Three secretaries try to sabotage a project that they think threatens their livelihood.
1. a member of a band of workmen who organized riots (1811-16) for the destruction of machinery as a protest against unemployment.
2. any opponent of technological change.
Until a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t even know what a Luddite was. I thought it was something like ladette. It was Bobbie who explained it to me. Or was it Caro?
We’ve been friends for over a year now, ever since we all met at the grand reception when CCC “went public”. We didn’t call ourselves “the Luddite Girls” in those days. Back then I think we were the “Breakfast Club” or something like that ¬— after that movie about those school kids in detention. We were given that name by one of the guys in the software department because we started meeting up regularly at the café opposite CCC for breakfast before we came in for work. Actually, I think he wanted to join us. Bobbie used to call him the “eunuch in the harem” — whatever that means. But we always crowded round a small table, making it hard for anyone else to sit there, including the eunuch.
Of course pretty soon we found ourselves meeting up at lunchtime too not to mention the pub on Friday. We also went clubbing at least me and Caro did. You practically had to drag Bobbie along.
Anyway we ended up sharing a house together.
I guess you’re probably wondering what CCC is. Well it stands for Computers, Communications and Cybernetics. It sounds a lot more grandiose than it is. I mean it’s not really some huge multinational like IBM or Microsoft. It’s more like one of those what is it they call them start-ups. Well strictly speaking it’s not a start-up either. It’s been going for about three and a half years and just over a year ago it “floated” on the NASDAQ stock exchange.
NASDAQ. That’s in America. I think they raised something like forty five million dollars for only 30 percent of the company. Then the shares went up about sixty percent in three days. Now they’ve practically quadrupled in price.
“That means they undersold the company,” was Bobbie’s way of putting it. When Bobbie spoke, there was never a question mark in her tone. She always put things flatly. If she ever had any doubts about anything, she kept it well and truly to herself.
“How d’you mean ‘undersold’?” I asked.
“They could’ve raised more money without giving away such a big share of the company. I bet the original shareholders are crying their eyes out!”
I’m not quite sure how she figures that one. They still have 70 percent of the company. And now their shares are worth about 420 million dollars. I wouldn’t be crying if that was me!
And now I’m starting to talk like a bloody financial expert! That must be Bobbie’s influence. She’s the chairman’s PA. She was recruited just after they launched CCC on the stock exchange, when his last PA left on what turned out to be permanent maternity leave. She got in because she went to university with the chairman’s daughter.
Not that she isn’t smart.
She’s bloody brilliant. A bit bossy, but brilliant. Caro calls it a “Hermione Complex”. It probably has something to do with her background. Her father’s a Nigerian businessman, in the oil business, I think. And her mother was Dutch. Actually I think she first met the chairman’s daughter at Roedean… or was it Cheltenham Ladies College?
She should be running her father’s business instead of that spoilt younger brother of hers. But that’s another story.
Caro’s smart too. That’s Caroline North. She’s also a PA… to the Financial Controller no less! Maybe it was Caro I picked up the financial jargon from. I don’t know. She’s also pretty smart. I’m the “dumb” one.
I mean that’s how everyone thinks of me.
Well let’s see now, I’m blonde, and it’s not from a bottle. I still ’aven’t lost me Essex accent. Plus… big BIG PLUS… I’ve had a boob job. Not exactly a Big Job. I mean not like the Millennium Dome or anything. Well it was C to D if you must know – all right B to D!
Anyway, I can’t be that dumb ’cause I negotiated a good price for it — twenty percent off their usual four K! – in return for letting them use my picture on their posters and brochures. But I guess with the nerds around here, it all comes down to the maths: enhanced tits plus natural blonde equals moron plus easy shag.
I can’t really complain. I mean, hell, I even dress the part. Miniskirts and bare legs, even in winter, cleavage showing… and what my Irish-American uncle Joe calls the “Second Amendment look”. (Something about “the right to bare arms.”)
Then again it suits me. It works for what I want out of life. Or at least what I wanted. And what I wanted was an easy time, to be able to get in to work half an hour late without getting a warning from my supervisor, to take long lunch breaks. What I didn’t want was to get anywhere in life.
No that’s wrong: I didn’t expect to get anywhere. I wasn’t ambitious in those days.
Those days… it was only two bloody weeks ago!
I never really thought about the future. I was too busy enjoying the present. Maybe that’s why I became a Luddite Girl.
Anyway, the fact is the way other people thought of me never really bothered me at least not until I realized that even some of my friends thought of me that way. That’s what really pissed me off. They say it takes a crisis to find out who your friends are. And when we did our Luddite Girls thing, it really was a crisis.
