The Truth Box

Brian Schmitt

 

Abstract: Philosophy and the power of human thought have always captured my interest. In recent times, technology and the computer’s domination in intellectual discovery have developed a further understanding of how everything works, but so far cannot describe why something works—or even exists. This is not strictly a religious criticism of science (indeed, I am an atheist), but rather a philosophical claim. In the following story, I intended to illustrate this gap in intellectualism, exposing the gap from the human mind and the computer chip. As an intended satire, I hope the humor can convey a more intricate message than a more dramatic piece would. Personal technology has become a staple in modern life for most of humanity. As computers compute the theory of the Big Bang and practice neuropsychology, the relationship between the human being and his technological creation has to be realized.

 

I remember a lad of seven crossing by me that merry morning. Had he not been holding a faded-white Rubik’s cube, I surely would not have noticed him. That cunning little puzzle always gave me troubles. I never was one to solve it, not in a million years. But aghast I was at seeing this pointless little puzzle—each color gone with its years; it was perhaps as old as me. He had the enigmatic smile of discovery, like Christmas was right around the corner he was crossing. It sure felt like Christmas, what with the mountainous clouds above floating about—dark enough to see the lighting thrashing about inside, waiting impatiently for some thunderous striking. This boy ran like a mad fever, dashing past this once brittle October night. My curiosity begged me to ask him, and so my voice shuttered with a raspy bellowing. “What’s the rush?” And what he told me, in his banshee voice of puberty, gave my brain a twirl. “The truth box is here!”


Ever since that disastrous war in the East had ended, scientists abroad worked endlessly on a certain little machine. I would imagine from the horrors of war, mankind grew ill of its follies and began to wonder why. I remember reading of it: the machine would revolutionize all of humanity by knowing the answer to any question it was asked. Ask it about your search for love, and it would give you a name. Ask it who would win the baseball game, and it would give you the result, the runs of each inning, the averages and errors of every player, on and on—anything you asked, anything at all, and the answer would be given. For years those scientists met at Glastonbury, home of many, many myths—even that elusive Holy Grail of which every search was futile. A beautiful, small place it was, perfect for such hard work. I can’t imagine how they could piece such a machine together; a machine playing the role of God, knower of all in the universe and beyond. Though, I can’t understand many technologies of today, even those invented decades ago: the television, where I would sit and wallow in the glory of John Wayne; that once popular robot puppy, where I would watch my grandchildren tussle around with, reminding me of the old days with my own wonderful pets; many, many more, wires and plugs too complicated for me to figure. I have disdain and respect for it. But this new machine I was certainly not sure of. Whether I despised or perhaps anticipated it was as much a mystery as the tempting secrets it could have revealed. However, when that boy had told me, smile gaping like a Glasgow smile, that the truth box was here, I knew one question I would ask if given the chance—how does the truth box work? A simple question, I know, but it was all I had. It would always fascinate me: how these machines we all so often take for granted work.


That boy had dropped Rubik’s precious cube in his hurry, and I, resting on the bench nearby, toyed with it for only a moment. I found it objectless—how could you solve it if the colors were gone; those precious colors, gone with its fated years?


My ears tingled at the noise of shouting. I stood myself up and walked along toward the crowd gathering ahead. A bright fog settled overhead, just below the storm. Raindrops came down every now and then. You could smell the murky air from miles away. The crowd had bundled around a store window, where stacks of televisions showed the scientists proudly standing by their truth box. They hadn’t called it that; the news gave the name. The scientists, out of some sophomore attempt of knowledge, foolishly named it Pandora’s Box. Sure, they could whip together a computer, but they didn’t know a thing about mythology or common sense. I always laugh at their petty attempt at wit. I’d have called it the Delphi Oracle, something much more catchy and true.


Sure enough, many faces I knew not the names to were in the crowd, shuffling and chattering. “What are they going to ask?” “Why don’t the do something already?” “When can I get one?” “How much does it cost?”


A man of eager poise stepped in front and announced, “Everyone just calm down. They’re going to do something eventually. Just give it time.” He stopped for a moment and strangely scratched his brow. “Let’s all just watch, and be quiet, for God’s sake.”


“Maybe that’s what they’ll ask!” shouted a concerned, chubby woman, her hair curled in a bun, eyes of faithless pray. “What God wants us to do?”


“Maybe they’ll ask if God even exists.” This came from a teenager, riddled with pimples, standing tall in back with a foolishly cynical look tattooed on him.


The man in front replied: “quiet! One of them is about to say something!”


And I could see, from my short distance, a taut gentleman on the screen, stepping toward the microphone pointing sharp at his mouth like a demanding dagger. His voice was as cold as that October night. “This, what we call Pandora’s Box, is the fruit of our labor. Over the past handful of years, my fellow scientists and I have worked day and night on what we call the voice that would end all questions. As scientists, we know the true significance of wisdom. Centuries ago, Socrates would run around Athens trying to find someone who had answers. His generation was not kind to him. He didn’t have the advantage of technology that we have today. But now the work of Socrates, Plato, and every human being will be rewarded. The mysteries of the universe will no longer be mysterious.”


A reporter behind the camera screamed, “How does it work?”


The scientist held his breath for a moment, looking back at his peers. “You would never understand.” We all laughed, except for me. I felt deceived. I wanted to know how it worked—how any of these strange contraptions work. The reporters babbled loudly. He then added, “we type in a question, and in seconds, in seconds (he shouted to cease the chatter), it prints out the answer. It’s simple, but very complicated.”


