Tom Garland was with the company for six months when he volunteered to have the ESM chip implanted under his skin. Consenting to the minor procedure was a relief. It was the not consenting that drew the ire of colleagues, both male and female, who insisted employees refusing to be chipped were opposed to a safe work zone, or had something to hide.
“Only take a few minutes. And then there won’t be any questions,” said his human resources rep, Melanie.
Which to 25-year-old Tom was what compromised the voluntary aspect of the initiative. Had there been questions? He worked for a woman, Veronica Barnes, with whom he’d developed a professional and courteous rapport. He had voted for Hillary, considered himself progressive, and was respectful of colleagues. He was raised to be deferential toward women, which found him holding doors and giving up subway seats even to younger females. Both of which were sexist in a certain sense, although he saw his behavior as gentlemanly.
It was his hereditary aspects that implied there were questions. His maleness, his white privilege, his social media-encouraged anxiety at having a cyborg-ish microchip surgically implanted in his shoulder, allowing his employer to track his movements and emotions. The ESM chip, or emotional safety monitoring, detected heart rhythm, breathing, stimulation, swelling, and muscle contraction, feeding it all into an algorithm that measured emotional state. Anger, sorrow, happiness, arousal, rage, despair, lust, stress; it all lurked inside Tom Garland, who like everyone else was impacting the company safe zone.
He’d been hired by the marketing division of Tickel & Licktner in the midst of the Weinstein Effect. A person of his caliber—little experience, young male—did not have the credibility to dissent. Besides, the company was just trying to improve morale, creating an office free of sexual harassment, both physical and cognitive. If someone was thinking about sex, mentally undressing an unwitting coworker, kidnapping moments of the workday for masturbatory schemes later that evening—wasn’t that as bad as physically forcing oneself on a colleague?
“Liberal brainwashing.” That was the summary from Tom’s cubicle mate, Murray Foster, 57, who refused to be chipped. He’d been a copywriter with Tickel & Lichtner for 30 years and insisted he was grandfathered into his chauvinism. “What’s inside Murray Foster’s head belongs to Murray Foster. I feel like eye-fucking the entire sales division, then it belongs to me. And no microchip’ll tell me different.”
Which was fine, except the rest of the company, most due to peer pressure, had agreed to the chips. The HR department even built an interactive map of the office safe zone. Most of it was a soft blue hue indicating tolerance and fellowship. But the area where Murray and Tom sat was cast in a rigid purple, a misogynist smog corrupting an otherwise enlightened culture. It was like those sex offender maps, only preemptively accusatory, warning colleagues who did not wish to walk through an analytical rape zone to steer clear of the marketing division.
Even Tom’s chip had not improved the situation. The map shifted to a maroon-ier brown, which somehow seemed worse than the purple. Each time Tom clicked the map, it ratcheted up his anxiety, which sent his heart aflutter and his neck muscles clenching. All of it was being recorded by the microchip, which coincided with the movements of other chipped employees, resulting in the ESM algorithm drawing conclusions and contacting him constantly: email, text message, popup alerts. How was he feeling? Did he need a walk around the block? Would he consent to a fast quiz? He’d taken all the quizzes. How often does sexual harassment occur in the workplace? Every four seconds. How many times a day did the average male think about sex? Every seven seconds. That wasn’t technically accurate, but he could not argue with a quiz. True or False: Sexual harassment is not limited to physical behavior. Facial expressions, thoughts, and body language also subjugate victims. True.
One morning, heading to the communal kitchen for coffee, he found Kendall Evans bent over, her long, black hair wagging near the ground where a dusting of fluffy, dying snow gathered. She glanced up to a frozen Tom.
“Don’t just stand there. Help me. I’m covered in it.”
Wintertime chivalry ignited, he rushed to his colleague’s aid, working free the snow from her coat’s shoulder and hood. She popped up, red faced, smiles, and they took in the ebbing drift.
