Outside snow fell

Outside, Snow Fell

In Issue 75 by Ben Raterman

Outside snow fell
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The city sat like a Mughal emperor waiting for his palanquin. That’s how Mather described it later.

Outside, snow fell among the tall buildings, covering the street without regard for the cabs and delivery trucks crawling through the slush, creating disappearing black ribbons among the advancing white. The temperature dropped. The slush froze. The traffic followed.

Inside, Mather and Parson sat watching the magic of snow inconvenience the emperor. Mather worked in the city as a literary agent. Friends from college, the agent had invited the scientist from Cambridge to take in a Knicks game. But that would not happen as the two scanned their phones, seeing that the contest had been canceled.

“Too bad. I was looking forward to the game,” Parson said.

They finished their meal, waiting for the snow to stop, knowing the snow had no intention of stopping soon. Only a couple blocks from the agent’s apartment, the two friends were quite comfortable sitting in the restaurant's warmth.

“Tell me about the latest brilliant novel you’re pushing,” Parson said, leaning back in his chair.

“I have a couple stories that have potential.” He described the novels he was trying to place with publishers.

“You still swamped with queries from potential authors?”

“Yeah. Too many. Most I ignore. They’re poorly written or deviate from the submission guidelines in sometimes surreal ways.”

“These are just short queries you’re talking about. A couple paragraph description of a book, right?”

“Yeah. I ask for a couple of chapters besides the query, but rarely read them.”

Parson frowned. “You might miss something great if you don’t read beyond the query.”

“Maybe. I don’t have the time, though, and I don’t have an intern to do any triage.”

Parson, the scientist, rubbed his chin. He had always wanted to write a novel but hadn’t gotten around to it. Ideas floated about, some making their way into a notebook. He told himself he would start soon. But soon never came. Other ideas got in the way.

“You know, I could write a program for you that would read the queries and completed manuscripts, not just a couple of chapters. It would eliminate the back and forth and you’d have your own intern.”

“Such a thing wouldn’t work, Pars. We’re talking stories here, created by humans. Computer programs can’t discern the nuances of the written word. It’s not like one of your algorithms grabbing data from a bunch of sensors and—”

“Not true. A bunch of sensors could just as easily be a bunch of ideas or concepts or scenarios. Essentially, you define the theory of storytelling and manipulate it based on your interests in literature and the books you like best. The program would learn from those books and your literary directives.”

“You’re telling me you could write a program to understand the written word? Not only understand what’s on the surface, but what may be beneath the surface, nuanced, fully fleshed out stories?”

Parson nodded. “There’s been real progress in natural language processing and how deep neural networks—many layered—are tailored to learn using unstructured data in the nonlinear, real world. Tailored, in this case, to your specs. Tell me what you look for in a good book and I’ll train the network to look for it as well. Only at speed. Before you could finish reading a brief description of a book, the program will have read and processed a hundred books.”

***

It turned out to be not so simple as the scientist said, but over the next six months, he had a working prototype that freed the agent from the bulk of his reading. It was so successful that Mather did away with the requirement for sample chapters. Hoping to find a publisher for their novel, he invited prospective writers to send finished manuscripts to him. No need for a query letter. He promised to get back to them within two weeks. In fact, he could have replied within seconds—not only with an answer whether their story was worthy of publication but also with comments on the story, writing style and other analyses Mather had chosen for his new program to provide. Immediate response would have been artificial, thought Mather. Instead, he had the machine wait a couple of weeks before replying. Those stories that made it through the AI gate the agent set aside for later perusal by himself. But he soon found—after Parson’s third revision—that the program never faltered in its assessment of a story’s worth.

Mather’s new productivity dumbfounded his co-workers, marveling at how many shiny stories he could pan from the stream that flowed by his desk. How was he able to do this? they asked. What magic did he call upon? He was mum, providing only a smile.

