Human Readable
Written by Cory Doctorow
Narrated by Spider Robinson

  3. Conflict of Insect

Trish gathered her staff in the board room and wrote the following in glowing letters on the wall with her fingertip, leaving the text in her expressive schoolmarm's handwriting rather than converting it to some sterile font: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

Her staff, all five of them, chuckled softly. "Recognize it?" she asked, looking round at them.

"Pee-Wee Herman?" said the grassroots guy, who was so young it ached to look at him, but who could fire a cannonload of email into any congressional office on 12 hours' notice. He never stopped joking.

The lawyer cocked an eyebrow at him and stroked her moustache, a distinctive gesture that you could see in any number of courtv archives of famous civil-rights battles, typically just before she unloaded both barrels at the jury-box and set one or another of her many precedents. "It's Martin Luther King, right?"

"Close," Trish said.

"Geronimo," guessed the paralegal, who probably wasn't going to work out after all, being something of a giant flake who spent more time on the phone to her girlfriend than filing papers and looking up precedents.

"Nope," Trish said, looking at the other two staffers -- the office manager and the media guy -- who shrugged and shook their heads. "It's Gandhi," she said.

They all went, "Ohhhh," except the grassroots guy, who crossed to the wall and used his fingertip to add, "And then they assassinate you."

"I'm too tough to die," the lawyer said. "And you're all too young. So I think we're safe."

"OK," Trish said. "This is an official pep talk. They're playing dirty now. Last night, my car tried to take me to Arlington via Detroit. My email is arriving on a 72 hour time-delay. My phone doesn't ring, or it rings all night long. I've had to switch it off.

"But what all of this means is that I've got more uninterrupted work-time than ever and I'm getting reacquainted with my bicycle."

"Every number I call rings at my ex-girlfriend's place," the grassroots guy said. "I think we're going to get back together!"

"That's the right attitude, boy-o," the lawyer said. "When life gives you SARS, make sarsaparilla. I appear to be unable to access any of my personal files, and any case-law I query shows up one sentence at a time. I've discovered that the Georgetown University law-library makes a very nice latte and serves a terrific high tea, and I've set Giselle to work on refiling and cross-indexing twenty years' worth of yellow pads that had previously sat mouldering in a storage locker that I was paying far too much for."

"Which has given Giselle a rare opportunity to explore the rich civil rights history that you embody," Trish said, looking pointedly at the paralegal. "But I suspect that she could use a hand, possibly from a grad student or two who could get some credit for this. Let's ask around at Georgetown, OK?"

The lawyer nodded. The office manager pointed out that their bill-payments were going astray after they'd been dispatched to their suppliers but before they were debited from their -- dwindling -- account, which meant that they were getting a couple days' worth of free cash-flow. Only the media guy was glum, since he couldn't field, make or review calls or press-releases, which made him pretty useless indeed.

"Right," she said, and scribbled something on one of the steno pads she'd bought for everyone when their email started going down three times a day. "This guy owes me from back in the copyright wars -- I fed him some good stories that he used to launch his career. He was the ABNBC Washington bureau chief until last year and now he's teaching J-School at Columbia. Take the afternoon train to Manhattan and bring him back with you tonight. Don't take no for an answer. Tell him to bring his three most promising proteges, and tell him that they'll have all the access they need to produce an entire series on the campaign. Sleeping on our sofas. Following us to the toilet. Everything on the record. Do-able?"

"It's do-able," the media guy said. "I'm on it."

Once they'd all cleared out, the lawyer knocked on her door. "You going to be all right?" she asked.

Trish waved her hands at the piles of briefing books, red-lined hardcopies, marked-up magazine articles and memos from her Board of Directors. "Of course!" she said. She shook her head. "Probably. We never thought we'd get this far, remember? All this psy-ops shit they're pulling, it's just more proof that we're on the right track. No one should be able to do this. It's the opposite of democracy. It's the opposite of civil discourse."

The lawyer smoothed her moustache. "Right on," she said. "You should be proud. This is a hell of a fight, and I'm glad to be part of it. You know we'd follow you into the sun, right?"

