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memoirs of the midwives of horror

[content warnings: anatomy descriptions; racist behavior; tech industry misogyny and graphic relationship violence]
[This is nonfiction, but it is a historical pastiche of multiple events, companies, and individuals.]

[0]

They told us Think Different. Different like Cesar Chavez, Amelia Earhart, Jim Henson, like that was a sentence that made any kind of sense. They put on the skins of Albert Einstein and Gandhi and paraded around like they’d invented them.

They told us question everything.

[1]

They sprang fully formed from the minds of the circuits, born auto-didacts, not even learning to read until they were seven, when they saw no other way to make sense of the computer manual. They never finished high school. They never finished college. They made more per hour than your college professors. They sold their company to Palm for a million dollars before you’d gotten your diploma. They said, the piece of paper doesn’t matter. They wanted land and a cabin in the woods, to stave off the loggers, so it seemed at least like they knew what to do with the money.

They told us, I like how you customize your interface, picking icons and pretty desktop patterns, I’ve never seen anyone do that. It’s fascinating.
They told us, don’t use tampons, they’re bad for you.
They stayed up all night coding and consumed nothing but Mountain Dew syrup in black tea and rambled out of their rooms raving and blind after three days until their neighbors steered them back into their room, to bed

They’d read John Dewey and Hardt and Negri, Eric S. Raymond and Linus Torvalds. They were familiar with Ayn Rand. They took the names of Gibson characters in IRC channels and BBSes. They fawned over Cryptonomicon, and when its pompous academic asked “How many on-ramps will connect the world’s ghettos to the Information Superhighway?” they mis-heard it as a personal calling and went to Africa. They told us down with the man, up with Nanotech.

They told us Emacs is better than Vi, Linux is better than Microsoft, Python is better than C, don’t you have a GPG key, haven’t you been to a key signing party, you aren’t wearing the right hair scrunchie, bye Felicia,

When they came to town, the professors who always lectured listened instead. Your uncle the entrepreneur tried to crack them like coconuts, threw around terms like cloud computing and primary industry and download, and was laughed at for the monkey he was. Speed, they laughed. Speed is the primary industry of my Northern California hometown.

They went to Seattle, put Seattle on the calendar in 1999, and were called the new face of activism. They shut Seattle down. They came back boiling over with energy. Go to DC, to Quebec City, they said, where the World Bank and WTO and G8 will be next. We’re going to shut them down too.

They told us, this is what democracy looks like. They developed a taste for being quoted in the New York Times. They told us, I can’t imagine living in the same country for more than six months. They took shipping containers full of our old computers to South America. They married locals. The locals have their own story to tell about that.

They told us we are the media now. We’ve bypassed the censors, the propaganda machine, the manufacturers of consent. We won’t need editors anymore. The people will retweet, will digg, will vote up what is good. They told us everyone would finally see what happened at the protests, that our stories would be told, that finally we wouldn’t be forgotten in the history books. Because there wouldn’t be history books; the children would have AI-nanotech-infused Primers which taught them civilization and coding and how to defend themselves and how to be a wise leader.

They told us information wants to be free. Free as in speech, free as in beer; free as in freedom.  They told us it is right and good to share. They told us to renounce our wicked devotion to copyright.

But you wondered how you would get paid to write, then. The bottom was falling out of the market for paying writers; first there was Salon and it paid, but then everyone wanted you to write for the retweets, for the upvotes, for the whuffie, to improve your reputation. the kids were coming up from behind, they were still in high school. the kids didn’t need to get paid to make content.

They told us to mistrust authority, to promote decentralization. They said it was our best bet to survive a nuclear war. They told us it was better if you hosted your own websites, and they hosted their own and yours with it.

But suddenly Russia Romania Poland and Brazil were in your blog comments, two gigs of comments. suddenly you had an audience, a big Schroedinger’s audience, alive or dead when you opened the comment thread

the spam arms race had found your comment section

and froze it in a swarm of robots, two gigs of comment spam, the backend wouldn’t even open. so they took an Amazon S3 instance to it — that was still a new thing, then, they’d paid for it on a lark to see what it could do — and used it as the jaws of life to pry the limp corpse of your blog out of the gnarled garbage left by the robots. they hadn’t configured the firewall right, or they blamed you for not configuring your blog right.

What did you know about systems administration? All you wanted to do was write. The only defense now would be signing up with the big boys, host-your-own be damned. no small shop could protect you from the stellar winds.

