Tech by VICE

Finding

"We at this company believe that, for months, maybe years, you have been broadcasting a message. A message from you to yourself."

by John Menick
May 24 2019, 3:00pm

Cathryn Virginia

The less said about John Menick's deceptive and quietly devastating speculative story—which concerns, among other things, the dawning corporate enterprise of employee wellness surveillance—the better. I just hope you are as moved, uncomfortably, perhaps, by it as I was. Enjoy. -the ed


Thank you for coming in. Please have a seat.

I read your email again this morning, right before our meeting. To begin, let me say, unambiguously, that your email is appreciated. Your questions, your concerns, are important to me, as they are important to us. You have our sympathy. You have our support.

Every day, employees come to my office and sit right where you are now. There were two in here yesterday. Three the day before that. They have questions and concerns just like yours. They ask, as you did in your email, Should I have paid closer attention? They ask, Will I lose my job? Have I done something wrong?

I want you to know that you did nothing wrong. We at this company believe that, for months, maybe years, you have been broadcasting a message. A message from you to yourself. Somehow that message, and the signal that carries it, got lost. There is too much happening, too much blur and racket, for us to catch everything. That’s why we’re here. We amplify the signal. We help you hear the message.

This doubt you’re feeling, it’s normal. How did you put it in your email? Did they get it right? There’s no reason to quote from memory. I have it in my inbox. While I’m searching for it—you found our offices okay? Most employees don’t realize this building is here. We’re on Main Street, but it should be called Margin Street. The view of the river is beautiful, though, don’t you think?

Here it is, your email. Am I a false positive? you ask. You have every reason to believe your finding might be false. After all, you feel fine. You just got back from a vacation in Greece. Maybe you’re a little jetlagged, stressed, but that’s contemporary life, isn’t it? And then, one morning, you receive an email from our service. One more kilobyte of digital junk mail to delete. Attached is a PDF with the finding’s details. At the conclusion, it asks you to schedule a session with me. There’s no company information, no phone number, nothing. So, you reply. You write me an email with your concerns—very articulate, by the way—and you schedule a meeting. It’s a joke, you think, a prank from someone on the design team. It has to be.

The email from us is not a prank, I regret to say. When you joined this company, you signed up for the insurance plan. And when you signed up for the insurance plan, you automatically enrolled in our service. Automatic enrollment leads to some surprises for employees, but we believe making the program opt-out benefits everyone. You see, the more employees that enroll, the more accurate our analysis is. In only five years, we have reduced false positives to one or two per year. That is a “nine nines” success rate—ninety-nine percent, followed by a dot, followed by seven nines.

Now, I don’t want to pretend we’re infallible. Errors are rare, but not unheard of. I had someone in here last year who was puzzled by her finding, and when we reran her numbers it turns out we got it wrong. Good for her. She even made a little cash bonus out of our error.

That doesn’t help you very much, of course. You’re here and you’re concerned. Fair enough. Look, I don’t like speaking in the abstract. Abstraction doesn’t convince people of very much. I mentioned your trip to Greece just now. If you’ll authorize me, I want to take a look at your photos from Greece. Give me a second to bring them up.

Here they are. You’re in Athens on the 5th—Kolonaki, right? Then you take a ferry to Naxos for a weekend wedding, on the 8th. Then, on the 11th, you ferry back to Athens for four days. Look at that sunset. You fly home on the 15th—sadly, I bet. Two-hundred-and-eight photos total. All beautiful. I can tell you are a designer. You have quite an eye.

I’d like to look at this photograph from Naxos. Blue sky over blue sea, all softened by the humidity. The beach is rocky, secluded. The scene is quiet and isolated. Lonely. For a destination wedding, I don’t see many people. When I look closer, I see that this is true of all of the photographs. Even when you are photographing Athens, a city of more than half-a-million people, I only see walls, monuments, a stray dog, this empty street. The colors are bright, the days are sunny, but your photos are depopulated. It’s as if a super-weapon vaporized humanity, leaving only you behind.

You see where we are going with this. Sounds a little like your finding, doesn’t it? I find that when looking at an employee’s pictures, you can sometimes just see a finding. In your case, that’s definitely true. Your finding is everywhere in Greece. All over each picture. In your pictures, you can’t help being you.

