From: Aoife T <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Fuck it
Date: May 25, 2038 2:14 AM EDT
Fuck it, dear reader.
Two weeks ago, Miles Michalchuk, then still a researcher at the Ashburn Institute, conveyed a series of encrypted files to me under unorthodox/creepy circumstances. Shortly after, he died in what the Extended Secret Service are terming “a tragic and deeply unlikely accident.” This all freaked me out, particularly because I didn’t know why Michalchuk reached out to me with all this. I’m an art and architecture critic/”content creator”/whatever, and while I go outside my field as hustle dictates, I’m not an investigative reporter and had no intentions to become one.
I didn’t know what to think about Michalchuk. I still don’t. But I managed to decrypt the files (and received a visit from some well-armed case workers shortly thereafter). I’ve read and cross-checked and sat with these files for long enough to reach this decision: they need to be seen by people. My subscriber list is only 1737 people, so if you could share this with as many people as possible, it would be appreciated. (Also: the files live on a distributed network, so the more people seed, the more people see.)
The centerpiece of the files are a series of interviews (supplemented with articles from long-defunct news organs) conducted by an unknown interlocutor circa 2019. In total, the documents form a kind of pre-Training Commission focus group. Academics, NGO-types, and human rights attorneys reflect on their work with truth commissions, human rights investigations, and the pre-Shitstorm conflicts between platforms and human rights defenders in various contexts. While the prospect of a truth and reconciliation process being used to overhaul and automate the government as we know it doesn’t explicitly come up, there’s enough early-stages Shitstorm tech skepticism to heavily suggest that these interviewees would have serious doubts about it–and enough historical examples and analysis to make any contemporary reader doubt the foundations of our contemporary so-called bold American experiment.
Many of these interviewees and the the institutions they are associated with have apparently been purged from the Public Record–or, rather, it appears as if they were deliberately excluded during the Digital Reconstruction process. Fragments still exist on international networks that can be accessed via The Leek, which is still legal as of this microsecond thanks to the senator from the District of Columbia.
Does this matter? Even if we accept the somewhat controversial narrative that the Ashburn Institute never would have been able to sell the National Algorithm as a replacement for the Executive Office without the successes of the Training Commission, any doubt placed on the origin of the TC wouldn’t remove the National Algo. It does, after all, have the best approval ratings of any executive in American history, and even the most cynical purveyor of counterfactuals would hesitate to argue that any other end to the Shitstorm would have been better for the country. However, Darcy Lawson and the Ashburn Institute have long emphasized that both the TC and the National Algo are mere representatives of the will of the people. In her 2035 memoir, Content, Not Intent, Lawson writes:
The technology of late twentieth-century parliamentary democracy was never designed to truly dislodge the bedrock of early American politics: white male landowning oligarchy. Of course, no one fully acknowledged this, which only added to democracy’s fragility. That it would eventually collapse under its own unconscious ambitions should, in retrospect, be obvious. The 2016 election, Charlottesville, Daytona Beach, Altoona, and the dozens of events we would later understand to be the first stages of the Interstate Conflict were not anomalies of the American democratic system, but its apotheosis.
Following a day-long convening of civil society stakeholders and family foundations to discuss the possibilities for tackling this memetic feedback loop of bad politics, the Ashburn Institute proposed a collection of training data culled from the devices which already formed an unobserved internet of democratic things around us at all times. This content had previously been utilized primarily by corporations selling products and by social media platforms selling their users’ attention as a product to aforementioned corporations. Why couldn’t this content be repurposed for good? Why couldn’t Big Data give us Big Democracy? All that was needed, we realized, was an advanced enough neural net to process the content and a politically neutral, non-governmental body to allow said net’s interpretations to be expressed clearly, functionally, and without ideological interpretation.
Transparency and neutrality have always been Lawson’s watchwords, but what if the commission, and Lawson, were never as disinterested and “politically neutral” as they were made to appear? What if they ignored the very content which they gathered to help them decide whether or not to embark upon this project in the first place? Would that totally upend the very purpose of the Training Commission, and therefore the National Algorithm itself? I don’t know. But it certainly suggests that the humans who so kindly allow the National Algo to “express itself” might not be the good faith actors they have always assured us they were.
I can’t prove the above. All I can do is show you the interviews. I’m sick of going through the proper fucking channels and not being taken seriously. So let’s fucking do it.
