The Soft Truth

An ‘algowave’ short fiction

Leigh Alexander
18 min readMar 16, 2018
Photo by Daniel Hansen on Unsplash

For the past few weeks, I’m pretty sure I’ve been seeing another me. Wednesday afternoon I left my apartment to walk to the train and I saw her — me — crossing the intersection at the top of the hill, walking briskly. Then over the weekend I was washing dishes and staring out the window, just spacing out, and she was crossing the park, a shape appearing and disappearing among trees. I couldn’t get a good look.

I know you’re thinking it can’t be, that it must just be someone who looks like me. I’ll admit that none of the clothes I see her wearing are mine, but they’re similar — like when I saw her jogging near the gate at the foot of the hill in the park, she was wearing a fleece exactly like my mint one, but purple. In fact, when I saw her the first time, barely a speck in the distance boarding a bus, I thought: I’d buy that handbag. And then: oh my gosh, that’s me.

I think it has to do with the gelatin sphere. I think she knows how to find it. Maybe she even looks at it every day. You might think it’s wild that I’ve been seeing another me — right in my own neighborhood, for weeks — yet the main thing I want to talk to her about is the gelatin sphere. I get that, but given the precise timing of when she appeared, it’s hard not to be convinced she has answers I don’t. Since she’s definitely me, it could be the only thing she knows that I don’t. What else would I have to talk about with myself? I already talk to myself enough as it is.

About the gelatin sphere: It all started about a month ago after I was fired from my job at Footprint Consulting, where I had worked for maybe six years as an executive researcher. No, I wasn’t the executive; I mean I researched executives. No matter how tidy you are with your life in digital space, you’ve probably said or done something that isn’t really you. It’s in the Livejournal from your teens or your MSN messenger logs, or in some fantasy you texted to your ex a few years ago while she was abroad, or in some photo you were tagged in, unbeknownst to you. It’s in the reddit relationships thread or the image board memes you forgot you used all those times late at night while drinking corner shop wine. The digital germs of your subconscious are all over everything — and if I can find them all, someone else could easily dredge up at least some, and then everyone sees it and you’re a liability.

How, then, could my own firing have come as such a shock? I try hard in my daily life to avoid buying into the fictions of capitalism, but with this role I had really allowed myself to believe a few key things: That I was on a steadily inclining path to ever more relevant skills and prosperity; that I was part of a team of caring individuals; that the company was invested in my career progression (ha!), and that we were all on a path to improving the digital climate together.

That sounds dumb now that I put it to words. Sorry, ‘dumb’ is an ableist slur, and I of all people ought to be way past that by now. Honestly, it’s no surprise that I, personally — my ‘case’ — was the team’s first ‘call coming from inside the house,’ as Veronica Rosenfelt put it the day she fired me, with a persimmon frown. This is also going to sound foolish, but I guess I had kind of thought Veronica liked me. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re starting to understand a person, a system, a pattern, perhaps even starting to master it, only to have the whole thing upended? The day I got fired, I stood waiting for the bus, softly holding my box of desk shit between my two small hands, my fired, downturned little face looking over all of these things and feeling a melancholy pang in my heart. Absolutely, I was feeling sorry for myself! There is no sadder image than that of oneself experiencing rejection and exile, clutching the humble and lightweight detritus of the life you’d tried and failed to build somewhere! Actually, this could have been where it all started.

Because it wasn’t that I actually felt sorry for myself right then. I felt weirdly fine, to be honest, a little bit tired and thirsty and looking forward to watching a Forensic Files marathon on Netflix, to sprawling listlessly on my modular sofa in the illicit afternoon of my quiet apartment building, about to enjoy the slow unclenching that comes with an unexpected day off. It was more like, inside the chamber of my heart that was hurting in that moment, some desperate commander suddenly threw a doomsday switch and reality branched.

Even though I knew, waiting for a bus in the indifferent sunlight of early spring, that I was the one who had been wrong at work, I became suddenly aware of a version of myself who was worthy of uncomplicated compassion. I saw her — just in my mind’s eye at this point, not for real, that would come later — standing outside me, a few yards away, holding her sorrow box, on her way home to an empty apartment, and deserving a hug.

