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MIT Technology Review

Fiction: Quiet earth philosophy

A short story from the November 2020 issue.

hand on joystickhand on joystick
Ian Grandjean

I hadn’t heard from the engineer in years. I’d grown up with him, first as a rival and then as his brother, but ever since we’d entered adulthood, our lives had run parallel, no longer connected. From a distance, I’d kept up with his success as a programmer and tech entrepreneur. I knew that he’d helped build the government’s new data infrastructure in the wake of the coronavirus. That he’d done well for himself.

It was a Friday. 

The 7th of November, 2026. 

I was speaking to a small class of game design students at a media institute in central Johannesburg, delivering a lecture on how to translate images into narrative, when I felt the first text vibrate against my chest. The previous night, my wife Mihlali had asked me if I was feeling alone in the city again. In Johannesburg, she meant. For the past two weeks, she’d been in Cape Town, visiting her sister. My first thought was that she hadn’t been convinced when I’d told her I was doing fine. Then the second vibration came. 

It was an intimate class and I could speak in my normal voice, which I liked, but that also meant the phone was too loud for the room. The students laughed as I switched it off.

In my car, afterwards, I unlocked it and saw that the texts hadn’t come from Mihlali, but from an unfamiliar number. I read them from the top. Three links and a note telling me we should meet the next morning. The signature read: the engineer.

It was him.

I thought of that afternoon in 2006, at the gaming convention, when we were closer than brothers, but only an hour from being estranged. 

I thought of the LAN party. 

How no one else in the room was Black.


My wife and I used to be mired together in a newsroom at a national paper before my first script got picked up by a games studio in Cape Town. 

For years, Mihlali hadn’t even known that I’d been working on a computer game. 

No one had. 

I’d wanted to make one ever since I was a child, and had been mulling over a particular idea for at least a decade, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received.

It was premised on the construction of different civilizational models. In it, users nurtured a humanoid population from single-cell organisms to intelligent life, before creating institutions to safeguard them. The feature that made it distinct from other life simulation games was that it gathered data from users as much as it was influenced from their direct input. It used their photographs to influence the design of the humanoid. It also surveilled their internet usage and communicated to them through a chatbot therapist, both of which affected the status of their populations, showing up in the game as ratings of “Individual Happiness,” “Communal Happiness,” “Freedom,” and “Knowledge.” This influenced which civilizations emerged, ranging from competitive societies to conservationist communities.

I’d anticipated that the surveillance in the game would be controversial, but for the most part, the feature went ignored. The times had changed, I thought, and data no longer concerned us. 

Instead, it was the question at the center of the game itself—how we wanted to live—that drew the studio’s attention. 

Then the market’s.

Then the engineer’s.

I’d told my wife about it, after I’d sent off the script, and she’d helped me wait.

Then, after five years of development, it came out.  

Even though I’d nursed a reasonable amount of doubt about it, the game stood its ground. It was a success with critics and sold well enough for me to approach Mihlali and suggest we both quit the newsroom. The two of us had been worn through from reporting, I thought, and we were aging—marching toward our tombs. There was a contract on the table for the team in Cape Town to develop a sequel through a studio with offices in Quebec and Maastricht. That night, I made sure that we had enough wine—enough for me to deliver the news, and enough for Mihlali to hear it. That enough time had passed since our last fight.

“It would be precarious,” she said, “you being a writer and me a housewife.”

I waited. Her pragmatism was a draw for me, Mihlali knew that, but I could also tell she was as enthusiastic about it as I was. 

“No, I think it’s a beautiful idea,” she said, and then we made love.


I’d told the engineer to meet me at a farmers’ market in the north of Johannesburg, where my wife and I often met with friends who were visiting from out of town, but he hadn’t arrived. 

That was close to an hour ago.

I asked a bartender at one of the stalls if she had a stock of beers that weren’t from craft breweries and she winced, as I’d expected her to. “Fine, but don’t tell me about its recipe or background,” I pleaded.

There was a sheet of plastic dividing us, and the market had been sectioned into quadrants for distance. The bartender smiled. I paid for a draft of red ale and walked to a corner a few meters removed from the food stalls, to the left of a vacated bandstand.

budweiser beer bottle
IAN GRANDJEAN

I thought about the engineer and wondered what he was like now. 

