Blockchain Science-Fiction Premiere: “Byzantine Empathy”
09.28.2018

BREAKER is thrilled to host the online premiere of an original short story by Ken Liu. Over the last decade, Liu has emerged as one of our generation’s most exciting science fiction talents, winning Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He is the author of the silkpunk fantasy series The Dandelion Dynasty (The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms, and a forthcoming third volume), The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker (2017). He has also translated two Hugo-winning novels from Chinese to English, including the blockbuster The Three-Body Problem (2014), by Liu Cixin, and Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang.

A lawyer and programmer (bitcoin ambassador Jimmy Song once dubbed Liu “one of the best coders” he knows), Liu grounds his speculative fiction with real-world expertise like few others. In “Byzantine Empathy” (which originally premiered in the anthology Twelve Tomorrows, published by the MIT Press), Liu artfully, rigorously explores a question of relevance to anyone interested in blockchain’s social impact: What might happen if blockchain and virtual reality are used to reconceive humanitarian aid?

You’re hurrying along a muddy path, part of a jostling crowd. The commotion around you compels you to scramble to keep up. As your eyes adjust to the dim light of early dawn, you see everyone is laden down with possessions: a baby wrapped tightly against the chest of its mother; a bulging bed sheet filled with clothing ballooning over the back of a middle-aged man; a washbasin filled with lychees and breadfruit cradled in the arms of an eight-year-old girl; an oversized Xiaomi smartphone pressed into service as a flashlight by an old woman in sweatpants and a wrinkled blouse; a Mickey Mouse suitcase with one missing wheel being dragged through the mud by a young woman in a t-shirt emblazoned with the English phrase “Happy Girl Lucky”; a pillow case filled with books or perhaps bundles of cash dangling from the hand of an old man in a baseball cap advertising Chinese cigarettes …

Most in the crowd seem taller than you, and this is how you know that you are a child. Looking down, you see on your feet yellow plastic slippers decorated with the portraits of Disney’s Belle. The thick mud threatens to pull them off your feet with each step, and you wonder if perhaps they mean something to you—home, security, a life safe for fantasy—so that you don’t want to leave them behind.

In your right hand you’re holding a rag doll in a red dress, embroidered with curved letters in a script you don’t recognize. You squeeze the doll, and the sensation tells you the doll is stuffed with something light that rustles, perhaps seeds. Your left hand is held by a woman with a baby on her back and a bundle of blankets in her other hand. Your baby sister, you think, too little to be scared. She looks at you with her dark, adorable eyes, and you give her a comforting smile. You squeeze your mother’s hand, and she squeezes back reassuringly, warm.

On both sides of the path you see scattered tents, some orange and some blue, stretching across the fields all the way to the jungle half a kilometer away. You’re not sure if one of the tents used to be your home or if you’re just passing through.

There’s no background music, and no cries from exotic Southeast Asian birds. Instead, your ears are filled with anxious chatter and cries. You can’t understand the language or the topolect, but the tension in the voices tells you that they’re cries for family to keep up, for friends to be careful, for aged relatives to not stumble.

A loud whine passes overhead, and the field ahead and to the left erupts in a fiery explosion brighter than sunrise. The ground convulses; you tumble down into the slimy mud.

More whines sweep overhead, and more shells explode around you, rattling your bones. Your ears are ringing. Your mother crawls over to you and covers you with her body. Merciful darkness blocks out the chaos. Loud, keening screams. Terrified cries. A few incoherent moans of pain.

You try to sit up, but your mother’s unmoving body is holding you down. You struggle to shift her weight off and manage to wriggle out from under her.

The back of your mother’s head is a bloody mess. Your baby sister is crying on the ground next to her body. Around you people are running in every direction, some still trying to hold on to their possessions, but bundles and suitcases lay abandoned in the path and the fields, next to motionless bodies. The rumbling of engines could be heard in the direction of the camp, and through the swaying, lush vegetation you see a column of soldiers in camouflage approach, guns at the ready.

A woman points at the soldiers and shouts. Some of the men and women stop running and hold up their hands.

A gunshot rings out, followed by another.

Like leaves blown before a gust of wind, the crowd scatters. Mud splashes onto your face as stomping feet pass by you.

Your baby sister cries louder. You scream, “Stop! Stop!” in your language. You try to crawl over to her, but someone stumbles over you, slamming you to the ground. You try to shield your head from the trampling feet with your arms and curl up into a ball. Some leap over you; others try but fail, landing on you, kicking you hard as they scramble.

More gunshots. You peek between your fingers. A few figures tumble to the earth. There’s little room to maneuver in the stampeding crowd, and people fall in a heap whenever anyone goes down. Everyone is pushing and shoving to put someone, anyone, between the bullets and themselves.

A foot in a muddy sneaker slams down onto the bundled figure of your baby sister, and you hear a sickening crack as her cries are abruptly silenced. The owner of the sneaker hesitates for a moment before the surging crowd pushes them forward, disappearing from your sight.

You scream, and something pounds you hard in the gut, knocking the breath out of you.

Tang Jianwen ripped off her headset, gasping. Her hands shook as she unzipped her immersion suit, and she managed to peel it halfway off before her hands lost their strengths . As she curled up on the omnidirectional treadmill, the bruises on her sweat-drenched body glistened dark red in the faint, white glow of her computer screen, the only light on in the dark studio apartment. She dry-heaved a few times before breaking into sobs.

Though her eyes were closed, she could still see the grim expressions on the faces of the soldiers, the bloody pulp that had been the mother’s head, the broken little body of the baby, her life trampled out of her.

She had disabled the safety features of the immersion suit and removed the amplitude filters in the algics circuitry. It didn’t seem right to experience the ordeal of the Muertien refugees with pain filters in place.

A VR rig was the ultimate empathy machine. How could she truly say she had walked in their shoes without suffering as they did?

The neon lights of bustling Shanghai at night spilled through the cracks in the curtains, drawing harsh, careless rainbows on the floor. Virtual wealth and real greed commingled out there, a world indifferent to the deaths and pain in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

She was grateful that she had not been able to afford the olfactory attachment. The coppery odor of blood, mixed with the fragrance of gunpowder, would have undone her before the end. Smells probed into the deepest part of your brain and stirred up the rawest emotions, like the blade of a hoe breaking up the numbed clods of modernity to reveal the wriggling pink flesh of wounded earthworms.

Eventually, she got up, peeled off the rest of her suit, and stumbled into the bathroom. She jumped as water rumbled in the pipes, the noise of approaching engines through the jungle. Under the hot streams of the shower, she shivered.

“Something has to be done,” she muttered. “We can’t let this happen. I can’t.”

But what could she do? The war between the central government of Myanmar and the ethnic minority rebels near the country’s border with China was little remarked on by the rest of the world. The United States, the world’s policeman, was silent because it wanted a loyal, pro-US government in Naypyidaw as a chess piece against rising Chinese influence in the region. China, on the other hand, wanted to entice the government in Naypyidaw onto its side with business and investment, and making a big deal out of ethnic Han Chinese civilians being slaughtered by Burmese soldiers was unhelpful for this Great Game. Even news of what was happening in Muertien was censored by a Chinese government terrified that sympathy for the refugees might mutate into uncontrollable nationalism. Refugee camps on both sides of the border were kept out of sight, like some shameful secret. Eyewitness accounts, videos, and this VR file had to be sneaked through tiny encrypted holes punched in the Great Firewall. In the West, on the other hand, popular apathy functioned more effectively than any official censorship.

