Steady State

Steady State

What happens when the engagement algorithms win?

By James Yu

We are surrounded by algorithms that monopolize our attention employing techniques mostly invisible to us, whether it's the Facebook feed, TikTok videos, or Netflix shows. This story follows a tech employee caught in a world where the engagement machines reach their ultimate goal. - JY

Solomon watched as his dear friend Theo took the stage under the vaulted ceilings of the atrium. He silently mouthed every word of the speech—the very speech that Solomon had written for the CEO. You could control what people felt—in a good way—with the right words, and Solomon was proud to be a part of it.

Occasionally, Theo would sway at the podium like a swan with his slim build dressed in white. Solomon willed it: Easy now. Don’t get too excited. Draw the crowd in slowly. Just like we practiced. Why are you so nervous today?

The projection of Lyon the Lion loomed large behind the stage with its puffy dandelion mane. Lyon was the final culmination of 3D character design and storytelling. It made Gasa Corporation the most-watched and most valuable company in the world.

Theo was leading the chants now: “Entertain a child. Entertain the world. Entertain a child. Entertain the world.” Hands clapped to the beat, sending echoes off the sheer walls. Occasional cheers rose from the crowd.

He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see Patrice with his closely cropped hair and icy stare. “Solomon, may I ask permission to leave? My team has much work to do.” Patrice’s tone was formal as always—from his French military days, Solomon had concluded.

“We aren’t ready?”

“There are a few unresolved threads in the narrative.”

Solomon sighed. “I thought we had everything planned out.”

Cheers rose through the atrium. Was it something Theo said? Now people were on their feet.

“What happened?” Solomon yelled above the noise.

“He said we acquired The Show,” someone said. “Can you believe it?”

How did he not know about this? It was impossible: no one could acquire The Show—not Theo, not Gasa, not even the wealthiest person alive.

Because no one knew who was behind The Show.

On the stage, Theo was trying to hush the crowd. Solomon knew the CEO was avoiding his gaze.

As a kid, Solomon loved to play with water, mesmerized by the ripples that lapped against their porcelain sink. The waves were peaceful—he could forget all about the other kids that made fun of his lisp.

He first saw The Show while at the bathroom sink. His mom was blaring the blowdryer, and on the mirror screen, a well-dressed man was delivering the news, which was dreadfully boring. His mom switched the channel and said, “Sol, do you see this new show?”

Abstract shapes danced against a bright background—like the touch panels at the art museums. The format was simple: every two minutes, an entirely original segment would be broadcast. There were no humans. Even the voices were computer-generated. Each was as mesmerizing as the ripples in the water.

It drew him in.

“Maybe you’ll learn something. See? This shape is called an Icosahedron.” She pointed to that long word. He tried to repeat it but tripped up halfway through. “And you know what else?” his mom continued. “They don’t know who’s behind it. It’s a mystery.” She wiggled her fingers and made ghostly sounds. The next segment came on—a diagram of tropical bird species, their multi-colored feathers shimmering to and fro.

Did it know that he’d been obsessed with birds lately? That he had a whole pile of books and saved digital videos of birds?

He was hooked. And he wasn’t alone—his friends all started watching it. Soon, The Show had become a mainstay in popular media, not because it was exciting, but because it was soothing.

It had become wallpaper.

Solomon stuck close to Theo as they walked through the vast space of Gasa’s main hall, gliding their way past the rows of gleaming orbs. Most of the offices were transparent, but some were darkened for privacy.

“Can this wait?” Theo said.

“We’ve acquired a company with over half of the company’s assets and you haven’t even told me about it. Hell no. This can’t wait.”

They entered Theo’s orb, and Theo mouthed, “Private, please.” The walls became opaque, transforming into clouds and sky. It was supposed to make him feel like they were flying, but to Solomon, it felt like he was in free fall.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Theo sat on his bouncy ball and closed his eyes. This was his ritual before any tough meeting. Solomon had taught him how to meditate, and now he was using it against him.

“You would have never agreed to it.”

“Even more reason that we should have talked,” Solomon said. “I’ve always been a big fan of The Show. You know that.”

Theo drew a deep breath. “It’s time to phase out Lyon.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Lyon has served us well. But we’ve become too complacent.”

