Object 72

The Downvoted

2045, London, England

Excerpt from “The Downvoted” by Richard Cameron:

Eric never tired of his movies. He would witter on at anyone patient enough to listen, recounting the relative strengths and deficiencies of Bond, Bourne, and Shankar. Spy movies were his favourites; he would say that he understood their lonely, bloodless nature.

After we had received that month's income, Eric took me out for lunch at a cheap bistro by Clapham Common. I was surprised by his generosity, until I realised that he was using me as cover. Once again, he had managed to get himself downvoted on enough trust networks that he was being ignored or refused service; this time, the menus wouldn’t even work for him.

His personal hygiene was hardly perfect, but I'd seen and smelt worse. His clothes weren't particularly old or dirty. While he often had a surly attitude, I had never seen it cause any serious fights or arguments. All of this is to say that I couldn't point to any specific reason for why he was being downvoted by passers-by; it was the combination of his overall demeanour and personality that put people off.

Understandably, Eric was frustrated by his predicament. He became grumpier and more antisocial, which only earned him yet more downvotes. Like many others, I felt sympathetic towards his plight, but I was wary of being seen with him too much for fear of receiving downvotes by association.

"They don't see you," he used to say. "You are completely invisible. I don't know if it was better or worse before these awful glasses, when people just pretended you didn't exist. Now I am told that there are people who will literally put you out of their sight, so I become this muddy black shadow drifting along the pavement. And you know what? People will still downvote a black shadow!

"The first time it happens, you become angry, angry at the world. Who appointed them as judge and jury? What gives them the right to reach a verdict, just like that, in a second? But when it happens over and over, you just become sad and despair of ever being seen again. A good disguise for a spy, perhaps, but not for normal men or women such as you and I."

Eric usually didn't like talking about this, instead preferring to play silly games like magically pushing crowds of pedestrians away from him with the power of his downvoted aura, but today he seemed particularly despondent. He had just been turned down for a temporary job as a waiter at a pop-up restaurant in Brixton and I think the rejection was getting to him.

A liberal person, on hearing 'discrimination', will naturally think of sexism or racism, or these days, sentism, all of which have their devils and their champions. They will not think of the low-level, murky discrimination that the downvoted experience, even though it is equally illegal. They will assume that these problems ought to be impossible, thanks to our right to see and to remove any personally identifying information held on us by corporations.

In theory, that's true. Our society, however, also holds sacrosanct the individual's right to use private or privately-shared data to alter their personal environmental reality in any way they wish. This exception has meant that thousands of private, semi-legal peer-to-peer downvote-sharing networks have sprung up in every city in the world, collectively identifying millions of undesirables. Stamp out one network and another will appear within hours.

"The only good thing about it," noted Eric, glumly, "is that no-one is allowed to make a profit. It's all very co-operative."

Providing that we weren't out in public, I enjoyed Eric's company. Before a drug overdose and a botched gene therapy treatment left him in hospital for a year, Eric had been a talented lawyer. After he recovered, he found he couldn't concentrate any more. He bounced from temp job to temp job and began the slow slide down to the pit of the basic minimum income, where he had stayed ever since.

"It could be worse. We could be living in San Francisco. I went there on a holiday once, for a record of achievement project working at the Haughey Lighthouse. Cleanest streets I have ever seen, and that wasn't with any sweepers, either. They've got state-sponsored downvoting there, 'citizen crowdsourcing of anti-social individuals'. The law got passed by a supermajority because it's the ultimate magic wand. A way to identify all the creepy people and criminals forever. I’m surprised there wasn’t more rioting against those arrogant, entitled technologists...

"I'll be honest with you: the voting is usually right. And sometimes the feedback to the downvoted is useful. Sometimes, yes, they really do change their behaviour for the better. But," and he sighed heavily, "sometimes it's not so easy to change yourself. It becomes a spiral. It's like being exiled without having travelled anywhere."

Besides Eric, the Streatham Solidarity Centre housed a few other downvoted. Most of them had discovered that their invisibility gave them not only the the ability but also the licence to commit petty crimes. If society has decided, in the most dismissive yet personal way possible, that you are worthless, then why shouldn't you play along and really justify those downvotes? Occasionally they would make sport of it, seeing who could get the most downvotes in a day. Those were the days I avoided them.

"I'm not for wearing a mask or a veil. They're pointless. Your walk or your smell or something will give you away, and when they find out you're hiding, people get even more scared and you end up with more downvotes. I could move away, I suppose. Maybe the London networks don't stretch as far as Scotland. It would be a shame, though. I grew up here.”

When I left Streatham, Eric was still there, playing around with a new audioscaping app he'd gotten hold of. If the world was going to ignore him, he would ignore the world, turning his life into a secret agent's adventure complete with a thrilling soundtrack. He would dart through the cracks between the crowds, pushing people aside on an urgent adventure that made him into the most important person in the world.