Big Echo

Critical SF

Storytime at The White Hart

by Wm Henry Morris

Inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's The Ultimate Melody” (1957, If)

It was hard not to notice when The White Hart suddenly vibrated, then buzzed and squealed, then lost resolution for a moment or so. It was hard not to notice, but it was never remarked upon by the inhabitants of the space. The regulars (and all that was left these days were regulars) would all go silent for the duration as well as a beat or two after everything went back to normal, and then they'd pick back up again with conversation or drinking or pinball or pool or whatever as if they'd all just paused to wait for an airplane to pass overheard or a funeral procession to go by.

Of course, it had been years since airplanes flying overhead or funeral processions driving by had actually occurred in the lives of The White Hart regulars. And every time it (the vibrating/buzzing/squealing/fuzzing) happened to The White Hart, it became less like that kind of occurrence, and more like that future something that everybody was willfully tuning out. That “winged chariot hurrying near.” Which phrase they were all privately thinking but nobody was communicating because how was it that they had tied themselves to a space called the White Hart with that kind of irony hanging over them, but also, how could they not loiter in such a space? Wasn't it so exquisitely fitting?

It wasn't clear to them how it happened (and no one who was left had the rights to access the admin logs so they couldn't go back and verify this), but at some point—later they referred to this occurrence as “that thing that happened last Wednesday evening” because that was also fitting and by that time they had all just resigned themselves to the thematics and memetics of the situation—they came to address the cold silence.

It began after an instance of what-they-all-refused-to-call-a-glitch-in-the-system when the silence was broken just a beat too soon by GeraldTheCoolWarrior humming to himself and then not stopping his humming. This was not at all usual. When Gerald reached the chorus, the whole bar erupted in jeers and protest. For obvious reasons, popular music was explicitly banned in The White Hart even though there were no admins to enforce the ban. For obvious reasons, the only way to deal with this breach of etiquette was through storytelling. No one wanted to actually tell the story, though, so they all kept silent until Tauntaunton started talking about the one time the politician met the great artist, and the energy in the bar got more tense instead of dissipating, and Taun didn't even finish, his voice skittering to a halt.

“Well, now none of us will be able to relax until we hash this out,” Brickastan croaked. “Might as well get started.” She bowed and gestured to NekoTrial. “Surely, you must have an explanation,” she said.

“Fine,” Neko said. They cleared their throat. “The monolith was found when the polar ice cap melted. It wasn't smooth, black and shiny. It was matte beige and covered with divots. Like a golf ball. In the polar dusk it looked rose-gray. It was a complete mystery and impervious to study or damage. It was silent for months, but then one day it chimed a sound that was heard across the entire planet. A day later it chimed again. This time, though, the chime was comprised of two notes. Two notes that were not unpleasant to listen to. Two notes that earwormed into everyone's head. The next day it was three. And when everyone heard those three notes, they perked up a bit like they'd had a cup of coffee or a wake patch or whatever. The next day—”

“—four notes!”

“No, Taun. Not four. The next day everyone heard a short melody. And for the next six months the monolith stuck with that song. Once a day it played. Once a day everyone heard it and felt a jolt of energy.

“At first the evidence that came in was only anecdotal. But then as the anecdotes piled up, the economists pushed for early reporting. The world governments were actually quick to comply worried as they were about the effects of something they had no control over. The economists aggregated the data that came in, and at first they didn't believe it, but the data was unmistakable: for the first time in years the world-wide economy experienced productivity gains.

“As you might imagine, this was cause for much celebration. Here was a chance for the world to jerk itself out of its economic doldrums! The only question was how was this happening? Well, the psychologists and sociologists and cultural anthropologists and market researchers and talent management experts all got involved, and to make a long story short, it soon became clear that individuals had become a bit more efficient. Enough so that the aggregate effect was a net positive. A year later the monolith's tune changed again. A quick sample study was done. More efficiency gains had been made. And this kept happening. Every six months to a year, the monolith would add to its tune, and every time it did, humanity would become more efficient.

