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Future Tense: Chatterbox

From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.

A social network can sometimes make more of us than we ought to be.
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Chatterbox, photo illustration

I’m not what you’d call an early adopter. I clung so long to screens that my late-model eyewear is to me shiny and new. Social media? Don’t get me started. My Plodar account is still live. Phy-Skan went from hype to tumbleweed without my noticing. I prefer my social life real. So every so often I go down the steep cobbled street from my flat and turn right along Harbour Road to the Magnus. Last week, I hadn’t been out for a drink for months. But I’d finished a draft, and I owed myself a pint.

A dark December evening. Sleet in my face from the wind that curls around the headland and moans through the ruined castle and makes the rigging of the sailing boats in the harbor chime against their masts. Out in the Sound a last ferry of the day chugged, its flat prow butting spray. I hurried past the newsagent, the pottery, and the art gallery, and ducked into the Magnus, throwing back my hood and shrugging my parka.

The King Magnus Crown: old pub, small town. Oak beams and yellowed walls. Ropes, glass floats, plaques of ships’ crests, the odd rusty sword and tattered flag. A silent, dusty television screen.

Behind the bar: bottles of spirits; cask ale; Moira. A graphics student, she works in the gallery on Saturdays and the bar on Wednesday evenings. She knows me well enough to draw a pint of Best at a nod. While the head was settling she did that fast blink people do with contacts, gazed off into space and shook her head with a heavy sigh.

"What’s the matter?" I asked.

She flickered her fingers in front of her eyes, flipping the image to my glasses. A soldier in powered armor punched though an interior wall in Brussels. Screams, a pop of gas grenades, commentary in French. I waved the news clip away.

"Yeah, it’s grim over there," I said, carefully noncommittal.

"Still, doesn’t mean the French should go in," she said. "It could push the two Walloon factions together, and lead to cross-border trouble."

"Good point," I said. Moira had never before shown the slightest interest in European politics. I wasn’t inclined to say more. She pushed the pint across.

I thanked her, waved my paycard and sipped, looking around. It was busy for a mid-week night. Maybe everyone else had finished a first draft, too. At local arts events you can get the impression that half the people in the town are aspiring writers and the other half are auditioning to be characters.

The circles overlap. Old Malcolm the poet was sitting down with Donald and Sheena, a couple who work the langoustine fishery on the other side of the headland. Donald waved me over. Their conversation was, you might say, heated.

"It’s the long-term temperature anomaly you have to look at," said Sheena. She shot a glance at my dripping parka and damp-patch knees. "We all know it’s cold outside."

"Ah, but," said Malcolm, after a moment’s hesitation, "the problem with that is the data corrections, which may distort the record."

"That’s all well and good," said Donald. He paused, as if to think. "But there is a lot of evidence that has nothing to do with weather stations or even satellite data. And we can see that with our own eyes. Take the population distribution of sessile mollusca—that’s shellfish, to you and me—and jellyfish. They’re migrating north. Two kilometres a year, on average."

Sheena nodded. "Aye, and I’ve seen that myself on what comes up in trawls. The mussel beds are gone. And the jellyfish are all through the water. It’s good for us, mind—keeps the seabed clear for the langoustines and other edible arthropoda. But you can’t tell me nothing’s happening."

"Oh, I’m not saying nothing’s happening," said Malcolm, hands around a warming glass of Springbank. "I’m saying the case for anthropogenic forcing is by no means as firmly established as …" His thick white eyebrows lifted. "What are you staring at?"

"All of you," I said. "What’s got into you? You’ve always been a bit of a scoffer, Mal, and Sheena and Donald the opposite, but usually you just yell at each other. Now you’re all talking like you’ve swallowed Wikipedia."

"Och, no," said Donald, as they all laughed. "We’re on Chatter."

"Something like Twitter?"

"Not a bit," said Sheena. "This is informed opinion. It’s …" She turned to Malcolm. "You tell him."

The old poet leaned back and gazed at the ceiling. "Chatter," he said, "is an entirely automated social media app which aggregates comment from a wide range of sources and converges to clusters of widely held views and agreed-on facts. It then sends visual and verbal prompts to users, enabling them to converse confidently on any topic at any level. Other uses include fluent ripostes in social interactions of all kinds." He blinked then smiled wryly. "It says here."

"Aye," she said, "but that sliding tackle the Kilmarnock left half did was a foul, no doubt about that."

"I don’t see the point," I said. "Why would anyone want to just spout received opinions?"

"Like they don’t already?" said Donald. "But … don’t turn around, just use your glasses … there’s Neil gone up to the bar now, take a look."

Neil works in the supermarket. Bright lad, but shy and inarticulate. Normally he’d barely meet Moira’s eye. Now he was downright flirting. Moira was flirting back.

"It’s called the Cyrano de Bergerac effect," said Sheena. "The funny thing is, it works even if all concerned know what’s going on."

"People can’t be that shallow," I said.

Malcolm snorted. "You try it."

He flicked, and there it was: Chatter, on my glasses and whispering away in my ear. The first suggested use was celebrity gossip. Sheena, Donald, and Malcolm were looking at me expectantly. I let the app stay where it was.

"So, that Alma Stevenson?" I said. "Do you think she’s really breaking up with Maxc-D, even after her new album? And her pregnant and everything!"

A moment’s pause. "Sure the baby’s his?" said Donald.

Sheena looked indignant. "Ah, come on, that’s going too …"

Photos and captions flashed before my eyes. "She was seen leaving an IVF clinic two weeks ago," I pointed out.

"Nah," said Malcolm. "She’s long had problems in that area, and," he leaned forward, speaking quietly, "some say she’s a good 10 years older than she claims."

"Ooh!" I said.

Before long we were squealing and our drinks were sunk. We blinked out of it.

"My round," said Malcolm.

"No, mine," I said.

We had a brief verbal tussle that ended in us sharing the round. I went to the bar with him. Malcolm ordered, then nudged me and glanced at Moira.

I’d blinked away the celebrity gossip layer. The app went to the next default topic: football.

"Another bad week for Morton," I said.

Moira batted her eyelashes.

"Aye," she said, "but that sliding tackle the Kilmarnock left half did was a foul, no doubt about that."

"Ah come on," I said. "The ref saw it and let it go, so McClafferty was …"

This well-informed-fan chit-chat continued as Moira set up three pints and a gin and tonic. Then she laughed.

"You don’t follow football, do you?"

I shook my head.

"Well, I do," said Moira, shoving the drinks across the counter. "But I’ve fallen behind a bit since I got interested in politics."

"So what you said about Belgium wasn’t from Chatter?" "Of course not."

I gave her a shamefaced look. "Sorry."

"That’s what Neil said," she told me. She laughed again. "But I’m still seeing him tomorrow."

Quick as a flash, I came back with: "In the library?"

She laughed. "You’ve got the hang of Chatter all right."

"No, no," I said, picking up two pints. "That was just me."

"That’s what they all say," she said.

I deleted the app and went back to the table with my friends.

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