Degrees of Freedom
Can we develop technology that improves governance & mutual understanding?
This is a short story written by Karl Schroeder ✉ (️www.narrativefutures.com) and re-published here with his permission (also CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). I hope it provides inspiration and optimism to technologists looking to design a better future.
Robert Skaay got the call while helping his son pick out a new home in West Vancouver. After so many years in Ottawa, on the far side of the continent, he thought maybe his memory was playing tricks on him. He remembered this neighborhood differently — as a place where lichen and moss grew on the curbs, rain-drenched hedges rose twenty feet high, and garden slugs were as long as his thumb. Instead he stepped onto a clean cement sidewalk under blue sky and a hot sun. There were no hedges in sight and sprinklers were trying to paint over the yellow that had invaded the normally rich green of the lawns.
“What do you think?” Terry spread his arms dramatically.
Rob looked up at the house they’d seen in the listing and grunted. Coral-pink stucco. Not a promising start. “How’d you find it?”
“Nexcity.” Terry tapped his glasses.
“Shit, son, that’s a nudge.”
“It can be.” Terry shrugged.
At this point Rob would normally have made some sarcastic remark about using augmented reality to make your decisions for you, but the fact was he had Nexcity open in his own glasses. Instead of saying anything, he took a moment to scout out the neighborhood. “What’re they asking?”
“Seems low. I wonder …” He turned around and saw why houses on this street might be priced lower. Two blocks away, his glasses showed the virtual wire-frame shape of a condominium tower superimposed against the towers across English Bay. The Nexcity app took data from plans registered at the city planning office and made them into a virtual skyline. The historical city; buildings now being built or renovated; what would or could exist here — all were visible through the glasses. Rob’s ant-hill plugin annotated the condo project with projected desire lines showing which routes foot traffic was likely to take from the project to the new skytrain line. Much of it went right by the house.
“There goes the neighborhood,” he said as he shut the car door. “You don’t want to buy here.”
“But, Dad, that tower’s the only development.” Had there been anything else registered at the planning department, it would be visible in Nexcity.
“Condos are like cockroaches. Where there’s one, there’s bound to be more.”
Terry’s wife, Margaret, was already inside, but she’d heard this exchange. Her laugh floated out of the foyer. “Check out the staging, boys!”
Whatever the place had looked like before, the fluffers had clearly been at it: all the interior walls were immaculate white, any rugs had been removed to show the blond wood flooring, and the furniture was clearly from some stager’s warehouse: it was all utterly generic, like an Architectural Digest spread. Margaret was talking to the real estate agent, who looked like the usual bored-housewife recruit. Rob took the information sheet from her, held it up so his glasses could scan it, and overlaid the agent with a liaison for her company.
This synthesized face summarized the ratings given the company by thousands of customers. Bad reviews made it uglier; good reviews, more attractive. The face he saw was bland and unassuming. Not a bad company, at least.
Margaret was polite to the agent, taking another information sheet and tapping phones with her. As soon as the woman was out of earshot, she said, “Let’s mess the place up a bit and see how it looks.”
“What’s the overlay?” asked Terry.
“Renovator Two. You got it?”
“Just a minute.” Terry and Rob both opened store apps and found the overlay she was using. While they downloaded, she changed the wall colors and countertops in her overlay, then passed them on. The new view included renders of their paintings from back home — Kent Monkman originals, of course. Rob rolled his eyes, but actually, eggplant and lime-green went better together here than he would have imagined.
Being pleased with something made him instantly suspicious. “The real estate companies pay these app makers, you know,” he said. “Illusion of control. And the colors aren’t what you’d actually see. Virtual paint ain’t paint.”
“Oh, Dad.” As they looked at the bedrooms, he could see that Terry was convinced. Rob thought they could do better, but he would have happily gone along with Terry’s decision had his son not suddenly said, “How’s your Dorian look, Maggie?”
Rob snorted. “Oh, you’ve joined that damned cult, have you?”
“Dad, it’s just more decision-support software.”
“And you need more help making decisions? Pah.”
At that moment Rob got the call. He stood there for a minute with his hand to his ear — motionless, so that Terry and Margaret shrugged and went to look at the en suite.
“Jesus,” said Rob.
Terry poked his head out of the little bathroom. “What is it?”
“Should I come back to Ottawa? No, here’s better, right … three hours.” He blinked and looked over at his son. “No matter how hard we try, we can’t escape our roots,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“A goddamned tanker’s run aground in the Inside Passage. It’s the worst possible moment, ’cause we’ve almost sealed the negotiations to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline.” That pipeline was the last chance for Alberta’s oil sands, as all other transportation costs skyrocketed and pipelines through the United States and east into Ontario had been stymied. “The First Nations were the roadblock, and they were about to sign on. That goddamned tanker just handed them a big environmental stick to beat us with. They’re insisting on final, binding renegotiations of their original treaties. Land for oil, it’s that simple. And guess who’s leading the charge?”
“Oh. Don’t tell me, it’s — ”
“You’re always so proud to call them our people,” said Robert Skaay. “Well, our people want a lands-claim settlement — and they’re gonna use this spill to get it.”
“The Haida are blocking the pipeline?” Rob could see the hint of excitement in Terry’s eyes.
He sighed. “Not the pipeline, but the tanker terminal, which is pretty much the same thing.
“And it looks like I’m going to be across the table from them.”
“Forty thousand tonnes dry weight,” said Krishnamurti, director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. “We’re not sure how much oil it was carrying but it’s enough to make a hell of a mess. We’re pretty sure the Haida are behind it.”
Robert had taken over a conference room in downtown Vancouver and dimmed the lights so his glasses could take over, projecting a virtual rendition of the Ottawa room where the rest of the cabinet ministers sat. Like Rob, Krishnamurti was attending the meeting remotely.
The prime minister leaned back in his chair, arms crossed and obviously angry. “The Haida would never cause an environmental catastrophe! They’re all about preserving the land, aren’t they?”
All eyes turned to Rob. He sighed. “How would I know?” He stared them all down. After all this time they should know he’d never lived in the Haida Gwaii.
They should also know that, behind anything the Haida did these days, there was a couple hundred years’ worth of frustration with the Canadian government’s bad faith and broken treaty promises.
Krishnamurti cleared his throat. “It’s not their shoreline that’s threatened. There’s a mosaic of overlapping First Nations around the Passage, like the Oweekeno and the In-shuck-ch. The Haida may have risked screwing them over for the greater good.”
“More likely they’re all in on it,” said the minister of foreign affairs. “The bands that are affected can sue us for compensation.”
Rob shook his head. “But why do you think the Haida are behind it? Was there a bomb on the ship?”
“It’s purely circumstantial,” said the CSIS director. “It’s about timing.”
“Can you pass Rob that overlay?” said the prime minister to Krishnamurti.
“Right.” A flag in the corner of Rob’s vision told him he had new e-mail with an attachment. He blinked at the symbol for the attachment and something loaded into his interface. “What is it?”
“Have you got a window to look out? It works best that way.”
Warily, Rob rose and shifted the heavy curtain. Outside sprawled the green glass towers of downtown Vancouver. He could see the ski runs on Grouse Mountain, a green cross-hatch under the summer sky.
Standing up out of the city in a profusion as thick as the surrounding forests were thousands of virtual flags. He poked at one and expanded it so he could see the caption. It was a man’s name, vaguely familiar; a spiderweb of faint lines radiated out from it. “What is this?”
“It’s an augmented reality overlay that tells you who owns what,” said Krishnamurti. “A Big Data aggregation of publicly available information on real estate, machinery, infrastructure, you name it — linked back to the shareholders, boards, and individuals who own it. A map of who owns what … and not just modern financial data. It’s got all the First Nations land claims. It was uploaded to the Vancouver Urban Overlays site six hours ago, just before the tanker ran aground.
