Friday, June 3, 2011

Terminus Machina: Automaton

Late for work and still strung out on epinephrine spiked by the good-morning argument with his wife, Jack dumped himself into the cold synthleather passenger pod of his Xinjiao Phasma. When angry, Jack used to white-knuckle the steering wheel, a reflex that served him as a relief-well for stress oil spills, and a symbolic feeling of control. But that was back when humans were still permitted to operate automobiles.

The smartgrid-powered Phasma automatically synced with his dVice.
“Jack, based on your fridge contents you need to acquire these items: laundry soap, whole wheat bread. Given your tech purchase history and flat-lining productivity levels (14.5 man hours/day), you also need to acquire this week’s hottest gadget, the Gnossis dVice Ubiq. The dVice Ubiq comes with a free LifePlanner App. LifePlanner: simplify your world!

“Gnossis recommendation engine recommends (1) Ultrafresh liquid detergent with bleach and (3) loaves of Mother’s Own 3-grain, to be purchased from Megamart on Zuckerberg Blvd, followed by (1) dVice Ubiq to be purchased from Techtopia. Total cost of purchases + transit: $342.87 Please blink to accept planned route and purchases,” the car spoke into his brain.

Jack blinked by accident, but it’s not like he ever disagreed with the global brain’s recommendations, which were based on a massive dossier consisting of every last iota of personal info on Jack from his last shopping trip to the blood pressure of his right brachial artery to the color of underwear he was wearing. The wonders of digital panopticon and unparalleled efficiency. A Gnossis Corp meta-machine floating up in The Cloud knew everything about him, maybe better than he knew himself; an outsourcing of nosce te ipsum. So why not let Gnossis think for him? Gnossis automatically plotted a course to his nearest Megamart, tracing streets and avenues with cyan arrows overlayed on a 3D simulacra of the town. The solar-hydrogen hybrid engine was already purring awake before Jack could get his seatbelt on.

The car having confirmed its plan, the 24/7 intra-occular media wave resumed, flooding Jack’s senses .

“Epic Break Up! Taylor ‘Car-Crash’ Sheen breaks up with cyberspace pop star Lord DaDa for the fourth time’

‘Taylor Sheen goes back into gadget-addiction rehab.’

‘Riots escalating within Blue County, dozens injured in robot riot police brutality.’

‘Jack, dude, this is your new purpose in life: try this Augmented App “Angry Hamsters”. Teh awesome.” Jack began playing the illegally addictive game till another news headline distracted him.

‘Rumblings of Totech’s intentions to merge with European renewable energy giant Dryad stir up threats from Gnossis.’

Jack at last waved the unending stream of updates away again, not being in the mood, feeling more like a quiet drive for the first time in ages rather than the endless continual-partial attention inherent in the ‘net. For the first time he sensed, perhaps the edge of that hollowness, the digital wash he’d been swimming in for so long. He and Joy had once been almost joined at the hip, passionate young ruffians, wild and incandescent, sharing everything. Now he found this horrible distance growing between them, like their universes were separating into single-served bubbles whose membranes consisted of their personalized internet filters, which they spent the majority of their time in. Sealing themselves away from one another within their self-reinforcing echochambers of their ever narrowing interests, like the single nostalgic Bob-Dylan tune on eternal repeat in Jack’s head, unchanged for decades. There had emerged this cold barbed edge of ambient negativity in their brief exchanges that passed for communication; the subtle lack of acknowledgement, the encrypted derision in a question about dinner. Failed awkward attempts to incite sex. Meetings occurring in the guest room. Perhaps Joy was right, perhaps in a world run by machines, they were slowly being replaced by cold algorithms and actuators, becoming gadgets themselves.

The Phasma pulled itself out of the driveway. AI augmented self-driving cars had long eliminated what Jack called at dinner discussions “the Sword of Damocles of human error”, though Jack suspected he’d glibbed the catchphrase subconsciously from one of the Gnossis-Auto marketing e-vents he’d been to. Self-driving cars were purported to end the silent holocausts caused by drunk and distracted driving, the latter a near-existential crisis as 99% of drivers were now immersing themselves in their windshield-based augmented reality. Texting on their wipers, watching movies in their rear view mirrors, or focusing on some other shiny virtual App rather than the road.

