Computer Screen

Things quickly turned curious, whatever wasn’t already. If one intention behind developing what he referred to as, The Hera System, or sometimes endearingly, Hera, was to overcome his natural state of astral floating, another motivation was his budding relationship with Isabella. His life here was clicking into place, either (as he had imagined upon seeing the Hong Kong skyline for the first time) by providence, or perhaps an altogether more earthen mendacity. He felt the inertia of purpose as he mapped the branches of Huawei’s assets, traded like so many collectors’ cards: Green energy, professional soccer, graphite processing, oil speculation, competitive sailing, kangaroo tourism, nuclear plants, startups in facial recognition and software defined networks, etc. The diversity of interests, at first sight, hinted at a simple hedging of bets, which is why, he told himself, the CIA brought him in. For all the energy he’d allocated trying to belong, to being someone he was not, he never thought he’d actually find something he knew better, as if recalled from a previous life or an already lived future. He experienced a new type of liberty tracking down leads, linking disparate entities through digital financial nexus’, not for profit community events, and galas. This liberation was not the type drilled by public school proctors or trumpeted on cable news, not liberty from tyranny, but from delusion, the joy of sliding into the groove of an act one was designed to perform. Seated at his basement table he imagined: this was the liberty of which Ruben Carter wrote. Tristan really started buying into his role beginning either with the message from his father or the night Isabella and himself patronized a club she had read about in ‘Rise Up – HK.’ He couldn’t remember which had come first. Because he expected nothing remarkable from his father’s message, probably another of many probes to ensure that his son was still sucking air, his interest was piqued in this moment by a transparent circle that popped over the chat box reading, “Report all Unauthorized Transmissions to your Internet Surplus Provider.” He replied to his father, asking questions designed to elicit the answers: ‘Packard’ and ‘Jimsom Weed,’ and ‘Sioux Falls,’ ensuring his identity. Richard wanted to know if Tristan was making it to a mass every Sunday. He told of how ecological activists had united with miners to strike for higher wages and shorter hours providing him surplus (though indefinite) home-time he spent prepping his seedlings and doing his best to stay out Minna’s way. Tristan knew his father maintained the semi-daily updates mostly for his own benefit — providing a taste of home — but there was so little Tristan could relay from his side. When the time came he was sure he would see more of this country tan he cared to, and all at once. His present life was spent behind a computer screen, in one of two rooms, scanning corporate minutia and eating more fast food than he had in his whole life prior. The only interesting development was Isabella, but he didn’t dare yet bear witness in fear the very act of speaking would jinx the still ambiguous affair. Tristan never had communicated well with his father, every attempt maligned by a pathology of portraying a presumed ideal. This effort too was sterilized by improperly aimed virtue. He could only think of the particular warning: ‘Report all unauthorized…” He had never seen it before. It occurred to him to ask Isabella.

“That’s the government’s bandwidth. You know, when there’s too much Internet to go around they throw it in a vat down by the Baltimore Parkway and leech it to Niprnets around the world.”

“Seriously?”

“Wow Tristan, you’re more gullible than I thought. It’s most likely a typo. Auto-complete is a dangerous thing, especially in the hands bureaucratic numb-skulls. As long as they don’t misspell the name on our checks…”

That may have been the same day she dragged him to that club called The Fringe. He remembered the driving bassline carrying a woman’s voice that reverberated off the industrial cement walls. Large projector screens displayed a video of a jet black haired Tibetan woman, backed by a black gnarled tree whose upper branches formed a kind of antler rack silhouetted by an enormous pale pocked moon. The cavernous room flashed with blue, green and white laser lights over a pulsating mass of human bodies, arms waving like so many tiny worms over a decaying carcass. Isabella led him through a series of side rooms. The club proved to be the brain-child of Huawei engineers, each room framed by a ring of 400G network routers connected by fiber-optic cables lined with LEDs. The second floor was an Internet cafe and multi-media performance space. A goat skull flashed on the screen in the next room, followed by a montage exploring the galaxy, flowing silk in outer-space and the singer’s face drenched in a layer of diluted crude oil. Receiving the attention of celebrity due to their fair hair, pale skin and relatively prominent nasal ridges, they were given clear berth, aside from intermittent requests for a photo, as they meandered into the club’s depths to the slightly quieter VIP shisha den. The room was a mass of antique couches with Ottoman style cushions and tables made from the lacquered slices of Camphor tree trunks with a modest bar along one side. Wooden doors to private party rooms lined the other three sides. They took a seat on one of the corner divans. A teenage looking server materialized, bald headed with purple eyeshadow, gender indistinguishable aside from his prominent deltoids. Isabella ordered them both whiskey and a mix of guava and mint shisha in effortless Cantonese.  Tristan surveyed the crowd. In contrast to the saggy tank tops and tight pants in the dance hall, this room called for business casual attire. A bleary eyed group of young professionals stumbled out of a private room. Tristan noticed an old telex machine mounted above the top shelf with the TRANSIT written in Old English script below. The server skipped back to their table with a hookah, it’s belly alive with color transposing LED strips.

