Escape Artists

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Voting has started for the Podcastle Flash Fiction contest. Anyone who has made at least one post should be able to see the stories down in the Arcade.

New groups are posted every two days through the end of April.

Author Topic: EP396: Dead Merchandise  (Read 20071 times)

Max e^{i pi}

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Reply #25 on: May 21, 2013, 06:46:01 AM
Apocalypse by advertising? Hell yeah! I am ready for this one.
I never buy anything that anybody is actively trying to sell me, I don't buy any products endorsed by a certain number of "celebrities" in commercials and I don't accept pieces of paper handed to me on the sidewalk outside business establishments. My browsers all have superb ad blocking plugins and I annoy the hell out of telephone salespersons.
Also, I'm a meticulous comparative shopper that borders on the obsessive. It took me longer to buy a new tablet than the average human pregnancy.

As for the story... it was pretty good. I liked the mystery of it all, and I liked how it was explained in little bits and pieces. Looking back on the story I realize that most of the story, a good 75% or so, was just information dump. But it didn't feel that way while I was listening. The ad faeries' ability to riffle through memories as a plot device worked extremely well.
The ending was particularly good. I was sort of hoping that she'd move on to the next town, maybe picking up a survivor or two on the way. Then after destroying the next collation center they'd find a couple more people and bicycles. Then the next city and the next... rolling The Stand fashion until RF was finally defeated. But this was better. Much better.

Was I the only one to notice that the collation center is breast shaped? How appropriate is that? It's where the ad faeries obtain their mother's milk of data and algorithm outputs, and it's where the human population are completely dependent on. Without it they couldn't function, not even the ones who didn't listen to the ad faeries. They just couldn't be weened off of the little voices in their heads.
« Last Edit: May 21, 2013, 06:50:33 AM by Max e^{i pi} »

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MacArthurBug

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Reply #26 on: May 21, 2013, 01:54:28 PM
Oooh my I really liked this story. Plausable. Creepy. Well written. I loved the flow. Listening on a night I was all jittered and full of too much caffine, however, was a VERY BAD IDEA! I had to listen to two other stories to chill out. Then I still had disquiteing dreams.


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Reply #27 on: May 21, 2013, 10:57:38 PM
A masterpeice! It is often said that the best dystopias are exaggerated versions of the state of play at the time of writing: This story provides a wonderfully forbidding lengthened shadow of how this civilisation has developed in the decades I have lived. It is one where shocking abundance expressed as bewildering consumer choice for a privileged minority while services for all slowly deteriorate against a backdrop of questionable wars and venal leadership. Nobody planned or designed it that way and it was long ago beyond the power of anyone to stop.

On a lighter note....do people still use matches? I've not bought a box of matches for years. Thanks E-P!



bounceswoosh

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Reply #28 on: May 21, 2013, 11:27:22 PM
I enjoyed it, but no where near as much as "Run, Bakri Says" - which was one of my fave stories of the last year or so on EP.

I'm kind of shocked that these two stories were written by the same author.  I adored "Run, Bakri says."  "Dead Merchandise", in comparison, just didn't grab me by the heart.



Dem

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Reply #29 on: May 22, 2013, 08:50:59 AM
I enjoyed it, but no where near as much as "Run, Bakri Says" - which was one of my fave stories of the last year or so on EP.

I'm kind of shocked that these two stories were written by the same author.  I adored "Run, Bakri says."  "Dead Merchandise", in comparison, just didn't grab me by the heart.

And for me - completely the reverse. That's the talent of diversity :)

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bounceswoosh

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Reply #30 on: May 22, 2013, 01:40:47 PM
I enjoyed it, but no where near as much as "Run, Bakri Says" - which was one of my fave stories of the last year or so on EP.

I'm kind of shocked that these two stories were written by the same author.  I adored "Run, Bakri says."  "Dead Merchandise", in comparison, just didn't grab me by the heart.

And for me - completely the reverse. That's the talent of diversity :)

Yeah - life would be pretty boring if we all liked the same things!



