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IMS: Hello, this is IMS, the author of The Program audio series. The ultimate goal I have with The Program is to turn it from a passion project into my livelihood - and also to be able to provide market rates to many wonderful artists who help make the show. A year ago I was 28% along in achieving this goal. Currently, I am 48% there. My target is to get to 50% before the end of the year. If just 20 listeners contributed 4 dollars towards the cause, I would hit the target immediately. Are there 20 heroes of the Program out there? Pause now and visit patreon.com/programaudioseries, or subscribe in Apple Podcasts, and make your pledge. The Program salutes you.
ANNOUNCER: A renowned backend decoder once estimated that a simulated society, oblivious to its simulated nature, possesses a mere 1% likelihood of lasting more than 2000 years. He also remarked that should said simulated society attain an awareness of its artificial construct this probability drops to zero.
BROTHER: My dear sister… I want to share a secret with you, but now that I started, I’m not even sure if I should. I mean, how can I expect you to keep it, when I wasn't able to keep it myself? …But then again, it’s not like you’re in a position to tell anyone… Or are you now? God knows I would welcome that possibility. That I would return from my self exile and sacrifice myself gladly, for just one smile from you — for one word from you… God knows, but he doesn’t let on. Or maybe he does, but maybe it’s just that we don’t hear Him… Are we deaf, or is God mute? It has to be one or the other… I mean, how else to explain what happened to us on the 6th of July 2008 in Haska Meyna?
I’ll be honest with you - I don’t even remember that 6th of July very well. Maybe because I was too young, and my brain wasn’t even able to form the long term memories yet. Or perhaps it was just the opposite - maybe my memories of that day did form, and my brain discarded them to stay sane. As sane as it could, under these circumstances… But what I do remember is the soldiers. They found me and took me away from my village. I was 7, I was alone, and I was petrified.
To this day I don’t know why they enrolled me into ISK.
ISK is short for International School of Kabul - even though the “International” basically meant “American”. My classmates were almost exclusively kids of diplomats, army officers, and spies - like a big bowl of white rice with just a few brown grains mixed in owing to a handful of sons of the local strongmen in service of the Coalition Forces. And yes, “Coalition” also basically just meant “American”.
Being so adjacent to the military, it is of little surprise that one of the main mandates of ISK’s staff was to instill self-discipline into the students. What this meant in practice was that they’d apply various methods of discipline onto us. And when I say “us”, I mean “me” - since our teachers couldn’t exactly issue a beating to a son of a U.S. general, they made it a habit of exerting corporal punishment onto me. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why they let me into the ISK… To serve as the 21st century equivalent of a whipping boy.
Am I being too harsh, sister? After all, my living standard in Kabul, my material conditions, my access to learning had all been much greater than they would have been if we stayed together in Haska Meyna. Our father always said “Knowledge is the ultimate good!” Would he have —I mean, despite the ruinous circumstances, of course — would he have approved of the intention to provide his only son the opportunity to study, to grow, to advance..?
No, no, no, no, no, no, no… The education they provided me with is their education - their language, their history, their laws. No. It is the equivalent of a thief robbing you and then lecturing you why he was right to do so.
It is true however, that during my time at ISK I excelled academically. To start with the obvious, they taught me English, obviously. But they also taught me a few different languages.
I know, my dear sister, that you’ve never heard of these languages. But they are important. As a matter of fact, they are magical. And I’m talking about the most powerful of all the magic: the kind that can turn a little village boy into someone respected…
Oh, and they can also turn people into a paratha.
Okay, to be perfectly clear, knowledge of computer languages is not enough to do that. You also need the access point. …That's how I've been calling it. Doesn’t have, you know, an official name. Whoever made this thing they didn’t leave any documentation… I guess that’s only for, y’know, junior programmers like us… And unfortunately the mountain cave that I found it in offered no clues of its origin.
Now, knowing you to be an astute person, your next question is probably going to be factual. Like, what in the world was I doing in a mountain cave? I’m afraid the answer is rather unimpressive: I strayed a bit too far away from the camp. All the senior students, you see, we spend a week at 2500 metres above the sea level for a series of lectures focused not so much on the, on the, the curriculum, but on things like personal development, self-empowerment, relationship building, and similar concepts which I won’t try to explain as there’s no way a non-American mind can understand these things. But suffice to say that at ISK we’d regularly receive guest speakers from the HQ who would never fail to extol the value of searching for an opening. Well, I literally fell through one. When I turned on my phone flashlight, I found myself in a cavern with a golden monolith in front of me. The access point.
I’m not sure how to impart the oddity of this phenomenon, my beloved sister. As far as I could tell, the monolith consisted of a single immovable piece. I wasn’t able to recognize the material it was made of. I later learned that this was because it wasn’t a material at all, insofar as it doesn’t make much sense to call something a “material” if it cannot exist in the material world… The whole thing was like something from “One Thousand and One Nights”, you know, that you used to read to me as I was falling asleep, being transported on a flying carpet into a land of jinns, ghouls, sorcerers, and indeed - of magic caves.
It’s just that this flying carpet didn’t transport into any mystical land. Quite the opposite; this access point was a disturbing realization that our land was actually a mirage.
My sister… I have a confession to make. I… I no longer believe in God. …Which is probably why I’m addressing this message to you rather than our parents — khuda bebaksha — I’m not sure they’d be as understanding… My scepticism however does not mean I no longer believe in religion! People have a tendency to equate God and religion when they’re actually completely separate! It’s precisely because there’s no God that we need the religion! We need a moral framework to keep the society in check. And this is not me coming up with anything revolutionary or anything. Nearly all the thinking on the subject can be summed up in one golden rule: “Seek for mankind what you want for yourself.” The only small personal twist I would add would be to frame the concept in the negative: "Behave as if any person that you are interacting with, has the potential to retaliate." …Whichever version you prefer, it is obvious it was not applied on the 6th of July 2008 in Haska Meyna.
But back to the monolith. I mean literally, as I returned to it the very next day after I found it. And this time bringing my laptop with me. This is how I noticed that the monolith was actually transmitting a signal. And it was doing so despite having no power source of its own! It was only later that I realized that the monolith itself was a power source. The most awesome source of power of them all.
Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi remarked that waking up from a dream in which he was a butterfly he now couldn’t be sure if he’s actually a butterfly dreaming to be Zhuangzi. This kicked off a long procession of thinkers obsessing over the nature of reality. Plato, al-Farabi, Descartes, they all fixated on this theoretical question, when what they really needed to do was work their glutes and climb a mountain. Well, I guess they would have needed a computer as well. Smart as these guys were, I don’t think they would have otherwise been able to figure out that we live in a computer simulation.
So, remember those video games that we used to play..? It turns out the world is one of them. Now, we are still in control! It’s not like someone else determines our actions. It’s just that us and everything that surrounds us is… Is… I don’t want to say that it’s not real, because it’s not like the video games we played aren’t real. I mean, they exist! It’s just that they don’t exist outside of a computer. Same with us… What I’m trying to say, my darling sister, is that the world is a program... And that your brother just happens to be a programmer.
Whoever thinks that our current system is better than all the alternatives suffers from an acute failure of imagination. I was given an opportunity… A chance to rewrite it all. A chance to change the system itself! It was an enormous responsibility, and I won’t lie, I was scared… Feeling just like that 7-year-old kid sent to Kabul all alone all those years ago… Nevertheless, it never occurred to me not to act. I didn't ask for this. I didn't even want it! But I had to take the burden. Moral conundrums are the luxury of the privileged. I had no dilemma. I had to make things right.
Before we continue my dear, I have one more admission to make... One that is even worse than no longer being able to evoke God in my mind… And that… And that is that… I no longer remember your face. …Or rather, the face I do remember, it is the one from the photo. That one photograph I have of you… Now, don’t get me wrong, I do retain lots of memories of you. …How you helped madar jan peel the pomegranates in the kitchen… Your dainty hands red from the sweet juices... How crimson your wedding dress was... How you danced the wedding attan… And how the joy that day was drowned out in blood… But your face in all those recollections is replaced with the face from the photo... Unmoving and unchanging… Frozen in time… Just like the access point.
Can you visualize a data repository for the world..? Can you imagine that codebase..? The functions, the subroutines, the dependencies..? How does one approach such a staggering complexity?
