Long ago and faraway in a land not unlike our own, the emperor and his court noticed that fewer and fewer people were congregating in the many temples there. In order to restore this practice, the emperor ordered that all temples be shuttered and replaced with new ones. So the shrines to the cunning Bezos, god of commerce, the scantily-clad Cyrus, goddess of music, and the Kardashians, who with one look could turn a man to stone, were all closed. The new temples were prefabricated, exactly identical and all dedicated to a single new god: the abacus.
Now this abacus was the latest model, and the emperor believed it to be the greatest achievement in the history of the world. It contained millions and millions of beads, most of them so small that they were invisible. It was able to calculate enormous sums in seconds flat. It was decorated with all manner of bells and whistles. It even spoke, in a nasal, mechanical monotone that was said to be the voice of Gates, the most fearsome and powerful of all the gods.
Many people had exhausted their lives’ savings to purchase miniature models of this magical abacus, in order to be mesmerized by its many bells and whistles and to receive orders from the king of all the gods.
One day the miniature abacuses all simultaneously announced that the great abacus had calculated that the land was overpopulated. Townspeople were instructed by the mechanical voice to gather in the village square, where each would have his or her pinky finger measured. Those with pinky fingers longer than five inches would be ruled fit to remain in town. Those with pinkies on the short side would have to throw themselves into the great river.
The device used to measure everyone’s pinky was a glove, a ladies model with a hole at each fingertip. Quickly, it became apparent that everyone who had been measured, except for the great discus thrower Pedro Martinez and a couple of water-organ players, would be taking a plunge in the river.
In the ranks of the crowd of thousands waiting their turn to jump in the river, fenced in by soldiers, stood Cassandra the soothsayer. As the line of condemned townspeople moved slowly toward the riverbank, she came upon Ferguson, who was high priest at the central temple of the abacus. “Nice work,” she said sarcastically, raising her hand to high-five him.
Reflexively, Ferguson gave her a high-five back. “People! Did you see that? Ferguson just matched his pinky up against mine, and mine is even longer than his. But he’s not in line to jump in the river, and we are! This is all a sham!” Cassandra screamed.
The soldiers moved in toward her, but the crowd held them back.
“What is this nonsense about our pinkies? What gives this abacus the right to make us swim for our lives?” Cassandra demanded. “The abacus is not our god. It doesn’t know anything: it doesn’t even have a brain! It’s just a dorky machine. Smash the abacus and everything like it!”
With that, the crowd broke through the barricades. The soldiers fled the city. Ferguson, the emperor and his entourage were seized, strapped onto the catapult and sent flying into the river. The last item to be catapulted into the river was the great abacus itself, whose bells and whistles played a ghastly fanfare as it splashed in the water, then went silent and dark as it sank to the bottom.
In the years that followed, civilization began to flourish again, with an annual parade dedicated to the day the abacus made its final big splash. Shopkeepers and grape growers returned to doing calculations on leaves of papyrus, with quills dipped in red wine. And for years afterward, children were cautioned not to walk through the agora barefoot, for fear of cutting their feet on the shattered plastic and glass from all the broken abacuses.