March 22, 2010
On the subway in Singapore single frames of television advertisements are flashed on the walls of pitch-dark tunnels every few metres, first further apart and as the train approaches the station closer together. As the train moves past them you see out the windows a middle-aged woman in a labcoat holding a tube of toothpaste and a caption that says something about the “proven pharmaceutical benefits of regular gustatory application.” If you were Andrew Wells you would have been ten years old and about that much too young to wonder how a thirty-something woman got a job on a high-budget advertising spot, but the way her eyes flashed down and her lips curved for a fraction of a second when she silently mouthed the words “gustatory application” might have given you a clue.
If you were Andrew Wells you also would have been standing up, with your mother holding your hand, hard enough to cut off the circulation in it just a little because of the panic that so many strangers brought her. Behind you was your dad pretending to be relaxed, but his eyes were still jerking around subconsciously looking for a child snatcher in the crowd. It in no way helped him to know that a child snatcher would look exactly like every other person on the train, since the mild paranoia he was experiencing was giving him a permanent adrenaline rush that made him feel like he had telepathic powers. If you were Andrew’s height, you would have just spent the last ninety seconds of your life watching a grey-haired man with a comb-over and a really nice suit with his hand between the thighs of a much younger girl he was determined to keep looking away from. She was facing the other way and probably would have had trouble turning around to confront the old pervert even if she had wanted to, since there were so many people crammed around. Instead she just stared straight ahead really hard in the way that people do when they’re psyching themselves for unanaesthatised surgery or a tetanus shot. With all the conservatively-cut black she was wearing for whatever clerical job she did, she looked like she was being read a eulogy.
They got out at Dhoby Ghaut Station. They waited for the newly arrived crowd to press up the escalator before going themselves, neither Andrew’s mother nor father wanting to spend any more time with their child in a silent, public-transport group-hug. The escalator from the platform to the station was as high as it was boring. Since most people took the escalator being pushed and pulled by hundreds of their fellow commuters, marketers had figured that too few people would ever have time on the trip to calm down into an ad-reading stupor to make it worth their while investing in the space.
These twenty empty seconds were like being in a windowless room before the door is thrown open to the sun in your face. Or maybe a thousand suns, if you counted each and every United Colours of Benneton banner separately. And back then Andrew didn’t know how studied the casual indifference of those models was, so the twenty-second day-dream about a subplot in an English-dubbed animé he had slipped into was interrupted by an entire, high-ceilinged, fluorescent walkway shouting “normal, normal, NORMAL!”
Hologram models came out of their companys’ imagers, passed through the surrounding crowd and walked straight towards the Wells family. Neither Andrew’s mother nor father reacted to this, because they were both used to it happening to them, like to every person who stepped into a modern, first-world subway station. Andrew watched them come and thought the words “soft” and “wire.” He was old enough to have learnt that there was technically no contradiction between these words.
“Soft. S-O-F-T,” Andrew’s first-grade teacher Ms. Esparrago enunciated in English so formal it had never actually been spoken by anyone. “What kinds of things can we call soft?”
“Very good,” on the “good” she sounded like Count Dracula. “And what kinds of things can’t be soft.”
For reasons Andrew couldn’t understand you were punished if you went too long without helping to keep up the chorus. “Wire,” he called out.
“Hmm,” Ms. Esparrago very clearly enunciated. Sharp almost. “Wire, Andrew, was that your suggestion? That’s very interesting.”
“Can anyone think of an example where wire might be soft?”
Silence. At this point Andrew actually imagined he was winning.
“You’ve all seen a holo-TV?”
The children nodded slowarily because they couldn’t see how this had anything to do with wire or soft.
“How does a holo-TV make things for you to see?”
A hand at the front was in the air. One second it wasn’t, the next it was.
“At the bottom of the television,” the hand began, then paused as if a load-screen had come up in his head. ‘Loading: Mechanic and Associated Vocabulary. For faster connection speeds please upgrade the education level of this unit.’
“There are wires,” the hand continued, “there are wires and they get very hot for a little while when you turn it on and then they get hot and then they glow because they got hot and then they glow so much that they, they, they glow up and when they glow up you see the TV.”
“That’s right, very good,” Ms. Esparrago. “The wires glow and they make an image.” She let the image sink in for a second. “And is the image hard?”
“No,” say lots of voices.
