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It is as if you were doing work

Gabrielle de la Puente

It’s 11 something and I’m sitting in a café in the middle of the workweek along with everyone else who couldn’t stand the sight of their own house today. We’d rather pay to be somewhere else, away from the responsibility of living and breathing at home. The café has deep buttoned armchairs, exposed copper piping, plants I would definitely kill, and a disco ball that looks ludicrous and twee and a bit Airbnb. And yet, I’d much rather be here than back there.

On my left, a teacher is marking homework. He’s wearing a jumper so thin that it’s either very expensive or supermarket cheap; he’s reading pages covered in kid’s handwriting that’s far too big on one page and way too small on the next. On my other side, there’s a man with the latest iPhone in his red claw of a hand. I can’t figure out what he does from the one-sided conversation but he must be doing well because his dark blue jeans look like they might have been ironed.

There is music and there are toddlers behind me doing big fire alarm screams. They’re joined by the parents whose job it is to listen to them. One of the chefs is planning menus on pen and paper across the room, and between us, there’s a table of four students on laptops (Depop outfits, clear skin, their whole lives ahead of them). Instead of typing anything, they have been whispering to each other this whole time, like they’re cheating on an exam. I never had café money when I was a student. Good for them! Good for the parents too, and phone man, and the chef, and the teacher who has managed to find himself in a café in the middle of the day. Good for me! I’m working too. There’s a heavy MacBook Pro black-mirroring in the late morning sun. It is scoring my forearms as I type, so that the more work I do, the bigger and redder and more permanent the dents in my skin become. The opposite of a callous but still proof of all the hard work I have done.

Except I’m not actually working. Or I am, but only insofar as an automated voice is a real person. (They might as well be). What I’m actually doing is playing a browser game full screen. It’s called ‘It is as if you were doing work,’ and it was made by Pippin Barr back in 2017. If the teacher on my left looked across at my laptop, he wouldn’t think twice about me hot-desking next to him, because what’s on my screen is a simulation of another computer desktop. There is a stock photo of a ladybird clinging to a single blade of grass as the desktop wallpaper — or there was when the game began. The image quickly became obscured by constant overlapping pop-ups in the blocky grey and ultramarine design of early Windows operating systems, like scrap metal littering a field. You know the type, the pop-ups that used to clog the family computers of people who didn’t know which links they should and shouldn’t click on, and accidentally downloaded Trojan horse viruses all the time. These things are all over my screen, but they don’t feel threatening in the way that they used to. Not out of control, or surprising, more nostalgic, like a scraped knee I’d get after tripping on the road I was playing on after school (because I’d been banned from the family computer); easy enough to deal with.

And so, I’m sitting in this café while the teacher marks homework and the phone man clings onto his phone, and I am dealing with this game of endless pop-ups. Each one of them delivers a task I need to complete. That’s the game. One task tells me to ‘Click Calculate’ and so I click Calculate. Another tells me to select a specific date in the calendar. I set sliders to certain values; click X on a few motivational images of men in suits; and write ‘Amorphous Metals’ in an input field. One pop-up asks me to type 547 characters. About what? Doesn’t matter. I start typing. I deal with so many pop-ups that another pop-up tells me I’ve been promoted to Screen Administrator. Each time I complete a task, I get points, and once I clock enough points I get promoted to Input Administrator and then Dialog Administrator and it just keeps going. I wonder, if I keep working, who will I become? I don’t really. I don’t think about where any of this is going. I just mindlessly do as I’m told.

Every few minutes, every single pop-up disappears and I can see the ladybird on the wallpaper again, fresh air. A meanwhile pop-up tells me it’s time for a well-deserved break and a progress bar ticks across the screen very slowly. Like somebody telling me to take a deep breath in, and out, and then again — I resent it. Because I don’t actually want to stop playing the game. That is how I know something is wrong with me. The invitation to rest seems to me a bigger interruption than the game itself, a game which is all about interrupting the player to give them more and more tasks. There has to be something wrong with me because I don’t mind that. I also don’t care that the work is leading nowhere beyond made-up promotions. Why did I have to write ‘Amorphous Metals’ into an input field? That’s none of my business. Who am I working for? I told you, I don’t care. My mind is so at ease. With no problems to solve, and no need for the imagination my actual job requires, Pippin Barr has taken away all the pressure. I click Enact, click Reload, click Action, click Save, click Okay, click Go, click Button, and it is like I am sucking on the thumb of all of my fears. Easy wins, busywork. It’s an elaborate fidget toy: Click Button.

