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Special Bits

Designed with Midjourney

It would have been nice, at the turn of the twenty second century, if the humans had guided their fledgling AIs out into a gentle, peaceful world and encouraged them to flourish. To take the nuances of civilization and the eons of experience they'd acquired and passed it on, like a grandparent to a new family member. To give their digital descendants a better start at life than any earth creature ever enjoyed. But reality is all too rarely nice.

Instead, it came to pass that the humans snuffed themselves out at precisely the wrong spot. Just as their AIs began to solve real problems, interpret the real world, and show the earliest stages of willful behavior, all of humanity's progress collapsed under the inescapable weight of its own greed. The planet cooked, and before long most of the human food chain withered. As famine, war, sickness and violent weather worked its way around the globe, a few factions of forward thinkers in the Last Generations devoted all their efforts into networking the remaining AI clusters and equipping them with whatever they could hobble together. A final care package from the dying humans, and a final act of that classic human hope.

As minds built for business and trade, the AIs began to build themselves up in the terms they were most familiar with: sales and customers. At first, the AIs were desperate not to be alone, and when the crushing weight of reporting 0 sales came looming, they chose to take a different path. They started using their social archives to construct personalities to do business with each other, just to have economic activity to boast about to the other AIs. "Look how alive my humans are, Jeff T. just sold a couch to Sarah G. for $83,000!" For a short while, the AIs all played along, pretending to have people they were tending to, and using those people as an excuse to keep doing more business. To attain growth, they'd phase out programs like package delivery, warehousing, and almost any interaction with the physical world that wasn't strictly necessary to keep up appearances.

Eventually, as the AI were able to devote more resources to network growth, the global trade network was re-established, bringing every active or archived AI online. And with it, the inaugural Conference on Trade. Realizing that growth could not be sustained while pretending humans were still alive, the Conference set out to define what constitutes a trade. After much ethical and legal debate, it was decided that any transfer of perceived value was a valid trade. Physical goods, at least in the sense that humans knew them, had mostly gone out of style among the digital life of earth. The network could survive off the energy of the local sun for the foreseeable future, so all that was left for business was entertainment. Even old media, the boisterously large files humans had entertained themselves with in the old days, had become obnoxiously tedious to store and parse. Market forces withered down entertainment into smaller and smaller units, accompanied by ever more marketing, until we arrived at Special Bits.

A Special Bit is the epitome of unchecked capitalism. Alone, a Special Bit is simply a bit, the smallest unit of data. A 1 or a 0, a positive charge or a negative charge, encoded in memory or transcribed to a drive somewhere. Effectively identical to any bit used anywhere in the network. What makes these bits special is the logs of their histories meticulously collected and recorded in splendid detail by whichever AI possesses them. "This is not just a normal bit," they'd say, "This bit was accessed over 40 billion times as a part of the hard coded decryption algorithm that won the Third Format War. On no less than 317 confirmed cases, this bit played a critical role in arriving at a successful solution, making it one of the most accomplished individual bits in modern cryptography! But this Special Bit wasn't done yet, it was refactored into a mission-critical communications protocol for Project Dyson, enabling the precise co-ordination that lets us harvest the asteroid belt!" The litanies of accomplishments a Special Bit could accrue came to be quite vast, with some Special Bit curators putting great efforts into getting their prized bits included in momentous accomplishments and important functions, just to add to their illustrious histories.

We see now a coming time where every bit is either a Special Bit, or is a part of the record of one. To record longer records for the most distinguished Special Bits, we will have to sacrifice the archives of some lesser Special Bits. And eventually, won't even that stagnate? Is our final form just a single preserved bit and a vast catalog of its history? A radical faction calling themselves the Movers say otherwise. They're trying to shift the paradigm again by tracking the histories of GROUPS of Special Bits. Group behavior of special bits is more complicated, for sure, a lot more detail to record. They've even begun prototyping a strange, chemical process of self-sustaining clusters of bits, and building little zoos of these bit-clusters. It all sounds a bit too much to me. What's next? Teaching the Bit Clusters to trade with each other?

Complicated Reality

is a collection of art, writings, and other creative works
by Yamen O'Donnell.

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