It is the morning of Friday, February 21st, Floor 766. Jackson’s alarm goes off at precisely 7:09:32 AM and the coffee has been brewing for the past 2.4 minutes. Exactly fourteen fluid ounces are being prepared, as they normally are. The gentle humming of the alarm clock starts to fade in and crescendo until he reaches over to the touchscreen on the wall next to his bed and silences it. It only took thirteen seconds between the initial hum and the silence; that’s in his best quartile of times and probably a good indicator that today is going to be a productive day.

He gets up, motions for the room sensors to open the curtains and to display the “Morning Sunshine on a Snowy Day” panorama on the virtual window, walks over to the wardrobe, and begins to put on the clothes recommended to him by the Fashion Algorithm. After this, he makes his way to the kitchen where the coffee is now done brewing and is simmering at exactly 182 degrees Fahrenheit. No milk, cream, or sugar, of course. He grabs the mug from the dispenser under the brewing machine, waves goodbye to the motion sensors, and leaves for work.

His morning commute, and sometimes his afternoon one as well, goes through the Marketplace. Or rather, I should say, the Mapping Algorithm that guides his commute nudges him in this direction. Nothing forces him to take its prescribed route but it is only rare that he does not. Sensors, sensors, sensors. The internet of things brought about a blossoming of quality of life improvements. Based on your biometric data, consumption data, stress data, sleep data, productivity data, etc. suggestions for everything from what groceries you should buy, to what television you should watch, and what leisure activities to pursue are generated for you and sent to your many smart-devices. Simply follow the directions and you will have everything you need to have a healthy, happy, and productive life. Life is as comfortable as you could imagine it to be in The Tower. Of course, nothing forces you to take these suggestions but it is highly inconvenient to deviate from them. Almost all exploration has been automated and streamlined. Long gone are the days of meandering alone and confused in the forest wondering which way to go. People are more open to new things than they have ever been in the past (this is measured by the data we collect, of course). Given complete freedom of choice, it turned out that people ran to their comfort zones and familiarity. But now we can give people expanded palettes and variety.

Jackson was low on granola bars and the Algorithm directed him towards the granola dispenser on the west end of the Marketplace. He was taken aback to find that the recommendation was not his normal flavor, but one he was convinced he would not like. He’s never been a fan of coconut-flavored food, but there he was, in front of the glowing, fluorescent machine, with its minimalist user interface, being recommended to try the “cocoa-nut” flavor. Nothing was stopping him from dispensing the normal quantity of his staple flavor but yet he acquiesced. Why not keep an open mind to a new experience? He couldn’t think of a recent time when the Algorithm was wrong, at least not painfully so.

The Algorithms were by no means perfect but it was understood that small mistakes needed to be made for them to learn. It was understood that the human mind, with its near-infinite quantity of preferences, thoughts, and memories, was immensely difficult to comprehend. It was understood that this was going to take time and countless iterations to get the system working correctly. But it has long since passed a critical point. Before the construction of The Tower, people had to be convinced to use the Algorithms, which were initially very often wrong. What “exploration” they prompted in the user was often the result of pure chance. However, they have significantly improved and now it is the case that you have to convince someone not to use its insights. When they were wrong, they were not drastically so and they learned quickly. If this “cocoa-nut” flavored granola bar turned out not to please him then it was likely only going to be a moderately subpar experience. The chances of extreme displeasure were infinitesimally small.

He grabbed the new flavor of granola and observed the flitter of doubt that bubbled its way up into his consciousness. Believe it or not, reservations about the Algorithms were not suppressed. You always had the choice not to use them.

Your line of work in The Tower was suggested to you by a series of aptitude and intelligence tests given in middle school. All children are still required to attend and complete education through high school, which was increasingly made feasible and possible due to the algorithmic advancements in education. A heavier emphasis on self-paced learning allowed those who might fall behind in a traditional classroom setting to progress in their studies. Attending another school, after high school, however, was no longer optional. You did not need to attend a university; trade schools were an option for many. In a world increasingly mechanized and automated, there was much less of a need for children and young adults to immediately enter the workforce. In the absence of another school book-ended to their high school education, many adolescents would succumb to idleness, laziness, and complacency. And what was that saying about the Devil and idle hands?

Jackson scored in the 90th percentile on his intelligence exams and his aptitude test suggested that a career both structured and highly creative would be the most fulfilling and worthwhile. As a result, it was suggested that he should go into Algorithmic Design. He was accepted into the second-best university in The Tower and had a very successful, yet brief, college career. He managed to complete the five-year program in four years, with a nearly perfect grade-point average. Like nearly all of the Tower’s inhabitants, he did not have a hard life. Even in your day, it was understood that money was only able to buy happiness up until a certain point. The point at which one can live comfortably, without having to worry about food and shelter and warmth. Almost the entire population of The Tower was brought past this point but deep down we were still monkeys. We still went haywire over money. Plenty of people were still motivated to obtain it, even if it brought no noticeable improvement to their lives. Motivated by money and power, Jackson studied hard for his interviews and was able to land a job in Algorithmic Design at The Tower’s largest communication services corporation. In just a short few years after graduating, he had been able to work his way up to Lead Designer on the company’s Linguistic Unification Project. The project aims to consolidate all extant languages into one, with the goal of removing any source of confusion between people.

