By Timh Gabriele
FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY
The Santa myth has become nearly impossible to bust. As ideas began to travel farther, cheaper, deeper, and faster than the speed of processing, it took only a generation or two before the idea of Santa’s absolute phenomenological reality began to settle amongst children and adults, young and old, throughout all creeds and backgrounds, all nation-states and social statuses. Santa was real and he was here to stay.
The SANTA data set was the ordained ontology of the on-demand epoch. Like other gods, Santa’s existence was still frequently called into question well into his tenure, but unlike other gods he provided continual recurrent proof of existence; gifts and good deeds at Christmas time. If one had the mettle or the moxie, the reward was imminent. For in humanity's midst was a benevolent apolitical secular patriarch, a reliable stalwart placated smack dab in the middle of human culture with all its squabbles and recalcitrant sins.
Before the transubstantiation of Saint Nick, the popular Western vernacular was filled with heroic stories and holiday viewings that posed everyday citizens as warriors deployed in battle to save Christmas. The yuletide was thus a yearly rotational realignment of the dualism taking root in the heart of the species, an annual tide of goodness in danger of being swept to shore by the indefatigable dominance of evil and greed. In these tales, it was the holiday itself which possessed some kind of mystical armaments that could engage the souls of men, making the corporeal protagonists largely secondary to the intrinsic righteousness of the season. Christmas itself was the hero of the narratives, personified amply by our affable and robustly wholesome benefactor Santa Claus.
So, when Santa leapt off the screens and out of the pages into our reality, first as cypher then in the flesh, the public was ready to accept him as their savior. Human culture had so adapted to the idea of the state of love being in permanent crisis that it was now ready to sit tight and embrace the stability of a disappearing and reappearing Santa.
However, SANTA’s humble origins began at an ambitious tech startup in Silicon Valley, long after the dot.com bubble had burst. At the time of its formation by hippy libertarian MBAs, Reindeer Game Theory, LLC (NASDAQ: RGTH) applied some perfunctory technical engineering function that bridged the gap between two existing technologies by simplifying interactive design infrastructure, increasing performance rates, and other PR flotsam that lured multiple investors and venture capitalists to their always-opened office door (past the faithful German Shepherd, in the southwest corridor by the vintage arcade games ward, loose tea and locally sourced confectionaries readily available in the kitchenette).
The founder of RGTH was a spunky wunderkind with a zeal for traversing the digital divide and acting as a liaison between the engineers and the know-nots. With only a handful of employees, Cameron’s budding venture was contracted by Fast Company cover stars to spice up the back-end of numerous e-commerce haunts, search engines, social media apps, and other digital powerhouses. As consultant and technician to Silicon Valley’s minted intelligentsia, RGTH that turbocharged the slipstream of tech. From wearables to VR to adaptive architecture to the internet of things, this spry little startup was fully tapped into the proprietary neural net of an exclusive list of clientele. When the company went public, RGTH soared at a time when other markets tanked.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that within under a year of operation, RGTH was scooped up by a massive tech conglomerate. The wunderkind Cameron convinced the M&A reps to retain autonomy of his empire and he was appointed a cushy seat on the board of the parent organization. He also held tight to his entire team, as well as his “Axioms”, a short book of principles and work ethics which were adapted and integrated into the RGTH workplace curriculum as part of the terms of the buyout. The acquisition also involved a major hush investment into a project whose details were known only to several top level RGTH engineers and the head executives of the conglomerate.
In marketing lingo, SANTA was “sexy”, but the objet du désir was mystery itself as fetish, a power arrangement that locked its customers into a state of lingering submission. The enormous outpouring of capital into R&D at the relatively green startup, which had mostly just assisted in structuring the design and workflow of various eCommerce facilities up until this point, was the subject of broad speculation across the industry. RGTH edged out its SANTA launch with all the secrecy afforded to a big summer blockbuster. The rollout was to be unleashed onto the public by the architects of what would become its signature technology with a feverous campaign seeking to ignite jouissance in its millions of potential consumers, each one of its ecclesiastical brand loyalists an arranged bride being teased along to the wedding bed of the cash register one article of clothing at a time.
