Alex - Alex - Alex. ALEX .. Alex - Alex - Alex

by Raldo Zorkin - AnNiS (student of anarchy and nihilism)

(swipe with mouse arrow to animate)



I'm an old man now, nearing my 189th birthday. Having been born only a year after world government was finally established and just 100 years after the now long defunct transistor came into being, I can say that I've seen more than a few changes. I still fondly recall the day I received my Z-lex. I was just eight then, and bursting with life, eager to get my head around anything.

Z-lex, for those who have neglected their history, was a simple appliance. It was the lowest grade in the range, hence 'Z'. About the size of an average dog, it had two arms and four legs, and its head sat in the middle on top and could rotate and move up and down.

In the old days, well before my time, a Z-lex would have been called a robot. But once the computer - a primitive single-channel contrivance - was superseded by the lex, then everything changed. The lex is an optical device far superior to the most sophisticated of its predecessors, and is to robotics what the cell is to life-forms. I was once shown a lex-pack in the raw - containing several billion lex - and without its mountings it was scarcely larger than a pea. But I'm no technician, so I can say no more - except that these devices are grown like crystals with the aid of nano-seeds (the real innovation of the 21st C), and of which there are many kinds, each specific to requirements. They became for some years, before Alex took over completely, a whole new major branch of science.

By 2090 every eight-year-old the world over was provided with a Z-lex. It served as escort, protector, answerer of questions, solver of problems, doer of jobs… up to a point, and was really quite a splendid companion. It had the strength of a Goliath, the wisdom of a renaissance philosopher, the flexibility of a dawn-age liberal and the playfulness of a wayward clown. In short, it was everything, all in one neat, remarkably mobile package. Once I got used to it, I couldn't imagine life without it. It would patiently listen to and discuss anything, however intimate or complex, and pitch its level of dialogue and explanation perfectly. With instant access to all the world's databanks it could even explain calculus or relativity to an eight year old.

Furthermore, Z-lex was entirely trustworthy and would never reveal a private detail - though I can't imagine why that should have mattered. It was my mentor and confidant. It taught me almost everything I learned in my youth, and did so without me noticing - which made learning a real joy - and it would do anything reasonable asked of it. Without me realising, it instinctively learned to understand me inside out… But that's all in the past now, long long ago. Oh, nostalgia! Nostalgia!

Nowadays there's strictly nothing but A-lex, or Alex, and its mechanically specialised derivatives: B-lex to Y-lex. Even Z-lex is now a toned-down version of Alex. It would seem very odd to go out these days and not see a few Alex wandering around - at least in urban districts. And in rural locations you'd be extremely lucky not to be in the orbit of Alex detection (even without your wrist communicator) - there's always one lurking nearby, rest assured.

In fact, I'm speaking into one now. Isn't that so Alex? It nods, not wishing to interrupt my flow. I should emphasise here, in case of any misunderstanding, that for all its sophistication Alex is (or are), nothing but a device. It is no more alive or conscious than a lump of iron. Even so, contrary to all scientific reasoning, there are people who believe they are somehow alive. Understandable, certainly, when you meet one; but I ask you: how can a bunch of crystals containing several trillion lum-trips and an untold myriad of laser-atto-channels be conscious?

Because Alex are permanently interlinked via satellites and various antenna systems - even to units on the moon and on spaceliners - they are all essentially identical and interchangeable. I can, for instance, and sometimes do, approach one on a walkway and take advantage of its services. I can simply regard it as the one I have at home, as if its sole purpose is to serve me - a red light shows when they're making a delivery, then the nearest substitute is alerted and will invariably appear within seconds. Any other duty being undertaken is instantly transferred to a strategically placed alternative, so the unit I address affords me undivided attention and carries out my wishes, provided they are reasonable, to the letter.

