Venn and now: geometries of land reformation

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The world is redistributed into hexagonal cells, where everyone gets their share and is self-sufficient, writes Steve Webb

If I extend the pencil end of a compass 125 years into the past and rotate it 180 degrees around the pin, the pencil will sit exactly 125 years in the future. Halfway between those two thens is now, and now is the very sharp tip of that compass point. The point of that compass rests upon you, dear reader. To be precise, it rests exactly on now and on you. With your kind permission, and by a process of omniscient projection, I, the writer, will take brief possession of your entity. I will set your body aside and distil your consciousness into one tiny point of existence. Excorporated, you are freed, not only from the base concerns of your anatomy, but also of any means of sensing the things around you.

Close your eyes, dear reader, as I cast you up from exactly where you are now to become a point 10 kilometres into the sky. You hover there with nothing but your waning thoughts, as they echo and review the memories of distant experiences with ever more faltering acuity until you reach a state of complete numbness. Time passes faster and faster as you are starved of sensory stimulation. In this dull and stupefied state you are unaware that I have begun to take you back, 125 years into the future. You do not feel the gradual downward acceleration, falling through the atmosphere, through the clouds and towards a point below: the precise point where you started. As you approach that point I slow you down. With a start you perceive a squelch and a fizz as your entity plops through the very crest of the round grey-topped head of Eve, your host. A rush of liquid noise, heat, wetness and pain. An instantaneous reconnection of your senses. An unbearable explosion of sensations, the smell of wood, fire and earth. You become aware of the chatter of her thoughts and finally, flash, she opens her eyes and through her vision you are brought back to the light. You see two semi-circular halves: a semicircle of grey sky above and a semicircle of green land below.

Suddenly awoken from an outdoor nap, Eve squints into the distance. It’s a hot day. The wind makes the drying leaves in her avocado trees rustle pleasantly, but she can also hear a neighbour hammering metal in his cell. Having a metal worker next door is a real fly in the ointment of her peaceful life. She stands, confused, rubs the top of her oddly sore head and turns. She examines the tired timber boards covering her house, which sits near the middle of her own cell, and slowly climbs the steps to go inside. She’s been here so long.

Being alone makes her think about things from the past. Right now, she’s remembering television sets and the news programmes that played just before the war. She was only five years old so she couldn’t really understand what was happening at the time. Since then, nobody’s written about it and there’s no TV or radio to analyse it. People sometimes talked about what happened, but things get muddled when they go from mouth to mouth, from cell to cell, and now she’s old so the memories she once had are dimming.

The news programmes showed groups from the south marching on the capital. They were well armed. The politicians said they were funded by foreigners. The news said they were taking advantage of the mess caused by the break-up of the trade bloc. She remembers that the news reports didn’t really take it seriously in the beginning, but soon after ministers were begging for help from allies. Suddenly all the news shows stopped coming through and the radio channels went dead, closed down forever. It seemed that the foreigners who helped the uprising with money and guns just wanted to destabilise the country, but they hadn’t reckoned on the contagiousness of the idea that they had unleashed, as it spread across borders and around the world: land reform!

‘By distributing people evenly across the land, the world is now held in a state of clinical and reliable equality’

TVs and radios were now useless, but Eve remembers very clearly what the new ruler said in that speech in the city. What they said was that everybody was getting a piece of land and had to be self-sufficient. There were so many people crammed in giant brick blocks by then. They wanted a fairer share. The change from the life before to now was slow. It was brought on bit by bit to ensure people had a chance to learn new ways. It was slow, but they wouldn’t let it stop.

She remembers hearing that the first cells had been set out in the east of the country. She later saw that they used poles to mark the edges. Those flat places made it really easy to make the cells and there weren’t many people to complain. Roads were ploughed up. Some buildings within cells were left standing for the new incumbents, but many were knocked down. For the cells that were in open fields, wooden cabins were provided. They were really spartan; they weren’t decorated, just bare wooden walls inside and out. They weren’t insulated, but they didn’t need to be when the timber was so thick. You could put your own interior walls wherever you wanted. People were extremely happy to have so much more space than they had in the old housing blocks. In the beginning it was like camping, and you could run out of the door into a huge field all of your own.

Slowly, more and more cells were added. Maps would show the number of cells gradually growing into a big chain-mail pattern, one cell laid next to another and another, spreading across the countryside. They drew closer and closer to London. Eve recalls the onset of the gradual demolition of housing blocks and the ploughing up of roads as the population was slowly sent into their cells. Decanting they called it – making people sound like wine. One by one, housing blocks were emptied; when a block was emptied it was pulled down, and other buildings were demolished too. The cells spread across the emptied land and little by little London was eaten up. At first people were horrified to see famous monuments and towers brought to the ground as rubble, but they were quickly forgotten. The new world of space and freedom and self-sufficiency was so exciting and so consuming that no one gave a thought to the old palaces and shopping centres.

Eve walks slowly across the floor and sits down in her armchair. She starts to think about the time she was given her own cell at the age of 18. Until then she had lived with her mother who had been given her cell several years before. Their adjustment to cell life had been hard. Her mother wasn’t used to any kind of physical labour or gardening. What she did know was computers, and while people still had computers, she helped them in exchange for vegetables and other things. She remembers her mother being angry and then getting scared when bit by bit people stopped using computers and stopped paying her to fix them. She remembers her mother’s first go at planting. Some neighbours helped, but others stood by and just watched. She got it in the end.

Not everyone did so well though, and this new system was a leveller. When Eve got to her own cell she found the grave and abandoned possessions of the previous incumbent. From the state of the place, the mess and the stench in the house, and the overgrown land, she knew that the previous incumbent hadn’t lived well. It was no wonder he had died. Among his things she found strange objects with no visible purpose: one of them, a gold ring with a shield imprinted on it. By then she knew how to live. She had helped her mother do all of the jobs and she knew how to plant and mend and trade with neighbours, so she was quickly able to put things in order.

Dear reader, during your prior incarnation, the word ‘cell’ was sloppily defined and could have had either penal, medical or telephonic interpretation, but now ‘cell’ is a word belonging only to a building block of precise land equality. The ruler’s aim was to arrest economic growth. The incentive for the population was an end to the extremes of inequality that prevailed. The ruler had determined that in the previous world, humanity had gone too far in its efforts towards self-fulfilment, and that every advance in that area was followed by an equal increase in expectation. Abraham Maslow’s 1943 ‘hierarchy of needs’, they felt, wasn’t so much a pyramid as an asymptotic joining of exponentials, whose top can never be reached.

‘What was the point in producing more than we ever needed?’

Past economists had proposed the harnessing of human greed to make a constantly growing economy inevitable. Proponents of free trade put production where it was currently most effective, creating a pattern of increasingly crowded nodes of trade and production that wildly enriched some and impoverished others. The people drifted from the land to the cities. Life was a constant competition to be richer than your neighbour. Countries clubbed together in ever larger trade blocs to apply economic and even bellicose control over smaller states who were beggared and humiliated. Land was transferable, without inheritance tax, and the few rich quickly purchased whatever wasn’t still in the hands of descendants of the Normans until the vast majority were not only impoverished but also living in staggering levels of urban density. Despite these impoverishments, total production of goods far exceeded what was really needed to live with dignity. The very basics required for life were a mere fraction of the output that was required to keep a constant circulation of gadgets, cars, toys and clothes consumed and produced by the busy fools of our population. What was the point in producing more than we ever needed?

Rejecting 18th- and 19th-century economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the leader developed a counter-idea: the idea that an economy could maintain equality indefinitely and be limited to a natural terminal velocity of growth. This would be achieved through the imposition of hexagonal geometry. This geometrical organisation has brought about an end to consumerism through the abolition of urbanisation and the decentralisation of production.

By extending and congesting trade routes, distributing people evenly across the land, and encircling the scope of individual self-interest, the world is now held in a state of clinical and reliable equality. This new system is designed intentionally to jam-up and prevent excessive distribution and trade and to encourage localism. Humanity has been blended, homogenised and spread: a perfect distribution of physical strength, empathy, stupidity and delinquency scattered over the world cell by cell.

In this world, there are 7,283,456,262 people. They are distributed equally at every age group. Justified by a reasonable fear of the supposed Malthusian consequences of having more people than cells, this number and linear age distribution is held by strict birth control and euthanasia. One in, one out. The world currently comprises 127,654,231km2 of habitable land. A cell is a circle of 84.134m radius. Each cell is centred at a distance of 142.260m to the midpoints of the six adjacent cells. The overlapping edges allow for a minimum of 4m of path around the edges of each cell. These overlapping circular domains form a hexagonal pattern over every piece of fertile land in the world.

