Pilots, part 4

posted 20 August 2009, updated 22 August 2009

As usual, VC was ahead of the game. He was already busy setting up the future of the company, while the rest of us spent three months pottering around doing experiments to nail down Fizz's "parameters".

Like shape. We've never -- nobody has ever -- managed to switch anything other than a rough sphere. There have been a few slightly flattened spheres, but never anything more than a few degrees away. I still think this can be done, it's just a matter of getting your mind right. But exactly how to think to switch something other than a sphere? I have no idea. Even X and Y didn't, I think.

Right, sorry, getting ahead of myself again.

The other parameter we played with was distance. The compound was huge, miles and miles across. Switching from one end to the other was a piece of cake. Line of sight was no problem. What was key was having been there before, physically. I couldn't switch to a place if I hadn't been there before.

And the definition of "there" is really, really specific. Anything more than 1.35 metres away from where I'd been -- specifically, where my head had been, we did some wacky experiments to prove that -- and I couldn't get there. That's held true to this day. So that first switch, we didn't realize how lucky we'd really been. I'd been out on the field with the techs, helping to lay down sensors, so I must have just walked past the spot where Fizz planted that marker.

Fizz thought the previous-presence restriction was fascinating, and so did the techs. They came up with all sorts of experiments to test it out. One I remember particularly was they blindfolded me, put in me in a soundproof box, and drove me in a truck to a spot half a mile away. Then they drove me back, and stuck five markers in the ground, two or three metres apart, one in the spot where they'd taken me, and told me to try to switch to each one in turn.

I'd never seen any of the markers before, but I tried anyway, with absolutely no result -- no pushback, just nothing at all -- until I chose the fourth marker, the one I'd actually been to. It worked instantly. So I don't even need to know that I've been somewhere: I just need to have been there. I do need to be able to picture it, in my head -- otherwise, how do I decide where I'm going? But they tried another experiment with a bunch of big coloured tents: put me in a blue tent, then replaced it with a red tent, and told me to switch to the blue tent. I switched to the red tent: even if my internal picture is totally wrong, I go to the place that I intended.

Of course this drives Fizz completely crazy. Been "there" relative to what? The earth is rotating, and orbiting the sun, and the sun is circling the galactic center, and the galaxy is zooming away from all other galaxies, and continents are slowly drifting -- how can there by any such thing as a fixed point in space? But switching seems to know, in the same way that it knows how big I am, so it never creates pushback that separates my head from my body.

Oh, pushback: that's what we call it when a switch doesn't go well. I forget we don't tell civilians about that much. Instead of taking everything inside the sphere with you, the sphere dissipates outwards, really quickly, pushing away everything outside of it really fast, like a bomb going off. Obviously, that usually punches a big hole in the ground, which the little disc of ground you're standing on then falls into -- so it often looks like some kind of cave-in rather, like they thought the first time I ever did it.

That's another advantage of switching on water, of course: if you pushback, and suddenly find yourself over a hundred-foot drop into water, it's just like going over a waterfall -- the water starts to rush back in while you fall, and your craft was buoyant to start with, so assuming the hull holds, you get some bumps and bruises, but you bob back up to the surface afterwards, no problem. Over solid ground that doesn't work so well -- although the cloud of vaporized rock helps a little.

Once you've got the hang of switching in the first place, and you stick to your "natural" sphere size, you'll basically never get pushback. But of course we wanted much bigger spheres, to be able to move things around. It takes a while to get a sphere up to size. It's just a matter of time, mostly, and you have to stayed zoned: relaxed, happy, "expansive". That's the tricky part, right? Because you can't concentrate on being relaxed, because concentrating is like the opposite of being zoned.

You can't be drugged up, even slightly, or you just can't do anything. Even headache medicine fucks you up. We think that has something to do with pilots being pilots -- something about their biochemistry and the way it interacts with their brain. Being a little drunk sometimes helps, but being hungover is a disaster, it's a sure-fire recipe for pushback, as a lot of pilots who start relying on alcohol to do their jobs find out the hard way.

It's funny, because good pilots are so often stoners and hippies. But real pilots can't have so much as a joint, at least... not until they retire.

Another thing about pushback: if you lose your zone, you can feel it happening. In that split second, you can make a decision: switch with the current sphere size, or you can let go. If you switch, your sphere will cut through whatever's touching the interface at that moment -- your vessel, buildings, passengers, whatever. If you let go, you get pushback -- everything inside the sphere is okay, but everything outside gets trashed, and of course stuff at the interface gets mangled anyway.

If it's just you, or all your passengers are safely inside the sphere, pushback is actually the safer option. You destroy your vessel, your cargo, and beat the hell out of your port. But stuff inside the sphere usually makes it with just bruises. If you've got a bunch of passengers outside the sphere, or you're somewhere an explosion would do a lot of damage, you've got to switch. Either way, it's going to be expensive at best, multiply fatal at worst, and always incredibly messy and destructive.