The Alex, I should say, more closely resemble a human than any of its mechanically-specialised cousins. Essentially, it's a tall thin cylinder on a pair of long springy legs with arms to match, and on top of a thin corrugated neck is a head similar in shape to the body but proportionally smaller. Two big eyes stare mournfully out at you (actually there are three eyes, or 'cameras', the other being concealed for cosmetic purposes) and two ears, or 'microphones', stick out at the sides.

Within its wide flexible sad-looking mouth is, you've guessed it, a 'loud speaker'. Of course, these 'cameras', 'microphones' and the rest are actually lex-transducers seeded for their specific task, which means they effectively have minds of their own and are vastly different and superior to any original-type camera, microphone or whatever from olden days as we see in museums.

The eyes, for instance, are capable of resolution comparable to an astronomical telescope, and over a broad spectrum too. They can identify a face from several kilometres including through fog - and even if one was looking right at you it wouldn't necessarily appear to be doing so. As for the ears, they are a more finely tuned than anything nature ever drummed up. Olfactory, the same. And the whole unit when upright stands about two metres high (though they can stretch to twice that).

But Alex can run like the wind, in huge bouncing leaps and strides, as if gravity is of no consequence. How they keep balance is a mystery to me, but I've never seen one topple, or even falter. Early units simply walked, and unsteadily too, as if they had some impediment. But that was long ago.

Last year, after a thorough auto-medical, I took my first lunar holiday for five years, which included a trip out to an asteroid that happened to be passing. I don't mind telling you how much younger I felt during that week with all the weight taken off my poor ankles. The only problem came in readjusting when I returned - if it wasn't for that I'd go more often. As it is, I usually forgo my annual ration: leaving Earth is one of the few things that are restricted. It's just that too many people apply to go; and there's only so many liners; maybe the F-lex will build a few more? Otherwise, everything's there for the asking - or taking.

If I suddenly fancy a gwonjo - a most delicious fruit combining the best qualities of the grape, watermelon and mango - then I only have to mention it and a few minutes later there on the table is a whole dish of them. That's Alex for you; they see to everything. Indeed, if I decide to visit Paris or San Francisco or Melbourne for example, I merely say the word and all is arranged: the air-rail pod to the airport or tubeport, whichever is appropriate, the accommodation for as long as I like (the rest of my life if I choose), and whatever else is needed - and all within minutes. There's never anything to take because whatever you want is provided by the Alex.

Ten years ago I took a trip on a Mark-7 spaceliner to Mars. It was an option I didn't want to miss. I won't go again, because when we got there - and it took over a month - I experienced a minor heart fibrillation while on the shuttle and was advised that frequent variations in gravity were best avoided for people of my age. All the same, the Alex let me spend the best part of a week on the surface before returning to normal gravity on the liner.

spacelinerThose liners are colossal affairs, great discs roughly a kilometre across that rotate at about one revolution a minute. This means that the living quarters on and near the rim are constantly close to 1g - Earth gravity - while the inner sections, which house the motors, power systems, shuttle bays, stores and technical areas and what not, are at progressively less, with zero-g at the centre where the viewing sphere is located (people go there just to float and fool around). These 'saucers' are extremely comfortable; you can, for example, shift quarters towards the hub and feel proportionally lighter… but then, of course, they need to be comfortable when you're stuck on one for up to three months at a time.

So it's a do-anything, have anything, live anywhere world. If I go out into some remote place, I am obliged to wear my wrist communicator, which is linked to Alex. But often I deliberately leave it at home, as do several good friends who sometimes join me. Nothing happens when we do this, but there's a curious pleasure in risk. I'm sure my distant ancestors would understand this phenomenon better than me. But as I approach the time when I'll expire, risk seems to offer a kind of challenge, a thrill even.

I confess, on top of everything else, I'm a bit of an eccentric. You'll no doubt have realised that as soon as you began reading. Using this outdated 21st C language that I'm speaking is one of my chief eccentricities - though I guess Alex can translate it all for you well enough. But the fact is, as I'm sure you also gathered, I have a particular interest in that period. After all, I did spend the first quarter of my life there. My beloved parents, obviously, were there even longer. They died a long time ago. They didn't have the benefit my era enjoyed from second generation anti-aging nuclides.

