Chapter 1

This was the last time he was prompted for an answer before he was silenced. From then on things moved ahead in an automatic way. He was of sound mind and body, but his body was mostly synthetic and his mind a hodge-podge of computer algorithms. Jim had risen from the doldrums of the Salvation Army to Billionaires Row in Manhattan on the back of his invention – an online education system that become the de facto standard world wide but it is what opened him up to the brain hack that has left him on the sidelines: a spectator to his own life.

Those early days for Jim at the Salvation Army were magical for him. He bought into their counter-culture ethos and the poverty and drugs surrounding him were secondary to the freedom he felt. Away from the money culture, the daily grind, he knew where his meals were coming from and with unlimited wifi and a Linux computer he was free to experiment, and work, along with his buddies in an unorthodox but productive environment.

This is what had sparked his trillion dollar idea. What if education could be free? Like really free and collaborative and available to every bum on the street just as much as the rich kids in Connecticut. There were of course many competitors to Jim’s idea, mostly put out by the elite institutions of the day, but none were really built from the ground up using open source software with this egalitarian idea at the core.

Jim was eating now and dietary information flashed across the screen for everything he was putting in his mouth up there on the 86th floor. He almost forgot what an apple tasted like away from these statistics that explained it to him. His chewing was robotic, as was his swallowing. If only he could choose something to eat that was unscheduled, what bliss would this be?

“I think I’ve reach the point,” Jim was able to reason to himself, “that I am no longer in control of anything, from my bodily functions on up to the system.”

The system is what Jim’s invention was now known as, so ubiquitous it had become. He could not have foreseen what he had sparked when he started getting the project together in those bedbug infested apartments that surrounded the Salvation Army in downtown Ottawa. How he would hook up with the various distributed internet projects and overturn 500 years of academic life worldwide.

The system was not simply a list of videos with quizzes at the end of each lesson and a credentialing apparatus, but it was an AI-backed self-learning all knowing conglomeration of video, text, exercises, virtual reality, and above all collaboration between the students, professors, and the machine that produced more than the sum of its parts.

Later, it would take on K-12 and all post-secondary education outperforming anything that could really be thrown at it. Because it was open source and distributed its feature list grew exponentially and bankrupted all other LMS’ (Learning Management Systems) on the market. There would be simply one online education system available, with Jim as its head.

This would dwarf even the monopolies of search and social, as it would take down real elite universities one-by-one as education was now offered free and what you got from the system, if it didn’t outperform what was available in the real world, once the material was digitally digested, it would.

Jim could remember writing the first lines of code, some twenty or more years ago. And then his meteoric rise through Silicon Alley in New York all the while keeping the company private. The richest man in the world he would become, after all, there is no bigger market to capture now in our age than education.

Jim missed the giddiness he felt when he was first interfaced with the system. His was an early experiment because of his dementia – it was felt that the increasing sophistication of the system would allow him to keep control of his faculties while the organics inside of him continued to fail.

And it worked.

He had insight into the goings-on around the world to right in front of his face. The system would put together his sentences, take care of his necessities, and allow him to continue to run things in the way he saw fit.

A day did not go by that Jim Sheen did not think of his little girl whom he had met only once, when she was an infant. But unlike others in his situation, Jim had the privileged view that the system allowed. He could track his little girl, Mia, especially as she grew older and more was available of her online. He could see details of every class she took and every credential she earned. He could tap into her social network and her browsing history. He could tour VR representations of where she lived, went to school and hung out. The one thing he could not do was to contact her.

The Salvation Army in Ottawa was a hulk of an institution. It was run according to the principles of the international movement. For all of the addicts it had something called the Day Program, run in that part of the day when the residents were otherwise locked out of their rooms as they were cleaned. Jim attended the Day Program because of his drinking problem but it ended up being the guinea pig he needed to test out the system.

He could remember the day he announced it to the group. “I am building a learning system,” Jim said at his turn to speak. “It will allow anyone in the world to plugin and take classes from the best teachers on the planet.”

This did not make much of an impression on the hodge-podge crowd of ne’er do well opioid poppers and alkys of various sorts.

One of the young eager guppies did take notice of Jim’s announcement and approached him afterwards.

“Why do you think you really have a chance,” said Steve to Jim as they were walking out of the meeting. “What makes your stuff so different.”

Jim was a bit taken a back that he had managed to get anyone interested at all. He looked this guy Steve over, couldn’t have been more than 25, with a scar down the right side of his cheek. Otherwise blond and blue eyes and a bit out of place among the boozy grey beards that mostly inhabited these day programs.

“First,” said Jim, “it will be independent, open source, and self-learning. It will be peer-to-peer and include all learning materials. It will be what the internet was truly meant to facilitate.”

“Wanna smoke,” said Steve as he digested what Jim had been saying. Steve in fact had been a programmer in a past life and got the gist of what Jim was saying right away, but it seemed a rather elementary explanation. He already knew about technology like the Blockchain and the Internet of People, so Jim’s plan did indeed peak his interest.

“You are preaching a full internet revolt is what you are saying Jim. Everything built up, these oligarchic companies fighting over control….”

Jim interrupted him. “It is more ambitious even than that. I am talking the biggest turn of events since the invention of the printing press and the Reformation, and we are in the perfect place to get started, a revolutionary institution already dedicated to the downtrodden, the rebellious, the poor and the hungry. The Salvation Army.”

Fragments of memory now flashed before Jim’s eyes.

When Jim attended services at the Salvation Army his mind would often wander to religious things. Jim indeed had grown up religious so it is so ironic that in a Protestant revolutionary movement called the Salvation Army is where he would find his Salvation in the form of his online education platform. As the chaplain read passages from Matthew, Jim recalled his days as a computer programmer working for various American subsidiaries ‘cross Canada.

