'The Unified Scrabble-Bag Theory of Psycholinguistics', by Connor Tomas O'Brien

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Illustration by Connor Tomas O’Brien.

“So, are we ready to make some ‘likes’?” asks my mother.

She rubs her hands together greedily, as though she’s about to pull the lever on an old-fashioned slot machine. Like any seasoned player of the slots, a very thin layer of caked-on giddiness masks her deep-seated existential malaise.

We’re both sitting up in Mum’s home office soaking in the thrumming CRT glow of the indigo-blue early-generation iMac I found abandoned in a dumpster one evening. It’s hooked up, through a complex series of adapters, to a mid-eighties beige Microsoft keyboard, and linked to our neighbour’s unprotected wireless internet. Our neighbour’s wi-fi network is called ‘Help Me, I’m Trapped in a Router!’, which makes it easier for us to justify stealing their connection: only a person with terribly misplaced priorities would concoct a witty network name before setting up even rudimentary 256-bit security.

Along the floor of Mum’s home office are tributaries of power strips, one branching off another branching off another. They all lead one back to one socket, which in turn leads right on out our garden gate. All the electricity we’re using is being siphoned from the café around the corner, and they’re none the wiser. Months ago, we lay down twenty metres of extension cords from their back door to ours and plastered the whole thing with duct tape, then knocked up a sign that said: ‘Government property: don’t you dare remove. Seriously, don’t you even bloody think about it!’ In a sense, we’re off the grid, but maybe it’s more like we’re standing right in the middle of it, contorting our limbs so that none of them touch the lattice.

Lately I’ve been trying to search out romantic words to describe our situation. I’ve settled on ‘penurious’ because it sounds almost the opposite of what it really means: ‘goddamn dirt poor’.

We do have a lot of cash – that’s true. My father’s life insurance policy paid out a million dollars and eighty-three cents, and we still have five hundred and eight-two thousand dollars to go. It’s all worthless now. When hard currency was deprecated, we headed to the bank to convert it all out to 116,400 five-dollar notes, then used the bills to stuff all our cushions. The notes don’t work well as padding – they sink and form ugly, hard-angled lumps – but what they lack in utility they make up for in some kind of hazy symbolic resonance. I once heard that in North Korea, after their currency was revalued, some families decided they’d be better off just eating all their old banknotes. Some days, I wonder how far my mother and I are from cooking up pots of rich magenta five-dollar stew.

“Marcus?”

I turned thirteen the week money was finally abolished. Just my luck, really. For my birthday, my mother wanted to buy me a sombrero (this was, you’ll remember, the summer all the kids were wearing designer appropriations of South American headgear), and I remember heading with her to the department store to try on all the broad-brimmed hats. We took the best of all of them – a big yellow straw number – over to one of the checkout machines, which now had their coin slots and card readers all neatly taped over. The checkout’s LCD blinked the new, non-monetary terms of payment, which required my mother snap a photograph of me posing in the hat, apply the ‘Walden’ filter, bump up the contrast, tag the name of the department store, share our geolocation, and promote the picture to at least five hundred close friends. Mum pretended to pinch and tap at the glossy screen of her smartphone but the checkout machine wasn’t having any of it, and I knew that was because she didn’t have even have half a dozen friends who’d give an iota of a fraction of segment of the world’s most diminutive shit about a picture of me, hat or no. So I remember a big red light begin flashing, and I remember the manager dawdling over, pulling my mother aside, and telling her, “These hats are medium-virality items, but it seems as though you’re kind of a… low-virality lady”, and I remember my mother pulling out her wallet and brandished dozens of our five-dollar notes, and I remember, when the manager shook his head, my mother tossing them at him, raining sullen-looking polymer Catherine Helen Spences and Henry Parkses all over the store’s shiny tiled floor.

I never got my goddamn sombrero.

“Hey, Marcus, my baby, are you listening? Are you here with me?”

There’s an online service you can use to rank yourself against everybody else that has ever existed.

There’s an online service you can use to rank yourself against everybody else that has ever existed. This is something the human race decided needed to be invented while children in Namibia were still dying of AIDS and while entire populations of Polynesian atolls were being flooded out of existence. I read an article about this, actually: teenagers in Tuvalu check their rankings every hour through hand-cranked tablet computers while standing in the middle of their town squares (where reception is best), knee-deep in water. Also in the piece: on the Nissan Island atoll, two hundred kilometres northeast of Bougainville, they have words for ‘click-bait’ and ‘like-jacking’ but nothing for ‘left’ or ‘right’. They’re hip-deep now.

While Mum was brewing tea, just before she plodded her way upstairs, I checked my rankings. According to the service, one hundred and twenty billion people have walked the earth since the first ancient guy or girl stopped crawling around in the mud on all fours 1.9 million years ago, and I am the seventy-two billionth most intelligent, ninety-four billionth most charismatic, ninety-eight billionth most handsome, and hundred and three billionth most influential of all of them, ever.

