This Is Then

This is me fifteen years ago, designing my empire. I am laying the foundation, even as it becomes apparent I will have accomplices. The important thing is, I am changing the world, one intention and micrometric tweak at a time.  The universe is holographic in nature, you know; any change made to my world changes everything. There are literally quadrillions of examples of this every second. Look around, you can’t possibly miss them all.

Look at me there. I look like a slob, don’t I? I think nothing of wearing the same clothes for days, if any, showering only when I can’t stand myself anymore, or on one of those rare and awkward occasions when I’m expected to present in person.

I had a cat for a while. Guess he couldn’t stand me either. I’ll admit, he’s not the first stray male, regardless of species, to leave me over a perceived lack of attentiveness. I was a lousy companion, too immersed in my work to even cuddle the poor, scruffy little thing. I feel kind of bad about that sometimes.

I don’t eat right. Nothing that would require much in the way of preparation or clean-up afterward. Cap that off with dangerous levels of caffeine and sugar and it’s not hard to figure out why I look the way I do.

My apartment’s an unadorned studio over the shuttered garage of what some used to call a “shade-tree mechanic”, the guy who could fix any car ever made before technology surpassed his experience. He used to live here; now he has a girlfriend. I still hear him now and then, rattling around down there. Nothing raucous. Days mostly and, if he’s thinking of working at night, he brings by steaks and a six pack.

Bob’s a benign landlord and this is an adequate environment for my purposes: a single, spacious rectangle with a Spartan kitchen at one corner across from a functional bathroom enclosed within an expedient-looking plywood closet. The whole place isn’t pretty and needs work. Like me.

Notice how the walls are bare, except for over there in the corner where my workstation monitors fan out like a pair of mismatched wings. There, mounted over the windows. Yeah, those are windows. I could look out of them if I wanted to. Same over the sink, but I’d have to take down sheets of aluminum foil to do it. Also, I’m out of Scotch tape to put them back up and I just don’t need the aggravation.

What’s out there? Schadenfreude Theater, mostly.

The hand-drawn schematics and notes to self on the whiteboards there in the corner are a cryptic roadmap to this moment in time and on the long wall over the workbench, the free-form collage of vintage album covers represents my only tangible nod to art. The vinyl that came in those sleeves warped beyond salvation years ago, as mismanaged vinyl tends to do. Regardless, I’ve got a few thousand tunes on the cloud shuffling through my headphones to supply the soundtrack of my life, so I’m good for now. I mean then.

If you noticed that hot mess in the gimbaled framework there on the workbench, that’s Eric. He’s still in a rudimentary stage, in terms of heuristics, but he’s a breadbox with a budding, teachable personality and a brutal tactician at Chinese Checkers, let me tell you.

A tall barstool with a pillow top and contoured back caresses my bottom with a sumptuous familiarity. Nearby, an expensive office chair, engineered for supreme ergonomics and comfort, provides firm lumbar support to a military duffle full of laundry. I’ve been meaning to get to that.

You’ll notice the rest of my dorm-chic furnishings seem to be little more than flat surfaces covered with careless disorder. It’s not careless. Even my bed, a hard futon mattress on a two-by-four and plywood pallet, is little more than a catch-all for textbooks and manuals, a scattering of loose change and unsorted clothing, a couple more toolkits, a stuffed penguin named Farkle, and a box of cold, half-eaten pizza. I don’t mind. I hardly use it anyway. The bed, I mean. I don’t have a boyfriend and I don’t sleep much.

The same disarray maintains over on the kitchen side, except around the holy triad: my coffee maker, microwave, and, inside that elongated, visqueen-draped area at the end of the drainboard, a scanning tunneling microscope. Yes, it is kinda big, isn’t it?

I had to shore up underneath to accommodate its bulk in addition to rendering a preposterous amount of vibration damping. Bob didn’t seem to mind. Happy to help out, in fact, and even offered some of the space below to secure a few of the bulkier, noisier components out of my working-living space. He’s awesome.

The cajón by the bathroom door is the other flat surface exempt from the apparent clutter afflicting the rest of my surroundings. You won’t see a plastic plant in a wicker basket sitting on top of it, nor cardboard box full of project discards. Nothing sits on that but me. I like to play it when I’m thinking. Sometimes I think until my knuckles hurt.

Rampant disorganization around me doesn’t seem nearly as problematic as the time and energy I would have to expend tidying up. I know where to put my hands on everything I need. File by pile, that’s my style. Anything on the floor between me and the exit is trash and I take a push broom and square-nosed shovel to it every few days as needed. You know, so that I have egress. In case of fire. I believe it’s written into the lease agreement.

I don’t need to remove the foil from my windows to contemplate the world outside my den. As I gaze outward from the high ground atop my plush barstool, I see pretty much every facet of global society at large, from business and politics to what passes for human interaction, rooted in little else but greed, fear, and high fructose corn syrup.

Governments around the world are invested in what the prophet Carlin used to call “The Bigger-Dick Foreign Policy”. Ancient hatreds and freshly brewed animosities appear to benefit equally from weaponized space-age technology. Meanwhile, biblical levels of intolerance and brutality are routinely brought to bear upon those least able to defend themselves from it. Business as usual, I guess, even here in the Land of the Free. Those who thought they knew how bad it could get were wrong, of course.

The End Times came and after that, things got complicated.

Here, I’m doing it again. I apologize. I’m skipping ahead and I don’t mean to confuse you with allusions to future history. You’ll know all this for yourself soon enough. Come on back to my cluttered little nest where we started. I’ll try to stay on track.

I am in my junior year at a well-recognized University. Never mind where. Peripheral to my personal as well as scholastic pursuits, I’ve been allowed unique insight into the nature of surveillance and myths of privacy. This is a particular point of focus for me because I’m reluctant to advertise my empire-building strategy and schematics. I want them to be a surprise.

Here’s a takeaway for you: Someone wants to know where you are and what you’re doing all the time. There are eyes and ears everywhere. They’re in the hallways of your schools, the aisles of your department stores, they’re on the streets and in your cars, hovering in the sky above and orbiting in space, Jehovah-like, able to observe and record activities below with intimate detail.

Do you have a device with an internet connection in your home or on your person? Do you have and enjoy a social network presence? Do you have credit cards with chips on them in your purse or wallet? Well, good news, citizen. There’s a proctoscope up your fundament so deep it can probably tell what flavor gum you’re chewing. You’d think that’d be uncomfortable, but you don’t even notice, do you?

If I say it’s not only possible, but inevitable that someone is able to track (almost) anyone anywhere anytime, does that make me sound paranoid? If you think so, you haven’t been paying attention. That’s why I’m here in this inconspicuous little hovel on a nowhere street in a quiet burg without much of a view fifteen years ago, changing the world. I may be nobody now, but no matter what develops from here, I intend to remain that way.

Hey, wait! What about me and my cloud-based musical library, you may ask. Isn’t that an invitation to the same scrutiny which I’ve neatly encapsulated in my heretofore strident harangue? A pertinent, perceptive question.

I like you. Tell you what I’m going to do; I’m going to level with you. No, it isn’t. Not even close.

Also, I’m invisible. I’ve made myself a phantom. I leave footprints that anyone who cares can follow with ease. There’s just enough variation to give the appearance of callow, youthful behavior—my digital doppelganger must seem human rather than mechanical—but ultimately the trail I leave runs in circles—routine, unremarkable, boring circles.


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