The old Suwalk border post would have been hard to spot if it weren’t for the monument on top. Part of the simple yet once very secure complex had disintegrated. The rest was overgrown. But the iron cross above showed no signs of age. It might always have been there. It might always remain.
Jon zoomed in on the bronze plaque at the base of the cross:
Where nations once fought
may there now be one family
of children all equal in dignity.
Poetic, moralistic BS.
So typical of PR. Vague, naïve, old-fashioned. Family this, family that. With no vision or ambition to be great. Or to enjoy all that life offers.
That’s why he did not subscribe to Persons Republic. He lived in its physical territory, which covered the central and southern parts of Europa plus the Dublish Isle. His residential hub was Vilon. But in a world of government-as-a-service, he chose to be an e-citizen of the Liberty Union (geo-located in the north and west of the continent). He could live a full life of liberty remotely, paying taxes to LU Government Ltd., and getting from them all the cyber-security, education, healthcare, and legal trappings that he needed. Anyway, most of the time he was digital, in the LU Net.
Jon Kazimir, 25, was a content producer for Boom-Big (BB), the second of LU’s two main media companies. He had just finished studies at the Googleheim School of Infotainment, earning a virtual degree in mass psychology. Now on one of his first big assignments, he was preparing a report on retro tourism (actual physical travel) in the old Polish-Lithuanian national conflict zone.
His professional objectives, as per the Infotainer Code of Conduct, were:
1. To entertain: To satisfy curiosity by highlighting strange things or to titillate,
2. To educate: To reinforce viewers’ clear ideas regarding core liberty values,
3. To synergize: To promote the businesses of the program’s sponsor(s).
The sponsor in this case was YouTour – the world’s biggest tour operator working in all realities (digital, physical, and mixed) and initiator of the retro trend that was resurrecting the vehicle and shared-lodging industries. Jon had been given the use of a YouTour autopilot pod so he could sense sites directly and tell his audience about that experience. Then there were the homes he’d be staying in – examples of the firm’s global “Old-Style B&B” service.
He had a mini-drone at his disposal for filming. And his handy device was linked to the BB AI – that would gather and keep order in facts, quotes, and background materials, automatically produce a detailed draft of the report, and ensure the final product complied with the BB Style Code.
The border post was his first stop. A historic symbol of how far the world had come from the era of nationalism. That would be a nice opening for the story.
“Hey BB,” the young reporter said with a glance at his left wrist, in which his permanent handy had been installed at the age of 18. “Tell me about this place. Suwalk. What’s the history? What’s the significance?”
Hello, Jon. According to WikiLU, ‘Suwalk’ is the standardized global English name for an administrative defense complex that functioned during much of the nationalist era at the border between the former nation-states of Poland and Lithuania. Its purpose was to control the flow of people and goods based on their nationality and to generate revenue for each state.
The post was initially deactivated after both states joined a common Europan statehood scheme in the early 21st century. It was reactivated when that system soon collapsed amid multiple inter-national conflicts about maintaining the purity of national languages, interpretations of history regarding which nation was more powerful when, and – to a lesser degree – economic interests.
Radical nationalist states then emerged, but proved short-lived. One factor was the so-called ‘Big Mix’ – a global explosion of migration that diluted national cultures. A second factor was the Digital Revolution, ongoing at the time, which among other things enabled government-as-a-service and virtual citizenship. Thereafter, states developed ever more on the basis of a shared style of life, rather than on that of shared national identity.
Suwalk was definitively closed at the creation of Persons Republic, or PR, as the first major non-national super state. The former border post was later declared a monument to the end of nationalist chauvinism.
Under the Truth Policy of WikiLU, I am required here to note that PR, with its capital in Rome, celebrates an outdated, intolerant, and superstitious ideology which exaggerates the value of the individual human being while also imposing meaningless rules and judgements on individual behavior. A majority of its citizens profess Christianity, which is outlawed in the Liberty Union.
“Thanks, BB,” Jon said. “Condense that into a 90-second voiceover to accompany the drone footage. And now have the pod take me to the old Polish capital.”