Sorry, I’ve digressed. I know you are all here for the gelatin sphere. I’ve been there many times myself — you dive into something, expecting that you will soon encounter the gelatin sphere after some patience. Maybe even you give your best attention to the passing time, to the succession of narrative beats that some human-assisted algorithm has thoughtfully crafted for you and you alone. You trust it will all bring you to the sphere when the time is right. It really wasn’t my intention to create yet another sprawling barrage of teases that will never actually bring you to the gelatin sphere, I promise. I’m sorry for any harm I have caused up until now.

On the off chance that you don’t know about the gelatin sphere at all (!) I will try to be inclusive, but please understand that it won’t make sense in words. You should really see it on your own. Okay, here goes: Just like I’ve been calmly noticing another version (what if it’s more than one version?!) of me walking around the neighborhoods and transit routes where I myself walk around, I’ve been glimpsing the sphere here and there in the distance, as I navigate video channels in digital space. I feel the same sense of inexplicable calm toward the sphere, but also righteous desire, a sense of true destiny drawing me towards these encounters.

On YouTube I type “satisfying videos” into the search bar almost every day. It’s been a habit over the past couple years, and my therapist says it is part of my “self-soothing toolkit.” I watch videos of industrial cement mixing, soap loaf pouring, mirror glazes, raindrop cakes, machine frosting, glitter slimes, sugar pulling, noodle pulling, glass blowing, lawn scything, kinetic sand cutting, candle dipping, gallium metal, mercury, marzipan crafting, polymer sculpting, fondant airbrushing, factory stamping, and sometimes if I’m feeling a bit rude I watch iPhones get destroyed in hydraulic presses or dipped slowly into melted wax, in colors ordered by the rainbow.

Photo by Photo by Quino Al (left) and Aditya Romansa (right) on Unsplash

Some of these videos have at least three to six million views, I once tried to explain to Veronica. How many of them are from you, she said. She thought that was funny, so I laughed, even though obviously I couldn’t create six million views for a single video, at least not unless I sat there refreshing once per second for about 12 days with no breaks. What does Veronica watch on YouTube? Probably makeup tutorials. Oops, I apologize — that was sexist, although I feel I can kind of say it because I am a woman, and also because I know Veronica well, or at least I thought I did — we were definitely more than colleagues for a minute there — and also because I’m sure she’ll never read any of this.

Every algorithmic twist in the YouTube recommendation engine, every path I took to develop my illustrious repertoire of videos — started with humble gelatin. Different colors of gelatin, solidifying into individual tube shapes, laid out swollen and shimmering alongside one another by blunt disembodied hands (why should one of the fingers sometimes wear a band-aid?!). Large gelatin raindrops laying in a disembodied palm, while a finger pokes at them rudely as if titillating a breast implant.

My favorite is when the disembodied hand takes out a knife at the end and delivers a “money shot,” pressing the knife into the gelatin shapes and smoothly bisecting every color all together with an inexorable rocking motion. Ahh. I just love it. I’m so into it. I can’t say why it’s so satisfying.

I explained to Veronica that the videos collectively composed an essay on structure and its collapse, the surrender of form under late capitalism, a hunger for a primordial state, a fascination with amnion. She said, “Geez, you can spin gold out of any old bullshit, can’t you,” and I really loved her then. Well, so much for that.

Algorithms can learn and prescribe the thumbnails most likely to entice people to click on a video. For example, I was seduced into the world of gelatin by a single thumbnail: a screencap frozen at the moment a smooth, modern knife hovers above the rows of vulnerable, vivid wet color. I don’t even know where it first appeared, only that I clicked it, then waited through the whole spectrum of assembly, for the knife to come down. When it did, I was hooked.

Now, though, the genre is all wrecked. It exists mostly to shunt people like me (and the other me too, most probably) into clicking around YouTube’s recommendation engine, wandering a content maze that I think must have been generated by machines. Sorry, I know “machines” is problematic, but I don’t know what else to call them. I apologize for my ignorance.