“Whoever uploaded it did so from Haida Gwaii.”
When Rob was growing up, they’d still been called the Queen Charlotte Islands. An hour north of Vancouver by plane, the Gwaii nestled just under the Alaskan Panhandle. An inverted triangle of coastal rain forest,the islands were known for their gigantic trees and for the art that those had inspired. As inhabitants of one of the last areas of North America to be touched by European conquest, the islanders had a more direct connection to their ancestry than any other Canadian First Nation; their strength hadn’t faded until around 1900 when smallpox devastated the islands.
That the aboriginal side of Rob’s family was from there had always meant, well, nothing, to him. Artistic though they might be, the Haida were a footnote in North American history. Yet they had never entirely gone away, and they had never thought of themselves as a conquered people.
Maybe it was that one simple fact about them that made them dangerous.
He looked behind him. The augmented reality interface gave Rob the illusion that he was not standing alone in a commandeered conference room high above the Vancouver skyline but was in fact closeted with the rest of the cabinet back in Ottawa. Turning back to the window, he stared out at the unsettling skyline, wondering how many other people were looking at the city — the country — through the same new lens. This app was a step beyond Nexcity, which merely showed you the future of local real estate. This … this was inequality made visible.
It wasn’t just the present-day ownership tags. The whole visible vista of mountains and coast was subdivided by faint curving virtual walls, like the sheets of the northern lights, except tagged with the relevant treaty claims. All the betrayals by the British and Canadian governments over the centuries were visible, shimmering in the sky. Even the currency that the money was counted in — it wasn’t dollars, but Gwaiicoin. That variant of Bitcoin was quickly becoming the most popular currency on the West Coast, and not just among the First Nations.
There was more.
The interface included something called Fountains View. When he tried it the skyscape shifted; instead of shimmering walls of light, he was looking at … well, fountains. Fountains of money, rising off Indian lands and falling on the city, into glass-walled towers that wore the logos of logging and mining companies like crowns. Fountains of money that you could follow as they left the lands of the Aishahik and Te’mexw, the Klahouse and Nazko, and vanished into the vaults of white men — an accusation as clear as a cry from God.
“This can’t be legal,” he said. “Where are they getting the data?”
“It’s all from legal sources. Shareholders’ reports, mostly,” said Krishnamurti.
“We think the same people somehow grounded the tanker?”
“We don’t know it for sure. We’re assembling a liaison for them. Here, I’ll bring it up.”
Rob turned back to the conference room, repopulated with the transparent images of his colleagues and a newcomer. A new figure sat in one of the previously empty chairs: a young aboriginal man, well dressed and calm, who gazed back at Rob through intelligent, dark eyes.
Rob shuddered. “Is it live?”
“Not yet; we don’t have enough behavior of the group it models to bring it to life. When it is, maybe we can learn more.”
“Meanwhile,” said the prime minister, “let’s look at our policy options. Your people have run the padgets?” Krishnamurti nodded and called up SimCanada. Back in Ottawa, it would be appearing on the wall screen; for Robert, the data sprang to life as a series of virtual screens floating in and even beyond the boundaries of the room.
There were sixteen Canadas up there, blotched with color that showed relative levels of political support for the Party, as well as economic well-being across the country, industrial measures, and even those new intangibles, the “happiness quotients” that were in such vogue now. Each map showed a different possible future for the country. The damned program only provided multiple futures, never a single projection, which was one of the things Rob hated about it. It had to do with how morphological analysis worked, but it was annoying anyway. What good was a system that let you see the future if it couldn’t tell you which future was going to come to pass?
The sixteen maps showed Canadas six months from now, based on different policy choices the government was working on. These options were flight-tested in an agent-based simulation of the entire country that included the behavior of individual virtual citizens. The simulations were fed by real-time polling and econometric data, and by data from the padgets — policy-development gadgets — employed by the country’s political parties. Krishnamurti used a slider on the screen to move forward and backward in time and sideways through the different options. “So here are the results with and without the tanker spill, depending on which of the response packages we select. As you can see, there’s broad support for a crackdown to start with, but the padgets show quick deterioration of public support if the perceived threat declines …”
Robert expanded several of the maps to look at them more closely. That land claims overlay was a dirty trick, and some of the Canadas showed the effect it might have if this was just the opening salvo in a more sophisticated information war. The scariest one was where the electorate somehow woke up to the fact that only 16 percent of the eligible voters had cast their ballots for the sitting government. Robert’s party had muzzled Elections Canada back in 2014 so the bureaucrats couldn’t even study the actual numbers much less tell the public that less than 50 percent of them had voted last time. Rob only knew because the Party could afford to pay for private studies.
The more he looked at the sims, though, the more puzzled he became. “The only scenarios where we can win the next election are ones where we finally negotiate binding land-claims settlements with the Haida and the other First Nations,” he said. “How do they get to extort us and pull a propaganda stunt like that overlay, and still make us look like the bad guys if we don’t come to the table?”
Krishnamurti exchanged a glance with the prime minister. “Demographics,” said Bill Michener, who had been prime minister for four years and was comfortable in the job. “The aboriginal population’s booming, while the rest of us are in decline; and lately, they’re turning out to vote in record numbers.”
“But there’s more to it than that,” added the CSIS director. “Five years ago only we could afford the processing power for something like this.” He nodded at the SimCanada maps. “And only we had the data. Now … so much information is publicly available, and with block chains running on mobile phone meshnets … we think the Haida are running their own SimCanadas. They’ve been wargaming this scenario, maybe for months. This isn’t just a bunch of boys who got all fired up and decided to make a roadblock. It’s a calculated power play directed against the federal government of Canada.”
“It’s not about either of these stunts on their own,” said Bill. “It’s the overall pattern. They want to do our jobs for us.
“They represent a clear and present danger to Canadian sovereignty. That is why we’re having this meeting.
“If the Haida win, there’s going to be a domino effect. The First Nations have land claims on one-third of Canada’s landmass. They’re experiencing a baby boom and are growing far faster than the rest of the population. We’re aging, retiring, and hopelessly mired in debt while they’re debt-free, young, and just entering the workforce.
“Put it all together; the math is easy.
“This is a power grab.”
They’d been flipping through scenarios for an hour when Bill sent Rob a back-channel request. Rob accepted, giving himself and his old friend an encrypted private channel.
“Bill, what are we really going to do about this?” said Rob before the prime minister could speak. “This isn’t Quebec and whoever they are, those hackers aren’t the FLQ. They’re not trying to separate; they want something else. But what?”
“Yeah, as to that …” Bill stared pensively off to his left, which for Rob was a blank wall but was probably the window on Bill’s end of the connection. “You know I used to go to the Davos conferences. Couple years back, the president of Paraguay comes up to me and he says, ‘Do you have any power?’ I mean, I wasn’t the PM yet, I had your job, but … At first I just stared at him. But he says he’s been talking to prime ministers, presidents, CEOs, you name it, and they all say the same thing. Ten years ago, they could have done things. But now? There’s international treaties and grassroots watchdogs, NGOs, churches, even reality shows all tramping around in what used to be our space. Most of all, there’s the block chain, this thing they say runs Bitcoin. If you’re, I dunno, some kid living in Africa, and you’ve got a smartphone, you don’t need to use your nation’s currency, you can use Bitcoin. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can register anything with the block chain: property ownership, health status, laws, citizenship … That kid in Africa doesn’t need his government — he’s got the Internet.
“Miguel said that everybody’s having the same experience. Either they’ve finally gotten to the place where they expected to have real power only to discover they don’t have it, or they’ve been in power for twenty years and watched it drain away over that time.”
“Yeah.” Rob shrugged. “I thought that’s why the NSA tried to take over the net. ’Cause it was a threat.”
