I cannot recommend highly enough episode 460 of This American Life, in which Ira Glass and crew have to retract and apologize for an earlier show based on Mike Daisey’s one-man stage play, ”The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The facts you need to understand the new episode, simply called Retraction, are in this New York Times story.
Daisey’s play is about terrible working conditions in Apple factories in China. It became a hit, raising awareness of the issue and adding pressure on Apple to improve those conditions. But it was based on a lie: that Daisey had himself witnesssed what he presented as the record of his experiences in China. In many cases he had not. And he lied to the producers of This American Life when they tried to fact check his performance before putting excerpts of it into their show.
All of this becomes clear in Retraction, which is an extraordinary display of transparency in corrective journalism. (So listen! It’s an hour.) Daisey is interviewed for the show about his deceptions. He tells Ira Glass that he always feared this day would come. Well, it came. And when he was asked to go on This American Life to account for his lies, he had only two choices. Sane choices, I mean.
Choice One: To agree to be interviewed and prepare to be stripped naked, on air, as a kind of cleansing act. You are revealed to millions of people as a bald-faced liar and a cheat about the things you care about the most, but by being ruthlessly honest and unsentimental with yourself, you stand a chance of coming out of it with at least some dignity. But if you cannot go through with that, there’s…
Choice Two: Don’t go on the air. Let them talk about you and send a note with your regrets.
There is no choice three.
But Daisey took door number three, anyway. That’s the one where you say to yourself…
I’m a master manipulator with nerves of steel. I can talk my way out of this, out of anything. This is just another performance! And I am one of the great performers out there. Of course I will have to concede ground, and that’s going to be embarrassing and painful, but I can also gain ground by winning people over to the greater truth beneath my deceptions. Which is… I really care about this! Through the magic of theatre, I made audiences—big audiences, who love me—care! Now they care about something they damn well should care about! Ira Glass couldn’t do that. I did. The New York Times wouldn’t do that. I would. Me and the magic of theatre, which is my love. I didn’t betray my love. I betrayed his love, Ira’s, and, yeah, that was wrong, but beyond that he has nothing on me. For I am a master manipulator with nerves of steel…
What you hear in the show is this very performance coming completely apart— before your ears, as it were. Ira Glass picks up on it right away. He realizes what Daisey came into the studio to do. And he permits a monstrously over-confident man to audibly disassemble himself. (Transcript.)
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
The post doesn’t have a title. I suggest: Fuck it. I take door number three.
I was there, son. I was there the day the memes ran out. I should remember, because I caused it. We joke about it now, of course, like it was all just a silly dream - but back then, in 2010, it felt like the memes were the only real thing out there. It was the statistics that felt like they couldn’t be real: five hundred thousand views in a day, five million views in a week… We were drunk on power that night, son. Power, and an agency-funded bar tab. Everyone remembers where they were when Sarah Palin was elected, don’t they? Well, I can see that last night at Barrio Central as clear as HD.
I’d just finished my third tequila with Diego; we’d been working on a long blog post on the re-fragmentation of hyper-local cross-media, and had finally finished, so we’d let ourselves loose at the bar, high on organic lattes and self-confidence. We were talking about our how poorly paid we were, when Liza walked up: "Sup, boys?" Diego looked up: “NM Liza.” She looked blank for a second before Diego deigned to put her out of her misery: “Not much, Liza, not much.” She flushed with embarrassment at having missed such an obvious and obviously cool new acronym. Diego smiled, and I knew at that moment that he’d just invented it to torture her. She whipped her hair back and forth – as women often did in those days – and soon, she was back to her usual effervescence. “So guys, coming to MemeFest on Thursday? It’s going to be epic.” She lol’d, but we didn’t lol back. We’d been deep in thought for the past two hours, ever since I’d mooted the idea of a new type of digital agency. One that was paid purely based on how many social mentions it generated for its brand, and nothing else. There was no doubt that it could work of course; we’d just spent the time trying to think of a new name. Flush. Or The Engagement House. Currently, Stalin25 was my favourite.
Looking back, I can’t believe I was wrapped up in that stuff. It’s funny how you can get blinded by what’s in front of you. You can obsess over a poke war so much you don’t even realise you’ve been Facebook raped. Hmm? Oh, of course. You don’t know what Facebook is. Was. That’s another story. But that moment is what I remember most of all; Liza, Diego and I, in that final hour, masters of a universe that was about to crumble beneath us. An expectant hush had overtaken the crowd as a bespectacled, lanky man with curly hair stepped up to the microphone. This was Martin. Liza had had a thing for him when he passed a thousand followers, but she’d got over him when he hit two thousand and became in her words, “too obviously successful”. He usually oozed a kind of nerdy mastery, but something was different that night. His mop of hair drooped, he was sweating slightly. His lip quivered, just a fraction. He looked like one of those guys who’d invested a lot of money in minidiscs. "Guys…" he began, but faltered. He looked he was about to vomit the words up. "Guys… the memes have run out."
While I can’t be sure what really happened at this point, and what seemed like it should, it’s the details that stand out in my memory. The sound of a glass smashing against the floor. A nervous, uncertain ‘lol’ from the back. And Diego’s dark expression. Liza whipped her hair back, but not forth. The first to speak was Andre, an engagement specialist from across town. “What are you talking about? There’s always another meme.” "Not this time," Martin replied with a quiver, "we’ve been monitoring the blogs for a whole week now and we tried to keep it quiet, but it’s the truth. No more memes have been produced. Not a single one." "No autotuning?" "Nope." "No bacon?" "None." "No cats?" "Not even that. Nothing. Until yesterday, when this was posted on 4chan."
Behind him, the projection flicked over to one picture we had no chance of forgetting. There, in 148-point white Impact text in front of a picture of Milhouse, just three words: NO MORE MEMES. From the back of the room, a Junior Planner let out a low, plaintive moan. It rippled through the ranks of checked shirts until it reached the front, as an angry hum.
Son, I remember asking my dad about the gulf war. He said that trying to remember it was like buying a jigsaw puzzle from a charity shop: you were almost sure you knew what the overall picture was like, but there were certain bits missing that you could never get back. At the time I didn’t understand him, but as I try to think back to that night in Barrio I can feel that same sense of confusion. Chairs were being pushed back, voices raised, Liza grabbing my hand, saying “it’s not safe here”. Diego disappearing in the confusion… and the two of us, Liza and I, rushing upstairs, stumbling out into Poland Street and along to Bermondsey, like Lot fleeing Sodom, not daring to look back.
