In “Notifications,” Lincoln Michel looks closely at how a person’s day can be awkwardly reconfigured by an algorithm. Michel's stories frequently adjust the knobs of the present and settle in the uncanny valley, like Saunders’s, or amplify a feeling that something is fundamentally off with our timeline. Here, Michel explores the emotional implications of technology, a sort of hard sci-fi realism that drops the reader into a plausible hologram of workplace interaction. The always overthought, dreamlike logic is not dissimilar to the way a Kafka story, like “The Judgment,” operates. Kafkaesque indecision, but now with cell phones!
A few years after my sister died, my feeds were flooded with condolences.
It began with two texts from an old co-worker, one right after the other. The first message said I’m so sorry for your loss and the second was a column of three yellow faces with waterfalls of tears. These emoji have become the normal, human way of communicating, although I still remembered how in the years before my sister’s death—itself some years prior to this point as I’ve noted—they’d been considered childish. We all adapt, I suppose. I held my phone while sitting at the long rectangular table where I sat surrounded by a dozen coworkers, most of whose names I hadn’t yet learned. I was new at the job. I held the phone close to my eyes, confused. The icons of crying faces slowly blurred and morphed into a yellow centipede.
I’m so sorry for your loss. I assumed this old co-worker, whose last name I couldn’t recall—she had been saved in my phone only as Sarah M. (my contact list also contained a Sarah J., Sarah T., Sarah B., and even a Sara M.)—had texted the wrong person. Perhaps I’d also been designated with an incomplete name in Sarah M.’s contact list and she’d meant to text an actual friend but tapped my name by accident. I couldn’t blame her. It would be hypocritical. I felt a momentary sadness for this other, similarly named stranger. I thought the human thing to do would be to respond to this Sarah M. and say thank you so much for your message followed by an icon of a beating heart or perhaps praying hands. To let her know how much I appreciated the human connection, this extension of sympathy from one isolated being to another even if, as I was assuming, the gesture had been misdirected.
My deceased sister would have appreciated that. My sister—well, half-sister—was always praising things for being human. It was a word Laura used repeatedly. “I’m trying to be a better human,” she’d say before yoga class, or, while pulling out a dollar to toss in a busker’s hat, “It’s the human thing to do.” Laura had a lot of ideas like that. She liked to talk about being human and also harnessing energy. “There’s energy all around us,” my sister would say, spinning in her floral-print dress, back when she was strong enough to spin. “If only we could harness it. Capture it like a fly in a spiderweb.” I didn’t always understand what she was talking about. She was only my half-sister after all and seemed, often, like a stranger.
Thank you for being human, I began to reply to Sarah M., although in text form, without the proper intonation, the phrase seemed bizarre, as if I were an alien complimenting an abductee on not transforming into an elephant before I could begin the probing. I tried adding an emoji—a red heart seemed too intense and a blue heart too maudlin, but the yellow heart was perhaps right—yet it still wasn’t working. I deleted the word human and the autocomplete feature offered three new options to complete Thank you for being: a) patient, b) first, and, most absurdly, c) someone. Thank you for being someone. At that point, the feeling in my stomach evaporated. This was absurd. How could I feel sad about a loss of unspecified nature occurring to a person I knew nothing about except we were both in the cellphone address book of an ex-co-worker whose last name I couldn’t even remember? The thin thread of empathy snapped like an old hair tie.
I deleted the text.
I looked out the window. The day was bright. Many people of different shapes and sizes walked in all directions, staring into the rectangles in their hands. It was the kind of day I would meet Laura in the park and discuss her prognosis (bad) and progress (worse). We would sit on the bench and watch the squirrels and when my half-sister began to weep, I would try to comfort her, to be human. I didn’t always succeed.
I felt a panic scamper up my spine. What if Sarah with the M. last name hadn’t texted the wrong person at all and instead had stumbled upon terrible news I myself hadn’t yet heard? What if Sarah M. (I imagined her now with a noble last name like Mountbatten or Montague) had followed my life so closely—across the spectrum of social media apps that I used to parcel out my existence in pictures and posts—that she recognized the name of my parents as their murder was announced on, say, the local news? Suppose she witnessed firsthand my mother’s last faint breath at the scene of a car accident. (I was gripped with the image of Sarah M.—or the blurry, everywoman figure that appeared in my mind with features eroded like the raised dove on a used bar of soap—stumbling from the still smoldering wreckage of the other car, recognizing the face of my mother from the time she visited the office to take me out for sushi on my birthday, and rushing to text me her condolences before even calling the police.) I could feel my heart beating faster in my chest and emitting, it seemed, more heat than usual, as if it were nothing like the cartoonish red icon of my texts but a burning ember that would sizzle down my chest and sear through my groin to clunk on the floor.