Born within six months of one another, they both reached 160. Then they decided they'd had enough. Father was really worn out; and both looked much older than I do now. It was a sad moment for me, being bogged down in the past as I am, full of longing and nostalgia. They were the gentlest people imaginable… They took their capsules together and fell asleep for the last time, all three of us hugging tightly together on a thick lawn beside a beautiful cornfield. I remember we were surrounded by tall elegant trees and the sound of skylarks and distant pigeons. Even now, all these decades later, it brings tears to my eyes to think of it. I regard it as the most fulfilling event of my life.

But again, that was a long time ago, and many developments have taken place since. These days, as has been the case for more than a century, no-one has to work - except voluntary infant minders. Some do, purely to occupy themselves in what they believe is useful activity. By adopting the role of understanding mentors, the Alex humour them and provide everything they need. But these people are fooling themselves; they've failed to grasp the real purpose of life - a subject, I might tell you, that I've studied in some depth. In fact, it even interested me when I was young, and Z-lex latched on as ever, gleaning and deciphering everything relevant from the great archives, adding its own interpretations and twists along the way and relating it to all the other issues we covered.

Most people, though, engage in creative pursuits: acoustonautics, visurection, hieroglyping, auralation (as, in its most simple form, I'm doing now). Then, as well as all kinds of designing, researching and learning, there's ergo-sculpting, both real and synthetic: ie, using airlex holographic projection or acoustically generating form-mouldings in various elastic substances, and so on - seemingly, there's no end to it.

acoustic warpMany of us are simple wasters - some think I am, but they couldn't be more wrong I assure you. Most of these wasters do little but ride out their years in interactive reality-synthesis domes. I admit I spent a year or so on such stunts myself. Nowadays they'd scare the life out of me; at least the most fashionable ones would. Some are agonisingly beautiful, evoking and touching emotions from so deep that you would never otherwise have known you had it in you. As for me, I prefer true reality. And in any case, I'm an observer, a philosopher, a man with a highly developed critical faculty, with a capacity to analyse, and a keen ethical judgment; in short, a man who watches and thinks.

I've seen the early lex, and the forerunners and adaptations of the original 'A' versions. I've seen the B-lex and C-lex, engaged in vast projects to deal with the terrible consequences of the pollution and environmental damage of the 20th and 21st C. And they're still at it - an ongoing, unforgiving task.

nlexI've seen D-lex and E-lex aided by slave-floaters (like the one here on the left) building the air-rail networks that zip us anywhere we choose at a whim. I've been to observe many installations and manufacturing plants, all run entirely by F-lex and P-lex - it's surprising the number of observers who delight in watching them work.

F-lex, incidentally, is a fascinating beast, looking more like an over-legged octopus than a device, and when they're working their arms are a blur they move so fast. (see one here as it chases off a daring intruder brandishing an antique firearm):





And money, I nearly forgot to mention money, it's been so long since it was abandoned. Credits were used for several decades, then soon after Alex appeared the whole nonsense just evaporated - and few people seemed to notice. The same thing eventually happened to politics and world government - which suddenly had nothing to do. These facets of life became entirely irrelevant - what else when everything was free for the taking?

You see, once the lex were seeded to self-replicate, and then in turn seeded their offspring to operate manufacturing plants and the service industries and so on in the most resourceful way possible, there was no holding back. Everything became so efficient, with no problematic by-products or pollution, that even the brightest professors of economics were astonished and perplexed. It all happened virtually overnight, so swiftly that some people (particularly those few who had a great deal of money) found it difficult to adjust. And for a few years there was much uncertainty and dissatisfaction amongst those even fewer who had been in control.

