The tall hallway in my house seemed unreasonably quiet, as if spectres were lurking and judging me from the corners. I could feel the presence of watching ghosts. When I moved my shoe, the sound on the polished tiles seemed amplified, intrusive.
The device wasn’t working. My shirt collar felt tighter, like a noose. I fumbled to switch the blessed thing on again, and thankfully, this time the screen popped to life with colours, and the flashing blue dots of the countdown to upload.
I shook my head, cursing the moment of uncertainty. I realised I was scratching the back of my neck with one hand, which meant I was feeling vulnerable and submissive. One of the irritations of being a psychology professor was always noticing your own weaknesses.
The device’s cold black camera eye was instantly tracking me, as the device lit up, logging my behaviour and uploading it to the cloud. Every entry could be checked by computer at the end of the month and fines or tax deductions issued in accordance to my standard of compliance. Little messages would praise or chastise me around the clock, for my actions, or lack of them. It became an urgency, an unbearable anticipation, like mother’s milk to a newborn, to reveal the context, the judgement, of the next message. Emoticons, icons and colours highlighted each message, so there would be no misunderstandings around how I had performed.
Even if it weren’t the law to select three news streams from the Government Good News platform, I would be on the device promptly in the morning, well before work began, before breakfast, sometimes whilst in bed, opening my eyes into the day. I was the Chief Addiction Designer at GovTech but I was no less immune to the algorithms I had helped create for The Party.
The Government had much good news to choose from, it was always a treat to see the movies erupt onto the screen. I had based the programme design on the principles of slot machines: anticipation, colour, noises of confirmation, visual reward. Our leader, Simon Parley, and his cabinet were smiling avatars in a line at the top of the screen. Each one represented health, science, crime, foreign affairs and so on, and with drop down menus I could choose from the little high production value films, depicting their latest achievements and success stories. Actors or animations would sometimes play out and illustrate the stories. ‘People need good stories’ I would often say in dev meetings. The Party had been in power now for twenty years, since they changed the rules and dissolved voting. People loved them. They had to, and nurturing addictive behaviour was the official strategy to keep everyone wanting more, to make the Government’s successes a daily, unquenchable desire.
I selected three stories quickly, interested to test the latest tweaks I had made on the platform with my team. We had inserted emotion-prompting images, that flashed up for microseconds in between frames at key points.
I selected Health Crisis Averted, Protestors are Terrorists and Living Standards Improve. I knew, from talking to the ministers personally and hearing them joke, that all three stories were lies. Yet, playing out those films, they gave me a glow I needed in the morning. My dopamine levels detector, wired to my head, flashed green. It was working well. Before heading off to a work Meet Zone, I would check my assorted mood gels, and slot them into the special pockets in my shirt.
Stepping outside, the city buzzed and honked, swirled and ebbed. I always took a second to observe the spectacle, the mid-air drone queues and holding patterns, the masked hordes of workers walking like zombies to the shuttle stations, the police enforcers standing proudly about, glaring at everyone with innate suspicion.
A phone call chimed in my earpiece. It was Minister Graves, the Home Secretary, a call from him was a big deal. I decided to wait at my doorstep whilst I talked to him, to avoid the hubbub and confusion of the people in the street.
“Yes, Minister. I am just leaving my house, what can I help you with?”
“…It’s about the latest update to Government Good News. We tracked a cross section in real time to gauge their reaction and had some interesting results.”
“…Interesting?” That could mean good or bad. I held my breath and braced for more information.
“Yes. Around thirty percent of users found it exceedingly hard to put their devices down, to a point they were late for duty at their workhouses, they were looking at nearly all the new stories. It’s strange, we also picked up two percent of people having seizures, vomiting and passing out.”
“… Sir, that is concerning. I apologise. Let my team get onto it straight away, we can disable the update immediately.”
He laughed. “No, no… Just a patch to dial it down a tad. We’re really impressed. This is something we can really leverage. I am calling to say well done, old boy. Simon asked me to talk to you and congratulate you personally. Now, brace yourself for some more good news. We’re giving you a position on the cabinet.”
A promotion? To government. I had not expected that.
“You mean, I’ll have my own avatar?”
“Indeed… Don’t ask questions about what I am about to tell you, but the Minister for Science, well, she is not going to be in need of any more movies from tomorrow. So, we’re one avatar short. Now, get your boys and girls onto that patch, and crack open a joy gel on your way to your Meet Zone. You’ve earned it. I’ll get my PR team to make an announcement shortly for a press release this afternoon. Good job. Good job….”
“Sir, that is amazing news… Thankyou.”
“One more thing… A privilege of Government is not having to live by the rules, you understand? You can detox if you like, and we can stop tracking you daily from devices. It comes with some very serious ‘t’s and ‘c’s you understand? All punishable by death if you mess it up. But…. It’s your choice.”
“…No. I will carry on. I can’t imagine not viewing my work as it should be seen. It makes me understand it by being addicted. I like to see how I perform, too. So, I will carry on if that’s fine with the rest of the cabinet? Frankly, I can’t imagine life at all, without Government Good News in it.”
“Professional to the last! So impressed. We’ve definitely made the right call with you. Await for more instructions in that case, and I’ll brief you fully, later on. Simon will meet you tonight at a high security Meet Zone, so make sure you’re smart and tidy. I’ll call you later.”
I hung up, let out a little wince of ecstasy and scanned the flow of commuters. They’re eyes were fixed on undefined points, they were like salmon swimming upstream, determined to fulfil something in their blood they could not deny.
I took the minister’s advice and pulled out a gel pack, ripped the top off and squeezed it into my gums. Joy hit me like a spike had impaled my mind. This was the best moment of the day, I needed more of this feeling, and I would get it, now it would become my every day.
First story on my stream? I pondered. Inspiration hit me, it would be a story about how the latest update prolongs your life, scientifically proven of course. I’d find a way to make the story authentic, a couple of scientists, a whitepaper, a journal – easy. Maybe some smiling young women, emerging from the gym with their devices on, the screen glowing, splashing reflective digital colours upon their healthy white teeth.
The clouds hung over the city in a grey, even blanket. I alighted from the safety of my doorstep and merged seamlessly into the throng of citizens. I was so happy. Good news was infectious, I could never get enough of good news.