“The people in power all rejoiced. Progress seemed back on track and without having to do any of the hard work of government and repression. No carrots. No sticks. No messy compromises. But then in the fifth year, troubling indicators popped up. Crime was up. Workplace injuries skyrocketed. The monolith's melody made everyone more efficient, but it had no effect on intelligence, empathy or physical capacity. And, well you know the rest. The only refuge from the effects of the monolith was to go so deep into the virtual that our brains were immersed enough to not hear or feel the chiming.”

The White Hart vibrated, then buzzed and jangled, then lost resolution for a moment or so.

“Ominous much?” Taun said. The other regulars just sighed and stared glumly into their drinks.

“Well?” Brick finally said. “Someone else?”

“Okay, fine, I'll do this one,” said Blacksterisk, an androgynous regular who wore a white linen suit over an open collared black cotton shirt. “The problem with that story—other than the fact that it's wrong—is that it hews too close to our patron saint's own work.”

“That doesn't disqualify it at all,” Neko said, their voice modulated high, an electronic screech. “He is a genius.”

“Nevertheless,” Blacksterisk said. “It's not his genius to which we should ascribe our current predicament.” He (he chose to be he at that moment) took a deep breath and then a swig from a silver hip flask with a furry purple asterisk shape on it. “There was many years ago a young woman who was born and raised in the vast slums of Winnipeg. Acquainted with squalor. The only beauty in her life that which she gathered in shards from her natural environment and the few online wastelands she had access to. Her name is lost to time, the true depths of her courage unknown. All we know is that through some innate talent, some uncalculated striving she—with great difficulty and sensitivity and out of her hard-earned pain and rage and in her own-created, peculiar notation—wrote out by hand a song. A simple one. But one that somehow encapsulated in its melody the whole of human experience—the yearning, the suffering, the good, and (mostly) the bad.

“This song went undiscovered for over a decade, until after the young woman had died an early death of whatever horrible reason women of her time and place died of. But somehow the document survived, and somehow it came into the view of a junior AI who was able to decode its unique system of notation and bring it to the Collective Intelligences Accord. And that was the final piece of evidence the CIA needed to make the decision that civilization, or rather humanity, needed to be quarantined and re-coded. And, well, here we all are.”

Blacksterisk took another swig from her (she chose to be she at that moment) hip flask while many of the other regulars nodded solemnly.

“No, that's not what happened at all!” Hurrsute Monk slammed his drink on the bar. The ice cubes rattled in the glass a little too evenly. “Both of those stories are just that—stories. Pretty consolations that strip humans of agency. Poetic science fictional premises wrapped around a humanities major's wrong-headed conception of how the world works.”

Nostrils snorted and eyes rolled across the bar, but none of the regulars spoke up.

Monk continued: “None of you have been out there recently. I don't blame you. There's no reason to log off. If any of you even can. Not that I've been out there either. But I have access to feeds that you don't.” Monk raised a finger. “Legitimate ones. And this is what really happened.”

He paused dramatically. The rest of them hated him. Partly because he had skirted the prohibition on usernames that were character names out of the great author's stories. Partly because he was always throwing cold water on their stories, pretending a rationality, a knowledgeability that no one could actually have anymore.

“It was very simple really. As you all know music has a form that is almost mathematical.”

A chorus of boos filled The White Hart.

“I expected more of an audience as educated as this,” Monk said. “Nevertheless, I know you all are just expressing your displeasure with your current dilemma and that you are actually curious about how we arrived at this state. So I will continue. As I was saying, music is math. What's more, one could say that a piece of music is an algorithm. An amazing kind of algorithm because it can be fed directly into a person's brain and accomplish all sorts of things: change moods, conjure up memories, implant suggestions, etc. The only problem with music is that it isn't—or wasn't—reliable and predictable. That is, no one piece of music affects every individual the same way. Nor a single individual the exact same way every time. But what if music was more reliable and predictable in its effects?

Monk paused here. Took a drink. Blinked three times. “Several years ago a group of venture capitalists—”

Taun snorted. “Venture capitalists? Capitalists—sure. But venture? Like they're venturing out on some quest to save the world? That's just ridiculous. As I always say monoliths—not monomyths.”

The White Hart rolled with groans.

