This entry is part 11 in the series The Imperial History of Earth-Regency


Pieces Of Creation is an occasional recurring column at Campaign Mastery in which Mike offers game reference and other materials that he has created for his own campaigns.

All images used to illustrate this article are public-domain works hosted by Wikipedia, Wikipedia Commons, or derivations of such works, except as noted, and except for the Image of Big Ben as a 9/11 target, which is the author’s own work.

This article is a work of fiction and no endorsement of the content should be attributed to any of the individuals or institutions named, photographed, or credited.

Author’s Notes: It has been almost a decade since the first draft of this Alternate History was written in 2003. While some of the events forecast in these pages have come to pass, others have not; so this marks the point in the narrative where significant divergances occur, simply because my imagination went left while the real world went right. Very little in the overview below has been changed from the original text, though there have been a few clarifications here and there.

Nevertheless, the content of this series has been updated, as each part has been published through Campaign Mastery, to reflect the benefits of a further decade of life experience and perspective, and the next few chapters will be likewise enhanced with the introduction of more “real history” into the timeline.

This ‘era’ within the fictional history marked, and marks, the transition from based-on-real-history to completely fictional. All the 2012 updates do is smear that transition over a ten-year span within the history. But it will mean a gradual change in style, and possibly shorter subsequent chapters, due to the added research and development requirements.

When one era ends, it’s traditional for a new one to begin. But the seeds of the new era had been layed many years before the conclusion of the Communications Era, with the development and popularization of Home Computers and the Internet. The dominant theme of the new era would be the consequences of the events of the 15 years which preceded it.

Ted Nelson, one of the many fathers of the internet, in 2011. Photo by Gisle Hannemyr

The Popularization of the Internet

The internet began as ARPANET, a means for defense researchers at different universities to exchange technical information by computer linkup without the need for a face-to-face meeting. The scientists who used the systems found the technology so convenient that they began using it in their personal lives. From that point on, it became inevitable that a domestic equivalent would eventually emerge. E-mail had arrived. But it was when Australian researcher Ted Nelson first invented the hyperlink in the 1960s that the seeds of the phenomenon most people envisage when they refer to the internet truly came into existence.

Nelson’s proposals were ignored for almost 20 years, but when they finally caught on, the internet exploded. Crucial to this was the mass-popularization of Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system, which took many different network protocols & content types – FTP for file transfers, HTTP for web pages, JAVASCRIPT and ASP for interactive scripts on web pages, and SMTP/POP3 for sending and receiving emails – into one (relatively) seamless system, with one type of communications linking directly to another through a simple point-and-click user interface. People didn’t see all these different programs as independent and separate, they saw a single entity – the internet – which had all these different things that could be done with it. This was the ultimate development of the Communications Age.

Nothing this revolutionary could come into existence without widespread social consequences. At first, this was dismissed as a possibility, even while the Dot Coms were setting stock markets on fire. Email was just like regular mail, just faster. The web was just like the magazine rack in the world’s best library – except that all the magazines were by amateurs. Web Pages were regarded as a mass-production extension of the Desktop Publishing that had predominated in the late 80s and early 90s. Even as late as 2002, 70% of internet users cited email as their primary purpose for an internet connection. But all Booms must Bust, and the Dot Com collapse which began in 1998 lasted for more than five years. Despite this implosion, there were four developments that would signpost and make possible a firestorm of change in subsequent years.

Zappos was already the largest online shoe retailer based in Henderson Nevada when it was purchased by Amazon in 2009. Their fulfillment centre - a small part of the Amazon online empire - shows the incredible scope of the Amazon retail juggernaut. This image is from 2006 by lizzielaroo.

Online Retailing

The first of the four was the development, through scripting languages – JavaScript & ASP in particular – of online purchasing systems. Pioneered by the online bookstore Amazon, this development challenged the concept of the storefront display, one of the greatest expenses of a startup business. As the Dot Com explosion proceeded, it was proclaimed as an absolute necessity for a business to have a web site, and for customers to be able to interact with the business through that website as though it was the actual store. Although it never reached the point of totally wiping out in-corpus purchasing, due largely to the rise in internet fraud and public wariness, the first part of the prediction was largely self-fulfilling prophecy; the more companies acted on that perception, the more the internet boomed, and the more necessary it came to appear to other companies that they too needed a web presence to remain competitive.

