A Marks-ist Dystopia

89.42 had arrived to school early. Only a handful of students wondered aimlessly in the usually crowded hallways. He headed to the library, to kill the remaining 10 minutes before classes started.  On entry, he found a thin brochure of the school and, lowering himself into one of the large blue beanbags, he began to read.

“ Welcome to Brave New-Hill, the Number One Robot Training Academy* in the province! Built on the remains of a human high school, Brave New-Hill has been training the provinces finest robots since 2113. Utilizing the best practice of Marks Identification (MI) for over 50 years, longer than any other academy, has allowed New-Hill to achieve a well synthesized mechanism for academic excellence…”

89.42 skipped a large chunk of the brochure, which seemed to elaborate on the facilities of the school. A paragraph entitled “ What is MI?” caught his eye.

“MI or Marks Identification was a landmark innovation in robot training. The idea of associating a student with a percentage was not new, human high schools had been doing it for centuries, however MI goes beyond this. MI is more than just a mark or even a name. MI is an identity. Furthermore, since all robots achieve percentages of between 99 and 100, the percentage used is in fact the first four decimals that follow. (In highly irregular cases of duplicate identity, a fifth decimal place is used). In addition, since marks fluctuate throughout the year, the average overall mark at the end of the previous academic year is a student’s MI. Countless studies have shown that robots with MI are far better trained than those without…“

89.42 stood up and replaced the brochure in the newsstand. He had hoped that the brochure would tell him something about the academy that he didn’t know. Checking his watch, 89.42 mooched his way to ‘English in Communication’ class.

When he arrived, the room was already full. As per usual, the class self-sorted itself into groups of students with similar marks. And 89.42, being the lowest, sat alone at the back of the class, behind a group of rather talkative 92’s.

On the latest poetry analysis he had received a .25 mark deduction for using the word “abstract parallelism” instead of metaphor.

“Abstract parallelism” had been a hobbyhorse of his for sometime.  According to him, it was a concept that not only united English concepts like “allegory”, “simile”, “analogy” and “metaphor,” but also it was also evident in the abstractions made by all arts and science. He had arrived at this concept after finding the categorization of “similes” and a “metaphors” as arbitrary. What was the reason behind this specific theoretical classification over another? His “abstract parallelism” was logical though. He could prove it.

In the last thirty minutes of the class, a piece of creative writing was demanded, based on a rather hackneyed prompt. Unlike his peers, 89.42 enjoyed creative writing. He liked telling stories. However, whenever he knew the piece was to be marked, it would give him the bizarre and unnerving impression of being a trick dolphin that was being coaxed to jump through hoops. This was because of the unsaid requirement to lace one’s writing with metaphors, motifs, symbols and similes. Why was writing that included these devices always superior to those that did not? Was it not possible to jump to the side of the hoop, or daresay, over the hoop? All this was stirring in his mind as his hand darted across the page, relating the affair of one Pedro Sears.

Thirty-five minutes and three pages later, he was in the ‘Science in Reasoning’ class writing a pop quiz. His teacher for this class was a big proponent of pop quizzes. The slightest misbehavior or disrespect would result in a quiz for the entire class. It was possible to discipline students to the finest details with marks, in a way physical punishment never could. As 89.42 often reflected, marks were scars that never went away. They followed one to university and supposedly determined what sort of career one would have after university.

As the teacher was collecting 89.42’s quiz, he heard her whisper “-.25, for trying to cheat”. 89.42 was initially surprised, but then realized his fault. He had written the so-called ‘free response’ section in pencil. The adolescent automaton shook his head, before sinking it into his hands that were resting on the table.

He had always held that there was nothing ‘free’ about the response. One’s answer not only had to be obtained by following the rather mechanistic process outlined in the previous class but must ignore the countless assumptions that the question itself was making. While 89.42 was interested in scientific innovation, he was not interested in the mechanistic applications of an innovation. And now that very same, hypocritical free-response had cost him dearly.

After an excruciating hour of Science, 89.42 hurried to his locker deposit a doodle he had made in class. His locker was crammed with an odd collection of abstract paintings, sketches and doodles. Most of these artworks were his attempts to portray “abstract parallelism”. Lately he had found plane surfaces insufficient. It was for this reason that after depositing his latest scrawl, he proceeded to Art Room that housed his sculpture. As he jostled passed he peers, he noticed, as he did everyday, that they spent there lunchtime doing schoolwork. Furthermore, they again seemed clustered into groups with similar MI. A particularly noxious group of high achieving students, whose leader was a hundred, sneered at him as he walked past. “Cheating in Science? Well I’m not surprised. Remember the time he was absent and actually asked me if he could borrow my notes, for that day?” Said the hundred, watching 89.42.

