Garth reread the words that he had just typed into the computer warily. He looked over each turn of phrase, choice of word and literary device that he had used. He considered the words carefully and then nodded to himself and leaned back in his chair.
“Yeah… that can’t be wrong.” He muttered under his breath, satisfied. He tapped a quick sequence of keys activating the ART Checker™. An hourglass blinked into existence in the centre of the screen, with all the sand in the bottom half. In a show of pointlessly fluid animation, it swivelled slowly, as if turned by an unseen hand. The sand started to trickle gradually down into the now empty bottom half. For long moments he waited while the complex software of the “Artistic Relevance and Technique Checker™” ran its wary and informed metaphorical eye over the inputted text, comparing it against its comprehensive database of what constituted art. These subroutines for artistic evaluation and appreciation had been developed after much expense, extensive research and careful consideration by some of the foremost computer scientists of the age.
The hourglass silently exploded into a thousand glittering pieces that scattered across the screen and disappeared. The apparent violence of the animation was softened by the gentle tinkling of computer-generated chords that chirruped forth from the speakers with a level of depth and clarity that could be achieved by no real musical instrument. It had passed judgement. A window appeared, swirling out of the back of the screen. Garth was intensely familiar with the animation, used as it was throughout the standard computer operating systems as a typical placatory gesture to distract attention from any delays in the software, and though it took barely half a minute from his first initiating the ART Checker™ to it rendering its final decision, he found it immensely irritating.
The software engineers that had developed the software had, as demonstrated by the soothing sounds and friendly animation, wanted to make it a pleasant and calming thing to use. They were aware that when they allowed their creation to escape the confines of the development labs and onto the open market (where it could find a happy home for the meagre sum of €$150 (exc. vat)) that people would, despite all advice to the contrary, commit the cardinal error of using a computer, and their software itself, when under stress.
It had been recognised since the days of the first microprocessors that computers and humans could easily have a troubled relationship. The genetically hard-wired human reflex reaction to all situations that represented an obstacle to the individual (i.e. to become angry at said obstacle) was never one that could be considered likely to be of any real practical use when dealing with highly complex machine protocols that were not capable of caring either way in the first place. As a result, it had long been realised that using a computer when agitated was a process that could only lead to further problems, and the ensuing disruption in function of hardware, both electronic and organic. Typically, the electronic hardware, which, as stated was totally indifferent to the whole process, had no capacity to be emotionally effected by this in any way; after all, a crashed computer rarely seems concerned about being crashed. The added stresses placed on the organic hardware by this would lead to activities that could only cause further disruption of the electronic hardware, invariably its outright breakdown in function. This, of course, would add once more to the stresses on the organic hardware in a way that could usually be seen to be of some concern to itself, and if any other units of organic hardware were near by, them also. The actual reason for the failing of computer system when provoked by an emotionally charged environment was not realised for some decades after the development of the microchip.
It is an unusual peculiarity of the human body and the bioelectrical field that it projects that it can when appropriately charged by intensity of emotion have an instantly debilitating effect on the function of any microprocessors in the vicinity. Garth had heard of this, the “circuit-breaker effect” as it had been dubbed by the journalist that had simplified the explanation of the effect into a form that could be presented to the public as a television science documentary. He had half listened to the documentary, but it had been principally made up of attractive looking animations showing what a bioelectrical field would look like – were it purple, with earnest sounding voice-overs from the female journalist (fighting a battle to appear both intelligent and sexy, without either really being skills with which she was properly equipped) and only rare clips of the (bearded, intelligent, but not sexy) scientist responsible for the theory behind it all. Those portions of the documentary that had actually contained any real scientific explanation of the effect had rather passed him by and failed to lodge in his mind. This was, however, entirely excusable. After all, he had been receiving a blowjob at the time. Some portion of his mind that had been less distracted than the rest had logged that the scientist involved had a name that sounded vaguely Polish to him (Warsowski? Wardovski? He couldn’t remember). The theory had later been explained to him in more depth one night in a bar. This time sadly, he had been drinking heavily and his fellow drinker had been slightly hampered in his explanations, despite sounding entirely informed upon the subject, by his own significant intake of alcohol and the ensuing cognitive and verbal slurring. Thus, he had again failed to get a really firm scientific grasp of the subject.
Regardless, the software engineers developing the ART Checker™ had had ample reason to attempt to make their creation something that could be pleasant and as non-stressful as possible to use. As a result, not only was it festooned with cheerful graphics and friendly noises, it was also designed to render its judgement of the input as tactfully as possible. Judge it would, and objectively, but it would always at least try to be nice when breaking unpleasant news to its user. Underneath the pleasantly packaged front-end of the software, though, Garth had no doubt there beat the heart of a ruthless bastard that relished the chance to rubbish anything that it was given to analyse. This opinion was of course entirely likely to be biased by his own experiences.
Across the menu that had popped up on the screen a blinking cursor began to trace a line leaving bold, rounded letters in its wake. Garth’s eyes followed the progress of the cursor impatiently, though it did give him a chance to construct a quick diatribe against software engineers that believed that peoples’ needs were more effectively served by being flooded with bells and whistles rather than with concise functionality. The monitor flickered for a second. An impartial observer might have noticed this as the computer’s reaction to his increasingly violent imaginings about it. Garth didn’t. He merely regarded it as an excuse to extend his current enmity to include visual display units and their manufacturers also. He read the screen.
“Your input has no artistic merit whatsoever.” The cursor flashed twice, skipped down a line, and then continued, “Sorry.” Garth swore, and the monitor flickered again. He resisted his racial instinct to slap some portion of the offending object, barely. Options appeared beneath the verdict.
