Object 84

The Brain Bubble

2053, Earth

Take a flask. Pour in a large volume of humans, add a generous helping of market demand, and sprinkle a modest dusting of innovation on top. Mix thoroughly. What do you get? Bubbles.

This is the story of the Brain Bubble.

Like all bubbles — Tulip mania, the South Sea bubble, the Internet bubble — the Brain Bubble began with a new product that fulfilled a genuine human demand in an innovative way: the Neural Lace. And like all bubbles, the value of that product became unmoored from reality, sailing far beyond its intrinsic value amid irrational exuberance from speculators, and ultimately — inevitably — sinking to the depths with great drama and no small amount of harm.

The neural lace was one of the first effective direct brain interfaces. Composed of nanoscale fibres that dove into the fissures and folds of the brain and wove themselves among axons and synapses, laces could send and receive information from millions of individual neurons.

Even the earliest clinical prototypes gave wearers an unprecedented level of simulated sensory exchange, allowing them to see, smell, feel, hear, and taste almost anything. After only a decade of development, they could be used by individual wearers to issue commands, process information, and store memories at a speed that exceeded all but the most experienced unlaced amplified teams.

This power came at a high price — literally. Until the 50s, laces were extremely expensive, usually costing the equivalent of several years’ worth of basic minimum income to pay for the required detailed brain scans, the custom designs, and months of careful calibration. So why were they so desirable? Isaac DeLong, Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, explains the reasoning:

"The idea was buying a lace would let you leapfrog the competition in the labour market by increasing your productivity, and of course, your income — which meant that over the long run, you could pay back whatever ridiculous amounts you’d paid for it. But while this might have been true for early adopters, it was much more complicated for everyone else. Still, no-one wanted facts to get in the way of a fairytale rags-to-riches story..."

In the public’s imagination, laces rapidly became both a necessity and an investment — and for the finance industry, they became the latest way to make vast quantities of money (not unlike housing in previous generations). Those who believed laces would permanently increase their future earnings had no second thoughts about taking on huge long-term loans and financing to buy them. These loans were often backed by new financial instruments that sought to make laces even more affordable while also reducing investors' exposure. Lace-owners usually repaid their loans out of a percentage cut taken from all the work they sold — which was legally required to take place on digital marketplaces owned and controlled by the investment firms.

Perhaps if the international finance regulations devised during the late teens hadn't been whittled away the bubble might have been prevented, but as it was, soon-to-be-toxic lace-backed securities and neural securitised debt obligations flourished, ensnaring millions of people. These financial instruments, devised by highly paid amplified teams-of-teams in conjunction with advanced AIs, were of such surpassing complexity that the vast majority of singleton humans — laced or unlaced — were literally mentally incapable of understanding them. Even governments entered the picture, with official subsidies and relaxed repayment requirements available for those on BMI.

A brief word on how the digital marketplaces worked: one of the early problems with getting useful work (and thus, loan repayments) out of lace-owners was that, very often, the right owner with the right skills wasn't available at the right time. But if you had enough laces on your books, then you could connect buyers with sellers in a much more efficient manner.

Since lace-owners were required to use your marketplace, you earned a healthy percentage of every piece of work conducted on it — which, in theory, might come to represent a significant chunk of the entire human-powered economy. The marketplace wasn't particularly innovative — the usual practice was to fork an open-source social-market-making system and give it a new name — so financiers instead emphasised the supposedly powerful, open nature of their lace platforms.

They also funded extravagant gaming campaigns that highlighted the extraordinary capabilities of the technology. A popular tournament of the late 40s saw experienced lace-wearers battle it out against the unlaced in The City — great entertainment, and also a subtle reminder that the longer you waited to buy a lace, the more you'd be left behind. You'd have to be a fool not to buy in.

It worked, at least for a while. Laces became better and better. Wearers really did gain experience, increase productivity, and think up new ways to create art, control drones, and do work. Digital marketplaces where people sold their lace-enhanced work became more efficient as more people joined. And more money poured in to finance millions more laces.

And yet no-one wanted to address the obvious problems. What would happen when everyone had a lace and the value of lace-powered work inevitably plummeted? What if people were getting loans for laces, even if their future earnings wouldn't increase enough to allow them to make their repayments? The answer was simple: the market would crash.

Which it did, on Friday February 21st, 2053. The proximate cause was Wintory Sisters' abrupt exit from the market at 4:36pm, which was swiftly followed by a dozen more investors approximately 3 milliseconds later, and a further thousand institutional investors in the following 100 milliseconds. After 2.1 seconds, the entire neural lace market had been decimated.

With the value of lacework plummeting to its lowest point in years, many owners were left in debt. In theory, this meant that their laces could be repossessed, which in practice meant deactivating them or altering the firmware to garnish all future earnings. The mere threat of this led to rapid civil disobedience and lace firmware being hacked open on a massive scale. Faced with the twin possibilities of a complete loss of their investments and angry suits being brought by governments and co-ops, investors were forced to take a significant write-down, depressing the stock market for weeks.

To be fair, as with other bubbles, the trillions poured into Brain Bubble did leave behind a valuable legacy in the form of a vast amount of research and development into ever-more sophisticated laces — the descendants of which we're wearing today. But there was still tremendous waste and hardship.

It's easy to shake our heads at the foolish behaviour of the 50s, but every successive generation has routinely failed to the learn from the lessons of the past. The year might change, but the saying never does: "This time it’s different."