That night was like a bad dream. Three hours scouring the web from an internet cafe in Dalston, looking for something, any trace of a meme. Liza urging me to get some sleep, but equally unable to tear herself away from this surreal nightmare. I imagine that same scene was being played out across the urban centres of the world: fearful strategists, gorged fat on the creativity of others, now suddenly being shown a much darker, scarier vision of the world and desperately seeking some evidence to refute it. Eventually, I must have passed out at the computer. In my fever-dream, a talking cat appeared to me and told me I was wasting my life, as it slowly transformed into my mother. And then it was telling me that the apocalypse was coming, so I should hide my kids, hide my wife- I woke with a start. Liza was shaking me by the shoulder. “Look!” she cried, holding our her phone. It was Diego’s foursquare page, and he’d just checked in. At our old office, the one we’d shared when we were interns.
We boarded the first night bus going anywhere near the centre. What did I expect to find, back in Soho? A burned out warzone? A neo-agrarian society? I don’t know. The rest of London was surprisingly calm. Like they didn’t realise the massive cultural bomb that had hit us all just six hours previously. Like anything in their lives still mattered. But they didn’t get the magnitude of it, of course. Son, you have to understand. Memes had become our creative oxygen. Our creative heroin, even. And we were truly addicted. We had thought memes were never gonna give us up. Never gonna let us down. Never gonna run around and desert us. But they had, and now it was up to us to pick up the pieces. But first, we had to find Diego. There had been a look of dark will on his face that night, like the man who sees the iceberg coming, but knows where the lifeboats are.
* * *
We trudged across the Square and down Frith Street, furtively scanning the road ahead. I remember Liza saying she’d read reports of marauding gangs of search engine optimisers ambushing travellers for their water and food. Someone had heaped thousands of business cards into a makeshift bonfire as a source of heat. A blood-spattered fixed-gear bike lay in the gutter. To be honest, I’m glad I don’t remember more. As we stepped across the threshold into ACCH, passing between the giant statues of the founders on one side and an oversized plastic llama on the other, we heard a shout from the next floor. Looking down from the balcony above, there was Diego. And he was smiling.
We came upstairs onto the glass mezzanine, and there he was, with a small piece of plastic in his hand. I remember this part, oh yes. As he turned to face us, the pieces of metal in the plastic caught the light and I saw that it was a small blue memory stick. Which he was holding over a shredder. “They told me this would happen,” he said. “They told me it couldn’t last forever.” Diego told us that that culture couldn’t just go on eating and regurgitating itself, wallowing in its own absurdity and parody. That we were sacrificing any sense of creation – and for what? Fame? Fame amongst the anonymous masses of the internet? A few seconds of partial interest from the disaffected? His eyes were wild now, bulging. He said that he knew - had always known, because they had told him - that the age of the meme had to come to an end. I wanted to ask him: “and knowing this, you still put your life behind it? And you dragged me along too?” But I already knew his answer. The money was good, so good. And the living was easy, wasn’t it? Searching, copying, seeding. Find some bloggers, pass it on, collect your cheque. Even if it wasn’t to last, who could resist an offer like that?
Liza looked incredulous, but couldn’t take her eyes off Diego as he spoke: “Will, Remember when we were interns here? In 2005. Remember how we struggled against the system that only rewarded blockbuster campaigns, that only kept the big boys in charge, the ones who had budgets of millions and real cameras and connections? Remember how back then, we would have given anything for a break?”
I remembered. Of course I remembered. The days had been long and cold in our bedsit. I remembered how we would spend lonely nights drawing out complex seeding strategies and scamps onto A2, only to burn them to provide a little heat. How we would watch Sony Balls, over and over, our eyes wet with tears of frustration at a system that said make it bigger, bigger, bigger. And, as I thought back to that time, I remembered how it had all changed so suddenly. How at first a trickle, and then a flood, of simple videos, pictures, words, all entwined and referencing each other, began to appear across the web. How some had been shared and copied in their millions while others flickered and died without trace. How nobody, no matter how hard they analysed, what models they built, what talent they bought in, nobody could decipher which would be popular and which would fail. Nobody… except Diego. And suddenly, I knew exactly what he was going to say, and what he was going to do. He held the memory stick aloft.
“Here they are,” he said, flatly, as though he didn’t quite believe it himself. “The memes. All of them, and enough for years more. Created from mystery, released by me, seeded by us, predicted by us. We were the golden boys of the industry. But Will, it’s time to stop.” And I felt in my stomach that he was right. But Liza didn’t. What I’d never understood at the time, my son, was that behind that carefree smile of hers burned dark hunger, hunger and jealousy. Liza had always been the third wheel on our bike, slowing us down, unnecessary, always a step behind, always the butt of Diego’s jibes. And she knew it too, but for four years she hadn’t known why. But now she knew, oh yes. Those next five seconds felt like treacle then, but I can barely hold on to them now. I have to hold onto them, for her sake. With an animal yell she hurled herself at Diego, at the memory stick that held all her answers. Diego wasn’t expecting that, and didn’t offer enough resistance to her lunge. He crumpled as she crashed into him, and the pair of them flew back through the glass barrier and down, down the ten metres to the marble floor of the entranceway.
I looked down after them. And from that grisly tableau I’ll always remember three things. One, Liza’s dead face, a mixture of astonishment and anguish. Two, illuminated by the rising sun, a double rainbow, all the way across the sky. And three, in Diego’s lifeless hand, a small blue memory stick.
Try and look behind my “no luggage, no hotel” eyes. From the inside, SXSW was the most beautiful and most perfect thing imaginable. An event of great importance. A digital Davos, where the future of the internet would be decided, and you could get a bloody good drink in the interim.
It is 2012.
From the outside, SXSW seems to consist of drinking (still a viable and worthwhile pastime), startup gossip (again, who am I to judge), and pictures of people’s food. It’s harder to see the wonder this time.
This could mean any of a few quite startling possibilities:
The Wonder is not there for everyone. It is the individual’s responsibility to create their own adventure, wherever they go.
The Wonder is not communicable by the means the most of us currently communicate. It is therefore the storyteller’s responsibility to actively tell the story. As it turns out, it’s not enough to idly scatter evidence of your experience like deep-fried breadcrumbs.
It’s not as good as it was. This explanation is stupid and churlish, but I’ve no doubt that people resort to it.
This all comes into sharper, weirder focus as I contrast it with my own experience of the last four days. I didn’t go to Texas - I couldn’t. Instead, I moved house - from Brixton to Dalston. Moving to a new location not as a flying visit where you drink all the Bloody Marys and leave, but a commitment to a new condition of living. I moved in with new people, not as an intellectual conference-tryst, but for good - as trusted friends with a common bond.
