Our Mutual Friend
by Chris Carpenter
Eric woke up and immediately he heard a story about an aardvark. The aardvark was in a strange new place, but everything worked out for the best and the aardvark was happy in his new home. Eric breathed a sigh of relief and felt as though everything would be fine.
He looked around and found himself in a small room on a bed. He did not know how he’d gotten there and he did not know where he was. But he remembered the aardvark and remained fairly calm and open to whatever would happen next.
His calm was rewarded when a door facing his bed opened and a woman entered, smiling.
“I’m glad to see you are awake. You will be happy to know that your body is now cancer free and you have made a full recovery,” she informed him in an optimistic voice.
Eric smiled and started to ask when he could see his family.
She continued, “Unfortunately the technology to cure you was not available in your original era so you were cryogenically frozen. It is the year 2284.”
Eric frowned briefly, but then he remembered the brave aardvark who had made the best of things. He replied, “I’m sorry that my family could not be with me, but I’m grateful to have this opportunity for a second life. What’s your name?”
She smiled again and said, “I’m Eileen, I’m going to help you get adjusted to the 23rd century. Follow me and I’ll take you up to the observation deck so you can see the city.”
Eric was eager to find out what life would be like in this new world so he cheerfully followed her out of his room and into an elevator. The elevator opened just before they arrived and took them to the floor they wanted without any buttons being pressed or any verbal commands.
Naturally Eric was curious and he asked how the elevator knew where to take them. Eileen responded, “Our Mutual Friend knew where I would want to take a newly awakened person.”
“Our Mutual Friend? I don’t know anyone here.”
She laughed lightly. “Of course you don’t. I’ll explain in a moment. But first…here we are.” A door opened and they stepped into a wide, empty room with floor to ceiling glass. A city full of gleaming skyscrapers clustered all over the horizon with plenty of green fields and clumps of woods between them.
Eric was momentarily awed by the splendor of the world he would now be living in. But he was worried that he would never fit into this world. Then, in his ear, he heard a story about a badger who did not think he would fit into his new home but who eventually found his place. Thinking about the badger reduced Eric’s worry that he would not be able to integrate into this new society.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” asked Eileen. “Our Mutual Friend made all this possible.”
“Who is this friend of ours?” replied Eric, increasingly curious.
“It’s the most important part of our world and it had its roots in yours,” explained Eileen proudly. “Remember those fitness trackers people started wearing around when you got sick?”
“Uh, sure,” responded Eric, not knowing how counting steps per day cured him of cancer and built soaring buildings.
“Well, that’s how things started. More and more people were using their cell phones to keep track of more and more of their physiological data. The massive amounts of data allowed increasingly accurate predictions about what kinds of behaviors would be better for people’s health. The Our Mutual Friend Corporation started buying up smaller fitness companies and their data. They started offering advice giving services such that people’s phones would tell them when they were most likely to benefit from exercise and what they should do. Eventually their services expanded to give people dietary advice tailored to their needs.”
“As Our Mutual Friend helped people become more physically fit, the service became more popular. As it became more popular, more data was being collected and Our Mutual Friend got better at giving advice. Eventually, people started getting their advice directly into their ear via a tiny wireless speaker that only they could hear.”
“Of course, Our Mutual Friend wanted to help people not just with their physical fitness, but their mental fitness. So they started collecting data on where people were and who they were with and tied it to physiological indicators of mental well-being. Our Mutual Friend started giving them advice on their relationships and other aspects of their lives. People started leaving their devices on all the time so that Our Mutual Friend could hear what was going on around them and give them better advice. Naturally, all this data continued to improve Our Mutual Friend’s predictive algorithms.”
“But not everyone who used Our Mutual Friend always followed Our Mutual Friend’s advice. How silly people were! But Our Mutual Friend found a better way. Instead of telling people what to do, Our Mutual Friend began offering an entertainment option where Our Mutual Friend would tell people a story. The stories were chosen to suggest what they should do without giving them an order. Continued research and refinement of the stories found that stories about animals, like the old fables, were most effective. I’m sure you’ve already heard some stories, haven’t you?”
“Uh, yeah, I heard a story about an aardvark and one about a badger. The stories did seem to make me feel better…” replied Eric uncertainly.
