This is a Kafkaesque tale of precariat urban reality where K. answers his phone to a caller from his Network Provider. This friendly voice on the other end knows everything there is to know about K.’s life. K., while not always realising it, is the perfectly atomised and scrutinised, controlled, unit of labour. What the caller does not know, however, is that K. has always had a spoon in his virtual cell and he has been digging a tunnel.
“Number withheld” flashed onto the display of K.’s phone as it began to vibrate in a heartbeat-like rhythm of buzzes on his table. His smaller than average bedsit, described by Mrs. Morgan his landlady as a “studio,” had flooded with a subtle violet as the knackered sun drooped towards its kip behind the low-rises of the town beyond his window. Already the lavender on the sill; the lavender he had pinched from a nearby garden to keep the moths at bay, had nodded off in the blackened water in which it was stewing in the Erlenmeyer flask he had picked up for a song in Warsaw.
K. hadn’t been outside all day. Since surfacing shortly before lunch he had watched the changing mood of the sky as it danced over the nicotine stained walls of his depressing little room. Like himself, he thought, the sun had nowhere else to be. It merely wandered, killing time as it cast colour down on the nothing new beneath, until it too, at last, could skulk back to its digs for the night.
Once or twice in the week K. would venture out. Perhaps to the coffee shop, Café Aroma – a let’s pretend living-room frequented by the posers among the denizens of K.’s “developing” corner of town. Perhaps in the afternoon to a diner to spend time with Ms. Weber once she had finished her work for the day and before she caught her train to the vicious suburbs where she lived with her ever-so-awkward father and fastidious mother. Such trifles were, it is true, the highlight of his days.
Life in the bargain basement, grim as it is, was, in other regards, quite simple. K. was a writer of some considerable obscurity, contributing to an oversees political journal the editor of which had long since stopped paying.
Ends never met, but to lessen the gap K., who had mastered the art out of a mixture of boredom and some half-baked notion of saving the world through free education, taught mathematics to hard-done-by youngsters. The sort of kids whose weekend dads somehow eked out three holidays to the Costas a year and made do with obnoxious, wall obliterating widescreen smart television sets. K. was a real hero.
Between terms, when soul destroyingly cheap tuition was the last thing on conscientious parents’ minds, K. did honest work for dishonest pay. Cyberspace offered the periodically and perennially skint the opportunity to anonymously prostitute their labour for coppers – but enough to stock up on store brand beans, brown sauce, and a loaf or two of bread of the negligible nutrition variety. Invariably this was “flexi” work; work so flexible – cleaning toilets and clearing rat holes – it broke nine backs out of ten.
As this narrator was filling you, the reader, in on the crummy circumstances of K.’s existence, K. – altogether incognisant of his life being described to perfect strangers – had picked his phone, in which so much of his world was contained, up from the cluttered room-consuming table, swiped open the caller-hidden incoming call, and asked, as we have read, “hello?”
“Hello! Is this Mr. K. Em?” a disembodied girl’s voice asked, not bothering to answer K.’s question.
It was no one K. knew. Her voice was at once melodic and refined, her manner officious and direct. K. was never one for small talk, but he was unaccustomed to such direct interrogation from unknown callers who felt no need to introduce themselves. Had he done something wrong, he wondered? It couldn’t be that, he thought, thinking rather that rarefied accents were intended to unsettle the people to whom they were directed. Usually K. was antipathetic to these voices, but that this was the voice of a young woman – one, if he were completely honest, he imagined to be quite attractive in the flesh – he was caught entirely off guard.
Thus momentarily disarmed, he answered:
“And are you the account holder?”
Account holder? There had been a time when K. was the owner of a number of accounts. That, however, was lifetime behind him. He had been a man of account, or at least he reckoned himself to have been a man of account. As a manager of other people’s money, which, as was the flavour of the time, was always really the bank’s money, K. had once peddled debt burdens for a living. This unhappy career as a clerical usurer for a small savings and loans institution; the owners of which, to a man, narrowly escaped the confines of a penitential institution, afforded K. some of the securities enjoyed by that class of pencil pushers thought useful to the higher orders of civilised society.
During this pubescent phase of his moral development he benefited from the rewards of an income of a magnitude slightly greater than his expenditure. He had a savings account and a checking account, an overdraft and a healthy credit rating. At that time in his life he was on the up-and-up, having all the financial commitments and obligations necessary to ensure he never asked questions. The bills he had were always paid on time.
Having a girl now asking him if he was the holder of the account worried him. In this tumble-down neighbourhood he now called home people still had accounts, only they were more typically the type of accounts, or scores, that were to be settled. No one had an account to settle with him. Not that he knew of at any rate.
“What account would that be?” he enquired. More forcefully than he had intended.
Unshaken, the voice clarified, “This phone number. Are you the account holder for this number?”
Here was a neophyte of the clerical ranks, no doubt packed into a blue-walled cubicle surrounded by a thousand other bureaucratic bottom feeders, stacked row-on-row and column-on-column of identical blue-walled cubicles, perched at a terminal with K.’s name on it – his full name on it – asking him, after he had confirmed, without mutual introduction, that he was indeed the very same K. Em she had asked if he was, if he owned the phone account to which his name was indelibly attached. Who the bloody hell else would hold K.’s account other than K. himself?