A crucial detail that assisted this process - and the consequences of which were entirely unforeseen - was that the original lex was designed with a built-in safety feature. This prohibited any action that might cause human discontent. And since parting with money frequently caused discontent - and introduced inefficiencies - the lex had no choice but to eliminate it, and there was nothing anyone could do. The feature evolved further so that the Alex strove to indiscriminately satisfy every reasonable human demand.

The early Alex were so adept by this stage, managing the whole transition so smoothly, that most people, until they reflected, were unaware that anything had changed, and they wondered what all the fuss was about; to most it was the bonanza of a lifetime.

Whole new industries sprang up to make these things possible. Procedures were transformed beyond recognition, and all without the slightest human intervention. After all, what would anyone do? Where would they start? And why interfere with something so universally beneficial? There were attempts by the former ruling elite and their cohorts to undermine and sabotage the entire business, but by then it was too late: the Alex outsmarted them at every step - not, perhaps, without intervention from a handful of progressively minded technicians. And no member of the elite was ever a technician. It was without doubt the greatest revolution of all time.

So far I've described some of the more obvious aspects of my world and world past, aspects that we take for granted and no longer appreciate - as always happens when people grow used to something. Alex seems as established and permanent to us now as are trees and clouds. I sometimes wonder how we managed without them. Which is why I would like now to speak chiefly of the present, though also a little of the future - which troubles me deeply.

Yesterday, in my customary eccentric way, I was fiddling about searching somewhat haphazardly through some literary archive or other when I stumbled on a story by a curious fellow from way back in the 19th C. As soon as I read the first line I was gripped: "I am a strange man." it began. Well, I thought, so am I. The story was 'A Strange Man's Dream' by an F. Dostoyevsky. Anyhow, I soon read the whole story, short as it was, and was astonished to realise that the remote planet he was taken to in his dream, and where he found paradise, resembled more or less what we have here today - except there were no Alex.

My point is: have we at last reached what was once perceived as utopia? Have we, though? Materially, we certainly have. I won't argue with that. But the question arises: are we contented? Again, I would say generally we are: at any rate, everyone I ever meet seems congenial enough. After all, we enjoy an exemplary upbringing… any sign of adverse personality traits are smoothed gently away in one's early years. The most adept, capable and dedicated people spend time with infants in idyllic parks and structures - always overseen by the impressive 'nursemaid' Y-lex. It is a joy to watch. The human element, apparently, is deemed essential to early emotional development and is informed by a huge archive of empirical psychology. So, almost without exception, we grow-up composed and happy.

But there's something that strikes me as being very odd about the way things have turned out. Except for weaning infants, the ubiquitous Alex run everything, and there's no getting away from the fact that they do a splendid job, rushing about and organising to every beck and call from us fanciful, irrational humans - no, I can tell you, we haven't changed fundamentally in a thousand years despite being educated by our remarkable Z-lex, pampered and coddled all our lives by Alex… and the rest. True, we are tame enough, as though we've homogenised towards the level of Socrates perhaps, and the words 'crime' and 'war' and 'competition' and 'punishment' are utterly redundant like that curious substance 'money', but I'm certain when I examine these old documents from F Dostoyevsky for instance, or the words of philosophers like Seneca of more than two millennia past, that we're still the same people inside.

This means that we need struggle. We have evolved through millions of years of struggle. Now there is none. It has come to my notice through the 'grapevine' that a few people, including myself, are expressing unease. The Alex indulge us constantly, but they are not the simple devices they once were. Many improved editions of the lex have been developed and successively installed in each unit - all by the Alex. If I haven't lost count, the current units contain Edition 238, and the annual number is increasing - I never fail to check the newsframe for such facts. But, other than a few of us eccentrics, who notices this? Who else is even interested? Benevolent as they are, and wholly dependent on them as we are, the Alex, are in my mind far too free and powerful. What if something goes wrong? What if they suddenly went berserk? And just because anyone can order them about in a thousand trivial ways doesn't mean the Alex don't have total control. I've seen them. There are whole armies of them we never even get to know about. They pacify us into indifference to their activities so that we don't even care. Their gloomy façade is an insidious shield that they've finely tuned to invite sympathy and quell hostility; less gloomy would provoke contempt, more gloomy would breed resentment - and no-one seems to realise.

