An excerpt from Eduardo Rabasa’s upcoming novel, A Zero-Sum Game (translated by Christina MacSweeney).
(See also our interview with Rabasa)
The Ponce Scheme
The reforms signified the commencement of perpetual change. From then onward, there would always be work in progress. Hence the dust. And also the noise. The transformations were like a loose hosepipe spraying water in all directions. To give them some coherency, a man capable of measuring everything was brought in.
G.B.W. Ponce had acquired great renown in the socio-scientific community for a statistical discovery known as the Ponce Scheme. After years of battling with his algorithms—his beaky, condor face lost its glow and his hair started to gray—he’d managed to compress thousands of variables into a method he retained for his personal use, in spite of stratospheric offers to share his secret. Inspired by the philosophical notion that history is just an untiring repetition of itself, he proposed to condense the millions of correlations studied into an accurate predictive method: his aim was to quantify the eternal return. If all thought, every impulse or action is contained in the characteristics that define each individual, he could explain real events without having to wait for them to occur.
He investigated innumerable causal relationships, looking for recurring patterns. Beginning with the most obvious categories—social class, nationality, skin color, religion—he managed to corroborate common suppositions. In general terms, people’s thoughts and actions could be blocked out, according to the specific group they belonged to. Ponce concentrated his attention on the remainder, the minuscule deviations within a single group. Why did some millionaires wear denim jeans and jackets? What was the difference between adulterous believers and their chaste counterparts? What did women who lied about their age have in common? Why did hoods indicate a tendency to mindless acts of violence?
He tried out his theory on hundreds of the most elusive variables: the type of music listened to, favorite sexual fetish, being an early morning or night person. Almost all these variables fitted within more general categories, but some stood out for their predictive power. Among people with an average income, those who had had wooden toys were, as a rule, less given to accumulation; those who couldn’t dance salsa had a greater tendency for masochistic relationships. He refined and purified until he arrived at the famous Ponce Questionnaire. Seventy-one questions that summarized the narrative of human behavior. With a margin of error of ±3.14%, it could predict political opinions, consumption patterns, movie preferences, the cost of an engagement ring. Armed with his database, Ponce would consult his cyber-seer and note down the answers. It never failed on the outcome of an election, the sales volume of a new model of car, the numbers of demonstrators at a protest march, or the average abortion figures in a particular stratum of women.
It also worked at an individual level. Once a person had allowed him to take an X-ray of his soul, G.B.W. Ponce was the owner of his future. He knew, with terrifying precision, what that person would think or choose given certain alternatives. On one occasion, a progressive colleague had made a virulent attack on his method; the very idea of its implications deeply alarmed him. Ponce announced a public challenge: the colleague should hand him a sealed envelope containing a document outlining his position on various controversial topics, his normal mode of transport, the number of jackets with elbow patches he had in his closet, and other personal peculiarities. He would then complete the Ponce Questionnaire. The computer crunched the data and came up with the right answer on subjects such as his views on homosexuals being able to enlist in the army, the hours of television he allowed his children to watch, whether or not he believed in personal pensions, and his favorite cruise route. The humiliated professor retired in silence. Ponce’s flamethrower had melted his waxen autonomy.
Each fresh success gave him greater confidence. He was to be found in the most venerable seats of learning, giving presentations to packed lecture theaters, always dressed in the same way: red canvas tennis shoes, slightly torn jeans, and a white shirt, plus his indispensable dark glasses. He enjoyed seeing the effects of his provocations. Once, he turned up at an ultraconservative university disguised as a robot. He explained to the audience he was going to demonstrate that the only God they should worship was the automaton each and every person has within him, and followed this with barbed statements claiming that fundamentalism could be explained by purely material circumstances. When he stated that 87.3% of evolution deniers treated their subordinates worse than chimpanzees, one young man could take no more and made a lunge for the sound equipment to turn off the microphone. G.B.W. Ponce came down from the stage in a series of jerky, mechanical movements to the sounds of the insults and boos of his devout audience.
What was revolutionary about his method was that it removed the need for studies and surveys. The responses to the questionnaire were sufficient. He updated his databases to keep them fresh and developed parameters for balancing the different variables, including the hedonistic slant inherent in advancing age. Having nothing more to prove to academia, he published a voluminous book of his findings, entitled God’s Dice. He was careful to keep it beyond the comprehension of non-initiates: the book didn’t explain anything. There were thousands of tables with statistical links from which the author could extract at will the conclusions he wanted to develop more explicitly. His authority was such that the arrows of causality began to point in every direction. It was no longer possible to tell what was the origin and what was the outcome.
