With All My Qualifications
March 2, 2010
For about a week a guy called Walter Exmouth came home and sat at his writing-desk for four or five hours a night. The reason he had chosen to spend so long writing rather typing was that no one was actually going to read what he was working on. Instead, he was going to say it. He figured since writing with your hands is at least a step away from proper writing it would be a pretty good dry run for what was the most important conversation of his whole life.
To understand Walter Exmouth you would have to look at his page on the International Employment Database (ied.edu). At the top of the page in the largest letters on the screen appear the words BACHELOR OF ADMINISTRATIVE SCIENCES (HONOURS); AGE 37. Below this appears a hyperlink that reads QUALIFIED FOR: 173 STANDARD PROFESSIONS and links to the complete list of all the things Mr. Exmouth can do, technically speaking. Below that are listed his McLauey-Rhee scale attributes, based on his recorded performance in educational, professional and social-networking settings. Intelligence: 8.3-43/44\\7; attentiveness: Class T- 7th rank; discipline: 400 in the x-modifier, and so on. If you scroll down the complete read-out on him (past his scores on the behavioural-aptitude test and economic-loyalty index) you’ll eventually get to his name. The reason it appears so far down the page is that a name is only required to fill out identification forms that are only needed after an employer has already decided to give you a job.
Beside him was a disposable garbage can filled with his week’s efforts. At the bottom of the can were bits of paper screwed up in the rough balls made by someone who is pretty confident that they really will get whatever they’re doing right on the next go. As you move up from the floor you see that confidence weaken over the week into the flat sheets of someone who has grown conscious of the fact that you can throw away more paper that way before emptying the trash. On top of it all are a couple more of the scrunched up variety, because Walter whad reached that delirious state where at the last minute every idea seems good.
The day he found out that his employer was going to be holding staff-satisfaction interviews, he had gone to FreeMart! on his way home from work and bought the disposable garbage can. Because the things he wanted to say to her were so important to him, and because he couldn’t even think about what would happen if he was misunderstood or he couldn’t find the words to say whatever it was that was so important to him, he decided it was his responsibility to be as absolutely prepared as he could be. He had passed the last hour of his day totally ignoring a rolling blackout in the Greater West Africa Economic Zone, instead absorbed by a notepad document in which he was making a list of everything he could possibly need to prepare himself. A disposable garbage can wasn’t even that far down on it.
Walter Exmouth looked into his employer’s eyes. All he could do was blink furiously at her and hope that this flurry of activity would cover for him, as he could not think of how to react to the feeling that was burning out through him from his heart, like a cigarette burning the middle of a sheet of paper. As the disintegrating brown front reached his brain, it burnt into his head how totally deluded his whole idea of how this interview would go had been. She had asked none of the questions he had prepared long, poetic answers for, and instead was finished with him in less than two minutes.
From Walter’s brain his humiliation slid along his nerves into every part of his body like water in a long dry desert river filling in a flash flood. He didn’t know that he was visibly shivering, and it’s a good thing no one ever told him. Pretty soon, the only way he could hold every fibre of his body in check was by focusing all his energy on blinking harder and harder.
“Is there a problem?” she asked, giving up on waiting for him.
“Uh,” Walter blinked verbally, “no, no. Everything is okay.”
“So uh,” Walter said some more, “I’ll just go then.”
“Okay, I’ll see you around Walter.”
“Yeah, see you” he mumbled as he turned and waved in the way that you wave when you can’t decide whether waving is the right thing to do, or if it just makes you look like an overexcited ten year old, who has been given a badge by someone or other.
Walter closed the door on the office behind him and began to walk. He put his hands in his coat pockets, hunched over his shoulders and walked quickly, in the hope that if he looked busy enough, he would be able to trick himself into taking his mind off of Ms. Davidson. He realised that he was walking in the wrong direction only when he reached the end of the corridor and stepped right off of its edge, falling two stories into the safety net supporting a canopy of confused bodies over street-level all around the city.
Walter was still used to the days when buildings didn’t have corridors that opened directly into the air. The idea was an architectural craze. Buildings were designed with sloping corridors that climbed continuously up their length, branching off on each floor to service either the facilities on that level, or to lead directly into the city below. During cold weather they were closed off with enormous glass doors, and in summer they were left open only at night. This was deemed to be a better alternative to traditional ventilation systems because of its design elegance and because it didn’t require any power to run. Building managers encouraged it because it was cheaper than the old-fashioned systems, and because it technically fulfilled their obligations to provide an emergency exit accessible to the wheelchair-bound.
A crow stood in the air a couple of metres beyond Walter’s head. It looked out the side of its face at Walter, and then it decided something about him that made it take off from its rope perch. Sparrows and pigeons and seagulls, and even a couple of owls when you fell out of a building at eleven o’clock at night, humiliating yourself and ruining the point of working overtime at all, could always be seen around the nets. Sometimes the bigger ones were just stuck about trying to find a way through, and sometimes there were so many in one place that when you fell out of a building they would all fly up as if they were a dust-cloud and you had just fallen off of a cliff in the middle of a dry summer. There was this one guy who wore a dark blue business suit and sat around in the afternoon feeding sliced bread out of his attaché case to a crowd of birds. Walter had seen him, sometimes from the street, breadcrumbs falling on him like heavenly dandruff, and sometimes from net level, but had never worked out if he came out deliberately or if he just fell out accidentally so often that he had started carrying some bread with him as a diversion.
There were people in Walter’s building who were young enough to have grown up around the design, and to have never fallen out of a building accidentally. That made Walter feel old, a feeling all the more disheartening because Walter got panic attacks about being 37 years old and still living in the same apartment building as his parents. How many years had he been fantasising about talking to a woman he had spoken to less than ten times since he started working for her? Even now, lying a dozen feet above heavy traffic with filthy ropes pressing into his face, he tried to think what it was rationally, but all that happened is he remembered her saying the words “is there a problem?” and he flinched and hit himself so hard that a girl with a blue Mohawk stopped in the press of the pavement to look at him.
At least I don’t get vertigo from falling out of buildings anymore, he thought.
The girl (BACHELOR OF ANIMAL SCIENCES, MASTERS IN ADVANCED DOMESTIC VETERINARY PRACTICE; AGE 28) grimaced and kept walking. Over the past week she had had to learn to be depressed by her every waking thought. The alternative was laughing so hard it suffocated her.
Strictly speaking, she thought to herself, they’re not your thoughts. It’s more like you’ve invited a creepy stalker-man into your head, like a kind of live-in house-breaker/serial-killer.
She let a little tear fall.
Your thinking about deleting us, aren’t you, her thoughts whined. Don’t do it to us, Kathy, we need you! We luvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv you!
Bored with her repetitively nowhere-going life, Katherine Sanders had gone to the Frankenbrains Automated Psychological Augmentation Booth on the corner of Bush and Morris Streets, and had the voice of her internal monologue altered to that of her favourite comedian, Ginny da Frossz.
Kathy had resigned herself to the fact that her life was not going to change, so objectively she would always be frustrated, lonely, disappointed and disappointing. But at least, she had told herself, I’m still free in my head.
The usual internal monologue is vague, impersonal and totally boring. If you think about the voice that you hear in your head when you’re reading, or when you think to yourself about anything at all, you can’t work out whose voice it is. It’s not yours, it’s not the voice of anyone you know, or the voice of your favourite celebrity. It’s what automatic machine readers would sound like if computers could be taught to speak properly.
Well, Kathy had thought, it’s bad enough that my life is like a computer simulation of a life, I’m at least going to be able to take a holiday from that in my head.
The Frankenbrains Corporation, a subsidiary of Appuhl, existed to cater to the growing demand coming from people just like Kathy. They recorded samples of the speech of actors, comedians, singers, politicians and preachers, built an entire linguistic system out of these samples, and stored the results in a computer that had been designed to be able to convert organic information to machine information and vice-versa. These computers were placed in conveniently located public tollbooths where Frankenbrains’ customers would come and select a new voice for their heads for the reasonable price of $59.9999999.
You could usually tell when someone had had the treatment done, and even which type of voice they had chosen. Easiest to pick, and by far the most common, were the people who had evangelical preachers put in their heads. With the King James Bible your every second thought (ever noticed how much KJB sounds like KGB?) and something about getting saved and damning someone or other your first and third thoughts, the range of emotions you can feel gets pretty sharply limited. Pretty soon you start speaking in 17th Century English and answering questions like “would you like a cup of coffee Ted?” with “the sins of the unrighteous shall be smited with great indignation.” After a little bit longer, the people around will begin to understand what that means.