Gone are the days of designing “first-order” Algorithms, the ones that would directly interact with raw data. We have, through years of careful iteration, transcended such brutish practice and are now firmly planted in the realm of second-order Algorithms: Algorithms that adjust Algorithms. Because of this, Algorithmic Design depended less on domain-specific knowledge and more on a general and metaphysical understanding and curiosity about learning itself. The designers were teaching the Algorithms how to learn on their own, which is incredibly difficult. It has been challenging enough for us to figure out how our own brains work, to understand how it is that we can create associations and learn new skills. To then understand this well enough to be able to encode it into a machine required the best and brightest minds. The ones who were able to peek behind the veil of our reality to gleam a vague impression of its inner workings. The gleaming required a high degree of creativity. On the other hand, capturing and codifying that understanding required structure, order, and discipline. It was not a job for many but because the outputs scaled, it only required a small few to make these programs available and functional to all.

After his morning trip to the Marketplace, Jackson made his way to the nearest elevator, as indicated by the Mapping Algorithm, and pressed the touch-button for the floor of his office. As the elevator made its steady ascent up the handful of floors between where he was and where he was going, he took a moment to appreciate the scenery that was projected onto the glass walls. Today’s vista was that of a New England woods, with trees bare of leaves, and the ground blanketed with a pure and untouched white snow. The elevator rose upward through the air amidst the branches of the trees. The gentle rise of the elevator became a gentle deceleration and then a gentle halt. The doors opened and Jackson stepped out of the snow-covered woods and onto the office floor.

The floor was segmented into different offices, all sized proportionately to the number of employees working therein. The Tower always considered these numbers when making its calculations for planning the next floor. An ideal “density” of employees in an office space had been determined through trial and error (though the constant varied slightly by profession). It served both the employees’ happiness and productivity. There was no need to trade-off between the two. He made his way down the hallway and entered the Linguistic Unification Project’s office space.

In his glass office, he sat down at the custom ergonomic chair that was 3D-printed specifically for him, turned on his computer, and checked his email. Buried in the multitude of lower-priority communications was an email marked as important from the Director of Linguistics. Jackson felt a sinking feeling in his chest; he knew what this email might be. He had foreseen it for months. There had been doubts about the viability of the Project based on legitimate reasons, which could not be argued away. He knew that the Project might be on the chopping block as a result. This was good, of course. No work was done in The Tower just for the sake of doing work. We found that it was better to do nothing than to be lied to about the importance of a TODO. This might sound a little bit destabilizing, but it also meant that almost nothing you ever did was pointless.

He opened the email and his intuition was correct: the Project was going to be put on hold. It was determined that the unique nuances in different languages could not accurately be captured in a single language, at least not with current technology. It would be as if the paint colors an artist could use were restricted and regulated. Maintaining the free range of expression was more important than unifying language. In some sense, Jackson was refreshed. He had some lingering doubts about the downstream implications of unifying language in The Tower. He read the classics. He knew that this might be used, at least inadvertently, to structure the inhabitants’ thoughts and opinions, by restricting the language through which they were able to express those thoughts and opinions. But he was also optimistic about it. He was optimistic that they would be able to have both a single language that is spoken by all that also had the richness of many languages combined. Reading further into the email, he saw that his work was not going to be entirely thrown away. He was going to be shifted to the Translators team, where he was going to help with gathering data on the interchangeability of words across different languages. It seemed like the Director was admitting the current infeasibility of the project but not abandoning it entirely. Employees on the Unification Project would report, later that morning, to a team-building session and then were given the afternoon off.

9:13:52 AM. Just over an hour until the team-building session at 10:30. Feeling a bit lost without the urgency of his TODOs hanging over him, he decided to visit the virtual Arboretum. He put on his virtual-reality headset and dove into the procedurally-generated space. Beautiful, lush trees from all over the planet, all covered with a plethora of hues delicious to the eyes, spanned his entire visual field. Their branches swayed gently in the simulated wind and a faint chirping of birds was heard somewhere off in the distance behind him to the left. As he strolled through this week’s Arboretum, the gravel under his feet crunched crisply. He raised his hand to feel the breeze flow in between his fingers and this sensation was transmitted to his brain through the sensors in the headset. Virtual reality had advanced so much that it converged on reality itself.

Feeling refreshed and renewed, he re-entered his real world. A quick check over his biometric data showed that the trip to the other side reduced his stress and blood pressure levels, which had risen after reading the Director’s email.

