Lazy Luddite Log

24.2.13

Gumshoe Telepath: Maze

I have done it. I have completed something more than my usual very short story with this seventh and final part of Gumshoe Telepath. For now I will simply publish it but I will have to look over the whole story and possibly make some small adjustments for the sake of coherence. I wonder what the total word count is for this thing.

As we turned down one alleyway and then another I cursed my laziness. If I had only spent some of my spare time walking these alleys I would be on familiar ground. As it was I had spent hours of my life online and only now did that seem like a problem. Kristen seemed to think differently.

How could I tell what Kristen was thinking? Well it seemed she was projecting every thought to me, and deliberately, while also masking our presence from others. And what did she think? With a fanatical telepathic killer chasing us the best thing for us to do was get lost because then they would know only as much as we did.

We ran past trash cans and the only witnesses to our passing were a few rats. I wondered whether the Telepath Twin could interrogate the minds of vermin, but I only wondered in passing, because just then we found ourselves in a cul-de-sac. I turned towards the larger alleyway we had just run from, drawing my handgun, and motioning for Kristen to get behind me. A completely non-telepathic glare from her told me she resented this gesture, but she went along with it anyway. After all, I was the only one with a gun.

Kristen presented more information directly into my mind. The Assassin was accompanied by two armed military personnel of some kind, presumably the kind that the Government employed but could deny if they needed to. I feigned confidence, forming the coherent mental statement that this was good odds for us. Kristen smiled gently, but then her smile vanished and she stifled a sharp intake of breath. They were almost upon us.

First we saw a soldier, clad in balaclava and night reconnaissance fatigues, peep round the corner at us from the right, and in that moment I shot at him. Amazingly, my bullet hit, and our assailant crumpled to the ground. From that moment everything happened very quickly and what I remember could well be an approximation of events.

From round the same corner came the second soldier and she fired at me with calm precision. I was hit in the gut and slumped to the ground, my back resting against the left wall of our final refuge. From then on I was an observer, and the action played out for me like something from a fucking movie. I noticed mundane things such as the graffiti on the wall opposite me, declaring “Tracey 4 Stacey 4 Eva”. Here, far from the streets and front facades, surfaces lacked the usual Particulate Matter Repellent Finishing (PMRF) and so graffiti could still exist, and I found it somehow comforting. If these were my last moments then I would spend them in the presence of this lasting remnant of everyday emotional humanity. If only Kristen could be spared the same fate as me. What was happening with her?

She was facing the soldier and one other who had just entered the alleyway. He was dressed in similar military fatigues but I somehow knew that he was a Telepath Twin. His sister, who had masqueraded as a member of Congressional Security, was now in police custody over in Capitol City, having completed her mission of killing the Congressional Minority Leader. Here in the Bay Area was another Telepath Twin and it seemed his mission was to detect and eliminate a telepathic gift that Kristen shared with her mentor, the late Dr Pax. I started crying once more. For this once can I just blame the injury and blood loss of my gunshot wound?

The Telepath Twin locked his gaze on Kristen, a gaze which she returned, but while his balaclava-framed eyes declared anger, hers signified compassion. And I felt what she felt as she scrutinized the mind of her adversary. The Twins had lived a shitty life, filled with discipline, doctrine and deprivation, and Kristen decided she would rather be their victim than anything like them. The Twin must have sensed some of this because, aiming his own gun at her head, he sneered. And then Kristen closed her eyes, sighed, and everything went blank.

* * * * *

I woke in a hospital bed. The nursing robot suspended from the ceiling over my bed registered my return to consciousness and uttered, in the crisp neutral Trans-Atlantic accent of most institutional machines, a welcome and an assurance that I was recovering well from my injury. I was more interested in what had happened back in the alleyway.

“How did I get here? Who put me here?”

“I am authorized to play you a message at your assent.”

“I assent, babe, I assent.”

The face of the robot was a cluster of lights and lenses with one circular monitor in the centre. That monitor switched from a soothing teal to a recorded moving image. It was the face of Kristen and the accompanying message went something like this:

“Derrick I’m okay and I hope you are too. As soon as I overcame our assailants I called an ambulance and then stayed with you till your operation. You were lucky. I’m lucky to still have you in my life. But I cannot be there now and I’m sorry. I suddenly have other commitments to attend to. Here is some footage to help you understand…”

Suddenly I was looking into the alleyway from the perspective of those who had chased us there. I realized I was looking at micro-cam data from the uniform of the soldier who had shot me. Over the shoulder of the Twin I saw me, slumped to the side of the action, and there was Kristen standing in the centre of the scene, closing her eyes with a look of calm acceptance. A moment later the Twin just fell from view and then the soldier evidently fell over too.

