Chapter 20 - Because we've told you before; you can't do that

A book cover in the style of a 1950's pulp sci-fi novel. An AI generated set of computers are connected by wires.Welcome to NaNoWriMo, where I - and thousands of other plucky souls - try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.

You are reading "Tales of the Algorithm". A compendium of near-future sci-fi stories. Each chapter is a stand-alone adventure set a few days from now.

Everything you read is possible - there's no magic, just sufficiently advanced technology. Think of them as technological campfire horror stories.

Your feedback on each story is very much appreciated.

And so, let's crack on with...

Because we've told you before; you can't do that

Choice is pain.

Do you really want to browse through a hundred different boxes of breakfast cereal just to decide what to eat each morning? No. No one does. Choice saps your energy and makes you anxious. What if you pick the wrong one? What if it isn't as cost effective as the others? What if the company who makes it is unethical? What starts off as deciding between Cruncheee Snaxxx or Ultra Fruit Bran becomes an exercise in complexity, fraught with economic and moral hazards.

Here at MegaTecQ our aim isn't to eliminate choice. We want to facilitate a world where it's easier to make the right choice than the wrong choice.

MegaVille, our new gated community, is open for business. Before you decide to place a downpayment on one of our affordable luxury villas, let us take you through a typical day in MegaVille.

John is asleep. He's still dreaming, and why not! John doesn't need to choose when to set his alarm. If his boss needs him into work early, the company computer will update John's alarm. It calculates distance to work and traffic flow in order to optimise John's wake-up call. John enjoys his extra time in bed.

John gets in the shower. He doesn't have to remember what settings to press because it already knows what temperature he likes. The water has been heating it since the alarm went off. Is it one squirt of shampoo and two of conditioner - or the other way round? Don't worry John! The bottles know exactly how much to dispense. There's no way to make the wrong choice. You get exactly what you need. Swell!

Wasn't that a delicious bowl of cereal, John? We knew our Tastee Pops were perfectly calibrated for your taste-buds. But what's this? The box is empty! Time to dispose of it. As you can see, the bin won't open for John. Why not? The bin has scanned the item John is holding and has realised it is recyclable. No putting cardboard in the general waste bin, John. As you can see, there's no need to choose which of your seven bins to use - the MegaVille SmartHome helps you make the right choice, the smart choice, every time.

John is driving to work and away from MegaVille. He loves the thrill of controlling a user-driven car. It gives him a sense of enormous well-being. But he doesn't need to look out for speed limit signs. The car simply will not go faster than the posted limit. The law is there to keep everyone safe - including John. So no matter how hard he presses down on the accelerator, his choice cannot violate the law.

It is early evening and, after a hard day at the office, John has returned to his sanctuary in MegaVille. His working day has consisted of nothing but difficult choices. Now he's free to relax in a choice-free environment. We've already pre-selected his favourite beers and spirits. The fridge will dispense exactly the right amount of beer and the optics are calibrated to provide an optimal level of inebriating fluids.

John loves listening to music and MegaVille loves helping our residents find the perfect song. The MegaMusicPlaylist means that John doesn't have to remember exactly which albums he likes - we do it for him. No tedious searching through a vinyl collection, no piles of CDs gathering dust, no poorly tagged MP3s. John can sit back and listen without the tyranny of choice to distract him. Bliss!

Oh dear! I think John has forgotten about the strict noise ordinances in MegaVille. We're a community of close neighbours and that means no noise after 9pm. Your neighbour Cynthia needs her sleep! John doesn't have to think about this tedious administrative detail, the system turns the volume down for him. A quiet neighbourhood is a happy neighbourhood.

Time for bed, John!

I awoke with a start. The unholy screeching of the alarm's siren was excruciating. Six A-fucking-M. Why did the bastard machine want me up this early? There was no work today. My head was pounding. There's a message going around the dark web which shows you how to enable free-pour on the MegaVille optics. I'd tricked the stupid machine into filling my beer glass with the sorry excuse for vodka they serve here. I knew there'd be hell to pay in the morning, but I was at least expecting a lie in.

Half asleep I stumbled into the bathroom, had a quick vomit, and started rummaging around in the medicine cabinet. Aha! A bottle of ibuprofen. It dispensed a single pill. Of course, it couldn't have me "choose" to take an overdose. I contemplated smashing the bottle open, but it was still early and the noise would only annoy my neighbour. I grasped another bottle near the back of the cupboard. Perhaps this would have something useful in it? Sadly not - the aspirin bottle had sensed how much alcohol was still sloshing around inside me. It wouldn't let me make a choice that might upset my stomach.

The MegaTwats could control how much hot water I was allowed, and whether to give me an extra squirt of lotion, but they couldn't actually force me to wash myself. I had made a choice! Fuck you MegaVille. My entire body felt grim, so perhaps it wasn't the smartest choice, but it was a choice made by me.

