Something for the Weekend, Sir? Twas the night after Christmas, but I felt all alone.
I’d opted for on-call rather than spend it at home.
Paid double to sit idle, my colleagues did say:
No one will work late on this Christmas Day.
The office is empty, pretty much – it’s a laugh!
(It’s a Boxing Day news feed with a skeleton staff.)
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Then the night support phone started bleeping.
“Ah fucking shite-house.”
It’s Christmas 2031 and things have changed a lot in the world of newspapers. For a start, it has been almost a decade since we ditched the paper element. No matter that paper by then had become the cheapest and – thanks to Scandinavian forestry regulations (when you fell a tree, you must plant two new ones) – most environmentally impactless medium for publishing.
The real problem had been the rising electricity bills for running the printing presses and the sheer expense of delivering physical copies up and down the country, not to mention dumping heaps of them on aeroplanes.
It was much cheaper for us to shunt the costs onto readers, who not only paid us for their digital news subscription but also had to buy their own devices required to read it and settled their own electricity bills, charging up their tablets and smartphones nightly via the environmentally friendly wonders of nuclear power stations.
One thing has not changed: Britons generally do not want to read newspapers on Christmas Day. That’s why we don’t publish on 25 December. It has nothing to do with it being a Bank Holiday or a religious thing; it certainly has nothing to do with giving staff time off.
Think about it: the bulk of morning newspaper content is produced the night before. In order not to publish on Christmas Day, we take Christmas Eve off work. But since British readers like to read newspapers on Boxing Day, it means it’s all hands on deck the night before, ie, on Christmas Day itself.
That said, it’s now almost midnight on 25 December 2031 and tomorrow morning’s edition has already been done. All that’s left are a handful of staff to trickle stories from international news agencies into our live feed through the night. Easy pickings for a production support bod such as myself for a double-time and overtime boost to his modest income! There’s little chance of anyone needing support as there are so few staff around tonight.
Of course, when I say “staff”, I mean the AIs.
Even back in 2021, you could see the way things were going. Sports stories were already being written by robot: any randomiser fed from a database of sporting clichés can write a pretty effective report on a football match. It’s not a big ask.
Come to think of it, looking back, it was Christmas 2021 that might have set the ball rolling. I’d joined a Zoom call with the night production team and as we awaited the others to arrive, the production director started absent-mindedly humming a popular Christmas ditty:
“He knows when you are sleepiiiing,” she chundered, good-naturedly. “He know when you’re awaaaake…”
“Really?” I interjected. “My Fitbit does that too.”
She fell silent for a few moments, frowning slightly. With less gusto, she continued this musical murmur:
“He knows when you are bad or good…”
“So Santa Claus is an artificial intelligence too?” I snapped back.
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. It’s a medical condition known as Tourette Anum Captiosus. But rather than show irritation, the production director just went quiet again and remained lost in her own thoughts for the rest of the meeting.
Over the following years, the production director replaced 90 per cent of her staff with robots, and the newspaper’s editor did the same with the reporters.
You’d think I would be kicking myself for putting the idea in their heads those 10 Christmases ago. Not at all. What riles me is that I never got paid a finder’s fee.
My colleagues on customer support are happy with how things have turned out. There is still plenty of work for them – more so, in fact, as the complexity of the AI systems and interfaces between them require constant attention. Gone are the days when you would just glance at the load balancing status every now and again while waiting for the next user to log a call. In fact, that’s what they enjoy the best: not getting those tiresome calls to help users discover that they haven’t plugged their mouse back in after recharging their phone.
Which brings me back to the present. I am alone on customer support tonight as the systems, when not taking care of themselves, can be monitored and doctored remotely by colleagues snug in their beds. Me, I’ve only been hauled out of retirement because I am the only minion left alive prepared to volunteer for the in-person customer-facing role for the handful of humans still working alongside the robots.
Woe betide any human who rings the support line tonight: they get me.
My crotch glows in the gloom. In 2031, incoming messages don’t ring or vibrate your smartphone; they illuminate your clothing. (Another of my great ideas turned into a runaway success without remuneration. Curses.)
Double-tapping on my bollocks, I read that the user asking for assistance is not one of the humans. It is one of the robots.
Obviously these are not walking, talking, RUR-style, “Robbie-the” contraptions, but AIs existing in software somewhere in cloud data centres. I think. Not sure. Anyway, if they can write news stories, they can certainly interact with me via the medium of conventional wordage. One such AI writing the newspaper has alerted me to a problem with one of its interfaces. Could I come down and check it out?
Fearing that this call might be somewhat over my head since I’m about as likely to rewrite a Perl script for interfacing two systems as I am to sex goldfish using Microsoft Office, I head downstairs. In the newsroom, there are plenty of humming cabinets and blinking LEDs, plus a few desks. One of them has a man slumped over it. He is tonight’s designated human operator.
To one side of the slumped reporter is a mostly empty bottle of Haig. Phew, I thought, thank goodness he hadn’t drunk all of it!
To his other side is the empty bottle of Haig he had already finished off. Ah.
On the display in front of him, a window pops up with a message for me from the AI: “Thank you for coming downstairs. My interface has broken down. Can you see what the problem is? We’re on deadline.”
His interface is the highly experienced but currently snoring journalist, fast asleep and not responding to shoulder-shaking, ear-flicking or shouting “Wake up you dozy bastard.”
He is smiling in his sleep, too, which I suppose means he’ll live through it. At least he’ll have keycap impressions on his right cheek for days after this, so there.
The thing is, he’s supposed to be supervising the text copy served up by the AIs and choosing where they might go in the next edition, or determining the order in which they should be added to the overnight live feed. The AIs can’t do this without him because that’s the way we set up the workflow.
A sharp kick to the larger of his two already vast buttocks does the trick. He awakes dozily and stands up. I proceed to prod his mighty arse with the tip of my Docs to coax him towards the WC, where he pukes most of the whisky into the waste bin, pees in the sink and has a sip of water from the latrine.
Refreshed, he returns to his desk of power: one man to control the mindless machines. And he’s shredding through the stories again.
By the time I have returned to my own desk upstairs, the AI has updated the log to say it was solved satisfactorily and can be closed. All that’s required is for me to complete the report with a summary of the incident.
Computer called me to say that user had broken down. Booted up, cleaned out and refreshed settings. User now working OK but recommend replacement.
Merry Christmas. I predict a long winter ahead.
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. When he is not predicting the near future, he is working hard to bring about his own eventual obsolescence by continuing to work in this thankless industry. Pass me that whisky, would you? More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.