Discover more from Blessed by the Algorithm
The Route, Part 1
“You’re drunk,” Bruno said to his friend.
Keith swerved to avoid the curb and then looked at his phone mounted on the dash. They were a little blue dot moving along a quiet residential street. “I’m not. It’s just these directions, they make no sense.”
Bruno should have taken Keith’s keys at the bar. But he was so tired. And he drove all the time. It was nice to have someone else driving him home. Half his dreams were of him driving now, lights floating in the window. Purple or pink or blue ovals reflected in his windshield to match the color in the passenger’s app. A rainbow of rides and faces blurring together.
Bruno had learned the key to good tips was reading the passenger. Some wanted small talk. Some wanted silence. Some liked a captive listener. Even when he was exhausted and underpaid, he tried to treat his passengers well. “You’re drunk and we’re lost,” Bruno said.
“We can’t be lost.” Keith smiled. He was a jovial drunk. The car drifted over the center line and back.
Bruno tensed. Keith kept smiling.
“The almighty algorithm is guiding us,” Keith said.
“It has trouble with this neighborhood sometimes,” Bruno said. “Construction changed the roads a few months ago and the map hasn’t caught up.” Last week he had dropped off two people here. Petite woman with a young daughter. Coming home from the airport after visiting her grandparents. He remembered this street. Perdita Way. “Slow down. The road swerves in a block.”
“Stop backseat driving.” Keith glared at Bruno and pointed to the phone. “The road is straight on the map.”
“God, I’m so sick of your holier-than-thou attitude lately.”
Bruno was less concerned about his friend’s words and more concerned about how Keith was yelling at him, not looking forward. And not slowing down.
“Gig worker rights blah-blah-blah. I’m a professional driver. No one cares."
Bruno tried to ignore how much Keith’s mockery stung. What could he say to make Keith pay attention? He could see the curve now. A house. A lawn approaching too fast.
“Fuck!” Keith turned back toward the windshield as the car jumped the curb. Circles of light bounced between a log fence, a front door, green blades of grass. They crashed through the fence. A piece of the fence rolled up the car hood and hit the windshield. Brittle metal crunched somewhere under the car. A bell rung—ding, ding, ding—and Bruno wondered if he was imagining the sound.
Keith slammed the brakes, and Bruno felt the seat belt catch him. “Fuck! My car!”
I told you so. But Bruno didn’t say it. He got out of the car to survey the damage. The fender was dented and scratched. The windshield had a crack shaped like a lightning bolt. Still drivable, probably. A fence post had broken off. And beneath the car, something else.
Bruno pulled on a glint of metal until he could see the mangled object. The handlebar of a kid’s bike with a bell on it. The ding Bruno had heard. He hadn’t seen anyone on the lawn. Right?
He put his phone in flashlight mode and peered under the car. Just a ruined bike. He pulled the mangled frame out from underneath the car.
Keith’s face turned pale. “I could have . . .”
“Give me the keys,” Bruno said.
Keith nodded. “Do you have a piece of paper?”
“A receipt, anything. I want to leave a note. So I can replace the bike. And fix the fence.”
Two minutes ago Keith had been yelling at him for being an uppity worker. Now he was showing some compassion.
“I’m not an asshole,” Keith said. “I’m sorry about that gig worker comment. It’s just . . . work has been stressful. They have us working all hours for the new release. The moderators have been complaining nonstop. I just wanted to blow off some steam tonight. Hang out with friends.”
“I think I saw a napkin in the car,” Bruno said. “You could use that.”
* * *
Ella stared at the pictures of her daughter’s mangled bike. Would these be enough to get AlgGPS to pay attention?
She opened her email client and entered the only email address she’d been able to find on the AlgGPS site. A generic contact email address. Which she’d emailed several times already.
But she had to try. This was the ninth car in as many months that had ended up on her lawn. After the first three cars, she had installed a fence. The car last night had been the first to break through.
