My partner, Rosalynn, is not only a senior dispatcher and calltaker at the Bureau of Emergency Communications [BOEC] here in Portland, but she is finishing up her Master’s Thesis as a candidate for her MA in Folklore, which is about the narrative structures in her workplace and the impact of multi-modal forms of communication on narrative in the workplace. We’ve had several conversations to record her own thoughts about the workplace, and for me to provide a point of perspective about certain technological aspects. This conversation is part of her forthcoming thesis, and with her permission, I’m publishing it here, because I think the things we are discussing about the unavailability of technologically distinct narratives for important strategic and emergency positions are very important.
Interview with Adam Rothstein
33:15 to 43:00
October 8th, 2012
Location: The Nighthawk, North Portland
A: (33:15) (Unknown song playing in the background, sounds of other patrons at the bar talking) But it is sort of the same thing for suffering. You were wounded and you lost your limb. You fought over a long time in physical therapy to earn it back, you know? That is a discourse we have. That is a narrative we have come to accept as a way that things work, that is a way that suffering works.
R: You persevered over physical disability?
A: Yeah. You put it behind you. Something happened to you. You were damaged. And you put in the work and effort and through that [you put it behind you] you become whole again, you regain that part that was broken.
R: And in that way there is no real language for us to talk about that. We are not the people who get ejected from the car and have to be transported in three different pieces to the hospital and put back together. We don’t experience the one time severe trauma, it is daily bullshit that becomes overwhelming at times. But then too, I sit here now and have this conversation and I think of new [BOEC] trainees. It is basically two years of your life, ruined. Not like I still don’t get that… I had that today, I woke up today with my heart racing having a nightmare about dispatch and felt fucked up. But that is the difference between now, when it happens sometimes, and sometimes I get overwhelming anger I can’t control–and the beginning where I couldn’t sleep and woke up screaming and shit like that. But it is that day in and day out. It is not like it happens once when something is really bad and then you move on it through like perseverance… everyday that you go to work it happens.
A: I wonder if it is because [pause] so historically… that is a relatively new sort of thing to have happen. (Music switching to Madonna’s Material Girl) So here is a thing where it is kind of interesting it is new. There is not, a situation, a role in human history where you have to vicariously hear a very short, detail-oriented account of somebody else’s horrible trauma. And then you don’t have time to reflect on it, because your whole position is based upon you being able to deal with these quickly in succession.
R: It has existed for like thirty five years.
A: Yeah, so [pause] this is like a brand sort of new human experience that we have. We have narratives of heroes that go back thousands and thousands of years, but whatever it is that you do, whatever it is that we want to call that role, it has only existed for thirty five years. Fuck, we don’t have a narrative about it. We don’t even know what it is called, you know?
R: (36:40) Well and no one has bothered to study how it effects you, until like four months ago.
A: It makes you wonder, how long did it take us to develop our concept of heroism. So you have like the concept of the Homeric hero developing in 2000 B.C. or whatever. But clearly those weren’t the first wars. There were thousands of years to get to that point. So here we are, developing these new roles that we are throwing people into, in which they are having to deal with trauma in ways for which they don’t have a narrative pattern, and who knows if they will ever develop one before technology and society changes so that position disappears. It is something completely different. Maybe it is totally conceivable that in twenty years your job will be done by, like uhh… voice responsive algorithms. Totally possible. They just have a computer that listens to someone shout until it gets the address. It dispatches the car and that is all. There is no question, no answer, no human involved.
R: Except for the fact that I think, they will do a lot more other stuff like that before they do our job like that.
A: Well you know, that is neither here nor there.
R: After you insult me. [Adam coughs and drinks from a glass.] I am basically a computer.
A: Well, nobody’s job is safe.
R: Maybe drones will tweet themselves in thirty years.
A: That is what I am saying. Drones will see the accident in progress and just respond. Who are you gonna call? The drones are already watching. [Mutual laughter.] I am seeing my job out sourced in ten. Computers writing bullshit essays for blogs, you know. Fuck. Let alone for pay. A human will do it for free, don’t need to pay anybody. [pause] But anyway, back to the point. That calltaker/dispatcher position could disappear from human history before anybody has even named it, let alone developed a sort of narrative to cope with physiological discourse, cultural discourse. In that sense it is awesome that you are doing the project you are doing, because it is not like, “oh 911 operators, you know, Cicero wrote about 911 operators,” [laughter] we have heard that story. No this is a relatively new part of human history that is too new to be studied and, who knows what technology will bring, what history will bring in the next twenty years. Being replaced by computers is just one particular option. It could be like…
R: Apocalypse happens?
A: It could be that one quarter of Americans are basically taking 911 phone calls as they try and dispatch drones to solve all the problems we have created for ourselves.
R: (40:30) We could all be dead.
A: That is what I am saying. Eventually what your position will do is fly a drone. So you will be controlling the drone and responding to the callers at the same time. And then dispatching drones to the location to find out what exactly is going on. Then, dispatching the police. So drones will work on the dispatch end, and then they will have tactical handheld drones that police can launch for their own purposes. Police helicopters will basically be phased out and…
R: We will have the non-tactical drones, like the video camera drones.
A: Well no, you guys will fire kill shots from drones. They will adapt the military model which is where soldiers on the ground request support from the drones.
R: They will never. Culturally speaking, there would have to be a huge cultural change to imagine us being the ones… I like can’t even conceive that in the next twenty years.
A: It will be like a skill set. Cause just like cops can’t run their MDTs [mobile data terminal] now, they won’t be able to fired a heat-seeking missile from a drone.
R: This is horrifying.
A: This is…
R: Well did I tell you about the mental health desk or whatever? They are supposed to get a mental health desk at the dispatch center.
A: Is this because of the whole DOJ [the Department of Justice was investigating the use of force in the Portland Police Bureau] thing?
R: DOJ, yeah.
[REDACTED FOR PRIVACY REASONS]
A: Well, there is a lot more money in studying PTSD in drone pilots, [than 911 dispatching] so hopefully when your career syncs up with that you will be set.
R: Hmm. [long pause. KC and The Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight starts playing]
This story was submitted to the Machine of Death 2 submission call, and wasn’t accepted, for reasons not least of which are because it is just over 10,000 words long. However, I really like the story, even reading it again more than half a year after I wrote it. I wanted to explore some of the surreal concepts behind the Machine of Death idea, and needed a bit more space for this world to inhabit. There is something so bizarrely unsettling about the idea of a mortality contained within a short phrase.
Without further ado, here it is. In the standard form, the title of the story is the words on the card that comes from the Machine of Death. It’s called “Moose Moose”.
It was a steel and glass spiral extending upwards and forwards, before pulling back in rollercoaster-loop as it rose, twisting out of the view of any person standing in front of it within the enclave of high steel fence. The architecture left the individual isolated in the bright sun while the building and its inhabitants swooped backward in what might be a loop of impossible height, or, perhaps simply ending after twenty or so floors, once the whorl of the architect’s magnanimous project was out of view.
And so Maddie stood there for a moment, as the space seemed to intend that she ought to, absorbing on her face the glare from the glass above, twitching the edge of the cloth of her formal cotton jacket between her fingers, balancing expertly in her tall heels. Then forward, into the air-conditioned lobby.
The click of her heels on the marble were metronomic over the brush-cymbal HVAC tones. A sound system played the corporate theme at barely a decibel over a whisper, more suggestion of ambient electric tones than the familiar melody. Maddie approached the desk, where the stunningly beautiful security guard/receptionist raised herself on her platform behind her unused writing surface, and leaned forward in her formal cotton jacket to set the tone, and imply the answer to certain unspoken questions. The corporate logo helix in black-on-yellow shone on a button on her lapel.
“May I help you, miss?”
“Yes, I’m looking for the Complaints department?”
The formal jacket standing above her moved slightly.
“Do you have a complaint?”
“No. I mean, perhaps–I’m not quite sure. This was the only address on the website, you see.”
“So you do not have a complaint.”
“I have a question. PR said that Complaints takes all questions that relate to algorithm related inquiries.”
“You have read the FAQ?”
“On the website?”
“There is no other FAQ.”
“And you still have a complaint?”
“A question. Which they said that Complaints would answer.”
“Complaints is quite a busy department, that being the nature of the department. Are you sure your question hasn’t already been answered elsewhere?”
“So you would like to Complain.”
“Well, no… I–”
“Complaints Department is through those double doors there. Please take this ticket and this form.”
“Those doors, there.”
The woman sat and looked elsewhere. Maddie took the items from the surface of the desk and held them under her arm, while she quickly clicked across the floor towards the doors. They swung open at her proximity, and she walked onto the carpet beyond.
The edge of a moving walkway beckoned her, and she stepped on with a touch at the rubberized railing to maintain her balance under the acceleration. The belt pulled her near silently through the wide hallway: windowless, carpeted wall and ceiling, softly diminishing ranks of flat-screens. The many varieties of corporate commercial spots replayed themselves for her.
“Wish you knew more from your canonical reading? Wish that there was more in the cards?”
“…a Patented Algorithm, giving full-spectrum analysis in verb-form and tense…”
“…More Information; Your Information. You’ve heard the bottom line, now get it defined!”
“Take Another Chance, Dad! Take Another Chance Card, and know… more.”
“…my Doctor told me what I had to know, but then I had to know more. I Took Another Chance.”
“Patented Algorithm, with new contextual information derived direct from your canonical. Take Another Chance. Try Chance Networks, and start to know more!”
She looked down at the form, thinking to fill it out, but was stopped by a large bold-lettered message at the top of the form, reading “DO NOT FILL OUT THIS FORM!” And so she didn’t. The volume of the screens increased as she approached the end of the walkway.
She stepped off quickly, picking up her heels to avoid catching them in the grilled edge where the moving floor dropped away under the stationary carpet. Doors swung open quickly to reveal a room filled with chairs filled with people, talking loudly, holding up different colored pieces of paper in the air, changing the color and the height of their hands as directed by a static-tinged PA horn on the wall between three screens, all of them playing Chance Network ads. A line of people snaked the walls of the room, leading from a glass-booth-enclosed man in a formal jacket next to a door, all the way around to where Maddie stood. And so she stood for a moment, trying to determine where it was she ought to otherwise be standing. Behind her, on the closing door, was an advertisement poster image of a woman having an epiphany as she read a card. The card text clearly read the words, “purple shoe”.
Maddie didn’t like the thought of joining a queue without knowing if it was the right one to be waiting in, but the idea of simply finding a chair couldn’t be the correct decision. She looked at the materials she held. The form was blank, entries coded with combinations of number and letters, stern warnings of “FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY”. The tag had a punch-off tab, marked with a serial number, mated on the other half of the tag with a different serial number, a bar code, a proprietary data square, and in large red letters, “F1037”. She looked around the room for any sign, any indication of anything in the room matching these clues, finding nothing. Sighing, she felt her choice in footwear and formal jacket for the occasion, if nothing else, demanded quick action to match her visual impression. And so, Maddie purposefully made her way around the edge of the crowded room, trying not to catch her heels on protruding feet, snaring bag handles, and oscillating children. The heat of the room increased, as the HVAC system struggled with the heat of the living.
Maddie fanned the edges of her cotton jacket discreetly to cool the small of her back as she sidled up the the person at what seemed to be the rear of the line. A man in his fifties held his hat in his hand, moving air with it.
“Excuse me, is this a particular line?”
His voice blended with the monitors overhead, but his irritation broke through. “‘Patience’, it said! ‘Patience’! That isn’t information, that’s an insult!” He waved the Chance Card in her face.
“Personalized elaboration to clarify your life!” promised the monitor overhead.
“I understand the irony. We can all take a bit of irony. But this is abuse! This is sardonic, manipulative, exploitative, expulsionary, extra-propriary…”
Maddie decided to ask the next person.
“A Chance is more than information, it’s a technological step forward, a Chance to be proactive with your mortal future,” suggested the monitor overhead.
She tapped a woman standing hand in hand with her husband, holding an infant, two children leaning sleepy-eyed against the wall.
“Excuse me, is this a particular line?”
The family looked at her, saying nothing. She didn’t know if it was her question, or her, or something more dire to blame for creating this look of tortured ignorance on their faces. The woman looked confused, and apologized in another language, perhaps Italian, maybe Portugese? Maddie moved on.
“Integrity. Decision point. Neutron beam. Processed cheese food. Predatory insect. Information like this, contextual clues, to help you understand!” the screen suggested.
The next in line was a woman wearing the exact same brand of formal cotton jacket as Maddie, but without the heels and the skirt, with slacks and boots instead. She tried not the look at the jacket as she asked, “Is this a particular line?”
“A particular line? This is C particular line.”
“Look at your ticket, honey. See, here on mine. ‘C7491.’ C particular complaint, C particular line.”
“All of this line?”
“As far as they’ve told us. Here, let me see your ticket..” the woman plucked it from underneath the elbow of Maddie’s jacket. “No, no, no. You are F general. You can tell by the number. F, 10, and then number. You want a different line.”
“A different line?”
“F general. Sorry, honey. Don’t know where.”
The woman looked upwards as if to continue watching the monitor above, which intoned, “Each of us in an individual, and for each of us there is an individual death. And yet the canonical cards read all the same! Why not pick a card, algorithmically derrived, specifically for you? Take Another Chance!”
Maddie stood confused for a moment, and then slowly drifted towards the glass-enclosed booth, hoping that perhaps there was a sign, or maybe a chance to ask where it was that she should be. She wondered if perhaps she should have just kept waiting on the phone at home.
The people closer to the head of the line watched her suspiciously, as if they expected her to try and duck into line in front of them at any moment. Within ten feet of the booth, she was able to see a list printed on a sign riveted to the front of the booth, but there was a gaggle of strollers blocking her view. She bent down to peer through the people, and was almost knocked down as a pair of doors on the nearby wall flew open, and collided with her hip. Three maintenance men pushed in a new glass-enclosed booth, complete with formal-jacket-enclosed man enclosed-within. Theypositioned it next to the door in front of her. A Klaxon sounded, and everyone in the room jumped.
“F general! F general line! F general please step to the booth!”
There was a rush, and shouting, as people from all over the room attempted to join the line, stepped out of the old line allowing people to move up, stepped out of line before realizing they were already in the correct line and attempting to reclaim their spots, went after better seats vacated by people who joined lines or tried to improve their positions, either farther or closer to air conditioning vents, doors, other people, and the screens. Children took the opportunity to increase the level of chaos at hip-level and below.
By the time Maddie had securely reattained her posture on her heels, the line had formed behind her and snaked either through the center of the chairs, or along the wall, though this was disputed by proponents who stood to gain or lose by either eventuality.
“STEP UP please!”
It was the man in the booth. Maddie took a half-step forward and pointed her voice towards the slanted metal grill in the shape of the helix logo placed in the glass.
She slid it into the document slot.
“Complaint?” His pen hovered over the form.
“I have a question.”
“Have you read the FAQ?”
“And you would still like to complain?”
“I’d like to ask–”
“No questions here, miss. Through the doors, and head into the light.”
“The lights. Follow the lights.”
The doors buzzed, indicating they were unlocked. She took her form and tag, and stepped to the door, pressing on it gingerly. She just missed the unlock, and the doors didn’t move.
“Smartly, please! Press smartly!” The voice from the booth reminded her.
The buzz again, and she was through. It was a white hallway, with moisture damaged acoustical tiles that appeared to date back further in time than the building might have existed, extending above her in what appeared to be equal directions to the left and to the right. She stood still, looking for any sign to indicate direction. Then, from recessed LEDs in the wall, a red arrow illuminated and pointed towards the left. She followed, and as she clicked down the linoleum of the hall more arrows lit. She must be heading in the right direction, but should she slow down and let the arrows precede her? It wasn’t clear. Suddenly the arrows stopped, a buzzer sounded, and a door popped open. Maddie stopped, turned quickly, and stepped into the doorway as it closed behind her.
In front of her was a man in a formal jacket, bent low over a desk, thinning hair presented to her inquisitively, as if it were shrouded face peeking through the dark. There was a chair in front of the desk, but she decided to remain standing. A dusty terminal on the desk, dark, but fan humming. The tag on the desk read: “Milten”. Behind the desk, was a typical advertisement poster for the company, featuring one of their yellow cards with the watermarked helixed logo, marked with a Chance, reading “linguine”.
The man looked up from his writing, and was taken aback by the sight of her in that way that only a middle-aged man can, upon suddenly realizing that he was alone in a room with a younger woman. Maddie wasn’t sure if that meant that he thought she was attractive or only that he was awkward.
“Please be seated… Ms…?”
“Roubacheau. Madeline Roubacheau.”
“Oh–I’m sorry. Form please.”
She presented it.
“And name again.”
She repeated it. He transcribed it to a particular box on the form.