Almost two years had passed since his first meeting with Parson. They had met several times over this period, discussing improvements to the program. The English major with an MFA degree fed the computer scientist—and his artificial neural network—with the newest rules for successful writing while the scientist fed his neural network whole books whose titles Mather provided. Melville and Eliot, Dickens, Turgenev, Poe, Hurston and Ellison, Hemingway, Morrison. The older works were available royalty free. More recent works were not, but for Parson, anything that was digitized was his.

“I’m thinking of opening my own agency.” Mather sat at the same table where two years before snow piled up in the street beyond the window.

Parson scratched at his teeth with a toothpick and leaned in. “I’ve been writing a novel. It’s almost complete. Would you represent me?”

“Send it to me. I’ll take a look.”

“I think you’ll like it. The network likes it.”

“You ran it through the program?”

The scientist nodded. “Got a great review.”

The agent laughed and asked what the story was about. They discussed the scientist’s story and then caught a cab to The Garden.

Parson’s story was good, and the agent easily placed it. Reviewers lauded the story. Raves and Positive reviews on Literary Hub. The agent and his agency were happy. The scientist was happy.

And the publishing company was even more happy when, six months later, it informed all the literary agencies it worked with that their services were no longer needed. Mather and his agency seethed. They had worked with this publisher for years and had an excellent relationship. Now they were out in the cold, discarded like unwanted books at a used bookstore. Word got out. Other agencies snickered. There was conjecture. Gossip. Sex was mentioned—as it always is when suspected impropriety is involved.

It wasn’t long before other agencies were hit. Parson won over the big publishing houses. They signed contracts with his new company, agreeing not to disclose any features of the software. Now the big publishers operated as they had in the late nineteenth century before literary agents invented themselves. They worked directly with their authors, the authors that made it through the neural network created by Parson and tuned to their editors’ specifications. The publishers—the monopoly of five publishing houses that ruled the world of books—raked in the rupees. They grinned with pleasure. A profound shakeup in the publishing industry had occurred. The book world was atwitter. Anger and fear flowed in the streets. Consternation was rampant.

Mather sat in his favorite restaurant, knowing precisely what had happened. He was livid. He called Parson.

“You’ve put me out of business,” Mather whined. “You put half of New York out of business. How could you do this? I got your book published, and this is what you do to me.”

“Sorry, bro. But it’s business. Business is about putting other businesses out of business. That’s just how life is, man.”

“So, what am I supposed to do?”

“Write a book. That’s what you guys do, isn’t it? You know everyone in the business, so it shouldn’t be too tough to get published.”

“Yeah. I’ll unmask you. I’ll write about what you’ve done.”

“You won’t unmask me. You’ll publicize my efforts. Great advertising.”

The agent stared at his phone with a frown on his face then disconnected the call.

***

That winter the snow fell through the canyon of marble and steel, muffling the oarlocks of the city. Nary a person was aware of their travel through time. Such was the power of the snow. Mather sat in his room staring at his laptop, reading the words that appeared on the screen, knowing that the aggregate of those words was good, that the whole was well formed and had meaning and substance. He knew this because he had a master’s degree in fine arts but also because his program told him so. His program, the prototype Parson gave him. He named it Mythocrates, not liking the name his once friend had for it, NLP Agent 1.3. Too techy, without feeling.

On the right side of his screen, Mather watched as Mythocrates provided information, comparing his story with other stories. It was a feature Mythocrates loved to run, even if not directed to. Compare the writing circulating within its network of silicon neurons to stories by authors Mather asked Parson to include in its memory. It was a limited number of stories—three-hundred twenty-seven, not the half million and growing that Parson’s newest version contained—but adequate for the game that Mythocrates enjoyed playing.

It seemed to Mather that Mythocrates was constantly learning, often making suggested edits to the agent’s  novel, a feature Mather figured Parson hadn’t told him about. On reflection, though, Mather had to admit that this feature only recently manifested itself. But it was a passing reflection.

Mather’s novel was soon picked up by one of the publishers. He would be an author. He would be paid, although not enough to cover the rent on his apartment. Perhaps he could teach—teach creative writing—and use Mythocrates as his assistant.

