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SEARCH ENGINE by BRAM E. GIEBEN (AKA TEXTURE)

Vinnie screens the latest updates from his feeds with a small sigh. The sigh is like a compressed squirt of gas escaping from a geosynch-ship’s exhaust vents as it corrects position, fleeing a collision vector in the metal-choked stratosphere. A rattling, liquid squirt.

He’s been scrolling compressed bipolar chemical loops through his neocortex for the last forty-eight hours. The manic periods have produced a flurry of new articles and old-fashioned linkblogs on his various sites, but none have spawned any useful syndication. His hit rate is in the pointless-trending-towards-invisible range. None of it is his work, not really. The last couple of months’ output is palimpsest. A cascade of linked pieces and pages. A road map of other people’s minds and ideas, filtered through his own mental net.

He’s been ploughing a thin furrow through the datamass, linking disparate topics, events, and reports of events together with a gentle guiding hand on the tiller, fingers tapping absently on invisible keyboards and runtime controllers. But something has nagged at him.

On the downswing of the chemical rollercoaster, all he can think about is his own inadequacy. The constant feeling of treading in others’ footsteps, being five minutes behind the curve instead of five minutes in front.

Vinnie feels almost suicidal. Wonders, what would it be like to just switch off? He scratches absently at the trodes which run from the motherdisk to his temples. Remembers the last time he logged off and went walking in the meatworld – the dazed, itchy feeling of being outside the accelerated time of netspace distracting him from the smell of vegetation and trees, the feel of rain on his face. It has been too long since he felt truly at home there, in the biosphere. Without the direct links and the wetware, he feels naked, isolated, alone.

The manic cycle is eroding now, spiralling back down into a depressive slump. He's missing the errors in the HTML20 strings his fingers still exude, despite his conscious thoughts turning inwards to the poorly-defined dark space of his unconscious. He codes, but his thoughts turn sluggish and grey, a brackish sludge of paranoia and unhappiness. Bleak unicode characters tumble down the edges of his feed, evidencing the uncaught exemptions and 404 errors his inattention has allowed to slip into the outpush of his data stream. Hashtag: #fuckthisshit #cantbebothered.

Half-heartedly, he scans his feeds for new information, walking his regular beats. The robot nurseries are quiet. The heliotronic mother-brains have just upgraded the consciousness models of sub-beta appliances to include the new FreeWill2.3 subroutines. The story will break next week, as people begin to argue sentient rights with their toasters and microwaves. For now, the nurseries’ PR departments are as dumb and empty as the newly-awakened machines. Besides, nobody wants to know about the nurseries. They don’t see the end of the curve the nurseries represent.

Humanity has built its own replacements. Here, at least, Vinnie is ahead of the curve. He knows what the AIs are planning, but nobody wants to listen: to get people to read his stories about the nurseries, he has to hashtag them as conspiracy theories, speculative memes. The truth is too unpalatable.

Over on the Worthing Media sites, he spawns a search daemon to whittle down stories about the honey-smuggling trade into something approaching a summary. He taps out a subdued Op-Ed about the latest attempts to clone a queen, and posts it to the mailbox of the Memesphere news page. It only takes three seconds for the automated e-rejection to ping his mailserver. He sighs his rattling, smoke-ravaged sigh again. If he is going to make any credit this week, he needs to tip the chemical balance back into his favour.

He types a line of code into the desktop neurostimulation app, feeding a thin stream of dopamine and lithium into his brain. Electricity flows from the wall-socket into the desktop pharmacy, scribbling enzyme chains and chemical equations in hard light, feeding it through wires into his prefrontal cortex. He feels the flash, snap and crackle of the drugs exploding across his messenger clients, a patina of fireworks. Brief flash of calm. He waits for the feelings of worry and sadness to pass.

But Vinnie is still depressed. Can’t shake the feeling he is swimming against the stream, or at least has side-tracked himself into some sort of vicious, backsliding current of information. He flags a few flickerstreams of AI rights demonstrations with meta-tags, linking them to his nursery stories. Screaming, indignant avatars that draw from Manga art and old Marvel comics picket the firewall of the Sentience Arbitration Committee. He spools the image streams into his feed burner, laying a breadcrumb trail of semiotic cues that lead back to his own output sites. He waits expectantly for a ping that never comes. The paths remain untrodden. His sites gleam blackly, their source code darkening in sympathy with his brain chemistry.

Amphetamines auto-release, keyed to a timer mechanism on the core processors sutured to his pineal gland. A vast calm beckons him from oceanic depths, but he rides the updraft of the speed back into fidgety awareness, sealing himself behind a vast edifice of forced attention.

Beyond the pharmaceutical wall, sleep glitters: an amorphous, squid-like shape in the dark that shimmers, as though caught in the brief swish of a deep-sea submersible’s lights. The amphetamines obscure its shape, an inky cloud precluding any figurative dreams of rest.

His tired meat eyes water, flicking back and forth angrily as hard light plays across their glistening surfaces. He toggles a command key, and a welcoming stream of saline lubricant slow-drips into each iris, steaming instantly as though poured on a guttering flame.

Vinnie listens. He can hear the rush of it all, a sound like moving water. The future is accelerating past him, and he is a deadweight in its wake, keel-hauled behind its awesome stern.

In the distance, he can hear his mother calling him to dinner. He toggles down the external noise, lost in the flow and wash of information. The bipolar cycle quickens almost imperceptibly, and with a rush of excitement he feels new ideas forming, new memetic algorithms incorporating far-flung bits of data and imagery into usable ideas, collaborative possibilities. Endless, formless, shapeless art.

His breathing becomes shallow and laboured, as the thin lines of separate but coexistent data begin to shimmer. His search engines are calling, and his serotonin levels are beginning to rise, maxing out the failsafes programmed into his interface station, reverse engineered to allow unsafe peaks and troughs to go unchecked.

It is time to play catch up. To swim fast against the current, or drown.



Originally submitted to Boing Boing's 2009 'Gadget Fiction' contest.

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