Virtual Hell: Interfacial Futures

Fiction by Chris Carlsson.

THE WORKER

Birds chirping, the wind steadily beat her face as she walked along the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Suddenly a large black box emerged from the path behind her ... she heard the telltale warning chime and ten seconds later she felt that irritating "thunk" behind her eyes. The black box unfolded into the control room at the plant--flashing red lights indicated a system failure in sector 3, the lubrication center.

She automatically punched up a series of commands, dispatching repair staff and moving a remote backup unit to support the built-in second as it smoothly filled the gap left by its failed predecessor. Immediately the whirring rush began. An intense hit of endorphin pleasure overwhelmed her as she was soon again strolling along the coastal cliffs.

After a deep breath she relaxed back into a contemplative reverie. Just a few minutes later a flashing red light among some rocks caught her eye. She reached out, smiling, and caressed the surface of the bulb. A voice emanated from the rock:

"Hi honey. A package arrived on today's download... looks like some new drivers. You wanna take one for a spin?" The voice cackled mischieviously. "You are the best you know," it wheedled in a flattering but obsequious tone.

Standing back from the bulb, Angie looked at her hand, then around at the slightly pixilated coastline. She sighed. Everything was so boring. "New drivers, new drivers, people always gettin' so excited 'bout new drivers, ecch!" she muttered. She was good at pushing new Workface Interspacesr (WI) to their limits. Whatever they threw at her, within a couple of hours she had crashed it. She started by changing too much in the artificial environment and overloading the channel. When they put a timer on her to pace her activities she gave it very long, multiple link commands which soon overloaded it again.

But she also quickly learned how to get the most out of the WI when it was installed. Many days would pass as she dreamily wandered through rainforests, coral reefs, deserts and mountains, only seeing her actual worksite for five minutes each morning and evening. Sometimes she would take in historic boxing matches--she had ringside seats three different times to see the second Ali-Frazier fight. The Louis-Schmelling bout was another favorite. Once in a while she'd go to the opera, or maybe a musical, but it was easy to find actual shows around town so she preferred to explore history, or at least that sugar-coated collection of skimpy, implausible fairy tales they called WIstory. She once visited a simulation of A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover discussing the nationwide arrest of 10,000 radical workers on January 3, 1920, many of whom were later deported without any due process. The self-congratulatory cigars and excited fidgeting of Hoover had fascinated her even as it repelled her, and she had tried to kick over the table but found she was locked out of any real interaction. Angie later found a way to place Emma Goldman in the room and within minutes she had both men sputtering mad, turning red, trying to grab Emma as she gave them a good dose of her rage and passionate convictions but escaping every grope and reach. This was fun until Angie brought in Louise Bryant and they behaved exactly the same way and it was clear that the behavioral possibilities were in fact very limited. Later experiments revealed that they could only have 3 different ranges of emotional response, which upon further reflection, wasn't much worse than most people!

This was the problem for Angie: she knew people were infinitely more creative and interesting than these simulations, but the more time she spent with simulations, the more she could see how limited her fellow humans were. A foul misanthropy began to fester in her soul. She lost all sense of connection to the people around her.

She worked for 17 more years at that plant before it was further automated and she was laid off along with 5 of the remaining 11 workers. The pension plan promised unlimited access to WIstory, or any two other Vironoments of your choice at retirement. Angie thought about it long and hard before selecting Coastal Commune circa 1971, Madison Square Garden 1948, and a beautiful Greek island 2010 (well before the war and Turkey's nuclear attack in 2016). She sold her organs in advance, bought a long-term maintenance contract from The Body Bag, ate the WI Toggle SwitchOE to get back and forth between Vironoments, plugged herself in at the the BB Center, and lived happily ever after.

THE COMMUTER

Slowly he inched forward, almost hovering behind a small blue sports car. To his right a huge truck was heading to a superstore, and on his left a tour bus sped towards gambling success in the desert, boxing him in cozily. Traffic was really slow today, but Herb didn't mind. In fact, he had just installed the Red Light/Green Light Traffic Delay Simulator after downloading it from the Job Survival Library at his local Telecommuter Bulletin Board, and he was really pleased at the realism.

Over 30 years ago he had driven with his father to work one day, not long before the mandatory shuttle system was installed. That old Subaru-bishi had been retired along with a dozen neighbors' "good ole cars" in a big block party and sledgehammer competition. He had gotten a good whack or two, even though he'd only been about 5 or 6. The deeply corrupt Oil Era was over soon after that, but Americans' nostalgia for it was as strong as the incomprehensible adulation of Stalin that still motivated millions in Russia.

Five years ago Telecommuters Associations (TAs) had swept across the country, establishing standards and sharing information among millions of isolated telecommuters. Every local TA BBS had been swamped with new contacts as soon as it opened. Chapters sprung up across the country, typically meeting in large Country & Western bars in prosperous suburbs. Cyberwestern Drinking Holes, Unlimited went public and thanks to the still strong desire to drink socially, their formula was a winner, their IPO was a huge success, and a curious political power was born: telecommuters who would leave home to meet at leather-covered C&W bars with air-conditioned tables, allowing for those who couldn't make it by conducting live video meetings over PubChan 5.32A in most area codes. A 20% tax on each CDH's proceeds was kicked back to the local TA, funding its ongoing organizing, and providing a steady stream of drinkers and smokers. Meanwhile a renewed style of face-to-face discussion took place, leading to many animated evenings in which wild scheming and far-fetched dreaming competed for attention with encryption protocols and re-use agreements. The process of public discussion with call-in direct participation produced an extraordinary euphoria among its participants, spreading contagiously as a greed for authenticity swept the people.

