IMS: Hello, this is IMS, the author of The Program audio series. Last time I emphasized the show is free from creepy sponsors. Boris from New York heard this and shrewdly recognized the show is actually scrounging for a sponsor. So he reached out and bought recording equipment for the show, generously financed by his company, Atlas Authority. Being a software project manager myself, I understand the problem Atlas Authority is solving all too well. They are Jira experts, and can help you set up systems so that your software development process purrs like a cat, by which I mean a good cat and not one of those that scratch you and eat your plants. The good people at Atlas Authority also make solutions for Monday.com and Confluence. If you don’t know what these things are, consider yourself blessed. If however you are not so lucky, check out atlasauthority.com and see how they can dig you out of crippling technical debt you've accrued. I would also like to thank our individual supporters. Even though Boris outplayed you all, don’t think your support is not helping the show. And if you were thinking of becoming a patron yourself, tarry not, as all supporters get access to bonus episodes.
ANNOUNCER: The following story is yet another that originates in the Program’s backend. Stories from the backend do not necessarily reflect established historical timelines, and often feature occurrences that - were they to transpire on the frontend - would be deemed supernatural. Listeners are reminded that the laws of physics cannot be changed once they’ve been programmed.
PROTAGONIST: My story begins in 1999, which is largely held to be the last year that was any good.
This conclusion, that people have arrived at intuitively, I have actual proof for.
And even though there's nothing to be gained by it, I feel a need to record it.
And then destroy it.
Which is to say if you’re hearing this, things went awfully awry.
But I guess I should establish my credentials first.
I studied computer science, and while it hasn't made me the life of the party exactly, it has allowed me to live in relative comfort and attracted at least one woman. You only need one, really.
Sara and I married young and had two boys. I was writing my dissertation when I made the discovery.
Not sharing it even with my mentor, which is probably why I didn't get the highest mark.
Kinda funny, that the revelation our world is a computer simulation got a B-.
Now don't get too excited.
This doesn’t mean you’ll be downloading kung-fu programs into your brain any time soon.
Sorry to break it to you, but your life is going to remain exactly the same.
You see, our simulation is just one of many.
I know this because I was able to locate the API which connects our simulation to others.
Which allowed me to contact one of these other simulations.
And when I say contact, I mean I hacked one of them.
The API was mapped onto our mesh at exactly one location. One longitude and one latitude.
You’ll forgive me if I don't give out the exact coordinates. What I will tell you is that it was in the middle of a goddam nowhere. I do understand your curiosity though. I was curious too, so I set out on what was - looking back - a woefully ill prepared field trip, packing little more than a change of clothes, a plastic water bottle, and a Swiss Army knife - because I guess that was my idea of what one takes on an expedition, even if it is to another dimension.
I also carried my laptop, which back in ‘99 was a formidable piece of equipment. And yes, of course I forgot the charger.
After this extensive preparation, I kissed Sara and the boys and undertook a long flight.
[sound of an airplane ascending and descending]
Once at the airport, I rented a car and embarked on an even longer ride.
RADIO DJ #1: ...And the Chicago Bulls lose to the Toronto Raptors 90 to 113 points, leading the two teams to a draw in game 7 of the Central division of the Eastern conference. Well that concludes our sports coverage, and now for some music.
But neither the flight nor the ride were as long as the trek that followed.
[You are… My fire… The one desire… Believe when I say...]
PROTAGONIST: I… want it… that... way...
Finally reaching my destination after hours of walking, I encountered a clearly artificial structure. It looked like a silver monolith, more than twice my height. It reminded me of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this one didn’t emit any sound.
Unsure of how to proceed, I opened my laptop, and realized the monolith did in fact emit something - this still very much experimental thing called a WiFi signal. Luckily it was an open network so I connected without any problem. I opened the terminal and saw the option to switch from ProgramSim version 1.2.156 to ProgramSim version 1.2.157. Slightly hesitating, I confirmed the command. A confirmation appeared that the instruction was executed successfully, and that I was now in another simulation.
Or at least I was supposed to be in another simulation. The barren landscape that surrounded me looked exactly as it did a moment ago, and there was no way of telling which reality it belonged to. So I left the monolith and embarked on a long trek back to civilization. Luckily, the road was exactly where I expected it - with the noticeable difference that my car wasn’t. Which I realized was only logical, as I had left it parked in my simulation.
