Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Terminus Machina: "The Troubleshooter"

It started out a statistically average day.

Jack Newman shuddered awake to a cliché post-nu-folk track piped in through a cochlear implant, autotuned Dylan croak squeezed into the skinny jeans of bit-rotted Atari music nostalgia. “Yes and how many times must the times go a-changing, before the last will be first, and first be last? The answer is blowing in the wind.” It reminded him of playing Tweetcasted meat-gigs in a San Francisco Chinatown club with Diego back in college. Singing hope and change to young eyes glassed up from the buzz of GMO-free weed and the superheroic thrill of tech startups. Joy, his then-parkour partner and cybercriminology studymate weaving fractals in the incense mist as she danced to the honest rasp of his song, falling incrementally in love with her future husband.

Some dusty old stack of neurons in Jack’s groggy mind considered looking up the artist. But then he woke out of the remaining film of dream-logic to remember that only holograms and androids played gigs anymore. That this 60’s-gothic chipcore he was hearing was being generated algorithmically by mediadata-mining software in realtime from the archived and recycled chords and croaks and melodies and lyrics of a thousand human musicians, long-starved on discarded dumb-couches in alleys behind bankrupted LA soup kitchens. No inefficiently expensive human singers songwriters producers or marketing departments involved: only batteries required. Computationally distilled folk guitarsmanship automashed-up with Nintendo anthems, lead by the ghost of a deceased Bob Dylan neuromanced within a pocket-Blue Gene supercomputer, his lobotomized brainstem limbics and larynx enslaved to sing endless Un-Markov Chained melodies with stochastically permutated lyrics scrubbed of all meaning and context. “Yes and how many watchtowers must the sea bird cross, before the answer blows in the wind?” groaned the bourbon-n-gravel voice. As Lenin was famously quoted, “A lie told enough becomes truth,” he had apparently forgotten the corollary; A truth mashed up a thousand times erases it.

But such deep and un-automatable searches for truth and meaning were de-emphasized in the page-rank algorithm of the Brave Regurgitating World which Jack found himself in. A post-paper post-book world whose ubiquitous answer-engines excelled at addressing easily-indexed well-defined questions and thus unintentionally encouraged them over questions requiring more than a few keystrokes, buzzed in by Jeopardy-playing AI, searches ending at the Wikipedia soundbyte.

Jack’s MyMusic app had tailored the tune to his “interests” in Dylan, Iron-n-Wine, and Lo-Fi, which hadn’t changed in decades; a self-reinforcing recommendation engine stagnation. He had been listening to essentially the same song on repeat every day for half his life, the McMusic rearranged just a little different each time, like daily thirty year old fantasies of the high school prom queen. Some other atrophied little husk of neocortex once would’ve connected the synapse dots, seen this musical emptiness as a grand arching metaphor that absolutely nailed the direction of Jack’s entire life. It would have caused a sudden and irrevocable mid-life epiphany, inspired a rash of midnight songwriting sessions in a blanket-soundproofed bathroom so as not to wake his wife. From the fertile soil of a life wrecked and decomposed by the unforeseen hurricanes of techno-cultural change would blossom illuminating lyrics, reveal the mono-no-aware in crumbling Detroit skyscrapers of the psyche. This would’ve been followed by a rejuvenatingly reckless return to open-mic meat-performing.

But the spark petered out, starved of air like a defunded University, and the moment was lost forever. Instead Jack just laughed to himself, “I don’t know how anyone ever found good music before, having to go out and listen to stuff would take forever!”

And Jack continued his day, statistically average.

