Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
|Monday – Oct 26||Under Normal Circumstances||4|
|Tuesday – Oct 27||The Reveal||4|
|Wednesday – Oct 28||The Eye||4|
|Thursday – Oct 29||“Xinjiang is a Powder Keg Waiting to Explode.”||4|
|Friday – Oct 30||You’ve Gotta Give Them Credit||4|
|Saturday – Oct 31||“Zero Tolerance” and “Maximal Force”||4|
|Monday – Nov 2||One Small Flaw||4|
|Tuesday – Nov 3||Addressing a Systemic and Perpetual Racism||4|
|Wednesday – Nov 4||“Listen.”||4|
|Thursday – Nov 5||Grinding Gears, Humanity, Privilege, and WMDs||4|
Under normal circumstances, I’m generally already a pretty curious person. I’m constantly always looking stuff up on Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales is one of my all-time heroes and on my personal Mount Rushmore) and I’ll always follow wherever my curiosity leads me. I simply just need to know. I’m one of those people.
So, being in China, in the most mysterious environment ever –that is, some secret Chinese Communist Party-backed laboratory in the middle of literally nowhere– of course I’m going to follow the exotic, genetically-altered Asian beauty to see whatever she’s wanting to show us. Life is rife with moments when you’ll need to make tough, difficult choices that take weeks of deliberation. This isn’t one of them. This is a total no-brainer.
“Lead the way,” I say to Shu, standing up from my barstool. I stretch my arms above me for a minute and it feels good to finally be back on my feet with free range of motion. Homo sapiens had not evolved over 300,000 years and stumbled out of Africa in a drunken stupor to spend most our waking hours sitting on our asses. We’re just not anatomically built for it; but in a cruel twist of fate, nowadays that’s all we mostly do. It’s a genuine tragedy.
Shu leads the way and everyone follows. Apparently, we’re all curious people. We shuffle after Shu out of the faculty-esque lounge like kindergarteners on a class field trip, turn the corner in the hall, and then begin descending down several flights of steps deeper and deeper into the bowels of Building 11.
Of course, we’re headed to the basement. It’s always the basement. Every time.
At the bottom once the stairwell ends, Vanessa walks up to the front of our little group and scans her palm against a semi-translucent glass security plate next to a ginormous titanium, concrete door. Looking around me, I feel like we’re about to enter some sort of super-secure secret bunker, the kind of installations typically reserved for presidents, dictators, or mega-rich billionaires paranoid about zombie apocalypses.
“You guys really watch a lot of American action movies,” Coleman says from somewhere behind me, clearly admiring our surroundings. “I do like the décor though.”
“This facility’s built to withstand nuclear war,” says Alan. “You’re about to see why.”
After a moment, the security scanner beeps, apparently satisfied with Vanessa’s handprint. Two dozen giant steel tumblers grind and unlatch as the massive vault-like blast door unlocks and slowly swings open. We all step through.
Vibrant, fluorescent lights flicker on overhead and my eyes take a moment to adjust. When they do, I’m looking at a gigantic miniature city on a massive stainless steel table that’s laid out before me. The mini-city and the table it’s on is positively gigantic, maybe the size of sixteen ping-pong tables arranged 4×4. It takes a minute and I need to blink a few times, but then I realize what’s odd.
The city’s in motion.
And by motion, I mean that the little miniature people and cars in the city are all moving around. Miniature pedestrians are walking along sidewalks and little delivery trucks, sedans, vans, and school buses are driving up and down the city streets, halting and going at stoplights, dropping off kids, the whole nine yards.
“What in fresh hell is this?” says Coleman, bewildered. “Some kinda model train set on steroids?”
“Please don’t touch anything,” Vanessa says wearily. “But feel free to take a look around. Though please do be careful.”
Her tone makes it sound like she’s a parent chaperoning a school dance who’d really much rather just be at home nursing a pint of scotch.
I take a step closer to the miniature city to get a better look. The details on the tiny models are amazingly intricate and lifelike. One of the skyscrapers even has little window-washing men cleaning the building’s glass façade, dangling from steel cables to do their work. Upon inspection, I see that the entire mini-city’s actually in fact enclosed under a thin glass dome. Clearly, whoever slaved away on the model didn’t want anyone touching anything, a sentiment I can most definitely understand. I search for familiar landmarks in the model but don’t see anything I immediately recognize.