[2]

They moved back to the Bay Area. They started work at other companies, which had attracted the attention of venture capital.

You moved there too, tired of cleaning up after the elephant of everyone else’s technological process.

They told us they’d put the bunny ears on the Burning Man, like that was something we should have known. That they knew the unofficial photographer, they knew the Rangers; they were still shaking Playa dust out of their tent (this was 2007, nine years after you’d first heard about Burning Man, but not yet expensive enough in history that San Francisco’s artists were driven to abandon their usual shows in favor of constant fundraising to get to Black Rock). They said, I could rent the apartment out for a lot more, but I want to live with artists and not tech assholes. (You write your own check when you work in infosec.) They brewed their own absinthe and grew orchids and wore bowler hats and rode a motorcycle. They threw parties with oriental rugs on the lawn, tents and grilled peaches, Caligula-style stemware with no bottoms so you had to keep holding your drink. They prowled around the apartment naked. Did you see that box of dildos? they said, the flesh colored one was modeled after me, I know people at the Armory, I’m told I have a magnificent cock

They didn’t tell us, I’m from Kalamazoo, I worry that’s not a big enough place to register in the eye of God, how will I keep my girlfriend who already has two doctorates

They went out at lunch to buy hats; at their whim, haberdashers made a comeback in San Francisco. At work, they wore sleeve garters and suspenders, and made their reputation on having built the longest railroad in Second Life. They wore dog collars and cat-ear hats to the office, sandals and tee-shirts, dyed their hair green.

They had everyone convinced that running the interior of a company like a free market was the most brilliant disruptive and necessary idea; every business magazine ran a profile. They convinced ice cream stores and T-shirt vendors that VR was finally
going to hit it big. It did not hit it big. Ten years later, they convinced them of the exact same thing.

Nobody wrote profiles when their free market, composed mostly of engineers, made a bet on high-end graphics which wouldn’t run on the low-end laptops that everyone else could afford.

They got rich on real-estate speculation, on land that never existed. On land hassled by teenagers with giant, world-crashing robots and machines that produced so many floating penises that they could take down a simulator. The kids, coming up from behind. The kids, blocking access in multiple virtual worlds just for the lulz, with the most offensive avatar they could muster, casting the shadow of a giant cartoon afro and the question: Schroedinger’s trolls: racist, or just trying to offend?

Then the kids went for the jugular of Scientology. They were not the first to try, but now there were tools that would work in the face of lawsuits. Flash mobs and DDoS; the same tricks they pulled with the penis particles. They sat on stage at the hacker conference punching each other in the arm and chuckling like Butthead about the pranks they’d pulled. When the audience took them seriously, it was like they metastasized into adults in front of our eyes.

[3]

Here comes everybody, they said. They told us flash mobs could fix the problems of democracy. They got published. They got professorships.

They told us our report from the streets would fit in 140 characters. 140 characters, because the radio and phone companies said so, back when 140 characters would buy a text message around the edge of a transmission. We had 140 characters to announce what we were eating, where we were hanging out. We wore shirts saying we were wearing shirts.

You watched them fuck up. You watched them tweet, “Oh good, my least favorite person left the company” on their public stream, watched the gossip site pick up on their trips to South America, to a different country every six months.

And you learned. A personal note became Chekhov’s gun: 140 characters and an instant ability to publish can lose you your job. Or not.

You were cautious after the robots spammed your blog to death. You thought it better to start private. For years, the Twitter account with your name was only private. For years, you had hidden in plain sight: your journal entries, your stories of what you’d marched in the streets for. Now that was coming to an end.

We had 140 characters to find missing people. To stop suicides. To finally give an eye-level view, a broken-hearted view of cops killing Black children, beating and tear-gassing them as they did in Philadelphia and Detroit (they had never put that in the history books, even when there were books). To start revolutions and topple dictators. And then another wave of dictators.

And then it was the cops’ turn, and the military’s turn, their neverending turn. 8.8.8.8 grafittied on the walls in Turkey, to get around the censorship. A string of countermeasures, an arms race. The Great Cannon of China firing on all of GitHub just to take out some activists who had grown up to take State Department funds. Google held the lantern lighting the way to liberty, on their own terms. 8.8.8.8.

