Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Future Love Story

By Marcel van der Drift

Twenty years from now, a cell phone gently sinks to the bottom of the river. It's one of the latest models. The clever design, trendy colours and nifty features make our cell phones look ancient. Everything about it is new. Cell phone isn't even the right name for it. It's hard to describe exactly what it is. So I won't.

Anyway, this phone, for lack of a better word, belongs to Steve, who is on the bridge, feeling generally depressed, but for the moment happy to be rid of his phone. It was a powerful gesture.

Steve got wired up only half a year ago, after everyone else had been wired up for years.

People used to ask: "Are you wired up?" That question was soon followed by: "Why aren't you wired up? Are you religious? Aren't you curious?" They looked at him suspiciously and you could hear them think: "he must be suppressing something. Definitely some sort of denial."

Getting wired up means having all sorts of sensors either implanted or attached to your clothes.

They're connected to your cell phone to monitor heart rate, temperature, the sound of your voice, the position of shoulders, hands and feet, chemicals in the blood and what not. These sensors have been around for decades, even small portable ones. Their first use was medical: monitoring health and medication, correcting bad posture and compensating all sorts of disabilities. They had also been used successfully in psychology: monitoring body language, metabolism and chemicals in the brain. Data was gathered from many patients over time, giving new insights into psychological disorders. But it only took off when some clever marketing guy, later to become yet another trillionaire, realized their combined potential for the consumer market. When people started using their game consoles to train their memories and concentration, he thought: "Maybe they'd like to know about their emotions." By then, sensors and software could read people like a book. This marketing whiz quickly teamed up with academic researchers and major producers of sensors. And suddenly there was this huge company selling "insight, one-ness and emotional connectivity." It started an industry of self-reflection, mood blogging, mood matching, real-time automated flirt coaching and some embarrassing employment relation strategies.

Steve, however, was reluctant. He didn't need any software to tell him how he felt. He was depressed. Three years after losing his job as a garbage collector to some smart-ass system, he was definitely depressed. But he was determined to handle it on his own, as he always had. Then Steve got even more depressed. When he finally decided to get help, he skipped the on-line forums and arranged a face-to-face talk with an old fashioned trained expert: R.L. Steinberg, MD, psychiatrist. Doctor Steinbergs first question to Steve was: "Are you wired up?"
- "No, I'm not," he sighed.
"Is there any particular reason you're not wired up?" At this point he used to express his concern about privacy and security, but that argument didn't seem to convince anyone anymore.
- "I don't need it. I know how I feel."
"I see. Of course self-reflection is the best tool. And I'm sure we canunderstand your situation by discussing it here. But some data would be very useful. You see, the way we see ourselves is often different from the way we actually behave. When a child is frustrated, it doesn't say 'I'm frustrated.' It just starts kicking things over. It needs to be taught then and there, by adults who understand this behavior, that what he is feeling is frustration and it can be expressed in different ways. Even adults have difficulty understanding their emotions at some point in their lives. They mostly need feedback from others, but they also gain insight into themselves from a higher perspective, so to say, from objective long-term observation of their behavior. It's no magic, but a usefultool."
-"I see."
"I suggest you get wired up without any interpretation software. You'll just get the sensors and leave the rest to me. All that software just oversimplifies everything anyway. We can look at some of the data during our meetings, if need be."

So Steve got wired up. He met doctor Steinberg every Tuesday and promised to follow his advice on exercise, sleep, diet, etc. But he couldn't get himself to actually do all those things. The meetings with doctor Steinberg, who confronted him with data to prove his lack of motivation, got more and more embarrassing. Eventually he stopped seeing him.

Instead, he downloaded the latest interpretation software.

