By James, 19 June 2018 #
17th June 2003, London.
The four of them were standing in a brightly lit windowless room on the seventh floor of an anonymous office block, not far from the good part of town. The plain walls were decorated with small brightly coloured squares of paper, single words scrawled on each one. Larger squares, each with a single letter, were lined up around the top of the wall in alphabetical order.
Oldest among the group was Tony (Sir Anthony to most). He sat quietly watching proceedings, occasionally re-directing the placement of a Post-it, and taking his own notes. Karen and Ali were animated, totally focused on the game, working furiously. Both of them were in their late twenties and smartly dressed: they’d both recently been “let go” by consulting firms and hadn’t quite shaken the dress code habit. Jamie was the youngest in the room, and the reason the other two were having to work so hard in front of Tony. They later told him it was like the answers were all already in his head, and they were racing to see if they could get anything on the wall before him.
Tony’s phone rang, and he took the call. The others stopped their shouting and respectfully waited, impressed that someone could have a complete and seemingly nuanced conversation on the phone using only slight variations of the sound ‘hmm.’ When he had a few glasses of wine in him, Tony liked to regale the youngsters with tales of his time in the Secret Intelligence Service.
He put down the phone and looked at Jamie (Karen and Ali were crestfallen).
“It would seem that a Home Office juniorminister has referred to a judge as a ‘minger’ on an internet forum.” The mosaic of emotions on his face included a cheeky eye twinkle and a nasal sneer of contempt at the concept of the virtual world. “The Cabinet Office are in a quandary and in need of a sense of perspective. I think I shall send you, Jamie.”
“It’s just like the munter case last month, right?”
“You’ll be fine, I’m sure. Right then, shall we move on to ‘D’?”
10th December 2023, Oslo.
Jamie was gliding from his hotel to the banquet in the back of a large sedan with a quiet uniformed driver. The city was grim and dark through the black window. He smiled as he thought back to those days at the agency. It had been his first ‘proper’ job after uni; he had been young and it had been all good fun. He’d kept in touch with Tony, who had since moved back in to academia to become warden of a medium-grade Oxford college. Tony had become bored of the job as it had become more calculated rather than creative: gone were the late-night brainstorming sessions; replaced by spiders and algorithms, more accurate and detailed in calculating the relative offensiveness of different words, in different circumstances. “The profane has been made mundane” he had declared at his leaving drinks. Gone too were the publications, like they used to have in the UK and NZ. The need for ‘expert’ witnesses was starting to diminish, but that was where Jamie had built his reputation. Being able to say ‘beef curtains’ with a straight face in a court of law had proven to be quite a marketable skill.
Things had really taken off in the last few years though. When Trump was elected, people had first thought it was an anomaly, rather than the first data point of a new trend in politics. Quickly, the smart ones worked out that it was quicker and easier to make and break policy instantly with targeted and public jibes, rather than with months of secret diplomacy. “Rocket man” and “dotard” were just the beginning, and Jamie’s phone started ringing midway through the Global Insult escalation when the Foreign Secretary referred to his Russian counterpart as a “bellend”.
Internationally this caused much consternation—the exact level of intended offense didn’t translate well across different cultures and languages, and people didn’t know how to react. The tools that Jamie and his team had built over years to help with broadcasting fines now took on a geo-political significance. With all the world’s leaders trading insults and barbs at each other in the public eye, the ability to do so effectively and artfully became a sort of arms race. This was initially around getting data and building better algorithms, but it was taking too long for the AI to generate good quality responses. Suddenly, Jamie and his colleagues became hot property.
It had been a wild couple of years. The Chinese Premier described the Australian Prime Minister as a “half-witted sourfaced vermin fancier”. Israel had called the UN “Hogwarts for over-privileged wanksocks.” Russia called the EU “a limp salad of variegated pissleafs.” The trend spread around the world quickly, and every country was scrambling to find the skills to respond well to what was being thrown at them. Big egos were at stake, and needed protecting.
The interesting trend was when budgets for standing armies started being released. Just like in a playground, the person who needs to resort to their fists because they can’t think of a better retort is the loser.
And as the man who’d become the figurehead of the new, peaceful, international insult industry, tonight Jamie was being recognized.
A familiar face emerged from the throng at the drinks reception after the dinner. It was Tony.
“Ever since I scheduled you for morning sessions of woodwork, I had suspected you were destined for great things. I never would have thought you’d end up with the bleeding Nobel Peace Prize though! Well done lad.”
It could have been his age, but Jamie could have sworn there was a tear in the old man’s eye. Alone at the bar, the new Laureate’s mind wandered back to their first encounter.
1992, the home counties.
“What do you have to say for yourself young man?”
Jamie was standing in front of an ancient desk in a corner room of one of the Old Buildings of the school. This was the first time he’d been called to this office, but he knew the drill from what the other boys had told him. He had a plan too, and he was going to stick to it.
“You’ve had a busy morning, Jamie.” Jamie nodded.
“I am going to cut to the chase: it would seem by the pause evidence found outside your room this morning that you won the Biscuit Game, is that correct?” Another nod.
“Then, in the CDT room, you sawed clean through Wilkins’ cricket bat?” A look down, and another nod.
“And finally, in the grounds at morning break you broke the ban pertaining to battling horse chestnuts and cracked another boy’s knuckles. Have I got all that correct?” A final nod.
“So I ask again: what do you have to say for yourself?”
Jamie looked his teacher straight in the eye and said “Veni vidi vici, Sir. Veni vidi vici.”
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