Write Stories

Joshua Zieve

Freedom To vs. Freedom From

“Put a rock in there, it’ll be more impactful if you hit your target.”

Billy reaches for a small stone and packs snow tightly around it. After rotating and cupping the snow in his hands, he throws the perfectly spherical snowball.

“Damn, another miss. Those fucking things move so fast.”

“Try again,” I demand as he reaches down for another.

“And fucking hurry!” Danny adds.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if we just took it off their doorstep?” Billy asks as he leisurely packs another snowball around a stone.

“You’re taking too long,” I bark as I reach down and pack a snowball myself. Looking up from our perch on the stairs up to the bridge, I take aim and throw the snowball as hard as I can at the drone.

Hit.

The snowball catches one of the propellers and knocks the drone sideways. It makes several attempts to compensate and rebalance but ultimately begins a free fall.

“It looks like it’s falling near Chestnut and 3rd! Let’s fucking go!” Danny orders.

“Go! Go! Go!” I command.

We pull our ski masks down over our faces and descend the staircase, taking the stairs three at a time, though careful not to slip on the ice. Once at the base of the stairs, we sprint through the frosty streets towards where we saw the drone drop.

“Fucking run!” Danny orders.

Once we reach the intersection, I say, “Split up to find this thing.”

Billy looks at me with wide eyes and I point north along 3rd street. He dutifully runs along the line traced by my finger.

Quickly walking down Chestnut, I sweep my head back and forth looking for the fallen drone—not an easy task at dusk—until we hear Danny yell, “found the fucking thing!”

Billy and I run to follow his voice and arrive at the same time.

“What should we do?” Billy asks but we do not hear him. Acting as we have done many times before, Danny stomps on the drone camera several times until he shatters it into many pieces as I wrestle the package from the drone’s tight grip.

When I finally succeed, Billy asks, “should we open it?”

“Later. No time,” I say, motioning for him to follow as Danny and I begin sprinting down the street. We run through alleys and back streets for maybe 30 minutes. I feel my legs getting heavier, but with adrenaline coursing through my veins, I am tireless. Sweat droplets run down the curves of my back; beads as salty as tears run between my lips.

In my periphery, the occasional civilian looks at us inquisitively, but I pay no heed. I sometimes feel a presence behind me—it may be a drone, it may be another pursuant, it may be nothing—but I just keep running, unwilling to look behind.

At one point, Billy keels over to catch his breath and raises his ski mask to get air. I slap him on the back. “No time for that. Later.” He looks up at me, terrified, a sheen of sweat covering his face. He nods and we continue.

When we arrive at the freeway the sky is dark, save for the murky glow of the city’s light on the low-hanging clouds. We slow to a walk and, with hands above our heads, gasp for air.

“Fucking nice work, gents!” Danny exclaims through huffs.

I slap Billy on the back and between exasperated breaths say, “Nice” breath “work” breath “kid.”

Billy nods and a barely perceptible smile forms at the corners his mouth.

I feel a small tickle forming in my throat, then upon trying to lightly cough it out, erupt in a fit of coughs.

“Damn, you alright?”

“Yeah yeah. We just ran 30 minutes. Let’s go down to Basecamp.”

Billy follows as we descend the stone outcropping, hop a fence, and walk under the freeway.

“Welcome to Basecamp Patrick Henry,” I say to Billy, peeling back my ski mask.

Perhaps 30 feet below a 10-lane freeway sits “Basecamp Patrick Henry” (“Basecamp” for short), an encampment of “outcasts,” “bums,” or “refugees,”—everyone has a choice word for what to call us—living “outside” of the “Dataist” society.

“Dataism” refers to the emergent worldview that information flow is the supreme value, and is predicated on the tacit understanding that algorithms can know us better than we know ourselves. Those either unwilling or unable to partake in the new, digital economy, ended up living in bivouacs like basecamp Patrick Henry. In a Dataist economy, seemingly every service is based on predictive algorithms, self-driving cars are the primary form of road transportation, automation and robots can perform most jobs better than humans, cyber wars between countries is the new normal in warfare, most electronic devices are connected via the Internet, talking to artificial intelligence is oft-indistinguishable from doing so with a human, and societies use advanced social credit systems to assign scores to our humanity.

Everybody anticipated that flows of data and technological advancement would enable new infrastructure, new businesses, new monopolies, new politics, and new economics, but I doubt anybody expected just how quickly and ostensibly Dataism would pervade every aspect of our lives. Before anybody could process the changes, data became the new oil lubricating the economy and much of our intra- and inter-personal interactions. Now it seems that every device is enabled with a sensor and collects data in some form, a practice known as “Total Data Collection.” The abundance of action, decision, preference, movement, and relationship data associated with each of us forms a “digital self.” Optimization algorithms then use this digital portrait to “recommend” which careers to pursue, how to schedule our days, which partners to date, which foods to eat, what content to consume, when to rest or be active or work or play, with whom we should mate,[1] how to budget our finances, how to create art,[2] which neighborhoods to live in, etc. etc. etc. Debates remain about the degree to which humans still have control over their lives, but at this point, these conversations are mostly philosophical—for all intents and purposes, conventional belief holds that to not follow the recommended algorithm suggestions is irresponsible. The firms providing the algorithms argue that the algorithms assist us in pursuing both personal and societal goals (e.g., mitigating environmental damage, reducing poverty and disease). Although the firms may be acting altruistically to some extent, the rhetoric nonetheless seems empty. Instead, it feels like a capitalistic ploy to buy from one firm or another. For the youth, this is all they have known in their lives—but for those of us in our middle ages, society is hardly recognizable versus that of our childhood.

Tech firms and entrepreneurs continually innovated—new optimization & recommendation algorithms, IOT enabled devices, automation supply chain efficiencies (i.e., eliminating human jobs)—either for economic gain or because they “thought it would be a cool project.” Few, if any, developers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are evil—but the sum is often greater than its parts, and the overall result of their work was an omnipotent Dataist system. The largest e-commerce and tech behemoths made horizontal mergers, acquiring firms in other industries—finance, health care, insurance, education, grocery, etc.—to use data from other fields to develop a more comprehensive view of the customer.

