Mooglebook distributes free VR goggles to every American. Omnidirectional cameras on the headset send images of your surrounds to get analyzed by Mooglebook AI, to better target the ads you see. The killer app is a 24/7 virtual roller derby with synthesized contestants. Based on your personal data profile, plus crude real-time face-sensing emotion detection, Mooglebook AI optimizes two teams of skaters—for your identification and admiration for the Good Team, and for hate, fear, and loathing of the Bad Team. The AI, in collaboration with the game designers, soon discovers that culture war stereotypes do the trick for most spectators. The same matches are broadcast to all viewers simultaneously, with the same player names and same outcomes, but the AI shows your Bad Team as violent, spiteful, and cheating, and your Good Team the opposite. Spectators in virtual bleachers comment in real time with text messages and AI-assisted image memes; the AI shows you, in a chyron, the ones it calculates will get your strongest emotional responses.
Matches run six-minute rounds separated by six minutes of ads; if you take your headset off during the ads, you miss the next round. Many people spend full time in the app.1 Mooglebook becomes the first ten trillion dollar corporation. There is an epidemic of hospital admissions for victims of severe dehydration after days of continuous VR involvement. The CDC recommends frequent hand washing and launches a major public health initiative against chewing gum.
Much of the country believes recommender-promoted claims that the President is, in fact, dead, and his face has been mummified and attached to an animatronic skeleton powered by Mooglebook AI. He looks pretty dead on TV, but maybe his handlers are using video deepfakes, which are barely out of the uncanny valley. The formerly-respected White House press corps say he appears in person, but no one takes anything they say seriously anymore. Miffed, an opposition journalist throws gasoline in the President’s face and sets him alight, revealing the intricate motors powering his titanium skull. Or that’s what happened on TV news, anyway.
The President appears at another press conference later in the day, looking no worse for wear. The Vice President alleges a coverup and declares herself President. During the tense constitutional crisis, videos emerge of the Vice President in a wombat fursuit. After two days of denial, the new maybe-President proudly comes out as a furvert, and denounces furry discrimination. Opponents of the probably-dead maybe-ex President proclaim their solidarity with furversion. Minutes later, the roller derby features furry versus cis-human brawls.
The word “cis” triggers everyone, and the AI revives pronouns,2 which everyone had forgotten about when they were supplanted in 2024 by the riots over the word “cockamamie” which resulted in the total destruction of Walmart. Utah passes a law making singular “they” illegal. All left-wing Congresspeople declare themselves trans in solidarity with victims of oppression. California passes a law banning patriarchal, gendered pronouns. The Governor of Utah orders schools and libraries to destroy all books that use singular “they,” to protect the children. Librarians defy the order, protesting that singular “they” has been common for centuries when referring to someone of unspecified sex, and found in a large fraction of all books that have nothing to do with gender or politics.
Militia groups firebomb libraries, first in Utah and then across the country. No one reads books anymore so no one cares, except that it’s about pronouns. But then when a school library bomb goes off prematurely and 193 children die in the fire, authorities order police to arrest the pronoun militiamen. The roller derby features fursuited policewomen against ultra-human militiamen in uniforms that strongly resemble those of mid-twentieth century Germany. After several deadly shootouts, police in many right-wing communities openly side with the pronoun militias.
Faced with local defiance, the Governor of California orders the National Guard to enforce order and disarm non-conforming police. The maybe-dead President countermands the order. The Governor of California refuses to recognize the authority of the President on the grounds that he’s probably dead. There’s a constitutional crisis turning on obscure wording in the Posse Comitatus Act of June 18, 1878, which no one understands but everyone has a violent opinion about. Some National Guard members mobilize, and others refuse the order. After deadly three-way militia/police/Guard skirmishes, informal internal borders develop across the country, with barricades on minor roads and tense armed checkpoints on the highways. Texas formally secedes and introduces new school history programs according to which it was never part of the illegitimate American Empire.
The roller derby chyron features a running “Is this a civil war yet?” poll, and you are eligible to vote once per six hours of watching. The poll result you see is optimized by Mooglebook AI to maximize your engagement.
Xi and Putin make a secret pact to hasten American decline by backing opposite sides. They provide internet surveillance intel and propaganda support with armies of human and AI trolls. The trolls engineer a no-holds-barred shooting war for control of Fresno. Mooglebook AI enthusiastically participates.
