Thursday, May 23, 2013

Playing the Numbers

Before Shin was conceived, they knew she would be. They knew she would be conceived either in August or in May, sometime between 2016 and 2018, and that she would be born in a large city in the Southeastern United States. Before her mother knew she was pregnant, they knew. They sent coupons and congratulations in the mail. They knew before Shin was born that she would be between 5'6" and 5'8" tall, that she would have black hair, blue eyes, and that she would attend University. By her second month, they knew she would be gifted in music, mathematics, and that she had a 92% chance of getting breast cancer. They knew there was only a 32% chance she would have children of her own.

By the time she was six months old, they knew she would have a life long battle against her weight, and that by her thirties, she would lose the battle. They knew that, by her sixties, she would require insulin, and by her seventies, she would be in a wheelchair. They knew she would die between the age of 64 and 73-- a short life, provided there were no accidents. But, in the end, this would be a blessing, as they also knew she would have Alzheimer's.

When her brother, Barnaby, was born, they knew he would be born, as well. He was born in May, just as she was born in February. They knew he would not attend University, but he would not likely have cancer. Instead, by his second month, they knew he would fall on the higher functioning end of the Autism spectrum, he would be talented with chemical formulas, and would take his entire education online. By Barnaby's sixth month, they knew he would be athletic, and that running would be the key to unlocking his intellectual ability. He would live until he was between 82 and 96, and would most likely die of a stroke.

They knew, by Shin's fifth birthday, she would study either Computer Engineering or Medicine when she went to University, and she would be at least twenty seven before she married. Her chances of having a child dropped to less than eight percent. They knew the type her first car would be, and its color (bright yellow). They knew she would battle with depression, and that she would seek psychiatric aid. They knew which school she would attend for elementary education, and who her three best friends would be in eighth grade, and that one of them would not live until high school.

At thirteen, they knew her favorite songs, and her favorite actors and actresses. They knew her favorite books, and that she read them before bed (which was 9pm every night), and that she hated running with her little brother. They knew she would study Computer Engineering, and not Medicine. They knew all of her favorite games, and could identify the programs she had written based on the samples from her personal device and her network repositories. They knew which University she would attend, and that she would graduate. They knew she would be in the top tenth of her class. She would minor in musical theory.

In high school, Shin learned about the algorithms that were so closely watching her. She had been aware that the companies who made the online games and social networks watched what games she played based on the ads she was given. And she knew her taste in music was observed. She, like many other kids, were aware of the genetic testing panels and the actuarial results. She knew they were why she spoke to a psychiatrist and had a special diet. She knew they were why her brother was prescribed to run. She knew that future employers watched all of the messages she sent to her friends, just like her parents. She never resorted to made up languages like many of her classmates. Her father was a linguist, and would never be fooled. But, for the most part, she was like most others; she never thought much about it, and simply followed the instructions and lived her life.

She had taken all of the classes the algorithm recommended: Maths, English Composition, English Literature, History and Civics, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Foreign Languages. She had also taken several online classes about religion, philosophy, and ethics. But, when she took Computing Cycle III, she learned about the algorithms, and how they were really used. It began to bother her. Something about it seemed so very unfair, as though she were a Protestant, indoctrinated despite never choosing to be a member of the Church.

It was during her history of computing and technology course that she discovered the convergence of philosophy and ethics and computing. It started with old videos of hackers from the 1990's, who talked about how their interactions with computers affected the world. One video, by a man with a grey grizzled beard who called himself Nightstalker, talked about how wonderful it would be to have written the code that enabled a blind man to see his wife and his children for the very first time. Many of the videos were peppered with cynicism, but there was always an undercurrent of optimism and wonder to it. As though the invention of this new technology were a child and these were the proud parents in wonder of watching it grow.

But, as the course progressed through the years, the videos changed. The technological advances grew less and less diverse, and the videos became more and more professional. People stopped talking in rooms in bad light with personal cameras, and started talking in conference rooms with podiums and power point, while wearing dress shirts. There were less conversations about the good things, and more conversations about the dangers. The optimism slowly got replaced with fear and frustration. The people in the videos started to look more and more like everyone else in the footage - even the movies - from that time. Like watching a stray cat brought in from outside and neutered, what was once wild and vibrant and dangerous languished and slept in the sun.

Then the course covered the political changes of the time, and the phenomenon of hacktivism, and the weaponization of computers and computer-driven devices. And, finally, the current state, where individuals didn't own any data or computers; only corporations did, and governments owned all of the infrastructure. But, during the same time, there had been plenty of innovation in medicine and in communication. The eyes Nightstalker mentioned had been made real a hundred times over. People who couldn't walk for themselves could walk with exoskeletons. Learning disabilities had been all but eradicated with neural stimulation techniques. Why had no one focused on that? Where had the passion to change the world gone?

At sixteen, they knew she would attack the University computing system and spend the next fifteen years in jail. But, by this point, Shin had also mastered the algorithms.

She started by making random purchases from stores, and browsing to sites she researched in paper magazines at the book store. She gradually abandoned her social media accounts, and changed the brand of all of her groceries. She even changed the style of clothes she wore. Then, she sold her car and bought an ancient model with a purely mechanical engine, and started to tinker with it. She rented the cheapest house outside of the city she could afford on a waitress's salary and dropped out of the University. She paid her rent with the cash from her tips, took up gardening, and bought vinyl records (with cash) from antique shops. She built solar panels and rain barrels, and bypassed the meters on the house. The homeowner was content to save the money.

Despite her care, the algorithms flagged her for erratic behavior and, noting her depression, alerted a social worker who came to visit. They tried to declare her insane and put her in the hospital against her will. But, her parents had money, and the family lawyer was well paid. In the end, they left her alone, because she still consumed ads and had email, and the GPS let them keep an eye on her.

She built solar panels and converted the engine to use vegetable oil. She taught herself how to hunt with a compound bow. She built her own computer and, in her spare time, wrote her own operating system. When she was done, she wrote the protocols to communicate via a physical handshake and via a radio and via a hard-wire cable. Then she wrote a program to download what she needed, and connected to the Internet for the last time.

In a single moment, the algorithms lost all track of her. Hundreds of thousands of records that led all to one logical conclusion now struck the deadest of ends. They searched. They tried to reconcile. The other formulas that relied on her predictions broke. Lobbying began.

At nineteen, Shin met a hitchhiker named Martin. At twenty, they married and built a solar and sustainable fuel powered tour bus. Two years later, Shin had twins: one boy and one girl. It was a home birth. At thirty five, Shin is 5'7", and has no problems with her weight. Shin doesn't think much about cancer or about the algorithms. Now she just lives.

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