Consortia consisting of leading politicians, entrepreneurs, engineers, academics, artists, philosophers, lawyers, social workers, and other members of the business community gathered to discuss innovation ethics and how to best moderate the pace of change. Realistically, however, the consortia were ineffective—the conversations were just that, conversations. Everything happened so quickly nobody had the opportunity to reflect meaningfully on existential questions such as “what does the good life entail?” or “how do humans fit into a Dataist world?” or “how does Dataism affect the human condition?” Or perhaps they did ask those questions, but the entrepreneurs and engineers decided them for us. But often these conversations were moot because nobody knew where the proverbial brakes for technological progress were.

Politicians, wary of seeming “anti-progress,” beholden to lobbyist influence, or otherwise ignorant of emerging technologies or their potential economic implications, did little to oppose Dataism’s inevitable progress. Several nations tried to resist the Dataist economy, appealing to the need for a more “humanist economy” but, despite their best intentions, market realities ultimately forced them to succumb.

            The rapid changes brought about tremendous political and social upheaval. Many pessimists’ prognostications proved accurate—the rate of automation displacing labor quickly surpassed the rate of new jobs being added. Massive unemployment ensued—oft exceeding 60 percent. Seemingly only the engineers and practitioners responsible for maintaining and repairing the robots or algorithms were safe—and retraining massive groups of the labor force to perform those functions proved infeasible. Citizens too old to realistically begin new “Dataist” careers were deemed hopeless, a generation that time and technology left behind, dinosaurs waiting to die.

Suicide rates reached an all-time high.

Many politicians advocated for and activists demanded a welfare state. The collective citizenry agreed that, because private firms were buying, selling, using, and profiting from our personal data, citizens should be entitled to some share of those earnings in the form of a universal basic income. Politicians, pining for votes, promised versions of this to prospective voters, but these promises were often hollow and unrealized. The many private firms that liberally used personal data, the ones that were expected to contribute generously to the welfare state, oft evaded taxes via tactful lobbying, deft legal maneuvering, and/or because they were in damage control due to hackers.

            Order eventually resumed as an increasing welfare state quelled citizen unrest. With advances in technology and agriculture, so providing everyone’s basic needs became an obvious decision so survival became trivially easy. Nonetheless, in exchange for higher taxation contributing to the welfare state, private firms were permitted greater liberty to use citizen private data for direct marketing and/or other purposes, a compromise they gladly agreed to. Although questions about the role of humanity in a digital age where they are often economically unnecessary remain oft-debated and unanswered, most humans seem content with their diminished, albeit comfortable role in the new world. For many humans, however, the feeling of purposelessness is impactful. Suicide and depression rates, though down from their acme, remain much higher than their early-2000s rates.

            Even if we disagreed with the rate of technological change or the increasing role of data in our personal lives, there is not much we could do. Dataism’s influence became ubiquitous and omnipotent. There was no “opt-in” or “opt-out.” During these changes, the only real opportunity malcontents had to opt-out of the new economy was suicide. That, or living under the freeways as a disgruntled rebel like we are doing under the freeway. Now, we make our living stealing products from drones delivering packages and drawing faux road lines so that self-driving cars crash and we can take the cargo.

 

Two dozen mostly older men in thick overcoats huddle around several trashcan fires to stay warm during the winter cold. The stench of stale beer and body odor is offensive. We step around empty bottles, shopping carts, tents, tarps, and trash—I nearly step on a syringe.

“Michael are you using again?” I yell to one of the men.

No longer running, the sweat on my inner-most layer of clothing cools and then becomes cold. “Let’s go get warm,” I offer Billy, and we join a group of men at a fire.

“Hey Peter,” Thomas calls to me, “How’d the rookie do?”

“Billy,” I put a hand on his shoulder. “He’s got a lot to learn. But he’ll get there.”

Danny joins us and adds, “He needs to move fucking quicker though. He needs to act instead of asking questions.” Danny winks playfully and slaps Billy on the back, nearly knocking him forward.

“How about we open the package, shall we?”

“Yeah, let’s see the bounty,” Evgeni adds with his thick-as-molasses Eastern European accent as several men approach and look upon eagerly.

“Ok,” I say as I take a deep breath, heavy with anticipation and hope.

I rip the box open. A lamp. A fucking lamp.

The men collectively groan. I feel the air leave my body.

“A lamp?” Billy asks incredulously, almost choked up. “But we can’t use that. There’s not even electricity down here.”

“Yeah… Bad luck this time. You don’t get groceries or clothing every time,” I say. Billy’s jaw drops. “But we’ll try again tomorrow. Some days you win, some days you lose,” I add reassuringly.

Billy’s wide, almost watering eyes belie a sense of hopelessness. At a loss for how to comfort him, I turn away and walk to place the lamp on a pile of other unusable items we’ve collected over the years—children’s toys, sports equipment, make-up and other accessories, etc. Afterward, I throw the cardboard box into one of the trash fires for fuel. Somebody throws paper money on the fire, too—hard currency is valueless as digital currencies became the norm decades ago.

We stand around the fire for another hour or so, mostly in silence, watching the flames, passing bread and water and, for some men, liquor and smokes.

“Is this,” Billy begins, horrified, “our nightly dinner?”

“Some nights, yes.”

Billy sighs deeply.

“How about we get some sleep?” I offer.

I lead Billy to a stolen mattress near mine. “It’s a little damp, but it should work.”

Billy’s face pales as if he saw a ghost.

I hand him blankets, “Here, this will keep you warm.”