The most significant consequence was the erosion of trade controls and regulations at the direct customer level – if it was cheaper, with transport costs, to buy a book or a CD from the US, or Venezuela for that matter, you could – and hundreds of thousands did. While internet shopping never grew at the hysterical rate predicted by the “experts”, it did grow, year-by-year, and with it the economic basis of whole nations slowly changed. The internet had bypassed the local economy completely – or, more accurately, had put small manufacturers and multinationals on an even playing field, no matter where the small manufacturer was located.

This in turn inspired shady entrepreneurs, who realized that the internet was not only unregulated, it was almost impossible to regulate. Porn websites proliferated, bypassing local censorship regulations. The internet became the Great Leveler, reducing enforceable laws to the lowest common denominator. Gambling sites soon followed. Many countries made vain attempts to limit or restrict the content placed on servers within their jurisdictions in an attempt to turn back the tide; the owners of those sites simply moved the websites to servers in other countries. They did not even have to physically move to those countries, the entire transaction and infrastructure set-up taking place electronically, over the internet. Typically, it took less than 24 hours before the site was back on the web.

A version of the famous (or notorious depending on who you ask) Napster icon, from a set of themed icons by DBGthekatu.

File-sharing & The Media Industries

The Entertainment industry learned nothing from this lesson, as shown by their reaction to the third major development of the new era, the combined arrival of MP3s and file-sharing. The first such combination, Napster, was eventually shut down, because it had centralized servers that contained the index to the files available for being shared, and those centralized servers could be targeted; but even before it was defunct, new programs were available to the public free of charge that did not have this legal vulnerability.

The entertainment industry, already stung by surveys showing that the internet was beginning to eat into “traditional” recreations like television, responded in 2003 with lawsuits that were beyond any rational belief. They had already tried to gain exemption from liability for any damage they might “inadvertently” cause in invading personal computers via web-based viruses in the search for illegal files or the technology to exchange them; increasingly, their reactions were more suggestive of a state of panic than of a rational business. The irony was that they had only themselves to blame for this state of affairs; in the 1980s they had decided to eliminate relatively cheap LPs in favor of CDs, which they then priced at profit levels that were, to say the least, exorbitant. This created an unsatisfied demand which ensured that alternative (free) distribution methods would flourish. They had also neglected the MP3 phenomenon in its early stages, despite being given the opportunity to bring out a “downloadable files” option of their own. Having decided that internet distribution of movies and audio would not amount to much, because file sizes were so extraordinarily big, they were caught entirely unprepared when new file formats and improvements in internet technologies took file sizes to relatively small numbers without apparent impact on quality. It was their own unwillingness to embrace the potentials of new technology that had left them vulnerable to the problem in the first place, and their own greed that had created the demand.

The IRIA (Imperial Recording Industry Association) lawsuits of 2003 were terrorism by law; the damages sought were so high in order to ensure that the defendants would never even contemplate fighting the case in court. An out of court settlement, setting a precedent favorable to the Recording Industry, is what they were sure of achieving. It didn’t work out that way, for a very simple reason – Iraq.

An F/A-18C Hornet coming in for a landing abourd the USS Constellation (CV-64) after a mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, whose objectives were to liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, and end the regime of President Saddam Hussein. Photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Daniel J McLain.

The Gulf War II Connection

in 2003, the Empire took up where it had left off in the invasion of Iraq, as officials tired of the games Saddam Hussein had been playing with inspection teams (and became wary of increasing Mao tensions over the issue). The result of that conflict was fairly predictable, given the circumstances; but there were some unexpected spin-offs.

Notably, the Imperial Government took notice that many of the most patriotic pieces of music were still under copyright, meaning that they could be used on websites only at the owner’s risk. This was not an acceptable situation, given that troops were fighting a war that had deeply divided the community even as the combat began. That, in turn – and in conjunction with the IRIA’s threats to sue the universities where the alleged infractions had taken place – ensured that a coalition of forces began assembling against the Recording Industry. The Universities called their alumni, especially the politicians and politically connected, and before the IRIA knew where it was going, the entire political and economic infrastructure of the Empire was bankrolling a defense fund, one which had already acquired the worlds leading attorneys (all of whom had also graduated from universities!)

