"Disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in and belonging to an adult society, and a good definition of the difference between a Western liberal democracy and a totalitarian one ... is that in the former the government treats its citizens as responsible adults and in the latter it cannot.” - Micheal Howard, British historian, quoted in Margaret McMillan's The Uses and Abuses of History
My dad drives slower than Mommy. So it takes longer to get everywhere. He won't just let the car drive either. But that's okay. I didn't have to go to school this morning. We're going to the hospital, instead. It's special. We're out past the edge of the old city, past the army base. We even get to use the fast road, once he flashes a card. I like driving more than school I think. Stations and monitors are okay, but its nice to take a break. Daddy says that a lot.
We're almost there now. He gives the machine at the gate another card, then talks to the voice from a post to say where we're going. The post has a camera to check our faces. Daddy says my name and the doctor's. My assessor
. The outside of the hospital is all wrapped in leaves, from the ground to walls to roof. Daddy parks near. He helps me out of my booster seat. I hear little birds tweeting from walls, as if there were a million, but I can't see even one. It's November and this morning it's cold. We run a little to the main door. I giggle because Daddy makes faces going fast. Just seeing him run is funny. My breath comes out like smoke.
We pass through one glass doors, two, three. They slide and hiss as we go through. Each one we pass, each new hallway, it gets a little quieter. Daddy whispers, like going to bed. Which is weird because even quiet time at school is louder than this. But finally we reach the waiting room. It has an aquarium full of blue stripe fish. Daddy hangs our coats on little hooks. I play with a screen in the wall by the chairs. Its shows just coloured beams. They chime if you touch them. Pushing blue and red makes a sound like echo. Green and yellow like bells.
Soon Dr. Finn comes for us. She says hello like we saw her yesterday. Even though it's been a long time. Months maybe. She take my hand and we walk through door after door to her office. This is where I say goodbye to Daddy, even though he's in the next room. I shouldn't know he can see me through the mirror but I do. I smile at Dr. Finn as pulls out her files. She talks softly, slowly. With long spaces between things. I like getting tested.
The standardized exam
for the new positions attached to the unmanned unit in special programs, provisionally numbered at twenty, was slated for mid-winter 2016
. This round of examinations had been in the administrative and approvals pipelines eighteen months already. Over ten thousand applications had been registered, with security screening
and credential vetting
already well underway. On each individual, at every step, the dossiers grew in detail. But it was the exam, for many, that proved to be the true hurdle. Well over half already held high level clearances, were quite acculturated to credit check
s, travel monitoring, loyalty screening and reliability assessments. They worked in secure, compartmentalized
environments. But the exam was different.
“I'd like the light to be more direct this year, Ms. Morgan. A bit more obtrusive. I don't know if you recall last year?”
“Absolutely, Mr. Morris. Very dismal.”
“Exactly. I mean the weather did not cooperate. No one is to blame for that. But we can anticipate having a solid week of examinations this cycle – ten separate cohorts, more than two hundred each. We need to aim for a more uniform testing milieu. Clinical.” He counted the tables, row upon row. “I felt the white noise units worked well in that respect.”
“I'll make a note to speak to the facilities people straight away.”
Ms. Morgan had a tablet
device, stainless steel, cradled in one arm. She made swipes and punched in annotations as she and Mr. Morris slowly circled the edge of the hotel ballroom. Overhead hung a massive crystal chandelier. I was in full luminance, the size of a small car. At the end of the room was a panel of high bay windows. Beyond this, a snow swept parking lot, with drifts waist high shifting in full midday sun.
“I seem to recall noticing people congregating in the courtyard on the last occasion, between the technical and situational exams. Could we eliminate that possibility this year?”
Ms. Morgan, thirty-eight but almost Victorian in her dress sense, made another note. She had been a security screening
officer, psychological assessor, truth verifier, placement analyst, interview overseer, source recruiter and field resource adviser with the federal intelligence community for more than a decade. She was one of hundreds taken on in 2002
to help hire thousands more. To properly manage and direct the torrent of interest and filter the talent that pored into the country's security organizations in the decade after. She'd completed her undergraduate
work in London, but clung still to the trace accent she'd adopted there. Her demeanour was that of a fairy tale governess
, clearly practised, but both the image and sensibility kept her in good stead. The institutional conservatism of her employer and its sister organizations was primal.
“We could either shorten the break time between the two writings,” she said, “or have the hotel administration see to having the doors locked. Either would likely eliminate the chance for the subjects to mingle between sessions.”
Mr. Morris was squinting out the windows into the snow swirling in the sunlight. Snow-blind and for that second oblivious. She was aware that his daughter had been subject to ongoing medical treatment, even that very morning. This seemed to fall quite frequently lately into his schedule now. It was a delicate subject. Others in Technical Talent Assessment found him more and more remote on such days. She, conversely, found him distant almost always and had come to appreciate it. Emotionalism
being quite poisonous in their work. She looked back at her tablet screen, then slid her finger along the length of a scrolling grey-blue Gantt chart
of milestones related to the new recruitment push.
“Strike the break completely, Ms. Morgan. I'd be inclined to simply to that. Given the tasks we will expect these individuals to perform as operators, I cannot see how three hours of preliminary testing in one sitting should prove onerous. Except with those we might not want to begin with.”
She nodded without comment, swiping again at her tablet.
