"Yeah, your turn to choose," Steve chimed in, attention split between their discussion and the football game on the TV. "And please, man, make it something interesting this time. You know you have a knack for picking depressing books to read--like Fahrenheit 451 or some dark mess like that." "Like it makes a diff to you, anyway, Stephen," Doug laughed. "As long as I have this big TV and a fridge full of Heineken, you'll show up."
"True. True. You got me there, I guess," Steve replied, "seeing as I don't know too many brothas with a 6-by-8 holographic TV."
The massive black Hitachi HoloTV that dominated the back wall of Doug's "media room" provided a full one foot of 3D AIP (Apparent Image Protrusion). The three friends winced as a particularly crushing hit sent a crumpled running back falling backward and almost into the room with them.
"Yeah, being able to watch the games over here counteracts whatever cool points you lose for wack book selections. But that doesn't mean you get to pick something dumb," Steve continued, as Marcus nodded in agreement.
A news update crawled across the bottom of the screen: U.S. and coalition military planes are now into their 35th day of bombing suspected narco-terrorists in Brazil. The secretary of defense has confirmed that the Brazilian spaceport has been hit, citing its potential dual use for launching weapons of mass destruction.
"I'm thinking about something a little different this month, fellas," said Doug. "How about we read my book. It's in draft stage now and I'd like for you two to take a look at it and let me know what you think. I trust your judgment."
"Ohhh, that sounds fun," Steve replied. "There gonna be profit sharing if your masterpiece finds its way to the bestseller list, or will we just get one of those 'I'd like to thank so and so' deals on the first page?"
"Depends on how helpful you are," Doug laughed.
Marcus put his cognac glass down and picked up a magnetic drawing toy that one of Doug's kids had left on the table. He scribbled on it absentmindedly, writing and erasing, writing and erasing. "So what's your book about?" he asked Doug. "Go ahead and pitch it like any other book we propose. No special treatment for you, man."
Doug leaned back in the black leather recliner, wiping Cheetos crumbs from his gray UNC '03 sweatshirt. All three men had graduated from UNC--Doug and Steve in '03 and Marcus a year after. The ex-college roommates had gone on to lead very different lives. Doug was a financially successful high-tech entrepreneur with a promising writing career on the side. Stephen taught math, history and anything else that was needed in middle school, while Marcus put a Ph.D. in computer science to use as a security consultant. Avid science-fiction fans as they were, their monthly book club was really just a way to keep in touch, watch a game or two and argue over politics. "Alright, then," Doug continued, "here's the rundown. The book is set 20 years from now, in 2029 ... "
"You know that they're on the verge of signing the Near Future Fiction Act," Marcus interrupted. "And it will probably be effective January of next year. So if there's anything controversial in your book--and knowing you there will be--any major publisher will have to run it by a government reader for National Security Review. Have you thought of that?"
"Not a whole lot," Doug answered. "I'll just have to change the date of the events in the book. What's the clip again, 50 years?"
"Yep. Can't have any politics posing as science fiction, now can we," Stephen added sardonically. "Please restrict your subject matter to malevolent aliens and menacing rogue comets for the sake of our collective emotional well-being."
"I'll just change the date, thank you," Doug said. "Anyway, here's the premise. You know how every few months we hear about yet another supercomputer that's doubled the performance and capacity of the previous electronic behemoth? For the last decade and a half, we've heard all this fanfare about how they can calculate what individual sub-atomic particles were doing a nanosecond after the big bang, and how they're almost able to predict the behavior of billions of individual air molecules in the midst of a hurricane. Basically, these multi-teraflop machines allow mankind to derive ordo ab chao, order out of chaos."
"Yeah, and ... ?" Steve asked, uncapping another Heineken.
"Yeah, and ... what about applying this enormous power to, shall we say, more predictable problems?" Doug prompted. "Like people."
"Aww, hell," Marcus deadpanned. "Let the paranoia begin."
"What? It's not only possible. It's probable. Think about it. Since at least the mid-'80s, there have been ridiculous amounts of data collected on people living in America. Remember the old credit cards and ATMs? Health records. Bills. Census data. Insurance paperwork. Internet activity. And now it's only gotten worse with the Larry cards--'smart' cards as Uncle Sam likes to call 'em--that link all of us to a national database. Any information that exists about us is now only a point-and-click away for some bureaucrat. The thing is, there's always been too much data for it to be of any generalized use to anyone. But if an individual did something to draw attention to himself, that was another matter. After the fact, assembling a paper trail, or electron trail, is child's play."
"Uh, newsflash. Everybody knows we're being watched. That's what the Patriot Act back in '01 was all about," Stephen observed, cutting his eye toward a replay of a touchdown on the television. Marcus, meanwhile, was listening intently, a slight frown on his face.
"Can I finish? Of course surveillance is commonplace. But I'm talking more than surveillance. Back to the supercomputers. In the United States there are only about 400 million people. There's significant data available on about 99 percent of them. What kind of books you read, what you do online, these are all inputs."
