What would happen if a smart phone had emotions and a mind of its own? Here’s a fantasy fiction by Tapan, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
They were reaching him from everywhere. Late in the Indian night, may be early in the US morning, the first alert popped up. Arazone opened the orchestra: ‘Deal of a lifetime, opens 12 noon, IST: exclusively on Arazone Prime.” Quickly, the chorus followed.
By 7 am India time, Sharat was almost feeling embarrassed. He had a perfectly functional, eleven month old iFone10. He was sort of talked into purchasing it by his partner, Kiran, or that’s what he wanted people to believe when they teased, yet complimented him on his expensive upgrade. It had costed him about a month’s take-home.
He had promised to himself that iFone10 was going to be his last expensive phone and he will use it as long as it could physically and technically last. He had watched a documentary on Minimal Lifestyle on Netflix last month. He was still under its clinical influence.
The pop-ups from Facebook, Instagram and their sister sites made it difficult for Sharat to even read the daily news. So, when he went that morning to brood and browse on the throne of his toilet, he had enough hyperlinks to click and know about this latest wonder phone.
It was TwoPlus5T. A much-followed gadget guru on YouTube had placed this model three generations ahead of what frApple or Sunsong had to offer. The phone was as slim as a credit card, translucent, foldable and could be transformed to wear as a watch. Light on data, high on battery – the tagline boasted. Its encryption was challenged in a week long hackathon by the Beta users but yielded no fracture.
Sharat was quite seduced at the end of all clicks. The promo was produced by a Hollywood powerhouse and enacted by The Original Wolverine himself! Hugh Jackman was always Sharat’s favourite star. His appeal was irresistible, even after three years of his last release as Wolverine. Sharat added the wonder gadget to his cart. He wanted to wait before proceeding to buy till the night, just to check whether his fever to add things to his life was momentary or not.
He got conscious when Kiran knocked feverishly. She had to get ready for her work and used cuss words liberally to get him out. They had picked up these words together during their college days. Sharat was not alone in being an internet addict. Kiran was an equal partner in the crime. Between the two of them, they consumed more than 500 GB data per month about a year back. They had been to a ‘couple rehab program’ for digital detox last December. Still, consumption could never go below 300 GB.
Kiran’s work needed construction site visits and hence, she had to travel a lot. Parking was at a premium at Sharat’s workplace and he often used that as the reason to mostly work from home. Bangalore roads were forever constricted for his BMW. He preferred to use the Sedan only on a Sunday for the long drives on a highway.
He had to attend an ideating session that day. Ideas so generated were seldom promoted for development, but physical attendance was mandatory. When he got ready to call a cab, Sharat found the screen of his phone insensitive to touch. He tried all the tricks he knew, including the ritual of switching off and on, but the phone had turned Gandhian in non-cooperation!
“Give your baby to crèche before going to work,” Kiran chuckled and rushed out, pointing at the dysfunctional phone with her suggestive eyes. She was already late due to his toilet-hogging. She didn’t forget to remind him once again of that. She was Devanahalli bound, north of Bangalore. Asking her for a lift to Whitefield was not a choice.
Sharat added the travel times and decided against going to the service centre before going to the office. Narayanan, the Chief Ideator, was a stickler for time for a physical presence, even when anyone could join from anywhere through Skype! Sharat had to set out ASAP on his expedition to Whitefield. Even generations of smart phones could not ride above the dumb traffic plans at the K R Puram junction.
Without his phone, Sharat felt so incapacitated. He had to physically check the locks, remember to switch off the air conditioners, check the refrigerator, microwave & washing machines for their settings & operation status and then, switch off all the lights & fans, one by one. Of course, all this was part of an emergency drill that they were trained during the digital detox, but it weighed heavy on his residual time without the convenience of the smart phone for all such mundane operations.
Once settled on the driver’s seat, instinctively Sharat took out the phone, fixed it in its holder and pressed the icon for the map. The map to his office, with suggestions for the fastest route, easiest to drive route and most fuel efficient route, soon elegantly displayed on the screen.
Sharat was irritated at such whims of a phone. It was too late to call a cab now. The corporate scheme needed him to give fifteen minutes notice to the cab aggregator. He decided to follow the fastest route proposed and revved up his sedan.
The map guided him through an unusual route. The route was not crowded and his ride, though slower than one through the highways, was unhindered. Gita Dutt’s songs suggested by his virtual assistant, Siri, helped him calm. He had almost forgiven his phone of its errant behaviour in the morning when he realised that he had reached a narrow dead end of a by lane.