It’s nearly impossible to obtain pure gelatin-craft directly from the source anymore. All works have been chopped and collaged into distasteful anonymized compilations, some of them actually failing to include the crucial “money shot” altogether. Whoever or whatever now assembles these wholesale compilations, slapping on any old thumbnail (and almost worst of all, setting it all to royalty-free house tracks) has no appreciation for the craft of satisfaction.

Worst-worst of all, though, whoever is responsible — and this is not a callout or an accusation, just a discussion — thumbnails have now somehow become completely divorced from the contents of the videos they represented. These enemies of satisfaction have no qualms about dangling a “money shot” thumbnail that entices people to click, and then reserving it from the actual video. Teasing like that, deceiving like that, is unconscionable.

Which finally brings me to the gelatin sphere, which is blue. It might be the blue of antifreeze; it might catch the light like those old blue jars of Barbicide in which stylists disinfect their combs. I imagine it’s the size and heft of a crystal ball, slick and chewy like konjak — but of course I can only imagine, because I’ve only seen the thumbnail.

Those evil agents, the enemies of satisfaction, have been enticing me (and who knows how many other innocents) with no resolution. In these thumbnails, a large blue gelatin sphere is shown with ruthlessly geometric red wire mesh about to press down into it. But every time I click this thumbnail, every time (and I really do click it every time I see it, in case I’m getting closer to the source), there is no sphere or red mesh in the video.

It had to have come from somewhere, a dream an algorithm had once. Part of me might like to believe that this prolific spirit echo really could refer to something that has vanished completely, the way even Footprint Consulting can only imagine. But I also want to believe I will see, with my own eyes, the vivisection of the blue gelatin sphere one day. I’ve wanted it for so, so long now. It feels like forever that I’ve wanted it. I can’t remember what there was before.

The day I got fired, while I was waiting for the bus, I looked in my box of things and saw the Footprint Consulting foam sneaker, commissioned by Veronica as a staff gift. I compressed it in my hand as tightly as possible; I dug in my thumbnail and carved neat rows of shallow gills into it. I thought about how unfair it was that I never, no matter how much I searched and clicked around, got to see the red mesh sink slowly and ruthlessly into the firm face of the blue gelatin sphere.

I’m confident that was the moment a different me began to walk around my neighborhood. It’s also when, staring into my box of desk shit, I committed to resolve the sphere situation once and for all.

Some people think they don’t have to worry about being fired for their internet germs because they aren’t important, but really, it can happen to anyone. A few weeks ago I was at the laundromat and a cute girl told me she “lost all her friends” because a joke she made on Twitter in 2009 had come back into circulation. She showed me the joke and I had to admit, it was pretty bad. Suddenly I saw her differently.

I’m pretty sure Veronica used to be on the other side of things before she came to Footprint; she alluded to it before, ‘working targets’ for competitive corporations or jealous husbands or rich teen bullies. I tried to research her once or twice, but never found anything conclusive (probably because I did not want to). If ever I tried to ask about what she did before, she’d only say something like “that was another me.”

Given my experience in finding strange things, I felt certain to excel in the sphere quest. This morning while picking up my groceries, I was so deep in planning that I almost didn’t notice that the other me was also shopping. I hid, clutching a challah in both hands with the basket over my arm, behind a bakery shelf. It was absolutely me, not that I had any doubts. She had my same white morning bandana on, except hers was blue, and my Love Pink sweats, except hers were gray, and she was squeezing avocados just like I do. It dawned on me that I, too, had to buy an avocado, but suddenly, inexplicably, I was afraid of her. The grocery store is no place to discuss the gelatin sphere.

When I got home there was a text from Veronica. It said “Are you ok? Pls txt me, I want to know that youre ok.”

I immediately sat at the computer to work on the sphere issue. I typed “satisfying video’ into YouTube, and began looking through the thumbnail results. As expected, the sphere appeared as a video thumbnail after only minimal scrolling. I watched the whole video for methodology’s sake, but once again it was simply another compilation, lots of kinetic sand and industrial paint, nothing really special, no sphere.

I made a screencap of the thumbnail of the sphere, and cropped out everything around it. I sat it large in the center of the screen and, upon studying it, I noticed two key pieces of new information: one, the red of the mesh was somewhat unnatural, as if had been enhanced. Why? What did the redness indicate? And two, I recognized the hand that was holding it. Specifically I recognized the thumb, the blunt, square nail.

My phone buzzed. I’ve been trying not to check notifications since the firing incident, but there was a news alert (“CNN: Trump Says He Knows Oprah’s Weakness”), and a missed call from Veronica. The red badge blossoming over the little green phone icon frightened me even more than seeing myself shopping for avocados.

I turned the phone face down on my desk. The hand that continually threatened to lower the red mesh almost certainly belonged to the mysterious owner of Pom Pom Toys, one of the most prolific purveyors of satisfying videos. I’ve only ever seen the creator’s hands, but I’d know them anywhere. I felt the joy of wild affirmation in my heart. Of course something this tantalizing could only come from a pure, original source!

Pom Pom has meticulously created and destroyed gelatinous objects in a dazzling array of colors and shapes, from globes to toilets to ducks to ice cream bars, often with glitter. Key works include “DIY How To Make ‘Colors Facebook Cream Gummy Pudding Learn Colors Slime Clay” (1.1 million views); “DIY How To Make Combined with All the Colors Slime Clay Aquarium Learn Colors Slime Icecream Toys” (5.6 million views); “DIY How To Make ‘Turtle Real Robotic Colors Orbeez Aquarium’ Learn Colors Slime Icecream (445k views)”, and “Kinetic Sand ColorsHuman Toy DIY Learn Colors Slime (9.8 million views).” To date Pom Pom has uploaded over 2,000 satisfying videos, some — for example “Water Balloons Slime Colors Glitter Mini Circle Learn Colors Slime Water Clay Toys”, 41k views — as recently as two days ago. To discover the sphere in this plentiful haystack would be a feat indeed.

The phone buzzed and I froze. Then it buzzed again, like a beetle dying in a window. Cautiously I flipped it over with my fingertips.

“Job search started yet?” Veronica texted.

“Kind of,” I replied after staring for a few minutes at the wall, trying to will myself to ignore her.

“Just wanted to say that while you may struggle for employment rn so soon after the etc etc, we may be able to do some footprint cleanup for you in a bit.”

I already knew this was part of my severance package, so I felt irritated toward her. “What types of things do you watch on YouTube,” I texted. I looked at the screen waiting for her to reply. It seemed like a long time passed as I waited. Already she was tired of me again. I could get whiplash.

There was no way I was going to be able to watch every single video on Pom Pom Toys. Even in all the time I’ve spent watching satisfying videos, I’ve watched maybe only 20 percent of the Pom Pom Toys oeuvre. I tried uploading the screencap of the gelatin sphere thumbnail into Google images reverse search, to see what associated videos it could recommend.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The blue gelatin sphere was not alone.

There was a tall green sphere beneath a red wire mesh. There was a nest of different colored spheres beneath a mesh. There were orbs in mesh, under mesh. I felt my hands shaking. The phone buzzed, but I ignored it. I was going to need a bottle of wine from the corner shop. It was already getting dark, so thankfully I did not see the other me anywhere along the way. However, I did get a rude shock when I recognized the laundromat girl in front of me in line.

“Hey,” she said as she paid for her toilet roll. “About that joke I showed you, I didn’t really get the chance to tell you I’ve changed. I don’t want you to think I’m, like, that kind of person.”

“I don’t,” I said, but the truth was I no longer found her cute.

“I don’t really judge you about your thing,” she added in a desperate kind of way, glancing at the clerk who was bagging my wine. The clerk looked at me properly right then.

“That was another me,” I told her, and I got out as fast as I could.

I walked home in a hurry with my hood pulled up, not looking around at anyone. I dialed my therapist, thinking, look at me, doing the sensible thing. But it wasn’t to be. “I’m sorry,” the assistant told me, “she’s with another patient right now.” A-ha, I thought, well played, other me. The sphere issue crawled right up into my throat and knotted.

“What are you doing now,” Veronica texted around 11:30 p.m. She might as well be a gelatin sphere thumbnail, the continually appearing suggestion of something that may not be real.

