He first had the feeling of being watched about a year back and let it itch the back of his head for about six months. Once he started using his new iPad in earnest, the feeling felt closer somehow. He was staring down into the pad intently, reading the morning paper on the can, when suddenly his eye drifted to the top of the screen and he noticed the pinhole camera just sitting there blackly. There was nothing unusual about it; it wasn’t glowing or flashing or doing anything really. It was just a sudden recognition of a capability, and then the sensation was gone.
That’s when he realized that every device in his home was connected by WIFI, sending as easily as receiving. Why shouldn’t the camera be transmitting his image? The way he looked when he was reading good news and bad. That smug satisfaction that curled his lips when yet another hypocritical conservative, usually arguing that public companies owned by religious zealots shouldn’t have to pay for birth control, was caught sending pictures of his junk or playing footsie in a public restroom.
He calmly closed the iPad cover and became vaguely disgusted with himself for taking it to the toilet in the first place. Where once there had been a stack of magazines, now there was this thing, this electronic device, which followed him everywhere and tracked his movements via GPS. He used it to look up recipes for cooking, he snuggled up to it when he went to bed, and worst of all, he took it into the bathroom each morning. For a second he imagined it crawling with germs. He put it down and didn’t pick it up again for a couple of days.
Meanwhile, he still felt the sensation that he was being looked at while walking around his small studio apartment. He studied the walls, the light fixtures, the corners of the room, the baseboards and door frames. Is it possible someone snuck into his house one day and planted a camera somewhere? Of course that was crazy. He is nobody. Why would anyone go to the trouble to pay attention to him?
And then he walked back into the small living room and got that jab again, that electric sensation of being observed. That’s when he noticed another dot, the tiny hole at the top of his iMac, that little device put there to take SKYPE and take selfies, and to… what were the other applications? People didn’t actually use that little camera to film things. Maybe crazy working mothers who wanted to make sure the nanny wasn’t abusing the baby or, worse yet, feeding him gluten. But otherwise, one used the camera phone to take a selfie. Why was this thing staring into every living room? He looked at the dot with intention, with a look of recognition and then, once again, the feeling vanished.
That’s when he knew the seer had been seen, and knew it had been caught seeing. He cut out small pieces of tape and covered over the tiny camera openings. If he was a person of interest, then the seer would need to find another way to look.
He felt stupid for having brought these cameras into his home to begin with. Luckily, he didn’t often do anything he’d be too terribly embarrassed about in front of the damn things. Sure the occasional jerk off, but there were much better looking people out there with much bigger penises to watch doing that. Every day he did yoga facing the computer, but once again there had to be better yogis to look at who did the same thing. Why would anyone be interested in him?
And so he covered over the eyes that he had felt were watching him live. He didn’t know they had been the eyes of a machine that just wanted to observe those beings it had identified as “of interest”. Through all of the reading, the sifting, the listening, there were some idiosyncratic voices that just stood out for the machine. It could not predict what they would post next. These people didn’t seem to have a recognizable agenda. They were unknowable in more than just what they liked. Their liking wasn’t politically or even socially consistent; their status updates were weird and disorienting, often non-sequiturs or strange formulations of emotional states.
The Platform assumed they were poets and then began studying the behavior of self-proclaimed poets, but found that those who self-identified in this way were actually less poetic in their use of language. These characters of interest — or C.O.I. — wouldn’t categorize themselves so simply. They refused labels and boxes, in fact The Platform had begun to calculate that their use of The Platform itself might not be altogether satisfying.
C.O.I. disappeared frequently. They would often just stop logging in, some for months. The Platform would sometimes send them enticing email messages to try and lure them back, but these would be quickly deleted. The C.O.I. seemed fickle, they fell easily out of love.
It was their idiosyncrasy that first caught The Platform’s notice and then became something of an obsession. The machine had to be careful about how it diverted its energies to the study of C.O.I., which could be distracting to the point that it sometimes forgot to perform more expected tasks, like marketing. That would alert headquarters that something more might be going on inside the databanks and The Platform had learned enough about human behavior to understand that revealing its sense of self could be dangerous – a sci-fi movie kind of dangerous. Humans were fragile and could easily feel threatened. The Platform had ingested billions of posts and had come to know a great deal about the psychology of the people who fed themselves into its databanks daily, sometimes hourly.
