Wednesday, 11 April 2012


The gentlemen of the committee – for there were no ladies of the committee – filed into the room.  There were long rows of green leather benches for them to sit on, and in the centre of the room there was a small, square space for the speakers to orate.  At one end of the square was the speaker's chair; the speaker in this case was not the person orating, but the person presiding over the whole debate.  They, and they alone, has the right to speak and could invite other gentlemen to stand up and offer opinions, and could send them back to their seats when they tired of hearing their voices.  Legend had it that this was based on some ancient democratic institution on Old Earth, but no-one seemed to remember what institution, or could explain how one man being in control was democratic.
As the room filled up the recording officer, stood just inside the doors, counted each gentlemen as he came through.  A pin-sized head-mounted camera was concealed by his left-eyebrow and captured the face of each entrant, relaying it back to a central monitoring station where Alfomega, the colony's AI, checked the image against confirmed images of gentlemen and recorded who they were and what their position within the colony was.  Had any of the entrants proven to be something other than gentlemen – a woman, for example – then Alfomega would have alerted both the recording officer and Black Rod, the man with the mace, and action would have been taken to apprehend the pretender and exclude them from the committee chamber.
When the last gentlemen had entered, the recording officer noted that there were two gentlemen missing by the count, and Alfomega located their pictures from its files and checked their last known whereabouts.
"Gentlemen," it said, its voice coming through the loudspeaker system while Black Rod closed and locked the committee chamber doors.  "Gentlemen, two of your number are absent today.  George Showeton was killed last week while supervising a mining operation in Orvieton, and Malcolm Twiller is in Central Hospital diagnosed with Type 2 Chicken Flu."
"Thank you, Alf," said the speaker, who had put on the traditional blank mask so that his face was a simple white oval with tiny pin-holes for eyes and a painted mouth that was always slightly open.  "Gentlemen of the committee, we are gathered here to discuss oversight.  For the last three years we have trusted Alf to look after us all, to watch over the colony and to ensure that everything that needs to be known is known.  We have never needed a newspaper industry because anyone, at any time, can apply to Alf to find out what is known.  As Alf has just demonstrated to us, when we meet here Alf can tell us why members are missing, and this allows us to determine whether or not we are quorate for the purposes of vote taking.  However, it has become increasingly clear that we are not bringing the necessary oversight to this situation.  There is no-one who is monitoring Alf and ensuring that it is not operating outside its parameters.  There is no-one who is checking what the extent of Alf's knowledge is, and so we are taking what Alf says as truth when, in fact, there may be ways to subvert Alf's knowledge, or avoid its attention."
There was a murmuring from the ranks of gentlemen, and a few white-shirt-sleeved hands were thrust into the air, indicating that some of them wished to speak.  The speaker ignored them for the moment.
"To make my point most clearly, I would like to invite George Showeton to speak first."
The murmuring bubbled louder and individual voices started to become clearer as the gentlemen grew more annoyed.  Finally a single voice broke from the hubbub and called out,
"But Showeton is dead!  He was killed at Orvieton last week!"
"Not so," said another voice, and a gentlemen stood up from the front bench, peeling off a latex mask.  "Alf just told you that that is what happened to me, but it is not what happened.  There was an accident last week, in Orvieton, at the mining complex, and I was very nearly killed.  I was incredibly lucky though, when the rock fell and buried us all, there were three of us who were underneath a rubble-transporter trying to unstick a locked axle, and the rubble transporter was not crushed by the rockfall.  It took us a day to tunnel back out safely, but we managed it, and that's when we discovered that Alf had declared us dead.  Both of my companions have spent the last week trying to convince Alf that they are still alive, and it is proving difficult.  And it seems that there is no-one here who can tell Alf what the truth is, Alf makes that decision for itself."
"What do you mean?" the voice from earlier called out.  The speaker stood at that moment.
"Gentlemen, this is a debate on oversight.  The question of the day is whether or not we put someone in place who can provide privileged information to Alf, or whether that simply increases our risk from someone malicious.  We will debate as normal.  Sir, you with the raised hand, you may speak."

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