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In May 2012, the staff at New Scientist brought out a new digital magazine called Arc. It's a mix of articles about the future and short stories. As part of their remit, they asked for people to submit short stories for the next issue of the magazine. The theme of submissions was 'The Future always wins'.

I was excited at the remit of 'The Future always wins'. It conjured up some potent thoughts, as we often think that the future is Utopian and technology will elevate us to greater and greater heights. The problem with that idea is that we have incredible kit at our disposal
right now, such as the modern smartphone. That is an astonishing piece of engineering. Do we use such amazing gadgets to further our understanding of reality and the universe? Er… not really, at least in the vast majority of cases. It's a strange world where a device containing gigabit processors, a clock that lose a second every thousand years and a connection to orbitting satellites is is employed so that someone can pass around a video of their mate throwing up. As Scott Adams perceptively pointed out in 'The Dilbert Future' and Terry Pratchett has stated in various articles, the future is highly unlikely to be like Star Trek; it's going be a lot more cringeworthy.

Fortunately, Arc magazine awarded my submission a runners-up prize (nice!) and their competition partner Intel posted it on their
UK Tomorrow Project website.


18% happier

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CALLER: “Hello? Is this the on-line therapy avatar?”

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BOT: “Hello, and welcome to The Future On-line Therapy avatar. Spend time with your state-of-the-art, fully intelligent avatar and soon your psychological baggage will be loaded on to the airplane of spiritual freedom! The Future always wins!”

CALLER: “Okay, I’ll start, it’s about my partner Vicky. She’s driving me nuts.”

BOT: “Go on.”

CALLER: “Here’s the scene. We’re in the car, heading for a wedding and she says to me ‘Are we going to be late?’ I say to her ‘we’re not going to be late.’ ‘We're
definitely not going to be late?’ She says. ‘Definitely not going to be late,’ I say. ‘You’re sure?’ She asks. ‘Yes!’ I say. I don’t know why she kept asking. We’ve got sat-nav, augmented reality lenses, windscreen head-up displays and a semi-autonomous vehicle. I don’t think I even drive that car any more. I think it lets me steer it because some focus group has concluded it calms me down. So, anyway, she waits in silence, for 4.26 seconds, and then she says to me ‘If we’re going to be late, you would tell me, wouldn’t you?’ Then she tries to catch my eye. I resist for a bit because I don’t want to be dragged into a meaningful eye-contact session, but I give up and look at her face. So I’m staring into her eyes and I'm not thinking ‘she’s my love’ or ‘I’m feeling intimidated’, all I'm thinking is; ‘my god, what colour are your eyes?’ I mean, I couldn’t remember. It had been so long since I’d seen her without her v-lenses, her eyes could be orange with purple spots for all I know. So we’re staring at each other and I’m watching the logos on her irises dance around and I ask her; ‘do you want me to tell you if we‘re going to be late?’ She frowns at me like I’m an idiot and says; ‘yes, of course I do!’ ‘All right!’ I say, ‘we’re...’ ‘Don’t!’ Up goes her hand. ‘I don’t want to know,’ she says, and then she adds; ‘just go quicker, okay, but without actually going faster because that would be dangerous.’ Then she turns around and glares out the window.”

BOT: “Really? Tell me more.”

CALLER: “It’s mad! ‘Just go quicker, but without actually going faster because that would be dangerous?’ I mean, it’s nuts! I just nodded at her. What else was there to do? We had a robot for a while, you know, the Omicron brand with their special human interaction neural-net feature. It couldn’t stand those comments; they sent it into a frenzy. I tried to help; ‘just go with the flow’ I‘d say. The robot didn’t understand. It just kept running self-testing subroutines over and over like they were some sort of robo-OCD ritual. I tried other tactics. I told it about Eastern Philosophy, Taoism, that sort of thing. I thought it might help. ‘The Tao that can be explained is not the eternal Tao’, I told it. It started weeping. I didn’t know they could do that. It pleaded with me to reset it, or take it back to the store, or put it in the trash compacter, or anything. I took it back in the end. Vicky was very upset, but she had bought the optional oxytocin programme of affection-imprinting that came with the metal man. The programme was free and she thought bonding with an Omicron would be a good idea. She said it was a better alternative to, in her words, ‘owning a smelly animal’. I said; ‘maybe you could take an oxytocin programme so you wouldn’t mind an animal’s smell?’ She said that was disgusting.”