“This is impressive,” I begin, “how did you guys–“
“Good god. You lunatics actually built it.”
I turn and see Katherine’s half a step behind me. Her face has paled, drained of all color, and she looks like she could suddenly faint so I reach out to help but she just swats my arm away. She pushes past me, walks up to the miniature city, and puts her hands and face right up against its plexiglass enclosure, like a kid looking into a candy store from the outside.
“Hey!” snaps Vanessa. “No touching!”
Katherine just ignores her. A moment of awkward silence passes and the rest of us just look at each other. Whenever you’re in a group of adults and someone outright transgresses, blithely deciding to simply not follow rules, it always gets weird. Like, no one ever knows what to do. Is someone supposed to tackle her? Reprimand her sternly? The protocol’s honestly unclear.
Finally, it’s Chopra who speaks up. “You recognize it, don’t you?” he says softly. “You know what this is.”
Katherine gives a short, bitter snort. “I damn well should. After all, I designed it.“
We all turn to Katherine but it’s Vanessa who actually speaks next.
“You’ll find that this version in fact significantly improves on Ms. Henley’s original design. And while we’re certainly grateful for her initial work on the idea, it’s come a long way since those early stages.”
“Did you just steal this right out of Foogle’s Labs in Darwin?” scoffs Katherine. “Some kinda cloak-and-daggers corporate espionage? Bribery? Coercion? No, I bet it was blackmail. You likely got some dirt on Tunney, didn’t you? I bet you probably turned him, that gutless slimeball.”
“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” Vanessa says dismissively, waving her hand. “This isn’t a Grisham thriller. And it’s not like you Australians have a monopoly over creating totalitarian police states.”
“Can someone please for the love of God just explain what we’re looking at?” Coleman is looking around at us, clearly increasingly agitated that he’s utterly in the dark. “What the hell’s going on? I see a mini-model metropolis –granted, a super-expensive and detailed one– of some random city. Why’s everyone so worked up?”
I turn my attention back to the miniature city and study it for a moment. It’s fascinating how the human mind works when it’s trying to tease out a riddle. All of the pieces are here and I feel like I have everything I need to put this puzzle together. Katherine’s sudden departure from Foogle. Her work in Darwin. All of us suddenly here in Jinshui. The CCP initiating a state surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang. Like individual discs sliding into place in a rotary combination lock, I slowly piece it all together.
Chopra beats me to the punch though.
“This is a model city of Ürümqi, isn’t it?” he says, “the capital of the Xinjiang Province. You’ve somehow built a real-life proxy representation of the city.”
“And it’s even more than that,” I add, the last tumbler finally falling into place. “This is real-time, isn’t it? That’s why everything’s in motion. You’ve got IoT sensors all over the city tracking every movement of every Uyghur and you’re streaming all of that raw data into a system somewhere to reconstruct what’s going on in Ürümqi, all of it, at this very exact moment.”
I gesture towards the mini-city, sweeping my arm. “And this is a 3D-visualization of that, right? It’s not a physical model at all. Rather, it’s a hologram. Just like the fancy projectors you have mounted outside that hide this compound from spy satellites overhead. But here just on a vastly tinier scale. This monster science project thing lets you track and visualize every single Uyghur in the city in real-time at any time.”
“Good lord,” says Coleman, his eyes growing round. “You mad lads legit created The Eye of Sauron. Jesus.”
“Xinjiang,” Vanessa says calmly, “is a powder keg waiting to explode. It’s crucial we monitor the Uyghurs because if left unchecked, they could easily spread unrest to the rest of China like a contagion, sending the whole country spiraling into chaos.”
“Exactly,” Alan agrees, “in the past three months alone, we’ve already contained two bouts of arson against public property, two meetings that nearly grew into protests, and one violent knife attack during Sunday morning market in the Shuimogou District.”
He looks at me pointedly. “All thanks to our ‘monster-science-project-thing’ as you say.”
“So your solution is to monitor every single one of your citizens 24/7 in real-time?” Coleman asks in disbelief. “Are you insane?”