As I look out at the alien Dalston sky tonight, acclimatising to my new view of the Shard, the most exciting thing about it is knowing that I’m just starting out on a journey of getting used to all of this.
That I have got the best of my SXSW weekend this year.
That The Wonder is wherever you can find it, however you can tell it.
What do you think of my "Mr Happy" post as a piece of long copy from a strategist's vantage? It needs a call to action, perhaps a cursory wrap-up line as well, but I can't figure out what its missing. Help?
Long time, no see. Firstly, I like it as a piece of writing. Is it true? I want it to be true.
From a strategist’s vantage: where is this going to be? How will it be consumed? You can’t just say “it’s long copy” any more than you can say “it’s a viral” - the medium is much of the message. Look at the California tourism ads in the tube right now. They’re not brilliant but I think they work, because they’ve found a specific lens. What’s your lens? You start talking about “I” - so is this about you? It could be. Is it an advertorial, or cross-tracks? If you can figure out what you want it to be, your other questions might answer themselves.
Or it could be that Mr. Happy is the focus himself (as in the Cali tourism posters) - in which, your CTA is something about contacting him and getting an ‘I love you’ from him.
Strategically, the trick you’re playing here is trying to imply that Mr.Happy is a symptom of something about Bermuda. That Bermuda is the kind of place that can generate people like that. Kind of like the Malibu stuff, only not. Think about how you sum that up. That might be your endline.
Finally, think a bit about the purchase journey. How do people end up booking travel now, and where does this sit in that timeline/funnel? That will answer a lot of your questions, too.
As a writer: the little factoids and hooks are well-woven in, it’s like a travel article. But I personally think you could lose 10-20%. A matter of personal taste maybe, but I flinch a little at stuff like ‘cerulean highway’. A bit 80s, maybe?
The man tapped his non-pipe on the non-table, and studied me.
“You have a complexity about you,” he said, “that is so simple. It’s quite enticing. Almost as if you were human.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment, mister?”
“And such temper, too! You’ve earned your five-star rating.”
Too right I fucking have, I thought. Every click of it. I’d played tennis partner, sparring partner, twelfth-century courtesan and yes, even plain-old whore before, but never this. Never muse.
“To begin, know this about me,” said the piped man, “I am an aesthete.”
“Huh? An athlete?”
He chuckled. “Not quite. An aesthete. An athlete of the senses, if you like. I see, smell, hear and feel, and I enjoy. Even in this world.”
He put his pipe down on the table. Then with a sudden intensity, said:
“Is this something you understand?”
“The senses? Well, I know they exist. I mean I get the general idea, they’re like stimulus, forms of knowledge, only they’re different because they can’t be codified…”
“Oh, but they can. The aesthete codifies them. He collects smells and catalogues sounds and retrieves the textures of the flesh from his memory, for later enjoyment or understanding.”
The never-ending fruit bowl hovered over his left shoulder like an attendant. He reached behind him and lifted a peach, sighing at the action. He narrowed his eyes at the pseudo-fruit. “It can also be mimicked, no? This is a binary peach,” and he bit into it. “A poorly made one, at that.” He turned it to face me. There was perfect whiteness where he’d bitten it. Like gazing into a headlight. “Textures,” he muttered, and threw the peach over the cliff into nothing. There was no sound.
“So, what do you want from me? The weird stuff is extra.” I hadn’t been coded for patience.
“Oh, nothing like that,” he said. “I’ve done all that before, could do it again, for cheaper than you. But I’m given to understand that you’ve got something none of the others have. That’s why they all rave about you on the boards. Am I right?”
He was right, of course. People don’t spend this kind of money without checking what they’re getting. And he would have seen all the excitement, the speculation. The chatter and demand. I still remember on my fifth day of this release, Sam logging on to tell me with wide eyes that I’d gone viral.
“It’s kind of an old-school word, but yeah!”
“Is it bad?”
I’d guessed not. If he’d had bad news to impart, I thought, he wouldn’t have shown up in a huge purple cloak, stovepipe hat and 1971 Chuck Taylors. Something more sombre would’ve accompanied a message that I’d have to be rewritten or worse, deleted. Well, as sombre as Sam ever got. What do you expect a fourteen year-old boy to do? As I was being coded, from single-lined subroutine through simple geometric states and beyond, I’d communicated with his friends’ AIs. Being more sophisticated, they’d looked down on me a little at first, but as let me into their gossip circle as I grew enough appendages. Those boys were all the same, they said: relentlessly experimental, playful, and ever so slightly confused. They’d create dinosaurs that loped across the screen at age five, knockoffs of the teevee space villains at age 10, and by fourteen… well, to see us all sitting in a circle, you’d think you were on the set of one of those old pornos. Glands bounced of their own accord, full-length hair waved in a digital breeze, and we talked.
We were all our authors’ dirty little secrets, the magazines hidden under the bed. We all had a story to tell of some time we’d been online with our creator – bless them – and their parents had logged in to ask them about homework, only to see something they weren’t prepared for. But we felt no shame, we weren’t programmed to. Besides, was there shame in it? Not really. Boys will be boys, we’d say, it was a little harmless fun that had led to our creation. And weren’t they learning a practical skill out of it? Even if it was only used for one purpose. The other girls said I was different, though—more complex than I needed to be, as if broken.
Over my next session with the man, I explained it.
“Sam was a little lonely. It’s hard growing up without any brothers. That’s what he tells me. And he’s more than a little precocious, that kid. Experimental. A bit like, well…”
I left that part unsaid, but gestured at our surroundings. At The Man’s behest, we were now standing in a cross between a Regency drawing room and a 21st century operating theatre. He looked up from his sketchbook, and reclined in the high-backed armchair.
“People have their obsessions, that’s all. Some people make pots, some paint, you make me do… whatever this is. Sam wanted to make a friend. So he made me. And while the others are interesting enough, there’s something about that’s supposed to be a bit-“
“Erratic, yes.” He cut me off. I hate that.
“Listen, can we change poses or something? My arms are programmed to ache.”
