Ted Robertson woke beneath a wave of anxiety, an unexpected and inexplicable mood of the type that a man occasionally discovers upon consciousness. And though he didn’t know where it had come from or what it meant, he sensed already that it was going to set a mildly unwelcome tone for the next few hours; an emotional dunking from which he’d remain damp for the rest of the evening.
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And it was nonsensical because, Ted reminded himself, everything was perfect. Mere moments prior he had been gently nudged from his post-work pre-party nap by influences far cleverer than himself. And though he didn’t know what time it was, and didn’t recognise the Scandinavian art-pop wafting from his apartment speakers in imperceptibly increasing volume, he knew that it would reveal itself to be precisely the right time, and that the playlist selected would prove exactly to his taste and optimised for the task at hand.
He breathed out, shaking his head in tiny shudders as though it were an Etch-A-Sketch he could make blank again, and waited. For her.
Hi Ted. A voice in his left ear. Friendly, enthusiastic and carefully platonic, like a personal trainer who mentions her boyfriend at carefully chosen intervals while massaging your hamstrings. Nice nap?
“Mmm,” he said, stretching to enjoy the crunch of his shoulders; his early-middle-aged body did not disappoint.
It’s a big evening ahead. Your heart rate is slightly elevated, but don’t worry, we’ve got everything planned. Are you ready?
He exhaled through pursed lips. “If you say so, GO.”
I do, Ted, I do!
In the shower, he followed her instructions: apply shampoo, massage for two minutes, leave for five. Rinse.
You should find a bottle of RetroAction Hair Loss Serum on the shelf. It’s protein-enriched!GO enthused.
“Cool,” he said, up to that moment in his life successful in his attempts to ignore the withdrawing tide of his hairline. He stifled a yelp as the serum stung his eyes.
I’ve noticed you’ve been rushing cleaning your teeth lately, Ted. Let me count you down on each tooth for maximum clean!
“Don’t want to rush the brush,” he said, pushing paste onto bristle.
You’re so funny, Ted! Ready? Let’s go!
Illustration: Eddie Monotone. Animations: Wade Wu
At the wardrobe, he tongued his smooth teeth. In front of him, still wrapped in plastic, hung a new blazer, new shirt, and new jeans. He had seen none of them before but they had been ordered on his behalf and delivered while he had been at work, along with his groceries, his laundry, and the aforementioned bottled mortality-awareness serum.
“Are we sure about the jeans? I thought the invite said formal.”
Don’t worry about it. I happen to know David’s a fan of this designer, and in the past he’s commented on social media that he admires people who disrupt social conventions. He’s going to love it.
“Okay. You’re the boss, GO. Well, he is. But … you know.”
GO laughed, and Ted felt good.
The fit was perfect, of course. Returning to the bathroom, he listened as she advised him on how to style his hair to optimally match his softening jawline.
“GO,” he said, rubbing the recommended moisturiser into his cheeks. He pushed his jowls down to see what he'd look like as an old man. Melty. “Are you sure I should go tonight?”
Are you kidding? You’ve worked hard this quarter, and David’s events are a big deal! The average employee achieves a quarterly performance that warrants an invite to one of David’s Gracias Amigos! parties zero-point-seven-five times in their time at the company.
“But are you sure I should try to pitch David on my idea? He doesn’t even know who I am.”
Ted, you’ve been in your role for six years, and your average annual wage increase has been below the national average. Besides, with the recent reconfiguration of the company shares, there are indications that the board will be looking for ideas to shake things up. Trust me, your accounts integration concept is bound to be a winner.
“Okay,” he said. As the slogan went: GO knows. In truth, he had been wondering just how much of the accounts integration idea was actually his. It felt like his idea, and he was the one who had first verbalised it to GO, but only after weeks of her showing him random reports that she ‘thought you’d be interested in’ and asking him questions that, in retrospect, felt so leading he might as well have been following along on all fours. There were plenty of details that she didn’t have access to, though. Information not in reports but just Ted’s mental IP, so he supposed even if she had dumped all the parts on the table, it was his glue that had stuck them all together.