“If you’re asking about latency,” says Alan, “it’s about four minutes behind right now. Everything you see on the board happened roughly four minutes ago in the past. We’re obviously trying to shorten that lag. But with the sheer magnitude of data at this distance, over 7G and fiber, we’re kinda hitting the limits of physics.”
“You’re using 7G wireless in Ürümqi to collect all of the IoT signals within the city, processing and compressing onsite, and then fibering all that out, right?” asks Katherine. Her earlier anger seems to have subsided a little, curiosity apparently winning out over indignation, at least for the moment.
“That’s generally correct,” says Alan. He glances at Chopra and Coleman and sees only blank stares. This may all as well be Greek to them. “I can, uh, walk anyone interested through the data architecture later in finer detail if you wish.”
Chopra may not know what’s technically going on, but he gets the gist. “So basically,” he says, “there’s no individual privacy in Ürümqi. This… device lets you track all Uyghur whereabouts in the capital constantly, around the clock… if they’re at home or en route to work or eating out, etcetera. Right?”
Alan and Vanessa exchange glances. Vanessa nods. “Show them.”
Sighing, Alan reaches over and grabs a tablet that’s on the table, tethered to the board, and begins tapping on it.
In the 3D holo-city-model, three dozen or so of the little pedestrian figurines suddenly tint vermillion. And all of the remaining figurines fade to maybe 20% opacity.
“Additionally, here shaded in red are all persons of interest,” says Vanessa. “On these people we possess significantly more surveillance.”
Alan taps a few more times on his tablet and a new holo-projection springs to life above the dome.
You’ve gotta give ’em credit. This is unequivocally impressive. Terrifying on a base and primordial human level. But impressive.
What I see on the holo-projection takes “invasion of privacy” and cranks it to eleven-thousand.
The GUI that Alan’s brought up shows rolling lists of collected data for all of the so-called ‘persons of interest’ in Ürümqi: most recent purchase transactions, educational backgrounds, work histories, call records, web-browsing activity, subway metro swipes, rental histories, music and video playlists, cabs called, everything.
On one of the tabs, I see that you can literally filter by “7-Eleven Visits.” Jesus. It’s all here.
“Oh, it gets even better,” Katherine says in a flat voice. “Go ahead, show ’em. We’re getting to the good part.”
Alan taps on a little red figurine who looks like she’s sitting in her apartment in front of what I imagine must be her computer and the entire holo-model zooms inside, into her bedroom there on the 40th-some floor of her building complex. It’s an incredibly lifelike render and even I’m stunned for a moment. It’s almost as if we’ve just stuck an ultra-high resolution camera into this woman’s apartment. The render’s quality is astronomical and easily clears the uncanny valley; it’s photorealistic.
“Via thermal imaging and x-rays from the outside, the system can reconstruct what’s happening indoors too,” says Katherine. “Now, in all fairness, some of the specificity’s interpolated. For example, the system doesn’t actually know if this rando’s couch is that exact shade of periwinkle blue. Once you get to that granularity, it’s just kinda guessing.”
“Good lord,” says Coleman. “This has gotta be illegal, right? You guys are able to just look in, on anyone, at any time?”
Chopra laughs. “Illegal? This is China, my man! Are you high?”
Looking at everything, I guess I’m honestly surprised that any of this surprises me at all. For years, we’ve known about deep fakes. And while I don’t really pay any attention, I know youngsters and their videogames have been growing increasingly more advanced every year. More realistic graphics, more lifelike models, constantly blurring the line between real and virtual worlds. It was just a matter of time until someone used the technology this way.
Vanessa’s presentation is definitely slick. Despite my moral and ethical reservations, I feel the seductive pull of the technology. What JFL’s assembled here in this basement is next-generation stuff– an application well beyond anything I’ve seen in the States. Not because America is behind technologically– obviously, we have 7G and fiber too. (America invented 7G.) But the CCP’s ability to operate with zero concern for citizen-privacy is immensely liberating and gives their technologists and scientists a much wider reign on how they can apply the same tech that everyone else also has.
Surprise, surprise, when you don’t give a chit about human rights, it turns out you can do a lot.
