The Office Trinity:
Man, Monitor and Machine
by Phillip Donnelly
‘The office is a prison and the screen is the warden. It watches you while you watch it. It is reading you now.’
David Vincent sat at his chair, let out an unconscious sigh, and pressed the ‘on’ button of his computer, plugging himself into the office collective and preparing himself for another day of subterfuge, dissimulation and counter-espionage. Each day could be his last, he knew, but he fought on. What else was there to do?
Every day, immediately after sitting down on his tired swivel chair in the faceless open-plan office, he bent over and changed from dirty street boots to clean office shoes, thus completing the transformation from pedestrian to office drone, from free man to office man. While his fingers played the shoelace sonata, he secretly listened to the aria of the computers booting up.
This was one of the few opportunities he had to actually listen to them speaking, to hear their real language: Beep... Buzz... Burr... Click... clack... cluck. It was completely indecipherable, of course, but fascinating nonetheless.
A flashing blue light on the computer tower told David that his computer had established a connection with the office network. The office Trinity was joined: Man, monitor and machine were one.
David finished putting on his office shoes and looked at the world above his feet. He knew it was not a good idea to spend too much time bending over his chair with his ear stuck against the computer tower. It might make the Imposters suspicious. Everything was being monitored, analysed and recorded. The screens saw everything.
The part of the office day that David always found most difficult to deal with was the beginning, the ritualised greeting stage, the exchange of pleasantries and conversational tokens that the Imposters had made a compulsory part of the start of the normal working day.
He looked up at what appeared to be a woman in her early thirties approaching him en route to the photocopier. She cocked her head slightly, smiled and said: “Hi Dave! You’ve put your shoes on.”
The woman, like many Imposters, had an irritating habit of stating the obvious, thereby revealing their fundamental inability to master human communication. The Imposters were impressive pieces of engineering, grafted into human form and physically at least, indistinguishable from real humans, but their oral programming was rather basic, and their conversational routines lacked all imagination and originality.
“Yes, I’ve put my shoes on,” David replied.
The Imposter smiled and David smiled back. He imitated the Imposter’s odd grin, but was unable to fathom why this should be something to grin about. However, the Imposters often smiled for no reason.
David suspected that those who didn’t smile enough were probably locked up, and had their brains turned to jelly with lobotomies and electroconvulsive ‘therapy’. Sometimes the Imposters simply medicated happiness outside of hospitals, with drugs named after alien planets, like Prozac or Lithium.
As David held his plastic smile, the Imposter spoke once more. ‘It’s raining again, eh?” she said, and pointed to the window in order to clarify where the weather could be found.
David stared at his computer screen in order to try and cut the conversation short. These ritualised conversations could go on for minutes and David preferred to escape from them as soon as politely feasible.
He found that if you stared at the screen long enough, the Imposters would eventually leave you alone. Staring at a screen for long periods did not strike an Imposter as odd, and they often exhibited this behaviour themselves. Imposters were drawn to screens, from which they received their instructions and to which they transmitted their observations.
David looked at his own screen, which had recently been upgraded to a wide-screen version, almost eliminating the office’s former safe zones, the blind spots in the screen’s field of vision. It was getting harder and harder to hide.
As always, when looking at the screen, he tried to keep his face as neutral as possible, to put on his screenface. They would be watching him now; they paid particular attention to a screen that had just been switched on. It offered them a new window on the human world, and David could feel the screen staring at him, attempting to study his facial expressions in order to vacuum his mind.
And if it wasn’t computer monitors, it was some other screen: mobile phone cameras, the CCTV network, television. ‘All the world’s a screen, and all the men and women merely images,’ David thought to himself, careful as always not to translate the thought into a facial expression that could be turned into screenfood.
He double-clicked on the Outlook icon and scanned his inbox, looking down through the e-mail titles to see if any of them were urgent. A management Imposter, whose flawed assimilation had left him with a facial tic, had asked him to conduct an office-wide stationery check, and David reacted quickly, darting from one part of the office to another with a clipboard, counting staplers, pens and reams of paper.
These Imposter e-mail assignments were part of The Experiment, and speed was an important factor, just as speed is a factor in the tasks that behavioural psychologists set their lab rats. They were also a trap, and the Imposters would often set meaningless tasks in the hope of provoking the unwary into asking the lethal question ‘Why?’
“Ask why and die!” David mentally repeated to himself as he furiously tore around the office, interrogating the office slaves on their current stationery provisions.
When he had completed his first task of the morning, David was worried to note that there was a sudden lull in e-mail traffic. This could mean that the Imposters were busy ‘assimilating’ a new member and creating a new human Imposter.
He stuck his head over the parapet, scanned the no-mans-land of the open plan office, and noted that the accounting rebel, Gary the Goth, was not present and wondered if the assimilation bells and buzzers were tolling for him, somewhere deep in the hidden bowels of the building.
David walked to the water cooler and surreptitiously counted the number of empty desks. The conversions seemed to be happening more and more frequently lately, and there were also more and more simple disappearances, under the guise of the economic ‘crisis’.
