A collective conscience knew her body by heart. It had touched it all. It lived in everyone who’d put his hands on her, data sucked up and filed with every squeeze of the shoulder, lingering hug, brush down to the waist, kiss on the cheek, gentle guide through the crowd with a hand in the small of the back, left hand snaking up her arm as the right held the handshake for too long. She had been mapped.
Shared anecdotes over beers and whisky. They traded their data, their snippets about the smell of her hair and the curve of each hip, until their dataset was complete and they knew her.
She wanted to burn it down.
‘What were you doing in there?’
‘I broke in to delete something that was stolen.’
Tight-knit, so they said. Like a family.
Awkwardly placed into slippery heeled sandals and starched blazers that had no place on a twenty-two year old frame, she is photographed for the website and entered as a user ID, a set of numbers, a set of bytes with administrative rights to post content. The office is small and dark, a basement unit meant for the building’s architects, left empty when they moved to a higher floor. Rented to a small technology startup whose six employees would soon become seven as they made plans of industry domination over Tano Batak Mochas. At forehead level, the northbound cars accelerate towards the lights as she receives the first comments from having written for the company blog. Tight-knit, so they say. Welcome to the family. Lovely (keystrokes whose owners brushed their keyboards with fingertips that would one day brush her skin) to see you.
They must know us all. They must add us. They must follow. They must comment. They must message. There is no delineation. Twenty friend requests. How are you doing? You reply. She replied. I’ve replied.
Summer vacation. Leaving tomorrow.
They ask if you packed your swimwear, send me a pic, and your heart sinks like a euro coin accidentally dropped into the sea off the dock at the bar on the beach. You can mention a partner. It makes no difference. Where’s my photo?
‘There’s a list of women in the industry they want to photograph naked.’
‘Most people have forgotten about it but it still exists.’
‘They wanted us to send them nudes?’
‘No they wanted to take the photos themselves.’
Walking quickly out of the office and to the car, the first desperate pang will strike in the form of the heavy laptop crashing into your thigh where you’re immediately, rudely aware that this play at adulthood is a charade, less couth than a college bar because at least a college bar is honest about its intentions.
There will be other jobs. In the next life, the Times will call you back about that editorial internship.
It’s a job. It’s just a job. It’s a job in technology. It’s customer service. It’s face to face. It’s pressing the flesh. It’s meeting the community. It’s selling wares, soft and hard. It’s a complaint to management. It’s a polite reminder. The community is always right. She travels: conference halls and trade shows, and standing grief-stricken on the intersection of Fashion Show Drive and the Strip in Las Vegas, staring through baffled tears at the curved bronze, wondering how the fuck she went from waiting at Subway for a job interview to this, where the hotels are like giant renditions of the whisky glasses at the bars inside where the conversations wonder what’s under the American Apparel company shirt. Well. It’s just a job.
Deleting the data they collected over a decade of your public-facing career is difficult and it takes a long time. The firewalls securing what they’ve learned about all of us are fiercely guarded, the data encrypted, passwords under the protection of the best software. If challenged, the security protocols crash down as hard and fast as a garage door off its springs, smashing into a concrete driveway like an angry fist. At every event where a hand reaches for her and she brushes it away, she makes a dent in the inventory. Every kiss diverted, a hand removed from her knobbly spine as it counts the vertebrae and prepares to upload what it touched, is a victory. A drink refused, but come on, I bought it for you! But it isn’t a beer, like he bought the boys. It’s a jager shot with every intention of breaking her encryption and restarting the upload she cancelled.
We were a commodity. We fought back.
We took the fight to its core, shoving our own hands where they didn’t belong and tearing out cables, toppling racks of servers on which they’d memorialised us, commoditised us, dehumanised us. Whining starts. They are unhappy. The industry isn’t as friendly as it used to be; friendly, where you could kiss and squeeze when you saw someone you vaguely knew from the internet, ask her for her private Instagram handle and parse her data differently if she deleted the request. Bitch. Uptight. They hate the new security protocols that carry with them too many permissions. Permission for this, permission for that. I can’t hug you without having to ask? Sad face. Downcast.
The updated security protocols are a collective effort too, a network, from one commoditised set of bytes to another, whispered. Put the latch on the door. Twitch the translucent plastic rod hanging at the side of the blinds and tilt them lower. ‘Allow only while using the app’ becomes ‘just this once’, and then never. More of us check the services we gave permission to in the past and our audit hacks away at their stash of information on us: bytes removed turn into gigs, then megabytes, then the database is looking barren and they say, I miss the old days, when the industry was fun.
You, and I, are now thirty-eight. You are forty-two. I am thirty-five. She is thirty-four as well. Ten years wasn’t a long time. We case the joint. A lot of the data is gone or badly corroded, at least half a decade of neglect and decay after the data’s owners read about Weinstein and the rest, and backed away awkwardly. Clenched teeth emojis replaced the winking faces and thumbs up of yesteryear as they denied they’d ever done it: never downloaded, uploaded and categorised, never traded a single file over the whisky and beer.
Due to neglect, the servers where they kept their knowledge about us overheat and break down and most of the information they stored is unreadable, so in essence we have erased the brutal objectification of our early careers. The singularity that wove fingers through our hair and up our thighs and tried to hold our noses with shot glasses poised at our lips: it knows much less about us now. It doesn’t mention the location of the server room or the old machines lest its wives find out, its daughters, its HR department.
I have a wife is the defence that I have a husband never was: the latter a toothless plea for a time-out. The former, an absolution.
‘He asked me to meet up with him alone.’
‘He said it was for an interview, for the blog for the podcast, for the journal.’
The cooling system failed above the bank of servers and when the first one caught fire, it licked angrily at the soles of their shoes as they flushed scarlet, denying the servers were ever theirs. It burned hot. They watched on silently and so did we, so did she, eyes locked over the smoke. Like the shiver down your spine of someone walking on your grave, or so they say, but when your data is finally incinerated, the sun hits the nape of your neck that none of them remember touching and its burn is hot enough to warm the souls of every one of us whose cache is now empty.
A slightly older version of Cache Flow was a finalist in the 49th New Millennium Writing Awards.