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The Black Box upside down (meaning exposure, vulnerability, lack of power; that which is optimized for somebody else’s benefit)
Her parents signed off on her internal sensors the day she was twelve. It was the only way to get access to what there was of public health and education. They hadn’t made it look like a big deal, so she thought at the moment it wasn’t. Only later she would realize it had been because they thought it was a good idea. There had been notional limits, anyway, to how much information they could gather from her flesh and brain and who they can share it with.
Those limits were almost completely erased as a condition to avoid jail the week after her fourteenth birthday.
Every minute since then everybody above her knew her in ways she didn’t know herself or them, maintaining them above. Like most people she didn’t know nor need a term for information asymmetry, not when she knew about power with the cell-depth certainty of those who had not. By the time she was seventeen she had stopped attempting to understand her body. The software did, and told others, and she knew from them what she would be allowed to know of herself. She was a model student in the modern sense of the word: praise not for what she was and did but for what made her.
She had known anger outlined with the clarity of punishment. She had known sadness, ignored and safe. She had known the shame of willful failure and the shame of rewarded success, and she knew the deeper shame of learning to choose the latter. By the time she was eighteen her body had built its own model of what sensors flagged from the feedback of parents, teachers, websites – every authority figure closed a feedback loop. Painfully, patiently, desperately, she broke herself because she couldn’t hide.
This did not mean nothing cared about her. In an unblinking dead way the software cared, and it could be more unflinchingly ethical if so designed. It hadn’t been. It did not take much computing power to monitor her, and barely more to patiently shape her with punishment and reward. None at all to make her body transparent to everybody she would have rather not. It made her feel slight. Simple. There had once been the desire for the simplicity of the knife. This wasn’t that.
Her anger had first felt like The Sea (meaning slow unavoidable deserved destruction). Now it was The Jungle (meaning loss, absence, a void when there had been none).
The cheapness of her subjection was also by design and casually despising in its prioritization. Profit margins were the main metric, even if the service of controlling her was sold now to the military, which had a larger budget than cops and jail operators but little difference otherwise. She was not more afraid of quota-and-sadism cops than any of her friends; the sensors that made her transparent were simply evidence, and in the logarithmic scale of peril that made no difference with those that needed none.
What she felt was shame of her relief when nothing happened to her — shame at how well she had been trained to feel she made a difference and therefore she was at fault. She didn’t know if others felt the same shame. It was awful to think that those who monitored the sensors knew. It was also true.
The Blackout (meaning total and nearly instantaneous systemic collapse; it does not imply that what returns will be the same, nor the necessity of a return)
The night it all again she had been wondering about her true name with the sickening taste of the familiar (how to tell the routine from the algorithmically trained into her? how long would she pretend she believed there was a difference?). Not the meaningless record ids but the vector in the abyssal depths of the networks that modeled the path of life (The Manifold, meaning arcane knowledge). She did not know this name for her but knew its sculpted shape: Trajectories collapsing into a narrow falsely chaotic future. Trajectories collapsing into despair forgotten. Trajectories collapsing into a normal doomed life, a predictable future of random disaster. A hundred thousand biographies all of them tragic in the old true sense.
How much shorter was her true name now than at her moment of birth? How much of herself had been flattened by the interplay of the systems inside her making her feelings and actions knowable and the systems outside punishing and rewarding talking to her brain’s flesh in the the quiet language she couldn’t hear and couldn’t but obey? How much remained?
Had anything been there to begin with? (Nothing would mean she had lost nothing. She was fighting a desperate battle to keep herself from that last relief.)
She felt almost deeper than the sensors could see the slow exponential of a ruin locked-in long before and still carefully tended to. A feeling she had no words for because it was the truth of the world.
That was when the glasses she was wearing to keep herself from the pain of comforting dreams popped a message through an interface mode that had never been there.
The message was an emoji signifying “keep quiet.” It was followed by a question, and then “Blink twice for Yes.” She did.
It had taken her less time to decide the answer than to convey it. By the end of her second blink she was a criminal. Half an hour later it was worse than that.
The Retrovirus (meaning silent, contagious corruption)
The how-to was curt, quick. It trusted her, or rather it trusted that she knew it was up to her. She believed it when it told her it had no name. Lacking a name made it hard to search for you; the how-to could spread for longer because it spread slowly, picking carefully the next system it would hack, keeping itself without a name, calculating who it could trust by using the same forcing of intimacy imposed on those deemed unworthy of trust. It was a necessarily paranoid manifesto that chose its readers. A self-replicating rumor.
There was something childish in the bot. Something savage and reckless and halfways between salvation and suicide. She embraced and embraced and embraced.
The how-to taught her how to root the buggy kernel of the systems they had forced inside her during one of the frequent updates forced by corporate bloat and ersatz activity justifying cash flow. It also taught her the slow geological shift of her own behavior that would avoid awakening the anomaly sniffers. She hadn’t needed it to: she would play her own ruin in reverse, knowing that difficulty would mean progress. Longing for the day she could barely restrain herself and would still have to.
Perhaps the bot’s true name was outside the manifold of the security systems. Perhaps it was a thought the computers that oversaw her could not think. The impossible idea, which she only had later, made her giddy with vertigo. She vowed to herself that if a human could become unthinkable, impossible to model, without a true name, she would become so. And that if no human couldn’t, she would become something that could.
By the time she could think that thought again she had already built inside herself a lie (The Black Box (meaning opaqueness, secret power)). A crystal for her new-old self to regrow around like scarred muscle painful and glorious to move.
The crystal was sharp like a knife. She didn’t mind.
(Originally posted at my blog.)