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Reply #31 on: May 23, 2013, 01:15:24 AM
I probably don't have much new to add that hasn't been said already. That said, I like this episode quite a bit. In particular I liked the way that the protagonist's flashbacks were spaced out throughout the story, giving us more and more hints as to what happened and how things got so bad. I felt like the pacing wasn't as good towards the end; it seemed like the ending dragged on just a tad longer than it needed to. I didn't like the ending so much, it felt like an odd downer. If the character had ultimately succumb to the allure of the ad fairies, that would be one thing, but the kind of odd indecision gave me a puzzled frown.

Regardless, wonderful work. The narrator really did this story justice.



Devoted135

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Reply #32 on: May 23, 2013, 01:50:41 AM
Wow, this was terrifyingly plausible...

For me, it was all of the little details that really made the story. The children being manipulated into manipulating their parents' votes, the father chasing that perfect shrine to his kids, the ad fairies only being allowed to obstruct your view for 0.8 seconds. These gave life to the rather bleak world of this story, and made me root for her to accomplish her goal.

At the end I was on the edge of my seat, willing her to make a decision, any decision about which town to target next. I recently heard an interview with someone who studies multi-tasking. Evidently we are not very good at it, but those who multi-task a lot actually retrain their brain to the extent that they are no longer capable of doing just one thing at a time. It really gave me pause, and made me hope that I haven't lost my ability to concentrate on a single task.



TheArchivist

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Reply #33 on: May 23, 2013, 08:35:21 AM
I didn't like the ending so much, it felt like an odd downer. If the character had ultimately succumb to the allure of the ad fairies, that would be one thing, but the kind of odd indecision gave me a puzzled frown.
Yes, I can see that. In fact it felt a bit of a downer to me at first - I'd been rooting for her, looking forward to the explosion, almost a tad disappointed by the (far more realistic) slow burn - and then...

But that's the thing. The author could have done the explosion and only risked a few nitpickers pointing out that Hollywood hasn't a clue about the way petrol actually burns. Of course an explosion would have killed the protagonist but it would have been a glorious, satisfying self-sacrifice for a cause. And it would have been a little bit stock and predictable.

The author could have followed through the slow burn with our heroine setting out on a one-woman crusade to rid the world of collation centres, joined along the way by those she has freed from the evil ad-faeries. That would have been quite a lot stock and predictable, to be honest, and also not at all true to the character that had been so skillfully built up.

The ending we actually got - a woman crippled by indecision in the wash of victory - not only fits the ordinary-mum-driven-to-extremes motif far better, but also raises questions we can discuss here about the way we train our brains to work, either deliberately or unconciously. It was, to my mind, just the right ending for the story.



adrianh

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Reply #34 on: May 23, 2013, 08:52:13 AM
As for the story... it was pretty good. I liked the mystery of it all, and I liked how it was explained in little bits and pieces. Looking back on the story I realize that most of the story, a good 75% or so, was just information dump. But it didn't feel that way while I was listening.

Yeah - I think that was what made it less enjoyable from my perspective. We spent so much time being told how the world worked, rather than being shown. It did feel a bit info-dumpy to me. Well handled info-dumps mind ;-)



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Reply #35 on: May 23, 2013, 09:12:04 AM
Great story. I don't get to listen and post comments as fast as others so much of what I would have said has been said. Terrifyingly plausible, terrific ending. Loved it!

Put me in mind of a J G Ballard short story with subliminal roadside advertising hoardings forcing the main character to pull off the road and buy cigarettes, which ended up in the glove box with many other packets as he didn't smoke!



Listener

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Reply #36 on: May 23, 2013, 12:39:56 PM
I work in advertising. We're constantly trying to find ways to incorporate ads into content, because people don't see ads anymore. Not really. Of course, I work for one of the 10 biggest sites on the 'net, so we have a lot of, shall we say, "non-expert" users who don't know how to block ads.

This story is plausible and a little scary, but I would've liked to see it framed a little differently than "woman whose family was killed tries to burn down datacenter".

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Reply #37 on: May 24, 2013, 12:34:55 PM
Wow. I hate it when "this should have been in Pseudopod" pops up, but this story terrified me more than most stories that run there.



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Reply #38 on: May 24, 2013, 08:09:42 PM
Wow, I also liked this one a lot.  I did feel it was unlikely collective humanity would allow ourselves to degrade to that point, but still... who knows.