Just then I received a new text from another person that began with a different emoji: [frowning face with a single tear] I’m so sorry to hear about your sister. Call me if you need to talk.
My sister? The one that had been dead three years? I drifted to the coffee machine, avoiding eye contact with my co-workers who weren’t looking up from their computers anyway. I refilled my mug. When I returned to my desk, my phone was vibrating.
“Hey,” my coworker, Rob or possibly Ron (as I noted, I was new to the office and had not yet memorized everyone’s name) said, leaning over so his head jutted out from the side of his massive rectangular monitor. “Your phone is blowing up.”
“Thanks,” I said. Then, “Sorry.”
I had eighteen notifications from one of my various social media apps. They were all on a single post announcing the death of my sister—or half-sister—three years ago. The comments on the post included many emoji icons. Single crying tear emoji. Waterfall crying emoji. Frowning face. Red heart. Beating red heart. Yellow heart. Crying cat face. The full gamut, coupled, normally—but not always—with text such as My heart is breaking for you and she was so loved and Your sister will never be forgotten.
My sister died three years ago, as I previously stated, yet as I read these comments my confusion turned inward and I began to wonder, temporarily, if it was not my social media contacts who were gripped with this temporal inaccuracy, but if I had simply dreamed my sister had died—after a short battle with an aggressive cancer that was not noticed until had spread its roots throughout the organs and veins of my sister’s body without warning or permission—and, instead, that she were alive. Or rather, had been alive until that day, the day I was receiving the condolences. Of course, this was impossible, but it was the kind of thought that entered my mind because all these people—eighteen on the social media app, and, now, seven in my texts and three in my email—were all wrong about my sister dying. The sheer number, still growing, of condolences argued against my own memory. How could so many friends be wrong?
“Pretty popular today,” Don or Ron (perhaps Rod?) said, his face still sticking out beyond the edge of his monitor. His small head jutted like the new growth on the trunk of the office cactus that sat between us on the table. He smiled, head right above the spikes. For some reason, he gave me a thumbs-up.
The comment and gesture were so shocking in their inappropriateness that I almost burst out laughing. But my co-worker couldn’t have known why my phone was vibrating with messages. The swell of sentiments inside the small rectangle of the phone were completely inaccessible to anyone else in the office. I was the sole keeper of the screen and all it hid inside.
Instead of laughing, I returned the upturned thumb reflexively, even though the gesture was obviously ridiculous (I could imagine the ghost of my sister looking on and saying, “Why can’t you just be a person? Make a connection with another human being?”) and my hand made the gesture awkwardly, as if the fingers had not been bent in that precise position in years—which may indeed have been the case. Although, as I unfurled my hand, I realized it was a sign I frequently used on social media apps, albeit in emoji form.
I sipped my coffee and scrolled through the ever-growing comment thread, letting the river of condolences wash over me like lukewarm water in a shower—Oh no! [broken heart emoji, tear emoji], If you need anything lmk, I’m so so sorry—I was at least comforted by the fact I was not insane. I was not experiencing a mental breakdown. My sister had indeed died three years ago. I knew this because the date was noted on the top of the post.
Scrolling my way up through the tower of comments toward the origin (it felt like scaling some absurd climbing wall where each foothold was weeping) I was certain someone had stumbled upon this old social media post—one I had made because I felt Laura would have wanted me to—had been discovered by one of my friends and commented on, which, in turn, had caused the algorithm to bump the post from the dustbin of my feed’s history. Friends is what this particular application designated the people with whom your account was connected, whether or not that person was in any real sense a friend. You had friends who were family members or acquaintances. Friends who were ex-lovers or co-workers who you never saw outside of the office. We each had hundreds and hundreds of such friends. Thousands. As many as we could acquire, because this number—the number of supposed friends—was a signal to other potential friends we were desirable, that we were not only capable of friendship, but we were in demand for it. That we were loved.
My dearly departed sister was a great believer in friendship. “We are stronger with people to lean on,” Laura liked to say even as she had grown so weak she had to literally lean on me to move about the room. “You need to blow your walls up and let people in.” Ironically, the people who were now attempting to connect with me were entirely confined to small boxes inside the walls of my cellphone screen.
