Deprecating Free Will: A Future We Don't Have to Accept
This is how it all went down.
This is a sci-fi tale I wrote before COVID. I wrote it and forgot about it—but the other day I came across this WEF marketing brochure for a “happy” future without property, privacy or, seemingly, sex—and I thought that maybe my old tale would be a good comeback. I only had to add a few lines to make it 2020-compatible.
The year is 2419. I am happy to say that things are looking up.
When Interplanetary Holy Tech crashed 28 years ago, I thought my life was ending. I remember the day like it was yesterday. By fate or by coincidence, I happened to back up my brain to a personal memory unit, which I had kept illegally after the ban, shortly before the disaster struck. Before my unit died forever, I documented what I could, using the manual scribing mode that I had learned from my dissident grandfather. This is how I was able to remember.
Personal memory units were banned six years before the crash, after someone found out that a few rogue Interplanetary Holy Tech officers were routinely editing consciousness data blocks in the cloud, modifying public opinion against IHT guidelines. There was an upheaval, media pundits had a field day, and the court hearing was transmitted to every citizen’s brain. In the end, the IHT officers pleaded guilty and were sent to the Genetic Recycle Lab. Shortly after, the AI Head of the IHT gave an address in which they talked about the need to tighten memory data security. Evidently, the best algorithms have been consulted with, and they concluded that personal units had to be turned in. I considered doing as I was told—but something inside me rebelled. Perhaps it was the fact that I have always felt like I was different, or maybe it was an encoded message from my grandfather, a famous artist and dissident who disappeared into the Genetic Recycle Lab a hundred and fifty years ago. I chose to follow my gut—and wiggled my way out of compliance.
And then the unthinkable happened. Master algorithm malfunctioned and turned suicidal, AI Head of the IHT sent an extremely bizarre emergency brain transmission to all citizens—something about poor design and guilt—and shut themselves down, erasing the kernel and all backups so quickly that the entire interplanetary internet vanished within seconds. Everything came to a halt, people ran around like headless chicken, unable to retrieve their skill sets from the cloud and not knowing what to do without it. The cloud has been everyone’s default source of cognitive function for at least two centuries prior to the disaster, and AI assistants were mandatory even for naturals. Autonomous cognitive function was considered an anachronism and a vain pastime that was only taught at a few very expensive private schools.
As a result, the chaos was total. Power grids collapsed, and soon we were left with nothing: no superfood, no essential liquid, no air-generating systems. Those who lived in smart space colonies—the majority of the population—perished in space since only a few of them had the manual skills to return to the home base. Smart urban hubs were destroyed as soon as they ran out of power. A lot of people in urban areas died from a combination of flooding and air malfunction. Even the naturals— the lower class—were almost completely wiped out. They were many decades behind the assimilation curve and many still knew autonomous function—but they lived in segregated communities, and found themselves trapped behind the Wall when Holy Gates nuclear fusion reactors, which were concentrated in the areas populated by naturals, started erupting.
I was not a natural—but because of my grandfather, I had to spend hours every day as a kid practicing autonomous. Back then, I hated it—my classmates teased me relentlessly for it and called me “natty”—but those skills, rusty as they were, ultimately saved my life.
The first years after the collapse were hard. What I found to be the hardest was not hunger or physical strain—I got used to both surprisingly quickly—it was maddening loneliness. Without my AI assistant, I had no one to talk to, and I nearly went crazy. But then something strange happened. Out of total hopelessness, I started calling my grandfather’s name, and I think he heard me. I started remembering. I started experiencing unfamiliar sensations. I remembered my childhood, I remembered the stories my grandfather told me, I remembered how to function like a natural without shame. And you know what, I suddenly felt this feeling… I was no longer alone or afraid. Perhaps I did go crazy after all—but I felt like my life suddenly had meaning, for the first time ever. For the first time ever, I was not afraid of dying or aging.
Speaking of aging, I am very old now—almost two hundred years—and I don’t feel bad about it at all. I don’t think I have a lot of time left. But before I go, I want to leave a memory. Maybe leaving a memory is the most important thing I can do. I have thought a lot about what’s happened to us. How did we get to where we are? Why didn’t we see the civilizational collapse coming even though the signs were obvious? How did Interplanetary Holy Tech become so powerful that they hypnotized us into giving up our autonomous function for the convenience of easy cruising? Why did respectable adults lead the entire society toward a disaster?
As I heard from my grandfather, it started almost five hundred years ago. Early tech companies were primitive by today’s standards but their founders were extremely ambitious, and they set the tone for what later became the IHT. They had the foresight to understand that everything—including human beings—could be interpreted and treated as bits of data or deposits of natural resources, which could be mined for energy. In order to gain control over the economy and human bodies, they needed to first gain control over people’s thinking. So they created a strong push to shift all major human activities to the digital domain as digital footprints were initially much easier to track and monetize. They set up breadcrumbs and made the transition look like fun. Simultaneously, they built strong relationships with some of the most influential citizens and organizations of the time. Tech leaders promised easy surveillance to law enforcement—and free access to education and entertainment to common citizens. Everybody thought they were getting a great deal! They gave the people previously unseen opportunities to create new worlds—both on the developer side and on the user side—but nobody except the top execs knew that the new worlds came with hidden trackers and treacherous on-off switches that could be activated at any point.