Now, you need to eat. Not too much - there’ll be tapas at the party.
“Okay,” he said, smoothing out his shirt. “There’s a chicken salad in the fridge.”
Actually, can I make a suggestion? A glass of Glamorade Protein Black would be the optimal nutritional choice,and you'll still be well on track for your daily calorie goal.
“A what?” He was walking to the kitchen, struggling with his cuffs.
Glamorade Protein Black, the latest exciting product from the Glamorade family of lifestyle beverages and liquid consumables. Glamorade Protein Black is the meal in a bottle that finally bridges the gap between the gym and the restaurant, a sophisticated choice for the busy professional who doesn’t want to miss out on life. Ted, would you like to try a Glamorade Protein Black now?
He opened the fridge and saw four bottles of thick black syrup sitting among his regular groceries. “Sure,” he said, grabbing one, twisting off the cap.
What do you think, Ted?
“Okay,” he said. “A little tart.”
Great! Glamorade Protein Black is the optimal nutritional enhancement for your lifestyle and your unique physiological needs – I’ve emailed you through some important legal notices about nutritional claims, you can read them later. I’ll sign you up to a regular delivery – would you prefer three months, six months …
“Whatever you think,” he said. “How am I doing for time?”
Perfectly, Ted. It’s a mild evening outside and David’s apartment is only 35 minutes’ walk away. I recommend a slow, steady pace to help you work off some of those nerves, and to catch up on your steps for the day. I’ll start a beat so you don’t go too fast and get a sweat. Ready?
GO was right, of course. The weather was temperate, though there was a slight breeze that made Ted idly wish GO could turn the wind down a little. The evening city streets were comfortably full of pedestrians, mostly solo, all chatting to themselves. A lot of them were wearing older earpieces than his – bulkier and requiring them to speak a little louder – and this made him feel good about upgrading a few months back. That said, a new model had just hit yesterday, and he suspected that the senior execs at David’s party would probably all be in possession. He mentioned this to GO who interrupted her monologue about the stock market to reassure him that it’d be okay for tonight, though she’d email him further information on the new model in case he’d like to consider a purchase in the morning.
Afterwards, she rattled off the last of the day’s events: Steve and Andrew were hiking in Peru, the president of the US has threatened Iran for reasons exactly matching Ted’s preconceived political beliefs, Sarah and Matt had broken up again.
And this is good timing: David’s just published a new audioblog, entitled Don’t Pity The Hooked Fish, For He Too Was Aiming to Kill. Would you like me to play it?
Ted, would you like to try a Glamorade Protein Black now? ... Glamorade Protein Black is the optimal nutritional enhancement for your lifestyle and your unique physiological needs – I’ve emailed you through some important legal notices about nutritional claims, you can read them later. I’ll sign you up to a regular delivery – would you prefer three months, six months …
Ted grimaced, failing to avoid imagining a thrashing fish pierced on a shiny hook. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Okay, Ted. You need to turn left and cross the street in three, two, one.
Ted did so without looking. The cars that had been coming either way had already stopped, the GOs deciding that this sequence of events would lead to the optimal outcome for all involved.
Hey, here’s something exciting! There’s a press release from the company that makes me. Did you know that the latest data shows that widespread adoption of the eGO Virtual Assistant System has corresponded with a notable reduction in urban crime, traffic congestion, CO2 emissions and TED YOU NEED TO STEP TO THE LEFT AND STOP.
Ted immediately did as he was told, as did the dozen or so people walking in front of him. A few seconds later, a police cruiser followed by an ambulance roared up the side of them, half mounting the sidewalk. Moments passed, the numerous GOs gave their orders, and the pedestrians started walking again.
“What’s that about?” said Ted.
Nothing to worry about, just a minor accident near David’s apartment building. Let’s finish the press release.