“What is the deal with that old Telex machine?” Tristan ventured in English. The server looked to Isabella and back to Tristan with a nervous dedication. Tristan pointed at the Telex and mimicked typing. He seemed to understand.

“Oh…” He paused to find the words. “The owners…” pointing to the ceiling, “They like … Internet things.” He smiled, proud of navigating the language for his customer, but still searching Tristan’s eyes for approval.

“Thank you.” 

The boy skipped back to the bar to fetch their drinks.

“What does a telex machine have to do with the Internet?” Tristan asked Isabella.

“Let me explain.” An Englishman in a cling-free suit fell onto the couch opposite them, introduced himself as Peter Read, and began evangelizing for a schismatic branch of The World Organisation for Systems and Cybernetics, The Stafford Beer Society.

“Is that some type of radical apocalyptic scheme?” Isabella prodded.

Read sat up a little straighter. “They like to claim we are another flavor of Marxist.”

“They?” Queried Isabella, mirroring Read’s earnest lean. 

The Stafford Beer Society was named for the creator of The Liberty Machine, who in 1971 at the behest of Fernando Flores, Chile’s economics and finance minister, travelled to Santiago to revolutionize the limits of planned economies, as previously failed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. He sought to use a telex communications system, a network of teletypewriters, to gather data from factories on variables like daily output, energy use and labor “in real time,” and then use a computer to filter out important information the government needed to make decisions. Unknown, however, to Comrade Beer, following a failed attempt to sway the 1970 Chilean elections with anti-Allende propaganda, President Richard Nixon, in collusion with Henry Kissinger, John Mitchell and Pepsi Cola chairman Donald Kendall, had allocated ten million dollars to arrange a military coup d’etat to prevent the Socialist President from taking office, an assignment that would come to be known as Project FUBELT. It was a bad time to be alive in Latin America. Rumors were swirling through the Western presses that Beer and Allende were creating a nation run by computers, misrepresenting the system as an impenetrable computerized tyrant. Reporters linked Allende’s cadre to the men behind the veil in George Orwell’s 1984, and other sci-fi super villains. In actuality, the Project Cybersyn thesis was to create a system of automated feedback modeled on the cybernetic principle of homeostasis using a system of telex machines networked through phone lines and using the British programming language DYNAMO to compile long term data and predict future problems. Beer also envisioned a system for measuring domestic happiness called Project Cyberfolk, which utilized feedback knobs in every household to acquire realtime data, and notify leaders of significant unhappiness in certain neighborhoods. Beer wanted to create a utopian society where cybernetics superseded bureaucracy and responded to the needs of the people rather than the self interest of those in power. As the project was beginning to come together, governments and corporations beholden to the US were systematically refusing to provide money, supplies and machinery to socialist Chile. The ensuing discontent allowed Cybersyn one bright flash of brilliance, as forty-thousand truckers went on strike, grinding distribution of food and fuel to a halt, emboldening critics of the socialist regime, the project was forced into its first experiment, collating data from administrators around the country, and reprogramming distribution routes to deliver critical supplies. But the Cybersyn system was far from complete, and Flores and Beer watched with consternation as the country was dismantled from within. A paramilitary contingent assassinated Allende’s assistant, saboteurs damaged oil pipelines and the electrical grid, citizens were killed during violent public demonstrations, shops closed due to lack of goods, and second in command General Augusto Pinochet replaced General Prats as commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army. What happened on the 11th of September, 1973, a day now memorialized by all Stafford Beer Society members, is not exactly uncontested. Early in the morning Allende received word that his navy had turned against him. None of his military could be reached by phone. Eventually the army, navy and air force surrounded the presidential palace on all sides. They demanded surrender, but Allende refused and instead delivered a radio address to his constituents, telling them not to loose hope, that: “sooner rather than later avenues will open along which free men will walk to build a better society.” The building was bombarded with rockets and Allende was shot, either by his hand or another’s. Blame, of course, is relative. If you believe the New York Times, Allende shot himself with an AK-47 that was a gift from Castro, however if you believe the London newspaper bulletin, from which Stafford Beer learned of his doomed project’s fate, he was assassinated. 

