Jennifer remembered when the site was first discovered. No one knew who created it or how it worked. Several top agencies from countries around the world looked for those running the page, but nothing was ever discovered. The site continued as if on its own. No one could access the algorithm it ran or figure out how it gathered the data it used to make its judgments. Many claimed the data was freely available online, but that theory quickly vanished after infants were found on the site before their birth certificates were signed.
It was a ranking system. It had every iota of information about every single person on the planet. You could find your name with a quick search. If your name was Jimmy Smith, you could narrow it down by address, phone number, parents’ names, date of birth, education, job, age, or whatever you can think of. The site had every detail.
Jennifer had been fifteen years old when it consumed the world. It permeated every aspect of life. Social media lost its appeal rather quickly when people realized they could get any information they wanted from the site aptly called verity.com. The world changed within a few years to what it was now. Jennifer was young enough to adapt quickly to the change but old enough to remember what it was like before.
She was trying to remember what her parents were like before the change when she heard her name called.
“Jennifer?” an older voice repeated in the waiting room.
Jennifer rose and let the little old woman guide her back to a conference room where two men and a woman, all in suits, sat at a table typing into tablets. They stopped talking when the old voice announced her.
“Welcome, have a seat,” the woman said. Jennifer promptly obeyed and sat quietly as they finished their notes from the previous interview. Then, without warning, the first question broke the silence.
“Why do you want to work for this company, Ms. Whitley?”
“I believe this company is a place where my talents can excel and mutual growth can be expected.” She’d rehearsed several hundred answers to the basic questions.
The three interviewers never looked up from their screens except for an occasional glance. These happened periodically and only when they were either asking a question or receiving her answer. They never stopped typing. She began to wonder if she was wasting her time, but she answered every question in turn. It wasn’t until the end when they asked the question that was expected but never easy to answer.
“What is your ranking, Jennifer?”
She checked her watch and quickly answered. “Three point five point eight point three two eight.” She had the Verity app installed on her phone so it displayed on her smartwatch. Just above the time, her current rank was displayed. Right now she was ranked 3,504,896,328 out of 9,742,531,082. Ranks changed at any time. No one knew why. Even after decades of research there was no apparent reason as to why ranks changed. No one knew what they were being judged for or who was judging. They just knew their rank and desired to climb higher.
“Top 35%. Not bad.” The man in the middle shrugged. He hadn’t bothered to look at her but kept his eyes glued to his tablet as he continued to type.
“Thank you,” was all she could think to answer. She was used to a follow-up such as What have to you done recently to try to increase your rank? or When was the last time your rank fell more than one hundred levels? but just asking for her number was apparently their final question. She thought it strange since she was sure they had her number pulled up on the tablets in front of them.
“You will hear from us soon.”
Jennifer rose and thanked them for the opportunity. She kept an eye on her number as she left the building to see if it would drop. She felt the interview had not gone well and expected a drop in ranking to be proof that she wouldn’t get the job, but her number remained the same as she made her way through the city park toward her apartment.
“You know, it’s not good to be tied to that thing twenty-four seven.”
The comment didn’t register until she had almost passed the one who said it. She paused and looked up to see an older man, maybe mid-sixties, sitting on a bench. He was looking at her over the rim of his glasses. He had lowered the book he was reading.
She smiled and slowly placed her phone in her purse. “Thanks for the reminder. It’s just…I just had an interview and was hoping to hear something.”
“How long ago was your interview?”
“About ten minutes ago.”
“You think it went poorly?” He placed a marker in his book and closed it.
“I don’t know. My ranking hasn’t changed.”
“Ah,” the old man smiled. “You think any changes will be the result of how the interview went. That’s a little superstitious don’t you think?”
“Perhaps not. No one really knows how that thing works, which is why I gave up on it long ago. Expecting a job offer only ten minutes after an interview is a little much though.”
“Yeah,” she admitted, “You stopped looking at your rank?”
“You will never find happiness comparing yourself to others.”
Jennifer glanced at her watch. Not to look at the time, but to check her rank. It was more habit than intention and she caught herself realizing how much her number influenced her decisions and even her daily routines. The old man was smiling at her when she looked back up.
