a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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A Lifetime With Dom

June 7, 2016

dominos virtual assistant, dom

A close study of Domino’s intelligent assistant, conducted ‘in the field’ while waiting for a Four Cheese.

17:43:06:04

Prep

The world in which it lives, the world which it is, stands at about 400 pixels wide, and I’ve looked everywhere across them, but no matter what I can’t seem to find any genitals. This makes me very uncomfortable; we demand to sex our agents, in ways we wouldn’t demand of our friends or colleagues or pizza delivery drivers.

I can’t tell whether, in Dom’s case, they have been considered unimportant for the representation, or whether they are so off-brand as to be entirely suppressed. Of course, perhaps what I am looking at here is not the entirety of the agent’s dimension, but is instead only some sort of viewport. Perhaps the genitals are hidden from me down below, just below the rim of my screen, tucked up into some resting pit.

In their absence, and the absence of any of the other usual, unfair, limited tells (hairstyle, cosmetics, bone structure, pitch, gait, scent) I shamefully and instantly default to thinking of it as male. ‘Dom’ could of course be ‘Dominique’, and though I cannot find any gendered pronouns in Domino’s’ marketing material, I think that my particular choice of gendering might be what was intended, however accidentally, all along.

Perhaps I’m not supposed to be seeing Dom as mammalian at all. His design is a deliberate retrofitting of the technology of the 1970s or 1980s, decades that I have scarcely passed through and yet whose references I constantly understand. Encoded CRT scanlines progress over Dom’s pixellated blue eyes, his only affordance, each of their false pixels made up of a matrix of tens of actual pixels on my phone’s high definition screen. There is even a clever convex layer effect when using the app, giving the impression of an oscilloscope’s bubble dome. Domino’s knows what people expect when they look at an agent; they expect HAL and his definite, thick interface and those like it; a cultural memory of blue gridlines on the porthole screen of a computer the size of livestock. We expect particular aesthetics, and it’s best to court expectations.

Even with all of this simulated machinery, there must be a pair (or a set or a cluster or just a hint) of something squishy around here somewhere. If I find it, then I’ll know how to think about him.

17:49:27:43

Quality Control

Dom has since spoken to me to tell me that our Stuffed Crust Veg Supreme is undergoing controls on its quality. Still no voice, no z-indexed Adam’s Apple; but the printed text that relays this message is not purely informational, but instead implies a personality. The punctuation, syntax and vocabulary are the personality of Domino’s itself, insipid wan infuriating Michiganese. It is an overfamiliar tone, comfortable in its domain and the narrative that it is orchestrating for me. It is only now that I realise that this domain and its narrative are designed visually to resemble a clock-face. Midnight marks both the inception and the conclusion of our time together, and Dom is encircled by this grim reminder of the entirety of his existence; not unlike a mayfly, he will be gone in the time it takes to cook and deliver me a pizza.

It is difficult to tell whether the information around the edge of the clock is diegetic or not. Dom appears to be aware of it, but with nothing apart from those blue eyes to place him, I cannot tell where he ends and where his task environment begins; whether the circle delineates his chubby cheeks or whether he is peering at me through some knock-hole, and is truly enormous. This would make more sense; his task environment, after all, is vast, encompassing not only this viewport on my phone screen (Laurel’s ‘arena’, Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’, this particular staging in which our mediation takes place) but the entire logistics network of the Domino’s chain, from Kyoto to Cairo. It’s a small domain, in terms of expertise, and does not require much of an ontology, or much intelligence. I know that his reactive comments, in the guise of an intelligent search for answers on my behalf, is receiving atomic data and relaying it to me atomically, hashed through with a gutsy delight written in interchangeable strings.

The Quality Control segment of the clock now lights up, and so we are approaching the halfway mark of our time together. Whether or not it forms a part of his biology, Dom watches the segments ding into completion with interest; even though he will no longer be needed when they have all lit, he seems anxious for it all to be over on my behalf. Thinking about this now, this seems like a distinctly unrealistic way for an organism to behave; to will itself out of existence through sycophancy. Artificial servants are nothing new, but I can’t think of any agent throughout history or literature, machine-made or divine or revenant, that blindly worked itself into its own doom without some self-reflection. There’s very little drama without it. There would be an interesting tension if instead Dom both sought the completion of his life’s work (that is, informing me when my pizza might be done) and dreading his oblivion; perhaps subtly sabotaging the segment’s progress, lying to me, acting less like a readout, the model employee, and more like an organism. They’ve given him eyes, after all.

