Manna – Two Views of Humanity’s Future – Chapter 8

by Marshall Brain

If you have not read chapter 1 yet, please start there.

I woke up as if I had taken a light nap. No grogginess really. Everything was completely normal. Linda was sitting in a chair nearby with her eyes closed. She was reading her email or walking around in virtual space, for all I knew.

“Did they do anything?” I asked.

She opened her eyes. “Yes, of course. They put in the whole Vertebrane system.” She said.

“Where is it? Nothing is different.”

“It’s there,” She said. “It defaults to pass-through mode. Now you have to learn how to use it. That will take a day or two. I’ll take you over so you can start training.”

It turned out to be incredibly easy to use. And once you learned the basics, it could do an amazing range of things. Just like Linda had said, you could use the Vertabrane system to talk to people anywhere in the Australia Project, to get answers to any question from the network, to play totally immersive games. You could meet with people in VS, and some of the meeting places were quite bizarre. You could meet in weightlessness in a space station. You could meet underwater. You could meet while walking under the canopy of a redwood forest. Linda’s favorite “place” to meet was flying through the air, like Superman. In her Virtual Space, you could fly in the traditional arms-forward Superman pose, or you could stick your arms out and use them like wings to control your flight. Or you could ride on a flying carpet. The flying sensation was remarkable.

You also ordered everything through the Vertebrane system. You could try on clothes, see and taste food, try out products, choose housing and vacation options. It made shopping incredibly easy, and you knew exactly what you were going to get.

The funny thing was that Vertabrane was like every other technology I had ever used. During the first couple of days it was miraculous. Each new feature was surprising and amazing. But after a week or two you got used to it and it became a part of your life. Think about any technology — the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the refrigerator, the home computer… These were all miracles the first day people saw them and used them, but a week later they were pass�. By the end of orientation I didn’t even know Vertebrane was there — it seemed completely normal to me.

One thing I did think about more and more was the security of this whole system. Computers had been plagued with bugs and viruses since the beginning, but the Australia Project seemed to suffer from none of these problems. One day I asked Linda about it.

“What’s to stop someone from taking over the system and turning us into an army of zombies?” I asked.

“I’m no engineer,” Linda said, “But here’s the best explanation I’ve heard. Why can’t someone take over your brain?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why has no one ever been able to take over billions of human brains and create an army of zombies that way?”

“Well, it’s inside of me. How would they take it over?” I replied.

“Why can’t they just upload a program into your brain, and that program takes over your brain and turns you into a zombie a minute later? Why does that never happen?” She asked.

“Because there is no way to ‘upload’ a program into my brain. And my brain does not execute programs anyway. It is not a computer.” I replied.

“Yes.” She said. “Everything you learn comes in through your eyes and ears. It passes through your conscious mind one piece at a time, and your conscious mind evaluates it. Then your conscious mind ‘executes’ the things you learn consciously, thinking about each one. If someone were to try to teach you to cut off your own arm, your conscious mind would reject that as ridiculous when the lesson came in, and your brain would certainly never cause you to cut off your arm except in the most extreme situations. The Vertabrane system is operating in the same way. It is learning things, not running programs. It acts consciously rather than being ‘programmed’, and it has a far more rigid moral code than most human beings do. The Vertebrane system never blindly ‘executes’ a program, so it cannot be taken over. That’s true of all of the robots here. The Australia Project would have collapsed long ago if this were just a bunch of computers blindly executing code that humans had written. That is how things were in the beginning, or course, but we advanced beyond it fairly quickly.”

Once Vertebrane was installed, orientation became much easier. Everything happened in VS and we covered a huge amount of material over the remaining five weeks — the economic system, government, voting, housing, credits, travel, crime, punishment, rules, interpersonal interactions, referees, education, ordering things, designing new things, news, awards, social responsibilities and so on. There were lessons on the nine core principles, what they meant and the effects they had on the community as a whole. There was a lot of emphasis placed on treating other people with respect, and understanding the basic humanity of the people around you.

