As he woke, condensing breath told Hao that he had been evicted for the third time this week. Two screens overhead confirmed, Zero credits in one mirrored by zero degrees in the other. “Cao!” The cold didn’t numb his irritation as Hao kicked open the door of the bunk and felt the relief of a warm draft reviving his feet. He then slid rigidly out of the sealed pod dragging his wheeled case and frosted tablet computer with him. Stretching and letting the warmth return to his extremities he reflected on the irony that the pods were known, colloquially, as ‘Hot Beds’. The carefree/sleep anywhere lifestyle they offered came at a very low price but one that Hao could not currently afford.
All around, faces and feet were appearing from bunks. Some, like Hao, had overstayed their net worth and emerged blue and shivering. Others bolted, rapidly closing their bunk doors behind them, in an effort to beat the clock and preserve an extra credit or two for breakfast. Very few could afford a lie in. It was 6am.
A glimpse of Ava, now descending the ladder of an adjacent bunk, suddenly made Hao aware of his stale odor and unkempt appearance. Hao looked down at his T-shirt with the fading ‘Spring Loaded’ logo, a now forgotten indie band from nearly three years ago. Their music, on reflection, had been no better quality than the hole-ridden cotton of his branded T-shirt. But still, they were memories, an emblem of Hao’s youthful naivety and his attempt to fit in to this culture. The T-shirt also gave away his age. No longer a newbie graduate but a veteran. While Ava could only be two years his junior she was a different generation. The contents of Hao’s wheeled case had been frozen in time, a vestige of the last days of his disposable income. Fashion fads had come and gone but the woman still seemed fresh. Her loose black sweatshirt and tighter jeans were unbranded and worn with a confident lack of care. Sleeves torn at the elbows seemed, to Hao, like small statements of rebellion. That she had emerged from her bunk dressed and already wearing black shin high boots showed a disregard for her unit balance. Those around her were now struggling to dress, scrabbling through backpacks and flight cases for something clean, or at least warm in the rent-free corridor. Ava. Hao only knew her name from the label on her flight case and they had never spoken, but he thought he might love her anyway.
Neither a shower nor breakfast were options for Hao. His only priority was to work and earn enough for lunch, and if he was lucky, a drink, a sleeping pill and a hot bed for the night. Pulling on a fleeced jumper, which seemed to have grown baggy over Hao’s already slight frame, he left the disheveled throng. An unseen figure, Hao pulled his wheeled suitcase behind him.
Avoiding the torture of breakfast smells from the dining hall, Hao took the recreation route, past the unused pool halls and the vending machines selling sugary water. A bank of PMUs (pronounced peemu’s by the locals) glowed ominous neon blue. Standing like guarding sentinels, they promised to “Build from stock for less than 5 credits” and “Build custom for less than 10”. Multicolored pellets filled the space where their stomachs might be and their heads were empty chambers waiting to perform a miracle of manufacture, for those who could pay. Behind them, the peeling remains of a wall mural pronounced ‘LIVE, WORK, PLAY’ in nine foot tall lime green letters. Illuminated by strip lights, the mural was made visible through a glazed wall to the rain-sodden campus. This building, which sat on the edge of the university, was a destination and a transition point. It was a gateway to the real world beyond, but for Hao and the others it was also a protection from it.
Hao approached a swipe card lock, and a gentle flow of warm air vented from above a door. A low whirring sound was joined, as the door slid open, by a higher and almost imperceptible whine and repeated ch-ching noises in surround sound. Hao had joined at the fourth floor and could see through the metal grated walkway to the three floors below and another eight above. Making his way up an industrial staircase, some of the cages (although corporate called them desks) lining the walkway were already occupied by nighters or those struggling to clock up credits. None of them looked up from their terminals as Hao walked past.
Hao could, if he wanted, log on to any one of the thousands of terminals in the building, but to do so would break an unspoken rule. Nothing marked Hao’s territory other than local knowledge. This was Hao’s terminal, allocated to him when he arrived and would be his until (and if) he left. There was little purpose to maintaining such territories, and Hao occasionally longed for a change of scene. However, with no views and a constant server-optimal temperature of eighteen degrees, habit and protocol drove Hao’s selection of location. There was one other advantage. From here, Hao could gaze down through the grating of the adjacent walkway to the level below and to Ava’s terminal. Hao would only allow himself occasional discreet glances throughout the day, each time hoping to catch sight of more than the back of her head and her disheveled jet-black hair. He could spy with impunity, sure that she wouldn’t look up, although he sometimes wished she would. Her cage was still empty this morning.
Seated, with his wheelie case stowed in an overhead tray, Hao reclined on a chair which, unlike a Hot Bed, was configured to encourage long stays. A neck pad gently eased his head into an optimal position. He then pulled the articulated screen towards him and logged on. The SemWeb logo appeared and its slogan ‘Building the Semantic Web, Together’ emerging from thousands of lines of a network graphic. A secondary system booted and a separate screen burst into life with a torrent of gold coins cascading. The metallic jingle faded revealing Hao’s zero credit balance.
On his main screen, a list of folders with cryptic names appeared. For all Hao knew the list was infinite, he had never scrolled down to find out and he could only access the top folder anyway. He selected the file named: “Imgs_DogsinFields_intViewValidationSet”. The first image flashed up. A golden retriever stood, ears pricked up, in a wooded clearing. Underneath a list entitled ‘Ontologies’ read: Dog, Field, Trees, Sky. And a button flashed VALIDATE and another EDIT. Hao hit the VAIDATE button, the image disappeared and, with a gentle Ch-ching noise, a gold coin dropped on his supplemental screen. Hao’s credit balance went up to 0.001. Not a high payout but this job should be easy. If he could average one item every three seconds he would make twelve credits by the end of a ten-hour shift. Enough for lunch, dinner and five credits left for eight hours in a hot bed. He might even have enough for a shower.