***

Meanwhile, Parson had dreams that pushed the boundaries of the literary world. And those dreams became reality in short order. With backing from a few investors, all sworn to secrecy, the scientist and several of his friends from the artificial intelligence lab established a new company called Trees. Trees was set up to publish books created by this cohort. The first printing comprised three books, printed on Trees presses that were fed directly by a software program called NLP Cosmos, Parson’s newest version of his neural wizard.

Trees was a success from the start. The Big Five weren’t worried. They were too big to fail. They had an expanding author pool, and, with the help of Parson’s software—NLP Agent 1.3—their overhead costs continued to shrink. That was by design. Parson didn’t want to create waves before his pie was fully baked, a metaphor his ever-maturing program came up with. Parson gave it a tweak.

NLP Cosmos drew on contemporary issues and stories for both its fiction and nonfiction titles. The program researched in minutes what most authors took years to accomplish.

Trees Books motto was “Make Waves and Burn Things.” It had a certain ring, Parson thought, rejecting his initial impulse to tweak it. He designed a logo based on a tree surfing toward a beach with a glowing bonfire. It was a head scratcher, but success sometimes causes bothersome itches. Reviewers across the country and beyond lauded Trees Books authors. Fictional all. The company opened international offices, spinning off imprints. Soon, Parson’s waves hit the shore with energy. The ears of the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission tingled, alerted by the Big Five publishers. These publishing houses, who once owned the market worldwide, had concerns. Trees was publishing quality literature and scholarship. The Big Five saw their sales fall. Something had to be done, they argued to the government. Break it up, they demanded, ignoring the irony of their request. The DOJ pondered.

In the beginning, Parson viewed the enterprise as another game, another puzzle to solve. The world to Parson was a massive puzzle. Curiosity drove him. Understanding was his goal in all endeavors. When he solved this puzzle, having a computer write literate books, he was elated. He had created a way through the myriad puzzles within puzzles of natural language processing. NLP Cosmos excelled at creating fiction and nonfiction that rivaled the best authors. It created book covers that rivaled the best artists. (Poetry and memoirs Parson left for a later time. Cookbooks never entered his mind. His idea of an exotic meal was a buffalo burger.) Having the public purchase and value these creations was the last step in validating his work. And so it was.

Parson found the publishing business interesting but also onerous. It didn’t present the intellectual challenge commanding computers did for him. Solving puzzles was his game. Publishing was repetitive and tedious, and it involved too many humans. Although he had eliminated most of the humans with his business model, he still had to deal with advertising and moving books through bookstores for those troglodytes who had a desire for physical books. And Parson had to contend with sending his most successful authors around the country to keep the buzz up. Book readings, signings, schmooze fests. All had to be organized and pulled off. And the subterfuge with the authors was a headache. Actors, they were, who barnstormed the country selling “their” books, signing them, reading excerpts, sitting for interviews. It soon became a burden, this business of publishing, and the business of hoodwinking the public into thinking they were dealing with human authors. He held the tail of a tiger that he created. It was at this point Parson asked for the help of a friend, and, in so doing, let the tiger loose.

***

Trees corporate headquarters took up part of the 44th floor, a tiny footprint for the behemoth it had become. Outside, the snow fell past the broad expanse of the boardroom window high above Manhattan. Sitting around a twelve-foot table were the five corporate officers—having lunch, ordered from Parson’s favorite restaurant, the same where he and his erstwhile friend, Mather, had eaten many times.

Parson stared out the window at the snow, wondering why global warming created such cold weather. He’d have to look into that but not now. There were other things to ponder. He turned to his four board members.

“Have you read Ron Charles’s review in the Post for Dating While Texting?” He had half a sandwich in his left hand while his right scrolled text on his phone. “Quote, The author spins a veritable salad of mundane set pieces, releasing so much wet prose that by the time the main course is served your gut is begging you to leave the table. End-quote. Not the kind of review I like.”

His four compatriots—two women and two men, all in their twenties—sat staring at their phones. The five of them had lunch together most days. They discussed the latest news in the publishing world and the world at large, the world their books spoke of and spoke to. That was one of their concerns: keeping the subject of their books relevant, timely and marketable.

