Gone Like the Bison

by Matt Goldberg, USA

            Sam’s fingers went double-time on the keyboard. Lines of multicolored sentences popped into existence—bits of code—arranged in just the right way to build wonders. On the screen, the creations of her brain unfolded and bloomed to life. Then, of course, Sam received a buzz from her calendar, completely mucking up her focus.

            She switched over to the calendar to see what the buzz meant, only to find that her Mentor Powwow was happening in five minutes. It was all the way over in the Relationship Room at the other end of the building. Sam scratched her head, and tiny white flakes fell onto the keyboard. She quickly brushed them off, hiding the evidence.

            Rising from the workstation, Sam adjusted her sweatpants. She hadn’t remembered to dress formally for the Mentor Powwow. Claire, Sam’s Mentor, would notice.

            “You know, Sammie, you could’ve put some effort into it,” Claire would say.  

            Sam hated being called Sammie. She preferred Sam. It was more to the point. She’d prefer ‘S’ if that were an option. But people would make snotty comments. 

            Sam strode through the glossy halls of her workplace, footsteps echoing. Vast windows on either side showed off the majestic rolling hills of the Utique office complex. The company was doing quite well, in no small part thanks to Sam and the other top-tier programmers. Utique could afford to stock the grounds with herds of American bison, some of the last bison on earth. They were all clones of each other, genetically engineered to withstand the toxic air quality outside. Wild animals had practically gone extinct in their natural habitats. Luckily, on Utique’s cloistered campus, it was still very scenic. One could barely tell the earth was dying. All things considered, it was a good place to be.

            Sam spotted a pair of bison that wandered up to the windows. The bison were always less scenic up close. They were often thin and sickly, and, because of their lack of genetic diversity, were prone to parasitic infection. These particular bison illustrated that fact. They had large, watery eyes and long faces, as if they were perennially traumatized. Their bodies were covered in lesions. While the bison were somewhat resistant to the outdoor toxins, they were not immune. Utique had to restock the bison every couple of months. By contrast, the inside-air smelled of cut grass and wildflowers. Utique pumped the halls so full with the scent that sometimes Sam liked to imagine the windows were open.

            As the bison continued their slow demise, Sam reached the Relationship Room, which featured interactive glass walls, burgundy undertones, and suede furniture. Her palms got stupidly sweaty, slick and clammy as if slathered with chilled butter. At the Mentor Powwow, Sam would finally get feedback on her newest algorithm. She gave all her algorithms pet names. Sam dubbed her latest one “Nudge” because it always knew just the right incentive to get customers to purchase a product. R&D had been market-testing Nudge for nearly a month. Sam thought Nudge could be a game-changer for sales conversions. If Sam was right, that could mean a huge promotion. She wouldn’t be expendable any more.

            Scanning her card, Sam steadied herself. The door sprung open, and, immediately, she saw the mood was all wrong. Claire was already inside, sitting cross-legged. Her straight blond hair was pulled all the way back. It looked like she had a headache.

            Claire smiled a tight smile. “Hey Sammie, why not sit down?”

            Sammie. It made her bristle.

            Claire patted the other side of a custom-made Utique chair. The chair was shaped like a U and had no armrests. Pallid light shone in via the roof-window above them. The sun was covered in smog. Sam sat down across from Claire. Their legs almost touched.

            Claire coughed into her closed fist. “Allergies,” she explained.

            Sam assumed Nudge had flopped big time. She felt her gut drop and imagined herself getting sucked up through the skylight, trapped outside with the doomed bison.

            “So, everything’s great,” Claire said. “Everything’s stellar.” She uncrossed, then re-crossed her legs. “Your algorithm,” Claire added. “It’s incredible.”

            Sam allowed herself to relax.

            “Conversion went up ninety percent during testing,” Claire said, stone-faced.

            “Seriously?” Sam asked. “Ninety percent is unheard of.”

            Claire didn’t respond. She just opened up a video on the interactive wall.

            It was a recording of a market research group. There were ten background-diverse people sitting in front of computers. On their screens were checkout carts with the various goods they’d planned to buy over the next week. One by one, Nudge predicted exactly what would be in the carts. The video showed each person’s reaction.