Herb steered his sedan into the left lane as he saw an opening, and he accelerated by clutching the senso-rod in his palm. Then he braked suddenly by slamming down on the tip as the entire freeway slowed again to a crawl, red tail lights crowding his view. He brought his vehicle to a nice meditative stop-n-go, and began to daydream. He touched the authentic radio knobs and tuned in to an AM station with old rock from the 1950's. He started to imagine what he might do later that night when he realized that he was going to be late again. It was already 8:37 and he was still a good 15 minutes from work. Part of the realism of Red Light/Green Light was the locking system that forced you to stay with it even if you decided you'd rather abort and get on to work. It imposed the unpredictability and inconvenience along with the nostalgically pleasing time in the car.

As one of the main Telecommuter activists that fought for Equal Commute Time Rights, Herb was pretty embarrassed when he got stuck like this. He had been fierce in his certainty that serious and unavoidable delays would be extremely rare if the system were designed properly. And he had beta-tested it for months, so he couldn't avoid the chagrin and shame that swept over him as he drummed his fingers on his desk, waiting for the stupid Virtual Traffic Jam to clear his screen.

THE SHOPPER

He fumbled through the bon bons, finally choosing an oblong one. His eyes were glued to the screen, the colors flashing in his face in the otherwise dark room. Outside it was bright and sunny, but Frank hadn't taken a look for quite a long time. Thick musty drapes covered every window in the dank, yellowed apartment. The 6-foot square screen in his bedroom made the room seem a lot larger, "like a window on the world"OE, he thought. He liked to have several shows on at once, so he wouldn't miss any really good deals. He was really fast and had an encyclopedic knowledge of prices and the Producing Countries. If a shirt was made by Vietnamese workers in San Francisco or Indonesians in Sydney or Angolans in Rio de Janeiro, he knew if it well-sewen, good cotton, everything! He was as fascinated by trying to calculate the world's cheapest producer as he was by the obsessive purchase of things he would never use.

I stopped by once, to ask his advice about some thing I was going to buy, I forget what. His eyes never left the screen as he waved me to sit down and wait. He leaned forward, punching furiously at his calculator pad and then typing in prices, styles and sizes, breathing heavily and sweating profusely. When he sent his order and waited for the displays to arrive to his screen, he clutched a SuperBigGulp'oFizz and sucked on the straw so hard he turned purple.

"Of course, you DOGS!" he exclaimed admiringly, looking quickly back and forth from his laptop to the TV. He punched his remote to enlarge the winner, the Shanghai Bazaar, and punched again to bring in his Shopperr. I was astonished to see a trim handsome young man appear from the right of the screen, give us the obligatory wink, nod, thumbs up, and crossed fingers, and turn to enter the Bazaar. Frank's Shopperr bore no resemblance to the wheezing 400-lb. blob of flesh and sweat controlling this "Interaction Excursion for Acquisition" or IEA (generally pronounced "YAY!").

Intense narrowcasting swept retailing in the past few years but the Shanghai Bazaar, live from Shanghai, still held the superstore charm of the old Wal-Mart Channel. You could find anything--their slogan invoked another time too: If we don't have it, you don't need it! And the Chinese were nearly always able to give the best quality for the least, controlling production all over Asia as they did.

The unbelievable dashing young Frank Shopperr bounded into the sea of neon, soon halting abruptly in the dizzying way these Shoppersr always do, in a sweatband shop. Frank rode his "hard line" button as his simulacra began the bargaining."I'd like to try on at least five."

The Salesulacra gave a sort of "are you kidding?" sneer directly at us, but smiled and suggested that two selections were customarily enough to arrive at a satisfactory purchase.

Frank grinned as he joined the battle, and he had his Shopperr begin backing out of the shop.

"No, NO! Please, my friend, come and see what you like...but you must buy at least two."

"--But--"

"Before you protest let me say that we are offering a special deal for the next twenty minutes only--2 for the price of 1.41! I'm sure you'd agree, that's a pretty good deal!"

The WinkMar SalesdeVicer was nearly irresistible. Frank licked his lips as he agreed to buy at least two--then he punched in orders for five!

Chimes sounded, "A Package At The Door"OE.

I went to get it for him, as he was so overwrought by his time in Shanghai, he couldn't have moved for some minutes. At the door I found three boxes from E&J Distribution in Paterson, NJ. After I piled them next to Frank, he opened them casually as he continued to keep a close watch on Latin Loss Leaders and the Safeway Channel. He withdrew several sweaters, a pair of jeans, two pairs of boots, and a cowboy hat.

"Please," he said, turning to me at last, "will you see if any of this fits you? It's such a hassle to return things that don't fit and I can see that they messed up my order again. They always send 'em too small! But you might fit something. If not, would you be so kind as to put it in that closet in the hallway?"

I left with the jeans. The rest I somehow crammed into that closet. It was completely filled with clothes, books, appliances, cameras, dishes, tons of stuff! All unopened, in original boxes! A core sample of that closet's contents would give you a capsule history of 20 years of tele-shopping, I'm sure. . . Maybe I can get a grant!

--Chris Carlsson

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"Goin' Yay" had become the major activity for millions, gradually destroying that late 20th century remnant of true sociability, the Mall. The chokehold of the oil/auto industrial monster was finally broken when TV shopping replaced most other kinds and gasoline consumption dropped by 50% in a year and a half. Capital finally wrote off the old dead investments of the 20th century and went Bi-Eco in what we've come to know as "A New Deal For A New Century"