Esquire (UK)

THE ALCOVE

- BY JOHN LANCHESTER

He waited until the waitress had walked away from the table and was out of earshot.

“I hate that,” Michael said. “‘No worries’. Why do they say that? No worries. Why would there be any worries? This is a coffee shop. It is literally the entire point and purpose of the place to sell people coffee. So you order a coffee and they bring it to you and you say ‘thanks’ and they say ‘no worries’. Why? Who ever said anything about worries in the first place? It’s not like you’ve gone for an MRI and you’re concerned with what the scan shows. It’s not like you’ve been audited and want to know if you’re in trouble with the taxman. That’s when you want to hear, ‘no worries’. When there’s a legitimate source of worry, it’s fine. When there isn’t, it’s horrible. ‘No problem’ is just as bad. I order a coffee, you bring it, because it’s your job to bring it; why would there be any worries? Did you just change my flat tyre?”

“It’s spreading,” said Anne. “In Paris I’ve heard them say ‘sans souci’. It used to be the name of the palace where Voltaire stayed when he was visiting Frederick the Great. Now it’s a stock reply to some tourist saying ‘merçi’.”

“I believe it was Australian,” said Michael, “in the first instance. ‘No worries, mate.’ It’s all their fault.”

“‘Literally’,” said David. “I dislike it so much. You just used it. You said, literally the entire point and purpose.”

“That has a distinguis­hed lineage,” said Anne. “It’s already there in Joyce’s short fiction. Nineteen-fourteen. First sentence of The Dead. More or less about a waitress, appropriat­ely enough. Quote, ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet’. It has reversed meanings. Now it means metaphoric­ally. Once you realise that you stop minding.” “Well I haven’t,” said David. “Stopped minding.”

Café Jokester was a 10-minute walk from the university’s main campus, in the direction of the city centre. It was decorated with large black and white photograph­s of comedians who had died before any of the café’s customers were born. This group of friends and colleagues had the habit of

meeting there on a midweek afternoon when their schedules gave them a lull that was variously post-lecture, pre-seminar, mid-research. The Jokester had an alcove on the left at the back, a recess that you couldn’t see from the main room and which only regulars knew about, and this was their favourite spot. The young academics enjoyed the noise and the bustle of the customers and staff coming and going, the charging up and venting of the coffee machines, the incessant rumble of the traffic outside, and yet they were sitting in their own orderly space, where a trick of acoustics meant they could hear each other without raising their voices. The coffee was good and the cakes weren’t bad, but the thing they liked best about the café was this mix of simultaneo­usly being in the midst of people and being on their own.

Jefferson came into the café, stood in the middle of the room and took a quick look around. He caught the waitress’s eye and made a squiggling gesture at her which (but only because she already knew what it meant) mimicked the action of somebody applying steamed foam to the top of a cappuccino. He came to join them, sat down lightly and exhaled heavily.

“Seminar go well?” said Anne.

Jefferson was teaching an introducto­ry class in general philosophy and it was no secret that he was making heavy going of it.

“Week four. Epistemolo­gy,” said Jefferson, in his light American voice. “So I’m doing the brain in a vat. How do we know we aren’t suspended in some fluid, neurons being stimulated to mimic external inputs, identical triggers to those of the external physical world, therefore how do we know reality is real, and so forth. Descartes’ demon. Total philosophy 101. And then this student starts up again.” “Remind me about Descartes’ demon,” said Michael. “Omnipotent evil demon who fakes the whole of reality with the intention, the successful intention, of deceiving a single person,” said Jefferson. “Quote, ‘I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood, or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things’.”

“And the victim is the brain in the vat. Got it,” said Michael. “The student was the same one it always is?” said Anne. “Yes. The same one. He starts with, ‘Why a vat?’” “Seriously?” said David.

“Yes. ‘Why does it have to be a vat? Why can’t it be like a really massive jar? Why can’t the guy just be plugged directly into something?’”

“Dear me,” said David.