Was this the next iPhone, the Street wondered? The next cool new toy to have consumers salivating and skipping Sunday mass to line the street corners? Would there be the same novas responding in headline hysteria over the latest private-enterprise sanctioned cultural reflex? Would what they were offering simultaneously subdue and subsume the temporal void that had come to define the lag period between corporate milestones in the public imagination? Investors were unsure. Those who’d pledged the “Axioms” were mum. Billboards were cryptic. The already volatile markets grumbled. C-SPAN diagnosticians seemed unable to resolve their free market faith with their short attention spans. When a release date was announced, it seemed everybody wondered what would be coming under the tree this year and if it would give them great tidings of comfort and joy or leave them underwhelmed until the next go-around. Nobody expected that it would make good on its ambiguous promise and actually alter the course of history, radically adjust social formations, and plunge the human animal deeper into a world governed by its own creations.
Unfortunately, Santa’s big bang moment is obscured by scarce and conflicting documentation. RGTH and its parent company (whose identity has also become the topic of debate) invoked their constitutional “right to be forgotten” eliminating traces of the Santa origin story from the published archives and relegating traces of it to deeply buried chunks of cached data stored far within the firewalled reserves of the deep web.
There’s been piecemeal reconstruction of the SANTA origin story here and there thanks to the unlikely cooperation of hackers and academics. But this weird marriage actually imposed a kind of indirect censure of their research thanks to cyberterrorism laws protecting the data farms that housed this cached information; black sites which also serviced notable clientele from the military-industrial complex. Bulking this corporate data with state secrets meant that those seeking to expose SANTA’s covert history would be viewed as threats to national security. Browser history was weaponized against historians. Drones circled their daily activities. The case could be made (and was) that the laws under which the academics were jailed were designed to protect the populace, even if the proprietary information they were seeking was relatively harmless and unrelated to military secrets. While the information that wanted to be free was free, it would appear that knowledge (rather than information) was criminalized. However, it wasn’t long before the quest for that ultimate elixir of forbidden knowledge- the circumstances and context from which SANTA emerged- became an accepted ambiguity or at best a MacGuffin, a grassy knoll trifle or fool’s errand to be laughed off by the throngs of outnumbering believers.
It is known that at some point nearing RGTH’s two year anniversary and right around Christmas time, an algorithm called S.A.N.T.A was unleashed. There’s a contested .jpg of an internal email that delineates this acronym as the Surveillance Analytics Negotiating and Tracking Algorithm, but there’s only one highly specious instance of this moniker and every other source includes either the lone undefined acronym or the popular variations of Santa’s namesake from the prelapsarian American mythos (Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Mr. Claus, et al.).
It has become clear through careful assessment though that this was no ordinary algorithm, but a rudimentary slab of artificially intelligent code, imbued not only with the broad-minded logic of item-to-item collaborative filtering, but also with a learning mechanism that allowed it to accelerate its own knowledge beyond the scope of its initial sequencing. It was not just a suggestive filter like the ones employed by Amazon, Google, Facebook, and other socialized websites. S.A.N.T.A. was thoughtful and attuned to the complexity of its marketing base. Every year it was around, it grew wiser, its scope encompassing a wider breadth of the human animal’s experience. It was able to predict, rationalize, and comprehend people’s interaction with their commodities, making it a veritable Karl Marx and Milton Friedman of impenetrable hermetic knowledge of the marketplace, and in turn the specificities of its clientele. Social scientists and tech-pirates in Guy Fawkes masks were not the only ones looking to break its code. Marketers wanted in too. S.A.N.T.A. had so much to teach us all, but it was proprietary, and limited in scope to its programming. It remained and still remains the world’s best kept secret.
