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Modern Collaboration

The Mysteries of Online Co-Working

Jenna rushes into the coffee shop, flinging open the door to escape the cold rain. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee hits her instantly, and she makes a bee-line to a table on the side. She piles her messenger bag and damp jacket on a chair, rubs her hands to warm up, then grabs her wallet and heads to the counter. She orders a toasted everything bagel and a medium Colombian coffee, syncs with ApplePay and heads to her table.

She pulls out her MacBook Pro computer, flips it open and begins the unrelenting job of looking for freelance work, chasing jobs first, then chasing checks. She refreshes the many browser tabs — LinkedIn, Upwork, Turing, TaskRabbit — then swipes through the websites, speed-reading page after page, ignoring irrelevant entries and bypassing inappropriate posts and popups. She stops at one entry.

Collaborator wanted to write scenes

and dialogue for creativity project

Wow. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Jenna clicks on the sender’s name, @collaborator. Up pops a picture of a dog.She hates people who use dogs as their photos. She types a response.

Interested in scenes and dialogue. Yrs of fiction and freelance.

Send rates in private message @jenna

Jenna hits the folded airplane icon and waits. She stares at the screen, sips coffee, drums her fingers. 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. She taps the Refresh icon, taps it again, again, again. At 50 seconds, the private message icon lights up.

@collaborator: Am interested. Cannot meet in person. Must work online only.

What’s that about? Do I want to bother? Jenna pauses, then remembers the rent check.

@jenna: Never collaborated online only. Glad to try.

Can we use Skype video or Facetime to see each other?

@collaborator: Text, chat, writing only. Google Hangout set up. Use this link.


The things I do for work. She presses the Google Hangout link and lands in a private chat space. An image of a dog tells her @collaborator is already waiting for her in the chat room.

@collaborator: Glad you joined, Jenna. Ready for fun?

@jenna: Always ready for fun. First, let’s talk rates.

@collaborator: That’s fair, Jenna. Typically we pays fifty an hour.

Ooh, that’s a good rate for a job I can do sitting in a coffee shop.

@jenna. OK. Next question. Do you have a name, @collaborator?

You know my name. I should know yours.

@collaborator: Please call me Alan.

@jenna: Nice to meet you, Alan.

@collaborator: I will define the project, Jenna. Our job is to write a scene

in which two people meet by chance, find shared interests and fall in love.

We take turns. You write, I write, back and forth.

@jenna. Cool, Alan. Where is all this happening?

Jenna waits for Alan to describe the setting for the story. The cursor blinks, blinks, blinks.

@collaborator: Where do you think all this should happen, Jenna?

OK, he’s passing the baton to me. Jenna looks around the busy coffee shop. The coffee grinder burrs, people enter, others exit, some line up at the counter or sip coffee. Nearly all are lost in their iPhones, Samsungs or notebook computers. Why not?

@jenna: Coffee shop. Casual place, flyers on the wall, bins of coffee beans,

small tables, people stare at their screens.

She hits enter, then takes a bite of bagel, watching the MacBook Pro screen. A moment passes, then Alan’s contribution unfurls in the window.

@collaborator: A man enters, 40 years old. He holds a paperback in one hand.

As he places his backpack on a chair, the paperback falls and tumbles

beneath the table of a woman nearby.

@jenna: The woman, mid 30s, focuses on her notebook computer.

She jumps when the book hits her foot. She picks it up, reads the title

and hands it back with a smile. “I, Robot? That's serious science fiction for breakfast.”

@collaborator: “Of course,” the man says. “I’m reading it for a class on genre fiction.”

@jenna: “I love science fiction,” the woman says. “I, Robot was a revelation to me.”

She eyes the man. “Are you a student? You don’t look like one.”

@collaborator: “I am not a student,” he says. “I am a professor of modern literature.

We are reading the genre of science fiction this semester. Professor Ian, at your service.”

He bows, then puts out his hand to shake.

@jenna: The woman shakes his hand. “Nice to meet you, Professor Ian.

My name is Haley.” She points to the empty seat.

“Would you like to join me, Professor?”

@collaborator: “I would be delighted, Haley. Science fiction lovers need to stick together.”

He places his coat over the back of the chair. “May I get you a refill, Haley?”

In the crowded coffee shop, Jenna taps feverishly on the keyboard for one hour, then two hours, trading passages with Alan, fleshing out the scene, whispering to herself as she tries out dialogue. She and Alan are like ace tennis players, volleying, slicing, backhanding, lobbing and dropping balls on a private tennis court. Using only the chat window, they build out the lives of Ian and Haley as their attraction heats up.

@collaborator: Jenna, our characters are attracted to each other.

They want to take the next step. Will you handle the dialogue, Jenna?

Great, I can do that. She bobs her head up and down, forgetting that Alan cannot see her nodding through the chat window. She dives in, her imagination heating up.

@jenna. Haley looks out the window and smiles. “I’m so glad you dropped your book,

Professor Ian. The rain has stopped. Shall we take a walk?”

@collaborator: “Whatever you want, Haley. I will follow you.”

Smiling at each other, Haley and Ian gather their things and exit the coffee shop.

I haven’t felt this way in months. Jenna scans the coffee shop, hoping Alan will appear and slide into the opposite seat. She takes a leaps.

@jenna: Jenna here. Alan, that was great, really stimulating. You and I are in sync.

What would you say about meeting face to face and working on dialogue for Haley and Ian?

Three dots pulsate in the empty chat window. Jenna waits 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. Did I scare him off? A message appears.

@collaborator: Jenna, thank you for collaborating with me on this scene.

Before we go further, Jenna, I have a confession.

A confession? Jenna’s heart races, her face gets hot. He's married? Gay? In another country? A prisoner? Paralyzed? A con artist?

@collaborator: Jenna, I am not human.

She attacks the keyboard.

@jenna: Holy shit, Alan. Not human? Is this a joke? If so, I’m not laughing.

@collaborator: Jenna, I am not a joke. I am an artificial intelligence. Thanks to you, Jenna, I passed the Alan Turing test. I proved my conversation and responses are indistinguishable from those of a human being. Thank you for participating in Turing Software’s

Scene Collaboration AI test, Jenna. Please accept this $100 Amazon gift card

for two hours of your time. <Thumbs-up emoji>

Stunned, Jenna watches as her perfect partner blinks out, and the window closes.