Above the Trees

Brian Shepard woke from a dream in the still of the night and sat up in bed. He had been standing alone on the top of a hill, pleading for someone to come to him, take him by the hand, and guide him safely down the hill, but he remained alone no matter how much he pleaded, his words lost in the wind.

His dreams had intensified now that he was no longer under house arrest for tax evasion. He felt even more imprisoned by his newfound freedom. He could hide from the obvious until he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. He did have friends. Like him, they were misfit isolatoes, a diaspora of unsatisfied dreamers who had scattered themselves to the four corners of the earth in an effort to evade the humiliating doctrines of their given cultures. They lived mostly in silence, waiting for relief.

This was, in large part, why Brian invented Above the Trees. He saw the game as a way of life that made more sense than the one he was living. There was no point anymore in trying to work his way into anyone’s heart, but he figured he could at least contribute to a more humane world, and he didn’t see anything naive in the effort.

The concept behind Above the Trees was simple enough. Initially, the game was played mostly online, with no barriers to entry and a focus on problem solving. A player would post a scenario that might happen, was in the process of happening, or had already happened. The scenario had to relate directly to the person’s life. Then, everyone who wanted to contribute to the conversation could evaluate the scenario and offer analysis and suggestions in order to arrive at the most positive and productive outcomes for as many people as possible. This meant that events that had already happened could be theoretically altered for future reference, while events that were yet to happen or were in the process of happening could be modified live time. In every case, the idea was to leave everyone involved feeling more conscious at the end of the process than they did at the beginning.

The Above the Trees system required members to input their responses into positive, negative, or neutral categories that made up a networked map of nodes that could lead to endless possibilities. At the same time, all member responses were synthesized to determine which majority opinions or trends might best serve the decision-making process although most participants realized that majority opinion and trends don’t always result in the most productive outcomes. No personal attacks or profanity were allowed. For a response to be inputted, it needed to be delivered in a generally rational and courteous manner. If it didn’t meet these criteria, it would be rejected.

One of Brian’s oldest friends who had moved to Dublin inputted a past event that received massive feedback. A young, hard-working fisherman was drinking in a popular local bar with friends after having just gotten off work. He was happy and engaging until a couple walked in. The woman was his ex-girlfriend, and she and the fisherman had been a couple for several years. He thought they would marry, but she was lucky and talented and smart and went away to college to study. While there, she fell in love with a fellow student and married him. The couple had come to town to visit the woman’s parents. The problem was, this was the bar that the fisherman and his former lover always went to when they were a couple. The fisherman felt betrayed.

The couple sat at the end of the bar. The fisherman walked over to them and started verbally abusing them. The woman tried to calm him down, but this didn’t work. The fisherman finally pulled the woman’s husband off the bar stool and hauled off and cold-cocked him in the face, which caused quite a commotion. Then, he helped the husband up, wiped off some of the blood with a bar napkin, and said to the husband, “You took it well. Well, that’s that. It’s settled, then. It won’t come up again. Let’s have a beer, and you can tell me all about yourself. Congratulations! She’s a fine woman.” The three of them ended up drinking at the bar for several hours, laughing and telling stories.

The responses trended in several directions. One popular alternative scenario suggested that the woman should have scouted the bar before taking her husband there, or she should have taken him somewhere else altogether. One threaded discussion assumed that she chose that bar intentionally to see what would happen. Some believed she had actually scouted the bar beforehand, and when she saw that her former boyfriend was there, she and her husband went in. She wanted to see the fisherman’s response—to see if he still cared—because she was unhappy in her marriage, realized she had made a terrible mistake in marrying him, still loved her ex-boyfriend, and wanted him back.

Another scenario held that the fisherman’s inability to control his temper might explain why he lost the woman in the first place, while yet another suggested that the husband would have to cope with a perceived loss of manhood for the rest of the marriage. A more quietly discussed alternative described how the fisherman and husband soon became close lifelong friends, almost as if by destiny.

The biggest group said that violence should not have occurred regardless of circumstance, and more damage than good was done despite the relatively mild results of the fisherman’s assault. By examining this broad range of possibilities in an open and highly interactive way, members drew a clearer understanding of individual and group dynamics that would assist them in formulating smarter decisions in their own lives.

