Back When There Were Computers

by Frank J. Perricone (

"Societies can behave the same way, when there is a sudden and dramatic increase in the flow of energy through the society -- automobiles in place of horses and buggies, massive waves of immigration, new trading relationships with new flows of products, surges of new information with the introduction of technologies like television or the Internet.  First, long-stable patterns break down.  Then new ones emerge at a higher degree of complexity.  Societies are vulnerable to misinterpreting the first stage as a descent into chaos and then overreacting with the imposition of a rigid, stagnating order."  -- Al Gore, at MIT Commencement Address, June 7, 1996

"Remember back when there were computers?  I know, not many people do anymore.  Oh, sure, when you were kids you stumbled onto the end of the Last Millennium in your non-directed learning experiences, you heard words like 'computer' and 'Internet' and how much of a big deal people made of them.  But you didn't really integrate it into your mind space.  It's just stale bits, like talk of the Roman roads or the printing press.  Quaint, thinking of computers as something that are still around, that are in a place.

"But if you're going to help stop Resnick you're going to have to get your mind into that space.  You have to see why they we-- why they thought that way.  You can hardly blame them.  Back when telegraphy was new, people fell into the same trap.  Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote..."  Leary's image was momentarily obscured as a new window popped up, showing the words as Leary spoke them:

'By means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time. The round globe is a vast... brain, instinct with intelligence!'

"But just as the telegraph made the Pony Express obsolete one year after its heyday, it also created the circumstances of its own obsolescence.  Or rather, assimilation.  Telegraphy became part of the phone system, and that became part of the Internet, and that became part of the World Wide Web, and that became part of Babel, and that... well, that's about when it disappeared.

"Resnick is still thinking the way they did back in the old 2D sci-fi movies when they had a single computer running the world from some room full of blinking lights.  Those mythical computers had some strange traits: smart enough to talk and listen, but not enough to have a tone of voice, or watch where you were looking or gesturing when you talked.  Smart enough to play chess better than any person, but not smart enough to learn what a person was like from one day to the next.  But the most important thing about them was that they were hardware.  A big, vulnerable hunk of metal at the center of a web of long strings of metal wire that allowed it to control things."  Behind Leary, an image of a massive metal monstrosity from the 1960s made the other team members cringe or laugh, as the whim struck them.

"Resnick thinks like that.  See, for him it all started just before the Big Crash.  In 1999 his father, Harold Resnick, was a factory worker in a foundry in Tennessee.  Had been working there for thirty years.  Stephen wasn't supposed to be born; his mother was supposed to be infertile, they couldn't afford adoption, then there was a miracle and Stephen was born.  But in 1999, when he was just a baby, his father got laid off.  They called it that, but really, the foundry went out of business, the last one of its kind.

"Harold knew nothing about computers, and there was nowhere for him to go.  To his credit, he tried, but the world was arrayed against him.  He scraped together some money working minwage, took a weekend class, but he couldn't get anywhere with no chance to practice, and he sure couldn't afford to spend any money on more than that.  Remember, this was just about when President Gingrich destroyed the last of the welfare system to make tax breaks for corps to recover from the Crash with, and there was nothing for Harold to fall back on.

"Stephen grew up without any exposure to computers.  Tech Corps was still around for a few more years until Gingrich scragged it, but then the school vouchers system went in, and everyone switched to home-based virtual schools.  Everyone who could afford it, that is; those who had nothing but the vouchers got stuck in the Underpits, back before they scragged 'em, and came out about the same as they went in.  Wasn't much you could learn in those 'schools' except anger, and how to fake retina scans.

"Stephen has grown up angry and confused, one of the Unders, destined to spend his life in minwage or prison like 94.7% of the other Unders.  What makes him different is that, somehow, he stumbled onto some kind of repository of atombits from the Last Millennium, maybe a library or just a warehouse of books.  We've got a team in Louisville trying to find it now so we can see what he knows.  Dr. Mobuto is also trying to put together a simula of Stephen, but since he's been only in realspace, it's hard to learn much.  Unders, like people from Last Millennium, associate with people based on where they are, not who they are.  We've actually had to have a team of psychs from Minneapolis sent in body to Louisville to try to find out who Stephen knew.  Funny how, of all the people in the country, the Unders who talk the most about privacy invasion are the ones with the most privacy.

