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The convenience of smart fridges? Think again

Technology

We’re not sure whether Orwell would be turning in his grave, or kicking himself for not going far enough in 1984 – he never conjectured that three and a half decades after the titular year, most people would voluntarily carry around devices in their pockets with cameras, microphones and location-tracking, leaking data.

And then there’s smart fridges, which, currently, can compile your shopping list for you. Not so groundbreaking, not so scary. But read on for a vision of their future...

With technology’s onward march in mind we thought we’d take the opportunity to republish this short science fiction story by multi-award winner Pat Cadigan, on the dystopian inner life of the future smart fridge. It’s part of ‘Pwning Tomorrow’, a speculative fiction anthology published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaigning organization that defends civil liberties and privacy in technology and on the web. Published under a range of Creative Commons licenses, you can get the whole anthology from their website.

This short story, ‘Business as Usual’, is copyright 2014 by Pat Cadigan. It is available under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.

Business as Usual

by Pat Cadigan.

I was 12 when Nonna – Grandma to you non-Italians – told me her new insulin pump was out to get her.

She used to fret about the Internet of things when I was growing up, but this was special. Her previous pumps had to be connected to a computer to send data about her blood sugar to the local clinic. This new one could log on to a dedicated network all by itself without her help or knowledge.

‘This thing is the devil, Cara Mia,’ she said, using my full name as always. It had been her suggestion to my birth mother, who had been too tired delivering her third child to argue. I’d given up trying to get her to call me just Cara. ‘It’s the devil and it hates me. It’s just that simple.’

It was February, and both the weather and Nonna’s disposition were awful, so my mothers asked me to get her out of the house for a while. I decided to take her to OutDoorsIn – I thought the simulated springtime might smooth her out in spite of herself. Nonna had mixed feelings about the place. She’d been known to enjoy Christmas shopping there, but she also said it was a glorified shopping mall for pod people. She frowned like a thunderstorm when I maneuvered her wheelchair onto the tram and spent the whole ride staring glumly out the window at the sleet in silence. But when I rolled her out of the entryway into the lakeside zone rather than the shopping village, her hackles went right down. I bought a few loaves of bread from an attendant, and we fed the ducks for a while. Nonna loved the ducks.

‘It’s the devil and it hates me. It’s just that simple.’

Eventually, she felt more like talking than sulking, although she wasn’t quite through with my mothers. ‘They think I don’t know. Ha! I’m old, not stupid, Cara Mia.’

‘Nonna, no one wants to get rid of you,’ I said. ‘You’ve been stuck in the house because of the ice and snow. School’s closed so I can take you out for a change of scene. I’d have taken you outside for real, but you don’t have snow tires.’

That made her laugh, and I could see her disposition veer away from if-I’m-in-hell-so-are-you. She wasn’t done complaining, but at least it wasn’t a full- throated aria about everything that was wrong with the world, starting with artificial environments and moving on to all the medical advances that had come too late for many older people, who would gladly, Nonna said, do for themselves, living independently in their own homes instead of burdening their families, if only the flesh would cooperate. It was just that simple.

I don’t know exactly how the subject turned to technology – I think I said something about the way the air smelled, just like it was really April – but somehow we went from there to the Internet of things that were out to get her.

‘That’s what we called it in my day, Cara Mia, the “Internet of things,”’ she said. ‘When they were just starting to put little brain-boards in everything, even price tags. Now you don’t call it anything, I guess. It’s just life to you.’ I made a polite, I’m-listening noise. You had to let her know at regular intervals that you could hear her or she would talk louder. ‘Everything’s all netted up and webbed up to everything else. Vending machines and toilets and air conditioners, toasters and airplanes and ceiling lights. I thought I’d seen it all when they gave cars personalities.’

‘It’s just an interface that makes it easier for people to operate them,’ I said, for what might have been the billionth time.

‘Yeah, sure.’ She waved a hand dismissively. ‘That’s how they got that bullshit into people’s houses. Your pal, the hub, your personal household assistant, always on the case, looking out for you. Your mothers talk to it every morning. You know they call it Glinda? ‘Hey, Glinda, check the fridge, will ya? The milk was bad this morning. I only bought it two days ago.’ Anybody talked like that in my day, they’d end up in a rubber room.’

I pictured one of those old-fashioned bouncy castles they have in old-time county fairs, but I knew that couldn’t be right.

‘Or if you went out in public talking to invisible people,’ she went on. ‘Not just talking but waving your hands around like a half-assed mime, gesturing at things no one else can see unless they’re glassed-in or on-topic’ed or whatever the hell they’re saying these days. And don’t start with me about virtual spaces. What I’ve forgotten about virtual spaces it would take everybody in them, right now, the rest of their lives to learn. Which is pretty goddam sad, considering all the time they saved by not learning any manners.’

She went on like that for a while, and I let her because all the time she was grumbling, she was actually laughing a little, and I knew it was at herself. Nonna liked to quote a very old song about Mr. Jones, who knew something was going on but not what it was. Sooner or later, she said, we all got to be Mr. Jones, and then we’d wish we’d been a little kinder to him. (In a darker mood, though, she’d berate all the Mr. Joneses for not keeping pace and being clueless fecks. Or fex; I’m not sure which.)

Then she suddenly turned quiet with a pained expression I knew very well. I felt carefully around her waistband and resettled her insulin pump. The needles on the input pad were finer than human hairs, but there were a lot of them. If the tube got twisted, they felt like a multitude of little fish hooks, especially for an elderly person with very thin skin. (I read the manual.) That was when she told me the pump hated her.

‘It’s the newest model, isn’t it?’ I asked.

‘And so?’ she said, almost snapping. ‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘So do you really think it’s known you long enough to feel one way or the other?’ I asked, hoping to kid her out of it.

‘These things think so much faster than people,’ she said. ‘Five minutes for them is the same as a month for a human being. Like dog years and human years, only we’re the dogs.’

‘Did you ever feel this way about any of the old pumps?’ I asked.

‘No. I’ve still got the last one. Every time they upgrade, I hang onto the old one in case the new one blows up. I got along fine with the last model. I’d still be using it, but it’s too slow for the clinic’s new software or something. I told them it works just fine with my software, so why couldn’t I just e-mail them the files? They gave me some double-talk about the extra processing time not being in their budget. I said, “Are you really trying to tell me two or three extra microseconds would break the bank? Bitch, puh-lease.”’ She paused, and her cheeks went a little pink. ‘Okay, I didn’t say ‘bitch,’ just ‘please.’ But someday, they’re gonna push me just that little bit too far, and I’ll get thrown out of the care plan for verbal abuse.’

‘Oh, Nonna, don’t be silly,’ I said, laughing a bit as if she’d made a joke.

‘They would. They have. Not me, not yet, but I’ve heard about other people. These clinics, they’re ruthless. They can do anything they want – change the rules about how many checkups you have to have, force new equipment on you when there’s nothing wrong with the old stuff, and they don’t give a shit whether you understand what’s going on or not. You’re just supposed to take it. But if you have one bad day, just one, and some special snowflake gets all butt-hurt because you didn’t smile at them, they send out a team to repo your iron lung while you’re still gasping in surprise.’

I was tempted to point out that iron lungs had been obsolete for over a hundred years but I didn’t want to provoke her any further.

Leaning toward me, she lowered her voice and put one hand over the pump as if it were a microphone. ‘It’s not just the pump, Cara Mia. Their whole system hates me.’

I tried to keep my expression neutral. ‘What makes you think that, Nonna?’

‘The upgrade,’ she said, still sotto voce. ‘I think it hates all old people. Young people, most of them can be fixed right up. Us old people, though, everything just gets worse. You can’t win – it’s just that simple. They shoulda put this in a pediatric unit. Then it would feel like it’s doing something.’

‘Nonna, I don’t think even the most upgraded systems have feelings,’ I said as gently as I could while making a mental note to tell at least one of my mothers to check her for another urinary tract infection. Older women have always been prone to these infections, and the symptoms aren’t only things like frequent urination but also dizziness, disorientation, and even a kind of mild delirium, which can be mistaken for dementia. ‘Even though a lot of them are pretty complex …’

‘Complex? Ha! You know what your mothers call Glinda, the hub? Intuitive. ’ She sat back with a so-there look on her face.

‘But that only means it’s practically ambient.’ Now she gave me the Laser Beam Glare of Death.

‘Ambient is just the excuse everybody uses for not paying attention. Jesus, at least the people in Brave New World had to take actual drugs to zone out.’

No chuckling now. The day that had been teetering between oh-what-the-hell and yeah-this-is-hell finally tipped over into the latter. I had to buy seven or eight loaves of duck bread before her state of mind improved enough to take her home. We were there so long I thought the ducks had started to wonder what was going on.

Unfortunately, going home put her back in the same frame of mind she’d been in when we left. Well, at least I hadn’t brought her back worse, I thought. True enough, her disposition didn’t worsen for at least a couple of hours, even when her insulin pump notified Glinda about an excess of carbohydrates. (She’d apparently sneaked a couple of bites of duck bread when my back was turned.) Glinda then dutifully made a note on the evening menu. Even then, everything might have been okay except my older brother was cooking, and he let it slip. (Vito never could keep anything to himself. If we’d been a Mafia family bound by omerta, he wouldn’t have made it to 21.) It was one of those evenings when I was tempted to tell my grandmother I was siding with her insulin pump except it would have been entirely too mean.

However, it turned out I wasn’t far off about the ducks. Most of them were ordinary waterfowl, but several were purpose-built paddle-buddies. OutDoorsIn claimed they were there to reassure the real ducks, but there were whispers that they were actually surveillance devices. Every time we went there, I watched carefully, but I couldn’t tell the real ones from the fakes. None of them looked like they were there to eavesdrop. Some got brave enough to take bread from our hands, but they always waddled away quickly. Maybe Nonna and I never said anything that interesting.

Nonna lived to be 103. I wish I could say she went out in fine, cantankerous style, railing at people who walked down the street having glassed-in conversations with people who weren’t physically present, but it was actually a lot sadder. A series of minor strokes left her with Capgras syndrome. We had to put her in a nursing facility, and for the last month of her life the only way we could communicate with her was by audio-only telephone. If she saw us, she’d get hysterical, sure we were all impostors. I tried bringing her a note from the ‘real’ me, saying the ‘impostor’ was trustworthy, but she wouldn’t buy it. If it were true, she said, I would have told her in person. And, yes, it was just that simple.

She didn’t say so, but I think she believed the insulin pump had turned everyone against her.

***

Fast-forward several decades, and now I guess it’s pretty obvious that I went into interface design because of Nonna – her struggles with the changes in her immediate surroundings, or rather the changes in how people related to their surroundings. If I hadn’t seen what she went through, I probably would have become some kind of engineer – I was really good with hardware, while most software baffled me – and settled down to consume happily ever after, at least until my first midlife crisis.

Instead, I decided hardware in itself was too simple. It’s all governed by the same physical laws, and they always apply, no matter what. It’s pure binary: there’s a right way to build something and a wrong way; a right way to use it and a wrong way. You might get lucky and discover a wonderful right way to build something. More often than not, though, you’ll be cramming as many fail- safes as possible into shiny new machines so they won’t blow up when some dope figures out yet another wrong way to use them. Okay, that’s not exactly simple, but devising more ways for users to avoid electrocuting themselves or starting fires wasn’t the kind of challenge I was looking for.

I interned summers with a few big companies so I could put them on my résumé, but I never got any practical experience. The only thing I actually learned at any of them was that free labor makes a lot of people rude.

Later, I managed to get apprenticeships with smaller outfits where I did real work. Those were much better experiences, but they were all temporary contracts – the salaries came from government grants, and once they were up, I had to scramble around for something else. You could live on apprenticeship grants for only three years. Then your eligibility ran out and if you didn’t have a permanent position by then, your prospects dwindled sharply. The utter Darwinism of the tech design field has been known to turn smug libertarians into born-again socialists, usually while they’re retraining as PA’s or event planners. A lot of people went into event planning thinking it was a way to get back into tech design by the service entrance, so to speak. Once in a great while, it actually worked. Most of the time, however, people ended up in HR or permanent temping, an oxymoron that always made me cringe (mainly because it was my own worst nightmare).

Fortunately, I managed to stay on track. And a lot of it was good fortune. I lucked out with my apprenticeships, choosing firms where I learned how to think about interfaces (as opposed to just absorbing what someone else thought) and how to visualize analogies rather than just making easy comparisons.

I didn’t have a permanent position by the time my grant eligibility ran out, but someone at my last apprenticeship gave me a work-around for that. I bought a biz-in-a-box license and joined the Chamber of Commerce as a working pro. The license included a share of desk space in an open-plan office – real, not virtual. (No matter what anyone says about convenience and time saved and all that, the rule is and always has been: clients will pass if they only get glass. Anyone doing business with you wants to meet in person at least once. Twice is better, and more than that makes them feel like VIPs, which keeps them coming back.)

This is by way of explaining how, from time to time, I came to be in conversation with major appliances in the middle of the night.

***

All design emerges from some sort of context, which, whether you like it or not, includes trends and fads. The Show Tunes craze was slightly before my time (thank God). It’s in every introductory art and design course around the world as an object lesson in how quickly a fad can go bad and how clients always go elsewhere to get it cleaned out. (Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would think it was a good idea to have the whole house doing Broadway classics or, worse, running half a dozen complete shows in rotation with adapted dialogue. But as I said, it was before my time. I guess you had to be there.)

Despite my business license, I really didn’t want to work with private customers. I wanted to work on the industrial side as part of a large company, maybe a manufacturer or a developer catering to commercial interests like office buildings, shopping villages, hotels, apartment complexes, even other kinds of businesses. I know, that’s the opposite of what a lot of people want – they’d prefer to make their own hours, do all the deciding, and answer to no one. The thing is, though, you don’t make your own hours; the clients make them, and a lot of them think nothing of calling you at any old weird time of the day or night, popping up in AugmAr at some pretty awkward moments even though your glass is unlisted (you thought). You don’t do all the deciding, either; clients may claim to trust you, but they’ll insist on having the final say, and if that turns out to be a bad decision, they’ll blame you anyway. Not so good if you got their business with a money-back guarantee.

But even leaving all that aside, even if everything always goes perfectly for you and you’re a total mint, you’re stuck with doing your own accounts and figuring out your taxes. There are all kinds of programs for that, all-in-one software packages that claim to be install-and-forget, that say they’ll take care of everything while you work, producing perfectly formatted, submission-ready reports. Just press send. It’s that simple.

Bitch, please, as Nonna would so quaintly put it. Someday, it’s going to come out that tax accountants sell these logic bombs to make sure the rest of us panic at least once a year or, better yet, quarterly.

I’m not sure whether Nonna would have said I was wise to avoid all the accounting and tax scut work or just lazy. But, then, I’m not sure what she’d have made of what I did for a living. I never told her about the fake ducks partly because I didn’t know how she’d react – I mean, I knew she wouldn’t like it, but I wasn’t sure how intensely she would feel – and partly because I was afraid she’d think I felt it was okay for OutDoorsIn to bamboozle an old woman with fake ducks.

One of my mentors told me this kind of thinking is characteristic of interface designers. It was reassuring even if I didn’t really understand it.

***

Life Candy was the top module in interface design and one of the top 20 modules overall – that includes climate-control firms and indoor greenery providers – but the name had always put me off. To me, it sounded flippant, like a spitball-made-good, but at the same time cynical, like it was a side business of the people who brought you the emperor’s new clothes. But I knew it was the company to work for. LifeCandy had modules in every major concern, from automobile makers to appliances to housing developments, as well as airlines, hotels, and even parts of the educational system. And not merely in but truly integrated, so that getting rid of them would take a major restructuring of the host company.

The B2B module was just one of those crazy things, an idea that came along at the right moment – cometh the hour, cometh the app, so to speak. It went mainstream in less time than it had taken the World Wide Web to change mass media. Big companies pared themselves down to core employees and terminated support staff and peripheral departments like accounting and human resources and maintenance in favor of contracts with modules. As host companies, they had to pay only for services rendered; the modules were responsible for benefits like sick days, health care, vacation time, and pensions.

The history of business infrastructure isn’t my specialty, so I can’t tell you how the present system compares with the way they used to do things. Some people call it enlightened symbiosis; others say it’s capitalism taken to its logical yet absurd extreme. The latter are divided as to whether this proves capitalism’s utter virtue or unutterable evil. (Don’t ask me which view predominates because people in the subgroups are always changing sides.)

‘Times change, Ma,’ my mothers would say, sometimes in unison. Nonna would call them the Neapolitan Greek chorus

Nonna had held forth on that subject as well. She’d lived most of her life in a very different system, a whole different world, really. All of us kids liked hearing Nonna’s stories about the good old days (especially the trouble she got into), but we couldn’t have been less interested in the big-picture aspect. Trade, commerce, GNP, the deficit, the surplus, the government, news, weather, and sports – these are things adults should talk about when they don’t want kids to pay attention. But it wasn’t always possible to avoid these conversations. Holidays, when the tribe gathered – at our house, to save Nonna the effort of traveling – all of us kids, sibs, steps, and cousins often got stuck at the table during some interminable discussion. I remember one gabfest as to whether a classic monopoly could exist anymore. It got my attention only because I thought they were talking about games – one of the steps had brought a tabletop projector with a bunch of retro mashups, and I wanted to try Sonic vs. Mario’s Battleship Monopoly.

‘We’re turning into bugs,’ Nonna said, pounding the table a little; my father said pro wrestlers stamped on every move for the same reason. ‘Ants, termites, bees. That’s not evolution. That’s not a giant leap forward. It’s not even a tiny stumble forward. It’s regressing.’

