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MIT Technology Review

Zooming

A fiction story about the future

zoom illustrationzoom illustration
zoom illustration
Saiman Chow

I’m sitting in my parents’ basement, in a cracked pleather gaming chair, smelling my own funk, or maybe the damp of black mold, and 400 miles below me the whole world is laid out like some vast Tibetan tapestry, full of little demons and beasts and believers.

I tap, zoom, look, unzoom, slide, tap, zoom, look. Sometimes at familiar spots, but mostly just at random, searching for something happening somewhere that’s interesting enough to stream or gif or sell or just linger over. I watch Berliners mob a music festival. I watch mining equipment drag rocks out of an Australian quarry. I watch Pakistani dogs fighting over a chicken and hurricane clouds slamming into Cuba and an exhibitionist couple fucking on a bright red blanket on a Californian rooftop. I lose myself for a few minutes in the ripples of swaying Amazon jungle leaves, wondering how the wind feels to all those trees. And then I get bored, and I’m just zooming through my rounds again, not thinking much, and I see it.

Some kid is dragging a tasteful brown coffin out of the back of a pickup truck parked at the edge of a pile of trash in the junkyard just outside of town, my town. Silent thunk when the box hits the trashdirt, and the kid loses his grip, rolls it, and out comes a body. Denny’s body.

Never seen him from this angle before, fat face sprawled to the open sky, but somehow I know it’s him: the lima bean bald spot who wore a hideous Hawaiian shirt on their first date, just like the body is wearing now. Denny is the guy fucking my ex Michelle. Was the guy, because I’m pretty sure I’m looking at a live satellite feed of his corpse.

I zoom as hard as I can, but the algo caps the resolution when it thinks there are people in the frame. Panoram doesn’t want us swiping credit card numbers or peeking at text messages, even though they probably sell that data to marketing firms or use it to blackmail Saudi princes. I can see the coloration on individual feathers on a bird soaring over some pristine wilderness, but trying to identify a dead body is like spotting an acquaintance across the street through a smudgy bus window. Doesn’t matter how sure I am—no one else will believe me.

Too much of life happens inside, under­ ground, in cars or trains, under trees, on cloudy days

The kid plants his hands on his hips for a minute, then bends to shove Denny back in the coffin. He gets the lid on, latches it, I guess, and gives the coffin a couple rolls toward the junk pile.

I don’t do snuff zooms, even though they’re good money on the dark web. I don’t chase car crashes or predator drones or active shooters. I should bug out, look at something else, watch a nudist beach or contemplate some cracking, melting ice floe. Everyone knows Panoram can’t afford storage for all the imagery it takes, if storing that much data is even possible. If a user doesn’t record it, it’s gone forever—the tech-god is omniscient but forgetful. I could pretend I never saw Denny’s blurry pixel eyes staring up at me.

But death is weird when it’s someone you know, even if they didn’t know you. I never met Denny in person. I only know his name from my buddy Trent who still goes to Michelle’s restaurant sometimes. Still, I’ve watched Denny pick Michelle up from barre class, drop her off at work the next day. Little flick of the wrist as he called her back for one last kiss. Maybe I was jealous, but I didn’t hate him. We shared a world, and now someone’s thrown him dead in the garbage.

So I hit Record. Seems like the least I can do.

The kid wipes his brow, like “Another day, another dollar,” and I’m sweating just looking at him, itching at my pits, peering desperately into my monitor for some detail on the kid beyond the slightness of his frame and his logo-less baseball cap and grubby black T-shirt. But there’s nothing. Kid gets back in the pickup. It drives off.

I zoom out to follow. Long shot, but who knows where amateur body-dumpers get their vehicles. Couple miles from the junkyard, the truck turns in to a covered garage where empty fleet cars go to charge. I circle around the shiny black square of solar roof for a few minutes, just in case the kid hoofs it. Windowless sedans zip out of the hub like blind ants, leaving their anthill on pheromonic marching orders. He’s probably already in one, napping off the sun. I’ve lost him.

But I do have a time stamp. Silver pickup entered the hub at 11:28:15 MT. Just like in crime shows, the cops can warrant the garage logs, track the truck back to wherever it picked up the kid—and Denny’s coffin.

I should ping the cops. But I don’t, because there’s something else I’ve seen in crime shows. One in five homicides are committed by an intimate partner, which means there’s a non-zero possibility that Michelle was the one who had Denny offed. What if he beat her? Or stole her money? Or tried to sexually traffic her? I’m a snitch, but I’m not going to snitch on her.