We lie down to sleep and look up at the underside of the freeway, listening to the cars driving by overhead. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. Now, with self-driving cars replacing manual operation in all but rare circumstances, the vehicles drive as a fleet, interfacing and communicating with each other. Because the cars can synchronize travel, accelerate/decelerate with impeccable timing, and coordinate road entry/exit, the fleet can and often do travel at speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour. Cities originally allotted two lanes to self-driving cars, then three, and then decided human-operated cars were too dangerous and forbade the practice. Now, from below, cars passing above are almost white noise, like the sound of a large fan. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.

            The guys by the fire banter. Evgeni explains his new acquisitions from The Wombat, a dealer we know on the black market: “I bought contacts that distort my retina and fingerprint covers.” Biometric verification is the norm for unique identifiers—keys and passwords went extinct many years ago.

            “Why?” someone asks.

            “So the government can’t track me.”

            “Like they give a shit about you.”

            From the other trashcan fire, we hear babbling, “All this technology, it still can’t replace the human element. No robot can work better than yours truly!”

            Danny disagrees, “What the fuck are you talking about? You’re just a drunk. You can’t do shit.”

Others jeer mockingly, “the modern-day John Henry!”

            Some basecamp dwellers reject the Dataist economy and willingly elect for a life in basecamp on philosophical deliberations and/or a deep commitment to ideological principles. But most are just alcoholics, construing their inability or unwillingness to adapt to the Dataist economy as brave, rebellious, philosophical, or something more than just drunken musing.

            I eavesdrop on Jesse, the Basecamp jester, telling his audience, “Well I know one technology I could outperform. You know those sex hotlines? The ones run by AI? That tell you all the sexy, sweet nothings that will get you off? Well, there is nothing sexier in the universe than talking to me!” He gyrates his overweight, dad-bod hips. People laugh.

            On my other side, I hear a drunken Marco explain through slurred speech, “Have you ever heard of these selfish ledgers? Have you? Have you? Have you? Have you?”

            “Yes,” Kyle answers irritably.

            “That supposedly nudges you in alignment with your goals? What a load of crap! Like computers can help you with that.”

            “Shut up, Marco. It’s a good idea for some.” Kyle, a malcontent, is perhaps the only member of the troupe unhappy to be here, or is at least the only one to admit it. He was a functioning member of the Dataist society but, upon committing a crime (which he will not reveal to us) damaged his social credit score so badly that he regarded this as his only option.

            Billy is chattering. He is asleep but curled up tightly and shivering in the cold. Beneath his dark, boyish curls, his young face is scrunched with discomfort. He looks so young. So young. Indeed, he has the same curls as my estranged son, Trevor. I have not spoken with my son since I left my previous life, but feel that I lost him much earlier—with recommendation algorithms nudging adolescents during their rearing, the need for my parenting was diminished. With so many “best practice” decisions made for him, he was wonderfully obedient though lacking in creativity and vitality. Like other youth, Trevor was always looking at his phone and was more practiced interacting with technology than other humans. I shiver thinking about his transformation into an automaton.

Billy approached Basecamp earlier today as we were preparing to leave for the daily hunt asking if he could join us. We looked at him skeptically—young people typically find the Dataist economy more agreeable than do older generations.

“Why?” we asked.

            He explained that he was a misfit in today’s society and disagreed with society on principle. Normally we are reluctant to allow outsiders into our cadre, but something about him captivated me. Just as the others had their heads cocked and eyebrows raised, ready to deny him membership, I jumped in front of them and pleaded, “Let’s give him a try. Please. I’ll be responsible. Please.” They looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and relented. Billy was shy but polite and agreed to join us on one of our daily drone hunts.

I bring him my comforter and drape it over him, just like I used to tuck in Trevor when he was a child. His shivering stops and his face, scrunched from the cold, relaxes. Returning to my cot, I pile several coats on myself, but still shudder as the shrill February wind blows. I reach for a nearby jug of whiskey to numb myself to the cold. Bringing the bottle to my lips, the liquor burns its way into my stomach.

The next morning, I awake to another cold and windy day. Foggy from the whiskey, I join Evgeni and Danny by the trash can as they warm their hands on what little heat remains from the fire the night before.

“Morning,” says Evgeni.

I nod.

“Did the boy sleep alright?”

“Yeah, looks like he still is,” I point to the still-sleeping Billy.

“You gave him your fucking blankets?” Danny asks incredulously.

“Felt it was the right thing to do.”

“How’d you fucking sleep then?”

“Eh.”

“You should have used a smart bed,” Evgeni jokes with a wink. Dataism has even found its way into bedrooms—several years prior, a company began selling smart beds that collect sleep data on users and use predictive algorithms to adjust the firmness of the bed throughout the night to optimize a user’s sleep.

“That joke’s getting old. Like I said, Smart Beds Inc. sells your sleep data to other firms so marketers can know how awake or…” Before I can finish my sentence, I erupt in a fit of coughing.

“Fuck Peter. You don’t sound so good.” Danny looks concerned.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get that checked out?”

“I said,” I say emphasizing each word individually, “I’ll. Be. fine.”

As the others waken, men grunt and groan from hangovers and cold. We meet by the trash fire and, after a breakfast of dry bread and water, discuss the hunt for the day.

“Peter, take Billy to North Street.”

“Got it.”

Billy whispers to me, “But that’s so far.”

“It is. But with predictive policing, we can’t follow any pattern.”

He nods but his body language suggests he is distraught.

After our simple breakfast—food shelters have less to offer than they once did unless you provide your data to them and subject yourselves to the dictates of their supposedly “self-help” algorithms—we set out for the daily hunt.

“Ready Billy?” I ask as we climb the rock outcropping outside Basecamp.

He nods.

“Alright, we’ll begin by…” I again erupt in a fit of coughing.

“Are you okay?”

I nod, though am hunched over, overcome by fits of coughing, sharply gasping for breath.

“Do you need me to get help? Heimlich maneuver?”

Through a wheeze, I say, “I’m fine, let’s go.”

