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Progress Without End

In the year 4010, U2 lead singer Bono is hosting a dinner party for his rich, beautiful and powerful friends. Their meal finished, the group adjourn to the forward viewing bay of Bono’s personal star cruiser, the GSV Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. The group awaits an imminent supernova explosion. Bono’s ship is placed to get the best possible view of this spectacular event, the first of its kind for fifty years. As typical of Bono’s parties, the guests spend most of the time complaining about life.

Amongst the party are:

– Bono; the celebrated singer and philanthropist won the Nobel Peace Prize in both 2014 and 3260. He has managed to stay alive through repeated transplants of almost every organ in his body. He is wearing sunglasses.

– Barbarella; a beautiful and sexy woman known for her sexy erotic adventures. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 3988 after she defeated the evil scientist Durand Durand with her erotically sexy sexiness. Her outfit is made of rubber and she looks utterly miserable.

– An artificially intelligent download of the soul of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, and the richest living entity in the known universe. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in the years 2021, 2024 and again in 2780. Because he exists in the cloud, he can be wherever the internet is. For the purposes of attending the party, Bono has persuaded him to come dressed in a vintage 21st century XO laptop by One Laptop per Child.

– Ellen Ripley; the umpteenth clone of the original Ellen Ripley that spent much of her time fighting, killing and being killed by xenomorph aliens. The royalties from the movie serialization of her ancestor’s alien encounters made this Ripley very wealthy. She is wearing a tasteful green dress with a brooch and earrings of matching emeralds.

– Lille Clinton-Palin-Bush; 393rd President of the United States of Earth and the 14th President to come from the Clinton-Palin-Bush bloodline. Winner of the 4007 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her saying something nice about peace in her inauguration speech. She is wearing a pale blue pant suit.

– Stephen Hawking’s voicebox, the last remnants of the physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018. As well as sharing insights into cosmic events, the voicebox also serves as a doorstop.

Hawking voicebox: As the white dwarf gains mass from its red giant binary partner, it reaches a point where the density is high enough to initiate the nuclear fusion reaction of the white dwarf’s carbon…

Bono: I’m a humble old Oirish rock star, Stephen. My Nobel prizes are for peace, not physics, and I don’t understand a word you’re saying. All I know is three simple things: how to compose and sing really brilliant, emotive, passionate songs that everybody loves; that an economic policy that favours loose supply of money is not a viable alternative to targeted stimulation by the state; and that we’ll never end poverty if the rich star systems don’t cancel the debt of the poor star systems.

Barbarella: Puh-lease. Let me tell you I’ve travelled the galaxy and there’s no poverty left any more. People who complain about poverty are just a bunch of whingers asking for a handout.

Bono: My dear Barbarella, I’m surprised at you. I’d have assumed you would be full of love for your fellow man.

Barbarella: When I was younger I loved my fellow man a little too much. Now I’ve had my fill of men. (Winks discretely at Ripley.) But we digress. People are spoiled. They just don’t appreciate how lucky they are.

Clinton-Palin-Bush: I have to agree, not that I’d say so in front of the voters. The very last traces of poverty had already been eradicated in the 22nd century but still people never seem to be satisfied.

Zuckerberg AI: (elated) Status update: I now have a duodecillion friends!

Hawking voicebox: (to Clinton-Palin-Bush) Madam President, I cannot agree. There will always be those who are in some way impoverished.

Ripley: (to Zuckerberg) How many is a duodecillion? Is it more than a googolplex?

Bono: (responding to Hawking) That’s true. Not everyone can be blessed with natural gifts. When I walk on stage, the audience gets so excited that the hairs stand on the back of their neck. It’s an involuntary reaction. But not every person can prompt a reaction like that. (Laughs) Lucky for me! If they could, I wouldn’t be able to afford this grand spaceship! Saying that, everybody deserves a good job and a living wage.

Zuckerberg AI: (downbeat) No, it’s not more than a googolplex. A duodecillion is a one followed by thirty-nine zeroes. A googolplex is a one followed by googol zeroes. That’s a lot of zeroes. (Turns bitter in tone) Which is only right, because the forces of Google turned out to be a lot of zeroes when they started that intergalactic war against me in 3121. Bam! We blasted them right out of space and right out of cyberspace too.

Ripley: It all went downhill for Google after they changed their motto to “Do evil, it’s profitable”.

Barbarella: Being ugly or stupid is not the same as being poor. There’s plenty of ugly and stupid people, despite what the doctors do to augment brains, fix up bodies and cosmetify faces. But nobody – and I mean nobody – is genuinely poor anymore. It’s the 41st century. After all, absolutely everybody has at least one spaceship these days.