The cops informed him the driver was playing Keggerville, a drinking App, when he crashed into and killed Jack’s best friend, Diego.

Jack would’ve reveled in the irony if the flaming snarl of twisted metal hadn’t made him feel like vomiting. But he was too busy identifying bloody fragments of his friend that weren’t mutilated by the oncoming eighteen-wheeler or burnt beyond recognition in the fire. Vaguely human body parts furred with charcoal; an arm here, eye socket and part of a nose there, burning into his memory like Polaroids beneath flashes of blue and red police lights.

They were roommates, bonded covalently in college. Like minds, immersed in the brightly bleeding edge of computer science, AI in particular, who saw that all the facets of the human universe were coming together, converging on some zero point, some singularity. Their departures in perspective were on the exact nature of that point. Jack believed wholeheartedly that the AI-Robotics revolution would usher in a golden age of abundance, wherein smart machines would finally free humanity from the shackles of labor and the scarcity-based resource wars, resulting in a post-nation state, post-economic world of well-informed global citizens, living leisurely lives of egalitarian peace and endless bandwith.

Diego was much less optimistic. And how could he, being the son of a Mexican cop who barely escaped the druglord drone bombings and a Chinese color revolutionary extracted from a Beijing sweatshop/prison by a US sanctuary deal in return for dossiers on the Chinese government blackhats who’d APT-hacked the Pentagon into shambles. Most called Diego a pessimist, “Dr. Doom” was his nickname. He would say he was a merely a humble realist. His rationale went that if human-level AI ever proved truly lucrative, the starry eyed neo-hippy nerd engineers would soon find their infant Singularity hijacked by the 500 frat brother plutocracies, and The Money would arms race their new found robot underlords into existence. The corporate-controlled AIs and robots would not be used for peace love and geek wish-fulfillment in the arms of 89 dark-elven virgins, but rather to do what the rich always do: get richer. The knowledge worker and skilled trades alike would discover themselves as obsolete as the manual loom, dislodging the crown jewel of the First World, the “middle class”, once and for all. “Toxic waste in, toxic waste out. Yeah, we’ve got an uplink to Xanadu alright, a future stairway to ‘heaven’ paved with the crushed bones of arthritic, debt-laden, unionless, purposeless Morlocks, who are then shut out in the cold as the blue bloods enjoy the ‘abundance’ behind sealed blast doors, protected by their paramilitary AIs and bots.” If only Diego could have seen how on the money he was in his prognostications.

Diego was the grey hat hacker to Jack’s white hat in shining armor, tempering Jack’s gung-ho enthusiasm with just the right leavening of realism, delivered with his signature caustic wit. Diego was Jack’s port. He’d stuck with Jack through every half-cocked startup and every terminally frivolous girlfriend-ish thing that Jack ran into the ground. Diego would always be standing there, snarking, jaws of life in hand, ready to pull him from the wreckage. “Told you so, Crackerjack.” He’d take Jack down to some watering hole, help him lick his wounds, and they’d laugh it all off, let the pain become another episode, another blogpost. Along with Joy, the three of them were inseperable. Diego, in fact, had introduced him to Joy at a compost party. He helped right Jack’s girl-dar, broken from too many hours spent in front of tangles of AI LISP code and torrented seasons of Fringe. Enough that Jack managed to ask Joy out on their first of many parkour sessions. He was Jack’s best man, applauding all the way. When the three of them base jumped the Golden Gate together, they swore they’d never touch down, and for a second, Jack believed they wouldn’t. That they’d never hit the ground, just sail on forever, into some bright boundless future-city, shimmering into existence on the Pacific horizon.

That was before the Golden Gate collapsed from disrepair, due to serial state-budget crises.

Jack would never be able to return the favor, would never pull Diego out of that smouldering wreckage. Jack had signed onto a private security firm uptown while Diego had become a social net-worker, and the fact that they had been slowly drifting apart just as Diego passed away was salt in the hole that wouldn’t heal. If it weren’t for Joy, the hole would’ve swallowed Jack whole.