The old men in Beijing, terrified of any challenge to their authority and the possibility of instability, had made all these things impossible. To be a citizen of China was to be constantly reminded of the stark reality of the utter powerlessness of the individual living in a modern, centralized, technocratic state.

She could not organize marches or gather signatures for petitions; she could not start or join a nonprofit dedicated to the well-being of the refugees—not that people in China trusted charities, which were all frauds; she could not ask everyone she knew to call their representatives and tell them to do something about Muertien. Having studied abroad in the United States, Jianwen wasn’t so naive as to think that these avenues open to citizens of a democracy were all that effective—often, they served as mere symbolic gestures that did nothing to alter the minds or actions of those who truly determined foreign policy. But at least these acts would have allowed her to feel like she was making a difference.

And wasn’t feeling the entire point of being human?

The old men in Beijing, terrified of any challenge to their authority and the possibility of instability, had made all these things impossible. To be a citizen of China was to be constantly reminded of the stark reality of the utter powerlessness of the individual living in a modern, centralized, technocratic state.

The scalding water was starting to feel uncomfortable. She scrubbed herself hard, as if it was possible to free herself from the haunting memories of the dying by scouring away sweat and skin cells, as if it was possible to be absolved of guilt with soap that smelled of watermelons.

She got out of the shower, still dazed, raw, but at least functional. The filtered air in the apartment smelled faintly of hot glue, the result of too much electronics packed into a small space. She wrapped a towel around herself, padded into her room, and sat down in front of her computer screen. She tapped on the keyboard, trying to distract herself with updates on her mining progress.

The screen was enormous and its resolution cutting edge, but by itself, it was an insignificant piece of dumb equipment, only the visible corner of the powerful computing iceberg that she controlled.

The array of custom-made ASICs in the humming rack along the wall was devoted to one thing: solving cryptographic puzzles. She and other miners around the world used their specialized equipment to discover the nuggets made of special numbers that maintained the integrity of several cryptocurrencies. Although she had a day job as a financial services programmer, this work was where she really felt alive.

It gave her the feeling of possessing a bit of power, to be part of a global community in rebellion against authority in all its forms: authoritarian governments, democratic-mob statism, central banks that manipulated inflation and value by fiat. It was the closest she could come to being the activist she really yearned to be. Here, only math mattered, and the logic of number theory and elegant programming formed an unbreakable code of trust.

She tweaked her mining cluster, joined a new pool, checked in on a few channels where like-minded enthusiasts chatted about the future, and felt calmer as she read the scrolling text without joining in the conversation herself.

N♥T>: Just set up my Huawei GWX. Anyone have a recommendation for a good VR to try on it?

秋叶1001>: Room-scale or apartment-scale?

N♥T>: Apartment-scale. Nothing but the best for me.

秋叶1001>: Wow! You must’ve done well in the mines this year. I’d say try “Titanic.”

N♥T>: From Tencent?

秋叶1001>: No! The one from SLG is much better. You’ll need to hook your mining rig up to handle the graphics load if you have a big apartment.

Anon🐁>: Ah, enhanced play or proof-of-work. What’s more important?

Like many others, Jianwen had plunged headlong into the consumer VR craze. The resolution of the rigs was finally high enough to overcome dizziness, and even a smartphone contained enough processing power to drive a basic headset—though not the kind that provided full immersion.

She had climbed Mount Everest; she had BASE-jumped from the top of the Burj Khalifa; she had “gone out” to VR bars with her friends from across the globe, each of them holed up in their respective apartments drinking shots of real erguotou or vodka; she had kissed her favorite actors and slept with a few she really liked; she had seen VR films (exactly what they sound like and not very good); she had done VR LARP; she had flitted around the room in the form of a tiny fly as twelve angry fictional women argued over the fate of a fictional young woman, subtly directing their arguments by landing on pieces of evidence she wanted them to focus on.

But for an accident of birth, that little girl could have been me. Her mother even had my mother’s eyes.

But she had felt unsatisfied with all of them in some vague, inarticulable way. The emerging medium of VR was like unformed clay, full of potential and possibility, propelled by hope and greed, promising everything and nothing, a technology solution in search of a problem—it was still unclear what sort of pleasures, narratological or ludic, would ultimately predominate.

This latest VR experience, a short little clip in the life of an unnamed Muertien refugee, however, felt different.

But for an accident of birth, that little girl could have been me. Her mother even had my mother’s eyes.

For the first time in years, after her youthful idealism had been ground down by the indifference of the world after college, she felted compelled to do something.

She stared at her screen. The flickering balances in her cryptocurrency accounts were based on a consensus of cryptographic chains, a trust forged from the trust-less. In a world walled from pain by greed, could such trust also be a way to drill a hole into the barrier, to let hope flood through? Could the world indeed be converted into a virtual village, where empathy bonded each to each?

She opened a new terminal window on her screen and began to type feverishly.

I hate D.C., Sophia Ellis decided as she looked out the window.

Traffic crawled through the rainy streets, punctuated by the occasional blare of an angry driver—a nice metaphor for what passed for political normality in the capital these days. The distant monuments on the Mall, ethereal through the drizzle, seemed to mock her with their permanence and transcendence.

The board members were making chit-chat, waiting for the quarterly meeting to start. She only paid attention half-heartedly, her mind elsewhere.

… your daughter … Congrats to her!

… too many blockchain startups …

… passing through London in September …

Sophia would rather be back in the State Department, where she belonged, but the current administration’s distaste for traditional-style diplomacy made her think she might have better prospects shifting into the nonprofit sector as a top administrator. After all, it was an open secret that some of the biggest US nonprofits with international offices served as unofficial arms of US foreign policy, and being the executive director of Refugees Without Borders was not a bad stepping stone back to power when the next administration came in. The key was to do some good for the refugees, to promote American values, and to stabilize the world even as the current administration seemed hell-bent on squandering American power.

… saw a cellphone video and asked me if we were doing anything about it … Muertien, I think?

She pulled herself out of her reverie. “That’s not something we should be involved in. It’s like the situation in Yemen.”

The board member nodded and changed the subject.

Sophia’s old college roommate, Jianwen, had emailed her about Muertien a couple months ago. She had written back to express her regrets in a kind and thoughtful message. We’re an organization with limited resources. Not every humanitarian crisis can be addressed adequately. I’m sorry.

It was the truth. Sort of.

It was also the consensus of those who understood how things worked that interfering with what was happening in Muertien would not benefit US interests, or the interests of Refugees Without Borders. The desire to make the world a better place, which was what had gotten her into diplomacy and nonprofit work in the first place, had to be tempered and guided by realism. Despite—or perhaps because of—her differences with the current administration, she believed that preserving American power was a worthy and important goal. Drawing attention to the crisis in Muertien would embarrass a key new American ally in the region, and that had to be avoided. This complicated world demanded that the interests of the United States (and its allies) be prioritized at the expense of some who suffered, so that more of the helpless could be protected.

America was not perfect, but it was also, after weighing all the alternatives, the best authority we had.

“… the number of small donations from under-thirty donors has fallen by 75 percent in the last month,” said one of the board members. While Sophia had been philosophizing, the board meeting had started.

The speaker was the husband of an important MP, participating from London through a telepresence robot. Sophia suspected that he was in love with his voice more than his wife. The looming screen at the end of the telescoping neck made his face appear severe and dominating, and the robot’s hands gesticulated for emphasis, presumably in imitation of the speaker’s actual hands. “You are telling me you have no plans for addressing the decline in engagement?”

Did someone on your wife’s staff write that up for you as a talking point? Sophia thought. She doubted he could have personally paid enough attention to the financial records to notice such a thing.

