Some Type of City

The child couldn’t sleep. Stories usually helped, though, and so the woman began.

“In a faraway place stands a shining city, all towers and turrets and alabaster walls that soar from the forest below. Its streets are clean, its buildings immaculate, and its rules impeccably precise. When a person goes to the market she knows precisely what a coin will buy, and when she lays it down at the baker’s stall, the baker knows the money is good. He takes the coin, slides a loaf of bread back across the counter, and the customer goes about her day, a delightful smell wafting behind.

“The city is clean, clear, and predictable. Nothing exciting ever happens, and certainly nothing worth telling stories about.

“This city is no fascist fantasy, either. The palace doesn’t make the city’s rules. The Ministry of Truth is filled with chroniclers, not legislators, whose business isn’t to tell of how things should be but to document how they are. There are no constables or magistrates, because none are needed. When the city changes, its rules change, too. They must.”

“But why have rules at all?” asked the child. “Wouldn’t it be simpler for the people to live their lives without them?”

“Perhaps,” said the woman, “but what happens when their stories intertwine? When someone needs to buy bread, or someone needs to sell it, how can they trust the exchange?

“There are certain things, simple things, and certain exchanges–very simple exchanges, mind you–that don’t need rules at all. When a signaler posted atop the city’s highest tower opens the shutter on her heliograph, nobody needs a rule to know that it’s on. But ON doesn’t mean much, either. When things become more complicated, or meaningful, if you like, that’s when the rules become useful.

“Now, suppose our signaler closes her shutter and leaves it closed for five strokes of her watch before opening it again. An observer that doesn’t know any better might see her signal–OFF-ON-OFF-OFF-OFF-OFF-OFF-ON–and assume it the work of an unsupervised tourist or madman. But it may also contain some meaning. It might be the number 65, or the letter A. It might be both at once, so long as both the signaler and a lookout at sea understand that 65 means A and vice versa.

“In any event, the signal is more interesting than ON or OFF, but so long as everyone knows the code they can share information with nothing more than flashes of sunlight.

“Here,” she said. She turned the page in her notebook and wrote:

A 65 01000001 OFF-ON-OFF-OFF-OFF-OFF-OFF-ON
H 72 01001000 OFF-ON-OFF-OFF-ON-OFF-OFF-OFF
O 79 01001111 OFF-ON-OFF-OFF-ON-ON-ON-ON
Y 89 01011001 OFF-ON-OFF-ON-ON-OFF-OFF-ON

The child sat up, considering this. “But if she wanted to say ‘AHOY’, couldn’t she just say it?”

“Of course she could. There are easier ways to think and talk than flashing light back and forth with a heliograph. But the important thing is that it’s possible. That light is all you need to exchange any sort of information.”

Any sort of information?” The child asked.

“Yes.”

“But what about real things, like the bread the baker was selling in the city’s market.”

“Even that bread is information, if you look closely enough. You would need an incredible microscope–the most powerful microscope you can imagine, and then some–but if you squinted at it just right, you would see the loaf of bread is nothing more than a bundle of particles arranged just so. The signaler would need quite some time to transmit them all, but with a code describing how the particles are arranged and machines that could scan them and print them back out–and patience, and very fast fingers–the heliograph could signal bread, or coins, or anything else.

“Now, even though money or bread or anything else can be sent in flashes of light, you won’t see many wagons full of 0s and 1s laying about the market. ON and OFF are wonderfully simple things, but they aren’t very convenient ways to represent complicated ideas. It’s much easier to trade in ‘coins’ and ‘loaves’ than bits of information, and so everyone just does that.

“The only trouble is that everyone has to agree on what those more complicated things mean. Have you ever wondered, ‘what is a coin?’”

“Something valuable, of course.”

“And where does it come from?”

“The ground, I guess.”

“Does that make salt a coin?”

“No, coins are metal. And you can use them to buy things.”

“So, what about a golden nugget?”

“Coins have someone’s face stamped on them.”

“You see the problem, though?”

The child nodded.

“And that’s just a coin. Most things have many different properties, and there are many different ways we can describe them. But if we can describe them, something magical happens. If everyone agrees about what a coin is and how it may be used, we can make a rule. The market can do business. And we can start to write more complicated rules describing where coins fit inside the city—rocks can’t buy coins, coins can’t line politicians’ pockets, and so on.

“Soon every situation that might involve a coin is utterly predictable, but it doesn’t stop there. From loaves of bread, to the city walls, to the people of the city themselves, the rules encompass everything. As the scribes scribble furiously away in the Ministry of Truth, the city’s mysteries disappear.

“What happens when there are no mysteries left?” asked the child.

“Oh, there will always be mysteries.” The woman answered. “Sometimes travelers arrive in the city from distant lands, their packs bursting with exotic trinkets. Their bread may not look like bread, and their coins may not look like coins. And what is the city to make of all that?

“When strangers approach the walls, they must present their wares for inspection. The guards poke, prod, and ponder every item. Does it have a place in the city or not? The goods are admitted, and–if the guards are thorough–the mysteries stay outside the walls.

“And if they aren’t thorough?”

The woman smiled as she tucked the child in. “Well, that’s when things get exciting.”

She stood up.

“But that’s a story for another night.”

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