Here’s something I don’t often do: put a free story up on this blog. But. Hey. Economic meltdown. Elections. Topicality. Too late to shop it. So, here you go . . .
1337 in 2012
By Jason Stoddard
“I want to know how she did it,” Alexandra Jetter said, almost pushing Gary McCabe down the narrow hallway with her refilled-from-the-lunchroom-for-a-week grande Starbucks. Not a single thank-you for calling him in at midnight.
“Doing it wasn’t hard,” Gary told her.
Alexandra snapped around to look at him, baring yellow teeth. “You didn’t vote for her, did you?”
“Of course not.” Though it had been really, really hard to vote for their pet candidate who promised the Bureau more funding, more growth, good times for everyone again, go back to buying Starbucks every day, hallelujah.
“Then how’d she do it?”
“She ran it like a campaign.”
“Of course it’s a campaign!”
“Not that kind of campaign.“
A snort. “She rigged it.”
Gary just shrugged.
And then they were at the door to their holding room. The Portland FBI office was tiny. Alexandra looked angrily from the door to Gary and back again, then sighed and swiped her card to buzz them in.
“We took her phone and headset,” Alexandra said, as she walked into the room.
Gary said nothing. On the other side of a scarred wooden desk sat Susan Acker, the woman who had stolen the election. Random facts rattled through Gary’s brain. In the two weeks before the election, she had been unavoidable. YouTube. Blip. VuDu. MySpace. QQ. Gbook. Gvirt. Thirty-nine. Sold her first ecommerce company in the web 1.0 days, then sold a social network to Google five years ago. Blonde. Slim. Pretty in a knife-edged way. She wore a comfortable-looking gray embroidered blouse with a red “1337 in ’12” on it, against a QR-code background in blue and white, and jeans that were blown out at the knees. She looked up at him with ice-blue eyes and the edges of her mouth quirked, just once, almost a grin.
“Ms. Acker, I am Alexandra Jetter. This is Gary Mc—“
“Am I being charged with something?”
Alexandra frowned. “That remains to be seen.”
Susan rolled her eyes. “How theatrical.”
“We have questions for you.”
“Not without my lawyer.”
Alexandra laughed, a terrible laugh, mechanical, like a robot from the dollar store.
You know we don’t need that anymore, Gary thought.
But Susan just sat there, bored, like someone waiting in line for a soup kitchen. Which didn’t make any sense at all. Unless–
“Give me your pendant,” Gary said.
For the first time, Susan looked directly at him. She grinned, then handed him her little crystal bauble.
“What’s that?” Alexandra said.
“Hookup. Geolocator. Tells your friends where you are.” Gary used his phone to sniff the wireless spectra. “Seems inactive, though. She’s not transmitting anything.” Still. He pulled the little battery off of it.
“You’re the tech guy,” Susan said.
“Did you vote for me?”
Gary said nothing.
“Let me guess,” Susan said. “Not enough cred to be leet. Didn’t work the crowdsourced nodes. Dropped into this job because you couldn’t make it in industry, let alone start your own gig.”
Gary struggled to keep his face neutral. Yes. Yes. And then you end up working for the FBI, who don’t care about your backtrail on the crowdsourcing networks, your coding contest wins, the magnitude of your profile on the social networks. And then watch your circle of friends nod, get strange looks in their eyes, and drift away as fast as politeness let them. And try not to get lost in the new rah-rah-americah circle you find yourself in.
Gary’s phone rattled against his thigh. He had set his personal agent to alert him if anything significant happened with Susan Acker-related tags. He fished it out of his pocket and squinted at the display. The network talking heads were still yelling about the election upset, their big infographic maps all gray instead of neat blue and red. The electoral college was still refusing to cast their votes for Susan Acker. The House looked to have over three hundred new names, all unknown, all from the 1337 party. The Senate, with only 33 seats up, looked to lose 28 of them to the 1337s as well. The clock flashed 1:18AM. Less than 12 hours since the bizarre election results started to flood.
And the new news: eBay auctions had been started for cabinet seats, and the new US Legal Wiki had gone online. Just as Susan had promised during the campaign.
“What is it?” Alexandra asked.
Gary showed her the phonescreen. She squinted at it for a few moments, then shook her head. “She’s started the cabinet seat auctions.”
Susan smiled. “I promised to put my changes into effect as soon as possible,” she said.
“You aren’t really going to sell the cabinet seats, are you?” Gary said.
“Why not? That’s what has happened at every election since, oh, well, probably the beginning of time. At least my bidders have to maintain at least 98% positive feedback for 1000 or more transactions. And then they have to keep their Gbook comments at 90% positive or neutral ongoing.”
“You really think that will work?” Gary said.
Her eyes slit. “Do you have a better idea?”
Gary said nothing. Not enough cred to be leet.
A snort. “That’s what I thought. You might as well let me go. It’s a sweep. They’re projecting 56% of the popular vote, and 43 of 50 states.”
“You rigged it,” Alexandra said.
“Not at all. It’s just time for a change. Government 2.0.”
