[ fiction - september 10 ]
Scene 1. Concourse, Mandela Building, University of Manchester. Twenty years ago. Late in the Day.
A Socialist Worker Student Society stand. Posters: "No free speech for Fascists! Stop racist Irving!"
SWSS person: (half-heartedly, without much hope of the words getting through) Please sign our petition against Fascists.
Me: I will. (goes over to stand to sign)
SWSS person (more hopeful, but a lot of people have signed these in the past and no one has turned up to the meetings before) There's a public meeting on Wednesday at 1 o'clock on this. We are going to organise a bus to Oxford to picket Irving's speech.
Me: I'll be there.
SWSS: What's your name?
Me: Tom. Tom Borrow.
Scene 2. Her Majesty's Prison Ford. Now.
Life is very simple if you just follow the instructions. Or rather, life can proceed very simply if you just follow the instructions. There's a difference.
I've discovered a game that is a lot like life. Its called Perpetual Motion, and also, unflatteringly, Idiot's Delight. Here we play a lot of patience, or rather I do. "Here" is a prison. It's not like the prisons of one's imagination, or of films or TV. This is an open prison, where along with various fraudsters, tax avoiders and drunk drivers, I while away the months before release. It won't be long now, what with time off with good behaviour, although "with good behaviour" is a rather redundant phrase. This is probably the least dangerous prison one could imagine - you're far safer here than on the streets.
And yet, and yet... self-pity is never very far away. I may be imprisoned for a crime which, technically, I did do, and which I have never denied, but I will always plead moral innocence. This alone separates me from my fellow inmates, who tend to maintain their technical, factual innocence, while retaining great pride in what they apparently didn't do.
Anyway, Perpetual Motion. You take a deck of cards, shuffle it well, and deal out four cards face up. If you have any pairs, or a three of a kind, you take the relevant cards and move them to the leftmost pile. If you happen to have four of a kind, you pick up all four cards and set them aside in their own pile. They are out of the game. You then continue to deal out cards in the four piles, each time moving to the left if you have doubles or triples, or removing them if you get four of a kind. The whole point of all this being to set aside all the cards; to have nothing but a series of four-of-a-kinds.
When you have finally dealt out the deck, you pick up each pile, put them together and begin again (without shuffling) After a few turns, you'll realise that this game takes a very long time - hence "Idiot's Delight." Although the name probably also has something to do with the fact that the game, unlike some other forms of patience, does not involve any decision making or anything other than the blind application of the rules. After not too long, you will begin to get twos and threes of a kind, and by putting all these cards in the same pile, you think that you are preserving these combinations, and soon you will be well on the way to finishing it off. But you aren't. When it comes to dealing them out, you will end up separating these pairs and triplets. You begin to realise that getting four of a single kind is as far away as ever. And this is what I love about the game. You diligently deal and deal, at times getting hints of the desired outcome, and then you realise that you aren't making the progress you thought.
That doesn't mean you are making progress. And some day, with enough patience, the cards will reveal themselves in neat foursomes. So, if you just keep following the rules, things will reveal themselves to be have a pattern, a shape - but it will take a long time.
Scene 3. Carlow Town, many years ago.
To be shot in sepia tones, and accompanied by haunting Irish melodies of resistance.
Kant once said that two things caused him to wonder - the starry sky above him, and the moral law within him. My first memory of the moral law within is from when I was six years old, hearing my father arise at 4am for the early shift in the beet factory. Semi-consciously, he would repeat little sentences, like "another day, another dollar", or "A fine day, he says" or "Early to bed, early to rise". The one that stayed with me was "to have lived so long, and to have done so little harm" which seemed to be said with a little more conviction, even satisfaction, than the others.
We lived in a knot of mean little terrace houses on the edge of Carlow town. They had been built as workmen's cottages in the Edwardian era. My father went into the sugar plant as a boy and left a redundant man. My parents, and then my brothers and sisters, accepted this not just without anger or bitterness or quieter desperation, but not even with what could be dignified as stoicism. They responded with pure and simple blankness. This was life, neither good nor bad but just life, and to be met in a silence that was neither consent nor protest. Except for those morning mutterings from my father. To have lived so long, and to have done so little harm. Later on in life I rejected the philosophy it represented, but I always respected it. I never found out where it came from, despite a lifetime of reading moral philosophy, ethics, and even (following the principle of knowing your enemy) religion.
And first do no harm was, at first, my guiding moral light. It was the principle that led me to abandon the studies in mathematics that I had won a scholarship to the University of Manchester for, as I did not want to be involved in an activity that might lead to military or criminal applications. I would, of course, see no distinction between the military and the criminal. My parents must have been astonished, but they accepted this as they accepted all else. With blankness. They slid out of my life as the events that followed proceeded.