“Zero tolerance is the approach they’re using,” Deepak is later explaining to us over lunch through a mouthful of lasagna bolognese. “The policy is pretty simple: Use ‘maximal force’ against all infractions as a deterrent to prevent future mischief by your citizens.”
After giving us the “shock and awe” presentation on Oracle, Vanessa and Alan fielded a few more questions and then wrapped up the meeting since they needed to peel off to attend to their other responsibilities. Shu also wandered off somewhere to do something but the rest of us decided to all get a late lunch together at the cafeteria. As foreigners, we were all strangers in a strange land and it was nice to be part of a tribe, even if we’d just met that morning. After getting our food from the bazaar, we got a table as far away from everyone else as we could in the cafeteria corner. Since it was late afternoon, the seating area was luckily sparsely populated.
Katherine frowns. “What do you mean,” she asks Deepak, “by ‘maximal force,’ exactly?”
“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Deepak says, shrugging. He leans back, having finished his lasagna, and pats his professorial potbelly contentedly. “For every single infraction they observe in Ürümqi, no matter how trivial,” he explains, “the CCP likely levies the maximum penalty– I’m guessing either imprisonment or maybe even death.”
I raise an eyebrow. “You think the Chinese Communist Party is summarily executing Uyghurs by firing squad if they’re caught littering?”
Deepak shakes his head. “No, of course not, don’t be absurd. That’d be a total waste of bullets. The CCP’s probably following Singapore’s model and hanging rule-breakers at high-noon in the public square. That way it’s a twofer– no money wasted on bullets and you make a very public, very visible example to your citizens.”
“You cannot possibly be serious.”
“Why not?” Deepak asks and he rolls his eyes. “You Americans are so naïve. You think your precious Geneva Convention and humanitarian ideals are so high and mighty, so important.” He harpoons a lone meatball on his plate, apparently having caught a second wind. “You in the west can only think your lofty thoughts because you’re an obscenely rich and privileged country with a population that’s never exceeded 350 million.” He points his fork at me. “And yet, you Americans somehow manage to occupy the best, fattiest midsection of an entire continent. You’ve never lived in a country of 1.4 billion people. China, India, Indonesia– together, we’re half of the world’s population. And yet, our people collectively on average live on less than two of your American dollars a day.
“When you’re trying to build a new world order in this environment of crushing poverty, like Xi’s been trying to do for a decade now, it’s necessary to curtail individual freedoms for the greater good. If one homeless person litters without consequence, then everyone litters. Soon your streets run with filth and garbage. The drainage and plumbing get backed up. Sewage seeps into the water supply. And then you’ve got Detroit on your hands, just like that. But if you make an example– swiftly and visibly— then after a few public executions and lots of tears, people start getting the gist and falling in line.”
“One small flaw in your reasoning, super-genius,” says Coleman who’s obviously agitated. You can tell he’s young and unaccustomed to such strong and vocal support for fascist, strongman rhetoric. It clearly grates on him.
“Smashing the Uyghurs with an iron fist may work initially, in the short run, but you’re forgetting that in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs ultimately number 21.82 million people. Xi can only push so far. One too many unjust ‘summary executions in the public square’ and you’ll have full-on revolt on your hands, in the streets, everywhere.”
“Who said anything about ‘unjust’?” replies Deepak. “You think anyone actually wants litter and drugs on their streets?”
“There’s a chasm I could sail the Titanic through between ‘litter and drugs’ and ‘free speech’,” says Coleman, waving around his arms to make his point. “If you left it there at just littering, then maaaaybe Xi could get away with it. But that’s not what this is! Dissent of any kind gets you jailed. Comparing Xi to Winnie the Pooh gets you jailed. Streaming non-sanctioned western TV shows and movies gets you jailed. This is totalitarianism!”
Katherine holds up her hands. “Wait a sec. Coleman, aren’t you the guy who just helped DTJ win the presidency last November in the States? The most authoritarian and hardline, far-right president in American history? How does that work?”
Coleman laughs. “You think I helped Junior win because he’s a shining beacon of humanitarian and democratic values? A guiding light for us all?”
“I’m guessing not,” Katherine says dryly.
“Junior’s the most bigoted and racist president in the history of the republic. His victory just helps accelerate the corrupt system’s collapse.”
