Filtered, a Microfiction
If you never had to deal with your partner’s annoying verbal tics because your AI could just edit them out, would you do it?
Many readers let me know that they enjoyed “Bubbles,” the microfiction, short SF story (1,000 words or less) I shared a few issues back. Microfictions help me explore and illustrate aspects of how our lives might evolve within digital transformation.
Here, then, is another microfiction: “Filtered.”
Next issue, I’ll dig into how realistic this story is.
I'll put some miscellaneous goodies and things worth your attention at the end.
Filtered, a Microfiction
Hearing his wife Cynthia say the word "Sweetie" tightened the corners of Phil's mouth into a sour grimace. He hated it, and it was Cynthia’s chief way of addressing him. "Sweetie, would you take out the garbage?" "I'll be home late from work, Sweetie." "Sweetie, are you OK having dinner with my sister on Friday?"
Phil had asked Cynthia to choose a different pet name. She'd switch to "Darling" or "Honey" for a while, but then "Sweetie" would resurface like a stubborn case of athlete's foot that gobs of anti-fungal cream couldn't conquer.
He loved Cynthia. He loathed "Sweetie."
So, when the OmniTech smart ear plugs came down in price to the cost of a primo pair of running shoes, Phil bought them. Soon, he stuck his fingers in his ears and rubbed two tiny pills of data-enabled goo across each ear drum. Then he inserted the plugs. It hurt for a moment when the goo heated up to seal his ears from natural sound. Phil imagined a garage door closing.
A new icon popped onto his contact lens as the plugs connected to Spenser, his AI assistant. Phil focused on the icon, pushing his back teeth together to click. After a few moments playing with the settings, Phil asked the plugs to switch out "Sweetie" for "Darling" whenever it heard Cynthia's voice say it. Spenser then whispered: "should I eliminate this word from the whole world?"
"No thanks," Phil said.
"What did you say, Darling?" asked Cynthia. The algorithmically powered alteration was seamless. "Darling" had Cynthia's precise cadence. It worked!
"Nothing, dear." Phil smiled.
At first it was only "Sweetie" that Phil edited into silence. As time passed, he found another verbal tic of Cynthia's growing itchy between his shoulder blades. She said "like" instead of "she said" or "he said." "And then Janie was like, 'I did send you that memo, and I've, like, got the time stamp to prove it!' ... Darling, as you listening to me?"
"Of course, dear," Phil replied. "Janie sent a time-stamped email."
Editing out this habit took more jiggling in the OmniTech preferences, but soon he'd buffed "like" away, except when Cynthia was expressing mild enthusiasm.
Phil had never loved Cynthia more.
Things progressed. An accountant, Phil had long bemoaned the "ums" infecting the speech of Josh, a colleague at the firm. OmniTech turned grating "ums" into elegant pauses. Phil found himself liking Josh more and more, even recommending him to prospective clients when his own plate was full.
Despite these successes, at first Phil resisted letting OmniTech loose on his entire world. He'd read Ragnarokian online screeds about how filters were draining all color from social interaction. But "um" distracted him no matter who said it. As Phil contemplated the OmniTech settings again, he blamed Ms. Bjork, his Seventh Grade English teacher, who made her students start over whenever she heard "um."
Pedantry, Phil thought, is contagious.
Phil focused his vision on the words floating on his contact lens: "Should I eliminate this word from the whole world?" He pressed his back teeth together: click.
"Um" was forever banished.
Despite Phil's devotion to Cynthia, stronger now with OmniTech, she had another irksome habit. Whenever they dined together, Cynthia's eye contact would drift. Phil knew that Cynthia wasn't ignoring him. The times he'd asked "Honey, are you there?" her reply had shown him that she'd heard his every word. Still, though, the wandering eyes were... sub optimal.
"Sub optimal." Where had Phil read that recently? He queried Spenser. The AI searched through everything Phil had said, searched, read, or heard over the last few days. The ongoing video and audio streams that his contact lenses and ear plugs captured and stored in the cloud meant that Phil never forgot anything. With a blink, he could even play back the last five seconds of a conversation to catch up when his mind wandered. This helped with boring clients.
Ah. Sub-optimal. A Federal Agent had used this term to describe an anti-terrorism disaster in the breakaway republic of Jefferson, north of Redding, California and south of Ashland, Oregon. Phil had skimmed the article 39 hours earlier.
Something nagged at him about Cynthia's wandering attention. Was his wife playing back the last five seconds of what Phil said when he tried to catch her ignoring him? Was she filtering him?
Outrageous! How dare she? Then Phil caught himself. How could he blame Cynthia for doing to him what he was doing to her?
And was it really happening? Did it matter? It wasn't like Cynthia was talking with somebody else when she was ignoring him. It wasn't conversational infidelity, not aural sex with another person. Phil could even see it as a thoughtful gesture on Cynthia's part. She was a busy career woman, and here she was, programming filters to let her keep track of what her husband—he had to confess to a tendency to natter, and not everybody was interested in tax code changes—was saying moment to moment.
He ordered himself to forget his suspicions. For a while he did. Then, one night as Phil reviewed the monthly bills, he saw a second charge with the description "Omnitech Filtering Srvcs." Diving into the family bill payment account, Phil saw that one charge went to his profile. The other went to Cynthia's.
Ah ha! She was filtering him. How dare she? But how was she filtering him? Auditory filters like Phil, or was she using one of OmniTech's myriad other services? Or was she filtering other people? Phil clicked the account link on his online bill control panel and stubbed his digital toe on a privacy wall.
A dilemma. Phil could simply ask Cynthia about her OmniTech subscription, but did he want the answer? How would he feel if his wife didn’t like the way he looked (visual filters)? Or smelled (nasal filters)? Would he fess up to his filtering? He decided to wait and see.
Maybe it would never come up.
Miscellaneous Goodies and Things Worth Your Attention
I’m too exhausted by the news and social media to share anything political this time. Here are some things to help you take a break from the onslaught.
Star Wars + Top Gun: Maverick—My son William shared this Instagram video by 90minsonfilm that shows the weird parallels between these two movies.
Henry V: Speaking of movies, Peter Horan let me know that a digitally remastered, 4K version of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie of Shakespeare’s most patriotic history play is now available free on YouTube. This is a beautiful restoration of a movie that was important to the war effort during WWII (a year before VE Day). With this movie, his Hamlet, and his Richard III, Olivier did a lot to popularize Shakespeare in the mid Twentieth Century. His cinematographic sophistication still surprises me: in Henry V, the first half hour in set in a performance of the play at the Globe Theater, then the action shifts into something more like reality.
The New Michael Lewis book: I finished Going Infinite yesterday, and it’s a terrific read. As I zipped through it, I kept thinking that the way people reacted to Sam Bankman-Fried is weirdly like how people reacted to Chauncey Gardner, the Peter Sellers character in Being There. Now I want to see the movie again. It isn’t on any of my streaming services, but my library is holding a copy of the Blu-Ray reissue for me!
Mean Girls again: Last week I mentioned a Walmart ad cast reunion for the original Mean Girls. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there’s a full reboot coming to theaters in January. This story from Insider talks about hilarious millennial overreactions to the “this isn’t your mother’s Mean Girls” tagline, and it also has the trailer. The new version is a musical, like the Broadway show that I enjoyed a few years back. I’m in!
Superman: the Harvests of Youth—This is a terrific YA graphic novel by Sina Grace. Smallville is grappling with the aftermath of a teen suicide, and a young Clark Kent finds out that superpowers can’t solve every problem.
Thanks for reading. See you next Sunday.
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