Art by LoVid
“I see a woman dicing onions. She’s wearing a low-cut dress.”
Hersh listened and waited.
“Now it’s changed. I’m watching a scene from the old He-Man cartoons. I actually used to watch this show. Does the headset, I mean, can it…” There was a hint of fear in Gregory’s voice.
Hersh had seen dozens of people use Medley for the first time. Fear was a common response, at least initially. “Keep watching,” he said.
“Now it’s reading an article to me. I’m reading along with it. The article’s about He-Man, about how it was the first show to be designed as an advertisement for action figures.” Gregory put his hands to the headset, like he was going to peer out from under it and address Hersh. “Is the sequence of these clips programmed? Am I on a He-Man playlist?”
Hersh gently pushed his hand away from the headset. “No user sees the same montage. Now just relax and focus on what you’re seeing.”
Over the next few minutes, Gregory saw a video of an Iraq War veteran being united with his family, an interview with a gleeful Simon Pegg on the set of Star Wars, and clips of World War II veterans reminiscing. As the clips went on, the stochasticity in their selection decreased until almost all of them were examining, in some way, the theme of military service.
When Hersh told him it was time to stop, Gregory was reluctant to remove the headset.
“It's fascinating,” he murmured, speaking more to himself than to Hersh. “How does it do that?”
Hersh flipped over the helmet and ran his fingers over the protruding nodes that covered its interior. “Medley uses a complex system of EKG sensors to monitor your brain activity. The raw data is fed to Medley’s data center in real time. An algorithm—we call it the VJ—selects your next piece of content.”
Gregory’s face darkened. “What do you mean ‘data’?”
“Anonymized values in a matrix of variables. The algorithm uses the data to select content, optimizing a single variable.”
“The variable is what…satisfaction?”
“The variable is how long you continue to watch Medley.”
Hersh studied Gregory’s expression closely in this moment. Wrinkles of apprehension flickered on the upper edges of Gregory’s cheeks. Hersh had made this pitch often enough to know what this unease meant.
“It sounds like you’re optimizing for addiction,” Gregory said finally.
“I’m glad you brought that up,” Hersh fixed his eyes on Gregory’s. “You may have read some of the early reviews of Medley, a few of which were concerned about Medley’s potential for addiction. That’s why we’ve installed a set of control features right into the operating system that lets you set daily limits or a countdown timer. The system can automatically wind down your session.” Such features had, in truth, yet to be developed, but Hersh could see Gregory’s expression soften.
“But let me tell you, Gregory, Medley is the sweetest kind of addiction you could ever hope for. We’ve all spent hours watching YouTube autoplay because we can’t work up the will to break free, but I assure you, a session of Medley is nothing like that. Using the latent power of your mind, and harnessing your curiosity, Medley is able to take you on a journey of discovery that will make you feel like a freshman in college again! The other day I spent three hours at my standing desk doing a deep dive into the computation of gravitational orbits in our solar system. I’m an investor myself, so I’ve explored the psychology of addiction and educated myself on the challenges that a new technology like this would pose. Medley even showed me clips to help me educate myself about the addictive powers of technology.” In truth, the sessions Hersh was describing had occurred months ago. It had been weeks since he’d turned Medley on for more than a few seconds.
“If it’s true that this experience was curated by an algorithm, I’m deeply impressed.”
“Think about that video of the veteran coming home. Do you remember the view count?”
“It was in the low hundreds.”
“YouTube would never gamble like that. YouTube thinks you should watch prank compilations like every other bored teenager. That’s why Medley is a revolution in content curation.” Hersh was gaining steam now, speaking with his old confidence. “And a revolution in content curation means…” He waited. Gregory stared. “A revolution in content. Medley is able to lift up creators who are doing fascinating work but can’t promote it. People ask me why I’ve invested so heavily in Medley, why I’ve spent the last two years campaigning for it. It’s because I see in Medley the unrealized democratic potential of the internet.” There was a glint of recognition in Gregory’s eyes. Hersh paused slightly before he picked up the conversation again. Tech investors loved the democracy line.