Dog, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
Dog, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
Dog, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | EDIT…
Dog | Change to: Cow
Cow, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
Dog, Field, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
And so began the rhythm of Hao’s day.
By noon the vast chamber filled with flickering light and jingled like a muted casino. With every play everyone won a tiny boost to their credit balance. Occasionally there would be a credit booster. A randomly selected worker would hit a golden data packet and receive a flush of units. For Hao, however, the winnings had been small. Errors in the data added valuable seconds to validating each item. As the morning progressed Hao’s focus also wavered. Sequences of Sheepdogs, Alsatians and Labradors all seemed to mix in a hairy blur as Hao became anxious to click the ‘Validate’ button and receive a hit of adrenalin conditioned by the noise of a dropping coin. He knew he’d made mistakes but hoped that he was within error limits. He needed to keep his 3.071 credits.
As Hao contemplated lunch, he allowed himself to glance down at the cage below but, rather than Ava, his attention was caught by her neighbor. A small hunched figure, younger than Hao, sat prodding with increasing desperation at his terminal. The machine, however, was blank and unresponsive. Technical errors were not unheard of but, from the boy’s anxiety, Hao sensed that there was a bigger problem. Those around him were conspicuous in their lack of interest as the boy stood up with one final stab of his screen and, grabbing his case, fled with tears spilling from his eyes. Hao allowed himself a moment of sympathy for the pathetic figure leaving the chamber. And then, as his eyes returned to Ava, he remembered that where there was tragedy there was often opportunity.
Lunch was served with an inelegant flourish. From stainless steel trays a sickly ‘sweet and sour’ dish of suspiciously regular shaped chicken pieces and overcooked dried out rice were slopped onto a vacuum molded plate. Hao fought back memories of spicy lamb skewers and steamed dumplings. At two credits, this tasteless mush the British described as ‘Chinese food’ was still a bargain.
Hao had timed his lunch carefully. Palms sweating and heart quickening, he followed Ava, keeping a respectful distance and devising his seating strategy. She took up a place at the end of a nearby bench. He didn’t want to sit opposite – too obvious – but needed to be close enough to strike up a conversation. Hao opted for a chair diagonally across, sat down and proceeded to push his food around the plate waiting for his long absent courage to return home. Unable to wait any longer he looked up and began to deliver his opening line:
Having spoken to no one for more than a week, his voice had become rough and his vowels unpracticed. Clearing his throat and, having lost the semblance of easy informality, he stuttered through the sentence.
“Did you see that guy evicted from his terminal today?”
Ava looked up from her lunch with a ‘you talking to me’ expression of surprise.
“You mean Oli. Yeah…I sat next to him.”
Her voice. Hao hadn’t heard it before. He was in conversation for the first time and she’d left him an opening. Now close and able to look at her without hiding his gaze Hao saw Ava afresh. She had, he noticed the swirl of a tattoo on her neck and freckles blemished her skin. Ava’s eyes were as bright blue as in Hao’s dream version but faint lines underneath them hinted at her weariness. Ava was real and no lingering fantasy. Hao felt emboldened.
“Oh. Do you know why he went?”
To Hao’s surprise the line hooked her in. She leaned over to him with a conspiratorial smile.
“He was being a naughty boy.”
Hao tried to mirror the woman’s posture and leaned closer, but he was feeling a familiar intense social discomfort. Was she flirting? Perhaps she was mocking him. Yes, that was more likely. Silly little Hao. Silly little Data Monkey.
“Yesterday he got an image set of children’s cartoon characters. You know the kind of thing. Walter the Rabbit skipping through the woods. Jim the Jungle Bear blah blah. Anyway it should have been a validation set confirming the character gestures and motions.”
“Well, he chose to…reinterpret the brief and find alternative annotations”
Her face beamed with apparent respect for the boy’s offenses.
“Let’s just say that Mr and Mrs Fox had their world expanded with moves from the Karma sutra. Oli only earned two credits but a bunch of us rewarded his labors with a drink and a hot bed last night”.
The table shuddered and a plastic tray skittered on the surface of the table next to Hao. The white sweaty bulk of a co-worker jostled his way onto the table and, ignoring Hao, began to address Ava with intensity.
“I tell ya, I fucking sorted it. It’s a game, a big fucking puzzle and I’ve cracked it.”
He spoke rapidly, using profanity as others might use punctuation, and glanced furtively around the dining hall looking for some unseen surveillance. Hao had known him, vaguely, as an undergraduate. His name was Pete or Patrick or something else beginning with P and he’d barged through his degree with a loud voice and Alpha male pretensions. He’d been fitter then, but now his large and still dominating frame had become flabby. His once ruddy cheeks were bleached grey with ‘terminal tan’. Hao had hated them then and he still hated them now. He could feel the trail of his conversation with Ava cooling. This oaf was going to dominate lunch and soon there would be no way back in. Furthermore, she seemed to be encouraging it. Perhaps P was a more entertaining partner. Hao shrunk back and let Ava provoke P further.
“Go on then. Spill it. What’s the big secret?”
“It’s not fucking random. There’s a pattern”
“Pattern to what?”
“To the fucking wins!” said P with apparent exasperation.
Hao noticed the index figure of P’s right hand was rapidly twitching even as he gripped a fork. The motion was a sign of a veteran terminal jockey and P’s whole body seemed to twitch with static from years of repetitive motion.
