Interacting With Entities

Canada goose. Photo by Michael Gil, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

I wrote a story called “Encounters With Monsters.” It was about interactions with human beings, from the viewpoint of a migratory Canada goose. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure that a goose on a golf course could see people as monsters.

The literary magazines are not beating down my door for the opportunity to print this story. Since many people will never see a story told by an animal as adult fare, I think I’ll change my pitch and sell it as the text of a picture book for young readers.

Meanwhile, I’ve started thinking I should write another one—definitely for adults—called “Encounters With Entities.”

Here is one such encounter:

Interpol on Speed Dial

A few years ago we went to Italy with our friends Bill and Marsha. We rented a car in Florence. My name was on the contract, but Bill did most of the driving, because—well, Bill likes to drive . . . even in Italy!

Florence, a driver’s paradise. Photo by Infrogmation, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

After a splendid week driving around Tuscany, we needed to return the car to the downtown agency where we had rented it. Now, Florence is an old, confusing, medieval city—as most downtowns in Italy are—and Florence is also a Rubik’s cube of one-way streets. If you rent a car in the center of town and manage to escape to the countryside, that does not guarantee you will ever solve the puzzle of getting back to the same place. The streets are all different, like the staircases at Hogwarts.

Bill turned into a street by a large hotel. It seemed to lead the right way but turned out to be a dead end. Bystanders waved at us sternly to turn around, which we did. As we exited that cul-de-sac, I spotted a sign in English: “PRIVATE ENTRANCE. HOTEL WATSAMATTAYOU GUESTS ONLY.” 

Eventually, we reached the darkest heart of Florence, returned the car, and went on our way.

FIVE MONTHS LATER came a letter from the European Union. Inside the officious-looking envelope was a traffic ticket in the amount of €93.50, for “driving in unauthorised zone.” Ransacking my memory, I realized that by entering the dead-end street beside the hotel, we had committed not just a faux pas but an actual Eurocrime. 

They must have had a camera snapping the plate of every car in that street. They must have had a computer programmed to match each plate with those of legitimate hotel guests. Their program must have had a subroutine that traced the plate to the rental agency and found my name and home address in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. 

And here’s the kicker: When the jury of computers had weighed the evidence and found me guilty, my punishment was too important to come from Florence city hall or the local polizi or even carabinieri headquarters. 

No. The computer forwarded our case to Geneva so some obscure office of the European Union, in all its majesty, could issue my ticket. 

In those days the euro was worth a third more than the dollar. In the five months (did I mention FIVE MONTHS??) since we did the crime, the exchange rate had tanked further. So that €93.50 came to well over a hundred clams. 

We shared the joy with Bill and Marsha, our unindicted co-conspirators. We were all tempted to shred the ticket and forget it. After all, the long arms of Jean-Claude von Shakedown couldn’t reach us on U.S. territory. 

BUT . . . we might want to visit Europe in the future. Imagine being turned back at Amsterdam passport control because the One Great Eurocomputer choked on an unpaid trafic violation. 

As William Shakespeare said, though in a slightly different context, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”

Bill and Marsha chipped in their half, we sent the required Euros to Geneva, and as a result we are still welcome in Europe. 

Valued customers, no doubt.

Dear and Gracious Reader, if it can happen to us, it can happen to you. Maybe it already has. 

Alternative History

Now picture, if you will, the same incident happening twenty years earlier—before Italy joined Europe and before computers gobbled up all continents.

Italian cop in Florence. Photo by Xeph, licensed under CC-BY-3.0.

Way back then, that same street might have already been blocked off to “unauthorised” traffic— for big hotels have ways to make their voices heard in heavily-touristed cities. But in those halcyon days, enforcement might have been on the honor system; or, more likely, it might have been entrusted to a red-faced little man in a comic opera uniform. He would have lunged into our misguided path, waving a white-gloved hand and blowing his whistle. 

He would have approached the driver’s side and addressed us in rapid Florentine. Bill and I would have shrugged, held up our hands, and chanted “No parlo italiano!” The little man in cape and shako would have then repeated the same phrases at twice the volume. We would have shrugged, gestured, and chanted operatically. He would have made obscene hand signs, which we would not have understood because they were in Italian.

We would have ended the episode by driving away unscotched. 

Case closed.

Just possibly, we might have been roused in our hotel at two a.m. by a carabinieri rifle squad. But even then (here comes my point, Reader, in case you have lost track) even then, there would have been a person—a brigadiere perhaps, or a maresciallo—whom we could have addressed. One might have pleaded or even begged. Maybe one could have paid a sort of fine on the spot—perhaps a thousand lire for each member of the squad. But there’s no way a few thousand lire would have added up to more than a sawbuck. 

Carabinieri keeping the peace. Photo by Dickelbers, licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The expense incurred twenty years later, doing things à la européenne, came from the cost of all those computers and all that bureaucracy. If you think Italian bureaucrats are bad, multiply them by every signatory to the Schengen accords. Translations alone must cost a fortune.

But when a total robot citation arrives from a major world government, five months after the foul deed, without the shred of a claim that any human ever witnessed the crime, or cared—what are you gonna do?

You can’t fight city hall if there’s no city hall to fight.

And that’s only one example.

It’s Everywhere! It’s Everywhere!

Thesis: Life is now more a matter of interfacing with entities, and less a matter of dealing with people.

Big Joe Williams sings the blues, 1971. Photo by Patrick Denoréaz, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Sometimes I wish I were a musician. If I were a musician, I could write and perform something like this:

Mmm . . . I got those old Interacting-with-Entities Blues,
Oh, yeah, I just got to tell you this news—
There’s no reason not to tell you,
I got those Interacting-with-Entities Blues, oh, yeah . . .

You’ll have to imagine the tune on your own, Fair Reader. I can’t be expected to do everything.

More on this subject another day.


Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer