Red light swept the black away but then the black creep back.
‘I think the simplest place to begin,’ Patrick said, all eyes upon him, ‘is to state that there is now a majority of people who believe that we are on the brink of environmental and social collapse. We see the evidence of a looming crisis every day, in the news and all over the internet. Yes?’ So far the table followed, nodding along. ‘To put it another way, our world has been diagnosed with a fatal condition and we are moving through the stages of grief. We have moved past denial and reached the stage of anger. In the last decade a large group of people have begun to blame our own civilisation for leading us to the precipice and want someone to blame.’
‘Sorry, is that wrong?’ Ric asked. ‘Continual failures of government have led us to this point, haven’t they?’
‘Perhaps. It might also just be the result of having over ten billion people on a planet built for two,’ Patrick answered.
‘Which could have been avoided,’ Ric interjected.
‘Only through population control, and that doesn’t usually go so well.’
‘Education and contraception are all you nee–’
‘Ric, let him speak,’ Dahlia interrupted him. ‘I want to know about Affordance. Patrick still hasn’t even explained it yet. What does it mean?’
Patrick smiled at Ric, enjoying watching his friend being reined in by his wife. ‘The word itself is used to link design to function. Take the doorknob for example. The doorknob is a perfect object. It fits into your hand and the only Affordance it has,’ he held his hand out, miming the action, ‘is for you to turn it, which also performs its function. There is no other way to use a doorknob but the correct way; it affords no action that is not functional. To take it beyond an object to indirect Affordance, the existence of the doorknob gives us the Affordance to have doors, which affords us the ability to have rooms. Et cetera, et cetera.’
‘What about sliding doors?’ Dahlia asked.
‘The principle remains the same but I fear you’re missing the point. Every object affords different actions, some of these actions result in function, others do not. Affordance does not dictate function, it dictates the action that triggers the function. What function each action drives is up to the designers.’
‘I’m lost,’ Dahlia said.
‘Me too,’ Tom agreed. ‘How does this become a political movement?
Patrick breathed in and leant back. ‘Okay. Let’s try anothor example. Stairs are another underappreciated invention. They give us the ability to get from one altitude to another. Without stairs humans couldn’t have multi-storey buildings. Without multi-story buildings we might not have reached the population we have.’
‘Then we should ban stairs. Problem solved!’ Bora said and everybody laughed except Patrick, who nodded.
‘You laugh but that is exactly right. That is where applying the concept of Affordance to our societies leads us. To limiting the Affordance for actions that create outcomes that displease us. The political movement my old friend has joined, wants us—’
‘I haven’t joined anything,’ Ric grumbled.
‘—wants us,’ Patrick spoke on, ‘to apply this principle to society as a whole; to limit actions to create functional behaviour.’
‘What does “functional” mean?’ Tom asked.
‘That is still open to debate. But, like the doorknob, they believe we can design a society where people can only do good, and can only contribute to the ultimate function of the larger group.’
Dahlia had her hand up. Ric smirked, ‘You don’t have to raise your hand, dear.’
Patrick played along as professor, ‘You had a question, miss?’
‘How does one limit actions in society?’ Dahlia asked.
‘Laws, customs, language,’ he listed them off, ‘architecture, transport, reward systems, market interference. There are many forms of limiting social Affordance that have existed since the dawn of society. This new movement, though, also endorses the idea of controlling evolution to direct the course of the species. How many of you support that idea?’ He looked around for a show of hands. ‘Not even you, Ric?’
‘You know an awful lot about something you don’t want to teach,’ Ric quipped.
‘Yes. I’m like that,’ Patrick answered.
‘So why don’t you include it in your teaching and spare yourself, and Zizi, the annual harassment? Isn’t this an interesting discussion to have with students? Why not lecture on it?’ Ric asked.
‘Because I take my role as a teacher seriously. It is my job to develop ideas in students’ heads, and I am very selective about which ideas those are. Once a person gains new knowledge they can’t help but be faced with the choice of applying that knowledge or not.’
‘Ignorance is not only bliss, it is righteous,’ Bora interjected and then rolled his head, gathering his English words. ‘This thing “Affordance”. I have heard of this before.’
Patrick urged for him to go on.
‘They are speaking about it in Korea. Though I think the word means more directly “purpose”. The people must have purpose, and prove their purpose.’
‘It sounds similar.’
‘The difference seems be,’ Bora said, ‘here you talk about reduction or as reductive principle. For us . . . I don’t know the word.’ Bora held his arms out as if holding a large ball that was growing. ‘Make additive, productive, inclusive? Perhaps . . . expansive? I think I like our way more. It is about finding purposes for all, rather than fitting all to one purpose.’
‘I don’t like it either way. Why must we justify our right to exist at all? We have the right to exist because we exist. Existence is the right to exist.’ Patrick said.