That's why pilots care so much about maintaining their chill all the time. And why everybody else cares so much, too. If you're a pilot, you can't have a bad day. You have a bad day, you could kill a bunch of people. And once you've accidentally killed a load of passengers, you get nervous about switching ever again, and once that happens you can't switch anyway and your career is over. But even though that's all true, you can't worry about that possibility, see? Because that would make it happen.

That's why it's such a cruel irony that pilots can't smoke. Nobody needs a joint more than a pilot.

But back to the story. I've been talking about pilots, plural, but there weren't any others yet. It was still just me, and the whole company built around me and the promise of what I could do.

We were about ten months into the project now. VC had finally settled on the terms of his funding: Switch Transport was worth a nice, round fifty billion dollars, and he'd cut a consortium of investors in for 5% of the company, for two-point-five billion in cash. They thought they were being stiffed, but couldn't afford to ignore the opportunity. Actually, it turned out they all got a sweet deal. Five percent of Switch is worth fifty billion all by itself, these days.

He'd also got around to renaming the company, which was still called Pacific Energy Research at that point. Now we were Switch Transport. Another dumb name, in retrospect -- transportation is only part of the business -- but by the time that was clear we were far too well-known to rebrand. I also think it was dumb to name the company after the verb. Like Google, right? Everybody switches, but not everybody uses Switch Transport to do it. But hey, enough people do. More than enough.

Like I said, VC was steps ahead of us. While we were digging lakes in the middle of the desert, he was taking the capital he'd raised and pouring it into hiring new people, building up a whole new organization: Switch Recruitment. Their whole reason for being: find more people like me, as fast as possible.

VC waited until he had all the key people hired before he even told us, the original team, about the plan. And he did it just right. 'Cause it could have gone really badly, right? Suddenly there's hundreds of people and we're just the old-timers? We might have felt marginalized, overwhelmed, bitter, whatever. But VC, he'd been through this period of rapid growth before, what he called a "liquidity event". He knew his stuff, or more likely he had enough sense and money to buy people who knew their stuff as far as organizational psychology goes.

He briefed everybody in Switch Recruitment first, before they were hired, and he was totally clear: you're not in charge. You are servants to Switch Transport. You're their staff, not the other way around. You don't demand their time, you request it, and you make damn good use of it because their time is hundreds, thousands of times more valuable than yours.

And about me in particular, he was even more clear: you don't piss him off. You can't make him even slightly irritated. If you do that, and he get psyched out and can't switch, then you, personally, have just blown fifty billion dollars of other people's money and all of your own. But no pressure!

Then for a few weeks, he dropped hints to us that we might need some help around the place. Keep in mind there were literally still just the ten of us, plus contractors building the facilities and stuff, up to that point. He made comments and hinted until we began to believe that it was our idea, started bitching that we didn't have any staff. And that's when he introduced them, fifty strong.

You'd think hiring fifty people in that short a time would be impossible, right? Like, how do you even talk to that many people, and persuade them to move house? Get them to quit their other jobs? If he hired one person every day, it would have taken two months -- but who could hire one new person a day? He got it done in three.

If it had been basically any other company, any other technology, any other time, I'm sure it would have been impossible. But for Switch... it was no problem. There was no field you could work in where it wasn't clear that we were going to make your fortune, even before VC dangled point-one percent equity in front of you. Just to say you were involved made you an instant celebrity, especially right at the start. The first hundred employees, the first thousand, are all doing pretty damn well for themselves these days.

And that was VC's genius. The reason he still deserves his seventy-five percent -- he knew, even then, that if it was just me, then the whole thing was a house of cards. There was no way, even if people were paying me by tonnage switched in gold, that the company was worth fifty billion. There was no way I could do that, not even working twenty-four-seven, and we already knew that was impossible anyway, switching didn't work that way. I could be out for a day if I took an advil, a week if I got spooked for some reason.

But he had the money, he had the people, and he had the brand: we were Switch with a capital Ess, the noun and the verb, the pioneers. Anybody who thought they had a chance, even the merest inkling that they might be able to switch, was hammering at the doors, begging to be taught. And once VC had Recruitment running, he opened the floodgates, and invented a new profession: switch pilot. Or just pilot, for short.

Here's a funny little thing: some air pilots, you know, the guys who used to be just "pilots", they're bitter about us stealing "their" word. Can you believe that? I mean, they have a lot to be bitter about -- the commercial guys, the freight guys -- we crushed their whole industry, almost overnight. Flying these days is a hobby for thrill-seekers and sight-seeing, when it used to be this huge empire, a whole culture of "jet-setters". But being bitter about the word? Weird.

They're not all bitter, of course. It turns out a lot of air pilots are pretty laid-back people; you had to be, to keep your cool while flying on of those metal mountains they used to have back in the day. A lot of them because our kind of pilots.

I mean, seriously, you look back at that time and it seems ludicrous, now. In 2015 Boeing finally built its Dreamliner, the 787. It could weigh more than two hundred tonnes at take-off, with passengers and cargo included. And it could fly! It was a miracle of engineering, sure, but in retrospect it just looks wrong, you know? All this time and engineering effort poured into solving the wrong problem. Plane too heavy? Make it out of plastic. Plastic melts when it gets struck by lightning? Lace the plastic with conductors to dissipate the charge. Weird, contrived solutions. Even the toilets on airplanes were ridiculous contraptions. There's no toilets on Switch passenger barges, even the biggest ones -- you're never on them for more than an hour. Well, the earth-based ones anyway.

