Tech by VICE

Sophokles In His Cave

Behold the future of art, resistance, and floating data centers.

by Brendan C. Byrne
Mar 2 2017, 5:30pm

Behold the future of art, resistance, and floating data centers in Brendan C. Byrne's beautiful, unsettling, and trenchantly timely story. Enjoy. -the editor

Samira made no attempt to capture the storm. Cut from a rat-fur horizon, cloudbursts let slip lightings small enough to hide behind your incisor. There was thunder like the snapping of the bones of some massive inner ear. The wind pressed against Blue Barge, and the chest of its sole occupant, a cold, illegitimate alien. Blue Barge was everything the Atlantic wasn't: clean, empty, static, but it was equally as unreadable. The storm disrupted the interplay of monolithic datacenter and endless ocean. Samira fought the urge to draw the handheld.  

Three hours onboard, Samira had already shot three bursts of footage. 

A deranged gull, separated from its swarm, had attacked the hem of her abaya and then, after a single solid swat, sulked aft. She'd followed with the handheld. It had cowered in front of an intricate, meaningless lattice of pounded plastic, twitching when she crouched down to document it. After five minutes of refusing to acknowledge her presence, the thing had finally turned on her its blood-drop eyes. 

A long tracking shot of Texas Tower Three. On the ride in she'd had to struggle to keep the chopper door a semi-stable frame. Out over the Georges Bank, the vehicle's internal dampeners had shut off, and the AI-pilot had mumbled something about autonomous zones, freedom of information, and limited meal service. The dampeners were artifacts of a decayed security system; Blue Barge was now a secret so open it retained the slightest vestige of mystery only to civilians. The three radar bulbs on the abandoned radio station appeared dull and unreal outlined in the concrete evening. Samira had recited a sentence from the Wiki article: "…distant sounds along the steel legs…

Hardware, black on white, slabs of halogen. The long corridors of the datacenter hid in the hump on the underside of Blue Barge. She'd self-balanced the handheld on the bone floor, cold from the leagues underneath, and switched on slow-mo. The footage showed her sprinting out into an asymmetrical frame, her hijab shifting to obscure her grin, before collapsing after about forty feet. It looked like she'd been assassinated by time. 

For some reason, whenever a bot promised something, Samira always believed it would actually happen. 

She snipcast all three. The barge's router stripped geo-locative info and filtered all content through Hog fact-checker AIs before squirting it toward what people still referred to as "the internet". All three snipcasts made it through unmolested. The half a dozen people who both followed her protected account and knew where she was had responded with the appropriate amount of envy. 

Now, with her shit stowed in the artist's quarters fore, adjacent to the old cafeteria, Samira faced stormwards, remembering how whenever the real weather came, everybody would always be on their phones. On the terraced roof in Neukölln with Vim and Erik as the streets slowly began to fill with flood. Or quayside in Dub, watching summer hail bounce off the backs of upturned iPhones. It was a civilian thing to do, shoot the weather. And suddenly that's what Samira wanted to see: a constantly refreshing chain of simultaneous storms on her screen, to hold up that screen against her own storm. 

She opened the app. The last image displayed, the G-Tower of Flakturm II in Friedrichshain, and then, superimposed, the ouroboros sign of loading. She checked wifi. No signal. 

The Black Box was lost in the thicket of bulkheads, datacenter entrances, and entryless hutches somewhere in the chest of the ship. Samira followed the pulsing purple tracing on her handheld map to the hatch, flush with an anonymous bulkhead.  Cached sensors accepted her biometrics, and the aperture slid open with a shush. Inside: walls covered in screens, a high-backed wingchair. She perched on the edge of the wingchair, waved through the various Intro sections on the nearest screen, then groped open the router. Wasn't just the wifi. The whole connection was down. She requested a reboot and passed the thirty seconds listening to the ventilation system. Still no connection. She pulled up the DM app, aimed one at the Hog HQ: no internet, this deliberate?

Reply came so quickly it had to be a bot: external malfunction, investigation ongoing 

For some reason, whenever a bot promised something, Samira always believed it would actually happen. 

She passed her palm over the left bank of screens almost unconsciously, and they woke up, showing specs, including those of the Black Box itself (92 hours of water, air, light, and protein). She pulled up BargeView, selected infrared, and went up vertical enough to see the entirety of the boat. Her own emanations masked by the Black Box, there was not a single human heat smear. Samira resisted the impulse to bother the bot (as if a bot was a thing which could be bothered), then exited, to begin hunting for the krane. 

No one had told her there was a krane, but there had to be one.

