Human Readable
Written by Cory Doctorow
Narrated by Spider Robinson

 

 "It's interesting that Ms. McCavity should disavow any technical expertise, since that's what we've been saying all along. If she's getting stuck in traffic, it's because there's a lot of traffic. The ant-nets route five thousand percent more traffic than our nation's highways ever accommodated without them, and they've increased the miles-per-hour-per-capita-per-linear-mile by six thousand, four hundred percent. You're stuck in traffic? Fine. I get stuck sometimes too. But for every hour you spend stuck today, you're saving hundreds of hours relative to the time your parents spent in transit.

"The other side of this debate are asking for something impossible: they want us to modify the structure of the network, which is a technical construct, built out of bits and equations, to accommodate a philosophical objective. They assert that this is possible, but it's like listening to someone assert that our democracy would be better served if we had less gravity, or if two plus two equaled five. Whether or not that's true, it's not reasonable to ask for it."

The ewok turned to her.

She said, "Well, we've heard a great deal about the impossibility of building democratic fundamentals into the network, but nothing about the possibilities. This hard, no-compromise line is belied by the fact that we know that the rich and powerful manipulate the network to their own advantage, something that statistics have proven out --"

"See, this is exactly how these Human-Readable types do it, it's how their media training goes. They are here to ask for changes to technical specifications, but they disavow any technical knowledge, and when they're called on this, they spout dubious 'statistics' that 'prove' that up is down, black is white, and that millionaires can get to the movies in half the time that paupers can. The Emergent Network Suppliers' Industry Association represents the foremost experts in this field, but you don't need to be an expert to know that these networks work. The ants take us where we want to go, in the shortest time, with the highest reliability. Anyone who doubts that can dig out her map and compass and sextant and try to navigate the world without their assistance, the way they do in Europe."

Her mouth was open. Media training? Where did he get this business about media training? "I'm not sure where Mr. Feinstein gets his information about my media training from, but personally, I'd rather talk about networks." She paused. "Let's talk about Europe, where they have found ways of creating transparency and accountability for these 'unregulatable' algorithms, where the sky hasn't fallen and the final trump hasn't sounded. What do they know that we don't?"

"What indeed?" the ewok said, breaking in and giving her the last word again. "More of your questions after this break."

They got in their cars together after they'd scrubbed off their makeup and shaken paws with the ewok, riding down in the elevator shoulder to shoulder, slumped and sweaty and exhausted. They didn't speak, and the silence might have been mistaken for companionable by someone who didn't know any better.

They got off at the same floor in the parking garage and turned in the same direction, and Trish spied his car, parked next to hers, the last two on the floor. Quickening her step, she opened her door and turned the car on, backing up so that she was right behind Rainer.

He backed out slowly, looking at her quizzically in his rearview, but she refused to meet his eye, and when he pulled out, she rode his bumper.

"Sweet fancy Moses," she breathed, as the traffic parted before them, allowing them to scythe through the streets, onto the beltway. She hung grimly onto his bumper, cutting off cars that tried to shift into her lane. Moving this fast after so much time stuck on the roads -- it felt like flying. She laughed and then got a devilish idea.

Spotting a gap in the passing lane, she zipped ahead of Rainer and swerved back into his lane so that she was in the lead. As though a door had slammed shut, the traffic congealed before them into a clot as thick as an aneurysm. She hissed out a note of satisfaction, then waited patiently while Rainer laboriously passed her again, and the traffic melted away once more.

It was tempting not to get off at her exit, but she had to get some sleep, and so she reluctantly changed lanes. There wasn't much traffic on the road, but every traffic light glowed vindictive red all the way to her house.

The Chairman of her Board messengered over a hand-written note of congratulations that was on her doorstep. Beneath it was a note from Rainer's great-aunt, with the best wishes of his mother in neat pen beneath it. She read its kind words as she boiled the kettle, and put it into her pile of correspondence to answer. Rainer's great-aunt wanted to know if she had met a nice boy in DC yet, but she didn't come right out and say it -- too subtle for that. The women in Rainer's family got all the subtlety, and they recognized their own kind. It was why she and the old lady kept writing to each other; that and so that the Relatives could reassure themselves that someone in full possession of lifeguardly skills and a level head was watching out for Rainer's interests.

This business of hand-written, hand-delivered notes and letters was actually kind of charming, she thought as she put her feet up on her coffee table and opened up her flask of very special Irish whisky again.