After a few minutes of scrolling I discovered the source, patient zero of the condolence plague. It was a man named Rob Mansfield. His avatar was a pic of a nondescript man wearing sunglasses and a straw hat. There seemed to be an ocean in the background or perhaps a large lake.
I had no idea who this “friend,” this Rob Mansfield, was, but clicking on his profile showed we had three dozen friends in common—including, I was surprised to note, a man named Ron Donaldson who worked at my current company and, I was at least ninety percent sure, was the coworker across from me whose face was now obscured by his large monitor. This Rob Mansfield was someone whose friend request I had accepted because I thought it was a smart networking tactic to accept the requests of anyone in my industry. I had probably added him late one night as I was falling asleep, some forgettable TV show streaming in another window on my laptop, and not fully conscious of the digital decisions I was making, much less their future consequences. This stranger had proceeded to scroll through my posts and like a dozen of them, seemingly at random, a not uncommon habit, although the exact reasoning behind this behavior eluded me. Were the strangers showing their appreciation for my friend acceptance? Or did the strangers expect me to reciprocate, spending minutes on their feed and liking different posts in some attempt to mutually bolster the reach of our subsequent posts on the application? Whenever a newly accepted friend did this, I immediately unfollowed them, a function on the platform allowed me to maintain a digital friendship in name only, without my ever having to see, hear, or read a single moment of their online presence.
I’m only human. No matter what my sister might say if she were alive.
At any rate, after the stranger had commented on the post about my sister’s death—although commented is the wrong word, they had, in the parlance of the platform, reacted to the post with a thumbs-up icon designated as liking—it had appeared in the feeds of my other friends (strangers, family members, and actual friends alike) and many of them had reacted without paying attention to the original post’s date, which was listed, albeit in a small gray font, at the top of the post.
As the condolences continued to pour in—or, at this point, trickle, as the algorithm had moved on to fresher posts with newer news (baby photos, outraged comments about national politics, requests for donations to causes both worthy and ludicrous)—I couldn’t help noticing how personal the messages on my post were, despite how impersonal the commenter’s relationship to my deceased half-sister had been. For example, Margaret Candlewood, my high school English teacher, commented Her smile will twinkle on in the eyes of all of us. [blue heart icon, frowning face, angel with halo]. While it is indeed true my sister had a beautiful smile before the cancer ate away at her, causing, along with the subsequent treatments, her face to appear sunken, not to mention leaving her with little appetite for smiling in the first place. In any event, Laura had gone to an entirely different high school. The two had assuredly never met. And yet the comment was far too specific to merely be posted with the social media application’s auto-response feature (which was normally limited to only a few short phrases like oh no! or I’m sorry or [face with heart eyes]). Was my former English teacher posting this metaphorically awkward line on all her friend’s tragic posts? Or had Margaret Candlewood, having seen my post, clicked through to find the profile of my now several-years deceased sister and scrolled through her photos in order to locate a specific detail about her visual appearance to comment on, settling ultimately on my dead sister’s smile?
In the office, looking at the reflective surface of my large computer monitor, I tried to imitate Laura’s smile. I looked like a sneering ghost in the dark glass.
Or take the comment by Brian Peterson, a schoolmate “friend”—I think the scare quotes are appropriate here, as well, as we were never in the same social circles in high school despite sitting a few seats away from each other in two separate science classes—who wrote It’s hard to imagine the world without her. This, in contrast to Mrs. Candlewood’s comment, seemed received. The kind of comment I could imagine Brian Peterson copy and pasting—metaphorically or literally—over and over again as the tragedies came through his timeline. And yet, the comment itself, given the situation, was so nonsensical—my poor sister had been dead for years and everyone, Brian Peterson included, seemed to have had no trouble imagining the world’s continued existence—I let out a short laugh.
Ron Donaldson leaned over again, squinting at me from behind his glasses. “How’s the social media copy coming?”
Ron and I were working on a campaign for a large banking institution that wanted us to highlight the “human intimacy” the bank specialized in. (This claim seemed to largely stem from the fact they did not, like some rival institutions, use automated operators for customer service calls but rather poorly-paid workers in foreign countries with minimal labor regulations.)
I gave Ron the thumbs-up sign again. “Swimmingly,” I said.
“Terrific,” Ron said. “Remember to highlight the customer service thing. Hammer it even. Mash it all over the copy.” His face disappeared behind the silver monitor.
A bird flew across the window, a brown blur in the side of my vision.