Bora snorted. ‘You are wrong. Existence is not a right. It is a duty.’
There was a pause, as the table waited to see who would speak next.
The weather broke the next day. Tom awoke to silence and the first sunlight in over a week. It hit the wall and crept towards the bed. Tara’s arm and shoulder lay exposed as the light smoothed over her skin, up to mousy blond hair and a cheek with a long scar cutting the length of her face.
‘You can you see me?’
She closed her eyes again and rolled over to face the other way.
‘Don’t look at me.’
‘But I want to look at you. You’re the first thing I’ve seen in days. Let me see your face.’
‘Ha,’ she mumble laughed. ‘Not even I want to look at it.’
‘You’re beautiful, Tara. Let me see.’
Reluctantly she rolled back over to face him. Tears were rolling out of her eyes, curving into the valley of an old cut.
‘What happened to you?’
‘I was attacked by a robot when I was a kid.’
‘A killbot? Why did it target you?’
‘I was wearing a cross. My parents were Christians.’
Tom didn’t say anything. He didn’t grow up in a religious household. ‘How old were you?’
‘Six. Our kitchen aide had been reprogrammed to attack anyone wearing the cross. I don’t remember it happening.’
There was a swipe and the dust on his window disappeared. Something peered inside at him. When the red light flashed it lit up one side of the most gruesome face he had ever seen. Almost noseless with long nostrils and fat fangs displacing leathery lips. It looked like a chimpanzee whose face had been disfigured at an early age.
He felt warm liquid going down his thigh.
An inhuman face. Strained eyes and pinched pupils. Swollen red lips irritated by teeth fighting for position.
Is that a monster?
It moved around him, neck bending snakelike but face snuffling around like a pig. Its breath blew away more of the dust, its drool landing on the glass and dripping downwards. The gobbet was yanked away as the monster turned its head. A claw lifted up and tapped on the glass, which he heard only as a soft tick tick.
The horror left his view and he was alone again. The warning light went on and off and he watched shadows on the wall. Hunched, scampering shadows.
What nightmare have I woken up in?
How long have I been asleep? A century? Two?
What was that thing?
He willed his eyes to close so he could drown in thawing memories. Instead he stared at the glisten of condensation as it twisted and ripped down the glass.
As his lids began to shut he yearned for the safe darkness. Some things he remembered vividly, like last night’s dinner. How everyone looked. What was said. The taste of peaches.
‘Patrick,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you clear the plates? Dessert is ready.’
Zizi returned to the kitchen and took a baking tray from the oven, where a dozen peach halves had been caramelising. She placed two on each plate, drowned them in caramel sauce and topped each with a generous dollop of cream.
Patrick collected the dirty plates and went to the kitchen. Tom followed with the empty platters. Each of them took two bowls out to the main room and passed them around the table.
Everyone was impressed by the peaches. A now rare fruit served with casual delicacy.
‘Okay, Patrick, I’m curious,’ Anna said. ‘This Affordance thing just sounds like a reworded discussion about social responsibility. Why are you so against it?’
‘I agree with you that it is just a repackaging of old ideas. A renamed philosophy to unite people to a cause. But my worry is that if enough people begin to follow it the consequences would be disastrous. Perhaps humanity’s defining issue for this century.’
‘More so than the environmental crisis?’ Zizi asked.
‘In some ways, yes.’
‘How can you say that? One is a real thing the other is just an academic theory,’ she said.
‘And people are already dying from the weather,’ Ric added.
‘Yes, and more and more will die. Millions will if the predictions are correct.’ Patrick said.
‘How can you be so blasé about it?’ Dalia asked.
‘Just because I can speak of it without blubbering doesn’t mean I don’t care. I do. I think about the horror that is to come every day. But Affordance is a real thing too, and more powerful because of what is happening.’
‘Affordance is another way of saying freedom. You limit action to promote a desired function. That is, you narrow the possible actions to get the action you want; you limit choices to achieve a particular outcome. As conditions worsen in our world, the Affordance allowed mankind will be narrowed. It will force choices on our societies that we have been able to avoid for a long long time.’
‘Now it sounds like you believe in it.’
‘I do. I believe Affordance exists, I just don’t believe we should manipulate it.’ Patrick moved his plate away from himself. ‘You think the eco-crisis is the worst to come? I think the worst will come if humanity as a whole embraces the principles of Affordance.’
‘Why? It might work.’ Ric said. ‘Don’t we need to reengineer our society and make it less self-destructive?’
‘But if you formalise control mechanisms, that in turn creates the possibility for misuse and mistakes of judgement that would have massive global repercussions.’
‘What is the alternative? To not try? This is a choice between conscious intervention in the design of society, or just letting it play out.’