My best bet is to find Michelle, keep recording the evidence, track her until I get the whole, fatal story. I pull an Adderall shot from my minifridge, slosh it down, toss the little can, purple liquid splatter joining the salsa stains on the wood-grain carpet. I order pizza to the basement door, text Mom and Dad that I’m staying in. It’ll be at least a day before they throttle my bandwidth to force me upstairs. I go to the bathroom and scrub caffeine on my face. Then I go looking for Michelle.

The thing about zooming is, it’s actually fucking hard to stalk people. Too much of life happens inside, underground, in cars or trains, under trees, on cloudy days. And they know we’re watching, so floppy hats are back in a big way, gated communities put up shade sails, couples kiss under umbrellas on rainless afternoons.

Then there are the anti-stalking algos that kick you off if you zoom in on the same address too long or too often. Panoram is for wildlife photography and storm chasing and seeing humanity in its broadest strokes: the daily heaving of commuters, migrants, pilgrims, supply chains, shipping lanes, air travel, construction sites, battle lines, strip-mining, clear-cutting, controlled burns, cook fires, city lights, parades, sports games, mass weddings, protests, riots.

Finding Michelle is like finding a needle in a haystack when the haystack is on fire. Impossible—except I’ve had a lot of practice.

I catch her coming out of the Thai place when her shift ends after the lunchtime rush. I know it’s her from the way she twists her hair up into a bun and the stretch she does, there on the sidewalk, to celebrate being off the clock. She’s unbuttoned her white hostess shirt, down to a sweaty halter top, and the slight angle of the satellite lets me gaze right into her pixelated cleavage. She arches her back like she wants me to see.

Everyone checks up on their exes, right? I don’t want her back, but I zoom her when I want a reminder that she’s hot, cool, and successful, and for a while she chose me. Or else I want evidence that she’s miserable and pathetic without me. Or maybe she’s ugly, tacky, slutty, immoral, and I’m better off without her, better than her, now that I’ve come to my senses and moved on. Or none of that. It’s just an itch to scratch.

Today she’s got a bounce in her step, like she got a really good night’s sleep or maybe got away with murder. She’s not checking her phone or edging away from passersby or any of the nervous movements I’d expect from someone whose boyfriend has gone missing, who’s involved in a criminal conspiracy, who’s about to go on the lam.

Michelle walks to the library, comes out 10 minutes later. She goes to a coffee shop, spends an hour inside. To keep the algo from getting suspicious, I pan over the café slowly, jump to a random spot, then come back and sweep the surrounding blocks in case I missed her. Rinse, repeat. My pizza arrives. It’s pure luck that I catch her leaving.

More errands. I haven’t zoomed on one person this long since I watched a Mongolian nomad track a runaway horse two days across the steppe. I’ve followed Michelle before, but always with a bored, idle, compulsive curiosity—never with actual focus.

She goes to barre class. I figure this is it. When she’s done, either she’ll wait for Denny to pick her up until she realizes he’s not coming, or she’ll just go, because she already knows where Denny is.

Fifty minutes later the studio empties. A dozen pairs of yoga pants come out, all buzzing with post-workout endorphins. They scatter, but not Michelle. She waves them off, plops down on the curb, waits.

I get this rush of relief, and I’m about to call the cops, tell them about Denny—anonymized so there are no questions about why the victim’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend knows where the body is—when a car pulls up.

From my vantage, it’s a windowless black lozenge. A side panel opens, and out leans the same black T-shirt and cap, same slight arms that rolled Denny onto the trash heap this morning.

car illustration
Saiman Chow

I want to scream down from the heavens, blare on some global satellite PA system, warn her: Do not get in that fucking car.

She gets in the car. It drives off.

It’s rush hour now, and tracking the car is like playing Grand Theft Auto and Frogger and a street hustler’s shell game. I ache for the days of early Panoram, when they still let in third-party algos that could track vehicles and individuals for you. Dozens of identical sedans merge and exit in a tight, automated gridlock, and I go cross-eyed trying to stare at the one Michelle is in.

Either my ex is heading off into the sunset with the hit man she hired to get rid of Denny, or she’s riding around with a killer and has no clue how much danger she’s in.

I call her phone. No answer. I text her: Jump out of that car! That gets her attention. She calls me.

“Shawn, you can’t keep doing this,” she says. “I deserve privacy—you agreed! If you zoom me again, I’ll ... I’ll report you to Panoram. I’ll get a restraining order.”

