9 am, Thursday 11th September 2130
The Chairperson of the World Assembly's Educational Advisory Committee, one of the three Committees that advise and support the Assembly, is an august personage. Commendatore Leonardo Stiffelio was born in Lecce in 2035, and he is a healthy 95. He is also rich. But his physical body isn't immortal.
More than half of the world's population of 20 billion people are immortal in 2130, but most of them are still relatively young. It wasn't until 2090 that the problems of maintaining state between different versions of a person were finally solved in a cost-effective and technologically robust way, and by then the population consisted of a bizarre mix of people growing old naturally, ones preserved in a partly-viable long-term condition, and those who were young and rich enough to have taken all the right steps at the right time. Needless to say, developing the governance of this society had been testing and at times had seemed impossible. Without the RCC, which strips away so much interpersonal clutter, it would have been impossible.
The first person who could take advantage of immortality – sorry, Ray Kurzweil – was born in 2010, and she had to get everything right in order to do so from the very beginning. Although the population in 2130 has a high proportion of very old people, most of them cannot realistically hope for physical immortality, while almost everyone born after 2070 can be immortal if they want to be. This imbalance in the population has had effects in political terms and has tended to strenthen the innate conservatism of the Assembly, since most of its members are comparatively old and thus are not themselves physically immortal.
The Commendatore lives on as an e-clone, and he has a preserved physical body which he can and does use, actually well beyond the nominal 10%; but he gave up the unequal fight to maintain state twenty-five years ago when he had to accept that his physical nervous system had degenerated too much for that body to be viable much longer. The law, which normally requires matching physical and cyber clones, makes an exception in the case of the few billion people in the Commendatore's plight. They can live on as e-clones for as long as they want; but in practice they tend to give up sooner or later and apply for wiping. Somehow, the deterioration in the quality of physical input and experience as backed up into the e-clone eventually vitiates the experience of 'soul' to the point at which the individual no longer wants to continue.
It certainly helps the Commendatore that he is financially well-off in the physical world. He comes from an aristocratic Italian family with ancestral estates in Puglia in the far south and his forbears had an illustrious record of involvement in the government both of the region and of the country. His father had been a senator and an MEP, as well as Governor of Puglia. The wealth of the family had been based on land, originally, but canny investments between 1970 and 2030 had built a portfolio of industrial holdings that put the Commendatore's father in the Italian rich-list with estimated assets of EUR2bn. The money was well protected, of course, through a complex structure of trusts and offshore holding companies.
It was to fall to the Commendatore to deal with the consequences for wealth of the gradual transition to cyber-living during the second half of the 21st century. By the time that he had made his way to prominence in local government and international business at the age of 30 in 2065 (he would not become Commendatore for another ten years yet, the equivalent of knighthood in the Italian system) the limit of 10% fizz living had already become a global goal. The pressure of 20 billion people on the earth's resources was clearly unsustainable, and the scramble into the use of RCCs, once they existed in the 2050s, was as much a response to environmental problems as it was a technological step forward in its own right.
For business, though, cyber-living had its problems. Since it had been agreed that the infrastructure of cyber-living would be provided free to everyone - it was to be compulsory, after all - it had to be paid for by some equivalent to personal taxation or from the capitalization of existing wealth. By 2055, this wasn't as difficult as it might sound: the 'contribution' system was already well-established and the conversion of 20% of contribution earnings into payment for your cyber-cocoon seemed a reasonable bargain, supplemented by revenues from what were effectively 'globalized assets'. Forty years of sustained economic growth, with just a couple of temporary setbacks, as in 2011-2013 and 2025-2030, had increased world household wealth from EUR250 trillion in 2013 to EUR1,000 trillion in 2055, enough to provide each of 20 billion human beings with a nest-egg of EUR50,000 if spread out evenly. Of course it wasn't spread out evenly, and in addition to that there was widespread realization that returns on assets would fall as the material needs of the cyber-enabled population gradually dimished. Still, the move for a family from a 4-bedroom house in Westwood, New Jersey and three cars to life as a group of e-clones released assets on a vast scale, and most people bought into the overall bargain without too much angst, giving up 50% of their fizz wealth (capped at EUR5m) to the fund which was going to underpin universal standards of cyber-living for those without sufficient contribution.
