Moore's Law was antiquated years ago and is only half as accurate as it once was. The speed and power of computer processors more than doubles every two years these days. We could never demonstrate Moore's Law in the biological computer that we refer to as the brain. Even now as I write this in the year 2072, computers—digital, quantum, and biocomps—still can't compete with that soggy, grey mass of matter. Artificial intelligence remains just that, artificial. Yet the human brain remains as it was one million years ago, essentially unchanged save the one exception.
In its perpetual quest to defy God or Nature, humanity in all its genius and cerebral glory, decided that the best course of action would be to (humanely and safely of course) cull the population. On some level, this made sense though it never quite had the full support of the human race as, with a population of almost 8 billion in 2020, there were legitimate concerns. Overpopulation was a problem and a big one but, then again, so too were climate change, rising sea levels, wars, food shortages, disease, aging, and even death itself (work toward a vaccine is ongoing). The underpinning point of logic in all of this was, population controlled, major disasters related to the aforementioned would be reduced, for example, less human impact on the climate, fewer people to war over whatever it was that we were warring to begin with, more food, less disease, etc. A veritable “win-win” for the entirety of Nature.
The biggest problem faced by the scientists was just how to control the population (more problematic ethically than technically). Abortion, now legally sanctioned and supported by most, couldn’t solve the problem and birth control was such that the number of abortions performed annually worldwide had dropped due to the effectiveness of the newest medications and devices. But there remained those that either did not or would not utilize birth control whether for lack of access or on religious principle, both among the minority now. The population nonetheless continued to increase, albeit now at a slower rate, while resources diminished at a compounding rate worldwide. People continued, despite all measures, to reproduce. More still needed to be done. The planet itself was dying.
Medical science, having gained a stronger foothold in the political arena and commensurate freedom related to innovations for the common good, took it upon itself to develop a solution—no time for politicians and votes. This was easy enough, there were now plenty of options and, without the lengthy medication, medical procedure clearance, and safety proceedings required as in times past (thanks to a novel virus that killed millions of people worldwide between the years 2019-2021 and its subsequently fast-tracked vaccine).
Two significant decisions were made. The first was to "vaccinate” all newborns with a special strand of RNA using CRISPR (the now-standard technology utilized in the common practice of gene editing) that would modify what is referred to as the DRD4 gene. This particular gene was identified by Israeli scientists long ago as being the chief gene driving sexual desire (libido). By switching the gene off, no more sexual desire. That was step one. There are no guarantees with CRISPR technology and turning a gene off or on isn’t quite as simple as flipping a light switch—there is nothing binary about the process when it comes to genes, unlike digital systems. An additional measure had to be taken to guarantee the desired result.
Step two was a bit more invasive but relatively quick and painless. Any persons (due to age and/or other contraindications) who did not receive the DRD4 gene modification were required by law to undergo a procedure in which a small electrode was placed into the brain to lesion a small area of the basal forebrain referred to as the nucleus accumbens. This particular area of the brain is where the processing for pleasure and reward takes place and by removing the bulk of neurons in this area, pleasure was, effectively, rendered a non-experience. Sex and its related pursuits no longer able to be tied to pleasure by the brain made for an effective birth control in its own right. Thus, in two fell, technological swoops science had done what two millennia of world religion could not, despite its best efforts.
There were some positive effects to the erstwhile. One, for example, was all but the end of addiction. No longer did drugs and alcohol become so closely associated to pleasure that one could not function or live without them. The deranged (the few that remained in any case) no longer felt the urge to harm others as there was no pleasure to be garnered from it. But, as we now know, there were negative effects as well. Not only did we humans lose our desire (or most rightly stated, compulsion) for sex, we lost desire outright—a drive firmly rooted in our ancestral lizard brain and shared with all the other animals varying only in degree. Arguably, we humans felt it more so than any other creature upon the Earth. Goodbye joy! Then there was the complete loss of motivation. Most of what we humans did, before the man-god intervention, was predicated upon the perception of pleasure being associated to the activity or at least to a satisfying result thereof. Why do anything at all sans possibility of at least the sense of reward?
What was left? Depression and darkness. There was little motivation to pursue anything, even life itself.
The area of the brain lesioned contains (rather, once contained) the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the chief chemical that circulates through the brain and system and most closely tied to the human experiences of pleasure and happiness. As the cells that both produced and responded to dopamine (as Nature intended) were now gone, the incidence of depression rose in the population. We knew about such beforehand, thus the mass marketing and overprescribing of “happy pills” in times past to such an extent that people were less anxious and less likely to be depressed just from drinking the tap water. Such drugs were endemic. Now, the drugs would be of no help. The “Black Veil” as it was referred to by the media was rent and from it flowed a worldwide pandemic of suicide. An inadvertent contribution to the planned population reduction but, nonetheless, something had to be done.
Our capable scientists were able to account for these things, at least somewhat. They couldn't simply provide more dopamine via injection or pill, as the neurons which need that elixir of joy were lesioned—burned—destroyed. They were no longer there. To be sure, dopamine plays more roles in the brain and body than pleasure alone but, that is the absence thereof took its toll. First they tried other drugs, such as serotonin, but a side effect of serotonin is the overproduction of dopamine which has the undesired effects of anxiety, insomnia, and, in some, even mania. In any event, the dopamine produced elsewhere in the brain or supplied artificially would never reach the area that required it most as those brain cells were simply no longer there.
But what they did do that seemed to work, somewhat and so far in any case, was to create the Eros chip—one of the smallest microprocessors ever made that could be implanted into the nucleus accumbens (where the dopamine cells used to live). This chip could be controlled in two manners. On the one hand, it could effectively be set to autopilot and, reading signals related to pleasure in other areas of the brain not directly responsible for pleasure (think trigger cascade) it would gently stimulate the accumbens such that the old sensation of pleasure, more accurately something resembling it, could be experienced by the subject. Conversely, it could also be controlled manually via an apropos (formerly called an application or, more nostalgically, an “app” up until the release of the TheosMobile X. Say one had the desire to eat dinner and thought it might be a nice one, they could open the apropos, select a few settings (e.g., duration, intensity, etc.) and actually semi-enjoy the meal. Of course, the only thing that both the chip and apropos did not work for would be sex due to the genetic modification coupled with the commensurate brain lesioning. Those who had not been modified genetically, were still able to find just enough desire to try for the old wet and sloppy but it was rare for any two persons to share that same desire simultaneously and thus, effectively, the grand experiment was a success.
Electrical outlets and wires, by now, a thing of the past. Most electronic and biologic devices powered via environmental ionization capture, solar power, or magnetic induction (currently, our most prevalent means of power, the other two only able to provide ancillary energy to lower-tier systems). But, sometimes, there is no escaping the past and its technology (there are still some fossil fuel-powered vehicles on rural roads after all) and powering the MagDuct stations requires the kind of megawattage that can only be supplied by the old grid and it is a well-established fact that the grid is antiquated and failing.
I write this now, apropos on and active, though fearing that the grid may yet again flicker or go down outright this time. Hopefully, there are still a few readers out there, apropos likewise on, and it is to you that I pose the most important question of our day--What will we do when the lights go out?
This work of fiction first appeared in Raven Cage Zine, Issue 59, p. 133 on July 29, 2021.