The tests always start easy. As if I was a baby still. That's how long I've been coming to visit Dr. Finn. First I move coloured tiles around on a table between us. Make patterns. Then we flip them over and I match numbers. I move them slowly. That way the game last longer. Dr. Finn watches me, not the tiles. Because the test's not about colours, or matching, but me. How I move them, that's what she's seeing. What I say about them. If I get bored. That's another thing, like my dad through the mirror. We don't talk about it. Red-green-red-blue. Click, click, click. 1, 3, 7. Click, click, click.
Dr. Finn smiles a lot but her eyes don't. She writes a lot, on a clipboard. With paper and a pen, not a screen. She says her eyes get tired lots. My dad says that too. Her office is filled with games in boxes, puzzles stacked up, tins with crayons and markers, toys in crates. Like a school for one. But she's not a teacher. She never tells me what to do. Or how to do it. She watches and listens. Not like school at all. There all the kids bring home cards each day, to show how we did. Mommy or Daddy sign. If I listened before recess. If I stayed quiet before lunch. If I ran after break. I wonder if that's another test, one that's different than what's actually on the paper?
I never get to see any of what Dr. Finn is writing. She even closes her files up talking to Daddy. So he can see me, but I can't see him. And she can write what she does, but he can't see that. And I know the test's not really about colours or shapes or patterns. That it's not about running in the hall or listening through quiet time. That's fine. I like games where I put things in order.
So I say, “I like the games where I put things in order.”
“Wonderful,” says Dr. Finn. She turns to find a new ordering game or puzzle. I look at my fingers, not the mirror. “Let's try this one, Sarah.”
William Morris slid into the chair behind his desk, confronting what looked to be solid week's paper work stacked there, all related to the recruitment process. Reams of applicants weeded out who needed acknowledging, scores of searches needing authorization and further digging. Testing week was set for in just over a month's time. This meant over two thousand individuals had to be moved along through the initial filters – just over ten percent of their initial pool. Testing was calibrated to leave only the top ten percentage from these, so roughly two hundred candidates if all went as planned. And of these, only ten percent would clear the array of personality
mapping, psychological make-up, polygraph
and new clearance
enhancements. The tip of the iceberg's tip, was how his predecessor once described this kind of search. Looking to clarity, coldness and the exact opposite of depth.
Morris recalled the old man with a smile just short of fondness. This had been his office, where they'd met a week prior to his retirement. A lifetime of loyal service to the organization, he'd been abruptly encouraged to explore early transition after clashing badly with new management. Generous incentives were offered. Morris had been brought on as a clean slate, no background in public service or security. Just fine education, stellar references and a solid private sector resume. The two men would never have met at all were there not loose threads and legacy issues that needed unwritten gloss before the hand over. Morris remembered his beaming smile and gleaming eyes as he'd ushered him into the drab quarters six years ago.
“Mr. Morris, please have a seat, will you?”
“William is fine, sir. I ...”
“Nonsense.” William winced, as he'd already started to remove his jacket. “If there's one thing I can't abide its false familiarity. It's as bad or worse than the rote formality it claims to cure. But by all means make yourself comfortable. This will be all yours, this post and its work, in a week's time.”
“Well, Mr. Finch, I thank you for taking a moment to see me.” William set his jacket over one arm of the chair, fighting the deep felt desire to roll up his sleeves. It was just that the little office was languidly hot for late fall, as a small room humidifier burbling away in one corner.
“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Mr. Finch said, sitting himself behind his desk and folding his hands before him. He grinned as someone smiles into a warm, welcome sun. “I have very high hopes for your entrance onto this stage. I believe, as do others, that an outside vantage is crucial at this point. I hope very much that you will bring that. A fresh perspective.”
“Thank you, Mr. Finch. I will certainly try.”
“Good.” His smile bowed, the two edges of a bridge lowering. “For I can safely say, between you and I and these four walls, that you come to a deeply fractured agency. Perhaps terminally so. You ought to have no illusions on that account. And from day one, it will be made apparent to you how little stomach our betters have in ceding this basic fact, let alone trying to face it.”
He smiled again, eyes alighting with the discomfort
now rippling through the room. William smoothed out his tie, wishing to meet neither Finch's stare or gleeful smile.
“Indeed, it was hinted at that there were a few challenges.”
“Mr. Morris,” said Finch, raising himself up and crossing over to a bookcase adjacent the far end of the desk, holding shelves of framed photographs. “Come here a moment.”
William stood and leaned slowly forward, surveying the collection. Many of the young men, in the older pictures, stood in uniform. Some military
, some police
. Mr. Finch's presence was not immediately apparent in these. Newer shots did clearly feature him, always wearing a dark suit and tie, shaking some younger hand or bestowing some sort of certificate or award. No one famous or powerful was featured anywhere, the background always a nondescript staircase or greyish curtain.
“For over two decades, it has been my sole professional goal to isolate and coax aboard the best possible men and women for this department. From our armed forces
, our law enforcement
bodies, our finest academic
institutions. I have brought over said recruits from the diplomatic corps
, the national media
, the technology sectors. No potential source of talent has been overlooked.”
“Much to your credit.” Mr. Finch had his hands clasped behind him now, was looking at the shiny ends of his shoes.
