All Stories, Science Fiction

Data by Scott David


The soapbox prophets turn to bombs and the lines at the food pantries snake twenty blocks, but my algorithm cranks relentlessly. Markets go up. Markets go down. In either direction, the algorithm wins more than it loses. A few pennies shaved here. A few pennies there.

In makeshift markets, men relentlessly trade. Goods flow. Data flows. The algorithm churns apace. It seems as if the algorithm could function without electricity before it could go without its data. Its appetite is enormous. Its needs are great. Mine seem puny in comparison: a good night sleep. Peace on earth. A kiss goodbye. Safety for my children.

Fires burn in the streets. An armored convoy conveys me to and from work, until even that mode of transport becomes unsafe. We install a generator in the basement so I can work the algo from the safety of my home. One government falls and another replaces it. Ministers and factory owners are strung from lampposts. Mobs occupy public buildings. From time to time, I tinker with the algorithm but it largely tends itself. Pennies slough off into my bank account.

Long live the algorithm. It knows the past better than anyone alive. It knows the tried and true relationships between the price of gold and the price of silver. Between crude and gas. Between weather in South America and the price of corn. When any of these relationships diverge from their historical pattern, the algorithm profits and forces the prices back in line with its relentless arbitrage. It even learns from its own mistakes. Though the world has shifted, the sky exchanged places with the ground, I have confidence, perhaps misguided, that the forces at the algorithm’s command will return all matters to their natural state, and my children may once again walk without bodyguards in the city streets.

Nevertheless, when explosions rock the walls of my home, I’m tempted to make ad hoc adjustments to the algorithm to account for the evidence of my own senses — the cordite, the smoke, the cracks in the plaster, the sirens, the screams.

Yet I never yield to the impulse, because the algorithm knows better than I ever will. No doubt, anticipating my impulses and interference, it even adjusts for the sins and weakness of the man who devised it. It is that clever.

Bodyguards surround my children at all times. Their mother remains in a coma after a shopping center attack. Her hair has begun to grow back, at least where the roots weren’t torn out. Her heart is as relentless as the algorithm. The temperature in the room rises if hers falls. She is returned to the steady state. The equilibrium. On her birthday, we slip fancy shoes on her while she sleeps.

The bodyguards are well-paid. These days, jobs like theirs are few. My oldest son and I have commenced work on an algorithm for calculating loyalty. Relationships, too, can stray from normal and bad things happen. What is the proper balance of compensation, personal connection, gratitude, threat of punishment, and moral taboo?

My housekeeper has resorted to a private voodoo. Also, to stealing gasoline from our generator. She sucks it through a hose into a pail and hoards it in the back barn. I suspect her of stealing the shoes off my wife’s feet.

The pennies build up. They have a certain weight and meaning even in this digital age. No doubt, when the time comes, the mob will wrap a sack of pennies round my throat like an engine block and drown me.

I re-crunch the numbers. Never mind world going to hell in a hand basket, the relationships continue to hold true. The algorithm hums. The pennies pour in.

Those great civic institutions that require a collective belief and a degree of reverence to sustain them crater. A majority of even good men put aside their qualms and do what the day requires to feed their families. They consult their holy men for relief from whatever pangs of conscience their decisions entail.

Goods are emancipated from broken store-fronts. Factory workers strike. A new Jesus runs amok in the temple marketplace. Plague sweeps. Dams flood. Militias patrol. With their families, our bodyguards retreat under my roof. Resentments wrestle with loyalties. Rations are jealously counted and recounted. New prophets speak from the soap boxes. It has never been so easy to gather a crowd.

I calculate that I have 17 percent chance of making it alive for another year. I calculate my wife is better off than all of us. I re-crunch the numbers, but each time my children come out losers. Killed in a palace coup. Victims of disgruntled employees who mistrust the algorithms’ relentless impersonal magic.

I redouble the bodyguards’ salary. We reinforce the gate. Build higher the walls. Flog and expel a servant who’s caught stealing.

My housekeeper tells me stories about her sick children. I calculate their life expectancy to a day; it’s shorter than my own.

“Don’t count on that,” my housekeeper warns. She winks and smiles coldly.

I am afraid to eat her food.

I shower the housekeeper with gifts. Cut her in on the wealth. Bring her family under my roof where I can better keep watch. The algorithm says: Loyalty cannot be bought, but it can be heavily subsidized.

