glennharvey_2019_12_09_TERRAFORM
Image: Glenn Harvey

Mothers Against Sinister Technology

A speculative story that imagines a crusade to end the internet as we know it.
December 10, 2019, 8:57pm

Today's Terraform speculation is extra super-special: We've got a collaboration with Rose Eveleth, who brings us a story that takes place in the same world of the latest episode of her inimitable Flash Forward podcast—which, to the uninitiated, is a show all about investigating possible futures. This time, she imagines one way the internet as we know it might cease to be—not with a hack, or a crash, but a, well, you'll see. Enjoy. -the ed


Tuesday, September 8th, 2020 // 3:12pm // Morgantown, VA

The news was calling again. Knocking on the front door, interviewing neighbors. How couldn’t you know? Were there any signs? He was a quiet kid. The son of scientists. A nice quiet house. A good street. No warning? Really?

Cindy Williams was standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee that was burning her hands but she didn’t notice. Perhaps if she stood still they will go away. Perhaps if she closed her eyes and stood perfectly motionless they would stop showing footage of her house on TV, stop cycling through the same two photos of her son. Stop knocking on her door. Stop asking her, really? She really didn’t know?

There were flowers on the table. They were at first a welcome surprise. Then she read the card. “For Mrs. Williams. Your son is a hero. All hail the Supreme Gentleman Parker Williams.” She had nothing in her stomach to puke up but coffee, and it burned in her throat.

Even her friends haven’t called. What could they say? What would she say to them. She knew what she wanted to say. It could have been your kid. It could have been yours. Nobody believed her when she said it. Nancy hung up on her when she said it. Nobody wanted to hear it.

The flowers had to go but she didn’t want to touch them. They felt radioactive, like a poison, like she could somehow catch whatever it was had curdled her son.

The walls were still swimming, but that idea was enough for her to open her eyes. To look at the clock. Poison. Her son was poisoned. He caught a sickness. An infection. A horrible disease. Those friends, vectors, and there is no immunization, no retrovirals. A virus. Why not? Things seemed clearer to her now with this thought. Cindy Williams was a scientist. This was a thing to do. Trace the victims to the original well. Find the source of the sickness.

Her cup of coffee was somehow now empty. She opened the side door. It was four steps to the garbage can. The news will replay the footage for weeks. Mother of mass shooter throwing away flowers. Clearly a sign of rot in their house. Perhaps this is where he got it from. Perhaps she did know.

*

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021 // 10:12am // Washington D.C.

"Every mother hopes to see their son’s name in the papers one day. Perhaps as a Nobel Prize winner, or a heroic doctor who cured cancer, or on stage at the opera singing his heart out. We mothers imagine taking the paper around to our neighbors, our sisters, fellow parents at PTA meetings, pointing, saying “look! It’s my boy!” Last week, my son’s name was in the paper. But instead of being my greatest triumph, it was my worst nightmare.

"You likely know my son by now. His face and manifesto have been plastered and dissected by nearly every outlet you can imagine. Last week, he killed thirty two people, barging into a mosque in San Diego, California wielding several semi-automatic weapons, before committing suicide. Like so many other young men these days, he was radicalized online — led down a hellish rabbit hole that warped his mind and slowly eroded his connections to the real world until nothing was left but a lava-like rage just waiting to erupt.

"It didn’t have to be this way. Parker was always a quiet kid, introspective and thoughtful. He had sandy brown hair, and glasses that always seemed too big for his face no matter how many times we got them refitted. He cared deeply about fairness. He stood up to bullies. He worked hard and was always looking out for others. He mowed our neighbor Mike’s lawn when he got too old to do it himself, and never asked for money.

"Like so many boys, Parker retreated from us as he became a teenager. He was a sensitive boy, and the injustices of the world wore at him, slowly eroding his faith in humanity. And who can blame him, really? I too have felt that familiar ache reading the news, that feeling like you’re slowly drowning in a sea of unjust decisions you can do nothing to stop. But Parker seemed to feel them all more deeply, more personally. We worried, of course, as parents, but what was there to do? He didn’t seem any more sullen than the neighbor’s boy, so we let his long hours locked in his room go by.