“Dear AlgGPS,” she said aloud. She talked to herself a lot. Probably a side effect from working at home most of the time.
“There is an issue with your route in my neighborhood.”
* * *
“I haven’t even finished my coffee yet.” Tara glanced at the directions on her phone. Her car console showed her a picture of her administrative assistant Oliver and a label, ‘The Office.’ In many ways, Oliver was the office. She might be the face of Outsiders Realty, but Oliver was the one who kept the business running.
“I know, I’m sorry. But I thought you should be prepared. You have a call with the seller’s realtor at one to discuss the closing.”
“The bank prequalified my buyers.”
The smell of Tara’s caramel mocha permeated the car. She was frugal on many things, but on Fridays she permitted herself the dessert-disguised-as-coffee from the drive-through. Fridays she was always tired.
“Turn left onto Perdita Way,” her phone announced over the car speaker.
“The bank prequalified my buyers and now their algorithm has changed its mind and my clients might lose the house.” Tara knew that Oliver knew all of this. But saying it out loud cemented the unfairness of it.
“This is what we do,” Oliver said.
“The American dream. For everyone,” Tara said. The tagline on her business cards and her website and the sign on the window of the small office where Oliver would be sitting now.
“Are we doing the usual?” Oliver asked.
Tara sighed. “Yes. Reschedule my showings with the Rodriguezes this morning and set up a meeting with the Harrises and their loan officer.”
“Turn right in two miles,” her phone announced. Tara looked at the directions. Straight for one mile until her turn. She sipped her coffee and suppressed a yawn.
“Can you leave the research binder in the conference room?” Tara asked.
“Already on it,” Oliver said. “I found some new academic articles last week and added them.”
“You’re the b—" Hot coffee spilled down Tara’s front as her wheel hit the curb. “Aah!”
“Are you okay?!”
Her car was still on the road. Tara checked her rearview mirror. No one behind her. “Yeah. I think. Unexpected curve. Just scraped the rims, I think.” Was it the caffeine or the near accident that had her heart racing? She picked at her white blouse—now brown, cold, and wet. At least most of the liquid had ended up on her and not on the upholstery. “Do I still have any spare clothes at the office?”
* * *
The evidence folder on Ella’s computer was getting quite large. Before she’d installed the camera, she had only known about the incidents where she found tire tracks on her lawn. Now she could see how many times a day near accidents happened.
“Dear AlgGPS,” she said as she composed another email. No. Why was she being so polite? She deleted her first line.
“AlgGPS,” she started again. “There is an issue with your routes in my neighborhood. Attached you will find documentation of several accidents and near accidents by my house. Since construction changed the map, it is no longer the straightest or the most efficient way to get onto the highway. . .”
* * *
“That was so much fun!” Rose gushed into her phone from the passenger seat.
“I loved their paella,” Wally said. “The best I’ve had outside of Spain.” Except for that one place last week. But Wally didn’t say that out loud. They were filming, after all. Best. Only. Rare. The MeOnTV algorithm loved that shit.
He already knew what he would call the video: “Most expensive paella!!! Was it the best??!!!”
“The Rose Wally dream team is heading home after today’s restaurant adventure.” Rose continued speaking for the recording. “Wally’s driving us through this beautiful little neighborhood.”
He knew the camera would be facing him so he pasted on a smile. “See that sign there? We’re on Perdita Way. Did you know perdita means lost in Latin?”
Rose giggled. “I hope we don’t get lost!” She struck a pose he recognized—the signoff pose. One. Two. Three seconds. Long enough that when they edited the video the last shot would show her smiling rather than awkwardly reaching for the stop button. “Can you go any faster?” Rose asked.
“This is a residential street,” Wally said. “I’m already going thirty-five.”
“We have two hours of video to edit. And we have to post by five tonight or the algorithm will downvote out the video. Do you remember what happened with the video about the burger place?”
“I mean, maybe.”
“What do you mean, maybe?”