For some reason the idea of Sheryl's friend broiling herself in the oven sent my mind spinning.  I tried to imagine myself enduring such a horror and the details invoked truly disturbed me.  Just one of the many things that sparked my imagination into vivid overdrive while listening, I love that.



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Reply #39 on: May 25, 2013, 07:32:04 PM
The only way I can go out into many so-called "public spaces" any more is if I wear my noise cancelling headphones. In the future we'll be trying to find ways to keep our thoughts clear the same way we now avoid physical dangers, like say crime, noise, pollution, etc. This story is about a mentally polluted environment.



Lisa3737

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Reply #40 on: May 26, 2013, 12:09:31 AM
I enjoyed this story; it is also certainly a cautionary tale.



Unblinking

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Reply #41 on: May 28, 2013, 01:28:57 PM
Was I the only one to notice that the collation center is breast shaped? How appropriate is that? It's where the ad faeries obtain their mother's milk of data and algorithm outputs, and it's where the human population are completely dependent on. Without it they couldn't function, not even the ones who didn't listen to the ad faeries. They just couldn't be weened off of the little voices in their heads.

You weren't the only one to notice, if only because the story itself referred to it as breast-shaped.  I didn't read anything metaphorical from it, though.  I just thought "Oh, so it looks like your typical capital building or Cathedral dome", which often do look like breasts if you swap out the nipple for a crucifix.



chemistryguy

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Reply #42 on: May 28, 2013, 01:58:59 PM
Was I the only one to notice that the collation center is breast shaped? How appropriate is that? It's where the ad faeries obtain their mother's milk of data and algorithm outputs, and it's where the human population are completely dependent on. Without it they couldn't function, not even the ones who didn't listen to the ad faeries. They just couldn't be weened off of the little voices in their heads.

You weren't the only one to notice, if only because the story itself referred to it as breast-shaped.  I didn't read anything metaphorical from it, though.  I just thought "Oh, so it looks like your typical capital building or Cathedral dome", which often do look like breasts if you swap out the nipple for a crucifix.

Got to love the images this conjures.


bounceswoosh

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Reply #43 on: May 28, 2013, 03:49:25 PM
Was I the only one to notice that the collation center is breast shaped? How appropriate is that? It's where the ad faeries obtain their mother's milk of data and algorithm outputs, and it's where the human population are completely dependent on. Without it they couldn't function, not even the ones who didn't listen to the ad faeries. They just couldn't be weened off of the little voices in their heads.

You weren't the only one to notice, if only because the story itself referred to it as breast-shaped.  I didn't read anything metaphorical from it, though.  I just thought "Oh, so it looks like your typical capital building or Cathedral dome", which often do look like breasts if you swap out the nipple for a crucifix.

Somehow I interpreted this as "breast shaped when viewed from above" and envisioned a pair of them so that I ended up with sort of a heart shape ...



Unblinking

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Reply #44 on: May 29, 2013, 12:55:25 PM
Dammit, Ferrett, you've done it again.  

With the solid showings he's had on the pods in the last year or two I think Ferrett Steinmetz may be jockeying with Tim Pratt for the rank of my favorite short story author.

Ads generally don't do a lot to sway my interest.  At Christmas my family often gets annoyed at me because I don't want them to buy me anything.  What's the point in buying me crap that I have to find someplace to store when I can be so easily entertained with a pen-and-paper or a word processor?  For me to actually want something it's utility has to be pretty clearly demonstrated.  Except for food, I'm a sucker for food ads, and I don't have to figure out where to store it--that's what my body fat is for.  But these ad fairies scare the bejeezus out of me, I have no doubt I'd be buying as much as anyone else once they got hooks in my brain.

I liked Alasdair's wording to describe the ad fairies "feral advertising" is a very accurate descriptor for this, and I find it all too plausible.  It's entirely too believable that corporations in the free market would destroy society with some poorly made decisions.  And that the legislature would lag just far enough behind the new technology so as to be completely useless as a deterrent.