Trish fluttered her hands. "God, don't give me that kind of responsibility."

"All right then, into the ocean. We're making this happen, is what's important."

"Thanks, babe," Trish said. She put on a brave smile until the lawyer had backed out of the office, then stared down at her calendar and looked at her morning schedule. Three congressional staffers, a committee co-chair, an ACLU researcher, and the head of the newly formed Emergent Network Suppliers' Industry Association -- a man she had last seen in her office at UCLA, backing away from a long and melancholy hug.


When he rang off the phone and joined her, finally, she straightened out her smart cardigan and said, "Rainer, you're certainly looking... well."

"...funded," he finished, with a small smile. The Emergent Network Suppliers' Industry Association's new offices were in a nice Federal Revival building off Dupont Circle, with lots of stained glass that nicely set off the sculptural and understated furniture. "It's not as grand as appearances suggest, Trish. We got it for a song from the receivers in the Church of Scientology's bankruptcy, furnishings included. It is nice though. Don't you think?"

"It's lovely," she said. Around her, staffers bustled past in good suits and good shoes and smart haircuts. "Hard to believe you only set up shop a week ago," she said.

"It came furnished, remember," he said.

"Oh yes, so you said," she said, watching a kid who looked like he'd gone tops in his class at the Naval Academy put his ankles up on the plasticized return beside his desk and tilt his chair, throwing his head back with wild laughter at whatever it was some other Hill Rat (in her mind, it was a key Congressman's aide -- some old frat buddy of Mr Navy 2048) was saying at the phone's other end.

She looked back at Rainer and saw that he was staring where she had.

"Well, it's a far cry from academic research," he said.

"I know you'll be very good at it. You can explain things without making it seem like an explanation. The first lesson I ever learned on the Hill was, 'If you're explaining --'"

"'-- you're losing,'" he said. "Yeah, I've heard that. Well, you're the old hand here, I'm just learning as I go. Trying not to make too many mistakes and to learn from the ones I do make."

"Do you want some free advice, Rainer?"

He sat down in one of the chairs, which bulged and sloshed as it conformed itself to his back and butt. He patted the upholstered jelly beside him. "You may always assume that I would be immensely grateful for your advice, Trish," he said.

She sat down and crossed her legs, letting her sensible shoe hang loose. "Right. DC is a busy place. In academic circles, in tech circles, you might get together to feel out your opponent, or to make someone's acquaintance, or to see an old friend. You might get together to enjoy the company of another human being.

"We do that in DC, after working hours. Strictly evenings and weekends. When you schedule a meeting during office hours, it has to have a purpose. Even if it appears to have no purpose, it has a purpose. There's a protocol to meetings, a secret language, that's known to every Hill Rat and written nowhere. What time you have the meeting, who's there, who's invited, who knows it, how long you schedule, whether you cater: they all say little things about the purpose of the meeting. Even if you have no reason to call the meeting, one will be read into it.

"If this was any other city in the world, it would make perfect sense for you to look me up once you got to DC. We're still friends, I still think about you from time to time, but here in DC, you calling me over for a meeting, this kind of meeting, at this time of day, it means you're looking to parley. You want to strike a deal before my bill goes to the committee. I don't know how well you know the Hill, so I don't want to impute any motives to you. But if you took a meeting like this with anyone else, that's what they'd assume."

Rainer's forehead crinkled.

"No Fretting," she said. Then she smiled a sad smile. "Oh, Fret if you want. You're a big boy."

He twiddled his thumbs, caught himself at it, and folded his hands in his lap. "Huh," he said. "Well. I did want to talk to you because it's been a while and because we meant a lot to each other. I also wanted to talk to you about the bill, because that's what I'm here to do, at a pretty decent salary. I also wanted to see you because I had an idea that you'd be different here in your native habitat, and well, that's true."

She refused to let that make her self-conscious. Of course she was different, but it wasn't geographic. The last time they'd seen each other, they were lovers and friends. Now they were ex-lovers who were being paid to accomplish opposing, mutually exclusive objectives. She knew that there was a certain power in not saying anything, so she wrapped herself in silence and waited for him to say something. She didn't have to wait long.