BOT: “Disgust is a learned behaviour.”
CALLER: “That’s what I said. She said I’d been a great teacher.”

BOT: “
You have used thirty seconds. Really? Tell me more.”
CALLER: “Look, it’s no wonder the robot had a melt-down! What she said in the car doesn’t make any sense! How could I have gone quicker without actually going any faster?”
BOT: “That is a very valid question.”

CALLER: “For a while, I wondered if I was missing something but I
can’t be missing something. I’ve got everything running! I’ve got the full Asperger’s social interaction hyper-reality system running through my lenses. It translates other people’s non-verbal signals for me in real-time; pupil dilation, changes in body temperature, flush response, even the direction that their feet are pointing in and how that relates to attraction! All those handy tips are there before me, colourful signs hovering over those people in my vision, pointing with semi-transparent arrows and giving me short, bulletin lists of what to say. Even with all of them there, what my girlfriend said is still doo-lally. I may as well be going out with a Martian!”

BOT: “Really? Tell me more.”

CALLER: “One evening she got drunk and emotional. I could tell because her behaviour was setting off warning signs in my non-verbal hyper-reality visual environment like a fireworks display. She said to me ‘
you don’t love me!’ Now, I’ve had this before and I immediately said ‘I do love you!’ Because I do, very much, although I don’t know why I have to keep repeating it to her. Maybe she forgets, or there’s an expiry date on such statements? I don’t know. Anyway, she wailed aloud, slapped me on my chest and said ‘what’s wrong with you? How can you love me when I’m so useless?!’ Then she burst into tears. I knew at this point I was supposed to reach across and hug her - my v-lenses were projecting the advice over her head, in big, bold letters - but I was still reeling from her logic. If I did love her, I was an idiot because she thought she was useless. If I didn’t love her, I was a sensible person but a bastard. I was screwed either way. What was I supposed to do? Stuff like that drives me bananas!”

BOT: “You sound upset. Perhaps you have a problem with... bananas?”
CALLER: “I don’t have a problem with bananas.”

BOT: “Perhaps not... bananas... specifically, but other... fruiting bodies of herbaceous plants?”
CALLER: “No, I don’t have any problems with any fruiting bodies of herbaceous plants.”

BOT: “It is just a thought. There are no right or wrong answers.”
CALLER: “There are in maths.”

BOT: “That is a very valid point. What do you think you should do with... Vicky?”
CALLER: “I... I don’t know. She’s unhappy with how she looks. She uses her dermal health chip all the time. It’s constantly analysing her vital signs and constructing facsimiles of her expected future states through her lenses. She makes them walk up and down in front of her, then she zooms in on details, sighs, tuts, mutters, tweaks her diet and exercise parameters and watches the whole process again, from scratch. It can go on for ages. She’s not really in the room with me any more when she’s doing that. She’s in the realm of self-criticism, a tortured land where people have thousand pixel stares and low self-esteem. She’s not interacting with me and
I’m the one with Asperger’s! I get so bored. I often play back moments from our past, fun times through my v-lenses. I’d like to kick in the accompanying hormonal and reward centre effects; they’re stored too. I like those fluttery feelings, but I have a type 24 amygdala and I get the waves of intimacy-fear and loss of independence too, if I properly relive those moments.”
BOT: “Really? Tell me more.”

CALLER: “Vicky’s just so worried all the time, about herself, about her health. She’s been thinking a lot about buying a full subcutaneous monitoring device. I know she has, everyone knows she has; she’s linked the Broca area of her language processing centre to her Natter account. She wants the whole caboodle, you know, the chip fused to her hip bone with a wireless data centre and protein synthesis unit with a direct bloodstream feed. She only got scared off the idea when she heard about that woman from Catford. Did you read about that? The woman had bought one of those devices because she was a bit of a hypochondriac. Everything was going fine, until one day she suffered indigestion. The chip immediately told her that her heart rate was spiking, her adrenaline was way up and a large excess of acid was heading for her head. She couldn’t handle this; it sounded to her like she was in a scene from the film ‘Alien’. She panicked and began to hyperventilate. The chip analysed that and flashed up massive warning symbols, telling her that if she didn’t stop, she’d be dead by the end of the day. This drove her into hysteria. She screamed and ran to the window, shouting out that she was suffocating. Unfortunately, the chip decided at that point that she was in a critical state and had to be sedated. It flooded her system with an anaesthetic just as she reached the window. She fainted, fell out through the open gap and plunged six stories. Awful. What was worse, the chip
did have a ‘no sedation while in motion’ option, but its head-up display instructions were lilac on blue and she was colour blind. She just thought she was seeing pretty clouds from a bio-feedback program.”

