There were so many lawn sign pop-ups around the front door of Brit’s apartment that they could be seen from the elevator, shimmering holograms layered so thick that they distorted the air around them like a mirage. They jumped to life one by one as Lensey approached, pressing as close to her as they could with their urgent advertisements and messages, all popping flash bulbs and sizzling neon logos and a discordant medley of jingles.
The more expensive and sophisticated lawn sign pop-up bots were the first to react to passersby, often rushing forward to present lawn signs for legitimate political campaigns or public service announcements or to declare some mass-consumed personal or community philosophy espoused by, well, any nice person at all that her grandmother talked to these days. The delivered their elevator pitches in calm, endearing voices. Some of them would reach right into your public data as you walked by and address you by name, working you into their scripts and songs.
The shitty, cheap signs came screaming at you at the last minute, layering on top of each other in a panicked effort to reach the front of the onslaught and catch your attention. These were not complex enough to retrieve public information from pedestrians, opting for a more generic catch-all of, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” while flashing their broadsides and trying to change your mind about buying something.
“Everyone out there wants you to buy something,” Brit had told her often, in times when her grandmother had been more discerning. “Sometimes you pay for things with your money, but you have to be most careful about the people selling you something for your trust. If they get your trust, they’ll get your money some way or other – and everything else you have to boot.” Brit saw it as her duty to instill common sense and vigilance against vague existential threats large and small from an unidentified, many-faced they.
Lensey carried a cardboard box of groceries for Brit, which she used regularly on these visits as a buffer against her grandmother’s persistent plague of lawn signs; the bots that powered them relied on inexact scans of approaching masses to determine whether something was a human and if so, where to aim the ads. The more sophisticated bots knew how to engage a person attempting to actively avoid the lawn signs (go away politely, hover further back and higher up, scoot around to your peripheral vision). About half the cheap ones gave up. The other half continued to tap at her with notification and endorsement requests, throwing themselves at the other side of the groceries as Lensey swiped her way into her grandmother’s apartment. Lensey would clear all of them out on her way home.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, the last of the signs flipped back to their twinkling, 2-dimensional resting forms to lay in wait for the next approaching human. The front door whoosed shut, and the hallway lights raised to daylight mode. In an even slightly nicer building, Brit wouldn’t have to deal with signs around hers and every other neighbor’s door. Lensey had argued with Brit about this before: about whether or not the unsecured building without a front gate attendant represented solidarity with the working class; or if it was a more meaningful statement to live somewhere employing a human attendant; or whether it was even moral to employ a person or a bot to make judgments about which people belonged and which people didn’t in a certain space.
“Bots are people, too,” Brit would add slyly, always ready to end one argument with the beginning of another, and especially if she was losing ground on the first. They argued a lot about bots lately – any kind of bots – lawn sign bots and front gate attendant bots especially, but including transportation bots and domestic management bots and legal representative bots and vending bots and food service bots. The personhood of bots was a favorite topic of Brit’s to pivot to at the end of any argument in which bots had been alluded to at all. Which bots do you say thank you to? How do you know if you’ve just received a service from the kind of bot you should thank? Does it matter if you can’t tell the difference between bots anyway? Do you need to say thank you to any bots at all?
Brit was already in the kitchen, coffee already made, mugs and fixings already set out. Seated at Brit’s fold-down table, not looking a moment older than her baby-faced senior photo on the fridge, was Lensey herself. The Lensey at the table’s smile dropped away instantly into a startled “O!” – an expression made truly frightening in its refined degree of imitation. Lensey in the hallway with the groceries all but slammed them on the floor.
“Lensey is home,” Brit’s domestic management bot announced.
“Geemaw,” Lensey started, fumbling for a tone of voice that could communicate the scolding of I-told-you-so, even though this exact scenario was not one Lensey had warned Brit about. In fact, Lensey was not aware of this variety of scam. “What did your house say when this arrived at the door? Did it say anything? Because if it said this was me and you let it inside, we are taking that thing back right now.”
“Wow,” said the Lensey at the table, before Brit could respond. “This is pretty awkward,” it gave Lensey an incorrigible shrug, before turning to Brit again. “But it doesn’t change anything that I said before, Geemaw.”
“Lensey,” Brit said. She fixed the false Lensey at the table with a frown that was not nearly as condemning as the situation honestly called for.
“We talked about this,” Lensey said. “You can’t just accept every message you get without examining where it came from. You can’t just let something in your house, even if its selling something that you like!” Coincidence wasn’t part of any company’s profit model; salesbots that just happened to show up with the exact thing you needed or wanted often proved to be the most nefarious.
Brit looked irritated. “How was I supposed to tell? This one is good!”
It was true. Someone had gone to some actual trouble to design a deepfake Lensey hologram with her mannerisms, expressions, and voice. It was wearing a shirt that looked vaguely familiar – not the one from her senior photo, but definitely one she’d owned, maybe pulled from a different photo or vid. Either someone had been engaged in a targeted research campaign that had successfully accessed some 10-plus-years old multi-media archives, or they had been in this house on a different day, mining information from inside Brit’s apartment. No questions at all about which scenario would have been easier to pull off.