“We don’t rely on small direct donations from that demographic for the bulk of our funding—” she began, but she was cut off by another board member.

“That’s the not the point. It’s about future mindshare, about publicity. Refugees Without Borders is fading from the conversation on social media without large numbers of small donations from that key demographic. This will ultimately affect the big grants.”

The speaker was the CEO of a mobile devices company. Sophia had had to dissuade her more than once from mandating that donations to Refugees Without Borders be used to purchase the company’s cheap phones for refugees in Europe, which would have boosted the company’s reported market share (and violated conflict-of-interest rules).

“There have been some recent, unexpected shifts in the donor landscape that everyone is still trying to figure out—” Sophia said, but once again, she couldn’t finish the sentence.

“You’re talking about Empathium, aren’t you?” asked the husband of the MP. “Well, do you have a plan?”

Definitely a talking point from your wife’s staff. The Europeans always seemed to her more jittery about the cryptocurrency nuts than Americans. But just as with diplomacy, it’s better to guide the nuts than confront them.

“What’s Empathium?” asked another board member, a retired federal judge who still thought that the fax machine was the greatest technology invention ever.

“I am indeed talking about Empathium,” said Sophia, trying to keep her voice soothing. Then she turned to the tech CEO,  “Would you like to explain?”

Had Sophia tried to describe Empathium, the tech CEO would surely have interrupted her. She couldn’t bear to let anyone else show more expertise about a technology issue. Might as well try to preserve some decorum.

The tech CEO nodded. “It’s simple. Empathium is another new disintermediating blockchain application making heavy use of smart contracts, but this time with the twist of disrupting the jobs traditional charities are hired to do in the philanthropy marketplace.”

Blank faces stared at the CEO from around the table. Eventually the judge turned to Sophia, “Why don’t you give it a shot?”

She had gotten control of the meeting back simply by letting others overreach, a classic diplomacy move. “Let me take this piece by piece. I’ll start with smart contracts. Suppose you and I sign a contract where if it rains tomorrow, I have to pay you five dollars, and if it doesn’t rain, you have to pay me a dollar.”

“Sounds like a bad insurance policy,” said the retired judge.

“You wouldn’t do well with that offering in London,” said the husband of the MP.

Weak chuckles from around the table.

“With a normal contract,” Sophia went on smoothly, “even if there’s a thunderstorm tomorrow, you may not get your money. I may renege and refuse to pay, or argue with you about what the meaning of ‘rain’ is. And you’ll have to take me to court.”

“Oh, you won’t do well in my court arguing the meaning of rain.”

“Sure, but as Your Honor knows, people argue about the most ridiculous things.” She had learned that it was best to let the judge go on these tangents before guiding him back to the trail. “And litigation is expensive.”

“We can both put our money into the hands of a trusted friend and have him decide who to pay after tomorrow. That’s called escrow, you know?”

“Absolutely. That’s a great suggestion,” said Sophia. “However, that requires us to agree on a common, trusted third-party authority, and we’ll have to pay her a fee for her troubles. Bottom line: there are a lot of transaction costs associated with a traditional contract.”

“So what would happen if we had a smart contract?”

“The funds would be transferred over to you as soon as it rained. There’s nothing I can do to stop it because the entire mechanism for performance is coded in software.”

“So you’re saying a contract and a smart contract are basically the same thing. Except one of them is written in legalese and requires people to read it and interpret it, and the other is written in computer code and just needs a machine to execute it. No judge, no jury, no escrow, no takebacks.”

Sophia was impressed. The judge wasn’t technologically savvy, but he was sharp. “That’s right. Machines are far more transparent and predictable than the legal system, even a well-functioning legal system.”

“I’m not sure I like that,” said the judge.

“But you can see why this is attractive, especially if you don’t trust—”

“Smart contracts reduce transaction costs by taking out intermediaries,” said the tech CEO impatiently. “You could have just said that instead of this longwinded, ridiculous example.”

“I could have,” acknowledged Sophia. She had also learned that appearing to agree with the CEO reduced transaction costs.

“So what does this have to do with charity?” asked the husband of the MP.

“Some people view charities as unnecessary intermediaries rent-seeking on trust,” said the tech CEO. “Isn’t this obvious?”

Again, more blank looks from around the table.

“Some smart contract enthusiasts can be a bit extreme,” acknowledged Sophia. “In their view, charities like Refugees Without Borders spend most of our money on renting office space, paying staffers, holding expensive fundraisers where the wealthy socialize and have fun, and misusing donations to enrich insiders—”

“Which is an absolutely absurd view held by idiots with loud keyboards and no common sense—” said the tech CEO, her face flushed with anger.

“Or any political sense,” interrupted the husband of the MP, as if his marriage automatically made him an authority on politics. “We also coordinate field relief efforts, bring international expertise, raise awareness in the West, soothe nervous local officials, and make sure that money goes to deserving recipients.”

“That’s the trust we bring to the table,” said Sophia. “But for the Wikileaks generation, claims of authority and expertise are automatically suspicious. In their view, even the way we use our program funds is inefficient: how can we know how to spend the money better than those who actually need the help? How can we rule out the option for refugees to acquire weapons to defend themselves? How can we decide to work with corrupt local government officials who line their own pockets with donations before passing on dribbles to the victims? Better to just send money directly to neighborhood children who can’t afford school lunches. The well-publicized failures of international relief efforts in places like Haiti and the former North Korea strengthen their argument.”

“So what’s their alternative?” asked the judge.

Jianwen watched as the notifications scrolled up her screen, each announcing the completion of a smart contract denominated in completely anonymous cryptocurrency. A lot of business was done that way these days, especially in the developing world, what with so many governments trying to extend their control by outlawing cash. She had read somewhere that more than 20 percent of global financial transactions were now through various cryptocurrencies.

But the transactions she was watching onscreen were different. The offers were requests for aid or promises to provide funds; there was no consideration except the need to do something. The Empathium blockchain network matched and grouped the offers into multi-party smart contracts, and, when the conditions for performance were fulfilled, executed them.

She saw there were requests for children’s books; for fresh vegetables; for gardening tools; for contraceptives; for another doctor to come and set up shop for the long haul—and not just a volunteer to come for 30 days, parachuting in and jetting right back out, leaving everything unfinished and unfinishable …

She prayed for the offers to be taken up, to be satisfied by the system, even though she didn’t believe in God, or any god. Though she had created Empathium, she was powerless to affect its specific operation. That was the beauty of the system. No one could be in charge.

When she was a college student in the US, Jianwen had returned to China for the summer of the year of the great Sichuan earthquake to help the victims of that disaster. The Chinese government had put a great deal of its resources into the rescue effort, even mobilizing the army.

Some PLA soldiers, her age or even younger, showed her the ugly scars on their hands from when they had dug through the muddy rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors and bodies.

“I had to stop because my hands hurt so much,” one of the boys told her, his voice filled with shame. “They said if I kept going I’d lose my fingers.”

Her vision blurred from rage. Why couldn’t the government have supplied the soldiers with shovels or real rescue equipment? She pictured the soldiers’ bloody hands, the flesh of the fingers peeling back from the bones, as they continued to scoop up handfuls of earth in the hope of finding someone still alive. You don’t have anything to be ashamed about.

Later, she had recounted her experiences to her roommate, Sophia. She had shared Jianwen’s rage at the Chinese government, but her face hadn’t changed at all at her description of the young soldier.

“He was just a tool for an autocracy,” the roommate had said, as if she couldn’t picture those bloody hands at all.