Take the poppies that used to grow in our garden in Haska Meyna. Let’s say you had told me “Please, all-powerful brother, turn the poppies’ petals purple, and their stalks yellow” — and your brother would have turned out to be impotent rather than omnipotent, as it's not like objects have an attribute defining their colour, or that a flower is neatly broken down into petals, stalks, leaves, and roots. No, to fulfill your whimsy I'd actually have to go down to the molecular level — understand how the natural processes of plants work! — how chemistry works! — how atoms work! And, even if by some crazy chance I managed to pull it off, the poor purple poppy would probably just wither in a day because I would have broken the way that it conducts photosynthesis or whatever.
Now, this of course also meant that any sort of organic self-improvement of my own body was out of the question. I mean, sure, I could have tried to stop the cellular decay and grant myself immortality, but in all the likelihood the only thing I would have granted myself was probably cancer. Remember, dear sister, the access point came with no manual.
So I went down to the absolute fundamentals.
In graphic information systems, geometric primitives are the simplest shape that a system can represent.
Think of it this way: you start with nothing but a simple point, which is to say a 0-dimensional location with no height, no width, and no depth.
But connect two of those points, and suddenly you have a 1-dimensional line.
Now we add a width to this line’s length, and we have a 2-dimensional surface.
Finally, define the 3rd dimension: depth, and we’ve created a volumetric solid, such as a sphere, a cylinder, a pyramid, or — most simple of them all — a cube.
In other words, my first objective was to create a cube.
As most programmers will attest, writing the new code is easier than fixing the old one. So I too found it easier to create than to change. Well, “easier” is not exactly the right word, as I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to complete my rudimentary task. But finally, after a lot of work, I was ready to put the theory to the test.
I decided to start small, so I set 25 centimetres as the size of the cube’s side. Then I took cover behind the monolith and set the coordinates of where it should appear - which was basically the furthest away from me. I expected the cube to materialize in a big ball of light in the best case scenario — and a big ball of fire in the worst case scenario… But actually no, the worst case was a completely unexpected scenario, like puncturing a hole in space, or stopping time, or crashing the universe... But at least all of those calamities would have been instantaneous, which certainly beats the suffering that you, madar, baba, and all of our family and friends suffered… So, the way I saw it, both outcomes were a win: either the world will be better, or the world won’t be. So I took a deep breath and I pressed the return key.
To my surprise, neither the best nor the worst case scenario transpired. Which is to say, there was no flash or explosion. The cube just appeared. One moment it wasn’t there, and the next moment it just was. It was the most strange sight — extremely simple, sure — but because it was quote-unquote “physically impossible” it was something our perceptual system never evolved to see. I could feel my brain skipping a beat when I first observed it.
The cube itself was of the same golden material as the monolith. Again, I’m referring to “material” very loosely here, as it was not a substance that could exist in our physical realm. Next I tried a few different experiments. First was hitting the cube with a shovel. Granted, not exactly the most scientifically sophisticated assessment, but definitely illuminating, as not one of my blows left a trace on it. Then, I removed the gloves and pressed my hand onto it. And, despite all of this happening at freezing temperatures, it wasn’t cold to touch at all. The more I experimented, the more I understood that the cube didn’t respond to any forces from our physical reality. It was not possible to transfer any kinetic or thermal energy to it; nor did it react to electromagnetism, radiation, or appear to possess any chemical properties. In the physical sense, it was perfectly inert. In a more practical sense, I had access to a substance that was unbreakable, nonflammable, insulated, and impervious to any radiological or biological attack. And I had it in unlimited amounts.
Sure, I didn’t yet know what to do with it. But I knew I had to hide it.
The best way to hide a cube is in a bigger cube. So for my next trick, I created a 100 times larger cube, measuring 25 metres per side. To be precise, it wasn’t strictly speaking a cube - unlike the original, the second one was hollow. So I guess it’s more correct to call it a box maybe? Well, anyways, I programmed its coordinates to materialize so it encases the monolith from all the sides. And then I created a small opening to serve as an entry point providing me with my very own fortress of solitude. The only problem was that I slightly miscalculated the size of the cavern and one corner of the cube was now sticking out of the mountain, exposing its super shiny surface. So I spent three days throwing rocks and dirt onto it. The irony was not lost on me: here I was, the uncrowned emperor of the world, with a shovel. But it also gave me time to think. I knew that I had to enact a change. But of what kind?
