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...
Edwin was the unluckiest man in the world. He was such a statistical outlier that most systems discarded his lived experience as being obviously wrong - the product of a cosmic ray flipping a bit somewhere. Nevertheless, Edwin existed and was used to getting the fuzzy end of life's lollipop.
Edwin always had the sense that something was wrong but could never really quantify what exactly. He didn't get the breaks like some other guys do. That didn't break his spirit; it just made him more determined to succeed. He constantly failed but took it as a challenge. He was indefatigable in the face of a world that clearly had it in for him.
His first lucky break in life came at the hotel bar. The journey had been typically hellish. His satnav took him a circuitous route to the airport which made him needlessly late. The security system had - once again - selected him for a random pat down. The flight was overbooked and - surprise surprise - his seat had been reallocated. A last minute delay in his replacement's connecting flight freed up the spot and Edwin made it to the little island getaway.
He knew his luggage wouldn't arrive for a few days. It never did.
Propping up the hotel bar was a rep from the holiday company. He was happy to hold court with the guests, to take their praise and funnel their complaints back to some anonymous HQ. He fell into conversation with Edwin, grilling him about his experience with the website. "I presume you're here because of the 20% discount then?"
"Ummm. No. I think I paid full price. There wasn't any discount that I could see."
This puzzled the rep. "Oh. Well. You must have been part of the B cohort."
The rep saw Edwin's confusion and began to explain. Every website engages in A/B testing. You take a small bunch of visitors and present them with a subtly different experience. At its most innocuous, 5% of people see a link which is a slightly different shade of blue. If proportionally more of them click on the links than the A cohort, then the test is a success. The new shade of blue becomes the default.
At the more extreme end, half the visitors to the website get a positive experience and the other half get a negative experience. In this way, you can tell just how far you can push your audience. Perhaps people won't rebel if prices are doubled.
"Everyone does it," said the rep. "It's just the way the world works. We test things. Well, I suppose we test how people react to things. Maybe you didn't get the discount. If enough people on the B test clicked anyway, it means we don't need to offer massive discounts. Sorry about that. Here, let me buy you another drink."
Edwin felt his perspective on the world shift.
He'd always just assumed online grocery shopping was shit. Whatever he ordered, no matter how basic, he always received a substitute. A bunch of bananas replaced with banana flavoured Angel Delight. Smokey barbecue sauce replaced with 20 cigarettes. Ice cream replaced by antifreeze. Every time he had received something odd, it wasn't a spotty teenaged picker making a mistake - the algorithm had sorted him into a cohort of losers, just to see how he'd react!
It also explained his lack of luck with online dating. He was tall, moderately good looking, and adequately interesting. Yet the only people he matched against were had photos which were, at best, several years out of date. The powers-that-be had divided the world into winners and losers. And everyone he dated was a guaranteed loser. Or, in one memorable occasion, an arsonist.
The crappy journey to the airport hadn't been bad traffic, or poor data, or unexpected roadworks on the motorway. His navigation provider wanted to A/B test some new route finding algorithms and poor Edwin had been "randomly" selected to see if a longer journey would reduce his reported Net Promoter Score.
The kicker was that no one believed him. He wrote to all the websites he could find and demanded that they remove him from being in the B cohort. They all wrote back and denied that they did any such testing on their users. Besides, even if they did, it was always random. He couldn't possibly be that unlucky all the time. The press didn't care, it was too esoteric a subject for most readers to understand. Besides, papers made a lot of money A/B testing which headline generated the most comments and shares.
Edwin's MP was spectacularly useless. She seemed to understand his general concern, and even promised to raise the matter in Parliament for him. And yet she was never selected to actually ask her question. She promised to invite him to speak at a committee which was looking into the regulation of harmful algorithms, but the invite never materialised.
A dark cloud hung over Edwin. Intellectually he knew that social media was deliberately trying to make him feel bad. He'd read the reports about the unsanctioned experiments companies carried on their unsuspecting users. He could see that every image of his friends finding love and happiness was surgically designed to make him feel bad in the hope of selling more profitable advertising space. He couldn't turn his eyes away. Even knowing the awful truth wasn't enough to stop his brain turning against him.
After the 3rd randomly cancelled appointment, Edwin finally managed to see a doctor. The horror of his life came flooding out, how he was cursed, how the machines all had it in for him, how his life was being ruined by anonymous product managers who always seemed to know how to best torment him. Naturally the doctor diagnosed him with an acute form of paranoia with delusions of grandeur and hyper-fixation. The fact that Edwin had been writing increasingly long letters to the Prime Minister also hadn't helped his cause.
The doctor would normally have prescribed a course of antipsychotic medication. Edwin's case was so severe that it warranted something a little stronger. There was a promising sounding medical trial which was targeted at people with this level of psychological disorder. And so the doctor helpfully signed Edwin on to it. This would help.
The pills did nothing. Every day Edwin knocked back the multicoloured pills and felt no better. He complained to the doctor and convinced him to up the dosage. The more pills Edwin took, the worse he felt. This was utterly hopeless. Edwin gave in. Something, somewhere wanted to make him as miserable as possible and he was damned if he was going to let that happen. So he overdosed. He took every pill in the packet washed down with wine, sent a ranting email to his doctor, and fell asleep.
Edwin looked around the padded cell. The strip lights buzzed at just the right frequency to agitate his hangover. Sat next to his bed was a friendly looking psychiatrist and less-friendly looking orderly. The orderly growled as Edwin sat up.
"Well," said the psychiatrist, "I've got good news and bad news."
Edwin had only ever known bad news, so today was already looking up. "What's the good news?"
"You're a very lucky man. As part of the medical trial, you were placed in the group which were only given placebos."
"I'm not going to die?"
"No. Not from that many sugar pills."
"But the bad news?"
"We treat any attempted overdose rather seriously. So you may be with us for a little while."
"Tell you what. Let's get started with a basic evaluation. I'm Doctor Myers. What's your full name?"
Edwin glanced around the plain white walls of his cell. He noticed the faded stains near the corners. Outside he could hear voices raised in distress. There was no natural lighting. The air was stale and smelled of disinfectant. This was his new home.
"My name is Edwin," he sighed. "Edwin Null."
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.