            “Did it read my mind?” said a man in loose jeans and a camouflage vest.

            “Spooky,” said an urban teen in a beanie.

            “Holy crap,” said a mother holding a toddler.

            The recording ended.

            Claire grinned at Sam. “Given a set of parameters and data inputs, this thing can predict extremely complex consumer behavior. Well done.”

            Sam responded with a long exhale, air escaping like a slowly deflating balloon. It was even better than she could’ve hoped. She tried to hold back a smile. “What’s next?”

            “There’s now a staffing question,” Claire replied.

            “Oh?” Sam asked. The promotion felt within reach. She’d finally get to move out of the shabby Utique campus housing. She’d get her very own cottage in Gardenia, the gated community for C-suite personnel. It was where the indispensable people lived.

            “I mean layoffs,” Claire said. “If Nudge works like we think it will, we won’t need website maintenance. We won’t need a consumer-facing platform.”

            Sam’s eyes widened, fear crawling up her throat. “You’re firing me?”

            “No,” Claire replied. “Of course, not. We need you. Your algorithm could revolutionize the way we do business here at Utique. That’s something we reward. Everyone else, however, is not so special. With Nudge, they’ll be redundant.”

            Sam didn’t know how to feel. Nudge would get her everything she’d ever wanted, but the price was mass layoffs. She calculated how many Utiquers would lose their jobs. Most of the programmers, all the designers, a lot of the marketing team. HR would be downsized, obviously, and then the caterers and janitorial staff. They’d all be evicted from campus housing. They’d become refugees. Some of them had families.

            Claire leaned in closer to Sam. The pale sun illuminated her face in a whitish glow. She appeared angelic, luminous. In truth, she was the opposite.

            “Sammie, if you were able to further optimize your algorithm, we could find a spot in the C-suite. This is a big opportunity. Nudge can predict consumer desires with pinpoint accuracy, which begs the question: what else can it do? You may have created an oracle.”

            Sam blinked a few times. She tried to wrap her head around all this new information. Layoffs. Promotions. Oracles. This would change her life. She wanted to throw up.

#

            Sam returned to her workstation. To concentrate, she placed Blotters in her ears. She needed silence. No distractions. She needed to see what Nudge could do.

            Sam inputted some new code. It expanded Nudge’s capability to predict outcomes beyond Utique customer purchases. What did Sam want to know? What would Utique want to know? Stock performance. As the world toxified, stocks prices kept up their steady growth, insulated from the real economy—the stagnant wages, the global migrant crisis, the destruction of the natural world. Sam fed Nudge vast quantities of data from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Nudge could now assess company filings and annual reports.

            Sam waited until Nudge was done processing. A few seconds.

            Then Nudge spat out predictions for future stocks prices, and, more importantly, it also spat out expectations of past performance. If the forecasts matched up with reality, there was a high degree of likelihood that future performance would also be relatively accurate.     Nudge was right on the money. Ninety-eight percent consistent with what actually occurred. It was a sports gambler’s dream. And nightmare. Nudge would take away all the suspense, all the fun. Sam stared at the screen, at the prophetic graphs. She wondered whether Nudge’s predictions would be akin to insider trading. Whoever got their hands on Nudge would grow rich. With the right amount of data what couldn’t Nudge predict?

            Against her better judgement, Sam turned to face Antonio, her desk neighbor who himself had Blotters in his ears. Sam and Antonio were hired within a few weeks of each other, before the housing crisis and the Great Dislocation. He was technically senior. The poor guy had no idea what was about to happen to him. She pictured Antonio’s face growing red once Claire called him into the Relationship Room. She saw tears trickle down onto his polo as he tried to plead his case. Utique was Antonio’s life. He stayed late at the office every night. His kids were enrolled in the Utique daycare. It would upend him. Someone like Antonio wouldn’t last long at the Employment Processing Facility. If he didn’t find work within a month, his children would starve. He would no longer be a productive member of society. He would be worthless. But it wasn’t just Antonio. It wasn’t just Utique. Countless employees would be displaced by Nudge’s elegant and indifferent predictive power.

