Spectacles - A Short Story in Response to AI Art
Don't have time to read? Listen here.
By Rachel Allen Everett
The booth was tight. Jamal could feel the cold walls brush against his broad shoulders. He gripped the edge of the metallic stool beneath him, turning his weather-worn knuckles pink. His boots tapped the floor. The scan was taking a lot longer than he thought it would, and his eyes were beginning to tear up. Finally, the beam turned off. The eyepiece raised itself up and out of the way as Jamal blinked excessively.
The face on the display in front of him smiled, flashing a row of perfectly white teeth. They contrasted starkly against dark glowing skin. The face was designed to look feminine. When it spoke, it used the @RainyJStar voice—a classic choice, ripped from a real online celebrity decades ago.
“Thank you for your patience, Jamal.” Jamal winced, wishing the computer didn’t automatically know his name. “Here is the result of your scan today. Looks like you do need glasses! We have a prescription ready for you. Here are your options.” Jamal’s face appeared on the screen, wearing auto-generated glasses. Jamal flipped through them, a little frustrated by how appealing the cookie-farmed selection was. A bit out of spite, he said, “Just give me some standard black frames, please.”
“Great choice!” the voice said. “Your total comes to 1,942 US dollars. What method of payment would you like to use today? We accept Apple Pay, Bitcoin, DisneyCash, Wa11et, Face$can, NFTs…” Jamal fumbled in his pockets for his wallet. He held up his card. “We’re sorry, we no longer accept card payments at our kiosks,” the voice said. Jamal sighed. “Just…put it on whatever method I used last.” “Okay!” the voice obeyed. “Payment accepted.”
The compartment below the screen lit up. Jamal watched as two tiny mechanical arms built up layers of filament with rapid precision. Within seconds, the new glasses slid out on a tray. “Thank you for stopping at Bioptic!” the voice chimed. “Have a nice day!”
The metal door clanged shut behind Jamal. He adjusted his coat before unfolding his new glasses. He inspected them. They were flawless—completely devoid of any irregularities; completely devoid of life. He put the glasses on and looked around. His eyes followed the row of kiosks to the end of the block. He could see individual windows stretching all the way up the iron and cement structures that towered above him. Across the street he could read the newest show titles parading on a digital billboard: A Frantic Search. The Unique Individual. Transparent Days. Jamal scoffed as he read “New and engaging original content!” scrawled atop the sign, and wondered how AI-generated entertainment could pass as original. He sighed, breathing out warm white air. He removed his glasses and tucked them into his chest pocket.
Sawdust fell like snow, catching on Jamal’s beard. He pressed his chisel against the whirling beam of white oak. His foot rose and fell from the pedal, stopping the lathe to check his handiwork. With his glasses on, the wood grain appeared sharper and more delicate. He was able to see more closely and could create finer details as he turned. But it didn’t feel right—the frames were too straight and the lenses were too clear. So he kept them tucked in his pocket.
He ran his fingers across the finished table leg, wiping off the fine white dust. Satisfied, he lifted it from the lathe and rested it on the floor alongside three identical pieces. He stepped back to admire his work. He felt proud.
Cold light flooded the woodshop through steel-framed windows. It fell on several vacant workstations spread across the floor. Abandoned workpieces were strewn on tables and stacked against the walls, covered in dust that sparkled in the sunbeams. Alone in the corner, Jamal sat hunched over his old computer. His glasses reflected the screen’s blue light. The keys clicked as he punched in numbers on a spreadsheet. He sighed—he wasn’t going to meet his quota for the week. A targeted ad popped up on his sidebar, with animated text flowing into view: “Falling behind? Work smarter, not harder! Automate your entire workflow with Craftsman.” A bulky machine slid on screen. Jamal yanked off his glasses and pressed his face into his palms.
Somberly, Jamal walked down the street toward home. He passed the occasional pedestrian, but most people rode in the autonomous vehicles that kept whizzing by. He passed some new construction, where massive machines poured concrete into a pre-programmed foundation. He passed an art gallery, but none of the artwork was attributed to human beings. Later, an autonomous car pulled up next to him. “Hi Jamal! Need a lift?” a masculine voice sounded from the car’s speakers. “No!” Jamal snapped. “Leave me alone.”
He kept his eyes on the ground through the rest of the city, eventually reaching the outskirts of town. There, he happened upon something unusual.
On the sidewalk, beneath his feet, were funny colorful shapes. Jamal squinted at them, then pulled out his glasses. They were chalk drawings. The realization filled him with delight—Jamal hadn’t seen chalk in years. There were pictures of flowers, people, animals, and other things that made him smile. He followed the drawings down the road and across the street, finally ending at an arrow that pointed down an alleyway. There, pressed between two very old buildings, were a couple of canopies hanging above a pair of long tables. They were heaped with oddities. Jamal stared, hesitant to pass into this strange realm.
“Come on over, I won’t bite!” called a voice—a real, kindly, aged woman’s voice. Jamal cautiously stepped into the alleyway. As he approached the table, he saw it was covered with carved wooden figurines, painted masks, clay pots, delicately patterned cloth, and various antique trinkets. The woman was out of sight, fussing with something beneath the table. “Now just a minute, I’ve got something for ya.” Her curly gray bob popped into view. She had warm dark eyes, fringed with smile lines. “Here you are!” a yellowed grin spread across her face as she placed a beautiful porcelain plate on the table, topped with a warm blueberry muffin.
Jamal didn’t know what to say. He still wasn’t sure any of this was real.
“Well, eat it! It’s getting cold!” the woman said.
Jamal promptly obeyed. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s really good. What program did you use?”
“This one!” the woman said brightly, holding up her two wrinkled hands. Jamal nearly spat. “You mean, you made this? By hand?” The woman chuckled. “That’s right.”
Jamal felt water welling in his eyes. “Sorry,” he stammered, “It’s just—it’s been a really long time.” One hot tear streamed down his cheek. He tried to catch it before the woman saw, but she was already handing him a tissue. “I know,” she said. “I get it.” Jamal took the tissue—which was actually a cloth handkerchief—and wiped his eyes. “Thank you,” he said. “So...What is all this?”
“Treasures I’m peddling, hoping they’ll brighten this dreary world. Everything here was handmade—some by me, others by somebody else, most of them a very long time ago.”
Jamal gazed around. There were a few watercolor landscapes of the New Mexico desert, signed by the artist. A pair of antique leather gloves. A knitted sweater decorated with birds. A riso-printed graphic novel. Jamal was in awe of how rare and invaluable a collection this was.
“See anything you like?” the woman asked.
Jamal’s eyes fell on a pair of spectacles. Delicately, he picked them up. They were made with an antique gold alloy. They looked like they were crafted with expert care and had endured many years of wear. The rims were mottled with dents, the right lens had a small crack, and the hinges were a little loose.
“How much for these?” he asked. The woman shook her head. “No, no. I don’t accept money.” Jamal stared questioningly at the woman. She smiled. “The glasses are yours if you give me a promise.” She paused to sweep a bit of sawdust off of Jamal’s shoulder. “Keep creating,” she said.
Jamal looked back at her for what felt like a long time.
Thoughtfully, he took off his black glasses and put on the gold ones. The image was almost as clear as the last, only slightly obscured by the blurry crack in the lens. He peered down the alleyway, noticing the faded remains of a mural that clung to the handbuilt brick walls. It was a painting of children playing. A young girl in the corner was drawing with chalk. Her eyes were full of hope. Her drawing was full of life.
Jamal met the woman’s gaze once more. “I’ll take them,” he said.