It was very interesting to compare this new world to the world I had known all through my life. The biggest difference, of course, was the economic system. It had effects on everything — the psychology of people living in Australia, the way people worked with each other, what people bought and why, the level of innovation, the way resources were allocated, etc. One of the more interesting features of the economy from a psychological standpoint was the fact that no one had more than you did, or less, and everyone knew it. That removed entire layers of negative emotions. The fact that you could have pretty much anything you wanted, anytime you wanted it, meant that you placed far less importance on material things. You would expect that, given essentially free access to everything, people would go nuts. Actually, the opposite happened. Suddenly there was no condition of “want” or “envy,” so people had no need to show off.

This will sound surprising, but one of the bigger differences was the lack of advertising. The robots did not care whether you bought one style of clothing or another, ate in one restaurant or another, lived in one kind of housing or another… It was all the same to them. Therefore, there was no need for advertising. If a fad caught on — whether it was a song, a book, a style, a pair of shoes, a restaurant — it all happened by word of mouth. And everyone knew that. If you tried something and it was good, you told your friends about it.

Innovation was incredibly interesting and important, and in orientation we discussed it extensively. I had never really thought of innovation as a part of society. Here it was actually something that people thought about and talked about as part of the “better and better” principle. But the reason for the discussion was surprising.

What became clear after several weeks is that a big part of the Australia Project was living, and understanding what living meant to you. Perhaps for the first time, a huge group of people had the freedom to decide exactly how they wanted to live their lives, and then make it happen. A big part of orientation was helping people realize that fundamental feature of the Australia Project, and help you work through the questions. It reminded me a little of the process of setting an animal raised in the zoo free in the wild. If you’ve been caged your entire life, actual freedom is a completely new experience.

Every single person in the Australia Project was different, and no one focused on one thing exclusively, but there were some general patterns. Some people chose to focus their lives on friends and family. For example, lots of people with children wanted to spend time with the kids. Many others had extensive networks of friends and spent much of their time with friends socializing in a variety of ways. Many people loved to travel, and spent a great deal of time traveling to different parts of the country and the world. Some people enjoyed art — music, writing, painting, sculpture, dance, etc. — and spent a great deal of their time at their art. Athletes spent their time training and competing. For each different person, a different type of lifestyle brought fulfillment.

A surprising number of people found fulfillment in creating new things — inventors, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, designers, architects. In the Australia Project, these people could find true fulfillment. Because of the “better and better” principle, the Australia Project set quite a bit of its resources aside to help people interested in innovation. All “known” product categories were under constant improvement. All unknowns were being researched.

For example, take any “known” product — shoes, clothes, food, housing, furniture, appliances, housing, restaurants, parks, etc. People were constantly coming up with new ideas to make them better and better. For example, if you came up with a new style of clothing, you would submit it and the robots would put it in the catalog. There was no way to know whether your new style would resonate with 100 people or a million, and the robots didn’t care. The only way to find out was to let people have access to it. If someone had a new idea for a restaurant, the robots would simulate it and ask 1,000 people about their level of interest. If there was any interest at all, the robots would try one copy of the restaurant out. If it took off, they would make copies of it in different regions. In this way, restaurants were constantly changing and improving. The same thing was true of housing — there were thousands of housing styles, and you could move whenever you felt like it. If someone had a new way of doing things, the robots would try it out.

Another thing that helped innovation was the elimination of profit. In the Australia Project, the robots made everything and delivered it. The only “price” for anything you wanted was for the resources consumed. The robots could make one copy or a million copies of anything in the catalog, and they did not need to make a “profit” from any of it.

In a profit-driven society, a huge range of innovative products never saw the light of day because they could not make a profit. A technology or a product had to have enough people using it to cover the costs of the people working on the product, the advertising, the legal bills, the rent, etc. That meant that a lot of people had to be using a product in order to bring the price down to a reasonable level. In the Australia Project, that restriction was eliminated. There were no advertising costs for example. Production and resources were free. Anything that anyone could conceive could be produced, and it would reach its natural audience. The size of the audience did not matter. This meant a much wider range of products and services.