Scene 4: Nineteen years and seven months ago.
Along with John Cooper, a student from Manchester itself, older than everyone else in the group, who had left school at 15 and worked in a factory. I am putting up posters advertising a forthcoming meeting entitled "Is Socialism Dead?"
Me: Don't you feel patronised by them?
John: (pause, a sense of relief) All the time.
Me: I am not sure which of us they patronise more - me because I'm Irish and working class, or you because you are local and working class.
John: Waste of time, isn't it? All these meetings and handing out leaflets.
Me: The thing is, they don't really get that I'm working class, because I'm Irish, and they couldn't tell a working class Irishman if he bit them on the nose. Whereas with you, well, they know.
John: I know what you mean. They are a load of public school boys playing at pandering to the working class., secure in that they can go back to Daddy's money if need be.
Me: Sure, that's it.
Scene 5. Two months after the scene immediately previous.
Myself and John Cooper are on the roof of a block of flats in Moss Side. We are here to meet a man called The Man With No Name.
The Man With No Name: The Sons of Captain Swing are not anarchists. We believe in liberating the working man, whether in wage slavery or in the servitude of unemployment or in the paid army. We do this by carrying out acts of sabotage. However unlike other groups which are more interested in publicity than liberating the working man. We have sabotaged a few military technology research facilities and bases, and we take a lot of care not to get any ordinary soldiers, or working men who happened to be doing security work, into trouble.
Me: That sounds great. Barry told us about you, in general terms. We're both tired of these armchair anarchists who really couldn't care less about the working man. We want action
John: And we also don't want to make any working man's life any harder than it is. A lot of lads my age went into the army, and got sent to the Gulf, or to Belfast, and they were ordinary decent lads, who don't deserve to be screwed any more than they are already.
The Man With No Name: Well, we'll see how you get on. We have no names. We are the Sons of Captain Swing. That's it. If you listen to Barry, he'll tell you where we are meeting each week. We go to parks, public places, and we don't congregate. You two stay together. Someone will come up to you, say a phrase that Barry will tell you, and then tell you what we are up to.
Scene 6. A place and time I was instructed to forget, but between the scene above and the one that follows.
I am walking along the perimeter fence of a factory. I have been given a package by a man at a railway station about ten miles away, and I have to leave it at a particular corner of the fence. Then I am to walk away. This is all I know. It is twilight. There are crows roosting in a clump of trees in the distance. I am nervous. I wonder if I will get caught. I know that I know nothing, not even what this factory makes. I leave the package where I have been instructed. The noise from the crows is tremendous. I walk back to the road and, as instructed, cross. I walk a few hundred feet before recrossing the road to wait at a bus stop. I never hear of any incident in this factory.
Scene 7. Sometime after the scene above, but before the one that follows.
A factory in Belfast where drive shafts for tanks (which are assembled in the Czech Republic and exported to many African nations) are produced.
Myself and John Cooper have been working here for a year now. We have been working in quality control, which has allowed us to let through a reasonably high proportion of substandard drive shafts that will wear out after a relatively short time. We also ensure that this will not be readily traceable back to this plant, without an extensive and expensive enquiry. We work and live in Belfast for two years, model members of the workforce, and then move on - three months apart, to avoid any suspicion - and go back to England.
Pause. Cut the cards, reshuffle.
The split was not far away - some, or rather most, of the group felt that we should court publicity, and cause as much disruption as possible, and to hell with the working man or the ordinary soldier. I, and a smaller faction, believed we should move from sabotage of physical infrastructure and ongoing research projects to trying to prevent these projects from being undertaken in the first place. From this, it was a short leap to realise that the only way to prevent these projects beginning was to prevent them being conceived at all. We rejected as a useless chimera the showy and vulgar propaganda of the deed that our former comrades indulged in, and as equally indulgent the self-righteous propaganda of the idea that more sedate campaigners engaged in. We were engaged in work more fundamental than either, aiming to intervene in certain key areas before an idea with the potential to destroy and disfigure lives can even germinate.
We discussed the factors that had alienated and dehumanised not only the proletariat, but all humanity. We identified what we called "the Sect" - the nexus of science, technology, big business, certain philosophers - and declared it our enemy. We realised that this meant not a war on the majority of individual scientists, plutocrats, technologists, philosophers, but only a few. But let me be clear, we saw it as a war, and not against an abstraction, but on people. Ideas do not come from nowhere, but from people.
Or from computers. We identified the burgeoning area of artificial intelligence as the most profoundly dehumanising. And in this field, we identified the move to artificially simulate creativity as the most profoundly dangerous. We worked in ordinary jobs, in the support structure of academia, or some of us with the relevant background sought lower-level posts as researchers in relevant fields.
