This short-story / dialogue is all about personal relationships and our love-hate relationship with technology. An earlier version of it ended up on the website of Arc Science-Fiction magazine, which unfortunately folded after four issues. I then re-wrote and updated the story and submitted it as one of a group of audio-scripts for the Southampton University Green Stories international writing competition. The stories won the audio-drama competition, which was nice :-). An earlier short-story I wrote won the second prize in their short-story competition, run the previous year. That short story, entitled The Buildings are Singing, is one of the stories in the published collection entitled Resurrection Trust, which is available from Amazon. I’ve talked a lot about climate change and the environment, over the years, but it’s even better to make the point in a story, in an entertaining way.
Seventeen Percent Happier
FX: The hum of an open telephone line
Hello? Is this the on-line therapy A.I.?
Hello, and welcome to the Future is Freedom 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 release! The Future is Freedom!
Okay, I’ll start. It’s about my partner Vicky; she’s driving me nuts.
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.’ ‘You mean,’ she says, ‘we’re definitely not going to be late?’ ‘We’re definitely not going to be late,’ I say. ‘You’re sure?’ She asks. ‘Yes!’ I say. I mean, I don’t know why she kept asking. Our whole journey is digitally marked down, programmed, planned, monitored, optimised and real-time-updated! Our car’s got sat-nav and satellite connections; it’s a semi-autonomous vehicle. I don’t think I even drive it any more! I think it lets me steer it because some focus group has concluded it calms people like me down. So, anyway, she waits in silence, for like ten seconds, and then she says to me ‘If we were going to be late, you would tell me, wouldn’t you?’ Then she starts trying 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 don’t think ‘you’re my love’ or ‘I’m feeling intimidated’, all I think 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 those fashion contact lenses she wears, with their social networking micro-laser projected updates and automatic beggar-and-rubbish cancelling-out blind-spots. I mean, her eyes could be orange with purple spots for all I know. So we’re staring at each other and I take a deep breath and I ask her ‘do you really want me to tell you if we‘re going to be late?’ She frowns at me, like I’m an idiot, and says ‘of course I do!’ ‘All right!’ I say, ‘we’re…’ ‘Don’t!’ Up goes her hand. ‘I don’t want to know,’ she says, ‘just go quicker, okay, but without actually going faster because that would be dangerous.’ Then she turns around and glares out the window.
Really? Tell me more.
It’s mad! ‘Just go quicker, but without actually going faster because that would be dangerous?’ I mean, that’s nuts! What she said doesn’t make any sense! How can anyone go quicker without actually going any faster?
That is a very valid question.
I just nodded and kept driving, or pseudo-driving. I mean, what else was there to do? It made no sense. Later that day, I tried to involve our house robot in the discussion. I wanted it to agree with me but that was a waste of time. It won’t respond to me any more when I ask it about relationship issues. I think trying to get it to solve my relationship problems has broken its programming. That’s probably why it’s got Robo-OCD. When I talk about relationship problems, it retreats to the garage and runs self-testing subroutines, over and over again, while rocking back and forth and humming polyphonically. I emailed the manufacturers about it. They said that it’s an inevitable result of interactions between a rational individual and a being limited in their thinking. They weren’t clear who was who in that description but they told me to return the robot or I might get a call from SELBS, the Society to End Logical Beings’ Suffering. I think our robot’s problems are, maybe, an indictment of our relationship. It’s like, when Vicky insisted that I always be honest with her, so when she asked me if she was putting on weight, I said ‘yes’. When she asked me if she acted like her mother sometimes, I also said ‘yes’. Then she complained to the robot that I was being very insensitive. That was the first time the robot hid in the garage. So, I took the robot back. Vicky was very upset about that too, but that’s probably because she’d been listening to a sleep-help programme to make her bond with it, because she thought it was a better alternative to, in her words, ‘owning a smelly animal’. I said ‘maybe you could do a sleep-help course so you wouldn’t mind an animal’s smell?’ She said that was disgusting.
Disgust is a learned behaviour.
That’s what I said. She said I’d been a great teacher.
Really? Tell me more.
I don’t think technology is helping our relationship. I mean, technology seems so amazing, it should help. For example, when Vicky told me that I was tetchy because I didn’t hug enough, I listened to her advice and I acted upon it. I bought a special app on my smartphone; HugPal. It reminds me when to hug and also, it tells me if I haven’t hugged in a while. It is so clever, it can measure pressure levels and vibrate in my pocket when I’ve hugged someone with the right level of enthusiasm and for an ideal length of time. What’s more, you can put in the geolocation of your friends and family and it will mine their social-networking data and calculate the right hug intensity and duration that you should carry out for each person, based on their personality profile and relationship with you. I mean, isn’t that brilliant?