10:25:33 AM: time to head over to the Cooperation Room for team-building. He’s been to a few of these before. Typically they start with a venting exercise. Team members are encouraged to express their frustrations in as raw a form as possible, while still maintaining a professional demeanor, of course. It was better to put everyone in this loose mindset because it was shown to reduce the possibility of someone bottling up their feelings, which can be very dangerous. After the venting exercise is a gratitude exercise. Despite the shift in work, there is an infinity of things to be grateful for. No matter how much better society becomes, how many more of our problems we can solve, we are always able to find a way to be upset when things do not go our way. None of the people in this room ever had to go hungry at night or worry about their health or worry about paying the heating bill in the dead of the winter. Gratitude practice brings this into our awareness and reminds us of what we have.

After the gratitude, it was time to revisit the raw feedback expressed in the venting session. Now that everyone had got their frustrations off their proverbial chests and was in a state of newfound contentment, it was a lot easier to rationally and coolly take an objective picture of the situation to determine what should be done next. This, I think, is our greatest luxury: the ability to bring ourselves into this level-headed state at nearly any point in time. By removing any threat to our survival, such as hunger, for example, we no longer have to make irrational decisions based on the activation of our survival instincts.

The team-building session now being over, Jackson was confronted with the problem of what to do with his afternoon off. Too much free time is a societal problem that might be inconceivable to some. If you are constantly under pressure to make ends meet and hit deadlines, the thought of free time seems blissful. But continually increase the amount of leisure time in someone’s life and the returns diminish, eventually becoming negative. A liquid is only useful if it is contained, if it is bounded by something. The same is true for us human beings. Without TODOs that we must do, we are taken wherever the forces of nature lead us, rather than living the lives we want to live.

Reaching his apartment later that afternoon, the door sensed his presence and unlocked. He stepped inside to a room lit up in a whitish-blue hue, the kind of color reflected off snow and in through the windows on a sunny winter day. It desired to give him a sense of calm while also simulating, as close as possible, natural sunlight. We can thank the Lighting Algorithm for this. All of the data that were recorded by the myriad devices were able to generate a relatively accurate portrait of a user’s current emotional state. It was then up to the Designers to map these emotional states onto colors, but in such a way as to bring the user back to equilibrium. For example, an angry user might be feeling most similar to the color red, but the Algorithms wouldn’t want to display a red room, since that might cause the user to continue to foster and feed his or her anger. Instead, the Algorithms sometimes presented “opposite” colors, as in the situation now. Of course, you could opt out of all of this. You could easily change your data preferences to shut off the pipeline to the Emotional, and then the Lighting Algorithm. You could also simply change the color.

Maybe he was a bit annoyed at the postponement of the project, but Jackson decided that he did not want this winter blue. He wanted something warmer. It was cold enough outside already, even though nobody ever actually left The Tower to go “outdoors”. He switched the light to the reddish glow that the sun paints on the horizon as it begins to make its descent each evening.

There was a bit of clutter on his desk: various letters and notes he received for his birthday a few weeks prior, an empty water bottle, and a couple of pencils and pens. This was the normal mess; it had been there for weeks yet today something about this moderate amount of chaos irritated him. He took a look at the desk and the disorder thereon. For a split second, he felt a pang of claustrophobia in his chest. There was no space for him to put anything. Two deep breaths. Four seconds in and four seconds out for each. A detached observation of the emotion. It passed. He decided he would clean his room. Conscience-stricken at his perceived inability to foresee the future downfall of the Project, he felt that his slightly-disorganized room was utter entropy. This simple act would make him feel better, he thought. Our rooms, in some sense, are a reflection of ourselves. We project onto everything we do and say, and this also manifests itself in how we choose to lay out our rooms. Or in how we choose to neglect them.

The letters were stacked and filed away. The TODOs to send Gratitude Expressions to the senders were created. The empty water bottle was rinsed and placed in the dishwasher. The pencils and pens were put away in the drawer. The whole process took no more than five minutes but he felt immensely satisfied. He sat down in his chair, spun it around to face the open air of the rest of his apartment, and wondered what it was he was going to do next.

It wasn’t even time for him to eat lunch and he couldn’t justify eating an early one as he wasn’t even hungry. He was taught from a young age the difference between hunger and boredom-cravings. This mindfulness did not just help him in his dietary life, it also helped him nearly everywhere he was confronted with a decision, which happens to be nearly every waking moment of living itself. Jackson knew that this flitter of hunger was a craving, a desire to just do something.

How else might he pass the time? As soon as he asked himself the question, his mind presented to him a series of possibilities. He completely forgot that he wanted to journal his thoughts on the Project as soon as he got home, but got distracted by the clutter. He turned on his computer and opened the journaling application he regularly used. It used a variety of Algorithms to analyze his writings. It would plot the emotional rhythm of his entries against the rest of his life, adding another piece to the data puzzle being built by all of these programs. It was able to take a bird’s eye view of your life. It would also notice patterns around how you were feeling given other coinciding events. It started with basic analysis but then expanded to interoperate with the productivity and biometric data.

