It was back to normality. Omo, Flora and Nike sat in their rooms doing ‘productive’ work. Some more ‘productive’ than others of course. Omo was good at ‘productive’ work. He didn't like questions and didn't really care about answers so he was great at the daily tasks required by ‘productive’ work. His credit score rolled upwards. In contrast for Nike it was a constant battle to stop himself losing all the credits he'd just worked for by asking yet another expensive question.
Whereas Omo accepted he was part of The PROJECT⌂ and never queried either his own place in the system or The PROJECT⌂ itself, Nike would find himself in the middle of a batch of ‘productive’ work, thinking out loud, ‘So what is The PROJECT⌂ anyway?’
Which would start the knowledge bank credits rolling on the US™ screen
THE PROJECT⌂: Definition. A social and scientific experiment with a generation.
And he’d just wasted another 10 credits for no real information. Nike just knew it was a deliberate ULTIMATE® policy, designed to get as much ‘productive’ work out of everyone as possible. Whereas in a similar situation Omo would just accept and Flora would shrug her shoulders and look for another way of regaining credits, Nike preferred to look for a way to shortcut the system. Omo and Flora didn’t think, as Nike did, that questions could have a meaning. To them, the meaning was part of the system. You just played your part, did your ‘productive’ work and enjoyed the process. Because the more ‘productive’ work you did, the more ULTIMATE® would tailor the kind of work you did to your interests. That was your reward. Soon enough you didn’t feel like you were doing work at all. It was one long round of virtual consumption, offering more than enough to keep you happy for hour after hour.
But the rationale didn’t work for Nike because he refused to fit into the patterns. He was marked down as a system anomaly. Project Kids were essentially the guinea pigs of the ULTIMATE® consumer testing system. It was the biggest ethnographic study ever. The most comprehensive social engineering experiment since The Final Solution. Twentieth century consumer based computer survey systems were as nothing to this new ULTIMATE® way of achieving disclosure from citizens. And The PROJECT⌂ was the experimental forefront, the shop window for a whole new kind of citizen. It was creating people who lived only to produce and consume virtual knowledge, virtual memories, virtual relationships. They had become cost effective slaves who happily consumed their slavery and thought it the cutting edge in post democratic freedom. The promise was of everything tailored to the individual. Meanwhile the individual was tailored to the ULTIMATE® template of citizenship. Result? Perfect. All-embracing. Terrifying. And unnoticed.
For the participants, it seemed to be a really simple, really good deal. Project Kids were given a home and everything they needed to maintain a high living standard in the ULTIMATE® world. In exchange, their ‘productive’ work in the ULTIMATE® economy was open to constant analysis and scrutiny. The price they paid meant they got the best of everything, were first in the queue for new virtual experiences and were generally shielded and protected from the outside world.
In the outside world it could be a lot harder to spend your life in the pursuit of virtual consumption – you had to do a lot more work for a lot less reward. Most ordinary people still had to pay their way at least partially through some practical, real-time work. And in a world where the best was perceived as ULTIMATE® virtuality, people didn’t want to be condemned to a daily diet of reality. As ever, people wanted the latest, the best, the ULTIMATE®. The PROJECT⌂ was this desire made manifest. And currently only for the privileged few. Project Kids were told Just do your tailored ‘productive’ work and everything will be well. Okay to be in The PROJECT⌂ you had to give up your past and your family but you were getting the ULTIMATE® present and were a significant part of the ULTIMATE® future. Life didn’t get better than that, surely?
It was enough and more than enough for most Project Kids but not for Nike. He still felt unsettled by something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. And so he asked questions. About things he shouldn’t. In a world where History no longer had a meaning, Nike couldn’t help himself asking ‘historical’ based questions. And while ULTIMATE® prided itself on tailoring ‘productive’ work schedules to specific interests, you couldn’t stay focussed on history all the time. History was an ULTIMATE® no go area.