Blue Barge held the data servers for most of its presence on the NE seaboard. It was doubtful the Hog would allow a self-identified "Muslim-atheist" Ethiopian-American artist complete autonomy onboard, no matter how progressive their recent branding.  

Weaving her way through unmarked hutches, Samira scanned the battleship smear above Blue Barge's tallest structure, the former command tower. She could imagine a krane hanging there, armaments glistening in the sun like strange sex organs. The vision seemed so natural the krane's very absence seemed threatening. She reached the water, and her stomach immediately lurched. She stopped, shut her eyes. She tried to force the image she'd glimpsed briefly in BargeView, the whole structure a neatly delineated parallelogram, but another shape summoned itself: a long, cylindrical sheath for a heavy ceremonial dagger. She seemed a speck on this new, strange topography.

Grabbing hold of the railing, Samira leaned over the sea, as if to purge. Spatial awareness was one of the very few skill-sets she'd arrived in this world possessing. Her early successes in grad school, especially the solo show at Linden, I Am Not the Area I Feel (which had won a WhiteBread), had been constructed around intuitive explorations of space. While she'd complicated her practice since, Samira still felt physically palsied on the rare occasions her spatial awareness was stripped from her. 

Trying to force the salt air into the recesses of her lungs (and desiring a single dirty cigarette), Samira tallied up the drags on her physical body: the nonstop journey, the lack of human contact, the sea-legs, the precooked, protein-heavy rations, two days' lack of sleep, and the tail end of a particularly painful Shark Week. It was enough to disconcert anyone, to turn a simple connection malfunction and hidden krane into evidence of Directed Malice.

She recited the Baudrillard quote reserved for these situations: "The first duty of every revolutionary is immutability." She stood, and her eyes were open. They were focused on the command tower. Composed of jenga-esque pieces, it was the only structure on the vessel not composed of simple, clean lines. Staring at the jutting pieces, Samira began to feel as if the majority of them had shifted downwards since her landing the previous day. Hadn't its top-heavy nature been one of the first things she'd noticed? Its awkwardness? And now the pieces were clustered thickly in the mid-section. 

Samira turned from the sky to stagger toward her quarters, fighting a sense of total abandonment. 

The project which had enabled the Blue Barge residency was called commuters, a series of pics taken in various transit locales displaying passengers contorting themselves to achieve maximum comfort in anti-human environs. A squat woman presses her lower back against an armrest, feet splayed on the inner hull of an Uber-bus. A Madonna and child, wizened to the point where their awkward postures resemble a Rublev or Dionisius ikon pose on a backless plastic bench in the great hall of some airport. Their long, alien necks and disjointed fingers, their placid smiles and vacant eyes.

Their backgrounds would be bled, then each subtle brand of hyper-drab would be mixed together to form a single palate, to be smeared as uniform setting to each of the 23 portraits. (Samira knew this would subtract the ingenuity of each human adapting to a hostile space. She knew this would prove unpopular among some; she didn't care.) The process wasn't automated, which allowed her some measure of control over the aesthetics, as well as to snub the insurgent fad of bot-art. She was still trying to decide if the passengers' faces would be smeared blank.  

The project had not been an obvious choice for the residency, Blue Barge's in-house curators often favoring explicitly post-Anthropocene art. Georges Bank and adjacent areas comprised one of the first catastrophically over-fished zones in the North Atlantic, and corporate responsibility had resurged violently post-Pence. Slow video installations of chum slicks sliding along the hull, or of gulls shitting in the former cafeteria, had won eyetime and several important prizes. Samira had been surprised she was even a finalist. 

While the motivations of any authoritarian art world actor remained consistently elusive, Samira wondered if her rather confrontational working title had been a motivating factor in the decision. Long before the Hog took possession of Blue Barge from the Department of Defense, the DoD had taken possession of the vessel from Arkdia. Comprised of the flotsam and lagan of the sea-steading movement, the company was designed to hold onto shell corporations, vessels, and equipment for the eventual full nation-state wither. When the Pence Administration began to enact the mass deportations its predecessor had reneged on, Arkdia was shocked back to life with wet capital. Only American-pures were untargeted by the administration, and even then documentation had to be unsullied; sometimes paperwork was required going back a generation, in the case of ethnicities accused of anchor-nurseries. 

The result was serious braindrain on Silicon Valley and its offspring. Arkdia repurposed an old Peter Thiel-backed start-up called Blueseed, which operated vessels in international waters off NYC and SF as hubs for non-pure "innovators and disruptors". Blue Barge had been one of the final hubs operating, before Arkdia was appropriated by a weaponized and deranged DHS (before it itself was subsumed by the DoD). This relatively small group of non-pures, who lived and worked and eat and drank and shat and fucked onboard, were known as "commuters", in a perhaps unintentional bit of institutional irony. 

