You have probably never heard of Provincia, for this tiny republic nestled between France and Italy counts only seventeen thousand, three hundred and twelve souls. It is a peaceful place now, but not so long ago it was, for a brief moment at least, the Most Dangerous Place in Europe (source: MSN.com). Violence had become so sadly commonplace that the everyday life of a Provincial citizen was rhythmed by outbursts of verbal and physical aggression.
The President of Provincia sought advice from his most esteemed sociologist, Hervé Schmütze-Schmurtz. Unfortunately, Schmütze-Schmurtz was unable to offer any plausible analysis, going so far as to suggest causation between the violence and the country’s recent rise in working poor. There seemed to be no solution.
One morning, after a fight with the postman, the President opened a letter from the illustrious Belgian philosopher, André Klump. The philosopher wrote that he was convinced that the increase in violence was directly bound to the stupidity of his citizens. “Civilisation” he wrote “is the fruit of intelligence. When intelligence increases, barbarism declines. Knowledge is the key to our salvation”.
The President liked this theory very much, and the two men worked together to find a way in which to instruct the citizens of Provincia. However, sending thousands of adults back to school was tricky, and not a little expensive, and so Klump came up with the idea of an educational television channel. It would replace all other channels, effectively being the only thing available on TV. It was a daring idea, but the President gave it his full support.
After a couple of months it became clear that people preferred to cease watching TV altogether; which left advertisers out of pocket and Provincia’s national broadcasting company bankrupt. (This also gave rise to the legendary battle of Studio 3 which lasted a week and resulted in dozens of casualties and also later a screenplay written by 17 year old intern, Gaspard Frugal entitled ‘Hell is Other People’ , which would go on to scoop several awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002).
The President eventually came to the conclusion that he would have to oblige his citizens to better themselves whether they liked it or not, and one evening after a heated game of chess and a few bottles of Roussillon, his friend Klump had a new idea so brilliant that he fell off his chair. It was this: He would add general knowledge questions to all forms of access codes. Thus, the people, his people, would be obliged to answer correctly in order to pursue their everyday activities. It would be seamless. It would be organic. It was, they both agreed, A Beautiful Idea.
The President implemented the plan without delay. The people of Provincia no longer only punched in a code to access their apartment buildings. Now, in order to get home and put the kettle on, they had to correctly answer questions such as ‘In which hemisphere is situated the city of Vladivostok?’.
Instead of simply entering their PIN number to withdraw cash from a machine, they also had to give the atomic number of oxygen.
But the system was flawed. Those who were already intelligent were able to respond quickly and go about their daily tasks practically unhindered. Those less well read found themselves having to cart around huge encyclopaediae. Those who were not so clever but well-off bought pocket-sized electronic ones.
Despite this fundamental unfairness the system seemed to function, and one afternoon at 3.14, the President sighed in relief. The questions were changed every four hours, and the citizens of Provincia became so focused on answering them correctly that they forgot to stab each other and set fire to cars.
People began talking to each other, exchanging knowledge. Perfect strangers shared the correct answers. Smart beggars sold answers to stupid wealthy people. And some people went as far as helping intrepid tourists by translating the questions for them.
The transformation was stunning. And though the country was not euphoric, it was definitely preoccupied. The number of violent acts plummeted, and the ensuing calm was such that children were able to play in the streets once more.
The President was of course delighted, but he was also somewhat anxious. His educational system was proving so efficient that the questions were becoming too simple for his citizens. They were starting to have time on their hands anew, and it would only be a matter of time before they started up again…
He was made acutely aware of this when a brick came shattering through the palace window and landed on his desk. The brick was wrapped in a sheet of paper, upon which someone had written, in fine italic script ‘Decent living wages for all! Your people are only just about surviving!’.
The President felt instantly humbled, and so very stupid. He now knew what he had to do. He gathered his leading professors and charged them with creating a new series of much, much more difficult questions.
Provincia came to a standstill. Supermarket check-out queues ceased to budge because in order to pay by credit card one had to give the past participle for the Norwegian verb to grate when applied specifically to the action of grating cheese not potatoes. Old people wandered the streets, unable to go home for want of the chemical composition of polystyrene. The already ailing economy collapsed and a new black market emerged based on the buying and selling of answers.
A small minority of citizens became extremely powerful. Their knowledge gave them access to everything, and they took advantage. One evening, the President, who was less intelligent than he fancied himself to be, found himself locked out of the Presidential Palace after three incorrect answers to the question ‘Who invented the fictional place called Cloud Cuckoo Land ?’ His position as head of state was rapidly overthrown by Stephanie Kahn, winner of Provincia’s popular TV quiz show ‘Raise Your Hand If You’d Like Lots Of Money’, whose first act was to declare that she saw no necessity in changing the system.
Railways ceased to function, roads were rendered useless as people simply gave up on finding the correct answers at toll booths and left their cars and trucks where they stood. Hospital workers were fined for whispering answers to patients seeking medical attention. Heretofore eradicated maladies reappeared, and the former president who was now living incognito in a car park was one of the many people who contracted tuberculosis. The country was on its knees.
A revolutionary cell formed, led by the sociologist Hervé Schmütze-Schmurtz. His main demand was equal rights for non-brilliant people. Day after day, hundreds of citizens joined his cause. He told them to stand and fight for their right to be moderately intelligent.
The people became violent once more. This time however their violence was focalized not on one another, but on the all-knowing elite. The uprising was shocking in its brutality, the auto proclaimed rulers seized from the palace before they could even finish their game of Risk, and taken away to be tortured. Their tribulations included having to read The da Vinci Code, then talk about it at a cocktail party without mentioning any of its scientific incoherences.
An election was organized and Schmütze-Schmurtz won in a landslide victory. He abolished the question system for all access codes, then got to work implementing country-wide reform based on his theory of years earlier…ensuring that the hardworking people of Provincia had enough income to retain their dignity and their fists.
Hervé Schmütze-Schmurtz became a much loved president despite a few critics who published books suggesting that he himself must have been very smart to have so easily solved Provincia’s economic woes.
As for the ousted President, he was sent to a sanatorium in the mountains overlooking Provincia, where he lived out his final years. At the very end of his life no one could budge him from his window seat from where he stared down at the Palace, eyes wide and mumbling the same word, over and over…