Forces conspire to bring me and my children’s mother again together.  I slide into her bed and press against her warm body.  I want to be there if she wakes despite everything the data has to say.  As a special treat, the housekeeper has changed her sheets.

Many of my peers have fled with their families. To my son, I observe, “We’re lucky not to be dragged out of our compound and burned at the stake in the public square.”

My son, who has a sense of humor, jokes that no one can afford the gasoline.

“They wouldn’t burn us,” he points out. “They’d just beat us to death with the stake itself.”

A new government arises with the assurance that markets will be protected. The junta permits the occasional outburst of populist beneficence to cool the streets. Like opening a hydrant during a hot summer. Like doing a controlled burn in a forest choked with undergrowth.

Many succumb to ribaldry and licentiousness; the world is over. Party now. The algorithm takes note of the unusually heavy consumption of luxury goods. In places, factories grind under armed guard. Convoys set out. Commerce continues apace. Hope stirs.

Though mathematics tells me different, I feel better able to protect my children when they are within eyesight, which drives them crazy. None would notice if I were gone. The algorithm would survive my death. Add the statistic to its calculations. Augment its understanding of what’s passed with my passing.

My wife would be equally indifferent. Or not indifferent. Merely matter of fact. Like a stone. Or a two-by-four. I miss her laugh.

The algorithm never makes a promise it cannot keep. Inexorably, wealth shifts like sand. Every morning trucks come by and collect bodies from the street, but the flow of data is a solace. I grow my own vegetables. My children prepare for war. We are divided by their taste for guns and stories of the streets.

I am obsessive about instruction in calculus. Only one of my children resists the drills. Her name is Bruce. She says she doesn’t have a mathematical mind. She’s a dreamer. I calculate Bruce’s odds as no better than the others’, yet still it never hurts to believe.

The housekeeper objects that my wife and I have named our daughter Bruce, which she deems shocking and anti-Christian. It unsettles her digestion to think there might be a female out there bearing a man’s name. She says nothing else in this crazy world can possibly be fixed until this was first made right.

In the night, paid bandits break in, kidnap some girls and carry them off. The housekeeper, too, is lost, defending her sick child. I experience a sense of something like justice. And also relief. The end of the inevitable. The dislocation itself is a promise of realignment to historical norm. I am not in love with the past. It is the future I look toward. Like having children. Like falling in love. Like the algo, which only contemplates the past for the purpose of calculating the future. The greater the push from the norm, the faster we snap back. I love the algorithm. We profit from dislocation. The algorithm is its own prophet. We sit on a heap of gold.

We rebuild the wall, double the guard, and set traps for the hungry and unwary. We aren’t unmindful of the suffering in the street. We favor the junta’s occasional appeasements, even when they get out of hand, and the algo goes slack for an hour or two and the penny-flow slows to a trickle. It always corrects itself. We win more than we lose. Because we have lived so long, it seems sometimes we must live forever.

Effigies burn. Wells flare. Lamps crash. Electricity and flowing water are sporadic. Smoke chokes the sky. The floorboards are uncertain and spongy and threaten to give way. Bruce paints a picture of the way it used to be, and I congratulate her on the likeness. But no, she says. Not the way it used to be, but the way it will be, and she smiles and gives solace to the housekeeper’s child, who she has adopted her as her own.

Don’t count on your children’s constant loyalty. Profound and persistent dislocations are not uncommon, though eventually a certain emotional and financial arbitrage brings them back to normal. Watch them as closely as any others for signs of disloyalty.

True, your wife exerts a force and imperative on them out-sized compared to her inactivity, but still she can’t even protect her own feet from theft. She cannot kick. She cannot testify.

Dormant now, but it seems inevitable she will return to standing. Everything returns to normal. We converge on tomorrow. The algorithm runs true. The world is ours to live in.


Scott David


Banner photograph: By Tyler. Chris Tyler from Toronto, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “Data by Scott David”

  1. Great satirical story. A lot of critique to our current trust to the system can be found in this. Also observations about life, love and loyalty. I’m a Finance Major and this hit me just right. One of my favourites. ATVB


  2. Hi Scott, a lot of relevance in this story. Your writing is a joy to read. It is intelligent, perceptive and brilliantly written.


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