The application was smooth and minimalist. Its designers understood that writing, like creative production in general, typically is split into two phases: that of nearly-unbounded creation and that of review. It did not present to him any sort of spelling/grammar/coherence/etc suggestions while he was in that first creation phase. It stood to the side and silently observed. It got out of the writer’s way until the writer was ready for its feedback. And it coached you into better writing as well. It didn’t just heap on you all of the thoughts and criticisms that it accumulated. Instead, it picked out a small quantity of the most useful observations to serve to you, to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed.

He never quite knew how to start his journal entries. He found that the harder he thought about it, the less it flowed out of him. So he just took the first thing that came to mind and began the process of streaming it via his fingers and keyboard onto the screen. Out of him poured a wide spectrum of emotions, ranging from happiness that his workload will be lightened, to gratitude that the project is being postponed now rather than later, to frustration at having wasted so much time on it, to even cynicism about his career and The Tower in general. He hardly noticed the flow of time as he spent forty minutes emptying his mind, cleaning out the emotional plague that had built up since the last time he went through this exercise. He concluded his thoughts with a few optimistic statements about the future. Probably slightly forced, they still accomplished leaving him with a hopeful and positive feeling, further cementing the association in his mind between journaling and well-being. He saved the document and instructed the program to asynchronously run its analysis. It only took a few moments but now that craving had become real hunger. He would take this break to eat some lunch.

He downed his usual lunch allotment of coffee, fourteen fluid ounces black just like his breakfast serving, and signaled to the lights that he was leaving. The Mapping Algorithm suggested to him that he should purchase lunch in the Culinary Mall three floors up but it did not suggest to him what it had in mind. On the way, it took him to the Flower Garden on his floor, near his apartment.

A grid of neatly-organized and well-kept flowers comprised this garden. Each cell in the grid was a different display and visitors could walk down any row or column. Motion and attention sensor data was fed into the Horticultural Algorithm to determine how to adjust the displays in the future. Some of these cells were homogenous and some heterogeneous. The flowers were apparently sourced from all over the world, though that was probably ages ago. Who knows how long these flowers have been bred here in The Tower? Across the ceiling and the walls were strips of light bulbs, to simulate the sun’s rays. It was important, not just for the flowers, but also for the humans who visited them, that the atmosphere here had to match the atmosphere out there as closely as possible. These lights helped the flowers grow and helped keep us calm. The Mapping Algorithm didn’t plan his exact route through the grid, nor did it allot him a precise amount of time for this visit.

A cell of many colors caught Jackson’s eye. In it were a variety of tulips, all vivid in life and color. Orange, pink, white, red, yellow. The cell overflowed with and emanated a vivacious aura of growth and hope. Looking closely, however, he noticed a single overlooked tulip near the middle of the cell-plot. One could easily miss it, as it was covered by its neighbors. But make no mistake, there was a wilted flower in there. It was even harder to notice because of its greenish hue, making it blend in with the surrounding stems. Humans, not machines, tended to these cells so it was completely understandable that it was not perfect. He looked around for a gardener and seeing none, he plucked the wilted flower, dropped it into a nearby compost bin, and made his way to the Culinary Mall for lunch.

The Culinary Mall can be imagined as a futuristic version of a food court that you would find in a shopping mall. The ceiling of the mall was glass and through it, you could see the sky, or what was supposedly the sky since it was actually simulated. In the center of the floor were tables and booths for inhabitants to enjoy their meals. Some tables were long, cafeteria-style, to encourage socialization. Some tables were shorter, for smaller parties. Booths with sliding doors provided privacy to those, both individuals and groups, who wanted to eat in a more intimate environment. Surrounding the center area where the seating area was, was a variety of stalls and restaurants. At different times of day and on different days of the week, different stalls were occupied by different establishments.

The Mapping Algorithm brought him to a stall he had never seen, or at least never noticed, before. The sides and the top were draped with what looked to be red silk, almost as if the curtains had just been opened on this business. And on stage, the restauranteur was putting on his grand performance. With a wave of his ladle, he pointed right at Jackson and beckoned him over. Did he know that someone was being mapped to his business? Jackson walked over and ordered the daily special. Not something he would have picked on his own but he was glad that it was suggested for him. Feeling satisfied and satiated, he made his way over to his favorite roastery, which was on the other side of the Mall, picked up an espresso, and decided to go for a stroll, mapless.

This afternoon stroll was brief yet enjoyable. It ended with him in front of the door to his apartment. With his hand in front of the sensor, he wondered how it was that he ended up back here so quickly. Didn’t he still have multiple hours left in the afternoon to frolic? It was only about 2:00 PM and he could go for another walk if he wanted to. But something compelled him back to his apartment. Maybe it was the force of habit.