As soon as his dVice sensed the beta brainwaves of awakeness, a cabinet of news sites, blood pressure readouts, and social streams jostled into the oval offices of Jack’s eyes through his iris-mounted Oracle displays. “Dis vid iz teh kuteness - android kitten booting up”, “Mass nurse, management, and lawyer layoffs continue as Gnossis robots replace knowledge workers”, “Bladder: 95% full, Blood sugar: low, Intestinal nanoflora report: new colon polyps detected”, “In lieu of economic crisis and job loss, President cuts taxes for ultrarich to negative five percent to stimulate growth.”, “ “Baltimore falls to Pleb protesters as unemployment spikes to 65% after illegalization of unions, thousands dead in urban skirmishes,” “CEO of megabank enclave Silverman and Barclay’s beheaded after UK budget cut rioters breach paramilitary droid-guarded blast doors, storm corporate tower,”

Jack wiped the infobombardment from his eyes like sleep. Only flashing loud-colored malware windows remained, to be quarantined documented and deleted by his dVice’s antiviral subroutines, like curious and vaguely threatening deep sea creatures left by receding tsunami. Jack followed a glowing green arrow overlayed on meat-ality through retinal projection, directing him to the bathroom.

“Jack, we need you at HQ a half hour early, Farhad is out sick, neural Trojan virus.” The audio message from Jack’s boss cut through the colorful infonoise with its biometric voice-recog VIP pass.

“Just drop a Sherlock 4.0 AI superroutine to handle Farhad’s protocols till I get in,” Jack morning-voiced to his headset.

“I know Jack, you wrote us the Wiki entry on the contingency. But the Sherlock’s going Fukushima on us here, bit-meltdown. The layed-off marketing directors and biotech researcher demonstrations heated up this morning, so we dispatched a few squads. One of our roboagent fired on a school autobus thinking there was a hostile inside, pretty sure it was due to bugs in the Sherlock’s facial-rec and data crossmining algorithms. Wounded the son of an Owner whom it thought was a Jobless insurgent. I’ve got the brass chewing out my Oracles here, Jack.”

Nothing like bugs in the android-cop software to brighten a dull morning. But he reveled in it: this was Jack’s job, that final fortress of human value and employability holding out against the unending economic massacre of the AI-Revolution. Jack was a Troubleshooter. Part tech support, part grey-hat computer hacker, part FBI agent, the Troubleshooters kept the monkey wrenches out of the AI-run machine cogwork of robots that supported the surviving plutarchic pockets of 1st world living standard, and kept the 60% of the country now unemployed “Plebs” at bay from the Owner Class gated city-states, through private security firms like Cybersec.

“Ok, Ethan, set your mood regulators to chill for a cycle. I’ll get you a temp patch right now and be in office ASAP. It’s probably just some rogue algos or botnet barbs left in the Google rank code that was recycled into Sherlock’s neural net kernel. I told’em it would be best to just grind out some clean programming, but you know the Owners aren’t going to pay for any coding salary hours they can steal, automate, or ‘source to Africa.”

“Thanks, Jack.”

Jack’s wife was in the kitchen, stirring herself some Earl Grey with one eye on a news aggregator site projected onto a section of smart wall; a looping collage of angry picket lines, fires, tear gas, gunshots, confused commentary, like NPR video feeds from a comfortably distant populist uprising in the Middle East or China bleeding into the local 6 O’clock news. She was fully dressed in her scrubs and ventilated clogs, as if about to head out for her shift. Again. Jack frowned.

Jack’s arms and hands flailed like a ‘netjunkie in withdrawal as he got to work in his augmented reality virtual headspace. He summoned an evo-alg search hound with each finger, fanned hands and sent them backdooring through the Lvl 7 Premium Internet with the forged IDs of a hedge fund CEO, a senator, and an Indian Water Baron. Index and thumb plucked choice needles from the piling haystacks returned by the hounds, spliced together the ribbons into a bandage of patch code, wrapped it up into a .Exe pill and fastball-pitched the stopgap fixes to Cybersec HQ for the malfunctioning knowledge-worker AI. Then he got lost in android lolcat videos and gadget pr0n.

When the Babblon VISO (Virtu-Spatial Operating Environment) hit the market, every drooling geek and their network was camping out around a Mega Mart, clawing tooth and nail to try the uber-epic 3D touchscreen interface. Including Jack, despite his wife’s confused protests against his expensive otaku fervor. But eventually the future-gloss of re-enacting the Minority Report virtual CSI “conducting scene” wore off, his daughter’s shits and giggles of swimming through swamps of drunken facebomb party pics with her friends stopped being funny, and the honeymoon phase ended. Gadget mundanity set in, as always, and people discovered, much to Babblon’s shareholders’ horror, that the spastic handwaving mostly just made you look deeply batshit, like you were shadow boxing imaginary daemons. Sent people walking off diagonal at parties. The VISO headsets receded back into the long-tail margins of techspert powertools, as the lay population favored more discrete user interfaces. Joy still called him a mad daemon boxer in spite of Jack’s repeated and rigorous arguments for their necessity in his line of work. He really was fighting invisible malicious Loa.