Text scrolled even faster in another window on the screen, showing more contract offers being submitted: requests for teachers of Greek; for funding to build a new cell tower; for medicine; for people who could teach refugees how to navigate the visa and work permit system; for weapons; for truckers willing to ship refugee-produced art out to buyers …

Jianwen hadn’t gone to the disaster zone with some official organization; rather, she was just one of thousands of volunteers who had come to Sichuan on their own, hoping to make a difference. She and the other volunteers had brought food and clothing, thinking that was what was needed. But mothers asked her for picture books or games to comfort their weepy children; farmers asked her when and how soon cell service would be restored; townspeople wanted to know if they could get tools and supplies to start rebuilding; a little girl who had lost her whole family wanted to know how she was going to finish high school. She didn’t have any of the needed information or supplies, and neither did anyone else, it seemed. The officials in charge of the rescue effort disliked having volunteers like her around because they reported to no authority, and thus told them nothing.

“This shows why you need expertise,” Sophia had said, later. “You can’t just go down there like an aimless mob hoping to do good. People who know what they’re doing need to be in charge of disaster relief.”

Jianwen wasn’t sure she agreed—she had seen little evidence that it was possible for any expert to anticipate everything needed in a disaster.

Text scrolled even faster in another window on the screen, showing more contract offers being submitted: requests for teachers of Greek; for funding to build a new cell tower; for medicine; for people who could teach refugees how to navigate the visa and work permit system; for weapons; for truckers willing to ship refugee-produced art out to buyers …

Some of these requests were for the kind of things that no NGO or government would ever give refugees. The idea of some authority dictating what was needed and not needed by people struggling to survive revolted Jianwen.

People in the middle of a disaster zone knew best what they needed. It’s best to give them money so that they could buy whatever they needed—plenty of fearless vendors and ingenious adventurers would be willing to bring the refugees whatever goods or services they requested when there was profit to be made. Money did make the world go around, and that wasn’t a bad thing.

Without cryptocurrency, none of what Empathium had accomplished so far would have been possible. The transfer of money across national borders was expensive and subject to heavy governmental oversight by suspicious regulators. Getting money into the hands of needy individuals was practically impossible without the help of some central payment processor, which could easily be co-opted by multiple authorities.

But with cryptocurrency and Empathium, a smartphone was all you needed to let the world know of your needs and to receive help. You could pay anyone securely and anonymously. You could band together with others with the same needs and submit a group application, or go it alone. No one could reach in and stop the smart contracts from executing.

It was exciting to see something that she had built begin to work as envisioned.

Still, so many of the aid requests on Empathium remained unfulfilled. There was too little money, too few donors.

“… That’s basically it in a nutshell,” said Sophia. “Donations to Refugees Without Borders have fallen because many younger donors are giving on the Empathium network instead.”

“Wait, did you just tell me that they’re giving ‘cryptocurrency’ away on this network?” asked the judge. “What is that, like fake money?”

“Well, not fake. Just not dollars or yen—though cryptocurrencies can be converted to fiat currencies at exchanges. It’s an electronic token. Think of it …” Sophia struggled to think of an outdated reference that would make sense to the old judge, then inspiration struck. “… like an MP3 on your iPod. Except it can be used to pay for things.”

“Why can’t I send a copy to someone to pay for something but keep a copy for myself, the same way kids used to do with songs?”

“Who owns which song is recorded in an electronic ledger.”

“But who keeps this ledger? What’s to prevent hackers from getting in there and rewriting it? You said there was no central authority.”

“The ledger, which is called the blockchain, is distributed on computers across the world,” said the tech CEO. “It’s based on cryptographic principles that solve the Byzantine Generals problem. Blockchains power cryptocurrencies as well as Empathium. Those who use the blockchain trust the math; they don’t need to trust people.”

“The what now?” asked the judge. “Byzantium?”

Sophia sighed inwardly. She wasn’t expecting to get into this level of detail. She hadn’t even finished explaining the basics of Empathium, and who knew how much longer it would take for the discussion to produce a consensus on what Refugees Without Borders should do about it?

Just as cryptocurrency aimed to wrest control of the money supply away from the fiat of governments, Empathium aimed to wrest control of the world’s supply of compassion away from the expertise of charities.

Empathium was an idealistic endeavor, but it was driven by waves of emotion, not expertise or reason. It made the world a more unpredictable place for America, and thus more dangerous. She wasn’t in the State Department anymore, but she still yearned to make the world more orderly, with decisions guided by rational analysis and weighing of pros and cons.

It was hard to get a roomful of egos to understand the same problem, much less to agree on a solution. She wished she had the knack some charismatic leaders had of just convincing everyone to submit to a course of action without understanding.

“Sometimes I think you just want people to agree with you,” Jianwen had said to her once, after a particularly heated argument.

“What’s wrong with that?” she had asked. “It’s not my fault that I’ve thought about the issues more than they have. I see the bigger picture.”

“You don’t really want to be the most reasonable,” Jianwen had said. “You want to be the most right. You want to be an oracle.”

She had been insulted. Jianwen could be so stubborn.

Wait a minute, Sophia seized on the thought of oracle. Maybe that’s it. That’s how we can make Empathium work for us.

“The Byzantine Generals problem is a metaphor,” Sophia said. She tried to keep the newfound excitement out of her voice. She was glad that her wonkish need to understand the details—as well as the desire to one-up the tech CEO, if she was honest—had compelled her to read up on this topic. “Imagine a group of generals, each leading a division of the Byzantine army, are laying siege to a city. If all the generals can coordinate to attack the city, then the city will fall. And if all the generals can agree on a retreat, everyone will be safe. But if only some of the generals attack while others retreat, the result will be disaster.”

“They have to reach consensus on what to do,” said the judge.

“Yes. The generals communicate through messengers. But the problem is that the messengers they send to each other aren’t instantaneous, and there may be traitorous generals who will send out false messages about the emerging consensus as it’s being negotiated, thereby sowing confusion and corrupting the result.”

“This emerging consensus, as you call it, is like the ledger, isn’t it?” asked the judge. “It’s the record of every general’s vote.”

“Exactly! So, simplifying somewhat, blockchain solves this problem by using cryptography—very difficult-to-solve number theory puzzles—on the chain of messages that represents the emerging consensus. With cryptography, it’s easy for each general to verify that a message chain that represents the state of the vote hasn’t been tampered with, but it takes work for them to cryptographically add a new vote to the chain of votes. In order to deceive the other generals, a traitorous general would have to not only forge their own vote, but also the cryptographic summary of every other vote that came before theirs in the growing chain. As the chain gets longer, this becomes increasingly hard to do.”

“I’m not sure I entirely follow,” muttered the judge.

“The key is, the blockchain uses the difficulty of cryptographically adding a block of transactions to the chain—that’s called proof-of-work—to guarantee that as long as a majority of the computers in the network aren’t traitorous, you’ll have a distributed ledger that you can trust more than any central authority.”

“And that’s … trusting the math?”

“Yes. A distributed, incorruptible ledger not only makes it possible to have a cryptocurrency, it’s also a way to have a secure voting framework that isn’t centrally administered and a way to ensure that smart contracts can’t be altered.”

“This is all very interesting, but what does all this have to do with Empathium or Refugees Without Borders?” asked the husband of the MP impatiently.

Jianwen had put a lot of effort into making the Empathium interface usable. This was not something that many in the blockchain community cared about. Indeed, many blockchain applications seemed to be purposefully built to be difficult to use, as if the requirement for detailed technical know-how was how you separated the truly free from the mere sheeple.

