themes / The Cyberiad

The Davos Parallax
(a fable inspired by Stanislaw Lem)

Richard Barbrook

As their rocket ship raced away from the watery planet, Trurl turned to Klapaucius and exclaimed: “That was a job very well done!”

His companion laughed: “We certainly played an excellent trick on some very unpleasant personages. Our creation has swept away the masters of Terra without any violence or suffering. History will record that the G20-CMP-MMORPG is one of our finest pieces of work! ”

It was when the blue moon was rising in the third quadrant of the red sun that an urgent summons had arrived for the two constructors from the outer spiral of the Milky Way. A fat contract was offered for a very delicate task. Trurl and Klapaucius - always happy to fleece an over-eager customer - had rushed over to the distant world of the pulpy palefaces. On their arrival, they were carefully directed to a mountain top and ushered into the presence of the ruling elite of Terra.

“Welcome to Davos, honoured guests from an alien world!” said a plump and sleek fleshy creature in a smooth voice.

“I am the chief high representative of the most important movers-and-shakers on this planet. Assembled at this annual gathering are the chosen few who control the destiny of humanity. Meet the head of the IMF and the president of the World Bank. Here are the leaders of the United States, the EU, China, Russia and Brazil. These are the managing directors of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and UBS. Say hello to the Grand Master of the Freemasons, the Pope, the Dalai Lama and the Emir of Al-Qaeda. Let me introduce you to the CEOs of Google, Time-Warner, Sony, News International, Microsoft and Facebook. Shake hands with the King of Saudi Arabia, the Ayatollah of Iran and the chairs of Exxon, BP, Shell and Total. Greet the bosses of the Mexican drugs cartel, the Japanese Yakuza and the Afghan opium trade. We also have the planet's top philosophers, artists and scientists at our conference, but you can ignore them because they're just here for decoration. The only people who count on Terra are sitting around this table before you.”
Bemused by this confusing plethora of titles and institutions, Trurl and Klapaucius cut quickly to the heart of the matter: “Why did you summon us here with such insistence? What can we do for you which requires our specialist skills? Can you pay in a currency which is accepted across the known universe?”

“Excellent questions - we can do business with men who want to do business!” commented a wrinkly-skinned media mogul at the back of the room.

“We're robots not human,” Klapaucius sniffly replied.
“Robots who are very good at doing business,” added Trurl diplomatically.
“No offence meant,” said the chief high representative of the Terrans in a soothing voice. “Let me explain our problem and how you can help us. As for payment, our generosity in rare stones and metals will delight you if you are successful!”
“Then we'll listen carefully...” said the one.
“...with all of our multiple listening devices,” echoed the other.

“To understand the difficult task which we want you to perform, I'll have to explain the history of our species,” began the Terran spokesperson. “For 90% of its time on this planet, humanity lived in small groups of around 150 people who survived by hunting wild animals and foraging from nature. Then, around 400 generations ago, our numbers grew so large that we were forced to discover new means of subsistence. Our ancestors soon learnt how to domesticate animals and breed plants. From the surpluses produced by this agricultural revolution emerged the first class societies. While the majority of the population worked as peasants in the fields, a privileged minority became the warriors and priests who ruled over them. Generation after generation, kingdoms rose and fell, religions came and went, but the social system remained stable. Agriculture was the source of all wealth. The warriors and priests lived off the labour of the peasantry. Then suddenly, 20 generations ago, everything began to change. Our numbers had again increased dramatically. We knew how to accomplish so much more than before. Humanity now went through another traumatic social transformation. Warriors and priests became capitalists and managers. Peasants were transformed into proletarians.

After much suffering and pain, a more advanced class society was eventually born. Around this table in Davos, you see the ruling elite of this new dispensation. Humanity began as a tribe of a 150 people and now there are 7 billion of us. We are the few who decide the fate of the many!”

“Thanks for the interesting history lesson, but we're still none the wiser to what you want us to do for you,” said the two constructors in unison.

