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Algorithms of dissent

Lavanya Lakshminarayan | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 24, 2020

Total overhaul: “The world will soon exist on either side of the electric shield”   -  ISTOCK.COM

New regime: Democracy has proven to be an ineffective system, resulting in the collapse of the old world order   -  ISTOCK.COM

LAVANYA LAKSHMINARAYAN

Democracy has failed. The nation is dead. Humanity is to blame.

— Greta Gudmunson, former President of the United Nations, on the eve of its dissolution

it will free us of human error, liberate us from discrimination. The algorithm is infallible.

— Bell Corporation, from the Preamble to the Meritocratic Manifesto

The stakes are high. The consequences are dire.

I am prepared to face them.

Pavitra walks the three kilometres from her office in Bell Tower I. She takes the usual precautions. She doesn’t hop into one of the self-driving cabs that roll past her every three minutes. She’s turned off her OmniPort — the flat communicator rests light in her pocket.

It hardly matters now.

The Carnatic Meridian blazes a frigid blue, striking through the heart of what was once Bangalore. It cuts Apex City in two — on her side, the spires of the Bell Corp technarchy reach towards the clouds. The other side is mired in shadow. Clouds of dust rise beyond the electric shield, obscuring the future.

Soon, my future.

The numbers at Bell Square are significant. Her eyes scan a crowd of close to 300 people. They have already begun chanting.

I need to tell them.

Pavitra imagines the look on her parents’ faces when they find out.

When Bell Corp began their investment in Bangalore, she had just learnt to walk. When they rebranded it Apex City, she was a first-year student in university. She was one of the first campus hires absorbed into Bell Corp’s offices. Her career has barely begun.

Andhere I am. Dissenting.

So few of her friends and family believe they will be affected by the Meritocratic Manifesto. None of them imagine they will be branded an Analog. That makes the system acceptable. Fair, even.

“We don’t have enough resources,” her father had said. “Why waste them on slackers who can’t contribute to society?”

“You don’t remember the old days,” her mother had scowled. “People clashing all the time, anti-social elements being encouraged to raise their voices —”

“It doesn’t affect me,” her brother had shrugged. “I’m too smart to fail.”

The Meritocratic Manifesto will soon come into full effect.

“PRODUCTIVITY IS NOT THE MEASURE OF THE SELF!” Pavitra shouts with the other protestors.

The Manifesto intends to separate high-functioning individuals from those who struggle to keep pace. The former are to be rewarded, the latter removed. Productivity is power, says Bell Corp.

“ENFORCED ALIGNMENT IS NOT UNITY.” She chants.

The Manifesto is seen as an effective solution to combat the chaos of opinions. Democracy has proven to be an ineffective system, resulting in the collapse of the old world order. The expression of shared values will lead to happy lives. Persona is prime, says Bell Corp.

The Manifesto maps all citizens of Apex City onto the Bell Curve — they are scored on their Productivity and their Social Personas. Their Virtual Citizen Reports will dictate their worth to society. They have begun to receive daily updates on where they stand, and what their projected outcomes will be.

I’m a lost cause.

The algorithm will slot them into percentiles — the top 20 per cent are to have limitless privilege, the middle 70 per cent are to lead wholesome lives.

****

The bottom 10 per cent are to be deported.

They will be stripped of their possessions. They will have no access to electricity or running water.

I am to pay the price for failure in Apex City.

The world will soon exist on either side of the electric shield.

I am to be an Analog outcast.

“THE WORLD DIVIDED BY AN ALGORITHM IS STILL A WORLD DIVIDED.”

Pavitra shouts the slogan at the top of her lungs.

The Manifesto promises that the adaptive algorithm that enforces the Bell Curve will be completely neutral in its judgment. Virtual or Analog will be determined based on one’s actions alone. It is more than humanity deserves, says Bell Corp.

Pavitra believes that it only shifts the point of blame from humanity’s failings to a compendium of code — one designed by humanity’s failings. It allows the human race to wash its hands of all responsibility.

The protestors all wear masks. Cold comfort. They’re always monitored by their digital footprints. Some don horrifying visages, others sport ski masks. A few wear Yakshagāna faces, a reminder to Bell Corp that erasing diversity is not the route to unity.

Pavitra readjusts the straps on her cloth mask and steps into file. As one, the crowd begins to march towards the intersection of Quadrant One and Quadrant Seven. The windows of Koshy’s are bolted and barred.

Their dissent has been largely ignored by Bell Corp. Their marches are shadowed by secure-droids, observed by the winking lenses of the PanoptiCam, monitored by hovering secure-drones. There is no intervention. There is no coverage on HoloTube. The silence is ominous.

The protest route is determined on the spot. The venue is circulated through word of mouth. They march through streets with multiple exits, access to Maglev train stations, and lines of shopfronts. Just in case.

I need to tell them. They are coming for me.

She peels away from the throng. She hurries back home. She takes the walkway up to the 31st floor.

They wait outside her apartment.

It’s too late.

Pavitra’s shoulders tense.

They already know.

Her heart rate spikes.

They have come for me.

She pulls out her OmniPort and switches it on.

A single unread notification hovers over its surface. She’s been demerited 30 Social Persona Points for being present at an anti-Bell protest.

It doesn’t add up.

That still gives me 90 points to go.

She frowns at the contingent of secure-droids before her.

“Hon, don’t panic.” She hears her father’s voice.

He steps outside. He pulls off a Yakshagāna mask. He approaches the droids with his hands in the air, palms facing outward. Her mother yanks off a ski mask and joins him at his side.

Pavitra’s stomach gives a lurch.

“What is this?” she blurts. “What are you doing?”

“We ran out of Persona Points, darling,” says her mother. “They’re deporting us.”

“I — I thought you — I didn’t know — what?”

Pavitra’s eyes are hot. She blinks the tears away.

“We didn’t know if we could trust you, hon. Or your brother. We still aren’t sure about him,” her father smiles sadly. “It’s that kind of world.”

“You’ve been protesting all this while?” Pavitra squeaks.

Her mother snorts.

“We weren’t going to let them divide the world and do nothing, were we?”

“Not a chance,” her father winks.

“I take it you will continue?” her mother’s eyes glitter unnaturally bright. “You will stand up for the intrinsic worth of the human race? You will continue to protest dividing us along new lines?”

“Mama —,” her throat seizes up.

A secure-droid nudges her father forward with its metallic claw.

“Dad —”

“See you on the other side, kiddo. Make us proud,” he grins.

She doesn’t bother to choke down her tears. They blur the neon night as her parents are led away.

Ninety points. Three protests.

Three protests before she can see her parents again. Downgraded and deported for expressing their discontent, branded Analogs.

Three protests to go.

I’m going to make them count.

Lavanya Lakshminarayan is a speculative fiction writer and game designer from Bengaluru. She is the author of the forthcoming collection of short stories Analog/ Virtual (Hachette India, 2020)

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Published on January 24, 2020
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