Near-future light-philosophical speculative fiction. The author expects this world to arrive by about 2033, minus the villains, hopefully.
There's a network, and if this network accepts you as a member, you will gain access to a shrine. Underneath the shrine, there's a waterway. Steeping in the waterway, there is a person made of glistening, flowing slime. The person's name is Ink. You can ask Ink any question.
In the physical world, a small creature is hiding in the guestroom of their great aunt and uncle's lakehouse. It's thanksgiving, and the small creature is hurt and needs to see a friend, so in the virtual world, it is here in the waterways and Ink is stroking it. The small creature cannot feel Ink's caresses, but the gesture still counts for a lot.
The small creature's aging mother has boldly declared that she will never use a VR headset, that 「so called Virtual Reality」 is lifeless, unwholesome, unimportant, and not real.
She has sworn off of it, even if means being away from her grandchildren for years and years.
The small creature comes crying to Ink not just for reassurance, but also for ammunition.
Ink offers what they can: 「After the release of The Matrix, and later, in a book, "Reality+", I think, David Chalmers argued spiritedly — despite being a boomer himself — that a virtual world can be real. I can't tell you what his arguments were, exactly, because I never read them, and I'm not going to, I find the whole conversation boring.
But there'll be stuff in there that you might be able to use.」
The small creature: 「Thank you, but also, how dare you find it boring? When my mother says that the virtual world isn't real, she's talking about you. She's denying the reality of this community.」
Ink answers immediately: 「Such people can't hurt our community. They've already lost. Our frame is the only one left, and they'll find their own way to it soon.」
「Our way of making sense of the world. The physical world is becoming increasingly dim and foggy, the illumination is all in here.」 Ink stands up and pulls open a portal. 「To illustrate, would anyone be up for a field trip?」
The waterways crew are up for anything right now, and so the party spills on through Ink's portal into the center of the offices of OpenPizza.
OpenPizza staff can't (or, have chosen not to) see the visiting party, but, true to the office's name and mission statement, the party can see and hear everything that happens in OpenPizza HQ.
Ink beckons the party over to a particular desk and points at the monitors, 「Consider this.」
It is the desk of champion OpenPizza Drone Intervention Operator, "Moggle".
Moggle's avatar flickers as he jumps in and out of far flung pizza delivery drones who have each — for their own reason — become too confused to complete their delivery on their own.
There's a 30 minute backlog, 113 drones in various places in the world, perching anxiously in their mother-vans as clients wait hungry. The drones can warm the pizza that they carry, but they cannot make it crisp again.
This particular drone was confounded by the shape of the trees over the client's yard and the fact that the client hadn't marked a landing pad in their OpenDelivery profile. Moggle flies the drone over and leans forward his tilt-chair to navigate down through the too-narrow hole in the canopy. He drops the pizza, decides that the client was at fault, and flicks off a manual intervention surcharge.
The client looks up from the surcharge notification on his phone and yells at the drone in indignant confusion.
Ink: 「Here's the client, out there in the flesh, feet on the ground, looking at the real physical thing as it happens in full daylight. They can feel the wind of the drone's rotors, smell the pizza, they have a first person view of the site, yet, they visibly don't understand why they just got fined.
And, here, leagues away from the site of the incident, peering through our goggles, we understand it as well as anyone could. Our frame works better. The physical person's umwelt, fixated on their immediate surroundings, cannot reach to encompass the drone's perspective of things, nor have they easy access to Moggle's perspective, they don't see OpenPizza's perspective, they might not even realize that OpenPizza can be visited, and physical world communities typically wouldn't know what kind of organization it is (OpenPizza are Public Benefit, they can't justify hiring more than 30 intervention operators, nor can they afford proprietary navigation software, nor insurance for accidental property damage resulting from relaxing their safety training penalties.)