"Your bill is going to committee?"

"Well, I certainly hope so," she said. "That's what I'm here for, after all. The discussion draft has been circulating for a week, and we're confident we'll see it introduced and assigned to committee by the end of this week. That's what we're told, anyway. It's got strong bipartisan support. Selling Congress on the importance of human-generated governance is pretty easy. Wouldn't want to be in your shoes."

He grinned. "You're trying to psych me out."

"Maybe," she said, grinning back. "But that's nothing compared to the psych job that we've been getting down at my office." She told him about the phone weirdness, the oddball traffic-management. "Someone on your side has a funny sense of humor."

His smile faded. "You're still trying to fake me out," he said. "If you're seeing corruption in the net, it's because you're looking so hard, you can't help but find it. You're reading malice into accident. Dead spots aren't personal, you know. This is a law of nature -- the networks emerge solutions, they're the best they can come up with. If you don't like the results, talk to nature, not me."

She shrugged. "Whatever, Rainer. I know what's happening. You'll believe what you want to believe." She pursed her lips and made an effort at controlling her irritation. "It's really happening, and it's not helping your side. If you know who's responsible, you might let him know that the dirty tricks are what convinced Senator Beauchamp's staff to green-light the bill. Conspiracy is supposed to be beneath the surface. It doesn't look so good when it's exposed to fresh air and sunshine."

"You've got to be kidding," he said. "Doesn't matter, I suppose. All right, message received. If I happen to run into someone whom I think should hear it, I'll be sure to pass it on, OK?"

"That's all I ask," she said.

"You want to talk about the bill now?"

"Have you seen the discussion draft?"

He squirmed. "No," he admitted. "I didn't know it existed until just now."

"I'd offer to send you a copy, but I expect it would take a week to arrive, if it ever did. Why don't you ask that guy," she gestured at the Navy man, "to get you a copy? He looks like he knows his way around. And then drop by my office if you want to chat about it."

She stood up and tugged at her cardigan again. "It's been very nice seeing you," she said. She picked up her coat and her mitts. "Good luck settling in."

He gave her a hug -- which felt weird, hugging was strictly west-of-the-Mississippi, and she broke it off firmly -- and showed her to the door. The first snows were coming in, and the steps were slightly icy, so she maneuvered them slowly, carefully. When she reached the road, he was no longer in the doorway. He was standing right behind her, breath coming out in foggy huffs.

"Trish," he said, then stopped. His arms dropped to his sides and his shoulders slumped.

"Rainer," she said, keeping her voice calm and neutral.

"God," he said. "God. How'd this happen, Trish? Look, I've never been happy the way I was with you. I haven't been that happy since. God, Trish --"

"Rainer," she said again, taking one of his hands, firmly, motherly. "Rainer. Stop it. You're here to do a job, and your job requires that you and I keep it on a professional level. It doesn't matter how it happened --" But it did, didn't it? She'd left him to come east and do something he thought of as wrong-headed and backwards and superstitious. But she'd left him, not the other way around. And he'd never recovered, though she'd built herself a new life here. It wasn't a contest (but she was winning anyway). "It doesn't matter. We respect each other. That's enough."

He deflated and she said, "Oh, come here," and gave him a long and soulful hug, right there on the street, knowing that she was giving the hug and he was taking it. Then she let him go, spun him round, and gave him a little push back toward his office.

By the time she reached the corner and looked back over her shoulder, he was nowhere to be seen.


That afternoon, her phone started ringing normally, with actual people on the other end. Her outbound calls were connected. Her email was delivered. Her car got her home in record time. She sighed as she eased it into her driveway and carried her briefcase inside and poured herself a very small glass of Irish whisky so rare that it had been known to make grown men weep. Normally, she saved it for celebrations, but if she was celebrating something, she was damned if she knew what it was.

Her phone rang as she was licking the last few drops of liquor from the little glass. It was the lawyer, with news.

