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Dead Men Do Tell Tales · Original Minific ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 400–750
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A Historical Archive
In the year 2129, a professor inside Harvard’s history department made an announcement: that a team of researchers had indexed every single social media post, event, recording, etc, created between the years 2007 and 2025.

“It is now possible,” he said, “to know every detail of the lives of these people, who lived more than a hundred years ago. It is the ultimate primary source on the early twenty-first century.”

“It’s a great undertaking for the history department,” said one guest, “but if I may ask, what is that practically good for?”

“Well,” said the professor, “it got me tenure.”


“And you, sir, clearly do not understand academia. Good day.”

A month later, a professor inside Columbia’s computer science department made an announcement: that they had created an AI search algorithm of surpassing elegance, specifically designed to index the Harvard social media archive. A user needed only to ask the algorithm a question, and it would answer with both wisdom and precision.

“How many people were adversely affected by wildfires in California in the year 2020?” he asked, by way of demonstration.

“12.76 million,” the machine said.

“Ah, but any textbook could tell me that. How many people dealt with that stress by posting memes that involved cats shooting lasers from their eyes.”

“127 people collectively posting 322 separate pictures and videos,” the algorithm said, “but only 6 were actually funny.”

Then the algorithm showed the audience those six, and everyone laughed. They were very funny. “What questions will you ask it?” a guest queried the science team.

“Oh, we won’t,” the professor said. “If I cared about life in the early 21st century I’d have become a historian. But it’s a remarkable bit of AI design, if I do say so myself.”

A month after that, a freshman undergraduate student was assigned to write a paper on the early 21st century, based primarily on the Harvard database, as processed by the Columbia algorithm.

“What do you want to know?” the machine asked her.

“I don’t know, uh…” The student sat back in her chair. “It has to be something I couldn’t get out of a textbook. So not like, big picture stuff. Like, the stories of people's lives.”

“I have all the stories of everyone’s lives.”

“Are any of them interesting?”

“None of them are interesting all the time, but some of them are interesting some of the time.”

She shrugged. “Well show me the interesting parts.”

She spent several hours that way, watching video of people ramping cars off bridges, dangling from helicopters, getting into shootouts with police on livestream, and using nets to take down delivery drones. She laughed, she gasped, she gleefully wrote a paper, and it was only when she read the paper back to herself that her good cheer suddenly abated.

“Wait,” she said, “this paper sounds fucking rediculous. Did any of these things actually happen?”

“They all actually happened.”

“So the early 21st century was a non-stop action-packed shootout?”

“No, you asked me to show you the most interesting parts.”

She sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose with two fingers. A few keystrokes opened a new, blank document. “Well show me the most typical parts!”

For the next thirty minutes, she watched people view video games and potato chips, read records of petty family drama on Facebook, and watched the videos that didn’t go viral. When she was done with a particular record, she’s say “Next,” and the AI would move on. The first two pieces she watched for several minutes each before calmly uttering the word. The next she watched only for thirty seconds, the one after that fifteen. Eventually, she snapped the word “Next!” every few seconds, with increasing vitriol.

“Would you like a remote control?” The AI asked. “It would be a more efficient way to channel surf.”

“These are the most boring people in the fucking universe.”

“You asked for typical results.”

“Well show me results that are typical and interesting!”

“Those are contradictory search terms: the typical life is not interesting.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m typical and interesting.”

“Please clarify, which of the events in your life do you think will be entertaining to humans one hundred years hence?”

She began to speak, then froze. A long stillness came over her, as she sat silent in her room. Her head bowed, and she watched the floor.

“Sometimes,” she said quietly, “I trip over things in amusing ways.”

So it showed her that.
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#1 ·
Like the previous story I read, this one has some odd editing misses, the kind an automatic spell checker would have caught. Maybe you just edited directly on this site in a browser that doesn't have a built-in checker?

I was prepared to write a longer review of this, but there really isn't a lot of it to talk about. It's kind of a takedown of meme culture, and it does poke some wry fun at it, but it's also dependent on supposedly smart people being pretty dumb, and not in a way that someone like Terry Pratchett does. For instance, the professor never acts like a buffoon at all. His comment about the goal of his research being tenure is on point, but aside from that, he's not shown as foolish or comical.

The thought that memes give a complete picture of everyone's life is of course ridiculous, as only a small percentage of people actually create any, and the story never uses that as a source of humor or irony. The computer should know that by comparing the number of meme contributors to the known population level. Likewise with the student's sudden realization that not every life is fascinating all the time. That should be self-explanatory, but the way it's presented, it feels like it's not trying to be funny so much as a sad realization for her.

That's really what I got from the story. The way it was structured was good, and it made some nice observations, but in the end, I don't know whether it's trying to be funny or insightful. It seems to be reaching for both, but only halfheartedly. It's certainly possible to do both. I know I've seen lots of people wonder what history will make of meme culture, and this was a pretty good take on it.
#2 ·
That first bit about the professor only working for tenure and the AI programmers only interested in code had me in tears. Very Vonnegut-esque. The ending is something I see a lot of in stories with AI. The best way I can describe it is, the AI is so intelligent it achieves both motherly know-it-allness and childish nativity all at once. It's either that or the AI goes full Terminator. I prefer the former, as it's often more illuminating.

That's what I thought of this story, too. Illuminating without being full of itself. Very nice! Thank you for sharing.
#3 ·
The start was funny as hell and the rest went at a goof pace. This whole thing fit in perfectly... well from my low brow background. This story will be easy to related to in the next hundred years and I appreciate the person who wrote.
#4 ·
Honorable Mention:
“It’s a great undertaking for the history department,” said one guest, “but if I may ask, what is that practically good for?”

“Well,” said the professor, “it got me tenure.”

An entry that starts really strong and kinda fizzles as it continues. Which sounds hard to do in a minific, but you'd be surprised. But no, there is some great humor here. Pratchett and Vonnegut have been mentioned by others, and reading this did give me some crazy Vonnegut vibes, like something out of Cat's Cradle, which might also explain the humorous-but-insightful tone. I'll be damned (which is fine, I'm used to being damned) if the author hasn't read any Vonnegut. Simple but punchy syntax with a punchline seemingly lurking around every corner. It cuts, but in a clownish way.

I also hope tenure someday gets abolished, so I'm naturally prone to find the highlighted exchange funny.

The message, however, feels somewhat jumbled, the more I think about it. At first it reads like a satire of academia, which is great, academia is easily and justly mocked, but then it becomes a satire of meme culture, which is weird because meme culture already satirizes itself (the postmodern landscape do be like that), and then it becomes... something about existentialism. Or how the vast majority of stuff people upload to social media is totally not worth keeping. While social media and meme culture are certainly interlinked in the CURRENT YEAR, the former is considerably less self-conscious, and things that lack self-awareness are best fitted for satire. Like much of academia.

Expand, remove the most timely of references (the California wildfires from 2020 specifically feels almost in bad taste), and connect these two scenes (because it's really two scenes, although the first is more of a prelude) and you've got a nice slice of comedy on your hands.