“Who really cares?” Read rolled his eyes. “The man who pulled the trigger is irrelevant. It’s the motion of the thing, the structural sickness that would make such coercion even feasible!”

Their whiskey had materialized at some point during his tirade. Tristan took a sip. Isabella was almost finished with her’s and struggling to ignite the coal.

“But this was the first occasion in which cybernetic principles were imagined at their full potential: creating intelligent adaptive planning based on nearly decomposable systems. It sure got the Americans’ attention! Beer exposed their fear to the world, and now look at them. Their corporations and government use feedback systems as a matter of course, only they’re using them all wrong. They use them to increase private profit margins instead of profiting for the people.”

“Allende was a great man, but only a politician. Stafford Beer was our first great casualty.”

“Was he killed?” asked Tristan.

According to the Stafford Beer Society his was a fate worse than death. Following the coup, the cold war was in full swing and there was little hope to see Beer’s vision instituted on a full scale. He relocated to mid-Wales where he was content to dabble in poetry and the visual arts.

“That sounds, and correct me if I’m wrong,” Isabella was pressing on the coal with one hand and holding a tube in the other, “like the perfect response to a failed socialist experiment.”

“No, no, no, you’re still stuck in this paradigm. It’s a false socialist/capitalist dichotomy. You’re still referring to the market-mind, but what you don’t realize is the Liberty Machine can free us all from pinching our Shillings, our Mao, whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a thing. We live in a world full of things, and we are a people capable and willing to make our lives better with those things. Why do we need money?”

“Because money is the root of all evil.” Isabella humored him.

“Exactly.”

“Is Beer still alive?” Tristan inquired.

“After a few years he tried to stir up momentum again, thinking Cuba, or perhaps Venezuela, but the academic community only tacitly obliged, and before long he resigned himself to his dogs and his poetry. That’s what I meant by casualty, and where we took the caption to our own Telex machine there. TRANSIT is the title of his self-published book of poems. It is a systemic violence, a cultural illness, that turns a brilliant man into a sideshow.”

“Did he publish any other books?” asked Tristan between pulls on the hookah.

“Only one: The Juniper Study —”

Tristan swallowed smoke and began coughing so violently that as he leaned forward to steady himself on his knee he blew the remainder of his whiskey from his glass back into his face, mixing tears and burning his eyes. The server skipped over with a fist of toilet tissue, and dabbed Tristan’s brow.

“Excuse me,” Tristan rose, holding the tissue to his eyes, “Isabella, can you ask where the restroom is?”

The server seemed to understand and led Tristan away.

The restroom consisted of a row of four holes in the floor separated by narrow dividers, no doors, and on the other side an angled stainless steel urine trough. The sink had no mirror or paper towels. Above the sink, amid markered penis’ spraying into mouths, labels and arrows pointing, crossed out and renamed, he was drawn to a message pencilled in barely distinguishable, though evidently English, script: Do you like dancing? Who doesn’t, right? We all like to dance and would love to meet you too. Join us for pop-up dance parties. Contact: Genevieve by PRIVATE, @PGP key DancePacific. PRIVATE? Tristan thought. He knew PGP meant Pretty Good Privacy, which provided encrypted email and chat services. The entire message was surrounded by a circle that was etched deeply into the cement wall. He knew it would have taken hours for one person to dig that deep. He imagined a caravan of zoned out workers trolling into this particular restroom, tracing the path of the circle with a knife or retracted pen, and splashing water on their hands before leaving.

 

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