Thing a Week 27: Brave New World

“Hey boss,” Dave knocked gently, respectfully, “do you have a minute?”

From behind his desk, Eli Moss glanced sharply at the absurdly large analog clock on the wall, then quickly and impatiently back at his employee. “Maybe. What?” It was clear he hadn’t slept for days, both from the dark crescents under his eyes and the short fuse he’d had the past couple days.

Dave entered the office but remained standing, unsure of whether his concerns would engage a real conversation or just the usual one-sided lecture.

“Well? What is it?” Eli drummed a pen against his desk.

“To be honest,” Dave started nervously, “I just don’t really have any hope that Filters is going to work.”

There was a moment of silence before Eli exploded.

“Christ, Dave! What do you mean it doesn’t work? The release is tomorrow! Millions of people pre-ordered Filters; it’ll download to their chips in the morning. You’re just telling me now it’s not going to work? How far off are we? It can at least replace words in speech, right?”

“No, no — I mean yes, speech is done. Users can set words to automatically replace as they speak. Parent Mode is done, too. But I mean — “

“Then what? Listening? We can roll out Passive Mode later if we need to. Is there something wrong with audio replacement?”

“No, but — “

“I know the brain interfaces are solid. I worked on those myself.” Eli drifted off into a moment of thought which let Dave cut back into the conversation.

“The functionality’s all there,” he soothed. “The code all works; or, will work, at least— we’re finishing up the last batch of bugs now. I just don’t think the idea is going to work. Who’s actually going to use this?”

“You need to take a step back and look at the big picture,” Eli explained hotly. “You’re a programmer stuck in the details, the implementation. Think about the users — the people of the world.

“Everyone’s life sucks in some way — many more than others. And everyone wants their own life to be better, even marginally better is a win. Some people even want others to live a better life. I want you to and everyone else to live a better life.

“But there are two types of people in this world when it comes to making it a better place. You have the social leaders who get things done and lead by example and you have the leechers who don’t. Leaders take it upon themselves to do the right thing, and leechers just take to the Internet to push that responsibility onto others.

“Most people are leaders. They’re the ones that adopted the New Terminology this year and speak respectfully. They recognize that words have power and can subjugate entire populations, and thus they limit their vocabulary to the Nice Vernacular. How are you going to offend someone without the words that can offend them?”

“You — “

“That was rhetorical,” Eli interrupted, face reddening at the disrespectful interruption of his subordinate. “Obviously, all those leaders are going to use Filters. We all know it’s hard to manually retrain your brain to use new words, especially when it comes to replacing ones you’ve grown up hearing and freely using. Filters makes it mindless: just subscribe to some word replacement lists and you can start making a real change with literally zero extra mental effort on your part.

“But that’s only half of the problem. People already choose their words carefully today — just, manually — and look at all the good it’s done. You still have the other half of the world running around and saying whatever they want. They’re the ones making trouble and inciting problems — they’re the only ones who can. And they’ll only ever make a mockery of Filters; they’ll never really use it — well, unless someone forces it on them.

“But that’s the trick, the secret ingredient, to Filters. It doesn’t matter if they use it or not. As long as we have both speech and hearing ready to go tomorrow, we’re going to fundamentally change the world for millions of real people around the globe.

“From a user’s perspective, it’s a solid victory over the troublemakers. It’s over, we’ve won: we might never be able to get undesirables to change the words they say, but we can at least change the words we hear. This is the middle-ground that lets everyone live in the world they want to live in with no downside to either group: those who need the Nice Vernacular can ensure everyone they ever interact with is using it, and those who don’t care can continue to talk however they’d like — for now.

“Do you understand now? This is important, groundbreaking stuff. This could win me — you, us all — a Nobel Prize. This could be worth billions. We could eradicate racism, hate speech, and maybe all kinds of disagreements. For the first time in history, we might be on the cusp of lasting world peace.”

Eli took a deep breath and leaned in over his desk, studying Dave’s eyes for a change in comprehension. When none immediately came, he asked, “Well?”

The single guest chair in front of Eli’s desk creaked against the wood flooring as Dave nervously fiddled with the backing, completely unswayed by the same pitch he’d now heard a thousand times.

“I’m happy to be a part of the team on something that could be so groundbreaking,” he swallowed, “I just don’t know if people will use it is all. Or how they’ll feel about other people using it or not.”

Eli sighed. He was normally more than capable of composing a rallying speech for the Better World, but what little polyphasic sleep he’d found in the office this week during crunch-time had really taken a toll on his idyllic mental prowess. 

“You just don’t see it,” Eli exasperatedly spit. “Your privilege blinds you. Go get someone of color from the team. Call them in and we’ll ask them for their opinion.”

Dave paused and bit his lip, unsure of how to answer. “Uh, we don’t have anyone of color on the team.”

Eli blushed briefly, but his red face hid it well. “Oh, right. Well, grab the girl then. No, you’ll take too long. I’ll just do it.” He typed something quick on his keyboard and announced, “Ellen, can you come in my office for a second?” His voice echoed over the building speakers.

“What’s up?” Ellen asked, respectfully peeking her head in the door.

