Dateline: Cubicle District 64, Year 2028—Mystifying tens of millions of authors, Horatio Masterson is the only remaining writer who is still somehow being paid for his work, and in this exclusive report, we reveal the secret of his success.
The internet’s early enthusiasts promised a socialist paradise, but while advances in communications technologies encouraged many more people to speak their minds and try their hand at some art form, the “Let Information Be Free” movement ensured that most of these budding writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists became paupers.
As we’ve all come to realize, the trouble was that the large manufacturers that advertised on the internet had much more clout than content-providers, because things like clothing, furniture, and cars were more in demand than ideas. Robots can produce things more efficiently than can human labourers, and so those people were swiftly put out of business. Unable to be retrained for the new economy, they took to overdosing on opiates, committing suicide, or getting themselves locked up in prison.
Artificial intelligence provided the same unbeatable competition to those who had made a living with mental rather than manual labour. But whereas the machines used to manufacture material goods were enormous and costly, and thus not easily replicated, AI programs proliferated and so after 2025 anyone could create a work of genre fiction, a digital painting, a hit song, or even a computer-graphics-laden film just by turning on the AI on a common mobile device. Once art’s mystique was gone, demand for the arts dried up.
That didn’t stop the world’s artists from expressing themselves in their work, since they’re compelled to be creative; only the economic value of their products has fallen off a cliff. No one was interested in paying for a stream of content on the internet, including for this very article you’re reading, because so many artists were willing to work for free. After all, they created mainly to express themselves, not to make money. The market for news, pop cultural reviews, or philosophical articles thus became oversaturated.
Only Mr. Masterson discovered some trick to earning a living as a content-provider on the internet—in his case as a culture critic who writes articles on various subjects. A team of social scientists investigating the phenomenon confirmed that Mr. Masterson is human, not a bot or a cadre of hackers faking the payments. But Mr. Masterson’s writing isn’t noticeably higher in quality than that of the millions of other such texts available for free all over the internet.
The miracle is that someone somewhere is paying Mr. Masterson to write. We’re used to seeing all the internet money going to the advertisers, not to the thinkers and artists, as our species came to appreciate our inferiority to the new generation of machines and artificial minds.
But the secret of Mr. Masterson’s success hasn’t been revealed. Until now.
Our producers tracked down the flow of funds and discovered that his benefactor is the parakeet owned by a wealthy woman named Elizabeth Milton. Unbeknownst to her, the parakeet, named Jimmy, has gotten in the habit of pecking at the same keys on an old keyboard connected to Miss Milton’s computer that she’s left on for years but doesn’t use.
Coincidentally, the timing of Jimmy’s pecks coincides with the publishing of Mr. Masterson’s daily output of articles, so that as soon as each article is released, Jimmy has accidentally sent the author hundreds of dollars for that day from Miss Milton’s bank account.
Miss Milton confirmed that she’s never read anything written by Mr. Masterson, but that she doesn’t intend to turn off her computer, because she’s under the impression that Jimmy likes the sound of its humming.
“I suspected some such oddity,” said Mr. Masterson after we revealed our discovery to him. “It seems, then, I’m in a precarious position as a professional author. I’m the last of my breed. Should dear Elizabeth’s parakeet cease to push those precious buttons on the keyboard—or as soon as the bird passes away—I don’t suppose such a lucky confluence of events will happen again for me or for anyone else.”
Other writers resent Mr. Masterson’s stroke of good fortune. Tomas Bombastico is an unemployed teacher who publishes his lectures on YouTube and his academic articles on his blog—all for free, of course.
“I’ve read Mr. Masterson’s output,” said Mr. Bombastico. “His articles are nothing special. My writing is ten times more interesting and no one pays me a dime. And there are millions of other writers just like me, writing pages and pages that no one ever reads or pays for. It’s a travesty.”
Mr. Bombastico resented the suggestion that if all those writers hadn’t been willing to sell themselves so short, perhaps the market wouldn’t have become oversaturated.
“We write because we have to express our ideas,” he said, “and we’ll do it for free if we have to. But where’s our crazy parakeet?”
By Dr. Raju Kasambe [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons