by Ken Liu
Michael Lane was pushing the “door close” button when a hand reached around the door of the elevator. The doors, obstructed, obediently opened back up.
Startled, Michael moved to the back of the elevator to make room.
“Sorry,” the young man said, as he rushed in. He was in jeans and cheap sneakers, no socks, and a white t-shirt with a giant chess pawn silk-screened on the front. He made Michael, in his shirt and slacks — no tie — feel overdressed.
“You’re Michael Lane, the venture capitalist, right?”
Michael tensed. He didn’t like being recognized by strangers like this. It often meant a competitor or, even worse, the press.
“Jack Hill, senior at CLU. I found your name in the alum directory. I have a business idea you might be interested in.”
Michael relaxed, slightly. He didn’t like these moments any better: elevator pitches.
“Every day, we get bombarded by intrusive and unwanted advertising, and we crave for something that will filter out the mess and give us our lives back. That’s why products like ad blockers for web browsers, spam filters, commercial-skipping DVRs are so popular. But there’s still so much advertising that comes through other channels. I’ve invented something that will solve the problem. Think of it as a spam filter for the rest of your life.”
Michael was a Buddhist. Or at least he thought so. A girlfriend in college had introduced the books of the Dalai Lama to him, and he liked them.
The trust set up by his grandfather disbursed its corpus to him upon his graduation, and young Michael, over the objection of his parents, decided to use the freedom the money gave him to study at a temple in Nova Scotia. No, that’s not where you’d expect to find a Buddhist temple, but expectations, as Buddhists know, are deceiving.
The pristine water, bracing winds, and austere, craggy shoreline of Bras d’Or Lake were conducive to meditation and deep thinking. The old stone walls built by early Scottish Highlander immigrants, glimpsed through the mist and fog, inspired haikus about the passing of the seasons and the brevity of life.
Michael observed the flight of the eagle and the waning of the Moon. He sat for hours and watched, as the water in the lake became ice, the moment of transformation evading notice. He studied Buddhist texts and asked probing questions of the monks.
Michael remembered moments of enlightenment, when he thought he could see the falling rainwater slow down, when he could feel the connection between him and the trees and the wind and all Creation, and stretched the thin membrane that was the illusion we call reality.
But, after a while, temple life bored him. He missed driving, films, playing games on the computer. He found that he enjoyed enlightenment in small doses, but not as a way of life.
He returned home to look for something interesting to do, just as his parents had predicted.
He went into finance, and made a lot of money, but often he would remember his time at the temple fondly, and as he romanticized his memories of his time there, he thought that someday he would write a book about how to apply the mentality and ethics of Buddhism to business effectively, a sort of Idiot’s Guide to Being the Ideal Monk-Businessman.
Michael sent his prescription to Jack, and a few days later, he got the glasses in the mail. The spectacles were thick-rimmed and very retro looking. In a note, Jack explained that this was only a prototype, and future improvements will slim the mechanism down, maybe even leading to versions that could be worn as contact lenses.
“The spectacles produce augmented reality, like those phone apps that let you see the names of famous landmarks. But rather than adding to what you see, our spectacles take things away. They filter out marketing and free you from their incessant eyeball punches,” Jack wrote.
Michael put the glasses on. He looked around, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I guess my office is clean.
It was time to go home anyway. Caroline had asked him to pick up some groceries on the way home. Michael stopped at the supermarket.
He stopped at the cereal aisle. All the boxes looked the same.
The cartoon characters, famous athletes, colorful letters forming bright, cheerful slogans, all gone. No more touched-up photos of appetizing “complete breakfasts.” No more claims about added nutrients. All the cardboard boxes looked identical: white, functional, with their names in sensible sans serif. The government-required nutritional information boxes were blown up and hovered above each box in big, readable font.
Michael took off the glasses, and the screaming colors and photographs and visual clamor rushed back. He hurriedly put the glasses back on.
He smiled. For the first time, he could pick a box of cereal without hearing in his head the jingles and catchphrases, earworms that had burrowed into his brain because Bobby and Sarah lived for those commercials masquerading as cartoons. He whistled, and, since no one was watching, tossed the box into the cart like a basketball.
Michael hadn’t enjoyed shopping this much in years.
Highway billboards were blank, empty of the signs that he found so distracting: the strip clubs off exit 14, the factory outlet mall off exit 16, the luxury condominiums being built a few miles down.
As Michael drove down the tree-lined residential street to their house, he thought things looked different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was off.
He slowed his car, and looked at everything carefully.
Tom Lance, who lived across the street, was out mowing the lawn. As he got out of the car, Michael waved at him, and glanced at the Lance house. Something was missing from their yard, something that had bothered him before.
The campaign posters. Tom had atrocious politics, and he had put up these obnoxious campaign posters that annoyed Michael every morning as he got ready for work. But now, the lawn was empty.
As Michael stood next to his car, he looked up and down the streets. Everything seemed right, but it was like a famous photograph altered subtly.
He took off his glasses, and put them back on, and took them off again. He sucked in his breath.
The glasses airbrushed out the For Sale signs in front of houses, the bumper stickers pleading for the whales, the yellow ribbons declaring support for the troops. Most of all, the waving flags in front of most of the houses on the street, the bright colors of Old Glory, were missing.
Michael had a Russian friend in college who had told Michael that he found the ubiquitous public displays of patriotism in America frightening.
“Back home, the government and thugs make you praise Mother Russia. But here, you make each other do it. Even at a baseball game everyone stands up in unison to ask God to bless America.”
Michael had gotten angry at the time, and launched into a passionate speech about the value of spontaneous patriotism and robust democratic debate. “Casual propaganda, you mean,” his friend had said. “Thinking substituted by mutual marketing. You think a bumper sticker is debate?”
The glasses seemed to agree with his friend.
“Like any spam filter, the glasses may produce false positives or false negatives,” Jack said. “It can be adjusted.”
Michael hung up the phone. He had to admit that he did prefer the view of the neighborhood with the glasses on, but the pleasure felt guilty, like he was admitting to some failure.
“Dad, do you want a Coke?” Six-year old Bobby asked.
This was a standard trick of his. Caroline forbid the children from drinking soda, but usually Michael would allow Bobby a sip when he brought his father one from the fridge.
“Sure,” Michael said. “Thanks.”
Michael snapped open the can and took a sip. It was cold and sweet, but Michael, a lifelong Coke drinker, thought the taste was off. Was this a store-brand soda?
The can was red, but the Coca Cola logo and mark had been blurred out.
When Michael was in high school, he had been a long-distance runner. The workouts were long and tiring, and Michael was not in shape as a freshman. One fall afternoon, the coach ordered the team to go on a ten-mile conditioning run, and Michael gradually fell behind. He thought about stopping many times and quitting the team that afternoon, as cars sped by him occasionally, the passengers jeering at him. As he pushed himself on, step by step, his mind delirious with thirst and exhaustion, the only thing that kept him going was the thought of finally getting back to school and buying an ice-cold Coke from the vending machine in the school lobby and drinking it down in one gulp. He pictured the red can, the white cursive letters, the beading drops of condensation on the aluminum surface, just the way they were shown in the commercials.
He took off the glasses, and the familiar and reassuring logo jumped back into focus. He took another sip. Much better.
Michael saw that Caroline had left the ironing board out. Today was Thursday, laundry day.
He imagined her ironing his shirts for him, pressing down to make the seams sharp, the collars flat. The identical white shirts hung in a row in the closet. It was almost like a uniform. It was easy to get dressed in the morning, but it also sent a message, a message that changed depending on who he was trying to impress.
Would he wear a tie that morning or not? He had to calibrate the right image, a separate one for investors and for entrepreneurs.
It was a kind of seduction, when he met people. It began with the address in the right part of town and continued with the bright lobby, the smiling receptionist, the modernist furniture, and the firm handshake. It was about money and doing exciting things with that money, but that didn’t mean that it was cold and emotionless. In fact, it was very much the opposite.
Michael wondered what an investor would see if he saw Michael through Jack’s augmented reality glasses.
“Honey, are you home?” Caroline called from upstairs.
He imagined her. It was Thursday night, and she might want to order take out. They would have some wine. And after the kids were in bed, she might want to take a walk. There was supposed to be a meteor shower tonight. She would wear some lipstick, and she would smile at him a certain way. What would he see, if he kept these glasses on?
Michael took off his glasses. He wanted to see things the way they were meant to be seen.
“I like the concept,” Michael began.
Jack was sitting in the chair on the other side of the table, expectant.
“But I found that I didn’t like an advertising-free view of the world as much as I thought I would,” Michael continued.
Jack nodded. “I expected that. But didn’t you find that when you decided to let the ads back in, you found them not as bothersome? Even enjoyable?”
Enlightenment is fine in small doses, but not as a way of life. “You think it makes the ads more effective if people realize how much they miss them when they are gone.”
“We like being pitched to, being seduced. But we forget that when there’s no way to ever turn it off. The filter isn’t just good for the people who think they don’t want the ads. It’s also good for the people doing the pitching. Advertisers who understand that would want to sponsor us. That’s an alternative business model.”
Michael smiled. “That’s going to be one hell of a marketing message.”
Enlightenment is potentially very profitable.