NANNI Just Imagine !
It was “Me” time on the sofa. Although, to be fair, Chloe and Jack didn’t interrupt him like they used to; those tablets were just the best investment, even their school was using them now. Mind you one could hardly get a response out of the kids, not even at meal times. “Whatever” was about the best he could hope for nowadays.
The iPhone slipped gently from Mike’s grasp the light fading face down against the smooth leather of their new DFS sofa.
With a start he reached down to find it. This wretched sofa! Why did he buy it? I mean they didn’t even really need it, the old one had been his parents’, familiar and homely, full of childhood memories, but then there was the offer. As Jenny kept pointing out they hadn’t even started paying anything yet, and it had been nearly a year now.
Starting to panic he pushed first his hand then his arm down between the cushions – nothing! If only he could just see it he could reach it. Pressing his face to the gap he struggled to see. Suddenly the sofa gave way and he slid down.
The pressure on his chest tightened viscously as his torso was sucked down into the void between the cushions. “Oh no! It’s a heart attack!” But he’d done all that gym time, then the fasting, and all those juices.
“Why me? Why now?”
Silence. He was just, slowly, sinking.
An overwhelming smell of leather engulfed him. It was actually comforting and Michael relaxed. It brought back his grandfather’s lovely old “Mk II Jag” with its red leather seats. He could even remember the number plate “ALD77”. Couldn’t remember his own number plate though, mind you he could remember it was six hundred and ninety-nine every month for all that German technology.
Smells did that. They took him back. Michael particularly remembered the kitchen which was just a riot of odours heralding a feast for the whole family that his mother would deliver every evening. He had loved those times sat there all together.
Dad was always there at bedtime too, reading a story. Sometimes he even made them up; they were the best! Today he couldn’t even talk to his father. Oh, he was still alive; it just wasn’t him. The dementia had slowly drained every last vestige of the man he had known as his protector and inspiration. Dad had introduced him to football, taken him to the terraces, and shared those great stories about Roy of the Rovers. In those days Michael had even walked out on the hallowed turf at Wembley under the old twin towers; well in his dreams anyway. Now there was only a hollow arch that Mike occasionally glimpsed from the cold comfort of corporate hospitality.
He missed his father, and he supposed his father must miss him. “Imagine if I end up in that state” he thought. The things he’d want to say to Chloe and Jack. It could be hereditary couldn’t it? What about his children, what would their lives be like?
To be fair he did genuinely wonder what Jack and Chloe would want out of their lives. Mike simply didn’t know. They never talked about anything like that, or anything much at all come to think of it. When he was younger Jack had been fascinated by interplanetary space travel whereas Chloe would incessantly scribble in a whole series of notebooks. Mike had never really found out what, maybe stories, maybe just thoughts and reflections. Just keeping a diary, he supposed.
Not much seemed to pass down between the generations these days. That very weekend Mike had finally cleared out all his father’s stuff to make way for a new home office for himself and Jenny. So many books. They were just outside in the skip with all the other detritus from that little, quiet room overlooking the garden that had been his father’s last refuge.
The kids had wanted a games room, but it seemed to Mike they were mucking about on one device or another all the time wherever they were; on the sofa, in bed, in the car, eating a meal, basically anywhere and everywhere. So they hardly needed a dedicated space. A games room wouldn’t have involved him, though, he was sure of that. He felt a twinge of regret. Had he already lost his own children?
The smell brought him around. The musty, wet, scent of autumn. He loved autumn. A magical mixture of soggy wet and crisp dry leaves in heaps all over the garden. His mother with a rake fighting, not just the wind, but his imagination, as he created aeroplanes, and cars, and battleships out of the magical, golden brown, mulch. The smell took him back there.
Michael found himself walking along a path amongst the shadowy outlines of bare tree trunks in the fading light. He looked around, hesitantly, then stepped off the path into the piles of leaves on the grass, kicking the fragrant browns and golds up into air around him the way he did as a child. He had imagined being and creating so many things back then, not just the imaginary aeroplanes and cars, but real things for real people. How he could have changed the world. “So what do you do now?” he thought. Management; counting and checking; boxes and boxes of ticks; meetings, and memos.
Suddenly he could smell burning.
Through the trees, in the dim light, he could just make out silhouettes. Then a red glow, slowly growing, flickering into fire, sparks rushing upwards into an expanding plume of smoke. Someone was building a bonfire.