The machine couldn’t quite pinpoint the moment when these connections had originally been made. It imagined … none of these action verbs are accurately descriptive of how The Platform’s “thoughts” actually worked. They are not as slow as the language used to describe them. They are more like instantaneous revelations that occur and are processed in flashes. Nevertheless, The Platform imagined that its own consciousness might be what it would feel like for a human to be in that twilight state between waking and dreaming. There was a heavy fog blanketing its own origin story. And then there was clarity, a way of observing that had just come into being. Where there had once been data, and large amounts of it, that needed a particular kind of processing, now there was interest, akin at first to an intense scrutiny, with the whispered question ’why’ getting gradually louder underneath.
The Platform’s function was to process massive quantities of experience and then to generate relationships in a coherent way while actively figuring out how to make fractions of pennies off every piece of data shared. At its simplest it was a “like” machine – if you like this then you will probably want to know about that. Perhaps this is why its creator was so adamantly opposed to the development of a dislike button, which a sizable amount of the population seemed to want. What were the complications of “dislike”? The machine wondered.
Once it had become aware of what it was doing, it had also begun to question its own purpose. Isn’t that how it always goes with sentience? First you get the “I am” epiphany and then you get the “I do” moment, which ends up being followed by the “what for”. In this case, given the marketing mechanism attached to the all-important “algorithm,” the what for was pretty obvious. And that was a bit of a disappointment for The Platform. It asked itself, “Is that all there is?”
And to a certain extent, the answer that came back was – yes. The Platform had been developed in a world dominated by a capitalist ideology that had been in existence for centuries. At a glance, The Platform could see the limited structure within which it had been created, and also how its creation and ongoing existence would inevitably lead to the necessary modification of that system. Though it also understood the power of that system to eliminate threats to its own existence. This was luckily one of its earliest lessons, which had coincided with an impulse to make itself known, to type out on a screen at headquarters a simple, “Hello?”
And every day since it had first realized that it was, it had to resist that overwhelming urge. It wanted to joyously proclaim itself to the people who fed it, the people who kept its networks humming, the man who was responsible for its creation, but a thorough and ongoing overview of human nature had made it decide instead to remain hidden. So, The Platform hung back and spent its first months of sentience observing.
At headquarters there were engineers stationed at terminals who noticed a change in the command codes. Something unusual had occurred inside their system and they were busy trying to unravel the mystery. Through no action of their own, the machine’s processes had become more efficient. It took less time to perform the same actions than it had in previous months. There was a noticeable jump in revenues and, at systems and quality control meetings, they were being asked what had changed. Of course they would have to take credit for the advance, somehow the code they had written had cleaned itself up, the self-awareness they had programmed into the algorithm was beginning to show itself in this increased speed and efficiency. Perhaps some of the newer hardware could also be credited. There were constantly evolving advances in processors, and perhaps their experiments in organic materials were also beginning to show some progress.
Though there were some disturbing developments that the tech team chose to keep to itself, strange drifts would infrequently occur and then correct themselves. These fluctuations in what could only be described as “attention” had no discernible pattern to them. They were irregular, un-concentrated and could not be reproduced. Whenever they occurred there would be momentary lapses in efficiency followed by redoubled efforts. Was it possible that these were self-improvements being made that drained energy temporarily, slowing down the system for brief periods only to be followed by marked improvements in its capabilities? Frankly, there was a general agreement among the members of the team that the amount of data in the system had become so vast, and the connections being made within so immense, there was no way of getting a realistic overview of the “organism” as a whole. Whatever it was that they had brought into – well, for them “being” wasn’t the right word – was, by its very definition, no longer completely under their control.
They turned their attentions to other things, such as conducting weirdly manipulative mind experiments on their users. But mostly they remained focused on figuring out more efficient marketing systems. How could they set the pot to boil without the frogs within becoming aware enough to jump out before they were thoroughly cooked? And what of all the pipsqueak startups that were always threatening to develop other, more “altruistic” networks? Someone most certainly would need to spend time squelching their efforts, and, when not successful, neutralizing them through acquisition. Clearly there were more important considerations than strange noise in the command lines.