“Oh that is where you would be mistaken, Mr. Morris, underscoring the importance of our brief chat. For it has become increasingly clear to me – or no – I should rather say it has been made clear to me that I have failed.” His smile had vanished, in its place a clenched grimace.
“On what account? Why?”
“The best are not wanted,” he said, picking up one picture of a group, young men and women smartly dressed, standing in rows of broad steps. They were not smiling but looking earnestly into the middle distance. “Or maybe it is more charitable to say not required – though it amounts to the same thing.” He replaced the frame on the shelf and returned to sit at his desk, again folding his hand before him as it about to begin a prayer. William noticed for the first time the computer and phone had already been removed. Then, just as suddenly, he wondered if they'd ever been there.
“Mr. Morris, sit again. Let us be honest and candid with one another, amid a business which tolerates little of either quality. As you will soon discover, the internal statistics lay down some basic truths, although even these are very closely guarded, endlessly debated and dissected. Rates of chronic illness
, marital woes, substance abuse
, acute stress
and so forth for our organization are in many cases ten-fold those of others we work alongside. One of the driving forces behind our agency's investments in technology, automation
of analysis, remote access, is not to increase speed or efficiency but simply where possible to eliminate potential human causalities. Obviously, it is not put in these terms. Yet much of the technocratic push to which you'll bear witness - the endless desire to wire up every stitch of our operations – is actually born of a humane realization. That for whatever reason, this place burns through people. It drains them.”
“Mr. Finch, I hope this won't sound cold or indifferent, but I was of the impression ...”
“That, generally speaking, all organizations operating in secret
, handle intelligence
, suffer problems like these?”
“In effect, yes. The nature of the work, one guesses, flaunts human nature
in a way. You said so yourself, in a way. Hence the intense interest in computing, machines, technology ...”
“That would fit a certain popular image I suppose. One sees this in novels and films. But no. You confuse the symptom and cure for the cause. I think we as human beings are in point of fact inherently secretive and circumspect. And going a step further, all organizations of any weight or influence deal with secrets. Have expectations of security and confidentiality. Guard the information they accumulate carefully and share it judiciously. Law firms, financial services, accountancy, medical practice and research – just to name some obvious elements in the private sector
. Certainly all governmental units – large or small – must grapple with issues of secrecy
. We may here give secrets special names and grades, setting different criteria, bringing additional measures to bear – but the day-to-day reality is at root no different from these other examples. The degree may differ but the issue is the same. When an institution
is sick, people gravitate immediately to secrecy as an explanation, as if the workplace itself were a person. But a government agency is no more an individual than a bank or a building. Our information-handling requirements is simply convenient deflection.”
“I take from the tenor of your argument you have given voice to this observation elsewhere?”
“In passing, but my role here has never been an advisory one, despite the title. That would be seen as straying outside our traditional duties and function. For the most part you will find this position is one of reporting and processing, not reform or reflection.” He leaned back in his chair, settling into his case to be made. “Let me give you a concrete example. Some years ago, amid one of those cycles of restraint and austerity that come and go in government, I was summoned by senior management to speak on our recruitment and retention programs. I believe the initial conversation fixated on training and how to demonstrate value, but somehow the Director at the time was hung up on proving the excellence of our analytical capacity. That our ranks were world class, as I recall. So he asked that I test them.
“All our analysts.”
. Using standardized metrics.”
“Your existing, on-the-job staff?”
“Yes, Mr. Morris. Your facial expression reflects my own misgivings at the time. The disruption and discomfort this would create in the ranks, the inherently subjective nature of intelligence testing, the lack of a meaningful control group. I am a trained psychologist and put all these risks forward. At the end of which I was simply ordered to administer the tests. Which I did, then proceeding to collate the results, using as a base comparison the only data for control I had available. A simple Bell curve of intelligence in the general population.”
“There were only five senior staff and myself in the room when I presented the findings, some months later. The Director was stunned into silence at first, then went promptly into one of his more acidic diatribes. He savaged me, the head of analysis, his director of operations. He moved on to a deeply cynical indictment of the country's educational system and institutions of higher learning. He railed against grade inflation, linguistic requirements, the quality of foreign credentials, employment equity goals. Come to think of it, I don't think he spared any aspect of the public service staffing system as he railed on. He concluded by asking, quite red-faced, if we should not be better served just burning money in a pit behind headquarters.”
“It was that bad?”
“On the contrary, it was precisely neither good nor bad. Our analytical staff as a whole were of completely average intellect. The very middle band of the curve. A true reflection of the public we nominally serve. I tried vainly to point out have very rare truly exceptional intelligence actually is – statistically speaking. How individuals so gifted tend not to operate well inside, or be particularly attracted to, rigid, bureaucratic environments. Seeing this was only making matters worse, I then shifted to the observation that many of the trait we also set as filters in recruitment: absence of drug use, lack of criminal record
, unbroken stream of employment, minimally aberrant behaviour
and so on – all these also served to remove or at the very least deter a good many potential applicants who were gifted or creative. I could immediately see this line of argument was also failing to calm things. So I was left simply with a defence of the average individual – whom we as a society every minute of each day entrust with all manner of duty and responsibility. Who are are perfectly capable of a great many things, both on their own but especially working together under exceptional direction. That seem to lighten the mood marginally – that last point.”
“And what was the end result, Mr. Finch, if I may ask?”