“Look,” continued P, pulling, what appeared to be a folded map out of his pocket. Unfurled, the sheet was revealed to be many sheets roughly taped together, each one containing a grid which bore some resemblance to floor plans of the data center. The grids were covered in notes, arrows and, what appeared to be formulas. Sections of the grid were also colored in, like a series of multicolored crossword tables.
“Look here, twenty-eighth of June, fifty credit win, section two slash thirty-five, Twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Fifteenth of August, twelve-thirty in the afternoon, four slash two hundred and twenty three, twelve credit win. Twenty fifth of August…”
As P continued to reel off his list, his voiced softened and he became more distant, lost in his thoughts. Ava eventually broke in.
“Yeah, yeah, and so what’s your point.”
P looked up as if suddenly woken.
“Well, it’s a fucking pattern. Don’t you get it?”
Pulling out a Plastico® Graphink® stylus, sharpened to little more than a nub, he scrawled lines over the paper joining the shaded squares as if playing a manic dot to dot puzzle.
“Triangles, you see…it’s a pattern. Follow it along…they become fucking hexagons. Each big winner is in the middle and the time…you see. 2.35, 9.02. See they add up. Golden sections everywhere. It’s a fucking spiral. A big win must be in the center.”
The marks on the paper became more erratic. The stylus now followed the twitches of P’s index finger in tiny zigzags across the pages. Hao looked on, horrified, but Ava seemed only mildly amused.
“Wow,” she said barely disguising a mocking tone.
“You’re a genius. So what’s the plan now, then?”
P looked up. Eyes wide and wild.
“What fucking plan? What did anyone say about a fucking plan? Why do you want to know? Want the credits for yourself? FUCK YOU!”
Shaking, P stood up toppling his chair, and screwing the plans in his fists, he jostled his way out of the dining hall.
Hao and Ava watched in silence. How could Hao possibly come back from that? The conversation seemed lost but Ava turned back.
“Most people in this place fall into one of two categories. The first type are ‘The Deluded’” she said gesturing at the fallen chair. “They cling to the hope of that one big win or a time when their degrees in Sociology or French Lit will have an economic value in a world where the only growth industry is data. The second type are ’The Pragmatists’. They only live for their next unit and one more meal. They don’t even have the imagination to fantasize a brighter future. Oli, well, Oli wasn’t either of those.”
Ava got up to leave but not before leaning over and whispering in Hao’s ear:
“Question is, Hao, what type are you?”
Hao’s stomach lay heavy with half a sickly chicken lunch. The other half lay discarded in the canteen slop bucket. A penetrating migraine buzzed in his head. He should have been elated that Ava knew his name. This revelation was, however, as unsettling as the celebratory tone of her description of Oli’s demise and her parting question, “What type are you?” said in a way that implied she already knew. Hao was a pragmatist, but then what choice did he really have? Oli wasn’t a hero. He had cried. He left with no credits, hope or future. For what? A schoolboy prank without consequence or real audience? Even the validation data was subject to validation. No package was ever annotated by one person alone. An algorithm would have picked up the discrepancy and Oli’s shut-out would have been automatic – initiated by a humorless machine. What about the alternative? Live a fantasy until it devoured you completely. Begin to plot your escape like a prisoner of war armed with a homemade map and a fractured reality. Ava hadn’t made sense. The problem now was that, where Hao had thought of her often before, now he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
Then it happened. 10 credits. Somewhere P. shaded another box on his escape plans. 20 credits… Hao contemplated the cascade of coins ratcheting up his credit total. 30 credits… Hao’s face flashed briefly on screens throughout the center accompanied by a halo of coins. 40 credits… a few people looked over with bored contempt, most stayed fixed on their screens. “50 credits”… Hao’s screen settled with the flashing word: WIN!
For a few minutes Hao’s mind raced with the possibilities for his fortune but, as the adrenalin died away Hao, the pragmatist, regained control. This was only fifty credits after all. Five days good earning. It could buy a treat or two but would more likely act as a buffer, whittled away over months of extra minutes in bed, an extra portion of ‘slop of the day’ in the dining hall and two sleeping pills rather than one. Perhaps it was worth six months of a slightly less intolerable life. As the fires of Hao’s enthusiasm died, so did his desire to work. He logged out.
Arriving at the bar Hao was alone. He sat at the winner’s bench, so called because only Credit rich workers could afford to stay long enough to occupy it. The bar’s mirror-backed shelves were lined with whiskey and vodka bottles. They were for decoration only – a pastiche to frame the drinks dispenser. A list of drinks scrolled across the terminal. Regulars knew that while the list seemed extensive, the anemic liquids were all alike, tainted by each other’s flavors, pumped out from the same nozzle. The main, and perhaps only, difference was their alcohol content and Hao knew that the selection they called ‘Victory Gin’ was the quickest and cheapest way to oblivion.
As the grim liquid poured into a Styrofoam cup, Hao imagined that, behind the shiny plastic carcass of the dispenser, a team of shrunken barmen worked relentlessly pumping liquids into miniature barrels, filling the reservoir that would become his drink and earning their share of the credit economy.
Hao booted his tablet and took a breath as he opened his emails. His portion of SPAM had decreased over the years. He was no longer a target for high-end goods. Even the less discerning emails, those offering personal enhancement or instant gratification, were reluctant to reside in his inbox. They knew better than to waste bitspace on a credit-poor Data Monkey. Banner ads and popups, tracking his emails and assessing his value, had changed from music downloads and cheap airfares to charity run helplines and government work schemes. Sometimes, visiting the web would feel to Hao like entering a town where all the shops closed their shutters as he walked past.
