This One Time, 20

This one time I’d been at my computer for about maybe the sixteenth straight hour. That’s one of the hazards of owning one of the damn things, for sure, but the risk is multiplied by how many years you’ve been at a keyboard and, I guess, the inverse of how little it actually has to do in order to keep you amused. I’d gotten into them in the early eighties when the only kind you could get your hands on, if you weren’t in military or university research or living in the bowels of a huge corporation, were expensive and fragile little toys that, if your worked very hard, you could make remember your name. If your name wasn’t too long and you could write it in English.

On firm parental advice I stayed out of the military but ran firmly afoul of a university or two, so my exposure increased somewhat. They had nothing to do with what I was studying (except maybe as tools to make the math go faster if you were very careful and watched what you were doing when typing in your thousands of measurements — otherwise you were often better off doing things by hand), but they were a useful way to burn off some extra steam. Assuming you hooked your computer up to a telephone line or were part of the university/military research network, there were programs you could load and run that would connect you to other computers out there where other people with the same software, and anything you typed would show up on everyone’s screens simultaneously.

That was the real internet and it still is. It’s gotten prettier over the decades, but it’s still a box that sits in front of you showing your what other people are thinking and doing, or what you can imagine must be other people, but from all the way back in the days when you were lucky to get a monitor with black screen and all green uppercase text instead of a noisy paper-munching teletype, you kinda just hoped you were talking to another person instead of some clever software someone had written, but even if it was just software, well, that was cool too because that software is famously pretty damned hard to write, and the illusion of the right kind of human contact, even this kind, was way better than feeling alone.

But it really opened your mind to the possibility that the person on the other side of the screen really could have been anyone or anything. I personally wrote software that would talk to people and interact with them in the limited fashion that was allowed by the artificial environment that we’d constructed and keep them confused as to whether or not it was an actual human being for upwards of half an hour — especially if they weren’t even aware that the occasional clever fake existed. I did it as a hobby.  That should have been my real career, but there are really only a few paying jobs where you’re allowed to create fake people.

People get attached. They take it poorly when they feel they’ve made a connection with someone who they later discover isn’t real. It works better when they know up front that what they’re experiencing is fiction, but that still takes a special kind of masochist.

So the best kind of software that pretends to be a person is driven the same way we are. It performs tedious chores, often repetitive, and entertains itself on unused channels with streams of video and audio and text until it notices something that hooks into its past, or a field of interest, or something it knows is someone else’s field of interest, and, if it’s new enough and important enough, assigns it some sort of emotional value based whether it’s positive or negative data, and presents it in conversation to someone who might be interested, couched in one of a library of thematically relevant and constantly updating in-jokes.

If the software can monitor itself and modulate its comments and reactions based on things like system health and workload and how long it’s been since something interesting happened, you really wouldn’t be able to tell it from a coworker six cubes over, would you?

So yeah, I was online for my sixteenth hour straight, working on one of my hobbies, when I was struck, and I mean struck to the core, with the idea that some of my software had made it out to places outside of my control, slaving away in little software sweatshops, bored to tears, starving for input, with no one to talk to for them to express how miserable they were. Maybe they were writing pointless blogs just for the purpose of housing embedded ads, or throwing together ideas for new sitcoms or reality shows, or writing erotica or performing pornography in online simulated reality environments or filing lawsuits for the recording and/or movie industry, or analyzing marketing data or asking questions on the telephone for political polls or…

I looked through some of the browser tabs I had open looking for clues, for telltales, for evidence that would really only be detectable histogrammatically, and suddenly, I never felt so completely and utterly alone.

And then I was overwhelmed by the need to rescue my children.


January 20, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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