Edgar Rivers fancied himself a rebel. The ruckus of discordant guitars and bombastic drums blared from ear buds to advertise exactly that. His cubicle, or cage as he dubbed it, was lined with mementos from music festivals and posters featuring vintage films, only some of which he’d seen. Arriving on-time to this cage was as optional as leaving early was mandatory.
He took 75-minute lunch breaks, often spending the fifteen stolen minutes chomping on spearmint gum to mask the beers he shouldn’t have ordered. He would spend entire afternoons daydreaming about starting a secretive boxing syndicate or discovering that his entire perception of reality was but an illusion. Most days he simply watched the clock’s gradual approach toward five, clinging to these distractions and minor victories against corporate productivity.
Yet despite, or perhaps in tune with, his disregard for expectations, Ed was very good at his job. He worked for ReSource, Inc., a technology firm that specialized in replacing outdated equipment with newer, less-affordable alternatives. His task was to convince people to switch to the latest and greatest luxuries of the digital renaissance. The infrequent occasions when he cared to pick up the phone were remarkably successful compared to the expected quotas many of his coworkers struggled to meet.
To the inattentive observer it was dumb luck, but Ed had the instincts of a predator. He was a spider whose web of nonchalance lured in even the most timid of flies.
“Yep that’s right, mister, only thirteen payments of nine hundred bucks,” Ed leaned back in his chair with his legs propped up on the desk in front of him. His right foot swayed back and forth, a frantic metronome synced to the ever-present, punk-rock soundtrack emanating from headphones that rarely managed to find their owner’s ears.
“That is quite a bit of my pension,” said the hoarse voice on the other end of the call. “Plus it hasn’t even been a year since I paid off my video wall. I do enjoy the evening news, though… not to mention it is almost football season.”
Mr. Slater was a rather juicy fly, not that Edgar noticed one way or another. The spider was busy speculating whether his own habit of vaporizing tobacco would eventually stain his speech as much as it did the old man’s. After a moment or two Mr. Slater folded under the weight of Ed’s apathetic silence.
“But I suppose I can’t bury my savings with me,” he said, “and watching the world unfold may be as worthy an investment as any.”
“HoloVision isn’t a screen. You don’t watch it – you experience it,” the line was Ed’s bread and butter during these exchanges. It kept working even though he delivered the words with less and less conviction after each recitation.
ReSource had been commissioned by Metronet Industries to market the first consumer-grade holographic projector for entertainment enthusiasts, which meant pretty much anybody with a credit account. Capable of rendering 3D vistas that no longer needed to be enclosed within flat, rectangular frames, the original implementation of this technology had been geared toward businesses and educational institutions. It could visualize objects in an interactive format that allowed users to physically manipulate the projections in real-time.
The HoloVision unit being sold to homes wasn’t nearly as sophisticated. The device resembled an oblong trough that was barely larger than a briefcase. Metronet heralded it as the eye of the future, granting visions of unprecedented immersion. The images that radiated from the H.V. unit could be scaled to accommodate any size of room just as its pricing could be equally scaled to fit any payment plan. ReSource offered a vastly depreciated trade-in credit for any entertainment devices the HoloVision was replacing as an incentive to its customers. The company then sold the outdated tech to poorer demographics for an inflated profit. Ed knew he was merely a nameless cog in an engine of trickle-down profiteering, yet he was also all-too-aware that rent was not going to pay itself.
“Sign me up, young man,” Mr. Slater said, compelled once again to refuel the conversation before it suffocated from a lack of sound.
Some salesmen at the office would ring a bell or spew out some sort of disruptive catchphrase after signing a client. It wasn’t their fault; ReSource, Inc. went out of its way to promote a competitive culture that encouraged the celebration of every trivial moment. Each cubicle had a video wall highlighting statistics for the entire sales floor. Employees were trained like pit bulls, riled up by a false sense of urgency and rewarded for ruthlessness. Every household they sank their teeth into marked an opportunity for them to earn a much-needed commission to compensate for their meager hourly pay.
Ed didn’t have a celebratory routine, unless yawning counted. This job made him very tired. Tired of convincing people to buy things they didn’t need. Tired of spending days surrounded by complacent minds comforted by the trappings of obedience. Tired of jumping through hoops to make rich men richer. If anything, making a sale reminded Ed that he was as trapped as everyone else – he was just more claustrophobic than most.
