By Jamie Drew
There’s a stain on this meeting room floor that Jess has never seen, and it’s hard to say whether that’s because it’s new or because she’s never seen anything in this building before sunset, and the last rays of sunlight illuminate the ancient, scratched carpet differently.
She pokes at it with her foot. Whatever it was, it dried into the fabric long ago, became part of the building after untold eons of sustained contact and human apathy.
A yawn makes its way around the room, started five minutes ago by the middle-aged man sitting directly in front of Jess and slowly moving into the corners where those who arrived late stand. It’s not clear if they’re getting paid for their time at this emergency meeting, but refreshments are allegedly on their way, which should stop the yawn before it spreads beyond all control. Jess was among the first afflicted by it but chose to stifle her yawn so nobody could hear her fatigue. It’s important, in this line of work, to take control of the little things.
This morning, the people at Mountain View packed seven representatives on last-minute flights to their subcontractors in seven countries. This afternoon, Jess awoke to a high-priority email from the company alerting her to a mandatory all-hands meeting: a training session of sorts. So here she is, ten minutes past the hour of said meeting, a freshly-signed Non-Disclosure Agreement on her lap, watching a salaried representative of the number-one social media company in the Western world struggle to play a video on a screen. Is it something to do with the operating system? The video codec? Has something happened to the military-grade hard drive the man from Mountain View carried all the way here?
This is about as exciting as the job can get. This is the kind of stuff that got Jess into a career in tech in the first place.
At first the video shows an empty garage, silent but for a quiet electrical buzz and a dog barking somewhere. Then a man lowers himself into his creaking office chair, straightens his back in an affected, formal manner, and calmly pushes a power drill into his head. The man from Mountain View looks around the conference room and briefly meets Jess’s eye when the drill’s motor catches on the man’s temporal bone with a whine; he slips his attention back to the man on the screen as the inches-long flute slips into his grey matter without a fuss and the man barks out the only words he seems to know any more, like his skull was the only thing keeping them in: while winter reigns the earth reposes and our colourless green ideas dream furiously of the new country. She gathers momentum, but not for the unfurled banner. Lovingly we think of the verdure to come in the autumn, labouring unseen while we rage for birth. Concentrate. Conserve. Cradle in chlorophyll and sap-
And Jess assumes it would continue if the man didn’t collapse forward onto his keyboard, leaving the room to watch his bald spot unfocused in the corner of the frame until the man from Mountain View stops the video and turns to the room. “Any questions?”
Jess, like everyone else in this room, works for a social media moderation company whose head offices are out in Mountain View, California, and this is Cumbernauld, so of course there are questions. Like: why did he step off a plane two hours ago with nothing but a portable hard drive? Why is a five o’clock shadow deemed acceptable for work when the man from Mountain View wears it, but not when, say, Sajeev forgoes a shave? Does a video of a man’s suicide – something the people in this room see twice a month on average – really warrant a last-minute meeting with a man who flew in from California specifically?
Someone coughs. Someone else raises their hand and asks the first question on everyone’s mind. “Why are you wearing earmuffs?”
The man from Mountain View wrinkles his brow like this is unexpected, but his white-tooth California smile doesn’t waver. “These are hearing protectors,” he says.
That same person raises their hand again. “Why are you wearing hearing protectors?”
The man from Mountain View looks over to Sajeev, the night shift manager, who waits for some kind of clue as to what he’s expected to say. The man from Mountain View leans over a little and asks quietly: “they didn’t tell you anything?” like nobody can hear him.
Sajeev slowly shakes his head.
The man from Mountain View takes a breath before he addresses the roomful of moderators sitting and standing before him. “There’s, uh…”
He tries again. “Recently…”
“Some time ago…”
“This is… the best recording we have… of something that’s – that appears to be – infectious. We’ve seen a number of people using these exact words – or, uh, phrases – and pretty much every time, a few days later, they, uh…” He gestures toward the screen by way of a conclusion.