These are not great numbers. These are especially bad numbers when you consider this puts me behind some of the proto-Homo sapiens, the not-even-proper-humans, who had no access to literary paperbacks, fine-tooth combs, organic skin creams, basic sanitation, self-improvement workshops, language, designer jeans, rudimentary tools, or the Facebook Social Graph.

My mother is even worse. I’ve looked up her stats, but they’re so terrible I don’t even have the confidence to relay them back to her. I’m the seventy-two millionth most gutless human ever, and it shows.

“Come on, Marcus. You’re zoning out again. Remember what the maharishi told us: ‘Close all the browser tabs in your head; snap to grid the icons on your psycho-spiritual desktop.’”

My mother and I are quiet people – that’s our problem in a nutshell. Some days all we’ll ever say to one another, or to anybody, is “Pass the shortbread?”, and we’ll do this in private, over the kitchen table, not via any VC-funded microblogging service. We both have this idea that words are finite, and if we use them up too quickly, they’ll all be gone before we have anything really important to say. We don’t want to flood the world with superfluous assortments of letters and exclamation points – not before we’re ready, and especially not when the people of the atolls are about to go right under. One day, when we were more chatty than usual, we decided to name our philosophy ‘The Unified Scrabble-Bag Theory of Psycholinguistics’.

Mum taps me on the shoulder and repeats the maharishi’s advice, then moves to pour me a cuppa from her pot of weak Earl Gray. I’ve watched her in the kitchen recently, and I’ve noticed that she now reuses the same teabag four times over. This is what things are coming to. While she’s busy pouring lukewarm tea water into my mug, I quickly slide my chair over to the iMac and close the browser tab with all her bad stats still blinking away inside it. I don’t want her to see those numbers. They’d break her heart – the heart that’s already broken but is somehow still doing the job of thumping blood around her chest.

Mum doesn’t notice that I’m watching her as she pours the tea. This is how things have been for as long as I can remember: one of us vagues out, then the other. When we lapse into one of our hazy states, we call it ‘going up the river’, and we have a rule that only one of us is allowed to be upstream at any one time. From where I’m sitting, I can see that my mug is already overflowing, but I let my mother keep pouring the hot water in. She’s looking around the room, letting her gaze fall on the mantelpiece and the holes in the baseboard generations of mice have painstakingly excavated.

All of this might be gone soon: this room, this house, this life as it is. Things are dire. Yesterday our landlord emailed us links to a video of his Asian Semi-Longhair, Chairman Meow. Our landlord had placed the cat in a cardboard box, placed the box on a skateboard, and rolled the skateboard down his hallway. Halfway through the video, Chairman Meow pokes his head out of the box and looks around, bewildered. Underneath the link, our landlord had written, “please like this video of meow zedong 600 times on youtube, vine, dailymotion, funnyordie, fb, collegehumor, and all other sharing sites by this friday the 20th as stipulated in rental agreement. thank you – Garbage”. Our landlord’s name is not actually ‘Garbage’; it is ‘George’, but somebody has set his autocorrect up to change his name every time he types it in.

I’m still staring at my mother as she mentally floats back down to the basin. Now we’re both downstream. Both here, sort of, though it’s probably safer to say we’re always both at least some way up the river, in the mucky, silty centre.

“Oh, shit!” says Mum, noting the hot water soaking its way into the uncoated beech wood of the table. “These cups are so much smaller than I remember.”

“Heaps smaller,” I agree. Long ago I recognised that the main job of loving somebody is ratifying their delusions. I do want to quibble with my mother about one thing, though. I want to disagree with her idea that our job today is to ‘make some likes’. After all, we can’t just pull likes out of the ether or cobble some together from scratch! Technically, all we can really hope is that somebody is dumb enough to want to spread their likes in our specific direction. That’s what we want to happen.

I know that it’s the global increase in likes and hearts and favs and smiles that explains why our rent keeps rising.

I’m not a total dummy when it comes to economics, of course. I know that somebody seeds out brand new likes and hearts, and I know that it’s the global increase in likes and hearts and favs and smiles that explains why our rent keeps rising. Last year, Garbage only wanted five hundred likes a fortnight. He needs more, now, to ensure Chairman Meow doesn’t slip off the list of the world’s top fifty thousand most entertaining semi-longhaired felines on Vimeo.com.

“I’m ready,” I say instead of quibbling, and I scootch over so my mother can sit herself back in front of the keyboard. We have a blank word processor document open, but it won’t be blank for long. When we’re done, it will contain a cohesive, self-contained content nugget full of just the right letters, combined to form just the right words, combined to form just the right sentences, for the whole internet to finally notice we exist and hand their gold stars our way.