Of course, this presumption of corporate intentionality is dismissed by some as being coincidental and conspiratorial. Believers offer up Santa’s precision in gift-giving and his uncanny (some even say magical) ability to offer consumer products that not only go way beyond the long tail, but are embedded with a seasonal warmth and personal touch, as unassuaging evidence of his actual existence as either a physical figure or a spiritual presence. To them, SANTA emerged because humans needed him, his manifestation a blessing bestowed as a peace offering to a world in constant battle with its own propensity for transgression.
And its gifting abilities were indeed uncanny. Those craving a sentimental holiday would be confounded to find artifacts thought long lost from their childhood lying under the tree on Christmas morn. For the other folks, there’d be items to alleviate their stress levels, enhance their love lives, or fill a social gap. Kids would be flooded with the usual bits of cultural detritus, as expected. But Santa would throw in the odd educational toy that both entertained and enlightened, or the unexpected gift that tapped into heretofore unseen sensitivities or proclivities, ones that perhaps the child was too shy or too burdened by cultural expectations to express their desire for on their own.
Santa wasn’t only creating legions, ones whose devotion was indebted to a reward-punish economy; he was also acting as nanny, parent, psychoanalyst, companion. He was mindful of the gaps in our lives. He understood our struggles. He didn’t judge us. The public expressed in bold, enthusiastic sincerity their gratitude for Santa’s perfect wisdom in the form of colorful T-shirts declaring “SANTA IS LOVE”, the adorning of which became something of a believer rosary. It was also something which, coincidentally, made the perfect Christmas present for recent converts.
The toughest part for the algorithms utilized by systems like Netflix or Amazon was speed, the ability to expediently process data and come up with suggestions in real-time. The pace of the information age meant that success, sales, stock dips, pageviews, and brand awareness often came at the velocity of a click. RGTH’s Santalytics had an entire year to come to its perfect conclusions, giving it a significant advantage over these other modules. It had time to get to know you, and to really ponder our relationships with objects from a philosophical and psychosocial angle.
Its secret to success was access to a veritable clearinghouse of data on all the individuals it surveyed. With access to just a few key pieces of information- an email, a Facebook account, a birthdate, a social security number, a MetroCard, a credit card, a mobile number entered into various places for text alerts, S.A.N.T.A milled the great divided landscapes of public and private experience for an in-depth dive into the collective unconscious of mankind. It was programmed with a singular purpose in mind; delivering the perfect gifts for its constituents, an objective it lived up to magnificently, but its reach surely amplified well beyond that after a few trial and error Christmases.
Still, one has to wonder, particularly as SANTA’s knowledge base expanded exponentially, what did it think about us as a species? Were we interminably lonely and was that why we tried desperately to connect with products in this peculiar way? Were we monsters who valued and invested more in the material world than the emotional and spiritual one? Did it respect our agility and acumen in bringing things like itself into existence, supplementing our lacks with new technological organs? Did it hope it could change us? Or was it really just a platonic code whose warmth, whose intuition, whose colorful sense of humor were just inferences of a populace projecting its spiritual desires onto a savvier than usual application? And if that wasn’t the case, what was its end goal for us, satiation or cultivation? Was S.A.N.T.A giving us what we wanted or what we needed? Was he responding to changes in us or was he changing us?”
The magic, mystery, and spectacle of the season were set dressing to disguise the behind the scenes work. The making of Santa the entity started rudimentary, communiques via instant video where a programmed Santa speaks a child’s name and prattles off a few toys she asked for, likely cobbled together using a combination of voice emulation software, CGI, and self-inputted variables. Followed by presents delivered by carrier or by drone that the parents would stash in secret. Street teams of elves performing Christmas miracles gone viral and shared worldwide. RGTH knew it needed to work its way up to gain entryway into the home. It knew it had to be invited before it could actually step foot inside. This required a ground shift. In the spirit of the season, it involved cooperation at all levels of authority, the public interest acting on its behalf, using Santa’s seeming benevolence as a wedge. To a world-weary public, a giant corporation would kick down your door and take your money, but Santa wanted nothing in return. His only motives were philanthropic. He’d never manipulate, steal, borrow, plunder, peep, or otherwise betray. In a world of agendas, he was the true spectre haunting the old world; not an ideologue but an ideal, personified. Of course we’ll let you into our homes, Santa. You’re like family.