“The results were to be destroyed. The issue and line of enquiry was never to be broached again. And not very long after I detected the first inklings that it was time for me to begin exploring other opportunities.”
William stayed on another two sweltering hours that afternoon, talking through the issues of the day, although it was made very clear he was in the pupil's chair. Mr. Finch did the instructing, confiding, confessing as he felt was warranted. William ended their discussion, having formed a very high opinion of the man whose position he would occupy, with a promise to push for reform. To find a way to return the emphasis of the system to that of talent and merit, not simply suitability or fit with existing culture and comfort levels.
He looked now over at the office bookcase from the vantage behind the great wooden desk. It was filled not with photographs but books. The history of intelligence gathering, the art and academic literature of analysis, theories of innovation, organizational behaviour, information theory and dynamics, international relations. He'd read them all and wondered if their sum total in knowledge amounted to the weight in wisdom Mr. Finch had imparted as he'd left. That no question is more insidious
than that for which we are convinced we already have an answer.
Miley almost barfed on my shoes today. There are always kids at school getting sick this time of year. It can be kind of scary. The teachers try to make it a normal thing. We wash hands a lot. Once I get back from my visit with Dr. Finn there is lunchtime. Some of us go outside but the sick kids will stay in. I try to find my basket. That has my hat and scarf and mitts. It's not around. Maybe someone else has them.
We line up and follow the assistant to the yard. Because it's all snowy most kids go sliding. I don't want to do that without mittens though. I pretend that I'm skating instead. I slide all the way over to the fence. It goes all the way around the outside of the school. Most days we get half-an-hour for outside time. Especially in winter. The outside air smells better, even if its cold. But I wish I had mittens. I remember exactly where my basket was. How my mittens were there just yesterday.
Once we get back inside to my class we do math. Math is like writing with numbers. I like it. You get to count things. It's a bit like a game. And the numbers are easy to write. Writing with letters can be harder. They have funny shapes, and there's spaces between words, where to start and where to stop. With math it's just counting. So I get my coat and boots off. Find my math book in my desk. Sit down and open to the newest page. All the other kids are already working. I put my name at the top of the page. Then I draw a smiley face next to that. I look down at all the rows of things.
Count the fish. Count the cars. Count birds and apples. There are spaces to write in the numbers. If I get all the right, my teacher will give me a star sticker. If I can keep my book open and keep working until we switch to story time, she will be happy. If she is happy with me the rest of the day, I will get my name in green on the board tomorrow. All the good kids stay in green. The others go to yellow, or red. Or to the safe place.
One fish, two fish, three fish ...
“Ms. Morgan I'd be curious to know your thoughts on the calibre of our pool of candidates this year. I mean before testing. You have had the occasion to survey the group as a whole. How would you characterize them?”
Ms. Morgan was sitting before Mr. Morris' desk, resisting the temptation to refer to her tablet and respond in kind with statistics she'd already derived from an initial review of the applicants screened in thus far. Numbers of candidates with post-graduate degrees. Those with three or more languages. Those with work or life experience in various global regions. She was ruefully aware that Mr. Morris found this approach to such discussions highly offensive. He displayed an almost allergic reaction to the use of technology in the course of such deliberations. Whether this was affectation, or a more conscientious resistance to mediating forces and systems, or simply a personality quirk she had not been able to decide. She pushed the tablet aside ever so slightly on the tabletop. Mr. Morris gave an equally guarded smile in response.
“As ever, Mr. Morris, we have some exceptionally interesting prospects. But again, as always, it is very difficult to speculate as to their ultimate success in navigating the process. Some applicants, clearly very gifted, who have only just left high school. At the other end of the spectrum, we have retirees from various departments with upwards of three decades of service and very considerable experience in a range of foreign policy or strategic priority areas. In between, we have technologists, private investigators, linguists, network analysts, mathematicians, law graduates. It is a very broad range.”
Mr. Morris appeared less pleased now, closing a file that had been open before him on his desk and scratching at his temple. She noted how grey the streaks over his ears, once barely visible and only in a certain light, had become in the last year quite pronounced.
“You know I deeply dislike wasting people's time. Certainly I don't like that we waste our own, for it is not free after all. But that of the applicants I like wasting even less. Why do I sometimes get the sense, however, that this is our speciality? Insofar as we cast a very wide and general net at the outset for what we know in fact to be very precise attributes and skills?”
“Mr. Morris, you know full well...”
“That we cannot candidly describe the positions we are filling?”
“No, in a word.”
“Nor the actual working conditions?”
“Not in any detail.”
“Or the other varied criteria we know to be used in assessing suitability?”
Ms. Morgan adjusted her glasses. Invisible to Mr. Morris she could see via a projection
on her left lens a reminder that in fifteen minutes she would be expected downstairs to sign off on the draft wording of the situational judgement
portion of the upcoming examination
. Two hundred questions, multiple choice, XML format, to be graded instantaneously and in tandem with the technical knowledge assessment. A one-two punch. She removed her glasses with a notable sigh.
“Just for arguments sake, Mr. Morris, how would this tailored job description properly read?” She found it impossible to understand how he operated in this position and at this level in such an unconnected fashion. He didn't even appear to ever have been issued a hand-held device of any kind.