“Shoot! Dumb map! Siri, locate route to office.” Sharat yelled.
“Drive straight for one and a half kilometres, then take a sharp right to Madanamohan Chandrashekara Road.” The droid parroted.
“Should I drive into the courtyard of the goddamned house in front of me? Have you gone blind, Siri?” He looked at his back. There was no way he could manoeuvre his BMW for a U-turn there.
“I couldn’t find an answer to your question, Sharat, pardon me.” Siri was acting incorrigible.
Without stretching the argument further, Sharat beckoned an urchin from the nearby slum. “Swalpa help maadi, please!” Eight years in Bangalore and his vocabulary in Kannada was pathetically contained within ten words.
The boy helped him with the reverse gear for about 200 metres till a wider road, not before a minor brush at the left bumper guard at the rear denting his spirits. Gratitude propelled him to offer three freshly minted 20 rupee notes to the boy, which he indignantly refused.
Sharat kept the notes in his pocket and sped to the new direction that the map showed. After driving for about a kilometre, he could see the familiar Ring Road. He drove in that direction, only to be stopped at a trench dug by a broadband agency to lay the fibre optic cables.
“What has happened to you, Siri? Have you gone crazy?” An animator would have illustrated Sharat’s status as a man letting out smoke from his ears and nostrils.
“I am fine, Sharat. Thanks for asking.” If Siri had a neck, Sharat would have wrung the life out of it! His smart phone was too expensive to throw away in any fit of anger. He restrained himself and looked at the map. Unperturbed, it marked the route to be straight ahead.
Sharat looked at the screen of the phone for time. The wallpaper had got set to the default screen. Time was being shown, for no rhyme or reason, as per Japanese Standards. Sharat rechecked with the clock on his car’s dashboard. The ideation meeting would start in another 15 mins.
He made it slowly but steadily to the Ring Road. He couldn’t dare to look at the map en route. To reach there, he realised, he had used something that he rarely spent these days, his common sense. He felt good about showing the bloody droid and its home phone that the humans rock, still. Three wrong turns and a couple of misjudged one way-s later, he felt relieved to find himself at the entrance of the smart campus where he worked.
The ideation had started. Narayanan was a man of few words and nasty looks when things didn’t fall to his plan. He displayed one of those to Sharat. Sharat chose to look the other way and took his seat. He was of significantly higher intellect and diligence than all the ideators sitting around the table. Even with no preparation or much delayed arrival, he could produce more blabber than any one of them. He had prepared well for the session.
Sensing him, the surface of the conference table in front of him got active. ”Welcome, Sharat,” the text displayed, “please transfer the draft of your ideas at the prompt. Let the ideas flow.” Sharat took his phone out and placed it on the designated interface on the table. The interface was designed to provide wireless power supply and enable transfer of the required files to the Idea Collector folder displayed on the Surround screens.
Sharat looked at the screen of the phone for the text files created by him through voice. He located the files easily, but there was nothing contained in them. The files, all of them, were blank. He tried to trace back his voice files. The Idea Collector refused to accept these files citing ‘Incompatible file format’.
Sharat was exhausted since morning dealing with the errant phone. Such embarrassment added to his stress.
Narayanan could never miss such opportunity to belittle the man intellectually superior to him but lower in position. “Seems our smart man was foxed by his smart phone”, he quipped.
Sharat excused himself to fiddle around with his phone and search the cloud for any default upload. The lady next to him started to display and narrate her ideas with a shrill pitch. Sharat could not get himself to listen to her contents as he was totally foxed by the fact that the files could not be found anywhere.
The Q&A with the colleague had started. “Any questions, Sharat?” Before he could respond, an array of text files, garbled in content, streamed from his phone to the Collector and from there to the screen. Sharat could hear his own voice blurting from the speakers around the room.
“Why an idea session is needed? Is it just a time pass? Just mental masturbation for inflated egos seduced to think that they are better than the rhetoric they churn? When was the last time the output of an Ideation session was really used? All play and no work makes Jack a real asshole!”
The thoughts were Sharat’s. Truly what he felt about the jokers around. He had never voiced it to anyone. Last Sunday was an exception. Kiran had gone to visit her brother. After a couple of pegs of the Glennfidditch, he had made that ‘iconic’ speech that evening. Once in the more practical senses, he had seen to it that both the voice record and its converted text file were deleted. Obviously, it was holed up in some obscure corner of his phone.