I sit on the sofa, and watch him get giddier as we approach the next phase of his performance; my partner wonders what I am doing still craning my neck into the Domino’s app, when we ordered the pizza nearly twenty minutes ago. I’m interested in this little thing, I tell her.

Apparently there might be something wrong with our pizza, and this next segment is taking some time to satisfy its precepts. With no change in the domain, and nothing to react to, Dom’s role is uncertain. We’ve entered a sort of lagoon in our narrative, where there is no current to pull us on just yet, and we enter into lazy, scummy feedback loops. He says nothing; sometimes his eyes rise and bulge very slowly, in what I think is supposed to be a minimal, mindful breath. I’ve since learnt that Dom will respond to spoken questions (in direct parody of Apple’s Siri agent) with a stochastic pizza-pun response, eagerly hijacking a reductive nostalgia for the magic eight-ball. I didn’t know at the time. It might have been fun to ask him direct questions.

He keeps blinking at what seem to me like realistic intervals. I create artificial, self-satisfying little stories for what exactly is irritating his vision each time. I’ve programmed my own agent’s blinkings, and assigned each one an origin story.


if BlinkTimer <= 0 {
BlinkBehaviour.Active = true
BlinkSource =
choose("tears", "dirt", "blood", "insect", "fatigue", "palsy")
BlinkTimer = random(300)
}

I realise, now, later, that I was just playing the arsehole with Dom; I know that I was not supposed to be going this far with him. Dom is supposed to be a gewgaw, a half-time orange, the least a being can be; a widget.

Of course then, being an agent myself, and with no feedback forthcoming, I dig my fingertip into the phone screen in desperation. So far Dom has been without what Dr. Leon Watts calls Social Presence; believability and tangibility through interaction with another. So far he has cheerily moved between his discrete states and relayed his information without acknowledging my input; now, in this quiet, stagnant phase, he overreacts to my prod. His whole realm sunders; he vibrates in pain. I know that it is pain because he helpfully says ‘Ouch.’ He tells me to be careful where I’m sticking that thing, I suppose in the way that any Domino’s employee might, before they prosecuted me.

Of course, Dom has no internal state or facility for memory, apart from the trawl of marketing data that Domino’s must have collected on me over the last ten years, despite me asking them not to. He does not remember how many pokes I have given him, and he will not remember this assault on our next meeting. He makes no distinction as regards direction, pressure, genuflection or speed, cannot tell if I am trying to comfort him, massage him or elicit him to play. His world makes no room for pleasure; only a sort of wry mischief, a constant mythic cycle. It reminds me of Punch & Judy shows; each performance sees the crocodile get the sausage, Punch getting a concussion, and when the curtain falls a fugue descends, and all is forgiven and forgotten instantly. In Dom’s case, however, the curtain descends and rises every sixtieth of a second.

I don’t stop poking and sweeping and bodging him, purely because I am trying to elicit some sort of trauma. Within a minute I have moved right through the rotary of his pre-written responses and back again, and so I shrink away defeated.

About three miles from our house, in the Domino’s kitchens, there is the clatter of pans, arguments about tips, the smell of nylon and the snap of clasps on helmets. The next segment lights up; Dom notes the passing of time without sadness. His world is changing, and he changes with it, seamlessly. He is still happy to serve me.

17:57:12:12

Baking

It is revealed to Dom, and relayed to me with a rictus of triumph, that my pizza is now in the oven. He knows this, I first of all guess, because a data signal has been sent out by the computer system that is threaded through those distant kitchens, linking oven readouts, order databases and greasy paper receipts hanging from their clips. None of this is particularly vital to my order; all I really need to know is an estimated delivery time and perhaps when the pizza has left the kitchens in a sweaty saddlebag. Dom is telling me this instead to make me feel intimated; to invest me in the secret narrative behind the counter.

If I sound like a pillock, it’s because I am incredibly, uncomfortably right; Domino’s builds its brand on a scale between convenience and coquettishness, ‘right now’ and ‘soon, soon’. There would not be any need for Dom if you could make a pizza in a minute or two; that would leave no time for these little lagoons, no need for the segments and their anticipation; there would, in short, be no story to tell, even if the story is really quite stupid and boring. Dom is one of several attempts by his makers not only to nix the frustration we feel while we wait for our order to arrive, but to also take the naked information of that order and juggle it into some sort of arc, an entwicklungsroman cycle. Dom is our guide in this, and despite all my snobbery I have been sitting here for twenty-five minutes letting him guide me around that cycle, engrossed.

