Discussion of a war.
“Hello? Is this the party to whom I should be speaking?”
“It must be for you,” says my mom. On a landline? I’m thinking. Mom is baking chocolate chip cookies and I’m getting ready to go. To get a cookie and still get out the door is the objective. An unexpected phone call isn't going to be helpful.
I fumble with the phone while slipping my jacket on, shoes sidling away from my feet, need my hands for those! No speakerphone, ancient contraption this thing, hideous yellow with festooned buttons. At least there was a long cord, I can drape that where I need it to be.
“We were wondering if you would like to take a survey. We will pay for your time. Are you interested?”
“It pays a hundred dollars.”
Now a hundred dollars could just as well be a thousand! Unemployed computer programmer. How those words do not go together! Yet here I was living at home, with Mom.
“Are you sure you have the right person?”
“Mr. Jordan, 295 Elmvale Crescent?”
“Well, Mr. Jordan, as a goodwill gesture and to demonstrate that we are serious, we will send five dollars to your bank account just for talking to us. The remaining ninety-five dollars will be remitted when we receive your survey.”
“Uh-huh.” Mom was waving a chocolate chip cookie in front of my nose. My cell phone was vibrating too. I cradle the phone handset between my shoulder and head and sit down while simultaneously fishing my cell out of my pants pocket. Emma is leaving a message.
“What is your email address?”
“We’ll send the five dollars through Interac.”
And they were legit. Five dollars for answering the phone. The survey was stupid, with lots of bogus questions asking me for my opinion. The ninety-five showed up later.
Jeff was such an idiot. Starting up a computer biz in his dad’s garage!
“You are a dufus! Steve Jobs did this back in the last millennium! It’ll never work!”
He eyed me while fussing with a motherboard. I could swear it was the Asus board I helped him install five years ago, AMD processor, Nvidia 1060 video card or was it a 1080? Whatever.
“I have to keep busy,” he says. “This old hardware could be worth something especially now that China is blockading Taiwan.”
“Are you serious? A couple of hundred tops! Are you even sure this old stuff still works?”
He dropped the memory chips he was installing back on the antistatic pad. “I’ve got to keep busy you know. What do you do?”
“I answer surveys! Do you want me to set you up?”
“Does it pay?”
“You’re damn right it does!”
My mystery caller wanted me to be a regional contact. They wanted me to sign up certain people. They thought I could get some of my dad’s old work friends to answer surveys. I couldn’t track those people down but the money kept showing up just the same. But I had to say, the questions were getting harder. And the error checking. That was on me too. It got so I asked that everything be emailed so I could take my time and get things right. Surveys were being rejected and sent back to me. How did they know that I wasn’t being careful with my answers?
“You didn’t call me last night,” sighed Emma.
“I was busy with my new job!”
Emma was getting ready to go out. With me of course. I was starting to wonder if she would stick around because I had been out of work for so long. We walked to her car.
“Todd's Treats? That’s where we are going?” I asked.
“Yeah, Jeff and Sarah are already there.”
“What is this? Seventh grade over again?”
She didn’t take her eyes off the road. “I lost my job you know.”
“You too! It’s that damn artificial intelligence! I just know it!”
But she didn’t want to talk about it. We entered, and Jeff and Sarah are toying with shakes. The floor was filthy, and fries were everywhere. We must have just missed the food fight. Emma and I slide into the cubicle.
“Aren’t you having anything?” Jeff asked.
“Here? Are you joking?” I said.
Jeff shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Sarah was quiet. Her sad face trumped Emma’s glum looks. What a great evening we were going to have. Jeff got tired of the silence.
“The Gerald R Ford carrier got hit by Chinese missiles today. I heard it on the news.”
“Dong-Feng 21 missiles? Was it ten that hit her or fewer than that?” I said.
“Latest report. Fewer. Only a couple. The strike group downed the others. USS Normandy got hit too. I would guess that the whole fleet had to veer off, returning to port. But I'm just guessing."
“USS Normandy is a really old ship.”
Emma got angry. “So, all you guys want to talk about is war with China?”
“No, that’s not all!” I huffed. “Look you should start answering these surveys I’m getting…”
“No way!” Sarah interrupted. “Those surveys are creepy! My dad got one. They ask way too many personal questions.”
Sarah’s dad was the mayor of our town. That was weird.
I still talked to my mom. Yeah, not cool, but it was the thing to do with Dad gone. She is stuck in the past. Doesn’t even own a cell phone. It was like the day Dad left was the end of everything.
“How much money have you made?” she asked the next night, cradling a tea in her favorite easy chair.
“Three hundred dollars!” I grinned. “But they keep rejecting this last one. I can’t get them to accept it.”
“What is the name of the company you work for?”
“I don’t know. They never said.”
Mom frowned. “Well, how will you pay your taxes if you don’t even know who you are working for?”
“Mom everything will be alright. The money is in the bank. I’m already spending it.” Here I am working on my laptop, and she is grilling me! Mom took a sip of her tea and sighed.
“Your father would never approve of this you know.”
I didn’t answer. Yeah, my dad, the spook. Always paranoid. He thought we didn’t know about his job, what he did for the CIA, but he’d leave stuff around the house. And we weren’t stupid. It wasn’t that hard to figure out.
We were quiet for a long time. Mom knew she had overstepped. She didn’t want to fight again. It was always the same thing; my life and where it was not going.
“Try one of those questions on me. Maybe I could help.”
I nod. “Ok, this one is a doozy. Why did you not go to university?”
“That’s not a fair question for a survey! Do you have to write a paragraph or something?”
I shake my head. “No that’s the weird part. And what is even weirder is one of the answers I can check off says something about Dad leaving as the reason for why I didn’t go!”
I finally quit that survey thing. It was too much. They sent me another survey full of questions about my friends and relatives. Mom said it was like the survey people wanted me to gossip about the people I knew. Gossip. What an odd word. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it except that just like the question about why I didn’t go to university, the answers I could check about the people I knew were so personal. Like the survey was set up with things that no one should even know about except the people who were closest to me!
Sarah was right. This was too creepy. I regretted getting involved. Then one day there was a knock on the door. Right around supper time. Two police officers with a warrant.
“Are you Mr. Jordan?”
“You are under arrest.”
One officer handcuffs me and the other steps into Mom’s house. Mom is so upset. She starts crying.
“Where are you taking him?”
“Ma’am, there is a war on you know. Where is Mr. Jordan’s laptop?”
She goes into the living room and returns with it. She was trembling and nearly dropped it when she handed it over.
Civil liberties were suspended. No one read me my rights. The scuttlebutt at the station was that China’s invasion of Taiwan was on and that young men my age would be called up for military service. But that was not why I was arrested.
“Do you work for the CIA?” One police detective was in the interrogation room with me. Classic. I had seen it on so many TV shows.
“I want a lawyer! My lips are sealed!”
“Listen you young punk! Everyone is in on this. Now you either answer my questions or stuff you could not imagine might start to happen. Do you work for the CIA?”
“My father did. I don’t know where he is.”
“Fine. I doubt the CIA would employ someone like you anyway. Now about this laptop. You have been collaborating with the enemy…”
“Stupid questions on surveys is collaboration?” I sputtered. “What next? Will you start arresting people for watching TikTok videos?”
He smiled. “That’s a Chinese company. We might do that. Wait and see.”
My life was under a cloud for the longest time. Years later I learned what was really going on. Artificial intelligence was being used to gather even more information about people than could be obtained from social media or the internet. Something no one hardly even understood was being used in a war. To do this, artificial intelligence processed unbelievable amounts of information. Everything was being looked at and analyzed in a way that even millions of experts could not do. When you used your laptop or cell phone to answer survey questions, everything on your device went to China too! This shows us one thing and one thing only. Something people had been doing for a very long time had changed for the worse. As that old saying goes, "Gossip is a wildfire that spreads destruction."