First time I spotted one of the drones I was sixteen. This was years ago, when Gnossis Search Corp was still spying on US citizens secretly for the NSA, and thus had to keep their Wi-Fi and cell phone eaves-dropping operations on the down-low, rather than parading around the fact that they ran a for-profit Panopticon. In those halcyon years of the Tech Boom 2.0, the “Big G” was still in the courting phase with crooked tech regulators, when they only multilaterally controlled the FCC. One seat at the table of a digital security council consisting of Friendbook, Totech, Orange Inc and the fading revenants of the Gormenghastian TV and newspaper empires, slowly dieing a death by a thousand downloads. A time when the corporation’s stock valuation was still the equivalent to the GDP of half the Balkans, rather than the entirety of the European Union. In these humble beginnings, the tech giant’s hoodie-wearing CEOs pilgrammaged, yearly, before the phalanx of a Senate Antitrust subcommittee, like pre-Church of England Henry VIII, begrudgingly kneeling to kiss the ring of the pope. There, by the mock-outraged senators whose campaign war-chests Gnossis had helped fill with “donations”, Gnossis was publicly flogged for conspicuously failing to erase archives of closed user accounts, for loopholing their way out of Do-Not-Track laws, for “accidentally” programming an email spam filter to blacklist anti-Wall Street communications as “suspicious activity”. Bad, bad Gnossis. The American people and the Federal Communications Commision Will Not Stand For This infringement of their privacy and freedom. But eventually, with enough network lock-in, hostile takeovers, and board member job offers for annoyingly principled congress people, they finally finished infiltrating and buying out the US government – following the hallowed American Way of the banks, pharma, and military corporations before them. Shoulders of giants, and all.
With no federal regulator or antitrust cops left whom they didn’t have on a leash, Gnossis went solo into the espionage business, started operating out in the open with impunity. Let a thousand wifitapping spyvans bloom. Now they could eavesdrop on citizens for their own profit without masking it under the guise of the marketing euphemism, “personalized search optimization”. They auctioned off the Gnossis smartphone GPS coordinates of Iranian dissidents to their current iteration of authoritarian torturers. Sold out the e-mail chains connecting the organized resistance of securities fraud whistleblowers who tried to bring down the vampiric megabank aristocracy before they nuked the US and global economy a second time. (And with Gnossis’ routine extermination of the financial freedom fighters, the banksters won, again). Unlike the formerly relevant United States -- cowboys fecklessly taking drunken potshots at oil-rich Arabic countries, hastening the twilight of the American empire-streak – Gnossis was efficient, a tyranny of nerds, settling for nothing less than a thoroughly blueprinted autocracy. Code is law, and they were a dictatorship of naïve software engineers, dictating their “perfect” world through their codes. Let there be free information, that all people might frolick finally in the endless Library of Babel, as we charge them for access to it, cash in on search advertising, and sell off keyword real-estate. Let that the authors, engineers, and other content producers of our post-industrial society who relied on revenue from their work (evil revenue!), newly jobless, be allowed to find redemption circuitbreaking Tickle-Me-Elmos to sing the Zelda theme, and other venerable DIY “Maker” hobbies with their unpaid cognitive surplus. Let there be omnipresent 24/7 data collection on every living user and non-user and Wifi enabled device, that our systems might better improve their search algorithms and model the world down to the last grain of sand and financial transaction. And, once they saw that it was good, headed out for p’zones and a DnD night, leaving free dominion over every living thing to the red-tied, derivatives trading serpents, dwelling in their walled garden.
From my bedroom window I’d seen flashes of chrome molded into the shapes of sea creatures, pelagic finned apparitions soaring against the night sky, bright and surreal as daydreams. They’d never be visible more than a second or two, but I was certain I wasn’t imagining things; I’d pinched myself to be sure. My parents thought I was loosing it. Dad would mention specialists for my “problem” at the dinner table every other night. Mom would shoot the propositions down with a look. [i]He’s just in that phase, honey. You remember high school.[/i] I once overheard them arguing whether to send me to one of those overmediation rehabilitation camps in the signal-free New Mexico desert.
Supposedly they were the last island of offline geography on Earth since cyberspace’s near-total colonization of the physical world, a pocket of Irish monk-scholars, preserving civilization as language was burnt to the ground by txt-speak, knowledge and history cannibalized by Big Search as Friendbook became the country of origin of every human on the planet. Apparently it was the site of some abandoned DoD experiment into city-spanning invisible EMP shields involving superconducting hadron membranes powered by tesla spheres. Supposedly all the participants had died of unknown causes, but that didn’t stop high-ROI seeking speculators from starting an internet rehab school there during the online-addiction hysteria, especially with that Faraday cage marketing gimmick sweetener. All the first hand stories I’d heard spoke of electroshock Ludovico torture, nanite lobotomy, exorcising the cyber-Beelzebub through hard bone-grinding labor – ironically, the labor was usually assembling iPads. Like some kind of Road to Wellville nutter-clinic for the digital age, run by the kind of people who build prisons the size of Delaware and sardine pack twenty inmates to a cell. Eerily reminiscent of the epidemic of ponzi artists who lured gullible illegal immigrants into unaccredited for-profit colleges, and run away with the FAFSA loan dough.
