Prompt: “You find yourself in an alternate universe where mathematicians and scientists are ruling the world.”
“Beep beep beep.”
I woke up with a start. Clearly someone had replaced my alarm clock and it’s wrenching buzzing sound. Frankly, however, I was glad: the gentle beeping seemed to rise and fall to wake me up in the most gentile way possible.
I made a mental note to talk to my roommate.
Then forgot the mental note as I looked around the room. It wasn’t just the alarm clock that had changed. The entire room had changed; the bed was clearly softer but somehow firmer where I needed it. The room itself was in shades of blue; a calming color which somehow made waking up easier. A dresser sat in the corner with my clothes laid out. In the adjacent bathroom, I heard the shower automatically turn on.
After taking my shower and getting dressed, I could smell the smell of breakfast and I followed it to a small apartment-sized dining room. It had been neatly laid out: oatmeal with a touch of brown sugar and some fruit slices, and a couple of strips of what smelled like bacon but what looked like some sort of turkey substitute.
If I had died and gone to heaven, I thought, then I’d need to talk to God about the food. Because breakfast without two eggs and a side of pork sausage and coffee? Nope.
As I finished my bacon strips (which didn’t taste all that bad, considering), I heard a knock on the door. “Come in.”
Inside my room stepped a man and a woman. Both appeared to be wearing white coats, and one carried a clipboard, scribbling notes. The woman asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Where the hell am I?”
Another room, painted white. A mirror on one wall, but I could see the faint glow of a couple of lights; clearly the mirror was one-way. Cameras were in the corner; if it weren’t for the comfortable chairs, tastefully appointed table and a small fireplace giving the appearance of a living room, I’d swear it was a police interrogation room.
Across from me three people sat; the woman from this morning, and two others; another man and woman, one typing into what looked like a small tablet computer.
The man started: “I wish to apologize for what is happing to you. Approximately once a month we select a subject from the alternate Earth in order to serve as a sociological control when making decisions for governing our world. If you like, we have prepared a short video on the tablet next to you (gesturing to the table next to my chair, on which looked like a much thinner iPad Pro), which will help explain much of what is going on.”
The video seemed narrated by the same guy who voiced Darth Vader. He explained that in the late 1400’s, the House of Plantagenet united determined to bring about a better world. The War of the Roses never took place; instead, the Renaissance was spurred on as the rulers of Europe turned to the wisest advisors they could find to help them make better laws. These scientists, mathematicians and philosophers helped to provide a framework which led the entire world to a new era, one where people are healthy, happy and live in peace and harmony.
To bolster these points, images of clean cities crowned with tall, white smooth buildings slid cleanly by. There were no cars; instead, the cities appeared to be designed around a walkable inner core, and mass transit points leading to other cities and to countryside parks and manufacturing facilities. The air seemed clean, the clouds puffy and white, and the video concluded with faces of smiling, happy, multiculturally balanced array of people, all seemingly happy and healthy.
The video ended.
“I’m impressed,” I responded at the end of the video.
“So let us start with the questions,” one of the women asked.
She held up her own tablet, and an array of pleasing pastel colors showed on the screen. “Which color makes you feel productive?”
“If you found yourself in an office cubical, which one of these colors would make you feel more productive?”
“I still don’t understand the question.”
“That’s okay, we’ll come back to that question.” Swipes finger on tablet, another array of color choices comes up, deeper and ranging from black to dark rich reds and blues. “If you were buying a bicycle, which color would you choose?”
“Wait, why are you asking me?”
“Because we wish to compare your choices against test subjects from our own world, in order to draw a correlation between color choices and their ability to satisfy emotional needs.”
“Why don’t you ask the people who live here? Why not give them a choice?”
The man, who had been watching our exchange, frowned. “Choice is irrelevant.”
“We have achieved our high level of peace and wealth by the scientific method, not through the chaos of the marketplace of individual choice.”
I stared at the man across from me, dumbfounded.
I was staring at the floor in my well-appointed interrogation room. After a long pause I slowly looked up. “Why do you say that choice is irrelevant?”
“Just that,” the man smiled. “We found long ago that if left to the people’s own devices, the long array of small choices they make often lead to larger choices. It’s what you would call the ‘butterfly effect’; one person’s discontent with the size of his room leads to a group of people expressing discontent over some other imagined failure–and that eventually leads to groups of people rebelling, which eventually leads to war.”
He leaned forward to drive his point home. “We know, for example, the series of wars your people fought over the past 500 years: the genocides, the exterminations. We have largely avoided these failures, the extinction of the Native Americans on your home continent, the pogroms against the Jews, Armenians and Gypsies in your Europe. And we’ve done this through the careful scientific study of people, to limit choice to those things we have proven to maximize happiness, health and productivity.
