Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pop Quiz

Image courtesy of Siju/Wikimedia Commons

Oswald J. Reiter, a self-made man, had never taken a hand up from anyone in his life. A ward of the state from age twelve, when his mother disappeared one moist August night, he wore his orphanhood like a badge.

“I never knew my father,” he told Patton Wyler, the manager of the Shop and Go on 4th Street when asked about his family. “And this address,” he tapped the application form, “is only good until the twenty-first.” He looked up, widening his eyes. “That’s when I turn eighteen, after which I can no longer live at the boys’ home.”

Wyler could not meet his gaze. “Oh,” he said.

“So it’s imperative that I find work,” Reiter added. He got the job.

For two weeks, he stocked shelves and bagged groceries, after which time they promoted him to cashier. Three months later he made assistant manager, and a year or so after that, full manager. Within five years of the original interview, he essentially ran the store. In the meantime, he had taken a second job at the bank, where they also rewarded his quick mind, excruciating work ethic, and general pathos as resident orphan.

Reiter worked seventy hours a week, sometimes more, but spent little of what he earned. He rented a small room from a widow who included two meals a day in the cost of his rent, and usually took his lunch from the grocery store, which offered him fifty percent off all purchases. He never ate in restaurants, or bought new clothes, or took girls to the movies.

What little spare time he had, he spent in the library. Thus, although he never attended college, by the age of twenty-three, he knew most of what there was to know about economics, psychology, management, accounting, tax law as it applied to his current and desired situations, plumbing, and wiring, along with a basic understanding of physics, engineering, history, math, and architecture.

Occasionally, he loaned out small amounts of money at low interest rates to trustworthy coworkers, and, as he learned more about investing, backed several business ventures, almost all of which succeeded. He quit both jobs then and turned his attention full time to investing.

By twenty-five, Reiter had earned his first million. By thirty, his reputation as a shrewd businessman and one of the richest men in the country allowed him a freedom most men only dreamed of. Still, he did not pursue any of the trappings of success: no wife, no mistress, no mansion. He had moved to New York by this time, and he maintained an office of modest size and decor but with an impressive address in midtown Manhattan, yet still lived in a small rented room and took his meals at little expense. He owned, by necessity, some expensive suits and shoes, but he purchased only two sets of clothes a year.

The ideal of philanthropy, which, it seemed, society required of men of his stature, eluded him. No one had ever given Oswald J. Reiter anything, except a chance, and, he noted, when he gave others the same chance—to work hard for him, to start saving their own fortune—they always let him down. He continued to study from library books, expanding his knowledge in order that he could more intelligently invest in more industries. He even became a patron of the arts, to some extent, and his personal collection, all of which he purchased for a pittance from then-unknown artists, represented the greatest private sampling of modern painters and sculptors in America.

Reiter had never watched television. In the boys’ home, screen time had been restricted, and the other boys’ choices hadn’t interested him when it was allowed. He had never understood its appeal. Yes, one might find some educational programming useful in edifying the mind, but the information gleaned there could be extracted at greater speed and depth from a book. That remained his theory.

In his thirties, he allowed himself to consider social issues.

Why should he, an orphan boy who’d started with nothing and worked for everything, enjoy such success, while the masses on the lower rungs of the ladder, most gifted with more auspicious origins, required so much assistance? As he observed from his office window in the rare moments he gave himself for pure, unproductive reflection, an overcrowded planet teemed with ineffective men and women, people incapable of wise decisions, people unworthy of their own free will.

He wrote a book, a concise autobiography with detailed explanations of how to succeed in life, and while it garnered him as much money as any other project, it failed to change the world.

Those he wished to reach did not read it. Their medium of choice, he discovered, was video, a revelation that send him back to the library to study communications and media. In short order, he developed his own popular Internet channel and generated a vast archive of top-rated animated educational content for children.

