The Synthetic Ice at the End of the Universe

At that time he had not yet invented the continuous process for the manufacture of synthetic ice, and he had nothing more than a vague idea of the way it could be done. He had been driven, of course, by the enormous profits that could be made from it. His wife had been out of touch with reality for some time now, and he had had to take care of the household and look after their three children almost single-handed. The only thing that kept him from despair was the hope that the invention of synthetic ice would provide enough money for him to hire a professional nurse for his wife and a governess for the children, so that he could devote himself to his experiments.

The idea of synthetic ice came to him in a sudden flash of inspiration as he was mixing a batch of ice cream for his children. The freezing process had consisted of placing the metal bowl in a larger one that had been filled with ice and salt and stirring the cream rapidly until it set. The heat and the constant stirring had soon made the room so cold that it was uncomfortable to be there, although the thermometer showed only eighteen degrees centigrade. At that moment he saw the cream transform itself into white, transparent crystals, and it occurred to him that if it happened with cream, it could happen with other liquids as well, and that if it happened with liquids it could also happen with solids. It was a simple step, but it had never occurred to him before. All he needed was the money to put the idea into practice. The first step was to try it with other kinds of ice, and he was able to do it with ice cream, because it had the property of not freezing until it was stirred. The second step was to find a way to speed up the process and lower the temperature needed, so that it would work with every kind of ice. Then came the most difficult part of all, the step of getting a patent for it. It was an idea that was so simple and obvious that he was sure that somebody else must have already invented it and patented it.

He found out that this was not the case, and he went on to the next step. He was able to design a machine that would produce synthetic ice at a reasonable cost, and he found a company that made refrigerators and freezers and convinced them to install his machines in their products. It took him ten years to get a patent for synthetic ice, but now that he had it in his hands he was no longer sure that he had invented it. He had the impression that it had been invented long ago and that he had only made it possible to synthesize it with a machine. All he had done was to invent a method of producing it more cheaply than nature had ever done. He had made a pact with the devil.

This was the first step in the destruction of the universe.

In the early years of the new century, the stockholders of the refrigerator and freezer companies which had gone over to synthetic ice held a meeting. The majority of these stockholders were not interested in the stock of their companies for its own sake or because they wanted to make money from it, but because it was a good investment for their money. Most of them were simple people who had their money invested in mutual funds or pension funds, and they didn’t give a thought to the companies whose stocks were in the funds. One of them, for example, was a retired salesman who had made a good deal of money from his job, and he was more interested in the fact that it was a good investment than in the money itself. Another was a widow who had inherited a small fortune from her husband and whose only concern was that the money not be tied up in the hands of trustees. Nevertheless, these stockholders had come to consider themselves as members of an exclusive club, in which they could talk about their investments at dinner parties or on cruises around the world.

And one day they came to realize that for some time now synthetic ice had been replacing natural ice in all its most common uses -- in drinks, for example, and also in cold storage -- and that this new product had begun to make them rich. This realization led them to look more closely into the companies’ stock prospectus, and it turned out that there were several steps after synthetic ice before it reached the consumer market as a finished product.

The manufacturers of refrigerators and freezers used synthetic ice exclusively because it produced less wear on machinery than natural ice did, but they knew perfectly well that there would soon be no more need for synthetics because a way would be found to synthesize natural ice cheaply too. As soon as consumers discovered what was happening with natural ice products too -- that is, when people began buying better refrigerators instead of spending their money on ever bigger blocks of natural ice for their home freezers.

The first step toward total annihilation came with an advertising campaign aimed at convincing people that synthetic products were just as good as natural ones. The second step came when consumers began demanding cheaper prices for better products (better meaning easier to use). To reduce prices without reducing quality meant increasing profits by using smaller amounts of material in each kilogram or pound (or whatever unit was being used) sold. It was much more profitable to sell five kilos at fifteen dollars apiece than ten kilos at eight dollars apiece because you risked losing customers if you raised your price any higher than eight dollars per kilo even though each individual customer would pay less money overall if he bought five kilos instead of ten.

There were two ways to increase profit margins: by raising price while maintaining quantity or by lowering price while keeping quantity constant (which increased profit margins because selling five kilo-sized packages instead of ten-kilogram-sized packages lowered costs). Although it might seem logical simply not to lower price any further because margin already exceeded cost -- nobody did this either except perhaps accidentally once or twice during crises like recessions caused by overproduction -- because lowering prices before competitors did so automatically put everybody under pressure from all sides until everybody lowered his prices again; then everybody raised his prices again; then everybody lowered his prices again; then everybody raised his prices again until you ended up back where you started from before anybody changed anything at all except maybe adding another brand name created especially for this purpose; moreover everyone knew perfectly well what kind of person bought unless he kept his mouth shut about it; finally lowering your own price wouldn’t mean much if your competitors didn’t do likewise right away anyway because otherwise somebody else might beat him out and get first place in sales volume figures (which were the only competition worth worrying about), so why bother?

The other way would be simply not lower price but keep volume constant by increasing production volume with machines capable of turning out larger numbers of identical objects per hour than anyone else could turn out using human labor alone or doing things manually without machines like robots and machines capable of reproducing themselves mechanically without having been programmed by humans except maybe once (although nobody took this seriously). What happened was that people continued buying more goods every year faster than population increased compared with previous years even though the population grew slowly due to birth rate decline. Eventually, the world ran out of people to produce the consumables for the consumers to purchase.

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