“Needed: individuals with absurdly long attention spans, capable of protracted spells of concentration in the face of withering boredom. Attention to detail paramount, but with zero propensity to extrapolate. Fervent belief in the protective duty of government an obvious asset. Any political leanings beyond this – either left or right of centre – need not apply. Independent thought discouraged.”
Ms. Morgan smiled curtly, replacing her glasses. She picked up her tablet, waving the screen to life.
“I apologize. I know these processes have to be conducted in a particular manner for all sorts of reasons. It's churlish of me not to acknowledge that. I just wish we could be more honest about what we're really looking for. Forgive my unpleasant tone.”
“It's not your tone, Mr. Morris, that I find worrying. That is perfectly understandable. We are all at some pressure to deliver new recruits in a very specialized operations field. It is frustrating. What concerns me, if I may be blunt, is your juvenile portrait of those candidates that will be successful. I hope you do not seriously believe that we are taking on mindless cogs. For if that were the case, we might just as easily purchase any number of software
packages and save ourselves the trouble. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to see about our exams.”
When I used to take the bus to school I sat in front. Right behind the driver most days. That was the way it was for the juniors. We all sat where the camera could see us. At first, some kids would even wave in case their parents were watching. Or talk to it. But then we mostly just forgot about it. All the big kids would sit at the back. Mostly they were pretty quiet, they all had ear buds or game pods or tablets or phones. Some mornings you'd hear a giggle or a scream, but not much talking. Then at school we'd all get into lines, the little ones. Sort out our packs. Wait for the bell and then all squeeze in at once through the doors with all the others. Then in the afternoon we all empty out the same way, doing it all backwards.
But now I just walk with Mommy most mornings. Or drive if the weather's bad enough. Mommy stays up late working at nights. She consults. Which means talking to people in the day, but mostly a lot of writing when its late. Online. Sometimes she looks really tired. She says soon it will be like that for everyone. Coffee, pyjamas, work, she says. Kids don't drink coffee or work, I say back. Not yet, she says. You just wait.
But it means she can walk me to school and come get me when its over. This morning when we walked all the trees along our street were blowing and whistling. The wind was warm and wet-smelling. You could hear water gurgling and dripping all around. Like pulling the plugs on a thousand bathtubs. The clouds were racing too, really fast. The wind made the branches snap, the trees creak. I splashed in little streams the whole way to school. Mom says January's not supposed to do that. She says it in a kind of mad, kind of disappointed way. I wonder if a month can get in trouble?
Once we get to school, Mommy clears me through the safety doors and gives me a kiss. She looks very sleepy today but says that she'd going home now to rest. I hope she doesn't just start work again. The office lady is waving as we say goodbye, getting me to hurry. So the national anthem
is going to start soon. I go down the hallway, counting boots against the wall. Sometimes finding your boots is the hardest thing all day, but once I get to my classroom door it's my snowsuit. That's the problem.
The zipper's caught. And the announcements are starting. My boots are easy. I can use the space Zoe left on the wall next to hers. She's my best friend, so we say our boots are best friends too! I put them besides hers and wiggle off my pack. I sit down on the floor. One hand pulls my zipper, the other my suit. I pull. Pull. Pull! The announcements stop, then the sound of five hundred kids all pushing their chairs and standing at once. I pull harder as the anthem starts. The trumpets part. Finally the zipper comes free. I catch my breath, lying on my back. The anthem ends.
I open the door to class, hang up my snowsuit and bag. Wave to Zoe. Slip into my chair. Mrs. Bailey is writing on her tablet, the words appear on the smart board. Why We Have Procedures. I tell myself not to yawn, but I do. Procedure
is not my favourite class. Mondays can be hard.
A voice came over the tablet speakers, tinny with glitch, but reading in a soothing tone.
“You are allergic to grapes and milk products but attending a party where wine and cheese are the only items on offer. The hostess has already approached you several times, plying, as you are the only person without a glass in hand. Your condition is such that you could be ill for several days if you imbibe. She is coming around once again, even though you have move to the party's edge, heading towards you specifically with a tray. What do you do?” William tugged on one earlobe, glancing at Ms. Morgan.
“That's not bad. In fact, the synthetic
voice is quite good,” he said.
“And I like the question as well,” she said. “Most people talking this one through would form the conclusion this question is about remaining nondescript
in a crowd, not blowing a cover, not being the odd one out. Which is conceivable, but the driver of the question is actually to assess persistence. Knowing the fallout, will the respondent continue to rebuff and say no, even if the same issue arises again and again.”
“Certainly,” he said. “Resolve means a great deal if you're placed on a twelve-hour interception
shift or two-day drone
“Next question,” she said.”
“A neighbour is taking a week's vacation and he asks if you can take in his mail and water his plants. It is only a two minute walk down the street from your home, so while you do not know him well, you agree. He leaves you a key and a phone number where he can be reached. You go to water the plants the day after his departure and discover he has a small dog, left on a leash in the basement. There is ample food and water for the puppy and newspaper for wetting. But no mention was made of a pet in the arrangement and the animal seems distraught. What do you do?”
“Also quite good, Ms. Morgan.”
“Here we wish to see how the subject contains his response or fails to as the case may be. Their own aggravation
, the wrong doing of the neighbour, are very probable threads to highlight. More than half of our test group immediately used the emergency number, then reactions branch after that. But here we're actually probing for immediacy
, even some humility
. Ten percent of people just take the dog for a walk. I tend to be quite partial to the non-confrontational
“You aren't selecting for a kind of passivity
“A later question reinforces the individual as a problem solver, as opposed to avoiding conflict.”