A B&B in Warsha
The ride to Warsha in the antique vehicle took an hour but went by fast. Jon had a snack, checked his mail and the news (Aleph Inc.’s contract to run the LU government had been renewed for another four years), played a quick VR game, and he was there. He never even thought to look out the window along the way.
“Welcome, Mr. Kazimir, to Warsha and to the Urman family Old-Style Bed & Breakfast! We hope you enjoy your stay. Note that we are specially trained and authorized by YouTour to acquaint you with various elements of Polish national culture. We will begin with dinner at 7 o’clock.”
The speaker was a firm yet warm middle-aged woman. Apparently, the manager of the house. At the same time, though, Jon, for the first time in his life, thought he had a sense of what the word “motherly” meant. (He never knew his own mother – in LU that was a mere biological concept. Children there were raised by professional educators without character, so that they could grow up free of others’ cultural and ideological influence. Freedom has a price, he suddenly thought.)
Jon went to his room, which was surprisingly non-digital – no screens. He thought a bit about the information he hoped to gather here. Then he put on the late-20th century clothes that were left for him and went down to dinner right on time, unsure what to expect.
“Hoorah!” The cheer erupted spontaneously from the mouths of five children of various ages as the young media man entered the room. “Hoorah! Tonight we have a guest! An interesting man! And better food than usual! And a tasty dessert!” Their remarks were many, varied, and very much alive.
“Excuse the ruckus, Mr. Kazimir. Life in a family can be chaotic. But it can also be very fun and refreshing, as I hope you will experience with us,” a clean-cut middle-aged man broke in. Mr. Urman, presumably. “I’m Anthony, according to the modern non-national standard for naming. But tonight we are in ‘Poland’, so please call me Antek! Welcome to our home!” Such hospitality was certainly a discovery. The situation exotic. This would be good infotainment.
Antek kept order at the family table and kept up a lively conversation as Beata, his wife, darted in and out with food and drink – often explaining the what and why of each dish. It was filling food, and tasty, but nothing extravagant. Not the kind of menu you could build a restaurant around. But it was an amazingly pleasant meal. Because of the atmosphere. Because of the people. A Polish dinner.
The BB AI taped the whole thing through the security cameras in the dining room.
That night Jon slept very soundly.
The next morning brought the offer of a new adventure. Church. For the first time in Jon’s life. It was Sunday, the Urmans said, and that’s what Polish people did. And it’s what their own family does every week. He declined.
While they went to church, he checked the news. And he discovered a BB report about his work. Created by the AI.
A Boom-Big content producer, on special assignment in Warsha, was mobbed yesterday by dirty children while visiting the type of radical asocial family that is typical in Persons Republic. Jon Kazimir is there doing research for a major BB infotainment special on retro tourism, in partnership with YouTour – the world’s leading tourism company. Here are some scenes from what he went through last night...
What followed was a 40-second video montage from the Polish dinner, which managed to capture (and even exaggerate) all the chaos but none of the pleasant camaraderie. Putting a traditional family like that in a positive light was against the BB Style Code. The audience, LU citizens, wouldn’t like it. Jon had forgotten. The family, after all, was an institution that limited people’s freedom and often led to discrimination. The Liberty Union did not favor the family or recognize it by law.
When the Urmans came back from church, breakfast was served. “Are you really of Polish nationality, or are you just acting?” Jon asked the father and mother while sipping his coffee. “And how do you tell the difference between what is Polish and what is Persons Republic? It seems hard to distinguish between the two.”
“Well,” Beata began, “we do have some Polish blood, like almost everyone who lives in this part of the world. But we also have Lithuanian blood (which is almost the same thing), and Czech, and even some Spanish. And a tiny bit of Syrian blood. Among others. In the modern world, it’s hard to argue that there is anyone of true ‘Polish nationality’. That’s an inaccurate concept.”
“But it’s very easy for us to ‘act’ Polish,” she continued. “You are right to see continuity between what was Polish and what is part of our modern state’s life and culture. Because when the Polish nation stopped being a state, those people did not have to give up their identity. They simply joined with others, of other nations, who had the same values. And they discovered that what they valued had value not because it was ‘Polish’, but because it really did have value in itself. Of course, those with different values do not join our state. So, they don’t have to give up their identity either. Physically or just digitally, they choose to live in the LU, like you, or in the SCS, or among the Anish.”