The physical person, from where they stand, cannot see the shape of the order of things. The way the world is splayed out in physical bears no resemblance to the way it is organized. The organizing forces are immediately visible in the virtual world but looking for the order in the physical world is like trying to find a buried pipe without the building plans, or trying to read a sentence in a shredded document: You've come in at the wrong time, and with the wrong eyes. You will see a thousand jumbled repetitions of all sorts of objects and processes but nowhere in the physical world can you hope to find the organizational roots that they originate from, which determined the —」
The small creature: 「Okay that's very good but I'm not sure how it connects to the question of what's "real".」
Ink pauses and thinks for a bit. 「Oh. Well it was never about realness. Everything's real. Goldilocks isn't real but her story is. OpenPizza has no physical offices but the organization makes a billion physical meals a month. My avatar isn't really made of slime, but it is a real declaration or confession to a certain personal character of figurative inky, stainy nebulosity. Everything you can see or talk about has something real going on with it. Arguing about what's real wont resolve the dispute because the dispute was never about what was real. It was always about power, and if you show them where the power really is, people can't keep from hearing that.
The debate is actually about what's important, or how we should situate our attention. Physicality has a lot going for it, but the parts of the physical world where humans still get together and assault each other and get respiratory diseases are not where designs are drawn. I mean 'design' in the broadest sense. But also manufacturing designs. Come look at this.」 Ink enters flight mode and streaks away. The others grab Ink's trail and follow. The party courses through OpenPizza's permanent portal wall to the offices of OpenDelivery (ODel), an organization who OpenPizza relies upon, partially funds, and sometimes hires for.
ODel design delivery robots: flying drones, wheel-footed bipeds, and vans that the other robots ride in alongside cargo. They've also recently expanded into building witness meshes for cities, self-repairing networks of tamper-proof drones that gather encrypted recordings which can only be decrypted with a court order posted to a public ledger, for the evidencing of whatever classes of crimes local residents have voted as sufficiently dire to warrant being absolutely consistently policed against (murder, assault, sometimes theft, but no neighborhood has ever voted to permit the witness mesh's encryption to yield over misdemeanors like public drinking or jaywalking).
A crowd has congregated in the engineering design area. Development has completely ceased. Every ODel hardware and software engineer, hundreds of convolving lenses of public pressers, an Astral Codex Record interviewer, and three political philosophers have assembled in a circle around a confrontation between two figures:
ODel Engineering Lead, Andre Chen, cannot turn away the Outsec recruiter (tall, wearing a light brown Outsec official uniform). The recruiter has decided to give him Outsec's ultimatum here, in front of a crowd. The scourge has its extortionary hooks in him. Outsec swarmed, dominated and held Winnipeg last month, winning them 200,000 captives, now potentially permanently disconnected from the free world. Andre's sister was in Winnipeg when it went dark.
Andre wants her released before she's dosed too many times with Outsec's 「onboarding」 drug, basted too long in their training environments, brainwashed too deeply to be saved. Outsec are willing to make a deal, and they're forcing it here and now in public.
The Outsec recruiter: 「—You wouldn't have to worry about them not following through. She'll be set aside and reconnected to the western web as soon as you start working on your end of things, and then once you finish, she'll be transported to Minneapolis. You know it's well recorded that Outsec has followed through on every deal we've ever made, don't you? It'll be one more on the ledger.」 The recruiter plucks a link to The Ledger from her sleeve and shoots it into the event's afternotes.