Alexa Koenig was executive director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law. Back in the day Koenig and the HRC were at the forefront of using social media data and other public online sources for investigating human rights abuses. They were also very involved in conversations between human rights investigators and social media platforms during a time when companies were trying to automate away problematic content and sweep up potential war crimes evidence in the process (the most prominent example of this is further explored in the next interview). She also mentions the legal concept of mens rea, which basically refers to intent or foreknowledge of crimes–in this case, whether platforms knew or could have known how their actions would harm individuals. We all know how that turned out following platform reparations and the infrastructure concessions.
Deutch was a researcher at an NGO called the Syrian Archive, which began as an emergency measure to preserve video content of the Syrian Civil War that was being removed from social media platforms for various reasons. Deutch talks about the challenge of defining accountability for companies in these situations–“It has to happen more on a case-by-case basis. Facebook having content that’s promoting or inciting genocide in Myanmar is really not the same issue as taking down content in Syria that civil society groups are using to document state or non-state violence.” Considering the total absence of Syria and Myanmar in the reparations process, perhaps the TC’s pursuit of accountability came down to ignoring edge cases they didn’t know how to deal with. Deutch also balks at one point apparently in response to a question about America undergoing a truth and reconciliation process, then lists a litany of American abuses of its own people (and people around the world) that made the thought of such a premise overwhelming circa 2019.
Jamie Rowen, then an assistant professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, mentions other reasons that the truth commission model was a hard sell for a pre-Shitstorm America–faith in the existing court structure and in American exceptionalism. Our judiciary could handle American crimes, and anyway the crimes committed by the state were “not as bad” as other places. She also has a sharp description of how the first Civil War’s reconstruction era turned out: “We are a failed case of transitional justice, generations and generations afterwards”, a line I swear I’ve heard Darcy Lawson use verbatim somewhere before. Rowen’s research into the professionalization and western NGO-ization of the model makes the Ashburn Institute’s insistence on the “uniquely American” quality of the Training Commission make a lot more sense.
American exceptionalism aside, historical examples brought up in the interviews resonate a whole lot with the TC too. This is especially present in the interview with Eden Medina, an associate professor at Indiana University whose research focused primarily on histories of technology in Chile. Her description of Cybersyn–the unrealized system for managing Chile’s socialist economy–probably won’t inspire deja vu so much as disappointment at what America got instead of whatever Cybersyn might have been. What will produce deja vu is Medina’s discussion of one of the major constraints on post-Pinochet truth and reconciliation in Chile: the fact that despite democratic handover of control to a new president, Pinochet remained in control of the armed forces. Any model of truth and reconciliation that might hold the military to account could have triggered another coup, so the truth commissions couldn’t really do much to dismantle the system that led to human rights abuses in the first place.
Richard Rodgers was a lawyer specializing in international human rights law. A large amount of his interview focused on Facebook’s inaction in the face of the dictatorial Cambodian government’s use of click farms and misinformation on Facebook to maintain power (even when brought to their attention by Rodgers and his client, the leader of what was for a time the only viable opposition party in Cambodia); it’s a pretty solid example of that mens rea concept that Koenig mentioned. While Rodgers initially wanted to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt–“Perhaps naively, I thought that they may think, ‘Oh gosh, we don’t want to be supporting a brutal dictator who commits crimes against humanity, crimes against his own people’”–the company was unresponsive and defensive at efforts to legally obtain information that might support a government defamation case against his client.
Patrick Ball was director of research at Human Rights Data Analysis Group and one of the earliest to work on using what he describes as “systematic use of data as data, rather than computers as fancy typewriters and filing cabinets, places to put text and findings, but rather structured records that you’re moving around in a structured way ” in truth commissions and human rights investigations (perhaps forerunners to the Training Commission–which I don’t think Ball would be particularly happy to learn, wherever he is now). He’s not particularly bullish on the truth commission model but ascribes its limitations less to systemic power dynamics and more to bureaucratic and petty internal power struggles within commissions and governments. His discussion of the challenges of modeling for absent data seems very relevant in a meta way to the interviews themselves: with these perspectives seemingly rendered absent from the federally-approved reconstruction of American history, what else might be missing? What other blind spots does the National Algorithm fail to acknowledge?
Somebody run with this.
Somebody fuck shit up.
Subject: TRANSCRIPT: LV/AT 5/25/38
Date: May 25, 2038 04:02 PM EDT
To: Darcy Lawson <email@example.com>
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LaToya Veracruz: Is it hard being a journalist with such a weird name?
Aoife Tkachenko: I mean, I’ve always thought that “Tkachenko” sounded kind of cool, like a complicated switchblade or something.
LV: First name.
AT: Vowels are the most commonly used letters in the English language. They’re not weird. [silence] Sorry, it’s an old family joke.
LV: Right. You bring the stuff?
AT: Yeah. Uh, do I–like, can I–I mean, right here?
LV: Yes, you can just hand them over. It’s not contraband. Nothing gets past the scans here. They make invasive pat-downs look positively civil-rights friendly.
AT: I was wondering about that. Gate wasn’t even locked.
LV: And isn’t that the best kind of prison there is? Thanks.
AT: I had to call in a favor to get–
LV: Between 1984 and 1994 James Cameron made some of the most important films of the 20th century and for some reason the AV library here won’t stock him of its own accord. I mean, you’d think they made enough tapes and DVDs of his work. What the hell?
AT: In retrospect, that whole Sarah Connor thing–
LV: I prefer The Abyss. Great divorce film. [pause] You know, I didn’t know who you were at first when you put in that request.
AT: That’s deliberate. Not with you, I mean, just with everyone.
LV: Admirable. Maybe. But it bothered me a little, that name. Took me a while to remember. Your brother told me that family joke.
AT: He did?
LV: Yeah, he’d pretty much stopped all his slick reporter shit after a week of realizing that they were shooting at him too. And we had a lotta downtime. That’s a campaign. Especially for the Ludds. Imagine if footage had gotten out of the Last Luddite Revolutionary Guard scrolling through Twitter between infrastructure attacks. We had strict protocols for when and how we could do anything online for the campaigns, so we had a lot of time to kill.
AT: I thought your whole thing was hating technology.
LV: We didn’t hate technology. We understood it. We understood how it was being used to abuse power, and we understood that it needed to be stopped. But I don’t think you’re here for a history lesson. What do you want to know about your brother? I’m assuming that’s why you’re here.
AT: I actually wanted to ask you about Darcy Lawson.
LV: Huh. Sure, we can start there.
AT: You knew her before you started the Ludds, right?
LV: Darcy was everywhere when I was coming up as a staffer. Real pleasant, real approachable, not really real, but we could talk in a way I couldn’t with most people on the Hill, being from, y’know, the other District. She didn’t look at me like I was made to photocopy. And she wasn’t weird about the fact I’d been a Marine. Something about that really put people off. Didn’t seem to matter if it was a white guy who’d been in the service, but me…so when I started organizing what became the Ludds? And we needed support? I went to her.
AT: This was back before the asymmetrical information warfare campaign began?
LV: Not that it matters too much what I say on that–who’d believe me over Darcy? But yeah, we talked about strategy, theory, tactics, goals. She probably guessed we were going to get into EMPs, but I never said it to her, not out loud. And after? She defended us, maybe not every chance she got, but more than a lot of our so-called allies. Meanwhile she was feeding Erik Prince and the Facebook Tactical Response Team everything she had on me. I can’t prove this, so don’t even ask.
AT: Maybe you can’t prove it, but…
LV: Prince had a recording of her, played it one night on a series of drone flyovers. Psy-op shit.
AT: And when Prince–
LV: Yeah, when he got his Zero Dark Thirty send-off and they stormed his compound all his shit had been wiped cleaner than the Public Record. Thanks, Palantir. That’s what you kids say these days, isn’t it? Even I’ve heard that.
AT: And you didn’t record it?
LV: Because I trusted her. Thought it was a deep fake. And who would believe me?
AT: You seriously think–
LV: I know. [pause] Your brother was there, you know.
LV: That flyover. It was Bull Run Redux. He was the one who suggested it might be a deep fake, couldn’t be Darcy. He and her went way back.
AT: They what?
LV: You didn’t know he worked for her for a while?
AT: I–I don’t know what you’re talking about.
LV: You’re supposed to be a reporter? OK, well. Ciárnan did some freelance research for Darcy about truth commissions back while he was still building up his clips. Talked to some academics. Read some articles. Wrote up some report for her. They said don’t do it, he said don’t do it. He mentioned it once, when we were all talking about what we thought America would need to do after, if the Shitstorm ever ended. Meyers mentioned truth commissions, Ciárnan went on a big tirade about what a mess that’d be. And here we are.
LV: You really didn’t know?
LV: Are you OK?
AT: They killed him.
LV: What are–
AT: You’re saying they killed him because of–because of this research for Darcy, this report–
LV: I didn’t–
AT: That’s why Michalchuk gave me the files, and they killed him and now–fuck fuck fuck–
LV: Kid. I need you to keep breathing here. [pause] I never said anyone killed your brother. [pause] Michalchuk’s dead?
