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Meatspace and MAIA

by Ada Fetters

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Estlin pushed through the dread of yet another failure and rejection. He pushed aside the thought of admitting defeat and moving back to his crumbling home town. He pushed open the heavy double doors and stumbled across the threshold into the atrium of the Cougars’ headquarters. Overhead lights glared down into a big, empty atrium made of concrete and plaster.

On the other side of the atrium was a polished wooden desk. A receptionist sat behind it, practically motionless. Her dark gaze evaluated him. Her matching blue-black lip gloss, nails and patent-leather belt shimmered under the hot, bright lights peculiar to sports marketing.

Estlin swallowed. They couldn’t possibly deny visitors access to the internal view of the building. Tourists who cared enough to come inside should get to see what was really there, shouldn’t they? He twitched his eyeballs and blinked to bring up a list of networks, scrolled down, found GoCougsHQ, focused his eyesight to select it, and was accepted into their visitor network.

The difference between vague anticipation and the reality of a new network experience always threw Estlin into a momentary euphoria. It was like being transported.

He was gifted with a different experience of the same space. The lobby popped into bright color and light. Now the Cougar call sign - blue-black and electric yellow - graced the middle of the atrium floor. Clips of games scrolled along the walls.

Yes, there was Luke Hudson’s Superbowl-winning pass. He’d had a rough day. There were grass stains all down the side of his uniform. But his round face was serene as he launched a flat, fast pass that looked like he’d sent it along a clothesline connected to the receiver’s hands.

It always made Estlin smile. It was hard not to love Luke Hudson.

He knew his body language had changed from the way the receptionist looked at him. He’d established that he was not a derelict. So: was he a tourist or did he have business here?

Reassured, Estlin purposefully approached the reception desk. The human face of Cougars HQ was dressed in what Estlin thought of as “business neutral.” Her slicked-back hair, geometric earrings and sharp-cut attire could fit in the fanbase lobby facing outward, or in the executive suite available on their exclusive network.

She raised a dark, winging eyebrow that was almost as shiny as her lip gloss.

“I have a two o’clock meeting with John Cummings. Interview for the Personnel Liaison position.” He presented his confirmation code. The receptionist’s demeanor changed from imperious to demure. She keyed in a code somewhere behind the desk.

The looping footage vanished. The noise of the street outside was cut off as if he were deep inside the building instead of in the lobby. Now he saw the shiny floors, the subtle track lights, the wood paneling. A suite of elevator doors appeared in the wall opposite, marked with different ranges of floors.

The elevators had always been there, but to visitors they just looked like more walls of memorabilia and great moments. Sure, a person could paw through the walls until they hit the elevator door, just as someone could flail their arms around at the Buzz until they found the restroom. Then they’d immediately be marked as a trespasser.

Instead of footsteps against gritty concrete, his soles clicked against marble on the way to the elevator. The sounds came from his earbud, of course. All part of the new augmented space. He liked the atmosphere.

The elevator seemed to press him down on its way up. That was plain old physics. He’d know it was an elevator, whatever his lenses and earbud told him. “Can’t fool the inner ear,” he murmured.

On his way up, Estlin took a moment to ponder whether Personnel Liason meant a portal like the receptionist or a glorified version of his barista job. Or was it an idiosyncratic term for Human Resources? Marketing agent? Public Relations? Part of his mind queued up coding lingo. Another dredged up buzzwords like “silo busting” and “synergy.” The language depended on what they were looking for.

He was still lost in thought when the elevator reached its destination. The doors opened, held, and began to close again. Sleepwalking. Estlin snapped into the present moment and tapped the open button several times. He resisted the urge to glance at the grape-sized, beady camera in the upper corner. Then he resisted the urge to do a crazy dance in his suit, for whoever might be watching.

* * *

Cummings had the physique of a former athlete who ate as if he were still playing. He was packed into a navy-blue suit with a daring choice of tie that told Estlin that someone with imagination picked out his clothes.

“You’ll be interviewing with me, Griffin and Maia.”

Griffin was a tall, slender man with shoulder-length dreadlocks only slightly threaded with grey. A diamond earring flashed beside his face. He wore a suit jacket over a t-shirt that read 21st Century Hipster in silver letters. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled. He limped slightly. Probably also an athlete before he’d hurt himself.

Estlin tuned in and out. This interview was starting out just like his ten previous ones. The phrases were tired shorthand. When Cummings tented his thick, manicured fingers and said “gears in the machine,” he did not mean physical machinery. Whether he knew it or not, he meant algorithms, bots and interacting systems that lifted people above the tedious, clunky meatspace. Ex-sys.

Estlin pondered on the Absence of Maia. He could hear the capital letters in his own thoughts.

He gazed at the wall behind the two execs, distracted by the soundless clips of Cougars football projected there. Here was Luke Hudson hoisting the Lombardi trophy. Here were other highlights and pretty good times. Not-so-great after Hudson retired. Then, the worst: a dreadful shutout against the Seattle Seahawks during which the stadium showed a sea of empty blue-black plastic seats. Ugh. Estlin recoiled every time it looped again. It was like a glass of water to the face every time.

The absence of the crowd sent a message to the players: “If you don’t measure up, we don’t want you.” Unwanted, the Cougars’ play had deteriorated even further.

That shutout footage was depressing to look at months later and from the distance of a network projection. It must have been crushing in the stadium. Despite a Superbowl win a mere handful of years ago, fans said the team “Coug’d it” when they failed.

It was said that no team was as vulnerable to bad optics as the Cougars. Let them have a bad game and the shadow of the Cleveland Browns threatened to creep into Columbus’s relatively new stadium. What if the Cougars went the way of the Browns and became the perennial laughingstock of the NFL? Even the championship hadn’t entirely banished this fear. Fans were ready to distance themselves if they thought the Cougars were deteriorating.

So why dwell on the shutout here? Now? With the season just begun?

He saw Griffin’s canny look and reoriented.

“Quantitative or qualitative difference?” Griffin was asking.

Estlin knew this kind of sleepwalking was why he hadn’t clinched a real job yet. He knew, and it happened anyway. “Qualitative,” he said. “Things like lighting. Faces. Physics. What you can’t do convincingly you’re better off doing in meatspace or raising to an art form, making it obvious that the image is generated on the network. Otherwise it turns people off.”

“Meatspace isn’t an option in this case,” Griffin said, exchanging a look with Cummings.

“Obviously,” Estlin said, watching the replay loop again.

A Seahawk snatched the Cougars’ ball out of the air. Interception. Despair rippled across the Columbus crowd en masse, even as a swathe of blue-and-green Seahawks fans lifted their arms to cheer.

As soon as he said it, he knew what Griffin and Cummings were really asking about. Estlin smiled. He blinked his lenses and scrolled through the list of available networks again. He found a very localized one called Massive Artificial Intelligence Affect. MAIA was not a person, it was an acronym for a network. An experience. Excitement crawled down Estlin’s spine.

The MAIA version of the Cougars network changed the empty seats to filled ones. It was amazing how a stadium full of loyal fans changed from triggering mutual abandonment to a sense of unconditional support.

The intricacies of this shift in perception gave him a sense of euphoria. He loved the beauty and efficiency of the crowd’s reaction. One row reacted to events in meatspace: maybe an interception, maybe a completed pass. The rest of the section was slaved to that row, following their lead. Sprinkle in some individual variance and it looked so much like a real crowd, from a distance, that only someone like Estlin would be able to tell what was going on. Yet he saw the problem, too.

“It can’t just be a graphic for home viewers,” Estlin said. “Not for what you want to do. You want the experience of loyalty for ticket-holders.”

Cummings was nodding. His wishes were understood. All good on that front. Estlin also exchanged a different look with Griffin. As if anyone holds a ticket in their hand anymore.

Griffin’s dark eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled. I know, right?

“You want them to feel they’re not alone.” Estlin was fully awake now. “You want them to see the rest of the crowd is staying even when things look bad. If they see it, they’ll stay too, the team will see all of that, and they’ll believe they’ve got a reason to try. You’ll bypass the worst of the bad optics, at least, during the game.”

He did not voice the franchise hope that this would ward off the shadow of the Cleveland Browns, that maybe the Columbus Cougars wouldn’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy and slide into football irrelevance.

“Can you do that?” Cummings asked soberly.

Trying and failing would be utterly pathetic. On one hand, no one wanted a creepy digital shell sitting next to them and wearing a jersey. They’d recoil. On the other hand, a manic cartoon would be worse. Condescending and tacky. Possibly mistaken for an ad. Estlin frowned. It was the age-old problem of having to hire human faces for businesses.

Yet success would mean creating a new experience for an entire stadium. It would mean shifting the very definition of what it meant to be a Cougars fan. And after all, he did not have to paste a poor caricature right in front of human fans to give them the impression the stadium was full. Come to think of it, there were many possibilities...

“Yeah, I can do it,” Estlin murmured, almost as an afterthought to his realization.

Estlin and Griffin shot ideas back and forth. So they wanted a distilled experience of loyalty to offer consumers. Were there additional ways to affect mood? Maybe hire a few human faces and network the crowd further off...? Estlin thought of the anemometer-mapped valley of trees and wondered if he could generate up-close emotional conditions for a crowd, mapped off the affect of one person. He could be the human face of MAIA.

All of this depended on how much research money he’d have at his disposal and how long they had to get MAIA off the ground.

Anxiety crept into Cummings’ faded blue eyes. Estlin sensed Cummings wanted to ask something but didn’t have the words. Estlin knew what that look meant. Cummings saw the techie behind Estlin’s country-boy face and wasn’t sure he liked it.

Estlin had seen similar looks from Buzz customers who swiped their hands meaninglessly through networked decorations or knocked over saleable mugs in a panicked attempt to figure out what was “real.” It was essential that such people be either completely immersed or be able to tell themselves that this was just part of the furniture. Too late for Cummings to be immersed.

“Think of it as a high-tech version of making seats with team colors,” Estlin soothed.

Cummings nodded, but his anxious look did not change. His expression said he was all too aware that his beloved football team was as run-down as their HQ. He was very quiet as Estlin and Griffin continued discussing their strategy.

Success meant that ticket-holders would live in a world of loyal fans. Instead of sharing a precarious reality with a few others, they’d be guaranteed the experience of collective hope that the game could still be won. They’d get to keep their hope until the very end. They’d have the experience of loyalty even if no one else were there to share it.

Copyright © 2018 by Ada Fetters

Proceed to Challenge 753...

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