Q: What if you had the freedom to create your own individual laws to live by?
Chapter 1 - the bubbles
Every man is an island. Hugh Grant said so in one of those old movies. One of the archived classics I saw in the online film museum. The one where he lets others in and lets himself fall in love. My dream.
I don’t quite know how we got ourselves to this point but ever since the Ravaging Twenties, brought on by the TPTB’s mismanagement of the Outbreak and the Withdrawal, we seem to have drifted out on an ocean of isolation, not trusting anyone or anything.
We all now live in our own ‘bubbles’, two invisible metres in diameter, within which we go about our lives based on our own laws. On our eighteenth birthdays, we submit our Ten Constitutionals or ‘rights’ via secure encryption, promising solemnly to abide by them. If we don’t, all our rights are removed immediately; no exceptions. That’s how serious it is. Our ancestors didn’t fight, protest, march for our individual rights for us to then throw them away. The Judas, an underground group of no-hopers who congregate near the disused railway tracks are an example of what happens to those who go against their own word.
According to my grandmother, we adopted this system because politicians were worse than useless. They simply did what was right for them and their own kind under the guise of leadership. It felt safer to be in our own hands. With the help of AI modelling, shaped by the Founding Justices, this new system of individual law emerged.
I bet you’re wondering how we can all live together harmoniously with differing laws to abide by, right? LOL. I’m sure other nations look upon us, ‘the plague island’ with the same thought. Well, when our bubble physically overlaps with another with a conflicting law, our ‘lawyers’ are alerted instantly and they have a nano-second to argue out our cases. When I say ‘lawyers’ you know that I’m talking about AI not suits, right? The most credible argument, as judged by the Original Algorithm, wins. The losing party has to abide by the victor’s law during that moment of overlap. It’s become a multi-trillion pound business and basically you get what you pay for. The richer you are, the better the quality of ‘lawyer’ you have. The big AI firms monopolise the industry and it’s the most coveted profession going these days.
Wait, I’m guessing you’re now wondering how a system designed to give power to the people appears to once again be controlled by a group of elites? Good question. Round of applause. It’s cray cray. We apparently had to argue out our own cases at first but the disparity between levels of education and intellect became unworkable. This way seemed fairer somehow and now, it’s just normal. No one questions it. I kinda wish it was still the old system as I loved being part of the debating team at school. Winning a round was one of the greatest rushes in my life…akin to falling in love, I guess.
Many now live in pure isolation while others stick together with similar bubble types. City districts have become segregated into belief systems. It’s so time consuming and costly to keep bumping into people that don’t believe in the same things as you. It’s really not worth it. So much easier to stick with your own kind. OMG. I just heard myself. The irony of it all. We’re just like the politicians that we felt such contempt for. Need to meditate on that later…
Anyway, where was I? I came to this area three years ago, as soon as I was old enough to create my own laws and move away from my parents. After years of living under their laws, I just wanted my independence. I wanted to experience life in colour. Not just black and white. They wished I would stay close but it was costing me too much. My brothers stayed though. They’re malleable.
When it came to writing my ten laws, it was hard. All I knew was that I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. I didn’t quite know what that meant or how it would turn out but I wrote ‘be sovereign’ and went from there. The system accepted it and the algorithm suggested this area to live in. It was no utopia. Constant conflict. I saw other groups living nearby in perceived harmony and wondered why we couldn’t. We - the people in my section and I - didn’t set out to be antagonistic. All we wanted was individual freedom. Nothing contentious. The AI seemed to struggle with that. When does one person’s right start to infringe on another’s and when it does, who’s in the right?
Perhaps it was all calculated this way after all. These types of disputes frequently go to arbitration (higher-level AI). Do you know how much that costs?
I had to get a job immediately but the only one I could find was a research desk job. On my own, in my own home. Nobody really wants you when you’re starting off in an office and your law insists that you are always right and in charge.
I quickly got used to the solitude though. I think I now prefer it. I’m sure you’re thinking cognitive dissonance but I think you’re wrong. Well, as I’m always right that goes without saying. LOL. Seriously though, there’s no need to worry what I look like or make small talk. It’s perfect! I have my cat that I rescued from the railway tracks and together we keep each other sane. To begin with I did overcompensate with AR calls and trying to socialise loads but after a while, I lost interest. It wasn’t worth it.