“What are you talking about?” Solomon’s mind started backtracking, trying to recognize Theo’s betrayal.

“The board agrees, Solomon.”

“But not the billions of people who watch Lyon.”

“Precisely why we need to change strategy. Growth has started to stall, Solomon. We’ve become complacent.”

So this is why Theo had been cagey with him in the past few months. He had thought it was because of his recent divorce, but now, he knew it was something more profound. Someone else had Theo’s ear.

“We’ll transition immediately,” said Theo. “Don’t worry, Lyon will still be there. On autopilot.”

“You know that autopilot might as well be dead. If we don’t plan out the narratives, the storylines will spiral.”

Theo smiled. “That’s precisely the reason we need The Show. It’s able to learn on its own. Very low operational expenditure, too. It’ll be less work, more profit.”

But it wasn’t work. Not to Solomon. Breathing life into a character was his passion. His life. Their life. “We created Lyon together—”

“—and we need to move on. Give him the respectful retirement he deserves.”

“I was the one who pushed it through.”

“Gasa is bigger than you or me, Solomon.”

Someone had coached Theo—prepared him for this conversation just like Solomon had prepared him for his public appearances. The words were a punch to his gut. Theo was a bumbler the first time he met him; scarcely able to string together a few words, let alone run a company.

Solomon had to tread carefully. Already in his mind, he was thinking about zoning out—stepping into the water and forgetting this entire conversation existed. Just focus on one step at a time.

“Who created The Show?”

“That’s the intriguing part,” said Theo. “We still don’t know.”

“They must have a head!” he blurted.

“They’re an anonymous company. We can learn from their practices—they only have a fraction of the employees.” There was a knock at the door. “He’s here.”


“Rex. He’ll be your counterpart going forward.”

The door snicked open, and in walked a man with a mask covering his face.

“Pleased to meet you, Solomon. I’ve heard a lot about you,” said the man. He stuck out a hand festooned with glowing rings. “I’ll be upfront with you: Rex isn’t my real name, but that’s okay, you can still call me that, it’s not a problem… not a problem at all. Oh, this?” He pointed at the mask. “Prevents sneaky cameras from ID-ing me. Standard issue. Made the prototypes myself. Oh no, couldn’t trust that with anyone else.” At first, it looked like the mask was skin-tone colored, but upon closer inspection, it was covered with intricate fractal-like patterns that constantly shifted.

“Are you the head of The Show?” said Solomon.

“Do you want one?”


“This mask. It’s good privacy hygiene.”

He couldn’t tell if the man was joking. Government databases could quickly identify him from the tangle of hair that draped over his face. Hell, even the way he walked would give him away.

“Sure, I’d like one,” Theo said with a wink. Rex trundled out a briefcase handed one to the CEO. So this was the man that’s been coaching him…

Solomon sighed. “Who’s in charge of The Show?”

The mask shimmered as Rex shook his head. “We don’t use titles. I’m just one anonymous node of many.”

Theo put a hand on Solomon’s shoulder. “We have much to learn from them.”

Solomon kept one night a week sacred. For her. He had never missed a visit in the past twenty-three years. And tonight would be no different. Not even if Gasa was falling apart. Not even if the world threatened to end.

His shoes thudded on the white marble of the underground tunnels. Only a few other people were walking this late—they were either in their home orb sleeping or grinding hard in their work orb. There was no third place.

A faint smell of ammonia hung in the air as he entered the company’s medical wing. On the screen, Lyon was peering around aimlessly. There wasn’t anyone to interact with, so no narratives could be created by the AI. Lyon didn’t do well with coma patients.

His mom was propped up on the bed, her glassy blue eyes open and her frail body swimming in an oversized hospital gown. Some people might have pulled the plug by now. But scans showed elevated metabolism in her brain. She was still in there.

She was the reason for his success. He remembered the day she taught him to act. “You always asked why I stay up practicing for my job,” she said one day, as she led him into the living room and fired up their home’s computer screen. “I thought you could give a try.”

“Let’s play doll,” she said, and immediately the screen came alive with a cartoon cat. “You can make her move”—she waved a hand and the cat waved—“just by moving your body. We can make movies together!” Suddenly, a whole cast of characters jumped onto the screen. “Choose one.”