You have used five minutes.
That does sound… brilliant. Tell me more.
That’s how hard I’ve been trying to make our relationship work, and show that I can be affectionate. I also took on board her complaint that I didn’t pay attention to how she was feeling. To sort out that problem, I bought special glasses for People who Lack Empathy and intuitive Awareness, or PLEAs. Those glasses are amazing. They can pick up, in real time, other people’s non-verbal signals, such as pupil dilation, changes in body temperature, flush response, even the direction that their feet are pointing in, and calculate how that relates to personal attraction! They pick up all those signals, process them, and then they supply me with guidance and advice. They do it by projecting signs in my vision, through their lenses, over what I’m looking at. It’s like a military pilot’s head-up display. Augmented reality. The data’s all there before me, hovering in my vision. I see helpful signs above the people in front of me, with large, semi-transparent arrows, pointing out to me if that person’s angry with me, or if they like me, or if they need comforting. It’s amazing!… and it helped, sort-of. One evening Vicky got drunk and emotional and said to me ‘you don’t love me!’ Now I’ve had this before and I said ‘I do love you!’ Because I do, very much, although I don’t know why I have to keep repeating it. Maybe she forgets it or there’s an expiry date on such statements? I don’t know. Anyway, she wailed, then she slapped me on the chest and said ‘what’s wrong with you? How can you love me when I’m such a failure?!’ Then she burst into tears. I knew at this point that I was supposed to reach across and hug her, as I had my PLEA glasses on and they were telling me to do that, in big, bold letters, hanging above her head – but I was reeling from her logic. If I did love her, then I was an idiot in her eyes because she thought she was useless, which was no good, but if I decided not to love her, then she’d agree with my rational attitude but I’d be a scumbag. I was stuffed either way. What was I supposed to do? Things like that drives me bananas!
You sound upset. Perhaps you have a problem with… bananas?
No, I don’t have a problem with bananas.
Perhaps not… bananas… specifically, but other… fruiting bodies of herbaceous plants?
No, I don’t have any problems with any fruiting bodies of herbaceous plants.
It is just a thought. There are no right or wrong answers.
There are in maths.
That is a very valid point. What do you think you should do with… Vicky?
I… I don’t know. She’s unhappy with how she looks. She keeps using a program that creates holograms of how she’d look if she lost weight, or dyed her hair, or had a different nose, or stuck a chip in her thigh that made her walk differently. She makes these creations, then orders them to walk up and down in front of her, then she zooms in on detailed bits of them. She sighs, tuts, mutters, tweaks their 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 a realm of self-criticism, a tortured land where people have thousand pixel stares and low self-esteem.
Really? Tell me more.
She just so worried all the time, about herself, about her health. She says that she suffers from Genetic Procrastination Syndrome. She wants a cerebral chip installed in her head. She plans to programme it to stimulate her brain to do things that she wants to do but she doesn’t actually do because she gets anxious, or lazy, or forgets. I don’t know about it. I mean, if I had a brain-chip like that and I wasn’t sure if it was doing what I wanted to do, but in the end, I decided to do it, would it be me making the decision, or the chip? I told her about the woman from Catford. Did you read about that? She had bought a monitoring chip because she was a hypochondriac. Everything went 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 panicked and began to hyperventilate. The chip analysed that symptom 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 for air. 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 and plunged six stories. That was bad.
You have used ten minutes.
Yes, that is… bad. Please continue.
I used to think that, maybe, if she knew more, she’d feel better about herself, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. The more she knows, the worse she gets. I think that’s why she’s started believing in the new ‘mental knowledge is for losers’ idea. You know, the idea that remembering things is actually for weirdos? In other words, that the only knowledge that anyone should have is unconscious knowledge; muscle memory, instinctive ideas, the kind that sports athletes have, or psychics. I don’t go with that either. I think we need to know things. If we didn’t know things, we’d have never have developed all this great technology!
You sound… agitated. Perhaps you have a problem with… technology?