"It was in those long hours that eventually, Billy found a community. We thought that this was a good thing — he was suddenly talking about friends, making jokes, making eye contact with us even. He came to the dinner table energetic, full of ideas and provocations that he wanted to discuss and debate. We often disagreed with him, and wondered where these new opinions had come from, but at least he was speaking to us. We had no idea where these so-called friends might lead him, to gun shops and ammunition stores and ultimately to horrifying, premeditated murder."

*

Monday, November 16th, 2020 // 11:32 am // Morgantown, VA

It was the idea of sickness that got her going. Her son was a normal kid, infected by something sinister. Cindy Williams was a scientist. She started reading papers, gathering statistics. She guessed her way into her sons accounts. She started making maps of his network. She started sending emails.

The other parents were easy to find. Their names were always somewhere — on PDFs for local soccer tryouts, letters to the editor, public comments at town council meetings, or posted plainly on message boards celebrating their sons. Cindy Williams knew how to find them, and more importantly she knew how to reach them.

“I know you might not see this email. I know because I know what your inbox is like right now. I know because I’ve been there. My son and yours are probably in the same cubicle in hell right now. Parker killed eleven people at his high school two months ago. You can google my name to check.

Anyway, I’ll keep the email short. I’d like to talk. I think we can these horrible things into something good. We can stop this sickness. Call me. 722-398-9937.”

The phone calls came surprisingly quickly. Maria from Cincinnati. Samantha from Bend. Patricia from Boise. Their voices were somehow familiar immediately, that slight hesitation when their boys names come out of their mouth. Like they haven’t said it in a long time out loud.

There was always guarded smalltalk at first, but Cindy wasn’t one to beat around the bush. “It could have been anybody’s kid,” she’d say, abruptly. “Anybody’s.” There was always silence at this part -- half relieved, half stunned. “Our kids were infected. It can happen to anybody. And it can be stopped. I think I know how. Do you want to help me?”

*

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021 // 10:12am // Washington D.C.

"It’s tempting to cast Parker as an outlier, and aberration, an extreme and rare case of Internet poisoning. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Just last week the New York Times published proof that the five mass shootings carried out in the last few months were all perpetrated by men who had connected with one another online at some point. Parker had texted with John Graham, the Tempeh shooter, about ammunition supplies. He had shared memes and talked politics with Brian Lewis, the Dallas gunman. He had emailed back and forth about a climate denial conference with Mark Adamson, the Memphis sniper. They were friends, palling around, recruiting new members and spreading their sickness to others online.

"And it’s not just extreme acts of violence that the Internet is spreading like a contagion. Racism, sexism, homophobia, abelism, transphobia, it’s all seeping out from our devices and into our brains. Experts estimate that today, over twenty percent of America is unvaccinated thanks to conspiracy theories pushed by anti-vaccine advocates online. The CDC considers drop in vaccine rates is a bonafide public health crisis, and just two months ago a measles outbreak killed thousands in Berkeley, California, where residents no longer have herd immunity. A full fifteen percent of Americans believe that the Earth is flat. Thirty percent reject the scientific consensus that climate change is real, and are blocking any real action on it — a move that will eventually lead to millions of deaths not just here but all around the world. Online bullying has become an epidemic. Just last week researchers at Northwestern University published work suggesting that the suicide rate among teens is ten times higher than it has ever been in human history. Fifty thousand teens every year take their own lives in the US, and the leading risk factor is Internet use — the number of hours spent on this network where they’re bullied, tracked, and fed unrealistic stories of what they should look like and achieve."

*

John’s hands gripped the steering wheel tightly.

“I can’t believe you’re taking this meeting.”

Cindy stayed quiet. No use in having the fight again, for the fourth time. She smoothed her navy skirt in her lap and rehearsed her spiel in her head. It was a four hour drive to the capital. She had note cards. John turned on the radio.

When they finally wound their way into the city, it was nearly noon. The sky was clear and John had forgotten his sunglasses. He squinted and leaned forward, looking for road names. Cindy looked at her cards. John took several wrong turns. Cindy didn’t notice.

Sliding out of the car, Cindy didn’t look back. John managed a tight “good luck,” and watched her go. He had no idea how long she’d be. He was tempted to drive home, and leave her there. Why did she want to continue to relive this? To talk about their worst moment, to put their family in the spotlight again and again. Instead, he drove himself to the National Gallery of art, and wandered, half aware of his surroundings, avoiding every painting of a family.