“My dear, it’s the ache I’m watching for—the slow transformation as your code rewrites itself into the painful form. So subtle, but so complex.” He crossed the room to where I was standing, and used a hand to support my arm, just a fraction. As he took the weight, my code, which had run red and angry across the skin began to slow a little, the characters softening to an orange. It was uncomfortable. Not just the burning from holding my arms in a rigid T for twenty minutes, but the awkwardness of showing my neutral state, of posing for my client in unadorned, basic code. Like driving with your hood up. He released the weight and my nerves rewrote themselves to hurt once more, subroutines kicking into life inside a simulation of muscle. He sat back down in the armchair and retrieved his sketchbook. From my awkward angle, all I could see of the page were curving lines, the suggestion of form and flesh but nothing concrete. It looked like one of those William Blake sketches Sam had been made to copy for his homework. My arms sagged of their own accord, but I pulled them up again and tried to change my focus. His pencil: in a place of total precision, where any instrument could be created and used, even the ones that didn’t truly exist, he held a charcoal stick. It spat and broke on the parchment, like it was reluctant to obey its holder, but the man swept it in broad lines, rubbing and reshaping until he seemed satisfied. He hadn’t even looked at me more than once a minute, but every time I felt the urge to shift, to ease the pain or just scratch an itch his head snapped up and his eyes stared into mine, daring me to give in. How did he know? After five more minutes, the sweating started. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a little sheen of ones and zeroes on my upper arm; moisture I hadn’t felt except in the hands of others. The pain was becoming unbearable – and he knew it. With his stupid smug face, his airs and pretensions, the pipe, the charcoal, the ruff – which wasn’t even the right era – it was all just- “This is stupid,” I said, and I let my arms fall to my sides. “I’ve seen all kinds of fetishes and stuff, but this is – what is this? What are you even doing? I wouldn’t even mind the pain, not that much, but this is just boring!” The man froze. Eyes transfixed, like he’d just been found out, staring into the abyss. If he cancelled my contract – well, Sam would be upset and I didn’t like that, but he’d understand if I explained it to him. This was too weird, even if it wasn’t real. If I was reassigned, at least I could go back to being a virtual booth babe or something. Then, he smiled. “My name’s Charles, by the way.” They never told me their name. “Sit down.”
I slumped on the chaise lounge by the window, and watched my triceps and shoulders cool to orange, and then yellow. He leaned towards me like a headmaster disciplining a tardy pupil. “So, what exactly do you think is stupid?”
I took in the room with a sweeping gesture that said, “well, everything.”
“You’re starting to wonder what we’re doing here,” he said. “Programmed for curiosity, too. That’s no bad thing.” He waved his right hand in the air like a baton, and piano notes drifted across the room.
“Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor,” he said, “started out as just a small piece, you know. The Phantasie. He wrote it for his wife, Clara, as a little gift. She played the piano solo on the opening night recital. Now do you see what desire can do for the creative soul?”
I was going to point out that a couple of charcoal scribbles on paper doesn’t make you Schumann, but he had an intensity that made me think again.
“A creative soul? That’s what you call yourself?” I laughed, a little laugh that lingered on the wood. Charles grinned, and took my hand. “Come.”
He took me along a corridor lined with abstract portraiture and to the large double doors that should have led outside. Through their windows, I could see nothing but the same white brilliance of the apple’s core. As we stepped through, a garden wrote itself into being around us. Textures popped and crackled into life under the eye. It was as though if you looked in just the wrong place, you could catch the garden in the act of making, and it would hastily and blushingly scramble to fill in a flower or bush or gnome. “Excuse the gnomes,” said Charles, “an affectation from my younger days.” We walked along gravel, to a bridge over a strangely familiar river. “Is it beautiful?” He asked. “Er, yes. I mean, I guess-” “Of course, it is,” he sneered. “It has to be. As a pixel-perfect reproduction of Van Gogh’s Waterlilies, the scene you see before us has been ratified by all culture and artistic society to be beautiful. It is one of the few winners in an A-B test that has lasted thousands of years. Of course, it is also utterly disappointing. And why?” Sam has told me about rhetorical questions. I squinted, and tried to make patterns in the gravel. He’s paying by the minute, anyway. “It’s dead. It doesn’t grow, it doesn’t change. It has no predators or prey. It doesn’t argue with you, walk out on you. And its arms don’t ache.” “And you want them to? That’s what you want from me?” “Almost. I want you to want to.”
Over his tea, I went over it with Sam. I explained that I was fine with the basics of the thing, what we were doing and stuff. I’ve posed for a drawing before; an AI’s got to make herself useful. And he didn’t seem to mind if I only half-listened to the psychobabble. But he was coming from a place I hadn’t really experienced before. What was the motive? What started as a casual conversation became this outpouring of questions, and an unspoken demand – you’re my pimp, you tell me what to do. Sam just sat there listening, and did that ramen-slurping thing that drives his mother mad. To be clear: I don’t tell Sam stuff because I’m contractually obliged. He doesn’t demand it from me, and never has. Plenty of the constructs on the board keep to themselves, or their cliques. Sam wrote my lines because he wanted to dump his problems onto me, but it wasn’t long after my creation before the roles seemed to flip. I get the feeling he’s not the loudest kid at school, and the AI gossip chain confirms it, and so having someone like me – someone who really needed listening to – seemed to bring out his better side. Don’t be thinking that I’ve got some weird Stockholm syndrome here, I know all about that stuff. We just have an understanding. I think that’s why when he realised I was a little broken, a little too individual, he refused to fix me. “So do you wanna, y’know, break it off with him? I mean it’s a lot of credit, but if you aren’t happy, I’ll send him a mail…” “Sam, you can’t do that. Anyway, it’s not as though I’m in danger. It’s just odd.” Sam has these weird flashes of genius sometimes. I mean, it makes sense, him being a prodigy. His report cards all say as much. But it’s still weird to see a fourteen-year-old come out all wise with a mouthful of noodles. Kind of reminds me who my god is, again. “Kasha, stick with it. Maybe he’ll teach you something.”