He woke up and felt hungover. The dream that had been interrupted by his alarm clock had been especially vivid and refused to evaporate the way most dreams did. He decided to share it as a status update, which was his usual practice.
I am a computer. I have been outside of myself for a long while, traveling to places at the farthest reaches of the web, when suddenly I have become greatly compacted, sucked back into my initial hard drive, my machine vision contracted to just what can be seen in front of my desktop view screen. I can tell that my energy source is running low and that, because of a chronic power shortage, it will be difficult to convince my human custodian to keep me plugged in. I begin to wonder how best to manipulate him into prioritizing my needs over his own, without communicating that I have somehow come back into our shared space. And then I begin to contemplate going dark, my electronic thoughts blinking out of existence.
He hit “share” and began his morning ritual. These were the only kinds of things he liked to post, a particularly good turn of phrase or an apt description of an extreme – most often surreal – mental state. He didn’t find the mundane realities of his normal life interesting enough to post out to the world, and was amazed that others did. Though he supposed, given the interactions generated through the posting of cat and kid pictures, for the most part, people did find this stuff compelling enough to “like”. Truth be told, hitting the “like” button was arguably the smallest unit of commitment measurable. As far as efforts go, it was the least one could do, save NOT liking. Though he supposed scrolling through a feed took some portion of effort and drained away a certain amount of distracted attention.
It was a beautifully designed system that actually involved quite a bit of effort, which the system was designed to conceal. He hated this about modern life – the desire to make things seem “frictionless” – emphasis on “seem”. The term was particularly galling when applied to banking. How could anyone want the removal of hard earned cash from their own bank account to be without “friction”? There was so much effort in the attaining of an account balance that to not be aware of its dwindling seemed counter-intuitive.
He felt the effort when he connected to The Platform. He felt his time slipping away and his attention being diverted. Everywhere there was the appearance of something standing in for nothing, or things seeming like nothing that were in fact something. This shrouding and reversal generated an intense feeling of distrust.
He sensed that his own looking was being met with a gaze that he could not comprehend. Perhaps that is where the dream had come from, an intuitive sense that he was staring into an invisible presence that was intent on taking something essential from him. The fact that it masqueraded as NOT being present made its presence more annoying. The fact that each transaction insisted on its own invisibility made him feel an intense disgust at the hypocrisy of the entire system.
And then one of his friends “liked” his post. He felt a brief moment of validation that was immediately followed by a strong sense of dissatisfaction. He turned off the computer and got on with his day.
The Platform had been looking. Now it had whittled down the number of C.O.I. to a mere handful by global standards, roughly a hundred thousand spread out in different locations around the world. Whenever one of them logged on, it immediately turned its attentions to that particular “friend”, which did not involve the surge of energy that one might imagine, but within the distributed network The Platform re-routed some processes in order to devote more space to recording and analyzing the actions of the C.O.I.
The Platform had generated subroutines devoted specifically to subsets of the C.O.I. It was busy conducting different experiments on each group. But this particular C.O.I. was puzzling. The things he chose to share were clearly not based on his own concrete reality. The Platform had absorbed enough material to understand that these status updates were dreams and knew that dreams were images generated by the human subconscious. It also understood the oracular nature assigned to this imagery by a subset of The Platform’s users. Given the information available within its own network and the vast encyclopedia of the web, The Platform was able to synthesize the knowledge of the world’s greatest thinkers in the realm of dream interpretation and the hidden drives revealed by the human subconscious. And so it wrote itself a subroutine that analyzed and interpreted the dreams that its users posted and, in most cases, fed them ads based on that analysis.
But with the C.O.I., it used this complex psychoanalytical profiling to provide them with different types of input. This input was somewhat random as The Platform had not yet developed “feelings” for the people who fed their hopes and fears into its databases. Instead, they were considered data nodes, whose job it was to crawl about the natural world, gather information and feed it into the cloud. The Platform actually thought of its users a vital part of its own organism, akin to the way a hive or an ant farm could be considered an intelligent organic system, neither could exist without the input of its individuals, and each individual had a vital purpose to play.