"Anyway, from his threats, it appears that Stephen is convinced there's some kind of 'hub' he's going to destroy in that building, something that's going to cripple the 'network'.  See, he doesn't know about Babel.  From what we can tell, his perspective dates from the second age, when advances in computronics had made it possible for computers to spend 90% of their power on user interface, but they still spent virtually nothing on intercomputer interface."  In a corner of the screen a hyperlink appeared, branching to the story of how, in the recovery from the Big Crash in 2000, Durstin Selfridge developed Babel, the first computer programming language that computers used exclusively to talk to and program one another.  At first, Babel was just an attempt to propagate the fixes for the 2000 Crisis more quickly, by setting the computers themselves to dealing with the problems of protocol incompatibility and mismatched languages.  A Babel-equipped computer (latter called a Babeler, pronounced "babbler") could figure out what languages another computer knew and then adapt its own communications, or reprogram the other computer, until they could communicate.  By 2010, 90% of the power of computers was being spent Babeling to one another to exchange information without worrying about common languages; by then, most people had forgotten (or never knew) there ever were communications issues, just as by the late 1990s most people had never dealt with card punches or command lines.  After reviewing all this, one team member told his wall "replay what Leary said since I branched, speed up 10% until I catch up."  The wall made a gentle confirming noise and then, moving a little bit more quickly, Leary was talking again.

"The trouble is, if he blows that building up, the simulae say that the ejecta will aggravate some of the climactic problems on the West Coast, possibly cause a widespread drought through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico.  I don't need to tell you how many millions live there now that Los Angeles is nearly empty; nor how much that land is worth to The Bank."

One of the team, a young man identified by his vCard as Castanelli, interrupted Leary at this point, and she graciously yielded the cursor.  "Hasn't anyone tried to explain this to the zero?" he said plaintively.

Leary frowned at the pejorative.  "Of course, but he won't believe us, he says..." and (with a gesture from Leary) the video switched to a shot of Stephen himself, in the building they all feared would become infamous, "'ve mapped my goddamn brain, you're just making this crap up to try to get me to stop, but I know, I know you're scared... check that robot you've got that thinks like me and ask him, it, if I'll really do it!"

The team members couldn't help a nervous chuckle (except the one who tapped the corner of her 'paper' (a thin, flexible, lightweight computer display she could read while in bed) and branched to find out what a 'robot' was).  Leary picked up her narration without pause: "The trouble is, he's not demanding anything.  All he wants is the end of the 'Internet', he wants it back the way his father knew the world, and he thinks that destroying this 'hub' is going to do it.  Frankly, we can't figure out why he hasn't done it yet, what he's waiting for.  It means we're going to have to move very carefully.

"The first thing we need to do is meet in realspace at the old train station in the old city."  There was a confused hubbub then, as the team members quickly scanned the vCards of all the others and came to the startled realization that they were all near the same city.  "So that's why I was assigned to this job; it's because of where I am!" one muttered in surprise.

Two hours later, Leary, wearing her favorite blouse (the one with the sexy British accent and extra biofeedback sensors) met her team in the train station.  "I trust you all had a chance to have your agents go over the uplink I sent and present you with the parts you didn't already know, so we should be as ready as we're gonna be.  I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that the psychs from Minneapolis, and the team in Louisville, didn't turn anything up yet.  The good news is we've found that the systems in the building are still there.  AT&T-Disney disconnected the building when the owner couldn't pay the bandwidth bill, but that was only two years ago, so the systems should still be workable.  Jansen, I want you to try to get the links back up.  Niles, you're with Jansen; I want you Babeling the minute the link is up.  You have everything you need?"  Niles, a little distracted to note he'd seen Leary at the little flower boutique in the newly revitalized downtown and never even known she was one of his one of his bosses, waved his holographic display/input unit and headed off with Jansen to find the building's dataport.