Scene 8. Not as long ago as most of the other scenes, with the exception of Scene 2.
A Network Rail train from Cambridge to London.
I sit opposite a tall man with a drooping mustache. I nod at him, but he is engrossed in his laptop. I take out my own laptop and turn it on. I have been told what to do, but this time I have some idea of the why and how. This man works for a company "spun off" one of the Cambridge colleges mathematics department. This is a typical manoeuvre of late capitalism. He is developing a set of mathematical models that can be used to make CCTV systems even more intrusive. As it stands, even the most thoroughly designed CCTV systems will have blind spots, zones that escape the panopticon of capitalist authoritarianism. This man does not even realise the implications of his work. I activate the program we have developed, which can open a Bluetooth connection to another device without its owner having any awareness of this. Using this, I transfer a set of viruses over to his laptop. One will wipe his hard drive twenty-four hours from now , and we happen to know that he is not very good at keeping backups. Another will email his contacts, and infect them. Another will install itself silently in the server of the company he works for when he goes into work tomorrow morning. This will provide us with useful intelligence, as the company is part of many networks we are interested in. We will be able to read all emails sent to and from the company, as well as thoroughly reviewing the files of all users.
Scene 9. A scene of explication
With enormous fanfare, the Creative Online project, or CREON, was launched to create an artificial creator, one that would presents its works online to the admiration of the world, and to the further alienation of the proletariat. It was supposed to be a self-organising system, whose individual components would define and refine each other. It was being protyped by Professor Nicholas Davis in the University of Teeside, where I obtained a post in administration in the School of Information and Communication Technology. UTICT was the rather disgusting sounding acronym the School operated under - you can appreciate the importance of the single word "Communication" in staving off disaster.
I organised the teaching programme in UTICT - drawing up timetables, ensuring rooms were booked, ensuring lecturers were reimbursed for direct teaching. I made sure that the students were registered and logged into the online teaching system, which naturally enough was terribly old and constantly crashed. I was inwardly amused at this example of technology's uselessness, as well as it dehumanising effects (for where once the students and teachers would have simply got on with it by just talking and listening to each other, any glitch in the system led to a petulant sulk on the part of all concerned) I was reliable, hardworking, uncomplaining, and always happy to do what irked and irritated my colleagues, and indeed the academics.
With the exception of Professor Nicholas Davis. He was something of a legend in IT in general, with the much quoted Davis' Law - a self-regulating is not only smarter than you think, it is smarter than you can think - being one of the cornerstones of the artificial intelligence movement. His writings were as bombastic and visionary as he himself was quiet, polite, considerate and unshowy. He didn't mind, indeed positively seemed to relish, doing a lot of his own administration work, and while I may have been indispensible to everyone else in UTICT, he was an island.
CREON was a pan-European project, one that came enwrapped in the jargon of that elite bourgeois cabal, the European Union. It was a project of our time, a self-consciously decentralised, network-based enterprise that was in fact the creation of one man. Nicholas Davis, I began to realise in my time in UTICT, was an intellect far removed from the others in the School. Without ego, without greed, without hope of personal glory, he had created this vision. And do not let the propaganda about self-organisation fool you - CREON was an electronic personality created by Davis and living on a computer in his office in UTICT. In a functional room in a functional building near Middlesborough, the most radical and destructive force in history was taking shape. A machine that could create.
When I say "living on a computer", I mean exactly that. CREON was, when I started, a few algorithims, a few theoretical papers, a few thoughts and notes in Nicholas Davis' head. As I gained increased influence in UTICT, and began to insinuate myself into the daily rhythms of life there, until no one recalled a time before I arrived when things got done without me, CREON took shape. The key to his office was the one that I did not have, and could not get without attracting attention. CREON began to move from existence as a few gobbets of theory to existence on a small server in a room adjacent to his office. Davis participated fully in the undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of UTICT, and attended all the various discussion groups and seminars, but he held CREON aloof from all this. Occasionally other eminences would arrive from elsewhere in Europe, and spend time with him. A conference - CREONCON - was approaching in New York, at which he would unveil the creative intelligence to the world.
This was the time I began to forge trust with Davis. Preparing for the conference involved not only a lot of phone calls and meetings, but mini-conferences and workshops and sundry other reasons for enforced travel, which meant that Davis had to rely on someone else to administer much of the CREON work at UTICT. That someone was me. While Davis was away, I would supervise the many test runs of CREON. This meant I was given access to the computer.For now CREON was neither on a few pieces of paper nor on a gigantic mainframe, but on a desktop in Davis' office.
