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Joseph S. Pete: Mad World

Image: Unsplash, downloaded ( 05.03.2023.

Off Script

Work was hell, an endless slough of unmitigated suffering and a revealing portal to the dark depths to which humanity could sink, but HR did allow you to take a few 15-minute breaks a day. Stubbing out his cigarette and letting out a deep exhalation, Patrick headed back to another thankless, hellish shift at the Shout Zone.

That’s what his colleagues called it, but the name was a bit of a misnomer. It was less a zone than a drab business park nestled in an anonymous suburban landscape. And there was almost no talking let alone shouting, hardly ever a murmur over the steady clacking on laptop keyboards in the warren of cubicles. The office was where Patrick and his co-workers spent all day, every day screaming at people online, dishing out the worst vitriol one could imagine.

“The world would have been a better place if you were never born and will be a better place when you die,” Patrick typed.

He was enlisted in an army of keyboard warriors, mercenaries who could be deployed to flood social media, comment sections, and other online spaces with commissioned messages. Mostly, clients wanted invective. And they wanted it with extreme prejudice.

In a rare case of reverse-automation, the work was originally often done by bots. But they weren’t suitable for every job. They were often flagged for violating social media policies, easy to spot and couldn’t quite get under people’s skin the way other people can.

“You must be destitute to think that,” Patrick typed.

The work came naturally. He came from combative stock. Patrick’s family had been embroiled in conflict for over a century. A generation removed from Ireland, his great-grandfather and great-granduncle fought in the trenches in World War I. Both his grandfathers fought in the Pacific theater in World War II. Several of his uncles served in the jungles of Vietnam. His father escaped deployment to a combat zone, but Patrick ended up doing a tour of Iraq after dropping out of college. His family came to America for greater opportunities, and it was at war the whole time they were there. So it goes.

“That is so cringe. So embarrassed for you,” Patrick typed.

Patrick tried to make a life for himself after the service, beat his M4 carbine into plowshares or whatever. He got a job at a school library via veteran’s preference, but it was defunded after vociferous parents became outraged it had books about civil rights and Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series, which was decried as interspecies miscegenation.

In his new role, Patrick found he thrived on conflict, in the perpetual state of antagonism. In a way, the troll farm was just like war, just without the honor, nobility, camaraderie, sacrifice, or romanticism.

The Shout Zone deployed wherever ordered. They were hired by various clients. Businesses wanted to review-bomb competition. Shadowy kooks hoped to spread medical misinformation or peddle conspiracy theories. Often, it was just standard political squabbles.

The clients bought up blocks of time, so sometimes they would have to argue one side one hour and the other the next. Switching back and forth sometimes caused cognitive dissonance and left Patrick stumbling over the favored rhetoric but it was all part of the gig. He found he could usually get through any assignment just by hurling insults.

“You are almost unbelievably stupid. This has to be a bit, right?” Patrick typed.

A mass email arrived in staff inboxes telling them they needed to up productivity by 17% to meet that month’s targets. They were always pushing for more productivity, often at the expense of creativity. But Patrick managed.

“You don’t deserve to live in my country or walk down my sidewalks,” Patrick typed.

He would just uncork the negativity, let it flow forth. It didn’t always have to make sense. In the heat of the moment, in the pitch of battle, it was expected posts would be typo-ridden or even incoherent. Patrick’s job was often just to demean or intimidate whoever the client didn’t like.

“You’re complete trash, a human dumpster fire. It’s an outrage you’re allowed to steal oxygen,” Patrick typed.

Another company email crossed over the transom. An incident in the breakroom has been brought to the attention of human resources.

Someone taped a note on the fridge asking people not to microwave fish anymore.

“Remember, Online Solutions Corp. is an inclusive, welcoming workplace.”

Oh, it’s some sort of workplace alright, Patrick thought. He regretted he didn’t have a real job, a career with an upward trajectory and pay adequate for slightly more than a one-bedroom apartment and a decades-old Honda Civic.

“You are so ignorant. The world needs to be purged of your ilk,” he typed.

Sometimes he worried about going too far, provoking someone to violence. There were crazies out there, truly unhinged people. You never knew who might turn out to be a psycho. He just read an article about someone who followed a U-Haul truck that inadvertently cut them off 174 miles across the country before gunning them down outside their new home. The road rageaholic just blew them away in cold blood with no explanation for a putative slight the other driver didn’t remember and might not have realized happened in the first place. It was a mad world.

Plus, Patrick didn’t know how tight the security was or how well they concealed the location of the servers. Looking at a desk calendar from seven years ago on his sparsely furnished work station, he gathered they didn’t invest much in overhead at all.

Then, as if on cue, the fire alarm went off.

“This is a mass shooter drill! Hurry, get outside. Everyone outside now,” Bob the manager shouted. “Rush to the staging point in the parking lot. This is not a drill.”

“You just said it was a drill,” Patrick said.

“You know what I mean. Hurry, everyone hustle!”

Separating himself from the huddled crowd of milling colleagues, Patrick lit a smoke. Ben bummed a cigarette from him.

“I heard we got some ranting email threatening to come here and shoot the whole place up. You hear anything?”

“No,” Patrick said. “But that would make sense. It feels like only a matter of time. We talk so much smack.”

“Hey man, it’s a living.”

“Barely,” Patrick said.

Ben took a long drag.

“It’s just the way of the world,” Ben said. “Nothing you can do I guess.”

They were summoned back inside after about 20 minutes and told they would need to mark that period down as a break when filing out their timecards.

“That’s illegal,” Lola protested.

“Maybe you can file a complaint after you get the hell out of here,” Bob the manager replied. “Clear your desk.”

Unsettled and still turning the parking lot conversation over in his head, Patrick wondered if this really was the way things had to be. Was everything fixed and immutable? Were they just cogs in a system that would keep grinding along with them?

Maybe he should try to engage some of these people instead of tearing them down. Perhaps he should try to connect on a personal level.

“Hey,” Patrick typed, trying to think of something affirmative to say. He would be subversive, go off script and sneak in a ray of sunshine amid all the dark storms of opprobrium.

Then he remembered every keystroke was being monitored.

Patrick wondered how zero-tolerance his company’s zero-tolerance policy really was. He glanced up at Bob, who was stalking angrily down the aisle. He glanced down at the desk calendar. Rent came due next Tuesday.

His fingers hovered over the keyboard, uncertainly.

“You’re such a defective human being. I hope you die.”

About the Author: Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, author, veteran, Society of Professional Journalists board member and Pushcart Prize nominee who frequently appears on Lakeshore Public Radio. His literary work has appeared in more than 100 journals, including Prairie Winds, Gravel, Chicago Literati, The Offbeat, Perch Magazine, and The Tipton Poetry Journal. Like Bartleby, he would prefer not to.


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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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