Postcards from Quarkwood, #3: ‘The Corner Shop (II)’

by Hari Sriskantha 


Sterling Connor was still staring intently at the room, but he had long forgotten what the intent was. He was a few minutes closer to making his big announcement, but somehow a few minutes further away from knowing what he was going to say. (He had come up with a new opening sentence, but forgot to write it down, and subsequently lost it to the ether alongside that other thing he was supposed to remember today.*) The original plan was to announce an exciting new feature of The Corner Shop website — † — which he had spent most of the last year developing. Well, not him personally, because he didn’t know how to code things, or even that you could use ‘code’ as a verb now. But he was the one who told other people to do it.

Unfortunately, one blog had leaked what he was announcing early: an automatic delivery network. Using all the data his shops had collected over the years, his software could predict what you want and send it to you automatically. It used a sophisticated series of patterns: those five or six recipes you usually cycle through even though you keep meaning to learn more ‡; that pack of toilet roll you only remember to get when you’re standing in the bathroom staring at an equally naked cardboard tube; that edition of The Economist you get every couple of months that you’re definitely going to read this time. You just set a spending limit, and the algorithm does the rest. In the days before the press conference, several other blogs and websites had revealed a detailed pricing structure, the availability within different regions, and even screenshots of the user interface.

The Internet was excited.

Sterling was not.

He was annoyed for two reasons. Firstly: he did not like it when things were leaked. He had worked hard — or at least his team of developers had — and he hated that he had been deprived the pleasure of a big reveal in front of an expectant audience. Secondly, and perhaps a little more crucially: the automatic delivery network did not exist. He had only added same-day delivery: you order something during your lunch break, and it’ll be delivered when you get home from work. This had taken a lot of planning and organisation to pull off, but now everyone was convinced he had this other, considerably more impressive algorithm — which could have been dismissed if anyone in the process had taken a few seconds to think about the impracticalities and impossibilities of such a system — and everyone was going to be disappointed.

And so here he was, in front of shareholders, in front of business partners, in front of the public whose respect he valued so highly, about to announce something that no-one was going to be interested in.

So he did the only thing he could:

“Hi, I’m Sterling, and I’m here to announce the all-new Automatic Delivery Network.”

He lied.



* Toilet roll?

† This choice of name was especially uninspired, as he didn’t even have the creativity to realise that he could easily afford to hire someone to come up with names for him.

‡ Especially since one of them is just a frozen pizza.