Pilots, part 5

posted 27 August 2009

The fact that the second pilot ever was female was a surprise to the world, I think. Nobody had really been looking for female pilots. I don't know why that would have been, but I guess even now people make assumptions based on gender, and this was all thirty years ago now.

There actually is a gender bias in pilots, at least in terms of raw recruits: the split is about sixty-forty, biased towards men. But in practice, women tend to be more reliable pilots than men, who tend to burn out early. Three years into their careers, the split in pilots is exactly fifty-fifty, and that ratio has held steady no matter how good our meditation techniques have got, no matter how much we spend on rehab.

Once we had Maddie, Recruitment started looking for similarities between us. They collected all the data they'd spent months collecting about me in just a few weeks -- it bugged the hell out of her, would have driven her crazy if they all hadn't been under such instructions not to get her psyched out.

First they went looking for similarities and lifestyle. That was a total blank. Maddie was fifty-five, with two grown-up kids. She'd been born in 1964, in rural Devon, a hamlet called Lettaford, something like that. As a teenager she'd run away to London, got caught up in the tail-end of the punk scene. She'd partied hard, done a lot of drugs -- she had some amazing stories from those years. And then she'd got it out of her system, moved back home, and worked on the family farm for the rest of her life. Does that sound much like me? Not even close -- though we got along great, Maddie and me, right from the start.

Then they went looking at the genes. They only had two samples, so they couldn't be too sure of things, but they thought they found some similarities. Nowadays we have a lot more data, of course. Switching is at least partially genetic -- the children of pilots tend to be pilots, and the child of two pilots is something like thirty percent more likely to be a pilot than if only one parent is. But that's a weird percentage for genetics; it should be twice, or half, or something. And it looks like there's more than one set of genes that will do the trick. So there's more to it than that -- some environment, some pre-natal development, stuff like that.

They were inconclusive on the genes, so they then looked at brain structure, doing deep MRI scans. It took them a while to get anything: when we're not switching, our brains look just like anybody else's. When we are switching, the interface tends to muck up the scans. But as we get zoned, our brains light up in a really distinctive way, the same across all pilots.

Of course, the problem with trying to scan our brains while we were zoned is that, firstly, it was really hard to get zoned when you were stuck into a this claustrophic coffin of an MRI machine, and secondly, we tended to end up switching, taking a big chunk of the machine with us. We destroyed about a dozen MRI machines between Maddie and me, at two million dollars a pop, before we managed to switch the whole machine, complete with power supply and everything. I remember Maddie thought it was hilarious, the way the machines kept exploding. She has a wicked sense of humour, and it wasn't her money, so what did she care? I know for certain on one occasion she deliberately created pushback, well after we'd both got it under control, just because she was bored and wanted lunch. She was a crazy bitch.

One of the questions that came up as soon as we found Maddie was: why hadn't we found her before? She was in her fifties, and as far as we could tell had been able to switch her whole life. Why would she wait until now? In fact, given the number of submissions we were getting, why hadn't everybody been doing this? Why weren't we swimming in pilots?

The way Maddie put it was: how many times, in the average year, do you sit down and have five minutes to yourself to do nothing but relax? Not many, especially if you've got two kids and a farm to worry about. And then how many times, of those five-minute personal Zen sessions, do you then spend thinking only about being somewhere else? Switching is not like a daydream of being on vacation: it's a very specific, powerful desire to be somewhere else. If you're reasonably happy with your life, why would you ever do that? It "just hadn't come up".

It was good enough for Maddie, but could it really be that simple? We had no reason to believe that the ability to switch was a new development; it looked like the potential had been there for millions of years, biologically speaking. There was no nonsense about mutations or the effects of technology or whatever. Had it really just not come up for the whole of humanity for the whole of recorded history? People have done a lot of research into that question since then, and come to a bunch of different conclusions, but here's what I believe: the real cause of change was VC, not me.

Throughout human history, how many mysterious disappearances have there been? How many unexplained explosions? How many magicians performed impossible feats in a puff of "smoke"? How many witch doctors, shamans, monks, whatever your local equivalent was? And more recently, how many brilliant thieves, how many impossibly good spies? Switching has probably been around for a while.

Why weren't there thousands of switchers, instead of just a few scattered through history? Lots of reasons. First: a huge number of people, finding themselves instantly transported to some new location, would probably have been so freaked out they would never have been able to switch again -- especially way back, they'd put it down to some kind of supernatural force.

A whole bunch more might have realized what happened, but would have no idea what they did, or how to do it again. They might have tried, and got pushback, which can easily kill you. In fact, a lot would never have switched to start with, and only ever got pushback. Pushback is not a process that invites you to keep trying. After you've destroyed your house, killed a few loved ones, you're unlikely to ever try zoning out again.

For another big chunk of people it would have ended badly -- found themselves on top of a mountain, or the bottom of a lake, or collapsed a building on top of themselves by switching out an important wall. There's lots of ways to kill yourself by switching unexpectedly. Even our trained, experienced pilots, with all the best equipment, have a mortality rate comparable to firemen. Switching is a powerful and dangerous thing.

And of the remaining very, very small number, who didn't freak out, didn't kill anybody, didn't get run out of town for being a demon, worked out what they did, worked out how to do it again, and avoided getting fatal pushback all by themselves -- would they have told anybody? Or would they have kept their magical powers a secret, to avoid persecution? They might have used it for personal gain, but they weren't going to go around telling everybody "hey, I seem to have demonic powers!"

Only in quite recent history would the natural reaction to a new human ability, previously thought impossible, be to go public and then try and hire more people who can do the same thing. It takes a special kind of mind to look at a kid who can teleport, step back from the awe of that moment, and really quickly think: well, there'll be a dozen more like him out there.