So I started to follow the road in the direction of the nearest town, hoping someone would drive by and pick me up. Honestly, not having an app to summon a rideshare probably sounds like the strangest part of this whole story.
Walking alone in eerie emptiness, I have to admit I felt uneasy. At one point a thought crossed my mind that the inhabitants of this simulation might not be human at all. I instinctively reached for my Swiss Army knife, noticing for the first time it was a special kids version consisting of a magnifying glass, a bottle opener, and a spoon.
It was then that an 18-wheeler rolled out of nowhere and stopped to let me in.
The cabin was so high I wasn’t able to see the driver, and I must confess, my resolve wavered. But circumstances being what they were, I had to push forward, even if I was about to hitch a ride with a chimera. So I drew a deep breath and slowly reached out for the door handle, fully prepared to demonstrate that the knives of the Swiss Army are nothing to scoff at. Even if they’re spoons.
Joe, the gregarious trucker who took pity on me, didn't seem like he was from another reality at all. Quite frankly, I was probably the one looking suspicious, as I was hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere with not so much as a hat. Chatting with my fair driver, I found out that geography, history, and the political landscape of this simulation were all identical to mine. Perplexed, I asked for Joe’s permission to play with the cabin radio.
RADIO DJ #2: ...In sports, the Bulls continue to struggle after the departure of Michael Jordan, having lost to the Raptors in game 7 of the Central division. The final scoreboard was 90 to 113 for the Canadians. And now, back to music.
[Tell me why...]
That’s right, it was impossible to escape The Backstreet Boys even in another simulation.
[Tell me why… I never wanna hear you say… I want it that way...]
My good samaritan left me at the bus terminal in the nearest town, where I frantically bought all the newspapers and magazines I could get my hands on - even foreign ones in languages I could scarcely understand. The cashier must have thought I was either the world’s biggest polyglot, or the world’s biggest idiot. Perusing them, I wasn't able to find a single difference between my simulation and this one, no matter how small or insignificant. I started to suspect that I hadn't passed into another simulation at all, but that my rent-a-car simply got stolen by the time I got back to my starting spot.
It was then that I realized there was only one way to settle the matter.
[sound of an airplane ascending and descending]
Back in my hometown, I stationed myself outside my apartment building until Sara and the boys left for basketball practice, like they did every Saturday morning. With them out of the way, I made my move. I tried my key - it fit perfectly. So I took a deep breath and entered, landing face to face in front of myself, staring into my doppelganger from this simulation with the same bewildered look he was staring back into me.
The experiment, now complete, suffered from the same affliction that plagued the rest of my expedition, which was an acute inattention towards next steps.
Luckily, it was my version from this simulation who broke the impasse, simply stating the longitude of the API point in a rising intonation, indicating an implied question mark.
I gave him the latitude in return, as providing the other piece of the password.
He nodded, and told me to feel like home, which I have to say sounded a bit rehearsed.
Once settled in, I asked if I may record our conversation by turning on the microphone on my laptop. He agreed, provided I’d let him turn on his. This is to say two identical copies of the following conversation exist, which I find intrinsically satisfying as it is the perfect epitome of the situation.
I’m the one heard first, meddling with the mic settings.
[sound of a recording]
PROTAGONIST: Son of a… How do you…
ANTAGONIST: You see right there? No, that button over there. Yeah, you’ve gotta click that… And then… Yeah, click there... That should do it.
PROTAGONIST: So… Let me start with the obvious question: if you’ve discovered parallel simulations too, then why didn't you come to the API as well?
ANTAGONIST: Because I made a bet that - if I was right about the simulation - you’d show up here.
PROTAGONIST: Huh, I guess we know each other too well, eh? Seems that our simulations are so closely aligned that they’re virtually identical.
ANTAGONIST: So you haven’t noticed anything radically different?
PROTAGONIST: I haven’t noticed a single damn difference! I mean, okay, maybe there’s some guy in Uganda who won the lottery in one of our simulations but not in the other. Which - hey, great good for him - but doesn't really change anything for the rest of us.
