“Some of you have talked about watching government,” said one of the Bighead women. “I’m going to Congress, the hallowed halls. You all know I’m an elected official in town, happy to work in local government. I’m curious to see how things get done elsewhere, particularly in Washington. I’m sure there are stories there waiting to be told, including some that congresspeople and their staffs will hate to see become common knowledge. As you know, Vassal, keeping those stories quiet is one reason they haven’t bothered you.”
* * *
“I have a similar research project in mind,” said one of the men. “Vassal’s bugs are going to be everywhere in our lives. People won’t bother feeling bothered by them. They’ll assume someone may be watching them any time, and accept it. That will allow researchers, including amateurs like me, to study people much more freely.
“We’ll collect data about all kinds of things. Some will be what we would now call too personal. It won’t be just people’s age, gender, education, politics, religion, health, marital status, places of employment, buying habits, preferred entertainment, and other things we already collect. It will include people’s sexual preferences, finances, prejudices and biases, values, taboos, approaches to child-rearing, views about crime and punishment, and so on—everything we can think of, collected by observing people without their knowing. It’ll be unfiltered, with no limits.
“We’ll gather that data about almost everyone, in every country. We’ll compile and publish it almost as fast as we get it, maybe broken down by community, region, nation, and other sociological and demographic divisions. Our goal will be to generate all kinds of statistics, for whoever is interested. That may influence things or not. That won’t be the point. The point will be just to have the information available to anyone who wants it.”
* * *
“I bet there’ll be a lot of that,” said Jimmy. “It will breed a lot of awareness of who we humans are.”
For a few moments, no one spoke.
“Anyone else got a plan to talk about?” Jimmy asked.
“OK, Vassal,” he said, “that’s an idea of what we’ll be up to aside from our work with you. We’ve thought of much more, too, and it’ll keep growing. The things people can do with your invention are pretty limitless. It’s going to produce an immense amount of information.
“As some of us have told you, we’ll be reporting to each other and the public about what we find directly. We’ll also keep your electronic eyes and ears open to what other people find. Some of us will devote ourselves to being a clearinghouse for all that. We’ll aggregate, curate, and edit data from all over, about all kinds of subjects, and we’ll share the results with anyone who wants to know. Other people and organizations will be doing that, too, of course: newspeople, academics, special interests, experts, would-be experts, and others who take it upon themselves. The more of that the merrier, as far as we’re concerned.
“We’ve thought of so much to look into. Gang, tell Vassal and The Reverend Professor here some of the other things we’ll be observing either on our own or with other people. So far, we’ve given him only a small sample.”
“We’ll spend some time watching people being born,” said someone.
“. . . and dying”
“. . . and falling in love”
“. . . getting tortured”
“. . . and raped”
“. . . surviving car, train, and plane wrecks”
“. . . buses falling off mountains, pedestrian and bicycle accidents”
“. . . people getting told by their doctors that they have a terminal condition”
“. . . and living out their lives with those conditions.”
“We’ll watch soldiers in battle, and commanders commanding them”
“. . . and police in difficult situations”
“. . . and social workers, detectives, parole officers”
“. . . people committing suicide”
“. . . all kinds of perpetrators and victims of violence.”
“We’ll watch people in prisons, and getting arrested, put on trial, and getting sentenced.”
“. . . innocent people dying in wars”
“. . . terrorists terrorizing . . .”
“. . . and tyrants tyrannizing.”
“In general, we’ll observe people’s trials and tribulations, and how they deal with them.”
“. . . and people making decisions and carrying them out”
“. . . spending money”
“. . . and lighter things like having fun, taking vacations, romancing, socializing”
“. . . at the best parties and the worst”
“. . . people being kind, generous, wise”
“. . . helping old people and kids”
“. . . and acts of hate, discrimination, selfishness”
“. . . and doing regular things, like Jimmy said a while ago: going usual places, interacting with each other day by day.”
“There’ll be trillions of moments broadcast from everywhere,” said Jimmy. “Many will get recorded. As I was saying, we’ll generate them with our own bugs and by watching and listening through other people’s bugs. In addition, people will send us things they find. All of that is going to keep us very busy. On top of which, as you two know, we’ll be looking after the website for you, handling messages that people send you, and minding the store. It’s going to be fun for us and it’s going to be work. We’re looking forward to both. We’re grateful for the opportunity. We’re glad that we’re your friends.”
A few more exclamations emerged from the group, then some applause, another earsplitting whistle, and a surge of chatter.
* * *
A voice rose above the rest, of a woman who had not spoken yet.
