What's Expected of Us by Chiang, Ted, 2005


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This is a micro-story, if that is the right term, of less than one thousand words. Chiang has written two of them so far for Nature Magazine's recurring "Nature's Futures" column. The stories are all by noteworthy authors, some of them SF authors, and are about some future technology and the effect it has on humans and the environment. For this story Chiang came up with a device called a "Predictor." The Predictor is a key-fob sized box that blinks a green light one second before a button on its face is pushed by a user.

Think about that for a second.

Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they're playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it's easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can't. If you try to press the button without having seen a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterwards, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There's no way to fool a Predictor.

Despite the neat gizmo, the story really is about human psychology. Can you imagine how addictive a gadget like the Predictor would become? And what would happen to those who used it too much?

Some people, realizing that their choices don't matter, refuse to make any choices at all. Like a legion of Bartleby the Scriveners, they no longer engage in spontaneous action. Eventually, a third of those who play with a Predictor must be hospitalized because they won't feed themselves. The end state is akinetic mutism, a kind of waking coma.

I like what the story has to say about psychology and especially about fate. Freewill appears to be an illusion, and realizing that will push one third of us to death! An excellent if very, very short story.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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