While Nike was coded a high-risk participant, in fact he was of great value to the ULTIMATE® system because his data tested the system algorithms to their capacity. Inevitably he was on a high priority counselling list which meant that his social counsellors were meant to monitor him much more closely than your average Kid. Which they did. So in point of fact Nike was more controlled than most Project Kids. Of course he didn’t know that. He thought he was playing the system and the system knew it was playing him. It was not a long term sustainable situation. It was like a very complex game of chess. For example Nike would artlessly ask questions such as, ‘When did The PROJECT⌂ start?’ and elicit the standard ULTIMATE® response,
THE PROJECT: History. The PROJECT⌂ started in 2016 though the seeds of its existence were developed in History through the many consumer based surveys and networks of the early new millennium. In 2016 ULTIMATE® technology through the 3 generation development of the US™ screen system brought about the possibility of setting up the virtual environment of THE PROJECT⌂ in a physical form for a selected number of the chosen generation.
What the standard ULTIMATE® response didn’t say about The PROJECT⌂ was that the selection process was rigorous in some very unusual ways. Ways which involved economic transaction. Project Kids thought they were special, chosen, but with no idea how they had been chosen.
ULTIMATE® took a pro-active stance as well, seeking out the ‘right’ kind of kids and buying them from parents who were struggling in a post recession era. The same parents were often using the newly legalized ULTIMATE® drug HABIT∞ to excess. It was the designer drug to end all highs and in the mid 20’s it put parents into the kind of debt that made refusal no option.
The early 21st century obsession with celebrity soon spiralled out of control as a generation who wanted to be ‘celebrities’ were offered the virtual opportunity through their offspring just by signing them up to The PROJECT⌂. Usually Project Kids were either the product of parental obsession with the celebrity culture or they were sold to feed their parents drugs habit. They were victims of the twin desires for money and fame. Not so unusual. Not so special.
Nike could keep asking questions till he was blue in the face, or ran out of credits on this ‘productive’ credit line, and he would never find the little nuggets of information that really gave the meaning to the subject. He could find out that,
THE PROJECT prides itself on the quality of its accommodation.
As an explanation of the Project House he lived in. Project Houses were modelled on the best student accommodation possible in the Universities they had replaced. Nike’s own accommodation had indeed been student accommodation at the now defunct University of Edinburgh. The information he’d worked to receive did not explain why this method of living was adopted. There was no explanation of why University had become a virtual consumer camp. It was the sort of question no-one, not even Nike, thought to ask. Everyone was kept so busy with all the meaningless questions they lost the will or the skill to ask questions with meaning. This represented one of ULTIMATE®’s better tactical advances. The whole relationship between questions and answers had changed since Einstein said ‘the important thing is never to stop questioning’ and Levi-Strauss proposed that ‘the wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.’ (That’s Levi-Strauss the French anthropologist not the manufacturer of the branded jeans.) ULTIMATE® had invested a lot of time and money in question and answer theory. And Project Kids were the testing ground for making sure that the population would only ask the right kind of questions to receive the ULTIMATE® answers. For example: ULTIMATE® had a vested interest that the question ‘Why do we have barcodes?’ would be rendered into a meaningless definition and ‘historical’ explanation suitable to the ‘productive’ work schedule appropriate to Nike’s developmental plan and, for the cost of some 30 credits, give the answer:
BARCODES: Definition. Primitive versions were developed in history as a machine-readable code in the form of a pattern of stripes printed on and identifying a commodity. ULTIMATE® developed this technology and utilized a form of tattooing to implant the coding into the body, thus making the interactive process between consumer and computer one-step and constantly available. ULTIMATE® barcodes are a fundamental tool in the US™ system, allowing what used to be a primitive wi-fi capacity dependent on hardware, to become fully personally integrated.
Nike got answers from his questions, but no substance. Although he might have thought he knew the ‘history’ of the ßß™ (body barcode), he didn’t know the meaning. And he certainly didn’t understand that it was the meaning that mattered. He lived with the practicality, accepting it as normal. In the ULTIMATE® world Project Kids were amongst the first to have the barcodes technology embedded into their wrists. In 2020 ßß™’s were generally considered a progression of the body art tattoo fashion which in 2014 had seen all the best Brands find ways to encode themselves onto your body in a physical manifestation of personal consumer choice. By 2015, going into a shop such as Marks and Spencer was easy when you waved your M&S barcoded arm at the security guard, who smiled and offered you a discount. You didn’t need money because the M&S symbol was scanned and immediately withdrew the money from your bank account. The days of real money were numbered. The days of reality were numbered.
