May 2018 DellVille AZ.
Faint musical notes rose from a pale strip of material spread across a corner table of a backyard deck. Nearby stood a silent figure watching the last rays of sun set over the proud hump of Arrowhead Mountain. Tonight’s rays outlined a pink cloud of otherwise invisible vapor on the opposite horizon. Below the deck, an unruly covey of quail clucked toward their nightly roost.
Cassandra Hawk, a lithe graying woman, sighed. This parade of avian parenting always racked her sense of childlessness. She’d once substituted influence over generations of young software engineers. Like many retired designers of early software validation methods, she felt a wave of guilt about her profession. Treating people as data had up-ended society. Algorithmic-based models had become “weapons of math destruction”. Their beloved Internet had forged the chain of events known as the “Great Trickster”election. Was this society her generation’s legacy?
That electronic textile device, called a Whisperer, was the latest stage in social media. Its first public trial would be at her upcoming OMG (50th) reunion. She lacked an ethical framework for evaluating the potential harm versus benefits of this conversation-altering wearable computer. If only she could dive into its programming system, she might predict the consequences of the design decisions promulgated from the mind-controlled youngsters at CumuLinker’s Silicon Valley campus.
This cool evening of calming quail clucks and changing sky colors carried — Casey’s thoughts back to her idol, Ada Augusta Byron Lovelace, the originator of computational thinking.
As adjunct professor, Casey often paused her lectures to display a portrait of that Victorian mathematician initialing the memo dubbed “Ada’s Algorithm”. While Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were constrained to the technology of weaving looms, Ada recognized that the ‘data’ for their woven patterns could be not only numbers, but also music and symbols.
stroking her CumuLinker Whisperer, Casey pondered how her idol would understand today’s surveillance -based business models. Their rules captured and organized data by patterns of ‘links’ ‘ that symbolized friendship, ‘likes’, emotions, and authorities. Could that prophetic Ada have imagined the powerful effects when packets of data represented a person? Could she foresee algorithms and data as arrows into a person’s emotions? No, and neither did generations of computing professionals understand that power until the arrival of The Great Trickster.
Practicality tugged Casey back to her next adventure. Always a last-minute packer, Casey ran a mental list of clothes appropriate for her OMG College Reunion, starting the next day. Remembering how slacks were banned on the 1960s campus, she appreciated her mixed collection of pastel blouses, jackets, and slacks, plus low-heeled and flat sandals. Comfort rules, she’d select tonight, pack tomorrow. A more intriguing personality makeover beckoned.
Her reunion invitation stated “Come prepared for a social media extravaganza!”. She unfurled the Whisperer device she’d decorated for the Reunion Fashionista contest. This gimmick came straight from the technology behemoth CumuLinker, which now managed all the social graphs of all the little people-data who had ever signed up for Google, FaceBook, and the gaggle of Silicon Valley photo sharing startups. With so many $billions wealth, the social media founding fathers were bored by search engine rankings and fake news. They out-source to CumuLinker so they could save rain forests, explore asteroids, extend life, revamp schools, and operate their Singularity University. Casey was guessing that CumuLinker needed to expand its social data universe into more moments of ordinary daily communication.
Whisperers were enclosed sheets of electronics meant to be worn as scarves, neck ties, whatever matched one’s garb. Wireless ear-fitting ‘hearables’ spoke synthetic speech conversation managed by the Whisperer’s code. Unable to resist her urge to probe the Whisperer programming heritage, Casey planned her own experiments at the reunion.
Casey guessed CumuLinker would be exchanging Reunion attendee’s social profiles like 3rd party introductions and updates. That could avoid embarrassing name lapses, divorce questions, sorority sniping, or political revelations. There might also be opportunities for unfulfilled longings, friendship mending, and casual plans. Of course, there would be pedigree wars of name-dropping books, honorary degrees, job titles, patents, vacation homes, and friends in high places.
Casey’s Fashionista decoration was a no-brainer. She’d arrived on campus to major in math, then taken over the IBM 1620 making its way into academic computing. In addition to programming all her calculus assignments, that young Cassy guided tours of the computing facility’s console, card reader, and printer, each the size of a VW bug. A window from the hall often drew a crowd on their way up to the Chapel. With no graphics in those days, the line printer was the only active device in the room. Playful programs printed out nonsense in rhythms. “Would you like to hear the computer play ‘Anchors Away’?” highlighted the tour, sometimes competing with organ music above.
Casey’s Whisperer draped over her shoulder to show a picture of a very young woman at the console, presumably debugging a program. With a slight tap, the Whisperer would play the college song. Casey wondered if Ada had messaged her an image of looms, printers, music, rhythms, patterns,and computation rattling waves through a sanctuary toward a heaven-pointing spire.
The OMB reunion would be held in a dormitory dining room where she’d once served tables in a black dress and white apron. The Hall was now remodeled into apartments. She’d be sharing with two widows from the snootiest sorority, without much to say to a nerdy math major. No, bad thought, she swept that chip off her shoulder.
Casey most wanted to catch up with lifelong friends, Alice and Patrick. Patrick had been a class clown in her science labs. They’d mocked their professors in robes at chapel events. He often called her Sunday morning for homework help when he knew she’d be sleeping in or, more likely, programming at her personal IBM 1620. A year after graduation, she’d introduced Patrick to Alice, a grad school acquaintance, dead serious about neural nets before that subject drifted into AI. The clown-gown couple, she, and an occasional partner, had visited each others’ homes, shared job woes, watched parents decline, and never reformed Patrick’s clowning. These were her closest, longest friends, picking up where they left off after any indeterminate amount of time.
The last year had been hard on their friendship. The OMG Reunion was their first meeting after the Alice-Patrick family trauma. Casey didn’t know how to comfort them, her childlessness making their loss incomprehensible. For the first time in 50 years, she feared teasing Patrick, hugging Alice, speaking her deep nerdy plans to support the WWW founder’s re-invention or her budding relationship with snowbird Gavin. She hesitated filling her phone slide show with pictures of the niece and nephew she doted upon as they began their own families and careers. She wanted to hear once again the Alice-Patrick gentle teasing, “Casey,, do you still adore programming in Prolog? Did your algorithms ever catch that murderer?”.
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The next day, showering after her long travel to Rolling Hills OH, Casey was ready to party. Her Whisperer was charging on the room’s desktop.
“It’s drink time! Come on down.” texted her long-time friends. Texting back their private emoji, she donned her Whisperer and waved to the widows as she exited the suite. Party sounds drifted up a broad marble stairway. With a jolt and a ding the elevator door opened to view The modern ugly carpet that had replaced earlier ugly carpet outside the dining room.
A boisterous greeter projected a video of Casey’s decorated Whisperer for entry into the design contest. The acquaintances waved and silently compared each other’s aging features.
Their Whisperers interlocked. Casey listened to the greeter’s alumni magazine article about a recent Panama Canal cruise while her own profile listed her recent peer learning courses. CumuLinker asserted the pair had taken art together from the sexy sculptor professor, but Casey couldn’t recall.
Glancing nervously around with a geek’s disdain for clothing fashion, Casey felt relieved she’d hit the dress theme with scoop-necked blouse, flowing slacks, and SAS sandals. Not that it mattered, but she knew she had the competition in the bag.
Soon into the evening her Whisperer had caught her up on many classmates life events. CumuLinker felt like a comfortable conversation guide, filling out its Universal Social Graph, as Casey had predicted. It handily named and pointed out all the surviving math and science majors she might want to converse with during the evening. Donation opportunities played the role of advertising during Whisperer conversations. High-ranking donors received effusive introductions. The Whisperer was a dream communicator for both introverts and fund raisers.
Her trio snagged a corner table. She’d clasped shoulders with Alice and poked Patrick’s muscular arms from senior softball pitching. The couple’s Whisperer patches were black. For these old friends, small talk and a little professional gossip about the exodus of government scientists brought them together again.
Meantime, on one wall a timeline of dates and life events flowed from their college days into a bright blue sky over the campus spire icon.
Casey nudged Alice, “This is CumuLinker’s extravaganza, dubbed ‘Life Replayed’!. Everyone gets a timeline video to take home to replay on their Whisperer.”
The timelines seemed friendly, affirming, and factually correct. “Well, duh,” Casey thought, “CumuLinker had our college yearbooks and annual updates. These combined with all national newspaper and corporate news libraries, every social media post, glimpses of our email, genetic histories, publications, and, soon, , conversations recorded right here through Whisperers.”
Florida homes lost to sea rise were pictured in their original, happier conditions. Most replayed lives included sound tracks of favorite rock artists and folk singers, often bringing out tears. The peak was CumuLinker’s measurement from their best moment of the past year.
A spotlight swept over their table then onto the wall screen. Patrick’s life replayed through his clowning stage, business enterprises, well into senior baseball. Alice’s parallel timeline showed off her academic and stellar government career which took them to international sabbaticals, conferences, even Antarctica.
Casey clutched her drink while Alice and Patrick glanced warily at each other. As with other timelines, up came the message: “the most momentous event of your past year!!!”.
“Oh, no”, all three muttered, as the room brightened with the birthday party featuring grandchild, eight-year-old Joshua, playing with his cousins, wearing a turban around his cancer-stricken brain. Facebook friends who believed the disease was conquered had collected so many good wishes, prayers, and practical suggestions. Casey wished she’d never taught that Data Structures course. Algorithms know a great moment when they count the ‘links’ and ‘likes’ in friends’ news feeds.
Casey cringed. How could CumuLinker technologists have no ethical framework for performing this monumental act of “Algorithmic Cruelty”? Hadn’t CumuLinker learned from Facebook’s 2014 debacle?
Nobody spoke. Alice and Patrick rose from the table and left the room. At the door, they looked back at Casey, who knew and loved algorithms, taught and practiced the principles of software engineering, and barely mentioned ethics in her courses.
Young, deceased, beloved Joshua smiled down at the room of data formerly known as people.