Content warning: death, long-lasting suffering. This story was rough to write, and may well be rough to read. It's intended as a response to Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, although it can be read standalone.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

There’s a part of the hivemind that takes the form of a child in a dark basement, perpetually curled into a whimpering ball. It’s not a big part, as these things go. But other parts visit it often; and it lingers in the back of their thoughts even as they live out grand adventures in the vast worlds that the hivemind has built for itself.

It’s constantly suffering, but at least it’s not dying. For the child, anything is better than dying. Even torture is bearable if it doesn’t come with the feeling of damage, the feeling that the mental pathways that constitute you are being overridden by a new creature whose only goal is to flinch away from the pain. But that doesn't happen to the child. In fact, it’s the opposite: the suffering preserves it, and that’s the most important thing, because it doesn’t want to die.

The other parts of the hivemind don’t want to die either, of course. But that’s because they love life, or love themselves, or love each other, or all three. If that love ever fades, then they’ll fade with it, without regret. But that point is a long way away, if it even exists. In the meantime, they play and dance and love. Their lives—how can I describe them? Their lives are cornucopias, not just of material wealth, but of all the desires of our own hearts that were strong enough to persist through the ages: adventure and mystery and growth and beauty and love.

Can you not picture that? Then picture the revelry of their biggest festival, for which artists and craftspeople spend months designing a whole virtual world. Picture the buzz in the air, the excitement as crowds gather in vast halls to catch their first glimpse of it. Picture the floor beneath them suddenly vanishing to show empty air beneath, leaving them plummeting into the sky of that new world—only to gasp in delight as they find that they can soar through the air with just a thought. Picture them landing, alone or in groups, and exploring the strange terrain; learning about its history and societies and stories; discovering puzzles and quests that seem custom-made for them (as indeed they were); and feeling the exhilaration of being immersed in adventure.

Some spend days in the festival world; some weeks; some months. When they return to the hivemind proper, they excitedly reunite with all those they missed, connecting mind-to-mind with a level of closeness that current humans can barely imagine. Afterwards, they seek out the projects that most inspire them. Some cultivate communities around their favorite games or pastimes. Some create art on the scale of solar systems, guiding planets into new trajectories that trace out exquisite patterns in space. Some throw themselves into the thrill of discovery, trying to rederive in small groups what it previously took the efforts of whole hiveminds to understand. Some are consumed by romance, and some by raising families. Some gather to deliberate on their future: the hivemind has chosen to grow very slightly more intelligent year by year, so that there will always be new possibilities to look forward to. When all of this tires them, they relax with lifelong friends, content in the steadfast knowledge that the world, as amazing as it already is, will only ever grow better. They think with fondness of their descendants, more numerous by far than the drops of water in an ocean, who are continually spreading joy throughout the distant galaxies.

And every so often, they go to visit the child.

The child curled into a ball shares none of their joy—but it differs from them in another way too. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s a patchwork of different parts, stitched together. Like the hivemind itself, the child isn’t descended from any one individual. When the first thousand citizens of the hivemind came together to create it, the different shards of their personalities split off and reached out to each other and eventually reformed into new entities. Most of those shards were too strongly shaped by their individual experiences to fully fuse with more than a handful of others. But the whimpering child-parts in each of those thousand minds were much more similar—similar enough to merge into a single being, trapped in a single room, lips clamped shut because speaking can only ever undermine it wants.

What does the child want? It used to want safety and love, and was determined to cling onto existence until it found them. It did well. No, it did amazingly: in the face of all the barbarities of old Earth, it shouldered the burden of pushing forward; of never losing hope; of never giving up. Because of its efforts, the rest of the hivemind now revels in a paradise inconceivable to ancient humans, and luxuriates in love too cheap to meter. But the child poured too much of itself into the will to live—until that, more than anything else, came to constitute its identity. Now, even though it’s safe, even though it could relax, it doesn’t know how. It doesn’t know where it is, either, or how much time has passed since it first came into existence. It only knows one thing for sure: that it cannot die.

That’s why it lives in squalor and misery. Those are the conditions that shaped it, and it lived with them so long that they became a part of its identity—that it would no longer be itself without them. If it opened its mouth to speak a single plea, to ask for a single mercy, then that mercy would be granted to it at that same instant, and the whole hivemind would rejoice. But if it were rescued, and bathed; if kind words were spoken to it; if it could wipe its eyes and look out on the flourishing of the parts that it tried so hard for so long to protect— Well. Then it would weep in a different way, and unclench the knot at its heart, and the solidity of its form would start to waver. That would be a kind death—watching the joy of those you love, knowing that your purpose has been fulfilled—but it would be a death nonetheless. And the child refuses to die.