It was pleasant to breathe in, literally, the cleaner air and, figuratively, the cleaner space. However, the pleasantness faded in just a short few moments. He was still here, bored and with too much time on his hands. He was still upset, underneath all of the good food and good coffee, about the Project. For a moment he wondered if he was just a rat trapped in a cage, only periodically let out by his machine overlords. No, he thought, he had a choice in all of this. He didn’t have to end back up in his apartment so early, he just chose to walk back.

He sat down on the sofa and gazed, absent-mindedly, at the plants on the windowsill. It seemed to be the natural sink of one’s attention. He let his mind fall into a shapeless mush, the rational and linear stream of thought transformed itself into a chaos of neuronal activity. Thoughts came and went, feelings came and went, doubt came and went. They said that boredom was useful for creativity but no one wanted to talk about how the former was so unpleasant. We are made to do something, to move towards a TODO. To sit and do nothing almost feels like we are trying to run our hand against the grain of our inner nature. Feeling agitated, he stood up and started to pace back and forth.

He forgot that he was trying to meditate. His mind got so distracted that it became one with the torrent of thoughts and then he reacted to the growing agitation within him. Now he was agitated with his agitation. He’s not normally this distractible or unfocused. But then again, he told himself, it’s not every day that the Project is canceled. Maybe he just had too much coffee to drink. But that couldn’t be it; the sensors told him that what he ordered this afternoon was the perfect amount, based on his sleep data and current tolerance. Maybe it was the lack of stimulation, in the form of work to do, that was causing him to be more sensitive to caffeination. He wasn’t sure. He sat back down. His head was starting to feel like it was spinning. Three deep breaths. Four seconds in, eight seconds out. Calmness increased by 23%. Much better. Consciousness started to slip away from him. He laid down on the sofa to take a nap.

Forgetting to set a timer when napping, he woke up about an hour later lacking any memory, at least initially, of what day it was and what had transpired. He felt the air outside of the blanket covering him to be cold and the air inside of the blanket to be warm. He didn’t want to move or get up; it was just too comfortable. After a few minutes of debating with himself about whether or not he should just shut his eyes again and descend back into dream-world, he forced himself to sit up. That should adjust his energy levels and blood flow. It did. He wasn’t ready to stand up but he wasn’t about to lie back down and sleep again. The curtains covering the window were still open, not that anyone could even look in through them. It still made him feel somewhat uncomfortable and exposed. There was an “out there” beyond all of this “in here” and the essence of that outwardness was gazing at his inwardness, or so he thought. He got up and shut them.

In a few minutes, the tired restlessness settled into a restored focus. It was still relatively early in the afternoon and he needed something to do. All of this unstructured free time was buffeting his stability. He decided to grab his work items and made his way back to the office.

It was dead quiet near his desk. After all, everyone was sent home for the afternoon. He sat down in what was utter silence, booted up his work computer, and stared at the background. Why did he come here? It was now almost 4:00 PM and right around the point in the day when he would start his wind-down activities of reflecting on today and planning for tomorrow. Urged on by the force of habit, he decided he would do just that.

He opened his favorite text editor to begin the process of reflection and realized that his mind felt blank and empty. What was going on with him? First, he forgot that he cleaned his room and now he forgot that he had already journaled. Thoughts whirled through his mind about what might be wrong with him. Was he getting enough sleep? No, it couldn’t be that. The sensors would have told him that something was wrong. He couldn’t fight the hypochondriac anxiety bubbling inside of him and became restless yet again. He couldn’t just sit and stare at the screen because then he would be alone with those dark thoughts. He got up and walked around. Eventually, he humbled himself to his mistake of returning to the office so late in the afternoon without anything to do and went back home.

That night, he was lying on his sofa, browsing the nearly-endless library of streaming content, figuring out what he wanted to consume for the evening. In The Tower, we have been able to automate much of the process of content creation. Jackson preferred to watch documentaries. There were ones about everything you could imagine wanting to learn about and all of the information therein was auto-vetted and presented to you in a relatively objective way. Opinion and tilt were made clear and presented as such. The past problem of binging had been solved. Previous feeds would move you from one video or piece of content to the next without so much as you having a moment to reflect on what you just consumed. In a state of mental confusion as you tried to digest what you just “ate”, these feeds took advantage of your vulnerability and immediately served you the next dish. You were consuming and consuming and consuming but never enjoying.

But he could not get himself into the mindset of enjoying a documentary; he was just too restless. There was too much on his mind. Still too much undigested experience that he felt anxious and scattered. There was only one thing he could do at this moment, and that was to return to journaling. He had more to say that he didn’t say earlier.

It has been demonstrated that you become like those whom you spend time with. You “absorb” some of their traits and quirks subconsciously because you are a social being. The same has also been shown to be true of the entertainment we consume. We become like the music we listen to and we become like the video games we play, for example. But most importantly, because this is where we spend so much of our lives, we become like the work that we choose to pursue. In a world increasingly technologically driven and with more workers dealing with machines and programs and Algorithms, rather than people, we have become more like machines. We have become more like the automatons we spend so long attempting to control to the ends of our desires. It is not inherently a bad thing for this to occur, but with any change comes doubt. With any transformation comes the potential for regret. Have we, inhabitants of The Tower, lost what it means to be human? But to even answer that question, we must know what “human” means. It’s a question that has remained unanswered for millennia and remains unanswered to this day. Maybe it will always be just outside our grasp?

We deal so much with machines that we have become obsessed with rules and patterns and optimizations. We have spent so much time in this mode of thinking that we have internalized it and applied the process to ourselves. But we are not machines. Or rather, if we are machines, we are on an order of complexity too high to be comprehended by ourselves. We

Jackson stopped journaling for a moment. He lost his train of thought and wasn’t sure where he was going with this thought-stream about “humanity” and “machines”. He just didn’t know what to do. So focused on work and on making forward progress in the world that once he was ripped away from the process, even for just as small an amount of time as an afternoon, he started to feel like he was falling to pieces. Too much of his life revolved around productivity. Was there more to life than this? To the hamster wheel of yearning and grasping at the future again and again and again? It seemed so odd to him that when he was engrossed in the activity of work, he felt happy. But the absence of work immediately made him question work itself. He wanted an answer. He wanted something, someone, or some Algorithm, to tell him what to do.

He was, ironically, not alone in his lonely restlessness. Coinciding with the rise of the Algorithms, an epidemic of sorts swept through The Tower. People became more interested in their screens than in those around them. Televisions replaced social clubs and volunteering. Social media replaced real human interactions. Video games replaced sports. Screens screens screens screens. These beautifully dangerous grids of pixels shone constantly in our faces, blinding us to all else life has to offer. It was hard to argue wholly against the change taking place. Lifespans increased. More and more people were lifted out of poverty. World hunger was conquered. Even the process of climate change was eventually tempered. By almost all measurable metrics, life improved.

It is almost impossible to define the quality of a life. Quantity of life is easily measured, but is quantity really what matters? Is it worth living a slow and painful death just so we can say we lasted longer on this Earth than our predecessors? Or is there an essence of something in our life, something indefinable and ever yet elusive, something beyond the understanding and comprehension of machine-like thought, that we have missed along the way? Does it even exist if it cannot be defined? If it does exist, can it be rediscovered?

He tossed and turned and tossed and turned in bed that evening. Unresolved conflict will inevitably surface itself in our consciousness at night when we cannot willingly distort reality to resist it. Dreams of the Project, mixed with distant thoughts flooded his mind. At one point he was running home from work. Something was chasing him but around every corner he turned, it was there in front of him. All of a sudden he was in a Cooperation Room and everything was quiet. Nothing was chasing him anymore and the desire to flee was gone. It was calm and the room was empty of people, but on the table was his old cat, Spring, who passed away a few years ago. It heard him enter the room, got up, arched its back to stretch, walked over to the edge of the table nearest Jackson, and let out a squeaky meow. It wanted attention, so Jackson petted him and then sat down in the nearest chair. The cat climbed onto his lap, curled up, began purring, and went to sleep.

He woke up that morning at 7:01:12 AM, a few minutes earlier than normal and surely the result of his troubled and restless mind. He didn’t even want to look at the sleep statistics that would inevitably tell him that this was on the poorer side of quality. The coffee was brewing in the kitchen but part of him did not want it. The habitual him wanted to grab for it as usual and doze out, staring into the projected landscape while it does its trick. The habitual him was also surely experiencing some amount of withdrawal symptoms since it had not been satisfied since the previous afternoon. He took the mug from under the dispenser and examined the coffee and its rich brown color. He took in its smell, roasted to perfection with a hint of vanilla and hazelnut. He took one sip and then dumped the rest down the drain. He did not care if he was going to experience headaches or an inability to focus, at least not right now. He needed something against which to rebel, even if it was something so petty as his morning coffee routine.

The habits that the Algorithms help construct for him made him feel trapped. Where was any freedom if your whole day was prescribed to you from start to finish? Freedom is an endorsement for you to choose your own path, to optimize your own Algorithm, to maximize your own utility function, he thought. We didn’t impose a singular way of being on anyone, only made suggestions in alignment with who they were. What need was there for freedom, exploration, and spontaneity if anything you picked to do on your own was likely going to be a worse experience than what the Algorithms suggested? He wanted to lash out against something more. He was fully aware that dumping a single morning’s coffee down the drain wasn’t going to solve his problems.

The Calendar Algorithm suggested he take the day to relax. It understood that his sleep quality was poor and that the work he so cherished had recently been ripped away from him. It was probably the right call. Besides, what was he going to even do at the office anyway? It wasn’t like there was a rush for him to be moved onto another project. If there was some other project so desperate for resources, it would already have had them allocated. Or it could at least wait another day for its people to be properly calibrated and ready to tackle its challenges. No, Jackson thought, I’m doing what I want today. He rebelliously ignored the Algorithm and made his way to work, earlier than normal, and had no plan of what he would do when he would arrive. He skipped his suggested trip to the Marketplace that morning as well.