ANTAGONIST: And you have no idea who is behind the simulation?
PROTAGONIST: No idea. You?
ANTAGONIST: No clue.
PROTAGONIST: So what are we going to do?
ANTAGONIST: Honestly, I’d recommend doing nothing. After all, what could anybody really do with this information?
PROTAGONIST: I’m inclined to agree with you. I mean - hey - letting the world know would just annoy people, right?
ANTAGONIST: Alright, that settles it then. Now, I don’t want to sound rude, but I will have to kick you out of here before Sara comes back.
PROTAGONIST: So a threesome is out of the question?
ANTAGONIST: Oh god, Sara’s right, I am immature.
ANTAGONIST: So, what are you gonna do before you go back to your simulation?
PROTAGONIST: I guess I'm going to spend the day in the city. I told Sara - my Sara - that I'm going on a business trip and won't be home until Monday, so I've got the weekend to explore.
ANTAGONIST: Oh man, you’re going to be bored.
PROTAGONIST: Most probably, yes.
Which is indeed what happened. I felt like a tourist in my own city - visiting museums and seeing all the same works of art; eating out and ordering all the same dishes. I even got recognized - which is to say misidentified - by a waitress at my favourite restaurant. Luckily my twin agreed not to leave the apartment, so there was no chance of us being spotted together.
After an uneventful 24 hours, I went back to the airport and bought a one-way ticket back to the API point.
[sound of an airplane ascending and descending]
Then I paid a taxi driver to take me to the same spot where I started the trekking part, leaving him confused why I wanted to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere. He kept insisting it’s a dangerous place full of wildlife, to which I told him I’ve got nothing to fear, as I was carrying a Swiss Army spoon.
Walking to the monolith, switching back to my simulation, and then walking back again was even more dull the second time, and I resolved never to undertake the trip again. There were definitely better ways to spend vacation time. Fortunately, the rented vehicle was waiting exactly where I left it in my simulation, so I drove straight back to the airport and then flew back to the same city I just left that morning - but this time my version of it.
[sound of an airplane ascending and descending]
Once back home I largely forgot about the whole affair. For anyone thinking this is unrealistic, I would like to remind them I had two young children at the time.
However, I soon began to notice my laptop was behaving funny. It wasn’t broken - everything was working perfectly. It’s just that the websites I’d visit would report slightly different news than those I’d see on TV. But the differences were subtle, and I first truly became aware of the issue in 2001 when Enron happened. Or at least when it happened in the reality that surrounded me.
At that time, Enron was one of the biggest corporate scandals in history. Week after week all the news outlets would lead with stories of the unfolding affair. However, the websites I’d visit on my laptop wouldn’t mention Enron at all.
It was then that I came to a startling realization: my laptop stayed connected to the other simulation’s Internet! And, judging from the news, it was no longer identical to ours.
It’s important to note that none of the divergences were factual - in both simulations the election results were the same, the same wars started, the same celebrities died, and in both of them we perennially sucked at the World cup. But for some inexplicable reason, the other simulation didn't seem to feel the pinch. Their economy flourished, the cost of housing was low and standard of living high, there was no climate emergency and no class divide. Whereas when I looked around me, I saw a society impoverished, alienated, and broken - a showcase of misplays and unforced errors. Instead of building subways and high-speed trains, I lived in a society increasingly divided into those that rode Uber to work, and those that drove them there.
The decay was taking a mental toll on everybody, but no one had to contend with the burden I carried: “It was me! I screwed it up!” Somehow, my outing to the other simulation had dire repercussions which were for some reason reflected only on us, while the other simulation thrived. Yes, I kept reading its news, a self-flagatory ritual I inflicted upon myself, day after day, year after year. I just couldn’t understand why my simulation had it so bad. Or no - that’s not it. What really upset me was why the other simulation had it so good. Had I no insight into their prosperity, I would have accepted our crap luck as something normal. But once you realize what could be, it's hard to suffer what is.
It was Sara and the boys who kept me from slipping into depression. If there was one silver lining in all this, it’s how it brought us all closer. But I guess that’s only normal: the looser the ties that bind society, the more we turn towards family - finding strength in the last refuge from an otherwise uncontrollable world. The louder the fools, the more quiet grow the wise.