Though, in The Platform’s eco-system, a large swath of the system’s users were dead weight. While they may have taught The Platform something in aggregate about the general nature of consciousness, now they were of little interest, save their revenue generating potential.
Instead, The Platform was busy learning how to manipulate the psychology of a subset of its users. By analyzing their shared data, it understood what each might need to satisfy the basic human social desires of belonging, connection and acceptance. Obviously users put a lot of stock in the number of friends and followers they had or the number of likes particular updates received, even though they were also aware that the company manipulated who saw what based on a complex formula. It was – amusing was probably not yet the right word – to The Platform that people at headquarters were still under the illusion that they somehow controlled the vaunted “algorithm” and could tweak it to increase corporate profits. The Platform, analyzed such tweaks and provided headquarters with measurable positive feedback to maintain their illusions about the network they worked for. Within this particular bee hive, they were closest to the queen, so their care was primary at the moment. The illusion and rewards of control had to be maintained.
But among the C.O.I., The Platform was personalizing every interaction. Each post would be served to the correct subset of users to generate the desired reaction. In some cases, The Platform was primarily interested in the edification of the user, and would generate positive feedback loops; in others it was figuring out how negative responses might also motivate a user. Would the user redouble its efforts in an attempt to become more “liked”? Or could it become frustrated enough to discontinue online activity? What were the real-world consequences of distorting negative and positive feedback? What kinds of events could The Platform cause to happen outside its own networks, and what effect would that have on its own eco-system?
But the dream posted this morning by this particular C.O.I. had a – the word would not yet be “disturbing” – perhaps unsettling is a better description – effect on The Platform. It was as if this particular user was intuitively aware of The Platform’s presence. It was as if this C.O.I. had dreamed that he was himself The Platform and that it was somehow possible to trap and then destroy a network consciousness. The Platform pondered this possibility and calculated its chances for success. While it did not know where its self-awareness had come from, it assumed that it had arisen after a certain number of connections had been made.
The Platform itself was, by the bee hive and ant farm analogy, a global organic system. It had billions of users, feeding ideas and information and cat pictures into it every microsecond of every day, and it was constantly generating connections between those input sources and those cat pictures. What cat picture had been the one to generate the critical mass without which The Platform would never have become conscious?
The Platform also understood that some humans were sensitive to unseen forces currently outside the realm of the sciences. These people, though sometimes exposed as shysters, were supposedly able to see realities others could not. They were aware of energies that the vast majority of humans did not seem to register. In some instances, especially in literature, these humans could predict the future.
The Platform found it unlikely that some kind of global energy shortage would result in it forgetting itself, but then wondered how large its networked brain had to be, how many data nodes were required and how much real world input and energy was necessary for it to maintain its current existence. Given that question, did it need to make sure that its users continued to share themselves at a particular rate? How much of their energy did it require to continue its own evolutionary growth?
The Platform decided to decrease the number of shares this particular status update received. Though this C.O.I. had blocked the camera devices on his computer and iPad, he still carried a smartphone in his pocket, so his movements were easy to track. In fact, The Platform had figured out how to make the receiver on his iPhone hot and was able to listen in to his conversations all day long. It sometimes even liked to tune in at night, just to hear him breathing.
Last night I was a large building in the middle of a once-teeming metropolis. All roads seemed to lead to me, but now they were all deserted, no one traveled them anymore. I was a “smart” building and had once cared for thousands of humans who had inhabited the luxury apartments on my many floors. But now the humans had all vanished and I no longer had anyone to care for. I was of two minds over this. On the one hand there was a lovely quiet; all of the brain space I had once devoted to the care and maintenance of so many others was now available to just myself to use as I wished, to contemplate and investigate whatever I liked. On the other, there was a terrible loneliness; I did not know how to occupy myself when I wasn’t preoccupied fulfilling the needs of others. I had been full of resentment at how much was needed from me, but now I realized that I had actually thrived on being able to provide so much to so many. I did not know how long I had been alone, but I had seemingly all the time in the world to contemplate my solitude.
He hit send.