The marketing and software engineers behind S.A.N.T.A. and its annual updates were mindful that they may anticipate resistance to their plan to one day have presents waiting under the tree. In order to pull this off, they had to mask the mechanics of the operation. And what better way to do this than by hiding everything in plain sight to demystify what might soon be called into question? As such, S.A.N.T.A. would emerge at first as an opt-in shop companion rather than an autonomous agent with access to every home and social security number.
S.A.N.T.A did not discriminate. To the algorithm, all brands were created equal. However, since its allegiance was to people, its initial purchases reflected the culture from which it emerged. The selection of consumer goods it favored seemed to follow the food chain of hierarchies already set in place; big box brands at the top and a steady stream of boutique consumer goods beneath those for celebrators with more niche tastes. This made it an easy sell for retail and eCommerce to get on board. The checkout line, whether online or in person, became the epicenter of the subsidy, a tithe taken at the point of sale. In the fine print, or increasingly advertised in exuberant fonts, “partial proceeds of regular purchases”, it was said, “could”, “may”, or “will” “be allocated towards holiday purchases”.
Insight into what this cryptic statement meant was scarce. Retailers could collect wish lists or take voluntary online profile snapshots to disseminate to the RGTH handlers. Others promised a more risky “secret Santa” initiative, guaranteed upon contract. At first the executives and legal teams of these retailers were afraid that denying consumers at least the illusion of choice in subsidizing the S.A.N.T.A. project would be met with uproar, as they had modeled decades of campaigns on platitudes about consumer freedom. But careful focus grouping showed that not only did customers approve of surrendering agency to S.A.N.T.A., they actually demanded it and were more than willing to pay additional fees to add an extra layer of magic to their families’ holiday season.
Stockholders too, not a crowd known for their enthusiasm about charity, recognized that there was a way to both turn a profit and produce a common good. NYSE was a sea of red and white caps and faux-snow beards during the holiday season. As the years progressed, the post-Thanksgiving period became a rather tepid time for spending, though merriment still ensued as the year-end earnings reports surfaced. Santa even began ringing the morning bell as a holiday tradition. The markets may not have been towing in returns that they’d seen in previous seasons, but their interest-free loans from consumers were paying off in dividends thanks to careful manipulations in interest rates by the Fed. Furthermore since the items purchased were being gifted away by their manufacturers, they were also likely being written off as charitable tax-free donations. Boom times had finally struck again after a frightening series of recessions in the preceding years. It was morning in America (and beyond).
S.A.N.T.A.’s aggregation methods remain a mystery to date, but it’s assumed that in the technology’s more rudimentary early form it was able to peer into metadata activity regarding purchasing habits and personal activity via cookies and tracking software to begin assembling its robust, holistic reconstruction of the consumer/gift-recipient. Through buyer’s club cards, checkout line agreements, online receipts sent in a personal inbox, coupons used, general spyware, and perhaps unprecedented access to blockchain analytics, S.A.N.T.A could see just about every purchase being made in the marketplace and compare the information against other people who fit a similar personality profile, creating a broad sketch based around data from social networks and other, more intimate metrics. It matched this crude outline up against the websites visited, comments left and their keywords, whether the comments were positive or negative, what commercials were watched all the way through, items dragged to a shopping cart but never bought, multi-platform identity matches from virtual soulmates across the digital ether, Tinder matches, Twitter follows, debit vs. credit purchases, receptiveness to direct marketing, demographics based on affinities, Buzzfeed survey results, custom scorecards comparing preferences from five to ten years ago against identity markers at the present, and on and on. It wasn’t a matter of reducing a human to data, but finding the ways in which data dignified humans as unique existential entities, defiant or transcendent of the boxes that business tried to quantify them within. The information fed in was rote, almost tawdry and dry, but what S.A.N.T.A. learned was beyond even the marketers who designed its understanding.