“A general complaint, is it?”
His pen paused in its scratching path. “I’m sorry, you must have followed the wrong lights.”
“No, I was told that my question could only be answered in the Complaints department.”
“And you’ve read the FAQ?”
“And you still have a complaint?”
“A question, but yes.”
“Well Ms. Roubacheau, let’s call up your history and see what we can do about your complaint.”
She thought about it, but decided at this point to just let it go. He looked up and smiled politely, as if waiting for her.
“Your cards, miss? I assume you have brought them?”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry.”
From inside her jacket, she retrieved her case for her personal set, that she had received free on the occasion of getting her fifth. The slim glass-plastic clamshell would fit up to twenty cards, and had position locks to fit into a case storage shelf for her home catalog of excess cards sorted into separate twenty-cases, the shelf which she would receive as a free gift on the occasion of her two-hundredth. She wasn’t sure at what point she received a free laser name-engraving on her twenty-case, but her clamshell was still fresh, its unmarrable surface shining in the dull office florescents. She clicked it open, tapped out the cards, all five of them. She laid them in a stack on the desk. Politely averting his eyes from the printed words, the un-introduced Mr. Milten selected the top card in his small fingertips, and deftly slid it into the slot in the surface of the desk, pulled it out, and replaced it sideways on the small stack. Pen still over the form, he squinted at the terminal’s monitor, and began to write quickly in efficient strokes.
“Five cards then. Not so many…”
“Have you had your canonical? We have no record of you receiving it through Chance Networks.”
“Oh, yes. I… I don’t carry it with me, though.”
“I see.” He wrote in small letters to fit a great deal of words in a particular box.
“Your file notes your canonical death prediction regardless of whether it has been given to you, of course. The algorithm cannot write new Chance cards without it.”
He held the pen aloft, and wasted time enough to give her another small glance and smile.
“So what seems to be your complaint?”
“I have a question about the algorithm.”
“Our proprietary Chance algorithm is the key to the derivation of your specific Chance cards, yes.”
“Yes, but why are they so… obscure?”
“I’m not sure I understand, Ms. Roubacheau.”
She spread the top three cards out along the desk, turning them so they would face Mr. Milten. He did not look at the cards, but instead looked at his screen.
“I see nothing out of the ordinary.”
“This one says ‘anticipatory’.”
“And this one is ‘coniferous’.”
“And this one: ‘yellow’. What is that supposed to mean?”
“You have read the FAQ?”
“Then you understand that Chance cards are often like this. They all refer to the contextual circumstances of your canonical death prediction. Interpreted through our proprietary algorithm, the Chance cards spread out in subject and circumstance from the singular cause of death.”
“No, I understand what they are. It’s just that–”
“It’s like a meadow of grass, Ms. Roubacheau.”
Mr. Milten leaned back in his chair, smiling to someone, but not to Maddie. “A meadow is made from many different blades of grass. Each is singular, a leaf unto itself. But without all of them, together, there would be no meadow. A leaf of grass on its own is nothing. A clipping. A dead thing. But together…” he gazed off above her head.
She said nothing. She imagined she would hear his spiel one way or another. And so allowed, he continued.
“Many people are unhappy with their canonical death predictions. They are so sparse, and so often ironic. The incontrovertible truth of them is no consolation for the additional mystery they create. What the technology of Chance Networks achieves, using our patented algorithm, is to calculate contextual synonyms, related terms, other useful adjectives to help describe the circumstances of the death prediction. Your fate is derived through the algorithm, one Chance at a time, sketched all the way from the canonical event, back through the fabric of time, to now. We don’t change the death, we add to it. Each new card generated from the algorithm is another Chance to understand. We help paint the entire picture. A picture–of a meadow. You see Ms. Roubacheau?”
“But these cards don’t make anything clearer.”
“Well, you do have only five. The algorithm is a fickle thing, Ms. Roubacheau. As advanced as it is, it can only do what it is capable of doing. Each is a Chance, but only a single Chance, if you catch my meaning.”
Mr. Milten withdrew a small box from a shelf underneath his surface, with an air of repressing a small amount of excitement.
“Ms. Roubacheau, because of your concern, I am able to offer you a complimentary Chance card. If you would be so kind as to insert your finger, we can let the algorithm continue its work…”
“No.” Maddie crossed her arms on her chest.
“You don’t want another Chance?”
“Someone must be able to tell me how I’m supposed to interpret these cards.”
Mr. Milten placed the box on the desk, and looked concerned.
“Now, we at Chance Networks are aware of the so-called cottage industries of ‘Chance Interpreters’ out there, doing a secondary business in… ahem… ‘reading’ our cards. But we take a firm stance that there is no way to conclusively add to the picture of what the algorithm reads from the canonical prediction, other than through the algorithm itself. We do not recommend or condone using these services, and there are several lawsuits pending regarding claims certain of these outside service entities make regarding our… intellectual property.”
“But certainly someone within the company could tell me what I’m supposed to do with these?”
Milten laughed. “I’m sorry miss, but I’m but a customer service operative. What those folks in engineering do, is–ahem–quite outside of my expertise. I could perhaps allow you to review one of our instructional videos…” he began opening drawers.
“No thank you. Perhaps there is someone in engineering I could speak to?”
“I wouldn’t know about that, Ms. Roubacheau. In the meantime, let’s just mark that you have accepted the Chances surrounding your death…” he reached for his pen.
“I don’t accept these.”
He blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“I can’t accept these. How could I?”
“The algorithm is infallible, Ms. Roubacheau. Derived from the canonical Machine of Death design, the truth is unquestionable.”
“But if I don’t understand them, how can they mean anything to me?”
“Well, let me show you a few of mine.” He reached in his jacket pocket, and pulled out a custom metal case, inscribed with his name, just as on the sign on the desk. “See here?” He held the yellow card he extracted delicately by the edges. “ ‘Rotini’, reads this one. Pasta-related, not unlike the poster behind me, which is why I chose it to decorate my workspace,” he gestured behind him and grinned.
“I used to think that meant pasta salad, as if I would die of my canonical while on a picnic or at a barbecue. But then I got this one, which says ‘bi-plane’. Perhaps an airshow or county fair then? But then! This one: ‘labyrinthine’. Which relates, I believe, to a particular school trip I took in my college days. Making the pasta-related Chance readable in an entirely new light!”
Maddie did not share his enthusiasm. “Are pasta-related Chances supposed to mean something in particular that I don’t understand?”
Mr. Milten sighed, and rolled his eyes back, appearing to be thinking about a problem, but what sort of problem, it was difficult to say.
“Have you read any Zen philosophy, Ms. Roubacheau?”
“I have, and I find it abhorrent.”
Maddie placed her hands on her knee, and leaned forward in her formal jacket.
Milten twitched his pen back and forth on the desk. “Are you sure I cannot simply mark down that you accept these Chances–just in the effort to… push things along?”
“I do not accept them.”
“Well.” He glanced at his watch, and pushed what might have been a bead of sweat back into his hairline. “Well–perhaps there is someone I could refer you do on the engineering floor.”
Maddie smiled. “I would appreciate that very much.”
He hastily made a series of marks on her form, writing with much less precision.
“Please take this, and proceed down the hall to your right. Up the steps, around the corner, and to the elevator. You want the sixth floor, room 77, a Mrs. Dantez.”
She gathered her cards, replaced the case in her pocket. As she turned to leave, Milten stopped her.
“Oh, before you go–can you give me three adjectives to describe ‘panther’?”
“Panther? Like the predatory cat?”
“Yes, but not those adjectives. Like what you think of when you think of a panther.”
“Oh. Um, ‘feline’, ‘sharp’, ‘black’… ‘hungry’–”
“Three will do, thank you!” He jotted on a pad on the side of his desk. “Have a good day!”
In the elevator, the buttons were marked with letters, rather than with numbers. Maddie didn’t feel like going back to inquire, so she took a chance, and pressed the button with “F” on it. The corporate music was louder in the elevator, but the volume from the screens was lower.
She clicked down an oppressively warm hallway, holding her paperwork lightly in one hand to try and keep the moisture from her fingers from marking them. She knocked twice on the door marked 77, all alone on a particular stretch of hallway, and opened the door.
A rush of overly-cooled air met her. Opposite the door was a counter, where a bored-looking receptionist read a magazine, while he twisted back and forth in a low office chair. Behind him was a mirror, and two passages leading in either direction. On wall with the doorway were a line of three chairs to the left, one of which was occupied by a large man with a white cowboy hat, who sat next to a small table just large enough for the potted plant on top of it. The room was also a hallway, extending in either direction. She approached the desk.
Without looking up, the man said, “have a seat, she’ll call when she’s ready for you.”
Maddie took chair closest to the door.
“Good day, miss.” It was the man wearing the hat.
“Hello.” She began to play with the edges of her jacket, as if she was picking off lint.
“Could I… ask you a favor?”
Maddie looked at him for a moment, but he was looking at the receptionist, as if making sure the man was focused on his magazine.
“It’s a bit of a proposition.”
She froze, and prepared to stand if necessary.
“Nothing untoward, or out of the ordinary, I assure you. I simply offer that I might… buy your cards.”
“You want to buy my cards?”
He gestured with his hand, in a downward motion.
“Quietly now, quietly.” He laughed nervously. “But yes. Twice what a new Chance card reading costs at retail. Cash.”
Maddie was startled and confused. “But I don’t have that many, only…” she stopped herself from saying how many she had, though she wasn’t sure why.
“You can buy two new for what I’ll give you for one. Nothing wrong with having more cards, right? Take Another Chance, as they say in the literature.”
“I’m not sure it’s a good–”
“Oh, for research only, miss. I don’t want your canonical, nothing like that. I’m just a curious man, see. I’ve been studying their algorithm for years. Out of curiosity, nothing more than that. Every card is a new data point. No good to anyone but the people who bought ‘em. And to me. Data, you see. If you care to help, I’d make it worth your while.”
“Well, I need them for my complaint–I mean my question.”
“Of course you do. Well, after that, if you want to write down your words and sell me the cards, I’d still be interested. Here is my card. Business card, that is.” He palmed it in his hand, and held it over to her. She took it. It read “Chance Cards”, and then there was a number.
“I’d… you might want to put that away for now, miss. These folks, they don’t exactly take kindly to my research. Think I’m trying to hone in on their algorithm. Not possible though. I’m more curious in what it generates.”
Maddie tucked it away. She looked over at the desk, and caught the receptionist looking at her suspiciously, but then he quickly went back to his magazine. The man next to her was inauspiciously studying the wall, and began humming a tune that Maddie didn’t know. She pulled her jacket close against the cold of the air conditioning, and had a sudden desire to inspect her cards. Once more. For the hundredth. Thousandth. But she didn’t want the man with the hat to see them.
Then the voice came over an intercom, full of static, far too loud. “Madeline Roubacheau, I will see you now.”
Maddie stood, and looked towards the receptionist for direction, but he didn’t look up.
“To the left, down the hall.”
She moved past the man in the hat, clicking on the floor.
The intercom burst with static. “No, not that way. My left. MY left.”
Maddie stopped, confused as to which way that was, but it must be the other way. She passed the man in the hat again, who smiled, and tipped the brim, as if that was the only reason he wore such a hat. Down the hall, she reached for the door on the left side.
“Not that door. The third one,” the intercom corrected.
She kept going.
“No, the… from the… that door. THAT door. Yes. Come in.” Static, and then nothing.
The room was warm, but not to an uncomfortable extent. It was large enough to refer to as an office, with a large wooden desk, and several chairs. There was a blotter on the desk, and a phone, and behind it, an imposing looking woman who looked as if she was into-her-sixties-but-looking-in-her-fifties, wearing a full formal jacket and skirt, a long string of pearls, and a neatly assembled silk scarf with pin, bearing, of course, the corporate logo, black helix on yellow. Behind her were three framed posters. One, advertising a “Chance for Life” charity event. The other flanking poster a photo of a family with full decks of cards, and the slogan, “We Understand!” written in large, slanted, san-serif letters. The middle poster showed a hand of indeterminate race holding a yellow card, palm up. “Imagination”, it read.
“Please have a seat, Ms. Roubacheau. I am Mrs. Dantez. How can I help you?”
“I have a question.”
“Yes, I gather that, and that is why you are here. You have read the FAQ?”
“And you have no complaints?”
“Aside from my question, no.”
“And your question is?”
“How is it that these cards mean anything?”
Mrs. Dantez sighed, and crossed her fingers on one hand over the others on the blotter.
Form on the desk.
“Tag as well, for formality’s sake.”
“And your license to test, if you would.”
Maddie pulled her license out, and laid it on the desk. Mrs. Dantez picked it up with one hand, and put on a pair of reading glasses with the other. She studied it in the overhead light, and then produced a pen.
“One of your cards, as well.”
Maddie opened the case, and gave one up. The stoic woman in front her began marking items on the form while speaking aloud.
“Age to test: passed. Mental competency to test: approved. Medical consult: met. Drug test: no indicators… though that date was some time ago,” she looked over her glasses at Maddie, who was glad she’d worn the formal jacket. “Though it is within the mandated cycle. Preparedness for Mortality Training Course: attended, and standardized.”
She paused, and the pen hovered. “Religion is blank.” She looked at Maddie. “Is that Atheist, then?”
Maddie felt the familiar blush. “I haven’t really considered it. And I was told it isn’t mandatory to have it declared in any direction.”
“Oh, it’s not mandatory. But it is an anomaly.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, oh no. No problem. But it is irregular.”
“Would that affect my Chance card generation?”
“No, not assuredly. But it is something that we’ll take into consideration.”
She marked the form. Then she placed the pen on the edge of the blotter, and took up the card, and inserted it quickly in the slot in the desk. Then she pulled out a screen from the side of her desk, tilted downward so only she could see it. Shading the glare from the overhead lights, Mrs. Dantez read whatever was summoned to the screen.
“You have had your canonical, I assume?”
“But you’ve only had five cards.”
“I’m sorry. I know it isn’t very many, but I simply can’t have any more until I know what they are supposed to mean.”
“What they are is described in the FAQ, Ms. Roubacheau.”
“I know what they are, of course. Anyone knows that. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them. How to read them. How I’m supposed to understand any of this.”
Mrs. Dantez leaned over the desk, severely. “You haven’t been to an interpreter, have you Ms. Roubacheau?”
“No, of course not. I know that’s a scam. That’s why I came here, to the corporation.”
The older woman sighed, and began to look slightly closer to her actual age, but only for a moment. She opened a drawer and pulled out a disc.
“I have this video that I could show you…”
“I’ve seen the videos.”
“You haven’t seen this video. It’s not a promotional video. It’s an internal training video.”
She slipped it from its case, and inserted it somewhere on her side of the desk. The lights dimmed automatically, and from a spot in the corner light shone, projecting an image on top of the middle poster behind the desk. A screen descended from the ceiling and caught the film image. Mrs. Dantez didn’t turn to watch the film, appearing to only close her eyes. Maddie looked over her head as carefully as she could.
A man walked into the shot, wearing a formal jacket, complete with logo pin. “Good morning!” he said to the camera, though the time of day was no more visible in the scene than it was in the windowless office in which Maddie sat. “My name is Sam Augustine, and I’ll be your guide through the training procedure.”
The scene changed. Sam was in front of a bustling Change Networks franchise, walking past the line extending out the door, walking inside the lobby, walking behind the banks of machines and teller windows, and into the raised area that was unique to every franchise.
“Before we get into the step by step procedure by which you’ll tune the central algorithm hub, let’s take a minute to discuss the importance of this seemingly minor daily maintenance task.” Sam popped the lid of the central unit, audibly humming through the recording, and let the cover rise to his eye level. “It only take a minute, but it is importance cannot be overstressed. Sloppy tuning can result in misaligned results transmitted from the algorithm mainframe, and inappropriately delivered to the customer. The checksum safeguards make receiving incorrect results an impossibility. But result errors are possible, or franchise-wide Failure-to-Chance. Either can mean costly downtime for the entire franchise, and dissatisfied customers, who haven’t received the quick and accurate Chances they have come to expect. Without balancing the hub to the characteristic load of customers on a twice-a-day basis, Chance failures can increase by as much as twenty percent.”
The film stopped, the lights came back on, and the screen retreated into the ceiling. Mrs. Dantez opened her eyes.
“Are you saying that there might have been an error in my Chances?” Maddie was open-mouthed.
“No dear. I’m saying precisely the opposite.” She held up one of Maddie’s cards. The one marked ‘coniferous’. “You see this code strip here? This contains your unique user ID, linked to your stored canonical reading, verified in our central algorithm servers. Your canonical reading is what it is: the way that you’ll die. The algorithm develops your Chance here on the server from the canonical, and then transmits it to the Chance franchise, and prints it on the card. The server generates a checksum to make sure only algorithmically correct results are printed on your card. We don’t need a new blood test every time we Chance. The blood test is only to verify, for security, that only you will receive your Chances.”
She looked down at her screen. “The Chances are yours, no less than your canonical. Each of your five Chances are 100% checksum accurate. The checksum is recorded in each Chance code strip, for paper trail verification.”
Mrs. Dantez smiled across the desk.
“You see, dear, that is what Chances are. They are you. From your canonical cause of death, we derive the nano-fate Chances that surround how that death will occur. There is no possibility of them being wrong, or being for anyone else. Your Chances are you–and while I don’t mean it in a belittling way, if they don’t seem to make sense to you… well, there’s no one that can do anything about that but yourself.”
“But the canonical is a cause of death. These are just words. They don’t make any sense.”
“They will. Given enough Chances, given enough time, and enough personal reflection, the meaning comes clear. The meaning comes from you.”
Maddie shook her head.
“This just isn’t good enough. These are words with no meaning! Look at this.”
She held up a card from the bottom of the stack, so the woman across from her would have to read it. The immaculate composition of her face faded as she saw the word.
“I… I do apologize for that. Normally the words aren’t so… anatomical…”
“It’s not just a part of my body! It’s my… it called it a… I never have used that word in my life!”
“I understand why you’re upset. I don’t care for that word at all myself. But I must reiterate, Ms. Roubacheau, that the Chance Networks does not create these words themselves. Chance Networks and its algorithm do not attempt to… well as I said, these words come from you. They are your Chances, and nobody else’s.”
Maddie sat back in her chair, her emotion spent for a moment.
“I must ask you, dear: have you ever… considered using suicide as a means to hasten the resolution of your canonical results?”
“No, I have not. My canonical isn’t ‘suicide’.”
“Few are. But an educated woman like yourself knows that it doesn’t have to be.”
Mrs. Dantez removed her glasses.
“It’s okay if you have thought about it. Many people who seek Chances have considered it. In a mortal world as this, it is an option for all of us. Chances are another way out of the vicious, emotional cycle of having to deal with our mortality. If you have considered using suicide–”
“I have not.”
“I believe you. But even if you haven’t, seeking another Chance might give you some further insight into yourself. Taking a Chance might be the way out.” She pulled out a box, and set it on the desk. “I’d be happy to give you a complimentary Chance. It is often that when we’re at such an impasse in interpreting our Chances, just then a new Chance comes along to put everything in a different light.”
She pulled out a case from her jacket pocket, and clicked it open. It was inlaid with mother of pearl on the upper side, and black velvet on the bottom. There were only four cards in it, and she carefully lined then on the raised edge of the blotter, like a pathway of four yellow stones.
“When I was twenty-two, not too far from your own age, I received this Chance.”
“For a young woman, this is a fairly morose Chance. It troubled me, I don’t mind telling you. It wasn’t until I was thirty-seven that I got this additional Chance.”
‘Morning’, read the card.
Mrs. Dantez took a deep breath, as if she were actually recalling the emotion. “It changed everything for me! I had had visions of the worst things you can imagine: suffocation, becoming deaf later in life, being murdered as a witness to a crime, and so on. My canonical aside–for it to occur in the context of ‘silence’ seemed particularly gruesome. But, ‘morning’! A time of peaceful silence, of reflection, or meditation. I began to see that silence could be a beautiful Chance, and it was only my preconceptions and fears that I was seeing, reflecting in my Chances. My world was turned around completely! And then I received these other two: ‘apothecary’, and ‘wooden’. Well you see the first one was…” she looked at Maddie, who was looking off into space.
“Take another Chance, dear.”
“I don’t want one.”
“You don’t want one?”
“I don’t want another one, until I can figure out the ones I have.”
“But you must accept them, Ms. Roubacheau! They are your Chances.”
“I won’t accept them. Not until they mean something to me.”
“But if you accept them now, and wait, in time the meaning will become clear.”
“I refuse to accept them.”
Mrs. Dantez sighed, and sat back. Then she reached forward and gathered up her cards, putting them away in her case. She picked up her pen.
“There is one more thing we can do. We can examine you. There are certain physical signs–and I remind you, that they are very slight tells, nothing definite or assured–but they can act as diagnostic criteria for checking Chance causality.” She began to write. “If you want the exam, you must promise to take it to completion. For insurance purpose, once begun, the exam must be finished. It’s causal-liability, as the case law about the matter is not binding yet. I can give you an exam, and then with those results in mind, perhaps you will be willing to take another Chance.”
She wrote something on Maddie’s form.
Maddie nodded her head.
Mrs. Dantez opened a drawer, and pulled out a file folder, which she spread on her desk, and began withdrawing forms. She assembled a packet as she checked off items, filled out passages, and inserted the complaint form Maddie had brought with her.
“Any history of heart conditions?”
“Any medical allergies?”
“Any fear of confined spaces?”
“Any history of epilepsy?”
“Any surgeries in the past five years?”
“Any metallic implants that are known to be reactive to magnetism?”
“Any recent skin reactions in the presence of radio waves?”
“Sensitivity to light?”
“Have you been in any environments with reactive chemicals over a safety level of 2?”
“Do you or do you not enjoy the taste of cilantro? Has your opinion on this changed in the past three years?”
“Okay, Ms. Roubacheau, sign here. Please go through this door, and speak to the nurse. His name is Virgil. He’ll take good care of you. And wear this badge for the rest of the time you’re here, please.”
She gestured at a door Maddie had not seen before. She signed, and gathered up the forms, affixed the badge, and stepped towards the door.
“Oh, Ms. Rouhbacheau?”
“Could you tell me the first five words that come into your mind when you think of the phrase, ‘boiled egg’.”
“‘Boiled egg’. Five words. Any words. Go.”
“I–uh… shell, pan, cooking, quickly, salt.”
“No adverbs please.”
“No adverbs. One more. Hurry now.”
“Thank you.” She wrote what might have been those words down on a pad on her desk. “Go ahead–Virgil will be waiting for you.”
Maddie stepped onto the tile of a brightly lit hallway, lined with glass windows that must have opened onto exam rooms. Each window had a curtain drawn in front of it, and shadows moved on the curtain, two, maybe three people per room. She wasn’t sure which way to go to find Virgil, or even what exactly she was doing, or whether she ought to leave. Standing still for a moment, the edge of her jacket in her free hand, the other filled with paperwork. Listening to the dry, HVAC air, Maddie tried to hear which direction the most noise might be coming from. She heard what sounded like distant shouting. No, it was most certainly shouting, coming from the right. It was shouting, getting louder. It was someone coming this way.
Wondering what she ought to do was what she was doing when the shouting rounded the corner. The young woman in a white medical gown had a familiar look, but before Maddie could return the look of disoriented derailment, the figure pushed past her and ran, slapping barefoot, down the hall and away. Maddie was sent backward, trying to keep from tottering off of her heels, flat against one of the glass windows.
“There she is!” A number of large orderlies rounded the corner, dressed in a manner in which only women titled orderlies would be dressed. Two were on either side of Maddie, and a slim, older man stood beside them.
“I… I think the person you want–”
But they had her by the arms, and her stack of papers fell to the floor. The man, whose logo-emblazoned name tag read “Virgil”, bent to pick them up.
“But Mrs. Dantez said that I–”
“Yes, I’m aware of what Mrs. Dantez said. Put her in room 846.”
He took her papers down the hall in the opposite direction from the way she was taken, both arms of the orderlies on her formal cotton jacket’s arms, raised in the air in a way that she could only barely manage to stumble along on her heels with them, clicking along to keep from falling down. After what must have been some seventy yards, a door was pushed open, a light came on, and she was inside.
“Remove your clothes.”
“You’ve agreed to a series of tests.”
“Remove your clothes, please.”
The orderlies were imposing figures, and they held out a familiar looking gown. She had agreed, but to what? Maddie sighed, and slid her sleeves out of her formal jacket. The badge was missing from the label where she had clipped it. She stepped out of the heels, and onto the floor. Blouse, skirt, hose.
“Your underthings too.”
And those. She put on the gown. One of the two women gathered up the discarded clothing and her shoes, into a white cloth bag. Before she put in the jacket, she fished out Maddie’s case.
“You’ll want these. There’s a pocket.”
And indeed there was, on the chest of the oddly fitting gown, generally over the left side. She put the case in the cloth opening that was just big enough, and the case weighted down the cloth against her breast. The metal was cold through the light fabric. Then the orderlies were gone, and the door was closed.
There was a poster on the back of the door. A Chance box, as if in a franchise booth, was visible in a close-up shot. A card was emerging from the slot. The first letters were visible, spelling ‘Wit–’, and the caption said beneath it, “This Chance Could Be the One.”
A different orderly returned. She had a tray. First it was blood. Then a swab of the inside of Maddie’s cheek. Then a tissue sample, a scratch beneath her upper arm. Then urine. The orderly disappeared with the tray.
A new orderly, with a cart. Many different devices, all for the measurement of various things. Heart rate. Mini-EEG. Reflex arc. Standardized pain threshold. Electro-conductivity. Cognitive ray. Radio stethoscope. Magentoscope. Positronic band. Physical exam. Flashing lights, sanitized probes: under, behind, in, and back out. She checked it–the area referred to in profane language on her card. Maddie looked at the wall, while the orderly seemed to make an audible noise, not quite approvingly or disapprovingly. Then she was gone.
Maddie stood flat-footed against the wall. She stared at the poster, wondering what sort of person it was that had stuck their finger in the slot of the Chance box, causing it to print that card, of which she could only read the first three letters. Did they take an actual picture with a Chance box in order to make that poster? Or was it a computer-generated graphic? Was it a false box, perhaps–used for such photographs? Or did someone actually generate that card… was that someone’s Chance, and they were waiting for the camera to finish its work before they removed it and read what it said?
The orderly who had previously carried the tray came back into the room, seemingly in a much better mood than she had been when she was wielding the needle. This time she carried a clipboard.
“Don’t look so glum, deary! We’ll have you out of exams in no time at all. They don’t take but a minute, you see. Like the boxes themselves, those test machines are. In the hole, and there it goes. Oh, but your stool! No wonder you look so tired.”
She reached outside and pulled in a light plastic stool that had been outside the door, handing it to Maddie, who held it to her chest, touching lightly against the case in her gown pocket. The orderly pulled in a chair on wheels, and sat on it.
“Well, sit down then.”
“Just a few questions. Now–you know your canonical, don’t you?”
Maddie sighed, and leaned forward to let her elbows fall to her knees.
“Excellent, excellent. Have you ever considered suicide in order to hasten the results?”
“Well, okay. You know it would not be out of the ordinary if you had.”
“But you haven’t.”
“Okay. Three synonyms for ‘hungry’.”
“Synonyms please, three of them, for ‘hungry’. No adverbs.”
“Famished, starving, and… uh, malnourished?”
“Hmm… I’m not sure about that last one, but it will do. Would you be willing to take a Chance right now?”
“The box is in the hallway. I’ll go get it. Complimentary.”
“I won’t take one.”
“Okay, and… wait one moment. What is your name?”
“My goodness, but I’ve got the wrong forms here! Where is your badge?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t on your formal jacket.”
“It must have been when…”
“But you have your cards, don’t you?”
“Yes, they’re right here–”
“Well thank goodness for that! Who only knows what might have happened… and then for you, my dear… how horrible to have lost one’s Chances!”
“No, I do have them…”
“Well thank goodness! Let me go get your forms, and get rid of these!” She shook them on the clipboard, as if they were wet, or had been particularly troublesome somehow. “Feel free to keep your stool.”
Maddie hadn’t made any motion to get up, or pull her arms from her knees.
“Would you like a Chance then?”
Maddie exhaled before speaking. “I…”
“Free of charge, of course. I only thought–these not being your forms–that perhaps you would indeed like one after all.”
“N–no, thank you.”
The orderly blinked her eyes, and tapped the clipboard against the side of her hip. “Well, okay…” she said, as if she blamed the form she held. “Pretty young lady like yourself, I never would have figured, but…”
She turned to leave the room, pushing the chair in front of her. Then she paused. “You know what my last Chance was?”
Maddie looked up.
“It was ‘Others’. What do you make of that?”
Maddie opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything. The orderly was already gone, and she heard the wheels retreating down the hall.
In less than three minutes, she heard flat footsteps running, approaching. It was Virgil, completely out of breath, his name tag askew.
“Ms. Roubacheau! Thank goodness I’ve found you!”
As he leaned against the door frame to catch his breath, Maddie felt as if she was required to say something in response.
“There’s been a terrible mistake!”
She raised her eyebrows and began to speak, but he continued.
“Not with your test results, no! Those were all fine. Normal, I might say, though I’m hardly qualified to give you any sort of assessment. No, there was a mistake, and I’m so very sorry to have mixed it all up in this way. It is my responsibility, and I understand if you are upset, and I can only apologize to you in the most sincerest of terms!”
Still leaning against the door frame, bent over with exertion, it almost appeared as if he was attempting to bow in way of apology.
“But there is time yet!” he blurted out. “Please, follow me now, and I’ll get you going in the right direction.” And then he was out of the room. “Come along, come along! And I’m terribly sorry!”
She had to pad quickly on the cool floor with her bare feet to keep up with the man’s tall strides.
“We’ll get everything straight, I assure you!”
Around three turns, down a straight away, and up a short flight of rubberized stairs. Virgil opened a door.
He whispered, holding his head close to the edge of the door, “Mr. Blake’s office! And once again, I’m sorry!” He closed the door behind her.
The office was immense, carpeted deeply from wall to wall. Maddie squinted against the natural light streaming in from the wide windows, showing nothing but a view of uninterrupted blue sky, the bright sun sending gleaming shadow lines down the large modern statuary that dotted the open expanses of carpet, and the couch, and the low tables, and the several chairs. It lit up a full, dark head of hair on a surprisingly young man behind the desk that presided over the space, as he looked down at a pad of paper, scribbling furiously. Maddie breathed in a bit suddenly, overwhelmed by the light after the low florescent lighting previously illuminating her.
“My goodness, Ms. Roubacheau!”
Her feet felt warm on the sun drenched carpet.
“Virgil didn’t give you your clothes back. What a silly man.” He pressed a button on his desk repeatedly. “It should only be a minute.”
The door behind her popped open, and Virgil’s arm stuck in holding the cloth bag. He waved it side to side, and, “I’m sorry!” came around the door. She took the bag, and the arm gratefully disappeared and the door closed again.
“I’ll just secure myself in the closet, and you can get dressed at your leisure. Not to worry, no one will come in that door unless I call for them.”
The man rose from his chair, and took several large, sporting leaps across the carpet, dodging around two statues, to what must have been the closet door on the wall. He flung it open, revealing, indeed, a number of hanging jackets, all dwarfing the small man. He plunged in between the garments, and with a flourish, pulled the door closed to a click.
“Please go ahead! Just let me know when you’re finished!” His voice was quite muffled by the door. It seemed thick and secure, from the sound of his elbows bumping against it as he no doubt fought for space among the coats. Seeing no other option, Maddie begun to dress. The sun was warm on her skin.
“My name is Mr. Blake, by the way!” He shouted from inside, to overcome the muffling. “And you must be Maddie Roubacheau! I’ve been dying to make your acquaintance for… well, it must have been almost forty-five minutes now!”
With her hose on, Maddie quickly pulled up her skirt, and tucked the blouse back into it.
“You see, I’m the boss around these parts! The Complaint Department, that is! Nothing much happens here without me finding out about it, at least within the hour! You might think that being in charge means I don’t have many responsibilities, other than overseeing things. But I assure you, that’s not the case! If someone isn’t satisfied, it’s my job to make sure that they are!”
She put on her formal cotton jacket, and held her heels in her hand, leaving the gown and bag on the floor. “Mr. Blake…” she raised her voice a bit to penetrate the closet.
It opened a crack. “All finished?” She assured him that she was. “Well then, I’ll come out of the closet, where it will be much easier to speak with Ms. Roubacheau–Maddie, that is–if the young lady doesn’t mind if I address her as such?”
“No, that’s okay.”
He leaped back across the carpet, and landed hard in his chair, swiveling around a complete turn. “Please sit down, please sit down! Pick any chair you like.”
There were no chairs near his desk, and so she picked the couch, which was a bit awkward because it faced the center of the room. But he sprang across the rug again, and chose a seat immediately next to the couch. “A wonderful choice, a wonderful choice! I say chair, and she picks the couch! Ms. Roubacheau–Maddie, that is–an excellent choice, if I may say so.”
The chair he sat in was low, and even his short legs came up quite high above his lap, pulling the cuffs of his casual suit up over his shoes, exposing the fact that he was not wearing socks. He was quite young, perhaps the same age as Maddie herself, or even younger. She did not put her heels back on, as she was seated, and they would have been nearly buried in the long carpet shag anyway. She set them next to her feet.