“Continue, Discard, Elaborate.” For a few moments each word in turn pulsed slightly, to attract attention to it. Garth couldn’t help but noticing that the “Discard” option appeared to pulse for somewhat longer than the others, and seemed to end up in a fractionally bigger font. The pointer edged slowly across the screen of its own accord, tactfully approaching “Discard”. Garth knocked his hand against the sensor pad, shifting the pointer back across the screen. He could not help but feel that it was being an overly harsh and judgemental critic, avoiding giving him any constructive analysis and instead stating that he was wasting his time and discretely nudging him towards abandoning the whole thing.
One of the exciting additional features, as it was advertised, of the software package was that not only could it critically analyse and assess all inputs, but that it was able to encourage the user towards what its sub-routines had deduced was the most appropriate fate for them. Apparently, when faced with a piece of appropriate quality it could automatically prompt the user to send the work to their friends in emails. If a piece of astounding merit was produced, then it would encourage, more guardedly, that it was worthy of despatching electronically to any of the list of publishers that it had been programmed with.
In the development stage of the software, it had been decided that most users would probably be literary dilettantes, individuals that lived healthy and productive lives for their own sake, people that would occasionally want to try their hand at creative writing, and who would, while occasionally producing witty haikus and so forth that it deemed good enough to share with their immediate friends and colleagues, on the whole rather not have their system clogged with countless half-baked attempts at creativity. After all, such things could only be a source of embarrassment if discovered by someone else at a later date in the process of a system sweep. As a result, the software had been designed to aid the user in the acceptance of the limitations of their work, and in the quiet deletion of anything it regarded as lacking. Garth, it had to be admitted, was not leading a normally healthy and productive life and had a tendency to believe that he was an artist chasing some great and elusive goal and that his works were in and of themselves usually worthy of attention and contemplation. This view was of course a highly subjective one, and this he conceded to the extent that he was prepared to at least attempt to enlist the aid of the objective and hopefully impartial software to give him an opinion of his efforts. After consideration he was sceptical as to whether the software could be considered either objective or impartial. He was developing a grudge against it, and it, it seemed, against him. He felt obliged to persevere though; the software had been a present from his mother, her attempt at quiet encouragement of his artistic delusions. While she did not share his opinions of his artistic talents, indeed she had had very little experience of them; she felt that maternal duties extended to making at least this gesture of encouragement. Anyway, she had inwardly hoped, as was happening, that the software would prove intolerant in its analysis of his talents, and that perhaps this might do something to increase the imperative in his mind to do something different and more obviously useful with his life.
The pointer was again edging its way inexorably towards the “Discard” button. He picked up the flat sensor pad, and slapped it down against the desktop. The monitor flickered again, but the pointer remained still. He twitched his hand over the pad, moving the pointer over to the “Elaborate” option. If the software was going to damn his creativity, it could at least justify itself in slightly more detail than simply writing it off in eight words. The pointer seemed reluctant to linger there, so he immediately clicked the pad to confirm his choice.
A new window appeared. Sadly, however, this new appearance failed to reaffirm Garth’s belief in the value of the ART Checker™’s ability to provide useful and constructive criticism. He had foolishly allowed himself to hope that the “Elaborate” command would offer some insight into what the software had found to be so utterly worthless about his words. Perhaps it would offer him some specific suggestion as to which aspect of his technique and language use it found exception with. Instead, it presented him with a long and rather complicated looking series of formulae, without any real explanation. This led into a lengthy statistical breakdown of the piece, which was presumably designed to demonstrate and reassure him of the detail and thought that had gone into the creation of the software, but in reality the statement that his RBPL was definitely rated at 0.0% did little to convince him. After some minutes of concerted effort, he managed to discover that this apparently stood for “Rhythmic Background Pathos Level”. He could understand each of these words individually, and hazard a guess at the broad meaning of them all together in this context, however convoluted the combination, but he was uncertain as to what methods were being used to measure them and more importantly why his efforts were regarded as being so utterly lacking in this presumably important factor of artistic endeavour.
Beneath the confusing and ultimately unrewarding collection of figures was a sentence in actual English, which he initially found oddly comforting, simply as a change from the acronyms and percentages. “Do you want to see this presented differently?” it asked him, which he found to be a pleasant enough sentiment, the first sign of an actual interest in his opinions that he had been shown. He clicked “Yes”, a little warily. The computer thought carefully about this for a few seconds, and then the mess of figures was replaced by a scatter graph, with a collection of small blue crosses arranged around it and a single red cross in the bottom left corner. The vertical axis was marked “Technique / Convention”, the horizontal “Emotion / Beauty”. This all seemed to be comprehensible enough, if a little depressing to anyone of sentiment. He was uncertain how he felt about an axis measuring beauty, but he was sure it wasn’t a good thing. He wafted the cursor over the crosses, one identified itself as Wordsworth’s Daffodils, another as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another as Homer’s Odyssey, another, to his resounding bewilderment, as Archer’s Cain and Abel. He was increasingly dubious that this was really helping him. As expected, the single red cross that hovered at the bottom left revealed itself to be his input. He was losing both interest and patience and decided to do the sensible thing and go out and drink. He left the computer on, not bothering to close it down. The cursor again found a “Discard” button to hover over. He hadn’t the heart to stop it. By the time he returned to it, some hours later, it had quietly deleted his work. The screen was taken up entirely with a pleasantly rendered graphic of a small forest clearing, with occasional woodland animals drifting around in what was presumably intended to be a calming manner. He ignored it, choosing instead to stumble over a chair and climb into bed, where he fell asleep rapidly, having in his stumble pulling the computer power cable from the wall by accident. It suffered a momentary serious error in function and then shut down. It was grumpy for the next few days, but Garth barely even noticed. In the end, the computer was able to help him to further his writing career. He used it to go online and buy a typewriter.