Early on as Brian was building interest for Above the Trees, various critics accused him of either copycatting similar designs or not thoughtfully executing his own. Others characterized him as an unschooled dreamer whose project was doomed to failure. One of Brian’s meddlesome, spiteful sisters reminded him that even the brilliant futurist Buckminster Fuller’s World Game had failed on a grander but more impersonal level a few decades earlier. And indeed, for several months, Brian dealt with indifference from a market that existed but hadn’t materialized. Failure defined most people pursuing serious ambitions.

None of this really mattered to him. He was ready to absorb ridicule. He could endure endless hours of uncertainty and doubt without ever giving up. If the IRS couldn’t break him, then who could? And as he knew would be the case, his small circle of misfit friends were there to help develop the game and grow an audience. Their invaluable technical skills and innovative imaginations could finally be repurposed for something that merited meaningful action. They respected Brian because he had always embraced them as equals, and he let them know from the start that Above the Trees was a collaborative movement that would never be owned by a single person or group. It belonged equally to everyone who played, which was written into the company bylaws.

Sure enough, more members started to emulate the behavior and standards set by the original cadre of Above the Trees loyalists, and within two years, the movement was in full force. Joining was no longer risky. In fact, membership blossomed because now people wanted to be a part of the in-crowd. Imagine millions of people waking up every morning and looking forward to seeing how an extended family of online problem solvers will collaborate to leave everyone with a clearer picture of how to make any given situation more hopeful and livable. This is precisely what happened, and many wondered why something so sensible and civilized hadn’t occurred much earlier in human history. At this point, Brian felt more like a channeler than an overseer.

Then the players said bad tradition should go. 90% of major media was controlled by five corporations with vested interests in the Military-Industrial Complex. This meant an exponentially expanding population base chose social media and social networking as its primary information sources, and a growing number of citizens began a powerful movement to limit the invasiveness of government spy agencies. The new Above the Trees paradigm altered electronic communication focus and volume so dramatically that these agencies were no longer able to intrude on individual liberties with the same pervasiveness. Everyone knew at this point that electronic surveillance systems would be a permanent fixture in day-to-day life, but the decision to regulate the process through Above the Trees became the necessary alternative.

Millions of Above the Trees members also stopped following talentless, self-indulgent Pop Culture icons and strident “top news stories” since there were always far more interesting collaborations to be developed with Above the Trees colleagues and friends. Now, theory could be evaluated and then put into practice with just a little effort and some good intentions. Members could find sensible, real-world ways to make everyone’s lives happier and more meaningful. Constructive activism flourished, and volunteerism tripled throughout the country within just a few years. Community gardening became the most popular local activity, with service to the elderly a close second. A number of legal firms took on an increasing number of pro bono cases for worthy causes, and people with wildly diverse backgrounds established efficient networks designed to help first-generation immigrants assimilate more effectively into society and thrive in their new surroundings. The list went on and on. Various activities designed to serve others in need expanded in nearly every community in the country. Consequently, the economy improved, and the crime rate plummeted.

Then, people from all walks of life stopped voting for system politicians en masse because they finally realized that true change could occur only through a major restructuring of the entire electoral process. Voting for corrupt political and corporate insiders no longer served a sensible purpose, and Above the Trees offered a practical alternative. Before too long, local, state, and national politicians began seeking attention and votes by participating directly with their constituents in Above the Trees, which also meant that the collective voice could and would, by default, match political behavior with the game’s process and outcomes. Transparent, rational behavior became essential to getting elected, and a new breed of politician began taking charge of government at all levels. Campaign funding was capped at reasonable levels to enable average citizens to run successfully for public office, and congressional salaries and benefits were reduced to reflect middle-class standards. Of equal importance, the corrosive triangular relationship between lobbyists, congressional committees, and government bureaucracy was severed forever.

Within a decade of the game’s inception, America was moving out of debt, maintaining a balanced budget, becoming a much better steward of the environment, and prioritizing education and vocational opportunity, mostly via the networks established through Above the Trees. Members were guiding their own destinies in a mostly peaceful and practical manner that just a few years before would have seemed impossible. The idea of living a violent, confused, or desperate life made little sense to a growing number of people who wanted to enjoy what was left of the 30,000 or so days each of them had on Earth.

The replicating power structure that had controlled the global population for thousands of years was becoming just another participant in a broader, more even-handed game. In the end, few bothered remembering who invented Above the Trees since, by design, it belonged to everyone. But now, when Brian awoke in the middle of the night, he could feel the glow of the moon flooding the room, and something had altered his dreams. He still stood alone on the hill, but he sensed that someone was on the way. The waking and dreaming lives were beginning to blend. There had never been any reason for them not to.