On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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“This is an incredibly exciting day for all of us,” the CEO said.
The man would celebrate his 40th birthday in less than a month, but his casual clothing and carefree style of personal grooming made him seem as much as a decade younger.
He was standing on an enormous stage, dwarfed by a video feed of himself on the gigantic screen behind him, and while the auditorium’s capacity was almost five thousand people, today all the seats were empty. The online audience for his speech, though, numbered in the hundreds of millions.
The event took place once a year, always in the same week, and was the talk of not just the tech but also the mainstream press for weeks before and after. As the largest social media network on the planet by a significant margin, the CEO’s company was beyond important. It was where news was read, and opinions were formed. It was where people chose how to vote, and made their feelings known about everyone who wasn’t like them.
During the event, it was normal for new products to be announced — like apps, features on the web site, developer functionality, monetisation opportunities, advertising offerings, and much more. The company even had several hardware products now, all centred around communication with friends and family members. And the number of viewers was always astronomical.
The vast majority of the internet-connected world had accounts on the network. For personal socialising, for business purposes, for gaming and leisure, and for every other purpose too. To exclude yourself was not just to be a pariah and a recluse, but to be actively disadvantaged in modern society.
“We’ve had our best year ever,” the CEO said, giving his usual lopsided grin that had won him any number of cover interviews in women’s magazines in every country and language. “Our revenue from advertising alone is…, well, it’s enough that I no longer have to particularly care about the amount.”
The auditorium would have rumbled with appreciative laughter, had it not been empty. The online live-blogs of the event pinged with updates, and the backchannel chatrooms scrolled ceaselessly — all hosted on the network itself, of course.
“I do want to share a few statistics with you, though,” the CEO said, and now the camera moved closer, allowing his face to almost fill the frame. “You know that we have the best and most complete data in the world. We use it to help you find and connect with the people and organisations that you care about. We use it to cater to your interests, and offer you opportunities, and generally make the connected world a place that’s better for you, no matter who you are. Our data provides some striking insights.”
He began pacing slowly across the stage, tracked perfectly by the camera. When he reached one side, he turned and walked in the opposite direction. He spoke the entire time.
“There’s been a 37% rise in global votes for right-wing political parties during the past three years,” he said, “and we can definitively attribute it to the network’s reach. Our platform is a political platform, and it shapes the outcomes of elections. As a result of those elections, policies are made and enacted. We can track some of those consequences too.”
Unhurried steps, and compact and affable hand gestures.
“We’ve seen an 18% uptick in suicides over the last twelve months, amongst the LGBTQ community. It’s due to hate speech propagated on the network, plus reactionary and, in particular, transphobic policies put in place as a result of the aforementioned elections.”
The live-blogs had slowed now. The backchannel chats scrolled too fast to even see.
“Our targeted advertising reach accounts for a similar phenomenon: a 21% increase in self-harm amongst female-identifying teenagers and young adults, compared to the two-years-ago recent quarter. What we’re seeing is body image issues related to unattainable beauty goals, plus revenge pornography and corresponding coercion, leading to a trackable and attributable breakdown in mental health. Our algorithms can see it in realtime.”
The CEO reached the left side of the stage again, turned, and continued on.
“Radicalisation is having a very positive year,” he said. “We’re seeing extremist ideology and religious hatred having their largest growth periods since our data begins almost twenty years ago. There’s no content category with greater engagement metrics at this point. And of course our advertising placement algorithms are able to capitalise on those patterns within a microsecond timescale.”
He glanced at the camera, now offering a bashful look. “But let’s take it down a notch from the serious stuff. As you know, we introduced our industry-leading personal ads and fully encrypted chat and meet-up system nearly a year ago, and we’ve been humbled by how successful it’s been. The ability to separate that activity from your main account entirely, using discrete — and discreet — two-factor authentication has meant that nearly 45% of our users have been able to connect with old acquaintances and new ones in a secure and private environment. Based on profile status updates, we believe that the system has been instrumental in a 39% increase in divorce rates during the fiscal year to date.”
Right side of the stage. And turn.
“Connection is what any network is all about, including ours. Especially ours. We’ve seen a significant increase in stalking, rediscovery by abusive spouses, and even honour killings due solely to our ReuniteAI technology — which we believe is by far the smartest and most effective person-finding system in the world. And both law enforcement and intelligence agencies agree.”
He came to the middle of the stage once more, and stopped there before looking around the vast and empty space. His gaze was distant for a few moments, as if he could see the faces who would have so gladly been there if he hadn’t designated this year’s event as streaming-only. He sighed ruefully.
“My final act as CEO is, as ever, for the stakeholders — but this time I mean our true stakeholders: humanity. This is our one and only society, on our one and only planet, and we’re tearing both of those apart. We need to do better. For now, though, what I can do is stop my own company doing any more harm. Thank you so much.”
The camera pulled back, and the CEO took a simple remote control from his blazer’s inside pocket, then he pressed a button.
And the network went dark.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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