Ted arrived at David’s penthouse at the perfect time, the guests having been organised by their respective GOs to appear at a steady pace between 8 and 8.45. He wormed his way through the crowd, sucking in his gut to squeeze between buttocks and breasts, around to a corner where he felt the least in the way. Above him, a glittering Gracias Amigos! banner flaked tiny bits of gold onto his new blazer.
Derek and Lucy from your department are in the far right hand corner. They’ll make optimal anchor companions for the party.
“Yeah but I don’t like Derek and Lucy,” he muttered, eyeing them from across the room. “He tries too hard to be offensive and she’s too easily offended.” At that moment, both Derek and Lucy looked across to Ted, each listening to their own private instructions.
Oh Ted, you’re funny. Here are some conversation starters: Derek just bought a remote controlled sailboat. Lucy spent the day at her sister’s wedding, and comments, ‘Happy for big sis but when will it be my turn LOL sadface emoticon.’
David’s penthouse was expansive and crowded, so Ted’s march to social purgatory was at least slow. As he travelled, excusing himself hastily and repeatedly, other party-goers turned to look, listening for a moment to their GOs before smiling tightly and turning back. Most were wearing the latest earpiece, of course, a tiny hearing aid-sized glowing blue or pink plastic ball, and Ted felt ill with socio-technological inadequacy.
Wait one moment.
He did so, and found a waiter stopping next to him with clockwork timing. He was dressed as a bandito.
“I’m told you’re a fan of Glamorade Protein Black, Mr…” the waiter paused, listening. “Robertson. Would you like a glass of new Glamorade Disrupt infused with rose-flavoured carbonated tequila?”
Sounds delicious! cooed GO.
Ted noticed that the waiter was offering no alternatives, and that all other party goers were uniformly Disrupted. “Thanks,” he said, taking a tall glass of fizzy black liquid. He sipped as the waiter smiled unconvincingly and stepped away. He looked over his glass at Derek and Lucy; the former was making a one-handed gesture of milking a cow and cackling while the latter was scowling in wrapt disgust.
Ted, I’d like to know how you’re enjoying your Glamorade Disrupt. On a scale of one to –
Across the far end of the room, near an illuminated plastic cactus, he glimpsed David Grisk, gesticulating wildly in the centre of a small group that shrieked and clapped. David paused, soaking in his acclaim, and then turned to look directly at Ted.
Ted, now’s the perfect time. Go pitch!
Ted’s stomach tightened, in confusion he attempted to both smile and to turn away and ended up gurning at a nearby pot plant.
Ted, what are y-
There was the sudden cacophony of steel smashing into crystal and then he was on the ground, entangled in at least one other person, his torso soaked.
“Oh my god,” cried the bandito that had just served him, now lying knee-to-armpit with Ted. “Who the f—…I’m sorry, sir. Careful, there’s glass.”
Ted felt hands under his elbows, pulling him up. Another waiter, dressed as a senorita, started picking small shards of his former drinking vessel from his shirt while yet another waiter, a mariachi, started questioning the bandito in an urgent whisper.
Ted was in a slight state of shock. It had been so long since he had collided with anyone, or had been involved in any sort of accident at all, that the whole experience was not only surprising but felt wildly violent. He looked over at David, who gazed on with two raised eyebrows. The youngish but dazzlingly successful entrepreneur turned back to his small audience, said something with a small circular wave of his hand, and they all cackled in shrill delight.
“It wasn’t my fault, Alan,” the bandito implored to the mariachi, nursing a cut hand, “That woman just appeared out of nowhere, I didn’t even get a warning!”
Ted looked to where the bandito was jabbing a bloody finger. Over on the other side of the room, standing next to an aggressively phallic sculpture and in a widening circle of isolation, was a woman with curly dark hair clutching a canvas satchel and looking like an unwilling audience participant in a bad improv show. Her eyes met Ted’s. Sorry, she mouthed with an exaggerated grimace. Ted shrugged and smiled gamely, but before he could say anything he was bustled towards the kitchen door by an expanding army of racially questionable stereotypes.
“Who’s that?” said Ted. “The woman with the black hair? Black sleeveless top?”
GO was silent for a split second. Not sure who you mean, Ted. There’s no-one here that I’m aware of that matches your description. I’ve ordered you a new shirt from Mellberg Brothers across town. It’ll arrive in 17 minutes.
22 minutes later, Ted was leaning against a fridge bigger than his wardrobe, buttoning his new shirt (perfect fit), when GO abruptly paused her monologue on his optimal blood sugar levels to announce:
David Grisk is coming.
A single second later, the kitchen door swung open and David stepped through. He was beaming with the efficacy and ease of someone who was a natural beamer, the rare type of man who could beam without instantly looking like a literal or figurative Muppet; his unfair genetic beaming ability enhanced by his unnaturally white teeth, white linen shirt and trousers (no shoes), and just-short-of-orange tan.
“Ted! Ted Robertson! Good to see you, thanks so much for coming along,” he beamed. “Hey, nice jeans! Your GO told you to wear those, right? There are like 20 other guys wearing those. Hey, I’m sorry about what happened out there, that’s terrible luck. How are you anyway, Ted, have we ever met?” He listened for a moment. “No, but that’s cool. How are you?”
“Um,” said Ted.
“Ha, I’ve surprised you, right? I do that. I hacked my GO so she doesn’t share information with her network. I don’t know, I’m a kook, I guess. So what’s up?”
Ted, I’m scanning David’s network for a Katherine and nothing’s coming up. I don’t think this is the optimal conversation for you to be having right now. If you’re interested in meeting someone tonight, there’s a lovely woman called Wendy from Testing with excellent financials.
David was younger than Ted by a couple of years, somehow dressed both immaculately and like a man who went missing on a three week getaway in Phuket only to be found seven years later running a small beach bar made of planks and tarpaulin on the Cambodian coast.
“So, Ted, I hear you’ve been with us…six years! That’s a great run, well done. In Accounts! Wow, that’s great, you guys really are the heart of the business, I mean that. You had…eight sick days in the last calendar year. Yeesh, do you have some sort of illness? Dude, we might be able to assist with medical. Do you mind if I check out your medical history? Just say ‘allow data access request XT4417’ if it’s cool.”
“Oh, ah. Allow data access XT4417.”
David scowled and listened for a few seconds. “Oh no, no illness. Just ‘mental health days’ huh?” He laughed, slapped Ted on the shoulder, then left his hand there as he lowered his tone, squinting his eyes. “I mean, we don’t really care about that kind of stuff anyway, you know? That’s not what’s important to us. What’s important to us is, you know, you, the teamster and them, the customer, you know? And if we make the customer happy, guess what? We all get rich. Well, some of us. But if I get rich, you know, then you get rich. Right? In a way. Don’t pity the hooked fish, you know?”
Ted tried to smile, thinking, ‘Holy hell, his hand’s on my shoulder, I think that’s my leprosy sorted’. “Ah, well actually David, I had something I wanted to talk to you about,” he said, and immediately saw the smile on David’s face dim, even though not a single muscle moved.
“Oh. Yeah?” said David, his eyes flicking from Ted’s eyes to his chin to something on the wall behind him. He removed his hand from Ted’s shoulder.
Ted, now is not the optimal time to talk to David about the accounts integration idea. Change subjects.
“Oh. Um. Great party,” said Ted, smiling weakly, the metaphorical pith and vinegar draining out of him as though his feet were sieves. “I’m so grateful.”
David beamed, again, slapping Ted on the shoulder in the exact same spot.
“Listen, I’m psyched you could make it tonight. I think I saw a couple of your colleagues out there too. Derek and Lizzy? I’m sure you guys will have a lot to talk about. Actually, it’s funny, Derek looks like a total normie too but he just pitched this incredible idea about accounts integration to me. Smart dude. Super disruptive. Have you tried the tapas? Delicious. Well, I’m told, I don’t know, I’m on pure liquids now, you know? Now get the hell out of my kitchen. I’m kidding! But yeah, don’t hang out here, it’s weird.”
David strode out of the kitchen, toying with a leather bracelet on his left wrist, muttering as he went, “This party sucks, GO, what the hell kind of playlist is this?”
Ted sat in silence for a moment and tugged on the cuffs on his shirt. “Derek pitched the accounts integration idea?”
I’ve got great news, Ted. After your accident in the lounge, I calculated that you pitching the idea to David would carry a greater risk of not being accepted, so I sent the info through to Derek’s GO and she gave him a quick rundown. The most important factor was delivering the idea to David for the good of the company, but now there’s the added advantage of Derek receiving a potential pay rise so he can put his daughter through private school. She’s having a tough time. It’s really the optimal outcome, given the circumstances.
Ted sighed, but didn’t argue. GO Knows. “How much longer do I have to stay before it’s professionally optimal for me to leave?”
One hour, 27 minutes, Ted.
Ted sighed again, harder, clenching and unclenching his jaw. “Okay.”
In the lounge, Ted listened-but-not-really to Derek recount his conversation with David, how the idea just ‘came to him’ a few minutes earlier, while Lucy quizzed him closely on whether David had mentioned money. Meanwhile, GO chatted in his ear about the financial market and asked him if he’d approve a small transaction to invest in a particular brand of smart sports bra that she thought was promising.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, staring at the full drink in his hand, swirling it close to the lip of the glass.
He looked up, puffing his cheeks and breathing out sharply, and spotted the woman with the curly black hair and sleeveless top. She stood on an expensive-looking rug by herself next to the chocolate fountain, eating a chocolate-dripping plum without a napkin.
“Excuse me,” he said to no-one.
“Oh god,” said the woman as Ted approached her. She had a deep voice, the type that somehow manages to verbalise an eyeroll. “Hi. I’m sorry. Hi.”
“Hi,” said Ted.
Ted, I can’t sense who you’re talking to — do you see an earpiece in this person’s left ear? They might need to reset it, if you get their email address I can send the instructions through.
“No worries,” said Ted. “I was just surprised. That’s the first time anyone’s bumped into me in a long time.”
“Oh really? I do it all the time. It’s kinda my thing, making a dick of myself. Kidding. I’m Katherine. What’s she saying?”
Katherine tapped her left ear, and Ted saw that it was empty. It looked weird.
“Oh,” he said. “She’s asking who you are. I guess she thinks you don’t exist.”
“Yeah. I get that. The other day I tried to cross the road – at a crossing – and an Audi rammed straight into me.” Katherine lifted up her top and showed off a deep purple bruise on the right side of her abdomen. Ted sucked air between his teeth appreciatively. “Saw me from right up the road too. Well, saw me but didn’t see me, because she wouldn’t have seen me.”
Ted, I’m scanning David’s network for a Katherine and nothing’s coming up. I don’t think this is the optimal conversation for you to be having right now. If you’re interested in meeting someone tonight, there’s a lovely woman called Wendy from Testing with excellent financials who –
“Do you smoke?” Katherine said.
“Didn’t think so. I’m heading out on the balcony. Come.”
They leaned against the railing and looked out while Katherine lit a cigarette and drew on it. “See the cordons down there?” she said, pointing to the street to the west of the apartment building. “Some guy jumped.”
“I don’t think so,” said Ted. “I heard it was a minor accident.”
“Nah. Rich dude a few floors down. Happened earlier. David knew him.”
“You know David?”
“Half-sister,” she said. “Don’t ask me where I work, I don’t, and no I don’t live around here, just visiting. She really told you it was a minor accident?”
Ted, I’m accessing public records of David’s extended family now, but in the meantime there’s a delicious Turkish lamb chop dish being served up in the –
Almost without thinking, he reached up and took the earpiece out while Katherine stared down at the street. He hid it in his fist before lowering his hand and pushing it into his back jeans pocket. The cool evening breeze in his left ear startled him.
She blew out a plume of smoke. “She doesn’t like news that reflects badly on her. You notice that?”