#

She and Rainer went head to head in half a dozen more skirmishes that month -- her phone popping back to life every time she got within shouting distance of him. The on-again/off-again hearings in both Judiciary and Commerce never quite materialized.

She was better at playing the game, but he was a fast learner, and he had much deeper pockets and working network infrastructure. Her Board approved her renting out an empty suite of offices below their office and converting them to bedrooms for her staff for days when their cars couldn't get them home. They secretly borrowed elderly network appliances from relatives or bought them in the dollar-a-pound bin at the Salvation Army, but always, within a few hours of being in the possession of someone in the employ of the Association for a Human-Readable World, the devices would seize up and lose their routes to the network. Their offices started to fill up with dead soldiers, abandoned network boxes that no one could get online.

The embedded journalists went home after the second week. Their own gear was seizing up, too, as though the curse of the Association for a Human-Readable World was rubbing off on them. They vowed to return when things got interesting again, but they were of no use to anyone without working cameras, mics, and notepads.

Christmas came and went, and New Year's, and then February arrived and the city turned to ice and slush and perpetual twilight. The paralegal quit -- she needed a job where the phones worked so that she could call her girlfriend. The media guy took a series of "personal days" and she wasn't sure if he'd show up again, but it didn't matter, because the press had stopped calling them.

Then came the second Downtime.

It struck during morning rush-hour on Valentine's Day, a Monday, and it juddered the whole country to a halt for eight long days. The hospitals overflowed and doctors used motorized scooters to go from one place to another, unable to spread their expertise around with telemedicine. Firemen perished in blazes. Cops arrived too late at crime-scenes. Grocery stores didn't get their resupplies, and schools dug out old chalk-boards and taught the few students who lived close enough to walk. Fed cops of all description went berserk, and could be seen walking briskly from one federal building to another, their faces grim.

And suddenly, miraculously, every journalist, policy-wonk, staffer, advisor, clerk and cop in DC wanted to have a chat with the Association for a Human-Readable World.

#

She hired three more people that week, and borrowed four more from fellow-traveler organizations. Paying their salaries for the next four weeks would bottom out the group's finances, but she knew that this was now or never, and the Board backed her, after some nail-biting debate.

Rainer showed up on the fourth day of the Downtime, and she found him standing, bewildered, in the hustle of her office as her staffers penned notes on steno pads to their contacts on the Hill and handed them to waiting bicycle couriers in space-program warmgear that swathed them from fingertips to eyeballs. She plucked him out of the bustle and brought him back to her office.

"I've got a hell of a nerve," he said, sitting in her guest-chair.

"Really?" she said. "I hadn't noticed."

"Well, I haven't been showing it off. But I'm about to. I need advice. My office is falling apart. You've been living with no communications and no travel for a year now, you know how to make it work. We're completely lost. I've come to throw myself on your mercy." He looked up at her with his big brown eyes, and then they crumpled shut as he made his Fretting face.

"You're playing me, Rainer," she said. "And it won't work. Whatever I feel for you, I've got a job to do, and if this Downtime tells us anything, it's that I'm doing the right thing, and you're doing the wrong thing."

He hung his head. He wasn't even the slightest bit natty that day. She supposed that his personal assistant was stuck in Falls Church or Baltimore or somewhere, unable to get into the city. Judging from the slush and road-salt on his shoes, he must have walked the two miles between their offices.

"What's more, I don't have any advice to give you, in particular. We're not faring well here because we're doing something differently -- we're faring well because we're doing what we've been at all along, because of a network outage that you claim is impossible, is a figment of our imagination. Those bike messengers: we've been their best customers for months now. Everyone else is begging for service from them, but they're always here when we need them. We've got beds and changes of clothes and toilet-kits in the offices downstairs. We've been living through a Downtime for a couple of quarters now -- we've hardly noticed the change. If you want to cope as well as we are, well, you can go back in time, rent out spare offices to house your staff, establish a good working relationship with a bike-messenger company, learn to navigate the Metro and the freeways by map, and all the other things we've done here."

He looked defeated. He began to stand, to turn, to leave.

"Rainer," she said.

He paused.

"Close the door and sit down," she said.

He did, looking at her with so much hope that it made her eyes water.