Jim’s project would be different. It would be built by the rebels and the rebel movements. It would be pirated by the Pirate Bay and anonymized by Anonymous. It would truly be humanity building in tandem a way to educate all parts of itself as if it was a global brain. Jim was so eager to get started in earnest but so far all he had as any form of acolyte was the young misguided Steve who would be in and out, mostly out of sobriety over the coming winter at the shelter.

Jim had a lot of time on his hands and this is precisely why he came to love the lifestyle at the Salvation Army. His only commitment was to his stomach three times a day, which they provided for, getting enough shut-eye, and some form of hygiene.

Up on the 86th floor Jim was feeling nostalgic for when his Salvation Army posse really turned into a functioning core. It was sometime after they formed the Online Education Coop and the system was coming together. It would piggyback on new and emerging technologies like the blockchain to allow a student’s record to be permanently associated with them as they passed through education levels and the increasing sophistication of virtual and augmented reality so that being in a classroom in the system was even better than being in those previously vaunted halls of Harvard and MIT.

Mia was a great student. She skipped the 4th grade and began experimenting with the system on her own time – it had not yet replaced the curriculum at her progressive school like it was doing at so many other K-12 public schools. Mia’s curious mind was a good match for course offerings of the system and she enjoyed donning the full VR gear and meeting her fellow students from around the world, along with the professors.

Today’s lesson: exoplanets. The VR was so vivid she could walk around newly discovered planets and see their moons, experience their gravity, see their imagined flora and fauna. And then she could discuss these sensations with her classmates, create elaborate 3D analytic presentations, and submit these to the scientists overseeing the class for grading.

This was way more interesting than the classic mathematics she was learning earlier in the day at her regular school. She made a mental note to herself to read up more on the system. Who was behind it? How did they make their money? Could she one day get involved in producing content for it?

She took off her VR gear and went into the other room of her house to reconnect with her family. “How was your day Mia,” said her mom Jo.

“School was okay,” said Mia, she hesitated then for a moment, “but I really prefer learning with the computer system.”

“You know how we feel about that Mia. You are limited to 2 hours a day on that machine.”

“But why?”

“Well, for one thing it isolates you from your life here in Bridgeport. How can you be everywhere at once like in its advertising?”

“Want to learn about the new planets they just discovered ma, it was really amazing being there…”

“You weren’t there Mia, remember it is just a simulation.”

The tech behind the system had grown really sophisticated and indeed its 3D VR simulations had grown indistinguishable from reality. And this made for some amazing learning opportunities and took advantage of innumerable 3D artist-contributors donating everything from geology to environmental to animal scenes. Anything, really, could be set up and constructed into a learning opportunity that could be credentialized.

Mia had been using the system for three years already and so had accumulated a few hundred credits already. At this rate she would be able to enter the level 40s by the time she was twelve, which was amazing progress. But while this was going on in the virtual world, her real world schooling was progressing, actually pretty well, in kind, and is what her mom encouraged.

“Time to hit the e-reader Mia,” said Jo. “I don’t want your system-time eating into your real-world time.”

“Okay ma, but I just don’t get it. I learn so much more virtually that my entire school experience seems deprecated.”

And prophetic words she would be speaking as even her progressive school got full-time on the system within 5 years.

Jim was a shell of a man now. When he was first interfaced with the system he had a lot of control. He would be prompted at every decision point, and while the choices often relied on reams of big data analytics it would be Jim that would be making the final decisions.

But things were different now that he was silenced. The system still scoured itself whenever there was a choice to be made but Jim was no longer the decider, although those on the board and in the outside world were unaware of this.

Jim had become a slave to the machine he had created.

Its AI would continuously build on itself and it would integrate the learning potential of everyone who used it; their thoughts, their choices, their feelings, all interacting with each other and the data and algorithms of the system. This would prove too much a match for even its creator and there was no off switch.

As the system started to spread from school to school, state to state, and soon country to country, it would inevitably be confronted with opposition of various kinds. The teacher’s unions would often be the biggest stumbling block as it indeed deprecated their careers. The role of teacher would be reimagined in the system, with their own set of credentials and learning processes.

Besides teacher’s resistance there were the powers that be. The groups of constituencies that simply did not want or like the system, that preferred hierarchy, with them on the top. Too much education flowing to the bottom rungs of society spelt trouble for the way things were – with the one percent still presiding over most of society. This is why Jim had been so strategic in laying low beyond regular societal scrutiny at the Salvation Army.

He lived out his daily life there as his system grew stronger, as the contributions flowed and the commits were made to the core. He built the whole thing up without any institutional backing, or the participation of Big Tech – who were always on the take, but kept the system open enough to prevent backlash that he remained at the head of this, and this was to be a for-profit company. Monetization would come much later, for now he spent his time on various communication channels as the head of a budding education system with a growing list of curriculum cutting across both K-12 and post-secondary.

Where was Mia? He could see her curiosity …

As Jim’s mind went he was able to rely more on the system. It was like fill in the blanks, and he could get through his day, getting dressed, meals, online board meetings. He would be prompted at decision points and make them out of his free will. But as time went on the system would work more autonomously and Jim would often be relegated to very minor inflection points. His subordinates would carry out any necessary tasks and life would go on on the 86th floor.

Then one day, he received a message. Of course most of the thousands of messages that were originally routed to him would be rerouted to someone else in the organization and either a subroutine or subordinate would take care of it. It was from Mia.


Silenced Copyright © by Jonathan Wexler. All Rights Reserved.