He offered her a seat with an open palm. “Give yourself a break from the numbers. If only for a few minutes.”
She hesitated but accepted and sat down next to him. She glanced at her watch again but quickly covered it with her other hand.
“So you never look at your number?”
“Never,” he said.
“How? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
“The curiosity fades the longer you go without. The numbers don’t really matter because they don’t do anything productive. They just allow everyone to believe themselves superior or worse off than others. We all formed our own opinions about that before the website came along. The numbers just made it seem like there is validity to our place in the world. We don’t have to make our own judgments anymore. They are made for us and we can just accept our place. A little sad, don’t you think?”
“What’s your name?”
He looked at her over the rim of his glasses again. “So you can look up my number?” He took off his glasses and set them down with his book. She smiled ruefully.
“Tell you what. I’ll give you my name if you promise not to tell me what my number is.”
“…and you have to go twenty minutes without looking at any screens. You’ll sit here and have a conversation with me.”
“Deal,” she said, amused.
“My name is David Wilburrough. Age sixty-four. I think I’m still the only Wilburrough this old,” he chuckled.
She pulled out her phone, popped open the app, and quickly found one sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. His rank was 53,267. She stared at him wide-eyed. The phone remained in her hand.
“No,” he caught her before she could say anything. “A promise is a promise. Now put that away and tell me about your interview.”
She put her phone away and, to keep her word, put her smartwatch in her purse as well. “You aren’t the least bit curious?”
He smiled. “If I gave into any curiosity now, I’d be caught back up in the game in no time. I’m fine how I am. Now, about that interview.”
“They didn’t seem much interested to be honest.”
“No one seems interested in anything when their eyes are glued to the screens in front of them.”
“How’d you know they were using tablets?”
“I didn’t. I just assumed. It seems everyone uses them nowadays. If I were you, I’d just wait for the decision to be made before torturing yourself with the possibilities of what they think. You can’t read minds, and worry won’t change a thing.”
“Easier said than done.”
“Usually is. I find reading helps.” He lifted the book as he said it. “Helps keep your mind away from the worry without adding to it. Do you read?”
She had to seriously think about the last time she read a book. “I used to,” she finally answered.
“Never too late to pick it back up.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“You can begin with this.” He offered her his book.
“You can. I’ve read it several times already, and I have another copy at home. It’s one of my favorites. Take it. You might find something useful in it.”
She reluctantly took the well-worn book and offered her thanks.
“I know it’s only been about ten minutes, but I actually need to be on my way. My granddaughter’s birthday party is this afternoon and I can’t be late. How about you start that book to keep yourself from checking your phone for the rest of your promised time?”
She smiled. “A promise is a promise. It was nice meeting you David.”
“The pleasure was mine…um…” he smiled in a poor attempt to hide his embarrassment.
“Jennifer,” she offered, “Jennifer Whitley.”
He nodded to her and tried again. “It was a pleasure to meet you Ms. Whitley. Enjoy the book.” With those words he scampered off.
“Have fun at the birthday party,” she called after him.
She was alone again and had to resist from checking her phone. She opened the book and flipped through the pages until she found Chapter 1.
She read for a long time before she was interrupted by a ringing from her purse. She pulled her phone out to see it was her sister calling. Jennifer assumed she would ask about the interview and didn’t want to talk about it just yet, so she silenced the ringer and returned to the book. She found she couldn’t focus on the pages anymore and quickly gave up and put the book in her purse.
She checked her phone again. Her own number hadn’t changed, but she was more curious about the rank of sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. She quickly found him again and noticed his rank had shot up by over two thousand. She wanted to go find him and tell him the good news. Then she remembered he didn’t know his rank and didn’t want to. He would never know that he was in the top fraction of a percent in the entire world. She was sad for him but also inspired. He lived his life exactly as he wanted to. He probably never believed himself to be better than anyone. Perhaps that was what made him better than everyone.
Jennifer rose from the park bench and started her walk back to her apartment. She called her sister on the way to fill her in on the interview. She never checked her watch as she spoke with her sister. She didn’t check her rank after she got home and made dinner or even afterwards when she started reading instead of watching TV. All the while, her rank slowly increased as time ticked by.