More hands in the air. The man from Mountain View carries on: “we’ve formed a response team to address the issue, but this is still new to us. He says this last part with an easy smile and a supplicating kind of gesture, palms out as if to offer an embrace to the night shift. The impression he gives is that of a media-trained cowboy, the kind of guy Mountain View rolls out when the company screws up: aw shucks, no need to worry your pretty head about a massive data breach, little lady.
“We ask for your patience at this time,” he smiles.
Jess glances over to Sajeev, who’s rubbing his clean-shaven chin and staring over her head at the clock. He doesn’t appear to have any questions. He hardly appears to be in the room. This is the first moment Jess thinks: I could do his job, and the thought becomes more enticing over the next few quiet seconds: Sajeev’s job comes with its own office, a slight pay rise, and a six-month job contract.
So when no-one else breaks the silence, Jess raises her hand. “Would it be possible,” she asks, her back straighter, her smile wider, her brow furrowed like this is something she really needs the answer to, like all that matters is doing her job right, “to automate the process? Flag these, erm, infectious words before they reach our servers?”
The unspoken part of this question is so we don’t have to hear them, but the man from Mountain View breezes around it.
“You’re a solution-oriented kind of woman!”, the man from Mountain View beams. “I like it!”
Jess beams right back. The man in front of her, the one who first yawned, rolls his eyes so hard she can see it from the back of his head.
“We’re working on a permanent solution, but right now we ask that you watch out for these phrases. I’m gonna be on-site for a while, so if you see something like this – god forbid – bring it to my office, okay?”
A hand in the air. “How dangerous is this thing?”
“Great question!”, the man from Mountain View says.
Jess finds she’s disappointed when she doesn’t see anything for the next few days. The man from Mountain View sets up in a vacant corner office during the days and disappears from the office half an hour into her shift, returning her nod-and-smile on his way out the glass doors.
Like most of her colleagues she peeks into his office when he’s gone, tries to piece together a mystery, but the office is blank, just white walls and a window; the only sign that someone works here is the varnished-oak wrist support sitting by the cleanest keyboard she’s ever seen in this place, and at the sight of this her wrist starts to ache. Maybe her wrist has always ached.
Rumour is that he’s staying in a hotel owned, operated, and heavily subsidised by the same umbrella corporation that owns this company. Every night there’s a taxi waiting by the front doors, and every night the man from Mountain View walks straight and brisk from his office to the taxi, hearing protectors forever in place, determinedly avoiding conversation with anyone who offers it, only shouting small talk standards as he speeds by: “This weather, huh?” “Gotta beat the traffic!”
By the end of the week, the company sends a staff-wide memo declaring that hearing protectors are not to be worn while on duty. The man from Mountain View doesn’t appear to get it.
It’s a week – six shifts – before something interesting appears in Jess’s work queue. At the time of the report, a woman dressed as Super Mario has been giving a speech to a costume party for the last few minutes and several of her ten-thousand-plus viewers have reported it for reasons that seem unclear even to them. They just know it’s wrong, somehow. Jess isn’t supposed to know who the woman is – under the possible threat of legal action and the definite threat of losing her job – but she recognises her by a kind of cultural osmosis, or at least she recognises her type: blandly beautiful, says the right things about the right people, says them loud and in glamorous locales. She struggles to remember the woman’s name now, but tomorrow’s news cycle will jog her memory.
“-the verdure to come,” she announces as Jess brings up the stream, struggling to keep her balance on a marble-top table. By her heels, a man dressed as Luigi laughs and steadies her, reaches for her hand. “Concentrate! Conserve!”, she cries, raising her martini to the ceiling, showering Luigi in droplets of vermouth. “Cradle in chlorophyll and sap!”
To this, there’s some confused muttering from behind the camera. A Little Mermaid gestures for the videographer to stop shooting, but he chuckles something and lifts the camera out of her reach.
“To the new country!”, the sort-of-famous woman cries, and raises her glass. The camera rises momentarily as the videographer returns the toast. “The new country!”
The woman tips the contents of her glass down her throat, tilting her head so far back it rests on her shoulder blades, and when it’s empty she remains in position, eyes locked forward to the ceiling, while her hat slides off her head and drifts to the floor and she starts laughing like a person doesn’t laugh, a wet and rasping bark that she pushes out of her throat with an alcoholic spray.