“Sure.” Bill had a rueful look on his face. “Problem is, the block chain and all that other stuff — like that ownership overlay — really has little to do with what’s happening. It’s more about economics, education, mobility …”
Rob sat down so he could get a better look at Bill without the interface shaking. They’d talked about the need to clean up the Canadian political landscape before, but mostly back in university. The subject hadn’t come up since they’d actually risen to become the country’s leadership. Both of them had been laying the groundwork for a purge for years, secure in the knowledge that the other had his back. So what was this bullshit about the president of Paraguay?
“Look, there’s nothing going on we can’t manage,” he said. “You know we have something on everyone. Journalists, activists, housewives — anybody who ever used the Internet. It’s in the Criminal Leads database, and Krishnamurti has it. Everybody’s accidentally stumbled into a kiddie porn website or pirated movies or exchanged dirty e-mails with a coworker. Everybody’s done something we can hang over their head.”
“I don’t think that’ll help,” said Bill, but Rob smiled.
“What I’m saying is we don’t need to impose the War Measures Act to deal with something like Haida secessionists. A while back I had the NSA/CSEC database cross-linked with the enemies list in CIMS.”
“You what?” Bill sat up straighter. “You combined the files?”
The Party’s Constituent Information Management System was the confidential database where all its friends and enemies were listed: at its simplest, it noted who’d donated to the Party, and who had told the canvassers to go to hell. Previous governments had not had enough foresight to divide up a constituents’ list so neatly into friends and enemies — remarkably naive of them.
“The NSA was more than happy to give us the data and CSIS mined it for incriminating patterns. I covered our asses by using the Freedom of Information Act to do a ministerial request with another pretext. You could say the data fell off the back of a truck and into the Party database. All it takes now is a single query to produce a list of enemies plus the grounds for issuing warrants for them. They can all be rounded up by tomorrow, if you want.”
The prime minister shook his head. “The NSA didn’t dismantle American privacy because they thought the Net might become a threat. They felt the power slipping through their fingers for years by that point. They did it ’cause they were scared. And it would have worked during the dot-com boom — but by the time they did it, secrecy wasn’t where power hid any longer.
“If the bastards we’re dealing with can make an overlay like the one you just saw, they can also make one based on your list. They may not have the list, but they’ll have a pretty good idea who we’re likely to be watching. And you can bet there’s buggers out there who data-mine arrest reports looking for patterns just like the one that’d show up if we did what you’re suggesting. They’ll stick the data in the block chain where we can’t censor it, even with War Measures in place and your man in the RCMP on side. Once the dust settled there’d be a nonconfidence vote and we’d be out of power.
“The fact is we’re going to negotiate.” He laughed at the expression on Rob’s face. “To start with, I mean. It’ll go wrong, it always does. And when it escalates — and we both know it will — we’ll have our pretext and the approval of the public when we come down on them like the proverbial ton of bricks. Your job is going to be to do the negotiation.”
And keep the status quo, thought Rob. Well, of course; stalling on land-claims settlements was a great Canadian governmental tradition.
“We have to get a handle on these hackers first. That’s … another reason I wanted to talk to you.”
“Because of the CSEC data?”
“No. Listen, Rob, I don’t think you have anything to do with what’s going on here, but you know somebody who does — somebody, in fact, who’s a silent partner bankrolling a goodly portion of the Haida Gwaii meshnet. The money’s in Gwaiicoin, but we were able to follow it.” Bill told him where the trail had ended. Rob leaped to his feet, swearing.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“There’s a traitor in your house, Rob. I’m going to trust you to take care of it.”
Rob shook his head. He’d come to expect betrayals in his long career, but this one …
“I’ll deal with it, Bill. Tonight.”
“You really didn’t have to come, the tanker thing’s all over the news,” said Terry as he made to close the door; then he noticed the RCMP security squad on the steps and scattered down the walk. “Oh. I guess you’re not staying for supper …”
“Hi, Dad!” Margaret emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray of deviled eggs. “You heard we bought the place?”
“That’s not why I’m here. Listen, I need to talk to you,” he said to Terry. “About the Haida negotiations.”
Terry glanced at the security team. He went down the hall to his little home office and Rob followed. Once they were inside, Terry shut the door and leaned on the computer desk, crossing his arms.
“What can I do for you, Dad?”
Rob had thought about how he would handle this. Krishnamurti had some damning information — but not enough. His relationship with Terry hadn’t exactly been … comfortable, the past few years. If Krishnamurti was wrong, and Rob blew his stack at Terry … He made sure he smiled as he said, “The Haida don’t want to use the usual conference format. They’re insisting the negotiations happen in public and on the net. I spent the afternoon having website addresses and acronyms thrown at me until my head spun. I don’t understand this stuff, and I need somebody who does.”
“Oh.” Terry smiled. He looked genuinely happy. “What tools are they using?”
Rob rummaged in his coat pocket for the paper he’d been writing on during this afternoon’s briefing. Of course CSIS and CSEC had people who could explain this better than Terry. “They’re picking delegates via sortition from a pool that’s developed using something called” — he squinted — “dynamically distributed democracy. What the hell?”
“Ah.” Terry waved a dismissive hand. “That’s just where people delegate other people to represent them. Rather than voting for some candidate, you might delegate me because you don’t have time to look at the issues but you trust me; other people might do the same, and then I might delegate my aggregate to somebody who I trust. It sounds cumbersome, but you can use a networking protocol called Promise Theory to implement it right down to the hardware level — ”
“Whatever. And what about this website, Wegetit.com? They’re insisting that I register. Something about using it during the negotiations. Is this something they’re gonna use to manipulate the process?”
Terry shrugged. “No more than Robert’s Rules manipulates a meeting. Less so, actually. I can help you set it up.”
“I’m gonna end up with a profile,” grumbled Rob, “and then they’re gonna use it against me. This is like those damned Dorians you and Maggie were using this morning, isn’t it?”
“Nobody’s using the Dorians against us, Dad. Dorians are just little pictures of yourself, one for each major decision you’re thinking of making. Let’s say you’re thinking about quitting smoking. Your Dorian takes the data you give it — your age, health, and if you use a sports tracker it’ll take your fitness levels, if you buy through a grocery delivery site it’ll know your diet — and compares it to known outcomes for that demographic. Those little pictures of you — the Dorians — look happier or sadder, richer or poorer, or sicker depending on the outcome. The Dorian for you in ten years if you smoke like a chimney is going to look different from the one where you quit cold turkey right now. And your Dorians get combined, so if you quit smoking but take up, I dunno, marathon running, then the good might counterbalance the bad. The game is to get your Dorian looking better and better — healthier, richer, and happier. If I want to do something like, say, buy a house, I tell my Dorians, and they look at outcomes for people like me and draw me a spectrum of faces based on usual choices.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Rob. But Terry shook his head.
“People have a huge amount of neural wiring dedicated to reading faces, so if you want to map a complex set of data in such a way that people can recognize tiny but significant changes between versions, the best way is to chart it as two or more faces where the differences are in how close together your eyes are, or how many crow’s-feet you’ve got. A difference that’s so minuscule that you’d never see it on a chart will be instantly visible as a face.
“That’s just cognitive science. The analysis of your buying habits, social attitudes, health, and so on is the Big Data crunching that makes the data. How’s that a cult?”
Rob’s heart sank. He could hear it in Terry’s voice, see it in the enthusiasm in his face. Krishnamurti wasn’t wrong. The only question now was what to do.
“They’re holding the treaty negotiations on Haida Gwaii,” he said. “I’m flying out there in three days.
“Do you want to come along?”
The runway west of Queen Charlotte was drenched with rain as Rob and Terry stepped out of the little prop-driven commuter plane. Knowing what they were in for, they’d dressed in raincoats and brought umbrellas.