Hawking voicebox: Please let me observe that the entire human race numbers much less than a duodecillion. It’s around a trillion, which is a one followed by twelve zeroes. Mark, how can you claim to have more friends than there are people?

Bono: Dear sweet Barbarella, I hear what you’re saying, but most poor people only have spaceships capable of travel at sub-light speeds. Sub-light speeds! Imagine that, if you can. How can you say you’re not poor if you’re stuck in the same star system, year after year after year, doomed to circle the same boring star with no reprieve. That’s no way to live life. Pity the poor children raised under those conditions.

Zuckerberg AI: Many kinds of thing want to be my friend. Toasters. Refrigerators. Automated car washes. So long as it has an IP address, I can be friends with it. I’m friends with this spaceship, for instance.

Clinton-Palin-Bush: Now, now – our government has invested a lot of money into trans-warp gateways, just to make it easier for people to leap to distant parts of the galaxy. So the quality of life is definitely improving.

Hawking voicebox: Machines are not people. I’m not so sure you should count them all as friends.

Bono: I think it’s great that there’s been lots of tax money invested into public transport, but look at what has happened to the tolls for using the transwarp gateways. The cost of using them is going up at 3% above the rate of inflation. It’s another squeeze on poor families who deserve their occasional break to the pleasure moons of Alpha Centauri.

Zuckerberg AI: (To Hawking voicebox) Look who’s talking! I can’t agree. You and I are both machines.

Ripley: Aren’t you gigging Alpha Centauri on the next leg of your tour?

Hawking voicebox: True indeed. But we retain some of the memories, thoughts, passions and personalities of the living human beings that went before us. A toaster couldn’t possible convey the full range and deep subtleties of a human personality, unless it’s Gary Lineker’s.

Bono: We’ll be playing Alpha Centauri next week and it’s only right that billions of fans should be able to come see us. We’ll be putting on the show in our very own portable giganto-dome stadium. We’ve found just the right spot to assemble it – surrounded by a lush, unspoiled rainforest where people have never walked before. The fans in the corporate VIP boxes are sure to love the views. The giganto-dome weighs a few billion tons and cost plenty more, but it means every fan sits in a seat which doubles as a toilet, so they never have to miss a moment of the show. But the best part is that U2 make even an average song sound great, not that I’ve ever written an average song. And the even better part is that we’ll be raising a lot of consciousness.

Zuckerberg AI: You have a point. We did do some experiments on putting the personalities of people into simple household appliances, and soccer players were chosen as the natural candidates. With soccer players there was far less concern about an appreciable reduction in cognitive capacity – rather the opposite. But we abandoned the program after one particular series of experiments went horribly horribly wrong. We were using the personality of a top English international – Gascoigne was his name. Whatever we put his consciousness into – an iron, a trouser press, whatever – would blow up and burst into flames, destroying itself and everything around it.

Ripley: In what way will you be raising consciousness?

Bono: In the middle of the show we’ll be asking the audience to join us in ten minutes of complete silence, except for the noise of the jungle critters outside, of course. The silence is meant to encourage people to remember all the poor little children from all the poor star systems on the far side of the galaxy who aren’t so fortunate as we are. To get the audience in the right mood beforehand we’ll play ‘One‘, and afterwards we’ll get them ’em all stirred up again with another classic – perhaps ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing‘ or maybe ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me‘. But it’s no good raising consciousness if people can’t come to get their consciousness raised. So this is a vital time for saying we won’t tolerate an average public transport infrastructure any more. We want transport to be great – and affordable for all.

Barbarella: Excuse me for being so blunt, but if you wanted to make your concerts more affordable you could easily do that by cutting the extortionate price of the tickets.

Zuckerberg AI: My friend count is helped by there being two hundred times as many robots as there are people. Robots like me, and I like them too.

Bono: But the distribution of robots is all wrong. Do you know how many families have to get by without a single robot to take care of the household chores?

Clinton-Palin-Bush: None. Surely everybody knows that my great-grandmother, Dallas Clinton-Palin-Bush, pushed through the Robot Necessity Act in 3899, mandating that every home should have a robot, whether they liked it or not.

Bono: Yes, but that robot’s really there for security and spying on people so they don’t get into trouble. I meant a robot to do the household chores.

Clinton-Palin-Bush: The state-provided Orwellomatron is perfectly capable of helping with a host of duties.