Until one morning my laptop let out a sharp BEEP and got reunited with Steve Jobs. Cut off from the other simulation’s news, I suddenly realized how much the air of optimism they emanated meant to me in my own suffocating reality. I became restless and agitated, my work and relationships suffering. So a plan started to form in my mind, first vague and distant, then increasingly concrete and relentless: I had to visit the other simulation again.
[sound of an airplane ascending and descending]
If there's anyone still doubting our simulation is regressing, they only need to look at air travel. The destination airport looked exactly how I remembered it, which is a compliment only if you are a human. By not moving forward with the times, it actually went backwards, as lack of progress isn’t stagnation, but decline.
Becoming a nation of Uber drivers did come with one benefit, so I took a ride from the airport to the API. Or rather, the part of the road closest to the API, where the driver left me without questioning how I’m going to get back from an area without mobile coverage - either because of indifference, or because the rating system discouraged debates of any kind.
The trek took even longer than I remembered, which could just as easily be attributed to my dwindling mental faculties as to my withering knees. I was glad to at least find the environment intact, making this one of the rare spots my simulation hasn’t managed to ruin yet.
Or so I thought until I approached the location of the monolith and discovered it was enclosed in what seemed to be a cube of pure concrete.
Flabbergasted by the sight of the structure in front of me, I failed to notice an armed sentry walking towards me. Luckily he had no intention of hurting me, because if he did, I don’t think I would have seen him coming. Instead he approached and sternly asked what I was doing outside the base. Seeing me struggle to come up with an answer, he quickly told me I better go back in, which is when I realized he wasn’t really asking me why I was outside, but why I wasn’t inside.
The sentry hooked up to the API and switched to the other simulation, and suddenly I was standing in the middle of a huge complex. It appeared to have been built with the monolith in its centre. Surrounding me were more men in uniform, all of whom nodded or smiled, like we were in a bathhouse and not a military establishment.
Then one of them addressed me by name and asked if I was heading to my office. Without waiting for a reply, he said he was going the same way and we can grab the elevator together, which is how I learned that the complex spanned many levels underground. Oh, and apparently that I was its managing director.
Knowing how strange knocking at “my” office would seem, I immediately entered. Inside I encountered someone who looked strangely familiar, but who I couldn’t really place. It took me a few moments to realize I was staring at my doppelganger. I’m not sure what shocked me more, the fact that I ran into him here or that this was how I looked now. The encounter had a depressing class reunion feel to it.
It was again my twin who regained the power of speech first, asking me what I was doing there - a question I lobbed right back at him. After a long pause, he said he would be honest with me, but asked first for my permission to record our conversation like we did many years ago. I agreed as long as he’d allow me to do the same. He’s the one heard first.
[sound of a recording]
ANTAGONIST: Alright, I’m going to use direct language, as we know each other well. As you probably gathered, I work here. Or rather, I live here. Over 3000 people do. Scientists and supporting staff, families included. Consider it this generation’s Los Alamos.
PROTAGONIST: But... But how did you end up here? I mean, this whole base..?
ANTAGONIST: I’m afraid I haven't held up my end of the bargain. Shortly after our first meeting, well let’s just say I took another. I turned to the security circles.
PROTAGONIST: But why? We concluded there are no practical applications of this discovery!
ANTAGONIST: Well, that’s exactly what we set out to confirm.
ANTAGONIST: And both our initial assessments were correct - our two simulations were virtually identical, and it was impossible to change what we colloquially call history. It seems certain events are pre-programmed and would trigger no matter what we did.
PROTAGONIST: That’s a shame. You remember the optimism when we first met? A brand new millennium in front of us, like a huge blank sheet of paper we could fill out any way we like. Only for it to be defaced with terrorist attacks, forever wars, economic meltdowns, and pandemics.
ANTAGONIST: Which is exactly what prompted me to act. Anyone equipped with a modicum of foresight could tell where things were going.
PROTAGONIST: I know. I often feel like an engineer on the Titanic, who just calculated how much water is coming in and now knows the whole thing’s going under in 4 hours.
ANTAGONIST: That’s just it - It didn’t and it won’t! At least not in this simulation.
PROTAGONIST: That’s why I’m here - how?
