The Thinking Machine

THE ROOM OPENED UP in a vast, repeating formation, not unlike a warehouse with conveyor belts, ferrying gizmos down an assembly line for each worker to add their own part to the whole. Only here, there were no gizmos, and where the men’s stations would have been, there were dim displays. They oscillated in a monochrome glow, bathing their operators in flickers. An irritating hum of clicks, swooshes, and electron guns filled the narrow gaps between desks, but this appeared not to bother the workers.

     “Please, Mr. Jones, over here!”

     Larry snapped out of his hypnosis and turned to follow the site manager. Several maze-like turns later, he was led to a plywood desk near the back of the building. It held a square device adorned with two indicator diodes, matched with a similarly feeble switchboard. The manager clasped his hands and grinned at Larry.

     “Now, Mr. Jones, your job, as is provided by the NWPA, is quite simple,” he gestured at the table, “when the red light is on, you need to flip the left switch. When the green light is on, flip the right switch. Now, listen carefully. When both lights are on, flip the right switch. When neither light is on, flip the left switch. Understood?”

     Larry nodded.

     “Excellent!” exclaimed the manager, “if you ever need a refresher, please consult the instruction manual.” He handed Larry a yellow sheet with ink scribbles. “You’ll get a five minute coffee and cigarette break every time that clock strikes six, over in that corner. That is all! I’ll leave you to it.”

     He turned to leave. Meanwhile, the chair squeaked as Larry pulled it away from the desk. He placed down his cardboard box and settled nervously into his seat. The chair was rough, not much better in build quality than the desk itself.

     “Mr. Milton?”

     “Yes?” the manager prompted, with a smile that masked a hint of irritation.

     “What is m’ah purpose?”

     “You press buttons! When the red light is on, you flip the left switch. When the green light is on—”

     “No, ‘ah mean, like, what does m’ah job serve?”

     Mr. Milton shuffled about, averting his gaze from Larry. “I’m afraid I cannot tell you that,” he replied. “Oh, and one more thing…” Mr. “manager” Milton pushed in close, his face growing pale and tense. “Your job is very, very important. If I catch you spending even a minute more on break, you’ll be out of here faster than you can flip a switch.” The slamming of his palm on the desk echoed throughout the hall, although few workers were perturbed by the disturbance. “Understood?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Very well!” his gleeful face returned, “I shall return to check up on you sometime later this day. In the meantime, if there are no other questions, you shall get on with your work. Good luck!”

     With that, Mr. Milton took his leave. Larry, now alone, began to work on his job. He watched the lights intently. When the red light turned on, he flipped the left switch. When the green light turned on, he flipped the right switch. When both lights turned on, he flipped the right switch, and when both lights turned off, he flipped the left switch. It went on like that for a while.

     When the clock struck six, he rose and manoeuvred himself through the maze to the coffee and cigarette corner. A group of men were huddled near the ashtray, discussing in hushed whispers with the occasional laugh and holler. By the espresso machine, a vacuum tube radio put out a steady swing jingle from ancient times—at least three decades ago. Larry procured himself a full mug and joined in with the discussion group, where a feeble man with a polo shirt and spectacles was explaining something to the other workers.

     “...and that’s what anarcho-syndicalism is. I heard it from my social sciences professor back in university, although that was ages ago. So, y’know, if it was such a good idea, wouldn’t they have implemented it by now?”

     The men murmured in agreement. Larry took a sip of his coffee. It tasted like cardboard.

     “Say, what’s ‘ah purpose anyways?” one of the men asked. The other men nodded in consensus.

     “Ah, well that’s what we’d all love to know, don’t we?” The man adjusted his glasses. Then, he hushed his tone, “although, I do have a theory. Back in my university, there was this mathematics professor. Around my day, ‘twas a rumour that he had figured out how to make some sort of fancy formula that could think!”

     The other men stopped shifting. Larry glanced at the clock. He still had a few minutes.

     “He published a paper and all that, blah blah. Some sort of thing involving biases and weights and optimizations and all that, y’know. Thing is, the engineering department got in on it, and they tried to make a sort of machine using that formula. A kind of machine that could think: a thinking machine!”

     “How did they do?”

     “Well, they didn’t! At least, we never heard about it after a while. It just kinda faded away.” The educated man snuffed out his cigarette. “But! I have a suspicion that what we’re doing here has something to do with that. Y’know, we’re all parts of a big thinking machine and all that.”

