No one had any reason to complain about YuWant’s prediction algorithm. People even called the algorithm Pa for short, or Papa when they were feeling especially silly, which predictably led to YuWant’s marketing department coming up with a new slogan: Father Knows Best. It was bewildering, this reference to a TV show no one under 50 would remember — and, without that connection, the ad campaign was simply a paean to patriarchy and paternalism. No one in the company liked it. The commercials bombed on social media. But there was no tanking the brand. Pa was simply too good.

And I, too, failed to hate it. My ex bought me a YuWant account at the It level and didn’t tell me — it was meant to be a birthday surprise — but a week before my birthday, the doorbell rang, and I opened it to find a drone flying away, a carton of milk in sun-proof packaging glowing in the smog-reddened morning light. I brought it in and put it in my fridge next to the other carton of milk that was suspiciously light — one more bowl of cereal inside it. The holographic Pa sticker on the new milk carton winked as I moved, the cartoonish old man’s face smugly, genially all-knowing.

That’s how Pa took over the world, ousting Amazon from its almost two-decades long dominance of the global market. Sure, Amazon had overnight delivery, same-day delivery, 30-minutes-or-less delivery, but what had been the gold standard was now revealed to be gilded lead. How could it compete with a company that delivered what you wanted before the thought had even entered your head?

Sure, there were people who didn’t trust the algorithms. Who thought machines shouldn’t learn, and should only be programmed. Or who just wanted to have some degree of control over their own life, even if that control was simply clicking the button themselves to summon the delivery drone.

But what really drew people in, what cemented Pa’s place in our lives, was that it didn’t simply provide necessities. After all, AI fridges and pantry camera surveillance had been auto-ordering family staples for years.

Instead, Pa provided what you wanted. Pa gave you what you yearned for in your heart. That one outfit to combat the depression worming its way into your psyche and slowly poisoning your relationship with your sister. The various cult classic movies now released in Criterion-quality Blu-Ray editions too expensive to buy if you are at all worried about money, especially with everything available on stream, but that you covet nonetheless. A single, speciality cupcake in a gorgeous box of recycled paper, the sea-salt aroma so delicate it makes you want to cry thinking of those childhood summers on the beach, back before all the coastal ocean life was boiled in its own broth. And when you receive it, slipping free the ribbon that binds it closed, you do cry, and after 15 minutes of wracking sobs, you feel like an old table sanded down to the raw wood beneath the finish, a little bit less than you were but newly refreshed.

I ate that cupcake. I watched that movie Evil from Greece (Το Κακό in Greek, The Evil, that definite article making all the difference) with commentaries and deleted scenes no one else I know would ever care about. I wore the vest and skirt combo the colour of a field of tulips and felt powerful, as if I could destroy the ozone all by myself with a few quick breaths. And when my sister saw me, her eyes lit up with the happy envy one has for a beloved sibling.

Each delivery was a fortuitous gift, fitting perfectly into my life as though I were a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be finished, the invisible hand of an elderly widow slowly working my edges into shape. Every month, Pa took discrete bites out of my bank account that I never even missed, because what entered my life felt like it had always belonged there. The Warholesque four-part painting of a kitten in Day-Glo colours took up an entire wall that had been empty beforehand. The bento-box style storage containers for leftovers so every element of a meal could be discretely contained without touching, just the way I loved it when I was five. The gun.

OK. Wait. The gun?

The gun did not fit.

It came in a plain brown package, surprisingly heavy for how small it was. The holographic Pa stickers on every side all seemed to follow me with their eyes, an attribute meant to be comforting and that, at least, was something the marketing department had got right. I opened the box there on the front steps. I’d begun to see each delivery from Pa as a present and as a bit of therapy, each new thing a moment of joyous self-discovery (just not something I discovered myself). Inside the box, under a few layers of microbe-digestible foam, was a gun covered in cling wrap like a new TV, a box of bullets by its side.

Unlike every other package from Pa, I felt no recognition. Instead, I felt a heaviness in my limbs, an opening pit in my head. The whole world grew a few degrees darker. Pa’s eyes on the box were suspicious, or maybe eager, waiting to witness me.

I trusted Pa. The entire world did. Even those who hated YuWant believed Pa meant well. Up and down the street, on every step, before every door, sat a small box. The sun was setting. The gun felt hopeful in my hand.

The story behind the story

Andrew Kozma reveals the inspiration behind Our mutual friend, the prediction algorithm.

This story wasn’t about AI as much as it was the ease of ordering online, which used to be the ease of ordering by phone, or by catalogue, or by mail. You don’t leave your house, and what you need to survive (or simply want to beautify and improve your life) arrives at your door.

This story wasn’t about Amazon so much, either, although that’s the obvious comparison (both in and out of the narrative). It was, however, influenced by the ability of Amazon to absorb error and loss, so that when I have been shipped the wrong product and asked if I should ship what I didn’t ask for back, the firm would say not to bother. It wasn’t worth it.

The story wasn’t so much about desire, either, although that’s what powers it. Instead, it is more about knowing ourselves. For example, I’ve always believed that other people must know me better than I know myself. But what if someone or something did know us better than we knew ourselves? And tried to give us exactly what we wanted? And we were left to give meaning to those desires made manifest?

Virtually all of my stories are horror stories in some way.

Here, it’s less what if we actually get everything we wanted, and more what if we never really understood what we wanted in the first place?

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