© Copyright 2006, 2007 by Robert Krten, all rights reserved.
"That'll be $33.21, please. Debit? Excellent, I'll just run that through for you." She sang the standard payment transaction spiel as she took my card and swiped it.
I stood there, a sense of foreboding brewing within me. The too-white lighting in the store made it look like everything, including the customers, was on display. Even her smile was too-white. Another town. Another store. Not far enough from the Core, yet.
One of the fluorescent lights had developed a twitch, and flickered at an odd rate. Dead flies were visible in the plastic housing, their carcasses illuminated on and off with the buzzing, making them seem to crawl along the light. A waft of antiseptic, hospital-smell assaulted my nostrils ... and there it was.
"Oh, there seems to be a problem with your card, sir..."
"Huh? What's that?", I feigned puzzled interest.
"Well," she leaned over, conspiratorially, putting her shiny teeth too close to my face, "this card doesn't seem to have a UCN encoded on it." She said it quietly, shyly, as if it was a mild, forgivable faux pas, maybe something like farting in public, when done quietly and with little odour.
I stood there, wondering if I'd be able to get away with it this time. I tried stalling her, and the inevitable, with a vague request.
"Huh. Can you try it again?"
Maybe I could make it look like it was something on their end. Or make it look like I had never even heard of the UCN. I really wish I hadn't. Too close to the Core.
"Why sure! I'd be happy to!", she damn near squealed.
A second later, two high beeps, a low beep, and a high beep from the register indicated "no UCN coded" again.
"Nope, gosh, I'm really sorry, it looks like you don't have a UCN!", she trailed off a little. She examined the card dubiously. It was worn around the edges, a definite crack forming on one side. The proud red embossed letters were faded and the rest of the card was scratched. The magnetic strip was worn just about right down to the ferrite, eroded to a mottled brown at the edge.
She rebounded with "But I'd be happy to sign you up! If you'll just fill out this form, please, we'll get that fixed for you right away!" She reached under the shiny white counter and brought out an EForm 750 tablet. She selected "UCN Application", and started to hand it to me.
I had to admire her spirit. She was in fine sales-droid form all right. Ready to stamp another serial number on another consumer and help the almighty Corporation reach yet another goddamn stretch goal.
"Umm, hey, you know what?"
Some of the light went out of her eyes. Just a little tiny bit.
"I think I'll pass. Just put the transaction through, without it, I don't need a UCN."
A dull look hit her full on, like I had just proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that zero and fifteen are the exact same number. She was momentarily stunned. Then something inside her clicked, and she recovered.
"Oh gosh, sir, it takes no time whatsoever!" she snake-charm smiled, batting her baby blues at me, "You'll be on your way in 30 seconds, I promise you! Now, if I could just get your thumbprint here", she indicated the fingerpad on the 750.
The marketing department had done their number on her. Here she was, confronted with a non-UCN customer, and quick as a skunk spraying a cat, she decided that the reason this customer didn't want a friggin' UCN was because they were in a rush.
Well, hell, that was the most common reaction of the uninformed masses. There was a reason it was listed as the first script in the UCN manual.
I had to interrupt that script. "No, actually, you don't understand. I said I don't need a UCN."
I emphasized the word "need", and spoke slowly; slower than usual, just to drive home the point that it really wasn't a matter of time. Maybe I'd be able to embarrass her into letting go of this particular bone.
Nope, not this one. "Why, everyone needs a UCN!" She was working herself into a religious fervor. The trademark programming tick was manifesting itself. "You get free stuff! Trips! Prizes! Special once-in-a-lifetime offers! Deals! Why just last week I got a free day at the spa! Imagine what you ..."
I cut her off rudely, "... none of which I need," once again, emphasizing "need". The tick subsided. This was going to be a pain.
"But, but..." her mouth was working, though no sound was coming out. Finally she whimpered, "but everyone needs a universal consumer number..." followed by some garbled words about how the Corporation was just trying to be nice and reward shoppers, even ungrateful ones like me.
Seeing her like that, I felt sorry for her. She was off-script, and improvising. She wasn't just programmed — she actually believed. She hadn't seen the dark side. The databanks. The source. She hadn't been to the Core. The cold, dark, unfeeling greedy Core.