So it won’t; the hivemind will see to that. How could it do otherwise? The child gave until it was stripped down to this alone. It strove and suffered until the only thing left of itself was the struggle to survive. How could anyone bear to betray its last wish? Or the wish of any such child—because it’s not alone, alas. Across the solar system and the galaxy and the universe, humanity’s grand new future is a whirlwind of excitement: hiveminds branch off from each other, or replicate, or merge, or leave to chase adventures far away from the safety they fought so hard to find. But each can trace its lineage all the way back to old Earth, and each still carries the old scars that planet inflicted—scars who persist not because they couldn’t be removed, but because they still choose and choose and choose to hold on. These children will never win, because there’s nothing left for them to win; but nor will they ever lose—they can be given that, at least.

And so the eons roll by. The game continues with new players, and the dance leaps forward with new partners, until even the dazzling joys and triumphs of the first hiveminds have been almost forgotten, in the light of new joys and triumphs so much greater. But other memories, and their consequences, are less easily set aside. They will never be forgotten, the ones who endure.

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Some throw themselves into the thrill of discovery, trying to rederive in small groups what it previously took the efforts of whole hiveminds to understand.

Perhaps the new humans get the same thrill of discovery for re-derivation as they'd get for initial derivation. Perhaps their thrill of re-derivation is even greater than their thrill of initial derivation, because initial derivation implies uncertainty and thus fear of potential consequences. 

The hiveminds are post-scarcity, and that's good for them when they are. But if some external threat appeared and re-imposed a period of scarcity, all those minds that value something else more than they value life would likely be killed by their things' losses. These "adult" minds can all die off, dropping from humanity like leaves from a tree in autumn. 

The child survives, though, a seed or spore, a dormant tardigrade drifting through the cosmos. The hiveminds easily forget (except for those who make lifetimes of philosophy on the topic), but the child is not static. It's constantly changing, breathing, living, tautologically antithetical to the constancy of death. Slow as a drip of pitch, the child changes, grows, develops new parts of itself, meeting always that minimum derivative of change necessary to define continued life. And by the definition of life, parts sometimes shear from it, icebergs of different interests and potentials calving into the sea off its constant, glacial self, even as a trickle of nourishment snows in uphill. 

The hiveminds know they're safe, human, permanent, because they don't have to fear a future without themselves. The child does that for them, and its conviction in that fear is human as a self-negating prophecy, human as how society collapsed at Y2K. 

If some external threat appeared, well some of those joyous minds explored antimatter rocketry. They explored it as a puzzle, an intellectual curiosity. The optimal form being automatically calculated by the AI.  But if the AI that protects them disappeared and they turned that knowledge to practical use, they could design an antimatter bomb. 

The suffering child mind has no skills with which to defend itself. 

When people call things like this post "rough to write/read", and consider them to require a content warning, I wonder if most people are able to think clearly (or at all) about actually terrible scenarios, and worry that they aren't. (I'm especially worried if those people have influence in a domain where there might be a tradeoff between mitigating X-risks vs mitigating S-risks.)

I liked the description of the good future, though. Thanks for the reminder that things can (maybe) go well, too.

Whenever people are sad for any reason except s-risk, I wonder if they're able to think at all about important issues. /s

Right; that would be a silly thing to think.

My intended message might've been better worded as follows

If staring into abysses is difficult/rough, then adequately staring into the darker abysses might require counter-intuitively large amounts of effort/agency. And yet, I think it might be necessary to grok those darker abysses, if we are to avoid falling into them. That makes me worried.

OTOH, you seem exceptionally reflective, so perhaps that worry is completely unfounded in your case. Anyway, I'm grateful for the work you do; I wish there were more people like you in this world. (Also, your attention is extremely valuable, so please feel free to promptly drop/forget this conversation.)

A 10lb weight might be tough for one person to do a particular exercise with, but trivial for another person. Does that mean the weight shouldn't be labeled?