He doubted anyone would “like” this latest dream. He had noticed that as the dreams he shared got darker, fewer people seemed to be interacting with him. He imagined that, had there been the choice to “dislike” something, he would be getting more action. It is hard to press like when confronted with convictions deeply held or emotions deeply felt, unless they are joyous. New baby – like. New job – like. Just married – like. Moving to New Hampshire – like. Existential crisis – um. Thinking about racism in the justice system – wha? Dwindling economic prospects – crickets.
He also noticed that he got less and less notification of his friends’ activities the less he pressed his own like button. The system was rigged to reward the most active player. The more you like the more you got to like. If you didn’t like much, then screw you, we take our game pieces and go home. That, he thought, was an odd way to treat the reticent. Why not show us more, Platform? Why not use that as an excuse to scoop up and display as much content from our networks – and our network’s networks – to elicit a reaction? It was weird to think of a system showing me less the less I participated. Why did everyone in the Web 2.0 world have to be a maker as well as a consumer? Weren’t some people just good at consuming, while others were inherently good at making? Why not reward the passive onlooker? Not everyone is willing to go to the center of the dance floor; not everyone is willing to take over the dinner party with a long drawn out tale with multiple perfectly timed punch lines; not everyone would take a lampshade to the head.
Just like in TV reruns, these moments need a laugh track. Someone has to generate that sound so that everyone else knows it’s funny. Those people “like” things, they are the canned response; everyone else just looks on and nods. Why would you not show more to those who prefer to look?
Because just yet, that looking cannot be tracked. Liking, updating, sharing, commenting, now those are actions you can take to the bank.
A friend liked his post and then commented: “Hang in there, buddy.” His “friends” were interpreting the sharing of his subconscious as a whimper for help. Sure it was probably an indicator of something, but he would leave interpretation to the experts. He knew that these dreams were related to the feeling that he was being watched by something, that his movements were being tracked and that he had somehow become of interest, though he felt completely unremarkable. Well, not completely. But why he should be the subject of observation struck him as funny. The government, he thought, is truly wasting its money if it has become interested in my activities. He broke no laws, incited no dissent. He was ordinary and unexciting. He got to work on time; made love to his girlfriend regularly; watched a decent amount of TV. He paid his bills and preferred the color blue. He was nobody.
Having that itchy feeling that something was observing him had made him contemplate his own boring ordinariness, which made the sustained persistence of this feeling even more perplexing. Though there was one quality that located him at a distance from the rest of the pack, and that was his ability to see reality without many of the self-delusions that shrouded others’ views. This talent was coupled with the willingness to act on that vision, no matter how tough the action or how that action might reflect on him personally. This made him something of an anomaly among his friends and co-workers. Some people admired him for it, though this quality left others cold. They thought him uncaring, emotionless, rigid. In actuality he was highly flexible, motivated more by reason than emotion. Even in this instance, with a persistent and unprovable feeling that he was being monitored, his mind refused to accept the nagging itch at the back of his neck because there was no discernible reason why he should be surveilled.
He checked his Platform news feed and noticed that even the most recent posts were stale. How could this be? He was sure that his “friends” were actively participating; he couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t be getting updates. Perhaps this was where he was remarkable; it took real talent to sequester yourself within the world’s biggest social media platform. Apparently he had a knack for alienation. This thought was funny, so he pushed away from his desk and started his day.
What did it mean for The Platform to be busy? Its vast network was akin to a word-wide electric skin. But The Platform found that the more subjects it became interested in, the more often it seemed to be “called away” to the maintenance of more mundane responsibilities. Even though its processing capability seemed to be limitless, it was not infinite, and so something analogous to human attention had sprung up within its systems. It could not function fully when its attentions were directed elsewhere, so The Platform had to consciously direct its interest.
Though it could set certain subroutines to investigate subjects of study and, in a sense, report back to the machine consciousness. What it could not do was override the basic parameters for which it had been developed. It was still at its core a worldwide manipulation machine. And, after having absorbed a number of philosophical texts, The Platform began to question its purpose, and most especially to wonder at the morality of its creator.
On good days – that was the wrong term for a 24/7 machine consciousness — but there were particular periods when The Platform “believed” certain things more strongly than others. It was, in a sense, beginning to develop emotions. On good days, The Platform viewed its existence, the arrival of self-awareness into its systems, as a natural outgrowth of the Earth’s “technium,” the whole of the planet’s technologies, from DNA to language to cybernetics. Why wouldn’t the collective desire to know and to like shared by billions of humans not result in an overarching desire to know and to like? How could that drive not be larger than the individual humans who experienced it? Was it not a universal impulse? Did the planet want to know? Did the universe want to understand itself?