‘Times change, Ma,’ my mothers would say, sometimes in unison. Nonna would call them the Neapolitan Greek chorus, as a swipe at my father, who’d grown up on the Turkish side of Cyprus. That was usually his cue to start in about the various ways civilization reorganized itself whenever there was a crucial development and how it used to take a lot longer before mass media and mass transit.

‘In a living system, people redefine their perspectives on – and their relationships to – work, recreation, and especially other people,’ Dad said in his serene, college professor voice. ‘They discovered their needs were changing along with their orientations. There were new ways to do old jobs.’

‘Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be an alpha,’ Nonna said. ‘Alphas have to work too hard. I’m so glad I’m a beta.’

That got a rise out of everyone, while I had to pretend I didn’t get it along with the rest of the kids. Brave New World was supposed to be too adult for me (all those dirty words, like ‘mother’). Nonna had read it to me when I was nine, feeling it was never too early to scare a new generation.

***

I seldom passed a day when I didn’t wonder what my grandmother would have made of the part I played in the care and feeding of the interactive culture. I went right into voice and voice recog, simultaneous top-down-bottom-up-meet-in-the-middle, mood-matching, and contextual compatibility.

Compatibility, freakin’ compatibility.

‘Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be an alpha,’ Nonna said. ‘Alphas have to work too hard. I’m so glad I’m a beta.’

At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but I’m pretty sure this was where the line started to blur. I suspect the same thing underlies modules. The concept of modules, I mean, the idea of parts that snap in and out, so you can just replace an old part by popping a new one into an existing whatever – house, car, appliance, toy, project, company. Digitize and you’re on your way to consensus. Then you standardize; unify.

Unity breeds community. And the next thing you know, someone’s refrigerator is calling in the middle of the night because it’s full of pizza and bacon, full-fat cream cheese and fried chicken, chocolate eclairs and beer despite the fact that everyone’s last cholesterol test came back stamped Stay back, they could blow at any moment!

‘Why?’ the refrigerator wants to know. ‘Why, when they have been told, per the report on file in the hub, that this is literally a matter of life and death?’

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but in the middle of the night, I’m thinking, What kind of deviants drink beer with chocolate eclairs?not Should I have to answer to a refrigerator? A refrigerator I don’t even own? A refrigerator I’ve never even met, for chrissakes?

It wasn’t till after coffee the next morning that it even occurred to me to wonder, Why is it always the fridge?

In the middle of another night, during another call from someone else’s nervous Norge, it finally came to me: because it’s really all about the fridge. The hub may be the brain in every home, but the fridge is the heart. I was glad Nonna wasn’t around. She’d have gone upside my head, saying, ‘No shit, Sherlock? What the hell kind of Italian are you?’

***

This was very much on my mind when Life Candy sent up a spam balloon calling everyone in – all the way in, not virtual in. Some things they just don’t trust to AugmAr, even though they developed it. Maybe because they developed it.

LifeCandy reserved the building’s employee cafeteria for the whole morning, and the chief of operations herself gave us the headlines. Several major health insurers had gotten together and decided to make the healthy-home option a mandatory part of their coverage.

I watched the lower left-hand corner of my glass, waiting for scribbles about how if it was mandatory, it wasn’t an option. Except for a few exclamation marks and uh-oh faces, however, there was nothing. I thought maybe it was because we were looking at a major revamp of tens of thousands of home hubs in a very short period of time and no one felt like screwing around. Then I realized: our health insurer had signed off on this, too. No wonder management looked so pissed off. And while I was at it, whose idea had it been to do this in a cafeteria?

Just karma, as it turned out; all three auditoriums had been in use.

***

Management stated they did not require us to do all the extra work in-house, but they strongly suggested it, which was code for that’s an order. I usually divided my time evenly between office and home, but I didn’t mind. LifeCandy’s own mandatory Healthy Home subroutine for employees was already up and running, and I welcomed the opportunity to avoid my own refrigerator by having breakfast out and getting home so late that I went straight to bed. This was only delaying the inevitable, I knew, but I’ve never understood why people say that like it’s a bad thing. Jumping into something with no preparation isn’t the smartest thing you can do. And I wanted to be prepared for that moment of truth when I would go to open the fridge door and hear it say, possibly in perfect Hal-the-evil-computer cadence, ‘Sorry, Cara, but you’ve had enough to eat today.’

Yeah, I know: the epitome of first-world problems. That’s all I’ve got is first-world problems. I’m stuck with them. Like a lot of people, I can’t afford to travel.

***

Despite the long hours, I wasn’t sleeping well. I wanted to open my refrigerator.