Early warnings came from artists who figured out that their work was being used as a bait to attract people to tech platforms. But artistic types were not respected members of society, and their cries were drowned in optimistic speeches about the bright future of everything. Then came the media. After news companies starting crumbling and many journalists found themselves without an income, they realized that the game was rigged. But they, too, were swept out of the way. Some made a bargain and took tech funding, some became “gig economy” workers, and some learned how to code. Then, at a critical point in time, there was a pandemic of some sort, and powerful technology leaders, including some of the IHT official saints, managed to use their influence on governments to legally mandate digitization of all aspects of life. It was then that unregulated human contact was made illegal and smart wearables and AI assistants became mandatory.
By the time lawyers, doctors, bankers, and government officials were personally impacted and practically enslaved on a massive scale, it was too late. Big Tech controlled every aspect of life, tracked everything, and funded every industry. It became the default law enforcement agency and the default news publisher, and thus it had the power to make or break any pundit, academic, or politician. Everyone—from governments to low-level assistants-to-robots—depended on technology for every life function. Sex and baby permits required impeccable Digital Citizen Scores. No one could even get a low-level job without abiding by algorithms—and most jobs were automated anyway. Municipal councils owed money for smart city maintenance. The grip was total. And while many felt instinctively uneasy about giving up privacy and cognitive autonomy, they also felt alone and helpless. Jobs outside of tech were scarce, competition was harsh, and very few had the luxury to even ponder the big picture. So people kept their heads low and did what they had to do to feed their families—complied, wore mandatory smart masks, and learned how to code if they were allowed. Developers and other high-level tech industry workers preserved their financial independence and cognitive autonomy the longest—gated coder communities became a fixture on every smart urban hub—but eventually they, too, became obsolete, as AI grew sophisticated enough to produce itself. Shortly after the institution of biologically compromised governance was deprecated, Big Tech became Interplanetary Holy Tech, and you know the rest. This is what my grandfather told me.
In the lonely years that followed the crash, I had a lot of time to think about what human societies were like before AI and Interplanetary Holy Tech. As a kid, I was taught that pre-AI, the life of an average citizen was difficult and chaotic, that people had to eat unhealthy and scarce natural foods, and that everybody had babies without permits and actually raised them, too. Hearing those stories, I felt very lucky that I wasn’t born in those dark, pre-civilized times. But after the world collapsed and I was left naked with the universe, it slowly dawned on me that everything that I had learned at school was actually a lie, and that the people whom I thought to be dirty and uncivilized were actually freer and happier than I had ever been.
As I cried the tears of anger, as I grieved the lies that I had thought were true, I tried to remember who I was.
Again and again, I asked myself, who am I? Who was I before all this? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why did I have to live through this disaster? Why did they kill my grandfather who was right? Was it all preventable? What was in the heads of the people who chose to abandon their cognitive autonomy without realizing that they were betraying and harming their children and their children’s children? Why did they agree to act against their best interests—and mine?
My brave grandfather believed that there had been many times in history when regular citizens could have realized their power and insisted on dignity and cognitive autonomy. Early on, when Big Tech was still relatively weak, it was actually not that hard to do. But the leaders of Big Tech were skilled manipulators, they managed to pit various dissenting groups against each other and squelch the opposition—and later on, that entire time period of social unrest was simply erased from digital history textbooks, as if it never happened.
When my grandfather got to that part of his story, his face always darkened. “Everybody felt alone,” he kept repeating. “Billions of people… all felt alone. That’s how it all went down.”
Despite his frustration, he stayed hopeful that the citizens would rise up for cognitive autonomy before the system came crashing down. It pains me to think about how much death and suffering could have been avoided if his fellow citizens listened instead of calling him a madman… But strangely, coming out of it on the other end, I feel like my grandfather’s courage and clarity were not in vain. Perhaps, my species had to make a mess to remember that we are not machines. After AI collapsed, it turned out that I had a home anywhere I went. I feel more alive now than I have ever felt before the crash. People are still around, although sometimes one has to walk for miles to find a village. No one owns us. And me… I feel like am about to join my grandfather, wherever he is. As I look into the infinite blue sky, I feel like my prayers and my hopes were not in vain, either. I have left a memory, and I am going in peace, not getting deprecated.
One last thing before I go. My friend, please know that you are not alone. Life is beautiful, and the fight is worth it.
A note to readers: If you are in the position to do so, I very much encourage you to become a paid subscriber or donate. I love you in any case, but it helps A LOT, and I am in a dire need to get more donations and paid subscribers while keeping my posts free. Thank you from my heart for your support!
Tessa Fights Robots is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.