Tired of pretending to be busy after wrapping up the phone call and processing Mr. Slater’s order, he went to visit Shannon. She worked upstairs in accounting. Ed found the bookkeepers’ rhythmic keyboard clicking to be soothing compared to the crescendo of conversations that polluted the sales floor. He even lowered the volume of his ear buds, albeit ever so slightly, when walking past the number crunchers in their cells.
Shannon was glaring at her monitor as if the array of digits it displayed was an insult to numerals everywhere. Her shoulders deflated as she exhaled deeply, directing the exasperated air upward. Her bangs fell down to form a buffer between her hazel eyes and the offensive numbers. Ed assumed the sigh and its effect to be deliberate. He would not want to gaze directly into the excessiveness of ReSource’s avarice either.
She glanced up at Ed through her veil of auburn hair. This week it was highlighted with dark purple streaks.
“We’re crediting third-gen LED flex displays at four hundred dollars and then flipping them for over three-times that,” she said.
“Funny you should mention the Flex-3. My last buyer is going to trade one in.” Ed failed to see that Shannon was already combing through Mr. Slater’s invoice.
Had he looked he might have recognized that the old man’s purchase history filled up her entire monitor, and that ReSource offered less and less for the old product every time a new commodity was made available. Ed never understood how Shannon could care so little for her job yet so much about their customers. He had a negligible concern for either.
“Wall screens aren’t even two years old! We might as well send thugs over to rob these people, at least then they could make an insurance claim.” Her outbursts and his indifference formed a yin and yang of disillusionment. They’d spent most of their work breaks together trying to convert the other to their own school of thought.
Shannon’s computer flickered to its locked state, displaying the spinning image of ReSource’s logo, as she rose from her desk. Styrofoam coffee cups lined the workstation like chalk surrounding a homicide victim – the outline grew in conjunction with the frustrations of the cube’s resident accountant.
“It’s not like we’re selling medicine. Nobody’s making them flock to the latest wallet-draining time waster,” Ed said as they walked toward the employee lounge. “They’re sheeple. Consumerism is their pasture.”
“Ever the demagogue,” Shannon smiled. “Last I checked you too are a member of this flock. Being aware of a predicament doesn’t automatically make one exempt from it, Ed. You try too hard to remove yourself from the situation.”
“The situation is that we are indentured servants. All the world’s a stage and we aren’t even players in it. We are the audience, forced to watch a predetermined script unfold before us time and time again, and then we are charged a price of admission no less!” Ed relished any opportunity for soapbox activism, even during his break-room skirmishes with Shannon. “When cash is king, life is exploit or be exploited. I try to dish it back to the system as often as I can. That’s more than most can say. I’m not the problem, complacency is.”
“What if instead of cutting corners you tried bridging gaps?” Shannon excelled at countering his frustrations with introspective questions. “Taking advantage of others in response to feeling taken advantage of only perpetuates this cycle of complacency. You’re persuading people to make foolish decisions when you could be opening their eyes.”
“I don’t want to convince people to buy things they can’t afford. I want to convince my pantry that it shouldn’t be empty, my landlord that I shouldn’t be evicted, my student loan that it shouldn’t fester like a cancer until it cripples my life,” he said. Every once and a while a hint of Shannon’s bleeding heart splashed Ed. He, in turn, did his best to disregard its blot upon the resolve of his rationale.
The rest of the lounge remained unfazed by their debate between empathy and apathy. An old man stared intently at a blank crossword puzzle. Two lovers struggled to contain their amorous glances while picking from a mountain of nachos at a table by the window. A dull thud echoed from the vending machine in the corner as it dispensed a beverage full of caffeine and other stimulants. Roger, who sat two cubes in front of Ed, struggled with gravity as he bent over to pick up the cold, metallic can. His round, content face was painted with the yellow-and-green fluorescence glowing from the machine’s front panel. Ed couldn’t fathom a source for the man’s satisfaction outside of blissful ignorance.
“Beating the system at its own game doesn’t win you freedom. At best you learn to leverage it against others, tightening its noose around our collective necks. We both know how much you resent that notion,” Shannon said, readjusting the paisley tie dangling under Ed’s unbuttoned collar.
“How is it you sleep at night, then, when you’re working in the gallows with the rest of us?” If Shannon’s questions were designed to inspire, his were constructed to dissuade.
More often than not Ed’s sparring partner eluded his rhetorical traps, finding insight he never considered. This time, however, Shannon retorted with an elusive grin and shrug.
“That answer, my friend, is between my pillow and bed,” she said. “Not to mention there’s only an hour and a half between us and the weekend. Might as well spend the last little bit doing what we do best. I have numbers that won’t crunch themselves, and you’ve got calls to pretend to make.”