I was faced with a dilemma. Did I click the like button on the comments of my friends on the post about my sister’s death from three years ago or did I simply ignore them? It would seem, I’m sure, the human thing to like them. To like something on this social media application was unrelated to liking something in any other context. You did not like things on the social media application in the way one might “like chocolate” or “like long walks on the beach” or “like to travel to distant lands and pose with drugged exotic animals or smiling local children for photographs that can be posted on said social media app to display your worldly and empathetic nature.” Rather, liking was a way to acknowledge you had seen something. It meant “you took the time to comment, now I will take the time to show I saw that you commented.” This, at times, seemed a nuclear arms race of time allocation. The more time you spent on the site, the more you wanted your time acknowledged, which in turn made you spend more time acknowledging—or liking—the time of other users in the hopes they would respond in kind.
Would this gesture of liking their comments seem inhuman if my friends on the application realized the comments were on a three-year-old post? Would it direct their attention back to the post and increase the likelihood they would read the small gray timestamp? Would it stress them out to realize they had forced back the memories of Laura’s death to me? Or would they be offended I had stolen empathy I did not truly deserve given the length of time that had passed since my half-sister’s death?
In the work document I was writing—or procrastinating from writing—the social media language for the large banking institution’s “human intimacy” campaign, I began to draft a response. Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments—I began, then edited “thoughtful” to “human” and then “human” to “meaningful”—my sister would have felt blessed had she survived these past three years and was around to read these responses. It was all wrong. I started again. Dear friends, I am deeply moved by your comments about my dearly departed sister. They mean so much to me. My sister was blessed and by proximity I too must be blessed. However, I do feel it is my obligation to note this post announcing her death is from several years ago and I have left the grieving stage. Although, of course, those of us who knew her will never forget her loving presence and beautiful smile. I deleted this even more quickly than the previous attempt. The smile detail, which I had stolen from my former English teacher, was bizarre, even grotesque in this context.
Although my job was writing pithy and (if I may be so bold) moving social media copy for corporate marketing campaigns, drafting this post about my own feelings paralyzed me. I did not, despite my half-sister’s wishes, want to let these social media friends into my life. I didn’t find comfort in the parade of cartoonish icons signaling different parts of the body—the thumbs-up hand, the red heart, the crying face—that bore no resemble at all to actual human parts, not the parts of my own body sitting uncomfortably in the office chair right then nor the bodies of theses friends, really strangers, whose features I couldn’t even recall and most certainly not the parts of my sister as the disease corrupted her entire body transforming her into something uncanny and degraded like an over-compressed file. I wanted to be alone, in my own private body, to feel my own undecipherable emotions. I wanted to slice all the threads connecting me to all these people—friends, ex-lovers, strangers, coworkers—around the world who knew nothing about what I was feeling. Knew nothing about what had passed between Laura and myself. Knew nothing about me at all, not really.
From my placement at the long desk perpendicular to the window, I could see the sky was starting to darken not—as I initially assumed—from storm clouds, but rather from the simple passage of time.
It was evening. The sun was dying. The workday was done.
I turned off my computer monitor, grabbed my possessions, and inserted my earbuds.
Ron Donaldson’s head appeared once more beside the monitor. “Whew,” he said, smiling almost as cartoonishly as one of the emoji on my phone. “Today was a doozy. Any big plans tonight?”
I pointed to my ear and then turned my head sideways to make sure he could see the white device. (I wasn’t actually listening to anything—I enjoyed the silence—but the earbuds were useful to avoid awkward conversations such as the one Ron was just then trying to initiate.)
My co-worker nodded and said something about “not being able to live without my podcasts either” as I waved goodbye. I made my way to the elevators and quickly ducked into an empty one.
Finally, I was alone. The elevator descended.
The air conditioning in the elevator seemed stronger than in the rest of the building. Or perhaps the stress of the day had worn me out. When fingers of air from the vent hit my face, I thought I could feel my sister’s hand. Her fingers were cold—she’d always had bad circulation—but loving. The tips brushed away a stray tear on my cheek. “People have so much love inside them and they need to share it,” she’d said, looking up at me from the crinkled sheets. “Remember to let them in.”
I buttoned up my jacket and walked across the hallway to the dark outside, my phone vibrated. I had a new notification.
I decided to ignore the phone. Yet my hand felt drawn to my pocket by some magnetic force. It slipped inside and emerged with the phone before I could even realize what had happened.
The notification said Ron Donaldson liked your post.
I held the screen close to my face. The glow illuminated my face in the night.
The screen was so close to my skin that I could feel the heat of the electronics and, for a brief, almost imperceptible, moment my entire body felt as if it was filled to the brim with burning light.