Jianwen despised elitism in all its forms—she was keenly aware of the irony of this, coming from an Ivy-educated financial services technologist with a roomful of top-end VR gear like her. It was one group of elites who decided that democracy wasn’t “right” for her country, and another group of elites who decided that they knew best who deserved sympathy and who didn’t. The elites distrusted feelings, distrusted what made people human.

The very point of Empathium was to help people who couldn’t care less about the intricacies of the Byzantine Generals problem or the implications of block size on the security of the blockchain. It had to be usable by a child. She remembered the frustration and despair of the people in Sichuan who had just wanted simple tools to help themselves. Empathium had to be as easy to use as possible, both for those who wanted to give and those who needed the help.

She was creating the application for those sick and tired of being told what to care about and how to care about it, not those doing the telling.

“What makes you think you know the right answer to everything?” Jianwen had asked Sophia once, back when they talked about everything and anything, and arguments between them were dispassionate affairs, conducted for intellectual pleasure. “Don’t you ever doubt that you might be wrong?”

“If someone points out a flaw in my thinking, yes,” said Sophia. “I’m always open to persuasion.”

“But you never feel you might be wrong?”

“Letting feelings dictate how to think is the reason so many never get to the right answers at all.”

The work she was doing was, rationally, hopeless. She had used up all her sick days and vacation days to write Empathium. She had published a paper explaining its technical underpinnings in excruciating detail. She had recruited others to audit her code. But how could she really expect to change the established world of big NGOs and foreign policy think tanks through an obscure cryptocurrency network that wasn’t worth anything?

The work felt right. And that was worth more than any argument she could come up with against it.

“But I still don’t understand how these ‘conditions for performance’ are satisfied!” the judge said. “I don’t get how Empathium decides that an application for aid is worth funding and allocates money to it. Those who provide the funds can’t possibly go through thousands of applications personally and decide which ones to give money to.”

“There’s an aspect of smart contracts that I haven’t explained yet,” Sophia said. “For smart contracts to function, there needs to be a way to import reality into software. Sometimes, whether conditions for performance have been satisfied isn’t as simple as whether it rained on a certain day—though perhaps even that is open to debate in edge cases—but requires complicated human judgment: whether a contractor has installed the plumbing satisfactorily, whether the promised view is indeed scenic, or whether someone deserves to be helped.”

“You mean it requires consensus.”

“Exactly. So Empathium solves this problem by issuing a certain number of electronic tokens, called Emps, to some members of the network. Emp-holders then have the job of evaluating projects seeking funding and voting yes or no during a set time window. Only projects that receive the requisite number of yes-votes—the number of votes you can cast is determined by your Emp balance—get funded from the pool of available donors, and the required threshold of yes-votes scales up with the amount of funding requested. To prevent strategic voting, the vote tally is revealed only after the end of the evaluation period.”

“But how do the Emp-holders decide to cast their vote?”

“That’s up to each Emp-holder. They can evaluate just the materials put up by the requesters: their narratives, photos, videos, documentation, whatever. Or they can go on-site to investigate the applicants. They can use whatever means they have at their disposal within the designated evaluation period.”

“Great, so money meant for the desperate and the needy will be allocated by a bunch of people who could barely be persuaded to answer a customer service survey between video game sessions,” scoffed the husband of the MP.

“This is where it gets clever. Emp-holders are incentivized by receiving a small amount of money from the network in proportion to their Emp accounts. After each project’s evaluation period is over, those who voted for the ‘losing’ side will be punished by having a portion of their Emps re-allocated to those on the ‘winning’ side. Individual Emp balances are like a kind of reputation token, and over time, those whose judgments—or empathy-meters, hence the network’s name—are best tuned to the consensus judgment get the most Emps. They become the infallible oracles around which the system functions.”

“What’s to prevent—”

“It’s not a perfect system,” said Sophia. “Even the designers of the system—we don’t really know who they are—acknowledge that. But like many things on the web, it works even if it doesn’t seem like it should. Nobody thought Wikipedia would work either when it started. In its two months of existence, Empathium has proven to be remarkably effective and resilient to attacks, and it’s certainly attracting a lot of young donors disillusioned with traditional charitable giving.”

The board took some time to digest this news.

“Sounds like we’ll have a hard time competing,” said the husband of the MP after a while.

Sophia took a deep breath. This is it, the moment I begin to build consensus. “Empathium is popular, but it hasn’t been able to attract nearly as much funding as the established charities, largely because donations to Empathium are not, of course, tax-deductible. Some of the biggest projects on the network, especially those related to refugees, have not been funded. If the goal is to get Refugees Without Borders into the conversation, we should put in a big funding offer.”

“But I thought we wouldn’t be able to choose which of the refugee projects on the network the money will go to,” said the husband of the MP. “It’s going to be up to the Emp-holders,”

“I have a confession to make. I’ve been using Empathium myself, and I have some Emps. We can make my account the corporate account, and begin to evaluate these projects. It’s possible to filter out some of the fraudulent requests by documentation alone, but to really know if someone deserves help, there’s no replacement for good old-fashioned on-site investigation. With our field expertise and international staff, I’m sure we’ll be able to decide what projects to fund with more accuracy than anyone else, and we’ll gain Emps quickly.”

“But why do that when we can just put the money into the projects we want directly? Why add the intermediary of Empathium?” asked the tech CEO.

“It’s about leverage. Once we get enough Emps, we’ll turn Refugees Without Borders into the ultimate oracle for global empathy, the arbiter of who’s deserving,” said Sophia. She took a deep breath and delivered the coup de grâce. “The example set by Refugees Without Borders will be followed by other big charities. Add to that all the funding from places like China and India, where donors interested in philanthropy have few trusted in-country charities but may be willing to jump onto a decentralized blockchain application, and soon Empathium may become the single largest charity funding platform in the world. If we accumulate the largest share of Emps, we will then be effectively in the position to direct the use of most of the world’s charitable giving.”

The board members sat in their seats, stunned. Even the telepresence robot’s hands stopped moving.

“Damn … you’re going to flip a platform designed to disintermediate us into a ladder to crown us,” said the tech CEO, real admiration in her voice. “That’s some jujitsu.”

Sophia gave her a quick smile before turning back to the table. “Now, do I have your approval?”

The red line representing the total amount of pledged funds to Empathium had shot straight into the stratosphere.

Jianwen smiled in front of her screen. Her baby had grown up.

The decision by Refugees Without Borders to join the network had been followed within twenty-four hours by several other major international charities. Empathium was now legitimate in the eyes of the public, and it was even possible for wealthy donors who cared about tax deductions to funnel their funds through traditional charities participating in the network.

Projects that received the attention of Empathium users would no doubt attract a great deal of media interest, drawing in reporters and observers. Empathium was going to direct not just charitable giving, but the gaze of the world.

The #empathium invite-only channel was filling up with debate.

NoFFIA>: This is a ruse by the big charities. They’re going to play the Emp-accumulation game and force the network into funding their pet projects.

N♥T>: What makes you think they can? The oracle system only rewards results. If you don’t think traditional charities know what they’re doing, they won’t have any better way of identifying deserving good projects. The network will force them to fund projects the Emp-holders as a whole think are deserving.

Anony🐁>: Traditional charities have access to publicity channels most don’t. The other Emp-holders are still people. They’ll be swayed.

N♥T:> Not everyone is as affected by traditional media as you think, especially when you leave the bubble you USians live in. I think this is a level playing field.

