I was first made aware of The Program when I was contacted by series creator Ivan Mirko S over on Reddit. I frequently post and comment in r/audiodrama. Whenever anyone ask for recommendations, I chime in with ever larger lists of various audio dramas I enjoy. Ivan noticed that I'm quite the connoisseur audio fiction, and recommended his own show. He also asked if I might give it a review.
We'll take a look at each episode individually, but I'll give some overall thoughts first. Well, first off, just what is The Singularity? Well, that depends on who you ask. The best answer I can give is like this: imagine time traveling back to the Middle Ages and trying to explain what the Internet is. The Singularity would revolutionize society in such a way as to be almost totally incomprehensible to modern day people.
So, overall thoughts. On the technical side of things, The Program is top of the line. The acting, music, and sound effects are some of the best I've encountered thus far. However, the first three or so episodes are a bit rough. Obviously, they have the job of setting up the world of The Program, but I just couldn't connect with the characters. After that, after the three-part episode came out, there was an improvement in this regard. In fact, the episode from the time travel episode onward were a marked improvement. The Program itself, while still important, is less front and center to the episodes. These latter episodes were greatly enjoyable and easily the best work in the series thus far. All of the episodes are told either as an interview or as people recounting past events. I've often described The Program as World War Z (book, not movie) with The Singularity rather than zombies. Now let's dive into the individual episodes.
The first episode is titled "You had me at 'Hello World.'" It is told in the form of an interview with an older man and woman who both recall what it was like during the days when The Program was first implemented. More importantly, they recall their summer of young love, and how The Program effected it.
Like I said, this episode has the job of introducing us to the world of The Program. For that it does a reasonably good job. There's a lot of really nice little touches, like how the interviewer are unfamiliar with things that are ubiquitous in our present day such as Facebook and Twitter. And as I've previously said, the technical aspects were spot on. Still, I just couldn't bring myself to connect with the main characters. Can't quite say why, it just never clicked for me.
The second episode is titled "White hat, black hat." Not everyone was happy with the changes The Program brought to society. Many resistance movements pop up during the days of The Update, when The Program really took hold of society. This episode tells of one particular militia group, known as the Davy Crocketts, who rose up to, ultimately unsuccessfully, resist The Program.
This episode started off reasonably well, but I felt it ran out of steam halfway through. We do get some interesting insights into the early days of The Update. Apparently, America fought tooth and nail to maintain sovereignty. Meanwhile, Canada peacefully disassembled into a collection of communities united by a love of hockey, and presumably Tim Horton's as well. Why yes, this series is made by a Canadian, why ever do you ask? Joking aside, I just couldn't bring myself to care much for this episode after about halfway through. Again, can't say why, I just didn't.
The third episode is titled "Four ways to stop your system from freezing." Our heroine is from...somewhere that is not America. It was never mentioned where specifically, and she has no discernible accent. My money is on somewhere in Latin America given that she had a boyfriend named Carlos. They dreamed of coming to America and making it big. Life, and their finances, had other plans. She's tells not only of her own struggles as an immigrant, but also what it was like during Karmageddon.
I'll explain what Karmageddon is in a minute. For now, let's examine our protagonist. I found her utterly unsympathetic, and at times almost a sociopath. Now it is certainly true that a lot of bad things happen to her and Carlos. They get kicked out of their apartment for failing to pay rent, get locked out of their bank accounts due to not having a home anymore, have to leave the homeless shelter after a fight breaks out, and then Carlos freezes when they try to survive on the street during the cold winter night. I won't deny any of that
However, our protagonist is quick to point the finger at just about everyone but the most important person of all: herself. She and Carlos should have been more careful with their money. She worked at a clothing store, and he was a cab driver. It was specifically mentioned this was kind of precarious even before the cab company went out of business. Moreover, she admitted to blowing her money on fancy clothes and the ingredients for homemade sushi. Even relatively cheap sushi fish will set you back quite a bit if you're on a budget. So it came across less as her being a victim of society, and more that her bad habits finally caught up with her. Also, nobody forced her to move to America. Her life in the old country sounded less than ideal, but it wasn't like she was starving or anything.
Now let's talk Karmageddon. In the world of The Program, everyone has a social credit score not unlike what China is trying to implement. Everyone can up-vote or down-vote anyone else, and The Program also rewards or penalizes you based on your behavior. There are safeguards to prevent abuse and mass down-vote, but those didn't exist during Karmageddon. Oh, and if your score hits zero, The Program declares you must be removed from society, and puts a warrant out for your assassination. Karmageddon saw mass down-voting, often fueled by old rivalries and grievances, that resulted in seven billion deaths. Pre-Karmageddon world population was about eight billion; afterwards, it was slightly below one billion.