The camera holds for an eternity, long enough that Super Mario’s laugh turns into a choking sob, until the Little Mermaid’s kind hand pulls the camera away.
“Hate speech?” Sajeev wants to know the following evening, after the news of Super Mario’s disappearance breaks. He says this incredulously: “hate speech?”
The senior moderator’s office is more insulated than the workstations on the floor; all Jess can hear is the buzz of the lights over her head, the occasional cough from the office next door. A photograph of his sister and his niece attached to his monitor marks this space as Sajeev’s alone. This could be her space, Jess thinks. A second home in which she can spend half her time.
He stares at Jess for a long moment before she realises he expects an answer. “It was reported for hate speech, inappropriate content, incitement to violence… I don’t think there’s a box for this.”
Sajeev scans the latest directions from Mountain View again, searching for the specific guidelines in this enormous new document. While her colleagues’ eyes on the floor have turned darker and sunk deeper in the week since the man from Mountain View’s arrival, Sajeev’s have remained as bright as they ever have been. He’s alert in a way that no-one else is any more. She makes a mental note to buy a stronger under-eye cream on the way home.
“I flagged the video for deletion,” she offers.
Sajeev shakes his head. “Ridiculous,” he says. He turns his eyes to Jess. “This is the first time you’ve seen one of these incidents?”
Jess considers her response. The company doesn’t allow contractors to take their work home with them, so to speak, and so phones, pens, writing implements of any kind are strictly forbidden on the office floor. Jess got this shift after someone was caught sharing details of a video from their work queue with an off-site counsellor, so it’s never been clear to her if she should even remember anything she’s seen or heard in this building.
On the other hand, moderators are required to have some familiarity with the culture of the platforms they moderate, even as they’re not supposed to know the names of its most popular users, so she has the app installed on her phone and she’s seen the memes. Even before the man from Mountain View came to the office she’d seen references to “colourless” objects and people, crudely photoshopped out of images because, well, she guesses they don’t have colour? Memes that describe a feeling of being c o l o u r l e s s with an image of something that’s been removed and sent to the new country. Plants stealing chlorophyll, red-eyed insects raging to be born from sap.
To be honest, the app has been unusable for a couple of weeks now.
The boundary between Cumbernauld (as in Jess’s home town) and Cumbernauld (as in her work place) is blurred to the point of being indistinct and almost non-existent. She can’t take anything out of the office when she leaves, but can she bring anything in?
“Yes,” she says after a time, stretching out the word as she gauges Sajeev’s reaction.
Sajeev just nods.
Some days later there’s someone waiting at her workstation: a teenager in a short-sleeve blue shirt, fresh off his mother’s ironing board. In the last couple of days the company have quietly rented another floor of the building and filled it with new hires, the spoils of a lucrative new contract with Mountain View.
“I’m supposed to shadow you,” says the teenager, whose name Jess will learn is Francis.
“So you’re just going to sit there all night?”
Francis shrugs in that way only teenagers can shrug. “They don’t have a desk for me.”
“I’ve been working here for two years,” Jess says, and pulls a chair over from the vacant workstation next to hers. “They never have a desk for you.”
About a year ago, Jess figured she’d finally paid her dues at this place and started taking interviews at rival companies offering jobs with better hours and offices closer to civilisation, but anyone who met her long enough to shake her hand can see that she’d become useless to daylight society. She has a kind of greyness in her now that makes it hard to tell when she last saw the sunlight, and not just in the skin. She sees it in the junior doctors and supermarket shelf stackers who share her early-morning bus home, gazing out of the windows like there’s something calling to them a thousand miles away that demands their attention but can’t quite seem to hold it. She never speaks to these people. None of them want to be distracted from whatever it is out there.
She watches Francis consider the possibility of being at this workstation for two years. To assuage him, she reaches into her coat pocket for a tiny plush stegosaurus and places it behind her keyboard, something the company doesn’t actively rule against.
