Let’s pretend that it’s Testing Day, and you’re the one being tested.
Testing Day doesn’t really exist. But it might. It could. Everyone hates being tested no matter what they’re being tested on, so it makes sense that one day somebody will create a reason for everyone to be tested. It’s not Murphy’s Law, but it’s definitely a close relative.
So it’s Testing Day and you’re called to your local testing site. Think of a voting site or, if you’ve never voted, your old high school gymnasium. It’s not particularly crowded, as this kind of thing is parsed out over several days to improve efficiency. Testing Day, unlike voting, is mandatory. Missing Testing Day is tantamount to swimming with an anvil strapped to your waist. You will go to Testing Day; there is no option.
Testing booths are as fancy or as plain as your local district can afford. Assume that not much cost has gone into the booth and that it’s unremarkable. But the desk is low to the ground, and you sit at it rather than stand. Testing Day can take a long time and since everyone goes to Testing Day, everybody sits. The thing about Testing Day is that you never know what you’re being tested on, how long the test will be, or what type of test you’ll be taking. Sometimes it’s multiple choice, sometimes it’s true or false, sometimes it’s an essay question. You’re not required to bring anything other than comfortable clothing – all test materials are supplied.
The booth has a sound proof door, and there are no windows. It’s as clean as a newborn’s mind and never smells of anything pungent or noxious. Care is taken to keep it neutral so that your surroundings do not influence your decisions. They say that you are not monitored, but whether or not you trust them at their word is up to you. Since they will see the test results anyway, it makes little sense to monitor you. Besides, these are not tests you can cheat at, certainly not successfully.
This year’s test is different from the others. Once you close the door and take your seat, you’ll notice two boxes of equal size built into the desk, their finished wooden lids sealed by hooked metal latches. An overhead speaker begins to speak in a calm, soothing tone:
In a few seconds, the lids will open and the test will begin. Please remember that all answers must be honest, but there is no penalty for any answer. You have not been singled out for this test, nor will you be rewarded for taking it. No one will know your answer other than you. Others have taken and will take this test.
Standard stuff, really. They say this with every test. They want your honesty, but can they prove that you’re honest? To your knowledge, they never punish people for being dishonest on Testing Day, nor do they punish people for the answers they give. Punishment comes only to those who refuse to come, and it’s always severe.
With an unannounced abruptness, the latches automatically snap open, the lids flying back on spring-loaded hinges. After your shock wears off, you see the contents of the boxes awaiting your attention. Two round buttons, both bright red and the size of bagels, are now exposed to you. There is no glow or radiance, only a shiny reflection from the overhead lighting. They are identical to the eye and to the touch, though you are being instructed by the speaker to not touch the buttons until instructions have been given.
Actually, the buttons do have one distinguishing feature between them – the one on the right is marked A on top in blue lettering while the one on the left is marked B. You’ve never seen such a test before, as most tests on Testing Day are embedded in thick packets of white paper or hidden inside digital touch panels. Just two buttons? It’s too simple, too easy. It’s completely unlike Testing Day at all.
The speaker chimes in again, warning you once again to not touch the buttons until the choices are explained. A video panel built into the wall ahead of you begins to spell out sentences, and the speaker is in synch with the words’ appearance. They’re covering all their bases to make sure you understand exactly what the choices are.
Choice A: If you push Choice A, you will destroy the world.
You’re not sure if you actually heard that one right, but based on the words that came after that one ominous sentence, you’re eventually convinced that this is definitely what the test is about. Testing Day is never a joke, so this as serious as it gets.
You will destroy the world. Not the whole world, but only humanity’s place in it. The world itself will not explode, nor will the Earth flood or be covered in fire. We cannot tell you how humanity will die, only that all humans on this planet will be dead very shortly after you choose Choice A. This will include yourself and all people you know.
