Chapter Nine: The Index
“When I was a child, I read a lot of science-fiction. I often had daydreams about going back in time. I’d use all the things that I knew about the future to impress people, or make money, or just live my life differently knowing what I know now. I’d have all of these seemingly magical powers, just because of what I knew that everyone else did not.”
Thus began Melvin Sninkle on the last Presidential Podcast ever recorded.
“When I got older, whenever I’d see something bad happening I’d wish I could go back in time and stop it using what I knew. Then I’d make myself figure out exactly how I’d convince everyone I was really from the future. That was always the tricky part, convincing people so they wouldn’t just think I was insane. That’s when I realized I wasn’t actually asking myself the right question.
“Nobody can travel through time, at least not yet. But some of us can still see into the future. That’s what our brains are for. And we are all better at seeing into the future about certain things. So, the question isn’t what would you do if you could go back. You can’t go back. The question is what institution could we set up today to convince people that you can see the future? To convince people you know more about a given subject than they do, in other words. No single one of us may be able to see all the future but out of all us there should be enough who can see a bit of the future to assemble a workable picture. All that really comes down to is predictions and explanations.”
He explained a new credentialing system would be made available on the Forum, for each topic of importance voted on by its members. Using the same peer-to-peer adjudication process Forum Citizens could take any article, public writing, or video clip from any person, anywhere, and rate it for prediction and for accuracy. This would be indexed by the author’s name and also by the work produced. The appeals process could be used on these ratings and every rating would carry along with it some funding. They could also do this formally on the Forum itself. They could also go anywhere and preserve some body of text and articulate claims made by the author and what topics these related to, and clarify if the author’s predictions had been true or later proved to be inaccurate. That case-history and rating score would remain forever associated with that media in a new Forum Index. There were benefits and costs to both the person being rated and the one performing the rating.
This Index functionality would also be made available as a browser extension so that this could be done anywhere and always associate that rating with an author name. In other words, if you were repeatedly wrong about a given topic, it would be immediately obvious to anyone with the Forum Index browser extension. If you were repeatedly correct, this would also become obvious. Forum users agreed to adopt this change to the base-code almost as soon as it became available. No President had ever been trusted more than Melvin Sninkle. Funding was also set aside to reward authors who consistently generated accurate content in relation to the effort to rebuild the Capitol but everyone knew already that it wouldn’t end there. Even if funding did not yet exist for topics outside of the Capitol other articles could still be rated.
The effect that this has on the news media was immense and immediate. As it happened, many news outlets produced no actual news at all. With Forum Index this became immediately apparent in the same way that microbes become visible only under the light of a microscope. After a few months, when the adjudication process proved itself to be working, public trust increased and the tool gained wide adoption. The Forum Index gave its users the right to automatically suppress poorly-rated content. Almost everyone did. In six months, the sort of propagandistic fake fluffy or outrageous clickbait that had become so common… simply could not exist. Conversely, those who had fled to alternative outlets because they couldn’t stop saying the truth soon found themselves exalted and well-compensated. Reporting the news is a true social good. The Index finally gave a funding mechanism to this that was neither controlled by the state, or at least not state controlled in any manner that anyone had ever imagined, or supported by advertisers. For the first time, news was incentivized to be truthful, accurate, and honest. People in public life were incentivized to own up to their mistakes and become wiser. Overall, they were incentivized to think long-term.
The Forum Index had another cultural impact. For years, unable to use any precise power in their own everyday lives, people had felt it necessary to comment and “have a take” on almost every possible topic. The Forum Index economized their focus so that it became imprudent to talk about things you didn’t actually know anything about. In fact, while it would reward you nothing to talk about things you didn’t know, you would conversely be rewarded for sharing your expertise and making judicious predictions.
It shortly became obvious that a major cultural shift was underway. Those who spoke out against the Forum were proven wrong. The Economist who had predicted the irrelevance of the internet and numerous other false prophecies, was ignored and saw his readership drop to zero, although it turned out he knew quite a bit about orange juice futures and this became his primary profession. The Forum identified those with the expertise needed to actually build the structures designed by Bethany Braxton Bingham and broke ground on the new Capitol well before the deadline. The project was funded without complaint from Congress. Forum Avatars became overnight multi-millionaires and celebrities based on their expertise in concrete, rebar, and bronze-casting.
No member of Congress dared complain. A sub-Forum had been set up to identify politicians in state and local elections who would support expanding the Forum and this was privately funded by the hundreds of millions of Digital Citizens who used it. It was the most powerful Political Action Committee ever created and even Political parties could not compete. All you had to do to gain the support of the sub-Forum was agree to let the Forum work and follow its directives. In fact, Congress passed the planning for the meteor deflection system over to the Forum in yet another bill almost before the ink was dry.
The Forum acted as a razor, cutting fat and grift from any system. Strange political relationships which had held back progress suddenly evaporated. Whether it be in the construction of schools or hospitals or roads, administrative costs plummeted and production soared. In the case of the Meteor Defense grid, satellite makers and rocket manufacturers made themselves available to space nerds and the power of the eventually delivered system dwarfed what anyone had previously imagined. Even if all humans died, and no one remained to maintain it, it would take ten-thousand years before it was possible for another meteor to strike the Earth. The cost to the United States was actually negative because other countries agreed to pay a share of the bill and in the following decades the Forum for Space Exploration became fully international.
All from a simple algorithm that made people responsible for what they said and economized the attention of the polity toward accuracy and wisdom. The great anxiety of the commons, the fear that problems were not being addressed and that everyone had to focus all their attention on everything, including say, how trans people should go to the bathroom, disappeared. The Forum would handle the problems and they would be represented by people they specifically chose.
Melvin Sninkle ended the Presidential Podcast with an announcement.
“Given the unprecedented changes we seem to be living through, and the concerns held by many of the public, we have elected to replace the Presidential Podcast with a Presidential Livestream that will operate twenty-four hours a day. In other words, you’ll be able to make sure I’m not up to anything at any time now.”
The Conspiracy Theorists were the first ones to realize the truth. It was too late to undo what Melvin Sninkle had done, but those who had previously held a nation in thrall could not forgive him for taking away their power so suddenly and so unexpectedly. The Conspiracy Theorists were also the first to notice that no one had left the PIST offices for three weeks, and that anyone with a family had brought them to live on campus. One other oddity was noted. The PIST offices had ordered over three-thousand overhead projectors and they had all been delivered into a part of the building with no cameras. Melvin Sninkle was doing his best to prevent his own assassination.