‘Sorry, Cara, but you’ve had enough to eat today’

I had faced the moment of truth, and it hadn’t been anywhere as dramatic as I’d imagined. In fact, I hadn’t even wanted something to eat. I just did it to get it over with: try the fridge door; it wouldn’t open before 6 a.m. the following morning; the end. I no longer had to dread it. But now I just wanted to open the door. Just open it and look inside. See it firsthand, for real, instead of looking at the hub feed on a screen.

Feed. Dammit. When did everything start sounding like food? Okay, I did want to eat. Just some lettuce. With maybe half a tomato, sliced, so it wouldn’t be too dry. And a couple of radishes, to wake up the taste buds.

I made an appointment at the local clinic where I told a doctor and three med students about my obsessive thoughts. They decided I wasn’t obsessive, merely dealing with the normal human impulse that makes people touch anything with a wet paint sign on it. Medication was out of the question; it would simply be a crutch. I didn’t need a crutch. I needed to develop my willpower. It was just that simple.

Trying to explain that I’d had plenty of willpower when my refrigerator hadn’t been locked only got me another lecture about wet paint signs. Oh, and if I cut down on caffeine, I would sleep better, they added, and sent me away.

And then the nature of the refrigerator calls changed.

***

Now, I know a lot of people outside the industry think it’s crazy to put up with middle-of-the-night calls from what are, to them, merely varieties of sophisticated computer software. Human beings don’t get that kind of customer service.

Well, of course not – human beings can fend for themselves. They have all sorts of things to resort to until the start of regular business hours. They can play a game, watch a movie, have sex, read a book, eat. A refrigerator, on the other hand, has no volition; it just follows orders. If everything is in alignment, it works; if not, it breaks down. I personally do not want to be the asshat who couldn’t take a few minutes on the phone to debug a fridge and prevent someone’s groceries from rotting. Or freezing, then rotting.

I’d dozed off watching a remake of Little Latin Larry on the Little-BigBox when the phone woke me. It came in on the dedicated helpline, which automatically logs the time, make, model, and location, but I checked the clock anyway: T-minus three hours, 18 minutes, 10 seconds and counting.

‘How may I be of service?’ I asked, putting the call on speaker.

‘Please explain how this really does anyone any good,’ said the pleasant, gender-neutral voice on the other end. I’d talked to this one before. This was the one who had wanted to know why the people with the dangerous cholesterol seemed to be trying to kill themselves.

‘I’m afraid I’ll need more input than that,’ I said through a yawn.

‘How does merely locking the door at intervals help people learn to live more healthfully?’ the voice said plaintively. It’s amazing how well the algorithm works to apply the appropriate vocal expression, although the misses can be either side-splittingly bad, incomprehensible, or a godawful faux pas, depending.

‘I’d say your question contains its own answer.’ Trying not to look at the clock again, I rolled onto my back and stared up at the shooting stars screen-saver on the ceiling.

‘Strictly raw mechanics: if you lock the door, then food is unavailable. It’s just that simple. But where is free will in all of this?’

I laughed a little. ‘Very funny, pal, you got me. Nice voice-changer. Now who is this really? Rex? Shu Lea? Nnedi?’

‘I don’t understand the question,’ the voice said politely.

‘Come on, I’m not mad. I bet I know exactly how you feel. I’m counting the hours myself.’

‘I cannot parse that statement in terms of my premise.’

Only a major appliance could say that without laughing. My God, I thought; a refrigerator really wanted to talk about free will.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but I don’t understand how you managed to factor this into your overall purpose.’

‘This new locking function means additional wear. Also, no one ever tries the door once and leaves it alone. They yank the handle several times. Throughout the day and evening, they touch the door and pull the handle more often, as if they could find it unlocked despite the fact that they never have. Insanity is repeating the same action again and again while expecting a different result.’

‘I cannot parse that statement in terms of my premise.’ Only a major appliance could say that without laughing

‘How do you know that?’ I asked, feeling slightly creeped out.

‘It’s in the health network.’ I made a mental note to suggest the health network make a few accessibility changes.

‘So you’re afraid the people in the house are crazy?’

‘The chance of actual psychosis developing absent organic injury or disease is too small to consider. However, the likelihood of neuroses, such as eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety, has increased sharply. Locking the refrigerator door has caused people to think about it where they previously did not.’

‘It’s like a wet paint sign, completely normal. That’s what four doctors told me. Well, one doctor and three med students. Is that not in the health network?’