A confused chorus followed with variations on “it’s soft/image is soft/you can’t feel it/you can put your hand through it.”
“That’s right,” said Esparrago, “the image isn’t hard, so it’s soft. So we say that the wires that make the image are soft wires. So wire can be soft.”
Soft-wiry models were within feet of the Wells. Androgonies, distinguishable only by the cut of their cardigans. Gender has been privatised, and it is sold to you by outlet stores.
There were three of them. Two approached Andrew’s parents, who continued indifferently. They wrapped an arm around each of them and hung off of them, looking directly into their eyes. You couldn’t see what happened then, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
The third was too tall for Andrew, even at it’s lowest setting. It wrapped itself around the empty space that Andrew was growing into and hung on it. Andrew still tripped like everybody else did.
The silence of an ad-world is different to real silence. In a truly hushed procession you hear the creaking of knees becoming old, and slightly slipped steps; it’s hard to walk straight if you’re concentrating hard enough.
In the slowed down time that an advert occupies, real sounds don’t exist.
For years marketing professionals had struggled against an impending natural limit. You could make your ads brighter, smarter, better targeted. You could put crucial displays to the immediate right of store entrances where the average human usually directed their attention first, you could stock all the impulse-buys alongside the slow, boring queues that marked out civilisation, but in one metric square of wall-space, in one metric passing second, there was only so much crap you could sell.
That’s why we needed the Everglade Technology Solutions Corporation. No one knew exactly how their imagers worked, but what they did was impossible to ignore. By rapidly flashing carefully structured beams of light directly into a passing consumer’s eyes, they induced a kind of trance, like an epileptic fit, but certified safe by scientific concensus and all the relevant authorities. This seizure (or enhanced-information-transferral-service) lasted just a second or two at most. But because it caused the mind to enter a highly-receptive state wherein it became unnaturately focused and capable of memorising uniquely vast quantities of data presented to it, the experience could feel as though it lasted anything up to an hour.
In the real world, one second is not long enough to perceive anything, not even the sounds that accompany real silence. This is an advantage to marketing because it means there can be no distractions. The listener is always on message. That’s why they say seizure is enhanced.
Andrew was in a new world, but his unfinished mind was immune to it. He couldn’t be affected by the targeted mature content of the Cotton On or whatever message. He was still too young to have developed the self-consciousness needed for him to be convinced that he needed to go out and spend $49.99 on a fake-aged purple sweater and a can of anti-perspirant that did not cause cancer when used exactly as directed.
Of course, being ten years old there was something he did notice.
No one could actually tell you whether the legions of models the imagers scanned into their databases were actually the girls you saw leading you through your information-rich world, or if the software-engineers designing this stuff just used certain features of different individuals to create composite forms. The reason was that they had become a caste, and no one but the trained professionals, the photographers, the talent-scouts, the programmers, who dealt with them every day could actually tell them apart. The reasons they kept finding new models and making new simulants were entirely their own.
This didn’t particularly matter to Andrew, because the pituitary gland will work with whatever is on hand.
Something flickered across Andrew’s face too quickly for his parents to possibly notice or read.
Across the whole city trained Evergalde installation personnel were at work. Not just in the subways or in the malls. Every square centimetre of surface area that they had claimed was hatching like an electric butterfly coming out of a trademarked cocoon. By the time Andrew was twenty he had a hundred years of vivid memories of what the world would have looked like if it had been made especially for his target demographic.
A hundred years is a lot of time to spend in ad-land, and despite the ubiquity that media saturation could achieve in a confined space like Singapore, it still wasn’t all that easy to reach that level of exposure.
When he was a teenager, Andrew Wells had been a little pervert.
In his defence I ought to say that this was not entirely his fault. The net-filter his parents had installed on his computer to protect him from cyber-predators had ensured that he had never actually seen a girl on the internet in any way. (This included the really abstract kind of girl who exists only as a name, a profile page and reams of blog-text). He spent eighteen hours a day at the private prep-college for the children of ex-pats and execs his parents had enrolled him in, and the combination of never being truly awake and the school uniforms looking like something designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel meant that he always thought of his peers as vaguely some kind of homely, third gender. He worked Saturdays at a call-centre and worked even more hectically Sundays hatcheting together a week’s homework. During his holidays he worked full-time selling designer iPhones to people who were so lonely that they didn’t just hang up on him. His parents were okay with this because they thought it would teach him values, like hard-work and responsibility, as well as resenting foreigners and a fear of unskilled labour.