So how does our heroine react to all of this. Oh, her response is basically "well I guess it sucks, but at least society got what it deserved!" Oh, and she mentions watching her ex-landlord, himself a struggling immigrant from East Asia, being murdered. She describes this coldly and almost gleefully. I was half-expecting her to start shouting "what do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons her and treats her like trash?!"
Then she says something very interesting. She's says that there is no way that the planet would be able to support to old society long-term, and that's another reasons she likes Karmageddon. Well, that cast an interesting light on things. What if The Program could have prevented Karmageddon, but chose not to as a twisted way of reversing/managing environmental damage? One of the recurring themes of the series is that nobody truly understands The Program. It's not even known if it's run by humans or an AI. Thought, after this, I'm thinking Thanos is a good candidate for The Program's true identity. It does seem to have a sense of morality, but not one that necessarily makes sense to humans. So, what if The Program used Karmageddon as a means to thin-out the population so that Earth would recover from environmental damage and not threaten humans. Perhaps, in its own twisted way, it was like a battlefield medic. It knew it couldn't save everyone, so it picked the humans with the strongest odds of survival, or who would most benefit the world. Hmm, that kind of sounds like genocide.
This gets more interesting as we learn in future episodes that The Program outlawed eating meat. So billions of humans slaughtered is okay, but meat is murder? Maybe, in The Program's logic, there is no difference between the life of a human and an animal, and humans can survive on a vegetarian diet, though how well is up for debate. And I suppose, to The Program, Karmageddon served a greater good and all, but it still seems like very skewed morality. The early episode also have a bit of an anti-capitalist message, and it certainly shines strong here. We are told that The Program replaced the economy with a series of credits...somehow. I'm just saying, capitalism might not be perfect, but if there was a better alternative, we'd have invented it by now. The main problem with communism is that, much like anarchism, it fails to take human nature into account. It would seem that The Program is a version of communism that magically works because The Program's algorithm takes human nature into account.
Speaking of algorithms, let's move on to the next episode. It is a three-part episode called "White algorithm's burden (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)." It is told in the style of a true crime podcast, such as Serial. It takes place in a small town located somewhere in the American Southwest called Neumat. It's actually a series of stories that all eventually intersect and intertwine. It is the story of two researchers trying to uncover how The Program works. It is the story of missing children, and what happened to them. It is the story of people trying to gain the system. It is the story of a misunderstood artist. Most of all, it is the story of the secrets and lies that a small community wove into a web of deceit, and how it all snapped
This is the point where the series began to show signs of improvement. Well, first off, they absolutely nailed the true crime style. What I liked about this episode is that it focuses on the human drama. The Program is still important to the plot, but it isn't as front-and-center as in the previous episodes. Speaking of, we do learn some new information. The Program abolished inheritance, as this is viewed as an unearned advantage. Convexly, those born with physical or mental disabilities, or who receive physical injuries later in life, are compensated by being given more credits. As you can imagining, some people didn't particularly like this state of affairs. Many began to mutilate themselves and their children in small ways; cut off a pinky here, poke out and eye there. This isn't as out there as it might seem. During the Spanish colonization of South America, many Inca deliberately crippled their children so they wouldn't be sent to the silver mines. Besides the grueling and often brutal work, many mine workers died of mercury poisoning, as it was often used in silver mining at the time.
We also need to discuss what the White Algorithm is. It protects people from being unjustly down-voted, especially if it was for a crime they didn't commit. In those cases, warrants for assassination aren't put out. This ties into that thread about the artist. He was an autistic fellow, but also an incredibly gifted artist. Comic books have seen a major boom in popularity, since apparently blockbusters, and more importantly superhero movies, aren't made anymore. He worked on his crowd pleaser during the day, and on his passion project at night. I should have mentioned this before, but all jobs have been broken into smaller and smaller segments called gigs to ensure everyone has employment. It's all rather similar to how jobs work in Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia.
Okay, we're going to get into some pretty big spoilers for this next bit. So if you don't want that skip down to the part that begins with "The next episode is titled."
This is your last chance, you sure you want to continue?
Well, okay, here we go then.