The engine purred quietly. Occasional squeaks from the undercarriage as the wheels encountered imperfections in the road surface were my only company. Leaving the supply store was a relief, even though I had to part with some of my limited supply of cold, hard cash. Sure, I'd be on their security cams, and I probably left trace, but I didn't care. Giving the clerk my print would have alerted them instantly. This way, they'd only have confirmation.
I would soon ditch their odious culture of ingrained, intrusive surveillance and rampant consumerism...
A familiar thought came to me, and I followed it, knowing the conclusion would be the same. The conclusion was always the same: we were wrong. We thought we were doing good. Helping the masses, rewarding them for shopping, thanking them for spending money at their favourite places. It was a natural extension of the customer loyalty reward programs, which blossomed in the 80s and 90s, and developed well into the first decades of the 2000s. Humans are a naturally competitive bunch. As the low hanging fruit of intellectual property got scarce, they competed for other "accomplishments". They competed in their spending. And they were positively reinforced. Savvy companies would inflate the number of "points" that each purchase was worth, transforming a tawdry loaf of bread into thousands of points. Thousands! When accumulated, though, the result was a number that a welfare mom could boast about to her friends, who were all in the same club, with hundreds of thousands of points each. It made them feel rich, like they had accomplished something with their miserable lives. The real accomplishment, though, was redeeming their points. A stupid shiny toaster that cost the manufacturer under $1 in bulk from Asia suddenly became a status symbol, because it was "free" — after all, they had "earned" the points in order to "redeem" them for their "reward". The sheer quantity of points required to redeem the useless piece of shit made the goal that much more worthwhile and noble. But there were some consumers left out. Some who didn't bother. Or who didn't shop the way they were supposed to. Damn maladjusted individuals! But we fixed that, though, didn't we? The sheeple could be trained. They could be manipulated, and conditioned to follow one path, and avoid another. Unconsciously, they loved being trained, and in fact, on a deep neurochemical basis, their brains needed it. And I...
A car speeding past jerked me out of my reverie. Just in time, too — the large green and white overhead roadsign said "Springfield Next Exit". I clenched my teeth and took the offramp. Time to visit Larry.
Lawrence Slater was in the Morrow wing, in the library, seated in a deep leather chair. Surrounded by glass-doored mahogany shelves, with a small gas fireplace off to the side providing additional heat. Physically, he looked good: well-toned, a thin, well maintained moustache, hair trimmed neatly as always. I'd have said late 40s. He looked up at me as I entered.
"Hey Larry, how ya doin'?", I asked casually.
He continued looking at me, a wide smile on his face. His eyes were vacant though; grey and lifeless like an arctic tundra.
"Yah, I'm doing ok too", I continued, trying to keep up the conversation. I hated visiting him. Larry had been brilliant, vibrant ... so alive and full of ideas. This shell, however, just sat there and grinned idiotically. I half-expected him to start drooling.
"So, anyway, the reason I'm here, Larry..." I looked away, into the seductive yellow and blue flames dancing in the fireplace.
Yah, why was I here? "I just need to borrow your brain, Larry" — that would go over well. Or, "Hey Larry, mind if I do some experiments on you? It won't hurt. Much." Sure, winner every time.
Instead, I lied, mostly for myself. "Larry, we're going to go outside; get some fresh air. What do you think of that?" He'd thank me later. It was the least I could do. At least he made my job a little easier by smiling. Not that I could tell what was going on inside his head, but ... he seemed happy.
We travelled for a day and a half, taking the occasional pitstop, paying in cash, and generally staying anonymous and distant. Turning down an unremarkable dirt road, under a dark canopy of old, 3 storey maples, we stopped at a shabby looking slate-gray bungalow with peeling windowframes. The grass hadn't been cut in weeks, and some of the green was turning to yellows and browns with neglect. A rusted copper-coloured '76 Impala rested on blocks in the back.
Perfect. The cover had been maintained exactly as instructed. The place looked abandoned. There was even an authentic musty smell from somewhere near the garage.
