“If only I had a brain…”

A long time ago, longer ago even than last week (which, dear children, is already further back than most people can accurately remember) there was a town built on the gentle slopes of a beautiful mountain. Houses of various sizes were interspersed among the trees.

Some of the houses were very large because rich people lived in them. These houses had all manner of wonderful amenities like running water and air conditioning and refrigerators for preserving perishable items of food. In some of these houses only a single wealthy person resided, scurrying between vast empty rooms to enjoy the view from each window in turn. The large houses mostly occupied the best areas.

Many of the houses were quite small and lacked all amenities. Sometimes eight or twelve family members of different ages would be all crammed together, sharing bedrooms and struggling periodically to share what little food they had. These houses were located on the outskirts of the town, far from the gaze of the rich people in the big houses.

The people who lived in the small houses generally made their living by working for the rich people in their gardens and their kitchens, or by making things the rich people wanted to buy. The poor people relied on the rich people, and the rich people relied just as much on the poor people. The only difference was that the rich people weren’t aware of the fact.

The one thing the rich and the poor had in common was their obsession with their addictophones. Everyone, wealthy and impoverished alike, would spend hours stroking and staring at these wonderful little devices that enabled them to avoid any semblance of coherent thought. Unlike narcotics and alcohol, this addiction seemed limitless. It was inconceivable that anyone in the town could put down their addictophone for any meaningful period of time. They were simply too much fun!

As a result, whereas in former times people would look at each other, smile, and engage in conversation, the common mode of communication now was via little messages sent from one addictophone to another. In many cases symbols replaced words altogether. People felt anxious if minutes passed without their addictophones making noises to inform them they’d just received another message from someone. In order to ensure receiving a sufficient number of messages, people would send out messages to everyone they knew as often as possible. Ignoring a received message was regarded as an unforgivable crime. So people were glued to their addictophones day and night.

This offered wonderful opportunities to all the companies that wanted to present adverts for their products and services. Quickly the large corporations learned that the more sensational the content, the more people would gawp at it and the greater the value of the ad slots would be.

And so quite quickly, but slowly enough that short-memory humans wouldn’t notice, content became ever-more sensationalist. Complex problems were transmuted into simple-minded stories that everyone could embrace without ever once having to engage their brains. Groupthink, always a danger for any group primate species, became the much-desired norm. Everyone could agree on the best TV show, the best breakfast snack, the best exercise clothing, and on every other aspect of their ad-conditioned lives.

Unfortunately the endless storm of context-free sensationalist content presented to the people on their addictophones and their other devices made them very afraid. But they thought this was because they were “free” and imagined they could assuage their fears and doubts by buying ever-more things advertised to them on their addictophones.

The big corporations were very happy because they could make nearly anything and then, by advertising it alongside sensationalist content, ensure plenty of people bought whatever it was regardless of whether or not it was useful or added anything of value to people’s increasingly empty lives. Even poor people tried to buy useless things in order to feel they were in some way “as good as” the rich people who bought everything without a second thought.

All was going very well and people couldn’t imagine a different way of life, no matter how empty and insecure they felt all the time. And then something happened.

One day a forest fire started on the outskirts of the town.

Naturally the people’s addictophones were instantly deluged with terrifying tales of trees catching fire. Experts were summoned to proclaim that at the present rate of fire growth, the entire world would be burned to a cinder within weeks. Now the people were even more afraid than before, but now they imagined their fear was due to the fire.

They began to shout loudly that something must be done to protect them!

Down in the center of town, inside the town hall, the town’s politicians held a meeting. They were used to sitting in the town square sipping on their milkshakes while waiting for friendly donations from the rich people who’d send their servants occasionally to hand over briefcases filled with money. The rich people sent money to the politicians whenever they needed the politicians to create laws that would help them become even more rich, even though these laws would end up making ordinary people even less secure than was already the case.

The politicians liked the game very much because the rules were so simple. Ordinary people were too busy gawping at their addictophones to understand what was going on around them, and besides they didn’t care because the politicians kept telling them they were lucky because they had Freedom and Democracy, which sounded very grand indeed.

Now the fire was threatening to upset this very comfortable state of affairs. Clearly something must be done!

As the wind was blowing the fire in an east-to-west direction it was obvious that not all the town would be threatened by the fire. Furthermore, as the trees burned easily but not with great heat, it was also obvious that the homes made with iron roofs and walls would not succumb to the flames whereas the houses built largely from wood were likely to be consumed.

So the rational course of action would be to evacuate people who were in the path of the fire who lived in houses made of wood. For the rest, the fire would quickly pass through and perhaps blister some paint but otherwise cause no real damage.

The politicians, however, were afraid. They heard the people shouting and they saw the messages being sent frantically back-and-forth on the addictophones. Being politicians, they weren’t very intelligent but they knew one thing: protect future votes at all costs!

One of the politicians remembered the concept of a fire-break. “Why not burn down all the houses between us and the fire?” he asked. “This would save us!”

Although it was a very stupid idea, it had the single virtue of simplicity. And people adore simplicity, no matter how misguided. Very quickly — so quickly, in fact, that no one had time to think about the consequences — the idea became official policy. The politicians picked up their addictophones and broadcast the following message to the people of the town:

“We’re going to burn down the houses between us and the fire in order to save lives. Everyone’s duty is to remain in their homes until the fire passes. Anyone seen outside is irresponsible and they are threatening the safety of everyone else!”

The people saw this message on their addictophones and quickly ran indoors because, being conditioned to perpetual low-level fear though consumption of endless sensationalist content, they were desperate for anything that offered the promise of temporary salvation.

The only tiny flaw in the plan, which hardly anyone noticed, was that it called for burning down the homes of all the poor people. And those poor people were trapped inside, with nowhere to go.

But the people in the big houses didn’t think about this, and even if they’d thought about it they wouldn’t have cared. Because the poor people’s houses were on the outskirts of the town, out of sight. Rich people preferred not to think about poor people and thus forgot they were dependent on them. Rich people only cared about saving themselves regardless of the cost (which they didn’t understand anyway, because they were too busy gawping at their addictophones to be capable of even rudimentary thinking).

So the politicians told their staff to go out and burn down the poor people’s homes in order to make a fire brake to save lives. This enabled the rich people, some of whom would have suffered the terrible inconvenience of being evacuated until the fire passed, to remain in their nice big houses. It enabled them to feel, for a few moments, fractionally less afraid because they were told by the politicians that they were “doing the right thing and saving lives.” And they got very angry indeed at anyone who tried to explain that they weren’t really doing that at all.

Afterward, everyone agreed not to talk about the charred bodies of the thousands of poor people who’d been sacrificed in order to save a couple of dozen rich people from inconvenience. And it was easy to forget the charred corpses of the thousands of poor people because everyone’s addictophones were, as always, once again full of such compelling sensationalist content….

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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