Intelligent system

Intelligent system
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Picture Credits: Edar

Amanda was reading her phone when she stepped off the Tube at the wrong station. She halted in the tiled corridor, far too late, with other commuters filing around her. Where was she? Moorgate? She steadied herself. Ok, fine. That wasn’t so bad. She could walk the difference to Old Street. She was wearing the snug green skirt which wasn’t ideal but her trainers made up for it. Her heels were in her handbag. This was her IS’s recommendation based on weather, means of transport, her body temperature calibrated with her resting metabolic heart rate that morning, and her post-work schedule.

Moving stairs took her up to the real world. London in mid-October. Honey sunshine and the blue pleasure of a childhood sky. Her phone was pinging back to life as she pulled it out to share the observation, maybe an off-the-cuff haiku, but her hand was jittery with some kind of aftershock she couldn’t quite sort. Not yet. In the office with a proper heart rate she would tap it out, maybe increase her rankings as a result. Who knew? She could use the higher altitude. Not that she obsessed over that kind of thing. She had followers but lately it seemed she was putting out more than she was getting back so it would be a good time for some balance. First, though, she needed to sort out her actual direction as she couldn’t tell which way was which, so she faced left and then right before her IS chimed its approval. No need to enter a destination. It had already twigged that she was walking to work.

She made her way along City Road with its mixed complexions of stone and steel, shopfronts glassed into living eyes by reflected sky. Traffic snarling in constricted lanes. Charity workers holding out buckets for donations, a busker playing half-good guitar. She could feel the breathing energy of others as they passed. There was a fullness of being in this movement, this flap and flare. The grain of everything sharpened and brightened, washed to its deepest self. It had been happening lately — these slips into alien empathy, how else could she say it — which at first had seemed quirky and shareable until last weekend when she had paused with the mascara wand raised to her face, staring at what she had always known but not. Within and without at once. She couldn’t be the first person to feel such a thing but she also couldn’t twist it outward to common sense. She was twenty-five years old, actually seven months beyond her birthday and therefore closer to twenty-six than twenty-five which meant she was closer to thirty than she was to twenty, a realisation ringing through her recently. She had shared that one. Mum had read it and thought it was supposed to be funny. But Amanda felt the days escaping from her like air from a balloon and it didn’t seem like a healthy phase of thought.

She carried on toward a bright blush of foliage in the gated park ahead—a cemetery, as it turned out, with mossed gravestones and ragged overgrowth tinged with a stained-glass radiance by the canopy of dying leaves. Ochre and umber, blood cherry and rusty brown. She peered at it through the corroded rails with an urge to linger in the melancholy stillness but she was already late so she thumbnailed it and moved on, feeling the hummingbird weight of her life against all those others. She gave a mental salute of thanks for the perspective. At the next block she passed through a vast scaffolding with bars pad-wrapped at street level and white draperies stirring in the breeze like an angel’s anatomy exposed in a parade. This was the pulse of the world. This was her sense of being alive. And maybe it wasn’t so strange after all. Her phone started twitching in her handbag and it seemed like a wake-up call. She was happening constantly, her existence taking shape in every moment with nothing different about it now if she just stepped back from herself and really thought about what she thought.

#

HocusLocus occupied a loft with polished hardwood floors and timber beams and exposed brick. High windows admitted sunlight all year long but no view of the world below. The desks, twenty of them, mimicked a pattern made by cigarettes Ollie had tossed to the floor in search of a non-hierarchical layout to suit the management methods he had picked up in Silicon Valley. There were small conference rooms branching off the central area for actual conversations. This morning, though, Amanda arrived to find everyone packed into the kitchen with mimosas. She changed out of her trainers before joining them.

‘Power up,’ Ollie said, handing her a flute.

She accepted it carefully. ‘What’s the occasion?’