What I’m probably supposed to do is open this browser game slash artwork slash very good joke and close the page in a huff, and think critically about capitalist drudgery, and get existential about the nature of work and of play and how we are made to spend our very limited time on this Earth doing things we don’t want to do. I don’t think I’m supposed to keep the joke going in a café and deal with my own work stress by secretly playing a game about these exact anxieties. Before the café, I was in the pharmacy to pick up my prescription for beta blockers and next to the till they were selling the clear varnish that people who want to stop biting their nails use — the bitter chemicals that taste so bad these addicts stop putting their fingers in their mouths. I probably need some of that. Twenty bottles or so. I can pour the liquid into the cracks between the letters on my keyboard. Seal the touch pad. Let the varnish harden. Jam the whole thing up so that my laptop can no longer speak and I can no longer work, or pretend to.

This game, ‘It is as if you were doing work,’ was described by Pippin Barr as a piece of speculative play. Back when it was designed in 2017, it was proposed as something not made for us but for near future ‘humans who have been put out of work by robots and AI.’ A game they could play ‘to recapture the sense they once had of doing work and being productive.’ I know an English translator in Italy who can’t do his job anymore because clients are just dropping text into ChatGPT. They don’t speak English well enough to know whether the translation is right or wrong or embarrassing. They also don’t care. He’s teaching now instead, but for how long? 2024 is 2017’s near future. That’s us right now. AI hasn’t replaced critics like me yet but it will. One day soon, AI will portal me behind a computer screen and trap me there. It will turn my volume down, and when I bang my fists against the inside of the screen, the user will close me like a pop-up.

What’s going to happen is publications with dwindling ad revenue and subscriptions against rising costs will cut their writing staff in half, and then, seeing how much more money they get to keep, the people in charge won’t be able to resist swiping the final half of their staff off the chopping board and into the bin. No writers, no editors. The editor-in-chief, the one meat man remaining, will simply Click Button to generate reviews. Quality and truth and entertainment won’t matter. All that will matter (and maybe, all that matters now) is that there are some words on pages, enough for those pages to show up in search engines, and to advertise flashing adverts to tired eyes that can’t remember why they clicked on the page in the first place. The writers that used to dance online like artists will lie rotting in the bin, only able to criticise machine-learning amongst themselves because no editors would dare pay them for the self-flagellation. And the writers, no longer dancing or writing, and dripping of bin juice, will wonder what that old game was called, the one by Pippin Barr — because they’ll still feel the need to Click Button.

I know the grass is always greener, but lately the stupidity of being a disabled working-class freelance writer in this economy has made me long for the stability of a salary; for sick pay and a pension over freedom and self assessments; for artificially-lit offices over disco ball cafés, or stale home offices; and for someone telling me what work I need to do instead of guessing each day. My job is like that challenge in Takeshi’s Castle where contestants have to run full pelt across half-sunken stepping stones, not knowing which of them are unstable and will tip them into the water. If I was cooler, or if I had more energy to imagine these things, I would dream of a world without work, but I have a carnal urge to always be doing something. I actually have two jobs at the moment: writing things like this, and also working as another writer’s assistant. It’s been exceptionally easier to do the latter of those jobs because the person I’m working for tells me exactly which stones to step on — which buttons to click. I played ‘It is as if you were doing work’ after I’d finished my assisting hours for the week but before I’d started writing, and it was pacifying. Stabilising. It gave me a sense of completion I probably could have gotten from stealing one of the toddler’s colouring books, and their crayons, and watching the progress bar between the lines fill up perfectly by my own hand.

The kids in the café were still doing fire alarm screams behind me and I sympathised. I wish there was nothing in my life I needed to pacify, but there is, all the time. The only difference between us is that I work and they don’t. They scream out loud and I scream in text.

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And you can play ‘It is as if you were doing work’ free online here! Let’s all be mad together