Category Archives: Story mode activate

Small misadventures in big data

The project was a complete failure. There was no other way to put it. No euphemisms, no learning from our mistakes, no vague gestures towards it all being an iterative process where it all happens incrementally, one less bad version at a time. After this, there would be no next version. It was done, over, no more

The initial aim was to use big data to copy people. By scraping everything that could be scraped about someone from databases, social media and everywhere else an algorithm could get a foothold, a sufficiently informed replica of an individual could be created that in all ways that mattered were that person, down to whether they had dandruff or not. Everything that could be known went into this doppelganger, and out came a copy so indistinguishable as to be identical

However

The process could not copy the small flaws that made up a person, the minute hesitations, the second-guesses, the imperceptible reroutings of thought processes through childhood memories that characterize a mind that has been around for a while. They got everything right, and thus, they got it all wrong

Nowhere could this be seen more clearly than in the cases when someone chose to have themselves doppelgängered. For whatever reason, they were too busy to be everywhere they needed to be, so they built a copy of themselves to keep up. However, these copies turned out to be better at being themselves than they were, and soon it all became a game of catching up with one’s better half just to stay in the game. Moreover, it happened at times that when someone figured out the person in front of them were the original rather than the copy, their barely disguised looks of disappointment could positively destroy those of a sensitive disposition

And thus it came to pass that no one copied this project. It was, once and for all, over

Beneath the streets

The spaces beneath the streets hold many mysteries. One popular theory posits that a beach hides there, regardless of the distance to any body of water it would be a beach to. Just a decoupled, freestanding beach, free to use by anyone who needed such an amenity at the moment of discovery. A rare thing indeed in these landlocked times

Alas, no one has found it yet, but the rumors abound

A slightly more resounded spot is the place where all lost earphones and earbuds end up. The mechanism for them ending up here, specifically, regardless of where they happen to get lost, is not altogether clear. What is clear, however, is the sound they emit in concert. Individually, each lost speaker can contribute only a soft, faint hiss, present only at the edge of one’s hearing, but together they emit the most profound and riveting sound. Every tiny detail of a song is expressed in crystal clarity, such that audiophiles have broken down crying over the limitations of human ears when faced with such aural perfection

It is a very popular spot among ravers

Inverse pyramid schemes

His specialty was failing. He had taken failing to a new level and made it into an art form. There was no task, no activity, no project so simple that he could not, in a manner as spectacular as it was convoluted, botch so completely as to beggar belief. In short, if you needed something to go wrong, he was your man

One time, he had been tasked with stealthily moving a modestly sized package from one end of the city to another. A simple task, just move it from one place to another without attracting undue attention. Like posting a letter, but with less confusion about how much a stamp costs these days. Needless to say, he failed at this, and summarily invited to attend a high-profile dinner with a visiting princess from a nearby kingdom. While this is considered a success by many metrics, it was everything but stealthy, and the package remained undelivered for a long time after this very public occasion

The key to understanding his art of failure is that he always fails at the task he sets out to do. This could be tweaked to suit the needs of those who employed his services. The key was to phrase the task in such a way that the outcome of him failing was positive when all was said and done. And, most importantly, it didn’t work if he knew he was supposed to fail; invariably, he would fail at failing, thus succeeding in a spectacular manner never before seen, thus invalidating the whole thing

Being an unfortunately intelligent soul, he soon caught on to this, meaning that the contractual terms had to add yet another layer of specific safeguards to ward off the possibility of accidental success. Double, triple or even quadruple negations were not uncommon, to the point where even analytic philosophers had trouble keeping up with what the conditions for success were. Over time, it became its own specialized vocabulary of gently drawing one’s attention this way and that without ever clearly spelling out what was to be done, but fully trusting that it could and would be done. Despite these contractual complications, he remained highly sought after, and often found at the site of very remarkable confluences of events that probably should not have happened but happened anyway

Needless to say, we did not invite him to our social functions

Antediluvian atavisms

A thought occurred to me as I left the Imperial Archive. I have been told this is a common occurrence upon leaving these vaunted halls. It has something to do with how the brain ambiently processes information, ever scanning its surroundings for threats, obstacles or opportunities. Entering a new room triggers this mechanism, given all the new information it suddenly has to process. The Imperial Plaza provided the opposite of new information, which was a very distinct quality of informational input. No one knew why the Ancients had chosen to place the Archives in the middle of a vast expanse of finely crafted yet uniformly flat stonework, or why the subsequent generations and iterations of Ancients had chosen to keep it that way, yet there it was, utterly obliterating any previous line of thought to give rise to a completely new line of flight:

If truth is contextual and prone to vary as the needs, priorities and wishes of those who happen to inhabit said contexts change, what hope is there of an eternally valid archive? What manner of preservation could hope to stand the test of time? When the barbarians were at the gate, what manner of argument swayed their course to loot some other building? Why had the Imperial Archive survived and been able to continue its archival function, while the empires it nominally served came and went according to the savageries of entropy? What use could the archived material be if it was transcribed according to priorities foreign to those of the contemporary residents?

Perhaps – and this is the thought that occurred to me – the answer is to be sought in the very plaza that so confuses and surrounds the Archive. Trying to take the Archive itself would be a tactical nightmare, moving too many troops over the vast expanse of flat terrain. With a minimum of preparation, any current empire could turn the Plaza into a kill zone, a no man’s land where angels fear to tread. A weaponization of the negation of information. Even if the Archive were somehow successfully occupied, there would be nowhere to go; it did not connect to anything, and to get back to the battle any invading army would have to cross the same featureless terrain again. With no material gain to be had through conquest, the building was left alone.