Climate change hadn’t yet had much impact on the Gwaii. South of the new airport lay Bearskin Bay, a stippled gray surface backed with fog. West were jagged, snow-capped mountains fronted by rough shoreline; north and east the land was carpeted with giant lodgepole pines, a rain forest unlike any other on Earth. The deep underbrush below the trees was lush, full of broad-leafed plants whose greens were not subdued by the gray skies. It smelled dizzyingly wet and cold and fresh.
Rob and Terry hadn’t spoken much on the flight out. Rob’s assistants had most of his attention as they briefed him on the who’s and what’s of the place. That was just an excuse, and Rob knew it; he was hiding behind his aides. But he just couldn’t talk to Terry, especially not at a time like this.
Rob paused at their hired car to look around. Beyond the dismal rain, towering trees scraped the vague underside of the low gray sky. Set back from the runway, but just in front of the trees, was a row of totem poles. Not those Disney imitations you saw everywhere else in the world, he noted with a small, grim hint of satisfaction. These were real, the animal shapes in them softened and gray with age. Once, there had been men named Skaay who carved them.
“Impressive, eh?” Terry was standing next to him, grinning at the poles. Rob shook his head.
“Impressive for the Stone Age. But that’s not where we are. And that’s the whole problem.”
As they reached the car the driver opened the door for Rob; no driverless cars on the Haida Gwaii, at least not yet. As he made to get in, the man said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Rob blinked at him. “What?”
“You’re angry. I’m sorry for whatever it is I did.” The man’s face was local; the rest of him was invisible under a yellow rain slicker and broad-brimmed hat. And, Rob noticed suddenly, he was wearing AR glasses.
“Why do you think I’m mad at you?”
The driver tapped his glasses. “I have Asperger’s. My glasses can recognize emotions on people’s faces and tell me what they are. They say you’re angry right now.”
“Not at you.” As he did up his seat belt he thought, And I’m not angry anyway, damnit! He scowled out at the monotonous trees as they headed into town and answered the aides’ questions and suggestions with terse yeses and nos.
Despite his attempts to focus on the business at hand, he couldn’t help but notice how Terry was avidly staring out at the landscape. Rob found his own attention reluctantly following.
The road curved and lowered, meandering south toward the bay and Skidegate Inlet. They passed a road sign that said they were on Oceanview Drive. It led toward a narrow strip of houses — just three or four streets deep — that hugged a shoreline bristling with the masts of fishing trawlers.
North of here, Graham Island fanned out, an inverted triangle nestled into the Dixon Entrance, where the Alaskan Panhandle met British Columbia’s shore. From the air he’d been able to see into Hecate Strait, which separated the Gwaii from B.C. If the pipeline negotiations worked out, soon a daisy chain of immense tankers from Kitimat would be heading up the strait — bound north and through the entrance, and then to Asia. They would be carrying ultraheavy crude from the oil sands in Alberta, and there was no way they would get through here without the cooperation of the local First Nations bands. The First Nations had fought for the power of that veto inch by inch, over several lifetimes. It wasn’t official, treaty-sanctioned power. They’d had to acquire real power, and in so doing had tangled themselves deeper and deeper into the world. This might look like a little island, but there was nothing local about politics on the Gwaii.
At one point the driver suddenly braked, reducing them to a crawl. Because he was watching the forest, Rob knew there was nothing to see — and yet, after a minute or so, a pair of deer cautiously stepped onto the road ahead of them. “How did you know they were there?” he asked the driver.
The man grinned. As the deer fell behind and he sped up again, he said, “Happy to be back?”
Rob started to retort that he’d never been to the Gwaii before, but the driver was Haida … “Yeah,” he answered.
This was the land of his ancestors, however much he might resent carrying that burden. He had to admit, the houses and stores they were passing looked … not exactly prosperous, maybe, but not as squalid as he’d expected. The Haida had been all but wiped out by disease at the start of the twentieth century. That was a story that repeated all across the Americas, but the apocalypse had taken four hundred years and had reached the Queen Charlottes last. Their culture was still intact when the smallpox hit; one result of this was that they didn’t see technology as the weapon of a conquering power.
His father had once told him that in the old days they’d used slaves to erect the more important totem poles; when the eyes were finally carved so the spirits could look out of them, and they were raised upright, the slaves would be killed and buried at their bases. It was the same nowadays, his father had said, except that they used power tools to do the carving and it was these they buried.
“Hey,” he said to the driver. “Are you on Wegetit.com?”
“Hate using the Internet. But they got a kiosk by the real estate place; when I’m going by, I answer a question or two sometimes. Why?”
“’Cause your side is demanding that I use it. Any idea why?”
“Oh, that’s ’cause it’s part of how we decide things now.”
When he got to the hotel and finally could put his feet up, Rob set aside his glasses, pulled out his tablet, and went to Wegetit.com. It wasn’t his first time on the site, but this time he bit back his impatience and set up an account. Terry had funded this, after all, and he couldn’t quite deny the curiosity of a father about what his son had been up to.
There was only one thing you could do on Wegetit.com: show that you understood someone’s framing of an idea. There were two text fields, one for a word or concept (very short) and a longer one, for about a tweet’s worth of definition. You could let fly your idea of what something meant and wait. After a while, people would respond with restatements of your definition. If you thought a restatement accurately represented your meaning, you could click the Wegetit button. There was no button for disagreement.
Ideas were usually presented in the context of some issue or problem area, such as, in this case, Aboriginal Land Claims. That was the domain the Haida negotiators wanted him to stick to. He started with basic ideas like government and agreement and worked his way up to emancipation and good faith. He had no idea who the people he was agreeing with were — identities were anonymized — but somewhere out there were thousands of people who shared his understandings of many basic concepts, even if they might disagree with his politics. Wegetit was drawing lines connecting all those people, and every agreement strengthened the connections.
According to Terry, this made Wegetit.com the opposite of every other Internet site with a discussion forum, because however well-intentioned they might be, by their very nature discussion forums manufactured misunderstanding. Divergence, not convergence, was the rule in a forum. But give a problem — especially a thorny political problem — to a constellation of connected people on Wegetit.com, and however diverse they might be in their perspectives and attitudes, they would at least understand one another when they talked about it.
It all seemed like bullshit to Rob; it became obvious the next morning that it was anything but bullshit to the Haida.
The negotiations would be taking place in the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate (or, as the locals called it, Sea Lion town). The place was along the shore, a collection of five large buildings reminiscent of lodges but built with modern materials. Six large totem poles stood at stately intervals fronting them. A bewildering amount of carving and block prints covered the walls of the meeting hall, all repeating the legends and tales of the culture. Tables had been set up in a giant U-shape, and there was the usual chaos of people running around making last-minute preparations.
The Haida insisted they needed a daylong scoping workshop to prepare for the real negotiations. Since they were the ones threatening to scuttle the pipeline project, Rob had decided to indulge them. He was as good at steering workshops in the direction he wanted as anybody in the country. He let his aides run interference on the preparations and running around; he wanted to make sure he greeted the right people ahead of the formal ceremonies. Before he could do any of that, though, his senior administrative assistant, Jeffrey, hurried over. “There’s a delay,” he said.
“Of course there is.” He would have been surprised if there wasn’t. Rob had been counting heads and seats; there were a lot more of the latter than the former. “Where is everybody?”
“Some of the delegates have been dismissed,” said Jeffrey. “They’re telling me it’s because of something you did last night.”
“Last night? All I did was go to sleep. Well, I browsed that website for a while …” Oh. Jeffrey was nodding.
“I guess you did enough agreeing that they were able to tell who would know what you meant when you used the word ‘the’ — and who wouldn’t. The delegates who didn’t match up were either dismissed or they’re being briefed on the differences; and they’ve called up a boatload of professionally qualified people — ”
“A literal boatload, I suppose?”