Jianwen watched the debate but didn’t participate. As the creator of Empathium, she understood that the invisible reputation attached to her username meant that anything she said could disproportionately influence and distort debate. That was the way humans worked, even when they were talking through scrolling text attributed to pseudonymous electronic identities.

But she wasn’t interested in debate. She was interested in action. The participation of the traditional charities on Empathium had been what she had hoped and planned for all along, and now was the time for her to implement the second step.

She brought up a terminal window and began a new submission to the Empathium network. The Muertien VR file itself was too large to be directly incorporated into a block, so it would have to be distributed via peer-to-peer sharing. But the signature that authenticated the file and prevented tampering would become part of the blockchain and be distributed to all the users of Empathium and all the Emp-holders.

Maybe even hard-nosed Sophia.

The fact that the submitter of the file was Jianwen (or more precisely, the userid of Empathium’s creator, which no one knew was Jianwen in real life) would give it a burst of initial interest, but everything after that was out of her hands.

She did not believe in conspiracies. She was counting on the angels of human nature.

She pressed SEND, sat back, and waited.

As the Jeep wound its way through the jungle over the muddy, mountainous road near the China-Myanmar border, Sophia dozed.

How did we get here?

The madness of the world was both so unpredictable and so inevitable.

As she had predicted, the field expertise of Refugees Without Borders quickly made the corporate Empathium account one of the most powerful Emp-holders on the network. Her judgment was deemed infallible, guiding the network to disburse funds to needy groups and proposed projects that made sense. The board was very pleased with her work.

But then, that damned VR and others like it began to show up on the network.

The VR experiences spoke to the interactors in a way that words and photos and videos could not. Walking for miles barefoot through a war-torn city, seeing dismembered babies and mothers scattered around you, being interrogated and menaced by men and boys with machetes and guns … the VR experiences left the interactors shaken and overwhelmed. Some had been hospitalized.

Traditional media, bound by old-fashioned ideas about decency and propriety, could not show images like these and refused to engage in what they viewed as pure emotional manipulation.

Where’s the context? Who’s the source? demanded the spurned pundits. Real journalism requires reflection, requires thought.

We don’t remember much reflection from you when you advocated war based on pictures you printed, replied the hive mind of Emp-holders. Are you just annoyed that you aren’t in charge of our emotions anymore?

The pervasive use of encryption on Empathium meant that most censorship techniques were useless, and so the Emp-holders were exposed to stories they had heretofore been sheltered from. They voted for the attached projects, their hearts pounding, their breathing ragged, their eyes blurred by rage and sorrow.

Activists and propagandists soon realized that the best way to get their causes funded was to participate in the VR arms race. And so governments and rebels competed in creating compelling VR experiences that forced the interactors into their perspective, obliged them to empathize with their side.

Mass graves filled with refugees starved to death in Yemen. Young women marching to support Russia gunned down by Ukrainian soldiers. Ethnic minority children running naked through streets as their homes were set on fire by Myanmar government soldiers…

Funding began to flow to groups that the news had forgotten or portrayed as the side undeserving of sympathy. In VR, one minute of their anguish spoke louder than ten thousand words in op-eds in respected newspapers.

This is the commodification of pain! Ivy-educated bloggers wrote in earnest think pieces. Isn’t this yet another way for the privileged to exploit the suffering of the oppressed to make themselves feel better?

Just as a photograph can be framed and edited to lie, so can VR, the media- and cultural-studies commentariat wrote. VR is such a heavily engineered medium that we have not yet reached consensus on what the meaning of ‘reality’ in this medium is.

This is a threat to our national security, fretted the senators who demanded that Empathium be shut down. They could be diverting funding to groups hostile to our national interest.

You’re simply terrified that you’re being disintermediated from your positions of undeserved authority, jeered the Empathium users, hidden behind anonymous, encrypted accounts. This is a real democracy of empathy. Deal with it.

A consensus of feelings had replaced the consensus of facts. The emotional labor of vicarious experience through virtual reality had replaced the physical and mental work of investigation, of evaluating costs and benefits, of exercising rational judgment. Once again, proof-of-work was used to guarantee authenticity, just a different kind of work.

Maybe the reporters and senators and diplomats and I could make our own VR experiences, Sophia wondered as she was jostled awake in the back of the Jeep. Too bad it’s hard to make the unglamorous but necessary work of truly understanding a complex situation compelling…

She looked outside the window. They were passing through a refugee camp in Muertien. Men, women, and children, most of them Chinese in physical appearance, looked back at the passengers in the Jeep numbly. Their expressions were familiar to Sophia; she had seen the same despondency on the faces of refugees everywhere in the world.

The successful funding of the Muertien project had been a massive blow to Sophia and Refugees Without Borders. She had voted against it, but the other Emp-holders had overwhelmed her, and overnight Sophia had lost 10 percent of her Emps. Other VR-propelled projects followed to achieve funding despite her objection, eroding Sophia’s Emp account even further.

Faced with an outraged board, she had come here to find some way to discredit the Muertien project, to show that she had been right.

On the way here from Yangon, she had spoken to the one staffer Refugees Without Borders posted there and several Western reporters stationed in the country. They had confirmed the consensus back in D.C. She knew that the refugee situation was one largely created by the rebels. The population of Muertien, mostly ethnic Han Chinese, did not get along well with the majority Bamar in the central government. The rebels had attacked the government forces and then tried to fade into the civilian population. The government had little choice but to resort to violence, lest the country’s young democracy suffer a setback and Chinese influence extend into the heart of Southeast Asia. Regretful incidents no doubt occurred, but the vast majority of the fault lay on the side of the rebels. Funding them would only escalate the conflict.

But this kind of punditry, of explaining geopolitics, was anathema to the Emp-holders. They did not want lectures; they were persuaded by the immediacy of suffering.

The Jeep stopped. Sophia got out with her interpreter. She adjusted the neckband she wore—it was a prototype the tech CEO had gotten for her from Canon Virtual. The air was humid, hot, drenched with the smell of sewage and decay. She should have been expecting that, she supposed, but somehow she hadn’t thought about how things would smell here back in her D.C. office.

She was about to approach a leery-looking young woman in a flower-print blouse when a man shouted angrily. She turned to look at him. He was pointing at her and screaming. The crowd around him stopped moving to stare at her. The air felt tense.

There was a gun in his other hand.

Part of the goal of the Muertien project had been to fund groups willing to smuggle weapons across the Chinese border into the hands of the refugees. Sophia knew that. I’m going to regret coming here without an armed escort, aren’t I?

The rumbling of vehicles approaching in the jungle. A loud whine overhead followed by an explosion. Staccato gunshots so near that they had to be coming from inside the camp.

Sophia was shoved to the ground as the crowd around her exploded into chaos, screaming and dashing every which way. She wrapped her arms protectively around her neck, around the cameras and microphones, but panicked feet stomped over her torso, making her gasp and loosening her arms. The camera-studded neckband fell and rolled away in the dirt, and she reached for it, careless of her own safety. Just before her grasping fingers reached the band, a booted foot crushed it with a sickening crunch. She cursed, and someone running by kicked her in the head.

She faded into unconsciousness.

A splitting headache. Overhead the sky is close at hand and orange, cloudless.

The surface under me feels hard and sandy.

I’m inside a VR experience, aren’t I? Am I Gulliver, looking up at the Lilliputian sky?

The sky turns and sways, and even though I’m lying down, I feel like I’m falling.

I want to throw up.

“Close your eyes until the vertigo passes,” a voice says. The timbre and cadence are familiar, but I can’t quite place who it is. I just know I haven’t heard it in a while. I wait until the dizziness fades. Only then do I notice the unyielding lump of the data recorder poking into my back, where it’s held in place by tape. Relief floods through me. The cameras may be gone, but the most important piece of equipment has survived the ordeal.