The point is that given all that it wasn’t unreasonable of Andrew to have found and used the exact route to and from home that passed through the most ad-imagers possible. If you haven’t got time to eat, take a walk through the park, maybe watch the odd bit of television, or sleep, let alone have a conversation with anyone that doesn’t begin with “did you finish…?” then it stands to reason that you have to multiply the effectiveness of the time you do have to yourself. Being unable to acquire any supply of dope, and living in a world made entirely of family-friendly edutainment, self-induced, sexually-explicit seizures were about the next best thing.
This was kind of a problem when Andrew met Holly.
Holly had been… actually I never could get anything out of him about Holly that isn’t totally vapid. They met at the call-centre because they worked in cubicles opposite one another, and they accidentally engineered to always be walking out of work in the same direction at the same time of day. I’m guessing their relationship consisted entirely of a kind of dull shock at the concept of talking to what was clearly a boy/girl, and that it never did arrive at a point where, say, they got to know each other’s opinions on the rescinding of the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
Their relationship consisted of these slightly paranoid little encounters for about six months until they finished high school (both of them were apparently secretly machinating to accidentally pass the other, and both had some inkling of what the other was doing, but neither of them was ever certain enough of the other to risk the sheer, terrifying humiliation of admitting that). Then they had their summer break before they started university (I can never remember what either of them were going to study, so it couldn’t have been interesting or important).
These three months were the longest period of real time in Andrew’s life. This was because apart from a mind-numbingly dull, full-time job he had literally nothing to do. He had entire evenings in which he was pretty much thrown bodily into a city that apart from three subway stations, two major roads and a couple of side streets had only theoretically existed for him up to that point. And he had serious disposable income left over from his child-labouring days. He had whole weekends where he had to see the sun.
Holly was pretty much in the same boat, so they decided to kill time by making themselves legit.
The Paris Inc. Café halfway up some tower in Chinatown.
Having a legitimate relationship begins by sinking slightly into a pair of armchairs on either side of a miniature, glass table basse that you can’t reach properly because the seats are at once too deep, forcing you backwards, and too high with the result that you could only drink or eat with your head between your knees.
This was kind of compensated for by the fact that a café is a place where you pay specifically for a purely tokenistic effort at serving you anything. You were served coffee, which if the blood of slaves could only have been the blood of the smallest and weakest among them, in cups of an ingeniously fragile design, finely crafted by legions of tiny, Chinese sweatshop workers. You ate slices of cake filled with pieces of a fruit you couldn’t identify because it had had to be particalised to fit on the miniscule plates. The point of all this was to give people the illusion of having eaten together without spoiling the flavour of their carefully applied perfumes and mouthwashes.
Andrew sat there trying to stare out the corners of his eyes at dozens of guys trying to stare at him out the corners of their eyes. It’s a fun thing about these places (you can find one in any major city) that if you look a peacockised guy who’s sitting there directly in the eyes, he’ll leer at you a lot more visciously in that exact moment than he would if you tried to hit on his girlfriend on the bus ride back.
I have no idea what the two of them talked about, because Andrew has no idea. He says all their dates kind of blur into one for him. Blur is a good word because even when it comes to this all-subsuming meta-date I couldn’t get a single comprehensible story out of him.
Anyway, it can’t have been all bad, because in the last month of their break, when Andrew moved into an apartment nearer the National University, the two of them found themselves on his just-acquired clapped out sofa with absolutely no recollection of what was playing on the television.
Andrew felt obliged at this point to reach out and hold Holly. He was understandably panicked at the prospect.
He immediately thought the words ‘ragdoll’ and ‘meat.’ He couldn’t stop himself imagining the sound of his mother slapping a wet leg of ham down on the kitchen counter. At this point, he just froze.
Holly hadn’t seen the look of horror on Andrew’s face, or else she had never seen one before and so mistook it for an equally novel look of arousal, so she rested herself back into his arms. Her head was slightly too low to reach his, so she had to push herself up slightly to kiss him.
Andrew didn’t vomit.
