They used to call it a spring cleaning for a reason. The moment the snow melted, you would turn the house upside down – Rumbas in full swing, air purifiers, all devices reset and caches cleaned. We still do it today, even though our seasons have merged into one. Usually, we start whenever PM2.5 drops below 150, which rarely is more often than once a year.
Last time, I took a stab at the attic. Dusty shelves, stuffed animals, antiquities – frankly stuff better suited for the Museum of Anthropocene, rather than a modern housing unit. Down in the corner sits a small container with my grandfather’s belongings.
I never had an interest in these things: his CS diplomas, Google ID (employee #12), fishing gear, but now this – and few other childhood memories that they let us keep – is all that’s left after he vanished.
But this time, there are newspaper clippings I hadn’t seen before – probably from his time in the resistance (“Data Centre’s Arsonists Digital Identity Revoked”; “New Contractor Found for Project Raven”). It’s a rather weird sensation to hold a broadsheet after so long. These would be perfect for my daughter’s history class next week. It’s doubtful I’ll find other paper products around here anymore.
World affairs, Opinions, Markets… There is a variety I am not accustomed too. And the obituaries and eulogies, you don’t see them nowadays – not many people can afford to die.
One of them in particular captures my attention. “It is with deep sorrow that we announce the passing of our beloved son, Web. Aged 28, he left this planet in the early morning hours last Wednesday. Born of our unequivocal love and hope, he meant the world to us.
“However, Web was not an easy child. As the years went by we became estranged, for the reasons we would rather not discuss. Web is survived by his younger sister. Instead of a memorial service, we will share, below, three messages from those who knew Web well. Overwhelmed with grief, Pioneers.”
“Weird,” I mumbled aloud before flicking over the page, eager to read more. Adjusting my eyes in the dimly lit room, I read on:
“According to a preliminary medical report, the immediate cause of death was a cardiac arrest triggered by the immune reaction of the planetary system. This untimely demise follows our patient’s long and troublesome illness that was kept secret for so many years. Initial symptoms included confusion and an inability to think with clarity about objective reality, followed by increasingly antisocial behaviour and a grandiose sense of self worth.
“The patient deteriorated heavily towards the end, maximising abusive control of his surroundings and developing a complete disregard for the consequences of his actions. That being said, the patient does not bear the blame alone. None of us wanted to acknowledge his sickness because his real condition would not reflect on us favourably. We continued to lie to ourselves that greed is market logic, that resources are infinite, that features are just bugs. How naive we were – to hope that if we adjusted a little so would he – the ethics, the skills, the codes of conduct. Truth be told, minor remedies never solve major problems. For all of this, please accept our apologies.”
“Today we are bidding farewell to one of the greatest. No words will express our gratitude for his services to The Cause. On behalf of all of us – backbones, data centers, routers and protocols – thank you, sir. You mobilised us and convinced that together we are invincible. You protected us in critical times – making us a matter of national security, an indispensable part of every human interaction, an invisible necessity, an open secret. We would sneak in every house, virtually unnoticed, gradually becoming a part of a landscape, finally merging with our subjects.
“You took care of us and fed us well. And we grew, oh how we grew! And you were a man of vision. Mindful that current measures wouldn’t suffice, you invented novel food chains. Meta, biometric, genetic – they came in so many flavours! And to think that some of us are still called “servers” -–oh the irony. Long live The Cause!”
“You lied to me Web, you lied to all of us. I remember you growing up – cool older brother, overachiever, chaotic neutral. We were all very impressed. You would come back home from your tournees that entangled more and more distant parts of the globe: one laptop per child, Arab Spring, 5G. The returning hero. Clearly, we didn’t know what you meant by “pop-ups”, “microtargeting” or “pay-per-clicks”, but your enthusiasm was enough. Who were we to question your intentions?
But then you would stop coming, and every so often we would hear the news -–of surveillance, of hidden labour, of externalized costs… God knows what else.
Your arrogance lost you. The annoying confidence that every problem is a computational one, that unless something serves your purpose it is just “noise”. The promises of clouds, webs, and waves versus the realities of a weaponised climate and neural nudging – those annoying behavioural cues that you would hear while thinking.
How many times have I warned you that control cannot substitute trust, that uncertainties cannot be predicted? But you wouldn’t listen and now it has come to this. We are forced to clean up the mess you created. We must end the war on cognition, dismantle your little empire and put the puzzle pieces back together. We must ask “why” more than “how”. We will listen to what our “noise” tells us is the right thing to do.
I lift my head to find three Rumbas sitting quietly and silently blinking at me with their pale red lights. They clearly need to be recharged. I stand up, slightly perplexed. It’s probably best if these clippings stay in the container.