"I just stopped by the office and found a messenger on the doorstep. He had hard-copy of a press-release from Senator Beauchamp's office. They're introducing the bill in the morning. Congrats, kid, you did it."

Trish set the glass down and said :whoopee: very quietly and very emphatically.

"You're durned tootin'," the lawyer said. "And double for me."

Of course, it wasn't over by a long shot. Getting a bill introduced was not the same as getting it through committee. Getting it through committee was not the same as getting it passed in the Senate, and getting it passed in the Senate was not the same as getting it passed in the House, and then who the hell knew what the hereditary Chimp-in-Chief in the Oval Office would do when it was passed through the bars of his cage with his morning banana.

But she had ridden back into town less than a year before, and she had gone from nothing to this. The ACLU was supporting the bill, and EFF, EPIC, all the old civ-lib mafia had opened their arms to her. She poured herself one more very small whisky, gave herself a fragrant bath and put herself to bed, grinning like a fool.


"There are four news-crews, six print reporters, and a couple of others here to see you," the office-manager said. The office phones were out again, but that hadn't stopped a fair number of determined people from figuring out that they could actually move their physical being from one part of Washington to another and have a real, old-fashioned face-to-face. The lawyer and she had each taken a dozen press "calls" that morning, with their embedded reporters from Columbia J-School perched obtrusively in the corners of their offices, taking copious notes and filming constantly.


"A mixed bag. Some Hill people, some I'm not sure about."

Trish stood and stretched out her back, listening to it pop. She usually worked in bursts, typing or talking for an hour, then taking a little walk to gather her thoughts and touch base with her co-workers. Today, she'd been glued to her seat from 7AM to after lunchtime, and her back and butt were shrieking at her.

She walked into the front area, trailed by her reporter. She recognized some of the journos and some of the Congressional staffers, and a local rep from a European Privacy think-tank in Brussels, and -- Rainer.

He was turned out in a very natty suit and a homburg, a fashion that had recently come back to DC, and she knew that he'd been put together by a personal shopper. Her own Board had suggested to her, matter-of-factly, that she should get one of her own once the bill cleared committee, since she'd be doing tons of press and as sharp a dresser as she fancied herself, she was no pro. Her prodigious talents, they assured her, lay elsewhere.

He took her hand with both of his and gave her a long, intense hand-shake that drew stares from the journos and the think-tank man.

"Nice to see you again, Ms. McCavity," he said, somberly.

"A pleasure as always, Mr. Feinstein," she said.

"I'm sorry to drop in on you unannounced," he said, "but I hoped that I could have just a moment of your time." Belatedly, he remembered to take off his silly hat and then he fumbled with the right way to hold it, settling for dropping it to his waist and upending it. She thought he looked like a panhandler in a Charlie Chaplin movie and she suppressed a smile. His curly hair had been gelled into a careful configuration that reminded her of the glossy ringlets of a black poodle.

"I suppose we can do that," she said. She turned to her other visitors. "Who's got a 3PM deadline?" she said. Two of the print-reporters held up their hands. "You then you," she said. "Who's got a 5PM filing deadline? 6PM? 10PM?" She triaged them all, promised to meet the think-tank man for dinner at an Ethiopian place in Adams-Morgan, and led Rainer into her office and closed the door.

He looked at her embedded reporter and cocked his head.

"Sorry, Rainer," she said. "I have a shadow for the duration. Just pretend he isn't here. You don't mind, do you dear?" she said to the reporter, who was very young and very bright and missed nothing. He shook his head and made some notes.

"The bill's dead," Rainer said, after he'd sat down.

"Oh really?" she said.

"Just heard from Senator Rittenhouse, personally. He takes the position that this should be in Commerce, not Judiciary, and is calling hearings to make that happen."

Rittenhouse was another powerful committee chairman, and this wasn't good news. What's more, he was in the pocket of the network operators and had been for a decade, so much so that editorialists and talk-radio types called him "The Senator from The Internet."