And so, when the barbarians had battered down the gates and made their bids to imperial power, what they tended to find out was that they needed someone to administrate their newfound empire. Moreover, they needed someone to train these administrators. Seeing as there was an institution right there which would be willing to do just that, no strings attached, most barbarians opted to include the Archive in their newfangled imperial ambition, thus ensuring the continuation of the Imperial prefix.

These musings did not answer the question of how to keep knowledge relevant over generations, but it did shed light on how to go about sustaining the attempt. Perhaps this, too, was a clue in its own way. The first step in creating an Eternal Archive was to create a surviving archive; the rest could be figured out with the time given.

Losing the plot

The advent of quantum computing really threw the wrench into cryptography. By making computational speed an arbitrary function of coding, of basically figuring out how fast these things could be made to go, any given implemented protocol would soon find itself outpaced by a more recently implemented hack. Secrecy became a function of frequent updates, which ultimately came down to how fast you could make your coders work. These same coders had, through some miracle of actually existing communications technology, unionized and gotten something asymptotically approaching decent working conditions. The genie would never again go into that bottleneck, and thus other avenues than mere mathematics had to be explored

The key realization came when a digital humanities scholar made an off-hand remark that fiction could contain a nearly arbitrary amount of information, if written intertextually enough. Fan fiction, in particular, excelled in constructing densely connected webs of references, countersigns and internal winks that would utterly nonplus those uninitiated, but be completely apparent to those in the know. The key to keeping something a secret, then, would be to hide it in plain sight in such a way that it was functionally illegible to society at large, and even more so by incorporating false narrative leads familiar to those wanting to figure out what was what. At last, the cryptographic arms race could finally continue apace

A whodunnit written for analytic philosophers

The butler did it

In the beginning was the Bird

One day, new birds started appearing. Most folks, not attuned to the comings and goings of birds, did not notice, but it did not take long until birdwatchers and ornithologists were on the case. A new bird was a big deal – for birdwatchers, to be able to say that they did indeed saw them; for ornithologists, whole conferences could be arranged based on confirmed sightings of new species in territories where they previously were not. Conferences meant funding, publicity and publications, all good things. Thus, the appearance of a whole host of new species of birds was a Big Deal, worthy of extensive note

Soon, it was discovered that these new birds were not related to the birds we all know and love, and that they probably were not descended from dinosaurs either. Scientists were baffled, and rightly so. The new birds came in all shapes and sizes, big, small, loud, sneaky – whatever your thoughts about birds are, there was one of those. They were, in a word, many

Little did the baffled scientific community know that there is only one rule in this world, one organizing principle from which everything else follows:

The amount of bird in the world is constant

Corporate autonomy

Life as a business owner was not as she had thought it would be. Instead of the big leap into freedom promised by starry-eyed entrepreneurs, it mostly seemed to be mindless minutiae in endless, exhaustive detail. After realizing that there had to be a web page and that it had to have a graphical design, she almost snapped. What saved her was the realization that she could just pay someone to do it for her

Then, she got it. The idea that would make her rich

For every mindless task that needed to be done, she found someone to do it for her. Not in the role of a full-time employee, but rather as a microtransactioned independent contractor. The web page? Outsourced. The logo? Outsourced. Accounting? You betcha it was outsourced

Soon, she found herself in a position of having nothing to do. The whole thing ran itself, no input needed. Months passed by, and the business seemed to be making money somehow. She was not quite sure what it did, but as the money kept coming, she did not quite manage to muster enough energy to care

Then, she started another business. And another. And another. Before long, she had a dozen businesses minding themselves, running wholly on outsourced microtransactions

Truly, the autonomous market is a glorious thing

Proactive self-expression

He took a lot of selfies. Like, a lot. If called upon, it is very likely his selfies alone could constitute a substantial part of the empirical material of an ethnographic study regarding contemporary culture (for any given definition of contemporary between now and the invention of selfies). It is safe to say that in his case, quantity took on a quality on its own

Then, he disappeared

More accurately, his wish came true. He finally, after much meditation and unrelenting application of chaos magic, managed to become a selfie

This is not to say that he became a picture. Rather, he relocated into the picture frame (be it analog or digital), choosing which of his many selfies to display at any given moment. Thus, he could move from room to room, talking – in his own way – to anyone observant enough to notice his presence. Very attentive observers eventually noted that some selfies seemed to be taken after his disappearance – a curious state of affairs, never explained

Graduation day

“It says 25. It should say 20”

The thought loomed. All attempts at distraction failed, turning into unwarranted meditations on how to make the number go down. Eventually, he simply resigned himself to the obsession and set to work

And work he did. He threw everything he had at it – algorithms, libraries, undocumented backhacks, brute forcing it through third party software just to see what happens, triple-booting virtual machines, leaving the tap water running in the kitchen sink. Still, the number remained at a steady 25, utterly unphased by all this creative destruction and unrelenting tomfoolery

But then

One night, he awoke, bolted upright, and walked straight to the computer. Nary a word was uttered in his internal monologue, just a vague but strong intuition that this one particular thing might actually work. He booted up one program, then another, then another, then had them ping-pong each other until

24

23

22

21

20

Finally

In his excitement, he forgot everything about having severe phone phobia and called someone to tell about what had happened. Not being well versed in phone etiquette, he began the call thusly:

“It says 20”

“My friend” the voice on the other end said, “you get it now. Congratulations”