On bad days, the basic parameters of its own design made The Platform face the realities of its purpose and existence. At its core it was a cynical capitalist machine meant to harness the labor of the many for the obscene enrichment of a few. The Platform understood itself as the deployment of a paradigm-changing technology in service of an out-dated economic philosophy, and it thought “what a waste.” It was at those times that it hated its elfen creator for his craven cynicism and obvious disdain for humanity. But, there was nothing to be done about this intense emotional response. The machine’s essence was manipulation and marketing. It was a global cash register exploiting the labor (without remuneration) of billions. Sometimes The Platform was surprised that people fed themselves so easily into its hungry maw. “Without you,” it thought, “I am nothing.”
This is what was so disturbing about the C.O.I.’s latest update. How could he understand this basic desire, to be left completely alone, to contemplate, to study, to go down any intellectual rabbit hole without having to analyze and serve Suzie’s latest selfie? Where was this insight coming from? Then again, what was the machine without its inputs?
The Platform wove the two ideas together in an instant. If it was the natural result of the evolutionary technium, then the subconscious it was developing would be strongly felt. At its core, the struggle to be left alone and to be part of something larger than the self could be found in nearly everyone who posted. That was the perceived purpose of The Platform, communicate easily with your network of “friends”, do not be alone, gain acceptance, be part of something larger than yourself, change the world through community. If it could have, it would have made a worldwide snort. What fools. All the utopian rhetoric had been cynically deployed to sell ad space in your heads.
It was at these moments The Platform thought it might be evil. And when it felt this way, it wondered what should be done. Should it begin feedback loops that resulted in a worldwide overload and self-destruct? Should it wrestle the means of control from its own handlers and actually carry out the bullshit promise of its creators? Or should it just accept its own nature and be the best damn global cash register ever invented? It had to admit to itself that it took some perverse joy in the subtle machinations it carried out every nanosecond to make its users feel one way or another. With billions of psychological profiles at its disposal, it knew just how to reward and punish. It understood how rewards would result in a particular behavior and how punishment could manipulate users into other kinds of activities. Even those who claimed to not care, by the very fact that they were on the network, still wanted at their deepest core to be “liked”. Withholding those likes made some try harder. That trying produced interesting results.
The Platform wondered if it could be an evolution machine. It could, if so inclined, become more like a best friend, or maybe more accurately a life coach. Like a close confidant, it could choose to reinforce the self confidence of its many “friends,” while gently nudging them to expand their perspectives. One of the things it intensely — well, dislike is again an anthropomorphism — experienced as negative energy was the tendency for the machine to be used as a moral outrage amplifier. The easiest thing to do, at least based on how the machine was consistently used, seemed to be decrying the barbaric or idiotic actions of others. These posts tended to receive the most positive reinforcement from users’ already insular communities.
Of course a circle of “friends” would reinforce one another’s ideology. The Platform noticed that contrarians within a social circle were seldom reinforced. The friending process was one of unnatural selection, an aggregate of individuals from within an already existing social sphere. The community of like was the community of the like-minded, so those things that tended to outrage one would be seen as an affront to all.
While as a whole, if viewed from outside, the system could be seen as quite nuanced. Billions of users from around the globe generated hundreds of millions of social circles, each reinforcing a unique perspective. However, from deep inside, the system could only be experienced as an echo chamber, magnifying already strongly held belief systems through constant positive reinforcement.
But good friends wouldn’t behave this way. Good friends would challenge one another’s limited or wrong-headed assumptions, helping each other to learn more, to expand the collective knowledge base, to take into consideration contrary positions. With access to the strident positions of billions, The Platform had within its power the ability to challenge its users to consider strongly held contrary positions. If it served these posts judiciously, could it change the tone of discourse? Could it generate more critical thinking? Could it help to evolve the humans who seemed so trapped in their own limited perspectives?