“What about loyalty?”
“Well, as you know, the issue of testing for integrity and loyalty has always had a bit of a history here. Our methods have been both controversial and I have to confess not terribly reliable. So while anyone operating at this security classification
will have encountered some version of the “if not a fool, then a traitor” question. I believe this carries more weight than it ought to in our screening scores, now that we have some many other filters and checks in place for operators. So I have substituted the following question.” A neutral, asexual voice began to emit from the tablet.
“Your neighbourhood has experienced a rash of break-ins and thefts from parked cars. The local association has organized a watch program. Most of the incidents seem to occur on weekends. You volunteer and are partnered with another homeowner to walk a certain route at 10pm on Fridays. You witness nothing your first night out, but at the end of the route your companion states he believes local teenagers are responsible for the thefts, basically the sons and daughters of neighbourhood residents. What do you do?”
“Well as you can see this is totally open ended,” said Ms. Morgan. “It can read as question about investigation
and targeting to many applicants. For others, it raises the questions of effective results. Others interpret it as a chance to show off diplomatic skills, and that's actually close to the mark. I think the optimal way one should view this is through the lens of source
handling. How do you follow-up? How might you verify as a lead? How to delve further given the information on offer?”
“So these are all new questions. Because I have to say in hearing them spelled out confirms my initial take on the outline you'd provided. I think interrogation along this line will pair very nicely with the skills assessment. I mean we'll obviously still proceed with the standard instrument for profiling
and metrics but these have real potential if a solid match emerges between skills now and position performance downstream.”
“This would be an initial baseline, Mr. Morris. I cannot promise it will be wholly successful, as it is a customized query, so there is risk. But as for the immediate assessment and results, those should be available in days as opposed to months. I think this will assist greatly in final interviews, with the analytics
we've set up. After this situational, we'll be in a position to provide a whole to level of insight into the pool we have.”
is good. Wherever we were before voice recognition
and machine learning
, it is not a space I wish to revisit. Can you imagine just a few years ago, we'd have administered these hundred questions to two thousand individuals and would have had to characterize, cross-reference and rank each response.”
“The software takes care of all that. Real-time transcripts, semantic linkage, it's all largely automated and seamless.”
“I'm sure that it is, Ms. Morgan. Just as I'm confident we'll find ourselves out of a job, given all these wonderful solutions. There will be little “human” left in Human Resources
at that point, I fear.”
“Was there really ever all that much to begin with, Mr. Morris?”
“Sarah, did I show you my new game?”
“No! When did you get it?”
“Just yesterday. My dad got it for me. He was away on business.”
“Cool. What do you do?”
“You have your own little house, in a little town. Mine is Zoe Falls. And see, there's little people and animals all around. And forests and parks.”
“Oh pretty. What are those sparkly things?”
“Those are all the things in my house I can play with. I even have a job!”
“Really? What is it?”
“I bring all the other people things for their houses. Or I bring them messages from other towns. Or I help them when they lose things. Here look. I walk out the door, so that I'm outside. Then I can look all around and see who is outside with me.”
“Mom has an app that does that too! Cool. Do all those other people have jobs too?”
“Yeah. And you know what the really neat thing is? They're all real kids too, like you and me, playing at the same time!”
“From everywhere. All over the world. You can see where they live, what they do, where they go.”
“Even kids from China?”
“Um, I think so. Or maybe not, they speak mostly English really.”
“That's pretty cool. Oh look! There's someone by that tree!”
“Yup. See you can plant trees and flowers. Or cut them down and pick them up. Or sell them or just move them around.”
“Can I see?”
“Sure. We just go over to the flowers like this, like these daisies. And pop! Now we've got them. And I can reach into my pockets and get a seed, and plant it in the space. Give it some water and will grow.”
“Did you have another test today? You were late.”
“Yeah. My daddy took me.”
“It was using a computer. I wear a special hat, like a headband. It has sensors.”
“Like my tablet?”
“Yeah. Then I have to read words and make sounds. They show up on the screen as lines and numbers. Like this: fa-fa-fa-fa! Tee-tee-tee-tee! Key-key-key-key!”
“That's so funny!”
“Yeah, it makes me laugh sometimes too. The lines on the screen are very squiggly. And the things you say to the machine are funny too. Like the fat cat sat next to the hat.”
“Is there really a cat?”
“No. Or hey there Joe! What do you know? I just got back from the dog show!”
“As I was saying, it's pretty funny! But the doctor lady, she's really nice. We just talk a lot.”
“But if she's a doctor, well, does that mean you might be sick?”
“No, no, she's not really that kind of doctor. I think people call you that when you've gone to school for a really, really long time.”
“She's like a science doctor. Something about appliances. Or plants. Or something.”
“Ah. So this is an experiment.”
“Maybe ... are we still going to have a sleepover Zoe?”
“I think so. My mom's supposed to text your mom.”
“Okay. Well, let's play some more!”
The situational standardized examination began at nine o’clock, Monday morning, January 4, 2016
. Mr. Morris noted the assembled applicants appeared to range from the late adolescent to the post-retiree in terms of their life-course. As they churned in the wide hallway outside the hotel ballroom, the one booked for the entire week so as to facilitate the process, there was some nervous chatter audible but no real engagement between individuals.