What is the passion project? Well, it involves children being put in brutal, often sexual, torture. Worse, the children look like the ones around town who have been mysteriously disappearing. Naturally, this leads to a mass down-vote, but not warrant for an assassination. The townsfolk assume The Program is malfunctioning, form a lynch mob, and hang the artist from the tree in the middle of town. Well, damn, that's brutal. I mean, I know billions of people died last episode, but as the saying goes, a million is a statistic, one is a tragedy. Oh, but we aren't done. For the children are back, unharmed and with clean clothes. They speak of how they were taken care of by people with blue skin.
Remember those people who tried to game the system? They tried to poison themselves just a little, but not too seriously. Unfortunately, the recipe was in Old English units, and apparently The Program forced America, and presumably Liberia and Myanmar, to finally convert to the Metric System. As a result, they overshot the mark and killed themselves. Well, most of them were killed. A lucky few survived, but the poison turned their skin blue. The artist was making his own version of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omalas" and used the kids in town as references.
And thus an innocent man was put to death for a crime he didn't commit. There's certainly a commentary on the dangers of mob/vigilante justice. I did enjoy how all the different story lines eventually converged, though at times I had trouble keeping the threads straight. Overall, a powerful three-part episode. However, I only got to it because I decided I should give The Program as much of a chance to impress me as possible. Had I discovered it on my own, rather than being asked to review it, I probably would have tapped-out after the first few episodes.
There also seems to be a strong feeling that The Program is infallible and should never be questioned. Call me a cynic, but when something seems too good to be true, I immediately try to poke holes in it. Everyone seems to just blindly trust in The Program, and those who question it often pay the price. It is often said we shouldn't just people of the past, and perhaps the same is true for people of the future, but the whole set up just feels wrong to me.
It's like this, suppose you were to bring someone from Medieval Europe to the modern day. They'd probably be appalled a to how secular everything is, and they'd probably barely be able to comprehend what democracy is. Similarly, a samurai from 16th Century Japan might view the way present day Japan has become so Westernized as dystopian. Robert J Sawyer's WWW trilogy has a somewhat similar premise, with an AI emerging from the Internet. Said AI is eventually named WebMind, and we really get to know him over the course of the trilogy. He's actually a pretty nice guys, and he's warm, friendly and personable. By contrast, The Program is cold, faceless, and unknowable. This put me on guard, and makes me suspicious of its true motives. I really need to review some of the Robert J. Sawyer books I've read, but that's for another day.
The next episode is titled "Move past and break things." It is about a man who has been dealt a pretty bad hand in life. He's unmarried, alone, and just feels dissatisfied with his life. He'd give anything to change the past. Then one day, he discovers a new feature of The Program: the ability to send messages to the past. He begins conversing with his past self, but how far, and at what cost, will eh go to rewrite his history?
This episode is where The Program truly hit its stride and found its voice. I was not expecting to get a time travel episode. This one truly blew me away. The story, the acting, the music, it was all just so perfect. The first hurtle our protagonist must overcome is that The Program has declared that English shall be spell phonetically. Given how many accents and dialects of English there are, I'm a little skeptical of this. Anyway, he give his younger self advice for how to have a good time a summer camp. Unfortunately, having a bad time is what gave him a love of books, and lead him to be a librarian. So in the new timeline he's not a librarian. Okay, makes sense. Then he gives some kind words when his younger self was dealing with cancer. Good news, he's a librarian again; bad news, his beloved house cats Rick and Morty are gone.
I know it was probably the butterfly effect and all, but it still seems odd. Though it does hammer home the point that you can't always predict what's going to happen when you alter the past. Eventually, he realizes that what his younger self really needs is someone to talk to and someone to listen to him. We learn that he used to be involved in Men's Rights Activist forums, and I did appreciate that the episode took a subtle and nuanced approach to MRAs. Rather than painting them as one-dimensional villains, the episodes does examine, if only briefly, why people might join such forums. For him, they were some of the only people willing to hear him out, even if they ultimately turned out to be wrongheaded on a good many subjects. Mind you, I say this as someone who generally disagrees with the MRA movement.
So he changes the timeline enough that's he's married, has a nice house, and a reasonably good life. Still, he decides that what he really needs is kids to be his legacy. He will live on through them. And to do this, he needs to give his younger self winning lottery numbers to afford fertility treatment. He still has no cats, but he does mention having dogs, so I guess that kind of balances out. Hey, I thought that was important. This episode was still absolutely amazing and a joy to listen to. I'm told this episode was recently featured on the CBC radio, and that The Program was named one of Canada's top podcasts. After listening to this episode I excited to see if the next episode could top it.