“From across the islands and the mainland too, who’re within your agreements map. With an extra day or so of prep, they’ll be able to make sure that everybody sitting around the table speaks the same language at the level of basic ideas.”
“Fine. If they’re going to play shenanigans, so will we.” He brought out his glasses and put them on. Then he made a secure connection to Ottawa and spilled some copies of SimCanada into his sensorium. He wanted to see how the land-claims issue was tracking.
In between introductions to men and women with names like Ghaandl and Imkyanvaan and Gumssiwa — names and faces that triggered odd memories and recognitions in Rob — he was able to glance at the maps representing different policy outcomes. He could also see the status reports coming out of CSIS on the investigation, but he wasn’t really able to read them with all the glad-handing he was doing. It looked like the tanker hadn’t split yet, but it was on the rocks and they couldn’t get near it. A spill was inevitable; the only question was, how bad would it be?
Yes, let’s not forget this is a power play, he reminded himself as he pulled the glasses off for a photo op. Somehow the Haida had steered that ship onto the rocks. They were corrupting navigational data in the Inside Passage. If the damned spooks in CSEC could get their heads out of their asses and find out how, he wouldn’t have to be here. As it was, the threat was clear: negotiate now, or this happens again.
Either the Haida were confident that they could repeat this stunt, or they were desperate. He’d have to find out which.
“Attention!” It was Todd Swanton, a conference organizer Rob had worked with before. Todd had been flown out here on a day’s notice to facilitate. “Not all the delegates are physically here yet,” he said, “but I’m told they’re all connected and we can do a little teleconferencing while we get organized. I’m going to start by introducing the minister of aboriginal affairs, Robert Skaay …” He went on about Rob’s pedigree, but the way he’d emphasized the name, giving the correct Haida pronunciation, galled Rob. If the press started playing up his connection with the island, they might start to question his objectivity, hence his ability to represent the government properly.
Todd called him up to give a speech, and he talked for fifteen minutes without notes or any plan; he was good at that sort of thing. He started to relax in the familiar conference setting.
After all the preliminaries, it seemed the locals wanted to air their grievances, and Todd didn’t discourage them; he actually started inviting people up to the mic to talk about issues. This too was a familiar exercise to Rob, who was prepared to tune out and ignore the whole process. It would be the usual festival of misery as various elders and parents talked about underfunding, poor education, drug problems, lack of good employment … He’d heard it all before. He would nod and look alert, but Bill had made Rob minister of aboriginal affairs because Rob knew the government couldn’t help these people. A hundred years of trying had yielded nothing. If you were going to pull yourself out of poverty, you had to do it yourself. Rob knew that in his bones, because he had done it.
Except that it didn’t quite play out that way. The people coming up to the podium weren’t just random petitioners; they were people who’d used Wegetit.com to define an issue. Some of them had access to sophisticated interfaces such as augmented reality glasses; some were old folks who’d been polled by volunteers in the grocery store. What they shared in common was that they had either identified some key issue in language that everybody else here — including Rob — seemed to understand, or they’d proven they understood one on the site, and had been chosen to be here through the sortition process of dynamic distributed democracy.
Even Rob had to admit that the problems they described over the next hour were real. Their descriptions were sharply focused, comprehensive, and almost immediately understood by everyone. The summaries were so clear, in fact, that he found it a bit creepy. Usually when he encountered such clarity, it was the result of a concerted propaganda effort. This, though — Wegetit didn’t filter or distort ideas, it simply connected those people who were capable of understanding one another. The people in this room represented the network with the broadest, most complete common understanding of the issues surrounding aboriginal land claims. A network that he was apparently part of.
With the summaries out of the way, Todd turned the podium over to another consultant, some analyst from Toronto. “Now I’d like to do a little exercise,” he was saying as Rob leaned over to Jeffrey.
“Who is this guy?”
“One of the founders of Wegetit,” murmured Jeffrey. “Got his start in something called Structured Dialogic Design.”
“What I’m going to do is ask a series of questions,” the consultant was saying, “about the issues that’ve been identified on Wegetit.com over the past few days. I want you to put up your hands if you agree. Those of us who are still traveling can IM their answers. Let’s start with this question: do you think that cheap access to the mainland would help ease the problem of the ‘barrier to employment’ we talked about earlier?” Hands were raised. “Now, do you think that better access to employment opportunities would make access to the mainland easier?” Hands went up again.
This exercise went on for a while. Rob raised his hand with the others. Most of the answers to the questions were obvious to the point of inanity. He couldn’t see how it helped to know that a lack of education hampered one’s job prospects.
After half an hour, the consultant pushed his glasses back on his nose and said, “Right, we’ve got enough answers. Our software’s been quietly working in the background, doing a root cause analysis on all the issues we’ve talked about. Here it is.”
He brought up a diagram on the wall screen, and suddenly Rob snapped to attention. There, laid out in graphic boxes joined by lines — a kind of flowchart — were the problems the Haida and related stakeholders had identified, organized according to which problems caused which. The chart formed a tree, with issues like suicide rates and drug use and abuse clustered at the top. They connected down into poverty, schooling issues, cultural genocide, and so on. The tree continued through these too, down to the single root cause that the exercise had shown underlay almost everything else. That flowchart box contained the words The Haida Do Not Control Their Land.
Rob swore under his breath. He’d done scenario exercises many times, but never one that had so quickly, seamlessly, and completely nailed down an issue. The causal tree had emerged from a series of perfectly reasonable — even obvious — answers to questions about how social problems were connected. The problem was, the tree was upside down: all those obvious answers should have led to the obvious conclusion, namely that it didn’t matter how the damned islands were governed, individual people had to take responsibility for their own lives. Instead it said the opposite.
Rob had agreed with every answer that had built this tree. How could he not agree with the result?
It had to be a trick; he wasn’t sure how yet, but the game had been rigged.
It was break time, and Rob spent most of it being visible. He shook various newly arrived hands and congratulated the organizers on the amazing progress they’d made today. Eventually he was able to make it to the bathroom, where he rendezvoused with Jeffrey.
He leaned on a sink and glared at his aide. “Did we just get blindsided?”
Jeffrey looked uncomfortable. “They’re following the program. It’s just that … what’s happening here is connecting into other systems, like Wegetit, in ways we hadn’t anticipated. I mean, you saw … processes that normally take months are taking hours.”
“Politics is slow for a reason. You don’t steer a supertanker like you steer a canoe. Not without damage. Who are these people?”
“You mean the ones doing the systems stuff? Well, there’s Wegetit, but it’s just a front end. It’s a filter that groups people according to how well they’ll understand one another, but we’ve just learned that the data from it can be used by another set of tools in a system called ‘Cybersyn 2.0.’”
“And what does that do?”
Jeffrey hesitated. “I think you’d better ask your son. He’s the CEO.”
The break over with, and all the attendees finally there, the conference went into full gear. Todd Swanton stood up and began to introduce the afternoon’s agenda. “The technical term for what we have after two hundred years of tug-of-war between the Haida and the Crown,” he said, “is a wicked problem. A wicked problem is not just a problem. You can solve an ordinary problem; at least, you can describe it. With a wicked problem — also called a mess — there’s no definite formulation of the problem. There’s no stopping rule for a mess — no way to prove you’ve fixed it. Solutions aren’t either right or wrong, just different, and every solution is a ‘one-shot’ that can’t be compared to any previous attempt at fixing it. You cannot fix a mess. The best you can do is improve it.”
He smiled cheerfully. “We’re here today to improve the mess we call Canada-Haida relations. We’re going to start using one of those sophisticated techniques that used to be jealously guarded by small groups of highly paid consultants and doled out at great expense to rich clients. Like so many other things that computers have made cheaper and easier, they’ve made morphological analysis easy — so easy that we’re going to turn it into a game. We’re going to play the game for the rest of this afternoon. The name of the game is, ‘Addressing the Root Cause.’”