If he was troubled.

If he was content.

Ever since we were children, we’d both nursed a libidinal hunger for machines, our first love being circuit boards. Pixels were intoxicants. Existence felt like a cage, and gaming was an implement that clawed us out. It strengthened how we imagined. Days after playing through a cartridge on our bootleg Nintendos, we’d still be deconstructing its plotlines and elaborating on the fates that had befallen its cast. Homeland geeks, we were both born at the end of the 20th century—in 1986, months before Chernobyl, and before P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency, detaining a thousand protesters in an attempt to push back the liberation of our parents. In the aftermath, lathered in petroleum jelly and dressed in discount-store bibs that caught teaspoons of our milk and sorghum porridge, we grew up in the ashes of a thwarted revolution, scheduled first to be scalded inside the cruel experiment of assimilation. 

Mother-raised and father-deserted, we shared an alliance of absence. Inward, we were kicked and shoved for being too tender amongst our own. Forced into partnership, in a silent pact, we agreed to compete—to treat our schoolwork like a video game and establish a high score for it, staving off boredom and distracting ourselves from the torments that arrived at the hands of our peers. Then we’d filled the rest of our time with AC adapters, RF cords and cartridges. PE teachers called us lovers to mock our resolve, but the engineer was a brother to me. I’d grown stronger on his mother’s porridge. 

I looked at the links he’d sent me in his texts, thinking back to an old arcade machine we used to crack at a shop two blocks down from his house—and to a stack of foreign gaming mags we’d once found tossed with a neighbor’s porn. I thought of how no one else knew what a 3DO was. World Heroes Perfect. Neo Geo. SNK vs. ADK. How packed the shop used to get. The old man with the bad cough, hairy knuckles, and gray eyes. How he sold us bread and broke our change into 50-cent pieces, pushing out phone cards and packing our brothers’ blazer pockets with loosies. He had a suburban yard, like us, but he’d converted his garage into a spaza shop, serving the neighborhood with bread, milk, candies, and snuff. He’d installed an arcade machine at the rear and we’d lean over the screen and cuss all week, late to getting home, pumping our fists and sticking coins between the buttons to book the next play. 

It was a boxing ring, and also where I’d met the engineer. 

I was often in fights with him before we started throwing our matches and splitting wins. Each laaitie from our neighborhood who cracked the machine had a favorite character whose mannerisms—those pixels from the east—would bleed inward, erupting in their limbs at moments of triumph. Each laaitie except me and the engineer, that is. Even though I’d started playing the game with Dragon, the two of us were shackled to mastering every character: neither of us knew who we were, and we didn’t feel safe enough to choose in front of people at the shop. That made us crack the machine harder than they did, birthing an audience. Later, laaities in town would cross blocks to crowd into living rooms where we sat in front of the machines of more fortunate sons, garlanded in their spoils and praise as we cracked consoles our parents couldn’t afford.

The first link was from 2012: a story about how scientists in Edinburgh had created brain tissue from patients afflicted with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The second detailed a 2019 plan to install an internet pipeline that would surround and provide data for the entire African continent. The third, from 2020, tallied the death rates six months into the first coronavirus lockdown.

I read his invitation to meet again, closed it, and leaned back, breathing out. 

That’s when I saw him. 

The engineer was standing across the market, staring at me. He didn’t look as old as I’d expected, I thought, and as soon as I did, I wondered what he’d think of me.

Existence felt like a cage, and gaming was what clawed us out. It strengthened how we imagined.

Even before greeting him, maybe to disarm the man after a span of two decades that felt like a span of two decades, I told him I was surprised that there was no mob around him. He was one of the nation’s wealthiest men. I’d expected a retinue. 

He laughed. 

I took a moment to look at him. “How long has it been?” I asked. “I was convinced the grave would take me first.”

He smiled. “Too long.”

I’d once drawn a portrait of him, I thought.

I’d once helped him draft a letter to a girl down his street.

“I finished your game three times, you know,” he said. 

I thanked him. I was grateful.

“It’s good to talk,” I started, but he embraced me before I could finish. 