“I know. And then he’s like, ‘If I’m a brain in a vat, who are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s sort of the entire point, that you don’t know and have no way of knowing if I’m real or not’. And he’s like, ‘But that doesn’t make any sense because why would you be here if it’s just me who exists’, and I’m saying, ‘No, that’s not the question at issue, it’s not who else exists it’s whether your sensory input is real’. And he’s saying, ‘I don’t get it’, and I’m wanting to shout, ‘Yes, I can tell you don’t get it’, but then luckily one of the others says something and he either does get it or doesn’t want to look stupid in front of the rest of them so he stops.”

“What did the student say? The one who got him to stop?” The waitress arrived with the cappuccino and put it down in front of Jefferson.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” said the waitress.

The three who had been complainin­g about ‘no worries’ exchanged a glance but didn’t say anything. It was their running gag that this waitress liked Jefferson. He took a sip of the cappuccino and sucked a dab of foam off his lip.

“What the other kid says is, ‘Don’t think about it as a brain in a vat, think about it as whether the universe is a simulacrum, and you are the only person in the simulacrum. So it’s all a construct, made exclusivel­y for you’. And he amazingly gets it, just like that. He says, ‘Oh OK’. And we go on from there.”

“It’s fishy,” said Michael. “Why would he immediatel­y understand the idea of the simulacrum if he, please forgive the expression, can’t get his head around the brain in the vat?” “I know. That’s what I thought,” said Jefferson.

“I mean, they’re the same thing,” said Michael.

“They’re not at all the same thing,” said David, “if you think of them as ‘things’, a floating disembodie­d brain in a jar and a colossal all-encompassi­ng artificial computercr­eated reality…”

“No they’re not the same thing but the underlying argument is the same, that’s clearly what I meant,” said Michael. “Clearly.”

There was a pause while they sipped their drinks. The city’s traffic was building towards the rush hour and the street outside was louder than ever. Horns honked, air brakes hissed, a bus sighed to a halt on its suspension. From the alcove, they didn’t have a view of the café’s main room but they could tell from the hum that it was full.

“Is he to be numbered among the stupid?” said Michael. “That would explain it, if he was just a bit thick. You know, a below-the-line type. An online commentato­r. ProBrexit. ‘Bloody immigrants, coming over here to help our NHS. Bloody immigrants, coming here to teach in our universiti­es and win Nobel Prizes. Bloody foreigners with their thought experiment­s about epistemolo­gy.’”

“Maybe,” said Jefferson. “He has this smirk. When he says

things in class, he smirks. It could be a stupid smirk, it could be a knowing smirk. It could be a knowing, stupid smirk, he doesn’t know how little he knows, maybe it’s that thing, that syndrome, the one with the double-barrelled name where stupid people have been proven to overestima­te their own intelligen­ce and competence…”

“The Dunning-Kruger effect,” said David.

“Yes, that. It could be a Dunning-Kruger smirk. He might be a brain in a simulation in a vat in a Dunning-Kruger vortex.”

They all took a moment to think about that, the brain and the simulation and the vat and the vortex. The café was now so busy that even in the alcove it was getting harder to hear; soon it would be too late for coffee and tea and people in search of each other’s company would start heading to the pub instead. Over the voices, they could hear the espresso machine venting steam, and the plastic sound of the barista flicking the coffee dispenser to fill the portafilte­r and then the metallic noises as he clamped it back into place and lowered the pressure lever.

“Maybe he’s just fucking with you,” said Anne. “In other words, he’s a troll. He’s that classic student who’s read the next chapter in the textbook and he knows perfectly well about this particular world-famous thought experiment and he’s making his own entertainm­ent. Which doesn’t mean he’s a particular­ly nice person, but he’s not stupid.”

“In that case, he’s studying the right subject,” said Michael. “All philosophe­rs are trolls. No offence, Jefferson. But that’s really the whole project, isn’t it? Trolling common sense, trolling reality. What if you aren’t real, what if we don’t know what we actually know, what if all this stuff we take for granted can’t be taken for granted, and what if we ignore all the realities we act on in everyday life and instead push our thinking way past all norms and givens of observed behaviour, into this inhuman domain of pure logic, and see what messed-up and counter-intuitive conclusion­s we can draw?