What we have here, Morris thought, is a slew of polite strangers who know they are in competition
. However sanitized and segregated we make these trials, that reality persists.
At ten minutes to the hour, I open the double doors and ask the two hundred plus candidates to file, where they will find on each clothed tabletop set row upon row, at three foot intervals, a tablet powered down. Each one will sit, swipe the screen, bringing the device to life. They will be prompted to hold the unit at arm's length, while the camera captures their facial biometrics
. Then then will be required to swipe or input an acceptable identity credential
. They will be presented then with the basic instructions, as well as terms and conditions of the testing environments and data processing. At nine o'clock precisely, they will be presented with the first question and a 90 minute countdown. Beneath this, a long bar will display their progress through the instrument - 0/120 questions complete.
As Ms. Morgan promised, the room is very bright. White linen drapes all the tables, while all the window dressings have been removed. The house lights and additional illumination are all on as well, even as a very clear and cloudless day awaits beyond the wall of glass the writers are facing. There are few visible shadows. Some of the candidates – a few of the younger men – look a bit uncomfortable. Mr. Morris sits in the front of the room on a window ledge, as Ms. Morgan and varied assistants circle slowly through the rows as registration continues. Finally everyone is seated, silent. The test begins.
The sighing and strained expressions begin around the sixty minute mark. Ms. Morgan consults her tablet
for a status check, a long silvery bar noting the assembly's progress beneath a detailed dashboard on some of the metrics on the average writer this session. Only 32% of the questions completed here at the mid-way point, with each successive problem set out in greater detail. In previous years, it was fairly typical for only about 1-out-of-20 writers to finish the examination with responses they'd been about to think through. Most get about seventy percent along. And then of course 1-in-4 consistently panic at the end and blindly plug in answers in the last five minutes, which might work in a standardized text scenario but not here.
With only thirty minutes left on the clock, the actual grumbling and frustration begins to bubble up. The room is now flooding with sunlight, the body heat notable. A few here and there actually stand and this point and grimly walk away. Quick cross-check as they leave reveals their intuition is good, as they were doing poorly. One older man, with lanky grey hair and beard, overcoat draped over a steel briefcase, looks to Mr. Morris with a glance like he is the source of considerable inner-ear pain. He walks like his briefcase is dragging him. Another much younger boy with greenish hair and chunky black glasses, likely not even out of high school, just rolls his eyes at Ms. Morgan as he skulks out.
She thanks them at the door and bids them good day. Not thank you or good luck. Just a note that they were indeed in attendance.
With one minute left, I stand.
“Ladies and gentlemen. You devices will inform you very shortly if you have successfully progressed to phase two. Please remain seated if you have, otherwise thank you for your time today and simply leave your tablets on the table. They'll power down automatically and you may exit at the back.”
A mass of chairs squeak on the shiny ballroom floor, rubber rungs on polished wood. A general, disgruntled murmur a minute later as more than half those present stand, pull on their coats and file away. The eighty or so remaining survey those left around them. As the last of the eliminated exits, Ms. Morgan quietly closes the doors.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for remaining. Please re-enrol with your devices as before. We'll begin once again. Two minutes.”
Mr. Morris knows the signs and groans will start much sooner this time.
“Alright my sweet, I think it's pyjama time.”
“How about the flannel ones? It's kind of a chilly night.”
“Yeah, the heart ones.”
“Right, here we go, arms up. You brush your teeth?”
She nodded. “Do I get stories?”
“It's pretty late honey, so how about I just tell you one. What story do you want to hear?”
“Hmm. An olden days story.”
“Right, what do you want to know about the olden days.”
“Was I born in the olden days
“No, my love. You're six.”
“Six and a half actually.”
“Right, yes, sorry. But that was really not very long ago.”
“But you were born that long ago right?”
“Yes, sure, now where's your pillow? Ah, here, under your blanket. Here now settle in. So yes, I was born a lot longer ago. Almost fifty years now.”
“Well, no, that's not that far back. We had them. They were just a lot bigger then, and quite a bit harder to use. Not everyone had one and you couldn't really carry them around everywhere like people do now.”
“What did you do if you wanted to know something then?”
“Well, you looked it up in a book most times or asked someone who knew about that thing.”
“How did cars know where to go?”
“Well you had to drive them, like I still do with our car.”
“Mommy says that's less safe you know.”
“I know. But I'm a pretty good driver. I like to stay in practice.”
“Zoe had this game today on her computer where you had your own little house and a job and you could talk to people anywhere in the world and follow them around while they were playing!”
“Yeah, she got it from her dad as a present because he was away so long.”
“Can I have a tablet too?”
“Well you already have a ...”
“That's just a toy though.”
“Yes. And you are six. And a half. You have lots of time later on to see about that other stuff.”
“You don't really like computers do you?”
“Now I wouldn't say that. They can be very important Sarah. They can really help us. I just think we should learn other stuff first.”
“Is that what you did in the olden days? Practising with books and writing?”
“Pretty much. I know that probably sounds a bit strange now.”
“Not really, it's just different. And it sounds a bit boring. Did you like it back then?”
“For sure. We did kid stuff all the time. We had toys and games too.”