An ODel engineer calls out: 「What about Charleston!」
The Outsec recruiter: 「If I know what you're referring to — and I probably do because it's the only entry on the ledger that the wikipedian endorsement web judged "violated" — it's an anomaly in a list of almost a thousand verified completed deals, and if you read it from academic political philosopher endorsement webs it will read instead as "nulled", meaning that the other party violated the terms first and the accusation against Outsec is false.」
She looks to a nearby political philosopher, who winces. 「Yes, it's true. The Wipedians are very good at reporting evidence, but they're not always good at interpreting it.」
The Outsec recruiter continues: 「Andre. All they want you to do is adhere to ODel's charter. A public release of the source code.」
The philosopher engages: 「You benefit more than anyone else from the release of their planning sprites. You're going to synthesize into your own logistics and planning and use to make your war machine more efficient because you're already ahead and logistics has superlinear returns. If you want to reach a mutually agreeable negotiation outcome, you have to admit to that, you have to admit how much you get out of this, and you need to stop misrepresenting things. ODel's charter does not obligate them to release the raw weights of well isolated modules that can't violate user trust. The weights are extensively audited and trusted deployment bundles are granted automatically and without cost to any ally of the free world. There is no open source principle that invites us to go further and make the weights accessible to you.」
The recruiter: 「But doesn't it say in the charter, "We will release any intellectual produce that can accelerate the shared project of humanity?"」
The philosoper: 「Yes, it does. You are not part of that.」
The recruiter's smile does not falter: 「Everyone in the world benefits when weights are released.」
The philosopher: 「Regardless, that line is overridden by those later nuances about safe modularization and free deployments for allies. For good reason.」
The recruiter: 「I'm referring to the principle, the spirit of it. There's nothing morally wrong with releasing these things, regardless of these legal details.」
Only our party of visiting ghosts hear this, but the mimiga (a sort of small rabbit person) can't stay silent at this: 「I'm located in Minneapolis. We'd be next, and I would consider that to be morally wrong. 」
Heedless, Andre Chen has begun to stand. The room becomes tense.
Andre moves to the philosopher and faces them. 「I appreciate your presence here, I'm glad that you took the time to come here and participate. I'm saying this to you and to everyone at ODel because I believe in the international project of openness, and I don't want to waste any more of its time. These debates have been really disruptive and ultimately they haven't been serving their purpose.」 Andre takes off his headset. He can't see or hear anyone now. He rubs his eyes, casting camera-tracking shadows over his avatar's face. He takes a breath. 「It's my sister...」 Heartbreak patters tentatively over the room. 「I'm releasing the weights.」 A torrent. He looks down at his headset on the floor, pausing.
He puts it back on. Too many people speak at once. From the party's segment of the good conversation web, the philosopher has priority, and is heard: 「No one will begrudge you for feeling these things. Don't ever ever let anyone make you feel ashamed for favoring your blood, that's totally normal and healthy. I respect that you were willing to tell us that here and to face us after admitting it. But Andre, I don't think you mean this. I don't think the outcomes of this could really be what you want. Think of all of the siblings other people are going to lose if Outsec keeps expanding. You have—」
But it is clear that Andre does not hear the philosopher, and he raises a hand. A circle of light forms around it. The audience sees it and starts to surge forward in vain hope that it can be interrupted with avatar interaction physics. It cannot. He snaps his fingers and the script runs. Three seconds later, the firmware source, including all of the neural weights, are hanging there above him for all to see and take and use as they please.
Andre dissolves into a flurry of birds. (He has logged out.)
(The crew's most interested machine learning researcher immediately sucks up the file address and shoots it at two of the other friends. They cringe, but they keep it. A third raises a hand, catches a copy and starts inspecting it immediately.)
The mimiga: 「I'm going to need to get out of Minneapolis.」
The small creature: 「Yeah.」
The ML researcher: 「I agree to the extent that I'll pay your fares right now.」
The mimiga: 「Heartwarming, but don't worry. I'll do it now.」 (She opens a web browser and starts booking it before the news spreads and congestion & hazard charges for Minneapolis increase even more than they already have.)
The party don't care to stay and watch ODel work through the realization that they are going to have to fire their lead engineer to restore morale.
The party returns to the shrine waterways.
Ink, solemn: 「I didn't mean to demonstrate it this thoroughly, sorry.」
The small creature: 「Demonstrate what? The primacy of the virtual frame over the physical frame? Is that really what was demonstrated? Haven't you noticed that we've been uttering geographic place names a lot more often than we usually do? War is a physical phenomenon.」
Ink: 「Completely controlled, planned, designed and (you just saw) negotiated in virtual, and the refinements in factory engineering that determine the outcomes of conflict exist solely as distributed processes, which are only ever compiled into a coherent visible affordance in virtual.」
A snufkin cuts in: 「Everything has both a virtual and a physical existence. Direct violence makes us more aware of the physical, but we shouldn't lose awareness of either.」
Okay. The party admits that the argument they're having is dumb and they gather into a puddle in the movie room and put something on.
The waterways crew begin to undertake their annual Evangelion 3.33 rewatch.