            Sam dislodged the Blotters from her ears and pitched them onto the gleaming white desk. Her code sat idle on the screen. She couldn’t bring herself to work.

            She didn’t know what to do. If Nudge displaced millions of workers, she would be culpable. Could she enjoy her cottage in Gardenia knowing Nudge was responsible for the demise of, potentially, millions of people? Did she even have a choice in the matter? Then she realized: Nudge would know. Nudge would know exactly what she would do.

            Sam provided Nudge with access to her personal data—her social media accounts, her email messages, her health info, and her astrological symbol (in case that somehow mattered). Then she inputted code that allowed her to ask Nudge a question directly, as if she were talking to an actual person. Nudge seemed less soulless that way.

            What should I do with you?

            Nudge answered: ERROR.

            Sam understood the issue right away. She’d asked a question with a value statement. Should. Nudge was neutral. It couldn’t comment on whether something should or shouldn’t happen. It predicted only what would or could happen.

            What will I do with you?

            Nudge answered: Nothing.

            Nothing?

            Sam frowned. Surely, she would do something. She couldn’t do nothing—that would be a paradox. Sam considered her options. She could take a stand against Utique by deleting Nudge. She could try to explain the danger that Nudge represented—that it would undermine the economy. Perhaps Nudge wasn’t a perfect predictor. It might make incorrect forecasts that led the markets astray. Worse, Nudge could be too accurate, removing all uncertainty, and with it, all value. Alternatively, she could keep finagling with Nudge’s code. She could make its predictive skills even more prescient. She could retire to her cottage in Gardenia and live the life of leisure. She’d be respected. She’d be invited to all the good parties. Or she could neuter Nudge’s ability. Make Nudge good at predicting, but not clairvoyant. That might be a good compromise. Of course, it would only delay the inevitable.

            But nothing? Nothing was a non-answer. Evidently, there was a limit to Nudge’s abilities. It couldn’t take into account free will. It didn’t know her completely. It didn’t have perfect information. Her brain was her own. She had to make the decision for herself.

            To help deliberate, Sam walked over to Utique’s Meditation Chamber, a wood-floored room filled with mirrors and eucalyptus-scented candles. A stretch might do her good, clear her mind, get her closer to making a smart decision—a decision she could live with. On the way to the Chamber, Sam once again passed by the windows. In the distance, she saw a disturbing sight: a field of dead bison. She saw a number of Utique Bison Handlers in their orange hazmat suits weaving through the corpses. At least they wouldn’t be laid off. Some jobs were simply essential. Somebody had to dispose of the bodies.

            Once in the Chamber, Sam stretched away her apprehensions. She was glad she’d worn the sweatpants after all. It gave her more flexibility.

            Eventually, as she went through the Sun Salutation yoga poses, Sam came to a decision. She would attempt the compromise option. She would tell Claire that Nudge was indeed a whiz at predicting consumer behavior, but still needed tweaking to predict beyond the specific parameters of the Utique shopping experience. This would, unfortunately, lead to downsizing at Utique, but at least it wouldn’t cause economy-wide repercussions, mass layoffs. It wouldn’t fundamentally change the world. At least not yet. Given that Nudge was a neutral entity, Sam felt she would be the most benevolent steward of its evolution. Sam knew she had a good heart, a kind soul. She would do what she could to protect people, but there was no reason to sacrifice her own future—all the work she’d done—at the altar of morality. And what good would deleting Nudge do anyway? Utique backed up all their information. They surely had copies of Nudge’s code. While it wasn’t the most righteous choice, Sam felt confident that it was at least the fairest, the most efficient. That wasn’t nothing.

#

            On her walk over to the Relationship Room for a follow-up meeting with Claire, Sam saw another dead bison lying on its side, pressed up against the window, tumors all over its body. The bison’s DNA—its code—had been corrupted by the ultraviolet rays of the sun.

            “What a shame,” Sam said. Utique’s policy was to report a dead bison right away. They determined the sight of a dead bison was bad for employee morale.