The idea is so simple it could be worked out on half a sheet of calculation paper: a fail-safe design based on the repetition of a single simple idea. Some thought the sizes of the cells should be adjusted for agricultural yield by factors that account for latitude, altitude and soil type: that the lowland market gardener in a southern nation should have less land than a cell on a bleak northern mountainside, but they do not. The cells are all equal in size and allocated randomly. This randomisation of advantage of land quality erodes the natural advantages created by the varying attributes of the people themselves.

Each cell is the domain of just one person. Conventions of sharing along with all communication and transport exist in the overlapping spaces. A hexagonal grid of paths and shared facilities. One person yields the benefit of the inner field for themselves, while sharing the benefits and responsibilities of the overlapping segments with the overlapping neighbours. Each person has complete dominion over their cell. No one can enter without their permission, no one can tell them what to do. Seven billion nation states with a population of one.

‘Eve lives without radio or TV or computers or shops or traffic or the brightly coloured torrents of advertising that were poured into the lives of everyone before’

Eve begins to reminisce once again. She recalls that as her mother struggled to keep her computer business alive, others were doing the same. The ruler did not forbid anyone to try to enrich themselves. Many businesses sprang up within the cells at the outset. People set up small factories and works. Goods were shuffled about along the narrow zigzagging paths between the cells. They didn’t flourish because nobody could scale them up. You couldn’t sell or buy cells. If your neighbour worked with you then you could set up joint works, but due to the random distribution of cells it was difficult to establish big factories. The narrow paths choked off trade. People could easily walk from cell to cell to see close neighbours or carry small goods, but the lightest flow of goods vehicles jammed everything up. Gradually, people began to realise that self-sufficiency was easiest. People started to withdraw to their cells and shy away from the chaotic traffic jams on their borders. The cell gave people space to be private, safe and free. Eve hated noise and clamour. Her solitude, now almost complete bar occasional exchanges with close neighbours, was a balm to her soul.

When she was young she missed her mother. She could only afford to make the long journey to her cell once or twice a year. The cells were distributed randomly, so if you were born in a southern arable zone you were lucky, but because the system was random it was very unlikely that you would be allocated a cell near other family members. Family bonds were stretched by distance. You could not easily club together with family and friends or people of your own creed. Now, you had to form bonds with strangers.

She reaches into a box by the chair. She pulls out a red sachet and flattens it in her hand. She reads the label out loud: ‘Skittles’. She recalls the feel and taste of the fruity sweets. She hasn’t tasted those sweets for many years. The brightness of the label brings to mind all of the colourful packets and logos that used to exist. There was no way of advertising now. No media, no distribution. The products that are sold in the little shops, or honour stands along the roads, are all local. Produce is unpackaged and judged on its naked appearance and smell. The colour of objects has become dull, reflecting where you live and what you do. Eve, like many people, has gradually withdrawn to her cell and lives without radio or TV or computers or shops or traffic or the brightly coloured torrents of advertising that were poured into the lives of everyone before.

Eve prepares breakfast. Reaching up to a shelf she brings down a large jar of honey and stares through the liquid as the morning sun shines through the comb floating inside. She closes one eye and brings the jar up to the other until the pattern of tiny golden chambers fills her view.

It is time for you to return. The golden hexagon of the honeycomb is the last thing you see before your eye snaps shut and darkness resumes. You feel a sharp upward inertia and hear a rush of liquid followed by silence as I lift your entity once again into the skies. To travel forward in time you simply need to wait in silence, but to travel back you must be propelled at the speed of light, a precise distance up and then down. You cannot perceive that you are being propelled through the gas clouds of interstellar space and through proximal binary constellations between dying stars and slowly reversing and falling back to Earth and once again to yourself, your body and, as you reach once more the compass point of now, you can open your eyes again.

Oh, but you have a question. Who am I? Dear reader, the voice that conveys these facts to you is the very agent that will bring these things to pass. But how can that be? Because it is you, dear leader, now armed with this foreknowledge, who will unleash this new reality upon the world.

Illustrations by Kate Dehler

This essay was originally published on The Architectural Review and in AR November 2021 issue.