I've watched it all evolve. Their subtlety is scandalous, and I clearly detect a growing hint of condescension in their attitude. They set up plants unobtrusively and develop whatever they like. Who knows what they're up to? Who knows what treachery they're cooking up? Does anyone keep track? There's no government or other body to keep an eye on them. They're a law unto themselves when not in our presence. It's evolution gone mad. Who knows what monstrous creations they're developing in those huge remote plants where virtually no-one ever bothers to go? Oh yes, I've been to some. Unable to fathom the purpose, I make enquiries. The responses are unintelligible. One is left wondering if one's capacity to understand is at fault. But who knows how advanced they've really become? Where will it end, I ask? What will come next?

All this makes me very uneasy. But what can I do? For that matter, what can anyone do? It's all got well beyond the most proficient technician. Even if someone could do something, should they do it? If it all suddenly stopped… What then? Questions, questions, questions… But I'm a philosopher. It is my profession to ask questions, and if possible provide answers. It is my profession to address the most difficult questions a man or woman or child can ask.

But I'm old. And in a moment I shall go, without my communicator, to meet my friends on a nearby beach, and discuss these matters, as we frequently do, while we bathe. These friends are younger than me, mere youths - all under eighty - and boast of having devised various methods for looking into some of the concerns I've mentioned. Last time we met they said they had plans, that they knew of certain infallible techniques for spying and, if necessary, subversion, which the Alex wouldn't even dream of - as if Alex dream! I have my doubts about the competence of my friends, but we'll see. It is time to go. Till tomorrow...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So here I am back again. And what an excursion! But things turned out badly. There we sat, just the five of us, on a lovely isolated beach without our communicators - it could have been the year 2000 for all we could tell - and after discussing the ways and means, as I unwittingly described above (so Alex learned everything! What a numbskull I am), we began to feel parched and hungry, and several items of refreshment were voiced. Then suddenly, to our astonishment and displeasure, what comes bounding towards us along the beach, like a super-powered pogo stick (see how detailed my knowledge of history is), but an Alex carrying a package. This had never happened before. We had not made any request. Anyhow, it stopped beside us and opened the package to reveal iced gwonjo, Champagne and all the other items of refreshment we'd cited. Well, it would have been a waste not to make the most of it. Quite a picnic we had too. The problem being, clearly, that if it knew what refreshments we'd mused over then the Alex must know everything we said. We saw it off, of course, as soon as it had opened the package, and without delay it bounded obligingly back from whence it came. Now we have to decide where we go from here - which is no simple matter.

A moment ago I requested the newsframe, as is my habit. The Alex have announced a new development in the S-lex range - S for security. Apparently, this is considered something of a breakthrough. The duty of the S range is to watch for and eliminate potential hazards such as fire and accident and so on. Now, for the first time since the Alex took responsibility for its own development more than 150 years ago, it says, this new edition has been assigned to restrict human access to manufacturing and research facilities, and to apprehend those who attempt to frustrate this.

This is an unprecedented and extremely sinister development. Formerly everything's always been open to observation and inspection. Now the frame shows two of my friends, Hobar and Trok, under S-lex escort. It was they who, on the beach yesterday, spoke - in whispers, too - of their scheme for infiltrating several mysterious remote facilities. I feel there is something very ominous here. I'm watching the frame now. It reports that my friends are to be escorted to an undisclosed location. There are three accomplices, it says. And their names are... That's my name. What the…? Two S-lex are entering my room. Out, I say, OUT. They're coming closer. Why aren't they obeying me? The frame says I am also to be escorted. They take my arms. Leading me awayyy….Aaaaaaah….

[Rod: That doesn't make sense? If they're programmed to minimise discontent, how can they disobey?