“Don't worry, I'm getting to the point. You do need to know this background information to understand our current predicament,” replied the maximum leader of the Terrans. “During last five hundred of our Earth years, the capitalist mode of production has slowly but surely spread to all corners of the planet. The necessities and luxuries of life are now bought and sold in the marketplace. Everything - and everybody - has its price. For our predecessors, it was relatively easy to rule over this new form of class society. We were united by our desire for wealth and power. Those who we exploited were divided in so many ways: income; skills; gender; ethnicity; language; sexuality; ideology; education and religion. If the proletarians did threaten to combine against us, our forebears instinctively knew how to ferment wars, encourage bigotry and stoke up hatreds to keep them in their place. Unfortunately, things are much more difficult now. I'm forced to confess that our own greed is partially to blame. We should have known better than to sell them cheap travel, media, computers and telecommunications. We should have guessed that when the same goods and services were available everywhere, then a common identity would emerge. Much to our horror, those who we once divided and kept subservient are becoming united and self-confident. They now revel in being members of a multi-cultural, poly-sexual, transnational proletariat! Look outside the gates of this hotel. We can no longer hold our annual meeting to decide how this planet is run without armed guards to protect us from a rabble of global justice protesters.

At this very moment, in cities across the world, massive crowds are gathering to denounce politicians as thieves and bankers as fraudsters. This humiliation must be stopped - and stopped now!”

After listening to the Terran leader's tirade, Trurl and Klapaucius were still confused.
“How can two constructors from an alien world reverse the grand narrative of human history?” asked the one.
”We only know how to invent new technologies not a new species,” emphasised the other.

Wiping moisture from his fleshy brow, the chief high representative resumed his peroration:
“There is one tried and tested stratagem which can preserve our wealth and power: the class of the new. During the birth of capitalism, its pioneers fortuitously discovered this most effective way of dividing their workforce. They singled out those who were making new things in new ways with new technologies. They lauded this group as the builders of the future in the present. For our forebears, the transformative power of the factory was personified by its classes of the new: the Industrials; the Labour Aristocracy; the Fordist Worker. Best of all, there were iterations of this class of the new who could be co-opted into the ruling elite: the Self-Made Man; the Vanguard Party; the Technocrats. When our grandparents were eventually forced to concede a more equitable partition of the rewards of the factory system, I must admit that we did experience a brief moment of fear.

There had always been the danger of the class of the new that wanted to reorganise society in the interests of the many not the few: the General Intellect; the Labour Movement; the Engineers.

With mass production providing consumer plenty and welfare services, too many of our subordinates did become infected with these subversive ideas: the Hippies; the New Working Class; the Produsumers. However, we kept our nerve and realised that our salvation could be found in the convergence of media, telecommunications and computing into the Net. We soon regained ownership over the imaginary future and the information society became our promise of the better times to come. We could now ferment more sophisticated cleavages within the global proletariat by identifying new classes of the new: the Post-Modernists; the Hackers; the Free Agents. We could recruit again from the ranks of the oppressed to strengthen their oppressors: the Virtual Class; the Digital Citizens; the Bobos. For decades, this clever manoeuvre has served us well.

Using network technologies, we have constructed a financial marketplace that now rules with an iron fist over the entire planet. The masses might vote for higher wages and better welfare, but it is our money that decides the fate of their nations' economies. There is no alternative to neo-liberal capitalism!”

Trurl and Klapaucius looked at each other knowingly. The rulers of Terra must be in big trouble if their leader had to shout so loud about the weakness of the opposition.
“So why do you need our help if everything is going so well here?” Trurl enquired delicately.
“It seems that our journey to the far end of the Milky Way wasn't really necessary,” added Klapaucius with a hint of sarcasm.

“The insurgent global proletariat are now using network technologies against us!” screamed the chief high representative with outrage. “They are organising protests, uprisings and elections which are overthrowing their rightful rulers!!

Already missing from this year's conference at Davos are the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Which one of us around this table might be next?

By providing computers, mobiles and connectivity to the masses, we have inadvertently allowed humanity to arrive at the imaginary future of the information society. The future is now! Worst of all, new classes of the new are emerging which are determined to realise the Net's potential for participatory democracy and cybernetic communism: the Digital Artisans; the Multitude; the Precariat. We know that a small elite of bankers and bureaucrats can't prevail against the united will of the whole of humanity. Our only hope is a technological fix to stave off this mortal threat to our wealth and power. We urgently require the next upgrade of the Net which will once again endow us with ownership of the imaginary future and enable us to co-opt a privileged section of the workforce as the class of the new. You were summoned here because we know that you have the skills to help us in this time of crisis. Your fame has spread even to these outer reaches of the Milky Way. We have heard of how you created Gargantius, Metainformationator and the Story Telling Machines. Apply your knowledge to inventing a new generation of computer technology and you will be richly rewarded. We're confident that you can devise a new class of the new for us which will keep the global proletariat divided against itself!”