A Barrister in traditional wig, 2009. Photo by Southbanksteve, Flickr

The Copyright Quagmire

Court was, in reality, the last place on earth the IRIA wanted to go. Once there, only three outcomes were possible: either the jury returned a verdict for the defendant (undermining the entire legal status of copyrights that the IRIA had worked for years to create), possibly out of revulsion at the greed displayed by the damages requested; or, worse still, they could do their duty under the law and find the defendants liable, but set a trifling damages bill, destroying the value of copyright violations; or worse still, they could return a finding of malicious prosecution, handing the bill for all legal costs to the IRIA – costs that were sure to be unbelievably exorbitant given the size of the legal team lined up to challenge the case. And worst of all, the verdict would be legally binding and a permanent precedent! Any appeal would place the entire matter in the hands of the High Court – which had the authority to redefine copyright or abandon it altogether if it saw fit. There were No outcomes that benefitted the IRIA – but they had never expected their bluff to be called. Nor could they afford to back down from it – the loss of credibility would do exactly the same damage as a loss.

Screenshot of the Chatzilla IRC software in use. Image is subject to the Mozilla Public Licence.

IRC & The Law

When the case actually reached the Court of Manchester in 2005, the legal process was in its own way being radically overhauled by the increasingly omnipresent internet, by means of a fourth technological innovation – Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. This enabled multiple people to converse by typed text with one another in utter silence save that tapping of a computer keyboard. For the first time, IRC connections between laptop computers via wireless networking enabled the lead attorneys to have their entire research staff hooked into the case, locating precedents and past arguements and rulings more quickly than the clerk of the court could.

It was noteworthy that the defense team had this technology, but that the prosecution did not; a situation many considered symbolic of the entire situation. It was the Progressives vs. the Luddites all over again, and the Luddites were doomed to failure. One reporter would liken it to “The One Eyed Man in the Kingdom of the Blind”, so profound were the differences. In effect, there was a legal team of over 2000 people defending against 3 unassisted lawyers. Much to the chagrin of IRIA, the defense steamrollered them – and managed to get the whole problem kicked up to the Supreme Court on a jurisdictional issue even before a verdict had been reached. The result was a complete redefinition of copyright within the Empire, one driven by what purpose the copyrighted material was being put to – and putting an end to the power of IRIA.

Just part of the plethora of connections that made up the Internet (also known as 'The Cloud' and 'The Dreamtime') on Jan 15, 2005. Image by the Opte Project.

Mass Intercommunications & The Dreamtime

Internet Chat had other implications for society. For the first time, people living in many different countries were able to talk directly to one another – it was not uncommon for a chat room to have Europeans, Pakistanis, Arabs, Americans, Australians and South Americans all chatting at the same time – and those who participated began to forge bonds of understanding and to adopt a more cosmopolitan view. Communities of those with common interests arose, as they always do, but with the fundamental difference that Geography was irrelevant – these were neighborhood clubs whose membership happened to be scattered all over the Earth.

In the past, it had been held by some cultures that reality was more than the eye could see, that overlaying the physical world was a spiritual world containing forces, allies, and foes, a world that was invisible to all but the uninitiated, and in which things were possible that were either impossible outright, or impractical at the very least, in the physical world. Amongst the citizens of the Empire, the Australian Aborigines and Inuit Eskimos had the clearest views of the “spirit world”, preserved despite the influence of Modern “Education”. It was a world of unsuspected dangers and unimaginable possibilities. The Internet was similar, a Dreamtime of new dangers and new promise, an electronic web connecting 70% of the Empire together in ways considered science fiction a decade earlier. The correlation between the two would spark new religions and new analogies; by 2015, “the ‘net” had become known colloquially as “the Dreamtime”.

The DynaTAC 8000x, also known as "The Brick", was the world's first commercially available hand-held mobile phone. The version released in 1983 weighed 28 ounces and was 10 inches tall - not counting the antenna! Previous mobile telephones either had to be mounted in a vehicle or were contained in heavy briefcases.

Collaboration In The Dreamtime

IRC continued to evolve; with improvements in compression technologies and faster computer processing, it became possible first to chat using spoken words, and then to communicate with visuals. Shared electronic whiteboards enabled design teams to collaborate no matter where in the world they might be physically located. Surgical instruction and supervision was conducted live as operations proceeded, over the internet. It became increasingly common for people to work from home and “telecommute”, with obvious ramifications for the transport industry (Canada astonished the world by becoming the world leader in this social trend).

It was a French company, Yahoo – which, thanks to the power of the internet, many people thought American in origin – who first realized that with relay servers connected to phone lines in almost every local district of every nation of the Empire, that it was possible for a telephone call to be routed through an internet connection from another country to a local telephone. A single internet connection made all phone calls local, and almost free. They built the technology into their free “Messenger” IRC software as much as proof-of-concept as an actual marketing exercise. At first, the service was only to USK telephones (from anywhere else in the world); but one after another, more districts and countries were connected.