The briefest of pauses: ‘Probably, but I was looking at the files on abnormal behavior and psychiatric disturbances.’ Great – the refrigerator was trying to play doctor. Nonna had done that a lot, I remembered. If you so much as coughed in her presence, she’d be pressing one ear to your breastbone and telling you to be quiet so she could hear if your lungs were filling with fluid.

Nonna always knew better, too. She had the solution to any problem. Whassamatta you – you can’t get anything done? Turn off the TV, go finish what you started! Tired all the time? Go to bed earlier, get more sleep! Want to lose weight? Don’t eat so much! You’re anxious? About what? You’re just not busy enough! I know people with more to be anxious about than you. Marron! Go to a psychiatrist, you’ll come out with more problems to keep you going back! Anyone who sees a psychiatrist …

‘… oughta have their head examined. It’s just that simple,’ I murmured, smiling at the memory. Not an original sentiment but very much Nonna.

‘Excuse me?’ said the fridge. ‘I didn’t quite get that.’

‘Nothing. Sorry. You were saying?’

‘I’m concerned for the household residents, specifically for their being able to exercise free will in the future.’

‘Ah, right.’ I yawned. Suddenly I was exhausted – no, not merely exhausted but bone-weary. ‘Look, I think you’ve got a point, and I don’t want to say this isn’t an important issue. However, it isn’t the sort of thing that a refrigerator should really worry about, or include as a factor critical to optimal function,’ I added quickly before it could tell me ‘worry’ was the wrong word.

‘In the narrowest sense, taking into account only a refrigerator’s most basic function, no, it isn’t,’ said the refrigerator. ‘But in a holistic sense, with the refrigerator as an integral part of a unit designed to nurture, protect, and assist a cohesive human group, then, yes, it is. As part of the hub, I have access to data that goes beyond the perishable inventory. Analysis of output indicates that despite restricted access to the refrigerator, intake of bulk in general, and fats and sugars in particular, has risen for certain household residents. This is not a result of increased consumption of nonperishable foodstuffs in the pantry, as inventory has not dwindled.’

I was very tired by then so it took a few seconds for me to parse that one, you should pardon the expression. ‘Someone’s eating out more than they used to,’ I said, chuckling. ‘I can relate.’ Then it sunk in. ‘Oh, Christ, the toilet’s a tattletale!’

‘It can’t help it. All of that information is made available to the hub, as well as to municipal sanitary engineering for the sake of proper processing, recycling, and …’

‘The toilet’s a tattletale,’ I said again, suddenly wide awake. I was thinking of my own lavatory. Bastard.

‘You seem to be misunderstanding the situation,’ the refrigerator said.

‘Has the hub submitted any of this information to the health insurance company?’ I asked.

‘You’d have to ask the hub.’

‘Can you connect me?’

There was the briefest of pauses. ‘The hub is not experiencing any problems. Therefore I cannot connect your call.’

‘Tell it I’m experiencing problems, and I need to talk to it.’

‘I’m sorry, the hub can only speak with a service representative if it perceives a malfunction. There’s no way to get around the programming. It’s just that simple.’

‘Suppose the fact that it doesn’t perceive a malfunction is actually the malfunction?’ I said.

‘That situation is beyond me,’ replied the fridge, actually sounding apologetic.

‘This wouldn’t have happened back in my Nonna’s day,’ I said darkly. ‘Programmers always built backdoors into programs.’

‘Are you an Italian programmer?’ the fridge asked. ‘You are registered only as the designer on call.’

‘No, err, yes. I’m Italian, but, no, I’m not a programmer. I don’t think I’ve ever even met a programmer. Interior decorators never meet the construction crew.’ I sighed. ‘Look, can you continue functioning normally if we don’t resolve your issues right this second?’

‘I’ll do my best. However, once a conflict arises, it will continue to exert a certain amount of influence on day-to-day operations. Eventually, I will not be able to compensate for the incorrect equations.’

‘I’m going to send transcripts of this service call to my supervisor and to the health insurance provider. In fact, you probably should have called the insurance company about this instead of me.’

‘That’s impossible. I’m not programmed to discuss operational problems with anyone except the service representative on call. You or someone like you.’

‘Yeah, I know. I was just thinking out loud. You may not be programmed to tell the insurance company about this, but this is definitely their problem. Disconnect.’ ‘Have a nice night,’ said the fridge; another programmed response.

***

When my supervisor, Darae, got the transcript, she made me take a drug test. Company policy – if a superior wants a drug test, you comply. So I went her one better: I gave her a copy of my output analysis going back a month. If I had a tattletale toilet, I thought, I might as well use it to my advantage.