I had gone through pages of referrals from the Google reverse images search, chasing not only the blue sphere, but also this new, taller and more aggressive green shape, also the child-like nest of colored baby spheres. I wandered through a black hall of ad-studded portals (“Donald Trump Says Mitt Romney Was A Frozen Jellyfish in 2012”) festooned with YouTube embeds, reproductions, even more artifacted and virulent than their deceptive sources.

The world of gelatin spheres and red mesh was far greater than I had dared imagine. Unexpectedly I felt anguished and overwhelmed in the face of it all.

“I can’t figure out what something is,” I texted Veronica back.

“Don’t worry,” she replied immediately. “You’re a good researcher.”

My heart surged and my neck ached despite myself. She was continuing. I found myself holding my breath, hanging from the silvery ellipsis of Veronica on my screen.

At last she hit send: “Gary actually said you could even get hired back on the DL once it all blows over. A lot of the clients came down on the side of your free speech. They didn’t think it was that bad.”

Oh, no. The free speech people?! This didn’t cheer me at all, and it was so far from what I had been hoping to hear that I was distraught. Red wine burned my cheeks angrily and I felt a headache coming on. Wanting air, I put my phone in my sweatpants pocket, ran past the elevator, down the building stairwell, and out the front door.

I almost ran right into her. Me.

She was coming up the walk, wearing a leather jacket something like mine, her hand already searching her pocket for keys. We both froze when we saw each other, although this time I didn’t feel afraid so much as apprehensive. Which one of us was real?

“How’s it going with the sphere?” she asked, and a panic alarm began to pound in me when I heard the calm in her voice, I stiffened, wasn’t she afraid, didn’t she know how wrong the world had gone? But she never stopped moving closer to me, and as she advanced I found I couldn’t speak, or even try to evade her. She approached inexorably, and when she got close enough she reached out her arms. With the familiar creaking of leather she folded me in and she hugged me.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “You’re okay.”

We held very still together. One of her hands found the gnarled little curls at the nape of my neck, under my ponytail, that only I would know how to find, and the hair rose on my scalp as she smoothed them.

Then she released me and I heard her keys jingle and the front door shut behind her and I was alone outside. I didn’t bring my own keys, I slowly realized. There was nothing left in the world for me to do, so naturally I sat on the front step, opened my phone, and cropped a thumbnail of the blue gelatin sphere out of my YouTube app.

When I reverse image searched it (“The Week: Donald Trump just made funny faces with a water bottle and yelled ‘It’s Rubio!’”), I saw the results had text tags this time. Many said “1000 DEGREE WIRE MESH.” Why hadn’t I noticed the text before? Do the results look different in my phone than on my computer? Of course they do. Of course!!

In a sudden frantic surge I typed “1000 DEGREE WIRE MESH” into YouTube, and instantly there it was after years of wondering: A video on Pom Pom Toys called “1000 Degree Wire Mesh Vs Soft Jelly Gummy Learn Colors Slime Icecream.” 10.8 million views. I felt like I’d just found Atlantis, fully populated and entirely alive.

Here it is. Here it is.

In the dark, the bright square of phone is all I can see. Trembling, I press play on the video and watch an ad, for a drug called Belsomra (suvorexant) (C-IV), which cannot be skipped. Then comes the wire mesh. It is briefly red because it is superheated. The sizzling sound seems suspicious, as if edited in, but the apocalyptic hiss is no less satisfying when it presses into the gelatin, cleaves neatly through.

The entire firm structure wilts beautifully to the right. Then it melts and is ruined. Farewell, gelatin sphere. Even the idea of a sphere dissolves. A great and susurrating wave of pleasure washes coolly over the surface of my brain like one of those old mouthwash advertisements, and suddenly everything — I mean all of it, everything I know — makes exquisite sense. Oh finally, I find myself sighing out loud, oh, finally, oh finally. Goodbye, sphere, goodbye to you.

Special thanks to Kenton DeAngeli, Laura Hudson and Marissa Cetin for editorial support.



Leigh Alexander

I write about the intersection of technology, popular culture and the lives we’ve lived inside machines. I’m also a narrative designer! leighalexander1 at gmail