Human beings don’t react well to bare data; we struggle to process it properly. There is a reason that the oracles in Delphi used smoked sage and never gave a straight answer, and it is not because there was no straight answer to give. Dom is the same performative, psychopomp tease; he should have access to the most granular information that we might need, at the minutest detail possible (even unto the readouts on those huge ovens) but through him such information is normalised, smoothed, veiled and spotlit. This approach goes back, again to Laurel, Huizinga, and before; computers as theatre, play as ritual, human beings as childish audience, medium as medium, interface as tholos.

In hindsight, I think that perhaps Domino’s has gone even further. Perhaps there was no link at all between Dom and the kitchen, ever, and my pizza was nowhere near done, or in fact was already on its way. Using the received wisdom of the company’s vast psychological profiling of their customer base, Dom was able to predict exactly when and how to tantalise or to sate me. There’s no need to model belief as part of his design, or anything so fuzzy; I’m not as unpredictable as I like to think. To prove the point, his announcement that things are finally cooking makes me say “ooh”, and I relay the update to the room at large. Everyone nods in happiness, and I turn back to my apparatus to conduct the next reading.

I’m extremely impressed with Domino’s authorship of this experience. They’ve got me now, right to the end.

18:10:15:03

Out For Delivery

After this point the anticipation gets terrific, aching in its artificiality. I can be under no illusions as to where Dom’s animus is, where he hangs his hat, where his genitals, if he has any, might be tucked away. The pizza has left the premises of the restaurant three miles away, and is now apparently beyond his foresight and farsight. He is the kitchen; the kitchen is him. He hangs in its air like a fetish, lurks behind every make-line like a domovoi. Though he can project himself, be summoned, as plasm, into my home and onto my screen, there are limits to what he knows.

All we can do is wait; my story has gone dark, has submerged ominously. Soon, our driver Mark “Deliverance” Hutchins (or so Dom tells me he is called) will appear at my door with his hot bag. I don’t know if the nickname, or even the name itself, is randomly assigned. It’s part of the performance, the characterisation extending from Dom retrospectively onto the vast, logistical, human machine that preceded him. Domino’s is finally trying to make their employees into believable agents, despite the caps.

To me this sudden blackout, this running dark, is a choice and not a constraint. I see no technical reason why I could not track my pizza’s position on the road, as I might an Amazon package, if only to plan when to open my second beer, when to warm the plates, when to put on some trousers. I suppose it might have something to do with employee privacy law, and the fact that Domino’s makes its drivers use their own cars to drive down costs, only paying them for their petrol retrospectively and at the meanest rate possible. But it doesn’t really matter; it’s a stylish choice. I am now invested in the narrative to such an extent, and all our stomachs are rumbling with such feedback, that Dom can afford to abnegate his only function; to provide me timely information. To get technical now would only spoil the ending. Even when it is artificial, partiality is the key to any good agent, and to any organism. If they had made Dom more useful or more comprehensive, they might as well have rendered him as a lifeless ticker, a map overlay, or a limp toolbar.

I know that I have been playing the arsehole with Dom. I’ve been a clever dick. I’ve been “spoiling the sport”, as Huizinga said; the worst crime that a ‘user’, a player of games, a participant of performance, can commit. I’ve made fun of something fun; I’ve pointed out the smallness of something small. However, I would never deny that Dom was interesting, or believable, right at the very root of what it is to be believed. Domino’s, especially, has been experimenting with these traits in its advertising since the transmodal conjuration of the ‘Noid in the 1980s. Though I am sure that his commissioning executives would say that Dom serves a very different function, I think he might be a realisation of that early promise of a company’s patron personality, its spirit animal, its logos, made possible by the simple technologies of today. As if in confirmation, I have spent most of this last hour watching Dom, willing him to do more, aching for a partner in my self-centred paracosm, my ongoing, warpish imaginary worlds. He has worked on me.

But it is important, sometimes, to play the arsehole. It is important to query this consensual, casual animism which is becoming the new norm for the municipal data with which we want to conduct our lives. It is important precisely because this animism is never casual. Huizinga said that all play is serious, and means something, even when we insist that it is meaningless. Even when Dom’s pathetic circle was joined, and all of his segments lit up, and his lifetime was over, and the pizza arrived early and I forgot to ask the friendly, underpaid driver if his name really was Mark and if anyone really called him “Deliverance”; and even when I had a richer interaction with that driver in three seconds than I had had with Dom in the previous hour, conducted through the interface of cheese-steam leaking from the pizza boxes; even then, Dom meant something to me. I still haven’t forgotten him, or his on-brand blue eyes closing.