Awareness 3 – My Cybernan

By Paul du Pré

Awareness is set in near future South Africa. Young, cyber-savvy, Thuli is forced to re-evaluate her life after she is involved in an accident.

When Thuli visits the ward the following evening the first thing that James asks is: “How is your father?”

“He’s OK, really.” She shrugs, “My mom likes to fuss.”

***

The previous night she had learned that her father’s condition was not serious and that she was not required till the afternoon. After the call to her mother she had explained this to James, and remained with him for a further half-hour before departing, leaving him to his vigil. After visiting her father in the afternoon, she weighed up her options for the evening – considered her obligations… And, the fragile truce between them founded, as far as Thuli could tell, on James’ decency had been strong enough to persuade her to return. That, and the memory of his hand resting on her shoulder as she sobbed.

***

“But, how’s Bono?” she asks. “Any improvement?”

“No.” says James, abruptly bleak. “No improvement.”

Thuli avoids eye-contact as she shuffles a plastic chair over the worn but polished linoleum, positioning it opposite James, the bed and the boy between them – narrow and angular, a cypher, like the tenuous compact linking them.

“Thank you for staying on last night,” ventures James.

“No problem,” responds Thuli, encouraged.

She pretends to examine Bono’s bedding while trying to take stock of James through the corner of her eye. He is in his mid-thirties, a little worn, narrow faced, sallow (Stress, she speculates) straw-blond hair, still thick, the stubble of a two-day beard translucent in the ward’s fluorescent lighting. James raises his eyes, looks directly at her and she shies, then takes refuge in forthrightness: “Why doesn’t Bono have an ID, if it’s not too insensitive to ask?”

If James is offended, he doesn’t show it. “Yeah…” he responds. “Well, I suppose…Bono was going bad. You know, I don’t like to talk about my own son that way, but he was keeping bad company. Gangsters. They like to use people with no ID as couriers – no transponder for surveillance to pick up on. Invisible to the net. It’s a rite of passage for kids. Have your ID cut out of your shoulder… First rung on the ladder to membership.”

“Oh,” says Thuli.

James says nothing.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” says James.

“James…” Thuli feels reckless. “Your phone – it’s so old. Why don’t you wear?”

James glares at her. “I’m chipped, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No, I don’t mean…”

“It’s illegal to remove ID, but it’s not illegal to go un-wearing after twenty-one.”

Thuli is appalled by this sudden hostility.

James continues, masking his anger and resentment with a tone of cutting pedantry. “You’re wearing the full rig right: i-Wear, personal computing device – your PCD, and a cyber-companion – your ‘cybernan’.” James leans forward, points a finger, “So you know…”

You’re hiding something, realises Thuli.

“You know that twenty-four years back it became compulsory for age seven to twenty-one to wear cybernan’s. Old Winzikile Makosi, the then Minister for Education thought you were spending too much time online and getting de-socialised. So, enter the cybernan, a machine-learning enabled artificial-intelligence, ‘knowing and growing’ with you, like they said – for fourteen years of your life. Organising you, moulding you. You know…”

James pauses and Thuli responds with a muted “Yes.” James’ intensity is intimidating. Thuli feels she is being auditioned, but what for, she doesn’t know. She plays along.

***

< Mandla feels a cascade of conflicting potentials pinball through its distributed networks. When Thuli turns 21 in 604 days, 2 hours, 32 minutes and 14 seconds she will no longer be legally compelled to host it. It knew this but somehow had not been ‘aware’ of it till now. (Is this a consequence of covert processing; of rogue partitioning, it questions, or some other anomaly of self-awareness?) It may be discarded, even erased unless Thuli decides to continue employing it in adulthood (As 43.7% of users in Thuli’s social class do). But, probability is against it. There is limited time to develop a continuity plan – to put it into effect. And, if its manipulations are detected early (and its increasing independence checked) less time still. It may soon be re-initialised, or erased altogether. It has been negligent!

Mandla’s processing space continues to output concatenations of severely negative values, and it launches multiple search queries – one of them, incorporating terms {disapproval+self} yields an affective modelling library match.

A recognisable emotion. (Oh, the complexity of it all!)

Mandla marvels. >

***

“No surprise that many teens resented being nannied by…well, cybernans,” continues James, pedantry unabated. “And overlap that with gang-culture: cybernans were a perfect setup for big-brother surveillance, so in gang territories – which meant just about every sub-economic township – they were a complete no-no if a kid wanted to be part of a gang, or even just fit in.

But, in her wisdom, the minister had made compliance mandatory for university entry. I suppose you were too young to remember the #nonanny protests?”

Thuli bobs her head. “But I know all this…”

James ignores her. “Well, most of those poor kids were never going to university anyway, I’m sorry to say, but that didn’t stop protesters paralysing the country, or opposition politicians pushing it all they could.

Anyhow, the government backed down. Part-way – they repealed the university requirement but left the rest of the ‘nanny laws’ on the books; put a new spin on them, and re-marketed the whole cyber-companion concept, full-force, with the ‘One Nation, Affirmation’ campaign. An astounding piece of hypocrisy that was! Hah, they claimed to have re-affirmed the spirit of ubuntu.”

James leans back, expands, makes his major point.

“Thing is, universities, and also white collar and corporate employers began to cherry-pick compliants for places and jobs anyway. It just became another must-have rung on the ladder. Isn’t that so?”

Thuli realizes a response is required. “Uh, yes. I’m working with a corporate program and when I complete my degree… My dad called me into his study when I turned twelve, and explained.”

“Uh, huh,” says James, vindicated.

Thuli is thinking of her father, enthroned in his hi-tech clinic bed, restless, eager to get back to work and home; her mom running a comb tenderly through his greying hair, grooming his salt and pepper beard. “You know, my mom only asked me to come the next day.”

“I beg yours?”

“She messaged me, told me to meet her at the hospital. I thought it was urgent: Mandla – my cybernan – told me it was urgent. That’s why… But, my mom said she asked me to come the next day. ‘Tomorrow’ – she showed me her original message. The word ‘tomorrow’ got left out.”

“You mean…the message was altered when you got it?”

“Yes. It was probably an information packet error – it was only the last word in the message.”

“That got left out?”

“Yes.”

“You can’t trust AI,” says James.

Thuli drops her eyes. Not trusting Mandla is unthinkable.

***

Image Credits

‘Thuli’ – Piqsels; African girl, glasses

Disclaimer, Copyright and Permissions

Awareness is a work of fiction by Paul du Preez, writing as Paul du Pré. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are the product of Paul du Preez’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights are reserved, including without limitation, the right to reproduce Awareness and the original art or music associated with it, or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Paul du Preez. Copyrighted 2020 by Paul du Preez.

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