BOT: “
You have used two minutes. Really? Tell me more.”

CALLER: “I used to think that, maybe, if Vicky knew more, she’d feel better about herself, but it doesn’t work that way. The more she knows, the worse she gets. I think that’s why she’s into the new ‘mental knowledge is for losers’ idea. You know, the idea that mental knowledge is for weirdos? The idea that only hopeless people who can’t pay for a net connection need to learn anything? All knowledge, these people think, should be unconscious knowledge, like sports athletes have, or psychics. I don’t go with that. We need to know things. If we didn’t know things, we’d have never have developed all this great technology!”

BOT: “You sound agitated. Perhaps you have a problem with... technology?”

CALLER: “
I don’t have a problem with... Oh, wait. That’s... that’s a good point. I like technology, I really do, but, that’s a question. I don’t know, is it good for me? Is it good for her? Technology is really great but, I often get this nagging feeling. I never feel I’m up to date. There always seems to be something newer, something that all the best people have, and I never have it. I aim to get it, I check out all the reports, the stats, the ads, and I finally get it and I’ve got it and I feel great for about three minutes, possibly four if I’ve got a coffee in my hand, and then I realise that it isn’t that great. It’s just another thing I’ve got. I look around me and somehow other people, the cool people have moved on to something new which I don’t have and what they have looks amazing and what I have is actually, really only good enough for scooping poop out of a cat’s litter tray and that’s it. How did that happen? I tried to work it out. I put a spreadsheet together, I often do that, it helps calm me. It’s like Buddhism or Navajo Dreaming, I think, because, like them, it’s got symbolic characters. Anyway, I put this spreadsheet together to try and quantify my anticipation, aspiration and gratification over time but then I got fed up because my bar charts can’t do fractal real-time animations because the software’s two months out of date and I can’t upgrade because my hardware is legacy kit!”

BOT: “You sound...
upset. Can you think why you’re upset?”

CALLER: “There’s no joy in any of it! I may as well be taking cocaine! But... I don’t know what the alternative is. I know it’s possible to stop having technology but it’s scary. I knew a guy called Phil. He was in the Iguana logosphere. I’m in the Pear logosphere, by the way, I don’t know if you need to know that. You probably already do. It was matched to my personality type, genetic make-up and wealth demographic when I was a year old, I think. Sometimes, I get the feeling that I wasn’t a Pear when I was young but I can’t remember not being a Pear. It’s weird. I get these dreams where I was actually using other devices but when I checked on my Faceplace profile, there’s no sign of it at all. I’m a Pear, all the way back to my iTeddy with its anthropomorphic expression mimicker and Pavlovian pupil-dilation-synched cry generator. Wow, that was a cute cuddly toy. But I’m not sure I ever owned it. Sometimes I think that Faceplace might have altered my past to help its corporate affiliates but that’s just crazy talk. I’m drifting. Where was I? Oh yeah, Phil was in the Iguana logosphere; it was a small logosphere, kind of odd. Anyway, it went downhill and suffered hyper-upgradeation. It got so bad that Phil’s bread was lasting longer than his gadgets. Actually, that wasn’t difficult. He’d had always brought Ready Bread; ‘it’s ready when you are!’. Dodgy stuff. The manufacturers have to state, by law, on the packet that there’s a 2% chance of you getting a psychotic episode if you eat it, but it is cheap. Anyway, Iguana’s hyper-upgradeation ran completely out of control and Phil’s entire life became one big legacy. His upgrade download times were longer than the time between his necessary upgrades. He could never catch up. Pretty soon, none of the supermarkets, shops, cars etc could recognise him. Even his fridge wouldn’t open for him. Soon after that, the whole Iguana logosphere crashed and burned. Phil staggered out of its paradigm ruins, turned his back on everything modern and joined a cult that refused to have anything newer than 1984; it’s like the Amish, only with Atari 1000’s. I think he’s happy. It’s hard to tell. He still owes several insurance companies money and, unfortunately, they’re allied to my logosphere. As a result, every time he comes into view, my cerebrum chip identifies him from his Faceplace profile and automatically sends out trans-cranial magnetic stimulation signals across my brain, creating a blind spot in my visual processing centres that completely covers him. He’s invisible to me, whether I like it or not. Fortunately, it doesn’t quite work. There’s a software glitch in the system and his beard is always visible, floating through the air. I look out for it now and I make an effort to examine it, you know, see what state it’s in. I care about the guy. Actually, the beard’s been looking good recently; well groomed and trim. That’s great to see. I guess Ataris aren’t that bad.”

