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Citizen Representative

By Martin Greaney

In black suit with blue pin-stripes, in shining black shoes and silver tie, Paul

took his seat on the city-bound bus. He pulled out his IDPhone from his inside

left breast pocket, and activated the screen.

Paul glanced down the messages: a handful of adverts, a couple of news

stories tailored to his tastes, and the usual string of citizen surveys. For a

connected man like Paul, the surveys were always an interesting glimpse into

the state of the nation – of the world even. Again, the questions he was asked

were targeted towards his interests and expertise. A minority of people – older

citizens – might raise concerns about the aggregation of all this information, but

as Paul worked for Central Government, he knew exactly what they did with the

data, and frankly, the more accurately targeted the surveys, the better the

results and decisions. It was all fed into the Programming, and of course if

you'd put rubbish in, you'd get rubbish out in return. Besides, this system was

democracy in its most perfect form. The Programming replaced the need for

MPs, the priests and intermediaries of the political process. These days, you

may still be only one in eighty million, yet you knew every vote counted,

absolutely literally, as the Programming passed on the collected opinions of

vast swathes of the nation, day after day, to the computer.

The computer didn't have a 'name' as such, nor even a dramatic capital

initial like the Programming had acquired. This reflected its more anonymous

role in politics. There was no suspicion that it was sentient. It wasn't. It was a

computer, a hugely powerful statistical calculator which Paul, in a sense,

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worked for. Perhaps a better phrase would be 'worked with'. For without him,

and hundreds like him, the computer would be entirely ineffectual, spitting out

conclusions, requests, actions and recommendations day after day. It didn't

have its finger on the Button, or its hands grasping the edge of the tablecloth,

ready to rip everything away from under everyone. That was left to the final

human layer, of which Paul was a part. His job was to execute (for want of a

much better word) the decisions and actions emanating from the computer,

which in turn stemmed from the distillation, weighting and analysis of the

millions of votes – opinions, survey responses – of each days' citizens surveys.

For this reason Paul, like the majority of citizens, took his voting duties

very seriously. He found it a great complement to know that his own expertise,

his knowledge and his experience were helping to shape this country's present

and future. Today his IDPhone was asking him about a mixture of food trials,

immigration (who didn't have an opinion on that?) and petty crime – he had

answered questions on these topics before and so the Phone knew he had an

opinion, and crime had links to his professional capacity. His was the task of

sentencing small-time thieves, con artists and the homeless where the

population had spoken on the matter. He took some of the migrant news stories

with a pinch of salt – they were usually tabloid propaganda feeding back to the

populace in exaggerated form what they submitted in survey returns. Paul

made sure he always voted in these matters. That way he would be kept

abreast of the latest developments, and play his own small part in mitigating

the wildest reactionary views of his fellow citizens.

Finally, he came across a foreign policy item. Though foreign affairs were

a rarity in his inbox, new issues often went out to a wide audience in the early

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stages, to see who 'bites'. Serious foreign intervention demanded the

maximum input from the widest circle possible, to ensure that everyone was on

side during these potentially controversial times. The story reported an

impending crisis in the continental central, where some-or-other home-grown

militia were impeding their own government's mineral extraction activities.

Should we lend help to that government, in the form of troops, supplies,

equipment? Clearly this was expected to escalate quickly, and he tapped the

screen to make his choice.

There was a hiss, and a squeak of brake-pads as the bus pulled up to his

stop, and people began to file down the aisle.

***

Paul's office was a good size for someone who needed little in the way of

furniture. The desk – functional if not pretty – stood in the back right corner,

and on it sat Paul's workstation screen. This was a low-powered device, but was

plugged into the most versatile networks in the country. In effect, one wire

came in – from the central computer – and another went out to the

government's communications network and the world wide web. The hardware

was built in such a way that never the twain could meet, without explicit

human intervention.

Paul had decided to decorate his desk with a waxy-leafed pot plant and a

plain squat glass hemisphere. The latter was little more than a conversation

piece, and he joked that he would use it as a paperweight should he be

elevated to such lofty ranks that required it. The walls were pale brown, and

plain – he felt no sense of ownership to prompt him to personalise the space.

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This morning Paul sat down to a smaller than average Action list. The list,

however, was populated with items he would classify as 'difficult'. A repeat

petty thief in one of the eastern counties had to be executed; a group of

educational visa holders were to have their licenses revoked (present opinion

being that there were too many such licenses in circulation); a liver donation

was going to applicant MA rather than GQ because MA had a larger group of

friends on some or other website – and they had all voted. The greatest benefit

to the greatest number, the Programming had calculated, and the computer

was blind to anything but pure numbers. Paul was glad the computer had to

make the hard decisions – cold and calculating. He needed only to co-ordinate

the resources and its will be done.

Two people passed by his frosted glass door. He glanced round at the

noise, then at the clock. He'd been in work for 55 minutes – still a way til break.