“But you’d like to get to the point of the matter, of course. Your tests were absolutely, positively normal. There was no reason to think that they would have been anything else. And there was a little mistake with the forms, but no harm done. You still have your Chance cards, correct?”
She nodded. They were back in her jacket pocket, as they always were.
“Only five cards, Maddie? Naturally, there is no reason to expect someone so young to have accumulated hundreds and hundreds. But still, only five?” He put his chin on his palm, and his elbow on his knee, and smiled at her.
“I won’t get any more.”
“So I hear. And though I think I know why, would you like to tell me?”
It seemed, at least to the disoriented and still slightly blinded Maddie, that he was almost earnestly excited to hear her tell him. “I’m not sure that I see the point, Mr. Blake.”
“Herman! Please call me Herman. And go on, please do.”
“I’ve read the FAQ…”
“Yes! The FAQ!”
“And I’ve seen the videos…”
“Some of the videos certainly are better than others.”
“I… yes. And I’ve thought about the Chances I’ve gotten over and over again.”
“Yes, assuredly! We must–I only imagine we all do.”
“But I don’t see to what end, Mr… Herman.”
“The canonical. Its meaning is clear, though it may ‘delight in a certain irony’, as the saying goes.”
“And the canonical is ever so brief, and always the same.”
“Whereas, the algorithmically decoded Chances are less ironic, and yet more obscure.”
“They are–though if I might interrupt you quickly to say that they are ‘derived’, not ‘decoded’. But, please continue.”
“And they are supposed to be more information. Not read in the same way as a canonical, but as a supplement to a canonical. Words to surround it, and augment it, slowly, with more and more Chances, giving you a better picture of what one’s end might be like.”
He smiled, and extended his hand, palm wide. “But…”
“But they are just words.”
He waited for her, hand still outstretched.
“They may be algorithmically verifiable, but they are just words. With no context, they might as well be chosen at random. Without some sort of story or order to assemble them in, they could relate to my canonical in any conceivable way. They’re simply no good.”
Herman closed his hand, and smiled. He leaned back in his chair, and stuck his legs out in front of him, crossing one bare ankle over the other. “But you’re here.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Even though the words are meaningless to you, you came here looking for someone to explain to you how you ought to find meaning in them. You wanted them to have meaning, and so you went looking for a way to find it.”
Maddie suddenly felt sad. But she could only smile, and let out a tiny laugh, that somewhere inside it, had the faintest thought of a cry.
“You didn’t have a complaint. You had a question.”
“That’s what I told them.”
“You see? I know simply everything that happens in this place.”
She laughed. Herman stood up, and sat next to her on the couch. He put a hand on her shoulder. “I’d like to show you something, if I could.”
He was almost attractive, in a strange way. Cute, maybe. Like an overly sincere young man, trying to act a part, and almost pulling it off. Was he really in charge here, or was he just masquerading, pretending to be important, playing executive in someone’s office? “Sure,” she said, giving him her best camaraderie smile.
Out of his casual jacket pocket he pulled what appeared to be two matchboxes, taped end to end. She had never noticed before that a Chance card was precisely double the size of a standard matchbox.
“I made this. When I was little. It has… sentimental value. You know.” He slid out the end, and there were a stack of perhaps ten cards inside it. He pulled the one from the bottom out, leaving the rest in place. With the soft hush of cardboard moving against itself, he pushed the box closed, and replaced it in his pocket.
“I love this one best. I used to think it was a really important one. The pivotal Chance, as it were. Then others came, and it didn’t seem so crucial. After a while, it almost seemed superficial and redundant, almost as if it was blocking the continuity of the rest of the cards. But I kept it. Maybe it was because it was so important at one time, I kept it in my personal set out of habit. Or because of its uselessness now, perhaps there’s a certain significance in that. I don’t know. But I keep it in my set, and I imagine I always will. Though who can say for sure.”
He handed it to her. This time she did laugh. She laughed, and laughed, holding her free hand up to her mouth. She brushed her hair back out of her eyes, and tried to compose herself.
“I’m sorry. You probably want to know why I’m laughing.”
“I imagine that I know.”
“I have the same card.”
“I know you do, Maddie.”
She reached for her case, and opened it. She took out her card, and held it next to Herman’s, though keeping his in her right and hers in her left, so she wouldn’t be confused as to which was which.
‘Moose Moose’, said the cards in her hands.
She gave his back to him, and put hers away.
“You’re not convinced,” said Herman. “And that’s good. You don’t have to be, and maybe you never will be. But,” he said, with a smile. “I think you are ready to take another Chance.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because you will be ready. Maybe not now, maybe not for years. But before that canonical takes effect, you will want to have another Chance. You will step into a Chance Networks franchise, you will insert your beautiful finger to have a drop of blood drawn from it, you will be verified on our central algorithm servers, and your Chance will be printed on one of our yellow cards. And, for the entire extent of the brief amount of time it will take for you to reach down and pull out the card so you can read it: that Chance will not come soon enough.”
She thought about it.
“I have a special offer for you now. Because we’ve just completed a number of physiological tests on you, I can offer you a special Chance. This sort of Chance is not yet available commercially, not to the public. It will be soon, and it is even more precise, less ironic, and better helps each and every individual to better understand their specific Chances as regards their canonical. We call it a Gold Chance. And I have one waiting for you.”
He stood, and walked over to the desk. From beneath it he pulled a small box, shining in bright gold. As he brought it over, the sunlight was tossed in a thousand directions from its surfaces, lighting up the statues, the walls, the ceiling with shards of golden light. Herman sat back in the chair, and balanced the machine on his knee.
“It’s already had your data transmitted to it. All you need to do, if you wish to accept your Chances, is press the button there, right on top. You press the button, and it will print the card. If not, I’ll open the cover and hit the reset, and it will forget your Chance that is right there inside it even now, waiting to be printed.”
He put his eyes into hers. “It’s up to you, Maddie.”
She felt the carpet around her toes. He smiled.
She pressed the button, and with a buzz, the card printed and ejected. Maddie instantly looked at the ceiling, and reached forward to palm the card.
“I… I’d like to read it later, if that’s okay.”
“Thank you, Herman.”
“Your welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”
“Oh–no, I don’t think so.”
“Well thank you for coming to see me, Maddie. I always appreciate visitors.”
“Oh, it was nothing.”
They sat silently for a full five seconds, and then Herman took the box back to his desk, and sat in his chair, replacing the box from wherever it had come from.
“I should go, then.”
“Alright, Maddie. Just out the door, and to the left is the elevator.” He stayed seated.
“Oh, and Maddie?”
“Don’t forget your shoes.”
She held the card in her palm, as she bent down to get the shoes.
She kept the card there as she clicked to the elevator, and all the way down, and out through a windowed causeway that looked out over the grounds, underneath the backside of the twisting helix of the building. And then down a set of stairs, and out a back gate, where the security guard gave her a salute that she didn’t feel was necessary, but that she appreciated anyway. And then she was back in the street, hot, full of traffic, dust rising everywhere in the sun. Maddie figured out which direction it was that she needed to go, and then pulled out her case. Quickly, she glanced at the Chance card in her palm before sliding it into the case and clicking it shut. It didn’t make a bit of sense.
Some thoughts on the ongoing London riots, in no particular order. They kind of descend from open question, to class-war-screed, back to open question, but I think I’ll leave it just with the lack of form that it has. These sorts of thoughts shouldn’t be set in stone, because no one is really an expert on this. We’re all just trying to deal.
I’m following the Guardian’s live blogs, which are as usual, pleasantly diverse in their coverage. (Here’s the current one–they retire the url and start anew every 12 hours or so.) Also Twitter, of course.
- Geography – An on-going question of mine. I’m unfamiliar with London geography, and I wonder what relation the riot areas have with each other. I read an article recently (offline, sorry no link) about how public transit can dramatically decrease crime and increase civic-togetherness in quantifiable ways by connecting slum neighborhoods to the rest of the city. It seems these London neighborhoods are not slums or favelas by any means. I wonder how that thesis relates to this situation. Reading about the areas, it seems there is a large amount of gang activity based around post codes, or “ends” (Americanized as ‘hoods, perhaps), which is standard for places where people are unable to connect to the rest of the city. I wonder about the particulars of why these areas might have been cut off from the rest of London. One sense of London I have, though based on almost nothing, is that it is perfectly easy to be “lost” in the sprawl. When I lived in Harlem a couple of years ago, I noticed that one reason it was a perfectly excellent place to live was that it was very much ‘synced’ with the rest of Manhattan, and did not seem cut off by the park, as perhaps it had been at one time. Unlike the South Bronx, which although was only a few blocks and a subway stop from where I lived in Harlem, seemed miles away due to the river, and the overpass highway systems on the north side of the river. A similar thing is evident in South Central LA, where the highway loops and concentrates poorer neighborhoods, and the only public transit linking it to the rest of the city is a long, slow bus ride. And yet, perhaps because London doesn’t have the history of red-lining the way the US does, the riot areas are spread out, and all over. Maybe it has something to do with low-income areas that are near shopping areas? i.e. Potential rioters, with access to riot targets, but not much else? All speculation, because I don’t know.
- Riot vs. Protest – I hope, perhaps with a bit of guilty schadenfreude, that this puts the difference between riot and protest in perspective, and next time there are protests at least in the UK, the language used to describe the black bloc is different. The black bloc may to some degree made from “kids who just want to break stuff”, and yet they do not steal merchandise, burn down buildings, smash smaller businesses, or destroy private vehicles. On the other hand, we may see a new form of provacateuring on the part of the police, or, potential looters may try and join the bloc, now that they have a taste for how easy it can be.
- Anarchism – Relatedly, hoping for a language shift surrounding “anarchy”. But more than that, I’ve been waiting and hoping for an anarchist response to these riots. Solfed, a North London Anarchist Organization, released a statement, but I’m (still) hoping for more. Since this is the Internet, and posting utopian reality-design-fiction from half a world away is completely acceptable, let me draw you a pen-portrait of the anarchist response I’d like to see:
First and foremost, black shirts on the streets. Properly marked as anarchists, perhaps with circle-A insignia, if not something else. This is to make it apparent that any person with a mask and a hood is not necessarily an Anarchist, and to mark the difference. Now, the activity would depend on the numbers and the resources available. Taking as a pattern Common Ground rebuilding efforts, Black Cross street medics, organizing consensus groups of people in the community to defend their block or communicate anger towards the government, or simply Food Not Bombs if nothing else, an effort to build solidarity and community between people in the street, and an effort to break the categories of “Rioter”, “Police”, and “Vigilante”. The bloc pushes protests towards radical anger, but the riots are an opportunity for the other side of anarchism, organization, community, and building (which we all know and love) to show its face. Take that bravery in the streets that faces down cop riots, and show how it can help people. Show how a gang doesn’t just point aggression outwards, but works together for mutual benefit.
Anyway, or so I wish. I try to think how I would do this in my own city, were this to happen here. I have some ideas, but I don’t know if they would work or not until I try it. I have the feeling though, that we must begin to try things like this, because these won’t be the last riots, and things we not return to the status quo where anarchists just mobilize for protests and society runs on in an uneasy truce “as normal”. It’s time for those who believe in a self-determining society to step up. Easy for me to say, but I’m going to keep saying it.
- Racism/Bigotry – Race is certainly a factor here, from the original shooting to the often repeated anger about the police’s right to stop and search in the UK. And, we’re seeing it become a HUGE deal in the backlash to these riots. Race riots normally start as racial anger (justified or not), and then a backlash. It doesn’t matter who starts it, but what happens is people are getting killed in the streets because of their race. The reaction to these riots seems to be heavily pushing things in this direction. There’s news of nationalist groups getting together, drunken vigilantism, and many, many characterizations of who is rioting that are based on race. Furthermore, calling the rioters “thugs”, “yobs”, “criminals” or other things like this is in fact a bigoted statement. They may be committing crimes, but from the people put in court so far, I’ve seen school teachers, counselors, and children. You would not call these people criminals if you met them on the street. To assume to use such a term to refer to a large group of people is a categorical judgment, and worse, a sentence of social death. It is not in terms of innocence/guilt that they are called thugs, but in terms of being reduced to a stereotype that always leads back to race. This is much like the phrase “crackhead”, at least here in the United States. Calling someone a “crackhead” because they look weird or act oddly may in fact be an accurate statement. That person might smoke crack, or some other drug. However, one does not actually know this, and is using the epithet based on a characterization of how a person looks, and is a stand in for “n—–.” It doesn’t matter the person’s color: what is implied is that the speaker has judged this person on the basis of categorical appearance and decided they are a worthless undesirable. I saw a twitter comment (sorry no source, it got lost in the flood) saying, “you KNOW what people wearing masks on the streets are up to”. Actually, NO. Most definitively, you DO NOT KNOW what they are up to. You are judging them, based on what you assume they are up to; and what you assume is that from the way they look and the way that they are dressed (mask or not) that they are a worthless undesirable. Leaders at the highest levels, to the media, to the people on the street are reifying this categorical depiction of “thugs”, which is at heart the expression of a skin-deep, racial judgment. Listen to 911 calls here in the States: “he looked like a thug”, “they were a couple of gangsters”. It is clear what this means (and sometimes they use the actual word, because this is America). You better believe that when the vigilante groups form, they are going to go after people they KNOW are thugs. And you know whom those people are. This linguistic racism MUST BE STOPPED, and now. Not only is it wrong, it’s going to get innocent people killed.
- Class War & Fascism – Seguing from the above, we can see that under stress, the lower segments of Western society oscillate between two opposing urges. The first, to riot in anger, to take things, to burn and smash. The second, to hurt people, to shoot people, to put boots on faces in order to support a paradigm of “order”. And of course, these are not far apart at all, leading “violence” to be the category we use to describe them inclusively. But they are not the same thing. It is one thing to act destructively towards physical objects, an entirely different thing to act that way towards people. Between these two, we see what Class War actually looks like, and it isn’t pretty.
There are other forces at play here besides what we might point out as solely “class” issues. Race, police, geography, etc. But if we look at those in this rioting society, we see the uninsured, the un-secure, the unemployed, and the undersupported. They are the ones with the most to gain by rioting, and the most to lose in the fires and at the hands of the police who are supposed to be “protecting” society. For the first time in at least a couple decades, we are seeing what a major “first-world” city looks like without the supposed continual protection of the police. In other words, what many of the lower classes see every day. What is “violent”, “anarchy”, and “thuggish” is a lower class world, and now it is on the television and the Internet. The way people react in this situation is according to two models: they hit the streets in gangs to take what they want, or they hit the streets in mobs to blame whom they want. This is the purest, uncontrolled, undisciplined form of class war. When the authority that held the class in its position (“under control”, or “peaceful” is what it is typically called, even though it is normally nothing like “peace”) is released, the class agonism boils over in these directions. We might call it “uncontrolled” class war, but we certainly shouldn’t call it unexpected. Again, this will not be the last riot in the history of the world.
As one who has on occasion acted as a proponent for “class war” in a rhetorical sense, I think it’s my responsibility to identify this as what it is, and to try and identify strategies to prepare for this literal, street class war, that is far more brutal and horrifying than any proletarian uprising as proposed in words. To try and simply clean this up, and go back to “normal” is a fallacy. To “regain control” is only to bottle up this urge again, until the next time it boils over. The class controls that keep areas impoverished, and susceptible to the urge to destroy, to blame, and to mob and kill are always insufficient; and in fact, they are the cause of the build up of agonism. This sort of agonistic tension needs to be released, and not simply by sports matches, video games, and bar brawls. Rather than placating the lower classes, they need to be elevated. The infrastructure that needs to be set up must be akin to hydroelectric power. The floods of intensity can be harnessed to build, rather than destroy. But the upper classes have no interest in this, as if very clearly goes against their interest. It is in the interest of the upper classes that riots occur, so that stronger police forces can be built, so that racial tension explode, and so that the lower classes rise up and fight each other, and burn down their own neighborhoods. Look for new police budgets, new racial organizations, new gentrification after these riots.
Lastly, when I say “they” to refer to the lower classes, be aware this is an attempt at objectivity. Because, it is really “We”. If you are not one of the upper classes, you are in the lower classes. There is no bourgeois anymore: the shopkeepers and employees who will clean up this mess are from the same neighborhoods where the destruction originated. Rents will still be collected. The sneakers and TVs that were stolen are teardrops in an ocean of consumerism. Profits have never been higher, and you and I are not seeing any of it.
- The Future – To try and turn away from the preachy-anarchist angle, let’s look to the future. The future is undoubtedly uncertain. No one could have predicted this, and no one will predict the next one. However, what we can say is that there will be a next one. There is something incredibly zeitgeisty about these riots. It sends a shutter down the back, and makes one’s eye look to the bookshelf, to the SF paperbacks that have described similar things at “some time in the near future”. That near future is now, even if we don’t know why.
