By Massimo Airoldi
Massimo Airoldi holds a PhD in Sociology and Methodology from the University of Milan (NASP) and is currently Assistant Professor at EM Lyon. His research interests include critical data studies, AI and algorithms, digital research methods, consumer cultures and the platformization of taste.
This short story has been recently published in the Sociological Fiction blog of the journal The Sociological Review. Here is a link to the original version.
Aripiprazole: bingo! Side effects: orthostatic hypotension and cardiac arrhythmia. Precisely what I need to fool the health-tracking pillow kindly provided by our apprehensive HR colleagues, and enjoy an unpredictable day trip on an otherwise hectic Monday morning. I close the bathroom cupboard, put my mum’s old smartphone on the nightstand, and kiss her sleepy forehead. I walk softly out of the door, down the steep stairs, and finally outside, in the fresh daylight of Barons Court Road, London, Anno 2028.
Monday is tomorrow and I can tell it: nobody is around. I stand in the middle of the street. As an architecture student – or a painter? – I can envision for a moment the regular, imaginary lines of roofs and pavements converging at the vanishing focal point where my Uber is expected to appear within two or three minutes. Curtains protect the windows from the early-afternoon sun, scenographic elements of an experimental theatre play whose performances stay backstage. Parked electric cars follow the perspective like glitter decorations in a sacred mosaic, carbon-free icons of a carbon-driven smart mobility. The old neighbourhood has changed, but my dusty mountain bike is still there, leaning against the wall of my family’s row house among the tall yellow grass, indifferent to artificial intelligence and gentrification, apparently intact, incomprehensibly colourful, so 1990s.
To me, teenage means freedom, not just for obvious biological or generational reasons. Back in the 1990s, one could skip school and have an ice cream in an amusement park with the sole magic power of a fake signature on paper. Now, things are slightly different. Both amusement parks and schools hide face recognition cameras. Bikes have GPS localizers. Every step we take, we are tracked by institutions and companies, as taxpayers, workers, consumers. And, last but not least, as partners.
Soon after I met Ahn for the first time two months and one day ago, unusual video recommendations made their appearance in Pornhub’s homepage, based on my brand new style of Google searching. The parabolic shoreline of Danang Beach – a half moon of light-blue ocean facing a parallel stretch of photoshopped white sand and green palms – flashed in a 2×1 meters screen at a bus stop in Kensington High Street on a Saturday morning, yelling micro-targeted summer holidays I might be interested in. At first curious, my wife Lara swiftly became suspicious. No more compromising searches.
Ahn is Vietnamese. We met in an Italian restaurant close to Dalston Kingsland’s station – multicultural far-east London in the 1990s, a white middle-class district today. I was heading to a lunch meeting with another sociologist-turned-marketing-professor like me – aka a “sell-out,” as our ex-PhD peers love to call us. I booked a table for two in a new Thai place that had a 93% probability to fit my taste profile. Wearable AI was gently guiding me to the final destination throughout a ten-minute walk, when the female voice abruptly stopped, decomposing in a symphony of electric buzz. I looked around, touching compulsively the smart watch, and then looked around again, and again. We were hundreds – no, thousands! – standing on the pavement, motionless, earphones in our hands, looking like victims of a collective hallucination, or smartly dressed survivors miraculously escaped from a plane crash. A few seconds later, a wave of klaxons and screams washed away the odd silence. Panic in the streets of London. We were experiencing what social media afterwards called LBN (“Lunch-Break Nightmare”): a two-hour-long collapse of the entire mobile Internet infrastructure of Western Europe, supposedly caused by Russian hackers, or Israeli intelligence, or unknown extra-terrestrial interferences, depending on the source. Millions of petabytes of user data unrecorded; algorithms as thirsty as oversize American cars out of petrol, abandoned in some imaginary desert road. A billion taxpayers, workers and consumers stuck in an analogue limbo, lonely, incapable to decide where to go and what to do.
After some minutes of discomfort, acknowledging the impossibility to communicate with my friend, I unilaterally decided that the lunch meeting was cancelled. I entered a small restaurant on the other side of the road, pushed by a growing hunger, attracted by the fancy sign (“Il Mestolo d’Oro. Cucina casalinga”). Predictably, I wasn’t the only one inside. No more tables available. Just one spare seat, in front of a black-eyed 35-years-old consultant based in Singapore, named Ahn, eating a pizza on her own. She did not mind. Thanks to the slow service, the good Valpolicella and, especially, LBN, I didn’t make it to the 6 pm department meeting either. We talked a lot, instead, and then walked together, without a clear direction, procrastinating the separation, tube station after tube station.