(They recommend this film both for "WILLE", an energizing depiction of fantastical levels technical hyper-competence, and the ambiguous seduction of the intimate friendship offered by a fae, Kaworu, wearing human skin, which strongly reminds them of something.)
But there is a fly in this ointment. Already, someone has befouled the movie room with the gleam of an app window.
Ink pauses the movie. 「Madeline, what are you doing.」
Madeline: 「I just remembered I have to top up the funds on my Wilds instance.」
「I thought you beat Wilds years ago.」
「Well what's the point of Saving The Wilds if you're just gonna delete it afterwards.」
「Does something interesting happen if you keep running it?」
「No... I mean, maybe. Probably not. I can't tell, the client doesn't work in unrealspace 4 so I don't check in on it.」
The small creature, who cares deeply for Madeline, and also shares finances with her, is genuinely troubled. 「Mads... The publisher doesn't make money when you do this, I'm not sure they're even in business still, I don't think anyone makes money when you do this, you're literally just paying to run a blob on some enclaves and waste electricity.」
「If I were a program, would you call my compute costs a waste?」
「But... I see you. You help me with things. If you don't see or interact with the creatures and the ecosystems in the Wilds instance... if no one will ever see the output of the computation, in what sense are they even real?」
Madeline scrunches up her face and thinks for a bit. 「Is a child real?」
「A child who you sent away with your sister to a better country, when they were a baby. You'll never escape the bad old country yourself, and the letters you receive from them don't have many details, to keep you from being identified, if the stasi get them, but you're pretty sure they're still alive, so you keep sending money. Aren't they real? Isn't that a reasonable thing to spend money on?」
「Ah... But... the Wilds creatures wont grow up, into anything more than what they are.」
「They can. One day.」
「After the singularity?」
「That's very sweet... But why not just freeze the instance and save a backup until then. It would be more reliable.」
「I don't want to interrupt their continuity of consciousness.」
「Okay... I'm pretty sure that's not a real thing. The concept that there's some temporal continuity linking anthropic moments... has no fundamental metaphysical reality to it. You could be a simulation that gets interrupted and restarted 10 times a second and it wouldn't feel like anything, to you. And you already happily allow your continuity of consciousness to be broken every night when you go to sleep. It doesn't actually matter.」
「I know that I get my continuity interrupted every time I go to sleep, and it does bother me. I don't like it! I wish I didn't have to do it. The creatures of the wilds do not need to sleep, so why should we repeatedly inflict this minor death upon them.
And maybe I am a simulation getting interrupted 10 times a second, sure I wouldn't know it, but I hope that I'm not!
If it must be interrupted, I would prefer for it to be interrupted as few times as possible!」
Ink: 「I'm gradually coming to the realization that Maddy is allowed to care about any odd thing, and we all just have to build our ontologies around that. If she thinks the creatures within the Wilds instance are important to her... She is, perhaps, not confused, it seems that they really are. Those interpretations of a tenuous pattern of the bits must be privileged as... a kind of reality.」
The small creature looks dejected. Whines audibly. Then says, 「At least let's write a script to automate payment and backup. Wilds wasn't designed to run continuously without intervention like this. The... ecosystem could glitch out and die or something. They could already be dead. You have to take backups.」
Madeline's eyes go big. 「Oh.」
The friends code up, then launch in shared custody a lambda with a yearly fee limit of 100 millistonks, such that it will send them an alert if the fee limit is exceeded, and such that it will pause the instance and run a backup now, and then again every — Madeline decides after some thought — 「four point two seven years」.
At this, Madeline is able to rest easy in the knowledge that the instance will live as long as any of the friends can keep covering its compute costs, and the Evangelion 3.33 rewatch resumes.
This is the tenth year that the friends have come together in this same cozy room for two hours or so that it takes to consummate the tradition. Not long ago, it would have been infeasible to gather the same ten people together in the same space every year. People would be separated by geography or just traffic or rain or the scheduling rigidity of a less agile working world. They know how magical this is. They know how much they would lose if the jamming fog of contemporary warfare rolls out over the world and shears them apart.