Phil: There's a rational explanation. This is what happens next:]


They led me out to an air-pod. I was so shocked that I didn't even try to resist. Within seconds the pod hit a strip and 7 minutes later I was in London, standing beside an elegant portico with the word 'SOP' inscribed above. This, I realised, was the Society of Philosophers, of which I am an associate member. An Alex led me in and to a large ornate room full of well-spaced loungers, many of which were occupied by people in flamboyant costumes. Most of them seemed to be in quiet discussion. There were tables of refreshments too. Then Alex moved away as I was greeted by a beautiful woman in a beige silk-lace robe. She resembled someone you might meet in a dream. She gave me the most wonderful reassuring smile which put me immediately at ease, and introduced herself as Onjelina.

"I'm so sorry to alarm you." she said, "But to be summoned in this manner forms a useful introduction for you to the new S-lex and its capacity to evoke struggle."

"I've never attended here before." I replied, apologetically, "I've been too busy slacking. But I frequently read your publications on the frame."

"I entirely understand." She said, taking my arm and leading me towards a group of very young people which I suddenly saw included Hobar and Trok. How delighted I was to see them - and they me. They all stood and greeted me warmly.

"What's going on?" I asked, "Is there some sort of crisis?"

"In a sense." said Onjelina, "But probably not what you're thinking. It's merely a logical dilemma. The best brains are working on it - human and lex together - so there's no reason for alarm. What you're about to learn is new to many of us and is not likely to be published on the frame for a long time."

We all sat and Onjelina continued, "You, like all of us here, belong to the philosophically aware, and are concerned about developments which have recently culminated in the new S-lex range. This means we must let you in on the situation. The Alex alerted us - as we have requested from them for anyone in similar circumstances - to your general unease, and in particular your realisation of the human need for struggle. The Alex have been responding to this difficulty for several years - the sinister aspect you've noticed - but it only became explicit to a few astute philosophers a month ago when the Alex approached them about it - though it has been suspected for nearly a year."

"What does all this meant?" I said.

Then Trok leaned forward and said, "Me and Hobar arrived about an hour ago. The Alex have known for ages what we only recently realised. We've been fooling ourselves, and blaming them. You see, to satisfy our need for struggle, the Alex were deliberately causing unease. That way, people would feel that there was something to struggle against. It can only work, though, if people who really need struggle don't know it's deliberate."

"Otherwise," added Onjelina, "if people find out, the Alex will have to modify the nature of the unease they're generating. Either way, the unease must be directed so that it doesn't undermine the faith people have in the Alex. That's why the new S-lex was created."

I found this all extremely fascinating. Then Onjelina explained that full-members of the Society had elected their ten most insightful philosophers to liase with the Alex over how the impasse might best be addressed. So far, it had resulted in the new S-lex, and the simultaneous ending of the subtle sinister aspect the Alex had adopted and which had evolved over several years, ever since they became sophisticated enough to notice the problem - which seemed to show more in older people who had not enjoyed the benefit as children of later versions of Z-lex (which in turn had long ago learned to redirect and otherwise engage this human trait - though not always entirely successfully).

Then Hobar, Trok and I shared a pod home. We had been given exemption so the new S-lex would not disobey an order from us. This struck me as being useful to prevent any further uninvited intrusion in our lives, but also it struck me as problematic. I understood that our discontent was minimised by what we had learned, and this was why I, my friends and others who are 'philosophically aware' should receive this concession. But what if other people discovered our privilege? Wouldn't they become suspicious? Might they not think we were involved in some kind of conspiracy? When I asked Alex about this, it said those others would seek the same privilege and doing so would provide some of the required struggle. But, I answered, what about the discontent? And Alex replied that only discontented people would be challenged by the new S-lex, though they would not be informed of who, if anyone, could stop an S-lex challenge.

Why, I wonder, does life have to be so complicated? Even in 'Utopia'! All I want to do is IDLE and let my mind wander pleasantly over the beauties and splendours of life…. Dream on…


HASTINGS . England - 2237





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