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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Supreme Mirage: A Science Fiction Story

The Supreme Mirage: A Science Fiction Story

Everything was going great for Melissa Jenkins until she found that every single one of her 137 online photographs of herself, her house, her cars, and her vacations had all been faked.

Melissa spent lots of time on a website called yourlife.com. The site had different pages where you could store different photographs of yourself and what you owned. There was the My House page, where you could put photographs of your home. There was a My Vacations page, where you could put your travel photos. Then there was a My Stuff page, where you could put photos of your fancy new car or the cool new thing you bought at the electronics store. Then there was a My Chats page, where you could interact with other people.

shocked computer user

Melissa always loved to look at her photos on yourlife.com. On her My House page there were photos of a huge gleaming marble home in Beverly Hills, with four huge pillars at the front, and sixteen gigantic bay windows. Her My Vacations page showed photos of trips to Paris, Tahiti, Tokyo, and the Amazon rain forest. Her My Stuff page showed a silver Rolls Royce and a red Ferrari.

One day Melissa was looking at a photo she particularly liked, showing her in front of the Eiffel Tower. Melissa decided to copy the photo to a program that allowed her to zoom in on a detail. After she zoomed in on her own image, she noticed that the travel photo was faked. Someone had overlaid a picture of Melissa on top of a picture of the Eiffel Tower.

That can't be, because I really did go to all the places shown on my My Vacations page, thought Melissa to herself.

Just to show that none of her other pictures had the same problem, she tried the same procedure on twenty photos she randomly chose from her online collection. They all had the same problem. In each case, if you zoomed in closely enough, you could see that the picture was a fake, made by overlaying a photo of Melissa on top of another photo.

That can't be, because I really do own the house shown on my My House page, thought Melissa to herself.

But even though she felt sure the pictures couldn't really have been faked, she mentioned her findings to young Don, who was the only person she knew at her apartment building.

“That's really bizarre,” said Don. “I use that yourlife.com site all the time. Let me try the same thing with my online pictures.”

The next day Don knocked on Melissa's door. “Come to my apartment. I want to show you something,” he said. They went to Don's apartment, a tiny dingy one-room apartment just like Melissa's.

“The first thing I found was that all of my online photos are faked just like yours,” said Don. “But that can't be, because I really did go to all the places shown on my My Vacations page, and I really do own the house shown on my My House page.”

“Then I checked out something else,” continued Don. “Have you ever noticed that little screen flicker that you see when you go to yourlife.com? That little flicker that seems to last for just a small fraction of a second? I wrote a little screen capture program designed to investigate that.”

“What do you mean?” asked Melissa.

“I found out that when you see that little screen flicker, the yourlife.com site is actually flashing written messages to you for a fraction of a second,” said Don.

“That doesn't make sense,” said Melissa. “How could you read a message that lasts for just a small fraction of a second?”

“I read about this once before,” said Don. “It's called subliminal messaging. If they flash a message to you real fast, it won't register in your conscious mind. But it will be stored somewhere in your subconscious mind. And that can influence what you believe in your conscious mind.”

“What exactly are these messages being flashed by the site?” asked Melissa.

“It's weird,” said Don. “They're mainly just kind of messages of reassurance. One of the messages says: you really did go to all the places shown on your My Vacations page. Then another message says: you really do own the house shown on your My House page. And another message says: you really do own all the stuff shown on your My Stuff page.”

“That's so bizarre,” said Melissa.

“Melissa, let me ask you something,” said Don. “You have that huge house in Beverly Hills, right? So what are doing now in a tiny little one-room apartment in this crummy little apartment building in Washington D.C?”

“They're doing renovations,” said Melissa. “I'm only staying here until they're done.”

“You know, it's strange, it's exactly the same story for me,” said Don. “I have a huge ocean-front mansion in Malibu, as you can see on my My House page. But they're doing renovations, so I'm just staying here until they're done.”

“Wait a minute – one of those subliminal messages said something about renovations,” remembered Don. He picked up the list of the subliminal messages he had written down.

“Here is one of the flashing subliminal messages I discovered,” said Don. “The message is: you're only staying where you are now for a little while, until they finish the renovations on your house.”

“Now I'm starting to get scared,” said Melissa. “Do you think our belief about the renovations is just being planted by these subliminal messages the web site is flashing?”

“I don't know,” said Don. “Let me ask you something. Let's talk about your house. Do you really remember it?”

“Sure, I remember it very clearly,” said Melissa.