     “But why not just use a real machine?” A man called out from the back. “Why not just use a computer?”

     The university man laughed. “Ha, hell am I supposed to know? I majored in finance, not computers!” He quieted down again. “Although my guess would be that the computers were too big, too clunky—too slow! And, most certainly, the government needs to give us jobs!”

     The men broke into a fit of nervous chuckles. Some of them peered nervously at the clock.

     “Say, you there!” The man pointed at Larry. “You must be new here, ah? A man from the country? Lost your job to the economy? Farm boy?”

     Larry’s eyebrows furrowed deep. “Nah, I ‘ahn’t no farm boy!” He marched towards the man.

     “Well, you sure as hell look like one! What, with those small overalls and all? Here on the NWPA, ah?” the man snickered.

     “Woah, Dennis, calm it down!” somebody called from the corner.

     “You’re probably slowing down the whole system, aren’t you? Trying to figure out what to do with all those switches, ha!”

     Larry barreled towards Dennis, his fist raised high. The men held him back. “Listen here you—”

     “Guys, stop! Quiet! Listen!”

     The music on the radio had fizzled out. Through the static, a voice began to emerge.

     “—we regretfully announce that Delaware senator Roy W. Lawrence has died in a car crash near the border on I-95. According to eyewitnesses, the senator was in an ‘autonomous vehicle’ when the car failed to slow down, crashing headfirst into the truck in front. Expert personnel have expressed concern over—”

     A loud slam broke through the emergency broadcast, and the sounds of marching reverberated through the warehouse.

     “Mr. Jones!”

     Mr. Milton barged into the corner, his face scrunched and furious. He grabbed Larry and pulled him out of the group, his arms quivering with rage.

     “You. Are. Fired! Go get your stuff!”

     “What did ‘ah do?”

     “Too long on break!” He pointed at his watch, then at the ticking clock. “And, more regrettably, you have caused a terrible accident.”

     The other men glanced at the radio and back at each other. A few looked at Dennis, who was evidently shocked and surprised. His composure lost all of his prior careless mockery; his hands were still, his eyes were frozen wide.

     “Go get your stuff, Larry,” Milton groaned, rubbing his slick forehead.

     Larry Jones opened his mouth to speak. He promptly closed it and turned to head off to his requisitioned desk. The men began to murmur.

     “And you all,” Mr. Milton commanded, “back to work!”

     “We refuse.”

     Dennis Kurt perched himself erect, surrounded by several other workers.

     Mr. Milton raised his brow, strolling over to Dennis. Through barred teeth, he murmured, “And why is that?”

     “We demand better pay!”

     “Ha! Better pay!” Milton howled, “Get back to your desks or else you’re all out of a job! All of you, I tell you!” He pointed at all the men. Shuffling, Larry returned with his cardboard box. “Get going, will you,” Milton sighed. Larry nodded mournfully and started shuffling steadily away. Milton turned back to the workers.

     “We demand better working conditions!” One of the men chimed in.

     “We demand better coffee!” Another proclaimed.

     Milton’s face grew red like a hot kettle. “You are getting none of it!” He hollered. “In fact! You are all fired! That’s right, you’re all fired! All of you! You’re all fired!”

     A commotion rose up among the workers. Then, a sharp voice cut through the chaos.

     “Very well then.” Dennis said. “See who will run this place, ah? See who will run the thinking machine?” He smirked, lighting another cigarette and relaxing into the counter. Milton averted his eyes to the clock. “We’re important, aren’t we, Mr. Milton? Us humble workers?” Dennis blew a puff of smoke, pleased with himself and—looking out towards the exit—with an apologetic glare in his eye.

     Outside, Larry Jones walked along the pavement that delineated the vast warehouse from a field of tangled shrubs. A milkweed flower poked through the bush. Larry watched as a butterfly fluttered towards it and settled on its soft petals. He observed it longingly. He could still hear the commotion from within the building, where the disjointed rebellion had united into a common chant.

     As he turned the corner to the road, he noticed something odd. There was no noise—no commotion from the freeways, no screeching of worn rubber tires—only the sweet sound of the afternoon wind. Down on the overpass, two police cars sat uncomfortably in the centre lane. It was as though they had simply stopped. Larry soon noticed that this was common across all the roads. All the streets and freeways, parkways and ramps.

     The city, so it seemed, had ground to a halt.

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