Joy noticed the peripheral motion, uttered some non-commital vocalization of acknowledgement of Jack’s presence, not bothering to even make a snarky comment about the VISO. Jack and his wife hadn’t exactly been on speaking terms since the big fight after she was let go by the medical center. She’d taken it hard. Their finances had taken it hard, too, as they joined the single-income ranks. They were getting daily calls from an AI mortgage officer’s voice synthesizer requesting delinquent payments on the house, three months deep. Taking Evvy out of St. Luke’s had come up in conversation more than once. Enrolling their daughter in public school was out of the question, since the “austerity measure” budget cuts that payed for bank CEO bonuses had slashed education funding 80% leaving public schools little more than feeder farms for the ballooning prison-industrial complex. But options were running thin.

Jack was still sorting through work protocols and Joy was still stirring her tea, now engrossed in an idie blog called “Cooking on Zero Budget” and this minute’s hottest news clip of a robot factory bombing. Closeups of a Starbeans android-barista’s smile melting off grotesquely in vermillion flames, plastic renditions of The Scream.

Jack made an attempt at reaching across the digital divide.

“You know there’s an App for that,” Jack said, glancing at the tea cup.

“Yeah, I like making my own tea,” Joy looked up briefly at the kitchen helper bot, giving the Jetsons rip-off “Rosie” clone a dirty eye. Errrrr, wrong answer. Thank you for playing, Jack.

“Kayla told me there might’ve been some breakthroughs in the negotiations at the clinic. There’s nothing set in stone yet, but I’ve got a good feeling about this. One of the EMT teams got called in to work for a couple hours last night. Seems the robots can’t do everything after all.”

“That’s good news. Real good.” Jack autoresponsed, whilst incessantly refreshing email and social media feeds with one hand. In the other he grabbed the uneaten half of a McDenny’s double cheeseburger out of the fridge, poured himself a cup of coffee-flavored Five Hour Energy. He popped the burger in its congealed puddle of grease into the micro. Normally Jack would’ve just thrown it out, but he’d feel guilty given the new normal of a tightly constrained budget. That’s when he noticed he’d never seen the cup before, which looked like designer-ware, like a miniature of a 50’s spaceship. Come to think of it, he didn’t recognize any of the plates in the myoelectric arms of the robotic washer/dryer/tablesetter.

“Nice cup there. New?” Jack asked.

“That’s printed bone china, made from ossein rattan. It’s local. I got it down at the barter market at Lilith community center yesterday. We needed some new dishes.” Joy shrugged.

“Yeah. Think you might have let me in on it first? I thought we agreed on full budget-disclosure, given our new circumstances.” Jack said around a mouthful of hot bun and cold meat-cheese-substitute lardiness, thermally uneven from the microwave.

“Jeeze, end of the world, huh? Sorry.” Joy turned to watch a video-article on the smart-cabinet about a new 90% efficient solar panel invented in Brazil after Big Agro copyrighted genes infiltrated all their ethanol corn strains.

“You know, maybe we should get into algae. Kayla’s getting half her groceries from her balcony farm. And biofuels. I was thinking maybe I could go back to e-Uni, get my enviroscience degree.” Joy said.

“Maybe. We’ll talk about it, later.” Jack shoveled the rest of the burger, flooded it down with energy drink, while throwing on his Cybersec clothes, hopping into shoes, whipping off a last few email responses. On the wall-screen, the tension was ratcheting up at a construction site which turned into a standoff between construction robots and protesting teamster union workers who refused to leave bulldozers, tree-hugged i-beams, as Owner suits shouted threats through megaphones.

“There's a battle outside ragin'. It'll soon shake your windows And rattle your walls For the times they are a-changin'.” Zombie-Dylan sang the next iteration of MyMusic App rehash into Jack’s auditory nerve. The serendipitous significance of the lyrics in light of current events again completely soared over Jack’s headspace.