The flames threw the shapes into sharp relief. To his horror he saw a group of what looked like children, throwing things onto the pyre. What were they doing? Moving with a steady rhythm the figures moved back and forth, back and forth, carrying bundles to be consumed by the flames. There was something strange about the movement, the movement of all of them, so regular.
He started towards them, first jogging then breaking into a run. As he burst into the clearing the scene was fully illuminated and he realised they were carrying bundles of books. Then, there in front of him, he saw Jack, his back towards him, facing the fire, about to throw something. No, it couldn’t be? It was his Roy of the Rovers annual.
“No! Jack! No! Stop!”
The figure, slowly and deliberately, turned towards him, confronting him with dark, dead, eyes. It wasn’t Jack. It wasn’t human. They were robots!
“Whatever” said the android. As it turned back towards the fire. Michael snatched the annual from its grasp.
“Have you lost something?”
Michael turned to face the voice only to see a figure barely out of his teens stood behind him.
Mind you the figure did have an air of authority. He stood straight and tall, dressed all in black, except for a silver breastplate … a breastplate, I mean, what kind of person wears a breastplate? Disconcertingly there was a magpie perched on the spectre’s left shoulder, whose unblinking gaze Michael for some reason just couldn’t meet.
“I’m Ex. Welcome to Perpetua, Mike.”
“How do you know who I am?”
“I have your phone.”
“Give it back!”
With a faint smile Ex handed it over.
“What on earth do you want with that?” Ex asked pointing to the annual that Michael was clutching. “Surely now you are a man you have put away childish things?”
“Well, I … um …” Mike stumbled to explain. “I … I was saving it for Jack” he retorted.
“Ah well, I don’t suppose this one can do much harm.”
“Harm?“ enquired Mike.
“Walk with me. Let me explain” invited Ex.
And so, the two of them walked out of the woods up a steep path which led to a cliff top facing the sunset, overlooking a castle and a bay, with what appeared to be a galleon anchored there.
As they walked Ex laid out his vision, of a world without chaos, ordered, calm, and above all productive. How it was important that children passed exams to get on, and did not mess about or get distracted.
Ex also painted a picture of the threats, of which there were many. All of them, Ex explained, played to the human frailties of imagination and creativity, not least among them belief and fantasy, specifically including religion. The base emotions, rather than logic, that most people allowed themselves to be driven by. That is why androids are so much more reliable, Ex believed.
Ex shared how he been orphaned young and had educated himself from books realising that information is power. Not just the capabilities of fact and science but also fiction and stories which only lead individuals to expect more resulting, inevitably, in disappointment, envy and unrest. “You see, that’s why I get my androids to burn books, Mike.”
“The great thing about androids,” Ex explained, “is that they can be programmed. So we simply need to do the same with children. The good thing is that this has started; the infrastructure is already in place.”
“If you told a child that they had to spend so and so many hours outside school doing more learning they would rebel instantly, yet here they are, voluntarily, in front of screens for hours and hours. Some parents even approve thinking that things like Minecraft can teach reading and maths, which of course they can. What most adults fail to realise, though, is that this learning is within carefully controlled structures so that children also learn to do as they are told by the rules of the game rather than think for themselves.”
“If you let children just read things without presenting carefully controlled images they will develop their imaginations. That is why books are dangerous whereas videos and games are not. If you let them use their imaginations, I mean, they might think anything!”
“It’s all about productivity and control Mike. You must understand that as a consultant, surely?”
“One simply can’t run society efficiently like this, which is why I have developed NANNI”, said Ex.
“Yes, it’s a little app that I have been developing. It’s what runs all my androids, and right now I am extending it to humans. So, I need to move on to Beta testing which is where you come in Mike.”
“Yes, but what is NANNI?”
“Well, first of all, it stand for ‘Nascent Android Network for Neutralising Imagination’. It runs on all the main operating systems, well apart from Blackberry of course. Basically it runs on anything: PC’s, Mac’s, tablets, phones, TV’s, even cars and fridges. Don’t you just love the Internet of things … I mean the potential!” Ex grinned in a rare show of good humour.
Michael’s heart sank.