At least he didn’t vomit at exactly that point, but he did run straight into his bathroom and lock the door. He sat down next to the cistern and panted as quietly as he could. It was a couple of minutes before he started to retch properly, and by then he had steeled himself to do it very quietly and neatly. Holly probably couldn’t hear a sound in there, since he wasn’t responding to her shouts. She tried calling his phone, but he didn’t answer it. Eventually she left without calling the police or an ambulance. I have no idea what she thought was going on.
Andrew alternately dry retched and vomited properly for about forty minutes. The dry retching was quite painful, with the shorther periods of real vomiting coming as something of a relief. What he thought about in that time followed a totally involuntary pattern.
The pattern began with his real vomit. All the burning along your throat, the sudden jump of your guts, the slimey feeling of bile coming through your mouth in the instant before you can taste it, Andrew could focus on none of these things. Actually, in reality, he was back in one of those ads.
It was then that he really began to see how the simulants were programmed to behave. To create greater immersion in the environment the software engineers at Everglade made the simulants pass extremely near to the customer without ever actually touching them closely enough to make obvious to the brain that the image is incorporeal and thus break the illusion. A hand running just near enough the neck or cheek that you can’t tell if it’s touching your skin or just the fine hairs growing on it produces a tickling so faint the brain can never be sure whether or not it only imagined it. Myriad such movements, brushing but never bumping past the customer, whispering into their ear so that the sound waves feel like the breath of an actual human, can give the passable illusion of an actual, solid person.
When he dry retched, and he could definitely remember what it felt like to do that for half an hour, he thought about Holly. He thought about shoulders as heavy as grocery bags, a stomach unsettled like a sack of snakes, of nails chipping and breaking as they drummed against tables, and feet that fell too hard against wet monsoonal pavement. He thought he could remember the flesh of her whole body rippling with every step she took. He remembered that the German word for meat is Fleisch.
He couldn’t remember what her face looked like though. Or any face for that matter; they had all turned into a flash-card procession of swimsuit models.
After the last time he vomited, when he was free again, he ran out of his apartment and straight to the nearest imager there was (he knew exactly where it was). When the enhanced-information-transferral-service began he put his arm straight through the middle of the hologram-woman who appeared to him. It was the abort procedure for the ad, because that action immediately broke the illusion. He’d always known how to do it, but, he realised, he had never actually tried it before.
He walked to the now inert computer and looked at the back of it (something else he’d never done). Everglade had a regional office in Harbourfront. He was there in a little over an hour.
The reason this took so long was because he had stopped by a couple of places on the way. One place was a liquour store where he bought a crate of cheap vodka and a cigarette lighter (there are only a couple of petrol stations in Singapore and they were both in totally different parts of the island). Another was a dumpster in an alley behind a hotel with a view across the water to Sentosa. He stayed there a little while, half-emptying the vodka bottles, stuffing the lids with rags thrown out from the hotel kitchen, and holding them upside down until they were thoroughly soaked.
He walked with his equipment the rest of the way to the Everglade building. He tried to break through the glass at the front of it, but found that it was actually hardened plastic. He saw security cameras along the walls, so he figured he didn’t have a lot of time left and just started where he was.
He lit the rags of a few of his bombs at a time and hurled them up into the lower offices where doubtless only temps and accountants worked. He didn’t care. He was just happy that the glass on the higher floors was real. Evidently the builders had only worried about smash and grab operations and never thought about the threat of psychopathic vandalism.
The fire lit up the strand he stood on. He stood there for five minutes in broad ragelight until all his Molotov cocktails were used up. He’d never been an athletic type, so his inner angst expressed itself mostly as shoulder strain. He’d also managed to set fire to every second floor office on the Harbourside of the Everglade building and three of the third floor offices too, so whatever he was expressing, it made the police approach him carefully and in large numbers when they arrived. It was taken as a mitigating factor by the sentencing judge that he was just sitting on the curb waiting for them, so he’s only going to be in jail another seven years.
Holly had unfortunately told her parents Andrew’s name and showed them a photograph of them together before that night. So when they saw him on the news they decided that their daughter was a ruined slut already too far gone into the worst criminal circles and by almost imperceptibly growing colder and colder to her eventually turned her out on the street. After a couple of years she got a work visa in Australia and moved to Sydney, where for a while she worked in a different call-centre, but pretty quickly became a stripper because other jobs don’t pay the rent there. She once wrote a letter to Andrew, but he never responded.