During the installation he opted for 'brutally honest' instead of 'constructive' or 'positive'. Now he wasn't depressed. He was "lethargic, unconcentrated and easily agitated." "So be it," he thought to himself as he scrolled through the diagnosis on his cell phone. It also said "hungry". "Am I hungry? Well, come to think of it, I am." And he told his phone "I'd like to order a chicken curry, anywhere." It replied "Chicken curry has been ordered at Phonsawan, located ten minutes from here." His left shoe started vibrating, so he turned left. As he walked to Phonsawan restaurant for the first time in his life, he thought: "Funny how quickly you get used to this stuff. Three months ago, when my shoes first started vibrating, my first impulse was to kick them off. Now I'm not even aware of them. I just turn left or right because that's where I need to go." He read somewhere that shopping malls are installing vibrating floors just to lure customers into expensive stores. He even checked to see if it was a hoax. One site strongly denied these claims, but it seemed to be sponsored by the same shopping mall. That didn't have to mean anything though, because those ads are placed anywhere automatically, or so he thought. He didn't feel like digging any deeper. True or not, he decided vibrating floors in shopping malls were very unlikely. Right then, both his shoes vibrated shortly, indicating he had arrived at the restaurant, just as planned. He wasn't at some expensive store and this somehow proved his point.

The rest of the evening was spent eating curry, staring at the waitress, ordering beer, staring at the waitress and ordering one or two more beers while staring at the waitress. In the end Steve felt better than after any meeting with doctor Steinberg. As he walked out of the restaurant to cheerfully follow his "good vibrations" home, he felt the urge to check his mood on his cell phone. "Happy" it said. "That's right," he thought, "I know it. I feel it. Who needs these gadgets." "More details" it said. "Ok then, get me the details." A warning screen appeared. He clicked "ok" and read: "Happy, intoxicated, consumed too many saturated fats, sexually aroused." "I beg your pardon?" Steve asked, clicking on. "Repeated sexual response when in contact with female x." Up came a chart showing his hormones, blood pressure, some correction for the influence of alcohol and this "female x". He clicked on, passed some warning screens about revealing his identity and requesting information from other people. Then it said: "Annoyed." "I'm not annoyed, am I? Just curious." The next click made it all too clear. There was the picture of female x, the waitress from Phonsawan restaurant: "Tired, embarrassed and annoyed when in contact with Steve Smith." Steve felt a dark, numbing heaviness come over him. "That's how she saw me. And that's what I am. Annoying." He stood still, ignoring the vibrations in his feet. "That's what I am," he repeated, as he slowly fiddled with his cell phone. "Connection terminated." He sank to the ground as he realized what had just happened. He had asked the waitress what she really felt for him. She must have read his request and thought "what a creep." She had rejected him. Slumped on the pavement, he slowly clicked "exit" until the main menu appeared. "Current mood: depressed." Some time passed. Steve still felt depressed and rejected, as he suddenly stood up and told his phone "take me to the highest public area nearby." His right shoe vibrated and off he went. This was an old habit. At times when he was most down, he'd wander through the city, late at night, looking for certain places. Places he could jump from. Not that he ever actually did. He knew he never would. But just standing there, on the edge, feeling the wind, having the option to jump, somehow everything made sense to him. He was aware, awake, charged, relieved, comforted, everything. No software would make any sense of it, but that was how he was.

He felt determined as he walked toward the city centre, even though he didn't know where he was going. Being guided by vibrations in his shoes was a little different from the old, long walks to nowhere, but he went with it. It was cold and windy at the bridge. Perfect. Walking toward the middle, he started wondering how he felt. Was he relieved? Comforted? That was when he decided to chuck his cell phone in the river. He swung his arm backward, which was interpreted as "greatly surprised", and he flung his cell phone as far as he could. It was a powerful gesture. The device made a disappointingly small splash, but Steve was relieved. "I am relieved," he thought, "definitely relieved." His cell phone slowly sank deeper and deeper to the bottom, still giving off a blue glow. It silently landed right next to another cell phone, which also gave off a blue glow.

This second cell phone belongs to Sandy, who is also on the bridge at this very moment, feeling both depressed and relieved. As she climbs the railing to look down at the water, she notices Steve, balancing on the railing, walking slowly towards her. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the river, their phones are frantically trying to interpret their increased heart rate and a sudden surge of dopamine.


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