Billy and I walk silently through the crowded sidewalks and city streets past a dizzying blur of humanity. With the emergence of the Dataist economy, the rate of urban population growth increased from even its high levels from the early 2000s. The emergence of a digital economy was supposed to democratize the job market, allowing those in rural areas access to the same lucrative technology jobs once exclusive to those in the city. And with self-driving significantly reducing the travel from distant exurbs, those in poor or rural locales to reasonably commute to higher-paying city jobs. But that which is supposed to happen in theory doesn’t always materialize in practice. Some politicians even espoused the benefits of city life, appealing to the efficiency gains for the travel and resource transit, and subtly encouraged rural folks to become urban denizens.

“Where did you grow up?” I ask Billy, trying to start a conversation.

“Near Philadelphia.”

“And what brought you to Boston?”

“Family.”

“How old are you kid?”

“24.”

“You’re a baby!”

He shrugs.

I wonder if the laconic Billy is overwhelmed by having recently joined our cadre or if he is just shy. Either way, I decide not to press. After several more blocks of walking in silence, Billy speaks:

“What was it like?”

“What was what like?”

“Society. Life. The city. Before I was born.”

I exhale deeply. “Well. I don’t even know where to start.”

“Please Peter, I’m curious.”

I stroke my chin pensively and look out across the intersection.

“See these buildings?” I point to the tall, uniform, unadorned skyscrapers. “See how they are all so sterile and glass and geometric?”

He nods.

“Back in the day, these buildings were covered in advertisements. Have you ever heard of the iconic Times Square in New York City? I remember hundreds of thousands of people would pass through there each day. Marketers paid big bucks to have their brand displayed in front of all those people. Now marketers have no reason to try such antiquated tactics. With inbound marketing, firms can display customized ads to targeted demographics.”

Billy nods contemplatively.

“And see these big, wide sidewalks with plenty of room for the many people walking?”

Billy nods again.

“There used to be street art. Basically everything you see in augmented reality on

screens but in real life. Like statues and other installations. Made of real material. Now there is no need for that given we can just experience art via augmented reality on phones. Might as well save the space for people to walk.”

            “Interesting.”

“And see all these people walking with their heads in either their smartphones or looking into their smart glasses? I swear people used to be more social and gregarious. I’m not saying that people in the city were always striking up a conversation with strangers in the street. People were more often hostile than civil towards strangers during their busy lives. But you see all these couples walking side-by-side and yet not interacting? With so much social interaction occurring digitally, the need for in-person interaction has diminished.”

“Wow, different.”

I laugh. “Yes, very different. Every age has its advantages and disadvantages. But life today is just bizarre.”

“Agreed.” He nods. “So were you around before Dataism?”

“It’s unclear when that began. The latter half of the first decade of the 2000s I suppose? Back even before I was born, people used to worry about ‘Big Brother,’ a reference to Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984.’ They were worried about what data the government had on them. Now we have to worry about ‘Little Brother.’ That is, what do all these companies know about us? Actually, now we have to worry about Big Brother and Little Brother.”

“Another question,” he begins, “were you around during the time when wars were actually fought by people?”

“Oh yeah. Gruesome. Absolutely the worst of humanity. Seems barbaric in retrospect. But you can’t deny the valor of those brave soldiers. Now that wars take mere seconds—one party cyber-attacks another and they go back and forth—well, I don’t even know if that qualifies as war. Maybe some hacker gets into self-driving cars or causes blackouts or causes hospital equipment to malfunction. But it’s vastly different than men shooting guns at each other.”

“Interesting.”

“So I gotta ask,” I turn to Billy, “Why do you reject society and Dataism so strongly?”

“Because I think humans are losing their free will. I think humans were more human before we became a robot economy.”

“But you’re just a kid. Isn’t this all you knew growing up?”

Billy sighs. “Not quite.”

“Oh?”

“Before coming to Boston, I was tending to my elderly, sickly grandmother in rural Maine—my father left my family when we were young and my mother was a mess, so I was the only one capable of caring for her. We didn’t have enough money to put her in a home. Between caring for my grandma in the evenings and working as a secretary at an outdoor adventure organization, it was a busy, albeit meager life. But I enjoyed it.”

Billy smiles and looks into the distance as if he could see his memories somewhere out there. “The one-on-one time with my grandmother, being outdoors in nature, working with my hands, interacting with the tourists that came through.”

Then Billy looks back at me and his smile becomes faint, then disappears. “I was happy for my time with my grandma—seven years—but couldn’t really advance myself professionally or learn new skills for the Data economy.”

I nod—to qualify for a role, almost any role, that algorithms can’t do better, one needs significant education and training.

Billy continues. “The outdoor center began cutting back my hours and then went bust. With virtual reality, people just didn’t need to travel all the way to Maine to have an experience. It was really hard to find a job where I was and with the qualifications I had. Plus, my grandmother was becoming frailer and needier. We dwindled our savings taking care of her.”

“Damn, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Thanks. After she died I tried to come to the city to look for work. But with no qualifications, no savings, no experience, and, perhaps most importantly, little data on me, my social credit score was nil. Hiring algorithms predict that I’m bunk.”

I laugh, “too true.”

“So society rejects me, I reject society.”

We say nothing for several blocks—I ponder his story and he presumably mine. Many people describe the Dataist economy as a “smart” economy. “smart” phones, “smart” cities, “smart” cars, “smart” homes, “smart” <insert object>. But society has to be pretty dumb if its algorithms reject Billy.

“What about you?” Billy asks. “Why do you live on the streets and steal from delivery drones for your livelihood?”

“I helped enable this economy.”

Billy’s jaw drops.

“Perhaps I’m being dramatic, but I was the Director of Analytics at a fintech firm. Our algorithms parsed through large quantities of structured data—the financials in spreadsheets, demographic trends, market data—but also large amounts of unstructured data—newspaper headlines, phone conversations, weather patterns, online reviews. Literally any kind of data. You name it. Anyway, we used all this data to predict where and when to invest.”

Billy’s eyes widen.

