If you could plug in to someone else’s consciousness and use it for a quick knowledge boost, would you? That is one of the moral dilemmas in Sherry Yuan’s Issue 051 story “External Processors.” Today she sat down with us and talked about the ideas behind this eerily possible tale.
LSQ: The concept of External Processors both intrigues and horrifies me. How did you create this device and the world in which they belong?
Sherry: The idea came to me in 2021 while reflecting on the experience of the pandemic lockdowns, and in particular how much it differed for people on opposite sides of gig economy apps. I live in San Francisco, which had one of the strictest lockdowns in the US. Residents who could afford it could completely avoid the risks of public areas like restaurants, buses, and grocery stores by paying other residents, through various apps, to face them instead.
I first moved to the Bay Area in 2018 for a tech internship, when Uber and Lyft were among the hottest startups. Their messaging at the time focused on bringing communities closer through ridesharing, which felt very utopian. I took one Uber ride from my office where the driver happened to be a tenured coworker. He told me he occasionally drove after work and enjoyed talking to his passengers.
By 2020, the people who’d dabbled in the gig apps as a hobby had already lost interest. With the threat of COVID-19 and the debate around whether ridesharing or Instacart was essential work, the apps felt almost dystopian. The External Processor device suddenly felt like a realistic next step.
LSQ: If not everyone has ExPs, and assignments are harder without them, why are they allowed in schools? Is the knowledge acquired by using ExPs truly earned, and does it stay with the clients, or is it fleeting?
Sherry: The school system I imagined bans ExPs for tests, but doesn’t regulate them aside from that. Of course, some students have ways to turn them on undetected and cheat on tests.
It felt reasonable that ExP would be allowed for homework and studying. It’s not too different from how some students have private tutors, who may do parts of their assignments for them.
The question about gaining knowledge is interesting; when writing this story, I thought of ExP’s main advantage as being productive rather than acquiring knowledge. But I imagine either advantage would stay with the clients. One could argue it’s as earned as any other service you can buy, like a haircut or a restaurant meal. What would be a crueler twist, which I didn’t add in this story since Mandy was able to disable her ExP without losing knowledge, is if clients had to keep paying a subscription fee to keep the knowledge gained from past ExP sessions even if they’re no longer actively using it.
LSQ: I was very surprised by Eva’s decision to become an ExP client in the end. After being a server for so many years and experiencing firsthand the toll it takes, do you think she might reconsider like Mandy did?
Sherry: I think Eva understands both the toll it takes, and that it’s the best option for a livelihood for many of the servers. My hope for Eva’s future is that she’ll find a way to change the ExP system, so that not only she can stop using it, but people will no longer have to work as servers. Unfortunately, that didn’t fit into a short story. While she’s still a student learning how the system works, she can’t afford to handicap herself. She’s worked so hard for the scholarship and I don’t imagine her risking losing it by refusing to use the ExP subscription that came with it. It’s a very “If you can’t beat them, join them” scenario.
LSQ: Who and what inspires your writing?
Sherry: What I read has the most direct impact on my writing. My favorite authors include Stephen King, Ted Chiang, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro. I also listen to a lot of short story podcasts, such as Podcastle, LeVar Burton Reads, and Clarkesworld.
I studied computer science and psychology at the University of British Columbia, and a lot of my story concepts are inspired by both innovations in the tech industry and recent psychology studies.
I joined an informal writing group in 2021, where I get together with a few friends to read each other’s stories and give feedback, and it’s been an amazing experience. It helped me polish my stories more than I can on my own and get over my fear of letting other people read my work. My fiance Russell is also a writer, and every story I’ve published has gone through multiple rounds of his editing.