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Tag: exploitation

Neural Fintech x2

“Neural Fintech” got more responses than anything else I’ve ever asked you all about, so it’s back *TV infomercial voice* by popular demand! If you missed the beginning you don’t strictly need to read it, but you can if you want to.

In the examination room there was machine that looked like an old-school MRI unit — Sasha remembered them from the hospital shows her grandma used to watch, 2D video of handsome doctors clumsily enhanced for her parents’ RoomView.

Next to the machine stood a beaming nurse with sleek brown hair. Everyone working for Centripath seemed to smile all the time, Sasha thought.

Jake the recruiter exclaimed, “Becky! Help me welcome our newest participant!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sasha,” the nurse said in a warm voice. On the machine’s side screen, Sasha could see the permission form that she had signed with Jake a few minutes ago.

“You’re in Becky’s hands from here,” Jake said, winking at Sasha as he slipped back out through the door.

The next few hours were busy and regimented. Multiple tests, the first inside that big machine, and then more forms. Sasha was glad that she hadn’t made plans for the rest of the day, but a little annoyed that no one had told her how long it would take.

She found out from Becky that she had “stellar capacity” for a crypto mine. Sasha tried to ask again how much they would pay, but Becky said she’d have to find out from her case manager. “That’s your next stop!” she told Sasha brightly. “Then installation!”

The case manager’s office was like Jake’s, and he even looked a bit like Jake. The nose and chin were different, but much the same smile. “Sasha, right?” he asked, half-rising from his desk.

“Hi,” she answered. Sasha could hear that she was tired.

“Would you like a drink of water?”

“Yes, thanks.” He handed it to her, and Sasha sat down.

“I really want to know how much this will pay. No one will tell me so far.”

“Of course, of course! You get a percentage of the yield from the mine. It can vary depending on your physical state, since all the energy is sourced from your body.”

Sasha didn’t say anything, just kept looking at him.

The case manager paused, waiting for her to acknowledge what he said. When she stayed silent, he continued. “It’s usually 5%, but that fluctuates based on the price of the cryptocurrency at hand, the daily processing efficiency, and so on.”

“Please estimate, in real money, how much I can earn from this.”

“Well, Sasha, I can’t promise anything. I can’t make a guarantee. But I can tell you that you’ll be able to pay half of the monthly fees for a nice PodNiche.”

She sighed. “Okay. I hoped it would be more. But okay, what the fuck. Let’s do the installation.”

Header image by Liz West.

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Neural Fintech

“See, it’s a simple program.” The recruiter had very white teeth, Sasha noticed. He was wearing a navy blue suit and smiling big. The identity module said his name was Jake.

“A very simple program,” he repeated. “You know that old expression — humans only use 10% of our brain power? That other 90% is an opportunity, and we at Centripath have the software to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Sasha nodded. “Yeah.” She knew all of this from the promos she had watched. The exact figures weren’t true and Sasha knew that also, but it didn’t matter as long as they paid enough.

“Ae you familiar with cryptocurrencies?” Jake asked. “The one you’ve probably heard of is called bitcoin.”

“Uh-huh, I know bitcoin,” Sasha told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Wonderful!” Jake exclaimed. “Well, what this program does is harness your brain’s under-utilized processing power. The technical details aren’t important, but basically all that extra energy runs a cryptocurrency mine. Not always bitcoin, but that’s certainly one of the assets we harvest.”

Sasha was sitting forward on her armchair, leaning toward the recruiter with her elbows on her knees. “So you pay me rent for that. For using my brain. It doesn’t say on your website, so I wanted to ask how much you pay.”

“Ahhh, yes,” Jake answered, still smiling. “We have to analyze the capacity you have available, of course, and then we’ll give you a quote.”

“And this crypto mine won’t interfere with my daily life? I’ll still be able to think, like, normally? I watched the testimonials, but…”

“Then you know that you won’t feel a thing! It’ll be like nothing happened. Everything about the Centripath program is perfectly safe. All of this equipment has gone through rigorous testing. Really, you’re signing up for free money.”

Sasha bit her lip, thinking for a moment. “Okay, I want to take the scan. Or however you test people’s brains.”

Jake clapped his hands together. “Sasha, I am so glad to hear that! First let’s go over this paperwork — it should show up momentarily…”

Sasha felt the ping. “Got it.”

“Alright. I need to you read this and add your bioprint here… Here also…”

They sped through the details, then Jake led Sasha into the examination room.

Let me know if you want me to continue this. Otherwise I’ll leave it as microfiction. I owe the idea to my boyfriend, Alex Irwin. Header photo by Pantelis Roussakis.


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Health, Happiness, 8asdf6a7f57

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

I was nervous in all the cliché ways — sweaty palms, rubbing them on my thighs, slightly flushed and slightly sweaty. Everyone said the procedure wouldn’t hurt. But I didn’t know of any person who had gotten it reversed. So this was permanent. It wouldn’t help to dream of regaining ownership.

The recruiter gave me a kind glance over her desk. “Are you ready, dear?” She seemed configured to look grandmotherly, complete with the faint cookie smell. I felt a little suspicious, wondering if she was a bioengineered multi-stack human, placed here to comfort me into signing myself over. Or maybe her personality was just a happy coincidence for the corporation.

I needed the money. That’s how these things always happen. People used to join the United States Army because the education and income were worth risking your life. I heard about that from old Boomers on street corners. When I was a kid, they still hung around.

I never liked their greyness, the frozen-in-time feel of them. Boomers rocked back and forth on their haunches, shooting the shit with each other, and you couldn’t help but listen while waiting for the crosswalk. My parents’ parents, the generation birthed by the “Greatest Generation”; the generation that caused all of this anyway. Fuck ’em.