Leary addressed the others.  "If Jansen and Niles can get the building alive again, we should be able to use some holographics to watch Resnick and maybe to cover for us.  But we're still going to have to go in there, face, and stop him.  I checked your profiles, and I see none of you is trained in weapons or unarmed fighting, and it may come to that, so I got some self-aimers."  She passed out the lightweight pistols.  "Not as good as the real thing, of course, but they'll give you a fighting chance.  Remember, keep him talking; Dr. Mobuto thinks he wants to talk, that's what he's waiting for.  He has to prove something.  Don't antagonize him, but don't lie, don't give in, don't show weakness."

Leary's blouse suddenly whispered to her, "Jansen says they're in, what should they do?"  Leary ordered the blouse to show her Resnick.  In an instant, a hundred things happened.  The blouse, relaying a digital message via a radio transceiver cunningly woven into the threads of one sleeve, instructed a nearby lamppost (using Babel) to establish a communication channel to the building.  The lamppost queried a geographic record located in Australia to find the digital address of the building in question, then bounced the blouse's message to the building's commport via land lines.  The building acknowledged the request but sent back a confirmation request with a detailed permission inquiry, which got routed through several security-servers before arriving at the law enforcement registry which could authenticate Leary, and by association, her blouse.  When the blouse confirmed that it had determined (via biofeedback signatures) that Leary was its actual occupant, the authentication system permitted the building to tap its own long-dormant holography system.  Rather than transmitting a full 3D holograph of the entire building, the building broke down the image into a simula of 3D objects, pattern-matched until it found only one that could match "Resnick" (which it had, by asking assistance from a grammar analyzer at MIT, determined to be a proper name of a human), and then opened a live pipe sending the object definitions for Resnick and his surrounding objects back to the blouse.  Babeling, the blouse recreated the scene from the object representations in real time as a holograph in front of Leary, who knew none of this, only that she asked her blouse to do something and it did.

"All right, Niles, just try to mask the sounds we make, we're going in."  (Her blouse, of course, knew who Niles was and, after checking with other devices in the area to make sure none of them were about to send the words to Niles, relayed the message itself, to Niles' earring (which was identifying itself as Niles' message receiver).)  Niles nodded (the blouse reported that as "okay") and started setting up tiny sounds which used destructive interference to cancel the sound waves made by the rest as they went in, based on a dynamic simula of audio conditions in the building.

A few suspenseful, but uneventful, moments later, three team members stepped into Resnick's view holding self-aimers on him, while Leary stepped in front of him, her manual gun trained on him, her voice (enhanced by the blouse with subsonics to add authority) calming but decisive.  "Stand still, Resnick, don't move... we'll scrag you if we have to, but we'd just as rather not."

Startled, Resnick looked like a rabbit in a trap, but he regained his composure quickly and put on a brave face.  Holding up his dead-man's switch, he said "You can't scrag me without this going off, and then you and my body and the Net all go together."  He had a look of exultation and triumph, so sure of himself.

"Don't be a fool, Resnick, you won't destroy any hub, we don't use those anymore.  Everything's massively parallel and replicated on landline, radio, satellite, even on quanta nowadays.  All you'll do if you let that go is kill a few dozen people here in the old city, and a few million living in the new homesteads in Arizona."

Resnick sneered.  "A few dozen Unders, a few million of you.  Sounds fair..."

Castanelli glared in hard, cold anger.  His finger slowly squeezed tighter on the trigger of the self-aimer.  Seeing this, Leary closed her eyes and focused a moment, sending a biofeedback signal she'd programmed earlier to her blouse, telling it to disable that gun.  The blouse checked where she was looking and then told the gun to quietly disable itself, which it did.  When Resnick went on saying "You mindless drones of the Net, spend all your time talking to machines, soulless, you know nothing, you're all interchangeable and expendable," Castanelli lost it and squeezed.

Resnick jumped at the sudden motion, then realized there was no report to go with it, and looked in surprise at Castanelli who was staring at the gun.  "You... you were going to shoot me!  You bastard!"  Resnick's face started to get red.  Leary knew it was time to get control of the situation fast, so she turned to Castanelli and barked loudly, angrily, at him "Get out of here now!" Defiant but cowed, Castanelli turned and stalked out.  The other two just stood, shakily, unsure what was going on.

