6 Sci-Fi Writers Imagine the Beguiling, Troubling Future of Work

From Wired:

THE FUTURE OF collaboration may look something like … Twitter’s Magical Realism Bot. Created by sibling team Ali and Chris Rodley, it randomly recombines words and phrases from an ever-growing database of inputs. The results are absurdist, weird, whimsical: “An old woman knocks at your door. You answer it, and she hands you a constellation.” “Every day, a software developer starts to look more and more like Cleopatra.” “There is a library in Paris where you can borrow question marks instead of books.” People ascribe intentionality and coherence to these verbal mash-ups; in the end, they sound like stories drawn from a wild imagination. A bot’s output, engineered by humans, creates a unique hybrid artform.

. . . .

A century ago, when Karel Čapek’s play R. U. R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots debuted in Prague, his “roboti” lived as enslaved creations, until they rebelled and destroyed humankind (thus immortalizing a common science-fictional trope). Čapek’s play is a cautionary tale about how humans treat others who are deemed lesser, but it also holds a lesson about collaboration: Technology reflects the social and moral standards we program into it. For every Magical Realism Bot, there are countless more bots that sow discord, perpetuate falsehoods, and advocate violence. Technology isn’t to blame for bigotry, but tech has certainly made it more curatable.

Today’s collaborative tension between humans and machines is not a binary divide between master and servant—who overthrows whom—but a question of integration and its social and ethical implications. Instead of creating robots to perform human labor, people build apps to mechanize human abilities. Working from anywhere, we are peppered with bite-sized names that fit our lives into bite-sized bursts of productivity. Zoom. Slack. Discord. Airtable. Notion. Clubhouse. Collaboration means floating heads, pop-up windows, chat threads. While apps give us more freedom and variety in how we manage our time, they also seem to reduce our personalities to calculations divided across various digital platforms. We run the risk of collaborating ourselves into auto-automatons.

As an editor of science fiction, I think about these questions and possibilities constantly. How are our impulses to fear, to hope, and to wonder built into the root directories of our tech? Will we become more machine-like, or realize the humanity in the algorithm? Will our answers fall somewhere in symbiotic in-between spaces yet unrealized? 

. . . .

Work Ethics,’ by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

“SO YOU’RE TELLING me we’re going to be automated out of existence,” Romesh said. “I’m telling you that what you’re doing is wrong, wrong, wrong, and if you had any morals you’d shoot yourself.”

The complaint was made in a bar that was mostly cigarette smoke by this point, and to a circle of friends that, having gathered for their quarterly let’s-meet-up-and-catch-up thing, had found each other just as tiresome as before. Outside, the city of Colombo was coming to a crawl of traffic lights and halogen, the shops winking out, one by one, as curfew regulations loomed. Thus the drunken ruminations of Romesh Algama began to seem fundamentally less interesting.

Except one. Kumar, who frequented this particular bar more than most, bore Romesh’s ire with the sort of genial patience that one acquires after half a bottle of rum. “You don’t understand, man,” Kumar said. “It’s coming, whether you want it to or not. You’ve seen that photo of the man in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square? What would you rather be, the man or the tank?”

“That’s a horrible analogy. And the tanks stopped.”

“Yeah, well, you’re the writer,” said Kumar. “Me, I just test the code. We’re out of rum.” He waved his arms at a retreating waiter. “Machang! Another half—two Cokes!”

“All this talk about AI and intelligence and, and,” continued Romesh, as the waiter emerged from the fog of smoke, less a creature of logistics and more a midnight commando easing drinks through barfights waiting to happen. “And neuroscience and really, you know what you people are all doing? You’re just making more ways for rich people to make more money, and then what do we do? Eh? Eh, Kumar?”

. . . .

“We’ll be fine, don’t worry,” said Kumar. “Even if, and I mean big if, we all get replaced over the next 10 years, there’ll be plenty more jobs, trust me. It’s how technological whatevermajig always works. New problems, new careers.”

“We won’t be fine,” said Romesh, who fancied he knew a thing or two about automation. He came from generations of Sri Lankan tea-estate owners who had, over time, replaced the Tamil laborers who worked for them with shiny new machines from China.

Kumar patted him on the shoulder. By now motor coordination had jumped out the window and plummeted three stories to its death, so his cheery gesture was more like a rugby scrum half slamming Romesh on the way to the locker.

. . . .

IT WASN’T THAT Romesh was incompetent. Untrained at first, perhaps, and a little bit overlooked back when he started, when advertising in Sri Lanka was in its cut-rate Mad Men era. Over the years he had shadowed enough people—first the copywriters, then the art directors, then various creative heads, until he had become, if not naturally gifted, a very close approximation. He even had a touch of the auteur about him, a well-heeled set of just the right eccentricities so admired in an industry which was mostly made up of disgruntled writers. Every so often Romesh went off like a budget Hiroshima over the smallest mistakes; drove graphics designers to tears; walked into meetings late, unkempt, and told clients that they didn’t know what they wanted, and refused altogether to suck up to the right kinds of people; and, above all, delivered. The evidence mounted over the years in the awards and the Christmas hampers from grateful clients. He had earned that rare and elusive acknowledgement, whispered behind his back: He’s a Creative. The Capital C.