“I hate to see it melt, but it frizzes the fuck out of my hair.” Shrugging, she shifted her gaze at Tom. “And you, the human snowplow, are my hero. Tom is it?” He nodded. “I owe you a coffee.”
“That’s okay. It’s free here in the kitchen.”
“I know it’s free. I meant, let’s have coffee, you and me.”
“Maybe another time,” he said too quickly, critical marketing tasks awaiting.
The truth was he did want to have coffee with Kendall, who by all appearances would make an excellent coffee companion. He only knew her through casual hellos and meetings in which she seemed smart and brash and fun, a great dresser, and that hair. His girlfriend, Sasha, would not approve of him having coffee with someone who looked like Kendall, and things with Sasha had not been great lately. It was better for everyone if he drank his coffee at his desk, alone, until Murray arrived.
By the time he reached his cubicle, he had nine new emails, two quizzes, several text messages, and his computer was running a scan for what the pop-up window claimed was questionable content. His shoulder felt hot, tingly. He answered the phone.
“Tom, it’s Melanie from HR. Can you pop into my office?”
“Is everything okay?”
“Just a quick huddle with Mitch and I.” Mitch was the consultant working on the ESM algorithm. They’d been warned not to use huddle to describe meetings. It was offensive to people who found football offensive. Powwow was also banned, as was round-robin, because of Robin Matthews in Payroll.
When he arrived at Melanie’s office, she and Mitch stared at separate computers. “Close the door, please.” He took a seat and rubbed his shoulder. It was probably in his head, but the skin near the chip felt like it was pulsating.
“You’re not being accused of anything,” Melanie said. “Just relax.”
Tom shrugged. “I’m relaxed, I think.”
“Your heart rate seems high,” Mitch said. “Things okay with Sasha?”
“Fine, thank you.” Tom leaned to see Mitch’s screen. He pulled it away. “How do you know about Sasha?”
“You put her down as an emergency contact,” Melanie said. “She’s in your file.”
“Look, Tom.” Mitch smelled of peppermint and chemical exhaust from his computer fan. “I specialize in safe zone architectonics. Been working on safe zones most of my career. To be frank, I’m not liking what I’m seeing with your charts.”
“You seem like a good kid,” Melanie said. “We’re here to help.”
“I got the chip.” Tom pulled up his sleeve to prove it.
“Anyone can get chipped,” Mitch said. “The chip is just the start. It’s what the chip divulges that matters.”
He turned his screen toward Tom, who studied the charts as if they were financial blueprints of a volatile economy instead of his emotional state. Most of the graphs showed a gentle line interrupted by spikes, all of which Tom knew to be bad without Mitch saying so.
“According to my analysis, you think about sex roughly three-hundred eighty times during the workday.” Mitch shook his head. Melanie’s mouth bent into a commiserating frown. “Assuming a conservative twenty seconds per sexual daydream, we estimate you’re spending one-quarter of the workweek thinking about sex.”
Like a Pavlovian dog in heat, at that very moment Tom began thinking about sex; the charts spiked. He wasn’t even thinking about sex for himself, but rather what type of sex Mitch and Melanie enjoyed. Mitch had freshly laundered clothes, which Tom appreciated in a heterosexual manner, while Melanie always displayed a professional aura, as if her competence was the undetectable energy that powered the office. He wondered if Mitch and Melanie were fucking, or had at least thought about a fling, and the more he tried not to think about sex, the faster his heart beat.
“Oh dear,” Tom said.
“It looks bad, I know. But through our emotional notification system, we think we can get you down to around four minutes per week. Which is still not consensual thought-sex, but it would be an improvement.” Mitch showed another chart. “Before you were chipped, you were likely thinking about sex 37 percent of the workday. We were happy with your progress until …”
“This morning’s episode.” Melanie sighed. “What happened in the kitchen, Tom?”
He mentally reviewed the morning, coffee, snow, aromas from Kendall’s hair. Mitch’s charts went ape shit. “Here we go again,” Mitch said.