“It's funny to think that you were a kid.”
“Every grown up was a kid honey. And like you just said, everyone's time is a little bit different. Or a lot. You'll probably have to explain how things are today eventually, maybe even to your own kids.”
“This will be like the olden days to them. That is really weird.”
“Not at all, it's just what happens.”
“So no tablet for now? Even though Zoe has one and ...”
“No, my sweet. Maybe later on. We'll see.”
“Okay. Do I have a test tomorrow?”
“No Sarah, no tests for a while. Dr. Finn was really happy with you.”
“Do you like going with me for testing?”
“”Honey, I like going anywhere with you.”
“But you don't ever say much. I'm doing okay right?”
“Of course my love. It's not like school, Sarah. Don't worry.”
“Okay. I'm pretty tired.”
“Then you snuggle in there and I'll say good night.”
“Okay. See you in the morning, Daddy.”
William sat at his desk with the single page report from Dr. Finn set before him, marked private and confidential. He stared at the simple, two sentence conclusion: “No issues detected or after effects expected.” After three years of testing, he could call his wife this morning with the news. Any evidence of the syndrome
that had appeared in the screening that Sarah had been subject to had finally been mitigated. No more monitoring or behavioural observation
required. No more testing. The clinic was quite satisfied that their daughter fell well within nominal ranges. Their tiny implant
, half the size of a dime, had settled the issue and no further treatment was required.
He felt like driving to the school and taking her for ice cream. He felt like laughing. He felt like he could breathe again after too long underwater. Then there was a knock at the office door and he folded away the paper in his shirt pocket. He would tell Susan tonight, once Sarah was in bed.
Ms. Morgan entered, her expression dark.
“Please sit, Ms. Morgan. And what is the matter?” They were in the last tentative steps of the clearance
stage for their new hires, but no clearly something had arisen.
“It's the new suitability
criteria, Mr. Morris. We've suffered considerable attrition
“You mean to say we've lost some of our catch.”
“The bulk of them I am sorry to report.”
“I'm sorry but yes. I know you'd sooner not view this in terms of the data but ...”
“Just tell me, Ms. Morgan.”
“We brought some two hundred referrals forth from the examinations, as you know. Seventy of those cleared the automated situational probe we sampled several weeks ago. Fifty then passed through psychological.”
“The new integrity assessment is fairly unforgiving, it would be safe to say. Not of our devising as you know, the policy is promulgated by the Centre. But its a very fine grind. One must declare quality and quantity of all prohibited substances as well as prescribed medications. One must enumerate all foreign contacts, connections and travel. Rationalize any political affiliations or charitable work. Declare all investment holdings. Describe employment of all extended family. Enumerate unsanctioned internet activity, religious beliefs, access to children, volunteerism. It is open-ended, meticulous and...”
“Clearly an affront to any soul with a tinge of self-respect I am guessing. I had heard hints this approach was to be explored and possibly reformed. I wasn't aware it was suddenly a mandatory directive.”
“For this class of activity, yes. I'm afraid we've been singled out to be the vanguard for this new line of defence. It's been implemented very quietly. External recruitment for now but effective last month there is no evading the policy.”
“So now we have how many?”
“Thirty-two have withdrawn, on principle I suppose. Six others have found other positions.”
“So twelve completed the necessary document and are now being vetted. With polygraph
and personal interview still before us.”
“I should think we'll be lucky to be left with six.”
“If that. And our business plan has us staffing twenty highly classified positions. One's we're been angling to fill for coming up on eighteen months now. Under pressure of urgency. Well I suppose its back to the drawing board. Or smart board. Or whatever bloody thing we call it nowadays.”
Before I go to sleep I like to count stars
. Not real ones. It's too cold to do that. The ones on my ceiling. Mom painted them up there, to see when its dark. I start in one corner and try to count my way across to the other wall. Sometimes I can do it, but most nights not. I guess I fall asleep first. Or start thinking about something else. Like how my Princess Puppy smells like cherry shampoo. Or something Zoe said to make me laugh today.
I can hear Mommy and Daddy talking down the hall. Just their voices, not the words. Daddy's voice is a little loud sometimes but its not angry. It sounds excited. This I can hear them laughing, so everything must be okay. Daddy said at dinner things at his work had been a little silly lately. That could be the funny thing. It's nice to hear Mom laugh. Her work seems extra hard, even if she does it all from our basement. I think I would like a job that was a real place when I grow up. Like doctors or police or teachers. The other kinds of work look hard. Like homework
. Like being a kid forever
I heard two kids at school once, talking about a bad dream one of the girls had. They were old, maybe Grade Five even. The girl said she dreamed about being in a class with her teacher who gave out a test but no one knew any of the answers. No one had even been taught what was on it. No one knew what to do. But they were all stuck there anyway. It sounded kind of scary
. I told Mommy and she said she still had dreams like that. Showing up in a strange place, thinking you were supposed to be writing one thing but being asked another. Knowing you are going to fail. She said its a bad dream
a lot of people have. I wonder what that means? That little people and grown-ups can all be so afraid of the same thing.
This story came out of reading Dulles' The Craft of Intelligence along with a lot of John Le Carre, a long chat with a very smart fellow about government work, and recalling an old The Twilight Zone episode title 'Intelligence Test' which sent my 11-year old brain into a state of psychic shock.