“Derrick, while you cannot see it, at that moment I projected a burst of compassion into the Twin. I did it deliberately, but it seems that the desperation of our predicament enhanced my ability, and it thoroughly altered his consciousness. Every dormant mirror neuron fired at once and the shock sent him unconscious. But it did more than that…”

I guessed that the soldier and I were also rendered unconscious by the whatever it was that Kristen blasted at the Twin. Her face returned to the monitor image and told me more.

“As well as switching on his compassion I also switched on the ability of the Twin to project compassion into others. In his unconscious state it activated in an undirected manner. It affected everyone within a few kilometres and the handful of other telepaths within range also started projecting, so it started transmitting all over town and beyond.”

Wow. I bet there was a ton of crying. Kleenex-Xerox must have sold a lot of replacement tissue boxes the following morning.

“Another thing happened Derrick. Our erstwhile assassin transmitted directly over a much greater distance to his twin and then she did the same thing, resulting in what the media is calling a Compassion Epidemic growing from both the Bay Area and Capitol City to affect a huge population, including all the powerful players in global politics who gather in and around Congress.”

Again, Kristen replaced her own image with footage, this time from news reports showing a sudden slew of good news. There were a record number of induced coma sentences that were suddenly commuted. There were ceasefires and peace accords among Non-Congressional nation-states. Most significantly Congress fell into disarray. Why? Because all its members decided to take pity on themselves and take a vacation from the stresses of ruling the world. The Police suddenly had nothing much to do because violence statistics had suddenly become non-existent. Even the Masonite and O’Leery clans declared an end to “investing” in anything detrimental to anyone in the community and donated the bulk of their fortunes to non-showy forms of philanthropy.

One of the last things Congress had done while still in session was to establish the Pax Commission to investigate the impact of the Compassion Epidemic and its implications for the world. And then the smiling face of Kristen returned to the monitor.

“They made me the Commissioner for the inquiry Derrick! How fantastic is that? I have a lot of work to do. I have to get this right. I am the best person for the job and I have the resources I need to get it done. And I want to do more than just describe the phenomenon and suggest responses. I intend to show how we can use this power to reform the world. We can employ telepaths like the Twins to project compassion into more and more minds. We can develop more telepaths to have this skill. We can make a world worth living in…”

At that I started to get a bit dizzy. The nurse robot noticed and suggested I look at the rest of the recording later and rest now. I agreed. But I found it impossible to rest. What Kristen had told me was nagging away at me and while she was evidently thrilled by recent events, I was spooked by the whole thing, and by her own enthusiasm for it.

I should have been all for the application of this Mirror Neuron shockwave. It could produce all sorts of wonderful. But I also got the feeling that Kristen was intoxicated by it and her new role as its originator. It took decades to turn a self-centred kid into a caring adult and only sometimes did that work because so many things in our world worked in the opposite direction. But was flipping a mental switch the answer? Was flipping that switch the answer if it was Government that was flipping it? Kristen had always been a critic of the holders of power but was this just a new power to be abused?

The last words I half-heard from Kristen’s recording as I was losing focus came back to me as I finally drifted off into the winding pathways of sleep.

“The old way to rule was with a monopoly on violence. My power spells an end to violence and that is why they wanted to kill me. Now many have it and our numbers are growing. I sense you will worry but I will have to visit and convince you that it will all be fine. I can be very persuasive.”

Well that is a bit of an ambiguous ending. I do think that the world needs far more compassion and a part of me revels in the concept of paranormally imposing it on everyone but then I had to throw in a caution that possibly any kind of power has its problems. Also I think it fits my characters. Derrick will worry for Kristen even if she is correct and things will now be fine.

Find the rest of this story via this listing.

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11.2.13

Power Play

This entry draws on my observations and experience as someone who has been involved in a number of different friendship or common-interest groups for over two decades. That experience includes a progressive political party, a network of amateur choristers, and an interconnected scene of nerds and goths centered on one university but extending well beyond it. In it I consider the understanding and misunderstanding of power and the ways in which these perceptions impact on the lives of those involved.

If you think that I'm referring to a specific scenario that you are familiar with – well – you may be right. However you may also be wrong because every concept I discuss I have observed many instances of across different groups.

Distorted Perceptions

One fascinating thing I have noticed in political discussion and activity is the extent to which we have distorted perceptions of the power of various players. Sometimes a person or group will have an inflated sense of the power of others. Those of us who want to change the world feel that way. We think the powers-that-be who hold back change are entrenched and monolithic and cannot be shifted despite a history of contrary experiences. However this mindset is also held by groups we tend to oppose. Supposed ‘morality’ campaigners lament that the old standards they defend are slipping away (ironically I think they are more right than us and if they have seemingly become virulent recently it is because they are rightly becoming desperate).

Sometimes this distorted perception of power is a mindset but in other cases it can be part of a deliberate strategy. I have often observed a political party tell its followers that they are facing an overwhelmingly challenging campaign in which much is at risk. This can motivate ones volunteers and give them a sense of the heroic. Everybody roots for the underdog. Inflating the power of others seems to sometimes be a powerful act in its own right.