Hao hadn’t checked his email for a week. Hard work and late nights had been his alibi but with the win he had no excuse not to look. The scrambled subject headings revealed the un-translated mandarin from his parents. One message for each day since his last visit to the email. His father used his company email ‘@Ri Sheng’ with the rising sun logo and his title of ‘Director’ in the signature. This logo was the last piece of real estate his father owned and was now as important to him as the factories he had lost. The content of his emails was invariable. Inane gossip, growing lists of ailments and pleas for news from their only son. Between each line was an invisible, but Neon clear, plea for their son to start sharing the proceeds of his overseas success. Time to buy back his family’s respect, security and comfort. They had invested all in him and now needed the returns. He would have to muster another desperate fiction to delay their expectations.
Dotted through the list, although with much less frequency, were mails from his old school friends. Exchanges, which had once sparked a spirit of optimism, were now flat and disconnected. Once Hao, Song and Lun had plotted their domination of the online world, or of building a games company to rival the Japanese giants or to become the great creative engineers of a new and resurgent China. Their diligent work and focus and been repaid with academic merits and prizes. But, as they stood on their graduating stages, clutching fake scrolls, the vista of the hundreds of identikit gowns surrounding them seeded doubt. Believing themselves to be insulated from the vagaries of the manufacturing world, with degrees in computer science and software engineering, they set forth to seek dot com riches in a bubble that had already burst. Hao had been the golden one. His international university place was his ticket to the global success he’d been promised in all the prospectuses. As his friends had faltered, Hao had risen, but only in the made-up world sketched through his brief and irregular emails and colored by his parents’ boasts and exaggerations. Song and Lun grew tired of asking their once friend for contacts or ideas or a thin slice of his success. Marooned in their childhood bedrooms, they had nothing to share but virtual kills in the simulated worlds where they were still heroes. Referred from social networks Hao no longer visited, their messages were lack-of-status updates. Hao longed to tell them the truth of his situation, to share his boredom and frustration, but the pain of humiliation would now be too hard to bear.
As Hao began his fourth drink a figure appeared. Hao looked up from his tablet to find Ava sitting beside him.
“So you won big.”
“Hardly,” replied Hao with unintended bitterness.
“Well you seem to be splashing the credits” she said gesturing to a line of Styrofoam cups.
Hao wished he were more sober. While the alcohol had anesthetized his sense of inferiority, he felt his social dampers failing. “Why did you think that Oli was a hero?” Hao slurred. As Hao contemplated his question he wanted desperately to retract it, to offer her a drink and follow-up with something more normal. Unfortunately his brain was operating like the stack of data packages – he could only access the upper-most thought.
“Well…I guess I didn’t really see him as a hero. I just thought…well he just seemed to brighten things a bit. He gave us something to talk about.”
“And for that he was cast out to who knows what. No employment. He’s probably homeless. Food for the ferals in the industrial zone. To give you amusement, yes?”
Hao felt like he was sliding unstoppably. Pent-up anger and frustration finally found an outlet, but aimed at the last person he wanted to hear it.
Ava started to sound exasperated. “Not amusement Hao. I respected him. He wanted to leave…”
“He didn’t look like he wanted to leave.”
“I don’t know. Don’t we all want to leave? Don’t you want to leave?”
“Yes, but not like that.”
“Then how? With a promotion to Chief Data Monkey? Perhaps you want to retire with a long service credit boost and a Hot Bed by the sea. Have you noticed how few people are over twenty-five in this place? No one can do this forever. We all leave Hao, but only a few choose the manner of their leaving. Oli’s two fingers to the system was, if not dignified, at least, well, at least he wasn’t washed up.”
Ava’s counter attack paused Hao for a moment. There was a bitter logic to her response. Ava broke the silence.
“Why so angry Hao?”
“It’s been a hard day.”
“Well apparently not, according to your credit total.”
He wanted to respond that 50 credits wasn’t going to buy his family’s respect or secure his friends futures. It wouldn’t pay for a ticket home and probably wouldn’t even get him to the airport. Instead he opted to force a smile and say, “50 credits seems nothing now that I’m contemplating my imminent demise.”
The response seemed to work and Ava relaxed. Hao’s courage grew. “Do you want a drink?”
Hao reached over to the dispenser but Ava rested her hand on his, restraining him from pushing the selector. “That’s very generous Hao but don’t waste your credits. There are better ways of spending them.”
It may have been the alcohol, or the touch of Ava’s hand initiating the first physical contact Hao had experienced in three years but he leant over and kissed her. Even as he made the pass, he prepared himself for the startled decline, the standard refrain of “Oh no, I’m sorry you’ve got the wrong idea” from her and the hastened apologies from him. But, to his surprise, she didn’t. Instead she stayed motionless. He would imagine later that she had returned the kiss. She then took his hand and said with gentle warmth,
“I have a friend in the city. I think he can offer you an opportunity. Let me give you his contact and just hear what he has to say. I think it will be a better investment than a night at the tap.”
As Ava walked away, Hao contemplated the scribbled email on his tablet. He had often fantasized about saving her. In his dreams Ava was a Manga girl, helpless and trapped, bound with LAN cables enclosed by a castle built of servers. Hao would arrive and slash the cables with mighty swords, carrying her away quivering with gratitude. He started to wonder whether their roles had been reversed.
The bus eased out through the fifteen foot security gates that protected the campus from the industrial no-man’s-land beyond. Hao sat at the back and slunk low in his seat, avoiding the pitying gazes of the student passengers. In his pocket, forty credits had been turned into real electronic currency. He had winced as the transfer machine exchanged his credits into euro-dollars with a ten percent commission. The bus had taken half of what remained, draining the money from his pocket with an invisible transfer as soon as he crossed its threshold.