I worked in the software department, so in a way I had my finger on the pulse of the new technology. Bobbie and Caro might have heard about the new products. They might have been in on the fund allocation and decision-making process. But all they heard were names, and usually meaningless codenames at that. I was the one who actually saw the projects slowly coming to life before they’d even ironed out the bugs — I mean the wrinkles. I saw the technology when it was still in its infancy… a bit like the people who designed it!
I was the one who knew what the backroom boys were up to.
Anyway it was at one of our breakfast meetings, now in our own living room, that we became “the Luddite Girls.”
Of course it didn’t actually start with Bobbie and Caro. It started with Graham.
“The Virtual Secretary will revolutionize the way offices work,” Graham’s voice drones on smoothly.
We’re in the hi-tech conference room at the top floor of the CCC building – the one with the white plush-pile carpet and matching glossy fibreglass walls, like something out of the set from a science fiction movie. The thing I really love about this room is that it has this marvellous all-around panoramic view of London through the floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s a huge, circular room, occupying the entire top-floor of the building. Inside the room, a number of young, well-dressed Japanese businessmen are sitting round the long, oval conference table – also made of hi-tech white fibreglass. At the moment the room is flooded with natural light from the outside. But that’s about to change.
Graham is doing the presentation. He’s twenty-five years old, has short brown curly hair and blue eyes. He’s only a couple of inches taller than me (I’m five six and a half) but he looks a lot taller because he’s so thin. He has a rather cheeky, boyish smile on his face, a sort of “confessions of a window cleaner” smirk. It kind of advertises the fact that he’s rather immature. But still, he can be quite fun.
Oh yes, and he’s my boyfriend.
“In the past we’ve had automatic telephone answering machines. We’ve had voice synthesis. We’ve had smart editing and grammar-checking. Then we had speech recognition.”
Of course I was suitably dressed for the occasion: my tightest-fitting black T-shirt and the matching micro-mini. I have bigger thighs than I’d like, but no cellulite, so I can just about about get away with it. Bobbie was kind enough to tell me I looked like the office slut, which was very re-assuring. Actually I’m showing no more flesh than a magician’s assistant, which is basically what I’m supposed to be. I’m the eye-candy, here to help sell the project to these Japanese businessmen. They can look at the tart, but they can’t taste it. And if they
leave with their mouths watering, so much the better. It means they’ll come back for more.
These aren’t actually the people we really have to convince. These are just the first line — people who can say no but can’t say yes. But more of that later. Anyway, as Graham carries on talking, they’re sitting there taking notes. Actually, they’re little more than secretaries themselves. Their job is to report back to their superiors.
“But the Virtual Secretary is a new generation in intelligent computing. The Virtual Secretary can answer your phone in a human voice. It understands you when you talk to it. It can transcribe and edit your letters. It can make appointments for you or book a car for you.”
He switches on a box on then table. A green LED lights up and it starts whirring into action. It’s the computer that he’s going to be using in the presentation. But it doesn’t have a monitor — at least not one that’s attached to it.
“You don’t have to adapt to the Virtual Secretary — the Virtual Secretary adapts to you!”
He picks up a small, light headset.
“With this headset you get a virtual reality view of your office.”
He hands it to me. And I in turn hand it to one of these nice, young, Japanese businessman by the name of Mr. Tanaka. I know this because they’re all wearing badges with their names on and Mr. Tanaka is wearing one that says “Mr Tanaka”. Unlike Graham, Mr. Tanaka really is tall. I can tell this even though he’s sitting down. That should give you some idea of how tall he is.
He takes the headset with a smile, brushing his hand gently against mine in the process. This is part of the plan — our plan not his. There was no reason really why Graham couldn’t have handed it to him directly, but this way they get a little bit of physical contact with yours truly and it puts them in what the marketing people call the “Happy Mood”.
In layman’s terms — in other words mine — this means he’s more likely to take away good memories of this event and to report to his superiors that everything went well and that it was a good product.
It’s like Feng Shui but a little more obvious.
Graham put it more crudely when we discussed it at our strategy meeting this morning. He said it’s a case of tempting the customer by letting him sample the merchandise. Except that, like I told him, I’m not supposed to be the merchandise. It’s a computer system we’re trying to sell. He said something about a “lost loader” or “loss leader” or something like that, but when I asked him what that is, when it’s at home, he looked at his watch and said he didn’t have time to explain.
Like he thinks I’m too thick to understand!
Anyway, Tanaka’s fingering the headset nervously, and turning it this way and that, like he’s trying to figure out how to put it on. Finally I put him out of his misery and help him. That was probably his plan anyway. More physical contact to turn on these horny young execs.
The part of the headset that looks like a pair of thick, rigid goggles covers his eyes. Actually it’s two miniature screens. He sees a three-dimensional picture on them. But it doesn’t have any headphones or earpiece. The sound comes through the bones in his head. A couple of plain strips of some sort of plastic or something on the side of the headset vibrate against his temples, causing the sound to enter the body through the nervous system. Apparently that’s actually the oldest piece of technology in the product.
Graham presses a button on a remote control. There is a whirring sound as a motor automatically closes the thick plastic curtains, cutting out most of the natural light entering the room through the windows. A second button switches off the lights, plunging the room into near darkness. Then he presses a third button…
Suddenly a gasp goes through the room as the huge plasma screen on the wall comes to life, flooding the room with its own light. Now we can all see what Mr. Tanaka is seeing. Not in 3D of course. Only Tanaka can see it in 3D. That’s because he has separate views for each of his eyes. Even I know that.
And what is he seeing? A luxurious office furnished in rosewood, also with a panoramic view of London, but this time at night. The office he could see was also in partial darkness, lit only by a desk lamp and the lights of the city outside.
“Some people do their best work at night,” Graham chips in, perkily.
There’s a ripple of nervous laughter. Like they’re all waiting for the cue from some one else. It settles down into a nervous communal smile. Tanaka is smiling too.
“Now all you have to do,” says Graham, “is summon your PA by saying her name. The default name is Miss Bright.”
Which just happens to be my surname.
“Miss Bright,” echoes Tanaka.
On our big screen in the conference room, we see the door to the luxurious office opening slowly and in walks…
Well it’s not actually me. It’s a “virtual” version of me. Very realistic, but dressed differently… and even more revealingly. A white halter-neck top and tight-fitting matching white shorts that look like I’ve been poured into them in liquid form and then allowed to set… oh yes, and the most ridiculous knee-high white leather boots you could ever imagine! I’m surprised he hasn’t got me carrying a whip!
Actually I have to confess this isn’t entirely a creation of those horny creeps in software. I did actually — bite my tongue off — co-operate in creating this travesty of myself. I had to squeeze into this ridiculous form-hugging lycra bodysuit that had a grid of vertical and horizontal lines on it. Then they videotaped me from all sides with a pair of digital camcorders strapped together and operating in tandem.
I must have looked like a three dimensional graph or something!
Anyway, as Graham explained it, the grid and the pictures gave them the exact contours of my body which they could then use for “digital mapping” — whatever that means. For my face and head I had to wear eye-protectors and they used lasers to create a holographic image. Graham said they could have used the same method to capture my body image as well, but for that I’d’ve had to go naked.
Anyway, there I am, the “Virtual Sheila” slinking into the luxurious office, while these Japanese businessmen are having a good laugh. Graham gives me a quick smirking glance. I meet his eyes for an instant, trying to hide my embarrassment with bravado.
My virtual alter ego is standing in front of the desk, looking sexy and provocative.
“What can I do for you, master?”
Oh that really takes it! He’s been watching too many re-runs of I Dream of Jeannie. I’m going to have to do something drastic to his satellite dish!
“Can you book me a table for two at the Sheep in Formaldehyde” says Tanaka with a smile on the part of his face that we can see.
The Sheep in Formaldehyde is the latest hot spot for the rich and the famous. It’s a restaurant owned by some modern artist. An awful lot’s been said about him by people who know a lot more about art than I do, so I won’t waste your time putting in my two bits. But suffice it to say, he had to find something to do with his spare cash that he made from selling his stuffed pets and he knew better than buy other people’s “conceptual” art, so he opened a restaurant instead. Unlike those places owned by Gordon Bennett and Marco Pierre what’s-is-name, the Sheep in Formaldehyde doesn’t have a celebrity chef, just a celebrity owner who doesn’t know how to cook himself. I mean who doesn’t, himself, know how to cook… unless they actually serve mutton in formaldehyde!
“What time?” asks my virtual counterpart.
“Nine o’clock,” says Tanaka.
“Smoking or non-smoking?”
“In what name?”
I guess she’s not so smart after all!
They’re all watching the large screen, with considerable amusement, as the “virtual” Sheila picks up the phone, and keys in the number.
“Hallo,” she says in a right posh accent. “I’d like to book a table for two, this evening, at nine o'clock.”
The voice is all wrong. I don’t talk look like! I look at Graham. He has the biggest most adolescent smirk on his face that you could ever imagine.