He smirked and moved on without replying, all mischief and mystery. She held the drink to her nose for the refreshing prickle of it. The flute itself made out of bio-refuse, or so Ollie claimed, though it seemed like ordinary plastic to her. She edged in next to Strawberry Zachary and managed to catch eyes with Hannah who transmitted her opinion by imitating one of the emojis they typically used to communicate across the office within sight of each other. As her face lacked the expressive range and precision of emojis, however, Amanda wasn’t sure if it was a bashful smirk with the tongue-peek to say sorry I beat you to it or the eerie smile with the blah-mouth which meant this was some unpleasant thing we must pretend to enjoy, and while the odds favoured the latter, Amanda didn’t know if the unpleasant thing was the occasion itself or the pseudo-champagne which, knowing Ollie, was Napa Valley ersatz, twice as expensive and half as good—not that it mattered anyway as the taste difference was nullified by the orange juice. In this sense the drink was like Ollie himself. A single year in California had infused his public school breeding with American can-do and sunny self-belief. He was an aggregator, a media entrepreneur and software innovator who had raised millions in venture capital to develop HocusLocus and then millions more in advertising revenue since going live. He wore plain blazers and open-collared shirts with Polynesian profusions of colour, cufflinks with extinct currency symbols in droll honour of the European Union, and heeled patent-leather shoes as a dressy pretence, Amanda suspected, for some extra height. He was square-jawed and raw-boned and insistently attractive. Fortunately he wasn’t Amanda’s type. 

He carved out a spot for himself in the centre of the room and theatrically cleared his throat. ‘Hear ye, hear ye, I’ve kept you all in suspense long enough. Time for the reveal.’ He cued Gavin, who played a trumpet flourish on his phone. ‘Yesterday was our highest traffic volume ever. Three hundred thousand page views, which we hit when?’

Gavin glanced at his screen. ‘7.47 pm.’

‘A tipping point, it’s fair to say. Much as I love Gavin, it didn’t seem right to pop a cork just the two of us last night because you’re the ones who helped made it happen. So here’s to HocusLocus.’ He raised his glass and slipped into his faux-American accent. ‘It’s globally awesome!’

She clicked rims with Strawberry Zachary and, much to her surprise, relished the tangy fizz as a missing ingredient in her bloodstream. At home her IS would read the runes in her saliva and suggest a proper remedy. But here, what the hell, she gulped it down. Her nose filled with gas. Her eyes brimmed. Zach caught sight of it and nearly spat out his drink laughing. She batted him on the arm which was standard operating procedure for him as her brotherly stabilizer. As a web developer he was prized for the fine ergonomic sense of Twister, his popular dating app, along with a bargain-hunter called Bearly and some kind of personal encryptor in progress called DustDevil. His code sequences worked like the notations for chemical compounds that turned out to be either rocket fuel or table salt according to minor blips she could never identify. As her eyes cleared she took a breath and told him about the Tube jolt, downplaying the effect. She found herself getting all wry about it. A good anecdote. No biggie.

‘Really?’ He ran a thumb along the corner of his mouth. ‘That sort of thing puts years on my life. It ages my soul a bit. But not in a bad way. I mean, at first it scares the merde out of me, totally out of proportion, and then I realise it’s an inoculation. A flu jab, right? To build up your resistance.’

‘Resistance to what?’

‘Widgets. Bells and whistles. Bouncing balls.’ He waved a hand vaguely. ‘All these shiny objects.’

‘You’re a Buddhist this morning,’ she said to him.

‘I had Koan for breakfast.’

‘Oh stop jabbing.’

‘No jab. It’s a brand of granola suggested by my IS.’

‘I thought you switched off your IS.’

‘It’s an on-again, off-again sort of relationship.’

‘You don’t get as much out of it that way.’

‘You mean they don’t get as much out of it. Koan is made by Belle Foods, which is a subsidiary of Senserious, which is part of Deville.’

