“Which word feels sadder: lonely or lonesome?”
This question pops up on the KloudsKape, and my first thought is: How did they know? I’m in the middle of a downward spiral, almost crying as I choke down my lysine-dopamine smoothie and hunch over the teak bar at the Zyme Shack. As with all these questions, I don’t even have to ponder before I answer with an eyeblink–it’s lonesome, of course. Something about the way you have to purse your lips for a nonexistent kiss at the end of the word, the extra weight of that second syllable–the word lonesome is definitely more miserable. I should know.
Soon I’ve answered a dozen other questions in the retinal sensorium, about everything from Koffee Kop(TM) to a local bike-lane ordinance, each of them just a sparkly ball rolling around the edges of my vision. But the lonely/lonesome question has set me off, deeper into the hole of despair I was already in. I will remain unloved until I die unmourned. You can take a thousand hot showers and people will still smell the lonesome on you. The questions keep on, as addictive as any game: What’s the ideal temperature for hot chocolate, expressed as a percentage of the melting point of cocoa butter? Should fast-food restaurants offer one kind of mustard or two? How satisfied are you (1-10) with federal regulation of molecular supplements?
The KloudsKape interface weighs almost nothing, but the chrome spider suddenly feels heavy on the back of my head, and I’m getting a sore neck. My faux angora sweater is a thatch of prickles. The dim yellow lighting and stained cement walls at the Zyme Shack make it feel like a bomb shelter for yuppies. All around me couples laugh and share ergcake: two spoons, one plate. I am such a loser. I should just go home, except I would do the same there that I do here: sit and answer poll questions, watching my score creep up.
Then a ball rolls up with one of the Politics and Policy questions, and I shake my head to get rid of it. I have no idea how to answer that one, and it sounds like something actually quite serious. I’m not an expert on everything–I work as a grief counselor for robots, for god’s sake. I finish my lysine-dope shake and signal for another one, and immediately there are questions about how satisfied I was (1-5) with my server, Barry. Plus should tariffs for synthetic walnuts go up 0.37 percent? Should we bring back Chico and the Man? Stirrup pants, yes or no?
It’s democracy, you know? And it’s how I get all my points. Gotta participate to make it precipitate.
The question comes back, the one I didn’t want to answer. This time the ball is growing hands and feet, like it’s starting to hatch. I still don’t want to answer it; I don’t even understand it. I shake my head again. The question goes away.
When was the last time someone else touched my skin with intent? Anything more than a casual handshake, even. I can’t remember. I live alone, in a cubbyblock, and I work in a wired shell, four by five. People who aren’t in the industry don’t even realize grief is the main emotion that robots can feel. Robots are hyperaware of both death and obsolescence. Inconsolable. I’m left with no emotional resources at the end of the day.
A ribbon of text and images bursts upward out of the bottom-left corner of my vision. It’s the newsfount, splashing a story about the Great Midwestern Drought, which 65 percent of the public wants the government to do something about. But 68 percent of the public also believes the Great Midwestern Drought is a hoax. I dismiss the article, it’s too depressing.
That P&P question is back–I still don’t want to answer it. I answer some others, about consumer privacy and bird conservation. But it keeps bobbing up, dancing around so I can barely see my surroundings.
“What concentration of neurotoxins (percentage) is acceptable when gas is used to disperse anti-genetic-discrimination protesters?”
I shake my head. I don’t know. I can’t answer.
Sometimes I think I should have accepted that offer to become part of the Unconventional Romantic Arrangement. I would have been around people all the damn time: the assortment of hairs in the shower drain, the endless fights over what movie or show to Soak. Basically the opposite problem from loneliness. You always want what you don’t have.
I’ve finished my second lysine-dope smoothie and can’t even pretend to nurse the dregs anymore. Nothing to do but go back to the cubby and Soak a romcom until I pass out. I signal for my check and answer more questions. “When you purchased the infra-matic spoon set, how satisfied were you (1-10) with the DNA-sensing spork function?”
When the question about neurotoxins comes back, it’s accompanied by an info box. There is a very desirable person here in this very restaurant, someone who fits my dating profile in every possible detail. And he has already answered this same question. Maybe if he and I share the same opinions about the use of neurotoxic gases on protesters, we can be matched.
More questions about household products and government infrastructure spending. I blink through them. Then this: “How many pillows (1-5) do you have on your bed, and how many of them (1-5) have been warmed above room temperature in the past year?”
Then the KloudsKape lets me know that the attractive, romantically compatible man is checking me out right now. He is looking at my profile. He’s within 100 feet of my location. But I will never know, never meet him, unless I answer the neurotoxin question.
I scan the room, trying to look casual. The waiter, who is not an attractive man or within my dating parameters, thinks I want another lysine-dope, and I end up ordering one just to get him to go away. There are about 20 people sitting at tables or the teak bar at the Zyme Shack, and a dozen of them appear to be men. Of those, maybe seven or eight could be my type. None of them seem to be looking at me.
The attractive, romantically compatible man is waiting for me, the KloudsKape says. He is lonely or lonesome, whichever sounds sadder, and he too knows the unbearable chasm between desire and communication, the starving awareness that the only thing anybody values you for is your opinion on random topics. The long rainy nights–how high a concentration of smart-fungus nanospores in rainwater is too much?–the solo meals in restaurants–is it lonelier to be alone at home, or in a crowd?–all of the existential misery of the overpopulated sensorium.
I think I may have spotted the romantically compatible man. He’s sitting in the corner, and he sneaks a glance in my direction. He’s showstoppingly good-looking, with exactly the shape of sideburns I like and one of those noses that’s almost like the front of an airplane. He has cuff links and a half-loosened tie. He’s a bot, right? He’s got to be a bot. I squint and he seems to flicker, just the way a virtual artifact would. Definitely a bot. Right?
At last I unscrew the temporal nodes of the KloudsKape and peel it off the sides of my head, to settle it one way or the other. He’s still sitting there, staring at some virtual blob of his own. The restaurant looks emptier and sadder without the KloudsKape on, just walls and tables and distracted people.
I put the KloudsKape back on, and the question about neurotoxins is back. Its arms and legs are fully grown, and it’s doing jumping jacks. I’m not a chemist–if the question was about how to help a robot process the death of an insect or the explosion of a sun hundreds of light-years away, I would have a meaningful answer. But screw it. The romantically compatible man is getting up from his chair.
I answer the neurotoxin question, more or less at random. I pick a number that sounds plausible.
Immediately the dating profile comes up for the man with the perfect sideburns. He’s ideal–all the same movies, books, political opinions. We’re like 98 percent, which is unheard-of. This is it. I’ve found my soul mate. He looks up at me and smiles. I feel my whole heart open up.
Soon, he and I sit together at the teak bar, neither of us able to move or speak. We only need about five minutes to list all the things that we agree on. Oh yes, I hate that too. Do you do that thing? I do that thing too. Oh, I love that show. You love that show too? I love it. My faux angora sweater is twice as itchy. The questions still bubble in my peripheral vision. The romantically compatible man smiles and mumbles something about corgis. Yes, I love corgis too. We both love corgis. Aren’t corgis great? I want to scream. The newsfount splashes another story: The police have begun gassing protesters in the park. A glimpse of hand-lettered signs and anoxic, choke-eyed faces. Up close the man’s sideburns are the wrong shape after all. I start to make excuses to get away. I have to get up early. Robots are grieving. We exchange contact info, and I sign up for his Kloudburst. Then I’m hurrying out into the night, where the rain has left tiny spatters of purple and white blooms all over the sidewalk, glowing with a faint phosphorescence. They keep me company all the way home.
Tales From an Uncertain Future