The key of it is, that there was indeed a time when our culture as a whole stopped worrying about “this”. There was a moment of comfort, sometime in the 80s and 90s. Not to say that there weren’t riots and conflicts and crashes and wars, but they were such that a perspective was enabled. It became possible to “look the other way”, whatever direction that was. Now things are back in view, which is probably for the best. It’s hard to say whether we’ll be able to make these things better by preparing for them, but we can’t say they’d get better if we ignored them.
But, I think it’s our duty to try. Besides “radical politics” things we can do, (see anarchist reality-design-fiction above) and standard liberal politics things (reinstate and build support structures), it behooves us to think like futurists about this. If we are feeling a pull towards science fiction, maybe we should consult science fiction. And not just by planning for utopia/dystopia, but by doing the grunt work of SF: look at the aspects of one particular technological element, and then imagine how things would be different if one-little-thing were different. Examples? Hmm, let’s see: well, what if rather than using Blackberry Messenger to coordinate riots, what if the youth used it for X? I don’t know for what. But what sort of payoff would there have to be to make people freely organize for X, rather than riot? What is the payoff of rioting, and how could that be supplanted by something positive? SMS and QR codes are used to advertise and sell products, and with arguable results. What is between a riot and a sales pitch? A flash mob? A meme? I don’t know, but these are questions we should be asking, because these are things we’ll likely be dealing with in the future. Think of Graffiti-Markup-Language. Graffiti used to be purely a nuisance, and a sign of urban blight. Now it is merged with programming language to make an art form. Who could have predicted that? Maybe no one. But somebody made it.
I think we all should probably be thinking about making things, as hard as we can. That might be the purest advice for dealing with destruction that I can think of.
I have an idea for an entertaining essay about Hitchcock films, so I’m compiling a list. I’ve seen a few of them in my life, but I’m by no means an expert. Perhaps you’d like to help?
I’m particularly looking for films in which part of the suspense is related to whether or not the murder has/will actually occur(red). The existential quality of a murder, in other words. When do suspicions graduate into an actual crime?
Films I have so far are:
North by Northwest
I know there are more. Got a suggestion? Leave it in the comments!
I’ve read several reports of the celebrations that spontaneously occurred after the announcement last night. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five) And while I respect the effort that goes into writing about something that is not easy to write about, I must say I’ve been disappointed by all of them.
It is far too easy in the face of a tough situation, to remark upon the fact that it is a tough situation, and withdraw with that as lackluster synthesis. “There’s a lot going on here.” The five essays I cited above say more than that, but in the end it boils down to this: calling a crowd a crowd.
I’m not writing this with the intention of saying that a crowd is not a crowd, or that the death of a particular person is politically/historically/culturally/emotionally relevant in a way that everyone has missed, and that I will grace you with that revelation. I’m writing to say that from the perspective of the human species, to throw up one’s hands and murmur something about the wisdom of crowds is precisely the problem. This is exactly what has been going on for the last ten years, and what appears to be continuing.
I could call it a post-post-9/11 line of thought, because I have been calling it that, and it sounds a bit clever. It is the emotion at the end of the film The 400 Blows. After all that happens, all that the main character has done and hasn’t done, he runs away from the juvenile work camp. What begins as a somewhat exciting escape attempt, draws out into a single, two minute shot of him running along a road, having easily eluded his pursuer. Where is he going? We imagine that he just wants to escape, he has no destination. And then the camera changes shots, and we see him running towards the sea. He must have seen the sea from hundreds of yards away. He knows it is there. And yet he keeps running. All the way across the barren length of sand, and into the waves. Once he steps foot in the waves, he completely soaks his shoes. To me it looks uncomfortable; it does not appear to be a warm day, and wherever he walks now, he will have wet feet for hours. As if in the juvenile recognition and regret of this fact, the same down-turned countenance with which he has conducted his poorly-managed misbehaviors throughout the length of the film, he leaves the water’s edge, but doesn’t move to leave the beach, either. The camera zooms in, and freeze-frames his face in the breeze. “Fin,” the title reads.
In 2003, in the depths of the War on Terror, a college acquaintance of mine made some unfortunate comments on a community web site, that were taken to be terrorist threats. He was charged with felonies. Anyone who knew him could tell the comments were not serious, but this didn’t matter. In fact, that he was just a teenager from the Midwest with an odd sense of humor seemed to steel the resolve of the police and college administrators in persecuting him. The question was not whether or not he was a likely terrorist or capable of committing or planning to commit terrorist acts. The issue was that he had the gall to joke with the assumed understanding of such a possibility being ridiculous, and this itself was a crime. The presumption of being innocent of terror was a terrorist act. That there might have been a joke was akin to conspiracy to kill. As the chief of police said, “in a post-9/11 environment, there are no jokes.” We, those who knew better, wrung our hands, cried to the heavens, beat our chests in frustration. Could they say anything more revealing, more tinged with Orwellian anti-humor? Could there be anything more of a joke than to ruin the life of this young man? Except that it wasn’t funny. It was reality.
Last night, the jokes returned. After the immediate tension of the revealing of the truth passed (about five minutes in Internet-time) the jokes began, and roiled back and forth across the surface of the info-sea. The jokes never left, of course. How could they, when they are the only response anyone has been able to muster to cowboy presidents, to color-coded death threats, to security theater eroticism? The jokes are here, like bricks, and from them we have built this reality we’ve come to know.
My fear is that jokes will only ever be our only response. Is this it? At the end of ten years all we can do is mill about holding up our electronic eyes, as if with these networked gaze-of-crowds we could somehow evoke the significance that we cannot find. It used to be called irony, back when it was a unique take on a normal situation. Now the uniqueness of the alien crowd is normal. What is normal? Normal is not knowing what is normal anymore. As things get less normal, the petrifying ossification of normalization only becomes more all-encompassing. And not a singular nomalcy. Chaotic normalcy, with all the drowning, soaking uniformity of the tossing molecules of the ocean. A thousand points of light/flowers blooming, and then catching alight in a single wind of flame. Each meme is another brick in the wall of making everything seem just as uniquely odd as the next thing. And it only gets weirder/more normal from here.
And we are still surprised that our feet are wet, even though we saw the sea at a thousand yards. Blinking at the crowd may be all-too-human, but a teenage, irritated exhale through the bangs at the sight of shirtless men climbing light poles, and women staring at them expectantly? Can you honestly say you never expected this? Ten years may have seemed like forever in 2001, but in 2011 it’s just another mini-epoch to reflect upon. Covers of Wired Magazine are made on such petty units of time. Would we really keep not finding him forever? And what did you think would happen when we did? Did anyone expect there to be a trial? Peace? Even a second’s serious reflection on the wars (or more than 140 characters’ worth of thought)? What else was there beside a bullet in the head, a DNA test, and a burial at sea? These sorts of narratives are wrapped up in an hour, less commercials, on prime time TV. We can excuse reality for doing it in 24. The flags, the flags, the flags. College students looking for an excuse to be late to Monday morning classes. Breasts dangling. Let a thousand Flickr feeds bloom, and burnt out my eyes with the lily-white skin of 20-something America. What did you expect? Nobody expected anything more than this. That’s why the most erudite thing anyone could think to say is U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A. And hold out a cell phone, into the night. Obama wrote remarks. Everyone else spelled acronyms repeatedly.
The only worse thing than the sullen, confused teenager is the lecturing, patronizing parent. And yet, I’m no prophet, and no doctor with a prescription, either. I’ve been a teenager though. And while I had my wet-footed moments as I learned how to see through the jokes, I also learned to shout. I think that is what I want from people now. Not a whimper. Not a shake of the head, a self-conscious close of the eyelids to block out what they are doing in the street. Not an ironic, snide comment under the breath. Not a pleading complaint.
I want shouting. Anger in the street. To release these feelings that have been building for ten, long years of idiocy. I don’t want catharsis. I want it to build. I want the sound reverberating from the buildings to make people uncomfortable. I want it to hurt their ears. I want them to stop talking and stare at the guy shouting in the street. They’ll probably hold up their phones to capture a picture of the crazy guy, they might even shout back. But enough is enough. They’ve had their blood now. Now I want mine. I want the sort of blood that will reclaim ten years of lost history. The sort of fluid that runs out of sliced books. The kind of event that closes prisons, that turns wiretaps into hissing static, that makes the people who decided to do this actually see what it is that they’ve done. I want the sort of blood that doesn’t exist, that runs in veins so thin and rare around the surface of the world that it has hardly ever been spilled, except occasionally, only ever in the tiniest, most effervescent of drops, which quickly boil into nothing when seen by the eye. But I’m going to shout for this blood anyway.
Our feet are wet. Ten years passed so quickly, and another ten will pass the same. And we’ve run out of ground to pound our feet against mindlessly. It’s time to pass through that crowd, rather than stand on the periphery. I don’t need to ask if anyone is with me. Because that’s not the sort of question that has a correct response.
So no one knows the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (see link Five, above). At the May Day March I was at, which also happened yesterday, some union organizers tried to start up a rendition of “Solidarity Forever”. No one knew the words to that one, either. But all of us know how to cry for blood.
More than a quarter of a million people have marched through central London to deliver a powerful message about the government’s cuts in public spending. The generally good-natured mood was soured by violent and destructive attacks on symbols of wealth including the Ritz, banks and a luxury car dealer; and an occupation of the upmarket food store Fortnum and Mason.
Last night police appealed to people not involved in the disorder to leave Trafalgar Square as they came under increased bombardment from a group of protesters who said they planned to stay there all night. The protesters were throwing items such as coins and water bottles. Scotland Yard said that light bulbs filled with ammonia had also been thrown at officers earlier. But Commander Bob Broadhurst, the Scotland Yard officer in charge of policing the protests, said the TUC had done an excellent job in ensuring that the march was “very professional, very well prepared”. But he said a hardcore element had been intent on making trouble.
“Unfortunately we’ve had in the region of 500-plus criminals – people hiding under the pretence of the TUC march who have caused considerable damage, attacked police officers, attacked police vehicles and scared the general public. Unfortunately, because of their mobility and the fact they are aware of some of our tactics, we have been unable to contain them and so we have had these groups wandering around the central London area.”
The story, of course, is that 250K folks would have been peaceably disputing the actions of their government, which the police is all to happy to grant them, but for the criminals who came and ruined the party. A seemingly logical story of course, because it sounds like those 500 did do some damage, for a purpose and effect that seems specious at best.
That is, until we realize how illogical the story itself is. These 250K are going for a good-natured stroll. That is a powerful message?
Another story about a powerful message, that took place no more that two months ago almost to the day, is the story of Egypt, and Tahrir Square. Egypt was not afforded the right to go for a good-natured stroll, and so they were forced to fight for the right to do so. Eventually the police relented, when they were supplanted by the army. Now the people were allowed to have their stroll. Everybody happy, yes?
No. The Egyptian people had had enough. They were not content at sending a “powerful message”. They wanted their government to actually change, and so they said they would not stop their good-natured stroll until that happened. They set up camp, and decided to stay.
And we know what happened next. There was violence, and strolling, and violence, and solidarity. They held together, and they got their change.
The 250K who are only interested in sending a “power message” are not in it for the change. They are in it for their conscience. The 500-plus who refused to leave when the police informed them their stroll was over? They were in it for the change. For the long haul. For the sit down, and stay until you are listened to, and not just tolerated. And they were branded criminals, not only by the police, but by the 250K strollers who condemned those unfortunate, misguided kids.
Perhaps they were criminals. Perhaps they only show up for the breaking glass, for the paint. Perhaps they like being beaten by cops… who knows. But they were the only ones willing to stay.
When they are all arrested, and the good-natured stroll is over, the government will continue to have its way. The cuts will take place, because even though there were many people willing to send a message, no one was willing to stay.
Videos of 3D weaving machines, which Lexus uses to build car components, among other things. Added strength, less material, and so forth. Via BLDGBLOG.
While once, extruded technologies (plastics) were all the rage of the future, the anality of the mechanisms of cutting-edge capitalistic production is now even more high-strung. Replace the urge to expel with a general increase in tension. The problems of infrastructural distribution that guided flows of solid material and waste, are swapped out for algorithmic Gordian knots. From muscular compression, and old-world-modernist strength, the present-day technologies have progresses towards stretching: no longer thinking bigger and better, pulling every last bit of surplus value out, pulling the thread as taught as it can get.
The B.s, who only came up to London a few weeks ago and have seen nothing of the blitz, say that they find Londoners very much changed, everyone very hysterical, talking in much louder tones, etc., etc. If this is so, it is something that happens gradually and that one does not notice while in the middle of it, as with the growth of a child. The only change I have definitely noticed since the air-raids began is that people are much more ready to speak to strangers in the street. . . . The Tube stations don’t now stink to any extent, the new metal bunks are quite good, and the people one sees there are reasonably well found as to bedding and seem contented and normal in all ways – but this just what disquiets me. What is one to think of people who go on living this subhuman life night after night for months, including periods of a week or more when no aeroplane has come near London? . . . It is appalling to see children still in all the Tube stations, taking it all for granted and having great fun riding round and round the Inner Circle. A little while back D. J. was coming to London from Cheltenham, and in the train was a young woman with her two children who had been evacuated to somewhere in the West Country and whom she was now bringing back. As the train neared London an air-raid began and the woman spent the rest of the journey in tears. What had decided her to come back was the fact that at that time there had been no raid on London for a week or more, and so she had concluded that “it was all right now”. What is one to think of the mentality of such people?
When one suggests that SF involving people living underground in tubes because they fear an unspecified danger above ground is unrealistic, I suppose that we should remember that of all the horrible things we could possibly think of to do to other people, someone has already thought of, and most likely, done so.
“With the coming of ____ ________ began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.” And so begins the third sentence (with the pseudonym-dropping reference to the Beat scene excised) of the most over-gifted book in America besides the Bible, and the bane of everything creative in this land. You are going to have to excuse me while I vent a little bit about the state of literature in this country, as represented through a particular book that is in no way representative of literature in this country. Okay—so I’d be willing to concede that the book isn’t that bad, and like every so-so book that is wildly popular, there is probably a time and place for when it is exactly the right book. The right time and place for On the Road is when you are a fifteen year-old white male feeling unsure in the first year of high school. But that doesn’t change my criticism of the Beat Poets and a loathing for what they did to America: a white, phoning-it-in, irreversible, suburban coffee shop graft, perpetrated upon American literature.
What they did was create a gold road of unlimited devotion; they lionizied a cursory appreciation of the American literary canon, a lack of hard work, and generally unrestrained hippie optimism that is about as untenable to modern problems as Picasso is to the Internet. And it is not so much that they did, because that could be forgivable as no more than a symptom of their times. It could be a hindsighted mistake, a pathology we will no doubt suffer ourselves in spades come another forty years. But the problem is that we can’t seem to get over the Beats, even now. The continued celebration of this metaphysical pap is not necessarily because there is somewhere within it a canonical truth—it’s just that we have nothing better. We can’t talk about American poetry, let alone write it (at least if we are men), without somehow mentioning the Beats. We just haven’t grown up. We are still teens in high school. You can’t write about modern times in America without obliquely referencing the soaring, anti-America-The-Beautiful tones of Ginsberg. It’s inescapable, like crappy magazines in the doctor’s office. Sports players are male role models today not because they are good role models, but because without them our need for role models would lead us to bend down to politicians and… for fuck’s sake, business men. I remind you that Kerouac was a varsity athlete before picking up the pen.
More crucial to my own personal problems, is the fact that you cannot write about traveling across the American road without at least mentioning Kerouac, or taking two paragraphs to invectively disparage him, both being more than he deserves. This is what canon means to us, today. It’s what we hate, but talk about anyway. Even though the America Kerouac traveled is dead, it lives in the Interstate Highway System of our minds.
Dear readers, I now invite you to purge the Beat from your inner cloverleaf interchange. Expel it, with all the released kinetic force of a eighteen-car pile up caused by a drunk driver in a five-ton pickup jumping the median, soaring through the rusted and outdated guard rail, and landing on top of the busy, commuter-traffic filled, EZ-Pass only, HOV lanes below. The power of crushing metal compels you: exit now. Thank you. We have rubber-necked at the canon, smoking against the Jersey barrier. And now we can drive on.
Flying cars existed back in 1955 when On the Road was published. Huge vehicles, made in America by American Labor out of American Steel, would carry you across the country at incredible rates of speed. The pavement would zip by beneath the singing tires, as you climbed over top of mountains and raced across deserts. The miles per gallon were low, but the fuel was endless. There was nothing quicker than a car; it was the one-manned, streamlined, asphalt aeroplane, carrying newly individual, nucleated American Supermen faster than a speeding locomotive. Death by automobile accident was the heroes death, and the crushed frame beneath your twisted body was the shield your people would carry you home upon. The cars… had fucking fins.
