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artificial life

© Christopher Watney

I shift my grip and stare at my watch. 2.15am. I calculate that I give the presentation in 54 hours and 15 minutes. D-day is Friday at 9.30am; today is only Wednesday.

Shaking my head, I laugh at myself; what a time to be thinking of work. I try to remember what the girl in the white Morgan hipsters and baby-blue Dolce and Gabanna T-shirt who is still dancing on the dancefloor looks like, and I reassure myself that the presentation will be fine. I know what I've got to say. I've just got to write it down, get my slides made. No problemo.

I finish chasing cigarette ends around the bowl and, careful not to leave a drop that might stain or cause embarrassment, I zip up my trousers and cross to the hand basin. I grimace at the cheap liquid soap I have to use (no cursory splash of water for me) and I stare in the mirror. I'm quite pleased with what I see, but allow myself another self-reproaching chuckle as I realise my assumption that I would look the same as I did the last time I saw my reflection is obviously false. Two bottles of Sapporo premium brew beer (5.8% by volume), a bottle of Rothschild 1989 Bordeaux (12%) and two flaming sambuccas (40% prior to being lit), as well as at least six shots of tequila in the club (also 40%) help neither complexion nor composure, but my eyes are steady, and my lips and teeth have almost lost the coating of tannin left by the wine. I feel good, I feel reckless but I feel in control. I refuse to let myself remember I should be in work early in the morning, working on those slides.


Leaving the toilet my eyes take a few moments to adjust to the darkness of the club. A drum and bass set fills the room, controlling the movement of the crowd. I watch individuals dance, swaying like reeds, and as they merge and become tangled in a greater movement, I think of chaos theory. Perhaps I could use the simile when I discuss my artificial life models on Friday, but then I don't suppose any of our executive directors have ever been to a club, or would know what dance music sounds like. I push these thoughts away and move into the throng, looking for the girl in the white Morgan hipsters and baby-blue Dolce and Gabanna T-shirt.

I finally spot her some distance from where I left her. I wonder about the whereabouts of the friends I came with, and remember them muttering about "school-nights", and "still-recovering-from-the-weekend". Pete may still be around somewhere.

It seems to take forever to push through the crowd to where she is, and when I finally make it, she's dancing with someone else. I'm confused, hurt (how the hell can I be hurt? I don't even know her name, for Christ's sake!) But then I see that she's actually doing all she can to shake the guy off. Good Girl!, I think, and start to enjoy my victory over this loser. Boy, is he drunk. I make my way over the final few metres and take her wrist. I ask her if she's OK, and she nods she is. The drunk guy seems to have forgotten he was trying to move in on the girl and is stood, arms outstretched, in motion with the music, head upturned and his eyes shut. Shouting to be heard I ask her if she wants another drink. She shakes her head no. She tells me she has to go -- a friend of hers is leaving in the morning to go South Africa and she has to say goodbye to him. Before she leaves, I make sure she writes her number on the back of one of my new four-colour business cards. I'll call her later.



I give up looking for Pete. He must have left with the others, so I leave the club and walk along Greek Street, searching for a cab. This has got to be the worst place and the worst time for finding taxis in the whole of London, and I'm quickly tired of walking with my head over my shoulder, searching for that familiar, friendly yellow light. I pass real homeless people and fakes too - kids down for the summer months, here for the romance of street life (I ask you, what the hell is romantic about living under a filthy duvet with a bunch of winos as friends?) One of them tries selling me a copy of the Big Issue. I tell him to piss off -- does he really think I would be looking for something to read at half past two in the morning? A bit further along I see what could be a pretty little thing in a shop doorway, toking on a spliff. I consider asking her what she would do for a tenner, but instead try for a puff on her joint. This time I'm the one that's told to piss off.

I get to Soho Square, and try my luck on Carlisle Street hoping to find a cab on a short-cut back to clubland. I think again about the presentation and how important it is, or rather, how important it is not to fuck it up. Twenty-six years old and in front of an audience like that. I know people that would rather die than have to go through such an ordeal. Not that it's an ordeal for me, but I check to see if thinking about it has increased my pulse rate, just in case.


