Triumph of Desire

Hugh Zhang

There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it.

As a child, Minja wished for a world where the stories her father read aloud to her every evening would come alive and that she would live in a land of magic and perilous adventure. She still looked forward to every visit home, though now that her father’s eyes had gotten weak with age, she was now the one doing most of the reading. But with how busy she was, she often couldn’t afford to squeeze any more time out of her schedule.

Even though their days of barely scraping by with enough food on the table were years behind them, her father’s apartment still looked like a Spartan prison cell. The Genie would change that, Minja thought, as she gently slid a present wrapped like a golden lamp under the picture of a Christmas tree. Technically, the Genie wasn’t scheduled for public launch until mid-next year, but being a CEO did come with certain special perks.

When Minja visited again a few months later, her father looked almost a decade younger. The previously bare walls were now filled with Kandinskys, his favorite artist. There were actually enough utensils for the two of them!

Her father had never seemed happier.

Jackson was enjoying her second lunch break when an email suddenly arrived on her phone. Groans came from all directions as she read the subject line: Upcoming Changes to Our Company Direction. So the rumors were true.

Strolling down the hallway, she cocked her head, listening carefully for the source of the noises. Sobs from the second floor? Was it Billy? Umstral? Maybe Anderson. She had always suspected he was a secret crybaby. Jackson grinned as she realized the blurred sounds meant that it wasn’t just one man crying.

Clad in a crimson dress with her flaming head of red hair, Jackson blazed through the hallway like a cleansing fire, inferior chaff fleeing her presence. She marched into Jane, the managing partner’s office. It was about time that someone culled the meek around here. I’m the best you have, and you know it. Let me run advertising. Jane nodded sadly, her mind clearly elsewhere. You can have Billy’s old desk.

Jackson nearly burst out in a dancing spree right then and there, but she regained her composure before she made a fool of herself. She was the new queen! Once upon a time, the Deep Learning Playboys, as Billy called his team, reigned king in the office. They and their automated advertisements — the kind that used the latest advances in artificial intelligence to crunch private user data and run hyper-targeted ads while users were swiping on Tinge — were great at selling impulse buys but rarely ended up truly changing a person’s true desires. She was glad her cousin’s Genies were turning them obsolete. True change of desire. That was the goal now. The statisticians and computer scientists — they were out. Scriptwriters, designers, artists — her people — were back in.

Under Jackson, a new age of sales and marketing would begin. In the days of old, an annoying advertisement would interrupt your interactive hologram for a few seconds to show you a product you didn’t really want. In the coming new age, advertisements would no longer interrupt the show — no, no, the advertisement was the show.

Long ago, when her ancestors had somehow still been captivated by noninteractive two-dimensional screens, a popular show called “The Queen’s Gambit” had caused interest in chess to skyrocket. In college, Jackson wondered if she could make a career in the nascent holovision industry, and she had — because she was damn good at her job. A few years ago, a surprise eruption of a supposedly dormant volcano in Michigan had blanked the nearby farms in ash, rendering the soybean crop unusable. Jackson was brought in by a clever Japanese executive to help spin this fiasco into a new line of “smoked” miso paste.

She created a miniseries about a chef whose life quest was to create the perfect miso soup, trying out thousands of ingredients before selecting only the finest materials worthy of his masterpiece. The fact that all brands featured were clients of hers was, of course, a total coincidence. Miso paste sales skyrocketed the week it was released, prompting severe shortages, which led to even more mania as newspapers shamelessly published warnings that it was a once in a millenia opportunity for this limited run of “smoky” miso soup.

Gone were the days where ads used only tricks and half-assed attempts to shill a garbage product. The old frauds had dressed up river stones as gold, imparting them with just enough magic that some fool would pick them up only to find it an ordinary rock. In their place, she stood an alchemist, turning unwanted products into pure gold.