“Here, drink,” the voice says.

I open my eyes. I struggle to sit up and a hand reaches out to support me between my shoulder blades. It’s a small, strong hand, the hand of a woman. A canteen materializes before my face in the dim light, a chiaroscuro. I sip. I haven’t realized how thirsty I am.

I look up at the face behind the canteen: Jianwen.

“What are you doing here?” I ask. Everything still seems so unreal, but I’m beginning to realize that I’m inside a tent, probably one of the tents I saw earlier in the camp.

“The same thing brought both of us here,” says Jianwen. After all these years, she hasn’t changed much: still that hard, no-nonsense demeanor, still that short-cropped hair, still that set to her jaw, challenging everything and everyone.

She just looks leaner, drier, as if the years have wrung more gentleness out of her.

“Empathium. I made it, and you want to break it.”

Of course, I should have known. Jianwen always disliked institutions, thought it best to disrupt everything.

It’s still nice to see her.

Our first year in college, I wrote a story for the school paper about a sexual assault at a final club party. The victim wasn’t a student, and her account was later discredited. Everyone condemned my work, calling me careless, declaring that I had allowed the desire for a good story get in the way of facts and analysis. Only I knew that I hadn’t been wrong: the victim had only recanted under pressure, but I had no proof. Jianwen was the only one who stuck by me, defending me at every opportunity.

“Why do you trust me?” I asked.

“It’s not something I can explain,” she said. “It’s a feeling. I heard the pain in her voice … and I know you did too.”

That was how we became close. She was someone I could count on in a fight.

“What happened out there?” I ask.

“That depends on who you talk to. This won’t show up in the news in China at all. If it shows up in the US, it will be another minor skirmish between the government and the rebels, whose guerrilla fighters disguised themselves as refugees, forcing the government to retaliate.”

This has always been her way. Jianwen sees the corruption of the truth everywhere, but she won’t tell you what she thinks the truth is. I suppose she got into the habit from her time in America to avoid arguments.

“And what will Empathium users think?” I ask.

“They’ll see more children being blown up by bombs and women being gunned down by soldiers as they ran.”

“Did the rebels or the government fire the first shot?”

“Why does that matter? The consensus in the West will always be that the rebels fired the first shot—as if that determines everything. You’ve already decided on the story, and everything else is just support.”

“I get it,” I say. “I understand what you’re trying to do. You think there’s not enough attention being paid to the refugees in Muertien, and so you’re using Empathium to publicize their plight. You’re emotionally attached to these people because they look like you—”

“Is that really what you think? You think I’m doing this because they’re ethnically Han Chinese?” She looks at me, disappointed.

She can look at me however she likes, but the intensity of her emotion gives her away. In college I remember her working hard to raise money for the earthquake in China, when we were both still trying to pick concentrations; I remember her holding a candlelight vigil for both the Uighurs and the Han who had died in Ürümqi the next summer, when we stayed on campus together to edit the student course-evaluation guide; I remember how once in class she had refused to back down as a white man twice her size loomed over her, demanding that she accept that China was wrong to fight the Korean War.

“Hit me if you want,” she had said, her voice steady. “I’m not going to desecrate the memory of the men and women who died so that I could be born. MacArthur was going to drop atomic bombs on Beijing. Is that really the kind of empire you want to defend?”

Some of our friends in college thought of Jianwen as a Chinese nationalist, but that’s not quite right. She dislikes all empires because to her, they are the ultimate institutions, with deadly concentration of power. She doesn’t think the American empire is any more worthy of support than the Russian one or the Chinese one. As she put it, “America is only a democracy for those lucky enough to be Americans. To everybody else, it’s just a dictator with the biggest bombs and missiles.”

She wants the perfection of disintermediated chaos rather than the imperfect stability of flawed institutions that could be perfected.

“You are letting your passion overcome reason,” I say. I know that persuasion is useless but I can’t help trying. If I don’t hold on to faith in reason, I have nothing. “A powerful China with influence in Myanmar is bad for world peace. American pre-eminence must—”

“And so you think it’s all right for the people of Muertien to be ethnically cleansed to preserve the stability of the regime in Naypyidaw, to uphold the Pax Americana, to cement the ramparts of an American empire with their blood.”

I wince. She’s always been careless with her words. “Don’t exaggerate. The ethnic conflict here, if not contained, will lead to more Chinese adventurism and influence. I’ve talked to many in Yongan. They don’t want the Chinese here.”

“And you think they want the Americans here, telling them what to do?” Contempt flares in her voice.

“A choice between the lesser of two evils,” I concede. “But more Chinese involvement will provoke more American anxiety, and that will only intensify the geopolitical conflict you dislike so much.”

“People here need Chinese money for their dams. Without development, they can’t solve any of the problems they have—”

“Maybe the developers want that,” I say, “but the common people don’t.”

“Who are these common people in your imagination?” she asks. “I’ve talked to many here in Muertien. They say that the Bamars don’t want the dams built where they are, but they’ll be happy to have them built here. That’s what the rebels are fighting for, to preserve their autonomy and the right to control their land. Isn’t self-determination something you value and care about? How does letting soldiers kill children lead to a better world?”

We can go on like this forever. She can’t see the truth because she’s in too much pain.

“You’ve been blinded by the pain of these people,” I say. “And now you want the rest of the world to suffer the same fate. Through Empathium, you’ve bypassed the traditional filters of institutional media and charities to reach individuals. But the experience of having children and mothers die right next to them is too overwhelming for most to think through the complicated implications of the events that led to these tragedies. The VR experiences are propaganda.”

“You know as well as I do that the Muertien VR isn’t fake.”

I know what she says is true. I’ve seen people die around me, and even if that VR was doctored or divorced from context, enough of it was true to make the rest not matter. The best propaganda is often true.

But there’s a greater truth she doesn’t see. Just because something happened doesn’t make it a decisive fact; just because there’s suffering doesn’t mean there is always a better choice; just because people die doesn’t mean we must abandon greater principles. The world isn’t always black and white.

“Empathy isn’t always a good thing,” I say. “Irresponsible empathy makes the world unstable. In each conflict, there are multiple claims for empathy, leading to emotional involvement by outsiders that widens the conflict. To sort through the morass, you must reason your way to the least harmful answer, the right answer. This is why some of us are charged with the duty to study and understand the complexities of this world and to decide, for the rest, how to exercise empathy responsibly.”

“I can’t just shut it off,” she says. “I can’t just forget the dead. Their pain and terror … they’re a part of the blockchain of my experience now, unerasable. If being responsible means learning how to not feel someone else’s pain, then it isn’t humanity you serve, but evil.”

I watch her. I feel for her, I really do. It’s terribly sad, seeing your friend in pain but knowing that there is nothing you can do to help, knowing that, in fact, you have to hurt her more. Sometimes pain, and acknowledgment of pain, is selfish.

I lift my blouse to show her the VR recorder taped to the small of my back. “This was recording until the moment guns started firing—from inside the camp—and I was pushed down to the ground.”

She stares at the VR data recorder, and her face shifts through shock, recognition, rage, denial, an ironic smile, and then, nothing.

Once the VR based on what I went through is uploaded—it doesn’t need much editing—there will be outrage at home. A defenseless American woman, the head of a charity dedicated to helping refugees, is brutalized by ethnic Han Chinese rebels armed with guns bought with money from Empathium—hard to imagine a better way to discredit the Muertien project. The best propaganda is often true.

