Innumerable stories bear witness to the fact that the desire for precisely such freely given emotions gnaws at mighty rulers and men of wealth; in fairy tales he who is able to buy or use force to obtain anything, having the means for this, abandons his exceptional position so that in disguise— like Harun al Rashid, who went as a beggar— he may find human genuineness, since privilege shuts it out like an impenetrable wall.
– Stanislaw Lem, A Perfect Vacuum
In this latter day of commodity travel one can buy almost anything: swim with whale sharks in Donsal in the Philippines, travel to Germany and become a race car driver (Nuerburgring), run the bulls in Tamil Nadu, India, try Heli-skiiing in the Chugach Mountains in Alaska, tow surfing the jaw break in Peahi, Maui, bike across the Sahara, ice climb in the Canadian Rockies, sandboard in Cerrano Blanco, Peru, or finally, take a private cruise into space, the last frontier of personal experience. Has experience itself become the final commodity?
So, then, the one area that has not yet been turned into a commodity is the unarranged substance of everyday life, intimate as well as official, private as well as public, with the result that each and every one of us is exposed continually to those small reversals, ridiculings, disappointments, animosities, to the snubs that can never be paid back, to the unforeseen; in short, exposed— within the scope of our personal lot— to a state of affairs that is intolerable, in the highest degree deserving a change; and this change for the better will be initiated by the great new industry of life services. (A Perfect Vacuum, Stanislaw Lem)
A society in which one can buy— with an advertising campaign— the post of president, or a herd of albino elephants painted with little flowers, or a bevy of beauties, or youth through hormones, such a society ought to be able to put to rights the human condition. The qualm that immediately surfaces— that such purchased forms of life, being unauthentic, will quickly betray their falseness when placed alongside the surrounding authenticity of events— that qualm is dictated by a naïveté totally lacking in imagination. When all children are conceived in the test tube, when then no sexual act has as its consequence, once natural, procreation, there disappears the difference between the normal and the aberrant in sex, seeing as no physical intimacy serves any purpose but that of pleasure. And where every life finds itself under the solicitous eye of powerful service enterprises, there disappears the difference between authentic events and those secretly arranged. The distinction between natural and synthetic in adventures, successes, failures, ceases to exist when one can no longer tell what is taking place by pure accident, and what by accident paid for in advance.
Become a utopian, join the final liberal corporation, Being Inc., realize your dreams of adventure, travel to the destination of your choice, expose the ethical dilemmas of post-human labor as you infiltrate third world politics, enact the staging of a coup, bring about the assassination of virtual dictators and rise to the top of a new nation through your own impervious leadership. All this can be accomplished with little effort on your part, all you need do is forfeit all your hopes and freedoms to the power of the corporation. The mode of operation of our corporate entity is to act at a distance: its base cannot be known to anyone; clients communicate with Being Inc. exclusively by correspondence, in an emergency by telephone. Their orders go into a network of computers; the execution of these is dependent on the size of the client’s account, that is, on the amount of the remittance. Treachery, friendship, love, revenge, one’s own good fortune and another’s adversity may be obtained also on the installment plan, through a convenient credit system. The destinies of children are shaped by the parents, but on the day he comes of age each person receives in the mail a price list, a catalogue of services, and in addition the firm’s instruction booklet. The booklet is a clearly but substantively written treatise, philosophical and sociotechnological— not the usual advertising material.
Welcome to our post-civilized paradise of the final commodity, when you too can trade your body for pleasure and profit, become the hero/heroine of your own micropolitical novel in the making, challenge the world on your own terms, become the ruler of your own desire. All at a small modest and affordable price.
The principles of operation of Being Inc. did not emerge in a vacuum: matrimonial computers have for some time now been using similar rules in matchmaking. Being Inc. guarantees each client the full arrangement of his life, from the attaining of his majority until his death, in keeping with the wishes expressed by him on the form enclosed. The Company, in its work, avails itself of the most up-to-date cybernetic, socioengineering, and informational methods. Being Inc. does not immediately carry out the wishes of its clients, for people often do not themselves know their own nature, do not understand what is good for them and what is bad. The Company subjects each new client to a remote-monitor psychotechnological examination; a battery of ultrahigh-speed computers determines the personality profile and all the proclivities of the client. Only after such a diagnosis will the Company accept his order.
Being Inc. is an organization the like of which is unknown in history. This is essential. The matrimonial computer united a mere two persons and did not concern itself with what would happen to them after the tying of the knot. Being Inc., on the other hand, must orchestrate enormous groupings of events involving thousands of people. The Company cautions the reader that its actual methods of operation are not mentioned in the brochure. The examples given are purely fictitious! The strategy of the arranging must be kept in absolute secrecy; the client must never be allowed to find out what is happening to him naturally and what by the aid of the Company computers that watch unseen over his destiny.
Being Inc. possesses an army of employees; these make their appearance as ordinary citizens— as chauffeurs, butchers, physicians, engineers, maids, infants, dogs, and canaries. The employees must be anonymous. An employee who at any time betrays his incognito, i.e., who discloses that he is a bona fide member of the team of Being Inc., not only loses his post but is pursued by the Company to his grave. Knowing his habits and tastes, the Company will arrange for him such a life that he will curse the hour in which he perpetrated the foul deed. There is no appealing a punishment for the betrayal of a Company secret— not that the Company intends this statement as a threat. No, the Company includes its real ways of dealing with bad employees among its trade secrets.
Such a metaphysical burlesque, whose fantastic elements nevertheless have some connection with the real world, touch us not by the hyperbolic absurdity of its disjunctive notions a society blinded by its own elitist desires so much as by its own dark machinic methods. When we disregard the humoristic humbug and the elephantiasis of the such imaginings, there remains the problem of the manipulation of minds, and particularly of that kind of manipulation which does not lessen the full subjective sense of spontaneity and freedom. The thing will certainly not come about in the form shown in Being Inc., but who can say whether fate will spare our descendants other forms of this phenomenon— forms perhaps less amusing in description but not, it may be, any less oppressive.
The above is a bowdlerized rendering of Stanislaw Lem’s whimsical satiric confabulation, an ethical tale of our late capitalist society. Being Inc. a fictional critique of an imaginary book by the non-existent Alastair Waynewright.
1. Lem, Stanislaw (1983-04-20). A Perfect Vacuum (Kindle Locations 1576-1577). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.