My mother starts typing, and with every sentence she looks over at me with a pained expression and I shrug. “Just write,” I tell her. “Being outgoing means never needing to say you’re sorry. Don’t be self-conscious!” This makes me start going up the river a bit, because then I add, “Wait. Actually, maybe do be self-conscious”, because isn’t the point of self-documentation turning yourself from subject to object, the shinier the better, and isn’t the idea that once your subjectivity has disappeared completely, you can exist totally out there, in the world, in the 4G wireless ether, instead of rattling around inside your own tiny little head? “I mean: just keep going, Mum!”

When she’s stopped tapping away, she wheels her chair backwards, and I move my face so close to the screen that I can see the slivers of dark, empty space between all the pixels. My contact lenses aren’t working as well as they used to. Actually, the truth is my eyes aren’t working as well as they used to, and my contact prescription isn’t keeping pace. I read what my mother has written, the cursor blinking on and off beside the final full stop:

I remember when I was younger. My hair was longer then, and darker. My skin was smooth. Sometimes I sit in the dark and pretend I am still twenty-two. If I can’t see myself and if I don’t touch myself, my skin can still be smooth and my hair can still be long and dark, and Sun can still be sitting there on our bed beside me. But a person can’t sit in the dark with their hands by their sides forever. And when the lights do come back on, everything is for a moment more terrible than ever, because I have aged twenty-four years and lost my husband again, all in one quick electric flash.

My mother looks at me, and because we are not sitting in the dark, not quite, I can see, in a blurry kind of way, that her hair is quite short now and a little gray and there are starbursts of lines radiating out from the outer corner of both of her eyeballs. I can also see that Sunny, my father, is definitely not sitting on the bed or anywhere else – not on Mum’s medicine ball or in front of our Shrine to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara – and hasn’t been for exactly twenty-three years and eleven months.

“It’s good,” I say. “I think it’s good. But let’s have another check through, just to make sure we’ve got the tone right.”

We’ve decided to troll for likes on an anonymous secret-sharing website, and we scroll through the five thousand most recent entries, just for research. One has accumulated over seven hundred hearts. It reads: When eating a strawberry Twizzler, I bite off both ends and blow through it before I eat the rest. #weirdwaystoeatshit

I sip the warm tea water and screw up my face.

“That’s a terrible secret. Yours is a lot better, Mum.”

Maybe that’s the beauty of the internet, I think, feeling myself paddling upstream again. Everything is quantitative; everything can be compared. Oranges are assessed as apples, apples as oranges. Losing a husband is just like blowing air through a hollow piece of candy, only better, or worse, in ways that can be tracked explicitly and precisely.

I feel a momentary twinge of affection for my mother, stronger than usual, until she tells me we need nine hundred likes or equivalent in order to get us back in the black. Last I checked, we only needed six hundred to pay rent. Only six hundred likes for That Fucking Cat.

“Oh,” says Mum. “Sorry. I liked a few pictures on CuteAnimalPics.biz. There was a photo of a baby white fox, and his whiskers were so huge! I was going to scroll right past, but my finger kind of slipped, and I gave it a heart, and then I thought, ‘Maybe I could just like a couple more things.’ Remember what the maharishi said about karma?”

I remember everything the maharishi says, but I agree with exactly none of it.

“Are you angry at me? Are you going to paddle up the river?”

I turn away from my mother and keep scrolling through other people’s secrets. One has already garnered two thousand likes. It reads: All my friends are either getting married, getting promoted or having babies… I feel like there is a secret life hack I never learned. #contemplativelatetwentysomething

“Hey, that’s a good one!” Mum says. “It’s hard not to want to heart it.” Because she thinks I’m not paying attention, she moves her hand toward the mouse, hoping to give it a surreptitious click. I lay my hand over the top of the mouse to prevent her from tapping it even once. “It feels like everybody’s secret. It feels like the human condition, all boiled down into one neat little sentence. It’s so… hashtag melancholic.”

“We’re not hearting it,” I say. “We’re not hearting anything. And we’re not saying ‘hashtag’ out loud.”

“But the maharishi…”

My mother’s belief in digital karma is really killing us. Though she doesn’t put much of herself online, she’s a voracious consumer. Once she zoned out on YouTube, skimming through playlists of old people falling over, and we ended up almost eight hundred ‘thumbs ups’ in the red.

I keep scrolling. One of the secrets is a photograph of a woman’s finger with a huge diamond ring slotted right onto it, with the caption “She said yes!!!” It already has fifteen hundred hearts.

“People only get married for the likes,” I say.

“People only get married for the likes,” I say.

“It would have been a better secret if she’d said ‘no’,” my mother mutters, and smiles, just a little.

“Snarky, Mum. What would the maharishi say?”