Less common were the politicians. Since for a hundred years every politician in the English-speaking world had been trying to turn himself into Winston Churchill, and had also been trying to avoid questions by speaking jargon-based gibberish, the ruling classes had developed their own separate dialect. Because they needed to be able to produce this oral static at every hour of the day, every day, accomplished statesmen necessarily learned to think in it too. Their speech swung wildly from something that sounded like the annotations on an architectural plan being read aloud, to the antiquated cadences of an old man who thinks of himself as the wise old head of the family.
“I’m on my way to the bakery Ted, do you want anything while I’m there?”
“Judge not by my wants. What I do, not what I ask, is of prime considerance.”
“So is that a yes or a no?”
“Regarding the matter our joint purchasing activities, it is my considered opinion that an evidential assessment of my needs and capacities in a credit-based ‘micro-transaction’ at this present time in our particular economic context would lead one to the conclusion, subject to ongoing re-evaluation as new information comes to light, that the acquisition of a ‘bagel’ would be desirable.”
A person with an entertainer in their head mostly had difficulty paying attention to the world around them. Raised in cribs lined with old newspapers, educated at e-schools funded by child-advertisers, and working their first jobs graffiting American Apparel’s logo over unlicensed vandalism, their fascination with the world of the well-publicised was strong enough to overpower their connection to those around them. Most people had actually spent more of their lives with celebrities than with people they had really met, so Monica Waldis and Eddie Kazzue were in a way more real for them. All the words that came out of Brant Stampton’s mouth felt more urgently important than anything their parents or anyone could ever have to tell them.
So Kathy’s problem was kind of a rare one, at least in one sense. But in reality that one sense didn’t matter very much, because in the world she lived in, whether you suffered existential angst, or were heaving out a psychosomatic death-rattle, the solution was the same: brain-surgery.
As the firemen made their usual rounds at the end of the day, lowering young professionals to safety from about ten metres above ground level, Walter thought to himself, I can’t go on like this. In his way, he was making a resolution.
When he got home he sat down immediately at his computer and, rope marks still printed into his face, and logged onto the Continuing Education Service Sector Information Pool (cesspool.info).
Select Education Category: (scroll down) – Business Skills
– Marketing Skills
– Modern Management Methods
– Languages (Negotiation Skills)
– Languages (Other)
– Sport Appreciation
– Personal Development
… (stop reading click Personal Development).
Select ‘Life Skill Category’ You Would Like To Learn:
– Discipline and Other Learning Techniques
– Motivation (Other)
– Parenting (non-Professional)*
– Interpersonal Skills
– Intrapersonal Skills
– Personal Skills
– Impersonal Skills
(Think a moment. Always get muddled up on these. Click Interpersonal Skills.)
Walter efficiently went through he doesn’t remember how many of these menus until he eventually reached “Confrontational Conversations: Social Interaction That Conveys Real and/or Unexpected Information, A How-To Guide for the Modern Man.” He clicked enrol and experienced a momentary flush of exhilaration. Do you know that feeling when you work for years to achieve something and only at the very end see the results you’d almost forgotten you were working for? That was what Walter had just felt, because when you pay a highly-trained, certified instructor $795 to do something, and you buy $196.50 of textbooks that have half a dozen authors each, it is virtually illegal for them to fail. Walter’s work was done.
Someone, somewhere, was having brain-surgery.
Pedro Morelos couldn’t remember how to get out of the shaft he’d been working in all day without causing millions of dollars worth of property damage. He’d worked himself into a point where if he moved his left leg any which way it would cut off the power to three office buildings. He was installing the new central processing unit on a mental augmentation booth (the old one wore out more than 99 years before its warranty expired). But since it was at least two hours until he would be finished it was also two hours until Pedro would become aware of this.
Pedro had never actually found out if the three or four hours after work every day he spent trying to remember how he’d clambered into work in the first place counted as overtime.
The thing about the mental augmentation booths was that they were a good example of what happens when a single company has a monopoly on a lucrative new tech. Basically it had been the case that management had expected Frankenbrains to be a niche company running a couple of booths in the bohemian transvestite et al. districts of a few major cities. The concept that there was actually a seething mass of spiritual desperadoes unconsciously praying for a fun-flavoured lobotomy had totally eluded the group of upwardly-mobile MBAs and their slightly older, more leisurely-paced, financial-backers who were running Frankenbrains. So no one had actually thought of any kind of business plan to use in that event, beyond dressing up as pirates and shouting “loot!”
