On the Job
Hi there! Is this thing on? Haha just kidding, it’s really great to connect with you guys here. I’m a long-time reader, but this is the first time I’ve ever posted anything on the Hinternet.
I’ve got the copper wire running to the lower light socket next to the bathroom mirror, which enables two-way communication, just like they always said it would. I admit I never really believed what they said, until now.
I would have piped up a lot sooner, but the thing is, it’s hard when you’re on the job. Yes, believe it or not, I’m on the job right now. My camera is on, autoscroll is on, and I’m earning my keep here, registering the right facial reactions, showing exactly the pupil diameters indicated in the Guidelines, as all the news and ads stream past. I’ve finally got good enough at this line of work to set up a contraband keyboard beneath the frame of my webcam and to type without looking down, or even registering any of this rather intense brain-to-hand mental activity on my face. The camera has no idea I’m connecting with you guys here lol.
Things weren’t always like this. I gather it’s pretty normal for first-time posters to tell their stories, even though of course everyone already knows the big picture. So in Year 2 I was still running a pretty successful business. You might have heard of it: Ken-Ind-Oh HVAC, providing “quality heating and cooling services to the tri-state area” (lmao). Then you know what happened. I don’t want to have to say it all out loud, but short story is by the time the month of Balance rolled around, no more HVAC business, no more income. Within a year Harris had partnered with tech to start to retrain the breadliners (there were 40 million of us at the worst point) as “scrollers”, aka “government mules”, aka “dairy workers”, and to start getting us our ubies.
Of course I was grateful for the work at first, and could even say I kind of liked it. Anyone who is honest will acknowledge that by Year 2 this was pretty much all we were doing anyway: scrolling, yea, scrolling unto death. Might as well turn the camera on and get paid for it.
We barely understood the technology of it all, or at least preferred not to think about it. For my part I had some vague idea that what we were seeing was a typical case of tech “creep”, where an innovation in one narrow domain quickly insinuates itself into others, and soon dominates all facets of life. In Year -1, during the first lockdowns, schools started using eye-tracking software for proctoring exams to kids stuck at home. The AI was trained to pick up motions of the eyes and head that had been statistically associated with cheating behavior, setting off some red light somewhere to alert the remote human invigilators of a kid’s suspicious behavior. Similar tech had been used since the 1990s (or the -20s, whatever) on trial audiences for Hollywood blockbusters, monitoring where the watchers’ eyes moved on the screen, and adding more, in subsequent edits, of whatever it was that attracted their gaze.
An “attention economy” had been slowly developing for some years already, but it was the -1 pandemic that put on vivid display the full potential of attention extraction and attention monitoring as new sources of wealth and power.
So I signed up to be a scroller. It was an ambitious plan for a transformed world, accompanied by a lot of rhetoric harking back to Roosevelt’s WPA, though now instead of building up dams, it was said, we were tearing them down and letting the information flow. At the time it was all being spearheaded by Biden and the original “Council of Five”, Bezos and the others. In Year 2 the Council established the rotating role of what they at first called the “Czar”, who now of course is known, supposedly in sly reference to the chief magistrates of the old Republic of Venice, as the “Doge”. I’ve got to admit that’s pretty funny. I mean I have literally got to admit it. My job, in part, is to flex my zygomaticus muscles upward in the form of a smile and to crease my eyes whenever the Doge, in the infinite variations of his whimsical next-level memes, streams across my screen. When I do this, it makes my score go up.
Everything in life is a trade-off. Like most government scrollers, I’ve got my options set on “show score” pretty much all the time. This helps me learn what makes it go up and what makes it go down, though at this point I’m so well-trained that I don’t really need to look at it to know. I see a clip of police brutality, and I display my expression (quite excellent, in my view) of outrage; I see an ad for some new mindfulness app, and I give off a look of quizzical interest; another Doge meme moves by and I chuckle; some celebrity gossip flashes up and I flash back a fleeting expression of desire-cum-inadequacy.