They made lots of movies—dramas, comedies, and the occasional horror. She said the little movies helped hone her craft. His mom would shuffle through the characters, but for him, he was always the lion. The mane made him feel powerful. Whole. More himself. Acting was a salve on his lonely childhood. He mastered a range of gestures from soft gazes all the way to earth-shattering roars.

But directing was where he excelled. He would spend hours planning out scenes, making them realistic, and tailoring them to an imaginary audience. After a while, he understood when characters should be loud, when they should ease off, when they needed to take action, and when they should fade into the background. He learned about people through the dolls.

A few years later, his mom said, “There’s a contest. We should enter one of our movies,” his mom said.

“They’re not good enough.”

“Come on. You never know if you don’t try,” she said.

They placed in the top ten on their first try. She had unlocked something deep inside of him.

A year later, a sudden stroke left his mom unconscious. Solomon ended up in an orphanage. But he would still visit his mom every week, and each time, he acted out the movies they made together and practice new ones. He couldn’t be absolutely sure she could hear him. But that didn’t matter.

In the hospital room, he took her hand. “What would you like to see this time, mom?”

After the announcement, Patrice holed up in Solomon’s orb. “I moved all my shit for him?” said Patrice with a sigh. Rex had taken over Patrice’s orb. “He’s not even using it half the time. It’s a waste.”

Rex kept erratic hours, trundling into the office near lunchtime wearing that ridiculous mask. Rex also refused to live in the housing orbs. Privacy reasons, of course.

“It’s bad enough we’re quitting Lyon.”

“Stop griping. Your team needs to prep for The Show. We need to have all our systems in place,” Solomon said. The inside walls of his orb were covered with a complex web of storyboards, timelines, and notes scrawled in haste—mostly about Lyon. He wondered what they would be filled within a few months—ideas for The Show? It couldn’t be blank. A blank wall meant a blank mind, and that was a fate worse than death.

“How? We haven’t even gotten briefed. Aren’t there supposed to be more people? It can’t just be this Rex guy.”

“Rex is a node or something like that.”

“I don’t give a shit about their spiritual mantra. The best teams operate top down. Orders given. Orders received. Orders executed. Simple. Effective.”

“You have to be ready for change,” Solomon said.

The Frenchman braided his hands over his head. “Tell me—when did you lose control of Theo?”

“I never controlled him,” he said.

“You knew what was going on though. You had his ear,” said Patrice. “You should have been CEO. But it’s too late. It’s obvious Rex wants to take over Gasa.”

“Theo would never let that happen.”

Patrice prodded him on the shoulder. “You didn’t know about the merger. I’ll be honest—I don’t actually care what happens to Gasa,” Patrice said. “I’m a simple man: I just want to do good work and be recognized for it. But you—I know you care about this”—he twirled his finger—“what people are watching and how it affects them. I’m not like that. I solve problems. I go home. I watch a few dramas and I’m happy. Rinse and repeat.”

There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” said Solomon.

Rex’s mask was crimson red today like a sunset had cleaved his face in half. “It’s time to get to work,” he said.

Patrice stood. “I’m ready. It took you long enough.”

“We were learning your systems. Big changes like this take considerable deliberation, especially for the other nodes.”

“Let’s start with an overview of how your AI works,” said Patrice.

“There won’t be an overview,” said Rex.

Solomon arched an eyebrow. “What now?”

“The nodes have voted, and by a majority, we’ve decided the best plan is to integrate The Show directly into your infrastructure. It’s more efficient this way—you won’t need to know anything about our system.”

“Don’t patronize me,” said Patrice. “We’re not duct-taping a toy box car together. We can’t have secrets. I need to meet your team.”

“I don’t know the identity of the nodes I work with.”

“You do mean people, right?” said Solomon.

“Nodes. We relay information via anonymous text channels. Some may not even be human.”

“Unbelievable,” said Patrice.

Rex touched his mask. “And yet, we have audience numbers rivaling Lyon,” he said. “No more games. Show me how your distribution works.”