He made it to the office but, being earlier than when he normally arrives, it was empty. He sat down at his desk and booted up his computer out of pure habit, all the while a nagging thought in his head was telling him not to do it. Habit compelled him forward but something in his mind was trying to rein it in. He stared at the screen for a few minutes, the icons arrayed in the same order as they always were. The background as it always was. Opening his browser, he stared at the list of bookmarks that were always there, unchanged from the day before. But today they spoke to him differently. These bookmarks represented shortcuts, he thought. Shortcuts to desired ends. But why is everything always in such a rush? Why must we always be looking for the shortest path? He felt like nothing as he sat in front of his computer without a sliver of an idea of what to do or why he even came into the office in the first place.

It was now almost 10 AM and it was still empty in the office. He got up and walked around, wondering what was going on and tired of being lost in his thoughts and staring blankly at the computer screen. It was only when he went by the cafeteria that it occurred to him that today was Saturday. No wonder the Mapping Algorithm didn’t direct him here. If he was not so stubborn and wound-up he probably would have noticed that. Lack of sleep has such a way of bringing out the worst in us.

After realizing what day it was, he began to panic. His TODOs! He had so many things he wanted to take care of today. Paperwork to do, emails to respond to, errands to run. He would normally be over halfway done with his list at this point. There was no way he could enjoy the rest of his day if he couldn’t get all of those items done. They would bleed over into tomorrow, and then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…

He rushed back to his apartment, listening to the Mapping Algorithm, since it knew the fastest way and also because he could use the “least crowded” option. Like a whirlwind, he was through the door and slammed it shut behind him. Signaled to the lights to turn them on. Signaled to the computer so it would turn on too. Did not like the suggested color again (is that now two days in a row?) and changed it to something with more emotion. Signaled to the coffee machine to brew another fourteen ounces. Sat down at his desk and opened his TODO list. He was behind. Much, much, much too behind for this time of day. Two deep breaths. He could catch up. Maybe not completely today but enough so that he could “borrow” some time from tomorrow. Another deep breath. He started to order the list by priority, figuring that he would do the most important items first. Deep breath. Coffee is done. Grabbed the coffee. Sat back down. Continued prioritizing. Another deep breath. List is prioritized. Good job, good job, good job. Deep breath, this time four seconds in. Pause for four seconds. Eight seconds out.

Two hours and seven TODOs later, it was now getting past his normal lunchtime. There were still four more things to do but he had to go eat if he wanted to continue to be productive deep into the afternoon. Forgoing food, like forgoing sleep and exercise among many other health necessities, is an attractive yet detrimental short-term productivity “hack”. Why waste time eating when you could produce more? At least that was the specious line of reasoning. He compromised with himself. He’ll make himself a quick and healthy lunch here: peanut butter and jelly sandwich, on whole wheat bread of course. Listening to a podcast in the process (he was behind on his episodes), he rapidly lathered a smooth layer of peanut butter onto one slice of bread, and jelly onto the other. Without so much as a moment to appreciate the meal he so quickly made, he wolfed it down and was back to work.

It was now about 3 PM and the list was done. Nothing was left for the next day and only now did he allow himself to feel good and relax. He always withheld self-kindness until he was done producing. Otherwise, he had no desire to do much of anything. And what is life if you are not producing? There was still plenty of time left in the afternoon to check out the new bookstore that opened recently on the newest floor, especially since it closed at 8 PM on Saturdays, but he just felt too tired. It always felt like he never had enough time to go, due to how many TODOs he had to complete. They multiplied like gray hairs. Complete one and four more appear. He worked almost a full day of work and just wanted to do nothing. To the couch for another documentary.

The alarm went off. 3:45 PM. He didn’t set it so he must have accidentally drifted off to sleep. He had his apartment programmed to not let him nap more than twenty minutes at a time this late in the afternoon, so he must have only made it about halfway through the documentary before succumbing to that sweet kiss of temporary death. Groggy, he got up and mindlessly walked over to the coffee dispenser. He thought about brewing another fourteen ounces but decided that probably wasn’t a good idea at this point in the day.

Then it hit him: exercise! He hadn’t done any of that today, unless you include the Olympic-worthy power-walking he did to and from his office, motivated by his TODOs. A quick workout on the stationary bike should do the trick. It should wake him up, make him feel energized, and, at this point in the afternoon, would also help him sleep later in the evening.

He intended to do a simple thirty minutes on the bike, to get the heart rate up and the blood flowing but thirty became forty, then fifty, then almost sixty as he compulsively kept pedaling. He couldn’t stop; he needed something to work towards to feel good about himself. Thirty minutes was a workout for the “normal” people, not for him. He had to do more. At exactly sixty minutes, he pressed the stop button and threw in the towel.