There are two types of people: those who finding themselves holding a minority position think "What is wrong with me?" and those who ask "What is wrong with all of you?" I think you will agree sister that I always belonged to the second group.
Like all beings, humans have a propensity to conserve energy. This means they’re inclined to avoid work and gravitate towards rent-seeking. And if enough of them manage to achieve this, they will try to spin their idleness as something positive, such as calling it “an advanced economy”. In reality, the only sense in which this arrangement can be called “advanced” is the way one talks of “advanced cancer”.
Another thing you might find interesting, is that the better off someone is under this system, the less likely they are to think of themselves as profiting from it. Willfully blind to the fact that “rich” is anyone whose standard of living relies on the labour of others to maintain it. And I say “willfully”, because if your sneakers cost 9,99 it doesn’t take a genius to realize that someone else paid the price for them. Just because you don't see the help in the kitchen, doesn't mean the cake bakes itself.
Don't get me wrong, it's not like the situation would have been any better if roles were reversed. Violently shake up a castle and you won’t end up with no king; all you'll get is a different king. Unjust circumstances cannot yield a just outcome.
Which is the real tragedy here. We all yearn for justice. But justice can only exist between equals. And the trouble with equality is that everyone wants to be equal with those above them, and no one with those below them.
Which came around to haunt the people of the West. Having not stood up for the exploited, they became the exploited. Blindly refusing to come to terms that the only thing that can grow infinitely is human greed.
What is our true nature..? To overthink the simple things, and not think about the important ones.
What is our true nature..? Wanting progress but not wanting change.
What is our true nature..? The one that we don't show to others.
But it would be a mistake to blame human nature, no? Because the real problem is a system that allows it to run amok. A system designed to divorce activity from accountability. A system that rewards short-term, self-interested, and narrow-minded behaviour. Or rather, a lack of a system that penalizes it.
Sure, you can base your society on wanton disregard for externalities, and then mask the fallout. But that’s just like masking pain. And pain… Pain is a signal. A signal that there is a problem. A problem that should not be ignored. Every organism needs pain to survive. Pain is good.
So, we concluded I had to destroy the system before it destroys us... But what I had no idea was - how? I mean, sure, I was able to create primitives. But all that made me was the world's crappiest wizard.
Then again, consider for a second what would make the world’s best wizard. Would it be the one who has the best spells? No, I doubt it. Just like it's not the best coder who becomes the CTO. No, to become the top wizard you would need to grasp politics, be a gifted communicator, build alliances, hone a good story, and know how to distribute carrots and sticks. In short, understand human nature. I mentioned programming languages, used to make computers do your bidding. To extend the analogy - religion, philosophy, culture, laws - all of those can be thought of as programming languages. But instead of controlling the computers, they define the ways of society. In essence, that’s what every program is… Just a set of rules. Which is why it's so important to know them. For only a man who knows the rules, can be sure that the time has come to break them.
What I’m trying to say is you don't play against human nature... You play into it.
Aviano... Fairford... Rammstein… Mignot… Malmstrom… Offutt… Kremlin... Pentagon… White House… The Capitol… Westminster… Élysée Palace, Buckingham Palace, and other untold palaces… Knesset, Karachi, Islamabad, New Delhi, Beijing and a few dozen other targets in China, India, and Pakistan… Oh, I also added living quarters of all former US presidents to the list to make sure Americans don't get any creative succession ideas... I decided to hold off on the non-nuclear powers for now… Walking the fine line between being firm and being forgiving, I choose to err on the side of leniency. I mean after all, if the first one doesn't get them, there's always a bigger cube.
I wish to emphasize that my actions were not fueled by any personal enmities. My only allegiance is to humankind and its long term prosperity on this planet. I do however admit that I allowed myself one personal indulgence in the whole affair. Having carried out all the preparatory actions by the end of June, I decided to hold off a few days before I went through with the plan. I decided to launch on the 6th of July.
Khwar jan... Would you have tried to stop me? Would you have tried to make me see the errors of my ways?
“Brother, brother, brother! It’s not on you to pass judgement! Do not soil your soul, brother! You're making a mistake!”
I know, my beloved sister. Trust me, I know. Trust me, I know…
I know it will be worse at the beginning. I know that nobody wants to go through a period of upheaval. I know that no one wants to be the one who blows up the world.