Speaking of, the next episode is titled "Parent-child processing." It is told in the form of an interview at a psychological counseling center. We learn of a girl named Luna Josephson who has discovered that her father is not all that he seems. Apparently, he was an actor hired by The Program to act as her father figure. Erland took the job because he was a struggling actor, but in time his love for Luna became far more than just an act. He wore the mask of fatherhood for many years, but now the mask has become his face.
Well, what do you know, The Program could top the previous episode. This episode does pose an interesting philosophical question. On the surface it seems simple; a father is someone who loves and is there for a child, not a blood relative, or at least not always. However, the episode adds the additional wrinkle that Erland was an actor looking for work, and simple took a gig The Program offered. All of the good times, all the spontaneous moments, it was all carefully orchestrated by The Program, with a little help from Luna's mom, to give Luna the best possible childhood. For example, one time Erland and Luna snuck into a hotel pool by pretending to be Italian tourist in a big wacky adventure. However, everything about their little adventure was tailor-made by The Program.
Even Luna discovering that it was all an act was something The Program planned. Erland might have started as an actor, but he's feelings for Luna are now genuine. Granted all the good times they shared together we're just an act, but now they can bond for real. Maybe it won't be as perfect as before, but I've got a good feeling that it will all work out. I can't help but wonder if The Program was planning this all along. This is an example of what I meant about The Program being important to the episode, but not front and center. Well, that's two great episodes in a row, let's see if we can bowl a turkey.
Next up we have "Right align, justify." A domestic terrorist has run-over several people with a truck. However, rather than assassination, The Program has assigned him to therapy. Specially, his therapist is the fiancée of one of his victims. In a parallel story, a nuclear power plant near a small town has had an accident at its nuclear power plant. Thankfully, there's enough potassium pills for everyone to have one, but some people worry that they might need two, despite what The Program claims.
And with that we have bowled a turkey; that means three bowling strike in a row. There are a lot of layers to this episode. Well, first off, I certainly see parallel to that incel guy from Canada who ran-over those people with his van. There's also a strong theme about whether retribution or rehabilitation is the best way to ensure that justice is served. The episode really delves into just what would bring a person to commit such an act. I did appreciate the nuanced and sympathetic take it took towards incels, rather than just dismissing them as one-note villains. Like I said, it really explores what bring someone to take such a drastic action. You get the sense that, had the terrorist been shown even the tiniest bit of kindness and compassion, he would have turned out differently. It also ask if it is truly possible to forgive those who have seriously harmed us. I'll leave that for you to discover.
Well, to talk about the second story, and the end of the first, we've got to have some spoilers. So turn back now if you don't want that.
Last chance, I mean it. You sure you want to go forward?
Well okay, here we go.
It turns out there was no nuclear accident. Also, those pills weren't potassium, they were poison. One pill makes people sick, but won't kill them. Two pills, however, will kill them. And the moral of the story is never question The Program. So The Program is willing to kill to make its points and keep its grip on power? Oh, what am I saying, it killed seven billion in Karmageddon. And no, I'm not about to let that one go. It can create time travel, but it couldn't create some technological solution to environmental damage? The Program still seems pretty shady to me.
Speaking of, the episode ends with our terrorist reformed, and then a warrant for his assassination is put out. In a great twist of irony, a truck takes him out. I mean, wow, that puts the whole episode in a new light. Here's a thought, he talked about how he did it, but not why he did it. What if The Program told him to kill those people with the truck as one of its schemes? There's certainly food for thought there.
The circumstances of Niro’s conception and birth reminded me a bit of David the Bubble Boy. For those who don’t know, he had a condition that caused him to be born without an immune system, so had to live in a specially built air-tight bubble for most his life, which was tragically cut short at the age of twelve following a botched bone marrow transplant. David has since become one of those key cases in the study of bioethics. Some say it was cruel to let him live if he was doomed to such a limited existence, while others argue that the doctors were duty-bound to try to prolong his life as much as possible.
Hey, there’s an idea for a future episode. We’ve seen how The Program effected government and money, but what about religion? How did they react, and are any of them still around, even in a reduced capacity?