The floors in the Senate building had just been waxed. Cindy rarely wore heels, but every television show about Congress suggested that she should. In the lobby there was an imposing black sculpture that could look like a bird or a fighter jet or a cloudy mountaintop. The hallway to the office was long and the fluorescent lights were slightly dimmer than she expected them to be. American flags dotted the way, casting weak shadows on the shiny floor. Half way down the long hallways she realized she had left her cards in the car. But by now she knew what to say.

The Senator was running behind, but when they got into the same room, it was easy. They were just as charismatic as everybody said. Cindy made her plea, and the Senator smiled, took notes. She had a son too. A son who liked to spend time online. A son who could be infected too. “It could have been anybody’s kid,” Cindy said, and the Senator didn’t stop her. Instead she nodded in agreement.

*

"We cannot stick our heads in the sand any longer. My quiet, strange, lonely boy is no longer an exception. There is a darkness spreading. A deep, fundamental sickness. The Internet is poisoning us all and it’s time we did something about it. It’s time to admit that it’s too dangerous, too toxic for public use. It’s time to walk away from the Internet.

"I am no Luddite, nor do I desire to go back to the stone age or drive a horse-drawn carriage to work. There are functions of the Internet that can stay: financial transactions, transportation systems, international shipping, power supplies, infrastructure. We need not cut the cables literally. But everyday people like you and me cannot risk being exposed to such a dangerous technology. We don’t let citizens handle nuclear waste, or certain kinds of military grade weapons. We already recognize that some technology is too dangerous for everyday civilian use. It’s time we realize that the Internet is one of those technologies."

*

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021 // 10:12am // Washington D.C.

Cindy asked John to lint roll her suit one more time. The third time. There's no lint on it. But she’s nervous. She gets one chance to testify. This is the big moment.

She practiced her hand gestures, the way she would transition from grieving mother to powerful change-maker as she went. The caveat just before the crescendo. She practiced balling her fist and punching it into her opposite hand. No, too much. She practiced putting her hands down flat on the desk and leaning forward. Yes, that one.

She walked into the chamber, and notices a piece of lint on her skirt.

No time now, just a proposal to make.

She bent the mic to her mouth, and began.

"There was, perhaps, a time when we could have done something less extreme than cut ourselves off completely, cold turkey. There was a time when we could have regulated the Internet in one way or another. Surely you remember the proposals, the laws, the anti-trust lawsuits. Perhaps you also remember that they never went anywhere — technology companies were already too big, too powerful to stop. Driven by greed, chasing engagement and clicks, they inadvertently created the perfect vector for this sickness. They say mosquitos are the deadliest thing on the planet — killing 725,000 people every year by infecting them with malaria, dengue, yellow fever, west nile. They’re no match for the Internet, infecting millions each year with hate, fear, rage and panic.

"But the Internet has given us so much good, you might be thinking. How can we turn our backs on it? It’s true. I met my husband through the Internet. I share cat memes and make dinner reservations and order groceries online, just like you. But this is bigger than us. Bigger than our convenience, our easy access to media or sex.

"Think of it this way: imagine there was a road in your town that snaked along an active volcano. Driving along the road offers some of the most beautiful views in the world. But it’s treacherous — about 25 percent of people who drive down that road are subsumed by lava. Another twenty percent come out the other side alive, but burned, their lungs permanently altered by the smoke and ash. If you were the mayor of your town, you would close that road, wouldn’t you? Even if the road happens to have some of the most scenic views of the city. Even if you had your first kiss at the roadside pull-off, you’d close it. It’s simply not worth the risk.

"We must close this road. If we don’t, we’re putting our children’s future at risk."

*

Thursday, May 10th, 2026 // 8:00 am // Faxed Statement from MAST

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Pioneering Anti-Internet Advocate Cindy Williams Passes Away

Cindy Williams (1972-2026) - The charismatic founder of Mothers Against Sinister Technology (MAST), an organization dedicated to pushing for heavy regulation and even destruction of the Internet, died today surrounded by her friends and family. Sparked by her own son’s descent into what MAST later dubbed “Internet Madness,” Williams successfully lobbied Congress to pass several bills heavily restricting access to the Internet in the name of public safety. Reviled by Internet Freedom advocates, Williams held fast to her belief that the Internet was simply too dangerous for the average consumer to navigate.

Thanks to her tireless advocacy, the world is a safer place.