“But when you do remember your house, in what way do you remember it?” asked Don. “Do you remember the day you bought it, or the road that leads up to your house, or do you just remember the pictures you saw of your house on the yourlife.com site?”

“I guess I just remember the pictures,” confessed Melissa. “But I do recall them quite clearly.”

“It's the same way for me,” said Don. “When I remember my house in Malibu, all I can remember are the same things shown in the pictures on yourlife.com.”

“It really doesn't make sense,” said Melissa. “You and I both have grand houses in California, but we're living in a ratty little apartment building in Washington, D.C. Why would we be staying here if they were renovating our houses?”

Don and Melissa started knocking on doors in their apartment building. Most people didn't want to talk with them, but they got five people to open their doors and start talking.

Each of the five people said basically the same thing. Each of them was living alone, but all of them said that they had huge beautiful houses in California, and that they were in this dingy apartment building just for a while until their house renovations were finished. Each of them had a wonderful set of pictures on yourlife.com, showing a huge house, some very expensive cars, and glamorous vacations around the world.

Don and Melissa demonstrated that all of their pictures were faked, but at first the five others all said the same things, things like That can't be, because I really did take the vacations shown on my My Vacations page and That can't be, because I really do have the house shown on my My House page.

After some heated discussions, Don and Melissa convinced the other five that something was terribly wrong.

“The offices for yourlife.com are here in Washington,” said Don. “Why don't we go over there, and demand an answer to this riddle?” The other six agreed.

At the offices of yourlife.com Don, Melissa, and the other five waited until a large group was entering the building. They then merged into the group, and pretended to be part of it. This got them past the security check.

Don, Melissa, and the other five broke off from the other group, and went wandering through the office halls. They opened an office, and found an executive named Wilson.

Don and Melissa told Wilson what they had learned, and demanded an answer. Wilson discreetly pressed a button on his desk, and then began explaining.

“Since they're coming to memory wipe you, I might as well spill the beans,” said Wilson. “I'll tell you the whole story behind yourlife.com.”

“A few decades ago we had a consumer-oriented materialist society, all centered around people buying bigger and bigger houses, and putting more and more stuff into those houses,” said Wilson. "But then everything started to collapse. The country started running low on oil, and we ran short on lots of metals, and we had the massive droughts caused by global warming, and the whole economy started exploding because of all the trillions in debt the country had piled up. But what can you do when you have everybody hooked on having big, shiny, expensive things, that they can't have any more, because everything's falling apart?”

“The government's answer was: yourlife.com,” explained Wilson. “It started out just as a site where you could collect pictures of a make-believe life, so you could fool your Facebook friends into thinking you were rich. But eventually we took it further, so that people became convinced that what they saw on yourlife.com was reality. With the help of the subliminal messages secretly flashed by the web site, we gradually kind of hypnotized people so that they thought that whatever they saw on yourlife.com was reality. The subliminal messages went to your subconscious mind, but then they slowly drifted into your conscious mind, like flies moving from one room to the next. Of course, most of the photos on the site are fake; we have a whole division that makes those using Photoshop. But at least we kept people happy when they were losing almost everything due to the economic collapse.”

“The point is: it worked,” said Wilson. “We had a collapsed nation of 300 million dirt-poor people, and we got them all believing they were as rich as a Wall Street CEO. It worked great for the ruling political party. People kept voting it back into office because everybody thought they were rich.”

“So do you mean, that I don't really have that Beverly Hills house I see on my My House page on yourlife.com?” asked Melissa, crestfallen. “And I don't even have the cars shown on my My Stuff page?”

“Get over it!” said Wilson. “You guys thought you had big houses and shiny cars and great vacations, but you're really just a bunch of penniless people with no houses and no cars. And you couldn't afford a vacation if your life depended on it.”

At that point a set of security guards burst into the office, summoned by the button Wilson had pressed.

“Okay, guys, time for the memory wipe,” said Wilson. “You're going to forget all about what I just told you, and all about what you discovered about yourlife.com.”

Later the impoverished Melissa sat in her dingy little one-room apartment talking on the phone to a new acquaintance. She had directed the person to Melissa's page on yourlife.com.

“Now click on the My Vacations page, and you'll see the pictures of my wonderful vacation at Paris,” Melissa said happily with great conviction. “I really did go to all the places shown on my My Vacations page. Now click on the My House page, and you'll see my huge lovely Beverly Hills mansion. I'm going back there as soon as they finish the renovations.”