“What the hell,” muttered Rob. It was too late to get out of it now — he’d agreed to this scoping workshop — so all he could do was smile and look like he was enjoying himself, and think about firing Jeffrey. For the next four hours Wegetit and the Haida pulled out all the stops, creating multidimensional matrices whose nodes were the various different aspects of the mess that was government/First Nation relations. Using projectors, glasses, tablets, and anything else they could get their hands on, the organizers spun around, expanded and focused in on, drilled down into, and exploded the dimensions, eliminating literally millions of potential configurations until they’d narrowed down the class of possible solutions. The name for this technique was morphological analysis, which was bad enough, but it wasn’t just the name that was exhausting; the many solutions would have all blurred together in a migraine-inducing mass except for one thing:
Each solution was displayed on the screens as a face. They were goddamned Dorians, and Terry had been right — even the subtlest difference between two solutions was instantly visible as a slightly different expression, ethnicity, or emotion on the parade of faces. You could sort through twenty of them for the best in the time it took to scan your eyes across them. The best solutions were happy, healthy, youthful, and ethnically Haida. When the room unpacked the data on a solution, it always turned out that their instinctive assessment had been right, through a problem space containing millions of possible answers.
As they did this Rob found himself swinging between his own multidimensional matrix of reactions: annoyance, indulgence, euphoria, and shock. The problem — mess, rather — was too big for any one human being to understand all its parameters and possible solutions; but it wasn’t too big for a group of stakeholders to understand, if they were guided properly through the process.
At the end he raised his hand and asked the consultant, “What do you call what we just did?”
The man smiled. “We call it ‘rewilding politics.’”
They broke for the night. Swanton finished by recapping, then said, “I know we’re all tired from today’s mental workout, but luckily it’s a different kind of work we’re going to do in the next session. Today was all about finding the problems. The next session, in two days, will be about nailing down the shared understanding we developed today. It’s been proven that the best way to share an understanding of complex issues is through storytelling, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do — and it’s why we’ll all need a day to prepare. We’re going to share our stories, through speech, in writing, in song, and in dance. Everything that we’ve come to understand intellectually today, we’re going to know in our bones by the end of that session.”
As they filed out, everybody was exhausted but hyper, and conversations and arguments spilled out into the parking lot and beyond. Rob headed back to his hotel and called Krishnamurti. “I know my son’s involved, but I want to know who else is. Who’re they working for, who else is funding them — I want to know everything,” he told the CSIS director.
It was a voice-only line, slightly delayed as satellite connections tended to be. It was also late in the evening, Ottawa time, but Rob didn’t care. Krishnamurti should have been expecting this call.
“CSEC’s been looking into Wegetit,” said the director. “But also into the Internet in the Queen Charlottes. It turns out it’s mostly a homegrown meshnet. The islanders aren’t buying their Internet connectivity from Rogers, Bell, or any of the other regulated carriers. They’re using solar-powered homemade antennas and store-bought routers. A lot of those are logging company data relays; they’re piggybacking on commercial equipment. They either pay in Gwaiicoin, or in goodwill. They’re a darknet, in fact — a whole Internet outside the official one. And there’s hints they may be using autonets, too.”
“Body-to-body data relays using Bluetooth or near-field. Almost impossible to detect or counter.”
“But who’s behind it?”
Again the delay dragged out. “No one,” said Krishnamurti at last. “At least, it may originally have been somebody in particular’s idea; but now it’s running itself.”
He thanked Krishnamurti and hung up. Then he made another call.
“Hello?” said Terry.
“This is all your doing, isn’t it?” said Rob.
There was that same brief silence he’d gotten from Krishnamurti — as clear as day a signal that the guy on the other end of the line was choosing his next words carefully.
“We’ve got a rest day before the next session, right?” said Terry. “Why don’t you and me do something? I was thinking of visiting the old forest.”
A father and son outing? That was just as clichéd and artificial as house-hunting. Still …
Rob harrumphed. “You’re on,” he said.
They took an old dirt road with green shoulders through a cathedral of inward-leaning trees. The brush was an impenetrable tangle, and Rob pointed that out to Terry. “It grows so thick! Where are we going?”
“There’s an outfitter on Yakoun Lake. He can give us a canoe.”
“Canoe?” Rob laughed uneasily. “It’s been years, you know.”
“Oh, it’s okay. They also sell aspirin.”
The road curled its way to the edge of a spectacular lake backed by white-capped mountains. On the shore a man in a red plaid shirt was flipping over a canoe as if it weighed nothing. With so much water in the air, the distant mountains were like silver cutouts, except for their white tops. Rob was distracted by this sight as Terry negotiated with the tour operator. When he looked back from the scenery, it was to see his son had stripped off his shirt. He was putting on something that looked like a sleek blue undershirt, and there was a second one draped on the canoe beside him. Rob had seen a few of these peeking out from under the clothes of islanders over the past couple of days. He’d assumed they were insulated, like fleece, but the outfitter grinned and shook his head. “You’ll see,” he said.
“I don’t like wearing other people’s old bowling shoes, why would I wear this?”
“Disposable liner,” said Terry. Rob sighed. What with everything else that was weird about this, it was just one more thing. “Whatever.” He put it on.
They paddled slowly along the shoreline for an hour, then across to the western side. When they beached the canoe and Terry brought out a thermos of coffee, Rob looked back at the distance they’d come. The vista was glorious.
Ahead of them lay something even more wonderful. The trees here were ancient, but widely enough spaced that light penetrated to the forest floor in hazy shafts. A covering of bright green moss, inches deep, draped across the roots and boulders alike like crumpled velvet. More dripped in long streamers from the branches, which started far enough up to offer long sight lines through the boles. When Terry stepped into the green cathedral, Rob eagerly followed him.
He felt a kind of buzz on the left side of his torso; at that instant something bounded from behind a tree off to the left. He couldn’t see it, but somehow the sound matched up to the buzzing sensation.
“Feel that?” Terry slapped at his chest. “A deer.”
Rob stopped moving. He suddenly realized that this touch on his body wasn’t the only one; he could feel other creatures nearby. He slowly turned to the right, then pointed. “What’s that?”
“You got it! There’s a bear about a kilometer that way. Feel how it has a different texture. And up there” — he pointed — “I can feel eagles. They’re especially prickly, I don’t know why.”
Rob was amazed. “It’s the shirt doing this?”
“It’s called sensory substitution. You can replace one sense with another. These vests do something like that, but in this case they’re using all the smart sensors scattered through the forest to identify the animals — what they are, and where they are. Then they paint a sensation across our skin. They’re actually cheap to make; they use speakers and vibrators from discarded cell phones, weave ’em into the material. Gives you a new sense. It works best if you don’t consciously think about it. Just let it wash over you. Come on, let’s go this way.”
They strode through the ancient forest, and as they did Rob felt his sense of where he was, and even who he was, grow out from his chest like an indrawn breath that never stopped expanding. He could feel the deer, the ravens and foxes and bears, even if he couldn’t see them. His ancestors had lacked this sense, but maybe they’d made up for that with knowledge — reports from hunters and workers of what lived where and in what abundance.
He’d never felt any sense of connection with those people. They were like shadows, as dark and inaccessible as the inward darkness below the pine boughs.
Pensive, he followed his son, speaking less and less as the day went on.
Gradually he became aware that the life of the forest lay behind them. Something was up ahead, and he assumed it was the sea, until they came to the edge of the forest and he saw the churned landscape of stumps and bare earth that stretched away for kilometers. Clear-cutting: the whole forest had been logged here, and with his new sense he could feel how empty it was.
“Raven,” said Terry, pointing. Rob looked, but all he saw was an old logging road, and a pickup truck. Terry was walking out to it, so he followed.