But let’s slow down. Sometimes pictures are just pictures. We can’t go too far with pictures. Did the algorithm look at your pictures? Does it have eyes? Does it do a headcount at the wedding and admire the seaside?

No, it does not. The fact that your finding aligns with your photos is a coincidence. The algorithm doesn’t understand photos, not in any recognizable human sense. And we don’t have an offshore room of employees making snap judgements about your camera roll. Not at this company.

Here, in this company, we practice evidence-based medicine. Our greatest resource, like any company worth its equity, is our algorithm, and our algorithm is built on data, not on assumptions and biases. If the algorithm made a finding, it was based on our data collection, data in the petabytes, exabytes, of scale. Every day, employees like you are generating data on company servers: lat-longs, vacation photos, baby videos, work emails, text messages. Twice a day, every employee’s data is analyzed. Most of the time, findings are negative. In your case, last week, it was positive. That’s why you received the automatic email. That’s why you’re here.

We believe that data has its own way of narrating the world. We learn from data, not the other way around. In this case, it told us about you. It said, This employee is suffering from persistent depressive disorder. Even if you don’t feel depressed. Even if you feel okay today and all other days. It’s strange to think that an algorithm knows us better than we do, but that is where we are today. We should celebrate that instead of fearing it. Fear doesn’t help anybody.

This is not a judgement of you, you have to understand. We want you to know that this is routine and there is a path to recovery. I can’t discuss the finding with you—I’m only a counsellor—but one of our licensed medical professionals can go over it in more detail with you later. First, I’d like to explain your options to you.

The next step is we send you for an examination. This would require a day at the lab, run some test, blood samples and the like. You’ll fill out some questionnaires, maybe stay in the clinic overnight, if necessary. Then we’ll know better if, as you put it, you’re a false positive. Much more likely we’ll get a clearer idea of your finding. We’ll know how long this has been going on. The tests might tell us, for example, if you will respond better to medication or therapy. It’ll tell us whether we can keep you at work, or if you might be better taking a sabbatical. You’ll be surprised how clarifying these tests can be.

The other option is that you turn down treatment. We can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. If you doubt the finding, if you are feeling fine, then why put up with these tests, right? After all, you know you better than we know you. We’ve only been analyzing your data for a few years. You’ve been you for over three decades. That’s quite a head start.

One thing you should consider, though. If you turn down treatment, your premiums will go up as much as fifteen hundred dollars a month. That might be a problem, or it might not. You make a decent salary as a designer. Think about it this way. How much money would you lose if you go for treatment, and the company furloughs you? Some treatments require two, three months at home without pay. That’s fifteen hundred more in premiums versus no pay for two months. Difficult choices, I understand.

There is a third option, though. I want to run it past you, see what you think. It’s not officially sanctioned, but I’ll make you aware of it anyway. There are services that will help you—what is the right word?— scrub your data. What you do is, you install the software on your phone and on your home computer. The software, it analyzes all your data, making teensy tweaks, flipping bits here and there. You won’t see the difference, but the algorithm will. The algorithm now sees an employee doing well. Even your photos from Greece—the algorithm won’t notice any problem at all. Now all it sees, so to speak, is sunshine and clear skies.

Like I said, this is not officially sanctioned. Even so, a lot of people do it, so I hear. I can put you in touch with someone—my sister-in-law, actually—who can tell you more. It costs a little bit—four or five hundred dollars a month—but it might be worth it, considering. When you weight it against increased premiums or not being able to work for a few months, it might make sense for you.

All of this can be a lot to take in. So many options. If I choose this option, I might lose this much money, but if I choose another option, I might lose even more money. Not to mention the stress of the finding itself. That is why I am here to help you. The insurance company puts counselors like me at your disposal because it understands the complexity. Keep in mind, you don’t have to make a decision right now. Take home this literature and discuss it with your family. And please take my card. My office hours are on the back, or you can send me a message by the inter-office system. Oh, yes, I forgot. Let me add my sister-in-law’s email.

Of course, you’re welcome. On your way out, if there is someone in the waiting room you can tell them to come in? No one out there? Well, I may take my lunch break, then. It’s a nice day outside. I can’t wait for summer.