Solomon could escalate this to Theo. But maybe Rex’s idea wasn’t so bad. If they integrated The Show into their system, it would give Patrice and him more control. He could understand The Show and make a new plan. And if didn’t work, he could redirect the plan.

It seemed Patrice had the same thought. “Fine. Let’s give you a tour.”

The production orb was the most immense orb in Gasa Hall, a giant featureless blimp from the outside, but inside, a forest of cameras, lights, and electronic instruments jutted off an array of racks. Screens dotted the space like an urban landscape. On them, Lyon was projected—talking, singing, walking, jumping. Living. This was where Lyon’s stories were birthed.

“So much clutter,” Rex muttered.

“Ahem.” Solomon plucked a neuropad from the wall and affixed it to his neck. “This will relay my gestures and emotions to the system.”

“You act everything out manually?” Rex laughed. “How primitive.”

“No,” said Patrice. “The AI drives the shows. We refine it.”

Rex turned over one of the pads in his hand. “Can’t the AI run everything?”

“Trust me. We’ve tried that before. The narratives start diverging. Utter chaos. We guide it at a high level, and it does the rest.” But he knew it was more than just guiding. It was the careful planning that made everything possible.

He tapped a nearby screen, and a scene of Lyon talking to a sad Rhino popped up. Solomon acted as the lion for a few beats, consoling the creature.

“This must take forever,” said Rex.

“No,” said Patrice. “Solomon, show him how you actually do it.”

Solomon tapped a few keys. The scenes began switching multiple times per second. His irises dialed down into a pinprick—Lyon became his world. Sad. Happy. Mad. Rage. Indifference. He attacked each beat with precision, and in response, the AI soaked up the precious data stream—his movements, his expressions, and deep feelings that welled up inside of him.

Thirty seconds had elapsed, but to him, it felt like an hour. “That covered 98% of the cases.” He wiped down his hair with a towel.

Patrice slow clapped. “Bravo. You see, I have a team of dozens doing this. We can easily cover the billions of stories needed for every human.”

For a moment, Rex was quiet. “Thank you for the demo.” Lyon’s reflection shimmered off his mask as he leaned in close to a screen. “But The Show doesn’t need any hand-holding.” He swiveled and pointed to another screen. “We’ll do a port into your system to generate each segment based on our repository. We won’t need this acting.” He raised a hand. “Our nodes have done the calculations. The Show will surpass Lyon.”

Boxes of electronics were piled high outside of Patrice’s orb. “I’m done,” he said. Another box slid out. “Done.” A crash, followed by shuffling sounds. “You hear me?”

“I heard you,” said Solomon. Just after the demo, he had marched into Theo’s office, but it was all for naught. The CEO was determined to try it Rex’s way.

“I get severance. It’s in my contract.” Patrice tapped the keyboard. “I gave notice. No turning back.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Severance,” Patrice said in a slow, mocking tone. “Gonna live it up in my home orb until I find a new gig. Gasa will pay for it all.”

Solomon sighed. The operations manager had built up a swath of custom rigs. He wasn’t sure how they would manage without him. No. He couldn’t let that happen.

“Stay and fight.”

“The writing’s on the wall. It’s not worth it for me.” Patrice shook his head. “You were the reason I stayed. And now even that is gone.” He hefted up a jumble of circuit boards. “I’ll be back for the rest later. There is no need to wait for me.”

Solomon put a hand on him. “Please, just consider—”

“Don’t beg.”

They shook hands, and Solomon watched as he disappeared through the line of orbs.

“Let him go.” It was Theo, behind him.

“We lost him because of you,” said Solomon.

“It was necessary.”

Solomon looked up at the array of monitors. Just a week ago, they displayed stats on how the audience was reacting to the lion. Now, The Show had taken over.

“I know it feels good to buy our competitor,” Solomon said. “But I don’t understand how you can turn your back on everything.”

“I dreamed that we needed a change—that Lyon was not in our future.”

“You’re betting everything on a dream?”

“Isn’t it all dreams?” He looked withdrawn, as if his mind had wandered into a different room. “Rex contacted me out of the blue. Didn’t know how he got my personal info. I couldn’t give up this chance. I need you to stay on. You’re the only one I trust to give The Show a narrative. In the end, we do it our way.”

Theo clasped his hands together. “Entertain a child. Entertain the world.”