I do worry that I’m losing the art of conversation though. That I’m not as fun as I used to be. That I’ve lost my spark. The only ‘people’ I see now are the ones on the screen. My friends from the films. I miss them when the film ends. How tragic is that?
Can I tell you a secret? I feel that I can trust you. You’ve listened to me so kindly so far. Promise me though that you won’t laugh. Promise?
I want to fall in love. The earth-shattering kind…you know…when you hear music and you’re part of a montage of happiness. I want to be that girl and I want to find that boy.
I just don’t know how to. How can I meet anyone if I just risk racking up lawyer’s fees every time I’m with them? I’ve tried the easy types who are content to go along with ‘my way’ but after a while, I start losing respect for them. I don’t want to date someone like my brothers.
Every good love story in the movies starts off with the pair hating each other, or at least pretending to before it turns into true love. Remember How to lose a guy in ten days or The Kissing Booth? That’s what I want! The fire! The passion! The constant wrangling of your heart as you wonder if they like you. The hours of heartbreak and tears. The elation when they do. I’m ready. I’m ready for that experience.
The problem is…I’m an island. I know I’ve chosen this life but how did I know what I was wishing for? All I wanted was some semblance of independence. Not a life time of solitude. There’s no turning back now. What do I do?
Chapter 2 - the compromise
I was just about to give up when it happened. I met him. In the rain.
Technically it was hailing but rain sounds so much more poetic than tiny specks of ice and I had worked out from all my hours watching endless romantic films that love and a rain machine go hand in hand.
Predictably, it was at this point when I had given up on ever finding true love, that I came across him. The online swiping and expensive dating clubs were leading to nowhere but financial ruin. Doing it the old way of serendipitous meetings was also costly for ‘sovereign’ people like me and I had come to the conclusion that dating was only for the rich.
I was out looking for my cat, who had been missing for a few days, when I came to the edge of my gated community and stumbled upon his house. It was a mid-century property with an elegant porch. The ones you get in the movies. I was just walking past when it started hailing; sharp, painful lumps of ice hurtled down on me and I ran for shelter. In his porch obviously. Where he was apparently sitting reading Proust or whatever romantic novel leading men are supposed to read. I say apparently as I didn’t realise he was there and immediately our overlapping bubbles started racking up legal fees. According to his ‘lawyers’ I was trespassing, according to mine I was simply sheltering. He coughed to get my attention and then waved me back so that we were safely two metres apart. He spoke to his ‘people’ and my contraventions were voided. He gestured for me to sit down on a chair in the far corner of the porch from him, still sheltered from the oncoming hail storm and then continued with his book.
It was one of those awkward silences as I sat there waiting for the weather to abate. I pretended to study my hands, smoothing out the contours of my undulating fist, whilst peeping over my eyelashes to check him out. You will be glad to hear that he had a brooding demeanour and an intense burrowed frown as he turned the page. He felt my surreptitious stare and looked straight at me. I panicked and blurted out something inane…about the weather, naturally. Crazy weather, I proffered. A sign of climate change obviously, I continued. He didn’t say anything but continued staring at me. My heart double timed and I spewed out more small talk. Pangaea 2.0. Did you know that we were once a supercontinent but we drifted apart and changed the flow of the earth’s ocean currents and winds, I asked? No answer. He maintained his stare so I proceeded. It changed the distribution of warm and cold airs and fundamentally changed the world’s climate, I continued. The start of the climate change process as we now know it but it wasn’t our fault then…that we can’t claim until the Industrial Revolution, I explained. He persisted in saying nothing so I stopped and went back to contemplating my hands. Awks.
After a moment’s pause, he asked, Pangea 2.0? Relieved by his sudden engagement and the fact that he was actually able to speak, I gladly answered. Yes, Pangea 2.0, that’s the term I’ve given the cultural change that we’re going through right now. Just as we as a society have separated from each other like the continental drift of the first Pangaea, we’re fundamentally changing interactions and cultural flows forever. Our actions are causing it, like climate change, I added.
He stared at me once more, then speaking quietly he said, you know it’s too late to reverse climate change, before turning back to his book. Just like that, as if he had said the most benign thing ever.