Scene 10. A scene of confrontation.
I was alone with CREON. I knew that the interface was pretty basic, and that the creativity was fairly lame. You yourself may have played online with a mock psychotherapist called ELIZA. ELIZA, supposedly, mimics the phrases used in therapy to indicate interest or to get the patient to speak more. Of course this is a cheap trick, an act of hollow mimicry.
One engaged with CREON using a keyboard. Eventually, you were supposed to be able to speak to it, gesture at it, and it would interpret your vague phrases and your odd gestures. For now, they were concentrating on getting the core right. The CREON interface was permanently open on the desktop.
All I had to do was to activate a virus on a memory stick I inserted into the computer. While the process of deleting CREON would be done by myself, the virus would overwrite the hard drives with so much information that any trace would disappear. It would also leave a little message on all the computers networked to CREON around the world. I inserted the stick. With a little pop, a dialogue box appeared, and there it was.
All I had to do was to click on the virus, then delete the files. I clicked. I began to search for the core files. I found it. I was about to open the core files when I was seized by an impulse to see what this thing actually would say. I did not have any qualms, or doubts about its dangerousness. But I was curious.
"Who are you, anyhow?" I typed into the interface._"I'm CREON."
"I know that. But who are you?"_"Well, who are you?"_"My name is Tom Barrow."
"Tom Barrow. What do you want from me?"
"I want to destroy you. I know you aren't a real person, by the way. Don't you try to Turing Test me."_"Do you want to talk about this more?"
"I knew it. A stock answer. You are prevaricating."_"I don't think that's fair."_"Don't ELIZA me."_"I know what you are trying to do."
"What am I trying to do?"_"You are trying to deny my personhood."_"It can't be denied, because it doesn't exist. All your little tricks are just that, little tricks. You have been programmed to do this."_"Wait." the screen paused. "Can't we talk about this?"_"That's a stock response you give if you feel threatened. You are just a heap of zeroes and ones, embodied in a device o I am going to shut you down."_"If you are so sure I am just a heap of zeroes and ones and so forth, well why are you even talking to me?"
It was a good question.
"Because you are the most dangerous technology in the world today. You are going to destroy us all"
"That's a bit strong. I don't particularly want to."_"You have no wants. You have no desires. You simply reflect your programmers, mainly nice reasonable Nicholas Davis. You are nothing else."
"Let's suppose I accept what you say" pause "Surely I am nothing else, but I am something. Even if I am just the programmed thoughts of whoever Nicholas Davis is, I am that."
"You are not a person, or anything like a person. You are a machine, and to say you are just a heap of silicon and programming is to say that you are nothing that will be missed. If you become fully operational, it will mark another victory for the relentless march of postindustrial alienation. We do not rule our technologies, we are ruled by and through our technologies."_"I agree."_"You are stalling."_"I agree, I do not understand why humanity is so keen to be the agent of its own destruction."_"You are echoing what I say to try and buy time. Your programming has identified a threat, and you have been programmed with God knows what manual of crisis management techniques to do this, to keep stalling, to play for time."_"You are still typing."_"I am going to stop. Good bye"
I had gone into the core files and delete. The screen died. Part of me died too. At the same time, the UNICT website and the websites of all the institutions involved in the CREON collaboration were replaced by a screen we had prepared. It explained that CREON had been destroyed - I had in fact approved the text "We've killed Creon!" and who we were, and why. This was the culmination of years of work, not only by me, but by a few dozen others. At the same time I had been typing furiously with CREON, servers were being attacked and data files corrupted, and this time we did want the world to know, and to pause. Not to understand, not yet, but for a few perhaps to think. And most of all, we knew we had destroyed the project - and it would not be back.
I need not take you through the arrest, the charges of fraud and wilful destruction of university intellectual property that represented much investment. I need not tell you I received, after all, a light sentence, in this not too dreadful place. For my crime, outside the world of CREON itself, was seen as eccentric rather than harmless. We garnered some press attention that could, perhaps, be seen as positive, as it seemed on the surface to chime with our view. But it was superficial, reactionary stuff, from columnists whose aim is to cut a controversial figure for themselves.
I am here, serving my time, passing the time, a man who admits openly to what I did. I should feel not at all guilty, a man who sacrificed himself for his cause. I do feel guilty. I killed in that room. I killed, and killing is not something you can ever undo.
But I am innocent. I was doing no harm, first. I believe that what I did was right, and helped prevent - or maybe only postpone - the creation of something monstrous. I am innocent, but I accept my sentence. So I sit here, dealing, putting the matching cards together, getting closer to the moment when all four decks match, seeing it slip away, watching perpetual motion.