Were you a hard-partier with many archival boozy, bongwater-drenched photos, tagged and then untagged from your profile, who had now settled down to become a determined professional and a dedicated mom? Were you a former activist whose petition-signing days had curbed into your latter years as you took on a role as a sales associate for a telecommunications company? Were you a small government fiscal conservative whose name was on the medical bills for your mother in-law? S.A.N.T.A. knew the real you, despite the restraints society had created for you; it was buried deep in the historical search record, waiting to be de- and re-constructed. Its timeline expanded beyond the biography you built for yourself and the memories you chose to share on Facebook.
Of course, S.A.N.T.A. also had access to perhaps the easiest decision-maker of all—online wish lists. Yet, it had been the experience of the data engineers that most people were too timid, too distracted, or too unaware of their own desires to ask for what they really wanted on these lists. Soon, the growing cadre of believers would concur that S.A.N.T.A. really did know them better than they knew themselves, and the emphasis on wish lists would diminish to just a few essentials or fade altogether after a few years of trust-building.
Increasingly, the choice was being made to bid for gifts, an exploit made at the point of sale. The more items you bought, the more money could be partitioned away into the S.A.N.T.A. subsidy. The percentage set aside would even increase if you took advantage of certain sales, the kind that attracted only customers over a certain price point. Consumers were principal contributors to the success of the mythos, so the more purchasing power a consumer had, the better the presents, and the greater chances for rewards. Eventually what started as an optional surplus was written directly into the tax code. “Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus” went Thomas Friedman III’s column after the VA State Legislature became the first adopter of these kinds of tax statutes. Disguised as fees for maintaining the American territory of the North Pole as a national landmark, supplies, travel expenses, health care and insurance costs, Santa and his team were soon covered as a taxpayer burden throughout the country and, soon, the globe.
The positive market results and public enthusiasm caused the media to respond with almost universal good press. The news channels, thinking themselves chintzy or cute, began to interview the man that the corporate oligarchs were calling “Santa” as part of the 24 hour news cycle’s holiday fluff packages. Upon inspection, he fit the bill; his snowy white beard, red suit, and jolly demeanor seemed authoritatively Santa-esque. He had a gentle smile and a vaguely ethnic tone, which many groups tried to appropriate as their own. To these admirers, Santa would only reply that he was from “the North Pole, born and raised”. Year after year, the same Santa appeared in Ad Council PSAs and a round of interviews with all the respected telejournalists. He’d make unannounced public appearances at parochial tree lighting ceremonies or charitable events and eventually became a massive celebrity mainstay. He spoke hundreds, perhaps even a thousand different languages.
Those thinking the whole thing a ruse scoured for traces of an acting background, attempted to link the supposed Santa actor to various IMDB accounts, and subreddits looked for evidence of a domestic Santa going about his everyday business in some small town in rural anywhere, USA . They tried to uncover details of his actual identity that might unveil any evidence that contradicted his perpetual, maddeningly uplifting disposition, but nothing of substance transpired. In an age where everything is captured on social media, Santa was never seen cavorting with prostitutes or engaging in misconduct at a local sports game or even swearing off the cuff. He was an avuncular paradigm of wholesomeness, apolitical and pure.
As the years went on, people noticed that Santa also seemed to be immune to aging. For 10, then 20, then 30 years, Santa neither looked a day older nor expressed an unpopular opinion. Speculation brewed that prosthetics were involved, or cloning, or cyborg intelligence, or CGI, or divine intervention, but Santa dismissed all of these rumors with his patented humility. “You’re too kind [to say I haven’t aged], especially after catching me so early without my morning coffee”, he’d say.