The recruiter pushed a tablet and stylus toward me. She nodded with a smile, just like a benevolent automaton would. I swiped through the forms slowly, trying to read everything but feeling my eyes glance off the denser patches of legalese. What could they say in these documents that would deter me, anyway?

I needed the money.

The press called them “oblivion jobs” — liberal columnists thought they were evil and conservative columnists called them an honest day’s work. Snapchat blew up with the debates for a while. Then other liberals jumped in and pointed out that this new solution was better than fully conscious drudgery.

Besides, the second faction of leftists argued, it was condescending to confiscate options from the poor. Let them choose. We chose, in droves, because it paid decently. Finally, something that paid decently! I was a holdout, actually. Paranoia and an irregular news habit kept me away from the recruiting offices until almost everyone else I knew had signed up.

The value proposition was straightforward: Sell your time and labor, like any job. But you don’t have to be awake while it’s happening. Rent out your body and accept long stretches of blankness. Would you rather be aware of the monotonous physical labor — hollowing out arcology units, adjusting every terminal for the dirt it was lodged in? Or would you rather wake up ten hours later, never having processed how you spent the time?

The commercials said it would be like going straight from breakfast to watching TV with a beer in hand. And you’d stay in shape, hooray!

The hardware-wetware combo behind this was complex and poorly understood, controversial among engineers as well as pundits. Roboticists were exasperated at first, not used to being second best, but eventually they resigned themselves to the new status quo. Machines were physically more capable, but they couldn’t match the sensory intuition of oblivion workers.

Everyone who told me the procedure wouldn’t hurt was right. And soon my employment situation felt familiar, of course. It was only strange for a couple of weeks to “wake up” with an aching back, nearly ready to go back to bed again.

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Conflict Resources & Murky Culpability

After I wrote this dispatch I read “Your Phone Was Made By Slaves” by Kevin Bales and immediately felt silly — his longer piece covers a lot of the same ground in more depth. If you find this topic interesting, it’s a good read.

Computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices contain conflict minerals. For those of you unfamiliar with the term: “Conflict resources are natural resources whose systematic exploitation and trade in a context of conflict [AKA a war zone] contribute to, benefit from or result in the commission of serious violations of human rights”. Furthermore, “Take away the ability to profit from resource extraction and [the fighting groups] can no longer exacerbate or sustain conflict.”

To provide an example, minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are mined by rebel militias and sold to fund the continuation of the fighting. The buyers are nobody in particular, but those minerals are laundered the way illicit money is laundered, by being passed through middlemen. Eventually manufacturers use the minerals on behalf of multinational purveyors of consumer electronics. Big companies — brand names that you would recognize. And so the violence continues, because local warlords want to keep access to their money machine. (If you have a Netflix account, I recommend watching the investigative documentary Virunga to learn more about this.) The DRC is only one of the places devastated by neocolonialism paired with local power-mongering.

The photo above dates from the late 1800s or early 1900s. According to USC’s caption, “The Congolese man is likely to have been a victim of the ‘Congo atrocities’, punishment, murders and mutilations (particularly amputation of the right hand on living victims or after death) that took place on colonial rubber plantations in the Congo Free State, territory owned by Belgian King Leopold II […] Workers on rubber plantations were paid with worthless goods, and it was in noticing this imbalance of trade that shipping clerk Edmund Morel reported in his columns for The West African Mail, noticing that large numbers of weapons were going into the country to control the rubber workers.” I call it neocolonialism because we are continuing an old pattern, just shuffling the guns around.

The New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in a piece for National Geographic:

“In the ensuing free-for-all [after dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed and Congo was consumed by war], foreign troops and rebel groups seized hundreds of mines. It was like giving an ATM card to a drugged-out kid with a gun. The rebels funded their brutality with diamonds, gold, tin, and tantalum, a hard, gray, corrosion-resistant element used to make electronics. Eastern Congo produces 20 to 50 percent of the world’s tantalum.”

How do we cope with this, as consumers? Do we drop out of modern life, eschewing all the connected devices that have become standard in the “First World”? Do we cling to guilt and shame because we don’t care enough to actually change our behavior? I’ll admit it: I don’t care enough about this problem to sacrifice my iPhone or my laptop. I’m not going to switch to a Fairphone. Neither do I only buy fair-trade food and clothing.

So, should I blame myself for the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Is it my fault and yours? I’m genuinely undecided. On one hand, the demand side of a transaction doesn’t specify the methods of the supply side. I didn’t ask anyone to buy from militias. I didn’t ask the seventeenth-century European superpowers to pursue mercantilism and shoulder the spurious “white man’s burden”. On the other hand, I am funding terrorism, albeit very indirectly. Amnesty International released a report on cobalt sourcing in January — it’s pretty clear that this is not a resolved issue.

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Voluntary Exploitation

Tonight we went to an arcade at a bar. It had fun games: Jurassic Park and Alien shoot-’em-ups, plus classics like air hockey and skee ball. To play, you couldn’t just put quarters in the machines. You had to load money onto a special debit-type card and then swipe it at each game’s terminal. When you won tickets, they didn’t print out on sturdy red or yellow paper — instead the number flashed on the tiny display screen.

We agreed that this digital facsimile wasn’t as satisfying as the old-fangled real thing. I felt nostalgic for carrying around armfuls or even plastic bags of physical tickets, then turning them in for Tootsie Rolls and cheap doodads. My boyfriend said, “It’s just a way to teach kids to be happy accepting fake rewards for genuine labor.”

That hit me quite close to home.

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