There was a man standing next to the truck. The raven sensation was coming from that spot; did he have a bird with him? No; as Rob came closer he couldn’t see the animal, and yet the raven signal kept getting stronger. It was as if the man were a raven.
And yes — of course he was.
Robert remembered his grandfather telling him that their family was part of the Eagle clan. It had seemed silly and superstitious to him at the time, just one more piece of the past that he’d have to reject if he was to make some sort of life for himself in the modern world. He still felt that way. And yet …
They greeted the man, who was working with Parks Canada to do a census of the local bear population. As they walked back to the trees, Rob said, “He was wearing one of these sensory substi-whatits, wasn’t he?” He’d seen a hint of blue under the red plaid lumberjack’s shirt the guy had on.
When Terry shrugged, Rob said, “So was everybody at the workshop … they could all feel each other’s clan, couldn’t they? Including ours? Did that guy back there see two Eagles come out of the bush just now?” Terry didn’t answer, which told Rob all he needed to know. He stopped, suddenly aware only of his son and not the moss-covered cathedral of trees where they stood. “I know everything, Terry. That you’re the one who’s backing this. You’re a Haida separatist?”
He expected the kind of evasion or argument he used to get when Terry was a kid. Instead Terry laughed.
“Dad, this is the twenty-first century. We’re way past separatism here.”
His conversation with Bill echoed in his head. “What, is this some kind of takeover? The First Nations’ revenge?” But Terry was still laughing.
“Dad, we can’t separate because there’s nowhere to separate to. The world’s too small now. Nobody can do it. And take over what? Canada’s not a well-defined thing anymore, any more than the States or anywhere else is. We’re all crammed together. It’s the global village, right?”
“So what is going on here?”
Terry crossed his arms, serious now. “The shirts, the Dorians, Wegetit … they’re just people using cognitive science to improve their interactions. And their decision making. Hell, you use the stuff yourself!”
“I do not — ”
“Oh, yeah? What about SimCanada? It’s all through Parliament Hill.”
“Those are just brainstorming tools.”
“Tools to think with, right.”
“You’re saying the Dorians are just like SimCanada?”
“Exactly like SimCanada, Dad.”
“I don’t like it, Terry. You’re letting a goddamned machine make your decisions for you.”
“Your Dorians don’t make your decisions. It’s just making visible the invisible: the interplay of all the complicated factors at play in your life. Like which animals are around us, and where all our Eagle brothers and sisters are right now.”
“As well as who owns what?”
Terry grinned. “Ah, you saw that overlay, eh? Wait’ll you see the stranded assets overlay for the carbon bubble.”
Rob carefully looked through the dripping green branches at the complex depths of the forest. “If I put on my glasses right now, what would I see?”
“Us,” said Terry. “You’d see what you’re dealing with.”
Like mountains, the Haida and Tsimshian territorial claims would loom over the trees — not claims entirely of men and women anymore, but of Bear and Raven — and Eagle. And he was sure he would be able to see other things, too, like logging concessions, company names. Who owned what. How much the forest was worth in cold cash. In that moment he got it.
“You’re not trying to build a new government. You’ve already done it.”
Terry nodded slowly. “Not just out of augmented reality apps. We call those the prosthetic — the thing that lets you see power and ownership. Like I said, making the invisible visible. But it doesn’t do the deciding.”
“The deciding — that’s Wegetit.com?”
“Wegetit and the system around it, which we call Cybersyn. It’s built on the block chain, so it’s totally decentralized, peer-to-peer. It provides trusted communications, fraud-proof voting, citizenship, and other services for a new governing structure. It’s more fraud- and corruption-proof than the one we’ve got now. Except of course it’s not just for Canada. It’s worldwide.”
Rob stared at his son. “It’s a damned good thing I am who I am, Terry. You’ve just admitted to treason.”
“Not at all. If I can see the carbon bubble and I say, ‘I think the government should divest from fossil fuels,’ and you don’t, and it turns out that Canada gets burned as the bubble bursts, did I commit treason? No. I advised, and you had the option of listening or not.”
“But what you’re doing with it here … that’s not just advising. You’re actually running the island with it, aren’t you?” All these maps of power and wealth — they had visible concentrations, end points, and those corresponded to people. If you could see the whole network of power around yourself, you’d know who to talk to in order to get things done. Even if you were just some anonymous Indian on the street, you’d be able to see what needed to be done, even if you couldn’t do it yourself. And using the block chain, it could all be implemented in a completely decentralized manner. No center of power to take down …
“We’re running the island because nobody else is doing it. If the feds were doing any kind of a good job at it, we wouldn’t have to.” Terry said this without heat, but the words stung. Rob almost said, “We do what we can,” but in the face of what he’d seen here, that was no answer at all.
He started walking again, no longer noticing the gorgeous scenery. Terry fell into step beside him. “We use Wegetit and the rest of it to develop public policy that’s actually made by the public and tested alongside official policy in the national Dorian, which is just an open-source version of SimCanada. They’re both Big Data apps. We see which policy works better in the simulations, and then we wait for reality to catch up and see what actually happened in the real world. And either we tweak the national model or we publish the winning policy choice as a padget — you know, a policy gadget like they’ve had in Europe since, oh, at least 2010. The local MLAs have been using the padgets to design policy for a year now; they love it because they actually get good advice for free.
“You see what we’re doing here, Dad? We’re offering you the chance to do the same thing, only on the national level.”
The implication was clear. If the feds didn’t play, the Haida could take it to the next level: they could start voting in the block chain and cut the government out of the loop entirely.
Rob crossed his arms. “I’m representing the whole country. You’re representing a little group of hackers and malcontents.”
Terry shook his head. “How many people voted in the last federal election?” There was an awkward silence. “We involve more people in decision making than you do,” said Terry. “You do the math.”
Rob thought about it for a while, then said, “Why?” He meant, why you.
Terry seemed to understand. “Because you raised me to want to make a difference. The Midwest United States. is emptying of people ’cause the water table’s gone and the president says he’ll invade Canada if we don’t agree to reverse the flow of the Hudson Bay watershed. It’s the Garrison Diversion project on steroids — and that’s in the supposedly most stable, richest, most democratic region in the world. There’s water wars and mass migrations everywhere, disease, starvation, religious pogroms. Here’s the thing: solving all these problems is easy, from a science and engineering standpoint. The science has been there for decades; so’s the technology. We’ve got biotech, nanotech, access to space, robots, 50 percent efficient solar cells, nuclear fusion, for God’s sake! We don’t need to solve those problems. There’s only one issue that’s worthy of our time and effort right now, because if we overcome it, we’ll solve all the others.
“The only problem worth solving is the problem of how we govern ourselves.”
Their feet made no noise as they sank into the moss. For a while father and son just walked together. Rob could feel the web of life radiating out from them, almost like invisible light. The animals, the epic trees, the moss and the inch-long slugs crawling on it; they were almost like a part of himself.
He knew perfectly well how this was supposed to make him feel. Oneness with nature, that was the game here. It made him mad, because it was all so obvious and naive — a tourist’s version of the natural world. Try living out here without technology for a week. Try emptying Vancouver into the countryside to hunt the forests bare. The population being what it was, the only reason there were still places like this was because there were places like Vancouver. All this back-to-nature crap wasn’t going to cease to be crap just because some new technology made a more compelling argument for it.
There was no point telling Terry this, of course; a sidelong glance showed Rob the quietly happy expression on his son’s face. He thought that he and his dad were Having a Moment. It was one of those things he did; Rob could remember times when he’d used this tactic as a boy — used his happiness to try to change his father’s mind about something important. Sometimes Rob had let him know he was being an asshole; sometimes, he just stood firm and ignored the ploy.
