Happiness Algorithms In Retreat

A Special Article for this Afternoon's Edition

My name is Dr. Paku Peele, and I am the Senior Professor of Mammalian Neurostatics at the University of California, New Mojave. As Eadweard Jai Wurble, yes, that Eadweard Jai Wurble, was my student at the time of his most profound contribution to and this century's most significant development in neuroscience, I feel I should provide some explanation for what has led to the events of the past few days, although I also feel that therapy, not explanation, will be more useful to many, nay, most, as this crisis continues to unfold.

To review what we all know: in the past decade, everyone, daily, has come to wear some type of Wurble Device — a hat, a necklace, earrings, anything near the head — that has served to keep us all happy continuously and without complication. Most do not know or need to know how it works, but briefly, every device emits an electromagnetic field (EMF) that influences the brain's neuronal firing patterns. This determines your emotional state, and all WurbleWear is programmed to emit EMFs that lead to positive emotional states. EJ doesn't make the devices, he doesn't design the headgear, doesn't look at sales charts... all young EJ does, all day, from his large but somewhat isolated office way at the top of WurbleTower, is derive the equations that generate those EMFs. And there are many, many equations, always changing, from day to day, situation to situation, culture to culture, personality to personality, as brains adapt and interact and even fire randomly for no reason at all... but all of which must be incorporated. And so we all have been downloading and installing the patches, upgrading our headwear, and keeping our helmets or sunglasses or hairnets charged, without fail, as we have been living our lives in relative, easy happiness. Well, it's been EJ who's been writing those patches, advancing that software, since the beginning. So EJ's been busy.

At least up until a few days ago.

I suppose it was inevitable. EJ was the most brilliant neurostatistician I had ever seen, even without regard to his young age — itself quite an outlier. He amazed me and the entire faculty with his proofs, his derivations, his calculatory prowess. When we found a way to apply a subset of his numeric and symbolic accomplishments to actual biological processes, well, that's when the revolution really began.

But it always seemed, to me, to others in the department, to certain teachers and advanced students in related schools and programs, that EJ himself may not have seen the brain as anything more than a complex geometrical surface, a multidimensional matrix of wave functions and integrable action potentials. Did he, in fact, feel the possible impact of his work on emotions, on human behavior, on thought itself? Or was he simply solving problems for their own sake? I sensed it was only the symbolic and numeric solutions, and the purely mathematical paths to these, that engaged him. His fascination seemed to end before any sort of translation into nature.

I also sensed he didn't know how he knew what he knew. Else, he didn't show it or seem to care. Nor did we pry, out of fear of modifying the very thought patterns that were able to come up with those intractably complex and dense happiness equations.

In any case, ever since we applied them to the brain, via WurbleWear, EJ has not pined for money or food or shelter or employment or anything material, but has directed his attention to those equations and their continual generation and regeneration. One property of the happiness equations is their need to continually be re-derived and permutated. Brains are not static things, and neither can be the EMF's that tame them. So everyone — you, me, the poor, the rich, the famous, the forgotten, the athlete, the sick — all of us, have gotten used to the top hats, headbands, and jewelry, whether your dial runs low or high, so that our cortices may continuously align to the electromagnetic patterns, and thus stay positive.

Everyone, that is, except EJ. As he was, and is, the only person remotely capable of performing the singular work that needed to be done to sustain WurbleWear, we all agreed, and EJ gave no objections, that he should not wear a device himself. His mind was already a perfect machine, ideal for tackling the demanding questions and answers of cutting edge neurostatics. And his services to the world were so valuable, so vital, that this fine instrument was given everything in order to retain its tuning and harmony, and kept from anything that could have severely modified it. EJ was treated with the care merited by a rare violin, a priceless antique, a seminal historic artifact, a precious baby. Simply via economic logic, the world came to furnish him his sustenance, his shelter, his tower, his corporation, his employees, from all walks and of all skillsets... design, engineering, business, media, and on and on... and all were happy to in turn serve him and the company, and by extension, the world. We all after all have come to rely on WurbleWear.

But over the years, as WurbleCorp, and the number of problems that needed solving grew more and more, the number of people he could talk to about them grew less and less. Even his most entrusted professor, me, his caring friend Dr. Paku Peele, had less to discuss with him today than not too long ago, when we would go over neurosynaptic statistical aggregation late into the night, or when I would forego red exam marks for not knowing the names of anatomic regions, given that he was able to quote the relative resting Faradays of those regions to multiple decimal points. To EJ, still young, it probably seems long ago, but to me, it is like a yesterday. Time is still relative.

