compos mentis, "of sound mind"

With permission granted begrudgingly from the author, I published her articles in this blog in response to pleas from her fans--okay, mostly aunts and uncles--for ready access to her cogitations. As the humble president of her fan club, I am delighted to oblige.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Utilitaria: The greatest good for the greatest number?

The following piece was published in The Bagpiper, issue 8, vol. 23, May 23, 2003.

Utilitaria by Elizabeth Petrik

Flond Wilferboggle scrutinized himself in the full-length, three-dimensional mirroscanner. He carefully turned a knob on the control panel, and the holographic image of himself rotated slowly in the air before him. He made a few minute adjustments to his perfect hair—still an unblemished blond at thirty-five years old, straightened his conservative blue tie, and delicately brushed some nonexistent dust from his black lapels. Then he spun his scannoreflection in a complete circle, nodded in satisfaction at the result, and switched the mirror off. He glanced around the cool, brightly lighted chamber, checking for anything he may have forgotten. No, there was nothing left to do but wait until that surly grump of a cameraman came to call him into the studio. Flond was anchorman for the live evening news hour for Xambec V’s most popular worldwide teleoptical network, Aselliburg Division Broadcasting. He loved his job. With two-thirds of the planet’s population was watching his head and shoulders through their teleopt receiver lenses, Flond loved to imagine himself a universally admired and envied figure, so he always did his best to look the part of the breezy, sophisticated reporter.
Unfortunately, the extra time Flond gave himself for primping often left too much time for idleness before his show. This always worried him, because he was never sure when his inactivity would harm someone else. It very rarely did anyone any good, and Flond was haunted by the fear that Boss would detect this and send him a notice that he was required to spend his extra time volunteering in a day care center or something. He uneasily lifted his forearm to check his Sum Population Impact Totaller (SPITer, for short). The small digital screen blinked a comforting N=0 and an indifferent P=0. Good, thought Flond with an inward sigh of relief. No negative impact, no positive impact. I'm just minding my own business and not bothering anybody.
Flond walked toward one of the bright white walls of the room and relaxed into a nondescript gray cube, which automatically flowed into the most comfortable shape for his form. Still another twenty minutes before airtime. Flond glanced again fondly at his SPITer. Of course, everyone was required to wear them, but Flond’s was a particularly sleek and expensive model--no bigger than a chunky watch, and it could also serve as an alarm clock, flashlight, thesaurus, and paper-shredder. And Q-tip, if you knew how to use it. At this particular moment, however, it was still simply flashing Flond’s Population Impact Sum: N=0, P=0. Actually, if you really thought about it, Flond reflected, it wasn’t just simply flashing his PIS. Calculating the number of people in the world that are positively affected and the number that are negatively affected by any given action isn’t a simple process. Naturally, the point of the SPITer was to act as a sort of spy for the master computer, “Boss,” that governed planet Xambec V. The SPITer on each person’s wrist constantly relayed information about that person’s impact on everyone else to the Boss, and if at the end of the year, a person’s total of N’s—or people adversely affected—exceeded the number of P’s—people helped in some way—he was heavily fined and the confiscated money was used to help the poor or build amusement parks—anything to make other people happy until the N’s and P’s were balanced again. This way, in theory, there were at least as many happy people as unhappy people in the world at any given moment.
Flond reclined more comfortably into the chair cube, thinking back to his high school history class. The developer of the original idea, he recalled, was Jeremy Bentham, an economic philosopher of planet Earth during her Age of Industry—somewhere in the 1800s in Earth years. Bentham’s thought had been that every action should be judged by its effect, and the most desirable course of action would be that which does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This was the principle on which the SPITer was founded. Although Xambec’s technology was vastly better than Earth’s, the basic idea remained the same. Of course, the poor Earthlings were still in the elementary stages of implementing Bentham’s philosophy into their daily lives; Earth was the starting point of ideas for the universe, Flond reflected, but few came to their full fruition until they were seized and expanded upon by others. Take the Whoopee cushion for example…the inventor of that one could have been great. Still, they had made a start in applying Bentham’s ideas to some areas. It was often used as an alternative source of moral law where religion was awkward or uncomfortable. In public schools, politics, and business, for instance, hints of this could be seen.