They’d come to a height that looked down on the shore. He could see their canoe waiting for them. Funny — he hadn’t felt it, the way he felt the ravens roosting overhead, or the deer half a kilometer off to the right. The canoe was a hole in the landscape. Damned interface.
“Tomorrow, we can tell this story,” said Terry, as he began picking his way down to the shore. Rob sighed, watching him for a few moments, then followed.
Resolute he might be, but by noon the next day Rob was grateful for Krishnamurti’s call — it saved his ass.
The whole morning had been given over to a festival — of art, song, traditional dances, and storytelling. Rob had known it was coming — he attended such events many times each year. So he’d set his glasses to overlay the briefs on the government’s position, so he could be ready when the negotiations started. Except, he kept being distracted by the performances.
Each story, each song, and every work of art had been chosen to reflect the insights they’d collectively discovered on the first day. They’d been told this in the conference recap at breakfast, but what it really meant was only just dawning on Rob.
When Krishnamurti called, Rob had completely forgotten the briefs, was in fact staring through them at an old Tsimshian fisherman from Prince Rupert, who was telling his story. For every one of the government’s positions, this man had a real anecdote that showed why they were awful, wrong, or would just be ineffective. The damnedest thing about it was that Rob was sure this wasn’t a careful propaganda ploy. Taken by themselves the old geezer’s experiences were as random as anybody else’s. But hovering in the background, visible through the glasses that everybody was now wearing, was the causal root analysis diagram. Somebody had redrawn it as an actual tree, and as they were done, each story, song, and artwork was being pasted into it as a hotlink. Their argument was already won; that had happened when the people in this room, Rob included, had collectively built that tree the day before yesterday. This morning was all about absorbing the implications. Which weren’t good for any of Rob’s positions.
It didn’t help that Rob had bought the sensory substitution shirt from the outfitter (paying with Gwaiicoin), and with Terry’s help had connected to the conference feed he’d suspected was there. Now he could feel the complex web of kinship, shared history, and alliances that informed the identities of the people opposite him. Through the glasses, he could see the pyramids of power and money made visible by the rogue overlays. All the complexities of obligation, history, business, and government were there — you could almost reach out and pull the strings, twist them to and fro.
So when Krishnamurti called and told him the news, Rob actually grinned in relief. “Thanks,” he said, moving his lips as little as possible. Then his eyes sought out Terry, who was sitting with the visitors near the door, and the smile vanished. This could get ugly.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the place by lunchtime, except maybe for Rob’s. He had to admit, the whole performance had been damned convincing. What he’d seen and heard here perfectly described everything that was wrong with the Indian Act and two hundred years of colonialism, and with the causal analysis in play, the reasons were obvious to all. “So,” said Todd as he took the floor again, “we can now move on to our last two stages. First, commitment to change. And second, deciding the actual courses of action that we will all take to address the root cause. This will take up the rest of today, and all of tomorrow.”
Except it won’t, Rob thought grimly, because I won’t be here to rubber-stamp any of it. As everyone rose for lunch he rose too, joints creaking from yesterday’s canoe trip. He did the usual glad-handing but pressed inexorably toward the door. Out of the corner of his eye he could see some of the industry reps talking heatedly on their cell phones as they paced in the corners. Shit was happening, apparently.
He collared Terry in the parking lot and said, “Walk with me.”
His son grinned and nodded in the direction of the bay. The water was gray today, reflecting the low tumbling clouds. “That was amazing, eh?” said Terry as they walked.
Rob shook his head and sighed. “I just got a call,” he said. “We know the tanker running aground wasn’t an accident.”
Terry stopped walking, a shocked look on his face. “No shit?”
“‘No shit’ what? ‘No shit’ that it was deliberate, or ‘no shit’ that we found out? You knew all along.”
“Dad, really.” Terry looked hurt.
“Is that why you called me to come house-hunting with you? To get me to Vancouver in time for all this” — he waved at the center with its proud totem poles — “to go down?”
“You really think I’d do that?” Now Terry looked angry.
“Well, you are a Skaay.”
Terry glared at him. The moment dragged — and then his son laughed. “So what happens now?” he asked.
“This is serious, Terry. If the evidence trail gets back to you, you could be going to jail for a very long time.”
“Except that it won’t, we both know that. Besides …” Serious now, Terry gazed out at the ocean. “There’s a Dorian for that.”
“Terry, I’m done here. When this hits, I have to walk away. No more negotiations. The government’s going to cry blackmail, and your little escapade here is going to fall apart.”
Terry shrugged. “There’s a Dorian for that, too. What’s SimCanada got to say about it?”
“I …” He didn’t know. “Damn it, who cares?”
“You’re right, it doesn’t matter.” Terry crossed his arms, looking pensive. “If you pull out now, the conference will still go forward. Only you won’t have any say in the results. You could pull some stunt right now, and split off some of the industry guys, the conservatives and government lapdogs. But even some of them are now convinced about what should be done. And everybody else … they’ll still go on to make their commitments. You may preserve the Indian Act, but it won’t be the reality on the ground after today.”
“We’ll see about that.” Rob turned away. He’d only gone a few steps, though, when he stopped again.
“You know why I never came here?” he heard himself say. He hadn’t meant to say this — he shouldn’t have to defend himself. Terry waited patiently, so Rob grimaced and went on.
“It’s not my roots,” he said. “I get to decide what my roots are. And these ones, this stuff you’re defending so cleverly … it’s dead. There’s no people in the world who can hold themselves together using band councils and elders and traditional dances. You can’t go back. The world’s moved on and sitting around a campfire deciding together just isn’t going to cut it anymore. It’s that simple.”
Terry sent his dad a wry look. “You know, the first time I visited you on Parliament Hill, I was walking up the steps to the main doors, and all I could think was, ‘This place is handmade. Out of stone.’”
He sauntered off in the direction of the water.
Rob stalked across the parking lot, fuming. What the hell was that supposed to have meant? Of course Parliament was built of stone; it was old. Old …
He skidded to a stop. “Hey, wait a sec!” But Terry was already out of earshot. Rob sputtered, trying to say, “Yeah, it’s old but not old like the band councils, not like that wisdom of the elders shit,” but his son was too far away and besides, Rob could feel the world turning round him, the ancient and the new colliding in the goddamned sensory substitution shirt.
They could have sensory substitution banned; but there was still Wegetit.com. Maybe that could be shut down, but there were already imitators. The mesh networks, autonets, the block chain … they blurred into the legal in every direction. And the overlays, Structured Dialogic Design, Nexcity, and the Dorians — now that the genie was out of the bottle, there’d be so many improvements so fast, that soon every citizen on- and offline would have or have access to the kind of political second sight that previously, only rare people like Rob had possessed.
He didn’t have his glasses on, but it blazed in his imagination: the Dorian of the only future that was going to work. The face of a new government was rising like a sun above the campfires and lodgepoles, above the halls of stone and oak — a government not dependent on any single technology, not even the Internet, but rather the accumulated crescendo of dozens of little nudges, techniques, and apps, and hundreds of new insights into cognitive and behavioral science.
It was obvious now: he’d only been invited out to Haida Gwaii as a courtesy, the way that he himself had invited elders to meetings so many times. To make them feel better while the real business went on invisibly around them.
He wasn’t going to lose this negotiation, and he wasn’t going to walk away from it either. He’d never really been a part of it.
Jeffrey was standing in front of the center, eyes darting around and a worried look on his face. When he spotted Rob, he rushed over. “I just heard. What are we going to do, sir?”
Rob let out a huff of breath — half sigh, half laugh. “We do what we always do, Jeff,” he said.
“One way or another, we keep the conversation going. We can’t give up now.
“Let’s go back inside.”
Aviv’s note: While the specific technologies may not be practical proposals, I hope they helped expand your thought about the potential of technology for communication, compassion, and governance.
If this story inspired you, please pass it along by sharing and recommending it to others.