“Honey could you please drop Kara off at school today?” Joy said.

“Why? The Kidpool will self-drive her there just fine, and I’ve put a parental lock on its GPS nav, so there’s no possibility of her pushing buttons and getting lost downtown again-”

“Look, Jack, there’s just a lot of upheaval going on right now. Have you ever read ‘The Black Swan’? An unexpected event we can’t understand except in hingsight. Everything is up in the air with the strikes and protests and violence, and who knows what else might happen. I’d just feel a lot better if you personally, physically drove our daughter to school.” Joy closed, opened her eyes, fiddling idle thumbs unconsciously as if typing on one of those old smart phones, a something she did when she was really nervous. A childhood talisman of muscle memory.

“I would, honey, but I just got messaged by Cybersec, they need me in the office ASAP.”

“Jack, I need you to do this for me, please-“

“A roboagent went haywire this morning, nearly killed an innocent. Lives are at stake here, Joy.”

“Maybe your daughter’s life is at stake here, Jack, did you ever think of that? While you were waving your hands around playing reality like some video game?” Joy turned away. Her micropore palm sensors detected elevated anger endorphins, triggering a therapist App. A flickering cyan holograph of a bearded Bill Murray look-alike in an armchair asked in accentless English for Jack and his wife to count to ten, breathe, then to describe their feelings in the first person to virtual ducks as if they each’s spouse. Joy force-terminated the App with a sharp stab of a finger.

Jack felt a mixing magma of shock and hurt flare, then harden into a hard lump in his chest before it could burst through the bedrock of verbalization.

“Joy, listen to me. Things will be fine. The turmoil is happening out there, in the city, where the freeloaders who lived on the social safety net are angry cause they’re not getting their ‘entitlement’ pensions and bargaining rights and medicare and public education and public law enforcement. Buy we’re in Blue County, a gated Enclave; we’re safe in the Owner Class domain. Evvy is safe. These news feeds are messing with your sense of perspective, pure sensationalism to score viewer eyeballs. You’re blowing this out of proportion. Trust me, the car’s autopilot is as safe as if I was driving her myself. The trouble is going to simmer down after the vote, and if we just keep the security drones and agents up and running, things will get back to normal in no time. You’ll see.

"Damn it Jack, you treat everything like it’s a ‘problem’ with a ‘solution’ you can just find a patch for, like a bug in a program, and it’s all going to work out, as long as the programs are running smoothly. But machines don't magically solve all our problems, they just create whole new categories of problems, and make us blind to them. I mean look at us, what happened?" Joy crossed her arms, rubbed her creasing forehead. Jack edged his way past the now awake and vacuuming Rosie bot, snuck an arm around the cool cotton scrubs of his wife’s waist.

“I know it’s been hard since they let you go, I get it. You’re reeling out of misplaced maternal guilt. Suffering oxytocin withdrawals from the sudden absence of fictive primate attachment bonds you had at the clinic, and all the grooming rituals and social reward-loops that came with being a caregiver. But maybe you need to stop doing this to yourself, with the uniform, everyday-“ Jack began, Joy pulled away. Jack quickly retreated from the no-fly zone of the kitchen, before being shot down by a cruise missile glare; kissing rights were obviously still sanctioned away.

“Jack, you are in no position to be pop-evolutionary psychoanalyzing me. You don’t know what I do and do not need. What I need is to be out there doing what I’m good at, helping people, not lying around like some useless house cat.” The viral clip of Lucky-Robo-Neko waking up, stretching its carbon fiber fluidic muscles played on the wall screen as if on queue. The edges of Joy’s mouth wobbled for a moment, then she steeled them, swallowing the urge to unravel. She refused again Jack’s attempt at consolation.

“Just go, Jack,” she pointed to the door, “Go do your job.”

Jack opened, closed his mouth, then left in silence, the only sound the re-formanted voice of a dead legend, narrating to deaf ears like some tireless musical Sisyphus:

“…And admit that the waters around you have grown / And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone / For the times they are a-changing.”

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