'The poor are always with us', it is said. But genetic improvement had removed most of the impediments to living a productive life. Although in 2060 there were still some family lines who had somehow escaped the compulsory inter-generational savings schemes which supplanted state welfare and pension provision in the 2020s and 2030s, they were sufficiently few in number that they could easily be provided with adequate cyber-lives from global wealth holdings.
The physical world changed dramatically, of course. Many large climatically-challenged regions were allowed to revert to a state of nature, including most of Africa, Canada, Russia and Australia, while forests became ubiquitous, particularly once electricity-generating leaves had become an established technology. By 2100, close to 100% of the world's power supply was generated in this way.
In terms of business, industry and the financial markets, not so much changed except for the downsizing. The 10% fizz living restriction has by no means been matched by a comparable decline in production levels, since people spend intensively while on holiday or on other fizz occupations. Between 2055, when the long stabilization process began, and 2110, when it can be said to have been completed, global GNP fell by only 40%, and since then growth has resumed at a carefully managed 3% per year, mostly fed by continuing innovation in fizz facilities and interstellar colonization programs. The giant firms that supply and maintain cyber-space are more comparable to state utilities: widows' and orphans' investments in old-fashioned terms. Fizz asset values fell alongside production levels, of course, but enough remained of the immense wealth that had been generated by 2055 that the few feckless or feeble citizens who remain in the population can easily be afforded their five weeks in the Caribbean once a year.
For people such as Commendatore Stiffelio the process was wrenching, not so much because of the forced contribution to global wealth holdings - it was far less than the tax that might have had to be paid under the old system - but because he had to oversee a gradual halving of the family's fortunes as fizz businesses shrank between 2055 and 2100, with intractable person-management problems alongside the actual down-scaling process. People like to build, not destroy.
At age 50 in 2085, with his two Masters in brain sciences and political economy and the governorship of Puglia under his belt, giving him astronomical contribution scores, Commendatore Leonardo was a shoo-in for membership of one of the Assembly's Educational Brain Sciences Sub-Committees, and five years later for election to the Assembly when Italy's representative retired. In 2100, he was then a natural choice for Chairperson of the Educational Advisory Committee itself.
Beneath the level of the Assembly's three Advisory Committees, the structure consists of a set of Sub-Committees with parallel executive bureaucracies, and for the Educational Advisory Committee there were at that time about 60 subject divisions with such a structure, with a number of them focussing on various aspects of brain sciences, naturally one of the most important and prestigious disciplines. Elections to Sub-Committees take place five-yearly, using a limited-function electoral RCC, in which all past and present students of the discipline can vote, with elected officials subject to open RCC confirmation hearings at the Assembly. As he progressed in the hierarchy, Leonardo retained the Chairmanships of several Educational Sub-Committees. He liked to be busy.
The actual administrative procedures of the sub-committees were by no means as tidy in those days as they have become since, and in particular there was a lively debate between people like the Commendatore who could be characterized as 'fuddy-duddy' and more modernist members, often revolving around the conduct of meetings. By 2090, tutorials were already being given in cyber-space RCCs by competitive, commercial teaching institutions, but supervisory meetings more often took place between RCRs, especially when one or more members of the committee chose to spend considerable amounts of time in fizz. This was certainly Leonardo's case, and his prestige, money and social position allowed him to breach the nominal guidelines with impunity.