“Take, for example, our cities. We have determined that the best way to organize our cities is by increasing the walkability score of most neighborhood zones, to allow people to travel effortlessly to the restaurants or entertainment centers of their choice without having to use the self-propelled gasoline-powered engines of your world which are now choking your air, or the horse drawn carts which polluted your streets.”
I stopped him. “How do you know so much about my world.”
“Centuries ago, an accidental discovery allowed us to open a portal to your world. Since then we have been observing how your people live, borrowing inventions from your world and expanding upon them, perfecting them to allow us to improve the health of our own citizenship.”
“Wait, why do you need to borrow inventions from our own world? If you are lead by the smartest mathematicians and scientists of your world, why do you have to borrow inventions from ours?”
The man shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “This has been the subject of a century-long research project. It’s part of the reason why you are here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Our scientists don’t understand why technological advances take place in your world but not in ours at the same pace. It’s something we’ve been studying for a century, and it led us to pull people from your world as control subjects to figure out why there are gaps in productivity.”
I thought about the problem for a while, and hit upon an idea that I first encountered in college in an economics class. I carefully organized my thoughts.
“Have you considered your assumptions are wrong?”
“How so,” the man asked.
I paused, picking my words carefully. “Well, take your assumption about walkability scores. Why are walkability scores important?”
“Because,” he neatly responded, “they help increase the happiness of people by reducing the frictions of obtaining and maintaining individual transportation vehicles.”
“But on our world we have a car culture where people enjoy buying and maintaining their own cars.”
“Irrelevant,” he responded. Clearly he’d been down this line of reasoning before with someone else. “Our own cost-benefit analysis show the loss of a car culture is outweighed by the global atmospheric health of our world.”
“But how does that affect the square footage of the apartments in which people live?”
That stopped him for a second. The woman typing away at her computer looked up.
“That’s also irrelevant.”
“But is it?” I asked. “How much square footage do people in this city live in?”
“We reserve 100 square feet–around 10 meters square–per person in our city. But we’ve carefully appointed that space so as to make maximum usage of the space we reserve.”
“Do you live in the city? Or you?” I asked the woman who was previously asking me color questions. “Or you?” I asked the woman with the computer.
The man responded. “No; I live in an estate on the fringes of the city.”
“And how large is the apartment in which you live?”
“I live in a house.”
“Okay,” I asked, annoyed. “How big is the house in which you live?”
“It’s around 1,800 square feet.”
“Why do you deserve such a large house?”
The man shifted, uncomfortably. “It has been scientifically demonstrated that for people who are engaged in cognitive work, having lower ambient noise levels maximizes productivity. It also helps when raising the next generation of scientific leaders.”
He sat back and continued. “Don’t be surprised. It’s no different in your world. Do you see a lot of share croppers growing up to be CEOs, or children of factory workers becoming world-class scientists?”
“But that’s not the point,” I replied. “My point is, your assumptions are faulty.
“Take your assumptions about walkability. At the bottom of the stack of scientific research and reports you start with an assumption about how people would be happiest walking to work. You have no evidence that everyone would be happiest this way, and in fact, when I point out that some may choose to drive–and do so for the sheer joy of driving–you in fact dismiss it.
“But why do you dismiss it? Then you continue that people are living in compact living conditions even smaller than the most densely populated cities in my world, while you yourself don’t live under those conditions. I presume on the assumption that this is the most scientifically superior arrangement possible.”
I paused, visibly angry.
“Do you know why you have to borrow inventions from our world?” I asked.
The man simply stared at me.
“Because you believe choice is irrelevant. And in that simple assumption, that you can arrange your world in the most scientifically and aesthetically balanced way possible, you have eliminated centuries of individuals who choose to tinker with their world to make it better.
“Take the invention of the refrigerated railroad car which helps move food around the world. Did you know it was invented by the child of a fruit farmer in California?”
“Yes,” the man stopped me, “but if he had lived in our world he could have done so much more than just invent the refrigerated railroad car.”
“But did you invent the refrigerated car in your world? Or did you have to borrow it from ours?”
“We borrowed it, but that’s not relevant.”
“But it is!” I exclaimed. “You never gave your fruit farmers the choice to be something else.”
Our discussion was interrupted by what sounded like thunder in the background, loud enough to shake the building. The glow above the computer of the woman who was transcribing our interaction turned red, and she stood up and left the room.
“What was that?” I asked.
“A group of malcontents, don’t worry about them. We have a research project studying them to figure out how to increase their happiness.”
“No, I mean the explosion.”
“Oh, I suspect some of the malcontents got ahold of some explosives and set them off. Don’t worry; we are ready for them.”
“Yes. We should be able to clear out the bodies and repair the building we are in. But for your safety we’d like to get you back to your room and back into your universe.
“Besides,” he continued, “I don’t think you make a good study subject after all, given your own apparent sympathies.”
I smiled. “So much for your perfect, scientifically balanced world.”