AT: Drowned. In the Potomac.
LV: OK. That has nothing to do with your brother. Probably.
AT: But he gave me those files and then he turned up–
LV: That’s not why your brother died.
AT: You don’t know that! How can you be–
LV: Fuck, because your brother made that attack happen. [pause] He ratted us out to Prince’s people.
LV: He was getting distant the last couple of weeks of his embed with us. Losing viewers, something about the algorithms changing. Said he was worried that people wouldn’t understand our side if his stuff got pushed down the timeline, but we all knew he was mostly scared of losing his job.
AT: He–that’s not how he was. He didn’t think like that about his work.
LV: How much did you two ever really talk about work? I heard him on the phone with you back then. Sounded like you did a lot of the talking.
AT: I–I didn’t really have a lot of people who listened to me back then, OK?
LV: Sure, whatever. Fine. [sigh] Look, when Ciárnan could drop the woke white savior truth-seeking justice shit once in a while, he was mostly a decent guy. But he did all that performative shit cause he was insecure as fuck. He wanted to be famous and righteous and he thought covering the underdog side would help him do that. There were a lot of bros like that in the Shitstorm. Most of them made things a lot worse for the rest of us who didn’t need to “find out” the game was fucking rigged and didn’t play everything up for the optics.
AT: How did you know he did it? Ratted you out?
LV: He was setting up his gear real amateur-hour that morning. Pointed where there was no way any action would be coming, and we all told him that because it was obvious. Didn’t listen. He put up a good act when the surprise attack started but when the first lithium fire went off he got this look–you probably saw it, actually, in the video–he was looking at me like he’d just realized what he’d actually done. How he’d picked the perfect spot to capture a surprise attack and the worst place to hide from it. How bad it was going to be for everyone else. How badly he’d fucked up. That kind of sorry that’s too ashamed to even fucking say sorry. [pause] Fuck, now I feel like I should be saying I’m sorry. Except I’m not, not really. Your brother really loved you, kid. But he wasn’t a hero.
AT: He sounds like a monster.
LV: He was a guy. Maybe same difference. By the time they extradited me from Alberta, the story of his bravery and the fact that footage helped prove Big Tech was bankrolling those militias had already sealed his martyr status. Nobody was going to believe me if I said he brought it on himself.
AT: How are you so fucking chill about this?
LV: Lotta compulsory talk therapy for war criminals. You should see Dorsey. Plus I mean, I gotta make peace with all this shit before they kill me.
AT: What are you talking about?
LV: No more prisons, right? They can’t hold us forever, can’t put off the trials forever. People want that judicial catharsis, and a lot of people would love to see me eat a bullet. Don’t make that face.
AT: Some people think you were set up.
LV: But most people think that after two years of taking data centers offline and cutting fiber links without a single person getting killed, the Ludds decided to make a hard pivot and burn down a Google data center full of third graders on a field trip. Weird fucking coincidence that prior to that Google hadn’t had a single field trip onsite, right?
But we still did it. I did it. Whether it was an intel fuckup or a hardware malfunction or or we got played, it happened. I have to live with that. I mean, that’s not why they’re going to kill me–it’s why they can, but it’s not why they want to. They’re going to do it so it looks fair. So the people mad when they kill Ryan and Bannon feel vindicated. I’m going to die for the cause of Good People On Both Sides, Bad People On Both Sides. For reconciliation. And all out of the mouth of some little black box, so no one can feel like they pulled the trigger.
AT: Fuck. [pause] Who else knows? About Ciárnan.
LV: Me, now you, probably one of Prince’s people who’s at DARPA or whatever now, my chatbot shrink, and whoever listens to me talking to my chatbot shrink. So…most of the political establishment and anyone else keeping tabs on me.
LV: Most certainly. She’ll know about this conversation too, probably.
AT: I don’t know what to do.
LV: Probably not fucking tell me about it.
AT: [pause] Thanks. I’m sorry.
LV: Shit, kid, we’re all sorry. Thanks for the tapes. Enjoy the outside a little for me, if you’re capable of it.
END TRANSCRIPT THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE PROCESS
From: Darcy Lawson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Long time
Date: May 25, 2038 05:21 PM EDT
To: Aoife T <email@example.com>
It’s time we talked, don’t you think? Your solocup will be rerouted over to the corporate apartment just outside the Institute. I’m sure you would like to get in a shower and something to eat before we start.