“And you know where the investments typically went? Into ethically neutral or dubious projects that enabled the rise of the Dataist economy. The rich got richer and the poor stayed poor. It was a race to see which companies could acquire the most data the fastest. As their algorithms had more data from which to form models, they won more business and had the right to more data. It was an arms race.”

“Wow.”

“Wow is right. And for the consumer, it became irresponsible to not share your data with these companies. If you wanted to partake on social media or benefit from any of these other services with a critical mass of users, you needed to give them your data. Companies offered you discounts if you gave them information. Information that they then used to get more business from you.”

I’m breathing heavily from talking so passionately. “Anyway, my company invested in these companies because, as the algorithms predict, that was the strategy with the highest predicted return on investment.

“But at some point—I don’t know when exactly—I began to doubt the ethics of it all. It seemed that it was, more or less, educated, upper-middle-class designers making products for use by upper-middle-class users in a consumerist economy.

“Even the firms that purported to be improving our lives. Improving our lives according to whom? Starving people in underserved countries don’t need internet or better ways to compress and send data. They need food and water and medicine and peace.”

“Haha yea, those firms’ rhetoric was and is bullshit.”

“I know, right? I don’t want to get too existential or nihilist about the economy. Questions like ‘what is our purpose?’ or ‘why are we here?’ aren’t asked enough, but I cannot answer them. But what is an economy? What is the intrinsic value of an accountant’s work? Or someone that produces content that someone else reads? Aside from farmers and teachers, it’s all just people making content for other people to consume. Even so, the Dataist economy seemed especially vapid. But you know what really bothered me most?”

“What’s that?”

“It made us so much less human than we used to be. Look at all these sheeple walking around us becoming less and less autonomous and more and more governed by what their data exhaust and algorithms recommend they do. Where’s the humanity in that? What’s the point of living if ‘data knows us better than we know ourselves?’”

“Seriously,” Billy agrees.

“We’re all so interconnected. Exposed to the same stimuli, we think similarly. Companies are paid to put thoughts into vulnerable minds. They can turn a proverbial lever and we all think differently. Are developers programming apps or programming people?” I ask rhetorically.

Billy nods. “It sure seems like they’re programming people.”

“People used to care deeply about their privacy. Now we’re numbed down to the absence of it. And it’s become hard for humans to question the role of technology because that’s the only medium we get our information through. It’d be like humanity questioning air.”

“It’s crazy what humans can get used to. I gotta ask… did it happen all at one?”

“What?”

“Data taking over everything?” he asks. “And humans getting used to it?”

“It happened quickly but it feels like it snuck up on us. I dunno. I often look back and wonder how it happened. How we became so comfortable with companies knowing so much about us. Initially, people scoffed when companies had even the most basic information about you that they pulled from self-reporting on social media. Then we became comfortable with companies knowing our medical histories and Internet search histories and the like. Now that they use speech recognition to collect data from our phone calls and market to us accordingly… or use facial recognition to assess our mood and cater sales strategy… we’re not even phased by that anymore. It’s normalized. 30 years ago, that would have seemed sci-fi and an invasion of privacy. Like I said, we’re numbed down. Privacy nihilism.”

“Wow,” he says. What else is there to say?

I continue, “And people seem less deep, less interesting than they used to be. I don’t know if it’s too much screen time or that we can relinquish the many faculties to machines—who needs memory anymore when the information is a click away—but humans just seem less…” I pause to think of the right word, “Profound.”

“But,” I continue, “by the time anybody had a moment to reflect on any of this, it was too late. There are no brakes to economic and technological ‘progress.’ There’s no opt-out. I tried to opt-out to save a sliver of my humanity and freedom. I quit my life as the Director of Analytics. But there is no option to live in a Dataist society without being connected. Well, there is one option. That’s why I’m living as a renegade under the freeway throwing rocks at drones with the rest of Basecamp Patrick Henry.”

Billy says nothing. What is there to say?

After a long moment, Billy asks, “Why the name Patrick Henry?”

“’Give me liberty or give me death.’”

“Oh right.”

After a minute, Billy asks, “If you don’t mind my asking, what happened to all your savings? All the money you made from your fancy data job?”

Instead of answering, I say, “We’re here.”

We arrive at our hunting spot, North Street, a heavily residential neighborhood that presumably will receive many packages throughout the day.

“Why this neighborhood?” Billy asks.

“With so much of modern production focused on high-rises due to their efficiencies, we opt for the remaining neighborhoods with townhomes or houses. That way the drones have to land at their front door instead of delivering the package to their deck.”

“But don’t most drones unlock people’s doors and go in to deliver the package?”

“Many, yes. But we try to take while they’re landing.”

“Alright, put the ski mask on and also these contacts with fake iris patterns. The authorities will use any bit of biometric identifiers they can on you.” As he inserts the contact lens, I point to an evergreen tree, “see that, we can hide under there until we see a drone.”

We scurry until we’re under the tree’s dense brush.

“And now we wait.”

Billy nods.

Whenever hunting, I feel a hunter’s euphoria overcome me—my senses are heightened, I am acutely in-tune with my surroundings, and I feel the stillness of the air. Exquisitely sharp, I am ready to pounce on any delivery drone and triumph over this bizarre society.

We wait and wait though nothing happens. After several minutes of silence, Billy asks, “say Peter…”

“Shhh,” I shush him.

“Peter,” he whispers. “How long have you been doing this?”

“Two years.”

“Damn.”

Soon, my hunter’s high yields to lethargy and then boredom. Groggy and hungover from the night before, my eyelids feel heavy.

After several more minutes of nothing, we see a drone descending towards a doorstep.

Billy leans forward and assumes a sprinter start, cocked and ready to run towards the drone. But I extend my arm in front of him to restrain him.

“Why not?” he asks.

“Patience,” I say. “See how small and rectangular that package is? It’s probably just a stack of documents. No food or anything of value is in there.”

“But wouldn’t it be worth a try?”

“We don’t want to sacrifice our position and/or expose ourselves for what is likely of little utility to us.”