I tell her it’s not like that. I tell her she’s in danger. I tell her I saw the guy in the car dump the body.

She says, “What body?”

So I tell her to open Panoram on her phone and zoom on the trash pile in the junkyard just outside of town, our town. I ping her the coordinates and tell her to look for a coffin.

Pause with some heavy sighs as I guess she does what I ask. Then: “I don’t see anything but garbage and big crane things.”

I zoom back to the junkyard on my own screen. A pair of earthmovers are rearranging the trash pile right where Denny’s coffin had been. Fuck.

I tell her she has to believe me.

She says, “Shawn, how long have you been staring at that screen? Maybe you should get out.”

Fine, I say. Fine. I’ll show you. I send her my location. Then I get out of my chair.

In the garage is the bike I never ride. My dad keeps the tires pumped up because he read a book about how the best way to parent my generation is to remove the obstacles that prevent us from exiting self-destructive behavior. I clip in my phone, roll out of the garage, immediately start sweating in the sunset heat.

Riding the bike again is just like riding a bike, but harder. My legs ache, my lungs burn. I look up over my shoulder, and I try not to imagine how my soaked back, hunched over the handlebars, must look to Michelle through the satellites above.

My fingers twitch and pinch, and with a bolt of shame, I realize I want to zoom on the box.

I take the bike paths that tendril out of town—faster than rush hour traffic, even at my huffing pace.

All the while, I’m on the phone with her, trying to explain, though I’m out of breath. Eventually she says, “Okay, let me come meet you. We can figure this out.” Then neither of us talks much. For some reason, I feel better, even though I know that if she is a killer, she’s probably only coming to kill me too. I keep my eyes on the road, and on the blip of my body that Panoram keeps centered on the map it lays over the feed on my phone.

There’s no guard at the junkyard, just a gate where you insert your credit card. All the junk is chipped, and you pay by the pound. I dismount and walk into the stacks of objects too toxic to compost, too complex to recycle, too useless to repair. After a day of looking down, their three dimensions weird me out; their perfect resolution sets my teeth on edge.

The automated earthmovers have wandered off, but I see the work they’ve done. They’ve lifted Denny’s heap and set it precariously on top of an adjacent pile, a steep little hill of things no one wants. I see the brown corner of the coffin near the top, covered by a tangle of broken clothes hangers and old halogen lamps.

My fingers twitch and pinch, and with a bolt of shame, I realize I want to zoom on that box. But I can’t. Instead I walk up to the hill, get purchase on a torn-open-mattress spring, and begin to climb.

The sun trickles away, and inch by rattling inch I edge up the mound of trash, toward the sky. I’m almost to the box when I hear Michelle’s voice.

“Shawn! Please! You have to come down from up there!”

I crane my neck, and she’s there, just how I remembered: overbleached barrel-collar shirt and sensible flats. She clutches her phone, and I can see Panoram’s darkening view of the junkyard between her white knuckles. Her face is a picture of concern.

Next to her stands a skinny guy, the kid, maybe, though in the flesh he looks older. Is he angry? Stoic? Sympathetic? Territorial? I can’t read him. T-shirt more green than dark, and he’s ditched the baseball cap. But he’s still the kid I saw, I know it, he’s got to be. Except—there’s this bald spot that licks over his scalp, shaped like a lima bean.

I ask who’s that.

“Shawn, this is my partner Denny,” Michelle says. “He came with me because he’s worried. We all are. We don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

I tell her that’s bullshit. I tell her Denny’s dead.

man falling out of coffin illustration
Saiman Chow

“Shawn, come down here. Talk to us. Look me in the eye for once.”

I keep climbing. I get to the coffin. From here it’s not so sleek. No $10,000 polished mahogany, just stained plywood, glued together. More of a shipping box than a proper casket.

I try to tug it out of the pile. The junk shifts, but doesn’t budge.

I hear whispering from below, then feel a creak. New Denny is on the pile with me, climbing.

I’m a sitting duck. Whoever this guy is, he knows I know too much. I could kick at his face, but my legs are sore from biking, cramped from sitting all day. Instead I edge away around the peak of the pile. He can’t see me, but I can’t see him. I pull out my phone and watch through Panoram as his bald spot picks its way up the hill.

