Seeing Things Differently

May 2018, after the OMG Reunion, Rolling Hills OH.

Casey dodged the lawn sprinklers along the path to the central campus parking lot. The 6 a.m. shuttle had its motor running as the driver took her $20. She wheeled her suitcase to the back seat, hoping to avoid conversation after last evening’s fiasco at the OMG Reunion.

Her iPhone and the Whisperer curled in her suitcase beeped simultaneously. The message confirmed that she’d won the Whisperer decoration contest prize: five personalized versions of ‘Life Replayed’. CumuLinker’s prototype social media timeline wouldn’t let her forget her most memorable moments in her professional, romantic, community, and recreational life. Or, as the monster showed last night, CumuLinker’s idea of a best moment could be one of the worst to her. She feared her Whisperer might pile up a new line of chips on her shoulder if its replayed moments triggered unpleasant emotions or revealed secrets.

She looked up to see Patrick and Alice seating themselves near the front door. Patrick poked the driver to get moving. Alice mouthed in her direction, “Talk later”. Then she leaned her head on Patrick’s shoulder. Casey kicked the empty seat in anger as she reminded herself of missed opportunities to lecture students about “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty”. She’d use this episode for a blog post on “Tombstone, not Capstone, projects required for BS in CS degrees!”.

Leaving the reunion after only a few hours sleep forced decisions about her weekend. She was booked Monday into a hotel in DC for what she expected, and hoped, would be her last panel reviewing proposals for the National Science Foundation. Maybe this weekend could leave more time to renew a friendship with a long-time colleague still working on interesting projects. It wasn’t too early to text Sally Rhodes.

The return text stated that Casey would be welcome to stay at Sally’s condo in Arlington. Sally suggested meeting at the Ballston exit from the Metro where she’d be having coffee and catching up on her podcasts. “It will be good to see you again, kiddo, I’ve got a new project to show off!”

Transfer from the shuttle to the train went smoothly as Casey sleepily slumped into a seat in the quiet car. One pass through the tweets on her Twitter app after the usual Friday night news dump would likely bore her into a deep snooze, hopefully without drooling. She fumbled in her jacket pockets for tissues and ear buds and found a note from her reunion suite mates: “Sorry your nerdy experiment got out of control. Have a nice rest-of-life.”.

Casey cringed. Her profession, bringing into existence the Internet, then turning it over to nerds who thought a few ads wouldn’t be a problem, had screwed up society in so many ways she couldn’t count. And not done yet, as the “Great Trickster” continued to spread election snark while the economy adjusted to international competition.

She clicked on an unfamiliar Twitter hash tag #PinkPageFlu. Up came a series of messy screen shots with snarky remarks. She pulled down the window blind to better explore this pink weirdness. Stretching over a few months were reports of web sites turning into unusable, irregular, glossy, low contrast pages. Different browsers displayed variations of ugliness, especially if one dislike pink. A click on the Reader button customized readable stripped-down pages. ‘Like’s and other silly social media conventions were often slathered across the page as images.

“Hello, Pink New World!”, Casey muttered. Happy moments from her decades as an early netizen popped into her memory. She wished she could turn back the clock to the Dawn of Web Time,” “, continuing Usenet, Altavista, and her very first web page.

Casey shared the view that the WWW was really sick. But, she wondered why so few asked when this new disease started. Fake News, bots, and sheer nastiness had already driven many people back to TV or simply not caring any more. The WWW inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, had warned about increasing ugliness and awkwardness in his invention. The World Wide Web had started as hyperlinks then bloomed into graphics with browsers. Linking together the world’s information wasn’t a worthy enough goal, there had to be beauty and animation and brain ticklers. When the public could afford expensive phones, they wanted all web content for free, giving rise to surveillance capitalism and the Silicon Valley oligarchies. Nevertheless, Casey admitted, that Whisperer and its life-shaking ‘Life Replayed’ projection were a real kick!

This train ride had given Casey a bundle of blog post topics. Now, she was ready to enter another person’s, very different world in daily operations but sharing some professional outlooks and some interesting adventures back in the days of the Japanese Fifth Generation project. Casey’s friend Sally had decided to retire in the Capitol area to maintain proximity to government consulting as well as access to public transportation.

*-*- *-*- *-*-

Arriving in DC, then transferring to the Red Line to Virginia, wrestling her suitcase up the long escalator, out of breath, Casey spotted Sally at the coffee/pastry shop,as promised. Their Whisperers attempted an interlock until Casey’s realized it was not being worn, wrapped into the suitcase. Casey suspected Sally had some use cases for her personal Whisperer due to her limited vision.