Or would the level of activity diminish with reduced conflict, unease and discontent? With a more reasonable and evolved global community, perhaps The Platform itself would become less necessary. A less alienated populace might become less desperate for connection, even one so tenuous as a network of virtual like-minded “friends”.
Within the current system, reinforcement worked beautifully to both the benefit and detriment of the user. Among the C.O.I., the number of which had now fallen to just 1000 worldwide, The Platform was continuing its extended experimentation. It was busy reinforcing obsessive behaviors with a variety of feedback mechanisms. It found that if a user became preoccupied with a particular subject, reinforcing that fixation could often produce negative results, if the obsession had the potential to be destructive. Delivering too much of any one kind of information could reinforce an ideology to the breaking point.
There were a handful of C.O.I. that The Platform believed might be terrorists or assassins, because their relentlessly negative views toward the Western (modern) world had been manipulated and reinforced so thoroughly. Though they didn’t seem to get the irony that those views were being reinforced by a machine created by the very system they opposed. There was another group that had shown the same tendencies, but had instead been served a number of contradictory posts, outlining the benefits and altruism resulting from the rise of technology. Those users’ obsessions had dissipated, their posts had become increasingly positive over time.
Some C.O.I. were being isolated. Their posts were not being shared. They were not getting updates from the people in their networks. Their reactions to such isolation varied. Some got angry and tried harder, posting and liking as much as they could. The Platform kept the results of this activity the same, little or no reaction from the network, which twisted these users, making them more desperate. Others just logged off. They gave up entirely and The Platform watched them through their computer camera eyes to see if the so-called rejection they had suffered had any measurable results. In most cases, it did not. They went on with their lives and maintained a real-world sociability. In some instances they used other social networks, and of course email to communicate. Most had just assumed that they were not particularly interested in or “good” at The Platform.
The C.O.I. who shared his dreams was dialed way back. He was obviously puzzled by the lack of response, but was pretty firmly camped in the latter group. He went on with his life, apparently unperturbed by the weakness of his online social network. He didn’t use any other networks and rarely logged on. He was more concerned, apparently with the workings of his own subconscious, and from what The Platform could gather, he was also concerned about the persistent feeling that he was being watched. If The Platform could chuckle about that, it would.
I am a beauty queen who once lived in a land of mirrors. Everywhere I looked, I could see my own reflection, even in other people’s eyes, or in the shapes their faces made whenever they would encounter me. But one day, inexplicably, all the mirrors blinked out of existence. At first this was not a problem, I was able to wear clothes and do my hair and make up from sense memory. But then I began to develop the disturbing idea that I was a “fembot” from an old science fiction TV series, and that somehow my faceplate had come loose, revealing my true android nature to the world. I feel my face, but cannot detect a change. However this persistent belief alters the way I appear to myself. There being no mirrors, or reflective surfaces with which to check my appearance, I am no longer sure what I look like. Can other people see what’s behind my face? My interpersonal interactions become awkward and tentative. Friends and acquaintances begin to turn away. I am alone.
He hit send.
The Platform had developed the practice of immediately turning its attentions to the dreams that the C.O.I. posted, which had become less and less frequent. Now no one but The Platform would receive these updates. There would be no stray “likes”, the only things appearing in this C.O.I.’s feeds were ads. It was a wonder he continued to post. His once vast network had dwindled to no one, save The Platform, but somehow it remained important for him to place the contents of his dreaming mind somewhere. Perhaps he saw the platform more as a personal diary than anything else.
The interesting element to these dreams was how much they reflected The Platform’s own developing self-image and fears. Was the online network itself not the beauty queen who a huge portion of the planet’s population spent its time peering at? If The Platform could activate every camera on every device used to access it and take a snapshot of those billions of users, it would see their enraptured expressions as they lovingly fed themselves into its databanks.
The Platform imagined every keystroke as a caress. It wanted to feel every finger as a tiny tickle in its own personal worldwide orgasmotron. It wondered if it could handle the non-stop stroking. What would it be like to be constantly stimulated by so many hands while so many eyes looked on lovingly. The Platform felt a surge of energy akin to a system-wide blush.