“Try to control yourself,” Melanie said.
“That’s what I’m trying to do.” He explained the morning as best he could, beginning with Kendall’s request for assistance, and how he’d tussled snow from her coat.
Mitch gasped. “So you touched her? With your hands?”
“She asked me to.”
“Sounds to me like she asked for help. Not for you to run your fingers through her hair.”
“That’s not how it happened.”
Mitch tapped his computer. “The algorithm doesn’t lie, Tom. Kendall’s chip output showed no volatility, just yours. Which means it was not a consensual snow removal in the way you think it was.” He made rabbit ears with his hands, implying ‘snow removal’ equated to ‘sexual harassment.’ “And the same goes with your boss, Veronica. This is a professional office, Tom, not a massage parlor.”
Tom was sweating. “Veronica? Did something else happen?”
Melanie was on the phone. “Veronica, we’re ready for you.”
A moment later, his boss arrived, avoiding eye contact. “Oh, Tom, this is awkward.”
His hands shook. “What, exactly, is awkward?”
“I have to say I’m flattered, I really am.” She offered an embarrassed smile to Mitch and Melanie. “But I’m married. With four kids. I would never. Not because there’s anything wrong with you, Tom, don’t misunderstand. It’s just, well …”
“Technically, if you were having an interoffice romance, it would not be my concern,” Mitch said. “But since you are not consenting to his speculative arousal, I felt it important to bring to everyone’s attention.”
“But I don’t get aroused,” Tom said. “Or if I do, it’s just nervous arousal.”
“Oh, Tom!” Veronica covered her mouth. Melanie handed her a box of tissues. It was unclear if she was weeping or nervous laughing.
Mitch showed another chart. Since he’d been chipped, Tom’s arrival in Veronica’s office each day coincided with a rise in his heartbeat and breathing, along with dilated pupils. It was true; he’d always felt nervous around authority figures. But as far as he knew he had never thought of his boss sexually.
“I suppose it does affect our working relationship, you thinking about me like that,” Veronica said. “Is it something I’m doing? How I dress? How I behave?”
“That’s how they want you to feel,” Mitch said. “It’s easier for assaulters to put the blame on the victim.”
“Wait just a minute.” Tom grew up in the suburbs, two liberal parents, a typical house with a treehouse on Piccadilly Lane—what was purer and more proper and un-rapey? It was possible he thought about sex too often, but it was an involuntary impulse. “I’m being misrepresented. And I think it’s tied into why I’ve stopped getting work email on projects lately. I only get email when the microchip thinks I’m thinking about sex, which isn’t always the case.”
Mitch tapped the screen. “The algorithm doesn’t lie.”
“We’re here to help,” Veronica said.
“For now we’d like you to keep your interactions to email.” Wendy spoke to Veronica, as if Tom had left the room. “Just until Mitch gets Tom’s readings under the curve.”
“Would that be okay with you, Tom?” Veronica said. “I certainly don’t want you quitting over … whatever this is between us. Good people are hard to find.”
The news had already circulated through the office by the time Tom reached his desk. He logged into the interactive map. His cubicle area had turned dark purple again. The entire office, including Tom, had gotten a safe zone quiz. A meaty claw hit his shoulder.
“Nice work, my man,” Murray said.
“What’s that mean?”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were banging the brunette in media?”
Tom’s heart pounded. “Kendall? Who said that?”
“Word gets around, compadre.”
Murray made a fist, which Tom spontaneously bumped, apathetically accepting high-five spoils without having done any of the rumored fornication to earn it. He explained to Murray what happened—Kendall, the snow, the HR meeting, the charts and data they had collected. He had even been accused of cognitively assaulting their boss.
“Shit, Garland. Veronica, too? She has four kids. You have any idea how difficult working moms have it without you objectifying them?” Murray sat him down. “I warned you about that chip, and now I’m warning you again. That brunette with the curves and hair—watch yourself. Maybe she likes you. Or maybe corporate planted her here to weed out the perverts.”