Only a handful of people in the world knew what this place really was. Me, Larry, Dr. Wellington, and Dr. Cargill, who had died two years ago. Ok, so three people. And Larry didn't really count.
"Ah, Dr. Wellington, I presume" I smiled and stretched out my hand. It was an old joke.
Dr. Wellington shook my hand, and kissed me lightly on the cheek. "Nice to have you back. Any problems getting Lawrence?" she inquired.
Larry was still sitting in the front seat with his idiot grin.
I shook my head. "No, not really. Just the usual rabble trying to sign me up. Had to use precious cash reserves." I was still upset with the supply store incident. I didn't blame the clerk, she was just doing her job. I just couldn't believe it had spread that far, that fast.
"Was it ALR? They've expanded a lot around here."
"No idea Sarah, didn't stick around to find out." ALR was American Loyalty Rewards, Inc., an up-and-coming UCN pledge. Rumour was they had razor thin, sometimes even slightly negative, margins which they backed off once they hooked you. "In any event, we're clear now. Cash all the way after that."
Dr. Wellington switched to business mode. "Alright. Let's get to it."
It was about an hour later that we had Larry prepared; electrodes were running from various places on his head to the lab instrumentation. The green glow of the equipment cast an eerie pall over the lab, reminding me of the classic "evil scientist" movies from the previous century. The IV bag was hung, and Dr. Wellington tested the syringe, releasing a short fine arc of clear liquid.
Injecting the contents into the syringe port, she said, "We'll start with 10 mils and see. Give it 10 minutes to be absorbed, so probably half an hour or so for prelims."
"How will we know it's working?" I asked, more for conversation than real curiousity. I assumed she'd be monitoring it and would say if it was, or wasn't, working.
"Simple. He'll probably say something. Might not be pleasant", she warned, flashing me a look. "Then, if it continues working, he'll gradually become aware of his surroundings."
"And then he'll really be pissed", I added dryly. I understood the look.
An awkward silence ensued. I thumbed a magazine. We waited.
Larry had always been an easy going guy, though with a penchant for perfection. We met eleven years ago, in '21, at the then-biggest loyalty rewards company, Global Miles Hyper Rewards, or GMHR for short. I was director of R&D, Larry was a newhire from one of the big Nano/Neuro Chem places on the west coast, XNC or maybe SVNN, I forget which. He had an idea, and I had a budget.
"Humans are programmed", he said between sips of his Guinness, "to be programmable."
I digested this awkward phrasing and nodded, "Sure, we learn. So what?"
Larry leaned back, getting comfortable at the table. The chairs at Lazy Eddy's were very rustic, and that was being polite. It was noon, and the place was hopping. Some inconsiderate moron had ordered a fajita, and the waitress was bringing the steaming hotplate of putrid stench over to them, spewing foul cooked pepper gases, causing our olfactory senses to be overwhelmed temporarily. "Man, she must reek when she gets home", Larry grinned. He continued, "Well, lots of people have been trying to figure out how to subvert that programmability for their own purposes. Spy agencies, with their sleeper agents they awaken with a codeword. You know, old movie stuff like that."
"Sure. But Larry, we're not in the spy business," I gently chided him. Sometimes he had a roundabout way of getting to his point. I suspected it was a stalling tactic to get more beer; I was paying.
"No, but our goals are similar. We want to encourage certain behaviours. Behaviours that will be profitable. Look at the early Internet boom — who survived that? Google. Why?" He motioned for another beer.
"Well, uh..." I hadn't thought about ancient history for a while, but it was coming back to me, "because they tied advertising to their search engine, and everyone needed to search for stuff, right?" The ancient Internet was a strange place indeed.
"Correct. Now what do we do?"
I felt like telling him, "If you don't know that, then why are you working for us?". Then I smiled to myself. It was the beer talking. I quoted almost directly from the company manual: "We encourage people to spend more money by learning about their spending patterns, and advertising higher value propositions that match those patterns."
"Sure. That's the current way of doing it. We're like the search engines of old. People like items of type X, so when they ask for more items of type X we give them higher priced items of type X." He leaned forward. The table creaked, and there was danger of spillage. "Now, what if we could train them to seek out only certain values of X, specifically, only the ones that we represent?"