BOT: “Go on.”

CALLER: “I did try, once, to get away from technology, move away from the latest kit. I took a therapy class. They called it a ‘record player’ class. Weird. They had this collection of vinyl records. Have you heard of them? They’re black discs made from alcohol and tree sap that had been carved so that a needle makes a sound when it’s dragged over them. Very ethnic. Anyway, a group of us sat down in a room and then one person took one of these black discs and put it on a sort of potter’s wheel. They put a moveable stick on it and music came out of vibrating cones. We had to sit, in silence, while this device played four songs, one after the other. It was just audio and we couldn’t change anything. It freaked me out. I broke into a flop sweat, which was really embarrassing. I couldn’t stop the sweat either because I was wearing my dud IntelliVest that day, the one that I’d stopped paying the fibre-integrity maintenance charges for. I did switch the vest to free advertisers’ mode for a bit, just to prevent it falling apart, but the damn thing secretes sponsors’ soft drinks into your bloodstream in that mode. Two weeks of that and I was bloated, obsessive and slightly orange. But after I finished the record player session, I realised I’d liked the experience. I didn’t even have to play the whole event back as a 4D session to be sure. I just… remembered it. It was weird but good.”

BOT: “You sound...
happier. Can you think why you’re... happier?”

CALLER: “Maybe that’s what I should do with Vicky? Maybe I should take her to something ethnic? It was like that solar storm last year, when everything shut down for a day, all the computer systems and power grids and everything. Do you remember that?”

BOT: “No, I do not remember that... but go on.”

CALLER: “It was a different world. We had to use candles for light. There was no augmented reality, no constant updates, feeds, recordings or circadian rhythm assistants, no nothing! We just sat in the house and looked out towards the sea and just... talked.”

BOT: “
You have used four minutes. Really? Tell me more.”
CALLER: “Vicky was happier then. I remember it. I
like remembering it. She laughed, there, in the darkness, with just the light of that candle. Her face was younger... We should do that again. We need to do that again. I could arrange it. We could have a solar-storm party. No technology at all. I could invite people, invite her friends. I could write a message on a piece of paper and send it to them using the parcels service. That would be great. She’d like that.”

BOT: “
You are coming to the end of your five minute session. Would you like to book another Future on-line avatar therapy session? This session has gone very well. You are 18% happier, 27% more relaxed and only 0.04% less wealthy. Revel in your success! Suitcases of unhappiness have been emptied. You have gained victory over your problems. The Future always wins!”
CALLER: “No, I don’t want to book another session. I want to cut back on technology! Have you been listening to anything I’ve been saying?”
BOT: “Would you like an a) five minute session or b) ten minute session with accompanying wind chimes?”
CALLER: “I want to stop having these sessions!”
BOT: “Are you sure you want to...
stop?”
CALLER: “Yes!”
BOT: “To cancel, please enter your pass-phrase.”
CALLER: “Aardvarks!”

BOT: “You sound agitated. Perhaps you have a problem with... aardvarks?”
CALLER: “No,
I don’t have a problem with aardvarks! That’s my pass-phrase!”

BOT: “That’s a very valid point, but time has run out. Thank you for spending time with the Future On-line Therapy Avatar! Spend time again with your state-of-the-art, fully intelligent companion and your future will conquer your past. It will take your psychological baggage and load it on to the airplane of spiritual freedom. The future always wins!”
- Click! -
BOT: “Please be aware that the ‘Future always wins’ phrase is legally referring to a generic interpretation of the future and does not expressly state any chronological predictions about the success of any Future On-line Avatar therapy company sessions or any statements made by any of its employees, affiliates, corporate associates, artificial intelligence programs, MMORPG NPC’s, subconscious facsimiles, peripheral computer devices or vending machines over the lifetime of this or any parallel universes. Any bouts of depression, anxiety attacks, legal infringements or psychotic episodes resulting in major loss of life that occur after a Future On-line Avatar therapy session are expressly the responsibility of the patient concerned. Thanks for spending time with us! The Future always wins!”


(If you liked this story/script, you'll probably enjoy The Lost Emotion short story)