“We are scientists dedicated to the scientific method,” replied Trurl. “We must first study the problem in detail before coming up with a solution.”
“If you want us to sow confusion amongst your mutinous employees, we will have to examine them at close quarters,” added Klapaucius. “Careful observation is the foundation of all learning.”
“We will begin our research by going down from this mountain top and making an extensive tour of the rest of this watery world,” they both confidently declared. “Have the jewels and metals ready for collection because on our return we will make a machine which will truly astound you and your colleagues!”

With that, the two constructors took their leave of the chief high representative, picked up their official accreditation and made their way to the main gate of the conference centre. When they got there, Trurl and Klapaucius immediately understood the seriousness of the problem that they'd been asked to solve.

The entrance was blocked by a large metal fence which was guarded by three rows of uniformed palefaces equipped with sticks, shields and other weaponry. A short distance away was a large crowd of boisterous protesters shouting slogans and waving banners.

Trurl and Klapaucius were fascinated. Some of them were making reasoned demands: Don't Pay the Debt! Protect the Environment! Others were much more uncompromising in their attitude: Eat the Rich! Hang the Bankers! No wonder that the movers-and-shakers of Terra needed serious protection from their own people.

After showing their newly-acquired passports to the police chief, Trurl and Klapaucius warily passed through the defensive line surrounding Davos and began their travels around Terra. In times to come, over a cup or two of electromagnetic soup, they were given to reminiscing about the warm welcome that they were given by the strange race of squidgy humans. Much to their surprise, the demonstrators outside Davos had been very friendly and eager to tell them about how the social system of their planet could be improved. From this first contact, Trurl and Klapaucius were introduced to a network of activists who provided invaluable assistance as they travelled around the world.

Whether in London, Cairo, Athens, Moscow, New York, Madrid, São Paulo, Shanghai or Mumbai, the two constructors kept hearing the same insistent refrain: the monopolists of money and power were wrecking lives and destroying the planet.

The ordinary Terrans had the skills and the abilities to run their own communities, but they were never given the opportunity to do so. The natural environment upon which everyone depended was being pillaged for short-term gain. All that mattered to the ruling elite was its own enrichment. If only the bankers and bureaucrats would leave them alone, the proletarians could make a much better world for all.

“These humans don't need a new class of the new,” said the one.
“They already know how to make new things in new ways with new technologies,” agreed the other.
“What our pulpy friends need is protection from our wicked employers in Davos,” they both now realised. “We must invent a solution that will solve this problem while still ensuring that we get handsomely paid for our efforts.”
“A tricky conundrum.”
“We've been in worst situations.”
“Let's get back to Davos and amaze everyone with our genius including ourselves.”
“What an excellent idea!”

On their return to the mountain top, Trurl and Klapaucius locked themselves inside the basement of the hotel and set to work. After nights of furious experimenting and loud arguments, the two constructors were finally ready. Calling together the rulers of Terra in the main conference hall, they got up on the stage and - as the music swelled and the lights dimmed - unveiled their new invention:

“Presidents, Directors and CEOs. Your Holinesses, Your Majesties and Your Excellencies. Ladies and Gentlemen! We are proud to present at Davos our most brilliant creation: the G20-CMP-MMORPG!!”

Picked out by a single spotlight in a cloud of dry ice and swirling lasers, Trurl and Klapaucius continued:
“Our assistants are now going around the room to collect your obsolete laptops, mobiles and other computerised devices. In their place, you will receive your own personalised holographic multi-sensory interface to access this next generation network technology. Once connected, you will be instantly transported inside the G20-CMP-MMORPG and into a virtual world of neo-liberal perfection. You asked us to create a new class of the new which would divide and disorientate the rebellious global proletariat. We have studied the matter hard and have come up with a much better solution to your problem. Why not get rid of the unpleasantness of having employ workers altogether? Why not dispense with messy nature so you no longer have to worry about green protesters? Thanks to our excellent invention, you will never again have to risk your capital by being forced to invest in making useful goods and services. Inside the G20-CMP-MMORPG, money makes more money by itself! Marginal utility always equals marginal cost! The factors of production are Pareto optimised! Profits are constantly increasing and without limits!! It is you that are the new class of the new - a new ruling elite dominating the friction-free and weightless dotcom marketplace: the Digerati; the Swarm Capitalists; the Netocracy. You are the Creative Class who owns the imaginary future of Terra in perpetuity. Inaugurate your avatars - and start accumulating wealth and power beyond your wildest dreams!”