“The boy needs help. It’s working great for all those goggle-screen wearing ‘net zombie kids over in China.” Dad said.
“Children are tortured to death in those camps. And our boy is not a zombie. He’s a bright kid if you bothered to pay attention.” Mom defended.
Nobody believed me. I was the boy who cried paramilitary drone.
So I recorded video. Days and days of drive space filled with the empty bigness of night sky, nothing but starry void, and the occasional fuel cell howl of a passing maglev train. A couple times I swore I could just make out the sillouette of a curling diamond-ended tentacle, or the shadow of a dorsal fin, carving itself in the white noise sea of cosmic background radiation. Like the old black and white hoax photographs of sea monsters that once drew busloads of tourists, drove Scottish fisherman to dedicate their lives to their discovery, scowering the night-films became an obsessive cryptozoological hunt through the depths of the troposphere for my own personal airborne Loch Ness. I’d watched segments of footage over and over till I memorized every twinkle of venus, every thick cloud of Californian pollution wiping itself across the face of the moon. For a while I wondered if I’d seen the drones at all, or was I descending into a Fortean madness, an apopheniac seeing dragons in driftwood, falling for my own long-necked toy submarine fabrications. Then, one night, as I was packing up the binoculars and gigapixel highspeed cam, possibly for good, there came the now-infamous, multi-million hit ‘tube video known globally as “Noctopus”. Finally I had it, the money shot was barely a second of space-calamari, but there it was; a real live UFO, plain as day, or at least plain as my 3D HD cameraphone’s resolution could manage.
The next day, I was preparing to prove my parents and the universe wrong in a blaze of viral video glory (and come away possibly with a reality TV contract, if I milked my new found starpower right with the Hollywood Big Fish). Then, suddenly, my uploaded mpegs mysteriously vanished into the intarwebial ether. I checked through archived logs of my uploaded and deleted videos, but everything was completely wiped. No NetTube error message, no violation of terms-of-service notice, nothing. Not a half hour later, guys in federale suits showed up, told my parents I had ‘tampered with government property’ via unlawful blackhat internet hacking, and had stolen classified files from the Pentagon. I knew that earpiece-man’s case was a bullshit cover story the moment they namedropped the Pentagon. That five-sided hunk of Swiss cheese couldn’t keep a secret for five seconds since they’d outsourced their IT to shady low-wage contractors without PO Boxes on six different continents, none of them English-speaking and most of them fronts for Chinese espionage, gold-farming sweatshops, and Russian botnet gangs. Probably handing their newly acquired specs sheets, detailed blueprints for US stealthbomber drones, across the cubicle wall to KGB revenants, grinning like cartoon wolves.
I told the faux spooks as much, but the shade-faces claiming to be “FBI” didn’t find constructive criticism by a prepubescent very entertaining. Then again, they don’t find anything entertaining. When stand-up comedians assassinate Mother Theresa and land themselves in the basement-level ring of hell as Satan’s prison-bitch, the punishment they suffer in that final ditch of Malebolge is an eternal gig performing for an alcohol-free nightclub packed with G-Men.
“Feds carry warrants. And they don’t get their suits custom tailored by Brioni’s paramilitary division,” I commented.
“You’re in a world of trouble, son. Let’s not make this any worse than it has to be.” The spook said, brow knitting above a wall of black glass as he emptied my pants drawer on the floor.
“Actually I think it’s you who’s going to be in the hot seat when your corporate leash-holders discover that you couldn’t prevent a kid from releasing embarrassing and possibly incriminating evidence that could crucify them. I’ve already got a Cloud-based killswitch in place to release the footage if you rent-a-Gestapo try and get your Gadaffi on. I’ve got a public-relations C4 strapped to my chest, the cops will be up your asses in seconds.”
A bold move I could barely believe I had the gaul to utter, and I think I might have shissed myself a second later. The suit closed the door and the masks came off. Shades-in-Chief withdrew a ziplock of marijuana and three other caches of powder like blue-speckled laundry detergent which I didn’t recognize but I knew, somehow, were catastrophically illegal. He spilled a little of each narcotic on me like some cursed pixie dust that gets you locked up instead of makes you fly. He then proceded to plant the evidence in various crannies about my room – in my workstation heatsink, behind my V for Vendetta poster -- as coolly as if he was dumping his dirty work socks around his apartment, just to make a point.