The average high street supermarket contains some 300 metres of aisle, bordered by half a football pitch of shelf space. Every day, four thousand people pass along the aisles and spend an average £51 each. Of these customers, ten per cent contribute 120% of the supermarket's profits. The rest either contribute little if anything, or, if they only buy special offers, own brands or the dented throw backs, they lose the supermarket money just by being there.

I finally spot the sacred yellow light of an unhailed cab on Hanover Square. After telling the cabbie my address I don't bother talking to him again. I just want to get home.


I wake up at 8.30am, mouth dry, heart pounding. Thank God my internal clock told me something was wrong. I curse myself for forgetting to set my alarm clock before I collapsed into sleep. Forty-nine hours to go.

I electric shave to save time and take a cool shower to try and flush out the excesses of the night before. The protein enriched shampoo and conditioner and pH-balanced shower gel wash away the cigarette smoke and sweat.


Currently, supermarkets arrange their wares with only a modicum of science. It is common sense to greet customers with an attractive display of fresh fruit and vegetables, and it's equally obvious to put the frozen foods in some of the last aisles the average shopper will visit (but before the alcohol, of course). Only the milk is strategically positioned to force the "I just came in for a pint of semi-skimmed" customer to walk through the whole shop and unwittingly bend to the temptations that line their route. Studies have proven, however, that a little science applied to store layout can pay dividends in increased sales and higher margins. A lot of science, such as artificial life modelling, can pay a lot more.

I'm in work by 9.15am. I'm never late, in fact I take pride in my ability to beat most of my colleagues into work. So why is it that the one day I am late I get disapproving stares from just about everybody? I open my electronic scheduler and check my agenda for the day.

There are ten minutes before my first meeting which will probably take most of the morning. I check for new e-mails, hoping to see one from a girl in sales administration that I'm flirting with over the network. There isn't one, but there are two from Simon my manager; one about the importance of promptness (the bastard) and another with no title, but marked priority. I open it and curse him (or am I cursing myself?) He is asking to see my first draft of the presentation. I know he leaves for Zurich at two o'clock; can I put enough together during lunch, before my afternoon of yet more mindless meetings? I'll try and make some notes for it when I lose interest in this morning's happy gathering.



By lunchtime I still have nothing written. The meeting was as dull as I had expected, but being sat the whole time under Simon's gaze, I had had little opportunity to write any of my presentation. In fact, I was only just succeeded in staying awake. My head hasn't fully cleared from the night before, and I don't feel like eating.

Hoping to get some time to at least set out a structure to the presentation, I find an empty room and open up my laptop. I am almost immediately interrupted by Simon who asks if I received his e-mail. I lie and tell him I haven't. He repeats his request to see the draft and I tell him I'm working on it. I offer to fax it to his hotel when it's finished which he seems to accept. I wonder if I can bunk the afternoon's meetings and spend the time more usefully, drawing slides of grocery counters and biometric calculations.

Artificial Life modelling lets supermarket planners test their designs for commercial success long before the supermarket is built. The computer-generated supermarket's doors open and the AL software introduces as many "people" into the supermarket as the planner wishes. Each "person", represented by a blip on the screen, has a rational, quasi-intelligent mind of its own and will interact with others as you and I might in real life. Each has a goal, be it to head for the milk (I will not be distracted, I will not be distracted), or to peruse every inch of shelf space, inspecting every new item, weighing up every special offer. The resulting mass of moving blips shows how people will move through the store, and, accordingly, the designers can ensure they have optimised all available shelf space, and positioned all those high margin goods in exactly the right (and left) eye-catching places. I joked the other day with the AL software designers about the effects of introducing a spree killer in the mix of personality profiles. I wonder if blips can dive for cover?

I have drawn one slide. It says my name, department and the date of the presentation. It's a start.



The office is empty, my meetings are over, and I am sitting at my desk staring at my one slide on the screen. My name looks so important there, set out in bold Arial 24 point.