Flond shook himself out of his daydream at the sound of his head cameraman’s nerve-grating voice. “Are you ready or not? We go on in thirty seconds.” Flond rose, followed the slouching figure of the darkly muttering man into the studio, and sauntered over to the fake wood-paneled desk and businesslike black chair before the camera, seating himself just as the cameraman grumbled, “Three, two, one, action.” Flond smiled suavely into the lens.
“Good evening, and welcome to Broadcast of Aselliburg Division News. For our top story this hour, we have an interview with Col Wambersmog, the flour refinery employee whose mistake with the machinery caused his fellow workers to sneeze for weeks. Col has been heavily fined to make up for the unhappiness caused by his error.”
Flond slumped in his seat and tuned out for a while as the interview was played for his viewers. He found himself wondering how SPITers could judge what was the greatest good. After all, that was half of Bentham’s proposal, wasn’t it? The greatest good for the greatest number. How could anyone determine the magnitude of a benefit? Then again, did it really matter? He didn’t particularly care, Flond thought, yawning as he rested his head on the desk. Things were much easier this way, anyhow. He sat up sharply at the cameraman’s sudden snarl, “Hey, Sleeping Beauty, you’re on.”
“And welcome back to BAD News. Next this hour we send our congratulations to Kate Wikerfaddle, this year’s high PIS scorer. According to Boss’s records, Kate has had a positive impact on the lives of exactly 12,398,699 people during the course of the year while only damaging one—herself. Kate is currently in the hospital being treated for malnutrition, chronic dehydration, and several illnesses she acquired as a result of getting too little sleep and taking too few baths. When asked about her condition, Kate commented, ‘I just didn’t have the time to think about myself. I really wanted to be the winner this year, you know.’”
Flond allowed a slight pause for this story to sink in, and in the lull everyone on the set turned toward a clattering noise outside the recording room door. Suddenly, in burst a short, dark man armed with a small pistol. He raised his arm, the gun cracked once, and the cameraman dropped silently to the floor and lay still. The man glanced at his wrist and turned calmly to go. All at once everyone in the room snapped out of their shock. Another cameraman and camerawoman lunged for the small figure in the doorway. Flond, who had been staring in openmouthed horror on live teleopt as the unmanned camera continued to roll, stood uncertainly and made for the silent body of the cameraman. Dead as an artificial open-shut intercommunicator nail. Disgusting. Flond glanced up toward the door, where the undersized gunman was struggling against the crowd that had formed, protesting loudly over the din. “I didn’t do anything wrong! Just look at my SPITer! I didn’t do anything!” Curious, Flond shoved through the crowd and seized the man’s SPITer wrist. Flond gasped in surprise. He dragged the man through the throng and in front of the still-running camera.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just had a bit of an incident in the studio here. This man—What’s your name?” With a sudden inspiration, Flond struck a pose of familiarity, smiling smoothly and flinging an arm over the gunman’s shoulders while surreptitiously holding the tail of his blue necktie, which contained his concealed microphone, up to the other man’s mouth. “Stanley,” muttered the man, suddenly sullen and wary.
“Stanley. Wait! Not the Stan Wanderfoggen? Stan the Hit Man! Wow! What a pleasure to meet you! Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen, as I was saying, Stan here just entered this studio and shot Broadcast of Aselliburg Division’s head cameraman to death.” Stanley twisted abruptly, trying to wrench himself out of the camera’s view, but the friendly arm around his shoulder tightened quickly, restraining him. Flond smiled at him again and continued calmly, “Yes, a homicide was committed, and I’m afraid Stan’s PIS does show N=1. But hold on! Stan is to be congratulated, not arrested! It seems that the man he killed quite deserved it. Stan’s SPITer shows that this one small murder improved the lives of 15,000,001 people! Let’s have a round of applause for our new PIS winner of the year! Sorry, Kate, your record has just been broken!”


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