(A very short story.)
It was the last day of high school. And that meant only one thing to Cindy: the school ball. There she was that evening, dressed in a beautiful gown with her friends. As she strutted around in her heels, her eyes looked for him. Where was that stupid guy? Hadn’t she explained to him so many times how much this evening meant to her? Hadn’t she told him how she wanted to dance the night away with him?
“Zhishang station! Zhishang station! Please mind the doors.” Cindy was rudely awakened from her day-dream. She quickly stepped out of the train and took the escalator down to the mall. The ball was a week away and she still didn’t have the money for her dress. It was ridiculously expensive, but the moment she had seen it she had known that it was the one for her. The photos from the ball would go on Facebook, but she believed that the memories would last her lifetime. The only problem was the money. And that was why she had decided that she would dream-work all through this week. Eight hours a night, for seven days straight.
She walked into a 7-Eleven store, and looked around for the soft drinks section. There it was, back against the wall, a row of glass-doored refrigerators. She quickly found what she was looking for: red cans of Redbull Buzz. She paid for ten cans of Buzz and headed home. She still had a few hours of homework to finish before she could plug in.
Redbull Buzz, curiously enough, did not carry the popular “gives you wings” slogan. That was because it did not. The packaging was dull and it was not advertised anywhere. In fact, it had not been launched anywhere outside of Asia. Executives at Redbull were not sure what side-effects might bring down the product, if the US FDA were to put it to rigorous trials. Why kill the golden goose? Buzz was outselling the original Redbull already. It had become the drink of choice of dream-workers.
Chance discoveries had always happened in science. And so it was with Caffeine-497. It and over 40 other variants of the original Caffeine molecule had been extracted out of coffee beans a few decades ago. Their properties had been thoroughly studied and their 3D structure had been cataloged in molecular databases. Unlike the Caffeine molecule, 497 did not keep you alert or awake. Deemed useless, it had been forgotten. What had brought it back was a bungled project by a group of sleep-research interns. Mistakenly using 497 instead of Caffeine, they had discovered that the molecule allowed the body to fall asleep, while keeping the mind clear and free of dreams. Since it was just as easy to produce as Caffeine, a couple of enterprising young guys had successfully pitched their idea to Redbull. The result was the success of Buzz.
Cindy was an intelligent girl. The year-end homework was pretty easy and she quickly dispensed with it. She finished dinner with her parents and said her good nights. She closed the room to her door and headed to her desk. She slowly drank down two cans of Buzz. It tasted like cough syrup. She opened the Dreamist app on her smartphone and set its worklist quota to eight hours. She watched as it loaded up her worklist for the night over its 3G connection. She plugged in the earphones, switched off the lights, wrapped the sleep-mask around her eyes and lied back on her bed.
“Welcome to Dreamist. If you are ready for your work, roll your eyes to the right once.” said the soft and soothing female voice in her earphones. She rolled her eyeballs to the right, underneath her closed eyelids. This motion was registered by her eye-mask which transmitted the result over Bluetooth to the smartphone app. “Good. We begin with 500 Facebook comments posted on the Nike page. I will read out each comment. If you feel the comment would be liked by you or your friends, roll your eyes to the right. Else roll to the left.” Boy, this is going to be a long night, Cindy thought as she started to work through her quota.
The Caffeine-497 in her Buzz was already working through her body. She felt extremely relaxed and numb and so was her mind. But, it was clear enough to make simple decisions. She had tried dream-work before, actually everyone at her school had. It was an easy and risk-free way to earn some pocket money. There was virtually no side-effect, since the 497 allowed the body to release all the right sleep hormones needed by the muscles for rest and repair. The only aspect it controlled was the mind, which it gently held back, just enough. Not enough to really think things through, but just enough for making rudimentary decisions.
“You guys are capitalist pigs” said the female voice reading out the comment. Cindy rolled her eyes to the left. That was not a real comment, she thought. Must be one of the randomly inserted test comments used by the app to make sure the worker was not faking it. Facebook comments, Twitter tweets, blog comments, anything that could be read by a text-to-speech converter and needed a bit of human judgement was fair for the game in this work. Decisions in marketing, advertising, design, all were now being put through A-B testing of this type to prove their worth. With no physical harm caused to the workers and only small amounts of money being earned, this underground economy had escaped regulation. Virtual workplaces, like that of Amazon Mechanical Turk, has already created the online task division, doling, processing and payment systems needed for such work. People were ready to work all their waking hours. The only territory left now was their sleeping hours.
It was Saturday noon, bright and sunny, as Cindy took the train to meet her friends at the mall. She had put in extra hours of sleep and work during the week and had accumulated enough money in her Paypal account to buy the dress. Her teachers had been a bit puzzled to see her being dull in class during the week. Her eyes had been a bit red all day too. Other than that, the work had no side-effects. Looking around curiously at the other passengers, she wondered how many of them were trading in their dreams for small change.
She mindlessly flipped through her phone, checking articles shared by her friends. There was one by the Economist, claiming dream-work as the unconquered Wild West of labour and said cheesily that “counting sheep for big bucks” was the way to go. Apparently, researchers were already looking for unintrusive methods of playing images to the mind during sleep. Judging Facebook photos, image commercials and other vision-based decision-work was far more lucrative and it was where this industry is headed said the piece. As the train nodded off, cutting through the city, Cindy closed her eyes and, for the first time that week, started to dream of the ball.