Eileen continued, “Of course they did. As more and more people started using Our Mutual Friend’s services, the stories and the accompanying implicit advice got better and better as more and more data improved Our Mutual Friend’s models for both the advice and the stories. It turned out that stories about animals, like the old fables, were particularly effective. Now nearly everyone uses Our Mutual Friend and listens to Our Mutual Friend’s stories. There’s hardly any crime and everyone feels fulfilled in their lives by choosing the best romantic partner or partners, the best possible friends, the best jobs, and of course, when and how to exercise. The result is that people work the jobs they will find the most success in and society can advance rapidly in all fields like curing diseases and solving environmental problems”
Eric remembered the Aardvark story he heard and became suspicious of it. He realized how calmly he had been taking everything and resented being manipulated. The recently awaked man probed for holes in the fabric of this seemingly perfect society.
“You said nearly everyone. What happens to the people who refuse?” he asked suspiciously. “Do they go to Our Mutual Friend’s re-education center for people who don’t accept the user agreement or something?”
Eileen laughed her carefree laugh again. “People we wake up from your era are always so suspicious! What must corporations have been doing with your data in your original time? No, Our Mutual Friend’s services are completely voluntary and for some people they feel happier by feeling free of Our Mutual Friend’s influence. If you just tap your ear three times the earpiece shuts off. But Our Mutual Friend usually manages to help non-users find a fulfilling life too by influencing the people around them. It is good for Our Mutual Friend to have a certain number of people not directly taking part. They add variation in emotions to help the models work better. Gaining such additional variation in the algorithms is part of the benefit accrued to our society from waking up the cryogenically frozen when we find cures for them. It gets hard to predict how to make people happy and satisfied if everyone is always happy and satisfied. Our Mutual Friend wants to improve so it’s useful to have some people around like yourself who add… surprises.”
Eric looked down into the city and pondered all this information. He saw a number of vehicles moving efficiently along the streets. But something caught his eye. There was a traffic jam. He felt oddly pleased that even in this land of supposed algorithmic perfection there were still some familiar hassles left. He proudly pointed at the traffic jam, “I see some things aren’t perfect. Look at those people stuck in traffic.”
Eileen looked down where he was pointing. “Ah, it looks like the Malcontents have managed to disrupt the traffic system again.”
“Ah ha! Malcontents? Who are they?”
“As I said, there are some people who refuse Our Mutual Friend’s help and among those a very small number are actively trying to disrupt things, to overthrow Our Mutual Friend entirely.” She sighed deeply, “I can’t imagine not having Our Mutual Friend to help me through the day. I feel so grateful to have Our Mutual Friend when I think about the Malcontents”
Later that night Eric was pacing around in his new apartment. Eileen said they would find a job for him soon, even though he had not been educated in 23rd century technology. He remembered the badger and worried about it a bit less, but it also bothered him a little that the badger story made him feel better. Eric was glad he’d turned off his earpiece so that he could think without Our Mutual Friend influencing his thoughts even more. He looked out the window at all the lights and movement and couldn’t help thinking of sheep.
Suddenly there was a buzz as someone wanted to come in. Eric told the door to open and a middle-aged woman quickly entered the room nervously.
“Are you the new man from the past?” she urgently asked.
“Yeah, who wants to know?” replied Eric.
“I’m Margaret, I’m with the Malcontents. Many of our members are people like you who were suddenly thrust into this insane world of Our Mutual Friend. It’s hard to find recruits from among those who were born into it because they cannot imagine any other life. But people like you know what it is to be free.”
“Yes!” replied Eric enthusiastically. “I don’t want some computer making all my decisions for me. I want to be free to decide for myself.”
“That is what our organization is trying to do. We want to free humanity from Our Mutual Friend. You may have seen one of our attacks on the traffic system today.”
“Yes, I did! But what will that do to end Our Mutual Friend’s power?”
“Well, our campaign is a slow and incremental one. Attack by attack we are trying to show the people that Our Mutual Friend is not their friend. Eventually our attacks will open their eyes.”
“But why don’t you simply find Our Mutual Friend’s main computer and attack there?”
Margaret smiled and explained, “Well, we feel that a slow and steady campaign is safer. Let me tell you a story I heard once about a turtle who won a race by being slow and steady.”