And we had 140 characters to organize jihad, on dictators, on America, on women who spoke too loudly about video games, on Black people, on (((Jews))). 140 characters to write essays and law briefs that got stripped for parts on the newspaper websites we’d come close to killing, but hadn’t killed, because they would still do for advertising to the wealthy. 140 characters to call your friends out for being racist. 140 characters to delete when you were going to run for office. 140 characters to archive against the deletion. 140 characters never deleted. 140 characters to run for President.

They told us hackers should be judged by their hacking, and then told us they couldn’t find any women who were any good to speak at their conferences, to hire. They posed us naked in their slide decks, to make cheap jokes. They told us if they hired us the quality of their workforce would degrade. They forwarded that email. they were a cloud of noise, shouting us down whenever we speak out, indistinguishable from robots, indistinguishable from Russian propaganda. and the kids grew up to be webmasters for Nazi websites. we opened that box. the cat was dead.

They pressed us for sex in closed-door meetings, told us not to get hysterical. They laid bare our sex lives to the world. They told the worst among them where we lived, because we’d said something they didn’t like about a game, and the death threats against us and our children rolled in. The SWAT teams rolled in. They kicked our prone bodies, poisoned us — literally poisoned us — raped us anally, raped us with knives, and sued us for defamation when we documented what they had done.

And they told us if they stopped people from harassing us online, if they barred the offenders from speaking at their conferences, it would violate their free speech policy.

We wrote it all down, documented every instance of abuse with the care of midwives, and the website where we wrote it, I can’t even stand to go there; we were the midwives of horror

 

[4]

They told us code is law, and then had to run around shoring up the parts that weren’t law yet, and now law is a constant tide, regular as the moon and violent as the climate, eroding what they said the internet was. another day, another call to the representatives, save the internet! keep it neutral! — until the roar gets so loud, it’s your will to make it so that erodes

They had become the economy’s engine, creators of growth, of jobs. So they told us, learn to code. They told us a minimum wage increase and unions and taxes would kill innovation. They told us they needed more research to determine whether people would be lazy and play video games all day if granted a universal basic income. (They hadn’t asked anyone who had no time to play video games.) They did not tell us how to finance that income, or how to convince the country it was worthwhile.

They took their own buses. they complained about the homeless sleeping in Powell, shitting in the Civic Center escalator. They shrieked aloud when they discovered homeless people sleeping in the ATM foyer of their bank. Twitter avoided taxes to the city of San Francisco, but had the front sidewalk hosed down at 4 am, just in time to soak anyone sleeping there. inside, they had a machine that would oxygenate your drinking water at just the level you liked. outside, there was a drought. outside, they stepped over bodies.

And they paid for Amazon, kept those S3 instances, got the Dash buttons, welcomed Alexa to listen to everything we said. we all paid for Amazon, for our should-be-retired parents to scrape to the warehouses and wring the last value out of their aching old bodies, for deliveries whenever we wanted them even though our parents sang You Can’t Always Get What You Want; for
deliveries by drones maybe even. And then Amazon had everything, it was too big to fail, it was the certificate authority that would tell you if a site was safe to visit, and if you wanted to take everything down, to block all digital life on earth, it was your best bet

 

[5]

They told us computers could change our lives for the better. They put them in our pockets, on our wrists, in our laps, and then the bosses found us to ask us to work more, even when we were on vacation. They measured out every step, our location, and our vengeful exes found us. They promised us to help us monitor our own health, and then said we could let our health insurance monitor it too, and save money; and save money? did our premiums just go up again, and if so, why? how would we ever know why, when we never see the algorithm they use — they own it, information never had its own wants — and when we never knew what an algorithm was to begin with?

and what if they were wrong? what if the computers they wrested from IBM, then from Microsoft, to use for their own Californian tree-hugging purposes, were still computers? What if McLuhan was right, and the message was binary numbers, and we were to become that message, replaceable Microserfs in grey flannel suits?

they turn forty and they tell us, I’m starting to get discriminated against. sure, maybe they are. Heaven knows I can’t tell any of them apart anymore; they all look the same from this distance. Heaven knows everything they told us is starting to sound outdated and out of touch —

what if those computers still and will always belong to IBM, belong to the big machines used to calculate bomb trajectories, no matter how hard we try to get free? Where are we to go now? god we were so horribly naive to believe anything they told us

they told us computers could change our lives for the better

and everyone else

never changed at all

never had any of the advantages

how are we surprised

[epigraph]

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. …
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.


This post, ironically, was created through the use of Computer Programs.

 

 

 

 

 

love to my weird sisters, my tiny goats, and the Sun Ra Teppanyaki Therapy Coven.