It was presumptuous, but I thought of him as a man lost. 

That touched me, the clinch that suggested he wanted to share a portion of his life with his oldest friend. I followed him to his car: he had a driver. 

Five minutes later, we were weaving past the market. 

I followed his gaze through his window. 

The streets were vacant. Masked stragglers stood marooned at different bus and taxi stops, open in their despair. Ever since the first cases of the coronavirus had leaked in from our airports, mushrooming in the population like a dye underwater, the death toll had risen unmitigated, thinning the roads. I wondered if he was contemplating it too. 

“Humankind has never cured impairments endemic to humankind,” he said. “Instead, it’s learned to live around them, evolving.”

I didn’t disagree. 

It was an obstacle I’d encountered in making the game. I’d had to think past the world he meant, the one we shared, the order that had broken us and our parents. 

In the beginning, I'd created one force of living organism versus another force of living organism and placed them in conflict across centuries, tracking the evolution of the organism as a whole. It was 16 months into development before I noticed the error I had built into the premise.

I’d started to see humankind as a species of monsters. I’d moved inward, avoiding crowds, and had lost the motivation I needed to live. I would wake up from dreams in which I saw us for what we were: patterns of bones suspended inside loose mounds of flesh, contaminants running restless over the earth’s crust, tonguing the marrow of fellow mammals and suffocating the planet inside a carapace of plastic. 

My wife and I had fought over having children.

It was for the same reason I’d hidden the game from her at first. 

I went back to it and realized that the mistake I’d made was using the world I knew. 

I’d polluted it with humankind.

I’d needed to model new variations. 

I’d needed to understand that Black freedom was inconceivable in our world, and thus to imagine it was to imagine the end of the world.

“I have a proposal,” the engineer said. “It’s a game too.”


His driver coursed down the spine of the metropolis.

“This world is destructing,” he said, looking out of the window. The car approached an intersection and two women crossed, staring into the windscreen over their surgical masks. 

“However, it’s not the end,” he said. “It’s also the start of things. The following age will be modulated through ubuntu, liberating the last of humankind to exist in a hierarchal civilization. The game is a tool.”

“In service of ubuntu?”

He shook his head. 

“No, ubuntu is instrumental, but our destination is further down the line.” 

car
IAN GRANDJEAN

His driver led us into a tunnel and I leaned back as the world darkened. 

I asked him what the destination was.

“Humankind’s transition into the transhuman,” he said. “The transhuman cannot exist outside of ubuntu, of course, which is the antithesis of the colonial order for a number of reasons. It’s horizontal in nature, it favors interconnectedness, and within it, one gains their humanity, their being, through others gaining their humanity, their being—you are, therefore I am. But the transition itself is the destination.”

“The transhuman?”

“The existence of the human consciousness outside human bodies,” he said. Then he turned back to the window, and the tunnel light glinted orange against his profile. “It’s inevitable. Humankind’s conundrum is corporeal. Two things are immutable about us as living, breathing organisms. The first is that we herd, and the second is that we perform our most decisive action, the thinking that germs out into wars and epochs, from the pits of our bellies, between fear and appetite. Europeans lunged on the world from an overabundance of that fear, an imbalance that mangled the world, but the fear is endemic to humankind.” 

I listened to him as we drove. 

The tunnel felt endless.

“The game is in service of Quiet Earth Philosophy,” he said, “a manner of thinking that anticipates the beginning of the world.” His driver led us out of the tunnel. Light flooded in against the console. “Quiet Earth Philosophy understands that in order to survive, humankind will have to evolve to forfeit corporeal existence and continue on as a simulation of consciousness, hovering over a quiet earth of transistors, powered through the planet, as is suggested in mainstream transhumanist literature. The cause for the transition isn’t known. Earth could be uninhabitable or it could be evolution. In the meantime, Quiet Earth Philosophy anticipates the event as inevitable. It aims both to safeguard humankind’s transition and to install an egalitarian code in how we form institutions in the transhuman future.” 

“Through accelerating ubuntu?”