            Sam called it in and inspected the corpse closer. She crouched down next to the bison’s shaggy, tumor-ridden head. Sam wasn’t able to detect the sickness or decay, just the normal, pleasant scent of the wildflowers and cut grass, and the chill of the glass window.

            She caught the bison’s dead eyes, light squeezed out of them. It was not what she wanted to see right before what was likely the most important meeting of her life.  

            Sam took a breath. She left the bison behind and entered the Relationship Room. Claire was already there, staring at something on the interactive walls. She flicked the image away. “Take a seat,” she said.

            Sam sat down.  

            Claire remained standing. “How are you?”

            “I’m okay,” Sam said.

            “Have you made any progress on Nudge?” Claire asked.

            Sam nodded. She’d practiced her speech in the mirror. “Yes, Nudge is very impressive. It’ll change the way business is done at Utique.”

            Claire smiled. Her teeth were straight and glistening. While they were pleasant to look at, their perfection was almost uncanny. “Anything else to note?” she asked.

            “A few things, actually,” Sam said. “I expanded Nudge’s prediction parameters and did some preliminary assessments. It looked promising, but accuracy wasn’t strong just yet. I’d need some more time on it. Hopefully that’s okay?”

            “How much time do you think?” Claire asked.

            “Hard to say. Nudge is a dynamic algorithm. It learns quickly. But I’m not sure I can give you a firm date at the moment. Sort of a wait-and-see situation.”

            Claire’s smile gave way to a deadpan stare. “How about you ask Nudge when it’ll be ready? Or you could ask Nudge for some other advice, perhaps.”

            Sam’s breath caught in her throat. “I don’t know what you mean.”

            “Sammie, we looked into your tests,” Claire said. “Nudge does appear promising. Perhaps a bit more than you’re letting on? But no matter, I’m sure you weren’t trying to fool us. You’ve always been upfront haven’t you, Sammie?”

            Sam knew then that she’d made a mistake. Utique had secretly observed her investigations, tracked her every keystroke. They understood what Nudge could do. And they couldn’t trust her now. Trust was the basis of the employer/employee relationship—the whole point of the Relationship Room. It was all over for Sam now. She would be expelled from Utique’s campus, her future gone up in smoggy smoke.

            But, surprisingly, Sam wasn’t angry or scared or anything like that. Instead, she felt nothing. Nothing at all. She no longer had to make a decision. The future had been taken from her, stolen by a nimble pickpocket. There was something freeing about giving up.

            “My name is Sam,” Sam said.

            “What?”

            “It’s not Sammie, it’s Sam.”

            Claire laughed. “That’s the hill you’ve chosen to die on?”

            “Say it.”

            “No, I don’t think I will.”

            Sam grinned, full of spite. “You don’t know what you’re unleashing with Nudge. This will bite you in the ass. I have no doubt.”

            “We’ll be fine,” Claire said. “I’m sure Antonio will do a serviceable job in your absence.”

            Sam winced at that. Antonio didn’t know her code. He wouldn’t be able to impair Nudge’s abilities. Her creature would be given wings by another. It would morph into something else, something that couldn’t be controlled. But it was too late.

            “I’m fired, correct?”

            “You were always bright.”

            “Bright enough to realize you shouldn’t fire me.”

            “And yet here we are,” Claire said.

            Sam nodded, numbing herself to her new reality. She was hard inside. Empty.

            “I’ll be out by five,” Sam said.

            “Indeed you will,” Claire replied.

            The doors of the Relationship Room opened and Sam, as if preprogrammed, stepped out into the hall. She stood there. Her eyes fell on the dead bison, which had not yet been removed by the Bison Handlers. It still lay flush against the window, staring at her with its lifeless gaze. And then Sam noticed something about the bison that she hadn’t before: wriggling maggots had infested the bison’s ruptured tumors. The corpse now appeared to Sam like its flesh was shivering, as if the matter that made up the dead bison was unstable. Its stiff mouth, suddenly reanimated by the writhing, gluttonous maggots, seemed to be telling Sam something. But Sam couldn’t make the words out. The mouth stayed silent.

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