|Two Days in the Life of
by Bruce Sterling
Ladies and gentlemen, times like these call out for heartfelt acts of gratitude and human solidarity. I want to offer a personal confession this morning. I have never been so happy to be here in Amsterdam.
Maybe it's a little naive of me, maybe it sounds strange, but Euro-cyberculture, the digital-avantgarde, the Doors Crowd as it were... Well, you people have finally become a tribal global village for me.
Oh yes, I know our scene here at Doors of Perception is still a little frazzled. Economically suspect. Overwrought. Always still in beta. Way ahead of the curve, part of the bleeding edge, with hot, sizzling, uninsulated wires sticking out of it at dangerous angles, but I accept all that. I'm a grownup, I can forgive you. I always liked this gig, but this year, I truly love it in here. You good, sweet, civilized people. You delightful souls, you.
I certainly wish I could say the same for the world OUTSIDE the Doors of Perception. No such luck though. Not this season. Outside our delightful "space of flows," the world is in cultural deceleration mode, where the videocams of secret agencies are always standing by, where every civilian aircraft is a pogrom in the making. That quiet hum of Predator aircraft. That crackle of small arms fire.
A few days ago I was in Florence, in Fiorenza, at the European Social Forum, with about a million antiwar campaigners in a march 7 kilometers long. Banners up everywhere, Communists, anarchists, greens, Catholic peaceniks, street puppets, sound trucks.... And they weren't walking under those big banners, either. These protesters were almost jogging, in some kind of mad dash, as if they thought that History was standing by, dressed in black robes, with a scythe and a stopwatch.
That's why I have chosen to create a rather special little morning presentation here at Doors Flows. It's about the theme of ubiquitous computation and the flows of data. In following the Viridian principle of "Look at the Underside First," I have chosen to dramatize some of the darker, spookier aspects of this ubicomp phenomenon. My model text is a work with surprising resonance for the year 2002: Alexander Solzhenitsyn's very personal novel of Soviet prison life, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."
I didn't choose this text of Solzhenitsyn's just because I spent a day in the streets of Florence with about a zillion Communists. No, what really interests me about Ivan's story is the design angle. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a "zek," a convict, in a Stalinist prison camp. He's one of millions of such prisoners. Ivan is an ex-soldier, a World War II veteran, who is doing a ten- year prison sentence for nothing in particular.
Ivan Denisovich is not an industrial designer, but he has a remarkably intense relationship to material objects. Basically, that's because Ivan doesn't have any. Yet Ivan must get some flow of food and warmth and energy through his body, in order to survive, and so he does this. Ivan is almost starving, so Ivan steals bowls of soup. Ivan is almost freezing, so Ivan steals rolls of felt, for insulation. Most of the rest of the time, Ivan is either hauling concrete blocks in the snow, or being counted. The gulag authorities are always, always computing the prisoners inside the camp. Everything is rationed in a gulag camp. It's a very intensive computational process.
Our Ivan has the common, unromantic name Ivan, because he's a Soviet Stalinist version of Joe Sixpack, the classic American everyday consumer. Ivan Denisovich is a regular guy. He's not a saint or a hero or a martyr. There's nothing unique about him. Ivan is just methodically doing the everyday things that are necessary to get by in his extraordinary, monstrous milieu. Solzhenitsyn's novel scarcely even has a plot. It centers on two things: intense attention to physical detail, and the passage of time.
Therefore I present to you: two days in the daily life of Ivan Ubiquovich.
Scenario Number One: Punish.Net
Ivan Ubiquovich is a prisoner. He's been doing time, as prisoners must. He tries to keep fed, to keep in shape, and to keep his nose clean. Ivan is a young man. He tries to avoid the attention of the authorities, who are fascists, and the prison gangs, who are terrorists. Ivan's plan is to avoid despair and someday achieve a real life again.
After an endless grind of weary days in the underbelly of society, Ivan meets his parole officer in a small gray plastic room lined with radio tracking units.
"So, Ivan Ubiquovich, congratulations on surviving two years under the security regime here at Punish.Net. Have a federally subsidized tobacco cigarette."
Ivan lights his cigarette with an ID-tagged, globally-positioned, wi-fi desk lighter.
"Ivan, I hope you've learned your lesson about smoking that terrorist-subsidized Zapatista marijuana."
"Mr. Parole Officer sir, as I told the martial law court, I never actually inhaled that marijuana. I was just standing next to a Dutch guy. That was my big mistake."
"Ivan, the Comprehensive Homeland Security Act made it a federal crime to possess even airborne molecules of marijuana. Our air-sampling drug detection chips can sniff out marijuana fumes, coast to coast. So we're finally rooting out narcoterrorism where it lives: where the American people themselves really enjoy it. Another cigarette?"
"No thanks, sir. I've got that blood test to pass."
"Ivan, a young man like you should be serving the cause of freedom, not rotting here in the American digital prison system along with nine million others. I think I could arrange a parole for you == if you join today's hard-hitting ubicomp Army. Think about that, Ivan. I'm giving you a chance to remove those 24 hour ankle bracelets. To build a new life. You could learn a trade in modern electronics."