Jack’s talisman against alcoholism was social entrepreneurship, apart from Joy’s unyielding support. He waged a Jihad on motor-cide, on the human error that had took the life of his best friend. To allow humans to drive cars was to condone mass murder. In the Brave New World of dead and American Gods, the new Original Sin of man was not tasting of knowledge but rather the belief that humans were capable of wielding their own Ubermenschity. The self-assured destruction of the children of Gamorrah could only be prevented if their sins were washed away by the by their machine Messiahs and all their unflinching perfectly-executing programming, by the steel-cool laser eyes of artificial intelligence which would never get drunk, never text, never make a mistake. Jack started Yawper and Friendbook rings dedicated to the promotion of pro-autonomous vehicles, joined anti-human driving rallies. He started work programming his own vehicle-piloting AI. Marched the streets of San Francisco with a picture of Diego in hand, one of the millions of other grief-stricken loved ones taken by App-using drivers each year. Human agency was the dangerous x-factor in the equation of reality, and thus had to be eliminated.

The eventual banning of manual cars caused tectonic revolts, as those metal steeds, those perennial symbols of freedom and mobility so deeply entwined with the American identity were forcibly excised. Media feeds were flooded with ads featuring Nascar drivers clinging to their steering wheels, captioned, “From my cold, dead hands!”. The American-division president of the Chinese car manufacturer was blasted for alleged “socialism”, being “un-American” when they released their first product lines of autonomous autos. Anti-self-driving protesters regularly demanded to see the US birth certificates of pro-autonomites (which had been mysteriously redacted from government servers, apparently by pro-motorist movement hackers). But all the auto-angst and fury died like analog film when the relative risk of manual operation of vehicles was met with crushingly expensive premiums- jail time in some Scandinavian countries. And thus proving, as if it was not already painfully obvious, that economics trumps ideology every time.

Human-driven “Ferrari Safaris” became a past-time enjoyed by the trillionare Moguls who could afford the seven-figure insurance premiums, and the Plebian Cityzen car-hackers who lived in the economic wastelands of cities beyond the razor-wired walls of the Suburb-States, and thus beyond the societal constructs of insurance premiums.

Jack celebrated a small victory as human agency in automobile operation was all but elliminated, though no amount of machine agency and AI automation would ever bring Diego back. Maybe Joy was right, maybe everything was dying, a byte at a time, becoming efficient and empty streams of data. Driven by lifeless automatons.

Or maybe the right App to solve it all was still out there, shimmering, waiting to be discovered.

“Jack where are you damnit, I need you here now!” His boss’ voice cut through Jack’s filters again, breaking his silent car reverie. Winkleman’s glacial FBI director-cool was calving into unstable shards of panic.

“I’m on Plymouth and 12th,” Jack mumbled through his own mandible to his cochlear microphone. Jack knew Winkleman had his coordinates down to the nearest 0.5 meter, was probably watching a green dot labeled “Jack” blip across a Gnossis Map wallpapered over his retina. The call was a vestigial formality made pointless by technology, a token of primate hierarchy assertion serving only to appease the psyche. Like pounding the enter key percussively and repeatedly, expecting one’s download to accelerate.

“I can’t get there any faster, Mr. Winkleman. The car’s driverware is hard-coded to follow speed limits and only Owner Blue Bloods get an override. What’s the status?”

“Not good. The Sherlock patch you sent seems to have cleared up the AWOL AIs but we’ve got whole new cans of worms opening up. The Deadweight protests have flared up within the confines of Blue County. All enclave members are on full recall, code red.”