We could feel the difference, without really noticing it. At first, my skin was expecting the usual rhythmic buzz of notifications – an important email, new article citations, suggested restaurants, my ten-thousand steps daily accomplishment. After a while, the frequency of my unconscious taps on the watch’s screen sharply decreased. My body got used to the absence of computational stimuli.
“Do you remember that crazy story, the helicopter jailbreak?” – “what?” – “the guy, the French gangster that escaped from a prison near Paris in a hijacked helicopter! His accomplices forced a flight instructor to land in the courtyard, like in a movie. That wasn’t even the first time he escaped jail. About ten years ago, remember? Come on! All the media, everybody talked about that…” – “oh, yes, I remember reading something on Twitter…” – “R.I.P., Twitter” – “amen.” “Well, now I feel a bit like that man.” “But then they got him, didn’t they?”
All of a sudden, Tour Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe appeared right above our heads, followed by the colourful promo of an airline company. Micro-targeted street ads had started working again.
“Yes, they did. As always.”
I ended up travelling to the airport with her, together, by train. Later that evening, in the unpleasant car park of Luton Airport, amidst the dust of never-ending construction works, we decided that we would have met each other again. On July 9 she was flying back here for a conference – ironically, on Huge Data and AI management.
Lara is beautiful in that red tight dress. She is wearing sunglasses and smiles at me. We are sitting on the beach, and now the light is so strong that the sea looks like a white salt desert. “I saw a picture of one on Instagram once, just amazing. That was somewhere in India, I think,” I say to her. And I feel so happy. It is like when we first moved in together, before the complete mess that followed. In this moment, everything is fine again; everything is calm. My mother is taking a nap in the shade, under the red beach umbrella. She cannot stay in the sun. Still, it is good to get her out of the bedroom once in a while, spend some time together, out of London. Her wheelchair is right there, the aluminum bars sparkle in the sunlight. Two parallel wheel traces cut the sand for miles and miles.
In this exact moment, it arrives. It pops out of nowhere, stealth, with an electric roar. Purple clouds cover the sky. The sea surface turns cold and grey, sprinkled with endless tiny waves. The drone is massive, white, with four rotors and a large black camera right in the middle of its animalesquebody. As it comes down, the wind grows. I cannot keep my eyes open in the sandstorm. “Lara! LARA! Mum”; no answer. Now that the drone is right above our heads, it looks different. In fact, it is a helicopter, and from the front window I can see the glimpse of a person, the driver. That person is Ahn. A long rope dangles from the right-side door, where I can read the following sign: “LBN0907.” I take one end of the rope with the two hands, and start flying. It is unexpectedly easy and, now that the windstorm has ceased, sunlight is back. I look for Lara and my mother on the ground, but there is only the empty wheelchair, which gets smaller and smaller.
“Crack.” That sound, that’s the rope that breaks. While falling, I finally recognize Danang Beach’s long parabolic shoreline, so perfect and neat it looks like a photoshopped ad.
Suddenly, awake! – six pills of Aripiprazole, one large glass of water and five hours of restless sleep later. Monday, July 9 is today, and I must get ready. Same restaurant, at noon. I feel like my head is melting on the health-tracking pillow, in a slow-motion carousel of numbness and syncopate hearth beating. For the first time in my life, I understand my bedridden mother and her mysterious, black-boxed sufferings. Lara is still sleeping, daylight is yet to come. I turn my wrist and check for notifications. An unfamiliar red tick dominates the upper-right corner of the small screen: I have been automatically classified as “ill” six minutes ago. Hypotension and arrhythmia. The insurance platform alerts me not to go to work and to schedule a medical appointment instead. I rest in bed a bit more, then grab a plastic bottle and greedily suck from it, hoping to get my original brain back.
A couple of hours and two cold showers later, I am on my way from Hammersmith, where I live, to my parents’ place. It is a short but seemingly endless walk. I wear an old baseball cap and sunglasses, in the (probably vain) attempt to elude face detection in the streets. From an Amazon News screen, a dance of line charts illustrates the drop in GDP caused by the LBN, followed by the reassuring words of a white guy in black suit, the “new Minister for Business and Automation.”
Finally, here is the narrow house where I grew up – the seventh on the left side, for sure the shabbiest of the row. After weeks of frenetic planning, I concluded that the safest way to get to see Ahn is by bike: my GPS-free, acid green and electric blue teenage-years mountain bike. Taking the tube, full of service robots and intelligent cameras, or an Uber ride, would be equivalent to an automated admission of guilt. That’s why now I am inflating the worn tires with a portable pump, heavily sweating in the unexpected sun of Barons Court.
I have the sneaky feeling of being observed by someone or something. I take a look above my head, and scan a portion of sky for insurance drones or cameras. Nothing. I have the fleeting impression that someone is staring through my mother’s window. Simply impossible. One second later, in fact, it’s gone.
It took me more than two and a half hours to go through the ten miles up to Dalston Kingsland’s station. No smart watch to guide me, for the same reasons as above. Officially, I forgot it at home, while at the toilet. Without Google Maps or Waze, I painfully engaged with pen and paper, barely succeeding in drawing a pathetic sketch of my itinerary, which ultimately resulted in a series of banal mistakes and suicide U-turns. Il Mestolo d’Oro was full as usual, and I was fifteen minutes late, in mirror sunglasses and sweaty cap. At first I waited outside; then, I rapaciously occupied a nice table for two, right beside the window. Outside, the same walking clerks that two months and two days before were helpless and frozen during the Lunch-Break Nightmare were now happily managing their agendas through authoritative vocal commands, providing algorithms with their due unstructured input, to be digested and transformed in raw classificatory material for the maintenance of the techno-social order, again and again. In my post-Aripiprazole mind, everyone looked as the greased gear of a semi-divine global machinery. Everyone, but me. I smiled. I belonged to the LBN, to an eternal state of analogic exception, to a resistant elite of everyday outliers. Finally, I was Rédoine Faïd, the legendary French jailbreaker, escaping a brave new world of data prisons. I needed a selfie so badly – my joyful face, the glass of red wine in my hand, and this unexpected sense of #freedom – but, for the very first time since a couple of decades ago, I did not have any technological means for taking and sharing it. Ahn was arriving any moment now. Next time, I’ll go see her in Asia, I thought, picturing in my mind us, in the sand, together, in front of the glistening waters of the ocean.
Ahn did not came, and we never met again. At first I thought that she might have been virulently disappointed by me being late – managerial obsession? Vietnamese cultural heritage, maybe? Who knows! For this reason, she must have left the restaurant just before I arrived. Shit happens. Some days later, lurking on her Instagram profile while under the reassuring effects of Aripiprazole, I discovered the (official?) truth. That morning she forgot her Wearable AI on the plane, while at the toilet. The name of the restaurant, social media notifications, Google Maps, even my name: all the information and digital tools that could have made our stealth love possible, successful, unforgettable were locked in an encrypted cloud memory inaccessible from third-party devices. Once Ahn realized that, on July 9, she unilaterally decided that the lunch meeting was cancelled.
This story is not about love. It is about techno-social control in a near-future London where surveillance is ubiquitous and diffuse, to the extent that smart pillows assess whether employees are too sick to go to work. Wearable devices, insurance drones, street ads technologies and face recognition cameras track every citizen, worker and consumer, estimating movements, behaviours, desires, in order to minimize socio-economic instability. The main character’s desperate attempt to escape the algorithmic iron cage and meet Ahn again exposes the ordinary working of this “datacracy” (Gambetta, 2018). As a sort of breaching experiment (Garfinkel, 1967), the unexpected “Lunch-Break Nightmare” unveils the naturalized interdependence of humans and machines within this complex system. They both need each other, since algorithms depend on humans as data sources, and humans are used to delegate any decision to machines’ “technological unconscious” (Lash, 2007). Corporations and institutions jointly rely on this panoptic data prison, which ultimately contributes to the acceleration of gentrification, erosion of labour rights and post-truth dissemination, leading as well to a complete commodification of intimacies (Illouz, 2007).
Differently from other sci-fi dystopias, this imaginary world is simply a slightly hyperbolic representation of current platform societies, based on the massive extraction of consumer data (Van Dijck, Poell & De Waal, 2018) and ordered by private algorithmic black boxes (Amoore & Piotukh, 2016; Beer, 2009; Pasquale, 2015; Noble, 2018; Eubanks, 2017; Bucher, 2018). This story speculates on how the transition toward a general “algorithmic culture” (Striphas, 2015) can be fast, subtle and irreversible. It also reflects on the (im)possibility of freedom in technocratic systems where there is no obstacle to the complete convergence of institutional and economic interests (de Kloet et al., 2019).
What about resistance, then? Ahn not showing up simply because of the loss of her wearable AI suggests that algorithmic control can be also biopolitical (Cheney-Lippold, 2009). She could have found the restaurant and met the protagonist even without the informational assistance of the device. Similarly, we could actively discover new music or tv series, instead of passively navigating platforms’ recommendations, but we mostly do not (Airoldi & Rokka 2019). This links to other unanswered questions underlying the story: to what extent algorithmic “life mining” (van Dijck 2014) threatens to inadvertently expose our secrets? What if micro-targeted ads know us better than ourselves? Why are we ok to share the digital traces of our intimate behaviour with unknown organizations based in California, but fear how our partners would react to them? Is a “stealth love” even possible, in the age of data surveillance?