“I’m sorry,” I say, and I mean it.

She gazes at me, and I can’t tell if it’s hate or despair I see in her eyes.

I look at her with pity.

“Have you tried the original Muertien clip?” I ask. “The one I uploaded.”

Sophia shakes her head. “I couldn’t. I didn’t want to compromise my judgment.”

She has always been so rational. One time, in college, I asked her to watch a video of a young Russian man, barely more than a boy, being beheaded by Chechen fighters in front of the camera. She had refused.

“Why won’t you look at what the people you support are doing?” I asked.

“Because I haven’t seen all the acts of brutality committed by the Russians against the Chechen people,” she said. “To reward those who evoke empathy is the same as punishing those who have been prevented from doing so. Looking at this won’t be objective.”

There’s always the need for more context with Sophia, for the big picture. But I’ve learned over the years that rationality with her, as with many, is just a matter of rationalization. She wants a picture just big enough to justify what her government does. She needs to understand just enough to be able to reason that what America wants is also what anyone rational in the world wants.

I understand how she thinks, but she doesn’t understand how I think. I understand her language, but she doesn’t understand mine—or care to. That’s how power works in this world.

When I first got to America, I thought it was the most wonderful place on Earth. There were students passionate about every humanitarian cause, and I tried to support every one. I raised money for the victims of the Bangladesh cyclones and the flooding in India; I packed blankets and tents and sleeping bags for the earthquake in Peru; I joined the vigils to remember the victims of 9/11, sobbing before Memorial Church in the late summer evening breeze, trying to keep the candles lit.

Then came the big earthquake in China, and as the death toll climbed toward 100,000, the campus was strangely quiet. People who I thought were my friends turned away, and the donation table we set up in front of the Science Center was staffed only by other students from China like me. We couldn’t even raise a tenth of the money we had raised for disasters with far smaller death tolls.

What discussion there was focused on how the Chinese drive for development resulted in unsafe buildings, as if enumerating the cons of their government was an appropriate reaction to dead children, as if reaffirming the pros of American democracy was a good justification for withholding help.

Jokes about the Chinese and dogs were posted in anonymous newsgroups. “People just don’t like China very much,” an op-ed writer mused. “I’d rather have the elephants back,” said an actress on TV.

What’s the matter with you? I wanted to scream. There was no empathy in their eyes as I stood by the donation table and my classmates hurried past me, averting their gaze.

But Sophia did donate. She gave more than anyone else.

“Why?” I asked her. “Why do you care about the victims when no one else seems to?”

“I’m not going to have you heading back to China with an irrational impression that Americans dislike the Chinese,” she said. “Try to remember me when you get into these moments of despair.”

That was how I knew we would never be as close as I had hoped. She had given as a means to persuade, not because she felt what I felt.

“You accuse me of manipulation,” I say to Sophia. The humid air in the tent is oppressive, and it feels as if someone is pressing on my eyes from within my skull. “But aren’t you doing the exact same thing with that recording?”

“There is a difference,” she says. She always has an answer. “My clip will be used to emotionally persuade people to do what is rationally the right thing as part of a considered plan. Emotion is a blunt tool that must be placed in service of reason.”

“So your plan is to stop any more aid for the refugees and watch as the Myanmar government drives them off their land into China? Or worse?”

“You managed to get money to the refugees on a tide of rage and pity,” she says. “But how does that really help them? Their fate will always ultimately be decided by the geopolitics between China and the US. Everything else is just noise. They can’t be helped. Arming the refugees will only give the government more of an excuse to resort to violence.”

Sophia isn’t wrong. Not exactly. But there’s a greater principle here that she doesn’t see. The world doesn’t always proceed the way predicted by theories of economics or international relations. If every decision is made with Sophia’s calculus, then order, stability, empire always win. There will never be any change, any independence, any justice. We are, and should be, creatures of the heart first.

“The greater manipulation is to deceive yourself into believing you can always reason your way to what is right,” I say.

“Without reason, you can’t get to what is right at all,” Sophia says.

“Emotion has always been at the core of what it means to do right, not merely a tool for persuasion. Are you opposed to slavery because you have engaged in a rational analysis of the costs and benefits of the institution? No, it’s because you’re revolted by it. You empathize with the victims. You feel its wrongness in your heart.”

“Moral reasoning isn’t the same—”

“Moral reasoning is often only a method by which you tame your empathy and yoke it to serve the interests of the institutions that have corrupted you. You’re clearly not averse to manipulation when it’s advantageous to a cause that finds favor in your framework.”

“Calling me a hypocrite isn’t very helpful—”

“But you are a hypocrite. You didn’t protest when pictures of babies launched Tomahawks or when images of drowned little boys on beaches led to revisions in refugee policy. You promoted the work of reporters who evoked empathy for those stranded in Kenya’s largest refugee camp by telling Westerners sappy Romeo-and-Juliet love stories about young refugees and emphasizing how the United Nations has educated them with Western ideals—”

“Those are different—”

“Of course they’re different. Empathy for you is but another weapon to be wielded, instead of a fundamental value of being human. You reward some with your empathy and punish others by withholding it. Reasons can always be found.”

“How are you different? Why do the suffering of some affect you more than others? Why do you care about the people of Muertien more than any other? Isn’t it because they look like you?”

She still thinks this is a killer argument. I understand her, I really do. It’s so comforting to know that you’re right, that you’ve triumphed over emotion with reason, that you’re an agent of the just empire, immune to the betrayal of empathy.

I just can’t live like that.

I try one last time.

“I had hoped that by stripping away context and background, by exposing the senses to the rawness of pain and suffering, virtual reality would be able to prevent all of us from rationalizing away our empathy. In agony, there is no race, no creed, none of the walls that divide us and subdivide us. When you’re immersed in the experience of the victims, all of us are in Muertien, in Yemen, in the heart of darkness that the Great Powers feed on.”

She doesn’t respond. I see in her eyes she has given up on me. I am beyond reason.

Through Empathium, I had hoped to create a consensus of empathy, an incorruptible ledger of the heart that has overcome traitorous rationalization.

But perhaps I am still too naive. Perhaps I give empathy too much credit.

Anon🐁:> What do you all think is going to happen?

N♥T:> China is going to have to invade. Those VRs have left Beijing no choice. If they don’t send in the troops to protect the rebels in Muertien, there will be riots in the streets.

goldfarmer89:> Makes you wonder if that was what China wanted all along.

Anon🐁:> You think that first VR was a Chinese production?

goldfarmer89:> Had to be state-sponsored. It was so slick.

N♥T>: I’m not so sure it was the Chinese who made it. The White House has been itching for an excuse for war with China to divert attention from all those scandals.

Anon🐁:> So you think the VR was a CIA plant?

N♥T>: Wouldn’t be the first time Americans have manipulated anti-American sentiment into giving them exactly what they wanted. That Ellis VR is also ramping up US public support for taking a hard line against China. I just feel terrible about those people in Muertien. What a mess.

little_blocks>: Still stuck on those snuff VRs on Empathium? I’ve stopped long ago. Too exhausting. I’ll PM you a new game you’ll definitely like.

N♥T>: I can always use a new game. ^_^

Author’s Note: I’m indebted to the following paper for the term “algics” and some of the ideas about the potential of VR as a social technology:
Lemley, Mark A. and Volokh, Eugene, Law, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality (March 15, 2017). Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 2933867; UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-13. Available at SSRN: here or here.

© 2018 by Ken Liu. Originally published in 
Twelve TomorrowsReprinted by permission of the author.