Stephen Oram, Virtual Future’s near-future fiction writer in residence, shares his vision of a neurostimulated future.
It was Monday morning. Louise had been at work for two hours and the neurostim headset was starting to itch. She scratched her scalp, careful not to dislodge the headset and accidentally stimulate the wrong bits of her brain.
Barry, the cute one, called across. ‘Hey, throw me a patience token. I got a right ‘ole moaner on the line. Already been on five minutes and still hasn’t said what he wants.’
She rummaged around in her drawer, making sure she kept talking to her caller – you never knew when the bosses were listening in and the last thing she could afford was to have her pay docked. She found a pink token with a large P printed on it.
‘Could you hold for one minute, please,’ she said to her caller. ‘Here you go.’ She threw Barry the token. ‘You owe me.’
‘I gave you a speed stim yesterday,’ he called back. He pushed the token into his console and waited for the headset to stimulate.
He took the phone off mute. ‘I hear what you’re saying, sir,’ he said into his mouthpiece.
The call centre was in full swing and the voices of the one hundred and fifty operatives hung over the room like a flock of chattering birds. Some of the workers stood and spoke loudly while others hunched over their desks and whispered into their headsets. Whichever approach they took it all added to the chaotic mix of boredom and anxiety.
Her caller was busy looking for the purchase details she needed to process his claim. She looked at her tokens. Her standard prescription ones were well organised, but the extras were a mess. Her basic tokens, a prescription of neurostims that kept you calm under pressure and helped with knowledge retention, were the same as everyone else’s, although their dosages differed. The company also insisted on a stim that gave you an unpleasant tingle at the back of your throat if you didn’t pay enough attention to the caller’s question. It was the optional tokens that she struggled to keep tidy and in their packets.
Partly because everyone was always swapping with each other, but also because she’d take one out to help her deal with a difficult customer and then the situation would change and she’d decide she didn’t need it.
‘Yes, sir,’ she said as the caller came back on the line. ‘I’m sure you did, sir. It’s just that we don’t have a record of it. I realise this is frustrating, sir. You did? Oh, I see. Give me a minute to check with my supervisor.’
She put the caller on hold and leant back in her chair. He reckoned that he’d been promised a free upgrade, but that was impossible because it would be least another three weeks before there were any available to her company. She checked the caller’s record. As she’d guessed, he’d been deliberately routed through to her because some idiot had made a stupid promise.
She jiggled her tokens from side to side until she found the green and white one. This delivered a stim that liberated creativity by reducing anxiety and she’d shown a particularly positive reaction to it in her annual aptitude assessment. Her weekly prescription now included twenty for her to use whenever she wanted.
She pushed it into her console and waited. It only took a few seconds before she felt the effects. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. The answer popped into her head.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting. I think I have a solution for you. I see you use a lot of data each month. Is that why you want to upgrade? To get the more efficient model? Yes? Good. Then I think you’ll be interested in our new data efficiency app. It’s normally ten pounds a month, but we can reduce it to five for the first two months, as a special offer. How does that sound?’
The caller accepted gratefully and as soon as she disconnected he gave her a ten out of ten satisfaction score.
Pleased with herself, she wandered over to the drinks machine with her portable tablet and wireless headset. She took her next caller through the security questions while she purchased a can of water.
When she arrived back at the desk the supervisor was waiting. ‘Monthly test,’ he said. ‘As soon as you’ve completed your call. Please.’
Damn, she’d forgotten today was the day. She’d remembered at the Sunday night pub quiz and had abstained from the using her black market headset. That was a relief at least. It’d been hard to resist; those stims were great, they released knowledge you didn’t even know you had.
She sighed. Taking the test was irritating because it was time away from earning money, but if they got your prescription right the boost to your performance and pay was incredible.
They’d test for changes in brain activity, using the previous month’s baselines of intelligence and aptitude for the job, and personalise her most effective daily combination of stimulations. And that would be her prescription for the month. They’d also test for any signs of non-prescribed stimulation and if they found any at all she’d be dismissed.
She pushed a calm token into the console, the third of the day.
As soon as she’d dealt with the caller’s request for his account details, she logged off. Barry winked as she walked past him.
‘You never know, I might get some new ones this time,’ she said as she ruffled his hair.
In the HR department, the doctor’s receptionist took her name, clicked the headgear into place and began the test.
While she waited, she flicked through the company leaflet to see what new stims were being advertised. She didn’t really understand what they did, but that didn’t matter because the doctor always knew what was best for her.
The receptionist called her name.
‘You can go in now.’
She walked into the doctor’s room and sat down.
‘Ms Barklet. We seem to have a problem.’
‘Yes. Really. There’s evidence of activity in your brain that I didn’t prescribe. Care to explain?’
‘What sort of activity?’ she said, stalling for time.
‘That’s what I’m asking you. No lies, Ms Barklet.’
She’d taken a nifty little stim on Saturday night that had boosted her flirting ability. Her dealer had assured her it was untraceable. What if he was wrong? She felt the calmness from the stim wear off almost immediately. She searched her brain for any remnants of the creative green and white.
‘Oh,’ she whispered, fearing the worst. Her body sagged and a small amount of bile leaked into her mouth. She gulped it back down and coughed.
The doctor tapped his fingers on the desk. ‘Ms Barklet. Since we last met have you had any non-prescribed stimulations?’
‘Not as such.’
‘Well… at the weekend there was this party and everyone was having fun so I did have a little bit of something to help me relax. But, nothing that would affect my work and nothing that’s on offer here. It was a moment of weakness I know, but nothing serious.’
He frowned. ‘Use of non-prescribed stimulation is illegal. You know that, surely?’
‘Punished by instant dismissal. You know that too, I presume?’
‘The company simply cannot employ people who indulge in neuro-stimulations we haven’t prescribed. You are addicts and we won’t be associated with you.’
Her breathing was rapid and shallow; the fear of what might be about to happen was running amok in every part of her body.
‘Does this mean?’ she whispered.
‘Yes. I have no choice. You are now a registered addict. You’re no longer permitted performance enhancing stimulation in any job. And you’re dismissed from this one with immediate effect.’
She tensed her muscles to stand, but hesitated. ‘Please don’t. This means I’ll never get another job. I’ll lose my home and my friends.’
‘Those are the rules Ms Barklet. Rules you were only too aware of when you decided to boost your chances of a Saturday night fling. Was it worth it?’
‘No, of course it wasn’t. You can’t do this. It’s a death sentence.’
‘One you brought on yourself. Now please leave my office, you junkies make me sick.’