They’ve got me right where they want me; I’ve got my score right where I need it. It’s hard to believe that until keyboards were banned in Year 3, people actually had to write out, letter by letter, “I’m outraged!” or “OMG I want!” Robert Burton once suggested, following an insight from ancient Sallust, that the fingertips are the sedes animae, as it is through them that we execute our distinctly human tasks, not least writing. But everyone knows the eyes are the true window to the soul, if not its seat. Tech knows it too, now. Why compel people (or indeed permit them) to express their reactions in words, when their true sentiments are written, prosopographically, upon their faces?
Everything’s a trade-off, like I said. For one thing, I am a hell of a lot smarter than I would have been had I stayed just some HVAC guy. I didn’t know about the Republic of Venice before! I didn’t know what prosopography was! I knew about air filtration systems, and I knew about the line-up of the Bengals. I used to think Cincinnati was the name of an “Indian tribe”; now I scoff at anyone who does not know Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman and military leader who went back to work the land after distinguishing himself in war and leadership, just as the Founding Fathers believed our own American leaders must do. Now all this highbrow stuff streams by all the time, usually wedged into nihilistic memes of political compasses and Chads-vs.-virgins and all their latter-day descendants. Yet one way or another it all filters down to me, a would-be Joe the Plumber, all the same.
We tend to downplay this dimension of the “New Great Leap Forward”: in transforming the great majority of the population into members of the EO (we seldom spell it out any more, so let me remind you: “Extremely Online”), we have turned everyone into a witty know-it-all ironist. Think about it: when is the last time you met a real honest-to-God normie? They were either killed off by covid, or forced, like me, to rebrand. Here on the Hinternet I see a lot of complaining about the nihilism of memetic discourse, and to a great extent I share in the concern that motivates it. But let’s be honest: scrolling has clued a lot of us into worlds we never would have known about in our earlier lives, and worlds beyond those worlds too, and worlds within those worlds beyond those worlds, mundi in mundis in infinitum.
Anyways I felt like it was urgent to get in touch with you guys because the truth is I haven’t been entirely forthcoming: my score is still technically in the good zone, but recently I’ve been seeing some cause to worry in its fluctuations. Early on I signed up for the biostat option, so when I’m on the job I’ve got my vitals showing too, including blood sugar. These weren’t looking as good as they could have (I am 52 and overweight, after all), so I started getting nudges to go exercise for an hour a day. But whenever I got back my score had dipped, not by much, but at least enough to know that I was in a no-win situation: my bad vitals were bringing my score down, but time away in order to exercise was also bringing it down. So as soon as it became available I signed up for a scroller-treadmill unit, and now whenever I’m on the job I’m just always giving vitals, and I’m walking at a brisk pace of 3.8 mph, which of course pleases the machines and ticks my overall score up that much higher.
But I’ve still got to live my life. Don’t I? Last week just for old time’s sake I decided to drive up to Jungle Jim’s in Hamilton to pick up some of that fish sauce I used to love so much. My score couldn’t take the hit from such a long absence, so I put on the AttentiVu-4 glasses I had just ordered. I turned on both eye-tracking and frame-of-vision recording, so that effectively the glasses were registering both what I saw and what I looked at, both the objects in my visual field, and the objects I selected in that field as objects of attention.
I don’t know what exactly I did wrong, but when I got home they had already transmitted my data back, and I saw my score was an entire tenth of a point lower than when I had left. It is the month of Positivity, after all, and on the way to Jungle Jim’s I noticed the wildflowers in bloom along McMicken Parkway. I had understood from the Guidelines that delectation in the forms of nature is technically neutral — that is, that it cannot raise or lower your score, so long as it is not measurably instrumentalized for some concrete purpose. Did I misunderstand the Guidelines? Or did I misapprehend my true interest in the Narcissus flowers? Could I likewise have misapprehended my motivations for smiling at the child seated in her mom’s shopping cart? She smiled at me first! This is a rare and precious thing, and it seemed only natural to reciprocate, but I admit maybe I was out of line.
Whatever may have happened, all I know is I’m not leaving the house again until I earn those decimals back. I’ll be ordering my food for delivery from now on, which I guess will also help the deliverers get their own scores up too. We live in a community after all.
