Register Friday | June 22 | 2018
Algorithm

Algorithm

The first-place story from Maisonneuve’s 2012 Genre Fiction Contest. This year’s theme was science fiction.

Illustration by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo.

They were out at their favourite restaurant when she did it. He watched her twist a napkin between two fingers. The napkin torqued, bent, tore a little.

“Jared,” she said.

“Uhn.”

“Did you hear me?”

“Is this what you want?” he said. “To break up?”

“What I want? Jared.”

“Maybe…maybe it’s wrong.”

She stopped twisting the napkin, both their eyes darting to the device on her wrist.

“Jared,” she said.

“It could be wrong. There are cases. Documented cases.”

“Rumours.”

“Cases,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“You’ve become too dependent on it.”

“We’re all dependent on it. You know that.”

He knew that.

“You need to make your own decisions,” he said, grasping.

She gave him a funny look. “This is my decision.”

The waiter arrived. “Have we decided?”

She looked down at the menu, eyes flitting.

“I’ll have the steak,” she said.

“Medium or well-done?”

She looked at her wrist. “Medium.”

“Asparagus or Brussels sprouts?

She looked at her wrist. “Brussels sprouts.”

“And you, sir?”

Jared looked down at the menu. So many options.

“Uh,” he said.

She looked at him. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know what I want. I haven’t decided.”

She and the waiter exchanged a look.

“Do I want the burger or the lasagna?” he said.

He looked down at his wrist. The tiny screen said: burger.

“I’ll have the burger,” he said.

“Fries or salad?”

He looked down at his wrist. The screen said salad. Really, he thought. I don’t feel much like salad. He thought about ordering fries instead just to spite it, to spite her. He hesitated. How hard could it be to just order fries? He thought: fries or salad? He started to sweat.

“Jared,” she said.

He used to love hearing her say his name, but now it was like someone jabbing him with a fork.

Oh, fuck it.

“Salad,” he said.

They were silent until the food arrived. He tried his salad. It was exactly what he wanted and he hated every bite.

Be more productive, they had said. No more wasted time, no more indecision, no more dissatisfaction. Never make the wrong choice again, they’d promised. At first people scoffed and protested. It’s mind control! It’s an assault on our individuality! Think of the privacy concerns!

He wasn’t really sure how it worked, but he knew it was some sort of algorithm. An advanced algorithm. It snapped around your wrist and read your body rhythms, heard what you heard, felt what you felt, knew what you knew. The more you wore it, the more you used it, the better it became—this he knew. At first people just used it sometimes. This movie or that movie? Chinese or Italian food? But then you became dependent on it. He had experienced this himself. Soon it was every decision, every choice. Get up or sleep in? Jeans or khakis? Red or white? It was remarkable. You asked it and it told you exactly what you wanted. It knew you better than you knew you. I don’t know became something people didn’t say anymore. I haven’t decided was a thing of the past.

It’s not making the decision for you, they’d said. It’s merely telling you what you already want. That’s the beauty of it. There’s no mind control. Our advanced algorithm crunches all the pros and cons for you so you don’t have to worry about it. Spend time doing the things that are important to you and free your mind from all the choices of modern life.

Jared tried to remember the last time he had made the wrong choice. What did it feel like? There was a memory somewhere deep down inside him that he tried to retrieve. Something tangy, like a mixture between anxiety and regret. He reached deep in the back of his mind and tugged at the edge of the memory, slowly pulled it into consciousness. Him at age seven, standing tippy-toed to peer over the counter to see twenty-four different tubs of multi-coloured ice cream. His mother’s shiny red nails tapping. Just pick one, honey. His breath fogging up the glass. Did he want chocolate? Cookie dough? Tiger? Maple walnut? He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t choose. Eventually, they had left without getting anything at all.

He met Phil at the bar. They ordered pints—ale or lager?—both glancing down at the screens on their wrists.

“That sucks,” Phil said.

Jared sipped his beer. “I’m thinking, what if someone preprogrammed it to tell her to break up with me? To tell her she didn’t love me anymore. You know, messed with the algorithm. Someone at her work. The guy with the European haircut who always flirts with her maybe.”

“Fiddling with someone’s algorithm is a huge crime. You know that.”

“Don’t you get tired of it?”

“Tired of what? I was a mess before. We all were. Think of all that lost time staring at menus, hemming and hawing, wondering whether to take a job or go back to school. I say, good riddance.”

“But how can it know? How can it know she doesn’t love me anymore?”

“It doesn’t know. She knows. It only knows what she knows.”

“The algorithm,” Jared said.

Phil nodded. “The algorithm.”

Jared leaned forward. “But what is the algorithm?”

“The algorithm is us,” Phil said. “We’re the algorithm.”

Jared was silent for a moment.

 “I’m thinking...” Jared said. “I’m thinking maybe I’m going to take it off.”

Phil spluttered. He put his glass down. “Jared,” he said.

“Why is everyone saying my name to me like I don’t know it. Jared. Jared. Jared.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Maybe I am being serious,” he said. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”

“Exactly,” Phil said. He leaned back in his chair with a look on his face like that of a lawyer who just nailed a case. “You haven’t decided.”

The apartment was empty. She had bought all the furniture, she reminded him, as a man with black spidery hairs on his arms hefted all of her stuff into the back of a moving van. Then it was gone and she was gone and everything was empty. He sat on the floor eating take-out Chinese from a box. It was like he had just moved in except it wasn’t like that at all. The algorithm had told him sushi. You want sushi for dinner, it had said, so he ordered Chinese. He felt like crying, but held it back. He didn’t want to cry. Crying would make it worse, he thought. A noodle wiggled on the end of the cheap, wooden chopstick like a worm. He looked at it. It smelled acidic. He felt something twisting inside him, something in the pit of his stomach. He realized he wished he had the sushi instead. He paused. He looked down at his wrist. The screen said: Cry, you’ll feel better. He did, and he felt better.