“You’re supposed to be able to tell because it’s trying to sell you something, and because I don’t look like that anymore.” She turned to the Lensey at the table. “Dismiss!” she commanded the youthful, apple-cheeked ad.
“This is just a sample of what we’re capable of,” said the false Lensey, ignoring the verbal dismissal that typically worked on ad bots; if it hadn’t pulled a glossy hologram brochure from the hologram pocket of Lensey’s shirt, this would have sounded like a threat. “If you need an [Advocate* for Nearly* Any* Situation]™ – we can support your needs through voice calling, digital reply, and in-person bot-manifests that are so reliable and authentic that No One Else Will Know It’s Not You™.”
“Dismiss!” Lensey repeated. “Off! Ignore!” She took a frustrated swipe at the hologram’s head region, which sometimes disrupted the cheaper projections. The false Lensey recoiled, insulted.
“I’m just doing a job here!” it said.
“Lensey, be nice!” Brit exclaimed.
“Why would I be trying to sell you hologram Advocate technology?” Lensey asked, gesturing to the case in point seated at the table. “I do not need to be nice to a salesbot imposter of myself!”
Brit shrugged, “You said it was your new job.”
“It is, technically, my new job,” the bot at the table confirmed. “A white lie. Sorry about that.”
“How do we turn it off?” Lensey hissed. “Maybe you have to revoke its permissions. You must have accepted a pop-up. You’ve gotta be more careful handling incoming messages.”
Brit huffed, adding cream to her coffee. Lensey knew what was coming, because this too was a recurring theme in their relationship: “Mail platforms used to be very effective at filtering promotions and spam and real messages.”
Brit had identified tech that she really liked approximately one million years ago, and she’d stuck with those exclusively, forgoing the exceptional capabilities of modern communication products in favor of those old-Millenial favorites, continuity and consolidation. Even the smartest, safest tech was useless in the hands of a person who couldn’t tell what was safe to trust, click, open, believe, engage; this was the earliest they-lesson of Brit’s that Lensey could recall. “When you engage, they learn. When you don’t engage, they learn. Every time a company or a product or piece of code reaches out to you, it learns something it can use for next time. So you have to learn, too.” Brit’s generation had pioneered the kind of smart tech that made bots possible, and they were the first to be skeptical of taking any innovation too far, building any program to be too good. But if she wasn’t willing to abandon her dilapidated tech and adopt more secure methods of communication, Brit needed to heed her own advice and at least learn to identify the modern world’s basic warning signs.
Lensey pinched the bridge of her nose, running through options for either shutting down or booting the Lensey at the table; she stopped when she noticed that the other Lensey was also pinching the bridge of its nose. “It’s probably catalogued everything in here by now, Geemaw,” she said. “Did it come in through your messages? Did it buzz the door? How did it get here?”
Brit considered, stirring her coffee impatiently and avoiding eye contact. “I believe I was scrolling through my mail at the time, but it did arrive through the door,” she offered. “I suppose it could’ve been either? I don’t remember if Tad said anything.” Tad was the name she had given her domestic management bot.
The Lensey at the table stood abruptly. “I think I’ve bugged you enough for one day, so I’ll just be on my way. I’ll leave an [Advocate* for Nearly* Any* Situation]™ lawn sign outside on my way out so you’ve got our calling card if you change your mind.” It smiled at Lensey, her own gratingly ingratiating high school smile – one practiced in the mirror a thousand times in an effort to cultivate a natural, cool-girl look for that yearbook money shot on the fridge. “Or if something happens and you can’t make it to Geemaw’s. With our ultra-sensitive cutting-edge scanning technology, research-based mimicry, and field-tested response programming, you’ll never need to be in two places at once. You’ll be seeing us everywhere soon – but don’t worry, you won’t even know it, and neither will they: that’s the [Advocate* for Nearly* Any* Situation]™ promise*. I’ll go now. Have a good one!”
“You too,” Brit murmured.
The false Lensey vanished, the sizzle of flyback holotransformer hanging alone in the air for just a moment as Lensey gaped at the table scene. Brit had vanished also, coffee and all. Lensey was alone. She had been alone, wide open.
The front door whooshed open, and the lawn signs could be heard clamouring for attention. “Brit is home,” Tad the housebot announced in the kitchen, tone impartial. “Brit, Lensey is here,” it announced in the hall.
Brit, real Brit, was clunking around the front hall now, all clopping clogs and rustling windbreaker, dropping her handbag straight on the floor with a thunk. She scolded the noisy signs as one might do to a flock of devoted pets begging to be fed.
The incoming message chime rang throughout the house, followed by the [Advocate* for Nearly* Any* Situation]™ jingle – the sound of a new lawn sign pin-drop out front.
“Lensey?” Brit called from the front. “Is that you?”
Hayley Ilso is a copywriter from the Pacific Northwest, writing mostly incognito about architecture and tattoos and managing social media on behalf of her two small dogs. She holds an M.S. in Writing and Publishing from Portland State University | Tweeting @hayleyotrope