3 min read

Pulling no punch cards

“Do not bend, spike, fold or mutilate” the card in Dylan’s trench coat pocket advised. He did not intend to do any of that. And even if he did tear the card in two, it wouldn’t matter, as long as he recorded the sequence of holes in his ledger. It was the holes or the absence of them that mattered, not the 3-by-7 piece of recycled paper.

Passing the arcades, the fro-yo parlours and the pocket-size theatre halls on Axolotl avenue, he fingered the new addition to his collection, as if reading Braille. The card felt like all the other cards he had nicked throughout the last couple of months. At the same time, it felt unique. The input data, at least, was.

It was a quarter to five, and the streets would soon turn crowded. Clerks rushing home to their spouses. Bike couriers seeing every yellow street light as a personal challenge. Street performers trying to impress passers-by with routines that haven’t changed in decades. The usual sights of a typical night. Money earned, mouths fed, potholes filled, taxes collected. Tens if not hundreds of different taxes.

The moving billboards greeted denizens with the good news of the day. “Light pollution reduced by twelve percent”. “A new kindergarten opened ready to take in the offspring of recent transplants.” “The city’s population grew by yet another 400 in the last week.” “Optimized! Optimized! Optimized!” the 16-colour screens would announce in cascading pixels after each piece of news.

A girl in her early twenties was standing by a lamppost, staring at the changing headlines. Probably one of the recent transplants, still interested in knowing what the government could do for her. Others just shot a glance or two to the announcements they hadn’t seen that day, and moved along. Dylan was one of the few paying no attention. That was understandable, as he had spent the last six hours updating the district’s billboards. Like the hundreds of technicians manning the city’s intricate public information network, he knew the announcements by heart.

A couple of half-empty street carts passed Dylan. “Not the most optimal use of public transport,” Dylan thought to himself. But he knew that this was in the category of things that would never change. “Probably hard to frame something like Hey, we reduced the frequency of the A train! in a good way”.

The road home was quite long, but he felt like taking his time. And this time, he would walk straight, without trying to lose a tail. After months of feeling watched, followed and spied on, it was now clear that no one had a problem with his little side project. This realization that dawned upon him just a couple of days ago first made him feel relieved. And then, insignificant.

The perforated card he carried was another piece of the puzzle. SFS. Straight from the source. Unlike the punch cards feeding headlines to the billboards, this one held not the propaganda slogans, but the calculations supposedly backing them up.

SFS cards were a headache for technicians. Ministry of Information clerks (drones in common technician parlance) would place them in the bundles by mistake ever so often. Inserted in the billboard terminal by an unsuspecting technician, an SFS card produced an error message that would go away only after a series of arduous reboot sequences.

For the past several months, Dylan met every such mistake with gratitude. And if it wasn’t he who got lucky, he would make sure to be the first one helping a rookie reboot a frozen billboard. And pocket the SFS card in the process.

So far, he had entered twenty-five cards into his ledger. On the left side, he’d write the binary sequence. On the right side, the outputs of that day. With his own little Rosetta Stone, Dylan hoped to one day crack the code and learn the truth behind the numbers he personally put on screens every day. He just needed more data. And someone to do the calculations. After all, Dylan, as the majority of the town’s billboard operators, couldn't count. Just another dyscalculic employed under the Labourforce Optimization Scheme.

November, 2020