The Clubhouse is a large open space artfully divided to give the impression that it's not just another office where people shirk their meaningless work. It’s totally triple-post-mod with many charming enviro-corners, practically like a park ... if the park was in a plain building on the concrete campus of a giant corporation built over a toxic waste dump in Silicon, where the fruit trees grow no more.
I bring in pears from the trees growing in my yard to remember another world, the forest, UnCorp. The pears sit on my standing desk in a slot in a pod that I share with three other readers who rarely speak. Colleagues sit on balls, hammocks, stools, or not at all, their spaces shaded by artificial trees and leaves.
The creative seating is meant to maximize output. But there doesn’t seem to be much to do — everyone’s watching vids or shopping with no scramblers. It’s mystifying. MoreCorp can easily track their tek activity. But when I ask my neighbor what to do, Apple just looks up from his game and shrugs. “Nothing. Relax. Be kool.” Surfing the webs, we await our mission.
On 4-day Wolf gets bored and pings me from his slot around the corner that he's going to X-Thai fight training. There's a session at noon, so I must dine alone. Not eating is not really an option, certainly not yet. The countless themed eateries of MoreCorp are famous and the stunning array helped give the company its awesome reputation. Campus food culture is important.
It's also sociologically interesting, plus illuminating. In my free time, I have learned the best and worst cafeterias by reading worker ratings on EAT-ME, the MoreCorp food service wiki. As a result, the corporate caste system has also been clarified.
Everyone eats but only upper castes give "foodback" because the privilege of opining belongs to insiders, employees, Maxis and Majors, of which there are few. Contractors, who far outnumber employees, can't write reviews on the wiki, only read it. But in a sense EAT-ME is egalitarian, as MoreCorp makes no distinction between laborers and professionals, Micros and Minis. We're lucky that the food is free and why should certifications matter when everyone's equal in the Single System System?
EAT-ME is educational, but so replete with carefully crafted opinions on cuisines of our united world -- and correct fusion thereof -- that it's mostly a testament to eating disorders, nit-picking, and Siliconian excess. It's depressing. Reading it kills my appetite. Defeated, I go to Meat-Up, a butcher's delight right by the Clubhouse.
As the name indicates, Meat-Up is for carnivores with crude taste, not popular on EAT-ME and thus empty. The dancing plastic sausages at the entry greet few. Past the kitschy art are the offerings; I peruse screens advertising today's many strange choices.
Kangaroo bolognese sounds intriguing but I stick to a classic when faced with a bot at a counter (they get complicated commands wrong, despite the hype about how we'll soon not need live beings). The bot relays my order, and soon a person slides a burger and fries under the plasti-glass separation, eyes down. At a loss, I thank the bot and its screen reads "NP," meaning no problem.
Meat-Up's plastic imitation butcher-block tables are for communal eating, so I slide into an old-timey diner booth, enjoying the entertainment. As I eat, soundless vids play on large screens while an X-K-Pop hit blares on the speakers. It's entrancing.
But my distraction is soon interrupted. A wiry woman with a buzz cut, dressed in technicolor sports gear -- highlighting her fitness and distracting from her wrinkles -- sits across from me with no greeting. I gulp. This is the Discovery Chief, Disco Ninja Supreme. Her work precedes her.
“Spam Pire, right? Ellipsis Song," I say, extending a hand she ignores. "So nice to meet you. I've worked with your patented poetry reduction method on projects in Metropolis. Amazing!” Sure, I think it’s amazingly bad that she's looking to eliminate human readers but there’s no need to specify that.
“Yeah,” Spam replies brusquely, though clearly pleased with the flattery. “I’m no dummy, honey, Ivy Camp accredited. But like my name says, I’m a boot-strapper, scrapped for what’s mine.”
Tough times, tough climb. I hear what the lady's saying and admire her grit. Sensing no danger greater than that already inherent in having a fake-casual conversation with a top doge in a pseudo-social setting, I ask, “So how’d you get into Prose Control? I heard there weren't many women in this field before Isms were eliminated. Must have been tough. Or did you not find that?”
“Not find!” Spam snorts. “Ha! Sexism was tough, babe. But I’m tougher than barriers put up for pussies. I hustle. Plus, muscle. You should see how my system strips verse super terse.”
“Terse is good. Taut text." I nod. "Triple-post-mod.”
Now Spam looks mad. “This isn’t a lit crit. That’s not my biz. I’m about stripping and storage, not analyzing text aesthetics." She taps on her wrist, rolls her eyes twice -- presumably using a tek device and not at me -- then asks, "Do you know I patented a method for quarantining data that should never have been acquired?”
“No. I didn’t. What’s that about?”
Spam scowls, slurps, taps skull, answers without looking up. “A method for quarantining data that shouldn’t have been acquired. Like I said.”
“Right,” I agree. “So why's it acquired, this data?”
“That’s way above your pay grade. The point is my patent.”
“Yes, definitely,” I say, now desperate to find a more pleasing topic. “So what’s hot in text reduction? What's next?”
