(The following is an excerpt from a short story. Read the whole thing here.) I have reposted this November 2022 since our dear dear Elon Musk has nudged this work of fiction one more notch closer to reality.
On weekday mornings the Safespace product leadership gathers in an airy conference room for triage. Usually it’s forgettable stuff, scaling issues with a server cluster or the homepage stumbling over a program error, but today’s different. Ralgo, the founder and CEO of Safespace, mounts the dais and says there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is Vencent, our senior Distressing Content Moderator, jumped off a balcony in the rotunda and burst open on the foosball table. The good news is Vencent’s replacement is already lined up so none of our deadlines will slip.
The news of Vencent’s suicide lands on the leadership team in uneven ways. Glarry is sobbing with Aimie in the Quality Assurance pit, grieving the loss of their Borg LARPing comrade. Stavros in Image Analysis says nothing, dons headphones and resumes tweaking the scrotal recognition model. As for me, well, I suspect I’m in for a reaming when Ralgo tells me to meet him in the Privacy Cylinder.
Vencent’s death marks the third time I’ve lost a Distressing Content Moderator in the last eighteen months. The previous one flung himself in front of the Palo Alto BART, and the one before that self-immolated at the annual company acid trip, taking an investor’s dog with her. I thought I’d never stop being the butt of the What’s your burn rate? wisecracks. Content moderation is a rough job, don’t get me wrong. A moderator has to sit in front of a grid of displays all day, double-checking the media that our A.I. flags as too disgusting, incendiary, or violent for human consumption. There’s gonna be some turnover. But the spate of suicides is a big problem for me personally because I’m the corporate Vice President of Spiritual Health and, at least on paper, I’m supposed to be the load-bearing wall that keeps morale from caving so badly.
Ralgo seals the red anodized walls of the Privacy Cylinder around the two of us and tears into me. He says it would be cheaper to install jumper nets in the rotunda than it would be to keep me on staff another six months. He wants to see Vencent’s spiritual performance review notes. I tell him I don’t have any. I’ve stopped taking notes because the distraction interferes with intersoul harmonics. Oh boy, does he ever not like hearing that.
“W. T. Fuck?” he says. “I’ve got senators crawling up my ass over these suicides, and the investors are spooked another public incident will tank the valuation. If they hear about Vencent and come snooping and we don’t have a liability paper trail, we’re one-hundred percent fucked. Do you hear me? Eternally. By thorny cocks.”
I vow that I will recommit myself to diligent notekeeping and he says he’ll believe it when he sees it. I ask him what he meant during standup RE: the good news about Vencent’s replacement.
“About that,” he says. “I’ve hired a Deep Phakes consultant to replace Vencent. And don’t get pissy that I didn’t loop you into the candidate selection process, there wasn’t one. Their salespeople won’t allow it.”
The instant I hear Ralgo mention Deep Phakes I realize why we’re having this conversation in the Privacy Cylinder and not in the breezeway he uses for public humiliation. Deep Phakes is one of the darkest secrets in the Valley. You’ll never hear anyone admit publicly they’re working with Deep Phakes. What they do isn’t entirely legal, and for my money it’s morally fuzzy, but their product is legendary. A Deep Phake shows up at your office a nameless nonentity of programmable meatware, unencumbered by personality or desire. They’ll become anyone you want, utterly and wholly. I’ve heard they’ll even swap genders if you spring for the surcharge.
Ralgo says we should count our blessings that Vencent offed himself on company property, out of the reach of journalists, and that all the witnesses are on the payroll.
“It needs to be like Vencent never jumped off that balcony,” Ralgo says.
“I’m not sure I get it,” I say.
“I’m saying the Deep Phake is New Vencent. We dump him in the same cubicle, have him pick up wherever Old Vencent left off. He’s got to become Vencent, sans, obviously, the suicidal tendencies.”
“Obviously,” I echo, and he gives me a look that says don’t be cute, fuckwad.
“Against my better judgement,” he says, “I’m putting you in charge of New Vencent’s onboarding. Don’t make me regret it.”
We emerge from the Privacy Cylinder and Ralgo grabs a compostable dry erase marker and scribbles NEW VENCENT on the Kanban board over the same column of post-its that Old Vencent had been assigned.