We cannot tell you if it will be quick or slow, easy or painful. But we can tell you that there will be no survivors, no holdouts in bunkers or in orbiting space stations or anywhere else in the Universe. Every human will die immediately, and the world will move on without humanity’s influence. Please press the computer screen when you’re ready to show that you understand and are ready for Choice B. If you need this choice repeated, please say, “Repeat,” aloud.
How long it takes you to absorb this information and whether or not you needed to repeat it is something only you can imagine. But maybe you’re not entirely convinced that this isn’t a joke. Maybe you refuse to play along because you don’t like the joke, or your moral center says that you should not make such a decision. Maybe you push Choice A anyway out of jest or out of pure sadism.
Well, you’re out of luck either way. They won’t let you out of the booth unless you continue. There are stories about people starving to death in a booth because they didn’t complete the test. Remember, there is no punishment for the answers, only for not doing the test. And for you eager beavers, the buttons are actually deactivated. Pushing either button now will make the speaker remind you that you are not to touch the buttons until the instructions are done. They’ll just keep reminding you over and over each time you push a button. The buttons will not break, incidentally.
Eventually, you will touch the computer screen and Choice B will be explained. There are no other pleasant alternatives.
Choice B: Everything remains as it is. Absolutely nothing will change. Your life will not change; the lives of others around you will not change. The social structures, the governments, the religions, the relationships… none of this will change. You will live and die doing the same things you always have, and world events will flow in the direction they are currently flowing. Maybe it will get better, or maybe it will get worse. There will be no other choices or chances to alter this world’s fate, or your own fate. Please press the computer screen when you’re ready to show you understand and are ready for the test to begin. If you need this choice repeated, please say, “Repeat,” aloud.
Maybe you have to go through another hand-wringing period before you touch the screen again. Maybe only minutes have passed since the instructions began, or perhaps it’s more like hours. Maybe you’re on Death’s door, desperate to avoid making the decision. But I think you will touch the screen again eventually. What choice do you have?
The buttons are ready. Make your choice.
Not very reassuring, is it? There’s no “The door will open after the test is complete” end note or anything implying that this is not a serious test. But this test can’t exist. It can’t be real. No one has that power. But… it might. It could. You think about how humanity’s technological reach seems to increase every year, even every second. A hundred years ago, we still rode horses and carriages while cars were for the privileged. A hundred years ago, phones and electricity were still coming online. A hundred years ago, humanity had no ability to utterly destroy itself and the world.
At what point can we destroy ourselves with the push of a button? Would we even realize we’ve reached that point? Whose hand would be on the button? More importantly, what happens when every person has his or her hand within reach of that button?
Perhaps you’re wondering if it’s true that others are taking this test, since somebody out there surely would have touched the Choice A button by now. There are a lot of miserable people out there – one of them would gladly end the world rather than go on being miserable for the rest of their lives. So this test must be a fraud, a hoax. The odds favor a hoax.
But what if the testers are lying? What if it’s just you? What if the decision is yours? Then it’s a simple decision, right? Choice B all the way. Sure, the world has a lot of problems. Sure, your own life isn’t all that great. You’ve had disappointments and failures, tragedy and sadness. But so does everyone. You’re just not the kind of person to end the world. Heroes sacrifice themselves for the world. If your sacrifice is to live the same life as before rather than kill everyone, that seems like a doable sacrifice.
Maybe your life really is great. Maybe you’re happier than you ever thought possible. It would be an easy choice, wouldn’t it?
Then again, maybe your life is crap. Maybe your life is crap enough that you almost opted not to come to Testing Day. What more could they do to you that hasn’t been done? Why care about a world that will continue to be crap? There wouldn’t be heroes trying to save the world if there weren’t villains trying to destroy it. Maybe you have more in common with those villains than with the heroes.
Maybe it’s not your own life that displeases you. Maybe it’s everyone else. Maybe you think the world deserves a clean slate. Maybe you just hate people in general. Perhaps the sacrifice is in the reversal – to save the world, you must remove humanity. If the world were to go on as is, would there be any other path for us than slow death?
They say no one will know what answer you gave. Do you believe that?
Please remember that all answers must be honest.