermodels on the beach – they’d supposedly thrown themselves at him, begging him to make love to them. Every man on the island was a six-feet-tall, muscle-bound hunk, according to Plummer’s account, yet when he showed up he became the sex god. He maintained that it was because all the rest were fake whereas he was real.

Real, Hamill thought – that was the key to the whole thing. This island was the fakest place on earth.

According to Plummer, the leader of the island community was Victor Adam, a billionaire entrepreneur and visionary, with an extraordinarily high IQ.

‘When I met him,’ Plummer said, ‘he was more madman than genius. He claimed the turning point of his life came when he read about a thought experiment by a philosopher called Robert Nozick. Nozick imagined building a thing called an ‘experience machine’. Any of us could plug into it and it would generate a virtual world for us, every bit as realistic as our real one, except it’s designed to give us nothing but happiness. Nozick believed humans would reject such a machine, proving that happiness wasn’t the most important thing in our lives. Adam thought differently. He remembered an experiment carried out on rats in a Skinner Box. If a rat pressed a lever, it received an injection of cocaine. Soon, the rats were obsessively pressing the lever, to the exclusion of everything else. They didn’t eat or drink, and even ignored electric shocks. Many of them died.

‘Adam was convinced that if you gave anyone a Nozick machine, they’d never leave it. It was already happening, he said. In Second Life, people are already obsessed with virtual-reality worlds where they can choose avatars that seem to represent their true selves better than the real world allows.

‘But Adam wasn’t interested in virtual experiences. He wanted the real deal. He brought together the richest people on earth, and they created this island. Adam was inspired by the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. The mutineers realised that Pitcairn Island was wrongly marked on the Royal Navy’s charts. That meant no one would find them, except by accident. Adam took steps to have this island removed from maps. He wanted it to be an independent state with its own laws, free from all outside interference. He named it Eden. He said they’d show the world a new way, and I guess they did.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Hamill said.

‘Hear me out. They used the best scientists, engineers and technologists to create a real Nozick machine. Don’t ask me how it worked. All I know is that you could stand in a booth and choose your perfect self. You could select the IQ you wanted, what height, what muscles, what age: anything. Everyone could be as gorgeous as a model, as handsome as a movie star, as intelligent as a Nobel Prize winner. Women didn’t even need to give birth any more. Test-tube babies could be developed in artificial wombs. It seemed as though Adam had found a cure for all the ills of the world.

‘But all those dead women on the beach. If this was paradise…’

‘Paradise?’ Plummer snorted. ‘The women cared nothing for the babies. The bonding that takes place between a mother and child during a real pregnancy was missing. Everything about those women was fake. Before they entered the machine, most of them were over fifty. They were academics and business people. They had no idea how to live as supermodels. They originally selected the highest IQs possible. Within weeks, they’d changed them to below average: better to face Eden without the drawback of a penetrating intellect to reveal how grotesque it really was.’

‘Where is this wonder machine?’ Hamill asked.

Plummer led the group outside. He pointed over the edge of the cliff. ‘Down there. It was placed in front of an infinity pool to symbolise that it was the future of humanity.’

Cooke stepped forward and peered over the cliff. ‘Oh, my God.’ He shoved his hand over his mouth.

Hamill joined him and was equally overcome by nausea. So, they’d found the missing men. Their corpses lay strewn around a glinting silver obelisk.

‘Satisfied?’ Plummer said. ‘They smashed my radio as I was making my Mayday then ran past me like lemmings and plunged over the cliff. This "paradise” had driven them insane. That machine…’

‘We have to take it back with us,’ Vernon said. ‘We could build a raft for it.’

‘Are you insane?’ Plummer exploded. ‘We must destroy it. It’s Pandora’s Box. It unleashes every horror, but I assure you, there’s no hope left behind. This would kill the whole human race if it ever got back to civilisation.’

‘We can’t deny humanity this opportunity,’ Vernon said.

‘What? – mass extinction? Look down there. Is that what you want for the world? Adam didn’t comprehend the Schopenhauer factor. If you make everything too easy for people, they lose interest. Nozick was right all along. Happiness isn’t enough, and it can’t exist in isolation. Happiness and unhappiness go together. You can’t have one without the other. If you try to eliminate one, you simply magnify it. Adam wanted to be the happiest man in the world. Instead, he was the most wretched. He was first to jump.

‘What makes us human is our vulnerability, our mortality. Illness, weakness, death, imperfection – we’d be nothing without those. Adam thought he could choose from a menu of enhancing techniques and create a community of superhumans. He planned to live for a thousand years, disease-free, with an eternally young, fit body. Complete insanity. Why do you think there are no gods on Mount Olympus now? They killed themselves, that’s why. They were terminally bored.

‘I reminded Adam that a human is the most beautifully balanced creature. We took million of years to evolve into what we are. You can’t change that overnight.

‘Adam disagreed. "We’ve moved on,” he said. He couldn’t have been more wrong. And, anyway, what about the billions who couldn’t afford the Nozick machine? We’d create a new species, and the rest would be subhuman. How long until the masters built death-camps for the slaves?’

‘We’ll learn,’ Hamill said. ‘We won’t make the same mistakes. We’ll take things slower.’

‘You haven’t understood a thing, have you? This isn’t the future. It’s the end.’