They ended the conversation with Gregory explaining that he couldn’t make any commitments until his people looked at Hersh’s deck in more detail, but Gregory left his personal email with Hersh. Before leaving, he thanked Hersh again for the pitch. Hersh nodded politely.
After Gregory left the conference room, Hersh remained seated at the table. The beta Medley headset was on the table before him, its sharp black plastic mirrored in the reflection of the table’s glass surface. Hersh told himself he was not going to put on the headset. He checked his phone for new messages, and then he put his phone in his pocket without responding. Though he was not looking at the headset, its presence weighed on him. With sweat gathering in his armpits, he picked up the headset and slipped it over his forehead. The pressure of the elastic grip was familiar, and he felt a rush of recognition when the fans began pushing air around his scalp. He activated Medley and watched the loading screen with an apprehension bordering on violent illness.
The first thing he saw was a home movie, one made with one of the VHS camcorders that became widespread in the 1990s. It was a view of a suburban parking lot on an overcast day. A young white man, maybe seventeen years old, was standing on top of a car. The car was driven by another boy. Both of them were laughing. The car was moving through the parking lot, the boy riding it like a surfboard. When the car turned, the boy’s feet were in the wrong position to compensate for the momentum. He gained speed as his body fell, his hands groping uselessly in the air, until his head connected with the smooth rim of a dumpster, jolting his stunned torso.
Hersh ripped the headset from his face before the boy’s dead body could ragdoll any further. He took deep panicked breaths. The room vibrated around him. For weeks he had seen nothing but videos of violent death on Medley. It came in many forms: car crashes, industrial accidents, gunfights, beheadings, torture killings. The pulpy sounds of flesh being ripped open and the shrill screams of the dying had become familiar to him. He tried stopping when the videos played, and he’d tried waiting through them. Nothing worked. It was the only category of clip that Medley would queue up for him.
When he had composed himself enough to walk past his secretary, he did so without acknowledging him. Once he was alone in his office, he called the Medley headquarters and asked for Carroll.
“Hersh, how are you?” Carroll’s voice was warm.
“Not well. Medley is broken.”
“I can have a tech over tomorrow with a new headset.”
“It’s not the headset, Carroll. I need you to look at my account or I’ll be withdrawing my assets.”
Carroll arrived at his office a few hours later. It took some time to confirm that there was nothing wrong with the headset that Hersh had been using, though he was given a replacement for good measure. Hersh noted that when he described the issue to Carroll, the young woman who was one of the three founders of Medley, she did not seem surprised. She pulled up Hersh’s account and sifted through his data.
“It looks like you’re in a generally Mathiason matrix with a touch of Elsworth.” Clark Mathiason was one of the other two founders. Elsworth was Carroll’s last name. “The algorithm was honed by the three of us spending months watching Medley, so we can still make out the shadows of our preferences in the user profiles. Your profile is most closely aligned with Mathiason’s. There’s actually been some fascinating studies done about what personality traits the three matrices correspond to…” Carroll was staring at her screen and seemed to have little interest in what she was saying.
“Carroll, what happened to my account?”
She was reluctant to look at him. “I’ll be honest with you, we don’t understand the algorithm. There are over twenty thousand core variables, more in the raw data matrix. We don’t know why some people get into a rekt loop…”
Hersh leaned forward. “This has happened before?”
Carroll shut her laptop. “Company policy is to tell anyone who is disturbed by what they see to stop using Medley and seek psychiatric help.”
“That’s what you’re going to say when Medley goes on the market and thousands of people start seeing death porn? Why can’t you just filter it out?”
She frowned. “We haven’t found a way to filter the results without distorting the algorithm. If you log out every time you see a clip of someone dying, the system should eventually correct itself and stop showing you those videos.”
“Carroll, I’ve obviously tried that. But these things I’m seeing, they’re horrible. Maybe some people could shrug it off. Maybe some people even like seeing these things. But I’ve been struggling with anxiety for years. I’m going to remember these videos for the rest of my life. Do you have any idea what it’s like to look at your family and imagine them dying? To imagine yourself being tortured to death?”
Carroll’s face twisted. She seemed to be calculating the least direct way to say something unpleasant. “So you’ve dealt with anxiety in the past?”