***

Training had taught him to place those Actions he was less keen on to the

bottom of the pile. There was such a turnover that he wouldn't be able to avoid

it forever, but the trainer had mentioned something about the psychological

benefits of this habit. The workers themselves speculated that such actions

were logged, and your preferences monitored. Still, if there was one thing this

life taught you, it was that it was better to make your opinions and preferences

known. That way, people knew how to deal with you.

Paul scanned the list of pending Actions, looking for a quick fix. His eyes

settled on 'John Moores University Applicant – Funding request – Deny'. Leaning

forward, he grasped the mouse, and in a few clicks: Action > Bank > Cash

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Request > No. He was done. If only they were all that easy. He glanced at his

watch. He was peckish.

Again, the thief flashed up – this one was getting quite near the deadline.

Paul sighed. It was the sheer number of people he had to deal with. Thieves,

murderers, network crackers. If he could postpone this one Action for a month

or so, perhaps public opinion would shift and he could let him off with a life

sentence. But he'd been subconsciously trying that, and it was getting late.

They'd probably been watching him stall without good reason. The computer

had gone over this already, worked it all out for him. It's what the people want.

He picked up the mouse and got on with it.

From then on his pace picked up somewhat. Later he went to lunch.

***

On his return Paul found a sticky note attached to his monitor, requesting his

presence in Milgram's office. Milgram was head of Paul's 'Action Pool', and his

immediate superior. She occupied a small office much like Paul's, although the

walls were less sparsely decorated than his. It was a sign of permanence, and a

rare differentiator in a cloned world. Her desk was in the middle of the room,

and unlike Paul's it faced the door. You couldn't tell what was on her monitor,

and Paul wasn't certain he wanted to know what high-level Actions weighed on

her shoulders.

He made the short walk to her office, knocked on the solid wooden door

and walked in. As he entered she looked up from her desk, removed her silver-

rimmed spectacles from the bridge of her nose and smiled at him.

“Ah, come in, Paul,” she said amiably. “Take a seat.”

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Paul felt quite at ease in her presence. She was an effective manager,

and often asked after family members you don't remember telling her were ill.

Office gossip or infotracking – you made of it what you would. It was nice to

know someone appeared to care. Now, as he moved forward, he noticed the

other woman in the room. She leaned on the cabinet to his left, holding open a

cardboard file – no doubt his – which she folded closed and tucked under one

arm.

“Paul,” Milgram began again, “as you know we are constantly working to

improve the Pool's performance. Increase efficiency and maximise your

potential. All that stuff.”

Paul nodded, slowly.

“You're a very conscientious employee, Paul. You're decisive; you know

what you're doing.”

Conscientious? That can't be good. Conscientiousness suggested

altruistic thoughts towards other human beings. That was a poor qualification

for the job. The computer knows best. The computer makes the decisions. Paul

carries them out. Unless they're crazy, of course. Or mixed up, or interfered

with. But that doesn't happen. Perhaps she was referring to some other kind of

conscientiousness. Towards the end aim, perhaps? The ends are justified. The

means – surveys, the Programming, and the computer see to that. He certainly

was conscientious enough to turn up in the morning, carry out his Actions in a

timely manner, not let himself get too caught up in what he was actually doing.

Paul looked from one woman to the other, waiting for elaboration. The

second woman walked towards the desk, and spoke. She clearly saw what was

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going through Paul's mind, and smiled with amiable condescension.

“We are impressed, Paul, by your efforts,” she said as if trying to reassure

a small child. She looked genuinely pleased, but many people appeared

genuinely something or other. Again his gaze went from one woman to the

other, and back again. “We've been profiling you since you began...” she

looked to Milgram.

“Last April,” said Milgram.

“...last April,” the woman echoed. “We think you're ready for a new

challenge: Foreign Policy.”

Paul's heart thudded hard for a beat. That explained the exposure to

foreign affairs on his IDPhone, and on the Action list. His next thought was that

his salary would almost double immediately. Yet the job also brought with it

new responsibilities, and increasingly 'difficult' Actions. There was no prospect

of him rejecting the offer, though.

Paul tried to smile gratefully.

“Excellent,” said the second woman. “You can stay in your office. All the

necessary permissions will be effected behind the scenes, as it were. We can

upgrade your Actions list by the time you come into work tomorrow.” She took

a step back, and Paul stood up in response. The woman was holding out her

hand. Paul shook it, turned to Milgram and did the same. Then he returned to

his desk.

The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully.

***

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It didn't take much longer though for Paul to notice the extra responsibilities.

The next morning he arrived at his desk to discover a string of new

assignments. It wasn't the number, but the nature of the Actions that was

unusual. A previously minor civil war which had cropped up earlier in the week

was on the verge of blowing into a world-threatening international

conflagration. The change had happened overnight. Was this the revelatory

nature of his new access?