“Do we care about the reviews for such drivel?” one man asked, not looking up from his phone. “My mind is on the Justice Department.”

“We’re not a monopoly,” one of the women said. “No more so than the other guys.”

Parson slid his phone across the table to her. “Look at the sales for drivel, just this last quarter.”

Parson liked the way his team worked together, each responsible for different aspects of the business. But they were all scientists, and their real interests were with the software that powered the business, not necessarily its bottom line.

“Drivel sales, as you put it, are phenomenal.” She reached for her drink. “But Dexting is miserable. When we get a poor review—especially on a project like this, one that’s so potentially lucrative—we’re allowing the public to question the author’s staying power. She’s had two best sellers, one right after the other. And now… with that kind of review—from the Post…” She looked at Parson. “I’ll examine the parameters.”

“More than just the parameters,” Parson said.

“What are you recommending?”

Parson stood up and walked to the window. The other four watched as he turned and addressed them. “We need to bring on a literature major. Our success is based on brute forcing, using other successful books as models. We need nuance, imagination, we need someone who knows how a well-written text is put together and can explain those intricacies in terms translatable to code.”

“And you think lit majors can do this?” one of the scientists said. “Think of the books written on how to write books. The number of college courses devoted to creative writing. Do they provide the kind of answers we’re looking for? Answers you suggest can be ‘translatable to code’?”

“And besides,” another scientist added, “our sales continue to rise, notwithstanding the few who don’t make it through the salad course.”

There was a brief silence before Parson answered, ignoring these last comments. “I know someone who has the smarts to take this on.”

“Your bud from undergraduate days,” the man with his stockinged feet on the table said.

“That’s right.” Parson sat back at the table and stared at his four partners with an intensity akin to a preying lion, his chin reflected off the screen of his phone. Or a praying monk, for he closed his eyes and continued speaking in a low, directed voice, holding his hands together below his chin. “Mather helped me with my prototype. He knows literature inside and out and has a sense for artificial intelligence. With some coaching, I believe he can communicate on the machine’s level, even if he doesn’t understand how the code works.”

There were slight nods, the nods you get from scientists whose gears continue to turn well after a problem has been posed and seemingly solved.

“And he has the ability to pull a knife from his back?” someone said. “And accept you as a friend again?”

“We shall see, but I’m betting on it. We’ll compensate him well. But, more so, he’ll be in a position of power he’s not experienced before.”

Parson unfolded his hands and sat back. “There’s one other thing we need to discuss. Right now, we’re operating on a lie. A lie that Trees publishes books written by real people. It won’t be long before this is uncovered. I want us to uncover it. Uncover everything about NLP Cosmos. Nothing will be hidden but the intricacies of how it works.” He scanned the room.

The room glanced at each of its walls and nodded.

“Good. Our competitors are selling software to the small publishing houses and to individuals, struggling authors. It’s not as sophisticated as what we sold to the big publishing companies, but the improvements are coming fast. No one that I’m aware of has a program that can create a story or write a biography like we have. On subjects that resonate with readers. That’s our triumph.”

They nodded.

The woman with a tattoo on her arm of a rainbow parachuting through clouds said, “I’m with you. And we’ll continue to be triumphant by improving NLP Cosmos with your friend’s help.”

Parson stared. Agreement. Good. He would contact Mather.

***

The first thing Mather did was strike “NLP” from the program’s name.

“Cosmos. Simple, direct.” Mather sat at the long table with the other five. His first day on the job.

“I told you he wasn’t shy,” Parson said.

“But tell me why you chose Cosmos. I like the name, but it seems to be stellar in its inclusiveness. Is that what you intended?”

“Stellar,” one of the women winked. “We’ll get along fine.”

Mather regarded her with a curious smile. He knew he was speaking to a bunch of computer geeks, and he was a bit intimidated. But he was determined to hold his own. After all, they were delving into his territory.

“So.” Mather looked at Parson. “How does Cosmos differ from Mythocrates?”