“Dave doesn’t think Filters is a good idea,” Eli stated matter-of-factly. “What do you think?”

Ellen physically recoiled at the question. She’d had a few nightmares that week alone about her boss asking her that exact question and agonized over how she would answer. 

“I, uh, I don’t know about it, Eli. I’m not really in favor of the New Terminology to begin with.” She shuffled her feet, looking nervously at Dave. He pursed his lips as if to say, Yeah, I’m trapped here too. Good luck.

Eli looked stunned so Ellen continued, trying to dig herself out of a futile hole she knew she was already too deep down.

“I think some of the replacements are a good idea, of course. I just don’t think they always are in all contexts. I think it makes more sense to think words through on a case-by-case basis and choose the words we use, instead of just flatly banning all of the ones that could be bad.

“The etymology is completely divergent for a lot of the Bad Words, too. Most of them are just compound words that happen to share stems and roots with words that could be used derogatorily. And I think there’s value in not replacing those words in those cases; I think semantic satiation is actually more helpful in the long run for a lot of these words, diluting the pool of definitions in common use so people don’t so readily just assume the worst one whenever they see a questionable word.

“It’s like, what’s next? Are we not going to be able to kill applications, shoot movies, or abort downloads? Who will go first in chess?”

“That’s enough,” Eli ordered firmly. “Get me someone out there that’s gay.”

“Woah there, that’s redacted,” the company lawyer in the corner interjected loudly, dropping pages of scribbled notes into her lap as she raised both hands to abruptly stop the conversation. “He didn’t say that. You both are now under contractual obligation to forget that last request, please. He did not say that.”

Eli rose to his feet and slammed both fists on his desk which rattled his laptop and sent folders flying. He yelled: “Why am I just hearing about this now? Does nobody here believe in what we’re doing? Get back out there, let’s go talk to the team.”

He followed his two beet-colored employees back out into the open office area where a small but dense group of desks still had employees tirelessly working into the evening.

“Headphones off,” Eli boomed. Everyone heard — even Ludwig, who felt the soundwaves with his shoeless feet and looked to his signer for a translation.

Eli fumed at one end of the desks until all eyes were on him. He gazed deeply at each employee, in turn, until he had finished a brief breathing exercise. 

“It’s come to my attention that the team isn’t all on the same page when it comes to Filters, and we can’t very well put out a cohesive product if we’re all so uninformed on what we’re trying to accomplish here.

“I know I’ve talked to you ad infinitum about what we’re doing here and you’re probably all sick of it by now. I’m not going to bother repeating myself if it didn’t sink in the first time. I want to know where each of you stands on the idea of Filters. Especially those of you in marginalized communities. Brad, you first. What do you think?”

Like a deer in the headlights, Brad froze.

“Before you speak, Brad,” the company lawyer interjected again, “I just want to point out that Brad is both alphabetically first in the employees present today as well as the one in closest proximity to Eli in our current arrangement, and as such, it’s entirely plausible, likely, and probable that he singled Brad out first for these reasons and these reasons alone. You are all contractually obligated to acknowledge this fact at this time.”

Altogether, the team verbally acknowledged the stated possibility.

Brad pulled his feathery scarf tight — a nervous tic common for him in the office — and uncomfortably fiddled with one of the zippers on the side of his distressed leather shorts.

“I like Filters — “

“Good,” Eli interrupted.

“ — but I think there’s an important distinction to be made for whether a person actively chooses to use an offensive term or not. The words — ”

“They’re the same,” Eli interrupted again, falling back into another fit of rage. “Whether they adjust their speech or you adjust your hearing, it’s all the same. You won’t hear any of those words.”

“Exactly, but sometimes I want to hear those words. I want to know who the troublemakers are. If someone calls me something unsavory and I just hear ‘friend’ instead, I’m not going to put up the guards I should. I love the speech plugin — “

“As you should.”

“ — but I think the audio plugin is going to lull a lot of people into a false sense of security. You lose the ability to tell what spaces are safe if you can’t hear what people are actually thinking.”

“How’s that any different from now? People already stop and force themselves to use nicer words than they’re actually thinking for you—you can’t see what’s going on inside their mind.”

“Sometimes I can,” Brad shot back, glaring.

Eli turned, brushing Brad’s retort off. “Jason, what about you? Are Filters good or evil?”

“I just think it’s a slippery — “

“Nope,” Eli cut short. “Harold?”

“Uh,” Harold stammered, “It’s, uh, censorship?”

“No. Next! Shakespeare.”

“Words are just words,” Shakespeare said. “It’s not going to change how anybody — “

“Jesus Christ, guys!” Eli exploded again. “How have you been able to work on this for so long without believing in it? Are you just here for the money? Or have you forgotten what’s possible with the Upgrade? Does anyone here actually care about their job and what exactly we’re doing here?”

Across the room, three hands slowly went up.

The first hand was Tanner, who put his hand over his heart for emphasis. “I, for one, am ashamed of the rest of the team’s outlook on Filters. The world’s in disarray, filled with racists and sexists and fascists and more. In case you didn’t know, that’s bad. Either they need to change or we need to change and I’ve spent my entire life advocating for minorities while trying to change their oppressors. Get this though: nothing changed, and those minorities are still suffering. 

