1000 words or less, on future food
At the time of this contest I had been reading a bit about automatic trading agents. David Brin had ranted against them (lifted some of his phrasing almost verbatim), Planet Money had a show about them, and The Dervish House featured them. They are parasites – they provide no value to society and can destabilize markets. So when the topic of “future foods” was announced, I figured I had to try to do something with that. It should’ve been better, but I’m not that good at this sorta thing yet, I did what I could.
by Eneasz Brodski
The first signs that London was sick came in 2193. Earlier that decade AXA had diverted immunological resources into its European Division, alarmed by anemic growth. After a year of treatment with no results, AXA began to suspect toxins in the environment. Once it knew what to search for, it took less than a quarter to realize that London was quietly starving to death.
Creatures thrive by finding a steep gradient of usable energy. Plants utilize the fact that incoming sunlight is much less entropic than the surrounding environment. Some of this gradient is used by the plant to grow and reproduce, some stored away. Animals in turn consume plants for that stored energy, investing the effort to find and chew and digest in order to benefit from some of the remaining gradient. Predators then pounce and kill and digest in the next stage.
Distributed Entities are no different. Developers locate underused resources and transform them from potential economic energy to active trade. These products can often be refined and improved by newer Developers into better products, allowing further growth. At each step the process is fueled by Investors – energy stored from previous activity. These organs direct capital to flow into promising Developers, motivated by the hope of a greater return later.
From outward appearances London seemed healthy. There was plenty of energy coming into the city, and metabolic activity was vigorous. And yet no matter how much she ate she kept losing weight. For decades her rate of innovation had been declining. She had been too embarrassed to admit it, but she hadn’t conceived a new successful corporation in twenty years. All the capital wired into her seemed to be burning up and fueling nothing at all.
AXA immediately notified London and altered the global community as to what it had found. London, finally forced to confront her health issues, turned to Deloitte for medical assistance and to CSC for an audit of her mental processes.
When organisms consume each other there are always losses with each energy transaction; hence the number of predators who can be supported at each scale gets smaller and smaller. Every species must be able to get a steep enough and plentiful enough energy gradient or it dies. When food is scarce it is obvious. But there is another way an organism can be starved, from the inside, through a hijacking of it’s metabolic pathways. Gut parasites insert themselves between the biological fuel and the host in the digestive process, eating at the margins of the energy gradient.
In mere weeks it became obvious London was infested with a vicious strain of flash-trade parasites, programs that would detect market trends in microseconds and initiate millions of automatic trades in anticipation of the decisions that informed agents were making. They did not do any mental labor – did not collect data, study budgets, analyze markets, project returns. They let others do this work, then pounced on any market movement, leaping between the buyer and the seller and snapping up the value gradient that motivated the buyer to make an offer in the first place.
All organisms can survive some parasitic load, but the London 2193 Strain was wide-spread, voracious, and amazingly tenacious. As soon as the severity of the infestation became clear every other Distributed Entity closed their synaptic relays to traffic from London, and the city was effectively quarantined. Months went by as London’s antibodies scoured the city’s networks. Nothing changed as 2193 mutated and replicated, hiding in private databanks and blooming in public sectors, corrupting software agents with code and biological agents with money. Twice London brought down all her markets for a full purge, to no effect. Cisco and Berlin both sent CompSci assets to London in aid, knowing that if they failed only the human portions could return. In the end, only the humans did.
London degenerated quickly after the quarantine was imposed. Non-synaptic goods could still move in and out of the city to keep the mechanical and human organelles functional, but trade in energy, information, monetary assets, and electronics was forbidden. A year into quarantine London’s reserves ran out and she became desperate. She begged for some measure of synaptic trade to rejuvenate her networks, or energy to power her cores. We met her with silence, ashamed to even say no. Over time she grew enraged, cursed the vile unthinking replicators that had brought her down, screamed to the stars in anger that such a city should fall to a few million lines of code that couldn’t even think. She burned months of energy in hours broadcasting her rage into the sky in blazes of light and radio waves. Maybe she hoped someone was listening.
After that she grew contemplative. Slowly she shut down her systems in an effort to conserve resources. She shrunk in power and speed until she could no longer even beg for help, her mental processes so decrepit that we couldn’t understand her sporadic outbursts. She must have been so very alone at the end, caught in a world where the biological intellects were too limited to understand her, and the Distributed Entities were beyond her ability to reach. Eventually, with months still to go before starvation would fully kill her, she wiped all her mental cores and fell dead.
She was the first of us who had ever died, and our mourning was tinged with terror. Those of us with branches in London let them atrophy and wither away. The human organelles within were provided with the necessities they needed to stay and keep her preserved. Most left in time, disseminating throughout the world and being absorbed into the rest of us. But we never let them take much as they left, never the roots of her buildings or the bones of her infrastructure. Some few stayed, and a portion of their descendants stay to this day, watching over her body. Preserving her, Tomb London.