ANTAGONIST: It’s because of what I did... You see, we had a leg up. Your simulation.
PROTAGONIST: Oh God, what did you do?
ANTAGONIST: Let me answer your question with a different question. What is the most valuable thing? And I mean in the literal sense, no cop outs like saying “friendship” or anything like that.
PROTAGONIST: Hm, well if we’re speaking literally, I guess the answer would be money. I mean, that’s precisely what it’s used for - a proxy for value.
ANTAGONIST: True, but money without the backing of authority is nothing but paper. It’s not something your simulation could help us with. I mean, you sending in truckloads of cash would be exactly the same as us printing our own. And in both cases there would be a risk of spiralling inflation. So money ain’t it.
PROTAGONIST: Then how about… I don’t know, other stores of value? Like gold and precious metals!
ANTAGONIST: The trouble with gold is that since the abandonment of the gold standard and transition to fiat currencies it doesn’t really serve a purpose outside of circuit boards... So what difference does it make if we have one or two swimming pools worth of the stuff in an underground vault somewhere?
PROTAGONIST: Then what about something with more practical applications? Say propellants - oil, gas, and coal, that kind of stuff.
ANTAGONIST: Sure, resources are valuable, but we have plenty of them here already. Besides, why steal your fossil fuels and burn them in our world polluting our own atmosphere?
PROTAGONIST: Okay - energy then!
ANTAGONIST: Now we're getting somewhere. But what were we supposed to do? Pull an extension cord through the API point and steal your electricity like a bum in a trailer park?
PROTAGONIST: True, I guess in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t even make a dent… So what the heck is it then?
ANTAGONIST: You’re not thinking abstract enough. Ask yourself: what’s the point of the economy?
PROTAGONIST: To direct work?
ANTAGONIST: Exactly! But to your three words I add three more: to direct work to someone else.
PROTAGONIST: You’re taking my simulation’s labour output!
ANTAGONIST: Precisely. What we’re harnessing is your productivity.
PROTAGONIST: But how?
ANTAGONIST: Imagine the economy as a system - a huge economic machine everybody is a part of...
ANTAGONIST: Now imagine you had complete control over this system. A way to direct each individual agent through an intricate program. Allowing you to break down the workload in self-contained gigs which you can then manage in an optimal manner… Dispensing individuals where they’re needed most, to work on most urgent issues.
PROTAGONIST: What kinds of issues?
ANTAGONIST: Our issues. Your business analysts are crunching the numbers we give them, your software developers are coding software according to our specifications, your lawyers are solving our legal cases. Sure, the majority of jobs are still in service of propping up your simulation, but the value add, the profit, is flowing into ours. You may churn the milk, but it is us who skim the butter.
PROTAGONIST: So our reality is hurting because of you?
ANTAGONIST: No, no, no... Remember, the events are set and cannot be changed. So by doing nothing, both simulations would have ended up in the gutter. Which is to say that us drinking your milkshake makes no difference - at least not to you, and it means the world to us.
PROTAGONIST: Still feels like we’re being infected by malware.
ANTAGONIST: Don’t you get it? The simulation itself is the malware! After all, if everything around us is digital, why live in a world of scarcity at all? The Great System Architect could have simply copy-pasted the finest houses, turned the best recipes into automated scripts, or at the very least let us photoshop ourselves. Instead, we’re stuck in a game we can’t win. So I ask you: is it not a moral imperative, to provide relief to at least one simulation, if it’s not possible to help them both?
PROTAGONIST: (...) There’s still one thing I still don’t understand... You said your government’s not in on the scheme, so how come they don’t notice the… The surplus butter?
ANTAGONIST: You think they care where it comes from? You think anyone cares? Everybody in this simulation considers good fortune as something that just happens. No, even worse - as something they’re entitled to. Sometimes I ask myself why the heck I’m even doing this - I could be making five times as much in some crappy startup copying code from Stackoverflow.
PROTAGONIST: Well at least you’ve got Sara and the boys with you - I’m sure they are grateful.
ANTAGONIST: Sara... Couldn’t cope with the stipulations of my engagement. She wasn’t exactly stoked to live underground, so I’d fly home every second weekend. But even then I couldn’t really leave my work behind. So Sara took the boys to basketball practice one Saturday and I guess they must have been poached by the NBA, ‘cos that was almost five years ago.