ULTIMATE® changed the shopping experience too. Real shops were highly inefficient. Real products were expensive. A transition period saw all shops become more like Argos warehouses and pretty quickly the requirement to actually go into a shop and buy a real product became redundant as people could do all their virtual shopping for virtual product online. The basics were still produced of course, but when food became ULTIMATE® food and clothing became ULTIMATE® clothing and all brands became ULTIMATE® brands, retail ‘therapy’ changed in a fundamental way. Virtual retail therapy was born and flourished.
The ULTIMATE® ßß™, worn by the likes of Nike, while effectively a sophisticated interface device, also acted as a tracker. So as long as there was a US™ somewhere in the vicinity, you could tell where the Project Kid was. By 2030 the system had not been rolled out universally, but it was coming. And there was a time when people worried about carrying identity cards!
Project Kids had what might have been considered in the twentieth century the life of a permanent teenager. They spent all day every day playing online games or engaging in chat rooms, forums, online surveys and the like. Day in, day out they lived their virtual lives under ULTIMATE® scrutiny effectively functioning as guinea pigs for all the best and newest technology that ULTIMATE® had to offer. It was part of ULTIMATE®’s motivational algorithm. They were the geese who would lay the golden egg. But they were battery farmed geese, kept in a gilded cage, creations of a system it was no longer possible to question or challenge in a meaningful way. To ask, ‘why did The PROJECT⌂ come into being?’ would elicit the answer, at a price of 20 credits that:
The PROJECT⌂ is ULTIMATE®'s way of changing the world for the better.
After spending 20 credits of your hard earned ‘productive’ work on that, is it any surprise that Nike didn’t pursue with the question ‘Better for whom?’ It would be better for ULTIMATE® that's for sure. Nike was resiliently inquisitive, though lacking direction and focus. On a whim, when he tried to find out what ULTIMATE® actually was, he would lose credits for a whole hour’s ‘productive’ work for the answer:
ULTIMATE®’s mission statement is that social advance and scientific development go hand in hand.
When foolish enough to ask ‘What is a corporation?’ he got the standard response:
CORPORATION, OR COMPANY: DEFINITION. A group of people authorized to act as an individual and recognized in law as an entity, especially in business.
The question that should have been asked might be: ‘Correction. What is the point of a corporation?’ This was the kind of question the US™ avoided answering. Fortunately, before arriving at that potential scenario, Nike normally gave up on his questioning and went playing Intergalactic enemy warfare to raise more credits. The system won again.
Questioning a system has rarely ever been considered appropriate behaviour for members of that system. ULTIMATE® was no different and when Nike did it his actions were flagged up for Pryce to take special notice of. Which he did, usually. But just sometimes, Pryce didn’t take the kind of action he was supposed to in these circumstances. Because however much Pryce found Nike a pain in the ass, he also had a sneaking respect for his questions. Sometimes he even thought about using his higher level access to get answers with more depth. Not necessarily more meaning, but more depth. His rationale was that maybe he could impress Nike if he did so. He imagined the day when he might see a flicker of admiration come at him out of Nike’s eyes, instead of what he thought he saw. It seemed like pity or disdain but might just have been adolescent apathy.
Somewhat inevitably, the questions Nike started asking after his trip to his Nan’s wirelessly transferred themselves to Pryce’s system and flagged up ‘a referral’. The consequence was that Pryce had a situation to sort out. Again. Sometimes Pryce thought Nike just asked these questions to get him to come running. It felt like Nike was pulling his strings. He didn’t like the feeling. He thought about not going. But with Graham on his back, he thought it best to avoid any further potential problems. He didn’t need another dressing down this week. So Pryce trudged to The PROJECT⌂ House where Nike, Omo and Flora lived. On the short walk, he tried to develop an optimistic viewpoint, reflecting that at least he now had a purpose to his day’s work. The optimism didn’t last the distance of the walk however and Pryce returned to his prior conviction that it was just Nike jerking him around again after all. He had to stop deluding himself that Nike was giving out a cry for help, or call for comradeship. It was not a request for guidance, it was just Nike being Nike.
Pryce’s relationship with Nike was complex. He didn’t see himself as a father figure, after all families had been abolished but he nonetheless felt a special bond. Pryce often looked at Nike and wondered how similar he had been at the same age. Pryce had been obsessed with the twists and turns of the psychological “thriller” genre whereas Nike played ULTIMATE® versions of such games obsessively on the US™.