I had recently started a new research project about the subject, hence the Pangaea knowledge and was finally beginning to enjoy my job. His comments incensed me. How can you say that, I vented? Of course we can. We have the power to change anything that we set our minds to. Our actions have a direct effect on the world. All the time, all our behaviours. Even now, as islands, we are affecting each other in ways that may not be visible to the naked eye, I proclaimed.
He looked up and smiled at me. Patronisingly. It irritated me intensely.
If we don’t do anything about it, I pursued, we can’t make a difference. He made a guffawing sound as if I had said the funniest thing ever. I was about to lash out when he said something that made me stop in my tracks; you mean like our attraction? My heart triple timed.
What attraction? I had to come back with something cool or I worried that he would see right through me and work out what was going on in my head. Inside, I was screaming, this is what happens in the movies, this is what happens in the movies! The step change when annoyance transforms into attraction. A metamorphosis. Our relationship entering the pupa stage, in a matter of minutes, even when it was still hailing, no sign of stopping. Or was he teasing me? No, couldn’t be. There was no hint of irony in his voice or malice in his face. I felt it too. The attraction, I mean. This was flirtation of the highest order, I was sure of it. I had watched enough to recognise it. I was elated but remained subdued.
I stood up, pretending to check on the storm but as I did so, our bubbles intertwined and I could hear the clicks of the other opposing individual laws colliding and swiftly stepped back in a Pavlovian reaction. He smiled at me, softly this time and asked, are you the island you refer to? He gave me a winning, flirtatious smile. I found myself blushing and became tongue-tied.
I know what you’re thinking, he said, but our laws are not as different as you suppose. We’re not compatible, I responded, trying to appear nonchalant. According to whom, he replied? Me, I said. Well, you’re wrong, he said. I’m never wrong, I retorted. Maybe, that’s the problem here, not climate change, he laughed. He knew. He had recognised my ‘sovereign’ trait.
I sat back down on my chair. The hailing had ceased and it was now just raining. How was this going to work, I wondered. Even if the attraction was there, our belief systems didn’t gel. Why do you think it’s too late for climate change, I asked? He put his book down and stood up, facing me for the first time. We don’t have the power, he began. We are all just little specks in this vast universe, how could we possible make a difference?
It was then that I realised how this was going to be. How we were going to fall in love. We were going to embrace our differences just like the love stories of old. Like Cher in Clueless or for the more sophisticated, Emma in Jane Austen’s namesake, I was going to accept my Mr.Knightley’s flaws, just as he was going to accept mine. Together we were going to help each other become better people. For his downfall was his feelings of insignificance in this great world while mine was my ‘too’ high a regard of my place within it. Together we would balance each other out, I decided. My ying to his yang.
I stood up and faced him. I could see in his face that he understood. I tried to step towards him but was pushed back by our protective bubbles. We had now found a way to compromise between ourselves but how were we going to beat the system? My ‘sovereign’ law meant that I would be in constant conflict with all his individual laws. Even if he could stand them down each time, it would be an endless loop with our respective lawyers.
We could wrap our heads in tin foil, go underground, go off grid or find someone who knows a back door to where the blind spots might be, he suggested.
I laughed and nodded. Yes, if we ever really wanted to be together, we would need to cheat the system. How were we going to do it?
Chapter three - kaleidoscope
Sundays became a little ritual for us. We would meet on his porch with our digital Sunday papers and takeaway coffees and sit there, two metres apart, trawling through the news. We would discuss world events and try to garner ideas on how to cheat the system but mainly we were getting to know each other. Really know each other. What we believed in, what made us tick, why we were the way we were.
Even though we had barely touched each other, we were falling in love. Our thoughts and ideas were each other’s caresses. They were enough. For now.
As we explored each other’s minds, we both decided that we weren’t going the way of The Judas. Our way was not to hide. Our way was going to be through meaningful action.
We debated how we had got to the current status quo and fell into discussing the quagmire of the AI firms that oversaw our legal disputes. As we explored, it became clear that we had all somehow slept walked into this new system, without really examining what it entailed and what we were giving up. We had given power to a group of faceless elites and accepted their terms without question. Without election, these private companies were in charge of our judicial system. They had the power to determine who was right and who was wrong, who was innocent and who was guilty. How could that have happened? Such subjective matters in the hands of a few. Were their intentions good? How would we know? I knew then that this chink in their armour was our way out.