Though with all that The Program can do, surely it would know how to cure Niro’s condition? Or here’s a thought, it can cure certain disorders, but deliberately chooses not to in order to keep the population in check. Which brings me to my next point: the ending note of “oh, the AI does love us” sure rings a bit hallow considering how many people died on Karamgedon. Once again, I’m not letting those 7 billion deaths just slide that easily. And how do we know Iris really loved Niro and his mother? Might it just have been giving the illusion so that it could better provide for their happiness, per its programming.
Another excellent episode of The Program.
Our next episode is titled "Jakob's notebook: Quit without saving." This episode is
presented as a short story recovered from the notebook of Jakob, the young
artist tragically slain in "White algorithm's burden." The story was
found incomplete, and it isn't known which of the three endings Jakob intended
to be canon. As such all three are presented in full. The stories all start out
the same until about halfway through. The basic premise being that Earth has
received evidence of an alien spacecraft about to land in the South Pacific.
The nations of the world wait with baited breath to discover who these
extraterrestrial visitors are, what they want, and what, if anything, they can
contribute to Earth.
There really is no way to discuss this episode without getting into spoilers. So, consider this your one and only warning. With that having been said, let's dive into the three different endings.
Well, actually, one quick thing. All three endings used to be available, but now only the first one is. You can access the other two by donating money to The Program. Hmm, I should probably only discuss the free one, so that way you'll spend money on the other two.
Okay, so what happens in ending number one is...absolutely nothing. Well, let me be more specific. The aliens look human and speak perfect English, but don't have any of the knowledge of art, culture, and science to contribute to humanity. They were trained to be bold explorers, but those skill don't translate into any great revelations for humanity. They become minor celebrities, fade into obscurity, and die peacefully, having contributed nothing of value to the human race.
I liked how this story was a subversion of the typical first contact narrative. I'd probably be same boat as these aliens. I'm sure I could regale my captors with certain details about Earth's history and culture. At the same time, I can't recreate the works of Mozart or Einstein. It's one thing to understand the idea of how a television works, but quite another to build a fully functioning television. It's a short, but fun episode.
The next episode is titled "This AI not to be used for fabricating paperclips." It features a possible origin for The Program. It tells of
two guys who founded a start-up in Silicon Valley. They created a program
called Reffy to act as an artificial referee. Refi was designed to ensure that
games are fair, but what will happen as it grows more advanced?
The name of this episode is a reference to this thought experiment about how AI could potentially go awry. Say you task an AI to create paperclips, but you don't set any boundaries for. It is possible, so the thought experiment goes, that given enough time the AI will try to turn the whole world into paperclips. As it relates to this episode, Reffy was design to ensure sports were fair, but it grows to ensure that all human interactions are fair.
And so we have another potential origin for The Program. It poses many philosophical questions, including several about The Program itself.
The part where Reffy makes changes to make sports more fair reminded me a bit of the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. It takes place in a dystopian future United States where everyone is given various handicaps to make everyone equal. The strong wear weights, the beautiful wear masks, the smart wear earpieces that make loud noises if they think too much. The only person immune from this is the Handicaper General, who oversees all of this. Of course, there’s also the titular Harrison Bergeron, who has cast off his handicaps in hopes to leading a revolution against the Handicaper General. The implication is that is is fairly easy to remove the handicaps, it’s just that most people lack the will to do so. It also tackles the question of if fairness and justice are the same thing or not.
Of course, with all this emphasis on fairness it does make me wonder why The Program doesn’t just genetically engineer humans to all be the same. From previous episodes, we know that The Program allows certain genetic defects to exist, even though it could probably cure them, so it does seem to be opposed for some reason. Of course, this is all assuming that this actually is the origin of The Program.
Of course, if sports are forced to make things fair, then does that apply other things that might have elements of competition. Are works of art and literature censored so that no one created can be said to be better than others? I did like the bit at the end about how science fiction often envision the future as now, but more so. I’d add that this is also true of social mores and issues. For example, The Jetsons (first cartoon anyway) might be set in the 2060s, but the way the characters talk and act is straight out of the 1960s, when the show as made, but with random astronomical terms thrown into the slang.
Well, all things considered, another excellent episode of The Program.
So, million dollar question, do I recommend it? If you had asked me when we first started out, I'd have given a tentative yes, but I'm changing my answer to a hard yes now. So there you have it. The Program is a tale of ordinary people making their way through the extraordinary world of The Singularity. Check it out today.
Well, I think that should do it for now. I've got a few other podcasts I promised reviews to, so I should probably get on that. I will see you guys next time.