“I mean,” Michael continued, “that’s basically an entire discipline based on a fancy form of intellectu­al trolling. It’s right there at the dawn of the subject. Socrates was the first and worst. Massive, obscene troll. What if the good isn’t good, what if justice isn’t justice, what if the virtues are really vices, what if nothing is real? Apart from anything else, he’s constantly contradict­ing himself. The dialogues are really just him trolling his mates and them being polite about it. Socrates, the original and greatest troll. He would have loved the comments section.”

“Well, people were polite about it and then they weren’t and the state had him executed,” said Jefferson. “Sounds like you kind of agree with them.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. I just think that if you’d been there at the time he would have been really annoying.”

“Socrates looked a bit like a troll,” said Anne. “Busts of him do, anyway.”

“But at least he was arguing with people he knew and not getting into pointless arguments with total strangers in 140 characters or fewer,” said David. “Two-hundred-and-eighty characters now, but that’s really no better, in fact it’s worse.”

“I don’t know if he’s on Twitter,” said Jefferson. “I haven’t looked. Not Socrates. I bet he’s on Twitter as a parody account. I mean my student.”

“You should take a look,” said Michael. “It’s unprofessi­onal not to cyberstalk your students. Everybody does it. Otherwise how do you know what they’re saying about you behind your back? ‘Prof Jefferson is a total hottie, heart emoji heart emoji fire emoji kisses emoji.’”

“He’s not wrong,” said Anne. “It might be, ‘Yo tweeps, big lolz today trolling Prof J-Dog about brain n vat, hashtag shitz and giggles.’”

“Please tell me you don’t cyberstalk your students,” said Jefferson to David.

“Of course not,” said David. He paused for a moment to wave at the waitress, who had peered around the corner of their alcove. “Could I?” he said, lifting his cup. “Cappuccino? Anyone else?”

Anne nodded. Michael and Jefferson both shook their heads.

“No worries,” said the waitress, and walked away. Michael and Anne briefly put their faces in their hands. David shook his head at Jefferson.

“At least,” David went on, “I wouldn’t say, cyberstalk. Nothing like that. But I have on one or two occasions taken a brief look at the online personae of some of my students.” Michael snorted.

“So that’s a yes,” he said.

“Not at all. Pedagogy implies an interest in and knowledge of the individual student. Engagement on a personal level. This is merely another tool to that end.”

“I’m amazed you can bear to,” said Anne. “It’s all so grim. Everything out there is so grim.”

There was a pause while they all thought about how grim everything was. It was hard to disagree. Even among people who disagreed and argued and tested arguments for a living, it was hard to disagree.

“Everything about commentary and Twitter and below the line is worse,” said Anne. “Everything. It’s like that Miele slogan, ‘Immer besser’, but the other way around. Always worse. Immer schlimmer.”

“Worse, and making things worse too,” said Michael. “Remember when the National Lottery was launched and you had ads everywhere encouragin­g people to take part, or to use their preferred euphemism, to play. I love that, as if betting on a lottery is a form of play. Anyway. There was

a widely made observatio­n that the lottery was a tax on stupidity, and then somebody pointed out that way of looking at it was wrong, that taxes tend to discourage people from doing things, so you tax something if you want less of it. But in this case the lottery was treating stupidity as if it was an important national resource, something to be lovingly nurtured and cultivated and given government support. The National Lottery, actively making people more stupid since nineteen-whatever-it-was.”

“Nineteen-ninety-four,” said David.

“Whatever,” said Michael. “The point is it’s a force for making everything worse by making everyone more stupid. And the same goes for below the line, and Twitter and all that. Just people talking complete bollocks all day every day. No actually, that’s too mild — it’s not talking bollocks, it’s much more toxic, it’s lies and abuse and conscious deceit and ill will and anonymous trolling and hate and division and every kind of poison. An entire planet engaged in what amounts to a stupidity contest. That surge in stupidity is the driving force behind everything getting worse, which let’s face it, is what we all agree is happening. And it’s facilitate­d by a whole set of new technologi­es designed to magnify the worst in human behaviour, the very lowest impulses of which we’re capable. Without Twitter there would be no Trump, have you ever thought about that? No Trump, if it weren’t for this geyser of lies and boasting and inanities and a systematic assault on the idea that the truth is true and the real is real and decency is decent, all of that made possible by this new medium, one that might have been specially designed to give lies an advantage over truth.”