“Of course,” snapped K. “I am he, and this is my phone,” he added, clearly having lost patience. “I also happen to hold the account for the phone, something you most certainly already know, as my name is on it. Who are you, may I ask?”
“Yes you may. I am Olivia,” Olivia, now partially identified, replied, “I am calling from the offices of your Network Provider.”
“Would you answer some security questions?,” Olivia continued, still unshaken.
Would he?, mused K. to himself. Clever use of vocabulary was that “would.” Had she asked “can you” he could have said that he can but he wouldn’t and still come across as witty. But that she had asked “would you,” to refuse would be rude.
“What is your date of birth?”
“It’s the day was born.”
“Quite. Your date of birth, please?”
“Thank you Olivia. The twelfth of the sixth nineteen eighty-four.”
“Your mother’s maiden name?”
And so it went on until Olivia was satisfied K. was who he said he was, and that the phone he was holding was indeed his own, and that no one else other than K. himself was listed as the account holder.
Security is not what it used to be. When K. was a child security was the four digit code his father punched into the white plastic box on the downstairs landing before everyone went to bed. It was the box itself and the wailing sound its partner on the outside wall of the house made if someone with a sack labelled “swag” used a crowbar to gain entry through a back window with the intention of enriching himself at father and mother’s expense. Security was a feeling. It was the indefinable sense that you’d get up in the morning to discover no one had purloined your Commodore 64, that you’d make it through the day and manage to get bed to your bed to go through the whole thing again the next day. No one thought about security.
Now everyone thought about security. It was the cameras on the street corner, the little tinted bubble that watched you picking your nose on the bus, the endless list of strangers who had been deputised to match your name to a number the state had assigned you. Somewhere between the bank, where security was the vault and the strong box, and the phone call he had just received, security, as far as K. saw it, was about an excuse to intrude.
People were convinced they were more secure in a world where it had become possible to be entertained watching people watching television. It was the act of being watched, kept tabs on, that made people feel secure. This had always made K. uneasy. He did not feel secure being watched, and he had good reason not to.
“Mr. Em, we cannot help but…”
Titles deployed against one, thought K., had long since ceased to be terms of respect. They had never been about respect. Misters and Misseses, whilst denoting a pathetic deferential subservience in the speaker when addressing someone in authority, invert to become a sneer when set rolling down the social pecking order.
Having “Olivia” on the other end of the phone discharging a “Mr.” at him irritated K.
“K., we have noticed we have no information on your voting intentions this year.”
Of course you do, thought K., and while we’re at it, who the hell is “we?”
“Is that right?”
“In order to provide you with the best possible service,” continued Olivia, “we like to know what interests you.”
What interested K. right now was why his interests were of interest to Olivia and her shady associates in “we.” “We,” as K. rightly knew was Olivia’s master. “We” was not a single person, but a vast and near omniscient – yet unknown and almost unknowable – corporation. This “we” had an insatiable appetite to know things, to know things about people – especially people who had an aversion to being known about; people like K.
“Why would you want to know my voting intentions? I have no intention of letting you know how I intend to vote.”
“That,” an alarmed voice shot back, “would be a breach of the terms and conditions of your contract with the Network Provider.”
With that there was a short pause in the conversation. Terms and conditions were optional. His Network Provider – or “we” – had no right to know anything about K., but the problem was, as he now realised, the terms and conditions he had himself signed and consented to. If it were true that his withholding such information was a violation of the tees and sees, then it was K. himself who had given the Network Provider the right to know these things about him.
“You seem not to have too much of an issue with us knowing so much else about your preferences.”
“What ‘preferences?'” damanded K.
As the scope of the Network Provider’s awareness of K.’s preferences dawned on him he began to sink back. These people – this “we” – knew everything about him. Everything.
“You love cats and it frustrates you that Mrs. Morgan your landlady won’t allow pets in the place she leases to you for eight hundred pounds a month.”
Eight hundred pounds a month in rent. How could “we” possibly know that? No one, scowled K., shares that sort of information. “Mrs. Morgan too?” The old witch to whom economic necessity impelled K. to defer in pathetic subservience. “We” knew about Mrs. Morgan. Had she turned informer?
“How do you know all this?”
“She emailed you a copy of the new contract.”
“Christ,” exploded K., “you are reading my emails?! That must be a crime.”
It was a crime. No one had the right to read private correspondences – which emails most clearly were – without the expressed permission of the email account holder. Except K. would have never given anyone permission to access his email account, but maybe…
“Terms and conditions?”
Naturally. K. felt as though he were standing hand in hand with the jackal headed master of the scales as his life was balanced against the feather.
Having, much earlier in his life, discounted artificial intelligence as fiction, K. had not considered the possibility that the purpose of the digital revolution was not – as everyone had assumed – the development of a thinking computer, but the creation of a god in the machine. Gods, as the church has taught us, are never benign.