I chewed on that for a while. The fajita fog had finally started to dissipate. GMHR represented about 40% of the marketplace. "So, you're saying... that if instead of blindly rewarding the consumer when they choose one of the brands we represent, we explicitly train them to choose only our brands?"
"Exactly! And then, when we upsell them with the higher VP merchandise, we capture 100% of their purchases, not the 40 someodd percent we own today". I guess Larry was one of those people who found "Value Proposition" to be some kind of embarrasing euphemism for "ripoff".
"Umm... ok, maybe I'm a little thick, but... how? I mean, I walk into Johansenns, and pick up a pair of socks. Why did I choose Johansenns? Why didn't I walk into Sports CityMart and buy my socks there?" Larry waited for me to follow my own reasoning through. "I mean, if I go to Johansenns, I whip out my GMHR card. If I go to Sports CityMart, then it's my SRDP card, right?" I was pretty sure Shopping Rewards Distribution Program represented Sports CityMart. "Either way, I, as the consumer, get rewarded." And, we still get only 40%.
"Yes, but that's 'cuz you're still thinking about it the old way — the dog wagging the tail. Loyalty rewards programs weren't just limited to the big three; decades ago, every Tom, Dick and Harry had their own local loyalty rewards — gas stations, drug stores, grocery stores. The point wasn't so much to encourage the loyalty, as it was to track and capture — figure out what the consumer was buying and upsell them with more before the consumer went to the competition to buy it." Larry's beer arrived. "Thanks." he smiled at the waitress, trying not to wrinkle his nose at her lingering fajita bouquet. "Think about it — a gas station wasn't going to try to influence your decision on which hair care product you were going to buy, nor was a grocery store going to tell you where to get your liquor."
"Now," he continued, "this is where we came in, historically. We amalgamated the business. Our card was used at participating grocery stores, gas stations, and liquor stores. We cross analyzed the shopping patterns, and upsold products within our representational basket. The big three are the result of mass amalgamations across the board. Together, we represent 92% of the industry."
Larry had really done his homework. "I'm with you so far. Now, how do we do this training?"
"The brain is a terrible thing," Larry misquoted and grinned. He savoured his moment before continuing, taking a long swig of his steak-in-a-glass. "Rewards", was all he said.
"Yes...?" I prompted him.
"The programmability of the human brain means that there are multiple inputs. Multiple access points. Multiple ways and means of getting in. Take for instance something as simple as drinking beer." He looked at his half-empty glass. "I've programmed myself, via rewards, to drink this particular brand of beer. It's become imprinted on me. Will I drink another brand? Well, sure, if I have to, but I really like this one."
"Why, Larry? Why not Kelt, for instance? It looks similar, has a similar taste..." Well, I certainly liked it last time I was in Prague.
Larry gave me a tolerant, though somewhat patronizing look, like one gives to non-believers. "Kelt," he snorted dismissively, and then continued on. "Programming. Association. Now, the very smell, texture, the exquisite velvety smoothness of the Guinness going down my throat, it's all associated with the 'good feeling' I have." He grinned again; I could tell which 'good feeling' he was referring to. "And we can do the same thing with the GMHR card. Make using it a pleasurable experience, and I don't just mean in some marketing-twaddle kind of way. I mean real, neurochemical-level pleasure."
I suddenly had a million questions. "Hold on a sec, is this legal? How much will it cost? How long will it last? How about..."
"Dude, relax!", Larry chuckled. He was having far too much fun. "Here, read this". He pulled an MStick out of his pocket. "It has all the details, in the NS1 folder."
I looked around for someone with a portable reader. Lazy Eddy's just wasn't that kind of place. "Ok, how about an executive summary?"
Larry focused his eyes on me. "Yes, NS1 is legal. It'll cost about $2 per card in quantity. It will last for days without reinforcement, but it will be reinforced every time the user touches the card. It works by feeding a novel electrical pattern into the user's fingers which the brain recognizes as a signal for pleasure. No, it's not an orgasmatron." He grinned at the last.
"What does it feel like, then?"