Today, driving Route 66 means driving “Historic Route 66”, the heritage road celebrating unrestrained American road travel in the past tense. On its hallowed, pock-marked surface, just off the real highway, you can get good old American gas for about $3.00 a gallon, which will power the average sedan for a cost of about fifteen cents per mile. At that rate, it will cost you $367.20 to drive Route 66. It will cost you $435 to go across Interstate 80, which travels from San Francisco to New York. A single room at Motel 6 will run you a little less than $40 a night. Meals at Hometown Buffet will cost you… well, I have no idea, and I don’t want to know. Suffice it to say, if you have two or three people in the same car, it might be as cheap as flying. Naturally, there are other ways to do the road trip on the even-cheaper. But low-budget, American family-style travel is hardly budget at all. The only thing soaring, rocketing, and flying are various metaphors involving credit cards.
But we, (meaning us, not you; I have no idea how you choose to travel) are already on a road trip. We have gotten in the car against the wishes of our family who would prefer that we just fly, (even though they bought us our copy of the 40th Anniversary edition of On the Road some years before as a gift) we are out of cell phone reception, and the pavement is, along with the gas, evaporating away beneath us. What are we doing here?
We sure as hell don’t know Dean Moriarty. I know some people on Twitter, though. We didn’t so much hear that Dean was in Spanish Harlem, as see some Flickr pictures, and maybe click around in the Atlas Obscura. We might have killed entire hours wandering over the topology of Google Maps, with the Wikipedia layer turned on. I don’t know if this exactly prepped us for what we would never stoop to call “our life on the road”. It sure wasn’t as sexy as a couple of beatniks talking to each other on a dirty mattress, out of their minds on uppers. But all the same, this is how it happened to us, and here we are, rocketing towards points on the compass, leaving in our wake nothing more than a single geotagged post in each state if reception allows it, and at the same time moving away from all points on the compass at the exact same rate.
Because here is the thing about our new social understanding of speed. The faster the pace of history moves, the less distance you have to travel to go the same speed. Velocity is now 1 / Distance x Time. Entropy is our fuel additive. As a species, we’re slowing down. We’re asymptotically approaching zero no matter what we do. But along the curve of this simple, rational function, the individual can cover less ground in an atemporal universe and still be moving at the same rate. The calculus of a road trip is the inverse of every algebra example about road trips and distance that has ever been taught to you.
Flying, for whatever On-the-Road-given reason, is not an option for us. The future is not an option, either. Inevitability is the zeitgeist, and this zeitgeist is inevitable. There is no place to run towards, waving your arms and screaming for shelter. Your present is your future; you credit card limit just hasn’t been distributively absorbed by participating vendors yet. We are not driving towards anything. We’re simply driving away. And this is why we’re still behind the wheel. You could fly around the world in 48 hours, but then you’d have to do something else. If you drive across the country, you’ll kill at least ten times as much time and twice as much money waiting for the future to get here. That is a pretty good buy. The most anyone can ask for their money these days is that it take up more time than it would have taken this time last year. Now that is progress.
Modern vinyl-interiored mp3-capable automatic-transmissioned cars do fly a little. Living on the inside of a safety glass bubble, you are at least a few inches up off the ground. More if you’ve inflated your tires properly. Music sounds better played on certain cheap car speakers. It’s all about bass beating within a sedan-womb. Cheap food tastes better if you eat it while moving. I recommend corn nuts. Caffeine is more effective over fifty miles per hour, bringing the nerves and the brain up to speed, ideas slinging past like mile markers flitting by in the furthest reach of the headlights. I had at least ten ideas in the stretch of road between Nashville and Louisville. I was only able to remember six when I stopped to write them all down. When you are tired, a car seat is more comfortable that it would be ordinarily, when you are not tired. A parking lot with a public bathroom that has paper towels rather than just a hand dryer is about as much of a home as anyone with four wheels underneath them could want these days. You can take more luggage in the car than you could on the plane. But you don’t need to. The car is your luggage. Just throw your extra clothes in back. If your seats fold down, you can sleep in your suitcase. Is this American life? Who the hell knows anymore. If I did a keyword search, I’m sure I could find someone who has written a book or a song or a blog that could tell me for sure.
Modern tourism is just the process of living your life. You could live your life in one spot, or in many. Maybe. I’m not going to tell you anything definitively. There’s just too much at stake, and not enough payoff to start authoring platitudes just yet. I’m not saying I won’t write a book about it though. Or at least start to write it, before it mutates into something else. There are just too many books out there by this time to every write a single book on any single thing. Every book is now every other book, in a hyperlinked process of extension that so tritely networks together all of the things that we think about, in the way that every road trip ever taken is every bit of every other road trip. Driving towards, and driving away. If we’re six degrees of separation away from every other human on earth, you are no more than two from every other road trip on the North American continent. My life on the road, your life on the road. The biggest/fastest/best 3G network in America. Where’s the best hamburger in the United States? There’s not just a single app for that. There’s at least ten, and a couple of shows on the Food Network too.
If I was going to give advice about driving across the country, I’d tell you to not read On the Road, don’t eat a single hamburger, and whatever you do, do not to listen to the radio. Read the road signs instead. And I’ll tell you why.
Don’t tune in next week for: the Museum of Tourist Economies No More than 15 Miles from An Interstate Highway.
I was laid off for the second time, roughly two weeks before Christmas.
I don’t celebrate Christmas, so that part was moot. But it seems to get a sympathetic look from strangers. On the other hand, I think it also distracts from the “second time” aspect, which to me was the important bit.
Getting laid off even from a job you dislike is nothing like quitting, so I had to find a way to quit something to make up for it. We (my partner M and myself) already had promised to be back on the East Coast for various family/holiday things, so we re-oriented our plans, argued on the phone with airlines, and drove across the continent. We called it the Minor American Cities Tour. We often give trips little names like that. To pretend they are more planned than they are, I suppose. We did the family stuff, and then we drove back to the West Coast.
In all of that driving, there was a lot of time to think. I had a big plan, in the weeks after being laid off. The plan was to write a series of ten intelligent, thought-provoking, wide-ranging essays, showcasing my skills as a writer. I would front the series with my resume and a thoughtful and honest cover letter asking for writing work, put it out there on the Internet, and then use the essays as the force to back it up. The punch behind the fist, so to speak. Except—more of a friendly, firm, “hire me please” handshake, I suppose. The plan had all the hallmarks of a New York Times article, and therefore, couldn’t fail.
Since that hour in the dark and snow on the freeway somewhere in the middle of the country when I came up with that plan, I’ve read two different resume/blogposts that had the same general idea, both of them written by people with a much fucking better resume than mine, getting way more retweet coverage than I could possible hope for. So I trashed that plan, deleted the cover letter I had already wrote, and in the remaining essays, started using the word “fuck” more often.
But the essays came out great.
I’m calling this series, The Museum of Small American Museums. I explain the concept in detail in the titular essay (I believe it’s number four), but basically, each essay is a “museum”, styled after the minor museums you see advertised along the highway in overly exuberant attempts to get you to stop and spend money in small American town X. Like anyone would ever stop their car for a museum!
Well, we did, and maybe you will too. Not for camp value, but to see what the hell an American citizen fills a museum with, given the chance. They aren’t handed the keys to the Met, for goodness sake. But they get a piece of donated property, a handful of volunteers, and a sign. If they’re really pushy with the change jar, maybe even some brochures.
These are not those museums. You will have to get out there on the roads between some of America’s lesser cities, if you want to see what it is that America wants to show you. I’m not doing your work for you. Like the kid in elementary school who wants to show you something behind the gym, what he wants to show you is not the same thing he would want to show you in front of the flagpole. If you want to see what he wants to show, you have to go behind the fucking gym.
These are my museums. These are ten small museums of America that I want you to see, for which I am making the fliers. We don’t have to go behind anything, you just have to come to my website. The first museum explains why the second occasion of being laid off really got to me. And the subject matter generally gets worse from there. But the writing gets better each time. With each essay, I get deeper into the really fucking weird shit that is going on around in this country, masquerading as “the unimportant”. In each new subject, I find more evidence that points to what is commonly referred to as the coming of the end of the world. It is not the end of the world, obviously. The common referrals are totally wrong. But it is evidence of something so different than what we know as normal, that if it ever got here all at once, it would seem just like the end of the world would, if it ever got here. My goal is to distribute this evidence, this difference, in a nice, thick, trickle. That way, we can release the pressure a bit, and maybe stop a massive American Seminal Emission Weirdness Event. No promises, though. I’m not a professional.
The widespread lockout of Wikileaks causes a proliferation of third-party “Pirate Party” services for financial, information, and other infrastructure. In the course of 3-4 weeks, an entire shadow internet, banking, media, and even certain physical logistics network is set up. Run by… who?
Clearly a total fiction, because even if there was enough public ire to demand these “diaspora” services, they could not just spring from nowhere. Money, servers, time, skill, etc. All necessary, and highly doubtful that these could be put together quickly enough to take advantage of the outrage of pro-Wikileakers willing to migrate right now.
But infrastructure is very important. Wikileaks is forced to hang on as it can, finding sanctuary where possible, and hiding its infrastructure that is still solid.
But all of these lockouts is making me think, mostly because I can’t think of anything similar in recent history where so many companies have turned against a (somewhat) public group like this. Feel free to chime in if you can think of a comparison, but meanwhile, let me run down this list of facts and presumed facts.
- Wikileaks publishes documents that are marked secret by the US government, in active disregard of their request, though it seems highly dubious that doing so is actually illegal. They are not the first group to do something like this, though the scale and press regarding the leak are seemingly unprecedented.
- The direct infrastructure by which they publicize these documents is attacked both by DDoS “groups”, and by commerical ISPs. Note: what was attacked was not the infrastructure by which they published the documents, which were released to media, and are no doubt safe in many repositories all over the world. Their web presence, which channels their publicity, was attacked. Their public “power to the people” face was attacked, not their actual existence. Also, their main page for channeling donations: which was the beginning of the attack on their financial infrastructure.
- The second level of infrastructure to be attacked is the finance. The details of Wikileaks finances are not known, maintained with a good deal of secrecy and front-groups. The reason for this is that, undoubtedly, this infrastructure would be extremely vulnerable to attack, either by governments or lawsuits by those Wikileaks has confronted. Julian Assange admits as much in this WSJ article, that also gives some background into what parts of this infrastructure are known.
- The criminal allegations against Julian Assange in Sweden notwithstanding, there are no criminal allegations against Wikileaks the organization, nor any companies or entities that are part of their infrastructure. Plenty of talk, but no warrants, charges, etc.
- Wikileaks claims it is holding information from inside Bank of America.
Now: let’s look at the hits on the publicity infrastructure. Companies involved are Tableau Software, Amazon, and everyDNS. Financial Infrastructure? PayPal, PostFinance, MasterCard, and Visa.
I’m going to suggest that these hits are not “politically” motivated. Tableau Software admits to being pressured by the office of Senator Joe Lieberman, but there is no other evidence that the US government or any other government pressured any of the other groups. Naturally, they could be lying. But they could also have motivation of their own. And a company’s biggest motivation is money.
Amazon could have faced a potential Christmas season boycott in America from anti-Wikileaks ideologues. That argument seems logical, but how many Christmas shoppers would forgo their gifts in order to make a point about a website isn’t clear. But would any of the others have faced boycott? Would Americans really boycott MasterCard or Visa for refusing to dump Wikileaks, when most of us owe a significant amount of money to these companies already? Even PayPal, the credit card of the internet, suffering much of a reaction seems implausible. Or a Swiss bank? Maybe everyDNS could have been susceptible to boycott, but it still seems doubtful.
What about the link to Bank of America? All of the financial institutions that have pulled moves on Wikileaks’ infrastructure have close ties to Bank of America, with the exception of Tableau and everyDNS. “Close ties” doesn’t even cover it. They are part of a mutual system that generates billions of dollars in revenue a year for all of them.
This is pure speculation. This is just looking at information I found in 15 minutes of Internet research. But it seems like a judgment one would have to at least propose. What could the US government or an irate public really do to any of these institutions? But what could Bank of America do? Or what could Wikileaks potentially do against any of these entities? It seems quite likely that this is not just a rebuttal to the Embassy Cables leak. It seems like a financial offensive in its own right. A lawsuit is premature–there would have to be an actual case made, and an assumption of guilt on the part of the suing party like in the case of Bank Julian Baers or Kaupthing. But how easy is it to call a fellow member on a board of directors, and get some strings pulled? All too easy. So easy, that it would be surprising if they didn’t.
This recent link is big news, and really catapults Wikileaks into a spotlight. Also, the delayed release of these cables means that we are going to be hearing the word “Wikileaks” every day for over a year, at least. Wikileaks is a threat, not in an ideological free-speech hacker-anarchism sort of way, but in a very real way to people might be exposed, and potentially lose millions if not billions of dollars.
I don’t know which would make me more paranoid and suspicious: if the US government was after me, or if the Bank of America was after me.
And also, think of this: if the US government isn’t as interested in going after Wikileaks or isn’t as able to through its channels as financial entities are, what does this say for the future of you and me? At what point will be need a shadow infrastructure to escape from the reach of these instutitons?
So for the moment, let’s just bracket the whole security state, individual body autonomism, and terrorism fear-politics thing. Whatever you agree with is totally right, and full body scanners are _______.
Now. Your opinion being correct, the government being wrong, and the differences between these ideas and reality being completely resolved, let’s think about it in a different way.
What is so wrong with being naked?
Full body scanner opposition has really brought out the prudes. Sure, you claim political reasons, (which I can’t hear right now ’cause I done bracketed ‘em) but I think you are just afraid of what the naked body looks like.
This is 2010. This is the year when it is completely reasonable for women to walk around wearing nothing but a thin layer of spandex clinging to the outside of their junk. This is the year when rock stars are photographed in the streets playing the drinking game where if you show someone your nuts they have to drink an alcohol energy drink. (That is a thing, right? Sounds like it is.) This is the year where pornography finally, FINALLY made it onto the Internet.
I know it’s the rule that we have to hate whatever it is the government is trying to make us do, especially in airports. But why do we have to be against it if it is nakedness? I also know it is a rule that the only people we want to see naked are supposed to be very attractive, and they don’t go to airports ever. But this is a recession, and we all have to make concessions.
So what is the real issue? If we’re not against nakedness, and we’re not against settling for a less than perfect nakedness, then what is it about full body scanners we really don’t like? It’s that nobody gets to see the pictures except for TSA. We don’t get to upload them to Facebook for our boss to find, accidentally expose them from underneath our skirt as we drunkenly trip exiting a subway car, or sit with it in our hand while we surf Chatroulette. The problem is not being naked. It is just such a limited, un-fun, anti-exhibitionist naked.
So here is my proposal. Share your nakedness. Rather than submit to the hand-off, monochrome, and frankly un-party-like atmosphere, opt-out of the body scanner, and OPT-IN to the pat down. Share your body with another human being. Talk to him or her. Look your fellow human in the eye. Extend your arms, and let the warm flesh underneath those latex gloves run over your frame. Encourage them to seek to ensure nothing dangerous lies in your corporeal crevices, not with any potentially harassing comments, but with a loving presence of a willing, giving fellow inhabitant of a physical form.
We all have bodies, and that has always been the danger. We have material beings that are fragile, vulnerable to attack, and susceptible to threats, permeated by fear. And this is why we must celebrate our bodies, strutting them through the streets, trussing ourselves up in meager strings of cloth that beg to let the skin underneath be released in full animal beauty. We are judgmental of our and other’s bodies, and just as defensive against such criticism. The terrain of our slowing rotting homes has always been the battlefield, both inside and out. And rather than force ourselves to see the truth of this messy, insurgent conflict, we disavow our bodies. We put on a coat, we tie a tie, and we declare mission accomplished. Even though this war can never be won.
What if rather than assign the battle of our bodies to a bureaucratic entity, we decided to fight this war ourselves. In a world of mutual human body security, you go to the airport, and approach a stranger. You introduce yourselves, and sit down together to open your luggage. You look through each others’ clothing and electronics, admiring what you like, and condemning anything that might be dangerous to either of you. Embarrassing items like underwear, hygiene effects, or pleasure items illicit a blush, and a knowing wink. Then you begin to undress each other. You look under each others arms, and between each others legs. In the mouth, and through the hair. Did you know you have the beginnings of a cavity there? And I think it might time to redo that hair dye. You have some roots showing. Not so bad yet, but in the next week or two. This is a check-up as much as a check-through. There is no sexual contact, because this is a public place, for goodness sake! There is exploration, examination, questioning, and eventually, approval. No one is embarrassed, humiliated or violated. Instead, we look out for each other, by looking underneath our coverings, and ultimately, inside of ourselves.