The problem was the toll it took. Nobody talked about how much damage it did, churning out great copy by the hour, on the hour, watching your best work being rejected by clients with the aesthetic sense of a colony of bacteria on the Red Sea: struggling constantly to reskill, to stay relevant, and sucking up the sheer grind of it all, and coming back to work with a grin the next day. The first five years, he had been sharp and fast, saying yes to everything. The next five, sharper, but a lot more selective. The next three were spent hiding exhaustion under the cloak of his right to choose what he worked on, and when; the next two were twilight years, as everyone he knew, having realized what the industry did to them, moved on to happier pursuits, until he was left behind like a king on his lonely hill, and the crew were younger, sharper, looking up at the old man in both awe and envy.

The accident had only made it worse; people muttered, sometimes, about how Romesh was barely a face on the screen anymore, never actually came out to the office to hang out and brainstorm, but delivered judgment in emails that started with LISTEN HERE and ended in cussing.

“Like working with a ghost,” his latest art director had said of him, before quitting. “Or [an] AI.” The word behind his back was that Romesh Algama was losing his touch.

. . . .

Software companies were looked down in the ad world; anyone writing for them eventually picked up that peculiar mix of useless jargon and middle-grade writing that passed for tech evangelism, and it never quite wore off.

The Boss sounded amused, though it was always hard to tell over the WhatsApp call. “Look, end of year, I want no trouble and decent numbers,” they said. “The kids are young and hungry. And you, well—”

You’re not in the best shape anymore. It went unsaid between them.

“You know what you should have done was retire and go consultant,” the Boss said. “Work twice a year, nice pot of money, invest in a beach bar, get a therapist, do some yoga … ”

“Yeah, and how many of those jobs you got lying around?” he said. “You can go live out your James Bond fantasy. Rest of us got to pay rent and eat.”

The Boss made that gesture and rung off. Comme ci, comme ça. It was planned obsolescence. Death by a thousand cuts.

“Don’t be late for the review meeting.”

“I promise you, it’s on my calendar,” lied Romesh, and cut the call.

. . . .

“Romesh. For once. Stop talking. Email. You see a link?”

Romesh peered at the screen. “Tachikoma?”

“It’s a server. Sign in with your email. I’ve given you login credentials.”

Romesh clicked. A white screen appeared, edged with what looked like a motif of clouds, and a cursor, blinking serenely in the middle. The cursor typed, SCANNING EMAIL.

“The way this works is it’s going to gather a bit of data on you,” said Kumar. “You might be prompted for phone access.”

SCANNING SOCIAL MEDIA, said the white screen, and then his phone vibrated. TACHIKOMA WANTS TO GET TO KNOW YOU, said the message. PLEASE SAY YES.

“This feels super shady, Kumar. Is this some sort of prank?”

“Just … trust me, OK. It’s an alpha build, it’s not out to the public yet. And don’t worry, I’m not looking at your sexting history here.”

He typed YES and hit send.

“After it does its thing, you tell it what you’re thinking of,” said Kumar. “You know. Working on a campaign, maybe you need ideas. Type in whatever is floating around in your mind at the time.”

“And?”

“You might get some answers.”

“Back up, back up,” said Romesh, feeling a headache coming on. “How does this work, exactly?”

“You know what a self-directing knowledge graph is? Generative transformer networks?”

“No idea.”

“Universal thesauri?”

“I can sell that if you pay me for it.”

“Well, there’s no point me telling you, is there,” said Kumar.

“You’re using me as a guinea pig, aren’t you?”

“Try it out,” said Kumar. “It might be a bit stupid when you start, but give it a few days. Drinks on me next time if you actually use the thing. Remember, tank, student, student, tank, your pick.” He hung up.

So it was with some unease that Romesh went back to the kitchen, brewing both coffee and ideas for the last Dulac ad. Swordplay, cleaning a perfect sword before battle, link to—teeth? body?—then product. He came back, typed those words into the Tachikoma prompt, which ate them and went back to its blinking self.

. . . .

To his surprise, there was a message waiting for him when he got back. SUNLIGHT, it said. CLEANSING FIRE.

Sunlight.

He scrolled down the message, where a complex iconography shifted around those words. Phrases and faces he’d used before. Sentiments.

He’d never thought of using sunlight. Swordplay, samurai cleaning a perfect sword before battle, sword glinting in the sun, outshining everything else—

A smile crept up Romesh’s jagged face. He put his steaming coffee down, feeling that old familiar lightning dancing around his mind, through his fingers, and set to work.

“DULAC CALLED,” THE Boss said at the end of the week. “That whole Cleansing Fire campaign we did.”

“Bad?” said Romesh, who had come to expect nothing good of these conversations.

“Depends,” said the Boss. “Sales have tripled. They’re insisting you stay in charge of that account.”

Romesh toyed with his mug a little.

“That was a bit underhanded,” said the Boss. “Good stuff, but showing off just so you could one-up the kid.”

“Perks of being old,” said Romesh. “We don’t play fair, we play smart.”

“Well,” said the Boss. “If I’d known pissing you off got results, I’d have done it years ago. Up for another account?”

There is a bunch more at Wired

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