When the Pence Administration began to enact the mass deportations its predecessor had reneged on, Arkdia was shocked back to life with wet capital. 

Aft, there was a large open circle, circumference of about thirty feet comprised of a dozen or so eleven-foot poles screwed into the deck, some of which were still lashed together with nylon rope. Tatters of blue plastic, clinging to the rope, fluttered in the wind. Samira began to refer to the area as "the peristyle" and assumed it had been a de facto gathering space for commuters' town meetings, occasional communal meals, and minor revels. The peristyle was surrounded by the last humps, hutches, and datacenter entrances aft, all of which buffered wind, allowing her to set up a work station. (When Samira first tried to work in the abandoned cafeteria, dank and dotted with gullshit, the long, crackling seabird calls echoing in the tremendous space drove her outside.)

"I seek a blank space in my mind," she had written in the application, the kind of overblown, aggrandizing language institutional operators immediately recognized as familiar. Her latest collaboration, scheduled for a container ship in the South China Sea, had imploded quietly, leaving a soft ruin of her social circle. The cause had not been romantic or even personal, merely sexual, leaving no debris in her heart or gut. The terrors of the first day onboard had been revealed, after rest, refueling, and reorientation, to be mere stress-induced paranoia. The work progressed far more quickly than it had in Berlin, with all the attendant distractions and depressions. Samira was even (mostly) glad of the internet's continued absence.  

On the third day of no internet, cross-legged on the cold deck, Samira thought she clocked a flickering in her right periphery. She turned to see a folding table in the center of the peristyle. On it sat platters of rations, fresh grown greens, quickrice and a single bottle of unlabeled clear liquor. Around the table stood a dozen people frozen in the motions of a feast.  

A young woman with intricately hennaed hands flicks flecks of eggshell into the central crack of the folding table. A jowly older man, his business suit frayed in several key junctures, smiles slightly sad as he stares at his empty tooth glass. A woman in baggy, oil-stained sweats, wearing pseudo-librarian glasses, is caught with her mouth open in an exhausted laugh. They are all worn, but not with the hollow obsession of tech workers; they appear more like the clutches of refugees Samira remembered from the waiting rooms of NGOs, the back lawns of embassies, the detention centers outside of transit hubs. She circled their arrested forms, admiring rotted clothing, patchy and lusterless skin, sincere, open enjoyment. 

As Samira rounded the exposed edge of the table, she stooped to examine its cheap plastic, the color of gruel, eaten away at by time and use. When she stood up, everyone was looking at her. 

Samira did not breathe. They did, and they blinked, and their cheeks quivered with the cold. 

She opened her mouth to apologize.  

In the Black Box, warm, safe, and alone, Samira read the three DMs from Hog HQ. The first stated that internet had been restored. Thirteen minutes later: "external disruptions" were causing an "existential threat" to all Blue Barge communications. Two minutes later: DMs, too, would have to go silent, due to security issues, but communications should be restored "before the end of the residency". 

Samira sat there, suspended in a low-level fury she was trying to convince herself was born of the impotence which came with all tech-service interactions. After thirteen breaths she had to admit that she was burning to gut whatever previous resident had decided to implicate her in his project. (And it was a "he", she was sure, some New Reality asshole who assumed that anyone who encountered his so-subversive work would just have to document it.) No matter the politics of the artist, she resented the imposition. She'd come here to work on her own shit, not to handmaiden someone else's. This was a serious fucking breach of professionalism.

She pulled up BargeView, found the correct search overlay, then set the system loose for 2.3 seconds. No Artificial Reality generators found. She tried to push her feet off the desk, but the wing-chair just absorbed the force. She wriggled viciously, threw an elbow. No effect. 

Commercial AR tech couldn't cloak itself from the elements which comprised BargeView, and military-level AR would be nigh impossible to spot in an IRL search. There was, however, a third way. 

Six years ago, with a sizeable chunk of a grant left over and the well-stocked tech shops of Berlin at her disposal, Samira had managed to fashion an AR disruptor about the size of a memory stick with a range of 28.3 feet. (Alt-fash + doxing + weaponized AR.) Now, with far less time and material, Samira welded together a nine-pound IED-looking thing with a range of about 6.5 feet. It was also only good for one shot; the probability of it frying itself out of existence was fairly high. 

