Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Numbers In The Dark

With thanks to Italo Calvino



Paolino ran his fingers along the keyboards, trailing his hand behind him as he walked down the bank of computers, then turned to watch each screen light up a soft digital blue. Locked screens shone like barred windows. It was otherwise dark in this room of the office block. His mother was running a vacuum cleaner next door, and he had nearly finished emptying the dustbins, pocketing all the discarded pens and pencils that, for one reason or another, didn't reflect the professional ethos of the company's workers.

As each monitor in turn realised his cruel trick, or grew bored of waiting for an input, and switched back to its dormant black, and the light dimmed in the room, Paolino sat in a chair at the head of the row. Surveying his loot and estimating its playground value, he recalled meeting one of the workers.

"One day, they won't even need us to sit in front of them. They'll do all the work themselves."

"The computers?"

"It's only a matter of time. The algorithms already do all the hard work."

"Algorithms?"

"Don't ask me, kid. I just type in the data we get from the examiners."

"So the computers will type themselves?"

"They won't need to. They'll mark all the papers in the first place. Hell, I'll be damned if they don't teach the children too."

Recently arrived from Italy, whence his father hadn't followed, Paolino was adapting to British culture faster than his mother. He could hear her, next door, singing 'La donna è mobile...'. The humming of the Henry, low, then high, as it moved back and forth across the polyester carpet, provided the rhythm. He was tempted to block the sound out with his Spotify playlist, but another sound interrupted him.

Despite all admonishments from Signora Pensotti, Paolino had remained a stubbornly curious boy. The boredom of his nightly shift shadowing her at work had done nothing to temper this. Having now distinguished the intermittent pacing and furious typing from the steady stream of other sounds filling the nocturnal office block, Paolino would not be deterred from further investigation. The animated cacophony emanated from a small office further down the corridor, and as he moved closer, the muffled stomping and clatttering were complemented by an agitated murmur. The door had no windows, so he waited for a lull and knocked.

"Come in."

Tentatively, Paolino opened the door.

"I'm emptying the dustbins, Sir."

"Please yourself, lad."

The man was older, balding, with a lined, friendly face whose eyes spoke incongruously of deep concern. He sat down and watched as the boy emptied the bin into a large black sack, all the while casting furtive glances around the room.

"You're a nosy one, aren't you?"

"Sorry, Sir."

"It's nothing to apologise for, though it'll get you nowhere. I've been nosy all my life and look where it's got me."

"This is a big company you work for, isn't it, Sir? You're very lucky."

"Ha! A big company, yes."

Paolino could scarce understand it, but he detected a dissonance between the man's laugh and the look in his eyes. The old man, in turn, could see the boy had rumbled him but lacked the language to ask the question that would satiate his curiosity.

"What's your name?"

"Paolino, Sir. Paolino Pensotti. From Italy."

"Well, Paolino Pensotti from Italy, my name is Eddy. Eddy Lorenz from America. It's a pleasure to meet you. I suppose you want to know why I'm so... infuriato."

"Is it because the computers are going to take your job, Mr Lorenz?"

"You are an astute boy, Paolino, but no. It is because they're all wrong."

"The computers are wrong?"

"Right down to their little Pentium cores."

"They make mistakes?"

"Oh, no, Paolino. They perform perfectly, but they were wrong from the start. Look."

Eddy tapped at his keyboard and turned the screen around to face Paolino. He could see a chart. Its red line, with enough small peaks and troughs to bring an image of piranha teeth to his mind, climbed steadily from bottom left to top right of the screen. With another rattle of the keys, the graph disappeared, to be replaced by an endless procession of numbers such as Paolino had never seen.

"These numbers go all the way back to our first data entry clerk. There never was another one like Barbara Blackburn. The most conscientious data entry clerk there's ever been."

The old man sat down and rubbed a hand over his smooth scalp.

"And yet this infallible woman, this genius, on 8 June, 1991, made a mistake. A stupid mistake of two fine grades. A 4a that should have been a 4c. And nobody realised. Only I know about it, and you're the only person I've told. I suppose you could go around telling everyone, and nobody would believe you. You're just a child, but now you know that everything's wrong. Over the years, do you know what that mistake of two fine grades has become? Billions! Billions! The computers can grind out numbers all they like. The mistake is at the core, beneath all their numbers, and it's growing bigger and bigger!"

He turned the monitor back around now, played his keyboard one more time and the machine's whir stopped. The monitor went black. In the shadowy room now lit only by a desk lamp, Paolino could still see numbers dancing in the dark.

"The company's grown big, huge, with thousands of shareholders, subsidiaries around the globe, and all of them grinding out nothing but wrong numbers. Whole nations base their education decisions upon them, erecting school systems to rival each other for a share of the future for their young people. And each one is built on bad foundations, like that famous tower in your homeland. The whole world is distorted by this mistake, the only mistake in the life of Barbara Blackburn, that giant of data entry, that genius of the keyboard."

Eddy Lorenz stood up then. He looked over at the boy and the look in his eyes changed. There was harmony once more in his face. It was all smile as he said: "And do you know what I think? I think she did it on purpose." He grabbed his jacket and walked to the door, looked back and added: "You and I have never met, never known each other." And then he walked out with a gait Paolino thought of as leggiero, humming 'La donna è mobile...'.

After a few moments, Paolino turned off the desk lamp and, dragging his black sack behind him, returned to his mother.

"And where have you been this time, figlio mio?"

"Oh. Just... Being curious."

"You're incorrigible! Now, let's get you home, Paolino. You have school tomorrow."

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