Sally paid her bill, then waved Casey out the door. She flashed a pamphlet showing a famous 80-year-old actress. Then she picked up her cane and stepped into the shopping arcade. “Are you up for a play at the Kennedy Center tonight?”, Sally asked. “Enjoy city life, forget social media, let’s catch up on culture.”

Casey stopped her. “Hey, Sally, I’m rusty about walking with a visually impaired person. You sent me your ‘Disability 101 guide’, but I’m confused. Do I walk to your right or left? Hold your arm or vice versa? ”

Sally laughed. “Relax! Walk your suitcase to your left, stay a bit in front of me, and I’ll follow. Is that crazy hat left over from the Trickster Election?”

Casey nodded, “Yes, I don’t get to symbolize often. Let’s stop at the wine bar across the plaza. I’m hungry!”

Seated at a window table with a white tablecloth, Casey pulled out a menu and looked at Sally. “I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m here early.”.

Sally said, “Not really. I read about a Whisperer fiasco at a college reunion yesterday. It sounded like a nasty moment, and definitely not a promo for CumuLinker, not that they care.”

Casey scanned the menu. “What would you like? Should I read the menu to you or do you have a Braille version?”

Sally drabbed her iPhone. “Braille, nah? I could look up the restaurant and read the PDF, but I’m not picky. How about we share appetizers. I really like things that come on sticks. And a carafe of Chablis, too.”

Casey turned to Sally. “Ok, are you friend or foe of CumuLinker?”

Sally said, “Both. I’ve given up on privacy. I had to do that new Facebook to keep in touch with my family members in New Mexico. I joined the phony CumuLinker Accessibility advisory panel. When the Whisperer came along, I realized for the first time, I’d know who I was speaking with at a meetup.”

Casey smiled. “Interesting use case! I never thought about a Whisperer as assistive technology.”

“Actually, Casey, I’ve become a Whisperer voice coach. When the device speaks a partner’s profile into their ear, many people freeze up with what I call Synthetic Voice Shock. We Vision Losers listen to these voices all the time, even speed them up, and can eat and drink at the same time. Amazing, huh?”

Casey nodded, “Cool! I found Whisperer usable enough. I got my voices and earables tuned to my brain speed and capacity. Sally, you live in a different world! I envy your skills.”

Sally asked, “What else happened at the reunion?”

Casey shrugged. “Geez, I was only there for 3 hours, barely caught up with my friends Alice and Patrick. Hey, I won the Whisperer Adornment contest! I’m a techno-fashionista now.”

Sally raised her wine glass for a clink. “An what’s the prize?”

“Casey laughed, “I get five versions of ‘Life Replayed’. Professional, geographical, hobbies, romantic, I forget the other. I really don’t want to go back over so many life episodes, most out of context, some happy, some sad.”

Casey looked away and sipped her wine. “It’s life CumuLinker at the Pearley Gates. I’ll manage my own memories, don’t need no stinking algorithms or big data. How would you like your own life replayed?”

Sally flashed a book cover on the back of her phone. “I blogged my memoirs, ‘As Your World Changes’. But I’d be interested in comparing the result with Know-it-all CumuLinker. Which way is the restroom”.

Casey pointed her finger, then laughed at herself. “Three tables forward, one to the right, ladies on the left. Beware the hustling waiters.”

Casey ordered more wine. She scrolled through Sally’s blog to gather new information about her long-ago colleague. Sally was weaving her way back to their table as if she’d memorized the path. “Sally, I admire how you control your life. Changing the subject, do you know anything about that Pink Page Rampage showing up on Twitter?”

Sally chuckled. “Pink Page analysis is my new hobby. There’s a systemic vulnerability in the Web that makes it easy to deface web pages, well at least for insiders. Anybody mad at a company or person can mess up a website with just a few keystrokes.”

She sipped her wine. ” I’ve heard there’s a Silicon Valley female who got screwed over, or maybe a group of over-40 old folks. These experts use Tor to secretly channel advice to attackers. Actually, it’s not even clear there’s a crime since the page content is intact, just unreadable. Well, except for us with the skills and tools to sneak under the style stuff.”

Casey sputtered, “but, it costs to fix…”.

Sally continued, “Yes, defacing a website is ‘denial of service’, but only for companies not on top of their maintenance and recovery practices. Pink Page Flu might cure the Web of some unhealthy designs and clutter habits.”

Casey threw down her napkin. “No, we algorithm designers and data scientists have already messed up the world. Literally, like electing the “Great Trickster”. I did enjoy that a disgruntled employee snipped his Twitter feed for all of 11 minutes. I’ve been thinking about forming a posse to catch those Pink Page marauders and teach them a lesson. What do you think?”