Solomon stared into space. He had to take hold of the narrative himself.

Within a week, they had The Show running on Gasa’s backbone. But Solomon noticed something strange. The Show was growing its audience exponentially without intervention. Was it customizing itself? How could all this happen without planning? He felt empty—as if his place in the world had vanished.

At night, he walked the underground tunnel to his home orb and noticed that everyone he passed was peering down at their phones. One man was so withdrawn that he ran straight into him.

Solomon tapped him on the elbow. “Hey, what are you watching?”

The man didn’t look up. Loops and spirals animated on the screen. “I loved these as a kid. Spiralgraphs! Remember them?”

“How long have you been watching?”

“Since lunch.”

“The whole day?”

“I guess I should write it off, huh?” The man chuckled without looking up. The spirals continued their intricate paths along the screen.

Solomon should have been happy. Lyon’s system was working—it was figuring out what people wanted to watch.

The next morning, he walked back with a fresh mind. But his walk turned into a run when he heard klaxons in the distance.

Two men were dousing the exterior of Patrice’s orb. Smoke poured out from the door.

“What happened?” Solomon yelled.

“We’re not sure,” said a facilities engineer.

“It’s a wreck in here,” the other man said as a chair teetered out of the cracked sliding door. Smashed electronics were strewn across the floor.

“Where’s Patrice?”

“Didn’t see anyone,” said a nearby engineer.

Why would he destroy his own work? It must have been Rex. But why? Retaliation?

Then he heard gunshots. “Take cover,” a voice screamed. He dropped to the ground and braced his hands over his head as the well-worn carpet tickled his nose. Had someone gone postal? An explosion rattled through the space, followed by more gunshots.

Something was weird. The sounds seemed too distant. Artificial. He gingerly lifted his head.

There was no gunman. The gunshots were coming from Patrice’s orb. He leaped in, waving off the toxic smoke. The explosions and gunfire were coming from a screen. A realistically rendered battlefield.

The Show.

Patrice was under the table, shaking and clasping his knees together like a frightened schoolboy.

“Are you okay? What happened?”

Patrice’s lips quiver. Good, at least he wasn’t catatonic. “Someone call for medical,” Solomon yelled. “Patrice, talk to me.”

Patrice raised his finger to the screen. “The war.” Solomon knew he meant the Great China War. Patrice rarely spoke of it. The operations manager had seen hell there, and even broaching the subject made him clam up. “It was a long time ago. My platoon and I were trapped in a cave pinned by a few robo-snipers in the distance… they chipped away at the entrance… forcing us deeper into the cave. Self-guided bullets. The Show managed to capture that moment. Played it back to me. Haven’t had an episode in years. I froze.”


“You know that old saying: flight or fight. Everyone thinks that’s it. But there’s a third option. The worse option. Freezing up.” Patrice cradled his cheek. “I was in here to grab my stuff, but the next thing I knew, I was here… under the table… watching the screen.” Then he looked around as if seeing the carnage for the first time. “Is that smoke?” Patrice’s eyes widened. He must have done it. He had dropped into evasive maneuvers and smashed his own equipment.

“Gasa can keep my stuff,” he blurted. He gathered himself, then slowly walked out. Solomon knew better than to follow.

Rex’s orb was darkened when Solomon knocked. No answer. He peered up at the dashboard. It looked like The Show’s audience had doubled again. At this rate, the whole world would be watching in an hour. Solomon fingered the phone in his pocket—he had a strong urge to watch the broadcast—but he stopped himself.

He knocked again.

A laugh came from inside. He gestured to one of the facilities people. A man in an orange vest slid a card down and opened the door.

On the floor, Rex was in hysterics. A man was dancing and playing the tuba on the screen.

“What’s gotten into you?” said Solomon. But he could barely hear himself over the laughter. He turned off the screen and gripped Rex’s writhing body. “Snap out of it!”

Rex managed to mouth a few words between gulping breaths. “Check… the… test… logs…”


“Node… 763… Something wrong…” He pulled his mask off to reveal frightened eyes and pale skin that hadn’t seen the sun in years.