When she destroyed the collation center I thought the story would go along a more obvious but still serviceable route, either her dying in the destruction of the center, or crusading on to the next one.  But this ending was so perfect.  Throughout the story it appeared that she was one of the rare few who could not be manipulated by the ad fairies, but in the end she was controlled just as much by them as everyone else was.  The difference was that she ran in the opposite direction of where they told her to go.  They (apparently) tried to keep her away from the collation center which only drove her toward it more.  But the ending shows that she was just reacting to that immediate stimulus, and once the stimulus was gone she has lost all motivation, and will probably just die there.  

I say that the ad fairies "apparently" try to keep her away because I find it hard to believe with their mindreading and emotional manipulation skills that they were not aware that they were just egging her on.  Why did they do it then?  I don't know, maybe because they were finally starting to realize that there was no money left in the world from which to profit.  Without the human institution of money, there are still things of value, among those things are energy which the collation center must be using in spades to keep up its work--so for the collation center to commit suicide at this point would be its best move to stop bleeding valued energy.

The result of this story goes to show how destructive a capitalist environment can be when it is only focused on short-term gains.  Presumably the ad fairies' behavior is based on a utility function that tells them to seek whatever path gives them more money at this moment.  I can totally see a CEO demanding that behavior without consideration of its long-term consequences.  Any self-respecting software engineer should see the flaws in this with some consideration, but the CEO would no doubt then fire that self-respecting software engineer and find someone else who will do the work.  

The utility function doesn't have a pre-set reaction for the situation of the story where everyone is dead or broken or broke.  Why not?  Because it's not profitable (in terms of dollars in the short term) to make the ad fairies flexible enough to react to that scenario.  What is profitable (in the short term) is exploiting addiction (look at casinos) and mental illness, and to create new addictions and new mental illnesses to exploit.  These poor people never have a chance to heal, to grieve, just relentless emotional assault until you die one way or the other.  This story is haunting, terrifying, and way to F-ing plausible.  There are so many images to back up the idea; I think the most scary for me is the men's district with the emaciated men in the broken wasteland of a city still trying to flex their muscles and impress her.  Because, dammit, sex sells.

Now, if the corporation had long-term outlook, they'd have some kind of algorithm that took the survival of the capitalist society in which it thrives as part of its utility.  After all, it can't make money if everyone is dead and the concept of money no longer exists.  What do you call a corporation that would dial back short-term profits to avoid destroying the world?  Bankrupt.  Because another corporation would undoubtedly step forward and do the same thing unless something outside of the natural selection capitalist environment stopped them, such as legislation.  Which are also often swayed by money, and in any case move at the pace of an indecisive snail.

Well done, Mr. Steinmetz, well done.
« Last Edit: May 29, 2013, 12:58:17 PM by Unblinking »



Dem

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Reply #45 on: May 29, 2013, 01:13:11 PM
Dammit, Ferrett, you've done it again.  

With the solid showings he's had on the pods in the last year or two I think Ferrett Steinmetz may be jockeying with Tim Pratt for the rank of my favorite short story author.

Ads generally don't do a lot to sway my interest.  At Christmas my family often gets annoyed at me because I don't want them to buy me anything.  What's the point in buying me crap that I have to find someplace to store when I can be so easily entertained with a pen-and-paper or a word processor?  For me to actually want something it's utility has to be pretty clearly demonstrated.  Except for food, I'm a sucker for food ads, and I don't have to figure out where to store it--that's what my body fat is for.  But these ad fairies scare the bejeezus out of me, I have no doubt I'd be buying as much as anyone else once they got hooks in my brain.

I liked Alasdair's wording to describe the ad fairies "feral advertising" is a very accurate descriptor for this, and I find it all too plausible.  It's entirely too believable that corporations in the free market would destroy society with some poorly made decisions.  And that the legislature would lag just far enough behind the new technology so as to be completely useless as a deterrent.

When she destroyed the collation center I thought the story would go along a more obvious but still serviceable route, either her dying in the destruction of the center, or crusading on to the next one.  But this ending was so perfect.  Throughout the story it appeared that she was one of the rare few who could not be manipulated by the ad fairies, but in the end she was controlled just as much by them as everyone else was.  The difference was that she ran in the opposite direction of where they told her to go.  They (apparently) tried to keep her away from the collation center which only drove her toward it more.  But the ending shows that she was just reacting to that immediate stimulus, and once the stimulus was gone she has lost all motivation, and will probably just die there.  

I say that the ad fairies "apparently" try to keep her away because I find it hard to believe with their mindreading and emotional manipulation skills that they were not aware that they were just egging her on.  Why did they do it then?  I don't know, maybe because they were finally starting to realize that there was no money left in the world from which to profit.  Without the human institution of money, there are still things of value, among those things are energy which the collation center must be using in spades to keep up its work--so for the collation center to commit suicide at this point would be its best move to stop bleeding valued energy.

The result of this story goes to show how destructive a capitalist environment can be when it is only focused on short-term gains.  Presumably the ad fairies' behavior is based on a utility function that tells them to seek whatever path gives them more money at this moment.  I can totally see a CEO demanding that behavior without consideration of its long-term consequences.  Any self-respecting software engineer should see the flaws in this with some consideration, but the CEO would no doubt then fire that self-respecting software engineer and find someone else who will do the work.  

The utility function doesn't have a pre-set reaction for the situation of the story where everyone is dead or broken or broke.  Why not?  Because it's not profitable (in terms of dollars in the short term) to make the ad fairies flexible enough to react to that scenario.  What is profitable (in the short term) is exploiting addiction (look at casinos) and mental illness, and to create new addictions and new mental illnesses to exploit.  These poor people never have a chance to heal, to grieve, just relentless emotional assault until you die one way or the other.  This story is haunting, terrifying, and way to F-ing plausible.  There are so many images to back up the idea; I think the most scary for me is the men's district with the emaciated men in the broken wasteland of a city still trying to flex their muscles and impress her.  Because, dammit, sex sells.

Now, if the corporation had long-term outlook, they'd have some kind of algorithm that took the survival of the capitalist society in which it thrives as part of its utility.  After all, it can't make money if everyone is dead and the concept of money no longer exists.  What do you call a corporation that would dial back short-term profits to avoid destroying the world?  Bankrupt.  Because another corporation would undoubtedly step forward and do the same thing unless something outside of the natural selection capitalist environment stopped them, such as legislation.  Which are also often swayed by money, and in any case move at the pace of an indecisive snail.

Well done, Mr. Steinmetz, well done.


I vote this for the feedback slot. Might need its own podcast though :)

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matweller

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Reply #46 on: May 29, 2013, 01:40:37 PM
When she destroyed the collation center I thought the story would go along a more obvious but still serviceable route, either her dying in the destruction of the center, or crusading on to the next one.  But this ending was so perfect.  Throughout the story it appeared that she was one of the rare few who could not be manipulated by the ad fairies, but in the end she was controlled just as much by them as everyone else was.  The difference was that she ran in the opposite direction of where they told her to go.  They (apparently) tried to keep her away from the collation center which only drove her toward it more.  But the ending shows that she was just reacting to that immediate stimulus, and once the stimulus was gone she has lost all motivation, and will probably just die there.  

I thought this was great too. I love the suggestion that there are many layers of thought and while we may be able to focus with one, there are others running in the background, and when those subconscious layers become the focus, something wholly different may result. I think this is closer to our true nature than many of us may suspect.

I say that the ad fairies "apparently" try to keep her away because I find it hard to believe with their mindreading and emotional manipulation skills that they were not aware that they were just egging her on.  Why did they do it then?  I don't know, maybe because they were finally starting to realize that there was no money left in the world from which to profit.  Without the human institution of money, there are still things of value, among those things are energy which the collation center must be using in spades to keep up its work--so for the collation center to commit suicide at this point would be its best move to stop bleeding valued energy.

I don't think the fairies' motivation was money as much as attention. They were winning with every distraction, I think that was the motivation to lie to divert her even more than their own self preservation -- zombify first, then sell.



TheArchivist

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Reply #47 on: May 29, 2013, 02:30:32 PM
I say that the ad fairies "apparently" try to keep her away because I find it hard to believe with their mindreading and emotional manipulation skills that they were not aware that they were just egging her on.  Why did they do it then?  I don't know, maybe because they were finally starting to realize that there was no money left in the world from which to profit.  Without the human institution of money, there are still things of value, among those things are energy which the collation center must be using in spades to keep up its work--so for the collation center to commit suicide at this point would be its best move to stop bleeding valued energy.