The Commendatore lived in some style in what had been his grandfather's Masseria near Lecce in Puglia. These buildings, designed almost as fortresses to be the centre-point of agricultural communities can be extensive, with storehouses, a church, a fortified tower and their own food production facilities, almost small towns in themselves; and the Masseria Stiffelio was a prominent example of this style of seventeenth century architecture, much modernized, of course. His grandfather the Marchese Stiffelio had sold the estate, in fact, to a local businessman, Leonardo Bruscato, or rather had exchanged it for a parcel of properties in nearby Brindisi; but then Leonardo's daughter Claudia had married the Marchese's own son, Giovanni, another only child, and so when Giovanni died in 2090 the estate came back into the family.
From his office in the Masseria's tower, surrounded by the electronic kit that connected him to the cloud, Leonardo had a splendid view of the fields of olive trees stretching uselessly in all directions. Uselessly, because it was hopelessly uneconomic to process olives in a market which demanded just 10% of its one-time production level. People did it for nothing while on holiday on their smallholdings, or to pay for part of their hotel bills. But the Commendatore couldn't bear to lose the history of his family to an electricity-generating eucalyptus grove, so he paid for his energy and continued to gaze moodily at his automatically-watered and fruitful olive trees, dumping their unconsidered offspring on the stony ground. Except that the family's peasants had picked up all the stones five hundred years ago and made walls out of them, with the long, top stones projecting aggressively sideways as a kind of mediaeval razor wire. So the ground is smooth and fertile. An automatic electric robot plough tills it twice a year.
But that was in 2090. Now, 40 years later, Leonardo's body still manages to climb the steep staircase from his treatment room where every night remote machines repair the damage of the day as best they can while Leonardo sleeps in his e-clone. Two flights of stone steps, carpeted by all means, but Leonardo won't have a lift. When I can't do it any more it's time to stop, he says. Physically, he has another thirty years, probably, but mentally he knows that he is deteriorating and there is little that can be done. In the RCR he is as sharp as the apps that surround him; but he knows that his consciousness is being weakened by enlarging areas of vagueness which are faithfully transported every day during back-up from fizz. Do others notice it? He's not sure, but he holds out as one of the few Committee Chairpersons to cling to multi-RCR supervisory meetings, hoping that this will conceal his shortcomings. In reality it is his reputation and his money that do the concealing; his colleagues have nothing to gain from unmasking him.
Each of Leonardo's Sub-Committees is responsible for about 50,000 working groups like John's, involving a total of about 1m individuals between the ages of 12 and 25. Allowing for overlap between disciplines, the sixty Sub-Committees which are now needed to supervise the educational sector have responsibility for about 2bn students. The permitted replacement rate of 0.5% of the population per year feeds about 100 million new students into the system each year, of whom about half are involved in graduate or tertiary studies at any one time, across some 500 branches of science, governance, intellectual, sporting and artistic endeavour.
The Commendatore sits wearily at the chair in front of the old-fashioned screens that will show him fizz images of his colleagues if he wants to see them. If they're in fizz, of course; but most of them won't be. 'Chair', yes, but communication hub would be a better expression. Naturally there is high bandwidth magneto-wireless connectivity throughout the masseria and the adjoining gardens, so that Leonardo is already fully up to date with the Committee's knowledge-base and all events and data-feeds that have been directed to its members, but his brain, he laments, cannot handle all the data, and the chair helps, since it contains a real-time local version of the RCR data-bases and much faster connectivity than the already quite speedy local network. All connected to his brain via chip implants and direct magneto-wireless to synapse links. While he is in the chair he feels almost intelligent again.