That was food for thought as Jon walked the town that day, getting footage of historical Polish things that a YouTour tourist from elsewhere might find interesting, even titillating, or educational. In early evening he asked his AI to have the pod take him back to Vilon, the old capital of the Lithuanian nation-state.
A colleague in Vilon
That trip to Vilon was strange.
First of all, Jon had lived in the city all his life, and now he was coming as a ‘tourist’. While living there, he had always isolated himself from what was local, from the PR’s people and life, covering himself with a cloak of LU superiority and plugging his senses with the virtual joys of LU. Now he found himself eager to experience Vilon fully. The Lithuanian version as well as the PR version – if that was different. Again, he would stay at an Old-Style B&B home.
Also, strangely, on the way he had no urge to imbibe infotainment from the LU Net. Instead, he stared out the window in deep contemplation. He watched low hills roll by, and forests. He saw a few residential hubs in the distance. And he especially perked up at the sight of occasional people. Usually tiny. Rarely alone. And he wondered how they lived and thought. What their state was.
Jon himself knew that he had some Lithuanian blood in his veins. A great-great-great-great grandfather had been a Liberal Party leader in the country. Could he call himself ‘Lithuanian’? Not according to Beata Urman’s logic. But neither was he PR. That was certain. So, what was his connection to this place? And if he wasn’t connected to this place, then to what place was he connected? He needed to be connected to some physical place. Not just a digital network.
The pod delivered him to a clean but rather time-worn façade in a square right in the center of Vilon. According to a little sign that hung by the door, it was a Jewish-style YouTour B&B. Daniel opened the door – a pensioner wearing a kippah, with a firm jaw and a glint in his eye.
“Mr. Kazimir, I assume? Welcome to ‘Lithuania’. Call me Danny. My home is your home for as long as you choose to stay. Be aware that there are some other guests, too, now. One is a colleague of yours – a content producer from the PR Times. She wants to interview you. In terms of exploring the Lithuanian side of the city, she will also be happy to help you. Dinner is at 7 p.m.”
Danny showed him to his room. Again, with papered walls rather than screens. Jon wondered if that didn’t get boring: the same exact view from your bed day in and day out. Still, there was something authentic about these low-tech furnishings. Something very ‘human’, he almost wanted to say.
The idea of being interviewed caught him by surprise, rather unpleasantly. He preferred to be the one asking the questions and controlling the spin. But it wouldn’t be right to leave a colleague in the lurch. He would talk to her, but try to get it over with as quickly as possible.
“Jon Kazimir, Boom-Big media,” he said as he approached the only woman in the dining room.
“Silvia Bernaton, PR Times,” she answered. “I’ve been eagerly waiting for you to arrive. It’s not every day that big media from the Liberty Union take an interest in life here, even if only our history.”
“Hi Silvia. You’re right – why advertise the competition? That’s probably why the LU government company discourages positive coverage of other states. LU people aren’t very interested in PR anyway. But with the retro tourism trend, now there’s a business side to the story. The sponsor company is paying for all the work to put the report together – so why not? And like you said, it’s only history.”
They settled down at the smaller dining table. The other larger one was occupied by a couple from the south with three small children (who were amazingly well-behaved). Silvia quizzed him on the details of the report he was preparing, the places he planned to visit, and attitudes toward PR history among LU citizens. He was surprised that the handy she used to capture their talk was a separate device, set on the table, and wasn’t conveniently integrated into her body. He asked about that.
“It’s a useful tool, but it’s not part of me, and I like to keep it like that,” she answered. “Besides,” she added, “how do you turn yours off? Like if you get tired of listening to the information they feed you or if you don’t want them to track your every word and step?”
“That’s a strange way to think about things. I also wanted to ask why you’re wasting time gathering basic facts about my project. That’s something any AI can do. Surely the PR Times has an AI?”
“Of course. But we only use the AI for data content, where all you need is basic processing. When there’s a human angle, we always have human journalists prepare the report. Our experience is that applying AI algorithms to inherently human topics – art, politics, history, ethics – yields artificial results that simplify reality too much. You get manipulation. Consciously or not, whoever writes the algorithms tends to impose their own view of reality. In fact, PR’s laws limit AI use for that reason.”