"Do you see what kind of--" Resnick started.

Leary cut him off.  "I'm sorry about that, Stephen, really I am.  He was always a little quick to temper, too strong of emotion.  Especially under pressure, and you have to admit," she said with a very nervous chuckle, "you've got us all under some pressure!"  Great, great, he's starting to see me on his side, she thought.  Couldn't have asked for a better bad cop if I'd asked out loud.  Maybe too good.  "Now, Stephen, tell me what you want me to do to stop you from going through with this."

"I told you, you can't stop me, this way of things has got to be stopped."

"Why, Stephen?  Don't you see all the good we've done?  Species extinctions are down over 80% since 1990, parts of the West Coast are habitable again, the standard of living--"

"Not for Unders!  You and your pretty little computers... great for taking money from us, taking our secrets, stealing our thoughts, stealing our privacy, stealing our jobs."

"There are more jobs than there were in your father's time, Stephen."

"For Unders?"  Resnick was sneering again.

"President LaRoe's new program offers technology training to any Under willing to accept transport out of the old cities.  We don't want there to be an underclass--"  Leary knew she'd said the wrong thing but it was too late to take it back.  If only this were a digital conversation, she sighed.

"So you're just going to wait for the Unders to die out, or get swallowed up in your brainwashing, or kill them all?"  His hand started loosening around the switch.

"No!  That's not what I meant... I meant, there shouldn't be a group of people with no choices.  The President is determined to give Unders the same chances as everyone else, the same training.  You can go to school, learn how things work, and be able to do whatever you want with your life.  No more minwage unless you want it."

"You mean brainwashing."  Was he weakening a little?

"Stephen, modern education isn't brainwashing, it's just a chance to be exposed to things, to learn how to learn, how to think.  Anything you learn along the way is incidental, and up to you.  You can come out of your education knowing whatever you want, so long as you've shown you can think on your own.  Yes, on your own; ever since the spread of Internet plagiarism in the Last Millennium, the backbone of education evaluation has been original thought, as rigorously confirmed by exhaustive searches of Babel.  Don't you see?  'Computers' made it unnecessary to turn humans into drones; they didn't make us mindless, they let us focus on thinking while they did the working.  Back in the Last Millennium, calculators freed up mathematicians to think and invent and create and teach, instead of doing calculations.  Computers just extended that principle to everyone else.  That's not dehumanization, that's humanization!"

She could tell he was weakening his resolve, so she kept up her onslaught of thought.  "The President has committed her administration to reuniting the people of this country again by making life better for those of you, us, who need it the most.  But if you cause the death of millions of wealthy people, you're going to make that a lot harder.  Come on, Stephen, give--"

Her words were drowned out by a shot.  Castanelli, using her own tricks, had moved silently into the doorway, having overridden the disable on his gun.  Leary didn't pause to ask her blouse to remind her to find out what Castanelli's problem was that made him so sensitive to Resnick's criticisms; she was leaping towards Resnick, dropping her gun, taking him into her arms, holding his hand closed around the switch with one hand while covering the torn hole in his shirt with the other, keeping the blood welling up from spilling all over.  Her blouse, sensing her heart rate skyrocketing and already set to emergency mode, called for medical help.  An ambulance a few blocks away rushed to the scene, while a surgeon in Morocco prepped up and slipped into telepresence gear.

Leary whispered to Resnick, "Hold on... just hold on, I'll get you through this, don't slip away on me..."  Then she turned ice cold eyes on Castanelli, still holding his gun on the pair of them.  "Well, Castanelli, are you going to scrag me to finish him off?  You'd better, because once I'm done saving his life, I'm going to make yours hell."  Jansen and Niles ran into the room behind Castanelli, who dropped his gun and put his hands up, seeing he had no choice.

Leary turned back to Resnick as the ambulance came into the room.  "Just hold on a little longer, Stephen.  We're going to heal you.  We're going to heal all of us."

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