Like all Sub-Committees, this particular Committee has twelve members. Apart from Leonardo, the Chairman, there is Hamish, a place-man, representative of the Assembly bureaucracy, young and keen and humourless. He is a stickler for the rules, but hardly says anything during meetings. You imagine that he is keeping a file on you, and you are right. Then there is the tame scientist, Sergey, who is so-to-speak the guardian of technical orthodoxy. He tries to head off inappropriate or duplicate research work on the part of the groups, something that ought to be done by the turorial apparatus - but they tend to see their role as educators rather than as innovators. Then there is a psychologist, Elizabeth, Austrian and of a Jungian persuasion: she is there to monitor the state of mental health of the student body and to detect aberrant tendencies as might be reflected in their work. Finally among the appointed officials there is the Secretary, Wang. All Committees seem to have secretaries, although nowadays it's not quite clear what they have to do since record-keeping and recording is so highly automated and transparent. But Wang is good: if you have mis-indexed a piece of information – theoretically impossible, but it does happen, and especially so if your name is Leonardo – Wang will find it for you in a trice. Finally there are nine elected members, of whom four are Assembly members and the remainder are outside educationalists. The core group of five meets daily, with a monthly meeting of the full sub-Committtee.
It is a good team, in fact, nearing the end of its current five-year elected term. Well, Hamish and Wang are not elected, they are imposed, although the elected members can protest a selection through the Assembly's tribunal wing if they choose to. Hardly anyone ever does; the next one might be worse.
"Good morning all," thinks the Commendatore, putting warmth into the welcome image he generates; no words, of course. They are in their RCRs, now, but will keep to real time as if they were in fizz. It still goes quicker than fizz, because no time is wasted on forming and enunciating speech. And no-one is expecting a long meeting; among their multiple groups it will be surprising if more than one or two bring up issues. Most disciplinary and procedural matters are dealt with by the tutorial staff or by the bureaucracy. Indeed, after some minor technical matters raised by Hamish and dealt with politely but firmly by Wang, there is just one item.
"The BSGX301 affair is getting worrying," says Elizabeth.
"That John Adenoyote's group, right?" asks Leonardo. He uses a visual image of the words 'John Adenoyote' as part of the stream of concepts, adding some questioning fuzziness to the image to indicate shared concern.
"Yes," affirms Elizabeth. "They've stopped just talking about it, and they've actually written a sort of multi-media poem. I haven't seen it, because they didn't leave it in the RCC – it's been given to John to deliver to BSGX420, that's the girls' group they've been talking to, in an RSR meeting. I found out about it because I checked the temporary RCC holding store as you told me to during the tutorial, and I could see it was there. I couldn't actually look at it without alerting them, of course, so I don't know how far it goes."
The sub-Committee has known about the group's plans from early on. It's normal for the more adventurous teenage groups to try their luck against the prohibitions in the system; in fact they are marked down if they don't do it. So Sergey was looking for the tell-tale signs of a communication barrier in the RCC from the beginning, and saw it after less than six months.
"But that's more or less normal, isn't it," asks Leonardo. "We've had three others just like that in the last year alone."
"The difference is that these guys are so far ahead of their peers," offers Hamish. "This is happening at least a year before it normally does. Usually it peters out because the groups are so busy in the run-up to the plus 18 review, but this bunch have had an extra year and a half to play with."
"I've been looking for comparables," said Wang, "and they're not good. Two years ago there was a case in a music group at about the same age, except it was the other way round, with girls propositioning boys. They met in fizz and it was a mess, three pregnancies and a fight between the boys which killed one of them. We got him back, but he's brain damaged. There were others, too. I'm in favour of stopping it, I have to say."
"It doesn't look as if they've got any fizz booked this year," said Elizabeth. "My judgement is that it could be allowed to go the next stage. After all, the Assembly is thinking of adding an emotion-management module to the 15 plus courses and we need experiences like this to base it on."
The Assembly has been thinking about it for 30 years, Leonardo noted sourly to himself, and while I'm around it will go on just thinking about it. The prospect of group emotions running wild across the educational plaza terrified him.
They chewed on for a few minutes, but Leonardo's ruling was indeed to wait to see the reaction of the girls before taking any action. Hamish gave off some very taut-feeling qualia, but he didn't frame any statements, and the meeting broke up.
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