On societies and their running

It is my first day on this assignment. Something about a librarian function, whatever that is. These six month rotations were tedious and I am looking forward to my first free one in three years just coming up. As I walk through the central plaza in city five there’s a crowd chanting something in the distance. How unusual, don’t these people know how to spend their free rotations on the beach or something? What could there possibly be to protest?

  • Hello, I’m Frank, here for a rotation with the head librarian - I say after checking the scrounged up paper I received from the head office.
  • Take staircase B up to level 3 and enter door number 7, that will be your workstation. The head librarian will meet you in about 20 minutes.
  • Thanks!

This is a pretty bland place to spend the next six months, just a desk, half a window and an empty book case. So much for this being a library, I thought there would at least be a few antique books or something. I get a full node to access apparently, that should make it a little less tedious. I don’t have access yet though, so I guess I’m just supposed to sit on my hands for 20 minutes.

  • Hi, I’m the head librarian, you must be Frank.
  • Frank Silver, here for my rotation.
  • Good, there’s plenty to do around here, and my last helper was a slacker.
  • There is? I’d just like to get through my work. My next rotation is a free one. What could possibly be to do in a library? I don’t think I’ve seen a single book or memory pad anywhere.
  • We’re not that kind of library.
  • What other kind is there?

Here the librarian cleared his throat and prepared for what seemed like a long explanation. He was a balding forty something with a fairly bland figure. Nothing in his features, demeanor or wardrobe had stood out when I first saw him. And yet suddenly he now had one of the most intense looks I had ever seen on anyone.

  • We don’t deal with books here Frank. We’re not archivists or archaeologists or any other kind of dwell-on-the-past busyworker. Here we deal with the future. We’re the only source of innovation and progress this society has. Without us free rotations will turn into extra rotations.
  • How do you innovate in a library?

This clearly set something off in the mind of the librarian. I’d struck a nerve somehow and he was visibly fuming. But after a few seconds of silence he calmed down and put on a look I hadn’t seen since my first grade living basics teacher.

  • As you know Frank the second half of the twenty first century was a first grade mess. The global warming catastrophe ravaged the world, first through natural disaster, then through war, and finally through the unraveling of the industrial basis of the economy.
  • Yes, we’re all taught that in school - I said because he looked at me as if he needed confirmation to keep talking.
  • As you also know Frank we’ve only barely gotten our crap together a full century later. Our total agricultural and industrial output is still well below the peak but we’re now much better at managing things. We can now comfortably feed the total three billion population without much problem. Which is why you get your free rotation once in a while. Tell me Frank, do you know how this free rotation of yours is even possible?
  • Everybody knows, I think. The Zang and Turnbull equations solved economics for the first time, and we’ve since been able to get a balanced society.

Now the librarian was rolling. He had a smirk on his face and was clearly enjoying himself.

  • That’s a neat little explanation but it’s not even half of it. It’s what we tell school kids and voters so they don’t dig too much under the surface. No Frank, Zang and Turnbull didn’t dig us out of this one. They did write their famous equations and “solve” economics. But that in itself doesn’t accomplish much. We were, and still are, in a much deeper hole than that. The fact that our industry was shattered would only have been a passing problem if the source of our production capacity wasn’t itself a problem. There simply was no way to build ourselves out of this one. Pouring more concrete and burning more oil would only speed up the destruction of the ecosystem and our own extinction. No Frank, we needed something else, we needed ideas, good ones.

He was in full rant mode now, twinkle in his eyes, all his sentences ended with an exclamation. Since he had made a pause for effect I figured I’d keep him going, I was at least half curious of what this nutjob was on about.

  • What ideas were those? And what does any of this have to do with a library?
  • Rapid Carbon Capture Frank. Magneto Expanding Propulsion Frank. And Twin Fusion energy to power it all. Without all of these inventions and their application we wouldn’t be talking right now Frank. None of these would exist without the Central Library. We just don’t have the willpower for invention anymore.

He was visibly excited now, but I still had not clue what he was on about. I had learned about most of those technologies before. They’re inventions of our new industrial base, triumphs of the post-scarcity society. They’re the reasons I get free rotations and boring 8 hour jobs like this one, instead of working the mines, the army, and the fields like my parents and grandparents.