Pop Quiz, though, he considered his true brainchild. A general knowledge game show with challenges that rewarded common sense, patience, and hard work, it grew to supremacy at the intersection of reality TV and interactive media. Featuring diverse trials and amazing prizes, its following increased with cancerous deliberation. Everyone watched Pop Quiz.

Better yet, everyone could play Pop Quiz. There were no qualifying rounds, no casting calls. Crews roamed the country, shooting footage in shopping malls and swap meets, in Miami during spring break and New Orleans over Halloween.

And best of all, everyone won. Some won small prizes to be sure—T-shirts and music downloads for small victories—but a knowledgeable few walked away with cars, vacations, cash. Even the losers didn’t leave empty-handed. Oswald J. Reiter had invested heavily in a bottling concern, where he produced, amongst other tasty beverages, the popular thirst-quenching Kwizacola. Kwizacola served as the consolation prize even in the most humiliating defeat. As the show became more popular, with more and more episodes produced, the questions became harder and harder, and the chances of winning no more than a six-pack of Kwizacola increased. The country flocked to play, and tuned in, en masse, to watch. With all the extra advertising, Kwizacola’s market share grew.

By this time, Reiter cared little for the commercial success of one thin tendril of his empire. He played the long game now.

Everyone watched Pop Quiz. Everyone wanted to learn, to prove their intelligence, or, barring that, to take home some free soda. “We’re bringing brilliant back,” the advertisements said. Hard work, perseverance in the pursuit of excellence, became the new value.

In twenty years, Reiter could measure his success, his secret success, his greatest triumph, about which the world was not to know. He was fifty-five years old, and since the show’s inception, the birth rate had fallen, test scores had risen, and the type of reality programming that had formerly enjoyed such popularity—shows where the greedy, the idiotic, the cruel found themselves celebrated and idolized—had largely become an embarrassment of the past. The Pop Quiz world praised and rewarded intelligence. Studying and achieving had become cool.

Kwizacola drove the other popular carbonated drink brands into bankruptcy. To drink Kwizacola meant to try ones best, to strive for excellence, to always work toward success.

By age seventy-five, Oswald Reiter felt secure in the knowledge that he had done a great work upon the earth. Pop Quiz, now an international sensation, had shaped generations. The day’s politicians had watched the program, had played along at home, had won fabulous prizes. They grew up to enact legislation for social justice, for fair and nonpartisan solutions to nagging programs, for sustainable regulations and growth. The people voted for them, voted for the value of intelligence. There was, Reiter saw, sense in the world that had not existed before his great experiment. His theory proved true. In the Pop Quiz America, nearly every child was planned. Nearly every child had the tools to succeed academically. Nearly every child made decisions based on rational thought. Nearly every child grew up wise.

Oswald J. Reiter lived a long life, but no longer than could be expected of a mortal man. He passed away at his desk, age ninety-one, after finishing a book on robotics, a subject he had never studied in depth. The world mourned.

The world mourned, but it moved on. Younger, but equally enthusiastic hands took up the reins of his empire. Pop Quiz lived on. Kwizakola lived on.

The people who inherited his assets had the sense to take careful stock, to learn from Reiter’s notes, to uncover his secrets. Thus, they had the sense, also not to tamper with his master plan, which became apparent, to a select few, when they put the pieces together. It was the Kwizakola factory, the big one in Georgia, that exclusively bottled the Pop Quiz consolation prizes. The formula differed here, with the addition of an ingredient known only to Reiter, ordered, delivered, and added in secret.

Every bottle of consolation Kwizakola contained a powerful additive—a form of birth control—that gradually but permanently eradicated a drinker’s fertility. To lose on Pop Quiz, and often, to befriend a loser on Pop Quiz, meant losing the right to procreate. It only took a few more generations of Pop Quiz to elevate—some would say evolve—the minds of the species.

By then, humanity had grown too sophisticated for quiz shows, and for soda, as it turned out. Pop Quiz and Kwizakola faded into historical footnotes. The world remembered he public contributions of Oswald J. Reiter; the world released all knowledge of his greatest triumph.