Telephone monopolies, accustomed to reaping the bulk of their profits from long distance communications, became increasingly unprofitable, and forced to resort to draconian business practices of the most cutthroat variety to stay ahead of the competition. It could be argued that in many ways, the various governments chose the worst time possible to privatize and deregulate the industry, as standards of service were sacrificed to the almighty bottom line of profits.

Nor was this the only challenge to confront the traditional communications monopolies; radio-based mobile telephones evolved rapidly with improvements in technology, leaping from the wildly impractical to the ubiquitous in less than a decade, and then continuing to both shrink in size and grow in capability. The majority of telephone companies had been more than willing to ignore these devices when they were bulky and unwieldy; the sudden explosion brought with it new and more modern rivals. Worse yet, in order to compete with these rivals, their entire infrastructure would need to be overhauled, even replaced, placing a substantial burdon on the operating capital of the telecommunications giants. For some, the burdon would prove too much; they would go under be broken up, their assets consumed by the johnny-come-lately telcos. Others managed, leveraging the size of their existing networks in partnership arrangements with the new services in order to raise the capital needed for infrastructure development; but these could not possibly compete with the powerhouses that the newcomers became with this added advantage. Increasingly, they would begin to fade from the services sector of the industry or face imminant collapse at every turn, becoming administrators of the communications “backbone” and the hubs to which the modern service providers purchased access. Their customer base was no longer the man in the street, but the company with which the man-in-the-street did business – a wholesaler, not a retailer.

The unsustainable progression of a classic pyramid scheme from a US Securities & Exchange Commission report on the subject.

There is No Heaven without a Hell

The new technologies brought new crimes and new threats. Identity theft was one of the most prominent. The growth of pay-by-internet made it possible for the theft of credit card details for subsequent use by the thief without ever possessing the actual credit card. From this beginning, enterprising criminals found that if they intercepted mail addressed to an individual, they could quickly acquire enough documentation to permit the opening of multiple credit cards in the victim’s name, enabling them to purchase goods and obtain cash advances as they saw fit – without the victim even knowing that a crime had been committed until a month after the fact, when the credit card bills arrived.

In 2004, a refinement was devised by Eldon Bartels; he redirected the account mail to a safe-house under his control, and used the proceeds of one “stolen” credit card to make the monthly payments on several others. The result combined the “best” aspects of Identity Theft and a Pyramid scheme. By the time the plot was accidentally discovered and Bartels arrested, he had managed to acquire an estimated 14 Billion dollars through credit card fraud. Hiring the best lawyers – he could afford them – he received a 6-month suspended sentence and retired to the Bahamas.

The 404 file not found page of Wikipedia on 29 Sept 2011. Image by Mover. This sort of page is what customers see when attempting to reach a web server that has been subject to a Denial of Service (DoS) attack.

The Denial of Service Threat

The other threats were more technological, designed to exploit people’s penchant for connecting their computer to a network of other computers. Usually in furtherance of idle mischief, these menaces – worms, trojans, exploits, viruses, and metaphasic threats – were all about gaining access to one person’s identity and passwords to permit more petty thefts. Obtaining the user code to a piece of software could save the perpetrator hundreds of pounds. A few used this as an adjunct to Identity Theft, but most were by petty criminals or vandals.

Somewhat more serious were denial-of-service attacks, where viruses with a time-based trigger were set to attempt to access a particular server at a given moment, or to flood a service with email – whatever that server was designed to do, these were intended to overwhelm it.

The first such was an accident, but several other such attacks followed, usually in support of political activism. Whenever a company with a web presence – which was virtually all of them – did something to offend someone, there was always a chance that the company would be the target of a D.O.S. attack. In many cases, these attacks had little direct impact; the fact that the website for “Joe Bloggs Tire Service” was overloaded didn’t make much difference in the scheme of things. But few companies hosted their own web servers; it was far more common for several companies to lease disk space and web access from a Hosting Service. In which case, whoever was so unhappy with Joe Bloggs had not only shut down access to Joe’s site, but had cut off everyone else who just happened to have chosen the same Hosting service. And of course, the rest of the internet was slowed, sometimes dramatically, by all the extra traffic flowing across it. Like graffiti, the expense to the world in general that was incurred in recovering from a D.O.S. attack far outweighed the damage to the actual target, and the costs of mounting such an attack. Slowly, people – and the courts – began to take the matter increasingly seriously.