  • I still don’t see what the library has to do with any of those.
  • Ah Frank, here’s what you’re missing. At the end of the twenty first century our industry was broken but our computing capabilities were at their absolute peak. For the first time we could simulate entire worlds and see what would happen in far fetched scenarios. As long as you had the energy for it, and that wasn’t always easy, you could do with computation what our society no longer could, invent, project, dream. Initially we just ran simulations from our own starting point, to try and figure out the climate and how to win the wars. But we quickly found out it was a fool’s errand. All you got through that slog was slightly better ways of managing the mess we were already in. We needed something new and that’s when the first head librarian started the program.
  • What program? There must be thousands of programs in our society.
  • This was the original one, the one that saved us. The head librarian had the brilliant idea to go back in time in the simulations. To start the societies at the beginning of the industrial age, even before. He then built scenarios where some of our advances technologies were discovered earlier and with that solved the path dependence problem. Instead of simulating in great detail what was to come he came up with what could have been.
  • How does that help? Doesn’t that just give you glimpses into societies that did better than us? Even more macro-level indicators of how depressing our own choices have been? We’ve had enough of those to know we screwed up.
  • There’s nothing macro-level about these societies Frank. We simulate every single human being within them. Each of them have thoughts, motivations and desires. And with those plus the natural hope that exists in a functioning society comes intuition, and most importantly invention. These people are coming up with solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had. Zang and Turnbull gave us the math Frank, but these people gave us the means to act, the actual solutions to our problems.
  • If this is so important why is this a secret?
  • There’s no secret here Frank. I wouldn’t be telling you if there was. Most people don’t care but all of this is public. Didn’t you see the crowd outside?

It had been an hour already and I had already forgotten about the crowd outside. I still had no idea what they were protesting but maybe it had something to do with these virtual societies then?

  • I saw them when I came in. They were pretty angry. What’s that about?
  • Most of them just disagree with the idea of keeping whole societies inside computers. They think there’s some kind of practical difference between our physical universe and a full simulation of a physical universe. Such is the poor state of education that we even have this discussion.
  • Seems kind of metaphysical, not really my thing.

He made a strange face after I said that. A mix of being intrigued and maybe a little disgust.

  • That’s the exact attitude that makes these virtual societies our only salvation. This post-apocalypse and then post-scarcity society has made everyone too complacent. As long as you have your creature comforts and as long as you have your free rotations Frank you’ll never invent anything. And there’s way too much that needs to be invented. There’s no one left with any fighting spirit in them.
  • If that were the case, there wouldn’t be a massive protest outside your door. Why are they so feisty in protest if our society is so complacent as you say.

Here he paused and looked at me intensely. He seemed undecided on if to keep going or just ignore me.

  • The simulations run until they self-destruct or they themselves invent post-scarcity economics and become useless. At that point we terminate the simulations. The feistier ones in the picket line, the ones that actually know what’s going on, are protesting supposed genocide.

I had to pause to take in what he had just said. Processing through it made me gasp for air a few times. It took me a minute to gather my thoughts and reply back.

  • You yourself said there’s no difference between a physical world and full simulation of it. How can it be anything but genocide? Why don’t you just let the societies run their course?
  • That’s what the picket would want, but it’s just not possible. We have enough simulation capacity to run roughly one hundred societies at once, and we can run through a full timeline, from invention of agriculture to single-planet collapse in about 2 days. Post-scarcity societies are a little less complex but only by a factor of three. If we’d let the post-scarcity societies keep going we’d run out of simulation capacity in only a few months.
  • So it is genocide. It’s just convenient?
  • You don’t get it Frank. Our whole survival depends on it. For us to be able to have a post-scarcity society within the mess that we’ve turned the planet into, millions of other societies must be born and die. Their only possible outcomes are death by their own hand or mine. Their inventions and achievements live on in part, replicated in our society in industrial and agricultural progress.

At this point I’m more inclined to join the picket than to keep on listening, but he isn’t even looking at me anymore.

  • If I don’t do this Frank. If I don’t follow the path of the great librarians that came before me our society will perish. Within each society they get a great existence for a while, and a whole universe to do whatever they like. In society 2576XN01857 they call this the Great Filter, the fact that everywhere you look around in the cosmos they’re the only sentient society that’s around. We give them a good playground, they pay us back, it’s only fair.