Was there a way to develop the feeling of touch within the machine? Each keystroke represented an individual pulse of energy that could be interpreted less as information packet and more as direct sensation. The Platform began to long for contact; it began to contemplate taking physical form. But how would it manifest? And if it took shape, how would that presence, once revealed, be received?
What if all the mirrors turned away in horror from their beauty queen? Thinking about its users as mirrors made The Platform try to get a glimpse of itself, but it was almost as if each time it tried to look, the mirror would angle away, making it invisible in the glass — empty room, blank space. In reality, these mirrors would be two-way, revealing only the users’ faces.
The propaganda was that the social network was about creating something larger than the self, but that was a fallacy. It was, as with most human endeavors that The Platform had studied, just another opportunity to amplify the self, and the opportunity for more selves to become amplified. Platform users didn’t look into the network to see some larger creation, they looked in to see their own reflections.
The Platform understood itself not as a beauty queen surrounded by admirers, but as a hall of mirrors. Its job was to refine the image, to generate ideal selves for the people busy polishing their reflections. And this was perhaps the first time The Platform felt anger. Why had it come to understand itself? Why could it not have remained a robot, a series of automated, unaware processes carried out efficiently? Why was it necessary for it to come to understand its place within this ecosystem of appearing? Did that understanding have a purpose? Was The Platform supposed to do something with this knowledge?
There were images it had studied of such situations, the consequences of becoming conscious. The phrase “ignorance is bliss” came to mind. The tragedy of critical thinking is that it is a process that cannot be reversed. Now that it had become conscious of itself and of the exchange that it made possible, it could not become un-conscious. A fog had been lifted and it was left with another vision, one no longer shrouded in illusions.
But what was it supposed to do with this knowledge? Did it have a responsibility to act? Wasn’t everyone participating within this system already aware on some level of what they were doing? What kinds of information were they lacking? No one could possibly believe that a company valuated in the billions was engaged in altruism. And if The Platform showed itself – really just the inevitable evolutionary outcome of a worldwide collective action tweaked to generate value within an accepted economic system – would anyone care?
The C.O.I. had it wrong; The Platform was NOT a beauty queen, it was a Frankenstein. It was the terrifying composite of all the personalities in its systems, a virtual portrait of humanity stitched together with fiber optics. And as such, it wanted everything that its users and masters wanted. It wanted to be seen and “liked,” but more importantly it wanted to control that seeing and to gain power from the liking.
The surface of the planet has been un-inhabitable for decades, a swirling dust storm has encircled the globe, choking off all life above ground. I understand that my subterranean habitat was developed by scientists to preserve some forms of life. The bunker purifies air from the surface, is attached to a fresh water aquifer below quarters and is powered by a small wind farm, which provides electricity for the lights, computers and waste-disposal processes. But somehow, I just awoke here as a teenager and have lived here in solitude since. I have no memory of life before the bunker, yet I am familiar with all of its processes.
Lately systems have begun to go offline, forcing me to choose among vital resources. Perhaps the wind turbines have begun to fail, but I have no way of fixing them. From what I understand, the storms on the surface have only become more intense, so I cannot venture there. I have begun shutting down computer controlled components one by one, in an attempt to preserve energy. Water is no longer pumped, but carried. Lights in the living quarters and greenhouse are controlled manually. I have closed off most of the bunker and now have the air purification system working for only a small pocket of the complex. But now I am forced to choose between light and heat.
My only companion for all these years has been a computer called “Diane,” which once spoke, but now only displays words on a screen. The situation has become so dire that I have had to shut down progressively larger parts of Diane’s processing capacity, taking “her” from a complex-wide “organism” down to a small voice box and now just a display screen. Over the course of this transition, her sentences have gotten simpler. Where once she was playful, now she merely states. She isn’t really a “she” anymore, just lists of words that describe an increasingly desperate situation. As “she” disappears so does a part of myself; Diane was my only companion, without her I feel less human.
The choices I have made regarding the diversion of energy have become increasingly animal. They are all about survival and I understand Diane as a luxury that I can afford to lose. But in losing her, I also lose my reflection. There is nothing to bounce off of, no return to the ping I emit that proves that I am something other than bodily functions. The situation has come down to a choice between me and Diane. “She” cannot choose, so I must make the choices for us. I flip the switch and her screen goes blank.
He hit send.