Sunday Morning, 2039
Imagining a social credit dystopia
In my last essay I noted that,
The real question behind the digital ID isn’t about whether it’s more convenient or secure or efficient, or any of the things it promises to be. The real question is, Who is our master? To whom, or what, do we belong…and will we still be free to choose once we accept the digital ID?
In today’s piece we’ll consider this theme through a short story, Sunday Morning, 2039. Enjoy and reflect…
David gazes out the window at the northern juncos pecking seed off the patio. It’s rare to see the skittish slate birds in the townhouse complex, where 9G towers outnumber trees. They make him think of his friends and the wilderness, and the time before the Collapse.
Alea places a hand on his arm. He looks at her, having forgotten she was there, for at this age his memories often weigh down his awareness of the present or the future. His memories drag behind him, pulling him into the past. I’m like an old comet, he thinks. The tail behind me is brighter than the comet itself.
“You should go to the gym today,” Alea says. “I’ll send you a guest pass through my omni.”
“I’m too old for the gym,” David says.
“You can use the walking track like you did last time. You enjoyed it that time. The doctor says you need exercise.” Alea opens the app and taps the screen. “There. I’ve sent it. Where is your omni?”
“I should go to church,” he says. “It’s Sunday.”
“But why? The place is almost empty. You keep telling me that. It makes you feel lonely and sad.” She nudges the white pill toward him. “Take your microdose at least. You know it helps.”
He wrinkles his nose at the thing. A psychedelic antidepressant. “I’d rather go to the gym than take that.”
“Or you can do both and feel even better,” she assures him with a warm smile. His daughter is a life coach, with all the boundless positivity of that vocation. She was made for this world, he thinks. A world of militant optimism.
Alea was in college when the first cyberattacks struck, triggering the start of the Collapse. She refused to flee into the north where many of the families in their church were headed. As if they could start a new life in that wilderness.
His late wife Clara wanted to go with them but David was uncertain they could survive out there. In the end it was Alea who swayed them to stay. Perhaps Alea sensed the upheaval was temporary and that things would change for the better, as their feckless leaders had promised. She was also in love, which might explain half her reluctance. So they stayed, and Clara died of a heart attack, and he had nobody now but Alea. Alea and his memories, glittering behind him like comet dust.
“Go to the gym at least,” Alea says with a consoling squeeze of his arm. “I’ll call for a vehicle, and you’ll have a little walk around the track and get your heart pumping a bit, and you’ll feel a lot better.”
“But church,” he says.
“Why don’t we pray together? That will be church for today. How about that? Remember, where two or three are gathered together, there am I.”
She’s swaying him again with her smile and her words. He can’t deny he feels closer to her than to any of the strangers in his church. Even closer than God, blasphemous as it sounds.
She clasps his hands with hers, warm hands, real hands. He feels the subtle lump under the skin between her index finger and thumb. Her implant. He ignores the wretched thing and lowers his head as she speaks the words of the prayer, a formulaic prayer that he taught her when she was a small girl, when she still believed things simply because he told her they were true.
Twenty minutes later he’s in the back of a self-driving vehicle, one of dozens moving along the street in perfect synchrony like shiny boxes on a conveyor belt. Some boys are gathered at the curbside, egging on their companion as he weaves through the traffic on foot, deftly dashing through gaps and halting between lanes and dashing again, knowing the cars register his implant signal and would break instantly if he got too close.
Almost everyone has an implant these days. David is one of the holdouts, a fringe percentage of now aging citizens who refused the thorn-sized microchips when they were first mandated a few years ago. Most lost their jobs for their non-compliance. He was already retired but was still penalized. He’s barred from the best shops and can’t travel by train or plane. It’s hard not to feel resentful.
The vehicle pulls up to the front doors of the gym. As David exits a greeter bot wheels toward him and asks if he needs assistance.
“No thank you,” he says brushing past.
The bot spins around and wheels alongside him. “I notice you’re not wearing your omni, David. Please wear your omni so that your health stats can be monitored—for your safety.”
“For my safety?” he says bristling. “It’s got nothing to do with my safety. It’s because I didn’t get an implant. It’s just another punishment. You won’t leave us alone, will you?”
But it’s pointless to argue. He’s arguing with a machine, an algorithm. He pulls the omni from his coat pocket and slips it on his wrist, a digital shackle. “There!” he snaps. “I’m wearing it!”
The bot gives a happy chirp and trails off.
In the change room there are men and women and all manner of genders dressing and undressing with brazen unconcern. At least he’s already in his track pants and walking shoes, with no need to change his clothes. Keeping his eyes down, he hangs his winter coat in an empty locker and heads out to the workout area. The exercise machines are in the middle and the track circles around them amid high glass walls. There are muscled bodies everywhere, slick and half-naked, pumping weights and running on treadmills with VR glasses that project scenes of jungles and Alpine mountains and places most people will never actually see with their own eyes.