Jackson smiled, thinking of volcanic ash, her stepmother’s awful burnt stew, a lonely childhood on an Arkansas farm — and of the millions she would soon control.

I’m sorry, that’s just not possible, Minja replied, trying her best to keep the annoyance out of her voice. Glancing at her watch, she sighed as she realized she was probably going to be late for dinner again. Our user data is encrypted — even for employees. We can’t access anything without the private key. Jerry merely grinned, not even a trace of disappointment on his face. He fished into his pocket for a small brass key and waved it at Minja. Good thing we have Little Vlad’s private key!

Minja’s jaw dropped. What kind of halfwits did the FBI hire nowadays? Did this idiot seriously not realize that she was referring to cryptographic keys, not physical ones? She opened her mouth to speak, but he continued before she could butt in.

This morning, we used this key to unlock the front door of Little Vlad’s apartment. My colleagues were able to unlock his laptop and extract, among other things, a string of strange letters and numbers we were hoping you could decode for us. He unfolded a single sheet of paper and laid it on the table before Minja. Sorry it’s all in paper form, Jerry said grinning even wider than before. We’re still a bit old-fashioned in government.

Minja gritted her teeth as she typed each of the 256 characters from the sheet of paper onto the computer one by one. “X…8…w….v…3.” She was definitely going to be late for dinner. For a moment, she regretted designing such tight privacy protocols for her Genies. But no, this guy was just trying to get on her nerves. An eternity later, Vladimir Insli’s profile unlocked before her.

Scrolling through his purchase history, Minja reminisced on her own college days. Subscriptions to Netflix and Jacobin. A pair of AirPods Max 6. Orders of MCAT study guides, textbooks on physical and organic chemistry, and protective lab equipment told Minja that Vladimir was probably pre-med. She raised an eyebrow at a large recurring vodka purchase. Alcohol was still illegal for those underage, but the Genie was very clever about getting around that restriction. But Minja’s stomach churned as she realized why the FBI had wanted information on Vladimir. Bleach, steel ball bearings, pressure cookers, nitric acid. Reading her expression, Jerry’s grin grew to truly enormous proportions.

Vladimir had been one of the beta users of the Genies, having gotten access as a gift from his older brother Hudson — Minja’s college friend and the first engineer at Aladdin — for his seventeenth birthday. He loved the product so much that he had joined Aladdin as part of its first intern class the next summer. Minja remembered what he was like: a young, ambitious man ready to take on the world. What had happened to him?

Don’t worry. We stopped Little Vlad before he could do anything childish, Jerry said, snapping Minja back into reality. Jerry was staring directly at her, not a trace of his idiotic grin left on his face.

But next time, it will be up to you.

He stood in the river, relaxing as the water pulled the grime from his skin. But even after years of washing himself every day, he still felt dirty, defiled by memories the river was unable to take away from him. He felt the old hot anger rise in him even now, pushing past the chill of the water.

That day … years ago. Minja had announced at all-hands that Aladdin had decided to secretly flag potential terrorists after one of their user’s Genies was suspected of helping him create explosives. The other employees had burst into thunderous applause, one lone man excepted. Burning with rage, he had stood up and screamed an impassioned plea against thoughtcrime. “My brother didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t build a single bomb! All he did was wish — a wish his Genie encouraged! And now, we’re going to break our sacred oath of privacy and betray our users to the deep state?” The woman sitting next to him shifted herself away ever so slightly.

He let his anger wash away with the river. As a man thinks, so he does become, he recalled the Master telling him. But he still felt the shame of having helped create Aladdin, and for what had happened to Vladimir. For a while, he had believed as Minja did, that they could bring heaven down to Earth by granting every human’s every wish. Now he knew better.

What Minja (nor that stranger in his past) had never understood was that it was never fulfilling desires that mattered, but shaping them. The fiends in Plato’s cave, the Lotus Eaters of old, the fools in World State London — legends and stories were full of warnings against surrendering yourself to your basest desires. And Vlad ….