One man read that self-sufficient women whose partners were addicted to video games and marijuana tended to break off their relationships. After even the slightest argument, he would accuse his wife of wanting to leave him. He fought against the growing tension by increasing his dose of marijuana, and spending whole days playing video games. When his wife finally departed, he self-pityingly accepted the fulfillment of the Poncean maxim.
A bureaucrat learned that public servants with double chins, over twelve years of service in the same post, and a predilection for sensationalist magazines often stole the office staplers. He was enormously relieved to see that statistical absolution of his peccadillo.
A bored housewife read that, in 73% of cases, the first lesbian experience in her stratum occurred with the domestic help. Coming back drunk from a meal with her best friend, she called Josefina into her bedroom and tempered her confusion with imperative commands until she achieved satisfaction. Thanks to God’s Dice, she ran not the slightest risk of her new secret being discovered.
G.B.W. Ponce was intrigued by the practical reach of his paradigm. He was certain that Villa Miserias was the ideal laboratory in which to pursue his grand passion: codifying social existence down to the last iota. He made it a condition that his questionnaire would be distributed to every resident in the estate. Fabulous! No problem. He installed himself and his meager belongings in Building 29 and acquired two adjoining spaces in the commercial zone in which to launch his consultancy business, $uperstructure:
WE TELL YOU WHAT YOU DIDN’T EVEN KNOW YOU THOUGHT
As people became masters of their own destinies, the responsibility to know what was going on and offer justifiable opinions increased: the residents had to stop being mere spectators of what concerned them. The reforms had offered an opportunity to crystalize needs: it was the moment to create a newspaper, The Daily Miserias. Based on a study by G.B.W. Ponce, Villa Miserians spent 6.8 minutes a day informing themselves of their reality. He had statistical evidence of graphic preferences, type of language, topics of interest, and the ideal length of articles. There had been no time to lose or gaudiness to be stinted.
The result was a concise newspaper, in which illustrations, photos, and boxes with huge arrows predominated. The manual of house style specified rules and proportions: after a given number of words, there should be a box recapping the main points, a smaller box summarizing the larger one, yet another that would continue the compression, and so on until it was condensed into the keyword that was the focus of the entire text. Ponce had demonstrated that this optimized the retention of information because it allowed each individual to go into the text as deeply or shallowly as he pleased. At first sight, the articles looked like those charts representing the stages of a competition, in which the winning words advanced to the next heat, until the supreme word had beaten the rest. The language was colloquial; the reporters were trained not to insult the intelligence of their readers: they should refrain from using vocabulary not in the daily lexicon of the majority.
The aim was to attain a delicate balance: gathering the opinions of people so as to then mold them. It was explained it using the allegory of a fountain that feeds on the water of a river, only to then return it, transformed, to the stream before feeding once again on that slightly modified source, in a patient reiteration that eventually modifies the raw material through its own elements.
The articles should utilize the time-honored inductive technique of representing a general idea by a few individual testimonies. It was prohibited for reporters to explicitly reveal their beliefs. Every case required the support of an impartial witness. In this respect, The Daily Miserias also introduced an innovation: it made absolutely no difference whether or not the witness to an event actually existed. This wasn’t a con or some arbitrary decision. Ponce explained that, from a statistical viewpoint, one person’s opinion in a population consisting of anything over 878 was already irrelevant when it came to representing the feelings of the majority. He’d demonstrated this in practice with a simple exercise: comparing the reportage of four newspapers, each with a different political tendency, on an antiwar march in a distant country. In every case, the testimonies offered to illustrate the mood of those present coincided with the editorial line of the paper in relation to the war. The most progressive reproduced the words of a father, heartbroken at the death of his son—a medical student specializing in epidemiology—who planned to go to a poverty-stricken region to fight a pandemic. The most conservative, in contrast, interviewed an elderly lady waving a placard with a picture of a hippy wiping his ass with a national flag. She’d lost a grandson, but was proud of her “hero who gave his life to protect our freedom.” The two newspapers holding the center ground offered the opinions of people who were against war but understood that it was sometimes necessary, or who supported this war but demanded transparent information in relation to its cost and duration. If this was correlated with the papers’ estimations of the number of marchers, his point was proven.
What’s the difference, asked G.B.W. Ponce, between looking for someone who expresses the viewpoint you want to transmit and a sensible journalist who captures the atmosphere through the words of a person who doesn’t exist, but is more representative of the collective feeling? Why always use a tangible witness? In statistical terms, it’s the same thing to be one in a million as to be zero in five thousand. Used correctly, the new technique was, in fact, more objective than its predecessor.