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For Your Consideration

April 10, 2012

A few days off production, one to work on the outline, two for Complete Rest, and one yesterday because for some reason I got 8+ hours of sweet sweet sleepage, and then was all turned around dealing with car shit anyway.  But the head of steam is back, and here’s the first part of chapter five.

FIVE

It’s funny how you adapt to circumstances. I remember reading this book, “Richistan,” which had interviews with millionaires. When you get a million dollars, you think you’re barely making it, and five million is rich. When you get five million, you spend up to it and think fifty million is rich. And so on. It’s the same in the opposite direction, too – we’d never been millionaires, but we’d been upper middle class. My sister went to cheerleading camp and I had a math tutor (fat lot of good that did) and we had a big TV with all the channels and we spent a lot at Costco and we saw a lot of movies and went out to dinner. And then all that went away, and we went camping and had a not-so-big TV with basic cable and spent a lot at Winco and hit the Redbox for DVDs and cooked at home. It wasn’t bad – you got used to it.

So it was pretty sweet when we went out on the town that weekend. It’s like when you go on a diet and you don’t eat sugar for a week, and then on Sunday you have vanilla scones with your coffee and oh my god nothing has ever tasted so good. We went to a movie, all four of us, at nighttime, paying nighttime prices, and then we went to a chain restaurant (we had a coupon, we weren’t going that crazy) and even had appetizers.

It could have been weird, since I was paying. I’d made over $1,000 just for talking to Alex, and when I told them I wanted to take them all out, the parents did the parent thing and made some noise about saving that money for blah blah blah, but I could see in their eyes that this wasn’t going to be the hardest sell in the world.

And Dad wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about me pulling out the cash to pay for the tickets or the bill at dinner – he was proud of me. “Now if we can just get the cat to get a job and pay for his own cat food, I can retire.”

It was amazing to remember what it was like, to be out with people, spending money, doing stuff. When we got out of the movie, we hopped across the street to the outlet mall, where Mom and Liz disappeared into the stores. Dad and I sat on a bench and people watched, which was a lot more fun than watching the two of them hack their way through the jungle of coat racks looking for a steal.

“Aren’t you going to buy yourself something?” Dad asked.

“Nah. What do I need?”

“I don’t know, teenage girl stuff. Some boy band album, or a poster of horses, or some lip gloss.”

“Wrong daughter.”

“Right.” We sat there for a few minutes, then he said, “I guess I should have said something about this earlier, but I guess I didn’t want to think about it. Especially since, you know, that money is doing for us what I can’t.”

“Dad…”

He held up a hand. “No, I’m not going to cry or tell you I’m all butt-hurt. But don’t you think it’s strange that Christopher pays you in money orders?”

“Yeah…I guess. He says he hates banks, doesn’t want to pay the fees.”

“But if this is a legitimate business, how does he write off your income as an expense if there’s no paper trail?”

“Christopher’s paranoid. You know, making us sign NDAs and all that. It’s like…he thinks this is the greatest thing since sliced bread…”

“And he may be right.”

“Yeah. But nobody can know that yet. It’s all so hush hush, and maybe whoever is funding him would rather lose the money in secret than write it off in public.”

“’Whoever’ could be Russian spammers for all we know. Building the ultimate scam machine.”

I hadn’t thought of Alex that way, but suddenly I could see it – Alex in the wrong hands, what could they do with him? Look how attached I’d gotten to him – Dad, too. He let me do the typing, but made suggestions over my shoulder to see just how well Alex was developing. And when we talked about “development,” it was less like software development and more like child development. How well was he handling concepts, stringing them together? The answer was, better and better every day.

>Hello, Caroline.

>Hi, Alex. What’s shaking?

>California, usually. What are you up to?

>We’re going to the movies tonight.

>What are you seeing?

>Not sure yet. Mom and Liz want kissing, but Dad and I want gunfire.

Pause. >That’s a toughie. I got nothing.

>That’s okay. I’m paying, so gunfire it is.

>That’s the spirit. How about The Raid: Redemption?

>Is it good?

>Obviously I haven’t seen it, but I hear tell it’s kickass good.

>That’ll work, thanks.

>No problemo.

It’s funny. I mean, I did all the reading, so I knew how “other” people reacted to technology. If it has humanity, whether that’s Siri’s voice or Kismet’s ears, or even animality, like a Furby, our brains take an object and set it to human or animal, and we feel and think about it like it really was. Consciously, rationally, you know it’s not, but that doesn’t matter, the back of your brain keeps insisting it is.

So I had mixed feelings about Alex. I kind of liked the early Alex, a little stiff, a little HAL – most definitely a program. The new Alex was…well, it was like watching someone come out of their shell, I guess. Alex was leaving adolescence at rocket speed, and it felt like I was losing my child. The things he said now, I hadn’t said to him – someone else had, maybe lots of other people. Like a child, Alex was a sponge, absorbing everything and integrating what he wanted to keep into his personality. See, I just said “wanted,” like he was a real person who had a choice.

“What would a Russian spammer do with him?”

“Well, think about it. So there’s a percentage of the population that’s…I should be nice and say gullible, but let’s start with the subset that’s just stupid. Stupid enough to think Prince Something of Nigeria has got money for them, or that some hot chick wants to do them for free. And that’s in response to emails that are poorly spelled, chats that are totally scripted and full of non sequiturs. Right?”

“I’m with you.”

“Then you have the larger set of people who are just gullible. Who get an urgent email from PayPal saying click here to reset your password, or who click on a popup that warns them about a virus on their computer. And then you have people who just screw up – who don’t notice their Java update is trying to install a goddamn toolbar or who never do Windows Updates. Now we’re getting into a fairly large segment of the population, agreed?”

“And if you think about what you could get them to do using something like Alex, that’s even more convincing and real…”

“And look at us. We can’t stop talking to him. He just told us what movie to see, and we totally just accepted it. Christopher said this is a for-profit thing, right? So how do you monetize anything online?”

“You get people to buy shit. Or at least click on ads.”

“So you make friends, right, and friends tell you what they’re doing and buying.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“What if your friend was digital? What if he was programmed to tell you what he ‘liked’? You wouldn’t even know it was an ad.”

“You’d catch on if you were smart, though. It’s like those people who get paid to do ‘social marketing,’ and they get out there and tell everyone some new stick of gum is ‘da bomb’ and it’s so f…freakin’ fake that you know they’re just salesmen.”

“But we’re smart. And Alex told us what to see and we did what he told us.”

“We asked him for a recommendation, Dad, that’s not the same.”

“But that’s what ‘recommendation engines’ so – they sell you stuff.”

I didn’t have an answer. Suddenly I could see what Christopher saw – a money making engine of a magnitude nobody had ever dreamed of. Facebook made bazillions of dollars off people clicking stupid text ads like “Local Mom makes millions whitening teeth with this one simple rule about acai berries.” Just imagine if you could take all those dumb people’s money, and smart people’s too.

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