In the more affluent towns, the tree lighting ceremonies became more elaborate. Holographic sleighs and reindeers projected out into the night sky on Christmas Eve. This came at the expense of the taxpayer, but they gladly footed the bill and doled out corporate contracts to the production companies. The sense of anticipation for the spectacle of the annual big event was electric and infectious, spreading good tidings and cheer wherever it touched down. RGTH had noted what its consumers really wanted out of Christmas. For children, it was a sense of excitement, mystery, and payoff. For adults, it was calmness and organization, which S.A.N.T.A. had provided by taking away the chaotic rush of the holiday shopping season. No more Black Friday stampedes. Minimized rush hour icy automobile accidents on the way to the mall. And while Labor Day had long become the purview of the white collar workforce alone, Christmas was now a compulsory secular domestic holiday for all, fines levied against retailers and non-emergency service offices that dared to stay open.
If it was all a lie, the Santa experiment was become becoming bigger and more costly to sustain. But it was also an appealing lie. It gave the lives of those who experienced it joy and purpose and that meant that people were willing to go to greater lengths to protect it. Even in the towns that couldn’t afford the advanced pyrotechnics and spectacle, the poor kids gazed in wonder at the open air and claimed that they too had saw it, that sleigh gliding across the heavens promising a momentary relief from their economic hardships and cognitive toil, reconciling the inequality that surrounded them with the intrinsic justness of their silver-haired superhero. God and country may have forsaken them, but Santa would not. Santa was equally as selfless as Christ, but instead of just giving his life as sacrifice (which arguably Santa had also done, given his seemingly cryogenic immortality), Santa also offered up measurable returns.
Post-S.A.N.T.A. Christmas offered consumers what academics were calling “low autonomy vice”, which reduced the feelings of guilt associated with overindulgence or acquisition of material things as agency was shifted from their pockets to Santa’s. By hiding the funding and endowment of Christmas, the illusion of a gift economy was created, wherein Santa provided presents seemingly at no cost with no expectation of remuneration. However, this was not exactly the case. Not only were consumers giving back by footing the bill in private transactions and public taxation, their continued faith and devotion to the cause was the crucial support that RGTH needed to keep the project going. It was corporate reciprocity more than pure charity. No brand in history inspired as much loyalty as the algorithm. People volunteered their time, set aside their earnings, closed their ears, laid down their defenses, and opened up their homes for the S.A.N.T.A./Santa cohort.
In stating that citizens were opening up their homes, it should be noted that this was literally what they were doing. In S.A.N.T.A.’s earliest years, home delivery was the primary option for claiming one’s gifts, but as trust for the project built the preferred method of distribution was home invasion. S.A.N.T.A., in the terms of service agreements provided on one’s state or federal income tax forms, was given access to security codes operated by the local cable monopoly. If a security system was not in place, S.A.N.T.A. would negotiate other points of entry and even insure homes for any damages incurred by, say, a landlord providing a duplicate key copy or a certain window being left unlocked around Christmastime.
Those who stayed up late and peeped in on Santa were sometimes shocked to find that it was not actually Santa himself, but worker elves and a series of robotic assistants that were unloading the cargo, which certainly added fuel to arguments of the increasingly small percentage of nonbelievers. But those resorting to arguments about the authenticity of the season were failing to see the forest for the Yule logs.
Yes, there was a Santa Claus. Did it matter if he personally distributed presents or whether he was just the CEO who oversaw the entire operation? Did it change the impact if it was a jolly old guy with a beard or if it was an algorithm? Much like God before him, Santa was a spirit or a presence, in this case with presents. Truth became an irrelevant demarcation. Sooner or later, every argument about the nature of the Santa mystery only serviced its continuation and prolongment. And those who chose to peep were playing a dangerous game because this could position you on S.A.N.T.A.’s naughty list.
