Fiction: “Walk to Work”

Well, this is unexpected, and not the post I had been meaning to write either, but apparently I wrote a short story this morning.  (Around 1500 words as a computer counts.)  Like my protagonist I’m a little off from my usual schedule today, and so somewhat reluctantly I found myself returning from the pharmacy at half past oh-dark-hundred with the ingredients for True Nyquil (combine: modern Nyquil and a Sudafed tab), ie. the ingredients of a good night’s sleep — the one thing I was notably lacking in that moment.

The seed of this was a comment Neal Stephenson made at his recent appearance at MIT, saying that he doesn’t think wearable computers like Google’s Project Glass are actually going to look much like the wearable computers in his novel Snow Crash, and that these days he works at a treadmill desk for its health benefits, combined with my own personal frustration at spending forty hours a week staring at the inside of a cubicle while working an office job.  Walking home that got me the first line and once I sat down (hah) it spiraled endlessly on from there; low blood sugar and critical caffeine depletion were the only things that forced me to tie it up.

It’s a much more technology-forward sort of story than I tend to write, and it needs editing, but for now the web site has fiction on it, and that seems like the kind of thing the web site of a science fiction writer should have.

(Footnote markers are where links should go; I’ll round them up in a bit.)

“Walk to Work” by Kellan Sparver

I’m a little off from my usual schedule this morning, which means a different route, but I have a lunch meeting with some potential investors in Kendall Square practically downstairs from my apartment, so I can’t loop up to Davis for Thursday Redbones lunch with my team like I usually do.  Davis is about three miles if I walk the most direct way, practically a straight shot up Beacon and Elm, which takes me about two hours at my usual pace, almost exactly right to leave at 11 and arrive just past the peak.  I’m a bit of a night owl, as are most of the rest of my team, so we meet up when we need to and adopt a generous definition of lunch and that works for us.  But today although I woke up a bit early I’m operating on investor time, so I’ve got a bit over an hour, meaning about a mile and a half, to kill.


I’m dictating a quick e-mail as I grab my phone from its charging dock and head out the door.  I suppose that, to be clear in telling you this, I should mention that there’s no lag, no moment of hesitation as my specs’ internal computer switches from talking to the house network to talking to the phone and as the phone switches from talking to the house network to talking to the cell providers’ network, but in truth I never notice and it’s been years since I’ve expected to.  The software updates what I see locally in real time and transmits those changes to the server, and the server applies those updates and sends corrections back to my view as appropriate[1][2].  People talk about “black cat moments,” something being “matrixed out” of existence — or usually just “matrixed” — to mean the digital deja vu when the server reverts a change you had made locally and thought long-standing, but they’re a lot less common now than they used to be, and the visual shorthand to flag them has gotten a lot better.  So I cruise out the door in the middle of my e-mail and I suppose there’s an icon in the corner of my eye that blips to indicate that I’m now on WAN rather than LAN but I just want to get this damned thing sent so I’m that much closer to the hallowed Inbox Zero[3].


Right, I forgot to mention.  I’m already wearing my specs[0] — my “brainy specs,” as my daughter calls them, after that old Doctor Who episode, and indeed they’re usually called “smart glasses” when you’re talking about them as a device class, although for most of us correcting (say) my severe nearsightedness is as important to their purpose as their “smart” features.  They’re the first things on in the morning and the last things off at night and if you think my husband hasn’t griped at me gently a time or two about wearing them during sex you don’t know human nature very well.  Some people do check e-mail on them during sex, and going the other direction some people do do crazy ARG overlay things so their partner(s) actually look like whatever they imagine them to be, but we’re au naturel people both and we also believe in work-life balance, so I do turn them off as I promised him.  I really do just like to see his face while we’re going at it.  He makes such…  I’m sorry, I’m oversharing by your standards, aren’t I, and oversharing is still something that you’re touchy about, I see.  I understand.  My apologies.  Anyway like all the best tools the specs are — no pun intended — pretty transparent to me at this point, such that if you asked me whether I was looking at a computer screen all day I’d have to think for a bit to answer correctly, and I might quibble with your choice of preposition.  (I think ‘through’ is much more accurate.)


I stop in at the crunchygranola yuppie grocery store on the first floor of my apartment complex before heading out.  I’m in no hurry, and I come here often enough that I eschew both the tasteful notification hovering just below my point of focus and the menus on the counter[3], either of which would give me access to an artful app full of nice typography and luscious photos describing the various desserts and herbal stimulants that I can order.  I just ask Dale the cute cleanshaven barista with the bioluminescent tattoos for “the usual” and pay, and then alternate watching them and the foot traffic through the glass walls while they pulls my latte.  How do I pay?  Well, uh, I pull up my wallet — no, you have to move your eyes without moving your head, like…  Here, let me…  Heh, now I can’t do it either.  It’s because you’ve made me think about it, you know.  Volition overrides muscle memory and volition gets it wrong.  What?  And once my wallet’s open it just pops up the payment confirmation dialog, yes, you know, two-factor authentication[µ]…  Oh, yes, there’s no PIN number or password to enter.  Right, why use anything so trivially brute-forceable?  I… oh, right, so, the specs have a daemon that’s been monitoring my biometrics this whole time, you understand; how I move, how long it takes me to do various tasks.  That’s more unique than a fingerprint and harder to fake than almost anything else.  So, yeah, the software uses that to authenticate me securely.[4]


Man, I haven’t thought about that stuff since my computer security class in college.  Hunh?  I suppose somebody might steal my specs to sell or use themselves, once they unlocked them, but how would they get access to my data?  The specs would just authenticate to them rather than me.  I worry more about my service providers, but all my really important ones are running zero-knowledge these days anyway[5].  And that leaves me worrying about rubber hose cryptanalysis or seduction or whatever, which is to say it reduces to a previously unsolved problem.  Even given that I’m monoamorous with my husband, and before you say it, yes, we each know what we’re missing, and we each know we’re happier this way.


We can skip over the next forty-five minutes after I get my coffee or so, it’s not that interesting.  Well, mostly I finally finish responding to everything, clean out my inbox, and put it away for the day.  At this point I’ve got my coffee and finished it and have walked around Kendall Square to Lechemere.  Well, there are a couple new towers under construction out here to absorb the overflow of the Square proper, plus the new Galleria set to open next month, five floors of mall and four of offices.  On some level I miss the old low grey cinderblock industrial buildings they’re replacing, a little, the ones they were just starting to tear down when I got here for college, and I especially miss the one I lived in for a couple years with some friends including my then-boyfriend now-spouse before our plan to buy and develop it — which was my first big business enterprise — fell through[6].  The new tall buildings make more efficient use of land and energy, both commodities which are not just precious to me as an urbanite but which are also legitimately expensive, but the old buildings had a certain rusty charm.  It’s pretty busy, mostly with other office workers on their phones… you’re right, we’re not exactly office workers, any more, but yes, the name still stands.  It’s not too loud, there are certainly a few people taking voice at normal volume, which, well, Boston standards, but most people are just dictating to their phones so they’re subvocalizing.  Of course their phone can tell if any given utterance they make is happy or tense but it still doesn’t care the way another human does, and then they don’t have to shout when a Green Line trolley trundles past towards Assembly Square.


Well, no, then I get a text from my potential VC’s calendar saying he’s going to be late to our meeting — his plane has just landed at Logan but 30 minutes past its scheduled arrival time, and the calendar sees that we’re both free at 3 PM and is it okay if we reschedule?  (Which it is, although immediately following that I get a text from the VC himself to confirm, thereby reaffirming his reputation as a bit of a Luddite.  That’s okay, we need one of those on our board to provide much-needed late-adopter, hasn’t-drunk-the-Koolaid perspective.)  And this is all for the good because two minutes later I get a text from one of my team members saying our app is crawling under sudden heavy load and she’s debugging as best she can while minding her two kids on the Red Line but maybe somebody with more literal and metaphorical bandwidth should take a look too until she’s dropped them off at her childcare co-op, so I’m headed for the nearest coffee shop when there’s a flash and I must have fallen unconscious because next thing I know I’m waking up on a couch in a place which bills itself as the MIT Center for Interspatiotemporal Computing, where the harried-looking grad student is enlisting me to help them with some, ah, I suppose interspatiotemporal user experience testing that they’re doing, which, having signed the papers, starts with an interview about the participant’s subjective current local technological experience, and that brings us up to right now.


Does that give you enough context for me and where I come from for now?  Good.  Good.  I’m glad to hear it.  Good.


So what can you tell me about the subjective current local technological experience of this universe in which I find myself?  To talk like a businessperson for a moment, it seems like there might be interesting synergies between our approaches…