By Ken Liu | December, 2013
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
"If you make it available, they will
search for it."
-- Christian Rinn, Centillion, Inc., Founder
The other patrons in the library looked over at Aaron, annoyed.
He smiled at them apologetically and then took the phone out of his pocket. The Tilly Here-and-Now app's icon had a flashing border: a new message.
Request: I need to know what's in the Manager's Special bin at the Food Basket on Tremaine Road in Rockton.
Time Limit: 20 minutes. I have to know if it's worth it to stop by on the way home.
Aaron got up from the comfortable reading chair, where he had been restlessly flipping through the script-he had gotten a good part in the spring theatre production, his first! He didn't want to make a big deal about it or announce it to everyone, especially since his mother was sure to make a big fuss about it if she knew. But he was feeling pleased with his secret.
A dollar wasn't much, but considering he was only a few hundred feet from the Food Basket, and he wasn't getting anywhere with his real homework, it seemed more productive to try to claim the bounty. Besides, right now, he felt like he had boundless goodwill for everyone.
He had to hurry though. Tilly would broadcast the request to everyone who had the app installed within a half-mile radius of the store.
He dashed to the store and made a beeline for the Manager's Special bin. Ignoring the shoppers browsing around the bin, he carefully took a series of close-up shots of the items, almost all of them with a sell-by date of today. Then he hit the "Claim Bounty" button on the app and uploaded the pictures.
The app refreshed to show that the requester was satisfied and the reward had been deposited into his account. Aaron pumped his fist. The shoppers looked at him strangely. But one woman, who apparently understood the meaning of Aaron's antics, laughed.
"Thanks," Aaron said.
"My husband has it installed, too. I've never seen him so excited as when he gets a query."
Tilly Here-and-Now was Centillion's latest innovation. After devising ways to deep-crawl every database in the world and scanning books and mapping roads and parsing videos and podcasts ... what was left to conquer? Since Centillion was dedicated to the mission of "arranging all the world's information to ennoble the human race" ... enter Tilly Here-and-Now.
Aaron looked up from the stats screen and saw that the speaker was Lucas: lanky, always with messy hair, and ... not exactly Aaron's friend. They'd known each other since kindergarten, but they always rubbed each other the wrong way.
"Not my fault that you silenced your phone." Aaron smirked. "Every second counts."
"How much have you made this month?"
"That's a little rude."
Truth be told, the money wasn't really the reason he liked using the app-his modest goal was to earn enough bounty in a month to pay for the upgraded data plan on the phone, a goal that he had been able to meet last month. It was more that Tilly Here-and-Now turned life into a game, a treasure hunt. It was such a rush to claim a bounty (and to beat people like Lucas!). He also liked the feeling that he was helping people, perfect strangers, by making their lives a little bit easier because he happened to be in the right place at the right time.
"You're just staring at that app all day because you have no life."
"Sure, if thinking that makes you feel better."
Aaron also had fun guessing at the motivations behind the anonymous queries. Some were easy: Who would want to know if the seat by the outlets in the coffee shop is free ("and if so, can you sit there till I get there")? Obviously, some hipster intending to come down with his laptop. Who would want a bunch of photos of the inside of the museum? Probably someone too cheap to pay the admission. But others were more mysterious: Why would anyone want a snapshot at the crack of dawn of the ruins of the church that had burned down last year?
And there was also that time when he had found the little girl who had been separated from her parents at the mall. He had gotten the request with her picture, looked up, and there she was, huddled behind some potted plants, too scared of the strangers streaming by. The tearful parents, when they followed Tilly's directions and found him trying to comfort their daughter, were ecstatic. He had felt like such a hero (and it was also nice to claim the $100 bounty).
Tilly Here-and-Now made you more aware of the world around you, he decided. Made you more connected to your community.
"I got something cool out of Tilly." Lucas had an evil grin.
Even knowing he was being baited, Aaron couldn't help asking, "What?"
Lucas held his phone up to Aaron's face. A grainy, shaky snippet of cellphone video played in a loop: two young women, about college age, were kissing in a dimly lit bar.
"Who are they and what is this?"
"This was at the Thirsty Scholar over in Riston. I was bored at home last night and offered 50 cents for a video of girls kissing from around here, and I got this within half an hour."
Aaron felt weird watching the video. Sure, they were kissing in public, but it still seemed wrong to intrude on this moment of intimacy. Who would surreptitiously film such a thing?
"Would have been even better if they're people I know," Lucas said. "Next time I'm going to raise the bounty and limit the range more. It's amazing what you can get just by asking."