I don't think the fairies' motivation was money as much as attention. They were winning with every distraction, I think that was the motivation to lie to divert her even more than their own self preservation -- zombify first, then sell.
Yes, that was where I felt Unblinking's otherwise excellent summary fell a bit short. Their apparent mind-reading ability is actually clearly flawed, as we can see from the way they misinterpret the protagonist's intentions for the petrol, right at the start. The collation centre, the Ad-Faerie technology, is all based on numbers and probabilities. That's all it needs to be - no corporation really feels the need to score a 100% hit rate, let alone 100% market share. Not even Microsoft. After all, what do you call a corporation that hits 100% saturation? Stuck, that's what. And a corporation that gets stuck soon turns into a corporation in decline.
So no, the Ad-Faeries don't need to be perfect mind-readers, and they certainly don't need to be perfect psychological manipulators. What they need is to score better than 50% at getting it right. How much better depends enormously on their cost.
Take the email spam issue : corporate junk mail of the paper variety costs a few cents per potential customer, and has a tiny success rate. That makes it inefficient, costly, and rare. Junk mail sent over the Internet has an even smaller success rate, but the cost is so close to zero that it's worth being an evil scumsucker despite that.
So, if operating cost of the Ad-Faeries is low (discounting the infrastructure and set-up costs, because they're one-off) then a benefit ratio of 51% - only 2% more people encouraged than turned off - is enough. Judging by the scenario painted in this story I'd guess the not-quite-so-scrupulous software developers managed a very high benefit ratio, but not 100%, and thus a few - a very few - people react against them, either instinctively or as a learned behaviour that the software can't cope with. Because, presumably, the people employed to keep the software in step with the latest developments... are no longer working.



CryptoMe

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Reply #48 on: May 30, 2013, 12:50:20 AM
Just yesterday, I watched a TED talk on "How to make choosing easier" by Sheena Iyengar (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pq5jnM1C-A). As a result, the theme of choosing in this story stood out very strongly in my mind. How the ad-fairies tried to present, dress up, and manipulate the choices people made was very interesting - and yes, I do think it is happening at some level right now.

Like Max e^{i pi}, I am also a compulsive comparative shopper...
I'm a meticulous comparative shopper that borders on the obsessive. It took me longer to buy a new tablet than the average human pregnancy.
And I agree wholeheartedly with Unblinking's take on gifts ...
At Christmas my family often gets annoyed at me because I don't want them to buy me anything.  What's the point in buying me crap that I have to find someplace to store ...
(My grandmother taught me: if you really needed it, you would have bought it for yourself, and if you don't need it, well than you don't need it.)
So, I really wonder how people like me would have fared in this story's society.

I also expect there would be entire off-grid colonies established just to get away from this level of advertising. We have people who choose to live off-grid now, and the advertising and electronic intrusion is no-where near as bad.



Unblinking

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Reply #49 on: May 30, 2013, 02:46:15 PM
Judging by the scenario painted in this story I'd guess the not-quite-so-scrupulous software developers managed a very high benefit ratio, but not 100%, and thus a few - a very few - people react against them, either instinctively or as a learned behaviour that the software can't cope with.

I sent the big comment I posted here to Ferrett, because I figured some positive feedback might make his day a little brighter.  He did mention, as part of his reply, that his intent was more along the lines of what you read into the story than what I did.

I think that my interpretation is not contradicted by the text, but it's also not hinted at by the text, so I was probably just having fun trying to read alternate interpretations into it.  Since I'm both a software engineer and a writer, I probably have way too much fun trying to debug fictional software.  :)

I also expect there would be entire off-grid colonies established just to get away from this level of advertising. We have people who choose to live off-grid now, and the advertising and electronic intrusion is no-where near as bad.

I think that you're right about that.  So I'd find it entirely plausible that the ENTIRE human race hasn't been ripped apart, that these communes can still have a chance to thrive at least, and maybe can even re-take some of the past territory when unmaintained power stations break down and knock out the collation centers.