It was a dull gray afternoon when he began to see the algorithm. He was listlessly surfing his go-to etailer, looking for a book he’d seemingly forgotten. After some reckoning the title returned – Nature and the 30 precepts of Aescelopes. Then, with a swipe and a click he added the book to his digital shopping cart. The page refreshed and returned a recommendation.
“People who bought Nature and the 30 Precepts of Aescelopes also purchased Aescelopes’ 30 Precepts of Nature.”
Hmm. Makes sense. He’d been fascinated with the esoteric Greek rationalist, known for his early work identifying the simple patterns underlying natural phenomena. So with another swipe and a click, that one too jumped into the checkout bin.
A couple days later the package arrived, brown and dusty with the weight of travel, the box dented and slightly abused. Upon tearing it open he removed the two ponderous tomes, gave each a quick flip, and then added them with a thud to what was now becoming a bit of an edifice of books on the subject. Scanning the towering strata he noted the titles:
Nature and the 30 Precepts of Aescelopes
Aescelopes’ 30 Precepts of Nature
30 Precepts of Nature, by Aescelopes
The Natural World and the Precepts of Aescelopes
Aescelopes and the Greek Precepts of Nature
30 Greek Precepts of Aescelopes
Aescelopes’ 30 Greek Precepts
And finally, Aescelopes and the Greek Fascination with the Natural World.
He shifted in his chair with a familiar creaking, letting has hands fall to the gray fabric of the arms. Gazing at the librarian stack he felt a tickle somewhere in the back of his mind, like a fleeting shadow vaguely intent on revealing itself, but not yet – maybe later, after lunch. With considerable excitement he had purchased each of the texts in the now-teetering stack, adding more clues to the mystery of this forgotten Greek, hoping to link those simpler insights with the confusing modern world – a place he’d always struggled to comprehend.
But now the books seemed stale and redundant. Each new chapter previously approached with great alacrity now seemed obvious as he gazed back down the hall of his readings, this brood of wandering octuplets encamped upon his gray tabletop. Each was, in it’s own right, different – the words, the sentences, the chapter headings – but from this new perspective he realized they were all saying pretty much exactly the same thing.
Rising abruptly from the chair, a dull frustration stirring behind his eyes, tensing his musculature and pushing up the hairs on his arm just slightly, he walked to the kitchen. A drink perhaps. Yes. He tugged the gray cabinet nob, pulling open the gray enameled doors to reveal row after row of gray ceramic cups. Mindlessly, he grabbed the nearest, set it down on the gray marble counter-top and reached for the bottle of Bourbon. In the depths of him something was stirring – unseen fishes momentarily scared off by a deeper flux in the fundaments. His hands shook slightly as the golden bourbon poured from the bottle. A distant memory flashed by, something bright, waving to his heart before leaving again – leaving him alone on a vast dull plain. He stretched his recollection, almost painfully, to try and catch the glimmering light. A laugh, the scent of grass, a soft brush against his skin… Now just dull gray fishes swimming in circles somewhere below.
His fingers fumbled and the bourbon crashed into the cup, shattering both into a kaleidoscope of glass and gray shards and honeyed liquor. A sudden searing pain shot from his hand as blood began its crimson advance down his wrist, penetrating the woven fabric of his shirt sleeve.
He abandoned the kitchen catastrophe and dashed into the bathroom, plunging his aching hand under the cold faucet, cursing himself as the blood ran in dilute swirls down the drain. He grabbed clumsily at a hand towel, pressing it into his palm to stem the flow. Eyes closed, breath rising and falling. And gray fish turning slowly in a deep sea.
He opened his eyes with a sudden start. The towels were also gray. When did he order those? The bathmat was gray, except for a few red stains of blood. Did he buy this to match the towels? The wallpaper was gray paisley on a lighter-gray background. It must have been like that when he moved in. He returned to his bloody sleeve, the stains. Wrapping his hand in gray bandage, he checked the shirt. The same gray linen as the towels. Why? He ran to the dresser, pulled open the top drawer, full of gray socks. He wrenched the other drawers out, striking the gray cement floor with a wooden crash, spilling the silent clothes to broadcast his wardrobe of static to a dead audience. He stood broken for a moment that stretched out in every direction and, at the same time, none. He couldn’t remember what his apartment had looked like before but he knew, from somewhere distant, that it wasn’t like this. It couldn’t have been. He would never have moved into such a monotony of dullness, such a bland gray canvas. Would he? No. It was a submission, an abdication to some common denominator forcing itself upon him.
And yet, he couldn’t remember it any differently. In spite of, or perhaps because of its uniformity, it was on some level comforting. Predictable and safe. Non-threatening. Had he been ordering and arranging this all along? He could still see enough to know it had been a process of becoming, rather than a fixed state that was always there. Something he had, in a way, been corralled into, or conditioned to believe.
He stared out the window. It was a dull gray afternoon and he could see the algorithm. He couldn’t remember it any differently.
Back to the kitchen, the only life a splattered trail of blood red and a sprawling puddle of brown bourbon. A laugh, the scent of grass, a brush of flesh. A fleeting shadow below the surface, circling. He confronted the Edifice of Aescelopes and pulled one of the tomes from the pile, careful not to topple the wavering tower. In a fit of bibliomancy, straining at forgotten gods with a sudden fervent of religion, he opened the text randomly and began to read:
As Aescelopes notes in his Precepts, the mechanisms of nature are afforded the greatest efficiency and scale by merit of their frugality. The observable diversity and complexity of nature arises from a very simple set of rules that are fed recursively into themselves. But rather than yielding conformity, the mechanisms allow for the interdiction of the chaotic element in order to better explore the space of possibility. In this manner, nature wields simplicity to explore complexity.
However, in some cases, Aescelopes surmised, the chaotic element becomes excluded, leaving only simple rules looping without end, reinforcing the common denominator into a metastatic condition.
A procedural narrowing in allegiance to social cliques, convenience, and an easy purchase, designed to reinforce similarities, to lead us to more of the things we liked. They had spread across the network, watching from the edges and making adjustments to correct some invisible ledger. Their cool competency was painted across his monotone flat. On this dull gray afternoon he could see the algorithm as more than just a convenience, or even a tool to corral consumers into the spectacle. It was competing with the very rules of nature, fire-walling the chaos to contain the safety of order, painting the world gray because that’s what they did on the last clock cycle, that’s what the consumer wanted, that’s what makes the supply chain more efficient. From down here with the gray fishes, circling and circling, the light above the surface had grown dim.
He stared out the window into the dull gray afternoon. He could see the algorithm.
The gray bandage wrapping his hand was now stained with a darker gray. The blood and bourbon had dried into a fine ash. He couldn’t remember it any differently. His thoughts began to smooth out into the mercurial nothing of a Winter gloaming. The buildings across from his were so faded they barely composed against the sky. Gray people in gray houses eating gray food, staring blankly with opaque eyes at the dull gray afternoon. He couldn’t remember it any differently. A laugh, a scent, blood and shattered glass like ash on a gray floor. He stood for a moment that stretched out in every direction. An eternal gray now.
Gray people in gray houses swimming forever with gray fishes.
He stared out the window.
He couldn’t remember it any differently.