Yet Nike took psychological gaming to a whole new level. Sometimes it seemed to Pryce as if the boundaries were blurred. Pryce wondered whether life was all a game to Nike and his generation? And then he questioned whether he’d had any more of a grip on the distinction between fantasy and reality at that age. Or any age. Despite all the differences, in more subtle ways their concerns were quite similar. If Pryce and Nike had realised how much they had in common they would have been surprised.
Pryce had his own set of keys to The Project House. It was part of the deal that he could come and go as he liked. Privacy was not an ULTIMATE® concept. The kids were all in their rooms, as they should be, engaged in ‘productive’ work. Their existence was essentially virtual, contained in their own ULTIMATE® space. They didn’t have a scheduled meeting with Pryce due so they were not expecting an interruption. Not wanting to disturb Omo and Flora, Pryce went straight to Nike’s room. He did pause to knock on the door first. Even though it wasn’t in the handbook, Pryce was old fashioned enough to think you should have some respect for personal space.
‘Damn.’ Nike’s response to Pryce’s entry.
Nike turned round. ‘Oh, it’s just that I was about at level 24 and you put me off…’ Nike grinned.
‘No hard feelings?’
‘No, but you could bump me twenty credits for the inconvenience.’
‘This isn’t a scheduled meeting is it?’ Nike asked, finally wondering why Pryce was there.
‘No. But we need to reassess your ‘productive’ schedule in the light of the topic areas you’re asking about, because, as you say, you’re running low on credits. Again.’
Nike just grinned some more. ‘Can’t help asking questions,’ he said. ‘Is there a problem with that? I thought that’s what the task was. Ask questions?’
As ever, Pryce intended to follow the standard question format when he started his ‘productive’ interview with Nike. But as ever, it didn’t work out that way. Within seconds he had the uncomfortably familiar feeling that Nike was bending the interview his way. And it was taking Pryce all his energy to keep on track. Pryce took a deep breath, determined to stay in control.
‘So what is this line of questioning you’re following, about?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The questions about The PROJECT⌂ and ULTIMATE®? Why are you asking these questions?’
‘Because I want to know.’
‘But what do you want to know. And why? ‘
Pryce paused. Nike was just playing with him now. Probably just bored because he was low on credits and couldn’t interface with the US™ properly any more without doing some ‘productive’ work. And it seemed Nike was allergic to ‘productive’ work. He was a pain in the butt. Pryce shrugged away the small feeling of regret which suggested that if he had more knowledge himself, if he could have given Nike an impressive answer, he would raise himself in status and Nike would start to see him as someone to respect. As ever, he was confused by his feelings when he tried to analyse them. Maybe it wasn’t regret. Maybe he didn’t want to form a meaningful relationship with Nike, maybe he just wanted, for once, to beat him at the game.
‘Ah, it’s just because you think you shouldn’t? Just to be awkward. Do you have to be awkward? You are in a privileged position here, isn’t that enough for you?’
Like so many adults before him who wanted but didn’t know how to gain respect from young people, Pryce resorted to a tactic that came across as patronising. And was not going to work.
‘How do I know it’s privileged?’ Nike grunted.
Pryce wasn’t falling into that trap. He readjusted his position. He tried friendly, but again it came across as patronising. He really wasn’t good at this. He wished he was.
‘Look Nike, I’m here to help you. But we need to understand what your interests are in order to tailor your ‘productive’ work schedule into something fun for you and useful for us.’
Nike rolled his eyes. Same old same old. Except, for an instant he caught sight of an off guard Pryce. What he read in Pryce’s face at that moment was a man desperately trying to connect. Nike didn’t know how to interpret this and for a fleeting instant he thought that maybe Pryce found it all as much rubbish as he did. Was it possible Pryce might not be the enemy? Could they actually have something in common? But Nike didn’t have enough experience or understanding of empathy to create his own answers for these silent questions. He reverted to type. It’s a game. He’s the enemy. I have to win.
‘But Pryce, the problem is, I don’t know what I really want to know till I start asking questions, and then I never seem to get far enough along the questioning before I run out of credits….’
He saw a flicker of something beneath the counsellor calm. It could have been understanding. It could have been fear.