“It helps if you can make it your own space for the night,” she offers with an apologetic half-smile.
It doesn’t calm Francis to hear this.
“His name is Steven,” she tells him, as if in defence of the stegosaurus.
The job, as far as Jess can explain it to her ward, goes like this: when a user reports a piece of content on the platform, it’s assigned to the moderator with the least amount of work in their queue, or the moderator most likely to get to it first according to the company’s arcane, patented algorithms. From there, the moderator in question can either decide the content isn’t breaking any of the Terms of Service and let the content stay up, or they can pass it up to a senior moderator – which on the night shift means Sajeev – who will take whatever actions are deemed necessary by the guidelines written up with the client when the contract was made and reviewed quarterly. In the case of live streaming video, which Mountain View rolled out six months ago, that moderator is expected to respond to the user report within fifteen minutes.
It’s at this point that Jess notices nobody else on the floor has a Francis, so she asks him about it and Francis shrugs, as Francis does.
“I don’t know,” he says, slumped in his chair. “The big man said you were the best.”
At this Jess feels a novel combination of pride and nausea.
In Newcastle, a bus carrying a hen party has come to a stop on Percy Street, the main road heading into the centre of town, and the footage from from one of the drunk women on the bus has been flagged for review.
Jess explains: “generally you’ll spend a couple of minutes watching the footage. If nothing comes up, leave it alone; if not, you should escalate to Sajeev over there,” and she tips her head toward his office, which she notices has its blinds down, through which she can watch Sajeev swivel lazily in his chair.
Francis sits up straight. The woman at the front of the bus points her phone camera out the darkened window, through which Jess and Francis can see a middle-aged woman in a fast food uniform standing, screaming at the driver. She turns the phone back around to pose and laugh with the other hens, drowning out the voice of the woman in the street ahead.
Francis presses his headphones to his ears. “I can’t hear anything,” he says.
Jess considers for a moment the ramifications of turning up the volume. She knows, instinctively now, exactly what the woman on Percy Street is saying. She hears it in the dreams they’ve all been having, the ones the man from Mountain View assured them he’s looking into. Letting Francis hear the words could be the thing that kills him, but she figures it hasn’t killed her, and it is his job now…
She turns it up. “Cradle in chlorophyll and sap!”, the woman cries from her place in Percy Street. “The first father’s laws stand leafless. Recollect!”
“And if the content starts to break the user agreement,” she explains without taking her eyes from the footage, “you can kill the feed.”
Another hen gets in front of the camera, pulls a face and calls to someone over the camerawoman’s shoulder, too loud for the phone’s microphone to register properly.
“But you need to be a hundred percent sure about it,” Jess continues. “Mountain View hates false positives.”
The camera whips over to the driver of the bus, a handsome youngish man in a uniform straight out of a cartoon that Jess assumes he’d have to peel off later. As the bride-to-be (identified by her sash and tiara) throws her tanned arm over the driver’s shoulder, something in Jess tells her, begs her, to escalate, and for Francis’s sake she reaches for the keyboard. The driver stares at the woman with eyes wide, slowly nods his head like he finally understands something he’s known his whole life, kicks the bus into gear toward the screaming woman and the hen party screams in unison-
Francis pulls off his headphones and Jess kills the feed, escalates the ticket. He swallows and shifts his eyes around, trying to focus on anything but the screen. She recognises his reaction from her first days on the floor. At some point, either you finally squash it back into your stomach or you leave for a cosier job, one you don’t have to carry home with you.
In Francis she sees a boy who could have been an architect.
She doesn’t know what to tell him. The apology in her throat feels too much like a lie.
“Jesus,” he says, and his voice breaks, splitting the word into three syllables. Juh-HE-sus.
The work queue pings with another new ticket. Before she clicks the link to continue, Jess looks over to Francis, whose skin has turned even whiter somehow.
He can’t meet her eye. “I – I just need a minute.”
“If you need a minute,” Jess offers, “the cleanest bathrooms are down on the fifth floor.”
On the 5:45 train into Cumbernauld proper she looks up to see the seat next to her suddenly vacant, the elderly man who had occupied it moving away from her towards the front of the vehicle, and as he looks back over his shoulder toward her with a concerned glint in his eye she notices two things: first, that almost everyone on this bus has turned their eyes toward her like she’s a wild animal, and second, that her mouth is moving, and has been for some time.
She catches herself at she gathers momentum. She pulls her scarf up to cover her face. She gathers herself and hurries off the bus two stops before her own. She barely hits the pavement before the words but not for the new country escape her like vomit.
Jess looks up at the bus as it pulls away with a screech. The old man stares back at her with his mouth working the “w” sounds of while winter reigns, his brow furrowed in confusion and horror, and she loses sight of him as a woman in nurse’s scrubs lifts herself from the back seat in anger and starts toward him, screaming something she can’t hear but which echoes in her head every waking minute, and Jess spits the words from her mouth into the gutter.
Her next shift brings a new challenge: a reported post on the website whose name she’s not supposed to know features an irate tattoo customer whose back has been forever marked with the words WHILE WINTER REIGNS THE EARTH REP in ornate heavy-metal calligraphy when all he wanted was his daughter’s birth date.
Jess double-checks Mountain View’s guidelines – if she escalates something that oughtn’t be escalated she risks a written warning and an unpaid training day – and finds detailed processes for live video, pre-recorded video, audio posts (still in beta), links to contagious materials on external websites including but not limited to .mp3 and .ogg files, pictorial representations of infectious concepts, and of course there’s the guidance on textual comments, but there’s nothing on what to do if someone writes down the words and displays them in an image. It’s a small but crucial difference, and it’s obvious to Jess that this post ought to be escalated to the next level of moderation, but as her fingers hover over her stained keyboard the idea of that unpaid training day – and the subsequent loss of twelve hours’ minimum wage – tugs at her from the back of her mind. Three shifts last week Jess didn’t eat her mid-shift meal and twice she walked an hour and a half to the office and back home again, and it’s likely she’ll have to do it again at the end of this month. Sooner, if her flatmate doesn’t reappear to pay his third of the rent.
So she walks the middle path: she takes her half-hour and walks over to Sajeev’s office with a printout, slides it onto his desk while he finishes a corner shop sandwich.
“What am I looking at?” he asks, because the printer doesn’t work so well.
“This just popped up from… Salford, I think. Near Manchester, definitely.”
Sajeev covers his mouth and speaks through a mouthful of egg and bread. “I don’t need to know where it’s from. I need to know what it is.”
Since Jess brought it to him, Sajeev hasn’t looked at the page for longer than a quick glance. “The words,” she says. “They’re on this man’s back.”
He looks down at the page again, properly this time. He takes it in.
“Huh,” he says, after a while.
“There’s nothing in the guidelines specifically about this,” she explains.
“Huh,” he says again. He hasn’t taken his eyes off the page.
She lets him take it in.
“While winter reigns…” he reads aloud. “Huh.”
Is this the first time Sajeev has seen the words? It feels unthinkable, but Sajeev has always been absent-minded, his thoughts running off somewhere into the distance even as he talks to you. It feels unthinkable, but Jess has always thought that his job could be automated; the position comes with better hours and its own office but it amounts to little more than the press of a button for “delete” or “keep,” following instructions written some years ago, so it’s not as if Sajeev is personally vetting every one of the reports before he sends them on to Mountain View.
It might feel unthinkable, but it definitely feels possible.
“Huh,” he says again, and he loses his grip on the last piece of his sandwich.
Jess chooses this moment to remember that this office is where Sajeev once went down on her for exactly nine minutes of their half-hour break last Christmas, leaving them enough time to get down to the bathrooms on fifth to gather themselves and try at least to appear more sober before returning to their workstations. It was maybe an act of rebellion against their absent shift manager at the time, whose name now escapes her. Or maybe it was an act of escapism. Maybe it was neither of those things. Down on fifth he’d offered her eye drops and breath mints from his personal stash. Sajeev isn’t a great manager, she thinks, but when they were friends he was thoughtful.