Oh, I get it.
They didn’t think my cockney accent was good enough, so they got some toffee-nosed cow with a posh accent to do the voice!
“We have one at eight thirty and one at nine thirty. Which would you prefer?”
“Eight thirty,” says my virtual double into the phone in her fake posh accent.
“Actually,” says the woman on the other end of the phone, “I’ve just noticed that the one at eight thirty is in the smoking section.”
My virtual self looks up at Tanaka from the phone.
“The eight thirty’s in the smoking section.”
“Okay,” Tanaka concedes. “Make it nine thirty.”
“Okay,” says the woman at the other end of the line. “I have to tell you if the party doesn’t show up or if there’s a cancellation less than two hours before, we charge a cancellation fee of £40 for each member of the party.”
“There’s an £80 cancellation fee if you don’t show up.”
“No problem,” says Tanaka, trying to sound like Mr. Cool. He’s probably on an open-ended expense account.
“I can confirm that.”
After getting Tanaka’s credit card number and saying it into the phone, the virtual Sheila — I can’t relate to her as me with that voice — puts the phone down and slinks out of the room. I must say though, I am impressed. This is the first time I’ve seen the Virtual Secretary in operation. Oh yes, I’ve heard all about it, watched it being developed and even typed up some of the documentation.
But this is the first time I’ve actually seen it in action and I have to admit, it’s bloody good. The virtual reality interface is better than the videogames you get in most arcades and the way it seems to interact with the user is quite… what’s that word… naturalistic.
But Graham’s talking again.
“It’s important to understand that the Virtual Secretary was actually calling out and speaking to a real receptionist at the Sheep in Formaldehyde not another Virtual Secretary. That means you’ve lost £80, Mr Tanaka.”
“No way man! I’m going!”
“That’s if you can find a date for tonight!” shouts one of his colleagues.
“You can always take the Virtual Sheila!” shouts another.
The others burst out laughing. But it’s Tanaka they’re laughing at, not me. It’s nice to see some one else getting laughed at for a change. Except that then I notice that one of them isn’t laughing. A long-haired Japanese man is sitting there in stony silence. And then I notice that the long-haired man is actually a short-haired woman — the only woman in the group. She looks rather plain… and deadly serious.
More importantly, she’s looking at Graham.
“How is she able to respond like that to a real person?” she asks sceptically. “I mean how does she know what questions are going to be asked?”
“She doesn’t,” Graham explains. “She’s programmed with artificial intelligence so she can handle real questions from real people as she interacts with them.”
The young Japanese woman looks singularly unimpressed.
“And how does her ability to respond to unexpected situations compare to a real secretary?”
Graham gets that cheeky look on his face again. That’s the cue for another of his wisecracks.
“Well, compared to Sheila here, quite favourably.”
They laugh nervously as I pretend not to care. While the laughter’s still going, I shoot Graham a dirty look.
But things are moving kind of quickly. Tanaka is now dictating a letter to my virtual self in Japanese as “I” sit on the corner of his desk with my skirt hiked up to the top of my thighs. And more significantly, I’m actually transcribing it in Japanese characters!
When they’ve finished, Graham speaks again.
“Of course some people prefer to work in a more familiar setting.”
He points his remote control at the box on the table and presses another button. Suddenly the view through the office window changes to an office with a view of Mount Fuji. I’m still sitting there on the desk. It’s only the view outside the window that’s changed.
I notice that our Japanese visitors are now smiling, except the woman who seems incapable of managing any facial expression other than that of a seasoned poker player.
Suddenly the volcanic mountain comes to life in a fiery eruption. This produces a collective gasp from our guests as they look at the big screen in awe. But it’s all too much for poor Mr. Tanaka. He whips off the headset in a state of panic bordering on abject terror and wipes his forehead nervously with a handkerchief, trying to avoid showing signs of fear.
Well that’s hardly going to leave them in a “happy mood”.
He says something in Japanese. Now I don’t speak a word of Japanese myself, but I know men, and I think he’s trying to pretend that it was just a bit uncomfortable and sweaty. It’s not just Japanese men who worry about losing face: it’s all men.
Some of the other Japanese laugh at his embarrassment. But the woman continues to look straight at Graham, meeting his eyes with that cold, hard stare.
“Is there anything that the Virtual Secretary cannot do?”
Again, she looks at him implacably, as if demanding an answer. Only by now the adolescent smirk has re-appeared on Graham’s face. He looks at the Virtual Sheila on the large screen and then at me. I try to look away and avoid his eyes. God knows what he’s going to say…