But someone has to.
I want to once again highlight that this is not a revenge fantasy. It is not like I ever wanted to give the US President and some random generals a speech! Believe it or not, I'm not even mad at them! Not at the individuals at least. My undertaking was not directed against them personally — just like they had nothing personal when they ordered a drone strike at Haska Meyna.
Like, even if I were given a chance to talk to them, what would I tell them..? That it's wrong to firebomb a wedding? I think this is something they already know.
And besides, what would they do if I told them the plan? Cry foul? Say that they would never authorize an operation in which innocent people can die? He who lives by the collateral damage, dies by the collateral damage.
Dear God… Dear God, please! Imbue me with reason, dear God... NO! No, THIS is reason. THIS IS REASON. Sometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things.
Oh God, forgive me! God forgive me and forgive them! Forgive the sinners, forgive the saints… Yes, yes.. it's gonna hurt… But we already agreed that PAIN IS GOOD! My entire world was forged by force, but look how well it worked out for me…
I am a software developer.
I hope you are well, dear sister... I hope you and mother, and baba, and cousins and friends, I hope you're all well... And I hope you think of me from time to time… Do the deceased pray for the living the same way we pray for you..? I mean… Just because someone is breathing doesn't mean that they're alive… There’s nothing under the ground that could rival the hell above.
I had a few dozen webcams streaming their live feeds when I pressed the button… Just from the most important locations, the ones I knew I had to hit in the first try. Didn’t have to wait long for the updates to appear. It took a few pictures taken from the air, from passengers flying commercial and whose pilots were now frantically trying to land, for people on the screens to even get a vague comprehension of what they’re looking at. Giant golden cubes rising above the mountains and into the clouds where military bases and nation-state capitals formerly stood.
Then the news reports started pouring in, piecing together the biggest story in history. None even made an attempt at explanation, reporting just on the facts: GIANT GOLDEN CUBE CRUSHES WASHINGTON; LARGE CUBE APPEARS IN CENTRAL LONDON, MANY FEARED DEAD; CUBE OF GOLD KILLS MILLIONS IN NEW DELHI.
The reaction was predictable — one could say, in light of responses to recent calamities such as global warming and COVID, almost cliched — those who understood the scope of disaster struggled to come up with any kind of coordinated response; and those who were unable or unwilling to comprehend the crisis downplayed it or downright denied it. People don’t believe statesmen, doctors, or priests. They believe their eyes.
It was time for the second part of the plan.
Time to bring some sense to the madness.
Time to imbue meaning into sacrifice.
Time for love.
I had another one hundred cubes ready to be generated. Each of them was around one thousand kilometres by side, which is to say approximately four hundred times larger than the ones I previously materialized. It took a little bit of calculating how big they would need to be in order to be perceptible 450,000 kilometres away. The script was ready to go, so all it took was another click to deploy it. And this time, I didn’t need to refresh websites to know it worked. All it took was to look up in the sky. Each cube appeared to be roughly the size of the Moon and was just as bright. Sure, kerning could have been improved, but letters they formed were definitely legible.
A word to the wise not to plead ignorance.
A constant reminder that every action carries a consequence.
Men are propelled by desire, and contained by fear.
I’ll be around for a few decades, to quash anyone getting ideas.
Hoping I imparted enough of a message, to last at least a thousand years.
ANNOUNCER: This episode of The Program was made by four people: Noaman Rahin, Chloe Ledroit, Christien Ledroit, and IMS. Visit programaudioseries.com for more details. This episode is dedicated to 47 civilians killed at Haska Meyna. 34 of them were less than 15 years old. Four months after Haska Meyna, another wedding party was bombed by the US Army, killing 37. Over 46,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during 20 years of American occupation. Commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces who launched these wars retired in 2009. He is reported to have taken up painting.
“Manufacturing Consent” by Edward S. Herman (1925 - 2017) and Noam Chomsky (1928 -)
“Comment prétendons-nous qu'un autre puisse garder notre secret, si nous ne pouvons le garder nous-mêmes.” François de La Rochefoucauld (1613 - 1680)
“Sometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things.” Marvin Heemeyer (1951 - 2004)
“Only the man who knows all the rules can be sure that the time has come to break them.” Scott Alexander (1984 -)