That was it. Lucas the voyeur had offered a measly 50 cents, and someone had obliged him because it was convenient. Aaron didn't think the person who took the video would have done it without the pathetic reward. Just because there were cameras and GPS trackers everywhere didn't mean that everything could be found-until Tilly Here-and-Now. Lucas had been like the puppet master pulling a string, and the user had responded-
Ding. Aaron reached for his phone, and at the same time, an alert also appeared on Lucas's screen.
Request: Need someone to look in the parking lot of the Comfort Lodge in Rockton and see if they can find this license plate number and get a picture: XXXXXXX
Time Limit: Until 5:30
Aaron and Lucas looked at each other.
"I'm calling it," said Aaron.
"That's not how the game is played," said Lucas.
They ran out of the Food Basket, one after the other.
Aaron hurried through the motel parking lot, praying he would find the car before Lucas. Lucas was over at the other end of the parking lot, scanning the license plates.
He did have an advantage over Lucas: he had no need to read the license plates. The license plate number belonged to his father's car.
Why would his dad's car be in a motel parking lot in the middle of the afternoon on a workday? And who would want to find it and get a picture?
The answer was obvious.
He had to get Lucas out of here. Then he would decide what to do if he did find the car.
He took out his phone and began to type.
A few seconds later, Lucas took his phone out of his pocket and looked at it. Before he could look this way, Aaron turned his eyes back to the license plates, pretending to be absorbed in his task. When he looked back up a minute later, Lucas was gone.
He let out a held breath. He had offered a bounty of fifty dollars for someone to take a picture of every house with the number "27" in the new development near the school ("for an art project"). The gambit had worked.
He finished surveying the parking lot without finding his father's car. But that didn't make him feel better; maybe it just meant his father hadn't gotten here yet.
He didn't know what to do. He had thought things were fine between his parents. They didn't argue any more than the parents of his friends, and the idea of his father sneaking away in the middle of the day to a motel ... he couldn't even finish the thought.
His mother had essentially crowdsourced a private detective?
And now the question was out there, and others who knew enough would also be able to put things together the way he had.
A search itself was also information. It was an expression of intent, of desire, fear, want, lust.
He wanted to know the truth. He wanted to ask Tilly just the right question. But what was the right question? How would he ask it without revealing what he knew? And what did he know? Really know?
One minute, he was angry at his father, the next, he regretted showing his mother how to use Tilly Here-and-Now last week.
He lingered in the parking lot, trying to figure out what to do until 5:30 came and the offer expired.
His father came home.
"How was your day?" his mother asked.
"Not very eventful," he said. "Had a good meeting with a client in the office."
He couldn't hear anything different in their tones. His mother acted like she had never asked the question. His father acted like he had nothing to hide.
"Congrats on getting that part," his mother said.
"What?" Aaron was startled.
"For the spring show," his mother said. "I'm proud of you." She had always boasted to her friends about how she managed to stay involved in Aaron's life even as he got older.
Aaron mumbled something noncommittal. The events of the afternoon had completely leeched away his joy. He knew that if he searched through the local Tilly Here-and-Now queries he'd find a query for someone who was around the high school to take a look at the posting outside the office of Mr. Septol, the Drama Director.
His parents finished dinner, chatted, did the dishes, and then went to bed. Aaron parsed everything they said and did for clues as to what they knew and what they only suspected.
He lay in bed, and theories multiplied in his head: Maybe his mother only suspected and needed proof; maybe his father was smart enough to conduct an affair without using his car; maybe he had also been close enough to the motel to get her search request on his phone and got away in time; maybe she knew he would know and the query was her way of warning him; ...
It was dark in his bedroom, only faint starlight coming in through the window. But Aaron felt as if he lived in a house with transparent walls. He imagined Lucas looking in. He imagined the neighbors with Tilly's queries popping up on their screens. He imagined everyone he knew watching, knowing, cameras everywhere, invisible electronic threads crisscrossing the neighborhood. Life didn't seem like such a fun game.
He took out his phone, and the bright screen came to life.
Wasn't it strange how it was so easy to anonymously type questions into a text box, questions that he couldn't imagine asking face to face?
He pondered whether Tilly could tell him the truth. Or perhaps there was a blind spot that even Tilly could not see into.
[Author's Note: For more on the idea of ad-hoc, location-specific search, see Christian von der Weth & Manfred Hauswirth, "Finding Information Through Integrated Ad-Hoc Socializing in the Virtual and Physical World," Digital Enterprise Research Institute Technical Report, March 20, 2013, available at http://arxiv.org/pdf/1307.1543v1.pdf.]