I furrow my brow. “You want America to… collapse?”
Coleman shakes his head. It’s the headshake of a young man who clearly thinks he’s surrounded by complete imbeciles.
“Dex, my man,” he says to me, “look at the color of my skin. Take a nice, long gander to ensure you’ve properly registered its delicate shade and tone in your neural cognition. Do you think America these past few decades, no wait, ever, has ever been fair to a brother like me?“
“No,” Coleman says emphatically. “No, it has not. At least the Republicans have the courage to actually just say what they think. The Dems are just wussy-footed liars. They may sing sweet words of ‘hope’ but behind your back, once they’re in power, they just cut budgets and give money to the wealthy, like everyone else.
“That’s the problem with you rich white people,” he says to me, “you all live out in the suburbs in your own sheltered bubbles. You have no idea what it means to be black in America. But you somehow think it’s ‘all okay’ because Obama got elected all them years ago. Obama was half-white, man! Half-white!“
Addressing a systemic and perpetual racism that’s been endemic to America since even before its founding is not a particular battle I’m currently in the mood of waging so I’m eager to change the subject. Also, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found that this particular conversation– a well-off, privileged white male who’s been spoiled and sheltered his whole life (me) speaking to an aggrieved black person who’s probably faced implicit bias his entire life and likely at least a few bouts of outright discrimination growing up (Coleman) is, in all likelihood all my lived life experience would empirically suggest, not a winning argument for me.
In Coleman’s defense, my white ancestors way back when who arrived on the Mayflower or whatever weren’t exactly model citizens by 21st century standards. Slavery in America got its start in 1619 in Jamestown and chances are you’ll find one of my ancestors of the ancient Fletcher name among the ranks if you reach back far enough. Put succinctly, we’re certainly not proud of the human trafficking and whip-cracking that Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Fletcher most definitely engaged in on those slave ships crossing the Atlantic during the early 1600s. Let’s just say it wasn’t a topic of conversation around the dinner table when Devana and I were children at home growing up.
But, to be fair, in my defense, Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Fletcher was five generations ago! That’s literally, I kid you not, nearly half a millennia! I’ve never met the guy! And I most cateorically, unequivocally in the strongest language possible, don’t condone any of the many crimes against humanity and outright contraventions of the Geneva Convention (which obviously didn’t exist back then) that he partook in! In my experience, I’ve only met black people at college and at work. The only black folks I’ve ever known were either fellow engineering classmates back at university or were fellow data scientists on consulting gigs that I’ve worked at. They were all super-smart, well-spoken, competent, and highly professional. Honestly, really, the only generalizable observation in my own personal experience that I can make about black people is that they –at least the folks I’ve met– do speak with a very specific cadence and lilt in their speech that seems to be uniquely black (similar to how many American southern folks speak with a distinctive twang and regional accent in their voices).
Anyway, nothing I say at the moment is going to placate Coleman. So my best move now is to find a way to extricate myself from this deepening conversational sinkhole that I’ve suddenly found myself in.
Luckily for me, Katherine saves the day.
“Bitches! The both of you! Shut up and listen.” Katherine slams her hands down against the cafeteria folding table and leaps to her feet. Some of the broth in my half-eaten Korean hotpot slops out of its clay bowl. Coleman and I both just look up at her, surprised.
Katherine points her finger at me. “You’re rich, white, and male. None of those traits are specifically your fault, per se. But they disqualify you from having a voice in this conversation. If that seems unfair, tough. Welcome to the club. About time you got a taste of the feeling, anyway.”
“But I haven’t said–“
“Shut up! You get to just sit there and be silent. That’s your sole prerogative at the moment.”
I open my mouth. And then close it again. I decide to just sit quietly. The woman’s got a mean, death stare going and looks like she’s in full-throttle rage mode.
Katherine then turns to Coleman and points her finger at him.
“And you need to stop whining about ‘unfairness’ and ‘discrimination’– look around you! Do you see plantations anywhere? Legions of black slaves plowing the fields and working cotton gins? Do you?”