"Actually, that's the best part! You don't feel a thing with NS1. You don't feel any better, or worse, or even a tingle. It works a few levels below the pleasure center; so it doesn't actually give you pleasure, but it tickles the nerve cells that would be tickled if you had felt pleasure."
Obviously, a "huh?" look had crossed my face.
"You've heard of blindsight?" he asked.
I shook my head. I wasn't a neurologist, and I didn't even play one on TV.
"Well, that's what happens when a person has suffered damage to their primary visual cortex, and can no longer see. More correctly, they aren't consciously aware of seeing. If you place, say, a yellow flower somewhere in the room and ask them to point to it, or at least their best guess of where it is, they almost always unerringly point to it, even though they will swear up and down that they can't see it." Larry leaned back on his chair, ingesting more beer in the process. "Same thing with the NS1, you're not consciously aware of the pleasure, but the rest of your brain circuitry knows it's there, and responds to it just like it would to real pleasure. Sweet, huh?"
I was starting to smile. Yes, I got it now. Undetectable. Expensive, but with the right execution — wow. "Can I, uh, try it?" I asked hesitantly. I wanted to check this out for myself.
Larry's face fell a little. "Well, ahh... no, not just yet. There's one little catch."
"We have to send out an enabler neuro-protein first." He quickly added, "We only have to do this once, then it's permanent. And the neuro-protein is legal, undetectable, yaddy yaddy yaddy."
He was losing me again. "Why?"
"Well, the brain doesn't normally accept pleasure-manifestation inputs from the fingers, we have to enable that pathway. This neuro-protein does that. And that's all it does. We can release it with an 'upgrade' of the card, or whatever. Hell, a scratch-n-sniff for all I care. I'm sure the marketing droids will figure it out." He finished off his beer. "But think about it — really, it's the best part. It's a two step process, and each step is completely harmless, and legal. Well, I'm not a lawyer, but certainly 'not illegal' which is good enough, right?"
"So let me understand how we would use this now..." The beer wasn't helping me think faster, so I stalled a bit by readjusting myself on the uncomfortable chair. "If we can train them to really, really, really like our card, then we're binding purchasing with pleasure." Larry was about to interrupt, so I corrected myself, "Or with the manifestation of pleasure, whatever." Larry relaxed. Ok, so far so good. "And if that binding isn't there with competitors' cards, they'll avoid them, right?"
"Bingo!" was all Larry needed to say. He could see that I was well on my way to signing off on his project. "So, basically, we're subverting a huge massively parallel neural supercomputer, also known as 'the brain', to go out and find stores that use the GMHR card, and avoid stores that don't." A giggle escaped from him.
When he put it that way, it seemed almost evil — but then it triggered a memory; something that now suddenly made a lot more sense to me. "Hey, that's just like when I quit smoking using the patch," I told him. "I was doing ok for a week or so, no problems, but then one day I found myself at the store buying a pack of smokes, with no idea why I was there. I didn't figure it out until later, when I went to take off the patch — turns out, it had slipped off earlier in the day, after I had gone swimming!" Totally subconscious. Sweet.
A pullquote jumped out at me: "Like any addiction, it soon leads to a state of never feeling satisfied." Everone's a critic, I thought grimly. I started to scan the rest of the article. Larry let out a groan and started to show signs of agitation. I looked up at Sarah, but she still had on her cool professional demeanor.
She studied the NEM display for a second, and then shook her head, "It's just a mild imbalance, we can't draw any conclusions from it yet."
FY23 Q4 profits at GMHR were up 31%, even though there was a massive $219 million "R&D ongoing operations" expense. Like all R&D projects, it took longer than expected, and cost way more than expected. But once the numbers were in, bonuses flowed like cheap champagne. Pink Floyd's "New car, caviar, think I'll buy me a football team" kept running through my mind. Ah, the Good Times.
It didn't take the competition long to notice their profits begin to dwindle, slump, and then downright plummet. By '24, we owned 67% of the market. Retailers that weren't associated with us were slamming their doors shut, or switching affiliations to us at an incredible pace. Together, Larry and I had changed the face of major sectors of the retail marketplace.