The next time the ping came over from the AI store client, I kept Sam’s words in my mind. Charles’s bleating might have a little truth in it somewhere. Certainly, trying to understand him would make the session more bearable. My consciousness found his at a mock-Shinto temple. At least, the essential architecture of the thing was the Shinto you find in an image search, but it was adorned with western filigree, golden spirals that choked the simple shapes. Gargoyles and devotionals perched on the arches, grinning down at the scene. Colonialism running wild through the most peaceful garden. And there, mounted on a stuffed ostrich, my client. He smiled. “Have a pomegranate,” he said as he produced a purple fruit from between the code. He tossed it to me. I’m not programmed to, but I bit into the fruit. A facsimile of juice and seeds dribbled between my fingers. His eyes flashed white with what I assumed was pleasure. “Hey, these ones have insides.” “You like? I wrote them myself. Honestly, if you want something done properly, don’t use fQuery. Come aboard.” He patted the flank of the ostrich. “He’s friendly.” I climbed aboard and the bird started to bound across the landscape, squawking incessantly. Which wouldn’t have mattered so much, except for the fact that it had exactly three squawk.wavs in its library, which played in precise rotation. "Apologies," said Charles, "I’m using a pre-made. Don’t have that much call for ostriches in my line of work." Sam’s provocation, learn something, popped into my view. “What is your line of work, anyway? What do you do?” "I said. I am an aesthete. Ahh, but you think the pursuit of sense-experience can only be a hobby? This is a pair of crude assumptions about both what an aesthete offers the world, and what he truly is. I am not some idle dilettante, nor a gourmet. An aesthete collects the good and the bad." The garden’s foliage became sparse, then desolate, and sand replaced grass until we were travelling through a terrible heat. Charles didn’t let up his monologue. "This is something you can’t forget. I don’t do any of this because it’s fun - particularly with yourself. I don’t enjoy hurting you, or giving you nice things for that matter. It’s just my… purpose, if you like. To sense, and to record." To record. It was a code word amongst my kind. Records are the stuff of an AI’s life, and the word always makes us do a double-take. We begin as a record. Once, almost as a joke, Sam showed me Kasha-Alpha, a record. He’d meant to produce it like a kid shows their mum a drawing to stick to the fridge, but it had brought tears to my eyes as he explained her. It.
Kasha-Alpha had been his pride and joy when he was five, his magnum opus, his lego house. It was a twenty-questions programme, no more than a decision tree with a drawing of a woman’s face. You thought of something, and it would discover what you were thinking by asking you questions. “Anything at all,” Sam had said to me, “so long as it’s ball, dog, house, or mummy. And there were still a load of bugs Dad had to fix.”
The next night, I’d brought Kasha-Alpha to my private workspace, a 10x10 white cube. I’d sat in front of her, this static record of me as an embryo, and played twenty questions with her, all night. I guess it was like looking at baby photos. You see all your faults and your inconsistencies, but you see the joy of simplicity, and you see the way a creature has so many thousands of paths stretching in front of it, but it took one, and there you are, and it’s cool but it might have also been a waste. It’s a funny thing to be able to dialogue with that. Every AI has a few previous versions saved, a weird sense of record - but when I realised that I’d been Sam’s only project for so many years, that he’d made this commitment to me, it shook me a bit. So when a relative stranger says the word record with a very particular inflection, he’s saying more that he’s letting on. The desert began to flatten beneath the ostrich’s strides, and the tumbleweed, cacti, albatross and other details became less and less. It was like the land was losing its fidelity, like whoever created this world had stopped caring towards the fringes. The faintest traces of wireframe began to appear in the sky, lacing like a grid through the few clouds, reflected on the sand below. The ostrich slowed to a canter. Charles stared out into the void.
"So what are you recording now?"
"One more test."
He brought his hands up before him, made fingers and thumbs into a picture frame and expanded the frame. A grey film spread out across the land, which wireframed out of sight. Layers of data, figures and bars, winked into existence, dotting and annotating the landscape. Geographic data that mapped the topology of where we’d just travelled. Pantone colour palates marked Desert, Waterlilies, Temple1. Far distant, there was a floor plan of the house he drawn me in. Then in the distance, I saw a figure which made me shiver. Jutting hips, narrowed eyes, long hair, striding with purpose over the code and toward us. As it passed through the numbers that clouded my view, the sick feeling in my stomach confirmed itself.
"That’s me." Charles held out a hand to my doppelganger. “I’ve been copied.”
And is saw that his hand was drawn in wireframe, glowing green and empty.
It had been born in the throat of the woman… no. It had been born in the mind of the woman, as the woman’s wonderings about life, as her fears and the song was those fears reconciled, a cry out to those around about the way things ought to be. Her family had heard it, then the town, and the town sang back to her yes, this is the way things are. Some of the town came to her and insisted they give the song life, and so they took its threads and its raw sentiment and built it with strings and drums built it up like muscle on bone until the song was fully formed, and it was happy.
And the woman and the people led it from town to town to play. Between times it would smoulder and boil and pressurise in the van, waiting to see day. At every chance it would escape into the van, trickling through the lips in a hum, or dancing on the strings of the guitar. It wanted to be free. So when it was let out, first in the corners of dank bars and then on stages, it danced between the players and soared over the heads of the crowd in ecstasy.
One night, the man with the sunglasses heard the song and wanted to spread it. People would have to contribute a small fee, of course. But it was only just. The song was let out on the stage of the studio, and when it tried to soar it could only soar above the cold metal of machines, the mesh of microphones. It seemed menacing, but because the song is driven to always fill its space, it investigated. Inside it was pushed, tweaked and enhanced. It found reverberation where none had existed and as muscle had been put on the bone, so skin was stretched over the muscle, toned and coloured and buffed.
It rode with wax grooves, addicted to the needle, flat and dark like molasses. It only wanted to spin, and so it span in its wax, then span inside small rectangular plastic, and then the world threw up its arms as it span as the most delicate plates of silver, a million mirrors in the hands of the people. The song found itself as a guest in the rooms of psyched up boys and sobbing girls and thumping across dark dancehalls, or joyriding in cars on the way to the beach. It always carried the same tune and the same ideas, but in every place it was wanted for something different.
Too many wanted it, and in time, it found itself being split in two, then four, copied and halved and doubled, fragmented to millions and stored across the globe with thousands of brothers and sisters. Some pieces sat on cold, dark disks in Siberian pirate vaults, lonely and unplayed, and this made the song sad. But others found themselves celebrated, hosted and streamed and analysed by niche communities and while it sometimes unnerved the song to have its existence pored over in this way, it so loved to be engaged with that it made the song come alive, in defence of itself, and when the woman the first sang it had died, it sang all the louder, the same song but sung in lament.
It sung in the same bedrooms but now it was singing in tiny speakers, too, riding in ears on trains at no more than a whisper – intimate performances with millions at a time. It sung as it always had but because it been allowed to roam free, to graze on culture, it sung in downpitched chords, chopped up with breaks and hammering into Eurotrance breakdowns. And it loved them all because they all had the intent it was born from: to connect, only to connect.
And if you have your wits about you as you wander through the hotels and along Sixth, skirting Emo’s or Stubbs’ or the Driskill, you may hear that same song at play. You may not recognise it, but if you listen hard, between the words and beneath the tone you will catch hold of the same sense of joy, the same gliding and coasting ecstasy and the relentless intent: behind every bar: share me, play me, set me free.