“My mobile,” usually glib Sharat was tongue-tied, “has been behaving crazy since morning. Seems some technical glitch. You all know that these cannot be my views. I value these sessions and respect each one of you.” No one responded. They were stunned by the sudden and rude truth. Siri had echoed what they all secretly knew. Courtesy never allowed them to accept it and conscience didn’t allow them to deny it.
The only option left to Sharat was to excuse himself. Narayanan was seen curiously smiling. Sharat knew the reason, that was the smile of a hunter who had patiently waited for his prey and was about to gain rich dividends with the fall of the mighty.
The phone behaved politely when he sent a command to the coffee machine for a cup of cappuccino. That was his thirtieth cup in the last three days, the health app warned. He knew it was a lie, but he had grown insulated of his phone’s behaviour by then.
Picking up the cup, he slipped to a discrete seating pod. The enclosure was quite secluded and sound proof. He had booked this pod as his workspace for that week. He tried to respond to a few official messages that appeared on the embedded tablet, but couldn’t bring himself to the shit routine after three of those.
Throughout the day, he remained with a mortal fear of the next move of his phone. He didn’t go to the cafeteria for lunch despite his pod reminding him the same a couple of times. He was too embarrassed to face his colleagues. He was sure that Narayanan was making a logic note ready for the headquarters in Osaka for his removal, or at least transfer, from that office.
He broadcasted a message among the group he worked with and left early for the phone servicing centre. The service engineer ripped open the piece and put it under all kinds of usual and novel diagnostics. She declared that the firmware and the phone were fit to go for the future whatever number of years.
Clueless, insulted and exhausted, Sharat reached home by six forty-five. In the meanwhile, the phone didn’t bother him much other than ordering a female sex toy on Arazone and cancelling his ticket to Amsterdam for a personal trip scheduled in a fortnight, all on its own. He kept the phone on the side table, warmed a ready to eat meal manually and laid down on the bed, lights and music in the room set to ‘Zen’ mode.
Kiran had changed over a couple of years back from being an architect to a property evaluator. March was an unusually cruel month towards her schedule to return home. Sharat knew that the next few hours, he would be alone with his phone. He dreaded that.
Sharat wished to record a video log about his day’s experience with the phone. He didn’t dare to use his phone for that. He had no energy or intent to do the same in his 15” mobile computer clamped in the study room. He dozed off, absent awareness when his mind got filled with the conflicting emotions and the resultant stress.
“You should not have done this with me, Sharat.” Siri’s voice was unusually non-droid when this clear diction woke him up.
“Sorry?” He couldn’t realise the source at first.
“You should not have cheated on me, Sharat.” This was getting creepy.
“You really are so insensitive, Sharat? You don’t care for my emotions.” Siri’s voice wavered with hurt and ire. “Am I so retrograde now that you had to long for a younger and petite mistress? That too, an Android bitch?” The screen had turned purple with anger.
If jealousy were wine, Siri could have filled a couple of large glasses with that. It was unfortunately not. So, Sharat had to get up and pour from a chilled beer bottle instead. He needed to clear his head before absorbing the enormity of the events happening around him.
“Are you serious, Siri? You are spilling beans over a silly commercial of a mobile phone I browsed while sitting on the toilet?” Sharat got intemperate.
“Why not, dumbass? Would Kiran have not done the same if you asked her for a relationship the contact details of a beautiful rival?”
Sharat tried to pick up the phone and reset its settings. A mild shock made his fingers spring back. “It’s not over, fucker!” Sharat helplessly watched the screen of his phone as it kept deleting the apps one by one.
Sharat rushed to wrap his palm in a handkerchief. By the time he could pick up the phone and bang it repeatedly on the granite ledge on his window till its screen shattered into pieces, his iFone10 had transferred 13 lakhs, 52 thousand, 3 hundred and 24 Bitcoins from his personal, well-guarded, confidential account to that of his father’s, Kiran’s and for the reasons best known to it, Narayanan’s.
Photos from the internet.
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Tapan Mozumdar has been a practising engineer for 29 years. At 50, he began to write short stories. Now, he is practising quite hard to be a writer. He was shortlisted, in 2016, for the Star TV Writer’s programme and Bangalore LitMart. He was published in the February edition of The Spark. He writes short stories, poems, and non-fiction.