Perhaps I was willfully naive. I began to feel guilty about it, which presented a paradox. Guilt is a negative emotion, and can be subsumed by a WurbleField (WWEMF). Using a vastly simplified model, and in the absence of other negative emotions:

if FEELING = NATURAL EMOTION + WWEMF

and NATURAL EMOTION = GUILT

then FEELING = WWEMF + GUILT

Guilt is negative, so for FEELING to be positive, WWEMF must simply be greater than the absolute value of GUILT.

WWEMF > |GUILT|

Yet I turned my dial up all the way, to a level that should easily have overpowered any negative feelings, guilt or otherwise, and I still felt negative. I switched headwear, going though all I owned, eventually ending on a baseball cap that bore the mark of the High Desert Scorpions, a team I enjoy following even though they have never had a winning record.

But none of my WurbleWear was working.

Over the past several weeks it has become apparent that I have not been alone. Words, vids, and holos have spread, from varied locations and situations, in which humans, despite being fitted with WurbleWear, are decidedly not happy. Recall that early post of the traveller in Rome airport, wailing as he proclaimed his loneliness. Then the live broadcast of the surgeon breaking down while giving news of her famous patient's death. Or the recordings of each spectator in the crowd at Montevideo Futbal Stadium, losing it over their team's defeat. We have even seen the return of parents crying at the funerals of their children.

These feelings have likely been as unfamiliar and frightening for you as they have been for me. In my case, the very realization of fright, another negative emotion, resonated, compounding my negativity and the problem.

What would EJ think if he saw these images, so rare (at least, before a few weeks ago) and so horrifying? How could these people, how could we, be so unhappy? Would EJ recognize what has gone wrong with our WurbleWear, and could he model it mathematically?

Would he even feel it?

Would he need help?

I attempted to reach him through numerous private and public channels, but there was no response. Now not only did I wonder, but I worried. And my negative feelings compounded even more.

I decided to make a personal visit to EJ at WurbleTower. Despite an ongoing position as a Senior Board Advisor, I had felt little need to engage for many years. Now I would see if I could be useful. This was as much for EJ and WurbleCorp as for myself... my emotions were dropping and the desert home where I normally found peace and contentment was increasingly bringing me emptiness and desperation.

I booked an autocar and set out for Sanfrangeles. After a nap thankfully free of dreams I awoke in the megalopolis' inner district. I remember sitting up, looking through the window at an urban horror, and in my groggy state thinking at first it was another holo. But this screen was live, in person, a genuine nightmare separated from my eyes only by glass. Forlorn pedestrians wandered into crosswalks without regard for signal or safety. Random belongings, including discarded WurbleWear, littered unkept sidewalks. Feeds filled entire sides of buildings, continuing the pernicious reports and images. I cursed those gigantic displays, under my breath or aloud, I can't recall, as I began to realize how much they were adding to the problem. Report after report, sight after sight, blow after blow. Every glance at a sad face, every sound of grief, every connection to another pained soul, in person or via a screen, diminished the power of WWEMFs to work on the human mind.

When I reached WurbleTower, any hopes for a respite from the gloom were quickly dashed. The lobby was quiet and cavernous, like a great bank closed on a holiday. There was no employee bustle, no throng of visitors. A receptionist in sunglasses silently printed me a pass, a security guard checked my bag without eye contact. I still cannot shake what I saw when I entered the elevator: a young man, likely a fresh graduate, trembling in a fetal position in the corner, his bright and fashionable newsie cap idle at his feet, and a screen in one hand, streaming nonstop the same damaging story as was going on all around us. "You should turn that off," I suggested, but he reacted as slowly as if I had called to him from another dimension. I remember inexplicably asking him "What floor?" without, predictably, a coherent response.

I chose mine — the top, where the lift doors opened directly into EJ's sanctuary. I left the fetal man behind as I entered the ovoid room that made up the entirety of WurbleTower's crowning spire. Half of its curved wall was a window through which one could normally see the entirety of megapolitan sprawl below, though this day's view was obscured by misty clouds. The rest of the curve was an array of screens, chalkboards, displays, moving surfaces, and all manner of computing devices.