“So it knows anything?”


“No. It knows everything.” Something sinister was underneath those words. “We haven’t asked anything yet. We will ask it its first question, live, in a few minutes.”


This sent everyone into an uproar. Myself, I couldn’t handle it. Very parched I was. I took a stroll to a good man’s grocery store, not too far from the crowd. I met Henry, sitting behind the counter, counting the scarce change in his drawer. “Henry, my good man. Can you fetch me some water?” He looked up through bronze-rimmed glasses.


“Just a second,” and at that he reached behind him, grabbing a bottle of water off the shelf. “There you go. On the house.”


I couldn’t accept that. “I can’t accept that. I insist.” I handed him cash, and he shot me a smile—one not stranger to that boy’s.


“Doesn’t matter much, since people don’t come here to often. It’s all this new technology they have now: fast registers, self-checkouts, buying crap online. It’s killing my store. Thanks anyways.”


There came an abrupt silence. I had to break it. “So, you hear about this Pandora’s Box thing?”


“Yep. Heard too much of it this year. They’ll never finish it.”


He didn’t know. I chuckled a little at his carelessness, and laughed, “It’s done. They’re going to ask it a question soon. They’re showing it on the screens at the other shop.” And with that he hopped over the counter and sped towards the crowd across the street, like a rat scampering to cheese. I sighed to myself, growing a little weary of all this nonsense. The crowd was getting much, much bigger. I now think everyone in town was watching. An ominous silence crept over our heads. I kept imagining the storm would take our electricity away from us, plucking everyone from their cages of wonder, fascination, and perhaps even horror. How hilarious that would be. It remained calm, though, bursting out with muffled shocks every now and then. I made my way back, and the scientist returned with all of his preposterous presence.


“Ladies and gentlemen, your patience has paid off.” I wouldn’t have called it patience; rather, it was something much more—hunger, thirst, on and on the list can go on. It was indescribable. “We are now going to ask it a question. This is something every person on earth has asked, what many think is the biggest question of all. A lot of us think we find out in the afterlife. Others think we never find out. But, I tell you right now, on this day and year, that Pandora’s Box will tell us the meaning of life.”


How much more vague could he have been? What hounds we can be, chasing the answer to a question of such imposing importance: why are we here? Why do we exist? Is this all just a simple accident, a spark amidst chaos, or is there a reason? Had the hands of gods made us? What is our purpose, our meaning? Such never crossed my mind too often. I admit I believe not one person could resist asking. To me, it was a puzzle I never bothered to piece together. And suddenly—I’m not really sure why—screaming in my head was Ludwig Van Beethoven’s masterpiece, Für Elise, making my ears ring. At a slow tempo the song cried to me, like a wolf at my door, howling for me to let it in and rip me apart.


Everyone drew close. The scientist began to type in the question. What is the meaning of life? All our eyes grew wide, waiting for the slow, slow seconds to pass. He finished, and stepped back.


The machine did nothing.


“Give it a minute or so. We’ve never tried this before. Give it a chance.”


We didn’t give it a minute to think. We gave it two entire days. You wouldn’t believe how desperate everyone was to see the answer—so much that anyone watching simply did not move. Obsession clouded us. We barely paid attention to thirst or hunger, necessity; waiting for the voice of truth to enlighten us. We became dirty and smelly, not caring about hygiene. The cameras kept a keen eye on Pandora’s Box. I’m sure millions were watching just as we were, leaving food to rot and our throats dry. Not a cigarette was lit, from what I saw. If there ever was a moment the earth stood still, it was then.


Sometimes voices would crack, dry and raspy: “maybe it doesn’t work.” “When is the damn thing going to work already?” “Why don’t they try it again?” The scientists waited eagerly as we did. I felt a little ashamed, being lustrous as everyone else. My stomach began to growl; I knew I had to eat, to drink—but what a moment to miss but the greatest mystery to be solved! I began to ponder: what would become of us now? If the answer is our greatest conquest, then where do we go from here? Eventually we come to a coast, and the world we yearn to discover becomes absolute. Onward, they say, but where?


Those two days lasted millennia. The storm had kept over us, never bursting, never leaving; just busy in its own chaotic ways. Not only were we parched and tired, but very, very cold. The slow but constant raindrops began to run heavy in our clothes.


And just when I felt I would die thirsty, hungry, and especially cold, the scientist gave rap at the machine. It wobbled, and suddenly began to print something. We all grew hysterical. This was the moment all of mankind was eager to live, and I was there. I was there. I whisper this often to myself.
I was there when the scientist, through his squinting eyes, read over and over again what the machine, this oracle, had said. Anxiety was thick in the air. I was there when he showed it to his colleagues, and they all became distraught with confusion. The Delphi Oracle, as I called it, had given them an answer. We all held our breath, as though being strangled by a wrathful python, crushing our lungs and leaving us helpless and alone. The lad of seven I met before, the only child I had seen during this time was not there. He’d gone off to play.


I was there. And I left, not satisfied, not amazed, but bewildered. The answer it gave could have been concrete, or perhaps abstract; not an answer, but maybe a riddle. It could have meant something simple. Or, the machine could have given us something too abstruse or complex to suddenly catch. I only know this: all that were watching, from me to millions around the world—were left in darkness; lost in translation.


He held the paper for all to see.


In bold print it read: error.

Euphemism Campus Box 5555 Illinois State University Normal, IL 61790