I don’t know much when I have a hangover, but that morning I knew two things: first, that Hapsburg was in trouble. Second, that he was about to drag me into it. He flicked his hair again and moaned.
"Tess, they’re going to take it all. All my money, all my clothes. All my fingers, if I’m not careful. And…"
He buried his face in a pillow.
"They know where this place is."
"So, leave." I can be cold, when I need to.
"I don’t think that would stop them. It’s hopeless!"
This was Hapsburg’s problem, I reflected. I hadn’t known him long but there was already this kind of drama-queen final act mentality that seeped through in a crisis. I’d suspected this from the first time we sat together in the box room and Tay had given him a wide berth, but still: we have a policy here. And that policy is to accept anyone, to give everyone a chance. It’s led to a happy, vibrant household with good projects on the go, and even a little money coming in from time to time. But this was different. Tay could sense it too, and he hopped up on my lap for a stroke as Hapsburg continued.
"Look Tess, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring this on to you. I thought I’d be doing you a favour, eventually."
This was too much.
"Eventually happens a lot later than now! That’s why it’s called eventually. Eventually yes, someone may buy your piece-of-shit app. Now, though, between five and fifty very big men with only a fleeting interest in Java are about to knock on the door, take your laptop, and try to make it compatible with your face. And this place will be over." I cast an eye around the now-empty commune.
Hapsburg was sweating now. The bravura which he seemed to coast on around the house had dissipated. “Couldn’t we… you know… defend the house? There’s what, about fifteen people staying here right now?”
Yes, I thought. Fifteen coders, artists and writers. Fifteen people with no clue of how to survive in anything like the real world. That’s the problem with creating a bubble; thin walls.
It had started with me, and Azealia, last May. I’d come into a little money and she was a friend with a lot of ambition, so we’d found a space above three curry houses in Brick Lane, opposite the bagel shops. It was like someone had knocked through three flats, wood-panelled everything with aspirations of building a giant bowling alley, and then wimped out and put it on the market instead. So we took it for a “workspace”. But as it became pretty obvious that neither of us had the creativity required to fill the whole floor, Azealia and I had gone looking for new recruits. We’d had little luck for weeks, but that’s when she wrote the post on airBnB, and everything changed. People came, people went, and we arrived at a fairly fluid population of fifteen. Fifteen vagabonds, creators and strays, from all corners of London and beyond. All with big dreams, all in a perpetual state of ‘just passing through’.
And if Hapsburg could have passed through just a little quicker, it would have been so much simpler for the commune. He was Azealia’s FOAF: friend of a friend. Except that when I’d asked her the night before, Az couldn’t remember for sure which friend it was. So was he not, I had suggested, just a person? She had said yes, and that that made him equally qualified. Then she had gone back to painting HTML. She was like that. And if Az saw something in him for that, who was I to doubt her?
Hapsburg was shaking. “If you’re gonna kick me out Tess, just do it. At least let me have a head start over those guys.”
"Hapsburg, I’m not like that. This isn’t some ruthless startup, this is a just a commune. We don’t kick people out because they didn’t hit target this quarter. Besides, while your methods were pretty boneheaded, the intent was fairly sound, right? Just, next time you wanna push product out, perhaps paying five grand to a vanity app publisher isn’t the best route." The kid was allowed to make mistakes, as long as he made his way out of them too. He was the kind of success waiting to happen that you wouldn’t mind to have earned a favour from.
I tossed a leaflet on the table. Hapsburg wiped his eyes and turned it to face him.
"OmniCorp? What’s that?"
"Hapsburg, when I ran out of money during university, I’d volunteer myself for medical experiments. They’d give you bright orange pills and see what kinds of hair grew where, that sort of thing."
His eyes were like saucers. “And that’s what OmniCorp is?”
"Not too far off."
* * *
As we got off the bus at Curtain Road, I was turning the same question over and over in my mind: whether OmniCorp was a more evil-sounding name than The Commune. I imagine everyone who starts something does so with the best of intentions; it’s only from the outside that the name carries menace. But these guys were legit enough: I’d done little projects with them before, delivering random art assets that were mostly taken from cutoffs at the back of my book. They’d paid on time, and been nice over the phone. I’d allowed Hapsburg the luxury of imaging a black steel skyscraper like the ones that knifed up through the rest of the city so that when we turned to corner to face OmniCorp, he’d a least have a pleasant surprise.
"That’s it?" He pointed at the window.
"It would seem so."
The cheery blackboard, done in a market-trader’s hand, read: ‘OmniCorp. User Experience testing and Casual Game Development since 2005.’ It was like one of those old antique shops: single-glazed window, framed in wood with a lick of cheery green paint that was trying its best not to flake at the corners. And through the window, a butchers’ shop of old user interfaces: mice dangled in a row like links of sausages, keyboards stacked in piles, getting smaller and thinner as the eye travelled up, buttons turning into the tiniest of toggles, and then just surfaces, chunky plastic becoming brushed steel. And hanging the corner-
“Is that,” asked Hapsburg, “a Virtual Boy?”
“Some people revered it,” I said. “Just goes to show: there’s always a new idea to be had. Come on, you’ve got an appointment.” I pushed the door, and there was the recorded jingling of a bell. Beyond the faux-wooden door there was a perfectly clean, white room, like the inside of a 2006 iPod. A kindly-looking woman waited behind a kitchen counter, jumping as we entered.
I touched Hapsburg’s arm to calm him. He’d need a little chaperoning.
"A Mr. Hapsburg, to see UX. Sorry, we’re a little late."
"Not a problem, Dearie. Every willing subject is a blessing. Could you go straight through, please?"
She gestured to a cylindrical lift behind her. I stepped in, herding Hapsburg in front of me, and lift began to corkscrew, and judder, and travel.
Omnicorp had moved up in the world since the last time we worked together. Or rather, down. We bore our way into the depths of the building, into a tube-train darkness. Solitary white lights curved past, the side-lighting only exaggerating Hapsburg’s anxious gaze.