As the bus left the safety of the campus compound the other passengers seemed oblivious to the changing scene rolling by. Framed by the ribs of the bus’s security bars were the dying remains of the city’s manufacturing district. Warehouses lay abandoned with old stock tumbling out of half opened doors like guts from open knife wounds. Looters and scavengers could be seen climbing piles of rubber tires and cardboard boxes. They would find little of value. Grave robbers had picked over this corpse many times before. Even the factories had been dismantled, left to rot as crumbling masonry wrecks, stripped of corrugated steel panels with gashes through the concrete where metal reinforcement had been forcibly removed. Nestling between the industrial carcasses, groups of men huddled around makeshift fires underneath sparse forests of homemade placards reading, “Bring Back our Jobs” and “Make it in Britain Again” scrawled in rain sodden poster paints. They were striking for jobs that no longer existed and picketing gates of factories which now lay abandoned. As the bus slowed at an intersection, Hao caught the eye of a protesting man staring with wild menace at the bus. As he noticed Hao, he seemed to explode. Grabbing his placard which read “British Jobs for British People” he charged at the bus as if intending to topple it with the strength of his fury. Instead he hammered at Hao’s window shouting “Fuck you!” and “Get out!” Hao slid away to the side and cowered further into his coat, as if the wooly fabric of his fleece would protect him. The man, now screaming with rage as others ran to join him, moved to the front of the bus rattling the concertina door that appeared as if it might give way with alarming ease. The driver crunched the gears as he gathered speed and, with a belch of acrid smoke from the exhaust, shook off the rioters who threw their wooden signs like spears at the rear of the bus.
Shaken, Hao relaxed slightly in his seat. He knew the animosity his race caused in this part of the city but had never confronted it so directly. Better to blame the foreigner than to contemplate the complexities of a world that had left them to starve in this gutted city district.
The character of this place was, however, not unfamiliar to Hao. His own city had been ravaged by the same forces on a much bigger scale. If only they could see true wastelands and those who had wept as whole cities failed as the rivers of wealth that sustained them dried up. Hao’s father didn’t stand and shout of unfairness when his factory gates were locked on him. Even here, amongst the abandoned warehouses there were, almost certainly, the remains of cardboard boxes with the logo of a rising sun stamped on them. His father’s plastic components formed the core of thousands of products. The handles of tooth brushes, casings for TV remote controls, the caps from children’s beakers and any number of objects which were ubiquitous and mostly unnoticed. Hao’s father liked to claim that everyone in the world owned at least one of the products he made. It was a boast, for sure, but not so distant from reality. The hatred of these men was misplaced; their enemy was a common one. Their enemy was also their neighbor.
Their enemy stood now, shocking, against the grey sky and rust of their surroundings, as mountains of pellets in electric dayglow colors. The undulating rainbow landscapes and pools of reflective liquid were like a child’s painting. Mounds of Plastico®, Silicite®, vats of Rubbergel® were being shoveled in heavily defended compounds by men and women in gleaming white suits. Once bagged, the raw materials would be dispatched to PMU vending machines and garage units throughout the city. These raw materials and the machines they fed had eradicated the ‘middleman’ of manufacturing. This was now a world of custom build. Hao feared the multicolored landscapes every bit as much as the protestors.
The man, who had introduced himself as Eric on his email, had arranged to meet Hao in a pub called The Locomotion. The building sat incongruously, a Victorian throwback surrounded by mountain ranges of glass and steel. The wealth of the city center seemed staggering to Hao. Meals which cost two credits in the data center cost the equivalent of 40 here. People carried real money as an affectation rather than a necessity and Hao began to wonder if he could earn more by picking up discarded change here than validating data packets. However, with every step he took Hao knew that, as if he had a hole in his pocket, currency was leaching out with city taxes charged on a per minute basis. He had calculated that as long as he stayed in the cheap parts of the city, away from the jewelry shops and antique boutiques, his credits would sustain him for a few hours. Anyway, such was the natural order that Hao fitted in better where he could afford.
Inside the pub, the antique interior continued the theme of the façade. There were nods to modernity with dated flat panel screens hanging in the dark recesses of the pub’s varnished interior. A forlorn drink vending machine sat next to the bar with an “Out of Order” sign hung round its neck. But, elsewhere, the tactility of history was evident in the polished brass pumps still squeezing brown un-synthesized liquids from their spouts and the twinkling slot machines with buttons that protruded, wheels that spun and fixed images, which were only animated by the bulbs flickering behind them. Hao fought the urge to try his luck. He missed the sound of falling coins and wanted to feel comfortable in this strange museum-like space.
“Are you Hao?”
The voice came from behind him and, as he turned, a bearded man took his hand and shook it with enthusiastic vigor.
“I’m so glad you could make it Hao. I’m Eric. Please sit with me. What can I get you? They have food here. I can buy some, I know you must be hungry.”
Eric continued to ramble as he took Hao to a drink stained corner table. The man, to Hao’s best guess, was in his early thirties but the beard made him look older. His clothes were also tatty. A striped jumper hung loosely, revealing a white T-shirt, frayed around the neckline. Hao imagined that he was meeting a businessman but he was more likely a student. What opportunity could he offer? Hao tried to mask his disappointment.
“Yes I would like some food. Things are so expensive here.”
Hao instinctively looked down to the table surface for a menu panel, but instead Eric gestured to a chalk board suspended above the bar. Hao surveyed the limited menu with its unimaginative combinations of meat and carbohydrates. He knew China Town was only a few roads away and wished they had arranged to meet there. He ordered with little enthusiasm.
“Hao, I don’t known know how much Ava has told you about my—our—organization?”
“Nothing really. Only that there might be a job opportunity.”
“Yes, well sort of. Her view was that you would be sympathetic to our cause. I believe we can offer something better than a job. We can offer you a future again.”