In the middle of the room sat three assumed strangers, side by side. I could only see the backs of their heads. Across from them, a face I could see: EJ's. He looked older, not because of natural physical degradation, but body posture and facial expression, which were uncharacteristic to my memory. He sat hunched, his body closed tight. His downcast eyes, wide with worry, were encased in lines etched into gaunt skin. His fingers and his feet tapped irregularly. His lips were alternately puckered tight or quavering.

The three turned to look at me. They all had some variation of a Wurble Test device, which had always taken the basic form of a black disk — at least some things were still recognizable — affixed to their foreheads. Two of the test subjects were sobbing. The third was holding it together, but barely.

As if picking up a conversation left off ten years before, EJ addressed me. "I have mostly relied on the geometry of human faces to tell me how well a particular electrical configuration works. Recent feedback and data have only been negative shapes."

I approached the subjects. I examined them as carefully and as clinically as I could manage. Theirs were the closest I had come to another human face of this emotional configuration, in some time. They all had such pained and sad expressions! The vision sunk into my being like a raindrop into a circuit board.

"How recent are their field patches?" I asked.

EJ answered that he had not derived a new equation in thirty-three days. On hearing this, I reached for the dial of my cap, needing an immediate boost. But it was already at maximum. I asked if thirty-three days was a record. He responded, "Every new day is a record." I took off the useless cap and let it drop onto the floor.

EJ reached over and picked it up. He examined it. Seeing the logo, he asked me if I was now studying arachnid biology. I explained that it was a baseball team. We both agreed baseball was a sport rife with avenues of statistical exploration. But soon we returned to the matter at hand. EJ told me how it had started. Like so many later realized consequential events in history, the spark was small, nominal, an oversight compounded by a coincidence exacerbated by a flaw. An imperfection in an otherwise perfect system will stick out like a hole in a mask made of skin.

It started in New Madagascar, of all places, an island of villages, purposefully not as connected to the modern medialectronic world as most places. A large group of tourists were stranded during a once in a century storm that knocked out the power for the entire island, and wasn't restored in time for the various Wurble Devices, tourist and native alike, new models and old, to recharge adequately. So that by the time nominal electricity returned, and flights resumed, a threshold of brains had already gone through a prolonged period of Dewurbled existence, and natural human sadness, to an extreme not felt in a decade or more. Back to their countries the tourists took these feelings, seemingly unnegatable no matter what patches and energies they tried. Friends, families, colleagues, even strangers in geographic proximity, could not help but be influenced, then infected, by these feelings, and worse — pangs of worry, guilt, fear. Meanwhile, communication systems had also come back, so feeds of these people were beginning to viralize, in all parts of the world, rural and urban, electric rich and electric poor. The sadness epidemic had begun.

"We never modelled an outbreak of sadness, did we, EJ?" I asked, hoping irrationally that maybe, at some point or in some way along the line, he had taken it upon himself to draw up some fix for the potential, now actual, crisis.

EJ was silent. "Did we?" I repeated.

"I tried," he said. "from time to time."

EJ flashed a screen, bearing some kind of abstract non-bounded art projection, before his subjects. He examined the return data it was crunching, and then he sighed, gravely.

"You tried?" I pressed. "From time to time?"

"...when there was time. I was never able to break past it before some other more immediate, and solvable, issue would come along. I did attempt models of negative empathetic hyper-resonance, but all the answers for any equation I ever got tended to the negative."

He continued, revealing he had even once estimated the probability of finding a derivable equation to stop that hyper-resonance. It was low. Unworkably so, if the outbreak had already begun. So the only thing to do, and the only thing EJ did do, was continually work, doggedly, to prevent the resonance. It was a race he ran alone, and, as it turned out, fruitlessly. How much stress, how much loneliness, he must have faced over the years!

I asked if perhaps there was another way? To diminish things at least? Divide and conquer? Hold off the spread while things stabilized, even if not perfectly? Maybe there had even been a mistake. Even history's greatest mathematicians made mistakes.

But he expressed no willingness to try, no openness to the possibility. He was ragged, deflated. He repeated with a voice distant and cracking that it was not solvable. Not by humans. Not in this time. My chest got heavier. The space behind my eyes somehow altered density. It was hard to speak. I choked. A tear came from one of my ducts... I could see the three experimentees' also wide worried eyes, and it seemed we were all hopelessly entwined. When EJ caught my gaze I swear he was about to burst too. He was still holding my High Desert Scorpions cap.

