We Happy Few

– I suppose what I’m saying is if you imagined some force or agency in the world that was leading us towards doom and destruction, towards the dark, and then you imagined what kind of tools and technologies it would use, you’d come up with something like social media. I didn’t mean anything more than that. I didn’t mean there actually is a design at work. A single mind behind it all.

Two people younger than the four of them, instantly recognisable as students, peered around the corner of the alcove, said sorry! and went away. They were giggling to hide their embarrassment.

– Not even people who believe in God believe in a God who works like that, said Jefferson.

– I never said they do, said Anne.

Michael leant forward and tapped the table with a fingernail, a glimpse for the others of his seminar persona.

– I don’t want to leave it there, he said. David is right. Designed. It’s suggestive. Think for a moment about what that would mean, if it all were a piece of design. The process of everything having got worse. If we see that process as being intended and deliberate. What would the implications be? You have to head straight for the question, Why? Why designed? And more importantly, by whom?

– An entity resembling Descartes’ demon, said David. The word designed implies that.

– Which leads you towards the idea of some kind of experiment, maybe, said Jefferson. The demon is testing something, trying something, fooling around with a hypothesis.

– Unless it’s trolling on a cosmic scale, said Anne. An entire universe constructed out of spite and ill will, and, as I was saying earlier about your student troll, making its own entertainment. We are the brain in the vat and the demon is the higher order of reality, and it is fucking with us, just for fun.

– But we know we aren’t a brain in a vat, don’t we, said Michael. I mean, I know philosophers have been having fun with that idea since forever, and good luck to them, but nobody outside a psychiatric ward has ever truly thought that they are a brain suspended in a vat and all their sensory data is created for them. People entertain themselves with the idea of the universe as a simulacrum, but nobody truly believes it. We all know that we are real, the four of us around this table, don’t we?

– Of course, but I’m not sure about the rest of them, said Jefferson, gesturing at the cafe, at the city, at the world.

The others smiled at that.

– Mind you, Jefferson went on, that is part of the point of the original through experiment. It might be that those of us sitting and talking here are indeed real. This is easier to imagine if we go with the paradigm of the simulacrum cosmos rather than the single brain. We are four consciousnesses inside a simulated reality, the rest of which is not real, or not real in the same sense that we are.

– Maybe it’s the stupid people who aren’t real, said Anne. The three men laughed. Seriously, though, maybe intelligent people are the subjects of the experiment and the others are just part of the experimental apparatus. The idea would be that stupid people are simulacrums – sorry David, simulacra – basically computer programmes, let loose in this simulated reality and given this new thing called social media and encouraged to make everything worse, and then the settings are dialled up a bit, and they get stupider and stupider and the world gets worse and worse and worse, unbearably so, and it’s all climate change and Trump and Brexit et cetera, and the idea, or the entertainment, is to find out how far it goes, how much we can take, to see what the smart people do when they’re like rats in a maze but the maze has no way out, is getting narrower and darker and more and more remorseless. Michael mentioned a stupidity contest. People trying to be more and more stupid. But it could be the other way around. Maybe all the stupidity is the test and we’re being evaluated on how we cope with it.