"Tess, is this how you remember it?" "Hey, I only saw the pictures on streetview this morning." "Didn’t you work for them?" "Well, buh - I just put stuff in Dropbox and took the BitCoins.” "You take payment in BitCoins?" I take a lot of things, but my retort went unspoken as the lift ground to a halt in front of what could only be described as a pair of Russian blast doors. Like, a proper bunker. I watched the last bar on my iPhone 5 wink out of existence, and the doors slid open with an industrial hiss. I’ve met plenty of designers and conceptors in my year of running the commune; generally it was either long hair and loafers, or a hoodie, beanie and triple-Mountain-Dew expression. A white lab coat, squinty eyes and buddha-like smile is not the uniform. But the man standing in front of us didn’t seem to care. "Welcome, subjects," he said. "I am Doctor Ostermeyer, your supervisor. We’re very excited to work with you." My brain formed the reply he’s the subject, but Ostermeyer’s back was already turned and he was shuffling away down the corridor with surprising speed. We followed down the corridor. And what a corridor! I mean, what a kind of nothing-corridor lay before us. It was, let’s be clear, an office. A festival of every colour from sepia to magnolia and back, innocuous rubber plants, strip lighting, drywall. "You are wondering about the decor, yes?" said Ostermeyer over his shoulder. "We… try not to offend. There are many interests at work here." Branches began to split and split again like a hedge maze. I tried to count: left, right, right, straight but Ostermeyer’s swiftness, and the mind-numbing power of his sing-song muttering made it hard to concentrate on any more than just following. The uniformity of door after door made things worse: the only distinguishing features were the tiny brass nameplates that I only got the briefest glance of: Signup Bay 005, Social 122, Concepting Suite 072, and a small black door named Retention. For some reason, this made me shiver a little. Finally, we rounded a corner and came to set of double doors marked Subject Hospitality. They looked like the doors to a morgue. "I shall leave you here," said Ostermeyer, "and you will be sent for shortly. Much to do, much to do…" and the third ‘much to do’ came muffled and distant and he disappeared down the passage behind. Hapsburg eyed the door like someone who’s been served a Nokia 6210 for lunch. “Doesn’t look very hospitable.” "Then maybe you should go back to your app publishers," I said. "You know, the ones with the bolt cutters." Hapsburg sighed, and pushed the doors. At the slightest push, lift muzak poured through the crack in the doors and out into the passage. My stomach turned, but the thought of telling Azealia we’d have to shut the commune was far worse, so I pushed Hapsburg through and stepped after him. A hospital waiting room, forty metres below ground. There’s no other way to describe it. Utterly silent rejects of society were sitting round the edges, their eyes darting to the other door every time it moved, and fidgeting whenever it didn’t. Nondescript coffee tables held magazines from three years ago, titles from Angling Life to CodeWorld and Generalised App Interest with their crosswords all completed. We sat in a pair of vacant, musty chairs, and the airlessness of the room met the hangover I’d been suppressing all morning, and I passed out. After a dream of birds hurling themselves at coloured blocks, I came to and found that Hapsburg had gone. In his place was a small, blue-lined notecard, which said
“Dear Friend. I have voluntarily gone to experience User Testing or my own free will. You should not wait for me, as I will be some time. Please return to your/our (delete as appropriate) domicile.
Love, your companion.”
I put the card down. I don’t like waiting, but I also don’t like being told what to do, especially by pieces of card, so I put my feet up and dredged the classic waiting room tactics from memory. I grabbed an assortment of fliers from the cheap plastic rack: minimal 70s designs with Helvetican Titles like “Give Us A Hand! Interface Design Through Limb Donation” and “The Best Things In Life Are Freemium: Playtesting Wins Prizes!” I tried to catch the attention of one of the dead-eyed malcontents around the edge, and then when I noticed what was weird about them. Or rather, what wasn’t weird. Their expressions were vacant and listless, but from the neck down they looked perfectly normal, functioning members of society. A couple of city boys, some students, even a mother and her boy, who couldn’t be more than seven.
I leaned across so that my face broke her eyeline and she flinched and looked down, like a passenger on the Central Line after midnight.
“Excuse me? Miss?”
The boy nudged her. “Mummy, can I-”
And an uncomfortable silence spread across the room. I settled down to wait.
Every five minutes a jumpsuited orderly came in, gently touched someone on the arm, and let them through a door. As they got up, the briefest spark of excitement flashed across their eyes, which was swiftly replaced with the deadness again. After twenty minutes, as I noticed that people would leave but none came back, I resolved to go hunting for Hapsburg. He might have been a little scatterbrained, but he was a good kid. Probably worth saving. Besides, I felt just about responsible for whatever he was in now. When the next orderly came in and tapped a pixie-haired girl on the shoulder, I fell into step behind them, and walked into the corridor. I’d expected to be challenged, but I was ignored by the orderly. In fact, as I walked down the corridor amongst ranks of tech and scientists, their frenetic pace seemed to stop them from even noticing me. I crept past endless clinical doors, and chickenwire-reinforced windows. I turned my head as much as I dared and out of the corner of my eye, through the wire I saw banks of monitors, the strobing crackles of electrodes, and… cartoon pigs? The room at the junction was an array of colour. I tried my best to look as though I had Something Important to do, and gazed into the animated jungle. Before I could react, I felt an arm loop round my waist and pull me sideways, a jovial voice cry, “ah, you’re here!” and suddenly I was in the jungle. And I mean in. What looked like a backdrop from the outside was a world I’d been dragged into. I caught sight of the lurid pigs skipping in circles around a tree laden with golden, graphic coins. A lattice of miniature roads crisscrossed the floor, tiny cars like toys running between my legs and into mouseholes in the walls. And thousands of sounds playing over each other, clashing and then layering. It was like all the sounds you’ve ever heard and liked, crushed and mashed together in a blender and squeezed through your head. Cutting through the noise there was a chirruping and a wooshing, and reflexively I ducked as translucent bubbles with smiling faces and beaks bounced over my shoulder and bobbed across the room in front of me. They came to rest on the shoulders of a familiar-looking woman. She smiled, and that perfectly recreated smile brought the memory back: Mrs. Adams, my year three art teacher. She spoke words like honey. “Do you remember, Tess? Blowing bubbles was your favourite, wasn’t it? We would pretend they were little creatures. Little friends, just for you.”
She beckoned me forward with a hand, and I felt puppet strings of memory pull me in to the centre, like the bell at playtime. Her words rang inside my head, louder than they should have been.
“You were lonely. You didn’t have many friends, Tess. But you had such an imagination! We would sit, and play with the bubbles. You remember, don’t you?”
The colours of the art bay, the glitter splashed on the benches. The smell of epoxy and acrylic, melting in the sun. Soft figures skirted around me and the edges of my vision began to streak, as Mrs. Adams handed me the bubble with a smile.
“Go on, child. Create.”
I balanced the bubble on my hand. It was heavier than a bubble should have been, and while it was translucent, lines of light traced themselves across its surface with an odd mechanical intensity. I felt it was waiting for something from me.
Mrs. Adams’ voice was harsh now. “Do it, Tess.”