He’s going to beat me and strangle me, and then he’ll probably have to kill Michelle too, bury both of us in this trash heap with his first victim. I can see it all in my head, from a god’s-eye view. The way he’ll put his hands on his hips after he shoves us into the garbage, wipe his brow, walk back and get a car, slip into the pool of anonymous everyones, safe from the eyes above. Our one chance at justice would be another zoomer, recording in Panoram, but what are the chances lightning will strike twice? There’s no one, because no one cares about this place or this body or Michelle or me except me.

He’s almost around the corner. My eyes don’t leave the screen, but my free hand closes on something long and thin—one of the lamps—and I swing out to the right. The lamp rattles my arm as it hits, and I look over to see New Denny grimace, go blank, and topple. There’s a moment of thick, curdled time as he falls, but then he’s rolling down the pile with clank and crunch. He comes to rest rag-doll limp at the bottom of the junk heap, skinny face sprawled to the open sky.

Michelle runs forward. She screams. She’s got her hands on his head and she’s wobbling it, trying to make it sit right on his neck. But it won’t.

I stagger down the pile. The guy lies still, except for Michelle’s jostling. She’s pounding on his empty chest, saying, “Shit, we shouldn’t have come. Shit.”

I don’t feel anything, just Adderall crash mixing with adrenaline rush and cyclist high. I should go to her, comfort her, put my arms around her, but my eyes keep tugging away to the glow of the phone she’s dropped. On the sepia-shifted screen I see the whole scene playing out in miniature. The blur of a woman, crouched by the blur of a body. And me, standing over them, the blur of a killer.

I pick up the phone. Panoram’s red recording dot blinks at me. I know what I’d think if I were zooming this right now. I wouldn’t understand at all.

I put her phone in my back pocket, squeezed next to my own, then scramble back up the pile. I get on top of the coffin, clear off the junk, and then shove. In jerks and tips, I haul the box to the ground.

Michelle is staring at me, and I don’t understand her expression. She’s picked up a broken chair leg from the pile, holds it at her side like a club.

“Give me my phone,” she says. “I’m going to call the police. We’ll tell them you had an episode, you got confused. I’ll make them understand.”

She doesn’t know I saved her. I tell her she has to see this. I bend to work the latches.

Doubt comes to me then. For a blink, I’m expecting to find a mannequin, some haunted house prop, thrown away by a carnival, blurred by Panoram, interpreted by my brain as a vast conspiracy that I was uniquely qualified to untangle. What if there’s nothing in there except my own ego, pattern recognition, and the follies of know-nothing omniscience?

But in the box there is a body.

Hawaiian shirt and a placid, pale, lumpy face. It sits at the edge of the heap, parallel to New Denny, both missing that vital force that makes meat mean something.

“Who the fuck is that?” Michelle says. She pauses, then adds, “Shawn, what the fuck did you do?”

That guy did it, I tell her. I saw it. Just zooming around, and I saw it. She should have just gotten out of the car, and I could have shown her alone, but she brought him, and he was going to kill us both.

She’s shaking her head, red wet eyes full of hate and pity.

I tell her I’ll prove it. I look down, dig for my phone, and she hits me. I’m on the ground, wind knocked out of me, pain screaming in my skull. I feel the two phones tug out of my back pocket. Then I get a little air, and close my eyes.

When I come to, Michelle is gone. The sun is gone too, the pink drained from the sky. The bodies are still there, but there’s no hiding them now.

I stagger to the junkyard exit. Michelle has taken my bike, or someone has. I stare down the road, thinking of the silver pickup, trying to remember how far it was to that charging structure, trying to figure out if I could hoof it.

Red and blue lights start to flash in the distance. Whatever I did or didn’t see, it hardly matters now. Maybe Michelle is the killer, but she has my phone, probably remembers my passcode. She can delete my Panoram recording, pin both bodies on me. Or maybe she’s not, and I killed that man for nothing. Either way, when the cops get here, I’ll be jailed or committed, tucked in a tiny cell with no windows, nothing to see.

I run.

I flee the junkyard and the country road, staggering through brownfields and scrubby desert until the light pollution dims to a yellow haze. Above me, the stars grow brighter, and closer. Closer still are the winking eyes of Panoram, in an endless parade of overlapping rings—satellites dancing into new constellations, filling the firmament with heroes and gods and heretics.

The police will be watching me through them. They’ll have a picture-perfect view—crisp night vision, infrared. I can feel their gaze pressing on me, seeing everything about me but understanding nothing. I look for cover, but there is none. I’m exposed to the seeing sky.

Andrew Dana Hudson is a speculative fiction writer and graduate student at Arizona State University, where he researches climate politics and AI.