Her phone was in her bag, as per their agreement, but it was pinging and buzzing constantly. They both sighed, and she rolled her eyes and took his hand across the table, smiling, keeping the conversation light. ‘
I’m not going to look, I promise! Saturday brunch is sacred.’
They were sitting outside their regular café, watching weekend London go by. It was eleven am and already hot. With each passer-by they received a waft of sweat or coconut sun lotion.
Grace had been playing with her phone for an hour before they had left the apartment, and she was dying to check it again, but tried not to let it show on her face. She was about to start a conversation about something else, when Joel nodded to the vibrating bag and said,
‘Is that Virtue again? It never stops, does it?’
Grace nodded. ‘Aren’t you even tempted to get the app?’
‘No. I’m really not.’
‘I… I don’t know. I just have this feeling that’s what it’s all about.’
‘Ah, so you do think it’s a tech company…’
‘Yeah, I think it’s probably some huge viral marketing campaign. But don’t you even want to play along? Just for fun?’
‘No! I don’t want any part of it. It’s so manipulative. It makes me really angry to see how stupid everyone is.’
There was such bitterness in his voice. He had been so on edge lately, and it couldn’t possibly be just about her. Could it? Anyway she knew he was right about the app, she just couldn’t stop. She was caught in the middle of some collective psychosis and fully aware of it. The Virtue app had, within the space of a week, taken over her life to the extent that she couldn’t remember what she did before. Since the #youwillbejudged hashtag appeared, every day she had woken up to a new hyper-reality. The old world was gradually being replaced by a new one. Or perhaps, the real world was being replaced by a fake one. What was the difference? At first it was exciting. Every morning the first thing she did was check her phone to see what had changed during the night. Something always had. And she was a part of it – people were reading her columns and opinion pieces, listening to her analysis on the radio – she heard herself using these new words and mantras by which to live, these new words and mantras they had internalised so quickly – and felt herself a part of history. Joel had probably felt like that all along – treating the skin cancer victims, the acid rain poisoning… but now she too had never felt so intimately connected to world events. In her own small way. Every day there was a new paradigm shift, until nothing was surprising anymore, and the old stuplimity returned, the weariness of constant change. The banality of the end of the world was back.
And then the Virtue app arrived, and it seemed that someone might have found the answer. It wasn’t the only app that sprung up for people to measure their worth, their kindness, their goodness – but owned by the biggest tech company it dominated within days.
The Virtue app was a sort of ethical tracker, which allowed you to ‘measure your worth’ by means of a Halo score. You allowed the app access to your social media, your photos, email, texts, voice calls, even internet searches – the choice was yours, but the more information you gave the app, the more accurately it could predict how good a human being you were. You could opt to make your score public, to rate yourself against the scores of others, receive suggestions on how to improve yourself. It monitored your carbon footprint, your quantified your character traits, it reminded you to call your friends and relatives. Was there a perfect score? And what did you win if you got the highest score? They were questions the app could not answer.
‘What about cultural relativism?’ asked Joel.
‘It accounts for that,’ retorted Grace.
‘What about when you’re just virtue signalling?’
‘The algorithm works that in,’ she parroted, fully aware that she was defending the indefensible. And Grace wrote about it. How eloquently she wrote about it; about the difference between quantifying and embodying, about the quantification of sin in medieval religion – after all, Catholic forgiveness was based on how many hail Marys you needed to say to absolve yourself. About Gregory of Rimini, the notion of caritas, the theory of prison terms. We have always been good at quantifying vice, now we are quantifying virtue, and surely that’s a good thing, right? She found herself debating these things on live television, with philosophers, businessmen, celebrities – and holding her own. Keeping her tone ironic yet no less addicted to the app than anyone else.
They finished their breakfast and paid, the waiter a vision of smiles and appreciation, which they mirrored. Across the road, a cyclist in full lycra veered too close and too fast to the pavement, knocking over a little girl. It was a shocking lapse of judgment and concentration, and both Joel and Grace instinctively rose from their chairs to see if help was needed. But fortunately the girl appeared unhurt. The cyclist stopped, passers-by stopped, the girl and her mother were comforted and the incident ended with laughter and hugs all round. Grace and Joel smiled at each other then stared at their empty coffee cups.
‘Do you sometimes feel like you’re in a movie?’ he said suddenly.
‘I don’t know… I mean, I’ve always sort of pretended I’m in a movie. But it does feel like… it feels like the world is speeding up, doesn’t it? I mean, it has felt like that for a while. Maybe every generation feels like that. But since the hashtag…’
‘Yes, it really does. There’s a word for it. a phrase. Moore’s Law, that’s it. Accelerating change. Things have a tendency to speed up. Things have a tendency to move towards exponential growth.’
‘Wow, that’s exactly how it feels.’ They were having a conversation, like they used to. And he was being nice.. wasn’t he? There was still something there. ‘But exponential growth towards what?’
‘Well, the singularity, ultimately. I think it’s a law that only applies to technology – circuits, if I remember correctly.
You see, those engineering modules didn’t go to waste!’
The sun had moved and was beginning to burn their elbows. You never actually saw the sun any more – the sky was too white. But although the sunlight wasn’t as strong beneath the Veil, there was far less ozone to protect them, and Joel knew better than anyone that they musn’t linger without shade. They got up to leave, Grace resolving to keep her phone in her bag until she got home.