“But the algorithms just reflect a Style Code, which is made by top experts. They ensure quality.”
“They ensure uniformity and the interests of those in power. Did you know that media codes in the LU are controlled by the state security council? The company that runs the government wants to avoid ideological questioning, which could lead some citizens to unsubscribe and start paying their taxes to another state. It also wants to promote purchase of the goods and services of the many other companies it controls. It does so through media sponsorships – you know that YouTour is a part of the Aleph Group? And also indirectly, by encouraging an intensely consumeristic style of life.”
“Actually,” Jon said, feeling a bit uncomfortable, “as a content producer, I myself am subject to security clearance. These are things I’m not authorized to talk about officially. Can we consider the rest of our conversation ‘off the record’?”
“You should know that there is no such thing as ‘off the record’. With journalists, everything you say that can be used against you will be used against you, sooner or later.”
“Then I prefer to end this conversation. But I would enjoy a tour of the city with you tomorrow.”
“Good. Let’s meet here at 8 o’clock.”
Access to Polatsk
Vilon was more interesting than Jon ever suspected. A lot of old Lithuanian elements remained scattered around, reflecting many centuries of the life of a nation. The number of churches was amazing. Many were still functioning. As was a synagogue. Out of purely historical interest, Jon went into a few of them. In some he filmed people performing old-fashioned superstitious rites. That fit well with all three of the objectives of infotainment.
The contents of their lunch at a YouTour ‘Lithuanian’ eatery were extremely similar, when not identical, to the ‘Polish’ national food he’d been given at the B&B in Warsha.
“At one time, the Polish and Lithuanian nations occupied territory quite far to the east of here, in the Europan part of what is now the SCS,” Silvia remarked as they left the co-eating space. “The border is very close. If you want, we could make a quick excursion. That might add value to your retro tourism report,” she went on.
It seemed like a good idea to Jon. He messaged his BB director, who in turn consulted with the YouTour team, and was told enthusiastically to go ahead with a visit to a former Lithuanian and/or Polish region of the SCS.
SCS was of course short for “Super Caring State”, the standardized English translation of the entity’s real pictographic name in Sinitic. Starting just a half-hour pod ride from Vilon, it stretched all the way to the south-eastern corner of Asia. Jon and Silvia decided to visit Polatsk, a residential hub of historical significance just inside of the SCS.
The trip to the border was fast. But crossing over was another matter entirely.
This must be what the Suwalk border post looked like when it was still operating, Jon thought as he gazed at the rusty metal walls and dense lasers that rose from them into the sky. Two anthropoid shapes approached – maybe humans in heavily computerized suits, maybe robots. They silently presented the alien reporters with two sets of mixed reality goggles, gesturing to put them on immediately. Which they did.
Before Jon’s eyes there appeared the heading:
SUPER CARING STATE ACCESS CONDITIONS.
Below was a bulleted list of three items:
- Reality goggles must be worn at all times
- Handy devices must be disconnected from all foreign state networks
- All economic transactions require state approval
Below that there was a checkbox:
□ I agree to abide by these conditions while in SCS territory. I understand that any violation may be punished by fine, banishment, imprisonment or cancellation.
They looked at each other, shrugged, and checked the box. Silvia switched off her handy. Jon ordered his to disconnect from the LU Net. He noticed that, through the SCS state-issued goggles, the border wall no longer looked rusty. It now appeared to be stainless steel and was digitally labeled as “Impenetrable nuclear-resistant peace wall”.
Jon and Silvia approached a window beside a locked door which was labelled “Friendship access No. 34”. A man whom the goggles labelled “Chan Ivan, State Access Controller” asked them to explain the reason for their visit. Silvia told him about the BB report that Jon was working on and said she too would like to prepare a report about the SCS for the media of Persons Republic.
“That will not be convenient or possible or necessary,” Mr. Ivan said coldly but with a touch of disgust. “First, it would not be true to allocate the history of Polatsk or any other part of the SCS to the Polish nation or the Lithuanian nation. This history was part of the Belarussian nation, brothers and sisters to the Russan nation, partners in collaboration with the Sinitic nations.