‘No, not quite,’ Patrick said. ‘As you commented about our role in animal evolution, humanity has been interfering in the design of human society since the creation of the first laws. Affordance is about setting an overall function for humanity. An end result. That’s where it gets really dangerous. It becomes about limiting personal freedoms for a single focus.’
‘That is the essence of the social contract. Sacrificing certain individual freedoms to benefit the group,’ Dalia replied.
‘Some freedoms need to be limited,’ Ric added. ‘That’s why we don’t kill each other.’
‘Is it? Is the only reason you don’t commit murder because of the punishment?’ Patrick asked.
‘No of course not. That’s not what I meant.’
‘Is it more then that the stigma of being a murderer puts you off?’
‘I suppose that’s a part of it.’
‘Perhaps it is also the cosy rooms we live in and plentiful supply of food, that you don’t feel the need to murder?’
‘What point are you making now?’ Ric asked.
‘That it isn’t laws that stop you becoming a casual murderer but that you live in a society where killing another person doesn’t benefit you. You don’t need to kill to protect yourself and socially it would have a negative effect.’
‘Not everyone gets to live in our world, Ric. Many live in situations where violence is the only way they can survive. Limiting personal freedoms doesn’t change the environment they live in. That is what we need to change.’
‘Isn’t that Affordance? If I understand you, you just suggested changing their circumstances to create new Affordances.’
‘Yes, but not by limiting personal freedoms – by increasing those freedoms. Increasing the range of human potential to give them individual choice. That’s an important distinction.’
‘That’s chaos,’ Ric nearly shouted. ‘Civilisation is a road we have been driving down for a long time. But we’ve been driving blind, or not had a driver at all. Affordance suggests taking the wheel. Isn’t that a good thing?’
‘I understand your analogy but, again, it presupposes a destination,’ Patrick said. ‘Where does this road you speak of go?’
‘I don’t know but we are driving somewhere, like it or not. And our tools for doing so have become more refined and more powerful.’ Ric said. ‘That business outside? That’s where being driverless leads us. That’s what will happen if we don’t take care of our civilisation.’
Patrick grimaced. ‘I suspected you were on the other side of this one, Ric.’
‘You’re saying that you instead support not taking control and letting civilisation careen over a cliff. Affordance is necessary to forging a fair and decent society,’ Ric declared.
‘Control isn’t civilisation. It’s domestication. Putting up fences. Nudge architecture. Market incentiv–’
At that moment there was a smash outside. Something of glass had hit the bricks around the window.
‘Oh, it’s beginning already. Ric, help me close the curtains.’
‘What is this? Are they attacking?’ Anna protested.
‘This?’ Patrick said and drew the heavy curtains closed. He barely flinched as another bottle exploded outside. ‘This is what the students of Affordance are doing.’
‘Affordance doesn’t promote violence,’Ric said.
‘Violence doesn’t need much promotion. Once you have created a right and a wrong side, you have cleft a division in society. Violence always follows.’
‘There is right and wrong. This planet is dying and it will take us with it. We as a species have to change.’
‘And how do you want this change to come about? Who decides what changes need to be made? We are at a point in time when the general civilian holds deep mistrust for governments, charities, religions and multinational corporations. There will never be agreement, there will just be war. This outside? These teenagers? This is nothing compared to what comes next.’
‘And still, you’d prefer to have no driver?
‘Natural evolution moves slower. Diversity gives us the chance to autocorrect.’
‘Deus ex machina?’ Ric sneered.
‘No. The law of large numbers. With enough people we can have multiple strands of evolution at once, and the fittest will progress. Controlling evolution decreases diversity and diversity allows us to fail and still survive.’
‘Humanity is destroying itself.’
‘No, parts of humanity are destroying themselves. The whole is not at risk.’
‘Civilisation is at risk!’
‘Don’t be alarmist. There are ten billion people on this planet. We aren’t all going to die.’
‘I don’t know which of you is less humane. An old friend who wants to domesticate us all or my husband who doesn’t think millions of people dying is a very big problem.’ Zizi smiled. ‘Who’d like a whisky?’
Tom went to join Patrick who was peering around the curtains. ‘I should apologise,’ Ric came up beside them. ‘I didn’t mean for us to get so heated. I was just playing devil’s advocate.’
‘Oh, there’s no need for that,’ Patrick said, turning back to the room. ‘You know I love a good argument.’
‘I’m actually still confused which side you are on. At times there I thought you were convincing us about Affordance. Do you agree with social engineering or not?’
‘Up to a point.’
‘Then why don’t you just introduce it to your lectures and spare yourself this harassment?’
‘Because I only agree with them about the principles of the argument, not the course of action they wish to take. I don’t dispute that Affordance exists, but applying it en masse worries me. The crisis is here, in our lifetime. If we are to survive, humanity must be diverse. I won’t help spread views that we should redesign homo sapiens to solve our problems. The idea is insufferable.’
