The Indifference Engine (2007)

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The story I’m reminded the most of is Ted Chiang’s Liking What You See: A Documentary, and while that one was one of three I liked most in Chiang’s collection, there was always something nagging me about it. Basically, the story explored what would happen if people could somehow switch off their ability to perceive beauty. Pros and cons were explored until the story came to a sort of wishy-washy ending that felt like even Chiang wasn’t entirely sure whether this switch off was a good idea or not, though the story seemed to say that it might be not so bad, maybe, to counter what amounted to a beauty privilege.

Project Itoh, never shy to go the most flashy route, set his story among child soldiers in a fictional African country and the aftermath of civil war between the Xema and the Hoa tribe. Sponsored by western NGOs the child soldiers undergo a procedure that makes them unable to differentiate between people from the two tribes and hopefully loosing their will to hate and fight. As expected, instead of fostering peace, things go horribly wrong.

Now, you could easily read it as a conventional cautionary tale of not fucking with mother nature, but that reading would completely miss the point Itoh is making. Or at the least, the two major ones.

Because, basically both stories, Itoh’s Indifference Engine and Chiang’s Liking What You See deal with how the common adage, “I’m not a racist, I’m color blind” would play out when supported by neuro-mods to make it actually true. Trying to solve privilege, whether it’s beauty or race or gender by playing tricks with perception. But the difference between Chiang’s story and Itoh’s is that the former is far to coy and wishy-washy to really think things through to their inevitable conclusion (and I don’t mean the kill-them-all-ending of Itoh’s story).

First and foremost, this would never work, even if the secondary point I come to later wouldn’t matter (which it kinda does). Technology is never evenly distributed among people and for this solution to work, it would have to be applied to every human being on the planet, or you’ve managed to create just a new demarcation line to differentiate between people, something Itoh oh-so subtly mentioned. And there will always be a percentage who would never freely take that kind of medicine. Talk about replacing one evil with another.

But the second point is, that this just isn’t a solution, it only sidesteps the problem without solving it. Don’t want to be a racist anymore, get a fix that makes you unable to differentiate between people. You don’t have to change or address the fact that there was something wrong in the first place or that there’s a systematic society-wide failure mode when it comes to various privileges.

You can go on, acting like you’re a nice person, secure in knowing that you’re not part of the problem, because you’re really blind to it. How many mind fixes can you apply before the whole system comes crashing down because you’ve blindsided yourself to so many physical elements of human nature that you can’t read social cues anymore. The end state of that kind of problem-solving turns people into artificial autists, which I would hope most people would recognize as a terrible idea.

Sticking your head into the sand is never a long-term solution.

That’s why I prefer Itoh’s story over Chiang’s. It takes a rusty saw to the idea at the core of both stories and shows you what’s fucking wrong with it.