Rather than prepare for a trip by checking the codes and avoiding the fearful scanner machines, maybe we prepare for our inspection by flossing our teeth. We trim that extra bit of body hair we don’t care for, because after all, we want to look our best for inspection. We wash our ears and feet carefully, because we will soon be showing them off. The scrutiny of an other’s gaze is a heavy burden. Not because of what might happen to us, but because after all, we are inspecting ourselves.
If we live in a world in which threats hide beneath our clothing, then by all means, let us lay the danger bare. Opt-in to the opt-out, and feel what having a threatened body really feels like.
Democracy is good at one thing: keeping back the raging mob.
As much as we might vacillate between the Hobbesian model of the war of all against all, and the Rousseian Noble Savage in the debate of what really lies at the core of human nature, we don’t need to be an Enlightenment philosopher to realize that humans are capable of some pretty sick shit. It oozes from us. We see it, bubbling thick and oily like crude from the ocean floor, in the bleachers at sporting events. We can spot it, microscopic but thriving, like bacterial colonies, underneath blog posts in the comments section. It wafts through the air in bars on Friday nights, through the high school cafeteria, unstoppable particles of angst and longing coming through the media airwaves, always already broadcast and received, at the same time decayed and thriving, permeating our systems and our theories alike. Despite how much we love each other and ourselves, we also hate each other and ourselves. And when it comes to love we are often at a loss for words, but when it comes to violence, we have quite to vocabulary. Human society is the psychotic, always an inch away from a break, and yet at the same time completely sane in its own mind and to all who might innocently pass it on the street, sit in the same subway car, ride in the same elevator. We hold down a job, have a complete family life–but come into contact with one of our triggers, and you’re at the battle of Stalingrad. Just another day at the office for human history. We’re not crazy. YOU’RE the one who’s crazy!
But apart from the fear I hope this rightly instills in you (and if it doesn’t, I have a story about meth-induced psychosis for you) democracy is great at lots of other things too. One of them is electing leaders. Throughout the history of democracy, leaders have been elected successfully time and time again. If we take holding back the mob as the primary principle of democracy, electing leaders might be the secondary principle, and a primary strategy for achieving the primary principle. After all, with representation, you have an avatar. You have a disembodied excuse, and a effigy, if needed. So many of the human mob’s characteristics are sublimated up the chain to the leaders, that it is a successful strategy indeed for achieving that primary principle. If that’s what you’re into. Therefore, while not the primary principle itself, electing leaders is a very important task of a democracy. You might, in fact, say that electing leaders is the most successful principle of a democracy–because while not all democracies have succeeded in holding back the mob, all democracies have succeeded in producing leaders.
As for how it produces those leaders–on what infernal machinery it mints that coinage, and into what infernal alloys it bashes those unholy visages–well, those are some other stories. So let’s consider one of these stories, and talk a little bit about how a certain democracy elects its leaders. As our example, a backward little democracy known as the United States. I call this story The Greatest Iteration: Our Plurality to America.
The Greatest Iteration: Our Plurality to America
You see children, America was quite an odd place. Years and years of inter-cultural mixing, reasonably good jobs, and a pretty potent household drug supply had created a country where there was equal parts respect for societal tradition, canonical juridicio-discursivity, and old-fashioned widespread cultural madness. The best way to deal with these conditions and still maintain a system of mostly paved roads was with a democracy, founded by a constitution.
I would say we are going to skip the boring bit by glossing over the history of voting as told through constitutional law–articles one and two, amendments 12, 15, 17, and 19, the 3/5 clause, the Magna Carta (because the Magna Carta is always there if you go back far enough)–but I’m going to end up talking about game theory, so the constitutional law is actually the exciting part. But let me get you up to date: in this scene, America is voting to determine the membership of its bicameral legislature, as determined by Single-Member District Plurality voting.
And you thought it was just a boring midterm election! Well, if you thought democracy was as simple as thumping a pamphlet copy of the constitution, saying the pledge of allegiance, and then showing up to piss on one of two snow piles, that was your first mistake. You may think that voting is simply making a statement about your political beliefs and what the goals of the nation should be. But in actuality, you are one of thousands, nay, millions of pawns in a grand strategy of game theory, statistical sampling, and (wait for gasp of shock) plural matrices!
You see, voting is not merely a matter of one man/woman/child/animal/fetus, one vote. Sure, you are only SUPPOSED to vote once, but then after 300 million (or less than half of that) people vote once, how do you count them? Let the politicking begin!
Most school children and a few adults understand the wacky Electoral College used for electing the American President. The people in each region elect a given number of some other people, who in turn promise to vote for a president. Other than the pomp and circumstance, this is so that states have proportional effect on the choice for president, the exact proportions decided somehow, at sometime, probably by magic. It’s weird, and some people don’t like it. But you don’t mess with magic, especially when it has a distinguished name like “Electoral College”.
Voting for Senator, on the other hand, is simple by comparison. The state votes, and whomever candidate received the most of the votes is the winner. That’s the simplest form of democracy that there is, right?
Wrong! Single-Member DistrictPlurality is only one way, of many ways, of counting votes. It means there is a single person elected, based on a plurality within the district. Because the senators are chosen by the States, and each State has borders we are accustomed to (also determined by magic) Senators seem logical. But what about the House of Representatives? Where the hell is Oregon 2? Michigan 16? Are these determined by a magic that makes sense, or a magic that is very crazy?
The magic works by redistricting, made law in 1967. Each state decides its own district borders, which are supposed to be proportioned by population. “Gerrymandering” is the act of designing these districts to reduce the impact of certain voting blocs. The Voting Rights Act specifically makes illegal gerrymandering aimed at take advantages of racial differences. But other forms of “malapportionment” are harder to identify. And in the end, you have to draw the line somewhere. This somewhere makes a difference.
Here’s a hypothetical example to describe gerrymandering, from Wikipedia:
In brief, suppose that governing party G wishes to reduce the seats that will be won by opposition party O in the next election. It creates a number of constituencies in each of which O has an overwhelming majority of votes. O will win these seats, but a large number of its voters will waste their votes. Then the rest of the constituencies are designed with small majorities for G. Few G votes are wasted, and G will win a large number of seats by small margins. As a result of the gerrymander, O’s seats have cost it more votes than G’s seats.
Now, gerrymandering is only possible because of single-member district pluralities. Because only one candidate can win in any district, anybody voting for a candidate other than the winner has their vote “wasted”, at least when it comes to representation. So using a bloc’s votes “efficiently” by gerrymandering the district lines only has an effect because there is a difference between a vote used “efficiently” and a vote “wasted”.
There are alternatives to the SMPD method, that minimize wasted votes, thereby reducing the propensity for gerrymandering. Cumulative voting is one method–where each voter gets multiple votes, and the winner is chosen from all votes tallied. This measures the weight of support more directly, and allows a voter to choose to not risk “throwing away” the vote completely. There is also the Single Transferable Vote, in which the voter ranks the candidates, and more than one representative from the district is elected, based on the totaled weights of all the ranks. But these systems have their own quirks, of course.
In fact, there are many, many systems, with many quirks. If, perhaps, you got the dangerous idea into your head that perhaps another system was more representative of the constituency, and in other words, more democratic, you suddenly would have quite a menu of options on your hands. And suddenly, democracy is sooooo complicated! People who study such things have given these systems and quirks names, thankfully. The systems have names like Borda count, Instant Runoff Voting, Ranked Pairs, Schulze, Minimax, and Kemeny-Young. The quirks, called “criteria”, have names like Monotone, Condorcet, Condorcet Loser, Later-no-harm, Reversal Symmetry, Polynomial Time, and Clone Independence. Different systems satisfy different criteria, but none satisfy all. Luckily, Wikipedia has a handy chart to let you see how they all measure up. You can also decipher what they mean, because I don’t understand it all myself.
So while the magic of Single-Member District Plurality senate elections seemed as American as apple pie, and the risk of gerrymandering an acceptable one, the choice of SMDP for elections in the context of all these other options now seems suddenly uncomfortably targeted and “scientific”. What happened to One Legal-Definition-Of-A-Person, one vote? Now it’s theorems and equations, rankings and point-values. Sounds un-American, frankly.
I mean, I would put up with a little borderline gerrymandering here and there. Politics as usual. But Minimax? Isn’t that some sort of science-fiction? And Game Theory? Are you meaning to tell me that voting, the duty of every citizen, is reducible according to the same equations as the Prisoner’s Dilemma? Tweaking the district lines to support the good old boys is one thing, but telling me my decision in representation is basically a complicated logic problem is another.
But this is how our madness is contained. Rather than the war of all against all, we have the low-impact battle of attrition that is single-member district plurality. The intensity of the mob is reduced and sublimated to a single choice once a year, and to anyone interested in analyzing them, methods of counting these single choices. How to dismantle an explosive human society by sublimating political action from street violence into a series of choices: Democracy! No method works without some quirks–because strangely enough, it seems that equal representation is beset by the options it provides. Just like human culture, there are too many people on earth for everyone to be on the outside how they are on the inside. It isn’t possible for a method of representation to sync exactly to the simplicity of the idea of representation we choose to accept as “a cornerstone of our democracy”. The Rights of Man, (and fetuses) as it turns out, is too simple to be mathematically viable as-is. Humanism, just like rational choice, is a simplification that allows us to conduct daily life relatively peaceably, and figure out who wins without as much bloodshed. To go to the mall without being beset by bandits. To transfer power to a new king, err, I mean representative public servant, without a series of hangings. And so, every November we construct a series of plural matrices, and from a collection of Boolean answers to vague questions, a nation is born.
This is what little America has done for itself, in order to keep existing in spite of the forces that would tear it apart. We have a SMDP system, which through a bicameral legislature, separates small populationally proportionate areas of the country from larger, arbitrary groupings of the general population. Therefore, we see the majority opinion of territories visible in the House, but the majority of the population’s opinion visible in the Senate. Cities, with their centralized populations, affect the Senate election matrix more overwhelmingly, while their effect is diminished in proportion to the districted, and therefore more rural representatives elected to the House. This effect carries even further with the President. Also aiding the general effect is the two-party system, a necessary eventuality of SMDP, according to Duverger’s Law. From the wide-ranging choice of human terror options to visit upon fellow humans, for a plethora of reasons, America has distilled a choice between two similar options, from which both options will end up in some way sort of represented, as each option has developed corresponding to the nature of this split between affinities of the more-rural territories, and the more-urban population. Out of many, two–and a mostly non-violent two, to boot. Not a bad little chemistry demonstration, if you ask me. Over 300 million dangerous animals reduced to two colors. Amazing, really.
And thank goodness, because no matter how the US or any country elects their leaders, or whether they do, or whether they satisfy the constraints of the Condorcet Loser Criteria*, it still has to hold back the mob. And that, in the end, is why we like democracy. Right? Because otherwise, we’d be gnawing each other’s limbs off right now. Right?
*The US does not: Condorcet Loser Criteria describes a condition in which a candidate who is less liked by the population when compared individually to any other candidate still wins a plurality election, because positive vote opposition to that candidate is split among several candidates, leaving their core of supporters with the plurality. Say 25% of a population like Candidate A, while 75% hate him more than any other candidate. Yet when election day comes, 25% of that 75% vote for candidate B, or 18.75% of the general population. The same amont vote for C, for D, and for E. Meanwhile, the 25% of the population who likes A votes for him, and so he wins, with the split being 25/18.75/18.75/18.75/18.75. 75% of the population ends up with a representative they detest.
This children’s product was originally recalled in January 2009. Since that time, there have been additional injuries caused by the Spa Factory™ Spa Fantasy Aromatherapy Fountain & Bath Benefits Kits. Pressure from the buildup of carbon dioxide in the jars of Bath Bombs/Balls or Bath Fizzies that come with the kits can cause the unvented lids to blow off, posing explosion and projectile hazards. The flying pieces also can cause property damage. Additionally, the mixture of water with the Bath Bombs/Balls or Bath Fizzies can create citric acid. This acid can get into consumers’ eyes when the jars explode, posing a risk of eye irritation.
As of January 2009, CPSC had received 88 reports of exploding jars, including 13 injuries to children. Since that time, CPSC has received 12 additional reports of exploding unvented jars of JAKKS’ Bath Bombs/Balls or Bath Fizzies, including 13 additional reported injuries. The new injuries include irritated eyes, irritated skin and one eye injury from projectile jar lids.
CPSC Microfiction 10/15/2010
With only a preamble blip of picture, the feed was gone. And we continued to watch. As chairs were pulled from underneath heavily sedated patients, dropping us to the floor in fully subservient embrace of the rule of gravity. Drafted youth organization members of Purely Physical Cause and Effect Party, impassive faces blank as static field of electromagnetic distortion replaced newscast. Eyes automatically releasing anxious iris grip on focus, soft human lenses flexing back slowly, trained ease of first position. Black and white reduced to grey. They say static is residual time-traveling energy noise, in a Theory of Relativity sense anyway, visiting always, from the moment of the beginning until what is whatever is now.
Bath bomb. Took out the whole news room, the engineering room, the server room. The bathroom too, but that wouldn’t have affected the feed. An exothermic reaction in a teacup, or at least in a gift basket set with bath products, imported tea, service set to match, poured in custom carbon porcelain with metal wire reinforcement, jagged little children becoming-shrapnel with dreams of growing up to be grape shot one day. Sent by a dissident start-up, vengeance weapon made of salts and soaps, and something chemically reduced from a skin tightening lotion. A public response to an unfavorable column. Interview over.
We didn’t know that, until another newscast from another channel brought us all up to date. And so we sat, facing the screen. Reconnected with the world. Wondering where the remote was.
After a month of latency, I checked back into the CPSC announcement RSS, and was overwhelmed by the results. Firstly, there was the subject of today’s microfiction, which was perhaps the most quintessential ever, at least in relation to the reasons I started this. It was a second recall, because the first had not stopped the injury reports. It was a children’s toy that turned deadly. It was a product, unfortunately named the “bath bomb” that chemically became an actual bomb. Not only were there explosion and laceration hazards, there were also chemical irritation hazards. TO CHILDREN. With a product as ridiculous as a “child’s spa”, whatever the hell that is. The only thing that could have piled on additionally, would be if the product also violated lead paint standards.
But then I scanned down the rest of the list–an entire month of product recalls. Which, to give the true effect, I will re-create here for you now:
- Briggs & Stratton recall Riding Mowers due to injury Hazard from Projectiles
- The Hive announces recall to repair Revl Carbon Road Bicycle Brakes due to Fall Hazard
- Ryobi recalls Cordless Drills due to Fire Hazard
- Iron Lover’s Bench sold exclusively at Ross Stores recalled due to Fall Hazard
- Green Mountain Vista Inc. recalls Roman Shades due to Risk of Strangulation
- Bravo Sports recalls trampolines due to Fall Hazard
- Alexander Designs brand Drop-Side Cribs sold exclusively at JCPenny recalled for repair due to Entrapment, Suffocation
- Castalon Frying Pans recalled by Tabletops Unlimited due to Burn Hazard
- Valco Baby recalls Jogging Strollers due to Strangulation Hazard
- Tike Tech recalls Jogging Strollers due to Strangulation
- PBteen recalls to repair Sleep and Study Loft Beds due to Fall and Injury Hazard
- Fire Alarm Control Panels recalled by Fire-Lite Alarms due to Alert Failure
- Trisonic Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs recalled due to Fire Hazard
- Home Improvement Books recalled by Oxmoor House due to Faulty Wiring Instructions
- Fisher-Price recalls Infant Toys with Inflatable Balls due to Choking Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Healthy Care, Easy Clean and Close to Me High Chairs due to Laceration Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Little People Wheelies Stand ‘n Play Rampway due to Choking Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Children’s Trikes Due to risk of Serious Injury
- Deaths prompt CPSC, FDA warning on Infant Sleep Positioners
- “S T U F F” and Paw Wall Hooks recalled by Midwest-CBK due to violation of lead paint standards
- Black & Decker recalls Cordless Electric Lawnmower due to Laceration Hazard
- Sunrise Medical recalls Quickie(r) Shark Bikes due to Footrest Failure
- Rugs recalled by Brumlow Mills due to Fire Hazard
- Molenaar LLC recalls Night Lights due to Fire and Shock Hazard
- Children’s Mood Rings and Necklaces recalled by D&D Distributing Wholesale due to risk of Lead Exposure
- Tea Sets recalled by The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf(r) due to Fire Hazard
- Children’s Hooded Jackets and Sweatshirts with Drawstrings recalled by Burlington Coat Factory due to Strangulation Hazard
My morbid interest, piqued by the first announcement, quickly diminished. I’m still oddly fascinated by these tales of anonymous suffering at the hands of our supposedly subservient consumer objects. But somehow, the thrill is gone. It is like watching a thriller film, and the killer just goes on killing and killing, nothing ever changing or being revealed.