"Here's my offer," she said. "You and I will lock ourselves in this office with the last draft of my bill. My staff will run interference for me with the Judiciary committee, and we will draft a version of my bill that we can both live with. We will jointly take it to Senators Beauchamp and Rittenhouse, with our blessings, and ask them to expedite it through both committees. Every Congresscritter on the Hill is sitting around with his thumb up his ass until the lights come back on. We can get this voted in by Tuesday."

He stared down at his hands. "I can't do it," he said. "My job is not to compromise. I just can't do it."

"Come on, Rainer, think outside the box for a minute here." Her heart was pounding. This could really be it. This could be the solution she'd been waiting for. "Even if the bill passes, there's going to be a long deliberation over the contours of the regulation, probably at the FCC. You'll be able to work on the bureau staffers and at the expert agencies, take ex-parte meetings and lobby on behalf of your employers. It's all we've ever asked for: an expert discussion where the public interest gets a hearing alongside of private enterprise and government."

But he was shaking his head, standing up to go. "You're probably right, Trish," he said. "I don't know. What I know is, I can't do what you're asking of me. They'd just fire me."

"If the Downtime continues, they won't be able to fire you -- they won't even know what you're up to until it's too late. And then they'll make the best that they can out of it. No one is better qualified to represent your side in the administrative agencies."

He put his ridiculous hat on and wrapped his scarf around his neck, and they looked each other in the eyes for a long moment. She waited for the involuntary smile that looking into his eyes inevitably evoked, but it didn't come.

"I don't understand you, Trish. You won this incredible victory for cooperation, for collective ownership of our intellectual infrastructure. Ant-networks demand the same cooperation from the nodes, that my phone pass your car's messages to his desk. Let's just set aside the professional politics for a second. Just you and me. Tell me: how can you not support this?" He looked at her out from under his brows, staring intensely. He swallowed and said, "It was the surfer, wasn't it?"

"What?" she said.

"The one who died. That's why you're doing this. You want to make up for him --"

She couldn't believe he'd said it. Taken such a cheap shot. "I'm surprised you didn't save that one for television, Rainer. Jesus. No, I'm doing this because it's right. In case you haven't noticed, your self-healing, uncorruptible network is down. People are suffering. The economy is tanking. The death toll is mounting. You won't even bend one inch, one tenth of an inch, because you're worried about losing your job."

"Trish," he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean --"

Her office door opened and there stood her embedded journalist. "I just got in from Manhattan," he said. "Can I set up in that corner there again?"

"Be my guest," she said, grateful for the distraction. Rainer looked at her, forehead scrunched, and then he left.

#

"It's a good thing you're not over him," the lawyer said, pouring her another victory whisky. The bill had passed the House with only one opposing and two abstentions, and had squeaked through the Senate by five seats, at five minutes to midnight on the eighth day of the Downtime. They were halfway to the bar (where the office manager had been feeding twenties to the bartender to stay open) when the grid came back up, crawls springing to life on every surface and cars suddenly zipping forward in the characteristic high-speed ballet of efficiently routed traffic. They'd laughed themselves stupid all the way to the bar and after a brief but intense negotiation between the lawyer and the barman, he'd produced a bottle of Irish that was nearly half as good as the stuff Trish kept at home.

"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that," Trish said, sipping tenderly at the booze.

"Come on, girl," the lawyer said, twirling her moustache. "Be serious. You two had so much sexual energy in that room, it's a wonder you didn't make the bulbs explode. It's how you got inside each other's heads. You weren't selling the committee, you were selling him, and that's what made you so effective. We're going to need that again at the FCC, too -- so no getting over him until after then."

Trish drank her whisky. She didn't know what to say to that. He'd looked ten years older tonight, in the corridors, whispering to his committee members, to his staffers, his face drooping and wilted. She supposed she didn't look any better. It had been, what, three days? since she'd had more than an hour's sleep.

"I don't get it," she said. "How could he be so dumb? I mean, it's obvious that the system is being gamed. Obvious that we're being targeted through it. Yet he sits there, insisting that white is black, that up is down, that the network is autonomous and immune to all corruption."

"It's like a religion for them," the lawyer said. "It doesn't need explaining. It's just right-living. It's the Law."

Trish thought back to the ceremony in the graveyard, the dirge and the prayers to a god no one believed in. Had Rainer really renounced his faith when he dropped out of Yeshiva?