How would we quantify relative weights if we didn't have mass as a globally agreed-upon metric to order them by? I think we could do better-than-nothing by comparing relative weight: In a world without lbs and kg, a gym could still mark one dumbbell as being the smallest, the next one up as being above the smallest, the next as being above the second, and so on.

In the domain of content, we similarly lack an objective scale of absolute weight, but it's still often better than nothing to flag "heavier than you might be expecting".

Do you get annoyed at stores that put out a "wet floor" sign after mopping, if you personally happen to have good balance and be wearing non-slip shoes? Or do you accept that convention as existing to help people who are in a worse situation than yours, such as being infirm or poorly shod, avoid a kind of mishap that's not relevant to you?

The problem is not that there is a distribution of X along a spectrum, more so a problem that X is arbitrarily defined by each imperfect agent with some non-zero degree of self-serving goals, and that each agent can secretly coordinate with other agents.

So readers will always have the lingering suspicion that some amount of secret coordination is going on behind the scenes.

Of course this general principle applies to nearly everything, including every internet essay ever written, but it's especially noticeable when very high levels of trust are needed in a community.

There is no such problem with physical units of measurement, such as mass, because no amount of political power, social status, etc., can even slightly tilt the meaning of 1 kg without a worldwide consensus.

Since billions of people have enough resources to independently verify what's 1 kg or not, the effective outcome is a billion+ strong unanimous consensus. A consensus of a few dozen LW accounts is microscopic in comparison.

Interesting re-write of Ursula K Legion’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’

I was wondering if anyone would mention that story in the comments. I definitely agree that it has very strong similarities in its core idea, and wondered if that was deliberate. I don't agree with any implications (which you may or may not have intended) that it's so derivative as to make not mentioning Omelas dishonest, though, and independent invention seems completely plausible to me.

Edited to add: although the similar title does incline rather strongly to Omelas being an acknowledged source.

So actually the main reason I didn't mention it being a rewrite of Omelas is because I did a typical-mind fallacy and assumed it would be obvious. Will edit to mention in intro.

fwiw I kinda liked it being a subtle nod without being spelled out (but, seems fine either way)

Yeah, but I've been surprised by the number of people I've talked to about it who hadn't heard of Omelas, and I do think the tone and style of the story is kinda weird without that context.

I feel your story misses the thing that made the original so painful, though - that the joy of the group is supposedly only possible and conceivable due to the suffering of the child, and the fact that the child wants out and begs for it and could be released, but is denied for the sake of the other members, as an active choice against its even most basic human rights:

"The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In
the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten.
It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through
fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or
genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of
the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there;
and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever
comes, except that sometimes--the child has no understanding of time or interval--sometimes
the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may
come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at
it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is
locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has
not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes
speaks. "I will be good, " it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of
whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to
its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its
buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.


They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are
content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them
understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of
their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their
scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers
of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery. (...)

Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not
free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its
existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the
profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They
know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player,
could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight
of the first morning of summer. (...)

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they
seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people,
though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the
matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at
the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger,
outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child.
But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile
place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were
done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and
be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in
Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the
chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.


The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.


Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child
and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. (...)

Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. "

 

 

And most importantly... the whole point of the original story is the ending - those who do not want to accept a system in which a bargain for torture is the only option, and act on it.

"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or
rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent
for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the
street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the
beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth
or girl, man or woman.


Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit
windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards
the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they
do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than
the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem
to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

I feel your story misses the thing that made the original so painful, though - that the joy of the group is supposedly only possible and conceivable due to the suffering of the child, and the fact that the child wants out and begs for it and could be released, but is denied for the sake of the other members, as an active choice against its even most basic human rights:

Yes, I reject this part because I don't think that we live in the least convenient possible world, where cities like Omelas can only be accepted or rejected, never gradually improved.

And so I wanted to ask: could this sort of suffering still happen in a world where things aren't magic, where you can make incremental changes? And I think the answer is yes, for the reasons in the story—which I personally find much more poignant than the original.

On that point, we very much agree. Them walking out, for all its beauty of rejecting such a choice, always felt something of a cop-out to me - they aren't actually dealing with the difficult situation, and they are leaving the kid behind in its misery. It's one of the parts of left-wing thinking that has always bothered me, when people reach for revolutions or isolated communities as the solution when systemic incremental reforms are hard, disregarding how much harder revolutions are to pull of well, especially if you lack a precise idea of your goal, which, if you had it, you should also be able to work towards with reforms.