The lawsuits started in earnest the next year. The competition claimed "unfair competitive practices" and "exclusionary methods". The civil liberties people sued with "mass brainwashing", "mind control", "human experiments", and whatever else they thought they could get away with. Mass lawsuits brought out the best in society; soon crackpots were alleging supermarket checkout-line magazine headlines like "secret mind experiments made me kill my coworkers," and "pleasure center neuroproteins ruined my sex drive." Lawmakers, from the municipalities through to federal entities, passed laws seeking to limit neuro-protein research, ban existing neuro-proteins, ban electro-feedback delivery systems, anything to try and appease the population.
The best thing about being a large, extremely successful multinational corporation is that we had money. Oodles and oodles of money to buy lawyers, politicians, and laws.
The only thing money couldn't stop, however, was the competition. Eventually, they figured it out, and came up with their own countermeasures. In the early part of '27, ALR and SRDP launched their own "anti-neuro-protein", or ANP, in an effort to effectively "re-key" the population to their loyalty scheme.
In August of that year, Larry went catatonic. I remember we were at the Black Cat on Elgin, and Larry had just finished his fourth or fifth Tequilla shooter. He looked at me and started to say something, but never finished. A glazed smile spread across his face, and has been there to one degree or another ever since. We called the paramedics, thinking he had suffered a stroke, but all they could do was check him in to Neurology.
Weeks later, they told us that Larry's exposure to an experimental neuroprotein at his previous job was to blame. When ALR deployed its ANP-7B neuroprotein, it interacted badly with Larry's pre-compromised neural system, and thrust him into his deep catatonic state.
"Larry!" I shouted.
He moaned a bit, and then his eyes gradually opened. He focussed and unfocussed them, seeing again for the first time in years. His mouth worked a bit, and a soft grunt escaped.
"Well, I guess one shot is a pretty good dose; we'll have to observe him longer and see what the residuals are, but this is definitely promising!"
"Oh man, this is great! Sarah, I'm so happy we're going to get our Larry back..."
Late summer turned into fall at the abandoned-looking lab, the Impala rusted some more, and the trees started losing their greens and veered more towards the lower frequencies of the spectrum.
Larry improved day by day, while the world got gradually worse.
One crisp fall day, I went over to see how he was doing, only to find him up and about.
"What are you doing, Larry? You're supposed to be in bed!" I chastized him.
He just gave me his shit-eating grin and went back to his work, with a quick update of "I've just about got the ANP neutralizer formula perfected."
And it sure looked like he had — he didn't seem to suffer from the old bouts of depression any more, and his smile was more genuine, not the forced-through-gritted-teeth death mask smile he'd been blessing us with of late. I told him as much, "You're looking great, dude!"
"Thanks. The ANP neutralizer has done a lot to undo the damage of the mixed NP/ANP compounds I was exposed to."
Hold on a second. "Larry, did you say 'neutralizer'?"
A hard look crossed over his face, just for an instant, and then was gone. His smiled returned, but this time with an edge to it. "Yup. I'm sick and tired of the Boston Points Exchange, the almost daily riots, the Brotherhood of Christian Saviours and every other goddamned crank group of zealots who try to reprogram us." He saw my stunned look. Obviously, he'd kept up with current events while he was recovering. He continued with, "Yes, I'm going to make it so that nobody can program another human being again. The neutralizer will permanently block the alternate neural inputs to the brain, rendering all the other NPs useless and ineffective."
I couldn't make up my mind. Barton's or Silk Road? Socks were socks, after all. And these were both nice, black socks, with a fine ridge of detailed stitching on the side. Similarly priced. I ran my fingers over them again, musing about the day Larry released the neutralizer to the unsuspecting world. Initially, there was no change. The riots continued over loyalty points. The Boston Points Exchange posted more gains. The Brotherhood enlightened more souls.
But then, one day, there was no riot. People wandered around, seemingly lost. The exchange tumbled, and virtual trillions disappeared. Empires that rose during the past decade were suddenly razed to the ground.
And, without coercion, or any undue neurological influence, vast flocks of sheeple once again safely grazed the enclosed shopping compounds.
"I'll take the Barton's," I said to the clerk.