“US police departments outsource their dispatch, evidence, and case file management to Gnossis Search. We set the parameters of law enforcement, kid, we control what the cops see and don’t see, they’re blindered by our case-rank algorithms. Really, don’t fuck with us.” His eyebrow did that dispassionate shrugging-caterpillar frown again, patted me on the chek.
The suits did a CIA-grade wipe of my hard drive: sledgehammer to the magnetic discs. They walked me out in cuffs, parading me out in front of the neighborhood and half the internet’s worth of bloggers and e-journalists as a hacker tar-n-feathering. My dad just stood there, shaking his head, then went out with a dirty senator for eighteen holes and lines of coke off a Paris Hilton clone’s cleavage. My mom just stood there, and tried not to cry.
A court order forced me onto the Italian leather couch of a kiddie shrink, to whom I explained the conspiracy to cover up my drone video in fully lucid detail with logical riguer a philosophy-major could be proud of. The shrink sat there, nodding, pretending to take notes on his smart pad but was really trying to beat his Angry Hamsters high score – I could see the airborne dayglo rodents reflected in his prop spectacles. In the end he aired out some rusty diatribe of bullshit psychobabble, claimed I was seeing “semiotic ghosts”, then diagnosed me as a paranoid schizotypal, pumped me full of happy juice. Made me hallucinate six hours straight, once. Sometimes I can still see the fleets of celaphopodic spydrones, aerodynamic as the oily spaceships of some Flash Gordon antagonist, descending through the padded-room’s single window. They come to extract my bodily fluids, rich with my personal data, via hypodermic USB cords, fly the specimen of my deflated body back up to the mothership, en route to planet Gnoss, populated by a species of little green men evolved without senses of humor, perpetually frowning in their shades. They extract my info-essence, my life’s story written in RNA and a million internet posts, and snort the white powder off the cleavage of a Paris Hilton the color of fiat money. Just to make a point.
They put me under a couple times, “routine tests” they said I was “too young” to understand. Woke up with a tender crotch and red marks all over my chest they claimed I’d self-inflicted. Luckily my mom worked up the courage, found some dirt on the crooked fuckers, blackmailed the clinic and got me out. Mom explained in the car ride home that the clinic jacked livers for organ money like the District Ten kids jack cars, except the street urchins don’t have several Harvards’ worth of lawyers or Big Pharma friends with the president and half of Mount Rushmore in their back pocket. Mom had some serious fucking balls. At least she fought for me, unlike my dad. That fucker wouldn’t fight for anything, stood for nothing, first out the door in a fire alarm. It’s people like that made the world the way it is, ran out the exits with the chandeliers in hand and let the whole building just burn down.
On the bright side, being walked into a police car in handcuffs for half the known universe bumps you up to the top of the grooming order in high school, and the fact that you were arrested and served time for attacking Gnossis and the US government means you’ll never go to bed alone in college, brimming with all your hacktivist-badboy mojo.
I liked to think I was the first to surf the cusp. Because shortly thereafter, UFO videos spread like contagion. There was an outbreak of alien-abduction news cycles, bandwagonny hard sci-fi novels riding the wave of hysteria meme-juice. Plastic-faced NetTube talkshow hosts dragged on ‘experts’ with ‘para-aeronautics’ degrees from two-day-old Estonian online universities to be interviewed. There was a desert downpour of tourism business and false hope for dead Arizona extra-terrestrial gimmick towns. Instead of oval alien heads, there were silver penguin t-shirts, flying squid balloons. “Drone-Wars” arcade games were canted against fifty year old bar jukeboxes still operating on US fiat coinage. Gnossis denied everything, of course, waged a multi-billion PR campaign to make the Koch Brother climate-denialists blush, even blacked out their own website for a day, holding the collectively outsourced memory of their 3 billion users hostage until they cried for their congress people to pass SAPA; the Stop Aerial Photography Act. But still, the wave resonated, built into a global tsunami of publicity and pro-bono journalistic exposes, until the first bow-shot threats of hard litigation ultimately forced Gnossis’ hand. They had to buy out the US government or face a debilitating nightmare of major privacy, anti-wiretap, and antitrust lawsuits from which the mega corporation would never wake. Especially with the salivating competition circling like hyenas, just waiting for the search giant to topple, ready to pick the market share meat from its ribs. It cost them dearly; half their “Gnossis University” geek frathouse was braindrained away as they reallocated salaries earmarked for hot young Silicon Valley talent to US government bribes. But once all the King’s Horses and King’s Men and King’s Attorneys General were bought and paid for, then Gnossis let all their skeletons hang out of the closet, with bitter apathy. Yes we are spying on you. Yes we are selling your private life to unknown third parties. Yes, privacy is dead: but it’s for your own good, really. We’re still not evil, we’re just progressive. Get over it.
I guess I like to think I did finally catch my Loch Ness monster, brought it out on stage for all the world to see, giant black tentacles and all. Even if it continued to terrorize, at least now the creature couldn’t hide in the occult depths of my subconscious.