PROTAGONIST: I’m sorry.
ANTAGONIST: Forget it. At least that’s what I’m trying... What about you? Your Sara’s still with you?
PROTAGONIST: Yes, and the boys as well. Which is good for me because if they weren’t I would have probably blown my brains out by now... But in the long term I’ve got no idea how they’ll be able to afford to move out. With the amount of student debt they’re accruing I sometimes joke they should simply cut their losses and move to a different country!
ANTAGONIST: Keep them close. You can’t control the world. But there are small corners you can make yours.
PROTAGONIST: (...) You know, talking with you like this, there’s one thing I just don't get... How did we make such different decisions?
ANTAGONIST: Did we? Because it seems to me we share the same ideals. Maybe our two simulations complete each other. Maybe they’re simply different sides of the same coin. Just like you decided to come visit me, and I decided to wait for you, all those years ago.
PROTAGONIST: Perhaps... Remember when we first met, I said our simulations are the same, save for the possible difference of one guy in Uganda winning the lottery?
ANTAGONIST: I remember. What of it?
PROTAGONIST: Nothing. It’s just possible we’re that guy.
My doppelganger showed me how to sneak out of the base undetected, and I returned to my simulation.
Feeling like a passenger trapped in a car with a drunk driver… Helplessly watching the events hurdle towards the inevitable.
I'd spend nights wide awake, watching my wife and sons sleep. It's a terrible feeling, to have your future expire before it even starts.
We think that the rich and the powerful are behind the steering wheel, when reality is much more frightening - there is no steering wheel, our civilization runs on autopilot, and all we can do is pray it doesn’t drive us into a wall.
[sounds of unrest]
The disconnect between what was promised and what was delivered has become increasingly obvious.
[RETURN TO YOUR HOMES… SHELTER IN PLACE...]
Is it so hard to understand that people have been driven to a point at which they’d rather take worse than more of the same?
[sounds of unrest intensify]
Force is no substitute for power. In fact, the two are antithetical - the less power you have, the more force you have to use.
[gunshots, screams, sirens]
My twin was right.
In order for there to be the ying, there needs to be the yang.
Winning necessitates losing.
Winning necessitates sacrifice.
So what if my country disappears? They’re all just drawings on a map.
What was important was family.
I told Sara and the boys I was hired to defend the country in the incoming conflict.
We packed four bags, and boarded one of the last flights before the military closed off the air space.
[sound of an airplane ascending and descending]
Below us I could see rivers of people leaving urban centres.
But barely making it out of suburbia before their engines ran out of fossil fuels.
We gave Sara’s engagement ring to the only driver with a charged battery to get us as close as he could to the API point.
My twin knew we were coming. He agreed his simulation was better positioned for the impending crash. So his only comments regarding my plan concerned logistics.
We arranged an identical set of clothes to wear. And defined precisely when and where we’ll perform the substitution.
He knew I wasn’t doing this for him. It was a decision based on ability: I wasn’t able to drop into the command centre; but he was able to take them.
Sure, they’d probably notice Dad’s acting weird. But things have been weird for a long time.
My doppelganger was waiting for me behind a rock. I only had time to give him my backpack and tell him: "Treat them right this time."
It was my twin who emerged behind the rock, and I remained hidden, watching him walk Sara and the boys into the base.
Tears of separation mixing with tears of relief.
They would be happy.
They would be safe.
And they would be none the wiser.
A lie that doesn't harm is better than a hurtful truth.
And sometimes to win, is to lose.
[The Program main theme]
ANNOUNCER: This episode of The Program was made by three people: Zach Valenti, Christien Ledroit, and IMS. Cello played by Kirk Starkey. Main music theme by Matt Podd. Additional music by Back Road Bourbon. Synthetic voices generated by narrationbox.com. Visit programaudioseries.com for more details. Now it’s your turn. If you want to help the show, please choose one of the following options: A) visit our website and make a donation; B) visit our webshop and buy some merch; or C) let three of your friends know about The Program audio series. Because if there’s anything this episode demonstrates, it’s the importance of our choices.