“What we’ve made with Filters is the first opportunity we’ve ever had to take away the power in their words. I may not have ever been marginalized or oppressed, but there are others out there that haven’t been as fortunate as me. Words are weapons that hurt and particular words subtly reinforce systematic biases of all kinds. The best way to stop undesirables from using any kind of weapon is to just take it away.”

“Thank you, Jake. Words are important and have a lot of subtle effects that some people just can’t see. What about you, Cody?”

“I just think the norm has to change. The English language evolves over time, and I think it’s time for a new chapter of respect. The words I use aren’t very important to me, but I know they can be important to others. I don’t want to ever offend anyone and Filters seems like the easiest way to make sure that never happens.”

“Exactly”, Eli nodded. “Why risk offending someone if you don’t mean to? It just makes their life worse.”

“And half the time you don’t even realize you did it,” Cody added. “Unless they tell you, and then it gets real awkward.”

“Offense is taken, not given,” Dustin proclaimed from the back of the room. “Shouldn’t they just choose not to get offended? I’m not giving it, they’re taking it. This all seems like their problem — not mine.”

“Why not make it nobody’s problem with Filters?” Eli grimaced through gritted teeth. “You don’t have to worry about it, they don’t have to worry about it — everyone is happy.”

“It kind of feels like the most intimate invasion of privacy possible,” someone said from the back of the room. “Even though we’re doing all the replacements offline. Is it really our place to play God with people’s thoughts? To change their reality?”

“Whoever said that is fired. You do not belong at this company.”

From the dark corners of the vast room, two beefy but agile security guards emerged with plastic milk crates to help that employee empty their desk of personal items.

“Anybody else?” Eli roared. “What about you, Bentham? You normally have a strong opinion on things.”

Bentham wanted desperately to put in yet another plea for Eli to call him by his first name instead, but he knew it would continue to fall on ears even deafer than Ludwig’s. Instead, he thought about the question and answered thoughtfully:

“The work we’ve done on Filters is groundbreaking, with the potential not only to mitigate and limit suffering for billions around the world right now, but also for all of eternity, either directly through Filters itself or indirectly through technological derivatives. Therefore, what we release doesn’t need to be perfect now; it just needs to be better than the status quo, which I think it is — or has the possibility to be. As kids these days are wont to say: ‘Perfect is the enemy of good.’ We should be striving for better, not best — and I think we’ve definitely accomplished ‘better’.

“But regardless of whether it fundamentally changes everyone’s lives for the better or marginally improves the lives of just a few people, what we’ve made here is a historical breakthrough in what’s technologically possible and should result in a net good for many years to come.

“That is to say,” Bentham continued, “any pain and suffering we may or may not have endured in crunch-time pales meekly in comparison to the potential amount of good — even if measured the most minuscule of difference per person — that Filters will cumulatively produce for the rest of the planet. If you believe it’s possible that Filters will produce even the littlest of net good for humanity as a whole, you should also believe we have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to make sure it ships on time for maximum impact.”

“Well said,” Eli said, clapping softly. “Thank you, Bentham. Whatever the rest of the team’s thoughts on Filters are, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still going live tomorrow. Shakespeare already put out the press release and the review embargo lifts at eight. We need you to work hard and get this out on time, done right. The planet needs you. Now, if anyone needs me for anything else, I’ll be in my office meditating. Please don’t disturb me for at least an hour.”

As the boss returned to his office, Dave and Ellen sat back down at their desks. Dave stared blankly at the buggy code he’d left open and felt a pang of deja vu that brought him back to the same negative headspace that originally prompted him to share his thoughts with Eli: so much hard work and suffering was left for such little benefit.

He sighed, stretched, and got up for a cup of water from the breakroom. He needed to clear his head if he was going to get through all these bugs and get home at a reasonable hour.

He sipped his water and checked his neural messaging plugin: he had two unread texts from his wife.

Abigail: HAD HARD DAY AT WORK. PIZZA FOR DINNER?

Abigail: ICE CREAM TOO. COMING HOME TONIGHT? MISS YOU.

He composed a quick message and sent it back:

Dave: HARD HERE TOO. WISH I COULD SEND REPLAY. WILL BE HERE A WHILE. SORRY. 

As he sent it, Shakespeare walked in the breakroom door and got himself a glass of water, standing awkwardly on the other side of the water cooler.

“That was rough out there,” Shakespeare said, breaking the silence. “I was hoping for more idea exchange, less firing range.”

“I agree. Work is work though, I guess we’ll get it done. At this point, we have to.”

“That’s a shame about Shane, though,” Shakespeare said. “Wasn’t he one of your most senior developers?”

Dave nodded. He’d became the most senior member of the team just minutes prior but hadn’t had the time to mentally process that just yet. Right now the release — and being able to go home and sleep — was priority number one; everything else would have to wait.

“Yeah, he was,” Dave said finally — and simultaneously realized the blame implications that would come with his new status should the release go sideways. “I guess I should get back to work on making the world a better place — so I don’t also get fired tomorrow.”

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