Billy exhales an exasperated sigh.

“Trust me, kid, that one was not worth it.” Then I share a Chinese proverb, “‘Deer-hunter, waste not your arrow on the hare.’”

After another hour or so of waiting, I hear a faint whiz of propeller blades spinning in the distance and tap a bored-looking Billy on the shoulder. He perks up, eyes wide. But the faint sound of the drone does not grow louder.

“Must’ve been in the distance,” I say.

Billy’s body sinks, defeated.

“Unlucky. But that’s how hunting goes sometimes.”

Several minutes later, Billy begins chattering, “I’mmmm coooooollld.”

“Me too, Billy. Me too.”

After another hour, I hear another faint whiz and put my index finger up to Billy’s mouth to silence him. He forces his mouth closed to prevent his teeth from chattering, but I still feel his body shivering beside me.

The whizzing sound gets closer. I point at the drone descending at a 45-degree angle. “Two o’clock. There it goes.”

As it nears a house several doors down, I say, “That’s pizza. That’s unmistakably pizza.”

Billy’s body cocks into the sprinter stance, ready to shoot out from under the tree like a bullet. “Tell me when.”

“When.”

We sprint out from under the tree and meet the drone just as it’s approaching the doorstep. The drone sees us and begins flashing red light, its siren alarming. But it’s too late, I smack the drone with a baseball bat I brought as Billy wrestles the pizza box from the drone’s grip.

“Run!”

Billy and I run as fast as we can for as long as we can. Unlike our run yesterday, moving today feels laborious—my legs get heavy, but my lungs feel heavier. After what may have been a six-minute mile, we eventually stop under an old bridge in a forest preserve in the city. I sit and begin a fit of coughing.

“Peter, are you ok? You’re hacking up a lung.”

“I’m fine. Just give me some pizza.”

Billy opens the box to reveal a large pepperoni pizza. Aside from being jostled from our run, the pizza looks magnificent.

We eat greedily and devour the pizza in little time.

“Delicious, huh?” I ask Billy, trying to raise morale.

“Definitely.”

“This is why we hunt.”

As we’re licking our fingers from the pizza, Billy stops suddenly and asks, “Peter, can I ask you a question?”

“You just did,” I joke.

“Another one…” he says, unamused.

“What’s that?”

“So everyone at Basecamp purports to hate society for what it has become…”

“Yea…”

“But stealing from drones? It’s not as if we’re stealing from the tech companies that enabled this Dataist economy. We’re stealing from normal people like you and me.”

I sigh, “I never said this was a holy crusade.”

I look down, too embarrassed to look in his eyes.

After an excruciating silence, he asks, “So what’s next?”

“Next we’re going to see a guy people call ‘The Wombat.’”

“Who?”

“A dealer on the black market. He sells those fake contacts you wore today, among other assorted items. Fake fingerprints. Fake blood. Fake urine. Etc.”

“Does he sell identities? Or other illicitly acquired personal data?”

“There’s a huuuuge market for those. But those transactions typically occur on the dark web.”

“I see.”

“Everybody has a digital self, but who even knows anymore if that’s the person you’re interacting with, if the data is legitimate, etc.”

“Must’ve been so much simpler back in the day when you were only interacting with a person face-to-face,” Billy muses.

“Perhaps, back in the day, robberies and burglaries were more often physical goods. Today it is more likely cyber—data and identities and API tokens.”

“Hmm. Regardless, what are we getting from The Wombat today?”

“Just more faux contact lenses and finger prints.”

“And what are we going to give him in exchange? We have no money. What do you have that The Wombat could possibly want?”

“Lithium and cobalt.”

“What?”

“The Dataist economy isn’t just software and data. There has to be some hardware that supports it. Notice how everyone has a smartphone and everything is a touchscreen? And batteries to power their devices? Where do you think those rare minerals come from? There was such high demand for those in the early part of the century, but little foresight into the resource limitations of the materials necessary to build those.”

“How did you acquire lithium and cobalt?”

“Several months ago, a few of the guys hijacked a delivery truck. They altered the road lines on a highway outside of town and the self-driving truck crashed into a ditch. They were able to bust in to take some of the packaging. They weren’t able to get much because they only had so much time to break open the packages before the police arrive—each package has a sensor to ensure it only opens for the intended recipient—but even the little we got is valuable.”

“Oh.”

We walk to a less affluent area of the city. Just outside the glamour, opulence, and newness of downtown sits a neglected neighborhood with crumbling buildings and boarded-up or broken windows. Few citizens remain here. All the algorithms agree—investing here is not an efficient allocation of resources. Among the indignities and absurdities of Dataism is that optimization typically takes on Utilitarian principles, maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people. Although this approach makes sense mathematically, it also allows for some people to be neglected if allocating resources to someone else, even if they are already provided for, results in a greater collective utility. The consequence is that some people and some neighborhoods are eschewed in favor of investing in neighborhoods with greater “expected total value.”

Stepping over puddles of questionably colored liquid, we turn down an alley, walls adorned with graffiti, the ground littered with trash.

“Where are we?”

“The Wombat lives here.”

At the end of an alley, we step behind an overturned couch and I knock on a boarded-up window exactly eight times, the password to access The Wombat’s place.

“Follow-me,” I beckon.

We walk several doors down and wait. After several moments, the door creaks open slightly. Through the opening—no more than one foot—a hand emerges from the darkness. I place a small pouch of lithium in the open palm. The hand retreats to the darkness and the door closes. Several moments later, the door creaks open again, and the outstretched hand presents a plastic bag of fake contact lenses. I take the bag and the door closes.

“That wasn’t a sketchy transaction or anything,” Billy jokes.

“It’s how we survive,” I say, stuffing the bag in my coat pocket.

We walk back towards the street and turn at the corner.

I open my mouth to speak but am interrupted when police sirens begin wailing.

“Fuck! Run!”

Billy and I begin sprinting as drones whiz after us.