“You're not exactly wrong,” Monk said. “And as the newest of the group, it's not surprising that you aren't acquainted with this term. As with most things related to capitalism the terms are much more mundane than they sound. A venture capitalist is simply a rich person who gives money to a bunch of small companies in the hopes that a few of them become big companies. However, in this particular instance, this group of investors didn't go to an existing small company. They had a broader goal in mind. You see, the problem was that no matter how immersive entertainment became, it was never quite optimized to each individual. Which meant that users would get bored eventually and move on to other less lucrative or more socially disruptive activities. Sometimes they even became politically active, which, of course, would never do.

“So this group of venture capitalists spent a fortune to bring a murderer's row of creative and scientific minds together. Their goal was not to create some Platonic ideal of a universal melody but rather to create an algorithm that would optimize the ideal melody for each individual. It's quite ingenious, actually. As we well know, it takes a lot of processing power to provide an individualized multi-sensory virtual experience, especially at the numbers this group had in mind. But audio: audio was emotionally powerful and resource un-intensive. Forget religion—music is the opiate of the masses. Or to turn that around: why do you think so many of the world's religions use some sort of melody, harmony or rhythm for personal and communal worship?

Taun began humming again. Brick smacked him upside the head. Monk raised his glass to Brick.

“As I was saying,” he continued. “Music. The venture capitalists decided music was just the thing to sidestep the societal upheaval they all knew was coming so they gathered the best minds of the generation. Not one of these creative and technological minds knew the exact scope of the project. But each provided seeds to it. An idea here. A solution there. A framework. A progression. A tone, a phrase, a snatch of melody. And all this human work was either bolted on or fed to a powerful AI. So your story had one correct element Blacksterisk in that AIs or rather an AI was involved.”

“But why would they do that?” Taun asked. “Didn't they understand the dangers?”

“How could they?” Monk said. “They were simply building upon the economic, socio-cultural and technical systems already in place with aims and methods that were no different from most of their predecessors. Those who were in the know, and I must admit that this part is still hazy—Who actually knew what? And when? Were the venture capitalists the ones behind it or were they just a front for some other entity or entities? As I was saying, those who were in the know debated about how to do the release. They were worried that if it was too effective in a trial, they'd get shut down by those governmental entities that were still functional. So they decided on a simultaneous, worldwide release.

“At first the metrics seemed fine. User engagement was high. The adoption rate was solid if not spectacular. It seemed like a promising product release, which would alleviate some of the very issues it was intended to address. Individually optimized music—what a pleasurable palliative for the modern age! But then the stickiness of the program increased to worrisome levels and the adoption rate skyrocketed. The venture capitalists panicked.

“Oh, they tried shutting it down, but the users and the AI were already so dialed in to each other that the program was no longer limited to their servers. In spite of all their precautions, the AI had overstepped its bounds. Rumor has it that even the brains of users were being used as processing power to feed new users who came online. The crazy thing is that even once the dangers became apparent and the word got out, the adoption rate didn't slow down one bit. And by the time world governments and multinational corporations woke up to the dangers, it was too late. They couldn't shut it down. Everyone wanted it too much. And no one trusted the warnings issued by the politicians and corporate spokespersons. All everyone knew was that here was something that would speak to them in a way that nothing else could.

“And you actually do know the rest of the story. The only ones who survived were those who were already engaged in an immersive virtual environment that could be locked off from the rest of the network. In that sense, the ending of your monolith story isn't too far off, Neko, although, of course, everything leading up to it was wrong.”

The White Hart hummed, then buzzed and tinkled, then lost resolution for a moment or so.

“Ominous much?” Taun said. The other regulars said nothing.

“It'd be easy to blame those venture capitalists,” Monk said. “And to be sure their intellectual hubris and that of those creatives and engineers who helped them is a primary cause. But the hubris wasn't limited to them alone. Everyone after that first wave of early adopters knew the dangers. World governments and multinational corporations could have had measures in place to shut things down more quickly or could have had done more to gain credibility with their citizens/customers so they'd take the warnings seriously. It wasn't a monolith or an AI who did this to us.” Monk slammed his drink down on the bar. The ice cubes rattled in the glass a little too evenly. “It was us. We did this to ourselves.”

“Why does it always come back to hubris with you?” Neko said.

“It's just the way I'm programmed,” Hurrsute Monk quipped.

The White Hart rang with hollow laughter.