The Off Switch

Posted on | June 18, 2016

“What is that?” Sorroh said, pointing to an object on the professors’ shoulder. It looked like a switch. It was slightly buried, as if to prevent an accidental toggling, but it was otherwise exposed. Anyone with a finger could have toggled it.

“Don’t touch that!” he said, flinching. “That’s my off switch.”

“Your what?

“My off switch. Everyone has one. It’s built into every sentient being on Goanra when they’re manufactured.”

“You mean, anyone could just flip that switch and… turn you off?”

“Well, yes,” Professor Johna said. “It’s very important to Goanra civil society. If you know anyone could flip your switch at any moment, it encourages you to be polite, you know.”

“But it’s just… exposed,” Sorroh protested. “Aren’t there accidents?”

“Oh, of course. Children flip each other’s now and then. Or their parents. Tragic, really.” He paused, letting his manipulators sag. “Every once in a rare while, someone gets exposed to one of those old self-reinforcing memetic virus and their defenses fail them. When that happens, they go into a crowded, public space and start attacking people, flipping their switches as fast as possible. People flee, of course, and the then authorities surround him. Typically they end up flipping their own switch.”

“But…” Sorroh stared at him. Posthuman civilizations were supposed to be civilized. The idea that one world was full of people with their activation core exposed with a simply binary toggle, subject to the casual whim of others, shocked her. “In most of civilized space, nobody walks around with the notion that someone else could just casually reach over and turn her off, professor!”

“Maybe they should!” he snapped. “It might help them be polite!”

Sorroh immediately calibrated her response. She suddenly didn’t want him, or anyone on this Artilect-forsaken world, angry at her. “Other worlds manage to be polite along a range,” she said soothingly. “A range that permits dissent, disagreement. How do scholars on a world like Goanra achieve the principle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis if… if everyone is so terrified they’re polite about their disagreements?”

“That’s true,” he admitted, his signals surrounded with the emoji for frustration. “We aren’t as innovative as others. We like our past. We like not moving forward too quickly, my dear Sorroh.” He paused for a moment, the holograms of his internal state shifting down to an orangish-red color. “The ones who seem most subject to memetic failure are the ones most attached to the past as well. But this is beside the point. It a world without switches, surely these problems are just as commonplace? What’s to stop someone attacking you with a welder? Or a neutrino box?”

“Well,” Sorroh said. “Welders are hard to carry or conceal, and you’d have to get to someone’s core to do permanent damage. It’s a very slow means of murder, professor. And a neutrino box is very hard to come by. There aren’t many good reasons for someone to have one unless you’re a major repair facility or a starship. They’re very strongly regulated here, aren’t they?”

“But they can still do the same amount of damage, agreed?”

“Not at the same rate, professor, and not with the same ease.”

“Criminals will always find a way.”

“Is the politeness really worth the accidents, the deaths, and the ease of suicide?”

“Who said anything about suicide?”

Sorroh’s own holograms banked into dusk-blue. “Professor, if anyone can flip their own switch, suicide is a nightmarish problem. It prevents the kind of delay that might let someone seek help. Even I can see that.”

His joints whined in a sigh. “Yes, you’re right. It’s not a big deal. Suicides are defective anyway. It’s a net benefit. Only the cheerful ones remain, you see, and the defectives go to the recycler without spending too much time using up resources.”

Sorroh let her holograms roll forward without interference, keeping her reaction entirely internal. She had to get off this world. She shook her sensor platform. “Well, professor, this has been enlightening.” In the background she ordered a co-processor to start booking an elevator off this world, soon. A second processor began negotiating with a slowboat to the edge of the system. The sooner the better. Before they demanded she get an off-switch installed.


One Response to “The Off Switch”

  1. Falbert Forester
    September 6th, 2016 @ 7:45 am

    Well-done recasting of the “more guns make for a more civil society” argument into a science-fiction setting. Kudos! I especially like how Sorroh hides her reactions and decides to get off the planet immediately.

    An intriguing bit is ‘…unless you’re a major repair facility or a starship.’ Interesting implications that in a transhuman society, people might be such. Or that such ‘facilities’ might be people. Which is not a new idea, but fun to speculate on/about/around.

Leave a Reply