“Peter Smith and William Roberts, you are under arrest,” the drones say.

Two police cars speed towards us—interoperable, autonomous, civilian vehicles “know” to coordinate pulling over to allow a free lane for the police car.

“Run!” I yell at Billy again.

With his youthful legs, Billy gains on me.

“Peter Smith and William Roberts, you are under arrest,” the drones, and now the police say.

“Run!” I yell again but slow in a fit of coughing.

Billy, now 20 feet ahead of me, yells back, “You ok? We gotta go!”

But I can barely hear him, the world is spinning around me. Through my wheezes, my breathing is strained. I gasp for air but it is not there.

“Peter!” Billy yells.

Nausea shoots from my abdomen to my head and the world darkens. Through faint, blurry vision, I see the world toggle—my feet are weak underneath me and all I can feel is the cough barking in my chest. Everything else falls away.

“Peter!” Billy yells as I fall to my knees, and then to my chest, with a resounding slapping sound. My last vision before blacking out is lights flashing and Billy yelling.

 

I awake to bright overhead lights. “Where am I?” I say to no one in particular.

My blurred vision takes several moments to correct. I am on my back but prop myself up on my elbows. Seeing clearly, I observe my surroundings—I am wearing a hospital gown and am inside a bright, sterile room.

“Where am I?”

“Ah you’re awake,” a young man in a nurse gown begins, “You awoke before our models predicted you would. Sorry, but you’ll have to wait a while longer before the judge sees you. We tried to arrange such that you were brought to court just after you awoke.”

“What?”

“To streamline the backlog of convicts appearing before the judge.”

“Where am I? What is going on?”

“Rosemont Jail Infirmary. You were brought here upon your arrest for numerous burglaries.”

“What?” I ask, still disoriented.

“Get some rest. You have pneumonia.”

“Fuck.”

“Get some rest, Peter Smith. We will deliver you to the judge for your sentencing when you’re well enough.”

“How’d you know who I am? I have no identification.”

“Oh please,” the young man in the nurse gown laughs. “The police and also hospitals have sufficient data on everybody to know who everybody is.”

“Damn,” I say as I rest my head on my pillow.

“There is one logistical complication I have to share with you,” the nurse adds. “You see, we offer-reduced price health care to people that submit health and personal data updates to the government. It seems you have not done so in over two years. You will have to pay out-of-pocket.”

“Well good luck getting anything from me. So sucks to be you,” I say as I roll onto my side, away from the nurse and return to sleep.

When I awake, a warden sits by my bedside and begins, “Good, you’re awake. Put these clothes on,” he points to a shirt and pants neatly folded on a bedside chair.”

I do as he instructs and then he beckons me towards him. “Come,” he says.

I step towards him.

“Turn around,” he demands.

When I do, he handcuffs my hands behind me.

He beckons again and I follow him through a hallway and out to the street. Advances in threat and criminal detection technology have largely diminished the role for human monitoring and security guards. Nonetheless, potentially unruly and violent criminals still require human accompaniment. Outside, a self-driving car arrives at the curb and the warden motions for me to enter the back seat. I enter and the car speeds off.

As I ride, I look out the window at the city. The future is here. As children, we imagined the future would entail a cityscape from The Jetsons, including flying cars, floating apartment complexes, elaborate robotic contraptions, holograms, and pill-sized meals. Though some of these expectations have been realized, much of the future is what we do not see… ones and zeros floating in the cloud, magnetic polarizations on computer chips, ethereal algorithms with seemingly omniscient influence, etc. In Hegel’s dialectic, he espoused a notion that the human spirit is advancing towards freedom in a teleological end. And, in many ways, history has borne this out—the era of humans enslaving others has yielded to the promotion of liberalism and the self. Communism and control economies are mere distant memories as market economies are in vogue. What Hegel’s dialectic misses, however, is that we ultimately became enslaved to data. Or perhaps when we inadvertently forfeited our free will, we ceased to be humans.

The car arrives at the courthouse and a warden escorts me from the vehicle to a line of men outside the courtroom. I scan the line of other prisoners—mostly young, unassuming, likely hackers—as they shift back and forth uneasily. Most crime in the Dataist society is committed digitally: hacks, cyber threats, identity theft, etc. Many of these youngsters probably have little practice interacting and others in-person. But then, at the front of the line, I see Billy.

“Billy!” I call.

He looks back. His eyes widen and a smile forms on his face.

“Quiet!” orders the warden, slapping the back of my knees with a baton. And looking forward he yells to Billy. A look of terror overcomes Billy’s face and he obeys. For the remainder of my wait, I stare at the back of Billy’s head.

With machine-like efficiency, judges use computer programs to dole out punishments to convicted criminals, and we move expeditiously through the line. Billy is called and enters. Recommendation algorithms standardize punishments to eliminate human bias, dispensing with prejudiced sentencing.

After 15 minutes, I advance from fifth in line to first. My stomach knots up and I notice that my hands are grabbing my pants tightly. I release my hands but then cannot figure out what to do with them, so instead, they clasp and unclasp each other as if in constant need of touch and reassurance.

A speaker above says, “Peter Smith. Please enter the courtroom.”

I enter. The judge, an older, balding man with thick glasses, sits atop the bench. He’s looking at the computer screen on his desk as I walk to the podium, the white reflection of the tablet shines on his glasses. In the far corner, Billy sits next to a warden with his head down.

“Mr. Peter Smith. You stand accused of 20 counts of burglary” the judge reads to me from his computer in a tired voice.

“Excuse me?” I ask incredulously. “20? You only caught me for the one.”

The judge removes his glasses, closes his eyes, and rubs his temples. When he reopens his eyes and puts his glasses on, he begins patronizingly, “Mr. Smith. Did you really think you could outsmart our authorities? We gathered sufficient data on you during your shenanigans that facial and body recognition algorithms could retroactively indict you for many more burglaries. And I would not be surprised to learn of more.”

I forcibly force down the knot forming in my throat and can only muster, “oh.”