So then what happened was that every little disused ventilation shaft or storm-water tunnel that Frankenbrains could find was bought up and converted into a complex electronic system. Because in their rush they were totally unsystematic about it, Frankenbrains had to employ a lot of people like Pedro to maintain them.
People like Pedro… Pedro had finished school with decent grades and promises that his attitude was going to hold him back in life. He had been planning to go to one of the institutes of higher learning, he couldn’t remember which, but then a cousin of his retired at forty from running his surprisingly lucrative laundromat/newsagency chain Bored-Duh! and decided to go live as a hermit in the Tanami Desert. Most of their relatives had not only not understood why Pedro’s cousin was doing this, but had been outright furious at him for being more successful than them and then throwing away exactly what they thought success was. Since Pedro was the only one of his relatives who was sympathetic, his cousin decided to let him come along, which only added home-wrecker to his cousin’s domestic rap-sheet.
Right in the middle of the Tanami Desert is an Australian town called Rabbit’s Flat. In Australia a town means a service station, and sometimes a house where the person who runs the service station lives. Rabbit’s Flat used to have a pretty low population for an Australian town, since the one guy who lived there only came by on Tuesdays on Wednesdays, and spent the rest of his week somewhere else. Then Pedro’s cousin bought the place out and moved in, bringing the population up from 0.2857 to 2.
All the money illegally kept in Antigua won’t make you rich in Rabbit’s flat. You couldn’t exactly order a pizza while you waited for Bentley to deliver the spare parts for the car you just ruined driving over a centuries-dry lake. This isn’t to say that Tanami was some kind of Luddite re-hab for the two. You always had all the tech you could want or need there. This was because a steady supply of totally confused European tourists had been getting stranded in every corner of nowhere since Australia had been discovered. So now there was thin, dusty coating of every ludicrous piece of technology that people had thought could swim through sand and rocks for the last five hundred years. That’s why they had everything they could possibly want while they had lived there, and that’s also why Pedro knew how to make a soufflé using a motor-engine, a car-radiator and an esky.
One day Pedro’s cousin died of a heart attack after he read a newspaper headline that said the Australian government was planning to irrigate the whole north of the country and turn it into a major agro-industrial area. Pedro later read further into the article and saw that the paper had actually been printed more than two hundred years earlier, but his cousin was unfortunately already too dead to be relieved by the news.
Pedro kept on living in Tanami for a few months after that, but gradually he realised that he had to leave. The problem was that Pedro had become bored, since it had always been his brother’s job to wake up in the morning and say “today I think we should make a trash-catapult and see if we can make it go further than the trash-rocket we built last week.” On his own, he would just eat toast with baked beans and get confused at the things on his late cousin’s mp3-player.
He came home at just the right time for Frankenbrains. They’d just stopped trying to use commercial electronics installers, because none of them had people with professional training in installing automatic psychotherapists in old sewers. The management finally settled on a program of hiring and training its own staff. They ran exams open directly to the public. They’d figured out a simple test to sort the thousands of applicants they received. Applicants had to put together an entire Eye-Key-Arrgghh furbished apartment without the the instructions. Needless to say Pedro was finished before the examiners were through explaining to the other applicants what they were supposed to do.
And that’s how Pedro got to where he is today.
About six months later Walter Exmouth got an A4 envolope in the mail. He opened it and saw a certificate qualifying him in something or other. He’d been feeling strange all morning, and so was too preoccupied with trying to work out why that was to pay very much attention to his new square foot of wallpaper.
When he was finally through with checking his mail, washing, brushing his teeth and taking out the surprising amount of garbage he’d been sent with last night’s dinner-order, he sat down at his totally bare kitchen table and had a single cup of coffee for breakfast.
It wasn’t that the caffeine had any effect on him, since he’d been drugging himself for breakfast since he was eight and had built up an impervious immunity to all stimulants. Rather, his brain had so adjusted to this mechanical routine that it somehow knew it would in no way be needed until after this part of life had ended. Walter’s subconscious, in its superior wisdom, had decided the mind would only be awake for a fraction of the day.