Sajeev tightens his grip on the paper.
“While winter reigns,” he mutters.
Sajeev doesn’t show up for work the next evening and the man from Mountain View is either irate or desperately panicked; it’s hard to tell from Jess’s desk, where she can only see his shadow moving behind the blinds and hear his muffled curses. Rumour is that his flat was emptied overnight, no signs of life except for the last month’s rent left in £20 notes on the coffee table, and Human Resources can only seem to reach Sajeev’s ex-girlfriend on the number still listed as his emergency contact.
After an appropriate amount of time spent glancing over at the scene in Sajeev’s former office, Jess strolls over and tries to look surprised for the benefit of the man from Mountain View, whose concern right now is the contents of the desk drawers. He piles staplers, sticky notes, promotional pens, everything, onto the desk, and to Jess it seems more like ritual than procedure, as if he’s going to burn all of this stuff in the car park until nothing of the traitor Sajeev remains.
“Do you know where he is?” he asks without looking up.
Jess says “no,” but remembers he can’t hear her with those hearing protectors still firmly in place on his head, their yellow coating peeled and flaking from being there so long, so she waits. When he finally looks up at her, she just shakes her head.
“He couldn’t have picked a worse time,” he says. It’s amazing to Jess that he hasn’t lowered his voice, not once, since he got here. Isn’t his throat ragged and raw by now? Everything the man from Mountain View says, he says loud enough that he can be heard over his own hearing protectors.
He shakes his head and slides all of Sajeev’s office supplies into a waste-paper basket.
“You know,” she says, like it just occurs to her as she leaves for her workstation, and remembers to raise her voice so the man from Mountain View can hear her, “If you give me an hour I could probably write a script to take care of his job.”
She watches the man from Mountain View ponder this.
She shrugs, like it’s no big deal. “Until you find someone else, anyway.”
The man from Mountain View nods slowly, doesn’t even look at her.
But he waves her off. “Yeah, but then we wouldn’t have to find someone else, and then we wouldn’t have to find someone to manage them, and before you know it I’m out of a job.”
He waves the thought away. “If you want the job, it’s yours. I’ll get Sajeev’s password from the main server. Use his credentials ‘til we can get a new one for you.”
The man from Mountain View leaves the waste-paper basket behind when he eventually returns to his own office, so Jess is left with an empty desk, a basket full of sensitive documents destined for the shredder, and a missing man’s login credentials scribbled on a sticky note. Under the buzz of the fluorescent lights she can hear the muffled thunk-thunk-thunk of someone’s head against a wall a few doors down; the sound has become something like white noise ever since the man from Mountain View came here. On the main floor she was able to tune it out, but the insulated silence of her new office amplifies each sharp thunk as if it was happening inches from her ear.
Fifteen minutes later there’s a stegosaurus on her desk and a knock on the door. Francis congratulates her on the promotion and asks if she’s busy, to which she has to say no, now, even when she is.
In his hands Francis carries a plastic folder of the kind Jess hasn’t seen since her school days. He carries it close to his chest like a shield, tight enough to leave dents where his fingers press into the plastic.
The thunk-thunk-thunk stops suddenly, which only reminds Jess that it was ever there.
“I found something interesting,” Francis says, too loud.
She holds out her hand for the binder, which he doesn’t offer to her.
“I wondered if the… thing only affected people in English,” he explains as though Jess is a whole audience. “So I asked my mum, right? She speaks Polish…”
He opens the binder but Jess holds up a hand before he can go on.
“That’s great, Francis,” she says. “Just leave the binder on the desk.”
She stares at him for a long time, waiting for a response, until it becomes clear that even if Francis could hear her, he still wouldn’t be listening.
“I’m sorry, Jess,” he says, turning his ear toward her, and she notices for the first time the bright red streaming down his jawline and the paper clip that he’s unfurled and driven through his eardrum. “I can’t seem to concentrate. Conserve-”
About the author: Jamie Drew is a photographer in London. At least he thinks he was. It’s been a long year. jamiedrew.co.uk
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