“Well, do you have anything to say for yourself before the program assigns you a punishment?”

“This entire system is bullshit.” I begin in a whisper.

“Speak up, I can hardly hear you.”

“This entire system is bullshit,” I say now more confidently. Billy looks up from his corner with wet eyes. “It’ll be okay Billy! This entire system is bullshit!”

Billy smiles feebly but looks back down.

I see the screen’s reflection on the judge’s glasses change colors. “Ah,” the judge begins. “The system is recalculating our options now that it is accounting for your behavior in the courtroom. Your new propositions will be available momentarily.”

“If you allowed some of us to live freely,” I continue, “and didn’t require all of us to partake in this system we don’t agree with, you wouldn’t have had this problem.”

“Excuse me?” the judge seems unamused as if he had heard this appeal before.

“Yes, I committed those crimes. But I never had an opportunity to opt-out of this Dataist economy.”

The judge strokes his salt and pepper beard pensively. “Opt-out?”

“Yes, I disagree on principle with this system of total data collection.”

“I’m sorry you and your renegade friends don’t like the contemporary world,” he begins sardonically, “but that’s the world we live in.”

“But we’re forced to participate.” I plea. “If we don’t ‘voluntarily’ forfeit our data, we can’t be members of the true society. But what if I object based on privacy principles? I didn’t sign my end of the social contract. I didn’t agree to this.” Then I say under my breath, “I suppose you collect volumes of data on us regardless.”

“But how is now any different?” the judge asks. “this has always been the case. Times change. Do you think the horse and buggy people had the opportunity to opt-in or out of a car society?”

“But now is different. Now is whacky. Dataism and total data collection are taking away what makes us humans. We’re just automatons doing as we’re told.”

“Again, I fail to see how now is a unique time,” the judge says evenly.

“Because we’re forfeiting our data to the algorithms, it’s taking away our freedom to make decisions for ourselves. And that freedom is what makes us human.”

“You’re talking about freedom to. But Dataism allows us freedom from.”

“Freedom from what?” I protest.

“Freedom from making dumb decisions. From irrationality. From bias. With big data, any statistical mind is going to agree, this is as close to perfect as it’ll get.”

Billy’s head follows the conversation back and forth like a rally in tennis.

“We don’t need perfect,” I say, “There is beauty in the struggle. We need the freedom to figure things out for ourselves.”

“That’s poetic,” he says with a sly smile. “So you think it’s better to be ‘more free’ and at-risk of irrationality and inefficiency and mishap, than ‘less free’ and more safe?”

“Well, yes.”

“That is to presume you are the arbiter of what it means to be human. Or to live a good life.”

I sigh deeply, fully aware that arguing with the judge is a hopeless activity.

“Look,” the judge begins diplomatically, “I’m sorry you don’t like the world and the state of technology. But you’re also choosing to not take advantage of some of the welfare and benefits it provides its citizens. You do benefit from all the products produced within society, burglarizing them from hapless citizens. In this society that you are partaking in, even if begrudgingly, you committed crimes. And for that you must answer for them.”

I feel small at the podium. The reflection of the tablet on the judge’s glasses again changes colors. “Ah, the new proposition accounted for that unstructured data—your calling the system ‘bullshit’ and is ready with new propositions.”

When I say nothing, the judge continues, “Now I’m going to give you a choice. It seems you like choices. You could do much better than being a rebel with a dubious cause living under the freeway. Indeed, you could contribute to the betterment of these algorithms. So your choices are as follows:

1)    I will give you a reduced sentence if, and this is a strong conditional, if you agree to submit your data to the Federal government so they can help you by providing recommendations to assist with your rehabilitation and assimilation into society. The algorithms will use data from bioinformatics, your history, daily habits, and so on to make you the best person you can be. Don’t think of it as becoming some robotic automaton in society—rather as accepting a nudge to help you be your best possible self. Given your history and savings…” Billy’s eyes grow wide upon hearing about my savings. “…it seems you have many skills and attributes that would serve you well in a Dataist society. This is not to say there will be no punishment. But it will be greatly reduced.

2)    Alternatively, you do not have to consent to the use of data that we do not already collect. But you will serve a long sentence. And believe me, by the time you get out of prison, innovation will likely have moved so far past what it is now that, if you hate society now, you’re really going to hate it then.

Do you understand my proposition?”

I nod.

“You can rejoin society. Call it forfeiting your humanity, but there’s a lot to like. Or you can remain a renegade and preserve your ‘freedom.’” He uses air quotes sarcastically for the word ‘freedom.’

I swallow the knot gathering in my throat.

“So what’ll it be?” the judge asks.

“What did he do?” I nod towards Billy.

Billy immediately looks down—I already know the answer.

“He joined the society. He stopped living in a non-existent fantasy land.”

I feel the air leave my body and my legs nearly collapse from under me. I look at Billy pleadingly, but he just stares at his feet.

“So what’ll it be?” the judge asks again.

Still staring at Billy, I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Like Trevor, he is gone. I feel a tear rolling down my cheek.

“So what’ll it be?” the judge asks once more.

I cannot breathe, as if someone were choking me. I suddenly feel very alone on the stand and in my rebellion against Dataism.

“Mr. Peter Smith, so what’ll it be?” the judge asks again.

Averting my begging stare from Billy, I look the judge sternly in the eyes and take a deep breath. The judge raises an eyebrow expectantly.

I take a step forward to the podium and begin, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

           

[1] Despite criticisms and “Hitler” rhetoric, champions are loathed to call this “eugenics”
[2] Data scientists, able to quantify a sufficient number of variables in various art mediums, were able to predict with a high degree of accuracy which people will like what types of art. This initially inspired the ire of artists—the dichotomy between art and science was reduced to just science, human creativity was diminished to the trivial subservient to dataist artistic creation. Then, enterprising companies and individuals used computers to cheaply mass produce optimized art that algorithms predict will have mass appeal. Now, most art comes from factories or computers.

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