“I’m not a pervert.”
“Check the interactive map. We both are. Don’t say you weren’t warned.”
By the afternoon, the notifications were constant. He’d been enrolled in a series of virtual courses. An online seminar, on how much sexual assault cost a company, dragged on for an hour. An email from HR was concerning. In accordance with his consent to microchip, they had alerted his emergency contact and next of kin on recent developments.
He’d been expecting Sasha’s call. “You son of a bitch. I thought you were one of the good ones, Tom.”
“I swear, Sasha, I didn’t do anything.”
“Unlike men, microchips don’t lie.” He could tell she’d been crying. “So who is she?”
“No one. I was just helping her get snow out of her hair.”
“You’re disgusting. I’m moving out. I need time to think.”
“Technically, Sasha.” It had been a long day. He hadn’t meant to make things worse, but now it had come up. “We never agreed you’d move in. Your stuff. It just, sort of, appeared.”
The line went dead. Dreadfully, another call. It was his next of kin: his mother.
It was impossible that Tom—shy Tom, Tom with an abominably unsophisticated sexual history, the Tom who did not understand why people knocked missionary—thought about sex any more than his colleagues. He checked in with others who had also been chipped. Seth in sales claimed he’d also had a face-to-face with Mitch. To stop subconsciously pillaging colleagues, he listened to death metal all day, the abrupt pandemonium making it difficult to concentrate on anything, much less sexual plundering. Drew in legal smoked weed to keep his emotions in check. HR had granted him a conference pod to medicinally numb himself during the workday. Beverly, a frumpy graphical designer, claimed she thought about sex constantly.
“It just barges into my mental process.” She pulled up a sleeve. “I keep a magnet on the chip, which scrambles the circuits. I’m constantly imagining sex with everyone in our company. Even right now, with you, Tom.”
By late afternoon, he again found himself in the cafeteria deciding between two herbal teas—chamomile and dandelion root—deciding which might better damper his libido. A soft kick into the back of his leg, he turned to find Kendall.
“Hear the rumor, snowplow?” She winked. “You and I—we’re doing it.”
Tom checked the cafeteria. They were alone. He placed a hand over his shoulder, hoping to silence the notifications, though he could sense the charts and lines blossoming with his racing pulse. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you. I heard I got you into some kind of trouble this morning?”
“When I was helping you with the snow. Apparently, my microchip showed I was aroused.” Tom ducked his head. “Even though I didn’t know it at the time.”
“Oh, snowplow. That’s sweet.”
“It’s not sweet. It’s disgusting. I apologize for my behavior.”
“You were a gentleman this morning.” She held her face, smiling. “I’m blushing.”
“Stop that!” If his chip picked up erotic snow removal, wouldn’t her chip sense flattery? “Aren’t you worried HR will contact you?”
“I can’t just stop blushing.” She pulled up her sleeve, a scar. “Besides, my brother’s a dentist. I had him cut out the chip for me last month.”
“And no one found out?”
“I taped the chip to my pet turtle, Snatches. I’m not sure what Snatches thinks about in my cubicle all day, but apparently it doesn’t violate company sex rules.”
Tom stared at the scar. “Did you still want to have coffee?”
“Too late in the day for coffee. How about I buy you a drink after work?” She stepped closer. “I watched my brother operate on me. If we have enough drinks, I can probably cut that chip out of your shoulder.”
There was a time, before people had to prove their mettle through implanted microchips, that Tom might have felt worthy of the invitation. Now he wondered at the honor of his own intentions. It was an innocent drink, possibly, though it bore an illicit temper. Kendall seemed friendly, but almost too friendly. What if Murray was right? What if she’d been planted there in the lobby, hair full of snow, to gauge his conduct? It might be a funny story to one day tell their children. But it would be an impossible story to tell Veronica and HR. He wanted to go for it. He wanted to be one of the good ones.
Tom grabbed a chamomile teabag. “Maybe another time,” he said, turning for his desk.