Hersh chased Carroll out of his office, his voice raised like he was reprimanding one of his daughters.
Hersh woke up, his throat painfully immobile. He knew that he had gotten memory-erasingly high. Through the haze of half-consciousness, he realized that his wife was speaking to him. She was telling him how poorly he had acted.
The Medley headset was on the bedside table where ordinarily his phone would be.
“Did you take this out?” he asked her.
“Did you use the Medley last night?”
His wife continued getting dressed. “You know I don’t use it. I came in and you were watching it. Then you took it off and went to sleep.”
“Did I look upset?”
She thought about it for a moment and then shook her head. “I don’t think so, why?”
Hersh slipped on the headset. He started it up and waited. The first clip was twenty seconds in length, and though he could hardly remember seeing it, he knew at once that he had watched it the night before.
The blurry footage was of a brightly lit street whose dusty tan colors suggested the Middle East. The street was empty except for two men. The first was hunched over in front of a bus stop. He was in his forties, bald, and he wore a horizontally-striped shirt over a significant belly. It was clear from the way he hunched, concealing himself, that he was scared of the other man in the video. The second man, standing on the opposite side of the bus stop, was taller, but also clearly terrified. He leaned out from behind the kiosk, exposing his body to the street.
The muzzle flashes were invisible in the daylight. When the first bullet hit the heavier man, he leaned forward. He gathered energy to shake off the wound, perhaps preparing to charge or flee. The second, third, and fourth bullets had an effect that could only be described as pacifying. From his stooped position, the bullets eased the man to the ground. With each impact, he grew more relaxed. After a few seconds, he gave up on the pretense of being a living man and settled into his new, final role.
When the clip was over, Hersh did not remove the headset. The same clip played again. He watched, mesmerized, as the man slouched into death. With each successive play of the video, Hersh took in more details, examining more studiously the resignation in the man’s expression.
Hersh had long feared the panic of the dying, the frantic disbelief you would suffer when you realized with a terrible certainty that you would soon be dead. He knew it was a dread knowledge that the living could never truly process. He feared this terror not only for himself, but for others. He was certain that one day he would be unlucky enough to witness the feeling overtake a loved one.
But this death was different than the ones he had seen before. The man’s descent into death was graceful—the gradual relaxation of each muscle, ending with his heart. It was undeniable that the clip was a skeleton key that unlocked all the stockpiled anxiety he had been running from. Even his memories of the other horrors that Medley had shown him seemed tame in the light of his new reverence for death. As he watched the clip again and again, his eyes clouded with tears. He let it happen.
Eventually, Medley queued up a new video. The initial colors weren’t the same as the dying man at the bus stop. In fact, the new video was nothing but a woman giving a man a blowjob. He didn’t know how he knew, but suddenly Hersh felt confident that the scenes of death would not return. He was so confident that he pulled down his boxer shorts and clenched his own erection. A broad smile spread across his face. He knew that he would never take off the headset again.
Fall / Winter 2023
Orion Martin is the translator of Night Bus by Zuo Ma, and founder of Paradise Systems.
LoVid’s work has been presented at Wave Hill (Bronx, NY), Brookfield Arts (Brookfield, CT), RYAN LEE Gallery (NY), Postmasters Gallery (NY), Art Blocks Curated (artblocks.io/), bitforms Gallery (NY), Marquee Projects (Bellport, NY), Honor Fraser Gallery (Los Angeles), And/Or Gallery (Pasadena), Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery (NY), Real Art Ways (Hartford, CT), Anthology Film Archives (NY), Issue Project Room (Brooklyn, NY), The Jewish Museum (NY), MoMA, The Kitchen (NY), Daejeon Museum of Art (South Korea), Smack Mellon (Brooklyn, NY), Netherland Media Art Institute (Amsterdam), and New Museum (NY). Their projects have received support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Graham Foundation, CUE Art Foundation, Eyebeam, Harvestworks, Wave Farm, Rhizome, Franklin Furnace, Turbulence.org, NYFA, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Experimental TV Center, NYSCA, and The Greenwall Foundation. LoVid’s videos are distributed by EAI and their work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum, The Parrish Museum, and The Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation.