Big Beaver Is Watching You
by Don Webb
A Challenge question in advance: Does any detail in the following story appear to you to be at all unrealistic? If so, which?
Pertinent Bewildering Stories mottoes:
“Any story based on current events is out of date before it’s written.”
“Politics in a novel is like a pistol shot in a concert.” — Stendhal
“There is no story so truly bewildering as reality.”
In Leonard Schlenz’ “You Crack Me Up,” we find the following passage:The air buzzed with tweets and twitters about his talents, and who would know that Homeland Security studied such traffic, filtering and collating, and matching it to their big databases.
A Review Editor asks, “When did he write this?!”
Yes, one has to admit that the allusion to Net traffic monitoring is very “current events,” and the mention of “tweets” and “twitters” situates the story in the 2010’s or later.
However, the monitoring itself goes back to 2006 or far earlier. In fact, one could even say that snooping has always been going on in some form.
The world outside the USA has a right to have its nose out of joint: “Look at all that’s happening in the Middle East — and the deity of your choice knows where else. You must think it’s a slow news week when you’re suddenly shocked, simply shocked, to discover that electronic communications are being monitored by your security agencies, not to mention everybody else’s. Get with the times!”
And so we shall... But first, a caution. As at any time, information is only as good as its interpretation, and the question remains: What do we really need to know?
Tommy’s cell phone sounded its razzle-dazzle alert. He punched “Receive” and saw his caller’s face on the screen. “Hi, Mom! What’s up? Does the National Security Agency have lunch hours now?”
“It’s do it yourself whenever around here. I’ve set my artificial intelligence program to scan meta-data automatically. Now I can relax for a moment. I just noticed a report that our microwave has been nuking something for twenty seconds on ‘high’. What’re you having for lunch?”
“Um... yak-tail soup. We’re supposed to get used to it, right?”
“Yeah... good... But try one minute at level five. It heats more evenly that way. Oh, and the fridge reports the door is ajar.”
“Oops.” Tommy looked around at the fridge. “Sorry about that.” He scurried over to the refrigerator and closed the door tightly.
Mom glanced at a computer screen off-camera. “And the fridge meta-data reports that something has been taken out of the freezer compartment. Are you getting dessert already?”
“Just some frozen yogurt, Mom. Healthy stuff, you said.”
“That’s good, Tommy. It’s just that by the time your soup cools enough, the yogurt will be melting. Are you sure you want that?”
“Okay...” Tommy put the yogurt in the cooler compartment. “That’ll hold it for a while. Now, when is the NSA going to move its cloud computers? Any word on that yet?”
“Probably by the end of the year. What are the other shareholders saying?”
“Well... Sergei in Siberia and Xi-Chuan in Szechwan tell me that the NSA is about ready to move. But I’ve just tracked construction progress, and the Russians and Chinese are having trouble getting equipment to Ulan Bator. They’re about two weeks behind schedule.”
Mom sighed. “Wouldn’t you know. All the big computerized countries are saving a lot of money by pooling their spy networks, but operations are slowing to a crawl. Suzie will be impatient.”
“Yeah... What is it with little sisters and Mongol horses, anyway, Mom? Were you like that at her age?”
“Not as much as Suzie. Horsies are a childhood phase anyway.”
“But not Mongolia. Right, Mom?”
“Not with all that empty space and cool weather. Ideal country for the World-Wide Database. By the way, Suzie has just sent a submission to Bewildering Stories. Her punctuation is atrocious. They’re going to wag a finger at that.”
“Mommeee! Are you reading the e-mail of an American citizen?!”
“Well... sort of. The e-address is in Canada. That qualifies as ‘overseas’.”
“‘Seas’, my foot, Mom! The Great Lakes are drying up! Peddling tar to the world from Saudi Alberta takes big-time climate-change denial.”
“Tommy! Don’t let CSIS hear you!”
“Oh, Mom, the Canadians hear, all right. They just don’t listen.” Tommy giggled mischievously: “But they do know about you and Dad, and even they think you’re bland in bed.”
“Tommeee! I’m shocked! How could you do such a thing?! Those micro-drones were supposed to be a school science project! Have you been bugging our bed?!”
“Bedroom. Don’t worry, Mom. You and Dad won’t even go microbial, let alone viral. But the Johnsons, now...”
“What?! Have you been micro-droning our next-door neighbors!? Wait till your father gets home!”
“He’ll love it, Mom. And really, so will you. Frankly, I don’t see how you and Dad ever managed to have me and Suzie. Are you sure we can’t have a little brother or sister? Suzie will love one, and I will, too. And you’ll need all the personnel you can get when we go to tend the World-Wide computer cloud in Mongolia. I’m just trying to lend a helping hand. Pleeeze...?”
“Well... okay, we’ll think about it. But the clock is ticking here. Lunch break is almost over.”
“Okay, Mom... Good to talk to you. And while you’re at it, could you program an artificial intelligence to manage the data cloud? As long as computers are going to rule the world, we want ’em to have a nice personality, like yours.”
“Aw, Tommy, you’re sweet. Now reheat your yak-tail soup, okay?”
“Will do. Love ya, Mom.”
“Hugs and kisses, Tommy. And tell your friends in beaver country I’ll see you all tonight.”
Answer to the Challenge question: Every single detail in the story has either actually happened or is entirely plausible. Research “the Internet of things” and see Cory Doctorow’s review article of Ronald J. Deibert’s Inside the Battle for Cyberspace (Toronto Globe and Mail, Saturday 17 August 2013).
Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories
Reality check: an advertisement received in December 2014