“That and further. Human consciousness is trammeled inside the human organism,” he said. “Liberated, it’s expected to thrive, but not that alone: it will also relieve the planet of our bodies, whose fears and appetites have grown into a malignant force of nature. That’s the germ of Quiet Earth Philosophy. If the idea is seeded now, we believe, it will flower on its own amongst posthuman philosophers in three centuries, under a different name, and will culminate in a movement to rehost human consciousness inside brain tissue, safeguarding a second transition: the return of the reconfigured living, breathing organism.”

“Three centuries?”

“Four consecutive lifetimes. It isn’t that long.”

“Regardless, how is it possible to tell? Even with ubuntu.”

He went silent. 

Then he said, “I had help from a supercomputer.” 

I looked at him and he grinned. 

He was a child again, I thought, wearing the flesh of a powerful man. 

“It was called the K computer, and was installed in Kobe, Japan. In 2019, before it was decommissioned, I was in a group of 20 researchers who were given access to use it for calculations. Fugaku, its successor, appeared 10 months later, half a year into the pandemic, and was 100 times stronger.”

I remembered it. In 2020, the supercomputer had been put to work researching a cure for the coronavirus.

“I was invited back to use Fugaku, too,” he said, “but international air travel was banned. The K computer used data assimilation, machine learning, and simulation—and each calculation led us back here: to ubuntu and the second transition.”

I leaned back in my seat, thinking of all the data it wasn’t possible to gather. 

“The sample for that …”

 “It’s true,” he said. “The models were enormous. In the quadrillions. Potentials spiraled outward. The input we had, which was organized around patterns observed in the evolution of social orders, was a fraction of what’s out there, and the nature of our input had a direct influence on our results—I can admit that. It doesn’t make it untrue, though. It means it’s one truth amongst quadrillions. The future holds countless possibilities,” he said, “but the odds rise in our favor once we influence the present.”

“Making it self-fulfilling?”

“To a degree.”

I was quiet. The three of us drove in silence.

“I have to design a game that’s a carrier for Quiet Earth Philosophy?” I said.

“That’s right.”

“It’s a game, though. How would it convince the population on the scale needed?”

“I have leverage,” he said.

I asked if it was from the supercomputer too, and he shook his head. 

“That wasn’t needed, but I used it for confirmation.”

He pointed at my phone.

“The links?”

“Those three discoveries,” he said, “though they were of no great importance at the time of their announcement, have allowed us to synthesize a technology that will bring about great change in the next century. And it will be introduced to humankind through Quiet Earth Philosophy.”


The gaming convention. 

The driver approached another intersection. 

Then, when he pulled off again, I realized I knew where we were headed. It was where we’d last spoken, and also where he’d become the engineer.

The two of us spent the afternoon watching DVDs before his brother dropped us off at the convention, padding us with 500 bucks to feed on.

2006.

It was in west Johannesburg—a province removed from Cape Town, where I’d moved and settled to major in media—and was meant to reunite us after a year in separate cities. 

I took a bus and got there late, crashing with him at his brother’s place. 

His brother was a few years older and lived with his girlfriend. He drove us out to the convention the following night, cracking wise about virgins and nerds. 

The ribbing was familiar, and I didn’t mind it.

I wasn’t a virgin. 

In Cape Town, I wasn’t sure what I was. I missed tutorials and didn’t care. I lied to women and avoided calls from home. I took drugs and didn’t sleep. I’d gone out drinking, once, and woken up the next morning inside a McDonald’s booth, wincing from mortal fear. I felt poisoned. I didn’t like myself when I was sober. 

For his part, the engineer told me how, through both semesters, no one had allowed him to belong to them. That he felt alone and wasn’t sure if he wanted himself either. 

arcade console
IAN GRANDJEAN

I wandered off to a Magic the Gathering stall, while the engineer walked over to the LAN party—a network of 15 computers running the same game behind a drywall partition—preparing to pad up his frag count and test out patches. I couldn’t get into first-person shooters the way he could, but it wasn’t far from where I rubbernecked between the console stalls with a backpack and soda, testing out demos and watching anime subs downloaded from mIRC. I hadn’t played Magic in five years and had lost all my cards even before moving to Cape Town. I leaned over the table and read the loser’s hand, rooting for them.

“Shall we turn away a worthy soul because his parents were peasants? I think not.”

