An experiment in writing fiction about a sociotechnical system.

Fred and Gabriel knew that the virus was under control, but they were still worried. 

The DNA test on their newborn child, Ariel had shown that Ariel might easily be infected by the virus. The result was red. Fred and Gabriel’s own DNA tests had been taken years ago when the tests had first been invented. Fred was amber and Gabriel was green.

Those scores were ok but red spelt danger.

The tests

The test was designed to predict how likely it was that someone would catch the virus. The simple scores of red, amber and green were designed to be easily understandable. The real test results were more complex. 

Everyone was susceptible to the virus, particularly if there was a large number of infected people in a group. Scientists had found that people who were easily infected shared certain patterns in their DNA. The tests were designed to spot those patterns. It was important to know who was susceptible because people became infectious before any symptoms were visible. To stop the spread of the virus it was necessary to reduce the chance of the first infection.

Reducing the spread of the virus was a priority for everyone. When the virus had first appeared it had killed many people and caused panic in many, many more. The virus was under control but people needed to be confident that there would be no more major outbreaks. A systemic response had been required.

The maps and the rules

The system was designed to minimise the chance  that people who could be easily infected with the virus could mix with each other. That would reduce the chance of a single infection rapidly spreading.

The DNA tests were part of this system. Everyone needed to be tested. The results were recorded and made available for everyone to see.

People were wary about other individuals whose results showed danger but to reduce the chance of inadvertent mixing there were maps and rules. The rules said that spaces like towns, hospitals, supermarkets, and offices could only have a maximum percentage of reds and a maximum percentage of ambers.

Anyone could look at maps that showed both the maximum and the current percentage of red, amber and green in each place. The maps helped people know if the rules were being adhered to.

Fred thought the maps were beautiful. 

The cameras

To make the maps and rules work it was necessary to know where individuals were. There was a network of cameras for this. 

The tracking cameras were originally deployed by the government’s centre for data modelling. The centre made  sure the population was happy by measuring happiness and recommending ways to improve it. Their early models suffered as the data quality was poor. The solution was to collect and share higher quality data in larger volumes. The people who worked in the centre used the images of people captured by the cameras to estimate the levels of happiness in different parts of the country.

The original happiness tracking system was repurposed for the virus through a software update.

Originally the system had identified people through mobile phones, glasses and watches but people found it too easy to swap these devices with each other so the system now used other methods. Face masks had been popular when the virus first appeared but were now banned as the best way to stop an outbreak relied on identifying people. As well as faces, the system looked at other attributes like the shape of people’s bodies, how they walked, and how they gestured while they spoke.

At first it had been expensive and slow to do these checks as it required expert people recognisers. Other experts watched the people recognisers to learn enough that they could design algorithms to make the process faster. Over time the people who worked at the camera manufacturers had made it even easier by optimising the camera hardware to meet the needs of the algorithms. 

Gabriel worked in one of the organisations around the country that designed, installed, maintained and updated the cameras, and the network that connected the cameras together. The job was as important as those maintaining other bits of vital infrastructure like electricity power stations, roads, and water networks.

The images from the cameras were linked to individuals and test results. The beautiful maps updated in time with people moving around.

The people

The government had given police officers, immigration officials, nurses, teachers, landlords and employers the responsibility to make sure the rules were enforced. The tests, the rules, the maps, the cameras and the people were all part of the system.

If a maximum percentage was breached then it was someone’s fault. That person risked a fine, jail or losing their job. But if they kept the mix under control then there were rewards – perhaps a promotion or more simply praise from the people who had been kept safe. You could spot one of the responsible people by looking for people staring at a map with moving dots of green, amber and red with an occasional burst of movement to get someone out of a room before someone else entered through another door.

The rules would affect Ariel, Fred and Gabriel. It would affect where Ariel could go to school or, many years in the future, where to get a job or who they could fall in love with. It would affect where the family could live and go on holiday. It would even affect which park to play in on which day and which other families to play with. The family would need to stare at maps too.

The rules would affect Fred and Gabriel in other ways. The system knew that they were Ariel’s parents and shared bits of their child’s DNA. If Ariel’s score was red then this might mean that Fred and Gabriel were more susceptible than their tests had originally shown.

The test results were not perfect. They were just a prediction. More data could improve the prediction. Because of Ariel’s red score the system might change Gabriel’s green to an amber, while Fred might become a red.

Breaking the system

Fred suggested retesting Ariel. There were a range of test providers. As the government said “every market is better when it is competitive!”. A different provider might give a different result. But Gabriel was not sure if this was true. Gabriel had heard that nowadays the different test providers were just different brands. The test was the test. That made it both effective and efficient.

Perhaps there was another way. If there was a new family member whose test result was green then that could bring down the score for the other family members.

You could pay people to manipulate the DNA of an unborn baby. It was said that this DNA manipulation would generate a better test result, with only a small chance of harming the baby. You could even improve other things at the same time – perhaps a bit more height and better hair. 

The system was based on data. Data came from humans – whether it be the baby humans, the humans who created the tests, the humans running the cameras and maps, or the humans who manipulated DNA to manipulate the tests. To break the system humans could feed it false data. But there was a chance of harm to a baby. 

The virus was under control

It was complicated trying to live a life under the system. But Fred knew the virus was under control.

The last outbreak had been when Fred was still a child, fifteen long years ago. Despite that, the system still tested and monitored for the virus. There were many organisations working to make sure the system worked as well as it did. Gabriel worked for one. The job put food on the family’s table.

Those organisations were spreading to more and more countries around the world. The organisations exported the system to the world and, in return, bought taxes and jobs back to their home country.

The system had been built for a purpose, reducing the spread of the virus, but the system had proved useful for lots more things. The virus evolved so the test needed to evolve too. The scores of red, amber and green sounded very simple but outside of a small group of people no one really knew how the scores were calculated. 

Fred and Gabriel stared at the system.

They started talking to other people who wanted something different. To begin with they might only be able to meet in little groups but that would change. They could make the maps more beautiful with more colours. Lots of new colours catching light everywhere.