“eBay isn’t exactly a 2.0 thing,” Gary said.
And, for the first time, Susan stopped a beat, and frowned. “That doesn’t matter.”
Gary fought a grin. Of course. Of course. Once a geek. Always a geek. They didn’t like to be challenged. They didn’t like to hear that their grand ideas might have holes in them.
“Even if we let you go, it wouldn’t work,” Gary said.
“What–“ Alexandra began, but Susan cut her off.
“What do you mean?” she sat up straight in her seat, for the first time actually angry.
“I mean, come on. Nobody can maintain a 90% neutral or positive on Gbook, once they get flooded with kinda-friends and not-friends. And what are they gonna do? Not friend them? Then their friends hear about it and go negative. It’s a no-win.”
“So I change the metrics.”
“And change one of the foundations of your campaign?”
“We wrote that into the terms of service!”
“Who reads those?” Gary asked.
Susan shook her head, her eyes shut, frowning. Gary kept on. “It was all kinda silly, wasn’t it? Legal wikis open to the public, so they can edit out duplicate laws, and the Supreme Court trials being ad-sponsored–”
“–hey, you know how much money CourtTV still makes?” Susan interjected.
“The House and Senate turned into a reality channel on YouTube, where the public can vote them out of their offices–“
“–no different than what we have now–“
“Digg as a feedback system for your campaign platform, and an online calculator where people can see the effects of the new programs on their actual paycheck–“
“—and can contribute if it takes us over budget, that was a neat PayPal tie-in, don’t forget that,” Susan said, her lips tight-set.
“But where is the money going to come from? With the Second Depression–“
Susan stood up suddenly, knocking over her chair. “And this is my fault how? This is your fault! This is the whole old system’s fault! We’ve let you run the place for, what, two hundred years, and we end up with a country owned by China, grabbing used Starbucks cups to feel better? What’s sillier, running the United States based on shit that was made up 200 years ago, or trying something new?”
“Did you rig the election?” Alexandra asked.
“No! No! No!” Susan put a hand to her brow and turned around. “People want change. It’s that simple.”
Alexandra shook her head. Her eyes settled on Gary. “You. You said it wasn’t surprising.”
Gary sighed. Alexandra knew nothing about technology. She was one of the last few who had had a choice. Late 40s, early 50s, he imagined her angrily pecking at her pristine keyboard with two fingers, cursing old-style spam. How could he explain? As soon as he’d seen the 1337 party’s campaign, he’d thought to himself, This is good. Really good. Someone’s finally using all that information that’s out there. Finally. And when the confused announcers started showing up online and on the remnants of the networks, talking about errors in the vote and an upset in the polls, he’d known exactly what had happened.
“What social networks are you on?” Gary asked Alexandra, taking out his phone. He set it looking for info on her.
“I have a MySpace.”
“And what did you put on it?”
“Just some photos,” she said.
Gary looked at the display. It showed Alexandra’s MySpace, with photos of her three kids, an ancient AOL profile, a rant against her ex-husband and a long trail of threads in a cruiseline’s forum. His ConText software knit it together into a synthetic profile of her life, complete from marriage dates to likes and dislikes. Gary turned it to her and waited for her eyes to focus.
“So if a candidate promised you a free cruise with your two tween kids, you might be more favorably disposed towards them?”
“Where’d you get this?”
“Or if that candidate showed up as a cruise-ship captain, who also had three children, would you be more likely to vote for them?”
Alexandra’s mouth hung open. “She rigged it like that?”
Gary sighed. It got tiresome, so damn tiresome. Alexandra wasn’t a terribly dumb person, she just refused to understand anything with technology in it. Even when the penalties for falling behind got greater and greater every year, she could barely use a desktop when handsets were the standard and eyesets were coming on strong.
And there’s no way to explain what Susan had done in simple language, he realized. It took deep understanding of how things worked. It took realizing that the old days were well and truly over, that YouTube was bigger than all the world’s television networks put together, that data-scraping and psychographic targeting were just things that everyone did, that there were millions of chatterbots smart enough to fool most of the US population into thinking they were human, and that the ongoing grind of the depression had honed and sharpened advertisers targeting techniques to razor-sharp levels. This was the new system, this was how it was done.
It’s actually amazing that it took this long for someone to figure out how to use the system, he thought.
“It isn’t rigging to use publicly-available information to target messages specifically to your audience,” Gary said. “In fact, that’s the basis of every modern advertising campaign. Susan ran this like a modern short-spike net campaign centered around an alternate reality game, as did all the leet candidates. They waited until a month before to submit their candidacy, they did highly targeted social activation programs on a short timeframe so people wouldn’t be bored, and they offered a helluva prize for the win: control of the United States government. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the voters really thought this was a game.”
Susan smiled and nodded in grudging respect. “Very good, tech guy.”
Alexandra shook her head. “So she did rig it?”
“She ran a very unorthodox campaign, but she didn’t rig the election. She just told people what they wanted to hear.”
Susan’s smile grew wider. “In other words, no different than any campaign in history.”
“It’ll never work!” Alexandra said. “We’ll re-run the election with paper ballots.”
“You don’t think we factored that in, too?” Susan said.
“We can just . . . make you disappear!” Alexandra’s face was twisted in hate and rage.
“You can’t do anything,” Susan said. “You’re just functionaries, set to babysit me until your lazy bosses get out of bed at ten. I know how government works. Waste, laziness, waste, and more laziness. That will change.”
Alexandra shrieked, pulled her little 9mm out of her shoulder holster, and pointed it at Susan.
Silence in the room. After some time, Susan shook her head. “Do you really think you can do that?”
“It’s not like we’re going to post it on the internet!” Alexandra screamed.
“If there’s video, it will be found,” Susan said. “If there isn’t, they’ll reconstruct it in virtuality.”
“Either way, she’ll be a martyr.” Gary’s heart pounded enough to blur his vision.
Alexandra turned to snap at him. “Thanks, Gary! Thanks for that upbeat thought!”
Gary said nothing for a long time. Finally, softly, in a voice that didn’t even sound like his own, he said,“Don’t do it. Think of your kids.”
Alexandra grimaced and turned away from Susan, dropping her gun towards the floor. She sobbed, quickly, twice, and put the gun back in her shoulder holster. “What do we do?” she asked. “What do we do?”
“We wait until morning, when your bosses show up,” Susan said. “You can let me go then. Or maybe a little sooner.”
Susan shook her head, but said nothing.
“What do we do now?” Alexandra asked again.
Gary shrugged. Probably nothing, he thought. Probably just like she said. Wait until the bosses show up–probably earlier than later now–and then release her. And then they’d try to discredit every 1337 candidate they could, from Susan to Kevin Rose, the new Governor of California, and the ones they couldn’t discredit they’d try to tie up in court, and rerun the election, this time with paper ballots, and they’d hem and haw like they always did, and nothing would get done . . .
Gary’s phone buzzed again, causing him to almost drop the thing. What it showed on the screen came directly from Google Maps. He looked at it for a while, thumbed through different cities, and laughed.
“What’s going on?” Alexandra said. “What now?”
Gary just laughed. Susan grinned at him, as if they were sharing a secret.
“They factored this in, too,” he said, showing the real-time traffic of cars streaming into Portland, converging on the FBI office. In many other cities, the same thing was happening. Early news footage showed protesters holding 1337 in ’12 signs, yelling for the release of Susan Acker.
And in that moment, Gary saw it. This was really a revolution. This was a fundamental change. It hadn’t taken rewriting the Constitution, it hadn’t taken a single weapon. It just took knowing the system.
Everything would change, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
“What the hell do we do?” Alexandra said.
“We let her go.”
“We? We can’t do anything!”
“You know what I mean,” Gary said, waving his phone. “We can’t stand against this.”
“Yes we can! We can!”
Gary shook his head. Everything was so clear now. His mind thrummed along, singing crystal. “No. We can’t. It’s going to change. From now on, we’re a leet nation, whether we like it or not.”
“Thinking of joining us?” Susan said. Her eyes searched him up and down, as if waiting for an eyeset to scan his face and spit up data. But it didn’t. She wore no eyeset; she didn’t even know his full name. Gary smiled at her, and her grin flickered uncertainly. He liked that.
“I resign,” he told Alexandra. He put his ID on the table and turned towards the door.
“You can’t do that!” she screamed, putting herself between him and the door.
“It’s still a somewhat free country.”
“And it will be freer soon,” Susan said. “You’re joining the right team.”
Gary pushed past Alexandra and put his hand on the door.
“No!” She wailed. “Don’t do this!”
“You know it’s the right thing to do,” Susan said.
Gary paused for a moment. His heart still hammered, but his mind still raced in a way it never had before. He didn’t know what he was going to do tomorrow. The next day he might be in the soup lines, or working a rich guy’s organic farm, or heading off to Canada or China.
Or he could finally pick himself up, use his own code skills, and do something. Maybe in a small way. Or maybe not.
He looked back over his shoulder at Susan. “Do you know what you’ve won?” he asked.
And it was Susan’s turn to blink and look confused. He liked that, too.
“You’ve proven the new rule is how well someone can use the system,” he said. “But now the rule is out. How long will it take another leet haxor to do the same thing? Will they wait until 2016?”
Susan’s grin disappeared.
“Will they let you get in office at all?”
Her eyes, wide.
“And who’s going to come up next? You’re not super-high profile. What kid is going to come out of nowhere and knock you down? What kid is gonna invent a new system, one you’re not on top of?”
“But . . . we need to change.” Susan’s voice was very small.
Gary turned back to the door. He thought of saying, Yes, of course, I agree, that’s why I’m not working here anymore. He thought of saying Yes, of course, I agree, but this isn’t a meritocracy, it never will be one, it can’t be a utopia, and I can’t imagine anything that isn’t a popularity contest in the end.
But he just opened the door, and stepped out into the new world.
October 7th, 2008 / 1,289 Comments »