The more of the posts on the secret-sharing website we scroll through, the more worried I am about my mother’s draft secret. It’s 116 words long. Who could make their way through that? It’s unreasonable to expect anybody to care about any one thing for more than six and a half seconds. Life is short. Content must be packed in tight.

I sit in front of the Macintosh for a moment. If I listen hard, I can hear the faint sound of raindrops and thunderclouds, but that’s just because my mother has her thunderstorm noise generator playing. She’s had it turned on for years. Outside, it is thirty-nine degrees. Just outside the city, trees are spontaneously lighting themselves on fire.

I decide to tweak my mother’s secret a little. I decide to make it short and sharp and not at all TL;DR.

I change it to: Hubby died when I wuz young. It sucked. Now I’m old and still sad. :,-((((((

I snap a quick photo of my mother looking out the window, then bump up the contrast and apply a fatalistic filter. Before Mum has a chance to even look, I click ‘Post’. It’s up.

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My mother and I sit in the half-dark of her bedroom, listening to the synthetic crackling of the rain against damp algorithmically generated leaves, while we watch her secret message make its way around the web. The first heart comes from Uncle Paul, but that means nothing: he likes everything within five seconds of us posting it online.

“But how did he know it was us?” asks Mum. “It was supposed to be a secret.” I shake my head and give her a look like image and explain that the service uses some kind of algorithm to increase the likelihood of a user seeing a secret from a friend or close relation. Also, there’s probably a good chance that Uncle Paul likes everything online, not just our infrequent updates. He might be rich enough to be that indiscriminate. I imagine he has a team of servants whose job it is to refresh every social networking service, seeking out any fresh piece of content that hasn’t yet been loved or adored or plus-one’d.

So, for a short while, it’s just us, our secret, and Uncle Paul’s heart. But then, after maybe a minute: another heart, then another, and another.

“Maybe heartbreak is worth it, as long as you have a good social monetisation strategy,” I say very quietly, just as the sound generator throws up a great peal of thunder. How many digital hearts does it take to mend a real smashed-up one?

I tap over to our bank’s website. Because we’ve linked the secret-sharing service to our savings account, those four hearts have already been credited to us. If I scroll down a little, I can see the micropayment of 87 hearts to CuteAnimalPicz.biz, and another micropayment of 132 likes to ALikeforaLikeMakesTheWholeWorldRich.tv. I don’t have the heart to break it to my mother that ALikeforaLikeMakesTheWholeWorldRich.tv is a classic Pyramid Scheme, and we’ll never see those particular precious likes again. ‘Like karma’ is a scam.

“Hey,” I say. “Did you hear about the Polynesian atolls?” Thirty more seconds have elapsed, and this time we haven’t received any extra hearts. “If we end up half underwater, do you think we’ll learn to deal with it and maybe walk around in big galoshes, or will we build all our cities on stilts?”

Our secret sits there for a moment, still with only four hearts, and then I watch it slowly begin falling down the feed. It’s been outranked by a photograph of an elderly Bill O’Reilly looking smug, accompanied by the caption, “I watch Fox News. And I think I like it. #ThinkImTurningNeoConIReallyThinkSo #IsItJustMeOrIsRushLimbaughAHottie?” It has accrued fifteen hundred hearts in under twenty seconds.

After a few minutes, a comment appears under my mother’s secret: made me tears abit :(

My mother hits her fist weakly against the keyboard’s smooth beige plastic spacebar. She’s noticed that the commenter hasn’t ratified their comment with a heart.

Then my mother’s secret really begins rocketing down the stream. The algorithm has given the post sufficient time to rise to the top, but it hasn’t reached the critical engagement necessary to stay there. Now, unless somebody proceeds to seek it out, it will fall ever lower until it gets sucked into the darkest part of the web, the bit reserved for all the things nobody in the universe could possibly care about, but which are still granted permission to exist, because data storage is cheaper and more plentiful than the aggregate of all human emotional energy. Statistically, I know, most of us live on the skinny bit of the Long Tail. Mum and I live so close to the end of the Tail that if it happened to waggle we’d probably find ourselves shaken right off.

Beside me, my mother is laughing and crying all at once. She can’t believe it. She has attempted to quantify her great sadness, and it has received a score of four.

We have not beaten the Twizzler, and we certainly don’t have enough social currency to feed the semi-longhair.

I slide over and maximize the window with my mother’s stats on the ranking service. They’re still blinking away.

“What’s that?” asks Mum.

“Just more numbers,” I say, and all I can really think of are the teenagers of Tuvalu, cultivating their great statistics while cold, salty water rises around their ankles, calves, knees, thighs.

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Connor Tomas O’Brien is an Australia-based writer and designer, and co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely.

‘The Unified Scrabble-Bag Theory of Psycholinguistics’ is an excerpt from <3, Connor Tomas O’Brien’s novel in progress. Read more of his work at connortomas.com.