“Read up on it, kid! Jeez! N0ledge workers are what we need.” Spam shoves fries in her mouth, takes a swig of pop. “Workers who can be and do everything at one low cost, near zero, N0. Are you ready to be that person?” She shakes a fry at me across the table.
“For sure. But like, what skills will we need? Reading? Not writing, I guess?”
“No writers!” The chief jumps in her seat. “No readers either soon enough. We’re almost done with words. Code, math, graphs. That’s where it’s at. N0ledge workers code and sell and live and die by the light of machines. They don’t seek taut beauty in a stripped text. I mean, jeez! What’s next?!”
I chew in silence, contemplating what to say. But Spam’s busy anyway with brain mails and wrist txts and fries. She doesn’t say goodbye when leaving as abruptly as she arrived. It’s to be expected, however, as her concerns are great and I have no patents pending.
Back at the Clubhouse, it’s dead quiet. There's no one in my pod and nothing for me to do. But my mission is taking shape. Meeting Spam was no accident. I must become the reader who trains the artificial intelligence or there will be no place for me (because I'm pretty sure I can't code and sell even if can live and die by the light of machines).
Prose Control (ProCon) -- which is in charge of Discovery (Disco), which manages Too Long Don't Read (TLDR) -- is perfecting all text reduction to eventually eliminate the need for human intervention with words in the old forms altogether. But industry thought leaders have been stumped by certain works, like mysticism, poetry, literary fiction, useless things that make no sense to most and can’t reasonably be reduced by just anyone. For those topics, they use those who know The Arts Old (TAO).
It's awkward because TLDR eliminates written works but needs lit lovers, practitioners of The Arts Old, to reduce what they most revere. And we need ProCon, Disco, and the TLDR text reduction project because there is no more work for the literary -- however rare a skill -- now that society's mostly txt-lit.
It’s a bitter irony for all involved. I, for example, once worked a philo project and was assigned the Tao Te Ching, distilling the ancient wisdom to so near zero that it nearly broke my heart. I got the whole thing down to two essential lines, although I find over time that what's missing from my version is more apparent to me than the little that remains.
The way, like water, isn’t constant, has no form.
Mystery upon mystery, gateway of the manifold secrets.
My own regrets notwithstanding, the brevity and concision with which I handled the Tao earned me a hot spot, a place on a Privilege QC team on my next project. And that privilege was not lost on me. Nor was its cost; I reduced a great work to a meager fraction for greenies, cube rent. If it's gross, so be it. I tell myself what we all say. Who can afford not to compromise today?
But the ordeal will soon be over for all, according to what I read about N0ledge and the evolution of reduction on the interwebs. The only bad news is that soon no one will even need me to sell out.
According to the articles I find -- wordy write-ups on eliminating the word -- ProCon’s over subtle spreadsheets, such that now even training the artificial intelligences has become irrelevant. Someday we will just use N0ledge workers to run programs that strip texts willy-nilly, thus greatly increasing efficiency of TLDR and reducing costs. By relying on machines for reading, one worker can do all the other jobs.
We -- professional readers -- are doomed. I tell Wolf as much when we’re driving home after work that afternoon. We are winding up the mountains, him avoiding autos on automatic that can’t maintain a lane. “We’re like John Henry,” I say.
“How’s that,” he asks, distracted, focused on the road.
“Because no on cares how good we are anymore, and no matter how fast we read, we’ll never beat the machines. They’ll overtake us and before you know it there’ll be blood on the tracks.”
“Are you mixing metaphors?”
“I don’t think so, references maybe. Didn’t John Henry die building the railroad?”
“It was blasting a tunnel though, not laying track. Also, he was driving a steel hammer, racing against a steam one,” Wolf says. “He had a heart attack.”
“So no blood?”
“No. He won.”
“What do you mean he won? Didn’t he die trying?”
“Yeah," Wolf answers. "He beat the hammer. He proved his point.”
“That hardly seems like a win,” I object, passing him a lit cig from the pack hidden in the glove box. We keep it there while we’re in incorporated territories but now we are entering the lush verdant UnCorp SC, where we’re much more free. Being at MoreCorp is stressful. We swore to quit smoking when leaving Metropolis — Siliconians particularly frown on it — but can’t kick the habit.
“So don’t fight the machine,” Wolf says and takes a puff. He blows smoke out his open window, and hands back the cig. “Then you won’t die, which is a win, as you rightly seem to suggest. It’s a win-win, which everyone loves. Because everyone wins.”
We grin at each other but it's not a happy exchange, more pained. I don’t say it aloud but am thinking that not everyone can win, which must not be very different from what Wolf’s thinking. He drives in silence until we reach home. As he pulls into the driveway, under the ever-watchful eye of the wary weeds tender, Wolf offers noir reassurance. “Anyway, we’re not working on the railroad so don’t worry about blood on the tracks. We’re working in Silicon, where fux will stab you in the back.”