Ivan examines his own hands. They are rough with harsh outdoor labor, stacking sandbags and digging levees for the climate change from fossil fuel abuse. Thanks to ubicomp, no one needs mere chain gangs any more. Because the chains are all digital now, and they work even better than cast iron. "How about those motion detector rings, sir? It would be a real privilege to wave my own hands in time and space without every tiny motion being instantly tagged, logged and registered."
Ivan has got some so-called private areas that he is really eager to scratch. The parole officer presents a brown paper package holding Ivan's clothes from before his arrest: his old running shoes, his wallet, his shirt, his nylon cargo pants and his Palestinian solidarity neckerchief. "Ivan, let's be realistic here. If the Army gives you an honorable discharge, THEN maybe we remove the monitors. We haven't forgotten those unfortunate discipline incidents when we detected your smuggled comic book and that chewing gum."
Ivan weighs his chances of survival. "I'm ready to join up, sir! I've really learned my lesson!"
Scenario Two: Military Ubicomp.
Ivan Ubiquovich is shivering in a electronic foxhole. He is eating a console programmer's Meal Ready to Eat, which consists of freeze-dried golden-grain spaghetti with genetically altered meatballs. Ivan's platoon is engaged in an endless search-and-destroy mission across the barren mountains of Central Asia.
Every time Ivan's platoon stops to camp, they call in a remotely targeted cruise missile. Then they line the resulting crater with Central Asian handmade wool rugs they bought from local collaborators. They then have a snug dugout, and they hide inside of it. Then they set up their ubiquitous computation monitors. They use sideways- looking radars, infrared telescopes, nano-seismographs and a scattering of smart-dust human presence sensors. They can inspect the landscape for kilometers around. If they detect anything suspicious, they call in air strikes.
Ivan gets some urgent email from an ambitious general in Florida. This general is trying to determine the broad-scale strategic flow of the enemy forces, which is
impossible, because the enemy doesn't have any strategic
plans. The enemy are fanatical, chauvinistic Luddites who
are a few tottering steps away from cannibalism.
Ivan hooks up his targeting screens to the general's strategic dashboard. Luckily Ivan's platoon lieutenant is a very sensible guy. The lieutenant hacked the platoon's screens so that they feed false data. Ivan's platoon shows only reassuring lies to the superior officers in distant, cozy Florida. Because otherwise, the platoon would have to climb out of the warm, safe foxhole, strap on their fifty kilos each of satellite-linked weapons, rations and equipment, and climb up steep rocky slopes, to suspicious, cave-riddled areas, to seek out the local terrorists. Despite the colossal technical advantages of Ivan's army, soldiers have been known to get killed that way.
Inside their thoroughly digitized hole in the ground, however, life is not so bad, considering. "So, Lieutenant, how about another game of Tetris? The old games are the good ones, sir! I just installed Super Mario here on my GI palmtop!"
Ivan's lieutenant is looking very blue. His wife back in stateside has run off with a Nokia salesman and sent him a Dear John text message. "You know what, Ivan? There are some pretty damn serious personal drawbacks to all this comprehensive battlespace awareness."
Ivan is very patient with his superior's gripes. These include dust, stench, rats, frostbite, fleas, the lack of hot food and the fact that they are hundreds of kilometers from any women or beer.
Ivan's lieutenant is a military lifer. So he's a nostalgist. "Private Ivan, back in the bad old days before this infinite war on terror, they used to have actual wars with actual battlefields!"
"That sounds fantastic, sir."
"In real wars, they used to send a million guys to kill a million guys, and a hundred thousand of them would die. Nowadays they send ten high-tech guys to kill a thousand no-tech guys. Only one high-tech guy gets killed. It's hard to get an accurate count on the enemy dead because they are basically pulverized."
There is a warning beep. Ivan Ubiquovich examines his targeting screen. It's an attractive amber color and offers a nice light in their insulated foxhole. Ivan switches to overhead satellite view. He tries unmanned aircraft video surveillance. Then he examines the scattering of tread detectors and the body scent detectors. But there is just no getting away from the fact. The target is a pretty girl.
"Female suicide bomber at eleven o'clock, sir. She is 165 centimeters tall and to judge by our gait detection algorithms, she is carrying an extra ten kilos somewhere in the midriff area. And boy, this thermal emission is showing quite a set of curves under that burqa."
The lieutenant looks regretfully into his remote- relay anti-personnel telescope. "Okay, it's standard procedure, then. We crisp her with the hundred-megawatt AirBorne Laser. She's hit from the sky like the Finger of God and turns into a column of fine white ash. Then there's this violent secondary explosion because she's already chock full of dynamite."
Ivan offers a troubled response. "You know, sir, this isn't in our manual, but I happen to know personally that sometimes mistakes are made with these ubicomp systems. That pretty young girl is probably alone, lost, freezing and starving. I'm going out there to throw a package of food at her."
"I don't think she'll be grateful for long, Ivan. After all, consider the geopolitical situation."
"That remains to be seen, sir." Ivan prepares to leave the foxhole. He is choosing to personally expose myself to another human being. "Who wants to live forever?" are the last words he offers his lieutenant. "Sooner or later, somebody has got to try this. And if the likes of us aren't expendable, then who is?"
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