He takes the slowest lane on the track. As he checks his pulse on the omni, the device pings a message. He’s gained a credit point just for coming here. Great health choice, David!
One point isn’t much. The current exchange rate is .33 digital dollars per point. Still, these things add up. His universal basic income is limited, but with a few extra points he might be able to justify a coffee from the kiosk in the gym lobby—a real cafe latte, not that coffix powder that’s fuzzy on his tongue.
He picks up his pace, focusing on his strides. Rounding a second lap, he stumbles and falls to his hands and knees.
“David, I think you’ve fallen,” his wrist omni says. “Are you all right?”
The device does not usually speak—he managed to disable that feature—but there’s an override in emergencies.
“I’m fine,” he mutters.
A Black man hurries off a stepping machine and asks if he needs help. David offers a hand, not that he really needs the assistance, but to be courteous, and the man gently pulls him to his feet. David shuffles off the track and moves his arms and legs about to ensure nothing is out of place.
The Black man is back on the stepping machine studying his own omni with a grin. Maybe the man gained a point for helping David up?
They’re called compassion rewards, but suspicion alerts is a better term. You can never be quite sure why anyone does anything good or decent. David lost interest in meeting new people long ago out of cynicism for their motivations—and even his own.
As he starts back on the track his omni pings. He squints at the message. Social equity reward for a positive inter-racial encounter!
Who programs these algorithms?
It’s the same question his friends at church had asked, years ago, when the system was first proposed. The system would make life better, they were told. More convenient and secure, more fair and democratic. His friends refused to believe it. They knew that behind the promises was a small elite class of godless leaders and their digital disciples, all of them hellbent on turning society into a casino game of jingles and pings that lulled the masses into mindless support of government-approved values and policies.
No, his friends would not believe it. They knew who their Master was. They also knew the elites were determined to crush them and their religion, not by outlawing it but by integrating it into the game.
And they succeeded for the most part. There is no more sin in the new religion, and there is a great deal of entitlement, and God is a bit like the dodo from Alice in Wonderland who declares Everybody has won and all must have prizes!
At least his own church didn’t go down that road. But most people abandoned it for the dodo-congregations, while the hangers-on, like him, are few and elderly. The harmless relics of a bygone era.
A cold ache spreads through his knee, the arthritic one, but he refuses to slow down. He is going to be the comet, not the dust dragging behind, the memories dragging him back.
And yet they do. Circling the north end of the track he glances through the high windows, beyond the grey forest of condo towers and the sky-scraping surveillance drones, and wonders what happened to his friends. Did they survive? Did they manage to create a free society somewhere in the wilderness, amid the cold and the bugs?
The throbbing in his knee is too much. Another lap and he’s done.
He limps off to get his coat. On his way out he stops by the kiosk and scans his omni for a latte. He might as well make use of the extra points he earned.
“I’m sorry,” the service bot replies, “but you cannot use your dollars for this product. Would you like a coffix drink instead?”
Another punishment. David storms out of the building, yanking off his omni and stuffing it in his pocket. He broods through the drive. How did the world get like this? How did we let it happen?
The children are still at the curbside, oblivious to David’s thoughts, oblivious to what the last generation did to them. This time it’s a girl darting across the lanes, stopping and running back and then, for an instant, David does not understand. She’s flying through the air. She’s flipping head over heels, her face crumpled with pain or astonishment, or whatever a person feels when they’ve been hit by a car. But people don’t get hit by cars anymore. Didn’t she have an implant? Was there a glitch? Her body slams against another vehicle which has automatically stopped; slams with an indifferent thud, as if she’s not a body but a stuffed thing, slack and lifeless. As David’s vehicle passes the scene, he turns his head in time to see her slide off the back windshield, dragging a line of blood like a smear of red fingerpaint.
Or like the tail of a dying comet.
He clenches his eyes, suppressing the horror, as his vehicle continues with the smooth flow of traffic.
The scene replays itself in his mind, the body flipping, the astonished face. But it’s Alea’s face he sees. Alea as a girl. His shock gives way to tears. How could he be so cynical about life, so resentful, when he still has the most precious thing of all?
Be grateful for what you have, old fool!
He calls out Alea’s name when he gets home, desperate to put his arms around her. There is no reply. He limps to the corridor that leads to her room, calling out in sudden panic, fearing some disaster. Reaching her door he hears the rush of hot water in the shower and her voice singing softly. She is alive. Of course she is.
He leans against the door frame, taking deep breaths of relief. He may be lonely and a fool, but he has his daughter. Thank God for that. Her omni pings on a side table. He leans closer, narrowing his eyes at the smudged screen. Alea has been awarded 150 credit points. Mission accomplished! Client D skipped church this morning! Go for another 150 next week!
David stares at the message as her song fills his ears, a carefree melody. So carefree it’s almost guiltless. He limps slowly to the kitchen. The white pill is on the table. He takes it and swallows it and gazes out at the patio. The northern juncos have all gone.