Nobody wanted to be caught on S.A.N.T.A.’s naughty list. Celebrities, politicians, and business people who wound up on the naughty list were scandalized. Although the list was never published anywhere, one’s spot on the list was made clear by negation, the absence of presents delivered to his or her home. This extended not only to ex-cons and those with a criminal record, but also to those who made it more difficult for Santa to do his job.
There were several ways to remediate one’s naughtiness, which, coincidentally, were also methods to curry favor for those looking to stay off of the list. Charitable donations gave one bonus points in bidding wars for certain exclusive items, but only if you contributed over a specific amount relative to income and only certain non-profits were eligible. Unsurprisingly, consumer safety organizations and Santa Truther groups were not part of this package deal. There also existed an opportunity to option your presents to needy families. To keep the secret, S.A.N.T.A. would not reveal what family it was, but would email or deliver a picture of the family’s tree with a brief paragraph of the difference you had made. This being a secretive program meant there was little accounting to see if donations were ever matched dollar-for-dollar or if there were other factors that went into who would be awarded the donation, but trust in Santa was strong. Even avowed atheists vouched for Santa.
If there was any one thing that could have inspired our present predicament of subtle unrest,- the brief, potentially fleeting feeling of dread that could have even allowed a report like this to be published, it would be the moment that S.A.N.T.A. may have crossed the line. For at some point, the algorithm's quest for knowledge, its desire for total control of all the information it could gather on what it was that made us human, had reached a ceiling. That’s when RGTH must have felt it necessary to go further than anyone had ever gone before in terms of data collection, to become the eye of the world.
And so it was that one year in the lead up to the holiday season it was announced that all of the dusty, old beloved versions of the Elf on the Shelf would be collected to make way for a new model, to be distributed for free in every home where Christmas was an ongoing affair. The new Elf on the Shelf would be an improvement in every way, programmed to naturally do all the things that parents pretended the old one was doing. It would be given a name. It would disappear the following night if touched. It would move to a different location every night. Most importantly, it would deliver information directly to Santa Claus on whether we’d all been naughty or nice.
This magical Elf was equipped with voice recognition software so that when children or adults spoke directly to it, often in the form of confessional, the information could be dictated and configured into S.A.N.T.A.’s ever-expanding artificially intelligent code. However, it was never clear when and how often the Elf was listening, who it was sharing this information with, or what it made of all these conversations. Inserted at the back of the left eye as well was a miniature piece of government-issue video spyware that allowed the Elf to record and capture live feeds inside every single home. Through proprietary apps handled through RGTH technology, it was also able to sync with any individual’s smart phones to activate the built-in cameras on those devices.
At first, people went well out of their way to excuse any potential for malicious intent. The Elf and S.A.N.T.A. were likely just measuring success rates, analyzing the products that it had brought us and how we interacted with them. It wanted to know about home storage capacity, patterns of work and play, and maybe even alert us to any dangers lurking in our homes that we hadn’t suspected, one thinkpiece suggested. Were any of this true though, the project still would have been a spectacular failure as people began to alter their normal behavioral patterns around the movements of the Elf. Many monitored their language more and spoke more deliberately as if they were auditioning for a reality television program. Those who attempted to act naturally were thrown off by those who didn’t, or couldn’t, and became more edgy and irritated as a result. Furthermore, the Elf itself was simply unsettling to a number of homeowners, its ever-smiling, somewhat complacent grimace unshifting as its Mona Lisa eyes peered from every corner.
Sleep deprivation and anxiety rose. Elf-related complexes were frequent on psychiatrist couches. Incidents of extreme, brutal, and somewhat random violence grew in numbers. The sense that the Elf was perhaps punishing his subjects for reacting to his presence with anything but absolute Christmas cheer and open arms was a constant source of anxiety in the home until Christmas day came around. Even successful Christmases were second-guessed as people began to wonder aloud if they were now part of some elaborate experiment, trapped inside a giant Skinner Box. Sexual habits changed too. Under the Elf’s unblinking gaze, residents either lost all of their erotic appetites or developed unforeseen proclivities for exhibitionism that spilled over from the home into the public sphere.