Still, it wasn't catastrophic. "That's interesting," she said, "but it's a far cry from killing the bill. It's pretty standard, in fact. Just slows things down." She smiled at him. He was just a kid sometimes, so out of his depth here. He reminded her of the Relatives she'd met that day, the little boys in their miniature suits running on the beach.

He shifted in his seat and fondled his hat-brim. "Well, I guess we'll see. My press-liaison has set up a post-mortem debate on one of the news-networks tonight, and I thought you might want to represent the other side?"

She smiled again. He was twice the rhetorician that she was, but he had no idea how to play the game. She'd have to be careful to bruise, not break him.


"We, as a society, make trade-offs all the time," Rainer said. He was wearing a different suit this evening, something that Trish had to admit looked damned good on the studio monitors (better than her frumpy blouse and wool winter-weight trousers). "We trade a little bit of privacy for a little bit of security when we show identification before going into a federal building --"

The ewok held up his paw. "But how much should we be willing to trade, Ms. McCavity?"

She looked into the camera, keeping her eyes still, the way she'd been told to if she didn't want to appear tourettic. "Wickett, when Franklin said, 'Those willing to give up a little liberty for a little security deserve neither security nor liberty,' he wasn't spouting empty rhetoric, he was laying the groundwork for this enduring democratic experiment that we all love. Look, we're not opposed to the use of autonomous networks for some applications, even most applications, with appropriate safeguards and checks and balances. No nation on earth has the reliance that we do on these networks. Are they an appropriate way of advising you on the best way to get to the mall on a busy Saturday? Absolutely, provided that everyone gets the best advice the system can give, regardless of economic status or influence. But should they be used to figure out whom the FBI should open an investigation into? Absolutely not. We use judges and grand juries and evidence to establish the sufficiency of a request to investigate a private citizen who is considered innocent until proven guilty. We learned that lesson the hard way, during the War on Terrorism and the Ashcroft witch-hunts. Should we trade grand juries and judges for ant-colonies? Do you want the warrant for your wiretap issued by an accountable human being or by a simulated ant-hill?"

The ewok turned to the camera. "Both sides make a compelling case. What do you think? When we come back, we'll take your calls and questions." The lights dimmed and it adjusted its collar and cracked its hairy knuckles on the table before it. Ever since it had made the move to a pbs, it had been grooming its fur ever-more conservatively and trying out a series of waistcoats and short pants. It turned to her and stared at her with its saucer-sized black button eyes. "You know, I just wanted to say thanks -- I had self-identified as an ewok since I was five years old, but Lucasfilm just wouldn't license the surgery, so I went through every day feeling like a stranger in my body. It wasn't until your law got enacted that I was able to find a doctor who'd do it without permission."

She shook its paw. "It wasn't my law, but I helped. I'm glad it helped you out." She unconsciously wiped her palm on her thigh as the ewok turned to his make-up boy and let him comb out its cheeks. She stared at Rainer, who wasn't looking good. She'd had him on the ropes since their opening remarks, and the ewok kept interrupting him to let her rebut -- and now she knew why.

Rainer had his phone clamped to his head, and he was nodding vigorously and drumming his fingers. He was sweating, and it was making his hair come un-coiffed. Trish's own phone buzzed and she looked down at in surprise. It was her voice-mail, coming back to life again. It had started when she got to the studio -- when she got within a few yards of Rainer, she realized. Messages coming in. She'd transcribed a dozen in the green-room before they'd dragged her into makeup.

The studio lights blinked and Rainer popped the phone back into his pocket and the ewok turned to look back into the camera, examining the ticker scrolling past his prompter. He introduced them again, then turned to Trish.

"Ms. McCavity, Alberto in San Juan writes in wanting to know what changes we should institute in the networks."

She said, "It's not my place to say what technical changes the networks need to have. That's where experts like Mr. Feinstein come in. We'd ask the administrative branch to solicit comments from people like him to figure out exactly what technical changes could be made to allow us to remain competitive without giving up our fundamental liberties in order to beat the occasional traffic jam."

"Mr. Feinstein?"

He grinned and leaned forward.