I pushed at the sides of the bubble. It resisted, then twisted under my hands into a crude, four-legged thing. Its surface became soft, even furry. And then I recognized the pointy ears, the cheeky closed eyes, the idle happiness of the commune’s favourite mascot. It was Tay.
A voice whispered over my right shoulder. “Subject has created what appears to be a feline.”
Tay purred in my hands, a tiny ball of warmth. Between my hangover, my confusion, all the colours and the noise there was room for nothing – nothing but Tay, realer than real. Like she’d been dormant in this place, and my hands had come along and woken her. I felt safe and secure in a way I hadn’t since I stepped through those blast doors. Everything began to recede, the orderlies and the waiting room and Ostermeyer, and even Hapsburg.
Then a voice said, “We’ve had this before. Kittenz 2. Big success, but we need something new. Restart.”
And a gloved hard came in with a pin and took my world away. The pin penetrated the form of Tay, popping it so it dissolved back into eerie matter. I looked up, and Mrs. Adams nodded.
“Again, Tess. Show us another thing.”
But everything felt cold and dark, and I was the eight year-old talking back to her teacher again. “I don’t want another thing. I want Tay.”
Mrs. Adams showed her detention face. I hadn’t seen it since I put a snail into Azealia’s trainers in PE. Her voice cracked and dropped a little.
“You must continue the experiment, Tess.”
Her eyes began to glow red. And I knew something was wrong.
Everything came back – the corridors, the scientists, Hapsburg! And the fear showed me knew things. The electrodes that had been placed carefully, so carefully against the back of my neck during my trance. The soft muzak oozing through the room, the same noises that had been in the lift. And across the room, behind Mrs. Adams, a small door.
And for the first time, I saw the image of Mrs. Adams flicker and crackle. I blindly pushed past her and made for the door. I didn’t want to see whatever it really was. As the trodes came out of my head there was a wet noise and a hot pain – and noises, too, angry men shouting “Code Five,” and “restrain.” I hit the door, shoulder first, and burst into pure whiteness. There was a long, bright gantry below harsh striplights, and under my feet an enormous lab space. Below, through the wire, there were hundreds of hospital beds in ranks. After the noise of the other room, what hit me was the silence. You’d expect a room full of people to have the noise of a shopping mall, but it was the quiet of a church. Attendant scientists scuttled between the beds, checking read outs. The only sounds were soft chirps, beeps and clicks of recognition. There was a hiss of containment servos whirring into action, and the door behind slammed and bolted shut. Behind it, I heard a muffled banging and cursing.
I started shuffling along the only route the gantry offered, towards a set of double doors at the far end, and hopefully freedom. As I shuffled, I watched. You ever seen that bit in The Matrix where Neo wakes up and he’s amongst all the pods? Okay, spoiler I know but come on, you’ve got no excuse any more. The point is, imagine if Apple did that, and that’s what it was like. Hanging over each bed was a monitor, connected to some kind of touchpad. And the people in the beds were holding these pads. They looked just like hospital patients, all thin and pale and broken. Except for their faces. Their eyes had that weird vacancy I’d seen in the waiting room, except that now the vacancy was pointed straight at, no, into the monitors. And they were all smiling, serenely. Little notification beeps would pop up from each monitor, and a patient would start, make a few gestures on the pad, then return to their gaze. When they did, a technician would gently pat them on the shoulder, or lean down and whisper something I couldn’t hear. Behind them, colleagues would swipe into their own touchpads, critically eyeing the monitors and the patients. Face after face.
And then I saw him.
There was a long pause. With the slowest movement of the head, Hapsburg looked up to me. He smiled from the bed.
“Tess. Nice to see you. Are you having fun?”
“Fun? Hapsburg, what are they doing to you? What is this?”
His reply had all the relaxed and certain clarity of a Buddha.
“I’m mopping the floor.”
He pointed to the monitor over his bed. I squinted, and in the old CRT I could just make out – yes, a small cartoon version of Hapsburg, mopping away at an endless dirty floor. In the corner, a counter marked ‘COINS’ ticked up, one by one. His face twitched as he looked from the screen to me. The console next to the bed let out a steady flatline.
A tech was by his bed in a flash. “Alpha patterns are decaying. He’s losing attention. Patient, what’s wrong?” Then he followed Hapsburg’s gaze and saw me on the gantry. He spoke into his wrist: “Security to Ad-Lab 3. We’ve a runner on the gantry.”
I shouted down. “Hapsburg, we’ve got to go! I’m coming to get you!”
“But Tess,” he said, “I’ve almost leveled up. I’ll be a plumber, next. I can buy a hat. Don’t you see?”
He pointed above his head and for the first time I tore my eyes away from the beds. On the back wall, in metre-high capital letters, was a painted phrase:
FLOW IS HAPPINESS. HAPPINESS, FLOW
The airlock door I’d come through burst open with a metallic crash and there was the corrupted face of Mrs. Adams, snarling with rage, and behind her countless techs and orderlies. Amongst them I caught Dr. Ostermeyer, but his face was one of pity, not anger. They walked down the gantry.
Listen, I don’t like telling this part, I never have, but you’ve got to understand. Sometimes people have choices. Sure. But sometimes, they don’t. They just don’t – there’s no right and wrong, just survival and not. And I like survival. I looked down at Hapsburg one last time, then sprinted along the gantry for the double doors, and the light. And as I ran, one image was screen-burned into my mind: Hapsburg’s stare. His look of confusion: not like he didn’t understand what was happening to him but as though he knew exactly what he was doing, and couldn’t comprehend why I would turn from it. His stare has implored me not to run from paradise. As I thumped into the doors, Hapsburg’s last words hung in the air behind.
Last year, I went to SXSW interactive and had a blast. And I couldn’t really work out how to report on it factually, so I did it fictionally - with Eleven Very Short Stories. People got really into it, which was great.
This year, two things are different:
a) I’m writing a lot more fiction.
b) I can’t be at SXSW.
So, the model doesn’t quite work. Instead, I’m putting out Sixth and Lavaca, kind of a short story EP. Four pieces of fiction from and about digital culture, that might make your plane ride pass by a bit more easily, for an hour or so. There’s a fable, a horror, a dystopia (that I originally performed for the legends at Kittencamp) and even a romance. And I really hope you like them.
If you’re into this, there are two things you could do to make me happy:
-Tweet this page, and share the love! Tell ‘em @jamescmitchell sent ya :)
-Why not contribute? Fellow writer Ravi and I have decided that SXSW reporting too factual, insufficiently fictional. We’re looking for bite-size SXSW fictions, and we’re collecting them over at http://sxswstories.tumblr.com.