The rise of Spyware drove the development of new tools to fight the problem. HijackThis is an analysis tool that targets browser-hijacking methods that was released to Open Source on February 16, 2012. Click on the thumbnail to visit the Wikipedia page describing the software and its use, which also has a link to the project website at SourceForge.

Spyware: The War For Privacy

Many of these attacks were in retaliation for attacks on the privacy of individuals, which came under ever-greater pressure in the post-internet world. The rise of new deployment strategies for software which funded development and support costs through advertising – Adware – led to the incorporation of sub-programs which explicitly tracked web surfing habits, name, address, online purchases, and so on.

Then someone hit on the idea of doing the same thing without the ads – so that the victim didn’t know their security was compromised. This type of software was named Spyware. Increasingly rapacious marketers developed new tricks – like tiny, invisible graphics called Web Bugs – which enabled them to determine which site people had come from and which site they went to when they left. The companies claimed that the information was aggregated and homogenized, statistical in nature – but as the Dot Com collapse continued, and mergers resulted, it quickly became possible for a company to have two separate databases, neither of which contained enough data on an individual to identify them, but which contained enough common details stored in each that it was possible to treat them as one large database – with the result that the company knew all about the person.

The 9/11 terrorist attack against Big Ben united most of the world in outrage. Restoration of the Imperial Icon would be complete in 2015. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

9/11 & The Hunt For Al-Qaida

This is not to say that more physical threats were a thing of the past. If anything, the new breed of terrorist was more threatening than their predecessors had been.

On September 11th, 2001, hijackers seized control of a number of fully laden passenger aircraft and flew them into key Imperial landmarks and structures. Big Ben was destroyed. Buckingham Palace was severely damaged (fortunately the Royal Family was not in residence at the time). Another plane crashed before it could strike the headquarters of the Imperial Military Planning & Intelligence Services Building. Imperial Citizens throughout the world were outraged and united in anger; this one act of barbarism created more solidarity on a single political issue than ever before. Even the Mao declared their support and cooperation in the hunt for those responsible.

For the first time, Mao intelligence was assisting the Empire, but that proved less beneficial than Imperial strategists had expected – largely because, through earlier alliances with the Chinese, parts of the Middle East had acquired Mao technology, and were shielded against their most effective methods. Nevertheless, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida terrorist network proceeded with a determination and ferocity that was as much about wounded pride as it was political necessity.

Movement of the NASDAQ index from 1994 shows the inflation and collapse of the Dot Com bubble. Image made by ed g2s using publicly-available data from nasdaq.com.

The State Of The Economy

The Imperial economy represents the spending habits of billions of people, and in times of transition it is acutely vulnerable. Lasting fortunes are won and lost in such times, and the post-modernist era was no exception. Most visibly affected were the “Dot Coms” of course, many of which were financially unsound from the moment of inception. But also transformed and transfigured were a raft of other industries; Postal, Communications, Advertising, Entertainment, Transport, Education, Insurance. These in turn had knock-on effects on other industries. Restaurants that had relied on office staff found themselves unviable with so many workers not in daily attendance (due to telecommuting). Corporate offices became less necessary, but meeting rooms took their place. Even so, the average size of a corporate headquarters would shrink markedly over this period, which reduced the infrastructure costs of business, helping pave the way for greater prosperity and economic diversity in years to come.

Robotic workers photographed (in real life) at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum by Mountain.

The Consequences of a changing Demographic

The era was always going to be revolutionary, even without the impact of the Internet. The 1950s and 60s had seen a population boom of unprecedented magnitude, with social consequences to match. With the workforce expanding faster than the economy generated jobs, it was inevitable that there would be massive unemployment – with the peak occurring in the decades 1970-1990 as hordes of better-educated workers entered the job market. This, in turn, left humane governments with little option but to adopt social policies designed to support the unemployed. Even paying a pittance – and most unemployment payments were a bare minimum sustenance level – boosted the amount of cash flowing through the economy over what had been there in previous years.

All these people needed to spend their money – generally on the necessities of life – and so supermarkets and takeaway restaurants and video rental dealerships and the like flourished. The growth in the retail sector was driven by lower-income earners, and primarily geared to satisfy their needs. This in turn generated additional employment requirements, and eventually an unstable equilibrium was reached.