“I mean, maybe that video didn’t get as many views for some other reason.” MeOnTV’s algorithm for promoting or not promoting a video was notoriously opaque. Wally had lost track of how many conversations he’d had with other creators speculating on what the algorithm wanted. What was the optimal length for a video? The best keywords? Did you need to post every day?
“Since then, we’ve always posted our videos before five and they’ve always done well,” Rose said.
“Before then, we posted our videos whenever and we were doing fine,” Oliver countered.
Rose huffed. “The road’s straight for the next two miles. You can go forty.”
Wally shook his head but when he looked at the speedometer he was going thirty-seven. Maybe that would be enough to make Rose happy. “Do you remember when we enjoyed this?”
“Trying new restaurants. Making fun little videos. Getting some new business for small local places that people otherwise wouldn’t hear about.”
“That’s why we decided to make this a job, Wally. Do you remember what you said? Better to be a MeOnTVer than work some minimum wage night-shift job. If the algorithm doesn’t favor us, we don’t get clicks. And if we don’t get clicks, we don’t get ad views. And if we don’t get ad views, we don’t get money.”
Wally was going thirty-eight now. “I know, I know. I just . . .” Twenty-five minutes before they would be home. Then a half hour or more to edit. Ten minutes to post, if you included filling out all the metadata. The numbers jumbled in his head. Thirty-eight. Twenty-five. Thirty. Ten. “Don’t you ever feel like you’re dancing for the algorithm?”
Rose crossed her arms and stared out the window.
“We make ourselves put up one video a day now. We have to rush editing and then we put up something with a clickbait title with lots of exclamation points. We do cross-collabs with other MeOnTVers and spend the entire meal filming each other. It’s exhausting.”
“What are you saying? You wanna quit the channel?”
“No, I—” Wally chewed his lip. “What if we just slowed it down a bit? Changed up the format?”
“Whatever. We can talk about it later.” Rose had her phone out again. “I need to film the outro.”
Wally mentally prepared himself to fake enthusiasm. He was up to forty miles an hour now, just like Rose wanted.
“Just going to show you a few more shots of the neighborhood before we wrap up.” Rose smiled like a news anchor or an actress on the red carpet.
Did he look like that too, Wally wondered.
“I, for one, think today’s adventure was a success,” Rose continued. “Remember to like and subscribe if you want to see more. Wally, wave to our—”
The phone flew from Rose’s hand as the car lurched. Concrete scraped against the underside of the car. One wheel landed in the grass on somebody’s lawn. Wally’s hands froze in place on the wheel. Park. He should put the car in park.
Rose’s breathing was shaky. His was too.
“We’re okay,” Wally said. “Are you okay?”
Rose nodded. “My phone . . .”
Wally looked around their seats. “Here. By my door.”
She stopped the recording. “I’m going to delete this. Let’s refilm it.”
* * *
Enough. Ella had had enough. She had emailed every contact email she could find. She had filled out every form. There was no customer support email or customer support number, because AlgGPS was free. The millions of people that used AlgGPS every day weren’t their customers. Ella worked in tech. She knew the mantra.
If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
AlgGPS made its money selling data about the people who used its service. Maybe she would find someone to talk to if she pretended to be an actual customer.
Ella put her phone on speaker and settled into a comfortable spot on her couch. She had taken the afternoon off for this. She had snacks. She had television shows queued up. She had three hours before she needed to pick Greta up from school. She dialed the number and listened to the automated voice warning her the conversation would be recorded.
“AlgGPS data brokers, how can we help?”
“I’m looking to open a store and want to buy some data about traffic patterns.”
“Certainly, may I ask what kind of store?”
How elaborate did Ella want her backstory to be? “A fashion boutique.”
“I’ll refer you to our clothing and retail division. Do you mind holding?”
“Not at all.”
She munched popcorn and watched an entire sitcom before someone answered.
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“My name is Frank and I’m a sales representative. My notes say you want to open a fashion boutique.”
Ella had to admit she was having fun with this. “Yes, it’s been a dream of mine for a while.”