“Moreover, the Great Government of the SCS provides everything for the people, with utmost excellence: healthcare, education, holidays, along with all else. That includes the truth service you call journalism or infotainment, which we have fully digitally automated with the world’s most advanced technologies. It is guaranteed by the government. No alien info-workers may produce content in the SCS. But we can sell you much better and more accurate content about the SCS anyway.
“Finally, the YouTour corporation is still in negotiations with the Great Government about possibly enabling citizens of other states to enjoy the amazing holidays that are possible only in the SCS. Thus it would be premature to begin promoting such possibilities.
“In short, you are denied access to the SCS at this time. Please return the reality goggles.”
They were escorted back to their pod and within 45 minutes were back in Vilon.
Back at the B&B, Danny brought them some tea. He seemed amused by their failed excursion.
“What, did you think that just because there are no nations anymore there are no divisions? There’s always something to divide people, and it’s always the same things that unite them. It used to be nationality, hard as that can be to define or determine. Now, at least nominally, it’s ideology – though I’m not sure half of the people really understand, or have ever really thought about, the ideology of the state they subscribe too. They just find themselves in one category and they stay there. There’s maybe more understanding and authentic belonging here in PR. What’s important, really, is that people find the place that’s right for them, truly right. Their place in the world.”
“Why are you here in PR, Danny,” Jon asked. “I mean, there is a Jewish nation-state – the last remaining nation-state in the world. Wouldn’t that be your place?”
“What questions you ask! What did I do to you to get this kind of interrogation?” he responded with that glint in his eye. “But if you insist, then I’ll tell you, yes, being Jewish is a nationality, it’s belonging to a nation – a very special and unique people, chosen by God. But it’s not just a nationality issue. As a Jewish person, I also have certain values, a certain philosophy of life, ways in which I like to live and behave and have other people behave. That Jewish nationality and those values are related, but they are not identical. I identify myself with the PR way of life. I like it here. I feel at home here. My children live here. My wife is buried here. And my parents. But I also know I can always go to the Holy Land of my nation. There I will be accepted. There I will be at home, too. But to keep that ‘home’, I don’t have to go. I already have it. So maybe that’s enough answer to your impertinent question. Meanwhile, I see that you two are becoming good friends...”
“We’re just working,” Silvia chirped in, laughing for some reason. “But now the work is nearly done. I’ll prepare my report this evening, and Jon will wrap us his – actually, I suspect his AI will do almost all the work. Then tomorrow morning it’s over.”
Danny grunted. Silvia dove into her handy, starting to review the quotes and clips and ideas she had gathered from Jon. And Jon himself began a dialogue of sorts with his wrist.
Two hours later, Silvia put down her device, satisfied with the multimedia report she had just filed to the PR Times under the straightforward title: “LU media spotlights PR as a holiday destination”. In it she detailed the nature of the upcoming BB report and gave estimates of how many LU citizens might join retro tours to parts of PR in the coming year. She spoke about the economic opportunities this would bring, especially to families that run B&Bs. And she spoke about the valuable opportunities for PR people to engage with LU subscribers, to promote more understanding between the two states. She gave some examples of her own conversations with Jon.
Jon was nursing a beer in an old-style glass and waiting for her to finish. He was letting the BB AI’s algorithms decide on how best to formulate his own report. He would not be able to influence that process much, anyway.
He was also eager to chat a bit more with Silvia before setting off on his next assignment in the morning. This time he was to gather retro tourism footage and historical facts in Great Brexit. He wondered if he’d find much in the way of conversation among the Old Anish there, and what their modern disconnected ideology was really all about.
Bryan Bradley, born in the USA, is a former long-time Central and Eastern European reporter for international news agencies including Reuters and Bloomberg. Based in Vilnius, Lithuania, he currently runs a small communications consulting, copywriting and translation business.
Cover photo: 1863 Uprising in Lithuania, Konstantinas Bogdanas (senior), 1956. Courtesy of Konstantinas Bogdanas (junior). Artist's son did not agree to describe the sculpture as unrealized - created as an academic work it was never meant to be exhibited in public space. The work was originally titled "Peasant revolt", because in the USSR it was forbidden to address the subject of the uprising.