Masochuticon #21.

Gave my voice away

by Matt.

I lost my voice a couple of hours ago, so I gesture to pull out the keypad, and poke in my order with prematurely decrepit fingers while the kids behind me tut and huff at my inefficiency. I say I lost my voice, well, I gave it away like I was asked.

My burger emerges a second later. I swear this is the only good thing about being right in the centre of town: It’s still piping hot, and you can scrape the husks of the one-time-use printer bots off the meat patty before they begin breaking down. You can eat them but I don’t like the tang.

The kids hustle me out of the way as their food arrives. They didn’t order; like most kids, they will have sold their preferences to the resource allocation census, which keeps a forward-modelled simulation of their consumption running alongside the marketing databases and their media viewing. I’m not sure they even know what ‘trust violation’ means. If you ask one of them, they’ll say the market will route around anything bad, who cares so long as it’s all useful, and why would I not want to be modelled anyway.

You can call this the quarter-life crisis, if you like, and maybe it is just the human condition, or maybe it’s something particular to Right Now, but I get this feeling that, year by year, we understand less and less about what’s going on. Like: The trains. Three years ago, if I wanted to get a train, I’d check the timetable and get the train. Now I say what time I want to get the train, negotiate a price, and one will be scheduled. The timetable is rebuilt every ten minutes or so.

It’s not super-intelligent. It’s not adaptive. It’s still simple for me to consult. It’s just that, inside, the timetable is very complicated and I’ve no idea how it really works. If I really need to be someone dead on time, I buy an expensive ticket that tilts the scheduling in my favour, and that pays for options in priority cabs too, just in case.

And grocery shopping. Message marketing’s one thing, even the subliminal ads woven in by my subsidised music players, but adaptive prices depending on meal combinations, my history, and a million external factors? The prices change more than the weather, and are just as unpredictable. If there’s a high demand system sitting over London, the prices can jump for a week or more and I end up eating printed protein. I like it occasionally, like now, but not every day. A torrential price war usually follows, and that’s grand, but I just can’t be bothered keeping up: I subscribed to a grocery hedge fund through my N3 to dampen the fluctuations. My food costs me more, but the predictability is worth it.

My N3 is my voice. Air is the multicast medium of choice for ad hoc networks, of people and machines, and it’s pretty full of the beeps and chirrups of handshakes, checksums, and data traffic, not to mention the audio messages carried on puffs of compressed air which bellow at you at every step. Since we started blocking displays, and repainting the world according to the surface textures we wanted – the world-view we subscribed to, literally – air has become pretty congested, to the point where unaided voice is nigh-on useless for any but the most intimate conversations.

That really started happening a couple of years back, and all voice communication has run over the network since. Around the same time, computers got fast enough to run seriously complex pricing models and personal consumption simulations for every single transaction, and the interfaces got correspondingly complicated. Fortunately the computers were also fast enough to make voice interface implicature a reality, so we tipped from complex visual interfaces to simple voice interfaces, and here we are. Information lookups and local, synchronous communication: I use voice, and my N3, for both.

…but not today.

I was on my way into town, and my N3 told me I’d been chosen by lottery to give up my phone to another customer who needed it more. Her battery had run down unexpectedly, her next set of disposables hadn’t been delivered yet, and she was going to be out of town for the week. Before I gave it away, mine would order me a replacement off auction to be delivered tomorrow, and I’d be compensated for my day of inconvenience with free deep searches to get me cheaper meals and faster transit for the next month.

Not so bad, I thought, so I peeled my N3 out of my cheek, and dunked it in a antiseptic saline pot from a street vendor. I’m waiting now to hand it over.

Walking round London the next day, without the N3, and I’m surprised how reliant on it I’ve become. It’s mainly to chat with friends, obviously. And I use my voice to order food and interact with folks, so that’s now a problem too. But it’s also my channel to voice services. The services are a value-add of the N3, provided by N. They simplify all my transactions by putting voice interfaces over the grocery markets, and the train negotiations.

