When I walked out of the Ideologies Fair, I thought I would never see my shirt ever again.
Imagine my surprise when the next day, I woke up to see my roommate, Lukko, wearing that monstrosity! Very briefly my vision was blasted with a riot of color displayed like the petals of some putrid, carnivorous jungle flora and glitter-glue constellations splayed out like the tentacles of some interstellar lusus naturae with too many plastic eyes, before I covered my eyes away and yelled, “Where did you get that?!”
“Trevisia gave it to me,” he said.
It struck me that Lukko had been the one warbling “opera” at the Ideologies Fair. So excited had I been during Orientation that I had not bothered to commit my roommate’s face to memory, and hence had failed to recognize him at the Fair.
“Please don’t wear that. It’s offensive to me, and it doesn’t belong to you.”
“It does, because you donated it to the Creativists,” Lukko said, “And I will wear it to remind you of your creative side. The more you surround yourself with U’s, Frongo, the more you’ll forget there ever is such a thing as creativity.”
Lukko paced as he crunched his toast (because sitting down eating it would be “standard”). He swung a chain that held one of those Creativist wooden boxes (decorated with many pipe-cleaner arms to look like a primeval bacteriophage) that would spit out a prompt every thirty minutes. I would come to dread this effigy over the next week, going so far as to buy a phonograph and a record entitled “Calming music” and huddle besides the phonograph’s trumpet every thirty minutes.
“Besides, once you create something, it has a life of its own. You can never, ever take it back.”
Lukko became an avid Creativist. In fact, he was not a bad Creativist. He had a remarkable talent for painting portraits of people screaming, as well as adapting cookware and the Handy Man’s Tool Set into musical instruments.
Lukko would wear the monstrosity at least once every week. However despite my best efforts at logic, I was unable to predict which day he would wear the shirt. Due to its multitudinous appendages, the shirt could not be washed, and its stench soon matched its ugliness.
You must be thinking how unlucky I was to be matched with Lukko. In fact, I discovered that it was hardly due to chance. Rather, our matching was the result of careful calculation! In order to explain, I must first discuss our housing system.
Director Haus was a tall bearded man whose hat also served as a minimal functioning (but empty) birdhouse. When I visited Philosophocle three weeks before the start of the semester, I inquired about accommodations, and he was kind enough to give me a tour of the Housing Office.
The Housing Office was the exemplar of industry. The wall of the office was covered in architectural blueprints, which between them mapped out every habitable room in the University. Thumbtacks and paper squares covered the blueprints. But what what drew my attention was the twenty-five students, shuffling papers from large stacks to other large stacks, clipping them together in twos, threes, and fours, and placing them in shelves labeled “certain”, “likely”, “probable”, “only if nothing better”, and “???”. On the blackboard was a gigantic graph drawn from colored chalk with the title “Compatibility”.
So engrossed were they in their work that none of them looked up as we entered.
“Who are these people?” I asked.
Director Haus beamed at me.
“Meet the Housers. Every paper you see in this room is a survey filled out by one of our current or incoming students. The Housers sift through thousands of self-descriptions to determine the optimal arrangement of students in dorms. As you can see, Dave there at the board is drawing a graph of the compatibility/non-compatibility of all male students who had Woody as their first-choice dorm.
“This is no mere housing ‘lottery’. This is a housing optimizer. Through statistics, debates, and discussions over late-night tea, we find the globally optimum housing arrangement.”
“But Director, would it not be more efficient to use a computer? I remember seeing a computer in the Technology Department.”
Director Haus gave me a stern look. “We cannot remove the human element from housing. A computer program, it is true, will output an optimal matching given a value function. But how can we tell a computer all the values that are important to our human students in finding the perfect roommate? Twenty-five students who understand the intricacies of rooming are much more suited to the task. Who are the people who you most need in order to order to grow? The Housers will find them for you.”
“But the sheer amount of student-hours…!”
“Being a Houser is not just an office job, Fron. It is a privilege. Hundreds of students apply to be Housers every year. Besides, students who are Housers gain intimate familiarity with the incoming class. During the first week, Fron, you will be surprised to meet several upperclassman will be able to summarize your biography—provided you fill out the survey, of course.”
Although I believed that Director Haus’s view on technology was too critical1, the Housers’ efforts endeared me. A university who cared so much about its students that upperclassmen would volunteer to find the best roommates for incoming students, and who went about such a trivial task with the utmost precision and rigor!
When I informed Haus that I had not received the survey, he immediately delivered a copy into my hand. I busied myself the next five minutes in filling it out.
“But Director Haus, do you match up students by common interests? Wouldn’t this make the living communities too homogeneous?”
“We have thought of everything,” Haus said, pointing to a question further down the page.
How different would you like your roommate to be from you?
(Exactly the same) 1 2 3 4 5 (Completely different)
I bubbled in 5 (foolishly).
The last question was “what other criteria do you have for a roommate, in order of priority?” I did not wish to further burden to the already very busy Housers, so instead checked the box at the bottom, which read,
“Excellent!” Director Haus said, “I am always glad to meet someone who has an adventurous taste in roommates.”
On that fateful form, I had not described myself in Uniformist or Creativist terms, or any of the religions of Philosophocle. I wonder, however, if the Housers had already predicted that I would be a Uniformist, and Lukko would be a Creativist. In either case, I now believe the Housing Optimization system to be deeply flawed.
When I appealed my housing to Director Haus, he invited me into the Housing Office (now empty of students but with its walls still covered in blueprints and thumbtacks) and offered me a cup of tea. Upon finding my housing survey, however, he frowned.
“You clearly stated a preference for someone completely different,” Director Haus said, “And the Housers have honored this preference.”
“But I am extremely dissatisfied!”
“Is this dissatisfaction mutual?”
The truth was that Lukko was not at all dissatisfied. “I’m glad for your presence,” Lukko had told me. “Trevisia has told me that the Creativist road is difficult, for there are many who judge and threaten me based on my creations. By your continual challenges towards my creations, I will grow stronger as a Creativist.”
Director Haus’s eyes wandered to the blueprint of Pondside. My thumbtack was gray, and Lukko’s thumbtack was red.
“You will do well to learn from Lukko,” Haus said severely, as if reading my thoughts, “At Philosophocle, we do not optimize happiess. If we desired a happy life, we would not spend our lives studying obscure subjects at a university. If we did, we would move to Las Vegas2 or Barbados. We are here, Fron, because we desire intellectual growth.”
Our conversation was at an end. If I had talked with Haus after taking Introduction to Debate, I would have a comeback. But alas, I was an ignorant freshman. For a moment, I imagined going berserk, tearing down the blueprints on the walls and screaming, “we are humans, not thumbtacks!” As it was, I finished my tea and meekly left the Housing Office, leaving Director Haus to his architectural solitude. For the next year, until the next Housing Optimization, the Uniformists would be my primary source of solace.