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Circa 2008

It woke Bria up with a start one night, the fear. It wasn’t like one of those nightmares that was easily shaken off with a few blinks and a nuzzle into the pillow. It was the kind that saturated into clothes and sheets, sticking to skin like it brought its own stifling, choking humidity. It jolted hearts from sleepy strolls to mad dashes, pounding against the rib cage it was trying to escape.

As she got her bearings, Bria’s hand flew to her chest, the softness of the flesh beneath her fingers confirming she was there, and not lost in the data of some server or some online universe.

“What’s going on?” her partner, Emmie, murmured, barely audible over the beat of the rain against the windowpane, or maybe that was Bria’s pulse. Mostly likely a combination of both, Bria deemed.

“Nothing. Just a dream,” Bria said. She raked a hand through her black curls, finding the hair wet at its roots, moisture collecting on her fingertips. Her pillow had the same dampness. Great. The night sweats weren’t confined to just her clothing. “A bad dream.” The strange thing was, she couldn’t conjure the images in her mind, only the feelings that clung to her.

Panic, dread, and a foreboding guilt.

And that was enough to know the source.

“You’re under too much stress, hun. It’s messing with your brain.” Through heavily-lidded eyes, Emmie rolled onto her side and pressed her palm to Bria’s temple. It slid down Bria’s cheek like an egg on a windshield in drowsiness.

Even if Bria had the energy, she had no reason to counter Emmie. It was true, in her sleeping and waking life, she was stressed to the max, her muscles bound in painful knots, her mind in mental ones as she tried to find sense—and peace of mind—in what she and her coworkers were trying to create.

“I’m worried we’re doing something wrong. With the algorithm,” Bria said.

For the past two years, Bria and her coworkers had been working on what was starting to be called a “social media” application. It allowed users to reunite with old friends, share news and other information, and join in groups based on their interest—from their computer.

It sounded pleasant enough, but every week, as their progress increased so did the depth of her worries. She had broached them with her coworkers, asking as they brainstormed and coded if they were sure that unleashing this algorithm, this platform, upon the world was the right thing to do. Her ideas had been shot down as fast as enemy missiles crossing a border.

Of course it was a good idea. It was going to change the world. Think about how we’re connecting people, the good we can do. 

“Why not?” Emmie asked through a yawn that sounded an awful lot like a sigh. “Help me understand.”

Bria knew that Emmie was on the side of her coworkers, sensing no real issue in it, but she appreciated that Emmie didn’t shut her down like she was used to.

“It’s just that, I think we’re oversimplifying the impact this could have on people, or at least writing off the bad. Couldn’t it be seen as a form of manipulation? Using your information against you? Couldn’t we end up hurting people?”

She thought about the coding they were working on for ads, curated to each individual user based on their searches and clicks. What would the algorithm suggest for her behavior, she wondered? A special mattress? A sleep medicine? A therapist or support group for neuroses? Most likely all of the above. That was supposed to be the beauty of it, giving the user what they sought—be it a need or a want.

“Hurting them with a computer? Aren’t the only options for that electrocution or robot takeover?” Emmie chuckled. Bria’s mouth didn’t move beyond a hairline fracture of a smile.

“Let’s say you have a kid who keeps asking for sugar and you give it to them, every time they ask. You start to anticipate it and start to give it to them before they even ask. New treats that they haven’t asked for before, but still have sugar. What happens to the kid?”

Emmie’s eyes opened beyond a slit, more than just slivers of sea foam green visible. “They start wanting it all the time.”

“Exactly. They gain weight. They have health issues. It’s so hard to stop, because giving people what they want isn’t always a good thing,” Bria said and aimed her finger at Emmie. “That’s the same here as it is there. What people want is not always healthy. Or right. Or good for society, but we’re serving it up to them on a platter. No guardrails, no off-switches. And if they’re only getting what they want, and responding to the people they want, then they’re just in this bubble of want, and they’re not going to see the things they should that might change their mind and make them look at things differently.”

Emmie stroked the inside of Bria’s elbow with the tip of her pinky. “You’re afraid it’s going to close people off from each other?”

Bria nodded. It was her greatest fear—in connecting people with other people who felt the same way they were actually disconnecting them and creating more insular societies than open borders. It risked blowing up one part of a person’s personality into their entire being, from inclination to action.

“My coworkers, they say we’re going to change the world, but what if we’re changing people and who they are?” That was the bigger change, she believed, the one she would most regret. She felt it in the lead of her stomach already. It was a lot of technological evolution for a brain to handle at once, and the level of access to one another, the glimpses into hundreds of lives at once could make a person go crazy at the very least.

A foot away from her on the mattress, Emmie said nothing, her pinky strokes turning from circles into what felt like question marks minus the dot. Bria could practically hear the gears spinning beneath blonde waves and bone, clicking away one cog at a time. Maybe Emmie was getting it. Maybe someone would finally come to Bria and tell her that she wasn’t going crazy, throwing up red flags where none were needed.

“Hun,” Emmie started, and with her mollifying-to-make-the-medicine-go-down tone, Bria realized that maybe was really no. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s an application. It can change the way we interact to some extent, but I don’t know if it’s going to change people. They’ll probably just use it for fun and to escape. That’s the purpose, right? Bringing people together and entertaining them?”

It was, but that was missing all the consequences that could underlie that purpose.

But again, she didn’t see the reason to fight it. If no one else saw it, that must’ve meant Bria was the one seeing things. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks,” she said and rolled onto her back. “Sorry for keeping you up.”

“Hey, it’s worth it if you’re not as stressed.” Emmie pressed her lips to the corner of Bria’s mouth with a whisper of “I love you.” Within a few minutes, her light snores returned, and Bria stared at the ceiling, no dearth of energy in her live-wire nerves. She closed her eyes anyways, wanting to close them to the algorithm and her job and the anxiety. To the last, she had to, and accept that she was probably wrong.

Like everyone was telling her, how much damage could an algorithm really do?

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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