“Well, we can give you a bunch of raw data if you want. But the truth is, most of our customers find the algorithm service more useful.”
“What exactly is an algorithm service?”
“Well, you tell us what your target market is and we can predict the best locations for your business.”
“Well, people who buy clothing obviously,” Ella said. “What other sort of targeting do you do?”
“Age, income level, political leanings. If you know which brands you might carry, we can even tell you where the people who buy those brands tend to live.”
Ella had never felt more like a product. “What about race?”
Frank cleared his throat. “Well, uh, we don’t target by race.”
“But knowing which brands someone buys could be a proxy for race, right?”
“Do you have a name picked out for your business, ma’am?”
No more friendly Frank, thought Ella.
“Perhaps I could be more helpful if you could tell me more about your plans,” Frank said.
Ella tried to think of a cute name for a clothing store and failed. Maybe it was time to drop the ruse anyway. “I’d like to speak to your manager.”
“If there’s something wrong with my service, ma’am, I’d be happy to correct any mistakes.”
Ella had to repeat her demand several times before Frank agreed. She spent another ten minutes on hold before a woman answered. The woman introduced herself as Debra, senior customer support manager.
“I’m sorry our service hasn’t been up to your standards today, how can I help?” Debra asked.
“Actually, I don’t need any of your data,” Ella said. “I need to get a contact.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“AlgGPS has the maps of my neighborhood wrong and people keep driving into my lawn.”
“Ma’am, that’s not really my department.”
“I appreciate that. It’s just, I’ve emailed and filled out your web forms and scoured your site and I still haven’t managed to talk to someone who can correct the map.”
“I’m afraid there’s no way I can help you.”
“You have coworkers, right? People you’re in meetings with? You have my number and my email now. Surely you can find someone in whatever the right department is.”
“I’m not sure that would be appropriate, I’m sorry—”
“Six weeks ago my daughter’s bike was run over. In our yard. Behind our fence.” Ella watched the seconds roll by on her phone screen. “The car crashed through our fence. Your app is telling people my street is the fastest way to get on the interstate and they’re speeding through—”
“As I said, ma’am, that’s not my department. I wish I could help.”
Ella hadn’t really expected the first try to work. “Do you though? I think if this was your house and your daughter and your life you’d know—”
Debra hung up on her.
That was okay. Ella had been recording the conversation too.
* * *
Patricia frowned at the time on her dashboard: 11:00 AM. The hearing had ended an hour ago. Her mom was waiting for the news. She should call.
But was it even necessary at this point? If it was good news, Patricia would have called already.
Be a good daughter, she told herself.
She checked the directions. She was on a long straight section, ten minutes to the highway. This little residential street was quiet. There wouldn’t be a better time.
“Hey Siri, call mom,” she said. The phone rang once, twice.
“Patricia Maribelle Williams,” a stern voice said.
“Hi, Mom.” Patricia still didn’t have the words she needed.
“I’ve been waiting for an hour. What happened? Did the parole hearing go long? Did the judge like my video?”
“We, uh, didn’t get a chance to play it.” The hearing hadn’t lasted more than ten minutes. She had been in the audience separated from her brother by the short wooden barrier. Don’t hug him, she’d been warned. Curt introductions between the lawyers and the judges. The slap of a folder opening, then closing. Then judgment.
“I told the lawyer very clearly—”
“It wasn’t the lawyer’s fault, Mom.” Patricia realized she sounded angry. And she was. But not at her. “He tried. The judge didn’t give him any time.”
Quiet houses passed outside her windows. Patricia Maribelle Williams. The good daughter. The one who didn’t get into trouble like her brother. The one who was supposed to save her brother from all his mistakes. Patricia Maribelle Williams. Daughter of Maribelle Williams, the indomitable force of nature that was motherhood.
“He didn’t get parole,” Maribelle said. Not a question.
Just like Patricia thought, Maribelle had known when she didn’t call. “He didn’t.” Patricia blinked tears away. Five minutes to the highway. She would have an excuse to wrap up the conversation then.