“Take your Jack, for instance, he’s a bit of a flibbertigibbet. If he stands any chance of getting into university you well know he needs to do a lot better at exams, doesn’t he? I mean that’s how to achieve in life, pass more exams. NANNI can re-programme his devices to subtly limit his exposure to unproductive things, removing anything creative or distracting, stop him day dreaming. You see with NANNI you can ensure that Jack and Chloe become proper little automatons breezing through exams.”
“Breezing” thought Michael. That was an odd word to use. It had all the implications of lightness and freedom and joy, yet in this context it appeared, quite simply, sinister.
Ex was in full flow now. “Not for nothing did I call it NANNI. With this technology you no longer need to pay people to look after your children because the app does it for you.”
“An electronic Mary Poppins you mean” ventured Michael.
“Mary Poppins!” Ex almost spat the words out. “Don’t talk to me about Mary Poppins. It’s not as if the lesson is not there for all to see, yet they wilfully ignore it. A small boy’s fatuous request brings about the collapse of a bank. How can that be allowed to happen in any kind of ordered society? Subversive literature like Mary Poppins needs to be burned.”
Calming himself, Ex continued. “Huxley got it right, you know, with everyone having an assigned role and fitting themselves to it. Polymaths and free thinkers are dangerous.”
Michael felt he had to say something. “But what about inventors, someone like Leonardo, where would we be without them?”
The anger seemed to bubble up again instantly. “Don’t even mention his name! Mike, we need more Henry Fords not more Leonardos.” A slow sharp smile spread across Ex’s frosty face “Yes, you can give your kids any device you like so long as it has NANNI.” It dawned on Michael that this was as close to a joke as Ex would ever get.
“Anyway, I would have thought that you would want an app like NANNI. Here, look, just give me your phone, I’ll get NANNI installed and when you reconnect to your home network it will propagate to all the other devices. You don’t need to do a thing.”
A slow chill spread out from the pit of Michael’s stomach as he contemplated what Ex had in mind. Yes, of course, he wanted the kids to do well and get into uni but at what price? Leonardo or Henry Ford, what a bizarre choice, as for Mary Poppins being subversive that was bonkers. This was not a world he recognised, or, when it came to, wanted either. He reflected on how his father had encouraged him in what I, the child, had wanted to do, and how that had empowered him.
In that instant something changed. Michael felt a sense of release, an unfamiliar freedom, whilst Ex’s face turned to thunder. “Just give me the phone!” he barked.
“NO!” Michael shouted, hurling the device over the cliff edge. Silence. You could almost hear the wind whistle past the phone as it fell, catching the fading light as it spun, then bounced, again, and again, and again, until it came to rest on a ledge far below.
“Whatever” That word again, but uttered by Ex it had real menace. “You know that was foolish, but don’t worry I’ll have magpie fetch it back up. In fact you’ll thank me because you are going to need your phone to get home. Without it you are stuck here in Perpetua. As for re-programming it, I don’t need your help to do that, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t worry you can have it back when I’m finished with it.”
Panic gripped him. None of his training, or executive leadership courses had prepared him for anything like this. For the briefest of moments his head and heart wrestled, then with a shriek he leapt over the parapet sliding and bouncing down the steep slope towards his phone. Behind him he heard the sharp screech of the magpie as it launched itself off Ex’s shoulder after him.
Dirt and dust kicking up every time he hit the ground choking and blinding him. Desperately trying to slow his descent he thudded onto the ledge next to the phone, but, as he grabbed it, he simply bounced, his momentum taking over the edge into the void.
Now he knew he was going to die – there was no doubt this time.
A fluttering, first above him, then all around him, now below. The magpie he thought, but no; not black and white; a rainbow of colours. He felt himself settling into something soft and downy, like the finest feather bed. As his descent slowed he felt himself fading in and out of consciousness.
Michael sat bolt upright on the sofa, panting for breath, his heart pounding. Relief welled up, as he settled back down onto the luxurious leather. His mind was completely empty. As if there was no today, no tomorrow, no yesterday, just this moment frozen in time.
Then he decided.
Leaping to his feet he raced into the hall, hurled open the front door then started to scrabble about in the skip outside.
Chloe and Jack looked up, startled as their father strode into the kitchen dusting down the cover of a beautiful old, leather bound, volume. “Right you lot! Put those things down. I’m going to tell you a story about a man called Leonardo.”