“I’m going along with the rest of you about all this, but—“
The chatter subsided. She continued.
“Like all of us, Vassal, I’m happy that you’re doing what you’re doing. I see good that can come of it, such as help for people who need help, and fun for all—easing of burdens of all kinds, as you were saying, Jimmy. We’ll all be glad to contribute to that.
“But in many ways, as you know, what you’re giving to people will not be good, not helpful, and not fun. It will bring as much burden as easing of burdens. People will have trouble because of it, and feel anxious. As you and Jimmy have said, the net effect will be the same as for any new wonder device—namely, no improvement. We all know that. But I’m not sure we’ve faced up to it as much as we should.”
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t send it out. I just want to put these thoughts of mine out there. We should fully acknowledge the down side.”
For a moment no one spoke, then Jimmy replied.
“As you say, we like to ease people’s burdens. You can tell that from things we’re planning to do with Vassal’s device. And we won’t be the only ones doing things like that. People all over will be trying to make the best of all kinds of situations. As always, there will be no end to people’s needs, which will never be completely satisfied. They’ll be no more satisfied after Vassal’s invention arrives than before.
“You’re also right that for all the good his invention will do, it will also bring trouble. No more of that than ever, but still, trouble is trouble. And at first it will be unlike anything anyone has seen before. There’ll be unique problems and challenges.
“The reality will be different from what we anticipate. Whatever plans we make at this point won’t be what we end up doing, not quite anyway. What we expect will happen won’t be what happens, maybe not even close. There’s a saying that the map is not the territory. Until we’re living with the new reality, we can’t know much about it.
“So, we can’t see ahead as much as we want to, or as much as we feel we should. All we can do is the best we can, and that’s what Vassal, The Reverend Professor, and the rest of us are doing. Like everyone, we’re forward-looking. Inevitably, that is colored by what we hope for, even though we know that what people hope for is never what actually occurs. And that’s okay. Or, as Vassal would say, it might as well be okay.
“As he says, what we call the future has to be like that. If it weren’t, we humans wouldn’t be what we are. If we didn’t butt our heads against that difficulty, our lives wouldn’t be worth living. And in addition to difficulty, we’d have less fun. We’d have less to laugh about, maybe nothing to laugh about; we’d have nothing to laugh off, nothing unpleasant, uncertain, unfortunate, or confusing to feel better about.
“Our ideas of what the future may hold are just that—ideas. What we think is ideal doesn’t come true. That gives us plenty to lighten up about, to laugh about and poke fun at. We can do that about almost anything, as we in our clan pretty much do. It’s a way of acknowledging and inhabiting the down side you were talking about, of living with it. It’s as good a way as any, too. Or if it’s not, then it doesn’t matter because we’re stuck with it and don’t know any better. We can’t not make fun of things. We wouldn’t even if we could.”
“Absolutely not!” said one of the other Bigheads.
At that, a quartet of Bigheads sitting side by side threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and sang a quick sequence of No’s and Nopes, pitched from low to high and back again, over and over, tootling like a riff from a steam calliope. Everyone laughed.
Vassal leaned to me.
“The circus is definitely coming,” he said.
* * *
Jimmy turned and caught Vassal’s eye. He seemed to be about to say something, but Vassal spoke first.
“How about you, Jimmy? What are your plans?”
“I suppose I should take a turn about that,” Jimmy said. “They’re what you’d expect. As soon as your bugs start flying everywhere, I’ll make my usual rounds, traveling the airwaves and the world as the eminent commentator that people think I am. I’m sure I’ll get even more attention than usual, since what’s we be happening everywhere will be so earth-shaking, and since I’m a friend of you two and have played a part in this escapade.
“I’ll publish articles, too, some of which I’ve already begun to write. One will be an op-ed in the Times, I expect, probably on the first day. And there’ll be essays and interviews in dozens of periodicals, newspapers, and news sites. They’ll all want me, which I can handle. I’m sure you won’t mind if I post some of my wisdom on the website, too, maybe anonymously—just add more spice to what will already be there.
“Also, groups will have me speak to them—my usual mix of professional and political organizations, business and civic associations, think tanks, the college and university lecture circuit, and so on. That could last for months, years, who knows. I’ll do what I can, and I’ll enjoy it. As usual, I’ll have plenty to say and I’ll be happy to say it.”
“Do you have any favorite themes so far?” Vassal asked.
“Mostly the obvious ones. Like you and the Reverend Professor, I’m interested in how people think of themselves and how they act, both as individuals and as social beings. Your bug is going to confront people with some big issues. Privacy and solitude will be among the biggest. Once your bug hits, those will never be the same.
“Both of those are social constructs with a history that not many people know. That history goes back to the ancient Greeks and beyond, possibly to before the first living cell. What we reveal of ourselves, intentionally and not, and what we try not to reveal—either to ourselves or each other, or to governments, businesses, and so on—is already changing fast. Look at the spread of social media these days, and the time we spend with them, the sharing and opening up we do there, and the surveillance and data mining that come back at us as a result. We involve ourselves in that to advance our wellbeing and that of people we care about. We feel that we have to do that; we live in a fast-paced and crowded world. And starting a few days from now—on the day we’ll be releasing your bugs, Vassal—things are going to start changing faster and more profoundly. At least, that’s what people will feel and think. So, look out, everybody!”
The other Bigheads stirred.
“Heads up, all of you!” cried one. “Incoming is coming! Run for cover! Into your bunkers, shelters, foxholes, whatever you’ve got!”
Several jumped up, ran a few steps, and sat back down.
“Shall I ramble on a little more?” Jimmy asked. “As I often do.”
“Please,” said Vassal.
“Everybody knows that privacy and solitude are personal constructs as much as social ones. I’m sure I’ll be talking and writing about that. We all have a sense of our autonomy and agency. We cherish what we think is the inviolability of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. At the same time, we have communal values and depend on communal protections. We distinguish between the personal and the communal, and we strike balances between them. As I was saying about social media, technology has reduced the difference between the personal and the communal. Your device will reduce that difference even more. But it will still be there.
“There’s a history of that balancing act, which I expect I’ll talk and write about. There’s a quote from the late 1800s that I love. I found it years ago, not long after you invented your fly. You probably know it. In several written opinions back then, Judges Brandeis, Warren, and Cooley addressed what they called our right to be left alone. Brandeis wrote, quoting Cooley, ‘Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”’
“That’s more relevant now than ever. Since then, many of those sacred precincts have been overrun. More have been falling all the time. And now… When everyone gets your bugs, there may be no limit to where the barbarians within us will go, and what we’ll do when we get there. The self is more violable than people think. It may be totally dissoluble. We seem to be heading that way. I’m not sure people care to stop that, either, or that they should. Anyway, I doubt they could if they wanted to.
“Obviously, your bugs are going to take getting used to. With my public platforms, I should be able to help people with that. A daunting task. But I won’t be the only person doing it. We all will. One way and another, for good and for ill, we’ll all try to keep our species on track. There’s going to be much to do and talk about, for all of us, me as much as anyone. I get more ideas every day. I’m sure I’ll be going on and on about it, as many people will.
“Here are a few last things I expect to do. As you’ve seen, people who pay attention to me tend to be involved in public affairs. For them, I’ll be discussing topics like personal and governmental responsibilities, and the rights to secrecy and privacy I was talking about, and the uses and needs for surveillance, and so on—the public/private balancing act I mentioned.
“Then there’s voting. What’s going to happen for those of us who—unlike you—do that? I suspect that once your bugs get around, the secret ballot will become a thing of the past. Anyone will be able to know how any of us votes, no matter how we may try to keep that private. Anyone who wants to will be able to learn all our beliefs and opinions, or most of them. Whether we like it or not, we’ll share those along with everything else about us.”
He looked at Vassal.
“That’s what I’ll be doing, big guy, or some of it, or something like it. I look forward to it, however it goes. I’ll have plenty to work with, and I’ll have you to thank for it. As we’ve told you, all of us Bigheads have been getting tremendous satisfaction from what you’re doing, and we’re about to get a lot more. And worse than that, too, as the lady was saying to us. It’ll be life in all its glory, as you sometimes say. We’ll get the ups and downs and good and bad in their usual measure. They’re bound up in each other—or identical to each other, as you believe. We’re glad that you’re taking such a shot with your invention, Squeezeshot. A big shot, very big. Fire away, sir. Shoot your load. Right, gang?”
The other Bigheads roared their agreement. Several, including the woman who had spoken, pounded their hands together and chanted, “Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun!” The others joined in, clapping their hands, slapping their knees, and beating on the floor. After a moment, Jimmy bounced to his feet and into the circle, barefoot and barelegged as usual, flouncing in his white tutu. At midcircle, he placed his feet in first position, raised a hand over his head, and turned it palm upward, as if he was about to perform one of his celebratory one-armed handstands. Then he seemed to think better of it. He lowered his arm, glided back to where he had been sitting, and, with a glance toward Vassal, sat down.
Seeing that, the others blinked and quieted down. They looked at Vassal. He spoke.
“As I told you, the slaves I’m talking about include all of us, not just poor unfortunates. It includes the people who will use my device and the people who won’t.”
A few of the Bigheads scratched themselves, or fingered their hair.
“Sometimes we think things can be better than they are—better for us and other people, other creatures, and our planet. As you said, Jimmy, we think things could be ideal, even. In every waking moment, with every thought and feeling we have, with every breath we take and thing we do, we sense what would be ideal. We prefer no less. We want no less. We really would like to live in a Heaven on Earth. We feel that only perfection is good enough.
“But we discover again and again what we already know: perfection is impossible. As you also said, Jimmy, the situation we’re in is never ideal. That frustrates us. In my view, it enslaves us. But it’s also funny. As you said, it prompts our humor and pleasure.”
He raised the fingers of one hand to his forehead and drew his fingertips across it. He seemed to be thinking of more to say. Then he let his arm fall to his side. He looked around the circle.
“That’s enough from me, folks. I’ve said what I can. Thanks again.”
He looked at me and shrugged.
“Too true, Vassal,” said a Bighead.
“Brutally honest,” said another.
“And silly, in the best sense.”
“And funny. Very funny.”
“It’s how things are, and we know it,” said Jimmy.
A few in the group giggled. No one moved. There was no more nudging, leaning, scratching of itches, or fingering of hair. Finally, one of the young men looked up, thrust both his fists into the air, and cried out: “To arms!”
That broke the spell. The Bigheads turned to their laptops, mobile devices, and each other, and resumed their work, cheerful as ever.
YOUR RESPONSE INVITED
We invite readers who have used Vassal’s invention—or who will or may use it—to tell us about that. What have you done with it? What do you plan to do with it? What are you thinking of doing with it? Reply to info(at)squeezeshot, etc.. We may publish some replies anonymously at the Squeezeshot site, perhaps including yours.
Might an end to our slavery ever come, by any means, Vassal’s or any other? If he or anyone succeeds in freeing us, we will no longer feel any need for relief, salvation, enlightenment, or other easing of burdens. We will have no further use for our notions of sweet hereafters and promised lands. The music, song, and oratory that have come of those, and delivered us so much consolation and inspiration, will no longer resound in our places of worship and assembly. Our shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise be!” will never again ring with the old jubilation. They will be faint echoes at most, reverberating in ritual service to our memories, no longer as present necessity.
We will neither recall worse times nor want better ones. We will have no use or capacity for humor. Nor will we have further need for prayer, either to beseech divinity or to give thanks, or as meditation, to anchor our thoughts and calm our nerves. We will feel no desire for anything. We will have no wishes, no hopes. We will have arrived in Heaven, Paradise, Utopia, and all of their like, never to depart. We will have reached all the sweet hereafters and promised lands, achieved their perfection and made it our own. We will have entered into them and made of them our eternal homes.
In other words, we will have ceased to be human. That is impossible, of course, and Vassal knows it. In speaking to the Bigheads about freeing the slaves, he was joking. As he told them, freeing the slaves can be no more than a nice idea. Beyond that, as a reality that we might experience more fully, there is a problem with it. It is a problem that everyone can sense, one that abides in the root and fiber of slavery itself. The problem is us, all of us. If we could free the slaves that we are, we would not be what we are.
According to all evidence, none of us will ever inhabit any heaven that we do not inhabit already. No matter how great our faith and desire, or how firm our resolve; despite our craving for uplifting stories; notwithstanding the myths and sentiments that pour like baptismal floods from our pulpits, podiums, lecterns, classrooms, news and entertainment media, and other platforms; and despite our noble ambitions, extraordinary capabilities, and praiseworthy accomplishments; there can be no good reason or non-reason for us to believe that we will ever get any closer than we already are to living the ideal life. This, here, now, is all that we have, all that we have ever had, and all that we will ever have. The world as it is, our lives as they are, is all there is of Heaven.
Vassal observes that we are all enslaved, some of us subtly, some horrifically. There is always something we want that is within our view but beyond our grasp. Acquiring all that we want, or achieving what we think is ideal, remains no more than possible. That impossibility condemns us—enslaves us, as he puts it—even as it inspires and impels us. Our urge for better, and the results of that urge, will not change, not until some unlikely development incorporates, transforms, or mutates us into beings (or machines) as perfect as we imagine.
The odds against that happening are long, probably infinitely so. Of our species’ myriad possibilities, random selection may somehow select that one, which may then proliferate. Or some lone inventor, a future Vassal Squeezeshot, may tweak our minds or muck with our brains in a way that accomplishes that. Or it may come of a group effort, a product of privately or publicly sponsored research and development. Or it may arrive from elsewhere, and take us over, delivered by the hand of a beneficent god or extraterrestrial being, or as a consequence of some incident elsewhere in our universe or multiverse. Or such perfection may simply make itself known to us, having been present to us as an idea we have not formed or a reality we have not recognized. Almost certainly, however, except in the experience of visionaries like Vassal, and in the fantasies of us all, nothing like that will ever come about, not by any means, including his invention and its descendants.
* * *
A few days ago, he said to me, “My all-seeing, all-hearing buttinski of a device can’t make things much better for anyone, no matter how I spread it around and no matter what people do with it. Some people won’t agree with me about that, of course. They’ll think that it can help just by existing, and that they and others can work wonders with it. As I’ve told you, Victory and I thought that, too, for a while. When you start to use it, it can give an incredible sense of power and control. It can tempt you think that perfection is at hand, or radical improvement at least. But all it can do is accompany us on our usual ways.
“It is just something to work with, another tool in our toolboxes, another representation of our hopes and desires. We have paths that we follow, projects that we undertake, goals and pleasures that we pursue. Those turn out as they always do. Each of us is bound for glory, and we know it, but no matter how we go about it we don’t get there. We can’t. Except fleetingly in our imaginations—in our fairy tales and other stories, our orgasms and epiphanies, our most thrilling thrills and highest highs, and our other moments of greatest happiness, peace, enlightenment, and seeming realization—we cannot get closer than we already are to achieving what we want.
“And that’s fine, a fine prospect, glorious enough to keep us going. As Jimmy said the other day, without our futility we’d experience none of the good stuff. Our situation is at once ideal and less than ideal. That’s no problem; it’s just how it is. Such are our enslavement and our freedom. No matter who we are, how we live, or what happens to us, we get as much of the good stuff as possible. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Also—same thing—it might as well be.”
* * *
He has also described that to me in other ways.
“What if all us slaves are free already, with no further progress either possible or desirable? What if how things are right now, no matter how bad, is Heaven on Earth for everyone? What if, from moment to moment, whether we like it or not, we are as happy, free, and all other good things as anyone can be? Isn’t that how it is for us? I’m afraid so. But not too afraid.”
There is a saying that the secret to happiness is to be already happy. Voltaire wrote, “Earthly paradise is here where I am.” Could Vassal be right when he says that imperfection, suffering, unmet needs, unfulfilled desires, etc. constitute an essential part of that paradise, a necessary component of our contentment? Or is that opinion wishful thinking on his part, a vain effort to make a virtue of necessity?
He says that it is both, that we are enslaved and at the same time as free as free can be. Freedom, he says, entails never being altogether free. He observes that the gap between the real and the ideal motivates us to feed our hungers and thereby temporarily fulfill our wishes, meet our needs, and survive. He also notes that our desire to bridge that gap is the soul’s as well as the body’s, our objectives both incorporeal and material, spiritual and physical. He says we can never satisfy that desire once and for all. We can only keep trying, as we all do. In his view, that real/ideal dialectic is essential to us. By our nature, we feel dissatisfied to some extent, and thereby remain not only as free as can be, but also as happy as can be, and as loving, loved, and so on through our catalog of the positive. So it is for us. There is no escaping that.
Around we go in a frenzy
Voracious but without appetite
we sever our limbs then continue
a swelling sphere of destruction
with no regard for the body’s
end our own or any other’s
In the blur of blades we
serve as butcher
If I were the only
or one less
would be different
another world and moment
But I am only
one of the only
no different from
all the rest
Vassal believes we will never be able to remove or even loosen the chains that bind us. They are part of us, he says. We are stuck with them. In his view, our every perception displays to us our urge to be free, and at the same time demonstrates that our freedom can never be complete. Our attempts to free ourselves of that limitation can only fail. Such is freedom, he says.
That may be so. Tortured as I sometimes feel, however—a victim of anxiety and depression, including mine, everyone’s, and everything’s—I sometimes wish for better. Vassal, too, like anyone, hopes for better. But he also knows better. He anticipates that for many people his invention will play a role in that.
“It will satisfy only as all things do, as all satisfaction does. That is, it will deliver us our usual rations of joy, pleasure, contentment, and the like, and also our usual pain, suffering, disappointment, and other bad stuff. Like everything, it will help keep us mindful of both the good and the bad. The two belong together. They define each other. You can’t have one without the other. In many ways they’re the same.”
The human condition, even at its worst, suffices for us, as it must. Our chains remain in place, but—to borrow (or steal) further from Duchamp—our problem with them is also no problem at all.
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