He hadn’t thought twice about Vlad’s breakup. Everyone goes through heartbreak, don’t they? But the machine, this demon that he had helped summon — it had latched onto his brother’s anger, nurturing it until it blossomed into evil. It wasn’t Vladimir that did those things. It wasn’t him!

How could you expect people to not change under the spell of a magic genie?

And though Minja had promised, in every speech she made about Aladdin, that their Genies merely fulfilled wishes without shaping them, he knew it to be a lie, even if she didn’t yet. One simply could not use a tool that powerful and not emerge a changed man. A man who just won the lottery might find himself acquiring a taste in exotic Japanese whiskies, upscale cheese bars, paragliding over glaciers — worlds not even in his dreams before he struck gold. And if a few fistfuls of money can warp your desires, how could you expect people to not change under the spell of a magic genie?

Enough was enough. He left Aladdin (Aladdin asked him to leave, what’s the difference) that afternoon. He resolved to find his own path forward alone, but the damage had been done. Even he hadn’t been able to escape Aladdin entirely. He still clung to his Genie, not as a tool to succumb to the temptations of this world—no, of course not—but rather as a mirror to show him that he had not yet reached nirvana. The elders had chided him, claiming that one could not cleanse a temple with a dirty rag. But had the Buddha himself not said to work out your own salvation, depending not on others?

He emerged from the river, clean of dirt but not of other stains. He wasn’t ready yet, but one day, when the Genie told him he was sufficiently pure of heart, he would return and save civilization from its desires.

Minja knocked nervously on Katherine’s door before entering her apartment. The report had been definitive about the source of the issue, but she didn’t believe it … couldn’t believe it. Her mind flashed back to her father. She remembered his adulation of Matisse, of Cézanne, of Escher and Basquiat and Mondrian too. And yet, only one artist’s prints decorated her father’s apartment now. Better than the blank whiteness that used to adorn those walls, but nevertheless ... she had to see for herself.

Katherine had been part of an experimental group of beta users who allowed Aladdin near complete access to their life in exchange for large monetary compensation. Even Minja herself had jealously eyed these penthouse apartments Aladdin rented out for them free of charge. But now, Minja’s stomach wrenched as she entered the living room and she wasn’t sure if it was from the stench of cat droppings that littered the room or the sight of Katherine, who sat perfectly still except for her eyelids, staring at a holovision projection of thousands of kittens scurrying all over the room.

Her research team’s report suggested that what social media had started in the early twenty-first century, Aladdin’s Genies had sent into overdrive. Catering to a user’s every desire was easier if the Genie could predict them in advance. Yet normally, prediction of every human whim was impossible even for an AI as powerful as Aladdin’s Genies. And so, to better serve their users’ needs, Genies were gently nudging them to become more predictable over time. In severe cases, they ended up like Katherine.

Unable to bear the sight any longer, Minja fled the apartment. Hudson had been right after all, that bastard, though for all the wrong reasons. She had to do something, anything to fix this. Perhaps she could change the Genies? Her mind flashed back decades, to when she was just a young girl desperate to prove she could make a name for herself, when she was just starting to create Aladdin. Her first attempt created a genie that catered to what its user wanted to want, not what they actually wanted. It had flunked. In retrospect, the reason was obvious. User case studies identified unused gym memberships, unread subscriptions to The Economist, kale that went bad in the back of the fridge. What the user wanted to want was, almost by definition, not what they wanted.

She had always sworn, to herself and to anyone who would listen, that Genies merely catered to a user’s whims without shaping them in any way. It wasn’t just an ethical consideration — it was a survival tactic too. As Aladdin grew, the same men who had snubbed her back when they thought her nothing more than a diversity admit now returned with requests that she use her newfound power over desire for their benefit. Sometimes, they cloaked their request in noble language, asking her to revitalize American pride or encourage healthy eating habits. Other times, they resorted to threats, bribes, flattery — sometimes even temper tantrums. Her favorites were the egomaniacs like her cousin blabbering about how they wanted to give users a choice — to choose whatever they were selling, of course. She had always refused, citing her oath.