The computer knew the co-ordinates of a key strategic refuge of the

opposition (Paul was not even aware of being on a side!), and had requested

that an air strike be brought to bear to neutralise the threat.

Air strike – he'd never had to mobilise such military force before. Paul

swallowed hard. But the Programming insisted, and the Programming had

obviously worked through the ramifications already. He knew his superiors were

watching, in one form or another. They would know he was procrastinating on

this, his first difficult task. He must rise to the occasion. He was a man of

action, a man who knew what he was doing. And the Programming had worked

it through. He called up the units, entered the co-ordinates, and executed the

command.

Paul sat back, and took a few deep breaths. He became aware of a sheen

of sweat on his brow. This was real responsibility. It was good to know you had

the weight of the Programming, and the surveys, behind you.

Out of idle curiosity he called up an aerial view of the location which had

been attacked. It was good to follow up on these kinds of details, though of

course it was probably better to do the research beforehand. The shot was a

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few minutes old, and showed a mountainous region in the Far East, covered in

pine forest. Paul scanned the area, moving the view north, south, east and

west, but there was no clue that any 'enemy' occupied the area. Puzzled at

first, Paul soon concluded that the enemy must be dug in deep. He just hoped

his actions would be effective. Then the screen refreshed, the photograph

updated. The forest was burning.

Several massive craters overlapped each other, pock-marking the deep

green undulating landscape with grey-green and smoke. Around the singed

edges of the devastation the trees were alight, the flames dancing in Paul's

mind despite the still image on the screen. This was the first time he'd seen his

actions as good as first-hand. He swallowed self-consciously again, and wiped

his mouth with the back of his hand. Still no sign of the enemy, or remains of

buildings exposed.

A new Action made itself known on his monitor.

The Action gave few details – they rarely did – but it transpired that the

previous attack had been mistaken in its target. Another strike was demanded,

three miles to the north of the previous one. The screen refreshed. The forest

was ablaze. Smoke rose in pillars across the landscape, casting long shadows

across the rest of the mountainside.

Paul sat, and sat. He rubbed his fingers along the stubble of his jaw, then

quickly, almost without thinking, typed in new co-ordinates and executed the

command. He leaned back again, deciding to wait for the second Action to play

out before returning to his list. The screen refreshed.

Only now did Paul realise the extent of the damage he had inflicted. The

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second attack was partially visible at the top of the current image. A vast

swathe of woodland was bright orange, laced with reds, yellows; outlined in

black and grey. Paul was thousands of miles away, yet he could almost feel the

heat, hear the crackling of the wood as it succumbed to the voracious appetite

of the inferno. But suddenly the scale of the thing was different. Only now was

it apparent that the image must have covered nine miles on a side – yet the

first craters covered half his monitor! What exactly had he sent out there? And

now he had sent out a second! He wiped his sweating palms against his pin-

striped trousers.

Tentatively, Paul panned the view north. Three miles! And yet the second

set of craters almost touched the first! And it too was burning through forest,

yet no sign of any installation, base, redoubt, defended position. He was

unsurprised by the new Action. Simultaneously the screen refreshed.

New co-ordinates, three miles north again. It was at this point he saw the

village. He scratched sharply at his temple – a rapid parody of confusion. At this

scale it was barely visible, but zooming in he made out a few features. Huts.

Shacks. No vehicles. No discernible roads. Certainly no tarmac or concrete. Just

a village. His strike was over a mile and a half to the south, but he had seen the

extent of the explosions. And the burning.

But the Programming had been through all this. There was no doubt

some military advice also. The greater good for the greater number...

There was a noise behind him, and he turned, startled. Just colleagues

passing his door, chatting amiably. He turned back to his monitor, glanced

ineffectually at the clock. He was leaning forward, his jaw clenched and his lips

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thin. He took a sharp breath, and reached for the mouse.

***

Gradually the emotion left him, whatever emotion that had been. Air

strike after air strike. Fire after fire. In that one afternoon, that baptism of... It

soon lost all context. He felt humbled in the face of the Programming, yet re-

assured that it was there to make the necessary decisions. He felt enabled by

it, yet at the same time its enabler. He was a man in the world now. No more

petty crime, no more migrants, no more executions. He was on a higher plane.

Which was why the letter the next morning informing him of the

termination of his contract came as such a blow.

“Dear Mr. Clackman,

We regret to inform you that your services are no longer required by the

Department. While we were pleased with your progress on our initiator scheme,

and held high hopes for your future in the department, your endeavours on the

Level 1 Training showed an alarming reluctance to question Actions. It is this

innate ability to respond and work with the Programming that we seek at the

higher level. As evidence for this was not forthcoming, we have regrettably

decided to take your employment no further.”

Citizen Representative by Martin Greaney is licensed under a Creative

Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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