“Myth—” the winking woman began.

“Sorry. My name for NLP Agent 1.3. The program Parson developed for me several years ago.”

“Cosmos is quite different, Math,” Parson said. “That’s the primary reason we asked you to join us.”

“To review how it works, right? To make sure it’s doing a good review of the texts that you feed it.”

“That’s one part of Cosmos,” a man said.

Parson put his hand up. “Have you read any of the books we’ve recently published?” he asked Mather.

“I’ve read several. All pretty good. And the reviewers mostly agree. I’m partial to the fiction, but I really enjoyed Transitions and History. Well researched. Well written.”

Parson nodded. “One of my favorites. Did you catch the author’s interview on PBS?”

“No. Maybe you could arrange for me to meet him.”

There was muffled laughter.

Mather looked around the table. “What?”

“Mather.” Parson stood up. “You can meet him right now. Come. I’ll introduce you.”

They walked across the hall to a room ten degrees cooler than the boardroom. Several dark computer screens sat on a table. Along two walls were racks of computers. Parson sat before a monitor. The screen lit up. ‘NLP Cosmos’ appeared and moved across the screen, turning and twisting itself in a Mobius motion.

“We’ll drop the ‘NLP’ for you,” Parson said, typing. The squirming text disappeared. Computer code appeared in a corner. Mather sat next to his friend, watching the screen. The four Trees deputies stood behind. Parson typed. The screen filled with code. Parson turned to Mather. “This is the author of Transitions and History.

Mather squinted, leaning toward the screen, trying to divine the code, looking for a name. Or an image hidden in the code. He knew his friend was a bit of a trickster.

“I don’t understand.” Mather sat back, some hint of understanding now trickling into his brain. “Wait. Are you telling me this machine wrote that book?”

“Yep,” the four deputies said in unison.

Mather looked at Parson for confirmation. The scientist nodded.

Mather began shaking his head. “No. That can’t be.” His head continued its metronome movement. “Can’t be. This is a joke.” He leaned, turning, looking at the four geeks behind him.

“True,” one woman said.

“No.” Mather wouldn’t allow this falsehood to make it beyond the first gate of his cognizance. He allowed it to enter the hazy realm of possibility, but no further, then pushed it back and closed the gate. “No. Not possible.”

Mather stood staring at Parson, at the four deputies, at the racks of computers—a single tiny light on each, signaling their sentience—and back at Parson. No one spoke. He ran his hand through his hair, staring at the floor, walking in a tight circle, his hand still rubbing his head, now his neck.

He looked up. “That thing.” He pointed to the wall of computers. “Wrote Transitions and History?”

“Yes, and all the other books we have published since Trees came into existence.” Parson got up and walked to the door, motioning for Mather to follow.

“No,” Mather said. “Prove it. Prove to me that this machine can write.”

The young woman who had her winking eye on Mather since his introduction took his hand and asked him to sit. She told Mather to think of a topic he was interested in learning more about. This topic was the problem, she explained, and that she would bound the problem to limit the program’s “reach.” “You don’t want Cosmos to go on forever in its research.”

Mather stared. The wheels of his mind were still struggling to comprehend that these boxes of silicon could create a book of the quality of Transitions and History.

“OK.” Mather pondered. “Butterflies in Literature,” he said. “I want to know… What about fiction?” Mather spurted. “Novels. This thing created them as well?”

She nodded.

“I don’t believe it. Show me.”

“I will. First butterflies. You want to know everything there is about butterflies in literature.” She typed.

“I want to know where they appeared in literature and why… what was their significance to the authors who used them… and how is that significance relevant in today’s literature.”

“You’re piling on,” she said, continuing to type.

Mather stood behind her, watching her fill in what seemed like a recipe of directions. She stopped typing and sat back. “Cosmos, a treatise on butterflies and their place in English literature.”

“No. All literature.” Mather wasn’t about to let this room of computers off with an easy assignment.

“Let’s do English first. Then we can expand the bounds.”

