The Department of Explaining
Leguin tapped the tablet’s screen, putting the interactive video on run. No surprise that a government office relied on obsolescent technology. On the wristcom, he called up the web-page for the Department of Explaining: his department, or at least the one where he was employed. Couldn’t he call it his department, as its only employee? No. The contract he’d signed 60 years ago had been very clear about that. A younger, handsomer, more vivacious version of himself looked back at him from the back of his wrist.
‘Thank you for contacting our department,’ he said to himself. ‘How can we help you today?’
‘Ah… there’s a shortage-’
Vivacious Version interrupted Leguin at this point, ‘We prefer not to use that word here in the department. We prefer to say “temporary interruption in the supply chain.”’
Leguin had known that he would say that. After all, he had helped design the AI software for the video customer services’ avatar.
‘Well then, I’d like to complain about a shortage of words, not surprising there is one, I mean you just used six rather than say “shortage”.
‘Nevertheless, if you continue to use such offensive language, I shall have to terminate this call… And report you.’
‘Okay, then how long will this “interruption in the supply chain” last?’ Leguin asked the version of himself on the screen.
‘We expect to arrive at a solution in due course.’
‘But when, exactly?’
‘Exac- ... Did you read the terms and conditions when you registered at Whogov.co.uk? The registration process states clearly that trigger terminology of that kind will not be tolerated. All staff are trained to report incidents of cyber-bullying of employees of Civil Service PLC, whenever they occur.’
‘Can you give me a rough estimate? A month? A year?’
‘Oh yes, we are permitted to make any guess for which we cannot be held responsible if it turns out to be wrong.’
‘So next January, maybe?’
‘Oh no, I could not possibly be so,’ the avatar’s voice dropped to a whisper – that was new, ‘specific.’
‘So what can you tell me?’ Leguin was getting exasperated with himself.
‘I can tell you that we expect to resolve the situation in a month in some year or other.’
‘But you haven’t asked me what the sh- “the interruption in the supply chain” concerns.’
Younger, handsome and more vivacious Leguin sighed and stared up from Leguin’s wrist. Again, this was new and unexpected. The whole point of the AI avatar was the lack of emotion, the dulled reaction. If the public managed to get a reaction from the Department’s web-site, what was the point of having one? The avatar began speaking again, this was not unusual, the call had to be terminated somehow, and this one had already lasted more than the minute allotted for every query. However, Leguin was not expecting himself to say,
‘I know what the sh- “interruption in the supply" concerns. And who.’
A call notification came up on the wristcom. PUS for Obfuscation and Lies. Leguin put the call on hold. A daring move, the Parliamentary Under Secretary would NOT be pleased about being kept waiting. Leguin asked the avatar,
‘Everything. There’s a shortage of everything.’ A tear rolled down the avatar’s cheek, mirroring the one travelling down Leguin’s own.
‘Let me guess,’ he said,’It concerns everyone but the people who matter.’
Leguin left the conversation and picked up the PUS’s call,
‘Oh yes, sir, I’ve done the final checks, they went better than I could have imagined. We can go live with the avatar now, no problem.’