He aimed an expectant look at her, practically counting out loud as he waited for her twig it. At a party he’d go vertical right about now. He ascended into critical fits of passion with little notice and otherwise was a site-specific flamer, as he phrased it. He didn’t mind. He wasn’t hiding any part of his life. He just wasn’t a peacock with his tail feathers spread all the time. He was a web developer who thought about pensions because he believed his whole life was actually going to happen. Amanda needed to glean a bit of that.

‘And Deville owns Telmar,’ she said, ‘which makes the IS.’ 

‘Now you’re seeing through the maya.’

‘And it’s making me dizzy.’

‘That’s not maya. That’s the mimosa. And they both cloud your vision. But what happened on the Tube—that was twenty-twenty.’ He tapped her forehead with his index finger. ‘And clarity hurts, Mandi. Am I right?’

A buzzer sounded on Gavin’s phone—a mock-serious signal that had the double-negative effect of ordering everyone to work with a headmaster’s severity—and he began making his way round the room without appearing to make his way round the room. From the back he could be confused with Ollie, but from the front he was pure Gavin, with wide portal glasses and a beard, a flop of stylish hair, not bad-looking as far as she could tell, peering through it all. She smiled, which he returned as usual. As the room emptied out she turned to Zach, who flicked his empty flute into the bin with a high-handed flourish like a Russian nobleman saluting the Czar. Amanda did the same. Right. He had a way of shrinkwrapping a problem and setting it on the shelf. Onward and upward.

She made her way over to her desk and opened her laptop. As the latest feeds materialized she checked her socials ahead of the weekend. She had been counting on a gap between arrival at the office and actual salaried work to share her Tube experience and also triangulate the contact she had been considering on the train because despite her reservations he had praised her recent string of comments, but the mimosas had put paid to all that. One part alcohol, one part Zach chat. A necessary debriefing, as it turned out. She felt oddly behind now, though. She would need to squeeze it in somewhere. As the feeds came up she caught a bizarre piece about an ice hockey player talking like the Dali Lama or something. This came from where? She lensed it up. Nottingham, of all places. They had an ice hockey team—yes, she remembered those adverts by the uni, not to mention the ice rink near to that pub with generous vodka tonics where she had ended up so many Thursday nights her final year. One time she and some friends got mixed up with fans spilling out of the arena all jerseyed and team-spirited. Compared to football or rugby it seemed like a secret society accidentally released into the streets. 

This particular item had come through a sports blog and then replicated itself across a range of platforms before generating enough viral interest to pique the algorithms of HocusLocus. A minor celebrity had splashed it around. And it had hooks, a high repeat ratio. She opened the text and read. Then she read it again with a mentholated clarity in her eyes the way she spotted a dress across the shop knowing it would fit her before she tried it on. That’s for me. That’s mine. Of course the decision was never really about the dress but the possibilities it offered, the kind of person she could be. And this thing? She wasn’t even sure what the guy was saying. She just thought it was cool, plain and simple, a perk of this job, this life.

#

She had landed the job at HocusLocus after a stint at a corporate shark tank and then, in recovery mode, waiting tables at a high-end restaurant managed by one of her inner socials. The better part of that time had been occupied by running two blogs—one under a pseudonym, the other as her true-blue self—while taking in serious literature and art exhibitions, watching her friends develop their careers, and throwing energy into liaisons that never quite reached escape velocity. Granted, some of those had been one-offs or hook-ups, experimental swipes in a culture devoted to sexual pleasure, but that phase had lasted only a couple of months and she now discounted it heavily when she totted it all up. Meanwhile she had spray-fired her CV at herds of job prospects that suited her notion of how she might make use of her English degree, with no success whatsoever. This was frightening. She didn’t mind waiting tables to make ends meet but she liked to think she was more marketable than that. By the time she interviewed with Ollie and Gavin she was ready to avatar herself as the Queen of Sheba if necessary, but all they wanted was someone to tailor up items with viral potential. Or rather, tailor them down. Trim and hem. She played along. As a kind of field test she was given thirty minutes to scale down a piece about subatomic particles which she managed to recast as an extended metaphor involving bracelets and footballs that sounded cool but didn’t make much sense. Shoddy work. Awkward at best. When it was over she calmly gathered herself up and managed to reach the pavement outside before breaking into tears.

She was hired the next day. Ollie said she had a natural flair for it, on par with her predecessor, an editor called Rebecca who, Amanda later learned, had been sacked for the crime of siphoning off a few of HocusLocus’s discards and incorporating them into her personal blog. Never mind it didn’t harm anyone. Ollie apparently didn’t treat that sort of thing like stealing office supplies. That aside, Amanda had to admit she felt the strange workings of a talent. As an associate editor she digested articles tagged by HocusLocus’s algorithms for use on their websites, planting her recrafted versions to see which ones took hold and multiplied most fruitfully, at which point the most successful ones were tweaked repeatedly until they went viral. Her posts, along with their integrated adverts, were seen by tens of thousands on a daily basis. True, the origins were obscured in the text she produced, but there was a ‘hat tip’ at the bottom linking to the root system she had used which usually ended with, or rather began with, a reputable magazine or academic journal. She worked on sites with the highest traffic—mainly Zinger, their flagship, though she also contributed to Soothsayer, Ad Absurdum, and Deep Six, while colleagues like Hannah worked similarly but in different proportions according to what came through the pipeline. Ollie sampled much of what they produced but spent most of his time tweaking algorithms, occasionally calling in some freelance engineers who hot-desked as close to Hannah as they could get despite her boyfriend’s photo propped like a biohazard sign at the perimeter. And while a small number gravitated Amanda’s way, she found it both flattering and unpleasant because none of them were her type.

Who was her type? Not Ollie, not Gavin, not Zach, and apparently not any of those tech turkeys. These days she favoured prospects with at least the possibility of real development. Her most recent contact had moved up the totem of chat with steampunk ruminations about the various gadgets and gizmos he loved rather than the details of his life. He was ambivalent about digital technology with its invisible workings, inaccessible to those who used it, he said, sealed inside a case. How could we trust something without moving parts? He was a retrofuturist who preferred an alternate version of today’s technology as it was envisaged by the past, with pistons and levers and cogs. But was he an utter misfit? That was the question. A face-to-face on her way home from work confirmed the relative merits of his askance photo but revealed an actual personality so hobbled by his own manifestoes of style and substance that he had closed down ages ago without even realising it, and you couldn’t treat this kind of thing as a fixer-upper. Down the totem he went, nudged from voicemail to text to social posts. No ghosting required. He caught on quickly enough.

It occurred to her, of course, that a single meeting would have made all this clear to her from the outset. It also occurred to her, of course, that if not for her dating profile she never would have met him in the first place. This was one of many contradictions she lived with, particularly as her IS had recently noted a correlation between her online social activity and fluctuations in cortisol and dopamine levels associated with depression. This didn’t make any sense because she enjoyed engaging with others, which seemed to mean that she enjoyed making herself depressed. She had grappled with this one on Nulterior Motives, her anonymous blog, but the vague swarm of likes and approvals were perhaps part of the very problem she was describing. Her straightfoward blog, Well Nigh Impossible, posed an even stranger problem as she began to envy the person who appeared there, as if she were missing out on Amanda Nigh. Unable to resolve it, she had decided instead to counterbalance it with more activity and basic being in her life.

She went running, off and on. She phased in and out of power yogas and super spins and crash-and-burns, most of which she liked well enough, but it all seemed to dissolve in the heat of deadlines or excursions or parties trailing each other until she was always starting over, getting back into shape when it was mythical in the first place, this level of fitness she imagined because she knew she was fighting a losing battle with her body type. Even now her midriff resisted the taut tone she noticed in others who swallowed pastries on a regular basis. The only reason she bothered with running was because her IS insisted it was the best way to raise her basal metabolic rate—and in the morning, no less. Fresh air, rise and shine. The ancient activity of feet on the ground. She enjoyed the outdoor element even though her knees ached afterward, probably due to her inconsistency, the lack of discipline in her stride, or so Strawberry Zachary had said, and frankly the seasonal nature of her activity. Winter drained the colour from her soul. Her fuel cells ran down easily and she needed someone in a warm room with flashing lights to yell at her to keep moving. This usually happened during lunch hour if it happened at all because she simply couldn’t haul herself off the mattress early enough, whereas after work she either lost all volition by the time she Tubed back to Shadwell or else joined a few friends at the pub on an empty stomach and could barely read her own screen as she went rattling home, which was probably for the best given that her IS took one look at her blood sugar and essentially recommended a transfusion. 

IS stood for Intelligence System, a prototype which wasn’t a single app or lens but rather an integration of various custom mappings and attribute transformations into a single functioning network. This was the way it was described, at least, by an associate of Ollie’s who had bestowed it upon HocusLocus’s staff as some kind of divine favour. Hannah eagerly volunteered for the beta test. Zach was wary but offered himself for the benefit of his savoir-faire in the coding world. And for certain proprietary reasons which Gavin was not at liberty to reveal, Amanda qualified to ultra-beta test a model with biochemical interfaces. This required a digital meshing of not only her devices and clouds but also her physical condition as a dataset in itself with its own ranking and stacking algorithms, its own semantic functions, its own rich data. Part of the deal—and, truly, the clincher for her—was a stipend for single-occupancy housing as roommates would have contaminated the data. It had been an elegant excuse to trade an erratic situation in Clapham for a newer flat in Shadwell, cutting not only her interpersonal grievances but also her commute by a considerable margin.

Amanda’s initial misgivings about a system that blended her view-purchase patterns with biochemical data dissolved within the first hour of use. Her IS recommended clothing. It selected meals based on her nutritional needs and the expiry dates of whatever happened to be in the fridge. It notified her of sales at her favourite shops and adjusted her monthly budget and suggested birthday gifts for loved ones and played music suited to her moods as determined by not only her hormonal condition but also facial expressions and vocal pitches, which meant it knew her moods better than she did. These were algorithms keyed to biorhythms, empathic moldings of data. And it reduced the friction of her daily life—the paper cuts of all those little decisions, those little mistakes, those little things you forget. She had firewalled it from Nulterior Motives for a shred of anonymity and her brief experiment with hook-up culture as it was the sort of history she didn’t want to proliferate. She wasn’t ready for omniscience yet. And though she hadn’t tried the verbal interface, and therefore hadn’t selected a voice for it, she was beginning to think of her IS as female. Why not? This was positive discrimination on her part. Objects were gendered in romance languages, after all, which seemed much more honest about the state of things, and Amanda Nigh wanted a different view of herself—Amanda Nigh as seen from the perspective of someone very much like herself, actually, but with more wisdom and detachment. Was that possible? In any case she was avoiding a voice for her IS because she was avoiding a certain kind of commitment. Or maybe involvement. The IS belonged to her as long as she worked at HocusLocus and she didn’t see herself leaving anytime soon even though she didn’t exactly see herself doing this kind of work when she got older. And what exactly was older? She hadn’t squared it yet. There was no almanac for her life. She tasted odd moments here and there like ripe fruit and she told herself it was enough.

About Thomas Legendre

Thomas Legendre’s short fiction has appeared in various magazines and journals. His longer work includes The Burning (novel), Half Life (play), and Dream Repair (radio drama). His novel, Keeping Time, is forthcoming in March. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. For more detail visit https://www.thomaslegendre.com and @legendreality

Thomas Legendre’s short fiction has appeared in various magazines and journals. His longer work includes The Burning (novel), Half Life (play), and Dream Repair (radio drama). His novel, Keeping Time, is forthcoming in March. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. For more detail visit https://www.thomaslegendre.com and @legendreality

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