Bono: Drive the kids to school? Squeeze the spots on your back? Pop to the shops just to buy scented candles that will improve the ambiance of your living room? Compose and read a poem in celebration of your birthday, written in the style of Edward Lear and recited with the voice of Michael Caine? Pick your nose for you? Bake you a fresh pain au chocolate? Muck out your pony stables? Can it do all that?

Clinton-Palin-Bush: Yes, of course it can.

Bono: I meant, can it do them all at the same time?

Clinton-Palin-Bush: Of course not. For a start, that wouldn’t be very hygienic.

Bono: That’s my point exactly. One robot isn’t enough. Everybody needs a dozen robots at least, if they are to escape the crushing grasp of poverty.

Zuckerberg AI: I’ve updated my profile: I used to wet my bed until the age of sixteen.

Ripley: That must have been awful for you, but why are you telling us this?

Zuckerberg AI: Sorry, you weren’t meant to know that. It’s a glitch with my privacy settings.

Bono: That’s another reason why everybody needs lots of machines – backup when they go faulty. I mean, if you live in a house with just the one mandatory Orwellomatron robot, and it breaks down, you might have to wait twenty-four hours for it to be serviced. Imagine the crippling poverty of taking care of your own needs, of having to do everything for yourself. That’s not something I’ve experienced since I was… erm… since ever, come to think of it. Which is why I’m so thankful I’ve never had to suffer like others.

Barbarella: But you have suffered.

Bono: That’s true, but what makes you say it?

Barbarella: (Points at Bono’s sunglasses) You’ve had everything else transplanted. Isn’t it about time you had those defective eyes of yours replaced? Then you can walk around like a normal person instead of looking like… well, Bono. Aren’t you even going to take off those shades so you can see the supernova properly?

Bono: I’m sorry to say Barbarella, but your manners don’t match your legendary beauty. Everybody knows I wear chic rock star dark glasses all the time because I have sensitive eyes, and they’ve become much more sensitive over the two thousand years I’ve been wearing dark glasses.

Barbarella: Bad manners? You’ve been badgering the President (gestures towards Clinton-Palin-Bush) all through dinner about spending more taxpayer’s money on poverty-reduction programs, yet you’re a notorious tax cheat! How ill-mannered is it to lecture everyone else whilst doing the opposite yourself?

Bono: Efficiently managing your business affairs has nothing to do with morality. I’ve always been a progressive, and I’m not ashamed of it. Like I said when I spoke at the 2004 Labour Party conference, “I know progress when I see it” and we had it back then. We had it in spades. Like I also said, “if Britain can’t turn its values into action against extreme, stupid poverty… if this rich country, with the reins in its hands, can’t lead other countries along this path to equality, then the critics tomorrow will be right: I am Tony Blair’s apologist.” That was a great government, Blair and Brown, good chums of mine and very close, politically and personally, with your ancestors, Madam President (turns to that Clinton-Palin-Bush). I’m referring to Bill and George, of course. Yup, those four agreed on pretty much everything. They all knew how to generate wealth, and then they used that money to give back to the people who really needed it most.

Barbarella: Rubbish. Your brain must be due a transplant. But you were right on one score. You were Tony Blair’s apologist. Whatever you think about poverty, the promise to donate 0.7% of GDP to international aid wasn’t kept by Labour. It was only kept by the Tory coalition that came after them. And their thanks was to be criticized by everyone. They got bashed by everyone on the left for making too many cuts that hurt the relatively poor in the UK, although the UK’s ‘poor’ were rich if measured on any global scale of the time. And they got bashed by many on the right for massively increasing foreign aid instead of cutting it. I’ve read the histories of your backward era, Bono. Back then there were people who really knew what it was to be poor – poor enough to starve to death, poor enough to see their children starve. Your words and money had a habit of disappearing when plain talk and paying taxes didn’t suit you. Progressive? You don’t know the meaning of the word, and you wouldn’t recognize progress if it was staring you in the face.

[The supernova explodes into a violent cascade of blues, purples and reds. Everyone but Ripley is too engrossed in the conversation to notice. To be fair, Hawking’s voicebox would also have noticed, but being a voicebox, has no eyes to see it with.]

Ripley: It’s happening. Hawking – tell me more about what’s going on…

Hawking voicebox: It’s new life from old. The explosion will spread heavy elements into the cosmos, and the shock wave will trigger the formation of new stars.

Zuckerberg AI: The password to access my bank account is “Priscilla”. (Long pause) If any of you heard that, could you please forget what I said?

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