‘I think I get you,’ Pryce responded. It was just playing for time.
‘So what can we do about it?’ Nike demanded. Never one to sit back once he had the slightest advantage. And he read the situation as one where he could take the advantage if he was smart enough. So he did.
‘Uh…’ Pryce had lost his way.
‘Maybe if we went through a session together,’ Nike suggested, ‘so you can see my problem.’
Pryce thought about this. Sounded harmless enough. He was still trying to work out how Nike had changed the situation on him. He was supposed to be in control. He was the one who should make the suggestions. He gave up.
‘Okay. Shoot. Pick a topic.’
Nike hummed and haah’ed over the options on his US™ screen.
‘See, I might ask… what’s the point of a corporation?’
Pryce intervened before the question was logged.
‘No, you need to be more specific. What is the point isn’t a good question type.’
‘Uh… because it’s a few levels in and you need to start general and work towards specific.’
‘Oh. Okay. Can you show me?’
‘Yes. You are in the Functional section of your ‘productive’ schedule so you need to be asking about the existence and working of things, not their point or purpose. And you need to remember that you are asking Historical questions. Which you should avoid.’
‘Why?’ Nike smiled. He knew full well why.
Pryce was not going to be drawn on that one. He carried on, ‘For example, if you want to know what a corporation does, you might ask, ‘Give me the definition of a corporation.’
Nike’s US™ obliged.
CORPORATION, OR COMPANY: Definition. A group of people authorized to act as an individual and recognized in law as an entity, especially in business.
‘I hope that’s on your credits,’ Nike observed. Because I’ve already asked that question and I don’t know where to go with the answer.
‘Yes, these are all on my credits, for training purposes,’ Pryce reassured him.
‘Okay, then can I ask why?’
‘Why would you make a group of people able to act like an individual?’
‘I think that’s too deep.. you won’t have the credits to get there in one step and you’ll have to go through a lot of steps to get to the answer. It would be better to ask – what was the historic function of a corporation?’ Pryce forgot until it was too late he’d just told Nike to avoid questions on History.
CORPORATION: Historic Function. To act in the best interests of its shareholders. Specifically in maximizing profit.
‘You see,’ Pryce pointed out, keen to steer away from History again. ‘Now you can get more specific. You can find out about shareholders or about profit.’
Pryce thought he’d delivered a clear, simple explanation of how to use questioning theory to achieve a result. Without any real purposive aspect to the question. As it stood, Pryce had forgotten and Nike had never known what more or less every late twentieth century person took for granted; that the point of a corporation or limited company is simply to get bigger, richer, more all-encompassing. To make a mint for its shareholders. It was one of those ‘factoids’ of life that had become obsolete in the ULTIMATE® era. If either Pryce or Nike had thought it important they might have asked who the shareholders of ULTIMATE® actually are. After all, there's got to be someone behind the company. Someone living exceptionally well off the profits. But it wasn’t a question either of them thought interesting enough to ask. And that showed the success with which ULTIMATE® operated.
Pryce had been well trained in the structure of question formation and he was passing on that knowledge to the wayward Nike. But the meaning behind the questions was of no benefit to ULTIMATE® and therefore training would not be offered in asking questions to obtain personal meaning. And Pryce’s next question was really asked in order to reaffirm his role as mentor, an attempt to gain some respect from the young man who could usually run rings round him. It wasn’t a question calculated to derive meaning.
‘What is profit?’ Pryce asked. The US™ screen obliged once more.
PROFIT: Definition. An advantage or benefit. In History financial gain: an excess of returns over outlay. The bedrock of the failed capitalist society.
‘Uh, so what?’ Nike asked. He was bored. Pryce didn’t know when to quit.
Oblivious to Nike’s boredom, Pryce was absorbed in the questions as much as in the session. Despite himself he found the analytic forms of questioning fascinating. Pitting himself against a system to gain information gave him a kick. ULTIMATE® had seen that in him all along. Maybe he was better suited to pure theory after all. But surely, surely he could get Nike interested in this too? He just had to get the boy enthused about the way you questioned. Adopt a meta-level approach. Nike had the intelligence after all, he just lacked the application. And a good mentor…. Pryce broke from the reverie and asked the next question, carried away on his own inner thoughts.
‘What does the phrase profit motive mean?’ Pryce continued.