“Its not that we see him as a threat,” Agreed the 99.76. “ But he’d barely comprehend the first page.”  89.42 ignored them. He was used to it by now.

Anyway, 89.42 had his sculpture for company. The moment he entered the room and touched the model, a jolt of energy seemed to whirl through his frame. His intense concentration often gave way to genuine excitement as he rolled the clay in his fingers, smoothing the edges. After half an hour of sculpting and increasingly jumpy behavior, the teen robot took a step back and admired his handiwork. A magnified DNA strand in the shape of infinity stood at the centre of the table. He was done. This was it! It suddenly occurred to him that the principal would be impressed with this particular piece of art. As if following orders, he carefully picked up his unbaked sculpture and proceeded to the principal’s office, which happened to be down the passage.

To 89.42’s surprise the principal invited him in immediately.  “ I’ve been expecting you, please put your artwork down and take a seat,” he said.

89.42 obeyed, glancing fearfully at the principal as he took his seat. The tall man was not only famed for his severity, but was rumored to have had a strange history.

“From your locker,” continued the aged machine, indicating a neatly stacked pile of 89.42’s “abstract parallelisms”.

89.42 gazed from his sculpture to his artwork, to the principal, dumbstruck.

The man laughed, “Are you wondering how I know about your artwork, or should I say, “abstract parallelisms”? Or is it how I knew you were coming to see me? “

The teen robot nodded, speechless.

“You had a chip planted in you when you first came here. It allows us to track your thoughts, but, more importantly, if you think of something, lets say “unique” you are programmed to come to me.”

89.42 found words. “My world is now…different…warped…Why are you telling me this now?”

The man was silent for a moment. Then he responded slowly, with almost mischievous glint in his eye. “ At Brave New Hill, that is the … let us say “reward” for being unique. Congratulations. You are not the first to malfunction, by the way” As he said the last words, he opened the door behind his chair with a flourish.

89.42 peered inside. In it he saw at least a dozen, dilapidated stacks of the same form, in clay, over and over again. It was a DNA strand merged with infinity. The principal picked up 89.42’s one and placed it with the others.

89.42 reeled. The principal was now watching him.

The broken boy started muttering to himself. “ All exactly the same. Unique? Huh! All exactly the s-”

The principal interjected “Not exactly the same, minor differences in scale. A handful of your doodles are almost genuinely unique.”

“What is “genuinely unique” mean anymore?”

“Interesting question, we robots have been wondering about that ever since we rid this planet of humans. In fact, I once claimed that creativity became extinct with the Homo sapiens sapiens. That was why I was made to leave my university position and come here-”

But 89.42 was not interested “MI kills creativity” he almost yelled.

“Robots have no creativity to kill. At least MI makes us productive.”

“Teachers misuse it. They take MI lightly, as if it doesn’t affect our future. At the same time, they use it to keep discipline.”

“They are just preparing you for your future. Nobody cares about your MI except you. They actually want you to succeed”

“MI will determine my future!”

“While you may care about your future, nobody else will. Especially at university.”

“Is it even possible to be successful in this system without an adequate MI?”

“Of course, in fact, its quite likely. While MI significantly increases your chances of success, its main benefit is in security.”

“The focus of classes is on parrot knowledge. We are not supposed to ask ‘why’, in order to achieve a high MI. Its preventing real learning”

The principal sighed.

“Do you think you are some sort of Bernard Marx? Or the Savage? Or should that be Bernard Marks?” The man chuckled slowly as he said this. He seemed to have made a decision. He continued.

“Well, let’s find out, shall we? I’ll play Mond. You have a choice. Either you leave this place, become a “unique”, crazy, malfunctioning, wild, homeless robot. And get your so-callled creativity. He paused and smiled ironically at the pile of doodles that had remained at the table.

“Or?” Inquired 89.42, breathless.

“Or, we reprogram your brain, remove the bugs. And you automatically start behaving normally.”

It was a no-brainer, really, for 89.42. Especially after what he had just learnt. But something was still perturbing him.

“My MI is so low. No matter what I do after you reprogram me. There is no way I can improve my MI to the high nineties required by universities in one term.”

The elderly automaton laughed again.

“Worried about you MI, are we? Well, its not difficult for us to accidentally reformat your MI, while reprogramming you…”

89.42 smiled. For the first time in years he felt the urge to become 100. He could get there. He just knew it.

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