The Phasma whirred along like a ghost, Chinese lithium-air batteries powering silent New North Korean electromagnetic motors, driven by an invisible computer cheauffer. Its eyes and ears were the phalanx of 3d panoramic cameras, lasers, and radar rivaling the most advanced US nuclear submarines. It drove almost too flawlessly robotic, like a road-test instructor’s platonic ideal. The speedometer frozen at the legal speed limit, car spacings exactly one-point-five seconds, and impeccable defensive collision avoidance even as traffic thickened at busy intersections. The ride was so smooth, Jack could almost believe he was discarnate, separate from the world of houses and cars and people drifting by. Too-perfect houses, infused with the sterile precision of the robot carpenters who constructed them. Missing those minute human imperfections and flourishes called nuance found in houses built by actual human illegal immigrants during that previous rash of kleptocratic ponzi-exhuberance, the housing bubble, minus-one. A silver, if twisted lining of The Great Automation was that dollar-a-day low and mid-skill labor that were previously outsourced to Asian wage slaves and insourced to basement-wetbacks were the first jobs to be replaced by smartbots. Machines, who would never tire after 16-hour shifts in boiling-hot factories, would never grow weary of a lifetime of drudgery, would never organize and uprise. It accomplished in two years what decades of WTO and Wal-Mart protests, human rights summits, and countless Rage Against The Machine concerts failed to do: achieve equality. Equal unemployment, that is. "It don't matter if you're blue or white (collar)", Lord DaDa's remash of The King of Pop, received more American Internet Idol votes than the previous two presidents combined, robo-ballot fraud included. Now the Mexicans mostly skipped over the snuffed out light-on-the-hill once known as The Land of Opportunity, boating instead up to Canada, or Europe, where the new lands of, if not opportunity, at least welfare states, remained.

The atemporal, a-relevant blandscape of the Greenwood suburbs gave way at last to the gleaming overdesigned architecture-fiction of Ameribank City, the synthetic heart of Blue County Enclave. The skyline was a volcanic eruption of mirror, overshadowing the ash-colored economic wasteland necropolis of San Francisco. The predominant design motif was Californian refractions of Mumbai’s noughtie eco-towers. Solarglass cubes laced with drizzles of green horticulture, stacked asymmetrically like the Lego cities of child-gods. Obviously designed by the Plutarchs’ trust-fund babies, those artsy bisexual blacksheep who’d not yet had their silicon-n-granola idealism forcibly expunged via re-education through the labor market, not yet forged into suitably Napoleonic heirs to their parents’ financial dynasties.

And dominating the epicenter, the Gnossis Kairoplex: a celestially high pyramid curving parabolic towards the singularity of the most powerful omni-spectrum cell tower in the world. The Ur-node, the master switch, the gatekeeper of all indexed knowledge through which all had to pass, be it searching, messaging, or even breathing – which was monitored via intravenous sensors implanted at birth. The all-seeing eye drinking data into the human species’ collective externalized brain. And for access to one’s own brain, Gnossis charged in dollars-per-second of synaptic bandwidth over the Premium Internet. Sure, you could “go open” and try the Free Web, but it had become a useless, dangerous cesspool of spam, scamware, and Russian blackhats. The “info wants to be free” decentralized favela of The Web turned, as they all must, into a hell-holish digital slum.

Jack supposed he had been one of those na├»ve starchildren once, thought he could change the world if only he’d had enough Mountain Dew Code Red, startup capital, and a friendly senator. Then he graduated from the cushy moebius sandbox of grad school with a newfangled cyberscience degree, and shot back to Earth. Burned up several pension’s worth of seed capital in three failed tech ventures including a crowd-sourced bank regulation software, clean nuclear energy, and an NGO dedicated to closing the education gap. (Providing hands-on inner-city tech-ed and the brain enhancing cog-augs necessary to enter the job-race proved a non-starter with the money people, and public schools were too busy trying to keep from being shutdown by budget cuts to bother with new programs)

Bank balance flaming red, social network peeling off behind him like smoke, his best friend and partner dead in a car crash, and no golden parachute, Jack frantically aimed for the softest landing point in a jobscape of feudal perma-recession ruled by tooth-n-nail nepotism, struggles for ‘safe’ administrative/gov jobs and mogul security/charity work that had not yet been outsourced or machine-sourced. He cratered solidly into the bottom edge of the middle class, filed in beside the art-school dropouts pushing brands and the gold-star kids shuffling bank paper with idle hands. He comed the stardust out of his hair, tied his wrist to Joy’s, and kept his head down. Set his life on autopilot. They spawned. Silenced their genes’ loud demand for continuity, and tried to believe the emerging world was worth continuing. Jack indentured himself to a sub-subprime mortgage, paid for by a cybersecurity job which amounted to keeping the inhumanly rich’s accelerating fortunes from trickling down onto the crumbling potholed streets of the Unemployed world. But whatever muted ethical protests the dying embers of his young self murmured, Jack was an adult now. With responsibilities. Moral feel-goodness was a luxury of children and trust fund man-children. He was finally starting to see the world through Diego's realist lenses.

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