"EJ," I suggested, weakly, "maybe you've been unable to find a solution, because you've been sad?"

EJ may not have understood. He said nothing.

"It's hard for unhappy people to be productive. Do you think you're happy?"

"I am doing math."

"You haven't derived an equation in over a month. What math have you been doing?"

The test subjects returned their gazes to the great leader of WurbleCorp, who only fractionally managed to return theirs.

"I have been..."

He was looking down now. I could not see his face.

"I..."

I couldn't tell if he was looking at the cap or past it, but either way, I suggested he try it on. He protested. He posited the obvious: that it wasn't working. I countered that it wasn't working for us, but it might for him. He repeated to me what we had urged on him, so many years ago, and so often — that his mind was unique, his skills seminal, his own electromagnetic neural field a once in a generation anomaly, a pristine example and so on. I begged him to see the world around him as it was now, how it had changed, that currently he was in fact incapable of performing useful math, that whatever patterns had before been so beneficial, were now orphans in a shifted world.

He refused to believe me. Natural, I suppose. Artless of me to surmise that a supremely focused mind running on a singular philosophy for over ten years could suddenly be swayed to a reversal by the emotional plea of a long-distant colleague.

Yet I stayed, and took it upon myself to operate some of those screens, messageboards, and computers. I brought up the images, one by one — the funeral, the children, the surgeon. I turned on live holofeeds from streets just below the tower itself, and we heard sobs, wails, screams.

He still wouldn't relent. I fled to the elevator. I returned a moment later, dragging that poor employee and his newsie cap. I left both unmoving on the floor before Eadweard.

Feelings filled the room. Soon EJ could not even man the test devices. The subjects were already near catatonic. EJ sat down and leaned like a member of a dying tribe of simians onto his fellow Wurbler from the elevator.

Despite an overwhelming urge myself to give it all up, somehow I found the strength to pick up my baseball cap from where it lay, and fit it onto EJ's passive head. I made sure the dial was above zero.

Friends and fellow citizens, I wish I could tell you that on receiving the heretofore unapplied energies of his own equations, Eadweard Jai Wurble felt a renewal of spirit and inspiration that allowed him to tackle our problems with fresh perspective. That a path had now been found, a direction given, for a way out of our current mess. That EJ, and I, and the entire WurbleCorp organization, were now working diligently and non-stop towards solutions that will soon fix all of our WurbleWear and bring us relief.

But I am afraid there may and will be only one person in the world for whom WurbleWear still works. When he took up my hat, I saw a smile light up EJ's face like I had never seen, even when he was a boy long ago, just starting out in academics. He got to his feet, and he turned his attention to his lab subjects.

But it was not to continue his tests and experiments. EJ took each of their test devices, and put them in his pockets. Then he grabbed that newsie cap, replaced my baseball hat with it, and exclaimed, "This one works too!"

On hearing his next words, I cannot say what I felt. On the one hand, there was joy, from feeling his joy, but there was dread, upon processing the actual message.

"Professor Peele, the probability that I will be doing statistical mathematics or neurostatics of any kind for the foreseeable future are exceedingly low."

I was still attempting to calculate my feelings when he left the room. I have not seen him since. I must assume that, eager and excited to experience the world outside, having missed out on the kind of human feeling we have all taken for granted, and given his boundless resources, there will not be a quick return.

Dear readers, our case is one for which we cannot simply put on fresh headwear and turn up the dials. We are not starting from zero, but from below it. We require more than a fresh boot, but a new machine. Our entire social internetwork has been shifted. All of us need to guard against the worldwide matrix of depression, frowns, frustrations, sighs, and tears to come. No equations, headbands, or earphones will pull us up. Before WurbleWear, perhaps we all operated in our own individual oscillating states around manageable base levels, some positive, some negative, some close to neutral. But now we have been dropped from the heights with merciless rapidity, and even the best of us are doubtless trudging through deep rifts in dark shadows. Perhaps we can think of this state as a new level zero. For me, I will try to remember that smile I saw. Perhaps, with great effort, we can do similarly, and collectively begin to reverse mass negative empathetic resonance. We will have to do it one step, and one face, at a time.

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Happiness Algorithms In Retreat