The waitress came back with the two cappuccino­s and put them down in front of David and Anne.

“Here you go,” she said.

“No worries,” said Anne. Michael snorted again. The waitress looked a little taken aback. She collected the empty cups and left the alcove.

“Yes,” said Anne. “Trump and Brexit and climate change, all of them made possible by lies and stupidity. Orbán and Syria and the People’s Party in Poland, and Putin stirring all of it, the worst of us in ascendancy everywhere. The dark rising. Everywhere you look, things being objectivel­y and unarguably worse, and made so by our own actions and choices.” “Jesus, Anne,” said Jefferson.

“But it’s true. The dark in us rising, the dark outside us rising, and all of it being exacerbate­d by technologi­es that might as well have been designed to make it worse.”

She blew on her drink, tested the temperatur­e with her upper lip, and took a sip. A car driver immediatel­y outside the café must have been cut up or boxed in, because he or she pressed the horn and then held it, and held it some more, and for a while it was impossible to talk inside the Jokester, even here in the alcove. The driver paused for a few blessed seconds and Michael opened his mouth to speak, but then the horn started again. Thirty seconds later, whatever was annoying the driver must have come to an end, because the noise stopped.

“Bet that man has things to say below the line,” said Michael.

“I bet he does,” said Anne. She had another sip of her drink and put the cup back in its saucer.

“Designed,” said David. “I was interested by your use of that word, Anne.”

“Explain,” said Jefferson.

“Anne used the expression, ‘designed to make it worse’,” said David. “I’m just wondering what she is imagining when she says that.”

She shrugged.

“I suppose what I’m saying is if you imagined some force or agency in the world that was leading us towards doom and destructio­n, towards the dark, and then you imagined what kind of tools and technologi­es it would use, you’d come up with something like social media. I didn’t mean anything more than that. I didn’t mean there actually is a design at work. A single mind behind it all.”

Two people younger than the four of them, instantly recognisab­le as students, peered around the corner of the alcove, said sorry and went away. They giggled to hide their embarrassm­ent.

“Not even people who believe in a god believe in a god who works like that,” said Jefferson.

“I never said they do,” said Anne.

Michael leaned forward and tapped the table with a fingernail, a glimpse for the others of his seminar persona.

“I don’t want to leave it there,” he said. “David is right. ‘Designed’. It’s suggestive. Think for a moment about what that would mean, if it all were a piece of design. The process of everything having got worse. If we see that process as being intended and deliberate. What would the implicatio­ns be? You have to head straight for the question: why? Why ‘designed’? And more importantl­y, by whom?”

“An entity resembling Descartes’ demon,” said David. “The word ‘designed’ implies that.”

“Which leads you towards the idea of some kind of experiment, maybe,” said Jefferson. “The demon is testing something, trying something, fooling around with a hypothesis.”

“Unless it’s trolling on a cosmic scale,” said Anne. “An entire universe constructe­d out of spite and ill will, and, as I was saying earlier about your student troll, making its own entertainm­ent. We are the brain in the vat and the demon is the higher order of reality, and it is fucking with us, just for fun.”

“But we know we aren’t a brain in a vat, don’t we?” said Michael. “I mean, I know philosophe­rs have been having

fun with that idea since forever, and good luck to them, but nobody outside a psychiatri­c ward has ever truly thought that they are a brain suspended in a vat and all their sensory data is created for them. People entertain themselves with the idea of the universe as a simulacrum, but nobody truly believes it. We all know that we are real, the four of us around this table, don’t we?”

“Of course, but I’m not sure about the rest of them,” said Jefferson, gesturing at the café, at the city, at the world. The others smiled at that.

“Mind you,” Jefferson went on, “that is part of the point of the original thought experiment. It might be that those of us sitting and talking here are indeed real. This is easier to imagine if we go with the paradigm of the simulacrum cosmos rather than the single brain. We are four consciousn­esses inside a simulated reality, the rest of which is not real, or not real in the same sense that we are.”