Each fallen colleague, David knew, brought the day that he would be taken to the Assimilation Chamber one day closer, and he looked uneasily from the water cooler back towards his own chair and the empty chairs around him.
Lost in a requiem to the office dead, David didn’t notice two other co-workers had also been drawn to the oasis of the water cooler, the fountain of office gossip, ignorant of how closely this area was now monitored. In hushed tones they discussed rumours of more cutbacks and non-voluntary redundancies.
David ignored them and walked slowly back to the rack of his desk and imagined the office personnel transformed into a herd of pigs, surreal in starched shirts and ties, lost in the work trough, their snouts dripping in e-mail pigswill. He saw the Imposters sharpen butcher knives and the computer cables fill with blood. These visions came to him more and more frequently lately.
As the day wore on, and the screen’s clock counted to 60 for the second time, David noticed an upturn in e-mail traffic, and assumed the conversion had been completed. Gary the Goth returned shortly after eleven, following what David overheard him describe as a ‘performance review meeting’ but Gary was oddly silent for the rest of the day. Out of the corner of his eye, David was sure he caught Gary staring at him.
The Experiment continued: the computer fed David e-mails and David digested them, reading the input and typing the output, and all of it monitored by the ever-present screen. A day like any other. More shackles for shekels for the pigmen before they were driven into assimilation abbatoir. Today, Gary the Goth, and tomorrow, who knew?
David felt the terror of isolation. He was alone. He was the last man in the office. A human castaway in a sea of debased pigmen who would not listen and Imposters who would not let him speak.
He knew he could not win and he felt the end would come soon. He did not know when, but he felt it had to be soon. Like a wave that has grown weary from its ocean-long journey and feels the shore under its feet as it heads towards the coast of frothy death, David suddenly realised that the end was in sight. The furtive glances of Gary could only mean that his mask was beginning to crack, for a man who always wears a mask will not be the one to see the cracks in it.
Lost in a wave of despair, he let his eyes drop away from the screen, put his head in his hands and felt indescribably heavy, so heavy that he thought he might fall through the floor at any moment, and fall all the way to the centre of the Earth; fall into nothingness and freedom.
He focused on his screen’s cursor, hypnotised by its flashing regularity and its soothing predictability. The rest of the office and the world beyond it ceased to exist. Entranced he stayed all morning, as the e-mails built up in his inbox, unseen and unheeded. The office trinity was beginning to unravel.
One of the David’s colleagues noticed David’s aberrant behaviour and signalled her alarm to David’s supervisor, who spoke to her own supervisor, and they both expressed their earnest concern over David’s recurrent periods of trance and inertia.
As their mouths expressed their heartfelt sympathy, their minds crunched numbers, and saw that the 5% budget cuts asked for by the Finance Department would be far easier to achieve with one less salary on the payroll.
When David returned to consciousness and left the living death of the cursor trance, he saw that the first e-mail waiting for him was a summons to attend an important meeting in the afternoon in the Director’s Office. The Employee Actualisation Team (formerly known as Human Resources), the e-mail went on to say, were ‘very concerned’ by certain aspects of his performance, and wanted to discuss ways to ‘move forward’ and ‘successfully resolve some long-standing issues’.
David knew what this really meant. He had learnt some Imposter code over the years. He was to be brought to the Assimilation Chamber where his personality would be cauterised and his body would become a mere vessel for an Imposter mind. He was frozen by images of the Imposters’ drill bits boring through his eyes in the bloody revelation of Assimilation Chamber.
He considered trying to escape, but after the e-mail all Imposter eyes were on him and even the screens seemed to follow him around the room. Feeling their laser eyes burn though him, he paced around the office, like a toothless, caged wolf, peering through the dusty glass prison walls that separated the office from the outside world.
An Imposter approached him, touched him on the shoulder and asked him if he was well. Like prison wardens on Death Row, they were trained not to let the inmate rob the noose of its charge.
He told the Imposter warden he had a cold, left the office and scurried instead around the less populous parts of the building, unable to sit still but also knowing that there could be no escape. Imposters always guarded the building’s exits closely for ‘security reasons’ and the windows could not be opened in the air-conditioned laboratory of the office.
David wanted to cry out, to squeal, but he knew it would only serve to bring the hour of retribution closer. His mind was filled with the images of pigs in stainless steel slaughterhouses, prodded along conveyor belts to their mechanized doom, wondering hopelessly what they had done to deserve this, and cursing themselves for not running for the hills when they had the chance.
Acting on instinct, smelling the smoke of the Imposter fires being stoked beneath him, he ran to the roof of the building and stared at the bulbous grey clouds. He reached up to them but they were too far away. The clouds sent the wind as their messenger and whispered in his ear, chanting of escape. The rain ran down his face and washed the office visions away, and he smiled to thank it: a real smile.
He ran to the ledge, looked up to the sky, opened his arms and jumped backwards. As he fell, looking at the infinity of the sky and space beyond it, he felt euphoric. The Imposters would never have him. There are no screens in the sky and no computer towers in the earth. Coffins are off-line.
The trinity of man, monitor and machine was broken.
David Vincent was free.
Copyright © 2009 by Phillip Donnelly