"But you can't predict a human being's actions like an air molecule that's dependent on temperature, pressure, wind speed and direction," Marcus interjected. "For a group of people, there will be trillions of potential inputs and an almost infinite number of possibilities."
"True; but what if there was a way we could get around that?" Doug countered. "What if we could engineer a uniform, ongoing experiment where people were limited to choosing from a very small set of limited responses? An annual nationwide multiple choice test?"
"Voting!" Stephen finished his friend's sentence, now fully attentive.
"'Zactly! We have the data and a controlled and repeatable experiment. All that's left is data processing. Nothing mysterious about the role of the supercomputer in this context. Our eyes can't see out into space, so we need a telescope, a tool, to allow us to do so. Our minds can't fathom the movement of subatomic particles after the big bang, so we use a computer, a tool, to do so. It follows naturally that any patterns and correlations to be derived from seemingly random terabytes of information about groups of individuals are beyond human comprehension. But, provided we have the correct algorithms and the processing power, it's just another calculation for a computer. If I were running the project, I'd iterate. Rerun the process over and over, refining the algorithms each time, until patterns in the data began to correlate with the results, and I could predict elections with higher and higher accuracy."
"This would take billions of dollars to do. What would motivate the government to waste that kind of money and time on a machine to forecast election results?" Marcus asked.
"You're sharper than that, Marcus," said Doug, matter-of-factly. "Predictive analysis is only a stepping stone in this process."
"You two computer nerds are losing me now," Stephen shrugged.
Ignoring him, Marcus spoke: "It sounds like you believe these things are already happening. I trust you've something besides an active imagination and wild speculation to bolster that belief?"
"You know me too well, Marcus," Doug responded. "I had a cousin, went to the University of Maryland a couple years after I went off to school. He was real sharp. He majored in comp sci, and was recruited by the government for a very confidential project in supercomputing. He couldn't tell me a lot, but did mention early on that he was being encouraged to study psychology courses along with the computer stuff. Nobody in the family's heard a word from him since he graduated. I did some pretty extensive searching and found out that since 2005, 85 percent of the top one percent of computer science and engineering students from schools that were part of the Defense Education Consortium completed either dual majors or graduate study in behavioral sciences. And that 100 percent of those students disappeared from the face of the earth following graduation. Rather than securing lucrative employment in private industry or prestigious placements in academia as similarly qualified students before them, they simply disappeared. 2005, by the way, was the year in which Congress passed the amendment to fund an enforcement arm of the Office of Homeland Security.
"2005 was also the year in which the Office of Homeland Security was officially removed from the President's cabinet, making it a more independent entity," Doug added, "like the Federal Reserve Board. It's no secret that, with oversight of all of the intelligence agencies and dotted-line authority over key military departments, Chairman Ridge's official powers almost rival those of the president. Off the books, though, what president can resist a man with access to almost every detail of his private life?"
Doug paused to allow the words to sink in. Both of his friends now watched him, discomfort masked by labored expressionlessness. Stephen finished his beer and sat back in his chair. Marcus sighed heavily and resumed his scribbling with the child's toy."OK. You guys would never say it out loud, but it's not news to you that Ridge is J. Edgar Hoover on steroids," Doug said. "But back to the book. Prediction of human behavior, American behavior, is not the aim of the project my book talks about. Control is the goal. If computer modeling indicates, for example, that the deciding factor in a gubernatorial election in Utah was voter perception of the candidate's morality, it becomes easy to influence similar elections there. Leak a sex scandal, and watch the results. In Oregon, the button may be an environmental issue; in New Hampshire, taxes may be the hot button. Whoever has access to the calculations will literally have the power to remake the U.S. government in their own image."
"You can't say stuff like that in a book, though, Doug," said Stephen, now noticeably nervous. "People have been arrested for a whole lot less. If you go accusing the government of subverting democracy you can be tried and convicted for sedition, or prosecuted under the Strengthening Democracy Act."
"That's why I'm writing it as science fiction, placing it in the future," Doug said earnestly. "It won't be as black and white in the book as I've just described. It'll be cloaked in allegory and I'll have said my piece without sticking my neck all the way out there. Hopefully, there are some sharp folks who'll get hold of it and see it for the warning that it is."
Marcus hastily wrote something on the Magnadoodle and handed it to Doug. Doug read it intently, shook it, slumped back in his chair.
Stephen now looked at Marcus, as if seeing him for the first time, his words tumbling: "Marc. Didn't you get a dual undergrad degree in sociology?"
The magnetic pad read:
"I'm very sorry to have to do this. You know there's no Miranda anymore, and I can't say this out loud, but please shut up. As it is, I have no choice but to arrest you. But there's a chance we can have this handled under a criminal statute if you cooperate. If you say anything more, you risk turning this into a full-blown treason case, under jurisdiction of the Tribunal, and face certain execution."
Marcus spoke now in measured tones, loud enough for the microphones to pick up: "Douglas James, in fulfillment of my enforcement duties as a Patriot Officer, I am now placing you under arrest."
On the television, the National Anthem began playing, indicating the next game was about to begin.