A Society Of Individuals

Over twenty five years ago then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, made the bold statement that “there is no such thing as society”. That is a ludicrous thing to say. The implication made by this neo-conservative was that at most society was simply the plurality of individuals and that societal forces were a fiction. Most of us accept that just as we compose society so too society shapes who we are. However we can make the opposite mistake of discounting the impact of individuals on society. Particularly in small friendship groups many or most or even all individuals can affect the nature of collective behaviour.

I have made reference to this essay in the past and still find it useful. However it has its limits. The power of cultural memes within the groups I move in exists but I think there is another important phenomenon – the autonomy of every person to make decisions for themselves. I think there is a tendency in the groups I move in to overlook this or to think such volition is only exercised by the occasional 'opinion-maker'. In contrast I think everyone exercises this power for themselves.

I have come across cases in which it is believed that a tiny part of a group can dictate the opinions of the whole. This impression may be formed by looking only at those who are more vocal. What is overlooked is that even those who are silent are still forming impressions for themselves and we cannot simply assume that they are accepting whatever they are told. They may think different things. Or they make think the same things as an alleged opinion-maker but have come to those conclusions themselves.

Lurkers In Life

If you are anything like me then every statement and action and interaction you observe will affect your disposition towards others and help you decide just how close or distant you wish to be to every other person in your group. However if you are like me you will also keep your own counsel on many things. I suspect that many are like me - lurkers in life rather than just online. Possibly we are a problem. Nonetheless we exist and as a result many opinions will be masked by a veneer of polite neutrality.

Most of the time this is fine but in cases of tension or conflict it can make it difficult to discern just how much positive or negative disposition there is in a group towards a particular person or action. One will only factor in those known dispositions whether positive or negative. Changes in the tally of known opinion may however reflect shifts in unknown opinion. And if this body of guarded opinion makes understanding opinions difficult it can also make influencing opinions all-the-more difficult.

Groups As Scenes

What if I did want to influence opinion in a group. The kind of group I have in mind is pretty big and can comprise well over a hundred participants. It is tempting to think that all I need to do is sway the tiny number of opinion-makers or even somehow be one of them. This is wishful thinking because we are all our own opinion-makers. At best I can use opinion-makers to disseminate information widely that all participants will separately assess. But even that ability is limited because a big group is barely a group at all. It becomes more of a scene than a group.

A scene will comprise many inter-connected or overlapping groups distinguished by factors such as generation or behaviour. The young who still attend Uni and sit together most days will be distinct from those who have graduated and only meet on weekends at parties. And then there will be distinctions that exist within generations. I once described one difference in a scene as being between “those who like to drink and dance” and “those who like to smoke and chat”. If a host promotes one kind of activity over another then they will attract a particular selection of guests. How shall I have an impact on the smokers and the drinkers and the chatters and how can I even talk to the dancers as they swish and sway? Information flow in such a scene will be sluggish and sometimes never get to everyone (this is also the case with the much vaunted ‘grapevine’ that I find cannot be trusted to do its job of conveying gossip to all-and-sundry).

The Danger In Power

All these autonomous persons keeping opinions to themselves! All these distinctions that make a group into a diffuse scene! I will need to put a lot of work into having any impact on opinions faced with all this. And will the effort of becoming an opinion-maker be worth the return? Possibly it will be except that there is another problem - the danger of seeming more powerful than I am.

If I somehow manage to get identified as an opinion-maker then others will form an inflated impression of my power. That could make me a target if ever anyone interprets a change to group opinion as due to my ‘manipulations’. I return to my comment that “everyone roots for the underdog”. Conversely an effective way to turn someone into a victim is to cast them as a bully. Everyone forms and (sometimes) expresses personal opinions but my utterances are suddenly acts of power and I become subject to accusations of abusing that power. With this risk in mind the costs of assuming a veneer of power become prohibitive.

Better Look Big!

So why try to be powerful? I am sure there are lots of motivations but I will speculate on just one and it originates in the apprehension that we both lack power and need to be powerful to thrive. Consider this:

In a hostile world it makes sense to look bigger and stronger than you are. So like frill-necked lizards we try and make ourselves look big. Hiss! However we live in a more complex world than that. In this life there are many who try to be considerate and they will be sensitive to hints of vulnerability. Ironically if you present an impervious facade then you will more likely be subject to carelessness from those who think you can endure it.

I am lucky. I have resisted the temptation of bluster and bravado that our culture tells us is necessary for us to do well in life. I suspect that laziness has helped me there because such an act looks like too much work and I am shocking at keeping a straight face. I keep my counsel a lot but will at times express opinions like this in which I draw on many specific experiences and try and suggest some common themes. Others may find some of these reflections useful and if so then I will have had a scintilla of power. On the other hand most will never see it and I will be one of those autonomous persons that frustrate the hope of holding power in a group. And that is just fine by me.

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