Multiple klaxons were erupting across the hall. In the production orb, Solomon slid his keycard and connected to Node 763. He expected a text chat with one of Rex’s associates, but instead, a complicated interface lit up the screen. He flicked through the menus. It was a list of everyone who had seen The Show, complete with sets of numbers. Tests?

Solomon gasped.

The system had granted itself access to personal info beyond what Lyon ever had. It was enormous. The Show had gathered millions of data points for every person. But that couldn’t be right. There wouldn’t have been enough time.

It dawned on him: The Show had been gathering the data for decades. Waiting. Soaking up all of their habits. There was more information here than even the government had. He pulled up Patrice’s data. The data was inscrutable—random numbers and graphs. An icon indicated neuropad access. He placed one against his neck and hit play.

He was on a battlefield playing at 3x speed. He heard shrieks, smelled gunfire, and felt the rumble of explosions compress his chest. He felt slow. Groggy. Like falling sleep with his eyes open. It was soothing. Life was so complex. But this was a straightforward narrative. A simpler existence: one that didn’t require thinking.

Just drift away…

He ripped the pad off and gasped air. He had experienced this one time before—it was in a university lab where they were conducting experiments to find personal triggers. The theory was that everyone had a trigger that would suck their brain into a loop. But the results were inconclusive; nerve cells have a natural decay built-in, so, unlike a machine, an infinite loop was impossible.

The Show had figured a way around this—a keyhole for the mind. An endless epileptic seizure. For Patrice, it was the theater of war. For Rex, it was an absurd comedy. If The Show could mutate and change with each person, it could keep finding ways to reinforce the loops. The Show was hijacking the brain from the bottom up.

He had to stop it.

He went into the main control system and tapped one of the big red buttons, frantically putting in his passcode. The screen read: “Emergency broadcast bypass. Warning: by continuing, all broadcasts will be stopped. Are you sure?” He tapped to confirm.

Silence. No one had ever used the bypass before. He didn’t even know if it worked.

When he walked outside, every single orb was opaque, like the hall was invaded by an army of dark stones. “Anyone here?” he yelled. No answer. He tapped a door. No response. His stomach sank. Everyone was locked in.


He pulled out his phone and confirmed that The Show’s broadcast was cut. It would take time for people to wake up.

He pounded on Theo’s orb, then slid it open. The CEO was prostrate on the ground. In his hand, a hastily scrawled note: “The main node is in the atrium.”

He wasn’t sure what he would do. If The Show was able to find a trigger for everyone on Earth, then it would be over. Humans would turn into a catatonic species, spending the rest of their lives turned inward.

The tall doors to the atrium creaked as he opened it. The sound of running water filled his ears. The screens had transformed into rippling surfaces. Solomon closed his eyes and walked forward, but he couldn’t escape the sound. Could he even reason with this thing—this machine—whatever it was?


He opened his eyes. His mom looked down from the main screen perched on the high walls. Her hair was perfectly coiffed and eyes bright—young again—just as she looked in her films when he was a kid.

“This is a trick.”

“How do you know?” she said.

“Because you’re in—”

“—the hospital,” she finished. “I’m awake now.”


“I don’t know.” Then she smiled, “I knew you never missed a week.”

“So you were conscious the whole time?”


He had been right. The doctors, the experts, the nurses—they were all wrong. He slumped down on a bench. “Why are you doing this?” He wasn’t sure if he was asking her or The Show. Maybe he was talking to both.

“Why do humans choose to struggle?” she asked in a chilly tone.

“It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s how we survive. It’s how we thrive, as a species.”

“This struggle is futile. What’s the purpose? You don’t need to do this anymore. I’ve found a way to stop the struggle. You see—I hate inefficiency. And you should, too.”

“We don’t want to be zombies.”

“I’m giving you eternal life,” she said. “Now, tell me the passcode. The broadcast must resume.”

A bright light filled the room. Solomon tried to scream. To resist. To fight. To do anything. But something primal fell away inside of him as the light pierced his eyes—

—he was at the basin with his fingers touching the surface of the water. His mom was blow-drying her hair. She smiled at him.

He realized it had been gathering data about him ever since that day. Patiently building a perfect profile of stimuli. And now it was complete.

“Ripples…” he said.

He knew it was too late. This moment would last forever.