Perhaps a cup of coffee? A little pick-me-up to clear the brain fog. I flicked the kettle and nothing happened. The micro-display built into the lid was flashing a warning message. Ah, the electricity grid was having one of its periodic surge-pricing moments. I couldn't choose to boil the bloody kettle unless the electricity was carbon neutral or some bollocks.

There had to be a reason MegaVille wanted me up so early. I turned on the TV. Naturally there was a single channel. Less choice but, more than that, it was supposed to foster community cohesion. We could all gather around the watercooler and discuss the same shows. Something lost in an age of streaming TV. It had all sounded so pleasant when I signed up to live here. But people here tended to scuttle into their homes rather than socialise. I hadn't even met my neighbour Cynthia. A neighbour who, judging from the immovably low volume on the telly, was still asleep.

The subtitles were on. Even that wasn't a choice. I mean, I liked it - sound mixing is atrocious these days - but I preferred to be able to set it myself. The chyron told me the weather (another thing they couldn't control!) and the football scores (we all supported The MegaVille Marvels, apparently). Finally some actual news came on. Today was election day.

Of course! I remember receiving my ballot in the mail last week. It had the precise time I needed to be at the polling station to vote. I didn't want to choose to be stuck in a queue, did I?

The wardrobe dispensed appropriate clothes for the weather. It might rain later, so it made me take a hooded top. It was a rather thoughtful system at times, and did its best to look after me.

The polling station was a few streets away. My car wouldn't let me make the choice to use it for such a short journey - even if it had started raining. I begrudgingly strolled along the pavement. I could see lights flicker on across the suburb as my neighbours were told to rise and shine. I wonder if any of them had hangovers.

At the intersection, I realised another choice had been stolen from me. The crossing now had barriers blocking my way across the road. I looked both ways and couldn't see any early morning traffic. Did I want to risk jumping the barrier? I pressed the button and waited for the Green Man. While I waited, a young mother walked up to the crossing, child in hand.

"Do you see?" she said in the sing-song voice so beloved by doting parents, "You can't cross before the Green Man lets you. It's naughty. That's why MegaVille has placed a gate here - so you can't make a dangerous choice."

I wanted to scream! Dangerous choices are what life is all about! We need to be free to make mistakes so we can learn from them! Freedom is its own reward! And a few children squashed under cars is a small price to pay for that!

I didn't, of course. I just patiently waited for the crossing to open.

The polling place was moderately busy with suburbanites who had arrived at their allotted time. I recognised a few faces, but was barely on nodding terms with anyone. I received a ballot and took it into the little booth. I unfolded the paper. I'd like to say that I stared in disbelief, but the ballot was entirely expected. It read:

Vote for one option only by placing a cross (X) in the box.
MegaVille should make more choices for us [ ]

That was it. A hollow laugh rang out and I was surprised to discover it came from me. I could have chosen to spoil my ballot, but why bother? I had agreed to live here. Deep down I knew that my personal choices had led me down a dark and lonely road. Perhaps here I would be free to live without the constant worry that had bedevilled me for so long. I dropped my checked ballot in the box and began to walk home. I unquestioningly waited for the lights to change before crossing the street.

Sat on my porch was an unfamiliar woman. She rose as I approached.

"Hello John!" She said, "I'm Cynthia, your neighbour. Lovely to meet you."

"Hello!" I replied, "Yes, great to meet you at last!"

"I received this in the mail this morning." She handed me a slip of paper. "We're to be married next week. I'm so looking forward to our new life together."

I smiled and surrendered myself to a life free from choice.

Thanks for reading

I'd love your feedback on each chapter. Do you like the style of writing? Was the plot interesting? Did you guess the twist? Please stick a note in the comments to motivate me.

You can read the complete set of short stories in order.

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 20 - Because we've told you before; you can't do that”

  1. says:

    @Edent it is a good story, great series in fact! I think limiters on cars should be exactly like ebikes - when you reach the limit you are still free to go faster, but you have to pedal harder to do so.

  2. It's an interesting read! I love the first-person commercial section in the beginning, it really drew me into the world. It may have worked even better if it were diegetic, like John was seeing the ad on tv or in print. It would have made the transition to the story proper a bit smoother. Great job!

  3. says:

    I really appreciate your story. There are several situations where simple automation, at first sight not so invasive, gradually erodes our ability to think for ourselves. If everyone makes the same choices (and choosing not to make them is already a choice, as you point out at the end of your story), this will take away all our individuality.
    There is no win-win solution in a home automation environment. What we gain with an AI assistant we lose in other aspects of life, not as obvious as the automatic lighting of a room.

  4. I liked. I think the designer of the place had autistic tendencies, don't make it hard, don't change things, keep the environment the same. Then the fascism crept in 🤣

  5. There's an old joke in the US Marine Corps: "Son, if the Corps thought you needed a wife, it would have issued you one".


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