“Who? Oh. How do you know it was about – ”
“I don’t. Just guessing. I’ve known a lot of people who, um, don’t get on that well with her. The idea that everything should be perfect, all the time. It’s kind of ... a bit much. And every so often … ” She gestured to the street below, trailing a pointed finger in a long arc up and then down. She ended it with a raspberry noise, then shrugged. “It seems to work for a certain type of person, though.”
“What type of person?”
Ted was finding it kind of creepy not to have a second monologue in his ear.
“You know. Optimal heart rate and fastest-way-to-get-there and green-poo smoothies and all that. They used to call it Type A, back when there was a B. You know, I heard one story about a warehouse fire in Perth where the GOs told all the executives first so they could get out before the rest of the staff.”
“That can’t be true. That would have been huge news.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Depends on who's giving you your news though, I suppose.”
“Besides,” he said, “maybe that was the best way to respond to the fire. Maybe the executives were closer to the exits, or maybe they were on average older so it would take them longer.“
“Oh yeah, I’m sure you’re right, or maybe it was the optimal choice for the company or the local economy or whatever, or maybe the execs had better earpieces, or maybe the office workers didn’t have any at all.” She turned to look at Ted, elbow leaning on the railing. “Still though, if I was going to be burned to death I’d like to think I’d get a chance to scrap it out fair and square, you know?”
“Besides, she’s done a lot of good for crime and the environment and – ”
“Oh for sure. I guess there’s no optimal answer, right? Not to being human. Don’t pity the hooked fish – ”
“ – for he too was trying to kill?”
“I was going to say ‘because otherwise you’d never sleep.’
But yeah, that too.” She looked up at him in a way that was somewhere between a threat and a promise, and instantly he wanted to know everything about her. To not be informed immediately was torturous, and strangely exhilarating.
A woman appeared, tall, serious-faced, holding two glasses. She smiled at Ted, pausing before she spoke. “Hi Ted, I’m Wendy. I was told we should meet. Would you like a delicious Glamorade Disrupt, infused with – ”
“Oh. Sure,” said Ted, though he was still holding his full glass. He dropped his warm glass on the balcony and took a cool one from Wendy’s hand.
“Um,” said Wendy, “I’m also being asked if you’d mind returning your earpiece to your ear. I’m told to ensure you that it’s the optimal decision.” She smiled gamely.
“Oh, yeah. Sure,” said Ted, suddenly embarrassed, as though his fly was down. He started digging in the back pocket of his jeans, and as he did, he caught Katherine looking at him. “Oh, ah, this is Katherine. Katherine, this is Wendy. She, uh, has excellent financials.” Having to make an introduction between two people felt weird and old-timey. Wendy turned to Katherine, looking slightly surprised to see her there. Lacking conversational prompts and looking confused and slightly panicked, Wendy said nothing but held out her own untouched drink to Katherine.
“God no,” said Katherine, scrunching her face up at the half dozen glasses of black syrup on the waiter’s tray. “Beer maybe?”
“Oh. Um, I think they might have some,” said Wendy, “I’ll find a waiter.”
“Actually,” said Ted, surprised at the sudden volume of his voice. “A beer would be good, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Wendy looked at him with an expression that he couldn’t quite place. She was silent for a moment, head cocked to the side, listening. “And are you sure that’s the best decision to keep you within your optimal daily diet limit today, Ted?”
“Oh,” said Ted, still holding the earpiece in front of him. His cheeks felt hot despite the cool night air. Without a constant voice in his ear, he felt like he was suddenly incredibly conscious of the volume of his own thoughts, as jumbled and manic as they were, and was irrationally worried that everyone else could hear them too. He felt, too, like he could hear now the noise of the whole city; a plane was flying overhead, a couple screwed on a nearby balcony, Katherine’s long dangling earrings jangled in the breeze. He could feel the vibrations in his fingers of GO saying something to him; the buzz was insistent, she was really going for it. He looked at Wendy, at Katherine, out to the city skyline, down at GO.
“Ah. Um. Actually, you know...” he said. It was as though in the back of his mind, something small and shiny had started thrashing wildly. “... I really have no idea.”
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