Nike didn’t have enough time to frown, realizing that his session was being hijacked, before the answer came.
IN HISTORY the profit motive became seriously compromised from the year 2010 and over the following ten years ULTIMATE® social research and development put a lot of work into finding a way to rebrand the concept. Economists were tasked with finding alternatives to the money economy. A whole new version of monetary policy developed and after the Global Recession, following the collapse of not just capitalism but history, profit was down-graded to the definition of an historical concept. Effectively, in the ULTIMATE® system, profit no longer has any valid meaning.
This was a nice, smart answer. And Pryce didn’t believe it for a moment. Nike, well, he wasn’t really interested. But he had to look for a way back into the game. A way to divert Pryce. Put him back in second place. So he asked, ‘What is monetary policy?’
Pryce cancelled the question. ‘Now that’, he said, ‘is another example of the way you just ask questions without really thinking through what information you want to receive.’
Nike shrugged. ‘It’s a functional question isn’t it?’
Pryce ignored this. It was just Nike being cute.
‘Just what do you want to get a definition of monetary policy for?’ Pryce asked.
‘Because I don’t know what it is,’ Nike answered.
‘It’s nothing,’ Pryce responded. ‘Nothing any more, because it was part of the failed historical economic system and it won’t give you any more useful knowledge to know the definition. Believe me.’
For one moment, Pryce understood the gulf between his generation and Nike’s. What had been his life was now History and History didn’t exist. So a huge part of his identity had been lost. What was all a game to Nike had once been a huge part of Pryce’s reality; the part he’d made his life’s decisions on. All the definitions in the ULTIMATE® world couldn’t show Nike the truth that Pryce had witnessed first hand regarding the shift in monetary policy.
Following the collapse of the banks and the bankrupting of many of the western economies, people became wise to the fact that governments had supported the discredited financial institutions with their hard earned money. People became angry that public debt had spiralled and that they were forced to pay time and again for the greed and mismanagement of the banking system. Even if Pryce told Nike this, it would be a story, a fiction, not something of value or relevance to his life. It was an irrelevance in the ULTIMATE® world of 2030. The greatest reality for a previous generation had become obsolete in the face of ULTIMATE®’s social transformation.
Pryce still remembered it. In 2010, people were just glad to be heading out of a recession. They could just about accept that ‘austerity’ measures would have to be put in place. That we would all have to suffer in the new style of government. The myth held for a while. But by 2015 when ordinary people realised just how much and what they were being expected to pay back for a party that only the banks seemed to have been invited to, they got very, very angry and this anger threatened democracy and freedom and rule of law. Of course Pryce remembered. It had been his life. However, in 2030, if people knew what was good for them, they had long stopped thinking about these failed systems and instead they worked within the ULTIMATE® system, towards a brighter future. Ruminating on a lost past was not the way to happiness. Pryce was tasked with teaching Nike that the past did not provide answers which would give him a ‘productive’ life as part of The PROJECT⌂. Pryce checked himself and proceeded with caution.
‘I think it would be better if we could find another kind of topic for you to work on, Nike, and get you away from history for a while. I’m sure part of your frustration with it is that it’s essentially just pointless… let’s find something you are really interested in and work from there.’
Pryce realised he’d overstepped the mark in his futile attempt to gain Nike’s respect. And that he was possibly projecting his own desires onto Nike. Poor psychology. Poor counselling skills. He needed to accept that their worlds were fundamentally different because their generations were worlds apart. In the battle for reality, Pryce’s “real” world had lost out to ULTIMATE®S “virtual” alternative. And that was Nike’s world. Pryce had to work with Nike in the ULTIMATE® world, not try and impress him with knowledge of a world that no longer existed. He reflected as to whether maybe it was his fault that Nike had become obsessed with History. It was certainly up to him to rectify the fault.
Nike shrugged and grunted in affirmation.
‘Okay. We’ll sort it out at the next scheduled meeting’ Pryce agreed. ‘Till then, why don’t you try and get to level 30 of your gaming. INTERGALACTIC ENEMY WARFARE isn’t it?’
Nike pulled a face.
‘Oh of course… I’ll put a hundred gaming credits on your account. That should see you through till our meeting.’
‘Use it for gaming NOT for asking questions…. ‘