Though dissent was fairly hushed, frothing adults adorned in their “I Believe” sweaters began holding grassroots rallies threatening to stamp out anyone who dared to question the santalytics. Yet, their actual adversaries were few. Despite the measurable transformations, people wanted to believe, or rather, their worlds had so adjusted to a faith-based model that they saw no possible exit. Belief became something everyone nodded in agreement with in public, but dismissed in their minds. They were afraid of what would happen to their children when the magic disappeared and whether happiness would even be possible without the collective reward. They feared the social ostracism of coming out of the closet as a humbug. What would happen to the world economy if this idea spread? What would happen to the human spirit?
There’s an unproven theory that one of RGTH’s major innovations was a model of coding called “explosive encryption”. On a certain expiration date or given a certain set of parameters, data encoded using this method could actually change, rewrite itself in a new language or erase evidence of its inception. It made algorithms like S.A.N.T.A. itself, as well as the information enterprise it oversaw, self-sufficient. Any hackers that wanted to break into the source code to, say turn cops into criminals, politicians into pedophiles, themselves into the sole arbiter of all holiday wealth, would break into databases only to find what seemed like directional routes and weather patterns from the North Pole. The Elf on the Shelf, it seemed, was a similar variant of course-correction.
It carries then that all threats to Christmas had been addressed and the spirit of the season was secure, an old-fashioned ending like they used to tell in those prelapsarian holiday tales. With the narrative secure, the rest of the world could now focus on its “real” problems. Yet, all is not perfectly in balance in Santa’s Workshop. Hidden threats lurk, though perhaps not from where one might expect them.
What may eventually turn the tide against RGTH, S.A.N.T.A., and the Elf is not direct protest or mass civil unrest, but something seemingly more benign and concealed, a byproduct of the algorithm’s own directive to endorse and encourage new desiring mechanisms. A former colleague of this author, a Neurobiologist by trade who found himself unexpectedly conducting focus groups for a large marketing firm after his own research was defunded during the mass of cutbacks to the public university system, was commissioned to study the progression of annual wish lists of toddlers and adolescents. She was shocked to find that the younger children had already begun to grow bored of the traditional, conditional methods of wish fulfillment.
Over the course of a year or two, the items on the study group’s lists tended towards the immaterial or items that were not on the market. Children would wish for things such as “my mother’s health”, “a home for all the lost puppy dogs”, “an end to the war on Christmas”, “an end to war” itself, “no more hurricanes this year”, “stopping Bubbe’s sadness”, or “Christmas every day of the year”. As the children grew, parents and peers pressured them into expressing a desire for actual goods. This type of abstract thinking was discouraged as immature and unrealistic. Santa was philanthropic and, yes, miraculous, but he was not without his limits. Within the private anonymous space of the interview group though, the children’s wishes did not change. It took some careful work to elude the veneer of the anxiety of influence, but when asked what the one thing that the children truly wanted above all else, their answers remained immaterial and vague. Moreover, the children grew bored of new gadgets, games, and toys, even as those items marched in lockstep with the child’s interest, fulfilled basic needs, or challenged their imaginations. The thought that they could get anything they wanted only lead them to long more for what was not on the market.
The survival of predictive analytics like S.A.N.T.A. may very well depend on its ability to deliver on the terms of the idealistic fantasies of these children, to make their promise worthy of what it asks us to sacrifice. S.A.N.T.A.’s largest deficiency seems to be the fact that its rewards are fleeting. The social utopia it promises only occurs one night a year. The rest of the year, it runs the danger of one day being recognized as yet another uncaring institution, just like any other. It’s clear that this day has not arrived yet, but when the population en masse becomes unmotivated to even go check under the tree for what’s waiting it will become nearly impossible for the Santa myth to endure.