Never had a launch of a new product on that planet had such instant success. Within minutes, the illustrious audience in the Davos conference hall was sucked one by one into the virtual trap laid by Trurl and Klapaucius.

As the interfaces for the G20-CMP-MMORPG locked into the greed and pride neurones of their brains, the rulers of Terra found themselves on a virtual trading floor glowing with psychedelic colours and throbbing with the roar of the crowd. Buy, buy, buy!! Sell, sell, sell!! Money, money, money!!

Never had they been so happy as in this eternal moment when their every deal was a winner. As the presidents, directors and CEOs slumped drooling in their chairs lost in reverie, Trurl and Klapaucius quickly made their exit from the conference hall. After a brief stop to raid the hotel bar, the two constructors went to collect the generous fee in precious stones and metals which was waiting for them in the chief high representative's office.

“Don't disturb them whatever you do,” they told the secretary as they left. “Your lords and masters will be very angry if anyone returns them to the grubbiness of the real world after experiencing the marvels of the G20-CMP-MMORPG. The punishment will dire!”

With this stern warning, the two friends ran to their spaceship and started its motors to begin the long journey from the outer spiral to the centre of the Milky Way. When they eventually arrived home, the first thing that Trurl and Klapaucius did was to take out their telescope to check what was happening back on Terra. The two constructors were delighted to see that the panjandrums of Davos were still entranced by the thrills of buying and selling virtual jig-jags and digital snaffles. Commodities were booming! Shares were on an up! Bonds were at a premium! The dollar was strong, the euro solid and the yuan was looking good! Inside this finance capitalist utopia, speculators and traders no longer had to worry about strikes, demonstrations and elections. Economic depressions and global warming were an impossibility. The bean-counters and influence-brokers of Davos had been completely mesmerised by the chimeric marketplace of the G20-CMP-MMORPG. The guards had slipped away and the hotel staff were long gone, but they hadn't noticed. Pizzas, colas, leisurewear and toiletries were automatically delivered to maintain the elite's pudgy bodies in a minimum state of repair. No physical necessity would distract the bankers and bureaucrats from their neo-liberal computerised fantasy. Trurl and Klapaucius had successfully neutralised the evil masters of Terra - and they were determined to keep them that way.

“What an elegant solution turning the selfishness of the few into the emancipation of the many!” said the one with pride. “Those who desired wealth and power are now kept from harming others by their avatar adventures inside the G20-CMP-MMORPG.”

“Even better, we've ensured that this time the social revolution on Terra won't lead to the replacement of one elite by another!” declared his companion in a self-congratulatory tone. “Any paleface who harbours morbid ambitions of leading a new class of the new will soon be seduced into the virtual delusions of mount Davos.”

Staring through their telescope, Trurl and Klapaucius felt a warm glow as they watched the squidgy creatures who inhabited the rest of the watery world enjoying their freedom from the dominance of finance capital and managerial authority. Having escaped from the endless cycle of production and consumption, these Terrans now had the time to relish the sweet pleasures of creativity, conviviality and sensuality. They grew food, built cities and constructed machines. They caressed their lovers, raised their children and cared for their old folk. They made art, studied hard and played games. And how they discussed, argued and debated endlessly. The two inventors knew that they'd be entranced by the fascinating and magical activities of these pulpy people for a long time to come.

“Maybe the invention of G20-CMP-MMORPG wasn't our greatest achievement after all,” mused Klapaucius.
“I know exactly what you mean,” agreed Trurl. “We just provided a catalyst for the Terrans to discover how they always wanted to live. After many generations of exploitation and oppression, our fleshy friends are now able to determine their own future.”

Opening the fiery Polish vodka that they'd purloined from the hotel bar at Davos, the two comrade-in-arms embraced, raised their glasses and made a toast: “Every planet celebrates this important moment in galactic history when the class of the new was superseded by the civilisation of humanity!”

Attracted by the noise, colleagues and neighbours soon began arriving to share in the collective euphoria. It was fortunate that Trurl and Klapaucius had stolen more than one bottle of vodka to lubricate their Terran victory party...