As population growth had moderated after the Baby Boom, so 18 years later, workforce growth also began to moderate. Through the early 1990s, stability was at last achieved. Governments took the credit for their economic management. From about 1995 onwards, as women retired from the workforce to raise families, and the baby boomers began to drift out of the workforce through age and attrition, employment growth began to outstrip the growth in workers, and the unemployment rates slowly began to recede. Not by much – about 0.1% a month, most months – but these added up. From a high of 12% in the mid-70s, unemployment first receded to a stable 6.5% in the mid-90s. The Dot Com collapse temporarily drove it back up to almost 8%, but by 2004, it was back down to 6%, and the decline was accelerating as the first onrush of workers approached mandatory retirement and life on an old-age pension.

In some specialist, well-paid industries, or where working conditions were unusually poorly rewarded, such as Doctors and Nurses, there was already a greater demand than could be met, and had been for a decade. Governments took the credit for their economic management – again. In 2010, it hit 1%, and even the dullest of political thinkers had realized what was going on. By 2012, there were more jobs than there were people to fill them, and the only unemployment was an irreducible minimum of people in transit from one position to the next.

Of course, the aging population, in combination with the technological developments, had tremendous impact on the type of work that people were being employed to carry out. Tourism, especially on the local/national scale, aged care, and health care of all types, skyrocketed. There were some losses in construction and similar areas, as there were in clerical staff, but these were relatively stable. The biggest losses were in “blue collar” labor, especially manufacturing, where production became increasingly automated. The ideal was one worker (now a white-collar production supervisor) to one production line, but that was never quite attainable – it was simply too rigid to adapt quickly enough to changing economic circumstances.

Although obvious in hindsight, these patterns were rarely appreciated at the time, and the economic consequences came as surprises when they shouldn’t have. The explosion in service providers to the lower end of the wage spread surprised everyone in the 1970s and 80s. Fast Food chains proliferated. Where a town might have supported one supermarket, it had two or three. The manufacturing and infrastructure demands of this active population pushed industrial systems to the limits and beyond, and had much to do with the pollution problems of the era. As the baby boomers progressed into middle and upper management positions, it came as a total shock that they chose to use their greater spending power; the industries that had initially exploded began to contract, to make way for a proliferation of mid-priced restaurants and service industries, who carried out the tasks that the workers had no time or inclination to provide.

Convenience and quality of life were the objectives of the growth industries of the 1990s. In first decade of the new century, as the problem of unemployment receded, the problems of an aging population grew. Too many people were unable to provide for their own retirement, and where once it was unemployment support that was the critical social expenditure of national governments, the pension became dominant. The result was a resurgence of the industries that had dominated growth in preceding decades, but it was short-lived. Even as demand was growing, the number of available workers was shrinking; and in order to attract staff, wages and employee-related expenses were rising; and these forces demanded a contraction of the market. The result was a number of spectacular collapses and mergers, with concumbant economic chaos.

To meet the needs of business operations, two words became the touchstones of the economy in the late 2000s: Retraining and Subsidy. If a business was going to need a professional, it was better (and less expensive) to hire someone fresh out of school at low wages and pay their way through the education process – as well as giving them real world experience in the business practices of the company. Businesses resumed the roles of Patrons, just as they had during the Renaissance. In order to recoup their expenses, and hold onto their employees, businesses began moving to longer employment contracts. It was not unusual for a new employee to be hired on an eight-year contract – two years of part-time study and part-time work, three years of full-time study, and three years of full employment. As the working population declined, so did the causes of pollution – the number of cars on the road, for example. Although it would be decades before any sort of genuine ecological recovery was underway, the new century slowly shed the problems of the last like a used overcoat.

The Emperor William II in RAF service uniform prior to ascending the throne. Photograph by Robert Payne, Flickr.

The Politics of Empire

In the middle of all this, a new Imperial Monarch came to the throne. Elizabeth defied all predictions by remaining in power for 54 years, but over the first decade of the new era her health increasingly deteriorated. In 2006, she succumbed to a stroke that left her incapable of carrying out the duties of her office, and Prince William became the Emperor William II. Given her age at the time, it would be stating the obvious to point out that to most Imperial citizens, Elizabeth was the only Monarch they had ever known. The presence of a new Monarch with new ideas and a new style was going to shake up the Empire in ways they could barely imagine.