Honestly, though, it’s the bottom-up community aspect of our new reality that scares me just as much as the top-down power on display. You guys are great of course, I’m really happy to be able to connect with a community like you, but some other manifestations of organic coming-together have really got me worried. I know I’ve been beating around the bush here, ruminating now on this dimension of our new reality, now on that one, but here’s why I really, really wanted to get in touch with you today. About a month ago I discovered a social-media site, which I know I don’t need to mention by name, where users are encouraged to bet on the future scores of people they don’t even know!
Betting on celebrity reputations dates back some years already. Who can forget the great Dua Lipa crash of Year 2, or all the people who lost their fortunes the following year when Betty White finally passed on, having irrationally come to believe that day would never arrive? But now they’re betting on all of us. And they’re not just betting when they think our scores will go up; they’re also trying to short us, to make money off of an anticipated decline in our reputational ranking. It’s out of control!
Our scores, since they’re backed by blockchain, are of course as public as they are unmodifiable, so it was no trouble at all for the new site’s owners to collate all of these data, to display them and make them searchable according to various criteria. It was not at all difficult for me to find myself in there either. My score is in the top 20th percentile of US-2 citizens, but what’s troubling to me is that, for some reason I cannot figure out, it is in the top 1% of overall bets placed for the past three months, and in the top .5% of attempted shorts! Something is putting this former HVAC technician on the speculators’ radar, and a good number of them believe he is going to be brought low soon. But why? I keep to myself and do my job. What else could I do at this point?
Hoping to get to the bottom of it, two weeks ago I signed up for 24-hour full-public streaming, which of course was always an option for government scrollers, and some always said it helped keep a person’s score up, since it signaled “transparency”. But I remained a hold-out, until now. My new idea was to keep all of my actions fully visible, and then to monitor bets placed on me, both “for” and “against”, in order to see if I could discern some pattern, some correlation between my smallest gests on the one hand, and my perceived value on the other.
I hid my copper wire and keyboard away, and soon enough my complimentary drone arrived to hover three feet in front and above me, and to broadcast my daily and nightly activities and passivities. It was really quite something. The viewer stats on my government streaming page were off the charts, and the betting activity on the new site was as well. I was like some Hindu god, whose every smallest whim creates and destroys entire worlds: I scratch my head, and a thousand mortals lay down their money on me; I cough, and two thousand take theirs back. I stretch my arms at daybreak and men harvest their coins. Just by living I am a source of wealth. I am worth something.
But why all the attempted shorting? What do they know that I don’t? Could it be the fact that I am connecting with you guys here? That would drive my score down to near zero, if they found out. But like I said I’m pretty damn good at walking and chewing gum at the same time, at going right on making my faces while I’m on the job.
As for my drone, something they say never happens happened: after a week it fell down dead, right to the floor. I swear it’s true. Another drone came and picked it up for repair, and until it comes back I’m no longer “live”, which is why I’m able to haul the keyboard out and write to you guys, while the old webcam, limited in its frame and its omniscience, focuses on my face. Or at least that’s how I understand things. Maybe there’s something I’ve missed.
Anyhow the betting site is going absolutely crazy. There are derivative markets for betting on when I go live again, and on how soon after I go live I’ll make my first outrage face, and on how much my score will move up or down after I make my first outrage face, and on what sort of face I will make when my webcam catches me noticing how much my score has gone up or down after I’ve made my first outrage face. There are more markets still, but the truth is I lose my power of concentration when I try to read much further.
There are people out there who will become instant billionaires if I drop dead before the day is through, others who would have their fortunes wiped out if this were to happen. I think I’ll stay alive another day, not for the sake of those who are betting on me, but just because that’s all our kind has ever done.
Sometimes it seems to me we HVAC specialists set this whole thing in motion. The alchemists of old imagined trapping a great fire, like a small sun, within a chamber on the outskirts of a city such as London, and distributing its warmth by hidden connections to all of the city’s homes. Their dream was realized over the course of the following centuries, and it was on top of the networks of heating pipes that the telephone connections were eventually superadded, and then the fiber-optic cables.
Sometimes these days it’s as if the sun itself is bursting through the pipes. Anyways thanks for listening to me guys. I really appreciate it.
Positivity 18, Year 4
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And watch for my next book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, appearing very, very soon from Princeton University Press.