Aladdin would birth a future — a triumph of desire — where the old gods no longer reigned.

But now she knew that her Genies never merely catered to their master’s whims in the first place. Minja grimaced at the gravity of the realization and what she had to do now. If the Genies could not help but warp their master’s desires, then at least they could push their users towards complex, nuanced goals. Goals indescribable in simple language; goals worthy enough to be held by a living, breathing human. Genies would not assume you were the person you desired to be anymore and that your desires were static. They would help you walk the journey there. Thinking about the future of Aladdin, she felt more alive than she had in many years.

In her garden, wheat and weeds would grow alike. A person with noble desires would find themselves supported just as much as a person with evil ones. Aladdin would birth a future — a triumph of desire — where the old gods no longer reigned. Wealth, power, status, even ability itself, would soon all bow down before the new queen.

If that meant that the public would crucify her once they found out that she had abandoned her old principles and was now actively using the Genies to warp user behavior, so be it. Her father had always told her to never let the perception of others prevent you from doing the right thing. If the cost was living the rest of her life in ignominy, she would gladly pay the cost.

And if that meant that people like Vladimir, people with seeds of evil in their heart that Genies would carefully nurture, would be driven to commit heinous sins?

So be it.

Three years after Hudson’s disappearance, Vlad still checked his mailbox every morning for a letter that never came. Today, as usual, the mailbox was still empty. But as he stepped back inside to take his routine mid-morning nap, Vlad was startled by a surprise holovision broadcast projecting a crowd of angry newscasters all over his living room. He initially cowered away, then realized that they were not here for him. Instead, they hurled insult after insult at a lone figure standing defiantly in the center, each insult animated to appear as a stone that exploded upon arrival into the corresponding subtitles. The figure was Minja.

You stand accused...

of inciting division and hatred in humanity.

of personally arranging the murder of a would-be whistleblower.

Vlad hazily recalled that some conspiracy theorists were still speculating that Minja had Hudson murdered right before he blew the whistle on Aladdin. But as much as he hated the woman, Vlad didn’t believe that she had murdered his brother. Hudson had been acting strange before he disappeared. He kept talking about returning to nature, the horrors of industrialized society, escaping from the shadow of Mammon. Ironic, how their parents had always worried about his mental health but it was Hudson who had snapped first. Vlad guessed that he actually had gone through with whatever plan he had. After all, he had given away all his money before he disappeared.

He had never puzzled out why Hudson’s money had come with a strange stipulation that he either give up his genie or never upgrade it again, especially given that the vast majority of his wealth was still in the form of Aladdin stock options. It was a bit annoying never getting any of the newer features, but compared to several billion dollars, it was a rather small sacrifice.

Minja stood silent amid the carnage. When the jeering slowed, she simply said: I recant nothing. I am ready to face the consequences of my actions. At this, the newscasters restarted their onslaught of words against Minja with an even greater fury.

...of assisting crimes of torture, human trafficking, and money laundering.

of aiding and abetting terrorists.

Vlad’s heart raced at the mention of terrorism. But a few seconds later he relaxed again. The media had long forgotten about his stunt, especially after several high-profile cases where the terrorists had succeeded.Once upon a time, he had yearned for fame and fortune, but nowadays, Vladimir wanted nothing more than to never enter the limelight again.

…of encouraging and condoning genocide.

of supporting enemies of the state, both domestic and abroad.

As much as he enjoyed watching Minja’s downfall, Vladimir’s eyes started drooping. He turned away from the holovision and was surprised to find a needle already prepared for him. Even after all these years, he was continually amazed at how his Genie seemed to understand him better than he understood himself. He smiled as Minja and his other worries faded into white.