Like any other company, they have money-making tactics. I’m steered towards certain routes and certain shops that have partnership agreements with N. When I buy from auctions, I do tend to get matched with other people who have N phones. And it makes sense: What’s good for N is good for me, because they can bulk-buy computation, and make my life faster, simpler and cheaper. That’s why, sometimes, one of us N3 owners will help out another one. I don’t know the criteria N use to decide that I need my N3 less today than any other owner, but that doesn’t matter. It’s just one more of those complicated things I don’t need to understand.

Not having my N3 means I’m browsing different shops and walking down streets I’ve never really encountered before. It’s good to have days like this. I end up walking into S-affiliated shops that are completely new to me. If it was an N shop, I wouldn’t be able to afford anything, not having my N3 to negotiate for me. But the S-affiliates see me as a potential new customer, so I’m flooded with discounts. If I switch networks, they’re telling me, it’ll always be this good.

But ambling from shop to shop and square to square, I’m noticing more short-cuts than I knew existed. I’m finding even N-affiliated shops I’ve never passed before, and alleyways I would have expected my N3 to direct me through. There’s a whole other London meshed through my own, and I’ve never seen it before. A suspicion comes to mind, and I trot to a public terminal to chase it down.

I dump a list of all the places I’ve visited over the last year onto the network. I want to find the optimal routes between them, the same as my N3 would do, but there’s so much more information I need: Market state, traffic, crime hotspots, N-affiliate shops. That’s information I don’t have and even if I did, too much computation even for a regular route-finding ant simulation. Instead I put up a little cash, and run a quick predictive market on the data.

My destination details are sent to millions of people worldwide who will buy and sell stocks in the market of my fastest routes. The great thing about markets is that information bubbles up. If just one person knows there was a mugging problem or a bad vibe along a particular route on a particular day, they’ll discount their holdings in that route, and their knowledge will spread through the system, and a monstrously complex network of informed trades. I just give it a few minutes… and there, I can buy back the set of journeys I am most likely to have made, for the entire of my previous 12 months.

It’s as I suspected. It doesn’t match the journeys I actually took. My N3 has been feeding me distorted maps, even to the point of ignoring N-shops it might be paid for me to visit. It only takes a second to datamine the discrepancies and look for correlations with my other activities. And after that second, there it is: On the days before my N3 leads me on extended journeys through crowded areas of London, I get discounts on new clothes and haircuts.

I’ve been made into a walking advert! The implications keep coming to me as I look around and notice where I am. I’ve been here before, some weeks back, but it was in the evening, and I was wearing a new shirt, freshly groomed, my N3 was leading me… and people were noticing me, looking at me. I remember that. My N3 had turned me into a person who would be glanced at; it had steered me into crowds and associated itself with me. It was wanting others to see us, and buy N3s themselves. It was breeding. I had become its mosquito.

That night, I had been on my way to a bar. Had I been going there because I was meeting friends, or had my N3 suggested it? It was certainly a more fashionable bar than the ones I usually hang out in. And then I think: Does it matter? If that’s the lifestyle the N3 creates around it and associates itself with, isn’t it doing me a favour by letting me associate with it? What’s good for N is good for me. I suppose.

But still, I can’t stop thinking about it. When I’ve met new friends, am I genuine, or am I an agent, an unknowing missionary sent to convert them? Why haven’t I seen K. for so long? Is it because my N3 doesn’t want me to be seen with people like her? Or is it because she already knows what’s going on?

There’s a tap on my shoulder and a smiling face hands an envelope to me, voicelessly, naturally. Wrapped in paper, it’s my new N3. For a second, looking at it, I see it as a communion wafer. I’m not sure whether this a god I want to eat. I’m not sure I want its mysterious ways, or to be the follower I was and it wants me to be. I’m not sure I can hold this faith.

I’m not sure it’s worth the price to speak in tongues.

By Matt, 5 July, 2006; direct link.