There was a relatively small but highly regarded segment of the population that got its fulfillment from fundamental scientific research. This is the kind of research that figured out things like fusion power, the origin of the universe and new materials. Throughout history, these people had never worked for monetary reward as their primary incentive. They worked instead for the joy of scientific discovery, and for peer recognition. This was the same kind of thing driving the open source movement at the turn of the century. The Australia Project encouraged the creative work of scientists, engineers, programmers, etc. by devoting a large block of the resources to them. They could work in groups or individually, and they could work in their personal areas of interest. Because the scientists and engineers had the resources and freedom to work on whatever they wanted, the creative process accelerated. The intellectual playground offered by the Australia Project was perfect for them.

In this way, each person in the Australia Project was able to seek and find a truly fulfilling lifestyle. Those who wanted to lounge around all day did so. Those who wanted to answer the mysteries of the universe did that. If you decided you wanted to completely change your lifestyle at any point, you could do that too.

One of the more surprising divisions in the society was the difference between the Vites and the Peas. There was a very large group of people who, given a choice between the virtual world and the physical world, preferred to live their lives virtually. They were known as Vites. Burt, for example, became a Vite — completely virtual. He lived his life almost entirely in the virtual world. Vertebrane took care of everything physical for him — Eating, showering, using the bathroom, exercising. This freed Burt’s brain to connect to the virtual world 24 hours a day.

Because of their lifestyle, Vites used practically no resources. All they needed was a little space to live in, room to exercise, some simple, healthy foods and water. Nearly every minute of their lives was spent in virtual space. When I spent time with Burt, it was always in VS.

The other half of the population lived mostly in the physical world, and used Vertebrane as an accessory to their lives. We were known as Peas. Linda, Cynthia and I were Peas. Linda’s preferred mode for getting together was in virtual space — She was hooked on flying. But for the most part, Peas spent a majority of their time in the real world. They met people, traveled and lived their lives in the physical realm.

After orientation, I got to spend a fair amount of time with Burt in his virtual world. He showed me around his favorite places, as well as new spaces as they became available. The big news in the Vite community was “Vite racks”. For a Vite, the human body was a distraction more than anything else. Vite racks gave Vites the chance to discard their bodies. The brain was all that remained, and it consumed just 2.5 liters of space on a rack. The big advantage of a Vite rack was longevity. Current research was showing that the brain could last decades longer if it was maintained and managed in the optimal conditions of a rack. When a Vite wanted to enter the physical world, he or she could have his or her brain loaded into a variety of robotic bodies. But Vites rarely if ever needed a physical presence. The research was probably 4 or 5 years away from perfection, but it was going to be a huge development once it was complete.

Personally, I found the whole idea of a Vite rack creepy. I kind of liked my body. In fact, I liked everything about the physical world that made up the Australia project. After looking through the thousands of housing options available and touring many of them, I settled on a lifestyle that surprised me. There was a community set up to mimic many of the features of the original town of Williamsburg. People worked together to build their own houses, grow their own food, make their own clothes, practice simple crafts and trade with one another. The people living in this town were wonderful — honest, industrious, friendly, down-to-earth. The things we did together were simple and straightforward. I could still visit my friends in virtual space when I wanted to, but I often kept Vertebrane in pass-through mode for days at a time.

It was amazing to me that technology had brought us full circle like this. I was living in the most amazing civilization known to mankind. As a species we had conquered nearly every want or need of the human condition. Food, water, clothing and shelter, as well as every imaginable type of entertainment or endeavor, were available in such abundance that everyone had a nearly infinite supply. Technology had advanced to the point where I could take an elevator ride to space, and was nearly to the point where my brain could be removed from my body so I could live a completely virtual life.

But with all of this technology available, I choose to live my life by setting time back 300 years and living a very simple, completely physical lifestyle. I grew my own food and built my own simple house with my own hands. I was able to be a kind grandfather to dozens of children in the village, to make clay pots in the sun and to grow flowers in my garden outside my bedroom window. I was as happy and fulfilled as I ever had been at any time in my entire life — my life was perfect, because it was exactly the way I wanted it to be.

Giving each human being the freedom to reach this level of deeply personal contentment was a remarkable achievement.

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