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.
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.