“You mean a career?”
“I mean a life.”
As Eric spoke he seemed to click into an automatic mode, face set to earnest and hands dialed to open handed trusting gesture. He’d practiced this speech.
“You see, Hao, you live amongst modern slaves. They call you Data Monkeys and Click Jockeys and you are tethered every bit as much as if you were in chains. You are better than that. Your humanity demands better treatment.”
There was a familiar ring to Eric’s speech. Hao cut in, “Are you one of the people who hand out leaflets at the data center?”
“I have done in the past…”
“Then I’m sorry there has been a misunderstanding. I don’t want to become a charity worker.”
“No, you misunderstand. I did use to protest and educate on behalf of you and your fellow co-workers and my aims are still the same, but now my methods are more sophisticated.”
Hao’s disappointment began to turn to despair. He’d wasted forty credits, more income than he’d seen in three years, to be threatened by thugs, lectured and condescended to. He longed for the safety of his terminal and the ch-ching of electronic coins to fill his account again. Eric continued regardless.
“You see, the system is a con. Your data center is just one big Mechanical Turk. It’s a collective human brain disguised as a mechanical system. Sure you are validating data sets annotated by machine algorithms but ask yourself, how often do they get it wrong? Without your validation and corrections, the data would be valueless. It would join the rest of the unconnected crap cluttering up the far reaches of the dark web. You add value but who gets the credit, literally. You know the servers in your building cost twice as much to run as you and all your colleagues get paid. We celebrate the algorithms as heroes of our modern connected age but they hide their real cost: You.”
If Eric was waiting for a sudden conversion to his cause he was going to be disappointed. This was not news. Hao knew and had thought it many times before. Of course he was exploited. His father had employed people as well and paid them as little as he could. The line workers who came in from the countryside were glad to have a job and, in return, were paid as much or as little as the market would bear. It was tough but servitude was, to Hao, an inevitability of economics. Contemplating the congealing stew, which had now been delivered to the table, Hao sighed, picked up a fork and replied. “I’m sorry that you and Ava have got the wrong impression about me. I just want to work to earn my living and be given an opportunity to use my skills. I have no interest in campaigning.”
Eric leaned back and, cocking his head, looked wistfully at Hao. He then reached down beneath the table and lifted a tablet computer, swiped on and handed over the screen. Glowing, iridescent in the dark corner of the bar is showed a logo of a rising sun.
“Why are you showing me this? How did you know?”
“Your father’s company and its collapse is public knowledge. That you are his son is public knowledge. It doesn’t take many googles to join things up. I feel for you. It must have been hard to be forced out of such a life of comfort and opportunity. Is this why you hide, a scared data monkey behind your terminal?”
Eric’s voice had taken on a new and more forceful tone. He was baiting. But, for the first time Hao started to feel comfortable. He understood the rhythms of negotiation.
“So what’s your point?”
Hao slid the screen back across the table over a smear of beer residue.
“My point Hao is that you might not feel the same about my cause but we do have a common…concern. Your father was put out of business by custom build and the rise of the PMU’s. No need to import your novelty Christmas decorations from China when you can print them out at home – right?”
Eric smiled but Hao remained impassive.
“The PMUs are just an extension of the data economy. Sure, they need raw materials to feed them but protestors have tried to hit those before. As soon as you close one depot another opens up. There are no complex supply chains to disrupt. One person’s Plastico is much like another. But the data, well, that’s where the value is. The patterns that are sold to the PMUs make all the money. For custom build you need patterns of assembly for many different parts that relate to one another. When you get those chains of assembly you get complex data structures and when you get complex data structures you get…”
He gestured towards Hao who already knew the end of the sentence. Hao had validated PMU data before. He dreaded receiving the packages. They rarely made sense to human eyes but were, rather, codes of obscure assembly protocols, seemingly random collections of letters and numbers. The job invariably involved checking schematics prepared by designers against lists generated by an algorithm. Piece DGH-476987SC matched up in a database with piece DGH-5665_E/f..Check Schematic…Validate. The jobs were interminable and badly paid each hit could take 10 seconds or more.
“So you want to shut down PMUs?”
“Eventually. But for now I want to draw attention to the plight of data workers by causing some trouble for PMUs and the companies which run them. What better way to highlight the invisible labor of the semantic web than showing how intimately connected data is to our material things.”
“Then what are you proposing?”
Eric reasoned that, although the data entering and leaving the center was secured the method of terminal allocation was not. A server was dedicated to randomly assign data packets across the network of centers. Each one would be delivered to two workers and their results would be self-checking. However, the assigning data could and had been hacked. With knowledge of the packets and their allocation schedule, you could intervene, allocating them to specific people.
“We already have an operative in the data center and now we want you.”
Eric tapped on his tablet and pushed it across the table again. His time the screen was covered with rows of letters and numbers.
“It might not look much Hao, but this is our version of a custom data assembly protocol. It has a few of our own modifications to make the printed results more interesting. If we can edit these instructions as part of the validation process and if both parties make the same edit, they will be validated and accepted. And then, well then the fun begins.”
Eric smiled with the juvenile grin of an eight year old about to play an April foosl prank but Hao was now intrigued. The thought of striking out against PMUs was a more tempting prospect.
“How will you do it?”
“Just like I’ve told you Hao. We arrange for you to receive the appropriate data packets and then let you and Ava make the modifications from instructions we will send.”
“No I mean, how will YOU do it? How will you hack the distributer, gather the manufacturing data and all the rest?”
“You don’t need to know that. It’ll all happen in the background.”
“But I want to know. If you want me to help then I have to know.”