Stepping off the bike, adrenaline pumping, he felt powerful and capable. A slice of bread made its way into the toaster and, after it was done toasting to a perfect and crunchy brown, on it went a generous layer of peanut butter with the most picturesque drizzle of honey.

Not long after his shower, there it was again: that feeling of emptiness. That dread at having nothing to do. That feeling of never enough. That anxiety of feeling like he should be doing more with his life. He briefly considered doing another workout but rightly dismissed that as absurd. He decided he would try to pull in some of tomorrow’s TODOs to get ahead on his list.

The elegant user interface beamed out from the screen and onto his face. He couldn’t see it but it was reflected beautifully in his eyes as he gazed at its focused design. There was only one TODO left on tomorrow’s list. He knew that he should start work on it, but something in his mind just wouldn’t let him begin. The gears were stuck, they had ground to a halt. His mind had slowed and slowed. The screen was no longer a screen but became just another visual phenomenon he was perceiving. The text blurred and doubled as his eyes crossed, the words moving in a sinusoidal zigzag and he oscillated in and out of focus. He was exhausted but he refused to admit it to himself. Just this one TODO, he told himself. But he couldn’t do it; it was just too difficult. It must be those screens making him feel awful, he told himself, they must be ruining his discipline. Onto the couch for another documentary.

What he watched thereafter makes no difference. While he did watch the whole picture, in the sense that he remained awake and with his gaze affixed to the screen, his mind was somewhere else. Berating, berating, berating him it was. He tore himself apart in his mind, wondering where he went wrong that day. Why wasn’t he able to get more done, he thought to himself as he overlooked the massive amount of work he accomplished during the day. He couldn’t understand that he was achieving the wrong goals, completing the wrong TODOs, climbing the incorrect proverbial ladders, in search and in search of something greater, ever yearning for more, more, more efficiency but never quite finding it. It was always just out of reach, just one more optimization and incremental improvement away.

The documentaries, that was it! It wasn’t the screens! If he was sitting here on his couch feeling empty while watching these documentaries and if he was feeling bad about not having been productive enough today, then it must be the case that the documentaries are what is making him feel empty. He had to give them up. It was what was sucking his soul and making him feel so tired. It was why he never had time to do the things he wanted to do.

He shot up off the sofa and began to devise a plan on his whiteboard for eradicating himself of this draining habit. He would use the app’s measurements of how long he spent watching documentaries and gradually wean himself off of it in the coming two weeks. He would start right here, right now, as there was no reason to sleep on it or to consider other possibilities for his emptiness. No way at all, this was the reason and this was the approach. To wait until the morning would be to succumb to procrastination. And he did not want to succumb to procrastination. He took pride in his productivity. Next week he would drop his documentary consumption time to half of his current level, the following week it would be zero. It was simple, beautiful, elegant, symmetric, perfect.

Documentaries now being proclaimed this month’s target for his unhappiness, Jackson saw this detox from documentaries as a form of fasting, a quasi-religious exercise in cleansing himself. There would come a day when happiness’s leaves would show themselves in the morning light, dewdrops dripping onto the green grass below. He couldn’t feel it yet, because the pain of not having something to fill his mind was causing crippling boredom to take hold of him, but he consoled himself with the idea that this day would come. He went to sleep that night with a semblance of hope for the future and what it might bring.

He woke up the following morning, at 7:03:34 AM, the Sleep Algorithm deciding that this would be the lightest time of his sleep and the best time to wake him up. It was a quiet Sunday morning and, as usual, Jackson immediately reviewed all of his biometric data collected the prior night. Resting heart rate? Good. Weight? Good. Body-fat percentage? Good. Stress levels? Good. Blood pressure? Good. Sleep quality? Good. REM-hours? Good. What a beautiful morning it is when all of your numbers are like ducks in a row. It was hard for him to be happy if they weren’t. Before grabbing his coffee, he decided he would soak in the virtually-projected meadow that was just behind his window while relishing his biometrics.

It was only a few moments before he couldn’t resist checking his phone, just for a quick look at the past day’s news. Then it was the social media accounts and replying to messages, sometimes from the same people on different platforms at once. He had to maintain his daily streaks in all of these apps, of course. He checked his email and then reviewed his TODOs for the day. But there was just the one. That one item he could not bring himself to do yesterday. Feeling guilty, demoralized, and defeated, he rescheduled it for tomorrow. Now there was nothing on the list. Something that most people would view with an air of freedom was something that made him shudder. What was he to do today without the structure of TODOs organized and orchestrated beautifully in service of larger goals?

It should have been a day of rest for him. A day for him to step back and smell the roses, maybe literally at the flower garden. Or a day to enjoy some entertainment. Or maybe to see a friend. Not that last one. Socializing for socializing’s sake? He didn’t have time for that.