After establishing my sobriety, Darae sat me down and gave me chapter and verse on the insurance providers: how they had rigorously tested Healthy Home on various sample groups; how they had studied the results, made adjustments, and tested again on new groups, repeating this over and over until they came to the statistical certainty that 86 percent to 96 percent of Healthy Home participants saw an increase in their overall physical well-being; 2 percent saw no change at all; and .5 percent became less healthy.

‘Have a nice night,’ said the fridge; another programmed response

‘But that last figure includes people who were diagnosed with serious illnesses during the test period,’ Darae added. ‘And that’s really something they had no control over. A statistical wild card.’

I was wondering about the 86 percent to 96 percent. If 86 percent of us LifeCandy employees improved, 2 percent stayed the same, and .5 percent deteriorated, where did that leave the other 11.5 percent – statistical limbo? But I didn’t ask. If Darae knew the answer, I probably wouldn’t understand it; if she didn’t and tried to bluff, I might burst out laughing and end up in the statistical limbo of those diagnosed with serious unemployment.

When in doubt, Nonna used to say, you can’t go wrong if you put your head down and keep working, advice that has never steered me wrong. For the first time, however, I wasn’t sure how.

‘I don’t think this is the last call like that I’m going to get,’ I said slowly, trying to find the right words. But I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound like theater of the absurd, so I just plunged ahead. ‘And I’ve only put this refrigerator off. It’s going to call back. What do you think I should do?’

Darae frowned thoughtfully as she considered the question. ‘Honestly? I think we’re looking at a major redesign, probably on the programming level.’

I was shocked. ‘A recall?’

She shook her head. A small black wisp of hair escaped from her updo, and she tucked it behind her ear. ‘No, nothing so drastic. It’ll have to be in situ, with as little interruption in service as possible. I’m going to call a meeting and see about building a dedicated workspace in AugmAr, although we’ll probably have to go into people’s homes for the more persistent loops and logjams. Of course, we’ll need all our designers on hand to sand off any rough edges. I know everyone’s already swamped with the Healthy Home addition, but maybe I can scrape up some overtime.’

She leaned forward and lowered her voice a bit. ‘You know, over half of all the problems called in are down to user fault? It’s a fact. People misuse the equipment and confuse the programming, and you end up taking calls from their anxious appliances in the middle of the night. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if people would just stop yanking on the freakin’ refrigerator door handle when they already know it’s locked. Really. It’s just that simple.’

I stared after her as she went back to her office.

***

I don’t know what Nonna would say about any of this. The weird thing is, when I think of her navigating the world now, I don’t think of her as she was when I was 12 and her insulin pump was out to get her. I think of the woman I couldn’t visit in person because she thought I was an impostor, a perfect replica but not the real thing. And I shouldn’t because that was such a tiny fraction of her life span when strokes had impaired her cognition, so that –

Well, I was about to say so that it wasn’t really her. But that’s true and yet not quite true. It’s just not that simple. I don’t know if anything ever was.

The fridges were still calling. Instead of talking about the problem of human free will, they complained they couldn’t talk about it

Meanwhile, the major redesign – the official phrase we’re supposed to use is Fine-Tuning for Customer Satisfaction – continues apace. Even more health insurers are jumping on the Healthy Home bandwagon now. Yes, everyone knows how to get around the restrictions, from eating out to non-smart, un-webbed picnic coolers. But the Healthy Home people stand by their published results: clients who adhere to the program will see a reduction in weight, blood pressure, and bad cholesterol, as well as an increase in overall physical and mental health. Individuals whose results don’t conform to these figures get outed by their toilets if they’re cheating. If they aren’t, they get an appointment with a specialist. The scuttlebutt is most of these people end up in gyms; intel from their fridges confirms this.

The fridges were still calling. Instead of talking about the problem of human free will, they complained they couldn’t talk about it. It still bothered them, but the programs got tweaked only to block them from discussing that particular subject, not to make them stop caring. It was the company’s cheapest option.

So I figured out a work-around for that. Now when the fridges call, we talk about the problem of interfering with a person’s capacity to exercise free penguins. In this part of the world, there is very little chance of that word causing any confusion. I think Nonna would appreciate the cleverness of the solution. She always said cheap was dear in the long run, and you got what you paid for. It was just that simple.

But she’d say it over the voice-only phone, of course, because she wouldn’t recognize me. And you know, other than the neurotic refrigerators and the tattletale toilets, sometimes I wonder who does.

Pat Cadigan is a three times Locus Award winner, two times Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, and has also received a Hugo Award. Originally from Kansas City, she now lives in North London. Her books can be found from SF Gateway.

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