The Monkey Cage

by Anders Sandberg

Once upon a time there was a big cage inhabited by a tribe of monkeys. It was not a very nice cage: the floor and walls were bare concrete, there were few things to play with, the air smelled rank, food was always scarce and there were too many monkeys in the cramped cage for anybody to feel comfortable.

In the past many monkeys had tried to escape the cage in all kinds of ways, but with no success. Countless monkeys had strained their muscles trying to bend the steel bars, beaten their fists bloody against the unyielding walls or been nearly electrocuted by the electric fence above the walls. Since nobody ever succeeded in escaping they stopped trying, except for the occasional misfit who continued the hopeless struggle and the dreamers who though that if you stared long enough at the empty walls they would go away.

Most monkeys simply went on with their business: squabbling about food, playing with each other, mating, rearing children and fighting about who got to be the Boss. Some monkeys liked to sit in a corner after dinner to discuss the sad monkey condition and the eternal questions about Outside, ethics and the meaning of life. While most monkeys thought there was nothing outside of the cage and even if it was it would make no difference, these enlightened monkeys realized that it was important for all monkeys to understand how things really were and how to act properly.

One group of the thinker monkeys thought that while escape was impossible even in principle, monkeys who had been good (who left plenty of food to the Boss and the thinkers, looked properly afraid and didn't make too much noise) would live on Outside when they died. Bad monkeys went down the drain to live awful lives in the plumbing. The other thinkers were a bit divided about the idea; some pointed out that there was no evidence whatsoever for an Outside, some thought that there was no plumbing and others claimed that the food and toys should really be divided evenly, but they all agreed that it was good if the other monkeys were properly respectful and at least gave the thinkers some of their food since they were doing the truly hard work in the cage -- finding new ideas.

Meanwhile, some bright youngsters had been researching how the food appeared in the cage (originally because they guessed it could give them a bigger share). They had discovered something they called the "Door", and excitedly described it to the thinkers. One of them even went as far as to suggest that since food could appear through the Door, monkeys could leave through it too. While some of the thinkers were amused by this new application of the laws of logic as formulated by the great Eeek, most just laughed at the youngster and told him to grow up. A few of the thinkers explained with great eloquence that studying the Door was a waste of precious energy and food which could instead be used to make the cage a nicer place.

While some of the youngsters were discouraged and went on living like their siblings the others continued watching the Door despite the scorn the thinkers heaped upon them. After a while they began to formulate a theory about how the Door worked which they tested with a tiny model door they made out of some rubbish. They began to formulate a clever plan for opening the door from the inside using some of the toys.

When the other monkeys heard about it they just laughed; how could any monkeys be so stupid that they thought they could understand the Door, let alone escape to the Outside? But the thinkers didn't laugh, since they were clever enough to realize that the plan was workable. Instead they argued against it: "There are Things Monkeys Are Not Meant To Know, and what is behind the door is among them", "Who knows what horrors might come in from Outside?", "Without the cage we would be no monkeys; we are defined by the cage and cannot exist outside it".

But the thinkers argued for empty ears, for the youngsters had already tried the plan and left. Some of the other monkeys noticed that they were gone, but the thinkers pointed out that since the youngsters did not return it was probably very dangerous Outside (or maybe there was no Outside, and they had just disappeared down the drain as a punishment for their hubris, as some of the thinkers claimed).

So the monkeys continued to sit in their crowded cage, carefully avoiding looking at the open door.

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