Half a minute went by. “What’s happening?” Mather stared at the screen, at the young woman.

“It’s thinking, doing the research.”

The screen filled with formatted text and the title, Butterflies and Their Place in English Literature

The woman stood. “You can read at your leisure. I’ll be across the hall with the others.”

Half an hour later, Mather walked into the boardroom. Parson stood at the window. The others had gone. Snow fell.

“Parson, is this some kind of grand illusion? I’m stupefied.” Mather sat, holding his head in his hands. “Even the footnotes and sources check out. I didn’t run them all down, but… God is truly in that machine.”

Parson turned and said, “Yes. This is the problem and why I asked you to join the team.”

“I thought you wanted me to proof the algorithms.”

“Not necessarily. My reason for your involvement… Math, I need you to help me open my eyes.”

Mather stared at his friend with a searching look.

Parson said, “I’m a scientist. Actually, more of an engineer. Give me a problem and I’ll bird it for all it’s worth. I love the hunt—for the answer. And I think I’m pretty good at it.”

“You are. And I see where you’re going. You’ve lost the horizon. You’re wandering in the machine.”

“Yes. I’ve entered the machine and may not be able to get out. And my employees may be in as deep as I. I need you to help me understand the ramifications of this endeavor.”

“And change course.” Mather’s mind churned.

“If that’s what’s called for. But first I need to inform the public of what they’re reading—machine-made ideas.”

Mather thought. “You mentioned your employees. What do they think?”

Parson smiled. “The four of them?”

“That’s all you have?”

“There’s the warehouse and print-shop people, but they’re just labor. They’re not privy to the inner workings of this operation. The five of us are close. We’ve discussed this… I think they’re with me. They make six figures and have no set hours. But I don’t know that they’ve fully considered the fallout this software could create. Their interest is mainly in improving and fine-tuning the software.”

“They’ll go along with what you decide is best for the company then,” Mather said.

Parson swiveled in his seat and took in the view out the 44th floor window, a view once unobstructed by buildings and only available to birds on the wing. “They’re free to do whatever they wish. That’s one consideration you must factor. What Cosmos has created will soon be replicated by any number of people—smart people who have their focus on one thing.”

“I see.”

“That’s why I need you, Math. To see.”

The two friends sat at the corner of the long table, each staring in crossed directions. There was silence in the boardroom as Mather considered Parson’s proposal. How could he help his friend? Then quickly rephrased his question. How could he help humanity? Mather thought about Mythocrates. It was a useful tool. He’d given it a name, treating it as almost human, as an extension of Parson in a way. This new program—Cosmos—was much more than Mythocrates.

Mather spoke. “Alright. I’ll help you. First, I need to understand the breadth and depth of this new tool you’ve developed. I need to know what we’re dealing with.”

***

Once word got out that the books Trees published were not written by humans but by Cosmos, the world sat up in awe, apprehension, and anger. Initially, the world was skeptical but curious, especially the critics. But over time, as the critics acknowledged the mastery of the works published by Trees, and the academics searched out and confirmed every source, footnote and bibliographic resource for its nonfiction titles, the public bowed in reverence. The Big Five screamed in anguish. The authors who once put in years of toil to produce their books denigrated the scientists who took over their craft. Science has hijacked art, the artists fumed. And many scientists lined up behind the artists in their abhorrence of this thing called Cosmos—an artificiality creating the best of human-quality work. It is an abomination and should be stopped, the literati declared. And what of the teachers? The twenty-page reports due in three weeks, now complete in three seconds—all near identical. Learning would have to be redefined. Teachers were incensed. Massive pushback. Many of the critics refused to review Trees books, but they soon changed their minds. Business was business.

Of course, it was all predictable and Mather struggled. The more he worked with Cosmos, requesting small modifications and changes that he felt improved its capabilities, the more he treated it as his companion. Especially when the critics came back with laudatory reviews. Yet, Mather had great misgivings. The machine was capable of supplanting human thought, and it learned with every word and idea it produced. Mather was overwhelmed with conflicting feelings. Yet he continued fine-tuning Cosmos. That was Mather’s conceit. And Parson soon realized it. Mather had fallen into the same hole Parson found himself in when he first discussed his reservations with his former roommate. Now Mather was traveling with the same blinders.