"Here's to a human-readable world," Trish said, raising her glass. Around her, the staffers and borrowed staffers and hangers-on and even the barman raised their glasses and cheered. It was warm and the feeling swelled in her tummy and up her chest and through her face and she burst out in what felt like the biggest smile of her life.

#

She'd learned a long time ago never to send email while drunk, but it had been too much last night.

"What if, Rainer, what if -- what if the reason for the Downtimes is that someone is manipulating the network and that's breaking it. Did you ever wonder about that? Maybe the network is as good as you say it is -- until someone screws it up by trying to get preferential treatment for his pals.

"Wouldn't that be a kick in the teeth? We get five squillion percent increases in across-the-board routing efficiency, but in the end, it's never enough for people who can't be happy unless they're happier than someone else.

"The thing that saves the human race, but if we adopt it, it will destroy us. Irony sucks."

She'd signed it "Love," but even drunk, she'd had the sense to take that out before sending it. Saying "Love" would have been no more appropriate than saying, "You know, I did save your cousin's life." She'd called in no favors, she'd run no blackmail, and she'd won anyway.

He rang her doorbell at 5AM. She was barely able to drag herself out of bed.

"I figured you'd be getting up to deal with the press soon," he said, and she groaned. He was right. She'd earned some time off, but it'd be a month before she could take it. Too much press to do. She appreciated anew how much work it must have taken to be any of her old bosses from the copyright wars: the judge, the senator, the executive director of the PAC.

She was in her robe, and he was in jeans and a UCLA sweatshirt. He didn't have any gel in his hair, which was matted down by the knit cap he'd been wearing. He looked adorable.

"They fired me this morning," he said.

"Oh, hon --" she said.

"I would have quit," he said. "I'm outmatched."

She felt herself blush. Or was she flushing? She was suddenly aware of his smell, the boy smell, the smell that she could smell in his chest, in his scalp, in his tummy, lower... She straightened up and led him into the living room and started the coffee-maker going.

"When do you fly back, then?" she said.

He looked at her, smiling. "I don't know," he said. "I haven't booked a ticket."

She felt an answering smile at the corners of her mouth and turned into the fridge to fetch out some gourmet MREs. "Bacon and eggs or pancakes?" she said, then laughed. "I guess bacon is out," she said.

"Oh, I'm willing to bet that that bacon hasn't been anywhere near a pig," he said, "but I'll have the pancakes, if you don't mind."

She set everything to perking and went into the bedroom to pull on something smart and camera-friendly, but everything was in the hamper, so she settled for jeans and a decent shirt from last-year's wardrobe.

When she opened the door, he was standing right there, taller than her. "I think you're right," he said. "About the network. It's the best explanation I've heard so far."

She wrapped herself in silence again, waited for him to say more.

"You see, the true, neutral network is immune to corrupting influences and favoritism. So the existence of corruption and favoritism means that what we've got isn't a true network. Which means you're right! We need to have a hearing to get to the bottom of this, so that we can build the true network." He smiled bravely. "I thought maybe you could use an expert in your corner who'd say that in a hearing?"

"Thanks," she said, and slipped under his arm and back into the kitchen. Suddenly, she wanted very much to be back at her office, back with her staff, talking to reporters and overseeing a million details. "I'll think about it."

"I'm giving up my apartment at the end of the month -- next Monday. I won't be able to afford it without the Association's salary," he said.

Her place was big. A bedroom, a home office, a living room and a dining room. It was a serious deal for DC, even outside the beltway. It could easily accommodate a second person, even if they weren't sleeping together.

Her office -- her staff -- the press -- the bill -- her Board.

"Well," she said, "I've got to get going. I'll shower at the office. Got to get there in time to catch the Euro press-calls. Let me put your breakfast in a bag, OK?"

He looked whipsawed. "Uh, OK. Can I give you a ride?"

"No, I'll need my car this afternoon. Thanks, though." She kept her voice light, didn't meet his eyes. Kept thinking: her office -- her staff -- the bill.

"Well," he said. He turned for the door. Stopped. She tensed. He turned back to her. "Trish," he said.

"It's OK," she said. "It's OK. We just have religious differences, is all."

She slipped past him and into her car, and left him standing in her driveway. As she asked the car to plot a route for her back to the Hill, she dug through her purse for a pocket-knife. At the next red light, she took her lapel and slashed at it, opening a rent in her shirt that reflected a little of what her heart was feeling. It made her feel a little better to do it.

 

- For Alice