“All right”. Eric looked around him and, with reluctance, set his tablet to draw. Scribbling boxes and arrows he described the multiple servers and their systems. While Hao was rusty on the details suddenly his undergrad lectures became vivid again as he interpreted the emerging diagram. Eric drew a recipe without the key ingredients but Hao began to understand, at least in parts. At the end Eric hit erase and the screen went blank.
“And what’s in it for me?”
“Aside from sweet revenge? Well, consider it a job interview. My organization needs people with spirit.”
Hao took a long moment and replied, “I get it. But I need to think about it.”
Hao pushed the remains of his stew away and got up. Eric also rose and extended his hand. “Don’t take too long Hao. The system is waiting.”
“How do you know I won’t tell someone about your plan?”
“Who are you going to tell Hao? Your terminal is your boss and trust me, it isn’t interested.”
“I can’t find my phone.”
“Well dial up another darling. We need to go soon”
Emily skipped down to the basement and tapped on the screen of the PMU with the dexterity that only an eight year old could muster. She was bored with the last phone anyway. Hello Kitty was soooo last year. She chose a standard Nok-tec body with camera voice activated auto twitter. But the case would be its crowning glory. Pink with extra glitter in a heart shaped clam shell, her name would be picked out in gold swirly writing on the back. Katie was going to be soooo jealous. PRINT!
The PMU kicked into life with a whoosh like a vacuum cleaner and the print heads began their work, zipping round the print chamber starting with the phone exoskeleton before moving on to the circuit boards.
An hour later, with a clatter and a ping, Emily’s phone lay in the collections tray, gleaming and still warm. She reached in, picked it up and let out a scream. The intended heart shaped case was, instead, a folded form of a giant spider wrapping round the phone’s screen in full anatomical detail and in ultra hi resolution. Emily dropped it and the phone dismembered itself. Legs and abdomen skidded across the basement floor.
“Pop open the bonnet for me sir.”
Dave wandered wearily to the front of the car and waved away the acidic steam bellowing from the engine compartment. The batteries were completely burned out.
“The connectors are fried,” Dave shouted back to the driver. “We’re going to have to tow you. I think you need a new engine block. You basically boiled the batteries.”
“But we got the connectors changed this morning. The garage printed them when the car was serviced.”
Dave wiped his oily brow and shook his head. He often dreamed of the days when cars didn’t have sealed units for engines. Occasionally, he’d been able to fix the old sort.
“You may as well have used tin foil. I’ll get the tow line.”
Dave walked to his truck. It had been a profitable morning. This was the fifth breakdown with exactly the same problem.
“Do I look okay?”
“Darling you look gorgeous. The paps are going to be all over you! You’ll be trending by midnight.”
Salina needed to get her entrance just right. The film was getting rave reviews and Oscar nods were being discussed. Best supporting actress would send her career into the stratosphere. Now she needed to concentrate on making it up the red carpet with elegance. She needed to own it! She was born to be a star.
The car pulled up and her dresser fiddled with the metallic scales of her dress. Each one had been inscribed with designs emailed to her dresser’s PMU by Selina’s adoring fans. Each flake was held to the garments understructure by a tiny hinge.
“Stop fussing. It’s fine. It’ll work” Selina pulled herself away and the limo door opened. As she stood, a breeze blew across her dress and a wave of sparking scales rippled in response. Flashes erupted from cameras throughout the crowd causing the dress to sparkle with fiery intensity. Emboldened, Selina spun allowing the scales to ride up and down in rhythmic waves. Another gust of wind caught her dress and suddenly Selina was surrounded by a sparkling cloud and then sparkling rain. As the scales fell to the ground Selina stood, exposed in little more than a course stringed vest. Images of her horrified face were already trending.
Hao had become addicted to his news feeds. In between, sometimes fourteen-hour days, he and Ava would give themselves the luxury of searching for the evidence of their mischief. With key words like ‘mechanical failure” “PMU disaster” a steady stream of news stories flowed. At first they were footnotes, the “and finally” stories in local news bulletins, but their influence grew. A moral panic broke out when a young boy in Knightsbridge printed a plastic water pistol but was instead given an inch perfect replica handgun. The mechanical failures caused even more concern. A spate of minor breakdowns caused PMUs to be banned from motor garages and PMU parts stopped being used in, what governments termed, critical devices. The PMU manufacturers constantly reminded the public of the safety of their products but, though the errors and failures were small, they were amplified by a media machine hungry for public outcry.
At the beginning Hao had waited after each data input, expecting the inevitable shut down. But Eric’s plan was working. While speculation was rife as to the cause of the PMU failures, enquires had concluded that the mechanical breakdowns were problems in the raw material and suspected warehouses were shut down. Others had suggested that the machines themselves were faulty. A gradual realization that the data was to blame, however, didn’t get them closer to an answer. Eric had raised a software smoke screen and Ava and Hao were safe behind it, for now.
Hao put down his tablet and looked over to Ava.
“What’s your exit strategy?”
Ava reclined in what little space the Hot Bed provided.
“What do you mean exit strategy?”
“We can’t carry on like this. It was you who told me that this life is unsustainable. It’s doubly so now.”
“I guess I’ll wait for instructions from Eric.”
Hao shifted, pressing his back against the wall of the bunk to give Ava more space. They had taken to sharing nighttime accommodation to save their meager daytime earnings. The intimacy of their earlier meeting had been replaced by a warm familiarity. Although they shared a bed, they hadn’t kissed again but Hao felt comfortable with the new arrangement. Their relationship was evolving at a more natural pace and they were swathed in their mutual conspiracy.
“I don’t trust Eric.”
“Eric’s one of the good guys.”
“He’s good for his cause but I don’t think he cares about us.”