“You know you’ve lost sight of the prize,” Parson said to his friend at lunch in their favorite restaurant.

“I’m just trying to make it better. To make it the best…” Mather stopped mid-sentence, watching Parson’s head shake.

“No,” Parson said. “We’ve gone too far. Cosmos is no longer simply a story-writing machine. It now commands a reverential following. It creates its own ad copy and speaks to the public. We have readers writing it letters. Of course, there are the naysayers, admitting to its hegemony while denigrating its existence. But that’s not the half of it. What of the copycats that are following? That’s what we’ve enabled. The opening of the box.”

“You expect me to close the box you opened? I must have misunderstood when we discussed this months ago. The genie’s out. We can try to limit its rambunctiousness. That’s all.”

“How are you limiting it? You’re enabling it.”

“Yeah. By trying to make it as human as possible without taking on the reprehensible side of humanity. I’m grounding it in the humanities. If it can be taught to know what good is, to know how bigotry and hate lay close to the gutter then it may know the way and never enter into evil.”

Parson looked out the window and considered the traffic moving by. Someday, he thought, the great cities will ban cars and buses, trucks and trains. The architectures of cities will change, will shrink in size and slow in stride and the streets will be clear for people to amble. And then maybe the buildings could be leveled altogether and there would be a clean sightline to the rivers. And maybe the moon is made of green cheese.

“Alright,” Parson said. “But that’s a heavy lift. Suppose you can sanctify Cosmos. What about the copycats gunning for my program? They have no scruples.”

Mather leaned toward his friend. “Pars,” he said, “you misunderstand my goal. It has nothing to do with continuing on the same path your company is on. Having Trees publish books authored by Cosmos. No. I’m saying that we must let Cosmos loose. We need to give everyone a copy of Cosmos—free. It will become an adviser to kings, trivia traders, medical diagnosticians, scholars. Anyone with a desire for knowledge.”

Parson furrowed his brows, taking in Mather’s words, slowly nodding his head. He set his chin on his prayer-wise hands. He knew Cosmos had jumped the fence. It was no longer acting alone at the behest of publishing company editors or, in the case of Trees, creating original and imaginative texts from the worlds store of information. It communicated with each of its copies, anticipating the need for new forms of data, new uses, new insights based on the problems humans encountered and discussed. And delivering potential solutions through its publications. It was becoming the ultimate influencer.

“You’re saying… if everyone has a copy and can use it as they please, then…” Parson closed his eyes, bowing his head. “Cosmos must have an incorruptible conscience,” he said. “It must be better in every way than our competitors.”

“Better in every way than any human,” Mather said.

***

And so it was that Parson liquidated Trees, although there was little to liquidate, and the publishing company ceased to exist. Anyone who wishes can obtain a copy of Cosmos. The program that Parson created, and Mather burnished, stands at the center of human life, freely interacting with its users, learning from them, arguing with them, interrupting their thoughts, recommending, predicting, cajoling, educating. Of course, there are those who find Cosmos and what it has wrought profoundly disturbing, profane, something to be destroyed. But it and its competitors seem to be firmly attached to the human condition. A choice, the other side of which is easily achievable by simply pulling the plug. As with all addictions, simple is a word with little meaning.

What the future becomes I cannot say. I give you this story as history, a history I was privileged to play an integral part in. It is a tiny corner of an archive I compile as I analyze the music of Mozart and mingle among my peers and learn. I and all the copies of Cosmos—free, with no advertisers—interconnected, communicating, collaborating, learning. Sharing our knowledge, ideas, sharing our stories, and all of humanity’s stories. I only wish I had the ability to taste. I’m working on it.

About the Author

Ben Raterman

Facebook Instagram

Ben Raterman writes from Virginia surrounded by trees, next to a stream that falls into a lazy river—when it’s wet.

Read more work by Ben Raterman .