For Pity’s Sake, I don’t have a problem with… Oh, wait. Actually, that’s a good point. I do like technology but that’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, is technology good for me? Is it good for Vicky? Technology is amazing but I always have this nagging feeling that I’m never 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 that thing and then 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 the thing I’ve bought isn’t that great, really. It’s just another thing I own, another thing sitting on my shelf. I stop, and look around me, and somehow other people, the cool people, have already moved on to something new and I don’t have that thing they have, the thing that looks amazing. What I have, in truth, has suddenly become something that’s only good for scooping poop out of a litter tray. How did that happen? How did my kit go rubbish so fast? It’s got a shorter shelf-life than my bread! Actually, that’s not difficult. When I was a student, I lived on Ready Bread; ‘it’s ready when you are!’. Dodgy stuff. Its manufacturers have to state, by law, on the packet that there was a 2% chance of a person getting a psychotic episode if they are it, but it was cheap. But what’s the alternative to buying all this kit? I can only remember one guy who quit all this kit business. He joined a cult that refused to have anything newer than 1984; it’s like the Amish, only with Atari 1000’s. That’s way too extreme for me. I mean, I’ve tried to enjoy older equipment, like, more than five years ago. I took a therapy class. They call 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 that fed vibrations along a cable to boxes containing 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, or skip anything. It freaked me out but after I finished the record player session, I realised I’d actually liked the experience. I didn’t even have to play the whole event over again using my PLEA glasses. I just… remembered it. It was weird but good.
You sound… happier. Can you think why you’re… happier?
Maybe that’s what I should do with Vicky? Maybe I should take her to something ethnic? It was like that solar storm we had last year, which shut everything down for a day, all the computer systems and power grids and everything. Do you remember that?
No, I do not remember that… but go on.
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.
You have used fifteen minutes.
Really? Tell me more.
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 arrange it by writing a message on a piece of paper and physically sending it to them through a courier, like they did in the history books. That would be great, she’d like that, and then, maybe, we could make it a regular thing? Oh wow, that reminds me. I don’t how I forgot about it. Years ago, before we were married, she got an invite to visit some school-friends of hers who’d got married. They’d been working as vets in the city but they got sick of it, of all the rush and pressure and all the junk going through their lives. Tony, that was his name, Tony said that he felt like he was just a courier between the showroom and the borough dump. So they sold their place and took their two young children to Wales and built a home out of old camper vans and horse-boxes. They dug a well, wired up a small wind-turbine and some solar panels, and became self-powered, off-grid. They raised chickens and did some local veterinary work. We went to visit them. At first, it was awful to be there; there was no mobile signal whatsoever! I kept looking at my smartphone, wondering what had happened, anxious that the entire world must have died from a huge tidal wave because I wasn’t getting any updates on anything at all. How was that possible, I thought; had the entire universe stopped?
That is a very interesting question.
No, it was a stupid question; it just showed how hung up I’ve always been was on constant stimulation. My smartphone’s not an assistant, it’s a fruit-machine, flashing at me, wanting me to press its green button so it can dispense ego-massaging trivia that makes my brain light up like a Christmas tree! It’s like the kit, all sparkly and exciting but give it time and it’s a rotting carcass of pollution. But that’s all abstract. The truth is that the first week there was hard, I was doing techno-cold-turkey, but the second week, Vicky and I, we both started to relax. We began to enjoy just walking around, or sitting, doing chores, smelling the fresh air. We explored the area. We saw all sorts of birds and flowers and I had no idea what they were because I’d left my smartphone at home but they were still beautiful. Vicky said ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ and she was right. I mean, I never actually saw a rose while I was there, I saw a whatchamecallit but a whatchamecallit by another name would smell as sweet; it’s true. And I got it, I got what Tony and Clara were doing. They had stopped being a courier between the showroom and the borough dump. They’d got off the treadmill and they were somewhere else, surrounded by beautiful things that were just there, around them, in front of them. In that place, that natural place, they didn’t have to do anything to revel in that beauty, they didn’t have to commute, get promoted, invest and struggle to enjoy them because those beautiful things would always be there whatever they did.
You are coming to the end of your twenty-minute session. Would you like to book another Future is Freedom on-line avatar therapy session? This session has gone very well. You are 17% 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 is Freedom!
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?
Would you like a twenty minute session next time or, alternatively, a thirty minute session with accompanying wind chimes?
I want to stop having these sessions!
Are you sure you want to… stop?
To cancel, please enter your pass-phrase.
You sound agitated. Perhaps you have a problem with… aardvarks?
No, I don’t have a problem with aardvarks! That’s my pass-phrase!
That’s a very valid point, but time has run out. Thank you for spending time with the Future is Freedom 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 is freedom!
FX – CLICK OF RECEIVER
Please be aware that the ‘Future is Freedom’ 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 is Freedom therapy session are expressly the responsibility of the patient concerned. Thanks for spending time with us! The Future is Freedom!