These are companies you’ve heard of, companies you’ve never heard of, making objects you use, or maybe you would never touch in your life. All of them hurt people, or could, in a manner other than intentionally designed. With a fiendish, creativity intensity. And this will never stop. As long as we make things, these things will end up somehow releasing their stored energy against us. They cannot all be recalled, because we will continue to make more.
Strangulation by venetian blinds, and drawstring sweatshirts. Poisioning by paint, on beads and toys and clothing. Cribs that function as guillotines. Bicycles that work as human catapults. Wiring that melts, burns, and explodes. We used to worry about the plague. Witchcraft. Murderous barbarians building walls from our skulls. We don’t worry about these things anymore (mostly) but we worry about the places we make where we just might catch our necks. First world problems. Death by small parts.
In honor of celebrating this strange facet of the death drive we’ve created, I’m hereby closing the CPSC Microfiction series. This was always the way it was meant to be, and now that it is, I feel that it has fulfilled its function. I’ve reported, I’ve speculated, I’ve imagined, and I’ve fantasized. I might do it again if the moment and the product grabs me with that mortal consumer lust once again. But for now I think we’re complete.
I didn’t remember who actually invented the Segway; I had to look all this up on Wikipedia. But when I first read the news that “the owner of Segway died on a Segway”, I automatically assumed that it was indeed the inventor who had perished, until I re-read the headline twice, and began to wonder. I then confirmed that Heselden was the owner and NOT the inventor. I have not seen a news story about the accident that clarified this, though none explicitly made the false assumption, either.
So why did we all assume the inventor had died by the hands (wheels) of his own creation? Maybe it was an honest mistake. The Segway was unveiled in a flurry of speculation and hype, in which many predictions about the invention were made by other self-made inventors like Steve Jobs, who claimed it would be more significant than the personal computer. As this hype washed over us, the archetype of “the inventor” hung over this device, like Edison over the lightbulb, Einstein over relativity, and Jobs himself over a number of ubiquitous devices. A singular person had designed this wonder, and eventually we would celebrate him and his invention in the manner of these other “great men of history”. So when we hear the Segway has turned on its master, we assume that the robot has risen to kill its maker, not the current majority stakeholder in the first of no doubt several backing-capital turnovers.
But the mistake is not so honest. There’s something we like in this lie. There is a story we enjoy, so much so that we prefer the fiction to the fact. There’s something that completes an archetype. It’s not just the trope of technology destroying those who wield it. It is the Frankensteinian horror: the flesh of the hands that brought life into mechanical hands, hands that so artistically made objects into living things, being slashed to bloody bits by those cold metal fingers. The plot of Edward Scissorhands is an example, as is The Terminator Saga, and many other tales of industrialized pathos, the Fordian Doom bending back to poke us through the brain, to snap our twig-like limbs, and to crush our skulls under heavy metal feet. Not just destroying the world, but killing the maker himself (invariably, “him”-self). From ingenuity to invention, from dust to dust.
If you frequent Twitter, or certain circles of it, anyway, you might detect a subterranean desire for this particular sort of ironic pathos. Though it is clearly not just Twitter, but a feature of our current consciousnesses. Twitter only amplified this unconscious sentiment, 140 characters at a time. We cross our fingers and pray that the daily stream of bad news is some way ironic, or symbolic, or in other ways fitting to the overall tragedy of human existence. This is not the sort of thing we wish for out loud in polite company, but we all do it. We wish that the executives of BP would die in fiery fuel oil explosions. We hope that those who mock our beloved Internet become ill for not checking their symptoms via Google. Or at least those who refuse to admit the usefulness of 140 character messages end up being saved from rampaging mutated kittens by sending a SMS to emergency services. We wish that there was some sort of perverted justice in the world to take the place of regular justice that just does not exist.
And that is only the most defensible category of this urge for symbolic death. In the case of the inventor of Segway, there may be some angst towards an expensive device over-built in hype, but it would not fulfill anyone’s sense of justice to see the man perish at the hands of his own machine. It would merely make it more interesting. Such an end would conclude the bizarre chapter of human technological history that is the Segway with a larger-than-life meaning, a tragic symbolism worthy of Greek mythology, an almost Promethean demise in which an inventor gives something of great promise to the world under the best of intentions, only to have his breakthrough mocked, derided, accepted only by the most suburban of police forces and mall security squads, only to have it eventually be the very sword driven through his heart. This is the death we wished for Dean Kamen (at least symbolically), and gave to him undeserved through a sadistic, Freudian Twitter-slip.*
I’ve been trying to think of a name for this urge–this desire to make bad news more allegorical than it is. This morning, I think I came up with it: “Ballardianfreude”. The word “schadenfreude” comes from the German words “schaden” (adversity) and “freude” (joy). It describes the pleasure we gain from others’ misfortune, the joy in adversity that is not our own. J.G. Ballard was a master of modernist irony, describing in all its disgusting glory the oxymoronic pleasure we get from pain, the doom we find in technology that sustains our lives, and the beautiful trap we have built for ourselves out of this modern world. Inside, between the gnashing gears of our transmissions, lies the deep pleasure in the dirty oil, beneath the shining carapaces of bezels and dashboards, the gleaming exteriors shining with speed that will, after Ballard, always evoke their guts, and ours. It is with these eyes, that once opened to the sexiness of car crashes and the orgiastic organicism of overpasses cannot fail to continue to find these artifacts of apophenia, with which we seek out items to reinforce our Ballardianfreude. The only thing more uncanny than to find out we are all going to die is to discover that for no reason, some of us are going to live. Against the positive humanism that turned against us to castrate our dreams, we place the negative affirmation of Ballardianism, the reassurance of beauty and meaning in death. And in this deployment of Ballard’s themes, we in this age, find a certain joy.
And so we seek to find it. For every inventor, an untimely death. For every worldly success, a deep unconscious failure. For every dream made real, a thousand chained to the rocks, with their livers ripped out by ravenous carrion eaters every time the sun rises.
Of course, the pleasant upside to Ballardianfreude is that we are constantly disappointed. The world isn’t as dark as we see it, just as it isn’t as light as we’d like it. Reality is the constant fuzz of gray that a television displays when it is not tuned to a channel or to a pirate broadcast, but to the inherent noise-interference of the universe. A world of constant accidents, some comedic, some tragic, and some utterly meaningless. A man dies in a scooter accident. These things happen every day. The relief from meaning lies in its absence, the surreal reality of the possibility of patterns. Tomorrow there will be traffic accidents and bridges constructed, broken hearts and newly discovered dreams.
The true meaning lies in the sound and the fury. Something is, utterly, utter nothingness. Signifying that.
* Like the undeserved ire for Kamen, so suffers the Segway. I am equally guilty, simplifying the Segway to improve my story. While the Segway didn’t live up to the hype, it is a great tool for personal mobility, especially for the disabled. There are also many off-shoot designs for different purposes. If I live long enough to where my legs begin to fail me, I hope there is some easy device like this in existence that allows me to get out and continue to explore the world, while standing upright.
I’m particularly interested by, and even tickled with (mostly because they haven’t targeted me yet) 4Chan.
If this is your first time on the Internet, let me introduce you to 4Chan, which is that seedy area that isn’t described in your tourist guide, because it doesn’t so much have an operating red light district, as is a good place to buy counterfeit gun parts.
Except that you can’t actually buy anything there, illegal or not. That’s Craigslist, or eBay. And it’s not stolen property, because it isn’t a torrent network. :) 4Chan is, as part of the world wide web, really almost nothing substantial at all.
4Chan is actually an image posting board. Bare bones, text only, except one image per post. Images. Cars. Porn. Anime. Fetish. Everything else. Most of those LOL pictures you’ve seen elsewhere came from 4Chan before they were distilled from the Internet’s sense-of-humor aether.
What makes 4Chan unique is that it is absolutely anonymous. You can post there without anyone knowing who you are, and in fact you must, because the site is designed in such a way as to not record who you are, except by a random number if you so choose. It is about as anonymous as anonymous gets on the Internet. They can ban IP blocks for abuse. That’s it.
This fact becomes a feature, and the most outstanding feature of 4Chan. Because it is anonymous, it has created a particular home base for a bunch of stuff, which can only be known as /b/. The first rule of /b/ is “ZOMG NONE!!!1″. That pretty much says it. There are some perfunctory global rules to the entire site that apply to bans (no advertising, etc) enforced within /b/, but other than that, this is what doesn’t fit elsewhere. And there is a lot of that.
And doesn’t fit, it does not. This anonymous space opens up a bizarre sort of Internet–an internet of odd humor, of various tinctures of pure id, of emotion and devious retribution towards nearly anything that might be rebelled against.
The most notable thing to me, is that out of this chaos, very distinct forms emerge. There is a head to this beast, and a motion to the mob. Like a school of fish, it moves quickly, purposefully, and with all the authority that anonymous, random, network content can provide.
Because this is Cyborg month, I’ve been thinking about most things in a very cybernetic way. So allow me to indulge this, as in my best Rod Serling voice, I present these items for your consideration.
Item One: Most Influential
In a feat that, granted, sounds more devious than it was in the end, 4Chan not only promoted 4Chan founder “moot” to Time’s Most Influential Person, but arranged the next 20 runner-ups perfectly in a bit of acrostic inside-joke graffiti. As the full post-mortem reveals, the inherent vulnerabilities of Time’s online poll made it easy, and reduced the magazine poll’s last remaining ounce of cultural weight down to the vacuous popularity contest it always was, using only a little bit of clever code and some widely available automatic poll-hacking programs.
In this exhibit, we see /b/’s desire not just to fuck with anything, but the ability of certain members of the swarm to really dig into the fabric of the net in order to do so. Compare this to the alleged Digg Patriots, a right-wing group that purportedly uses multiple logins and organized tactics to bury articles on a ranking site. The Digg Patriots use the system, they just game the system in a way that violates the given rules. On the other hand, /b/ completely hacked the poll system, rendering other organized attempts to game the system moot (pun intended) by even distributing faulty software to other interested groups, that would work against them as it appeared to be working for them. They broke the system. Why? Because they decided to. As the person who supposedly wrote the code to spell the message said, “Many believe we [the 'secret' group] are “dead” or only doing hugraids etc, so I thought it would also be a way of saying : we’re still around and we don’t just do only “moralfag” stuff .”
Item Two: Justicefags
More recently, /b/ has been making hits on individual enemies. Their choice of individuals for targets are always as widely spread as an Internet mob-mentality would narrow itself, from pop stars to random YouTube teens. But there is, occasionally, some method to the madness.
Tim Maly has speculated on a new future of crowd-sourced panopticons, and this would seem to be a case in point. Naturally, of course, following the random ethos of /b/, the mob decides, seemingly haphazardly, that certain targets are worth it, and others are not. They are far from staunch ideologists, the tag “justicefag” being applied derisively to those anonymous members who like calling out targets on moral grounds–the choice of slur not only signifying the inherent dissent of the chaos of /b/, but also refuting anyone who might think that they are left-leaning soldiers of equality. In fact, they’d probably attack you for saying so.
But, like any mob, a unified manifesto or dedicated base is hardly required to string someone up. It only takes, as the saying goes, enough rope.
Item Three: The Human-Bot Net
The crowd-sourced cyborg mob of /b/ finds its current (for today, anyway) zenith in so-called cyber warfare. It is commonly speculated that recent instances of politically motivated attacks are not launched by governments, but by other entities either acting of their own volition or as mercenaries for political causes. /b/ can now be listed among these entities, after their DoS attacks took out the website of the MPAA, and an Indian firm that recently admitted conducting their own DoS attacks against torrent websites. Salvo and counter-salvo, the flags waved here being file-sharing/media piracy.
How fast you are in such a short time! Aiplex, the bastard hired gun that DDos’d TPB [The Pirate Bay], is already down! Rejoice, /b/rothers, even if it was at the hands of a single anon that it was done, even if ahead of schedule. Now we have our lasers primed, but what do we target now? We target the bastard group that has thus far led this charge against our websites, like the Pirate Bay. We target MPPA.ORG! The IP is designated at “126.96.36.199″, and our firing time remains THE SAME. All details are just as before, but we have reaimed our crosshairs on this much larger target. We have the manpower, we have the botnets, it’s time we do to them what they keep doing to us.
Install the LOIC [for "Low Orbit Ion Cannon", the real name of the program, I shit you not] linked above into any directory you choose, load it up and set the target IP to 188.8.131.52 port 80. Method will be TCP, threads set to 10+, with a message of “payback is a bitch.” Keep in mind that using wireless is not recommended due to the connections that will be opened.
Everything else must be left blank. Once you have the target locked, DO NOT FIRE.
REPEAT: DO NOT FIRE!
This will be a calm, coordinated display of blood. We will not be merciful. We will not be newfags. The first wave will be firing in:
ONE DAY: 09/17/2010 9PM EASTERN
When it comes time to fire, ignore all warning messages. They mean nothing. Keep firing.
Clearly, they are enjoying themselves as much as I am. But is a stylistic nod to the Revolutionary War, this Battle of Bunker Hill speech so off base? What was the Continental Army, if not a pissed off mob who owned muskets, who were pressed into ranks to die in a war for a generalized declaration of independence? Is the MPAA the modern day East India Company? I don’t know. But the MPAA’s website went down in flames, and stayed down for 18 hours until they moved to a new IP address.
The day after the MPAA attack, the RIAA went down. Despite many who are heralding this as “the new wave of protest”, I don’t really think so. For one, there is a difference between people taking to the streets to risk real physical injury and a few crafty folks finding some pins that bring down somebody’s circus tent. However, I will be willing to reconsider this statement as soon as /b/ decides, “hey lets seez control over a small contry 2nite”.
But I think it does represent a new mob-space on the Internet. Spaces like /b/ are given to exist, by the very nature of human’s relationship with technology. You have enough social media tracking services out there, then there are going to be anonymous spaces as a result. In these alleyways, people are going to do whatever people do in alleyways: i.e., what they wouldn’t do in the street. Homophobic slurs will be thrown, porn will be traded, graffiti will be penned, both artful and depraved, and people will plan to beat other people up and take their Game Gear. The Internet is a social space, and so the reality of human society will no doubt be observed. And the reality of human society, though most of us try to avoid going to that site, is /b/.
The interesting part for me is that these sorts of mass attacks, these waves of the Internet rising up and drowning particular islands in the net, has always been associated with the technology itself. Like the computer network of the Terminator films rising up against humanity, DoS attacks are blamed on Sino/Slavic Bot-Nets, in some sort of zombified nostalgia for a Cold War missile gap. It is the MACHINES that do it to us, in the end. Computer viruses composed to cripple our infrastructure, so blindly hooked up the the network. The failure of our foresight, as in the Y2K scare. Or even in the positive examples, it is cell phones that connect the world, Twitter that fuels revolutions. The technology is the thing. The tools are controlling us.
But I don’t think that is true. What /b/ shows us, is that behind it all, lies a whole bunch of people. 6.8 billion of them, and counting. You can put the people in their own basements, plugged into machines, but you can’t the desire to riot out of them. The wetware has certain tendencies in its kernel. There’s no human brain on the planet that doesn’t enjoy a good lynching–or at least a video of a drunk jerk getting his comeuppance by falling on his head. We are, always, a violent mob. And any technology we create will only end up reflecting that fact.
Haven’t eaten anything since they put wires in my food. Five days ago. Starvation is beginning to affect me. Mentally. Physically, I felt weak and unbalanced by day two. Now my mind is working slower. More animal-like. Needs visualized using only the nerves in my spinal column. Hunger has stopped taking a form of a want, and is an stitch in the torso. Throb in the kidneys. Soreness in the arms, where the muscle is dissolving.
Better than wires in me.
I could inspect the food, go back to the store with wire in hand, making a lot of noise about a free replacement asparagus, double-cheeseburger-hold-the-wire. I know better. They get in eventually. Matter of time. Can try to prevent them, but I’m destined to be wired. It’s the way that it is.
Been thinking, last few hours, maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe you should just let ‘em win, Johnny. If it’s inevitable, why not? Never been a fighter. That’s why they go with wires. Fighters don’t get wired. Get killed outright, dragged to the streets, heads on lamp posts and built into walls. So who am I, other than a future human prawn, dangling on the end of the wire? Why be anything else? Shrink myself into skin, animal madness, cornered in the alley. Is that life? What is it?
They’re in my skin now, oh boy. Can see ‘em snaking in my veins. Never quite made it to animal, I guess. Wired now. No more asparagus for me.