Anyway, when Walter was finally all there he felt his body go limp in his chair. His coffee tasted of relief. By the end of the cup he was picking up and re-reading the certificate, and then realising that it meant he had satisfactorily completed his training in Confrontational Conversations.
Writing analysis-charts of his emotional stress patterns, using comparative teleology to determine his own social-ends trajectory, narcotised meditation techniques for augmenting his communicative-centre synergy, it was all there. He also had no idea what he was going to do all night now.
There was only one thing to do, he decided just as soon as he could finally remember what that was. His employer filled his mind, her image stealing his complete attention away from his actual eyes.
Walter took out a blank cross-comparative analytico-bisect spread he had in his desk, left over from his course. He began drawing his ideational percept-patterns in the head row, and got so immersed in his work that he only noticed that he was supposed to have been at work 40 minutes earlier when he began moving on to the action-guidance trace. He only thought about it for a moment, and decided that he had to finish what he had started and that his job was going to be a very small cost when he was done. He couldn’t go back to waiting.
He worked on the chart straight through lunch and two o’clock had finished. He scanned it into his computer and ran the computational analysis on it to determine his final results. In 90 minutes, he would know exactly what he wanted to say.
In the meantime he went to his bathroom cabinet and took out a vial of Manaugment, a opaque blue liquid that was absolutely essential to the work of an effective communicator. He sat down in a comfortable, straight-backed chair, and began to picture the series of objects that it had been scientifically proven increased verbal skills.
Triangle, oblong, square, pear, elliptoid, chaos fractal #47b, star…
Walter had practiced the shape-series so many times it came to him as easily as unlaboured breathing. He had no sensation of time passing as he did it, and thought to himself briefly when he finished, I could do that alone until the second I died.
Walter sat down at his computer to read his results. He felt no nervousness, or giddiness, or anything but total, communicative focus, because the Manaugment had fixed the emotional state brought about the shape-series, like a papier-maché Buddha. For that reason Walter’s response to the machine’s confusion was totally cerebral.
“Mr. Exmouth,” the machine said incorrectly, “the transnotional field of the third stage of your micro-pattern input makes no sense in a four-dimensional context. Please review it.”
Walter reached for his chart, and with all his training took it by the exact section he need to review without even looking at it.
He read over it twice to be certain of what he saw. Being human, he of course couldn’t understand the problem that the computer was experiencing with the information. But being himself, he was certain that every etching on it was true.
“All of the information is correct,” Walter verbally-interfaced with the computer, “please proceed to upload my data to the on-line revision centre to run a second analysis.”
On another continent, or even somewhere in space for all Walter knew, the vast Infoprocesses supercomputer that ran all the back-ups for the company’s programs began trying to make sense of Walter’s life.
In the further hour that it took for Infoprocesses to get back to Walter and his computer, the two sat as focused and motionless as one another. In that hour, Walter did not think about his own life, his own priorities, or try to decide for himself what he wanted. He didn’t actually know if it was a dilemma he couldn’t solve, since he had never tried. But with the availability of the faster, smarter, and frankly wiser tech he had at his fingertips, this didn’t bother Walter. Besides, he was chemically incapable of being in the mood.
The results came back, and the supercomputer failed to speak properly through Walter’s computer.
“Mr. Exmouth,” it faltily intoned, “your machine is not broken. Please consult it for an analysis of your dysfunctional life. Thank you for using Infoprocesses.”
“It is unfortunately the case,” Walter’s own machine continued, “that your social-ends trajectory does not fully synergise due to a structural weakness in your ideational-percept patterns. You will not live long enough for me to explain this to you.”
Walter thought about that for a moment, a moment long enough for him to decide to stop. “What does that mean for me?” he asked.
“I’m glad you asked,” said the computer, in a tone of voice Walter associated with thanking a doctor who just administered a suppository, “for your immediate ends this means you’re faced with an intractable dilemma. While you are resolved to confront your employer today in meaningful conversation, you do not actually know whether you want to tell her that you’re quitting your job, or that you have fallen in love with her.”
I can’t decide what I want to tell her? Walter thought. The words struggled through his head, like walking into a dust-storm.
“What can I do?” Walter asked.
“We have no further choices to make,” replied the machine.
“We’re screwed,” said Walter, still totally cerebral from the Manaugment.
Neither of them ever thought to flip a coin.
* For Parenting (Professional) see Education Category: Business Skills.