Ava looked at Hao. Her face seemed impassive but there was a glance that Hao couldn’t quite work out. She looked down at her tablet and said, apparently distracted, “You having second thoughts?”
“No. I just wonder whether we shouldn’t plan a way out.”
“Have you got a plan, Hao?”
Hao thought for a moment.
“No, I guess not.”
“Get some sleep. Another long day tomorrow.’
Ava rolled over and pulled up her sheets. Hao looked at his emails one last time. They had brought better news recently. His father had boasted with joy that his factory building had been reopened with the return to manufacture. It was a different company and new management but it gave him hope. A sun was finally rising over the industrial district. Hao did have a plan of course. He was, after all, a pragmatist. But he wanted to keep this plan as a surprise. Ava had rescued him and how he wanted the chance to rescue her. Hao opened an email with an embedded flow chart like the one Eric had shown him months before. Underneath it read: “The investors are happy.” He hit reply and then one word into the text box. “Yes.” SEND.
Hao woke at 6am and immediately started to dress. Ava rolled lazily to the side.
“Give me another half hour, Hao. I’ll cover the credits.”
Hao climbed out of the bunk and moved quickly through the crowd in an effort to get to breakfast early. He now acted with a newly found military discipline, calculating his day in terms of credits. He knew breakfast time would be relatively quiet, perhaps five minutes less queuing and the meal would set him up so that he could skip lunch. Hao filled up on pastries and toast, slices of which he secreted in his pockets to consume as his sugar levels crashed. He was at his terminal by ten past six and, with Eric’s data packet waiting for him, he started his day.
By 3 p.m. Hao was lost in the flow of work. The need to annotate and change every data field in the incoming packets meant that earnings were small but every clink of a dropping coin gave Hao a double award. The old peak of adrenalin had been joined by an additional thrill as each new packet sent disrupted the world a little more, and gave Hao a feeling of growing power. It was intoxicating, and enabled Hao to work with a focus he had rarely achieved before.
Then, without warning, the screens cut out. No boot down screen or error message, just a flat power cut to both his terminals. As Hao regained focus on the world outside his screen, a glance toward his neighbors confirmed that only his terminal was affected. He looked down at Ava’s terminal but it was empty. Suddenly Hao felt a dizzying vertigo. He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff. He was free. He would never validate another data packet. It was over. Hao could leave with his head held high, satisfied that he had chosen the manner of his exit. But had he? Hao’s departure was hasty. He rushed through the halls of the data center in a desperate search for Ava but found only empty spaces. It didn’t feel right. Every corner now held menace. How long before a human operator found him out. How long before the data logs were checked and his guilt revealed. He had imagined walking free out of the data center with Ava on his arm into a crisp bright world. Instead, he hurried to the bus in the rain. Only one more place to try.
Hao walked past the rippling lights of the slot machines, past the bar with its prehistoric pumps and past the out of order vending machine to the dark corner where he had sat months before. Eric and Ava sat across from a boy with the grey pallor of terminal tan and who wore a faded T-shirt. A large rucksack propped against the table. Ava sat close to Eric, her body was angled toward him and her face carried an expression that told Hao all he needed to know. She listened with admiration as Eric’s earnest and openhanded gesticulations accompanied a speech that Hao had heard before. Looking up, Eric spotted Hao and immediately stood, affecting a welcoming grin but quickly walking to Hao, blocking him from the new recruit.
“Hao it’s great to see you but this is not the best time.”
“So I see.”
“Yes. But we must chat soon. You have done great things for us Hao. Much better than we had expected.”
“Then why have you abandoned me?”
The question was directed at Eric but meant for Ava, who slunk back further into the corner, her eyes darting back and forth between Eric and Hao.
“Don’t be like this Hao. This should be a celebration. You’re a hero.”
“You mean a martyr. You stopped the protection today. My data packets went to someone else and invalidated my edits. You wanted me to get caught. It’s only a matter of time before someone looks at the system results and sees the nature of my irregular transactions. They might be hunting me now.”
“Your efforts were too successful Hao. I couldn’t maintain the façade any more. It had to end.”
Hao gestured to two flight cases bundled in the corner behind Ava.
“After we’ve finished here, Ava and I will have to go away for a while. We can be more effective remotely. I’d have liked to offer you more but we will protest on your behalf. Or perhaps I can offer you something to help.” Eric reached for his wallet.
Hao tired of the conversation and instead turned to approach Ava, brushing Eric aside as he walked to the table. He wanted to plead with her. To make her see sense. He wanted to follow the script he had been preparing for weeks. He wanted to see astonishment turn to joy. He wanted to embrace her and then run free to the new life he had so carefully constructed. But that chance was gone now. Instead he reached into his pocket and drew out a business card. The white plastic was inlayed with gold in the image of a rising sun. It was an expensive print but Hao could afford it. He handed the card to Ava.
“Has your father started his business again? I guess there are more manufacturing opportunities now.”
Ava said whilst trying to affect a smile.
“No. You told me that the only growth industry is data. The logo and the company name is a sentimental throw back to the old world. I deal in data now. There was a loophole in the system you see. Someone was bound to exploit it but now the opportunity is closed. My friends and I are first to market with a more secure system and investors have been very generous. I will join them now to set up the first of our China data centers.”
Ava read the card “Ri Sheng: Securing the semantic web, together”
Ava made a noise which may have been an attempt at apology or perhaps an expression of shock but Hao didn’t give her the chance. Instead he said in a wavering voice, “If you will excuse me, I need to catch a flight.”
With that Hao turned, forcing himself not to look back again. As he left, a slot machine began to jingle and someone exclaimed with a whoop as the machine flashed WIN. Hao felt the reflex pulse of adrenalin as the noise of dropping coins rang in his hollow victory.