But that was the world VC lived in. He'd seen a hundred brilliant kids with ideas they thought were unique, and for each of those there were a dozen other kids with the exact same idea. In his world, a brilliant new concept was just a starting point: you needed to find the right people to execute it, and there was usually no end of choice. So VC went looking for more pilots, and found them. But what we weren't expecting was how many there would be.

VC's original goal was to get a dozen pilots under our belt before we'd go public with the fact that there was even more than one. We didn't know how rare the skills would be, and VC wanted to make sure Switch Transport had a sizeable lead in the race to find new talent. But even the first sweep, where we sifted through YouTube and only picked up people who'd obviously already worked out how to do a full switch all by themselves, turned up forty-seven pilots. A few more passes and picking up people who'd got as far as pushback, and we got up to two hundred, at which point we went public. It took us six months.

You've seen the recordings of that press conference a hundred times, I'm sure. Me and VC on stage at HQ, a huge audience of reporters and bloggers in front of us. VC says he has an important announcement about the future of the company. Maybe you don't know the context, though: there'd been a lot of chatter in the business press, people who'd analyzed the fundamentals just like VC had, and worked out that with just one pilot, there was no way Switch Transport could support our gigantic valuation. Rumours were flying that investors had pulled out, that the company was finished.

Instead, VC trots out that awesome line: "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the future of Switch Transport, and the future of humanity." And behind us the curtain rises up -- the techs had spent three weeks working out how to build a stage with a smoothly rising curtain -- and reveal the ranks of two hundred new pilots, all kitted out in new ST uniforms. And right in the front row, smack in the middle of the camera views, is Maddie, with this little sign hung on a string around her neck that says "HI KIDS!"

She'd not been allowed to tell her family anything up to that point, see? We were in total lockdown. She complained a lot about it, threatened to switch all the way home and tell everybody. So VC made her a deal: she kept quiet, and she'd get to do the big reveal. So that's how that happened. Big historical moment, in history documentaries everywhere, right next to MLK's "I have a dream" speech, and there's this crazy lady with a sign on her neck, grinning and waving at the cameras. Hilarious.

With that, we started signing up customers, and entered a period of explosive growth -- and who am I kidding? We've never left it. We've grown continuously for thirty years, barely slowing down, and there's no sign of us stopping. There's still way more demand for us than there are pilots, and it's not like there's exactly a shortage of pilots either.

Once the cat was out of the bag, dozens of other companies started to pile in. They copied us as fast as they could, but VC was too smart, and by that point too rich. If you were just another copycat, VC didn't give a shit. We could beat you on price, volume, location, logistics, a hundred way in which economies of scale worked for us.

If you had a genuinely new approach, some new application VC hadn't thought of, he'd just bury you in money until you agreed to join Switch. It wasn't coercion, as such -- if they weren't into it, we didn't force them or crush them. There are a bunch of niche siwtching companies out there today built on their own unique innovations. But the majority joined us, because it was just so much more profitable that way. A 1% increase in efficiency at a trillion-dollar company is just so much money.

And it helps that we weren't assholes about it. I'm not supposed to talk about our operating margins, but they're pretty tight. We're not squeezing anybody; competition with the niche carriers wouldn't let us. But our volume is just so gigantic that our margins barely matter.

Our other really good strategic move: we never get involved in politics, ever. When France insisted that all switching inside the country be government-owned and controlled, we didn't argue. We just pulled out of the market entirely. They limped along for something like a decade, but eventually voter dissatisfaction made them give in. Transport de France is still a pretty popular niche carrier, and the way they use short-hop switching for mass transport around Greater Paris is almost unique. But it's not really cost-effective; trains are so much more predictable than a bunch of really laid-back Frenchmen.

And speaking of politics: a big fear, right at the beginning, was that somebody would somehow manage to weaponize switching. I guess it's not hard to imagine, right? North Korea could decide to switch in a battalion of soldiers to New York. Al Qaeda could switch a suicide bomber right into the white house. All they'd need is a switch pilot who'd been to those places before -- there are tours of the white house, after all, and it's not like it's hard to get to New York.

But of course it doesn't work that way. Switching has been responsible for some really terrible accidents -- the lagoon in the middle of Mumbai is a visible reminder -- but that's all they've ever been, accidents. Every time some pilot gets pushback at a crowded port, there's some conspiracy theorists who dig into their background and say "aha! it was because he was a third-generation palestinian, and there were jews on board!" That stuff is bullshit, okay? The world population is just a lot more mixed up than it used to be. You can find somebody from whatever persecuted minority group you favour anywhere.

Here's why it's never happened: because of pilots. Because of the way it works. Being a pilot involves being blissed-out, relaxed, constantly. You just can't do it with malicious intent. Nobody military has ever managed to switch -- the army has to hire civilian switch transports, just like everybody else. Military training just wrecks switching ability. Fundamentalists, of any stripe, can't do it either. Their brains are just warped, literally, into a shape where switching doesn't work anymore. Switch pilots are laid-back, blissed-out hippie types, universally. You just try getting a hippie to agree to move a battalion of troops. You can't even hold a gun to his head, because the fear will blow his switching.

It's like evolution saw it coming, and put in a natural fail-safe against Switch wars. Who knows, maybe that is what happened. Maybe cave men, thousands of years ago, could all switch all the time, and got into hugely destructive battles, until the only ones who survived were the peaceniks? It's not beyond the realm of possibility. At least, not further beyond possibility than the idea that I can relax for two minutes and take the pair of us to the moon. And we know that can happen.

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