“Maybe it’s the stupid people who aren’t real,” said Anne. The three men laughed. “Seriously, though, maybe intelligen­t people are the subjects of the experiment and the others are just part of the experiment­al apparatus. The idea would be that stupid people are simulacrum­s — sorry David, simulacra — basically computer programmes, let loose in this simulated reality and given this new thing called social media and encouraged to make everything worse, and then the settings are dialled up a bit, and they get stupider and stupider and the world gets worse and worse and worse, unbearably so, and it’s all climate change and Trump and Brexit et cetera, and the idea, or the entertainm­ent, is to find out how far it goes, how much we can take, to see what the smart people do when they’re like rats in a maze but the maze has no way out, is getting narrower and darker and more and more remorseles­s. Michael mentioned a stupidity contest. People trying to be more and more stupid. But it could be the other way around. Maybe all the stupidity is the test and we’re being evaluated on how we cope with it.”

“So there could be something a bit like the rapture,” said Michael. “I’ve always thought the rapture was a rather amazing idea and that there was no particular reason why it should be limited to the elite of one subset of Christian believers. It’s more interestin­g if it’s all the left-handed people who suddenly vanish, or all the gingers, or all the virgins, or all the chess players, anything like that, surprising and arbitrary. Much more fun. So it’s like that. The demon changes the settings, tweaks the experiment, and all the stupid people suddenly disappear and the rest of us are left. It would be great! I think. Wouldn’t it be great?”

“One wonders what the criteria for the rapture would be,” said David. “I can come up with a few. Anyone who had ever posted a comment below the line. Anyone who has gone on the internet to contest a generally agreed fact or statistic.”

“Anyone who has ever posted anything anonymousl­y,” said Anne. “Anyone who has retweeted something without reading it. Anyone who has ever argued with a stranger. Anyone who has ever sent abuse of any form to anyone, ever.”

“Anyone who voted for Trump. Everyone who voted for Brexit,” said Jefferson. “Anyone who watches reality TV.”

“So they get raptured, they vanish from among us, and then what?” said David. “Let’s imagine it’s happened, just like that. All the stupid people have vanished. I raise my cappuccino to their memory,” he went on, matching his actions to his words and then putting the cup back down. “The experiment or the joke or the trolling goes to its next phase as the intelligen­t people are left behind. I suppose part of the interest would be just how many of us there are left.”

“Haha, yes,” said Michael, “I don’t think we should get our hopes up.”

“And then we’d just have to wait and see what was in store for us,” said Anne. “Wait for the next part of the experiment, perhaps. Presumably it would have a next part. Wait and see how we cope in a world where there is only us and those like us. What’s the Scottish toast? ‘Here’s tae us; wha’s like us? Damn few — and they’re a’ deid!’”

They smiled and nodded at that but nobody said anything in return. The silence stretched for a moment, and then another moment. They sank into it. The four of them realised that the silence was not just theirs but wider and more general. The café’s hum and bustle and clatter had subsided. The brief pulses of noise as the doors opened and closed with the movement of customers to and from the street outside — that had stopped. The traffic seemed to have gone quiet.

A short distance away, a car alarm was sounding, on and on, unchecked, an electric sound cutting through the absence of human noise. The space around them felt empty, in the way that an unoccupied house feels empty, with a stillness which is not lack of movement but fundamenta­l absence. This new sensation, this absence, didn’t bring a feeling of expansiven­ess but instead a sudden claustroph­obia. All of them realised that they were finding it hard to breathe. They looked at each other, their eyes wild. The clever people could tell that they were all thinking the same thing.

“Rapture is a misleading word,” said David. “I don’t think that’s what it would feel like if you were left behind.”

“It’s fine,” said Jefferson, standing up, “it’s all fine. I’m just going to...”

He didn’t finish his sentence. Michael got up to go with him. He tried to speak but couldn’t get any words out of his mouth. He cleared his throat and made another attempt, but failed again. On this third try, he managed to speak, but his tone was strange and stranded, and it was impossible to tell if he was making a statement or a question when he said, “No worries”.

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