‘But like you said, the apocalypse is coming, we have to try to stop it,’ Dalia said.
‘I never said apocalypse. Do you really believe that is what is happening?’
‘Some days I do.’
‘Every generation has people saying it’s the apocalypse. It hasn’t been true yet.’
‘But what if it is this time?’
‘The thing I find interesting about the concept of an apocalypse,’ Zizi said, ‘is how many people seem so keen for one to happen.’
‘An apocalypse isn’t the end of the world you know. Just the end of an age,’ Ric said.
‘No,’ Bora mumbled. ‘”Apo” is negating prefix to “kaluptein” meaning cover. Apocalypse, in literal translation, means “uncover” or “reveal”.’
‘It’s your language but yes. It is only more recently that people think it means the world will end. In Latin it only means revelation.’
‘Revelation of what?’
Bora laughed. ‘Exactly!’ He slapped his thighs and held out his empty glass.
‘Okay,’ Zizi said, taking it from him and adding a shot from the whisky bottle. ‘You’ve earned it.’
He drank it in one, burped and added a footnote. ‘What is happening is more like Viking Ragnarok. These,’ his empty hand indicated towards the outside world, ‘are the children of Loki.’
‘Now that is a prophecy I can get behind,’ Ric said.
‘Well which age is about to end then?’ Dalia asked Patrick.
‘I wasn’t the one suggesting an age was ending,’ Patrick said.
‘Crops are failing. Fish stocks are depleted . . .’ she trailed off. ‘Back at home the government have announced they can’t refill the emergency reserves. And still nothing is changing.’
‘Don’t forget about the weather,’ Zizi said. ‘The weather is changing.’
‘Maybe that is why so many people hope for an apocalypse,’ Patrick said. ‘Because they want to see what is on the other side. But to see the other side, one must find an ark. Only an ark will survive an apocalypse.’
The six of them breathed out as one. All they could hear was the gentle clinks of ice whenever they lifted their tumblers. Outside the wind was gliding though the naked branches.
‘It’s gone quiet out there,’ Anna said. It was the first time she had spoken since the students had begun throwing bottles.
‘Let’s take another look,’ Patrick said.
The dinner party all moved to the windows. Ric stepped forward to peer through the curtains.
‘Are they still out there?’ Zizi asked.
‘There’s others now. People in robes,’ he said.
‘It’s over. The houses are making their selections,’ Patrick explained.
He opened the curtains so all could watch.
Down in the trees they saw figures wearing long druidic robes with hoods covering their faces walking amongst the trees, every now and then they would stop before one of the silent students. They seemed to exchange words but from the apartment upstairs they could hear nothing. The candidate would then kneel to the ground, the person in robes touched the supplicant’s head, again something was spoken, then the student stood up and was given a card. The druid moved on to another of the watchers while the student read the card before jogging off into the streets.
‘What happens now?’ Dalia asked.
‘That’s it for another year,’ Patrick said.
‘No, what do they do next?’
‘I presume they were given either an address or an instruction for the next stage of the initiation.’
The dinner guests watched the ritual through, until all the students had left and the square was empty, only the trees and the statue remained.
‘I suppose it is safe to go home now,’ Ric said.
‘Yes. Though it was safe before. I don’t think they would have hurt any of you.’
‘Well it didn’t feel that way,’ Anna said. ‘Shouldn’t we have called the police when they started throwing bottles?’
‘Maybe we should have.’ Patrick smiled wanly.
‘You don’t seem that angry. I’d be more angry if I was you.’ Dalia said.
‘I find I can’t blame them. The kids coming in these days. They don’t care about what we care about. And they don’t know anything about history. They are looking at a painful future and they can only blame everything that has come before. Just as we blame the generations before us.’
‘Well on that note, I think we should call it a night before we open up a whole new topic,’ Zizi said. ‘I have an early start tomorrow.’
The hosts found everyone’s coats and escorted them downstairs.
‘Good luck with the exhibition. We hope to make the opening.’
‘Have you RSVPed?’
‘Ah, no. Sorry. I’ll do that tomorrow.’
‘It’s okay. I’ll put you on the list. Thank you for a . . . stimulating evening.’ Anna shook their hands cordially and waited as Bora gave them both a bear hug and wet kisses on the cheeks.
Ric and Dalia likewise expressed their thanks. Zizi, Patrick and Tom waved them good bye and returned to the apartment, loaded the dishwasher, transferred the leftovers to plastic containers and put them in the fridge. Candles were blown out. Lights were tapped off and the ceiling was decorated in shadow branches from the lamps outside under the trees.
Tom went into the guest bathroom to brush his teeth and collapsed on the tiled floor.