But back to Switch Recruitment in 2019. That wing of the company is the whole secret to Switch Transport's success. Just plain old first-mover advantage. By the time we made public that pilot skills were common enough that they could find some and start their own company, we already had two hundred pilots, and were building up specialities and tech.

But I honestly think even if we hadn't waited, the brand could have been enough. I can't tell you how far we get just on the strength of our brand alone: the myths, the culture that surrounds us, that VC built up. People love Switch. Switch geeks, they were there right from the start. They're like a cult. They have millions of blogs, forums, webcams, everything, where they just sit and analyze every last detail of what we've done, what we're doing, and what we're going to do next.

Switch geeks are the guys who can never be pilots but, my god, they really want to be. We learn so much about new pilots, new techniques, new applications for switching that our competitors have dreamed up, just by keeping track of what they're talking about. It's no secret that we've hired people into our R&D and business development departments straight out of SwitchWatchers, entirely on the basis of their contributions to that forum.

That's what really fuels the popularity of those places: we could pick you! It's like an R&D department combined with an industrial espionage unit, a hundred times the size of what would be worthwhile to actually pay for, and it's all free. We love the Switch geeks. And man, do they ever love us back.

So, the first big problem Recruitment had when they started up was a pretty big one: how do you identify a potential pilot? At the time, all we had was me: they soon knew as much about me as science could know about anyone, all the way down to my genome. But that was useless as long as they didn't have a single other example of a human being who could switch. There's was no way to know what was important about me. That was the same lesson being learned by all those losers who were enrolling in my old college, hunting down the type of pot I used to smoke, fucking the girls I'd fucked, hoping to pick up some kind of magic dust.

However, they were fifty of the smartest people on the planet, so the solution didn't take long. They did the simplest thing possible: they made a website, canyouswitch.com. It gave a really basic description, taken from me, about how to switch, and told people to try it, and make a video of themselves doing it -- from a safe distance. They could upload the video, and if we believed it was really them switching -- or getting pushback -- then we'd bring them in for interviews and training.

Simple, right? Sanjeev -- brilliant guy, he was head of Recruitment, but hates publicity -- just logged onto SwitchWatchers and posted the URL to the forum there. That was all we needed to do. No press release or anything. Within minutes it was all over the net, and within an hour or two it was on all the TV news nets too, worldwide.

Of course, we were immediately inundated with submissions. There were millions of submissions. But all the videos were on YouTube, so we just waited for people around the world to rate them to weed out spam and obvious fakes, and only looked at the top-rated ones. Crowd-sourcing! We were still left with thousands of videos to look at, and of course, most of them were fakes.

Brilliant, incredible fakes, of course. Fakes done by digital effects amateurs and even a few professionals. From their perspective, it was worth the time and money to do it properly -- getting picked meant getting flown in, a tour of the compound, meeting all of us "celebrities". Sanjeev's solution to that -- I told you he was brilliant -- was, the first five guys who fooled us, made fakes so real we couldn't tell that they weren't actually switching, he hired those guys. And then he put them in charge of reviewing the rest of the videos, and spotting the fakes. Brilliant.

After that, much to our surprise, we started getting actual switchers through the screening process. It was a breakthrough, a huge breakthrough: there was more than just me! Of course, the news was full of people claiming they could do it, especially from the people with the higher-rated videos on YouTube, but nobody was ready to believe them until we hired them -- amazing, right? Instead of setting up their own billion-dollar switch companies, everybody just ignored those guys until we vetted them. That's why I say the brand was enough. We weren't just good at switching, we defined it. Right at the beginning, if it wasn't us doing it, it wasn't Switching.

The second switcher, ever, was Maddie. Her video was really casual. It was just a shot of her sitting in a deck chair on the moors of Devon, a really pretty spot actually, then there was an instant transition to a spot about three miles away. It was all from her point of view; she was holding the camera herself. So what it looked like, really, was just a cut in the film -- a trick a lot of the dumber fakers tried to use to convince us they were switching from one place to another, with a variety of interstitial effects of varying sophistication.

Recruitment nearly dismissed it as a fake, except for two things: first, the professional effects guys couldn't spot any digital artifacts. And second, the freeze-frames of the moment of transition looked a lot like our own pictures of the inside of the interface. It wasn't much -- the interface is just a shade of grey -- but what happened inside the switch sphere was something we'd deliberately kept a secret. So Recruitment sent the video to me for final review.

What convinced me was the timing. A lot of the fakes, even the really professional, visually convincing ones, fell down at that part: their "pilot" would just blink, or smile, or something, and then they'd switch. But it doesn't work that way: you have to chill out, get zoned. Maddie's video was five minutes long, three minutes of which was just her humming to herself, sipping from a thermos of tea on the ground next to her, before the switch. It wasn't dramatic, and that's what convinced me. VC flew her in the next day.

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