“It’s my fault. Because I couldn’t be there. If I was there . . .” Maribelle Williams, the indomitable force of nature that was motherhood. Undefeated, until now.
“I didn’t get to speak either,” Patricia said. “There were so many people waiting. The judge was trying to move cases along.”
Lines of people in prison jumpsuits, shackled or handcuffed. Guards watching closely, just in case. She had watched her brother move up in line as everyone in front of him had their turn.
“He had a folder for each prisoner,” Patricia continued. Slap—the folder opening. “With their records. And a recommendation.”
“From the parole board?” Maribelle asked. “The parole board liked him.”
“The parole board is using some new system. The lawyer said it’s a piece of software. All the prisoner’s data is entered into it, then some algorithm spits out a recommendation.”
“He was arrested for marijuana possession. Not even enough to sell.” Maribelle’s grief had turned to anger. “I can go down to the corner cannabis shop now and buy artisan gummy bears with as much marijuana as he had, but my son can’t get parole?”
Slap—the folder closing. Parole denied. “I know, it’s not fair.”
“It’s not fair? That’s all you have to say. What is the algorithm even looking at? He’s never been violent—not even in prison. How did it decide my son had to stay locked up?”
More tears. Patricia wiped her eyes. She knew she had failed. She didn’t need her mother to remind her. “I don’t know. No one knows. The lawyer said something about machine learning. Training data based on past cases.”
“So the algorithm was trained on data from a biased justice system and then it spits out biased judgments.” Maribelle was using her righteous angry professor’s voice. The voice she used to teach computer science ethics to lecture rooms full of undergrads every week.
“Mom, your heart,” Patricia said. “Calm down.” Mom’s surgery was in half an hour. Three minutes to the highway. What could she say to make her mom feel better? Nothing, because Patricia had failed.
“We’re fighting this, Patricia Maribelle Williams.” Maribelle Williams, defeated and risen again. “Remember what’s in your name.”
Patricia—for her great-granduncle Pat who fought to go to college and became a doctor. Maribelle—a defiant name chosen by a woman who had escaped slavery in 1857 and made a life in Chicago. Maribelle, circa 1857, chose the last name Williams because it was common and harder to trace. Maribelle, circa 1857, where Patricia’s family tree started because slavery erased any history before that.
Maribelle Williams, circa 2022, waited for Patricia to answer her.
The road looked blurry. Patricia wiped her face again. “Yeah, we’re fighting this.”
“That’s my daughter,” Maribelle said.
“Tomorrow, we’re fighting this,” Patricia said. “Today, you are going to concentrate on taking care of yourself.” She couldn’t be there for her mom’s surgery because she had gone to her brother’s hearing. If Patricia had known the judge wouldn’t listen to them, she wouldn’t have bothered.
“Love you,” Maribelle said.
“Love you too,” Patricia said.
The call ended. The road blurred again. Stop crying. Patricia reached for the napkins she kept in the glove box and was thrown back as her car jumped the curb. Her foot slipped from the accelerator. One wheel landed in someone’s lawn. She sat in her idling, tilted car and let herself cry.
This goddamn day.
A knock on the window interrupted her pity session.
Patricia blew her nose and then rolled down the window.
“Are you okay?” a petite, dark-haired woman asked.
“Yeah, I’m not . . . hurt or anything.” Just a hot mess. “I’m sorry. About your lawn. The directions—”
“Don’t match the map,” the woman said. But she was smiling. “Believe me, I know. You look like you’ve had a day.”
Patricia could only nod.
“Do you want to come in for some tea?”
“You’re inviting a stranger who just nearly—” Patricia gestured at the house and realized that the fence had already been broken, probably by another a car. “You’re inviting the stranger who just damaged your property in for tea.”
“I’m Ella,” the woman said. “And, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re in no shape to drive right now.”
Patricia heard herself laugh. “Tea would be nice.”