A new, airborne strain of Ebola kills much of the population of Bioko, an island off Nigeria, over a weekend. The CDC condemns in strongest possible terms as racist and unacceptable the suggestion that their Ebola gain-of-function laboratory in Bioko was in any way involved. It recommends frequent hand-washing and launches a major public health initiative against chocolate milk. China hits Bioko with seventeen thermonuclear weapons. The international community condemns in strongest possible terms Chinese aggression as racist and unacceptable, and prays there are no survivors.
Local shooting wars spread across America. Canada and Mexico close their borders to refugees. San Francisco falls to factions backed by Xi. Putin takes that personally. Xi proposed a proxy war to weaken their common enemy, and Putin agreed, but he has spent hours every day watching VR roller derby and he knows which side should win. He posts a vicious Winnie-the-Pooh meme. Xi gives a speech declaring China will not tolerate insults, and that nuclear war is survivable. Formerly-respected US “news” organizations consult military pundits, who all agree that nuclear war is not an “existential threat.” The probably-dead President reminds the world that US nuclear strategy does not feature a no-first-use policy.
North Korea’s economy collapsed in 2025 and a third of the population has starved to death, but no one cares because roller derby. Putin calls up Kim and offers him a deal: massive aid if he switches allegiance from China to Russia, and also Putin will let him use his nukes, which Xi never would. Kim been dying to try them out and hates Xi for not letting him. He nukes San Francisco. The bomb is strictly amateur hour, and less than a million people die. The CDC recommends frequent hand washing, and launches a major public health initiative against earwax.
China nukes Russia because more Winnie-the-Pooh, Russia nukes Australia who totally pwned Putin with the meme of his getting ridden by a wombat, official sources deny that it was Osama bin Laden who nuked Washington, India retains enough rationality to nuke Pakistan and China rather than Poland (despite provocation), Iran nukes France because rollerskating transsexual Muhammad, and what’s left of the US nukes everyone because wtf, dudes.
The experts were right: total nuclear war is not an existential threat. Nearly half the world population survives the bombs. Eventually, some millions would further survive the ensuing chaos, economic collapse, and famines. Would, except for the CDC’s Dr. Charles Mocenigo. Horrified by scenes of radiation burns, renewed civil war, refugee marches, torture camps, and mass starvation, he uses cutting-edge AI to calculate the expected utility of long-term human survival versus projected suffering over the next few years. As he suspected, its answer is negative. Mocenigo opens his lab fridge and snorts a vial of Anthrax Leprosy Mu, a hybrid pathogen he’s developed. It has an R0 of 14,000 and is uniformly fatal after a month-long symptom-free incubation period. He heads out of the lab to the football stadium nearby that has been converted into a refugee center.
Antarctica and the International Space Station hold out for more than a year.3
- 1.Jason Wollschleger, “Roller Derby as a Secular Alternative to Religion.”
- 2.I am taking a deliberate risk here of including a current live culture war issue. Most of the narrative is about imaginary, absurd future controversies, to point out that culture war issues are largely imaginary and absurd. Including only those would have the opposite risk, of making it the whole story seem silly and implausible, however. Trans issues are 2023’s outstanding example of what Scott Alexander calls “scissor statements” in “Sort By Controversial”: they cause most people to take absolute positions that they find incontrovertibly correct, so anyone who disagrees must be both insane and evil. (Mooglebook AI loves those!) There are two risks to including a live issue in my story. The first is that readers are so triggered that they get stuck in outrage at the object level of the story, and miss the meta-level point that all sides are being manipulated into insane hostility by recommender AI. The second is that readers will mistake me as taking sides in the culture war myself, and expressing some opinion about trans issues in particular. I discuss the culture war often, and do my best to avoid any appearance of side-taking, because I think the war itself is more dangerous than either side’s agendas. I find trans issues extremely complicated and difficult to think about clearly, which is probably part of why they function as scissors: no one wants to do that work, so they jump to simplistic conclusions instead. Most people also have little or no personal experience that might contradict their absolute, groundless opinions. Experience reveals the nebulosity and complexity of the problems, and blunts the scissors. I find that, despite substantial personal experience, I can’t hold any strong position.
- 3.Arguably, I am cheating here. I said this scenario involves no new technologies. Biological warfare agents are not a new technology, but it may be difficult to create one that would kill absolutely everyone.