Since the events of 1993, there had been a quasi-stability about the Empire – the Empress had established in that year that she could override the Civil Service Policy in any matter that came to her attention, but her conduits of information were still controlled by the Civil Service, and it had not taken them long to realize that if they disrupted her attention with minor matters while obfuscating the important issues, and filled her days with social engagements, her powers were effectively neutralized. She had been unable to batter her way out of the cotton wool in which that they had increasingly cocooned her, and the Civil Service machine had, after a hiccough or two, rolled majestically onward, untroubled by the demonstrations of the power of the throne. They were confident that the same now well-established and polished techniques would soon have William II firmly emplaced as a figurehead as well, leaving the running of the Empire to ‘those who knew how to do it’ – they just had to “housetrain” him. In the meantime, the search for a bride – receptions, galas, state visits – would keep him happily neutralized for months to come.

View across St Salvator's Quad at the University of St Andrews. Photo by Oliverkeenan.

Reforms Of The Anonymous Monarch

They reckoned without the impact that a technologically adept Emperor could have. William knew full well how to use the internet, and had many aliases for use in Chat Rooms, where he could find out what his citizens were really thinking. Fully capable of his own research, and knowing that this day would eventually come, he had been drawing up an agenda for sweeping reforms well in advance of actually ascending the throne. He also had the advantage of having an informal secondary education from his Grandmother. It had not taken the Empress long to discover the political realities of the post-1993 situation, and she had spent the next 10 years studying the civil service and their techniques, and working out ploys with which to outmaneuver them. When she had her course in “Advanced Politics” ready, she handed her notes over to William. Instead of an insulated and fairly callow youth of only 24 years, he was more fully prepared than any Monarch who had previously ascended the throne.

He started by delegating all ceremonial and social matters to his father, save those few which were approved by that social guardian. He then presented his agenda both to the public and to the civil service at the same time. The principles on which he proposed to reform the Empire were simple:

  • Any bureaucrat whose sole responsibility was to the bureaucracy itself had his position placed in abeyance, pending reallocation of manpower.
  • There were to be no more than two layers of bureaucrats between himself and his subjects – one local manager of the office at which the public connected to the Civil Service, and one senior manager who reported and advised on policy.
  • All policy queries were to be directed to a working group consisting of a member of the house of Lords, the elected minister of the government, the Civil Service head of department, and an independent expert appointed by the Throne – who would have at least 24 hours and at most a week to determine how to resolve the problem – even if that solution impacted another department.

The Civil Service was horrified – it would lead to total anarchy, they predicted. There wasn’t enough time to determine what the real issues were, let alone find solutions, they forecast. Legislation could not be enacted that quickly, they moaned. A four-man committee could become deadlocked, they solemnly announced.

To which William issued a press statement conceding:

  • that there could be some confusion at first;
  • that if officials didn’t know the details of their departments, they might not be able to reach an acceptable decision in the length of time provided – but that outside of unusual circumstances, he would consider that a demonstration of incompetence, which was grounds for dismissal from the service;
  • that the government and opposition representatives had been deliberately included to permit a broader view than the isolated perspectives of the individual bureaucrat – being appointed head of a ministry or shadow ministry meant that they were the placed in charge of government policy as it impacted on the subject at hand;
  • and that the potential for deadlock was the reason why he always had the deciding vote.

At the heart of William’s reforms were the concepts of exceptions processing and regression analysis, things he had learned of in a computer-programming course at University.

There was a simple rule, a principle, for each government department’s function. To that rule, there were a number of exceptions generated. Each exception then became a general case. When the number of exceptions reached a certain threshold, the statement of purpose was reviewed and revised to incorporate the exceptions, and the count started over. The result was a simple set of rules which stated that “X” – whatever the member of the public had requested or required – either could or could not happen. If the member of the public disagreed, he could appeal to the staff responsible for that function of the department in question. If the basis of the appeal was an exact match for a previous appeal, and there had been no change in government policy or in circumstances, the previous ruling was used as a precedent; if it could not be judged by precedent, it would then be forwarded for review, and a new precedent would be determined to fit.

The Civil Service was even more horrified after all this was explained to them. It would amount to an 80% downsizing of the service. Not so, replied William – it would be a 40% downsizing because he was going to triple the number of local offices of most government departments. There would be a greater impact on senior positions, but this would be balanced by the recruiting of more of the people who actually did the work.

William then layed down the operating principles that defined each function of the various government departments, further stunning the Civil Servants and the government representatives. For example, the Social Security function of the DSS: “All Imperial Citizens earning a gross income of less than 25% of the average wage are entitled to a supplementary income of an amount set by the Elected Government in its annual budget but not less than 10% of the average wage, fixed .”

