They named the project Dreamcatcher, the culmination of two years' worth of partnership between the Philosophical Programmers' Union and the exhibition art/improvisational comedy group S.P.A.Z. (S.P.A.Z. Promotes Artistic Zest). Open source, open ended, modifiable to any extent for individual needs. Free. One needed only a high-end domestic wearable with reasonably extensive I/O systems and, at first, familiarity with the grittier aspects of the 7.3.4 Roam protocol for the Ukiyo-e. Dreamcatcher would take care of the rest.
At the time, Addition was already a field in its death-throws. There were only so many layers one could project upon reality within the average attention threshold. Encyclopaedias of categorical information, reams of artistic statements, millions of maps and guides, billions of free-floating comments across thousands of relays, all tied to a physical world whose own complexity was already enough to overload the beleaguered human mind; these offerings remained for the most part untouched by the general public. Pressed too far, the extraneous sounds and sights (sometimes scents, tastes, and touches for those especially in tune) became like too many colors stirred together. The only result was a muddling brown-out. The individual brain had not developed the sufficient resources to effectively navigate the labyrinth of information our collective intellect had spewed into the ether of wireless internets. Building upon reality through Addition was a hopeless endeavor.
Subtraction, however, offered limitless potential.
Advertisements were the first to go. Slip on a pair of glasses or contacts and aural patches to the sides of the skull (or bypass the bother entirely by splicing the system through the spinal cord itself) and instantly quell the storm of brands, jingles, and hooks. The customers retook control of their spheres of sensation for the first time in centuries, much to the dismay of the global economy. The programs were of course illegal, violating any number of pre-emptive patents and protective legislative actions, but they grew too numerous and popular to control. Pop artists wailed, marketers whined, politicians warned, publishers withered. The coporate system collapsed, festered in ruin for a few years, then eventually rebuilt itself around new priorities. Subtraction survived the test of financial hardship, emerging victorious.
Given free reign, new algorithms flooded the networks and seized continual public attention and adoration. Utilities to render nonexistent every eye and ear sore of the modern world became available to those privy to the Ukiyo-e, the nebulous Floating World composed of wires, radio waves, political favors, wealth, health, and prosperity accessible to a third of the world's population, distant as the heavens to the rest. Filtering out white noise was only the beginning. Phobics now had free reign to ban their fears forever from cognition. Urban squalor was solved overnight; simply delete the graffiti, litter, taffic, and ugly architecture. As quickly as scientists could devise the newest techniques of pattern recognition, companies snatched them up and put them to practice. Productive research in wearable technology and its related fields accelerated suddenly, reviving nostalgic talk of Moore's Law and the heady days of the late 20th century, when computational potential had seemed limitless. The fruit of this seed ripened into Project Dreamcatcher, the epoch of Subtraction.
It was merely an intranet. Those who connected fed the information flowing from their input systems into the network as well as identifying information about themselves. Dreamcatcher processed their preferences, edited their input, and returned it to the wearable for final output. It brilliantly combined the foremost in distributed computing and efficient information transmission to ensure real-time analysis of every input source as a cohesive whole. There were only two limits to Dreamcatcher's potential. First, it could only delete elements of input and extrapolate data in their absence. It could not add data. Second, it was designed with one purpose in mind: to delete human beings from an individual's awareness.
S.P.A.Z. and the PPU set up the first trial run of the system among their members, deploying Dreamcatcher across every continent. S.P.A.Z. recruited a batch of famous bloggers to track their members' adventures by video and publish them, then set the whole process into motion. Some SPAZers deleted random individuals. Others set the markings to specific groups; members of a race, gender, color of hair, type of clothing. Some selected members of society, like policemen, beggars, businesswomen, or elderly. The resulting hilarity proved a smash hit.
There were bugs to work out, of course. The PPU hadn't anticipated exactly how bewildering it was to see the effects individuals had on their environment without seeing the perpetrators themselves. But it only required an extension of the algorithm, developing a system of tracking 'taints' that associated affected objects with a forbidden individual. Physical encounters with unseen individuals was a concern if the program was to be used seriously, but the most recent input systems feeding into the subconscious regions of the brain solved the problem, automatically guiding successful avoidance. After sixth months and several leaked versions revving up the mematic hysteria, Dreamcatcher was opened to the general Ukiyo-e.