We decided to stage the event on one of our Sundays. Filming it so that we could distribute it easily over the hungry waves of social media, we attempted our first embrace. Immediately all our conflicting beliefs were sending alert signals to our AI ‘lawyers’, causing disputes, racking up bills, even though, over time we had resolved them between ourselves. Our thoughts on gender, racial, fiscal, cultural equality were no longer black and white. We had reached a happy place in our own kaleidoscope of fragmentation and colour. However to the AI firms, we were still monochromatic.
We sidled closer, our faces so close now, nearly touching. We were attempting this assault on the TPTB through transparency and honesty. I could hear our ‘lawyers’ telling us to step aside whilst they went into arbitration. The demands getting louder and louder until suddenly they stopped. Our credit cards had been cancelled. By us, naturally. They urged us for alternative payment or else they would inform security. Wait, I replied, I would like to make a submission. According to clause 139.3 I can submit additional knowledge or information that might enhance a case. I submit myself as the ‘additional knowledge’ and request you to stand down. I will argue my own case. There was a moment of silence before an impassive voice responded. Request denied; that clause is for supplementary evidence only, it said. I was prepared for this. I cleared my throat like they do in the movies before an important moment of revelation and then spoke in my most commanding voice. I disagree and dispute your interpretations of the terms and conditions. We are now in conflict and insist on arbitration. With my ‘sovereign’ status and laws, I will win the case between us and will be granted the right to dispute my own claims from now on, I proclaimed. My heart was beating so fast that I prayed that they couldn’t somehow see my raised heart rate. There was another excruciating pause, then a green light. We were on. The system had not anticipated someone exercising their will in this way.
Let’s start off with agency, I began, returning to our tentative embrace. He paused and looked at me. Brows furrowed, a frown on his face. Questioning. What was I up to? This was not the agreed plan. We had said that I would do all of the arguing for the both of us but here I was, going off piste. Why? I looked up at him. We all have the power to make a difference even if we don’t yet believe it, I said. Why don’t you dispute this for yourself, I challenged. Walk the walk. A flash of anger shot through his eyes. What are you doing, the eyes said, we didn’t discuss this. I know, I nodded, trust me. I wanted to diminish his feelings of insignificance in the world and in doing so, diminish my own hubris. This was the only way we could make us work. His eyes kept on me, searching for an answer to my dissent. We are all responsible for our own actions, I continued. We can’t rely on others to do the hard stuff for us. It’s like climate change. We can’t pretend it’s not happening or do nothing about it just because we don’t think we can make a difference. It’s not too late. We have agency to act. We all do. What say you, I challenged?
I could hear his ‘lawyers’ demanding payment so that they could object to my argument or he would lose. I smiled and took his hand. We can do this, we have the power, I squeezed.
For a while he kept his eyes locked on mine while the ‘lawyers’ repeated their threats. I wondered if I had gone too far. If my self-assurance had caused me to overreach.
After what felt like an age, he finally smiled back. My heart fluttered, full of anticipation. He collected himself and then spoke. We are all just little specks in this vast universe, he said. My beating heart was now out of control. I would have said before, how could we possibly make a difference, he continued. He then stopped and looked down on me with love in his eyes for the first time. I saw it. I knew it. He resumed his speech. I now feel differently, he said. Now I see things differently…because of you. He then scooped my face decisively in his hand and kissed me. Like in the movies. Just how I had imagined it.
He lost his case of course. In fact he contravened his contract with his AI firm by ‘interfering’ and presenting his side of the argument when he had no right to, costing him extortionate fines. However, he had won in love.
As soon as the Original Algorithm awarded me the case, I was transformed back to that moment in school when I won a round in the debating team and I thought to myself that it was nothing like falling in love. Love was so much better.
I’m sorry I blindsided you, I said to him. I felt guilty, suddenly small and powerless, even though I had proved to be the David in this war with Goliath. No, I’m the one who should be sorry for being blind to what you were trying to do, he replied. Now I see.
Our video tore through social media like an electric current. We ignited conversations between people, sparked debate between groups and started the process of bringing individuals who were once islands back together.
It precipitated the reformation and transformation of the judicial system. We still kept the individual law system but it no longer mattered how much money you had, what the colour of your skin was, what group you belonged to, what gender you were, how old you were, how able, how well. It was no longer black or white. Now it was a system that worked for all. It became whole. It had become Pangaea.
📷: Jeb Buchman