“But what about married couples where only one of them works? What about people who have millions in assets?” demanded the civil servants. “Excellent questions for review,” replied the Monarch. “Put some numbers on them – perhaps deeming an asset to have an annual income value equivalent to the current interest rate multiplied by the current value of the asset – and you will have your first exceptions. But don’t forget to include the deemed amount in the average wage.”

In general, the principles had a similar theme – all members of the public were entitled to whatever support was available unless they were specifically excluded. This sweeping reform also had the advantage of wiping out reams of legalese and casting matters into plain English. It made implementing Government policy changes so easy that there were no excuses for not carrying out an election promise – unless that promise was blocked by the combination of the Throne and the peerage for the long-term good of the Empire. At a stroke, it completely changed the power structure of the Imperial Government, and the expectations that the throne had of the branches of government.

Whitehall in London, looking south towards the Houses of Parliament. Photo by ChrisO.

The Battle Of Whitehall

The Civil Service retaliated with an attempt to drown the new system in paperwork. Every case was sent to review, every review resulted in a question, every question went to committee, every committee was deadlocked and sent to the monarch for approval. William sacked the staff responsible on the grounds of incompetence, including their managers. It was to have enough redundant staff that he could afford to do this that he had tripled the number of local offices. The Civil Service went on strike; he imprisoned the union leaders using the essential services legislation that they had helped draft.

After 6 months, the Civil Service was reduced to about 40% of its previous size. William compromised to the extent of permitting regional and national managers, responsible for staffing levels, administration, and expenditures, restoring some opportunity for upward mobility and promotion within the service – in exchange for removing the almost automatic handing out of honors. He gave each Civil Service head the choice of additional rewards for service as index-linked pensions or honors – they could not have both. He permitted the breaking up of some old departments into smaller ones, knowing that in the process he was reducing the powers of the Mandarins at the top of each, and the creation of a number of new departments. The resulting government structures were very similar to the banks business models – a loans officer (appeals), a branch manager, some clerical staff, the tellers (who dealt with the public), regional and national managers, and so on.

The National Governments also underwent their own upheaval. The new structure transferred power from the party rooms into the hands of the ministers appointed by the local Prime Minister. At first, there was some risk that they would join with the House Of Lords to veto the whole programme; but it was argued by William in meetings with the Parliamentary leaders that the setting of Policy would still be in the hands of the party; it was simply a matter of selecting the best member for the job of implementing those policies in the working parties. Delegation of authority worked in the military, it worked in business, so there was no reason it would not work in politics. What it also meant was that there was no longer any room for rewarding lengthy service with a promotion to the front bench, or other such corruptions; Ministries would have to be handed out to those judged competent to handle them. Besides, how did the Government think the public would react at the next election if they blocked the plans? The voting margin was narrow, but the decree was passed by the Lower House, and by 2010 the new system was operating smoothly.

The Economic Revolution

Having reinvented Government, William turned his attention to business. The profit-at-any-cost mentality had brought the economy to the edge of collapse, and could no longer be tolerated. He decreed a charter of social obligations for various “essential industries” to achieve within 5 years, or the relevant institutions would be nationalized and run by the Government.

His first targets were the Banks, Insurance Companies, Entertainment, and Telecommunications giants. The result was an immediate sharp recession – but one in which, for a change, levels of public service rose – resulting from the affected industries selling the shares they had bought as investments. The public eagerly snapped these up, ensuring that the recession was brief.

It was the most tumultuous period of change ever recorded outside of a time of War, and it freed William to deal with what he considered his real life’s task – the political problems of international relations.

Seventeen years of transformation

These, then, were the themes of the new age – privacy under attack, basic freedoms under attack, the legal system in disarray and threatening a total breakdown as courts became increasingly computerized, terrorists conducting precision attacks calculated to cause the maximum loss of pride, prestige, and innocent lives, dictators rattling sabers and threatening with weapons of mass destruction, new crimes and new pastimes and a social revolution which empowered individuals as never before – only for the empowered to become lost in the crowd of every other individual so empowered, except to those who were seeking to take advantage of them, new business models and practices which were ignored at the owner’s peril, upheaval on every front. It was a short but intense Dark Age, in which the “barbarians” emerged to smash the machinery of society, and then to build something new on the foundation stones that remained.

Next time, we’ll get into the year-by-year chronology of this period and examine some of these events in detail…

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