“No! You do not! Because we’re in China. In the year 2045! Whatever nonsense you faced back home in that dysfunctional dumpster fire you call a country doesn’t apply here! Why are you even wasting our lives right now talking about this? It’s neither the place nor time. You know what’s unfair? On my Meemaw’s side, we’re Ashkenazi Jews. As a small girl she was marched across Poland, on foot, at gunpoint. And then she saw her siblings and parents tossed into human ovens and incinerated alive. All while the rest of the ‘civilized world’ sat idly by, twiddling their thumbs, doing nothing.
“But all these grievances,” Katherine continues, “as legit as they may be, have nothing to do with anything here. We are here in China now. Not the 1940s. And certainly, not back in 1619 or 1776 or whenever. We’re here. In China. Now.
“So the only thing that really matters, at this moment right here, is what we do in the present and future. If you reach back far enough, you can always find that someone’s ancestor wronged someone else’s. That’s a merry-go-round that just goes and goes and goes.”
Katherine looks at the rest of us, her voice a little softer. “Guys, I think we have a chance here to do something meaningful. And besides, like Shu said, if we don’t do it, you know they’re just going to bring in another team who’ll run the project. But it can be us. We could really make a difference here. It’s a real opportunity. What do you all say?”
Coleman and I look at each other. And I look over at Deepak also. On everyone’s faces, I see the gears grinding in their heads, behinds their eyes, weighing the dilemma and choice at hand. I know my own outward appearance is also the same– a veneer of calm and cool that obscures intense brain processing. Katherine’s words get through to me; give the woman credit. She knows what buttons to press. The cogs are spinning and we’re all neurologically crunching, all those mental cycles whirling away.
Because the truth is– for all of Coleman’s high-flung rhetoric about discrimination, human rights, and state abuses of obscene, unchecked power– at the day’s end, we are, the four of us gathered here today, in this random Chinese Communist Party-backed laboratory cafeteria in the rural countryside, ultimately curious people. Our entire lives, even Coleman, we’ve schlepped away behind a computer screen or Excel spreadsheet. Everyone here is privileged. For Deepak, it was in academia, that old reliable ivory tower. For Coleman, it was as a political operative in DC, straight out of school, being a hired gun for the politician-of-the-day. With me, it was contracting gigs; being flown around, housed, and wined-and-dined on consulting engagements. And as for Katherine– ha. Before Foogle, she’d worked in the Valley. Of all of us, she’d learned the ropes and came of age in probably the most distanced, reality-distorted bubble on planet earth.
For all four of us, we’ve lived our entire lives on some orbital space platform a thousand miles above earth in geosynchronous stasis. I’m not proud of it but I at least have the self-awareness to know what we are. To know that, in our mental-conceptualized worldviews, other human-beings aren’t really humans to any of us. Rather, humans are just nodes in some socio-graph or they’re numbers in columns on some spreadsheet. They’re not living, breathing people with lives, families, jobs, futures, and dreams. But rather– they’re data points. Data points in one great big game of control and influence.
Because if I’m being real, if we’re really getting down to brass tacks here– that’s what this is all about: Control.
Since time’s dawn, man has long sought to control (or at least, manipulate) other men. To impose our own value systems on others to build and shape what we believe is a worthy and good society. Early on, it was by violence and brute force. Cavemen and Neanderthals using clubs to bludgeon each other; he with the biggest bat winning dominion over all others. Then in modern times we left our Cro-Magnon ways behind and embraced modern warfare, giving up our sticks and stones for tanks, guns, and atomic bombs.
But eventually, man found civilization. We traded our tanks for magazines; we gave up on the God of War and instead submitted to the God of Advertising. No longer did we rely on violence to persuade; instead, we used marketing. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and –eventually, now– the internet.
Katherine, Deepak, Coleman, and me– you see, we’re not social creatures. We’re nerds. Nerds who have spent a lifetime studying and who’ve learned the necessary skills and knowledge to analyze and understand daily life as data; and to influence the world around us with technology. Each and every one of us is a nuclear warhead, a weapon of mass destruction. After all, as they say: Knowledge is power. And we’ve spent a lifetime, countless all-nighters at the university library, in the computer lab, or on the job acquiring it.
Any moral or ethical conundrums simply stand no chance. An intellectual feast awaits.
“I’m in,” I say to Katherine. “Let’s do this.”