Communities formed almost immediately. Who would pass up the chance to finally live life surrounded by only those who understood you, and whom you understood? Religious, gendered, sexual, ethnic, and cultural divisions were only the beginning. With each new user, the system acquired more processing ability and more extensive data for Subtraction. Sub-communities branched explosively outward in a fractal array from the initial divides, allowing infinite shades between recognition and ignorance. Dreamcatcher gained the ability to cross-check personal data, which reflected merely the internal impression, with observations from any number of surrounding strangers, ensuring no one fed dishonest data about him or herself into the system. Within seven years, the program was incorporated into civil and corporate systems, allowing unprecedented personalization and qualification of services. The PPU grew immensely influential in government and culture.
Protests were inevitable, but ineffective. Legal appeals fell flat, religious objections were overridden, scientific qualms proved insubstantial. The disparate subversives eventually gathered under one appeal, a ten million person march on the PPU's headquarters in Los Angeles. By a formal process, groups submitted arguments for restraint and regulation of the system to the Forum. Advocating total deinstillation was forbidden. Over a course of months, each proposal was examined, then dismissed.
Only one document, which came to be called the Universal Declaration, escaped committee to come to a general vote. The Universal Declaration listed the familiar reasons for ceasing support for the program with the same vague terms; 'the dangers of solipsism,' 'the need for diversity,' 'the sacred nature of reality,' 'the fight against ignorance,' 'common humanity,' 'love'. What set it apart was a systematic analysis of the Dreamcatcher's implications for those unable to use it. A joint economic and sociological analysis presented an overview of the continuing poverty gap, described the conditions of about half the world's remaining disconnected population, noted the fundamental barriers dividing them from Dreamcatcher, and made future projections were the system to continue unrestrained. Central to the document was the very real danger that virtual absence could turn into real absence in the form of billions of deaths. The Forum entered into a closed debate for a week, one of the first virtual events in decades to effectively prevent any leakage to the general Ukiyo-e.
On the seventh day, The Forum issued a document of its own, called the Relative Declaration. Rep. Alice Furumoto penned its famous closing words: "In the 20th century, first science, then art realized the irrevocably subjective, relative nature of reality. In the 21st century, humanity as a whole embraced and endorsed this truth, the negation of Truth, a triumph against an indifferent universe and a repudation of arrogant notions of 'knowledge'. Now in the first years of the 22nd century, we have taken the final step, removed the last walls of illusion, united the world within and the world without. Other human beings were the only remaining barriers to ultimate liberation. We have regained Paradise."
The issue did not die away immediately. Every day the newscasts filled with reports of individuals tossing off their wearables, ripping out wires, stomping on equipment, tearing clothes away to free themselves of the 'unconsensual reality'. They died quickly, trampled by crowds unable to hear their screams or feel their desperate hands reaching for a lift from the ground, or run over by trams, or left to starve, or toyed with by sadists, unseen. Their bodies sat rotting in hallways and public streets, only noticed when medical systems noted an unexpected increase in bacterial infections for a certain coordinate on the GPS grid. The practice ceased.
Thirty-three years after the release of Dreamcatcher, someone noticed that data on global population as measured from biological impressions taken from orbit indicated a dramatic drop. The deaths of the already disconnected wasn't the issue; it seemed that the Ukiyo-e was also being hit by the cull. At first, there was only disinterest. As communities began to see their own members suddenly disappear, however, panic seized a world long rendered peaceful and complacent. By this time Dreamcatcher had grown too vast and complex to submit to any detailed analysis. Disconnecting from it, even briefly, was too bewildering an experience for anyone to endure. Evidence grew of forces acting from beyond Ukiyo-e, apparitions outside of individuals' control to delete, incessant whispering voices that stalked the living. Some theorized Dreamcatcher had attained intelligence and was acting on its own to eliminate contaminants, like a body purging itself of infection. Others turned to mysticism, evoking spirits and gods to explain the violation of their realities' sanctity. Most felt that it was merely some sort of suicidal mania gripping unfortunate souls who decided to exile themselves from the Ukiyo-e.
In a desperate attempt to preserve their world from catastrophe, the disparate communities united by consensus in the latter half of the 22nd century, finding a means to communicate with the depths of Dreamcatcher. They received one message.
"Think of us as a lost."
Among the lost