Ella served them both mint tea at a kitchen table cluttered with a laptop, monitor, and keyboard. “Excuse the mess, I work from home,” she explained. “Software developer.”
“My mom used to do that,” Patricia said. “Now she’s a professor.” A professor about to undergo heart surgery. Without her daughter in the waiting room.
“Did something happen . . . with your mom today?” Ella asked.
Patricia wondered if she should explain to the nice stranger that she had been on the way home from her brother’s parole hearing. “No, uh, other family issues. Some legal stuff at the courthouse this morning.”
“Which didn’t go well,” Ella said.
“No, the judge . . .” Patricia stopped herself. “Our lawyer is good though. He said we have options.”
This piqued Ella’s interest. “I’m looking for a good lawyer myself. Do you have his card?”
Nothing about this day had gone as expected. Patricia fumbled in her purse. “Sure.” Her tea was nearly done. “I should probably go. Thank you. For the tea.”
“It was no problem, really.” Ella tapped a finger on the table. “And not entirely altruistic, to be honest.”
“You’re not the first person to drive onto my lawn. But you’re the first person I’ve managed to catch before they drive away. Could I have your contact info? As a witness?”
“To the broken directions,” Ella said. “That keep sending people onto my front lawn.”
“You want to sue the multinational corporation AlgGPS.” Patricia decided that Maribelle would approve of Ella.
“They keep telling me they’re not responsible. It’s just the algorithm, they say.”
“The algorithm they use to make their money.” Patricia thought of her brother, stuck in prison because some company somewhere had decided they could make a buck playing with human lives. “But they don’t want to take responsibility for.”
“Exactly! I knew we’d be friends.”
Patricia raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I hoped we could be friends,” Ella said.
“Here’s my card,” Patricia said. “Let’s start with that.”
* * *
“Mom, why is there a mannequin dressed in my old clothes on my old bike in the front yard?” Greta asked as she got out of the car.
“Halloween decorations?” Ella said.
“Halloween is two months away.” Greta put on her backpack and adjusted her glasses. “Does this have anything to do with that lawyer you were just talking to?”
Ella still remembered carrying Greta’s car seat in. Now Greta was thirteen and getting more independent every day. “Maybe.”
Ella unlocked the front door. “Maybe, but you’re related to me.”
Greta rolled her eyes and disappeared upstairs. Ella prepared for her next call to AlgGPS. She had figured out how to navigate the system better now. So well, in fact, she had to buy a burner phone because AlgGPS had blocked her number.
“I’m going to open a pet store and I’m looking for the best location,” she told the customer service person who answered.
“That sounds adorable.” This time she had reached a woman named Brittany. “And what can we help you with?”
“I’m looking at a location near the intersection of Perdita Way and Elm Boulevard. Looks like I would get a bunch of visibility because that area has good highway access.” The lawyer had told Ella she needed to demonstrate that AlgGPS knew they were giving drivers incorrect information.
“Oh, our consumer maps are a bit outdated for that location,” Brittany said. “There was construction about a year ago. I see a curve there now and a frontage road.”
Ella tried to keep the excitement out of her voice. “You mean my store wouldn’t be visible from the highway?”
“Oh, no, there’s a frontage road in the way. And it wouldn’t even be convenient for customers to get there.”
“You mean there’s no convenient highway access from that intersection,” Ella said. Get them to state your case clearly the lawyer had said. Like you were wearing a wire and getting someone to admit to murder.
“No, ma’am. No convenient highway access from that location. But if you like, I can get you set up with our algorithm service that will pick out a great spot for your, uh . . .”
“Pet store,” Ella said.
“Yes, of course.” Brittany sounded flustered. She sounded young. “Sorry, guess I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
In the background, Ella heard other conversations. She imagined Brittany in a cubicle in some sort of call center, surrounded by other workers wearing headsets and working on commission. Maybe even a motivation poster on the wall.
“Oh, it’s no problem,” Ella said. “You’ve given me exactly what I need.”
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