Our cyberpunk near-future has a voice in my head, and it’s Ken Liu’s fault.
My phone, the black-mirrored device that connects me to everything and everyone at all times, sent a digital file through the air to my car’s audio system as I drove to work one bright morning. It was a short fiction podcast from Lightspeed featuring “The Perfect Match” by Ken Liu. The story is about a law office employee and his kooky neighbor. And it’s about a personal assistant app called Centillion which may or may not be the end of the human experience as we know it.
“Tilly” is the name she goes by, the name people use when they ask her what today’s weather will be, ask her to play that one song from the bar a couple weeks ago, ask her to order dinner for them based on how they feel. Tilly is the perfect servant: polite, and anticipating her master’s needs with uncanny accuracy. The main character, Sai, interacts with her – that’s “her,” not “it” – in the easy, affectionate way you might expect of a character from Downton Abbey requesting the sherry be left just so, there by the chaise longue, you know the spot, oh how would I get on without you, and do draw the bath at six precisely.
Note: I do not know my mother’s phone number by heart, I can’t get to most of my friends’ places without using GPS, and nearly every time I’ve backed something on Kickstarter has been because I saw a targeted ad on Facebook. I lost my train of thought while writing this because my phone decided I needed to know that someone liked a tweet-reply of mine. My phone was right.
This omnipresent organization/self-improvement/recommendation app isn’t Max Headroom or Wintermute. The main character isn’t some shivering data-stim junkie stashing corpcreds to buy an augmented eyeball from that skeevy wetware hack down by the docks. The old dictum “high tech, low life” has little relevance in a story where people buy smoothies and go on blind dates, and there’s no stark green neon to be found. And yet as I listened, my cyberpunk-senses were tingling.
“The Perfect Match” is a fine example of where the genre can live now. It’s doesn’t have to be about jaded deckers hacking into the mainframe. The concept of cyberspace being somewhere separate from our day-to-day experience is long gone. There’s no more “going in” to the Metaverse, because we’re always in.
So, if this story about an office worker and his helpful phone is cyberpunk, where’s the -punk? Where’s the grim acceptance of our technology-dependent future? Where’s the crime? The street finding its own uses for things?
Over and over in this story we hear Tilly recommending purchases based on her evaluation of Sai’s current mental and physical state compared to the scads of trend data she has absorbed. And after every one, she says the same thing: “I have a coupon.”
Mild. Inoffensive. But insistent.
Repetition matters far more in a short story than it does in longer forms, and we can safely assume the helpful-yet-tyrannical Jeeves-esque phrase is repeated intentionally here. But why?
The algorithms which drive the content we see are built to make us spend money. This is why I can’t Google the name of that little guy that hid in the pictures at the end of every episode of She-ra without seeing ads for ‘80s T-shirts every time I open Facebook. Hence coupons; the perfect incentive. The sweetener on the deal. Tilly wants you to buy stuff.
Fairly innocuous, sure. Helpful even. I mean, I might want an ‘80s T-shirt. But Tilly decides what you see. She promotes items to your news feeds and gives you updates she thinks you’ll find relevant. She blocks out content she doesn’t think you’ll like. What if the same content-control technology were used for something else? Something sinister? It may not be street samurai and l33t haxxors, but it sure is cyberpunk.
The story sticks with me for many reasons, one being that I listened to it the first time as opposed to reading it. Tilly has a voice for me. A tone. Turns of phrase. A way of saying words. That’s the voice I hear now whenever I swipe through a pop-up ad to get back to whatever time-wasting freemium game I’m desperately trying to not spend money on. You should buy this, Alex. I’ve looked at the data, and it makes sense for you right now. Do it. Let me help you. Help you to live your best life based on the questionnaire and all the relevant research. I have a coupon.
It’s an aspect of our cyber-present I certainly didn’t foresee as a kid pecking BASIC programs into the Commodore 64 on the card table in the basement: the future is in text. In words. It was all supposed to be so visual. I thought I’d be goggled up and riding an 8-bit dragon over vector-grid cities towards the pink gradient horizon. Instead, I’m reading tweets, status updates, SMS messages. I’m listening to podcasts, to hours and hours of people just talking. There’s no holographic interface; Siri speaks with me. Tilly whispers like a confidant, hectors like Jiminy Cricket, fawns like a valet. And she always knows best.
Top image: Her (2013)
Alex Livingston lives in an old house with his brilliant wife and a pile of aged video game systems. He writes speculative and interactive fiction, most recently the cyberpunk novella Glitch Rain. He’s on Twitter as @galaxyalex.