I can hardly concentrate. I fell asleep in the second meeting this afternoon, but I think I got away with it. I was sat at the back of the stuffy room and only closed my eyes for a moment. Still, I'm not used to being this lethargic. I've got to stop going out so late during the week.

And then I remember the girl in the white Morgan hipsters and baby-blue Dolce and Gabanna T-shirt, and spend the next few minutes crucifying myself over whether I should call her so soon. I know I will, of course, and so I do. She seems quite pleased to hear from me, and tells me which bar she is going to tonight. I start to tell her about all the work I have to do, but she doesn't seem interested, and I know that the opportunity of seeing her again, and perhaps getting her back to the flat will win me over. After all, I'm whacked now, and I'm just not going to get any useful work done here. I can come in early tomorrow.



The luminescent hands on my alarm clock read 10 o'clock. It's Thursday morning, and my mind starts to register the fact that for the second time in my life I've overslept.

A wave of panic ripples through my body. I curse myself as I shower, shave and dress. Twenty-three and a quarter hours to go.


The underground is jammed with the morning tourist rush. It's more polite than the commuter crowd, but infinitely more stupid. Groups of Italians block the platform in animated argument, Swedes stand in groups hunched over maps and adolescent Germans, bedecked with rucksacks, try their hardest to knock you onto the tracks.

My twenty-two minute journey takes over half an hour - I feel the acid rising in my stomach as every redundant minute ticks by so I force myself to stop worrying, and spend the time thinking of the night before, spent with the girl in the white Morgan hipsters and baby-blue Dolce and Gabanna T-shirt. I indulge myself with the memory of the dancing and champagne, and the kiss she let me steal before she got in the cab to go home which only left me frustrated and unfulfilled.


When I finally arrive at my desk, eight voice messages are waiting on my 'phone. Two are from Simon, one recorded at 8.30am asking where the draft presentation is, and the other, left at 10.05am, asks where I am. I ignore them both and open my schedule, looking for time to spend on the presentation. I've already missed one meeting, and I'm late for another. Twenty-two and a quarter hours to go.

In the cut-throat world of retailing every minute piece of information about consumer habits is valuable. Market share is fiercely contested and information is power. To illustrate, supermarkets have launched so called "loyalty cards" on an unsuspecting world, but their architects don't care one iota about their loyalty-inducing effect. Rather, they use them to gather information, to prod and probe their customers as if they were laboratory rats, to test out theories, to build understanding. It's a smart system, don't you agree, Michael?

I start at the sudden mention of my name. I have hardly heard any of the past half hour's conversation and mumble a limp response. I receive glaring looks from all quarters and I try hard to concentrate for the remainder of the meeting, but I have had my chance, and don't get asked my opinion again.

After the meeting Marco, my director stops me in the corridor and asks for a favour. He has to produce a report for a four o'clock meeting, and, as Simon is out of the office, he asks if I can do it for him. He also asks me how the presentation is coming along for tomorrow's board meeting. I tell him it's all but finished, and that I would be delighted to help with the report. What else can I do?


Simon's put him up to this, it's obvious, but I can't feel any anger. I resign myself to preparing the report for Marco which in the end takes all afternoon. I barely think of the presentation, trying to forget the work I have to do before the morning. I stare at the rows of tiny numbers on my computer screen wondering what it all matters, curious about the effect it all has on the greater truth. What we all do is so ridiculously insignificant. We make money by pushing buttons on a keyboard, propelling a little white arrow around a computer screen. There's no pride left in our work. What do you have to show for a day's hard slog? A powerpoint presentation? An excel spreadsheet?

I print the report and turn off my computer. My hand reaches for the warm paper that's still spewing from the printer, but I let it fall limp. For a few long seconds I stare at my reflection in the blacked-out glass of the VDU and for the first time in my life, I feel the sweet, sweet swell of rebellion well up inside me.

I reach for the telephone and call the girl in the white Morgan hipsters and baby-blue Dolce and Gabanna T-shirt.



Before I leave the toilet I stop in front of the mirror. A face stares back at me that I hardly recognise. My pupils are dilated and sweat has collected in my hair, clumping it together. Stubble lines my jaw and my skin has an unhealthy pallor. I try to remember if I have any Clinique Revitalising Lotion in my bathroom cabinet, but I have trouble focusing on the thought.

Back on the dancefloor I let the swirling rhythms pass around, over and through me. My heart pounds to a different beat to nature's tune, and I feel myself coming up. Arms reaching out, I feel the music take over my body. I can feel my molecules jostling around, finding their natural resonance. Simple harmonic motion at kilowatt frequencies. Just stunning.

But I'm not stunned. I'm right here, loving it -- every single moment of it. This is so totally right; what could be wrong in the world? I don't know nor care if there is anybody else in the club. I cannot think beyond the boundaries of my own existence which I explore in minute detail. Trance-like, I move to the hypnotic rhythm, feeling the music in every part of my body from my toes to the tip of each individual strand of hair on my head.

The girl in the white Morgan hipsters and baby-blue Dolce and Gabanna T-shirt is dancing near me. One hand is held high with her head in the crook of her elbow. In the other she is clutching a small bottle of water. I move over to her and reach for the luminescent water which she lets me take. I take a long draft. She seems to smile through me.

Supermarkets...who cares about fucking supermarkets.



It's late but I don't feel tired. She is still close by me, but now her only movement is a gentle swaying to the myriad of rhythms that permeate the air, thick with smoke and electronic light. As I watch, giving no warning she buries her face in her hands and stands motionless in front of me. I move to her and put my hands gently on her shoulders, trying to calm whatever is troubling her.

The effect is immediate. She gives out a sharp cry and, shoving me away, flees into the crowd. I try to follow her, and in my desperation to pursue her, I knock another girl to the ground. The ensuing commotion attracts the attention of the security men who cut a swathe through the crowd as they rush towards me. Armlocked and humiliated, I am bundled into a small room at the back of the club. I'm told to cool off, and I sit quietly on a wooden chair under the weak electric bulb that hangs from the low ceiling. I wonder what they are going to do and ask them their intention. The force of the first punch sends me reeling from my seat. The second knocks me out cold.



The thirteen members of the executive board stare at me as I walk into the boardroom. My suit is immaculate, my shirt impeccably laundered and my shoes shine, but they don't even notice. Wordlessly they stare at my battered face, each one appalled at the very presence of this young thug in the oak-panelled security of their world, a million miles from a dingy room at the back of a Soho night-club.

I ignore the weight of their stare, and, nodding to Simon who is sat at the back of the room looking equally shocked, I move to the end of the long table to set down my laptop. After a moment scrabbling around under the table looking for the right cable to plug into the back of the computer, the first slide of my presentation appears on the large screen behind me. I am at once grateful that, at least for a few moments, I am no longer the centre of attention.


I suppose I should have expected that the quality of my presentation would reflect the fact that I actually completed it only twenty minutes before I walked into the boardroom, and that I had started to plan it whilst sitting in casualty a few hours before that. I stumble through my collection of uninteresting, poorly researched slides, trying to ignore the pain that's welling up in my head. I still feel concussed, and can hardly concentrate on my own words. The audience sits glowering at my feeble attempts in silence. I am, as they say, dying up here.

After an eternity I reach the point where I demonstrate the Artificial Life modelling tool. Switching to the application, I start the AL sequence by "opening" the doors of the virtual supermarket. As the computer image of the shop behind me starts to fill with the bustling blips I turn to my audience and start explaining the technicalities of the software.

But something is wrong.

Nobody is listening to what I am saying. Some of the audience are talking to one another, and pointing at the screen. I turn questioningly to Simon, but he looks distraught, and starts to rise to his feet, gesturing urgently at the screen. I stop in mid-sentence and turn around. I scan the image and at first I'm confused by what I see but then I understand.

In my little virtual supermarket, my ingenious creation, my instant ticket to oak-panelled stardom, the blips are diving for cover. All except for the one with murder on its mind.

© Christopher Watney

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