“When a you’re a goblin, you don’t have to step forward to be a hero—everyone else just has to step back!”

That’s when I heard a crash. 

Then laughter.

I turned around and saw the engineer crossing the computer aisles, his face blank.

He walked past me and I followed him outside.

I asked him three times, before I stopped.

Even though I knew no one else in the room was Black, he never told me what happened. Instead, when we got to the parking lot, he found a place to cross through the fence and, placing his backpack beneath him on the grass, looked up at the stars, silent.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

I remembered how I’d once spent a summer surviving his father with him. His old man lived alone and worked at a college three hours from us. He had a temper we couldn’t predict, but in the afternoons, the two of us could spend hours exploring the world inside his parking lot. The campus was two blocks down from his flat, and after our chores we used to sneak into the art collections and computer labs. 

As we did laundry in their tenement garage once, the morning after his father had thrown a plastic bowl into his face and bruised his left eye, large dams of honey had soaked through the ceilings and glazed the walls of the stairwells we used to play in. The two of us had a honeycomb in each hand before we heard the maintenance trucks arrive to disperse us with the bees. In the wake of their hoses, the engineer taught me how to make gum guards out of the wax. 

How to resist. 

I sat down next to him and he told me that over the last semester, he’d been writing a game about a character that created the perfect world for us. Then he described it to me, the way we used to do at his father’s flat, where we’d lived each hour in fear and what had felt safe was animation, X-Men, universities, fresh loaves of bread, a tunnel of trees, a large television screen, the groan of a dial-up modem, Black contemporary art, the heat radiating off a computer tower, 3D Word Art, and Capcom. The soft, soundless pixels of Windows 95 and each other.  

He’d called the game “The Engineer.”


I got out of the car, when we stopped, and followed him down to the parking lot, crossing through the fence and walking past the grass hill where he’d lain down that night. 

“I own it now,” he said. “This is the world’s first Center for Quiet Consciousness.”

I told him I hadn’t heard of it.

“It’s covert.” 

He led me inside, into a hall with a scattering of young people, all of whom cheered as soon as they saw him. They were arranged in clusters—on the floor or in front of computers—and he wandered off to speak to a few.

Headed back to his car, he stopped. 

“I apologize for taking flight from our friendship that night,” he said. ‘Remember how much we used to compete? I felt like I had to bring something back for us after that night. First, I would finish my game. Then I would turn it into the world.” 

I apologized to him too. 

I owed it to him. I’d lost the implement I’d needed to claw myself out of my cage, and I hadn’t had what he’d needed from me when he’d needed it.

I asked him why they called him Mark inside.

“It’s what I tell them, and it’s what I tell myself,” he said. “It’s an alias. It means target—and that’s what we are: an army of targets safeguarding the beginning of the world.” 

I knew where we were headed. It was where we'd last spoken, and also where he'd become the engineer.

He told me that he had to catch a flight and that his driver would drop me off at the market. 

I accepted and thanked him. 

Driving home afterwards, I thought of the first time we met. 

It was during a weekend, on a morning when the streets were still vacant and the dew was patterned and crisp across the neighborhood fences. I’d been sent out for bread and canned tomatoes and he had walked in a minute after I had, balancing a loaf of brown bread on top of the machine, as truant as I was. There was no one else in the shop that morning, and I could feel him leaning against the wall, watching me. 

“Nice,” he said, after a while.

I’d used the same technique to defeat the first three levels with a perfect score. 

I turned around and he grinned at me, his teeth as crooked as mine.

“It’s not hard,” I said, tapping the start button to rush through the score count.

“I know.”

From inside the garage, the sun rose, blanketing the screen in a bright sheet of dust. 

He told me he could do it too, and when I let him, he hadn’t lied. 

The two of us split our rounds after that, taking turns to crack the CPU apart, and after a while, I realized we’d been laughing, which I never did at the shop. 

Now I couldn’t stop. The sound rang out against the chime of the machine, and it was as if we’d become one. Transhuman. 

I’d chosen Dragon, a Bruce Lee knockoff, and the machine lumbered after us as Johnny Maximum: a seven-­foot quarterback who was 10 times our real size, I thought, but a fraction of our strength.