When she was on deck, lost in the gunmetal horizon, Samira imagined she could feel the krane there, hovering at the periphery of her vision.    

commuters' background was almost assembled. Samira was watching the waves lap lazy, letting it breathe. Hard rain had fallen on the shell of the former cafeteria all night, frightening the gulls into new heights of screaming and shitting. Now, staring at the blank dayfall, she became convinced, as she always did, that she should destroy the project and start again with an entirely new practice. It was not that she had the incorrect color, there was no such thing as correct, but the early morning light showed her that she had not seen clearly, yet it also showed her that she was, with great effort, capable of achieving her ends, only the effort this time had not been great enough. 

Samira lit the small joint she'd been saving for this moment. She'd hoped it would calm her. All it made her do was crave tobacco. Her eyes auto-focused on several somethings on the horizon. They looked like dead aphids on a windowsill, but then they grew larger. Skiffs. 

"The first duty of every revolutionary is immutability."

She took a step backward. There was someone next to her. A short man with shaved head and deep blue circles under his eyes. He wore swimming trunks and a tattered green T-shirt with a cartoon caricature of a pig spitting itself. His face was turned toward the boats, was not set in grimness, but strained with the restraint of sudden, florid emotion. 

Samira had left the disruptor under the peristyle, covered by a tarp, assuming that the AR was bound to a single specific site. She was grateful that she didn't have the opportunity to annihilate this man. He might look like an undersized soccer hooligan, but he was real. She had to touch his face. As her hand came up to his collarbone, her finger stretching out, the man turned to her, fixing his recessed eyes on hers.  

"They're going to kill us all," he said. 

Malignant AI-vengeance. Boutique Hog psychotic hallucinogen aerosolized by krane. Trace leavings of post-Uncanny Valley DoD AR.  Samira had Erik's pea coat over her head, under a former cafeteria table, the disruptor in her lap. None of these theories made sense. But the man, and the boats, made no sense either.

Unless she was truly insane. 

Or they were ghosts. 

Which was another way of saying the same thing.   

She slept for fourteen hours on the floor of the cafeteria, spooning the disruptor. 

When she woke, she worked for twenty-six minutes and found that she was done. 

The jenga pieces were evenly distributed throughout the command tower. She approached it slowly, the disruptor bumping off-rhythm on her hip. Close now, she could no longer see the thing's wholeness, only constituent pieces. She closed her eyes. 

"The first duty of every revolutionary is immutability," Samira recited and opened her eyes. 

The krane was swimming in place maybe ten feet above the tower. It was a snubnose, the color of the weather, no weaponry visible in its undercarriage.

It existed. There was nothing false in her mind or method. It had taken down communications, perhaps the content of her snipcasts had triggered an auto-defense response, which included either gassing her with visions, or projecting them around her. She almost pissed herself with joy.

Another krane joined it. And another. And another and another and another, until there were a dozen, assuming an offensive pattern, above the center of the vessel. 

Samira began to crouch down, then saw, surrounding her, the spectres. The eggshell woman was wrapped in a shock blanket. The soccer hooligan, only in long underwear, held a cricket bat. The non-librarian, a pocket pistol. 

They were not looking at the sky. 

Boarding Blue Barge were a dozen men. They came on not with the passionate intensity of pirates, nor with the studied calm of professionals, but with the swagger and smiles of joy-killers. Their outfits were mismatched, commercial Kevlar and denim jackets and puke cameo, and they held an assortment of ugly automatic weapons, none of which Samira could name. Several had the frog bauble of the alt-fash pinned to their chests. They fanned out sloppy, forming a crooked quarter ellipse, before assuming position. A few spat, but otherwise, the only sound Samira could hear was the breathing of the commuters around her. 

The men raised their weapons. 

Samira hit the disruptor button.  

Nothing even shimmered. 

The men began firing. 

Samira looked up at the kranes. They had not moved. They were only recording. 

The hatch to the Black Box shushed behind her. The screens were all empty. She passed her palms over them, growing more frantic, then collapsed into the wing-chair. There was no internet. There was no DM. There was no BargeView. She could hear nothing. She could only see the outline of her own form in the paltry emergency light cast and multiplied in the screens. 

Samira stood she knew not where looking at the background. The color of the sky had become one with the color she had created; it was the surface of the ground in a country burned down to soot. She grasped for the railing, expecting to feel metal in the warmth of her hands. Nothing. It was her and the background. She pressed her body against it, and its coldness became her coldness. She tried to make herself comfortable, and then she could not move. 

And the kranes went forth, chanting their lays. 

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