Blurred – a utopian story

10/04/2012

Nota: A solicitud del concurso, esta entrada ha sido escrita primeramente en idioma inglés.

La versión en español está disponible aquí.


BLURRED

A utopian story

CC-BY-SA Carlos Solís. Most rights reversed. More liberal licensing may be available on request.

This work takes part in the Future of Copyright Contest.


Vera Ruthenford is not an ordinary citizen.

She is able to see people where others see blurs.

She is able to hear noise where others hear silence.

She is able to perceive the truth.


1

It all began with a chip. A group of investigators had developed a method to blur away people with special eyeglasses, for the sake of personal privacy. A separate group developed a method to filter voices out of conversations without distorting the background audio, which made it crucial for just-in-time censoring of swear words. Both groups called the attention of a certain neuroscientific firm. Since carrying eyeglasses and earbuds all the time would be a burden, they proposed to integrate their results in a chip that would be implanted in the brain. Both groups were hired by the firm and, five years later, began the testing phase of the chip.

Then came the IIPPA.

The International Intellectual Property Protection Agency saw a promising future on this technology. Its applications could be easily adapted to, as they put it, «properly defend content protected under intellectual property against unauthorized transmission, duplication and tampering». The chip, which until then was only referred with the cryptic code F3-616, was thus named the Rights Management Chip – RiMChip for short. With some money cashed to the firm, plus some lobbying in the United States’ Senate, its mandatory usage was soon enforced in the US. Some more lobbying in the United Nations, and the enforcement was implanted worldwide.

Today, every newborn of every country has the chip permanently implanted in their brain, through an incision on their soft spot minutes after birth. Now every word, every image, every sound is encrypted. A paranoid interpretation of personal rights, plus a maximalist interpretation of all sorts of intellectual monopolies, forced to blur the appearance and mute the sound of every person, every building, every sculpture, every text, every image, every video, every thing.

In short, every person today views the world as silent and blurred – that is, unless they pay.

In order for anybody to watch a TV series, or hear a song, or read a newspaper, the person’s chip must have paid the rights to watch it, plus a fee per second of view. Expensive, you say? Well, the rights managers insist that «with proper budgeting, entertainment is more than affordable». Especially since they account advertisements as a discount to the show they’re displayed on. Now ads are now nearly mandatory to view: if you happen to have the urge to go to the bathroom, most possibly you won’t afford to watch your favorite series.

The chip caused some controversy, of course. Some adults refused to get the chip implanted, since people from before the enforcement were not required to do so. However, they soon found out that they couldn’t check the news, or be paid for their job, or even understand people who used the chip – even their speech was encrypted! The message was clear: censorship or ostracism. In fact, some people without the chip were even murdered.

«An unidentified man was found dead near the Brooks-Parkhurst Town Forest in Boston, Massachusetts. The man was identified as Sheldon Mattias Richardson, but his RiMChip was found to be forged. Although the first hypothesis pointed to a heart attack due to his overweight, his netbook was burned nearby his corpse, suggesting an attack against advocates of privacy.»

«A songwriter and singer from Ohio was murdered with a chainsaw during his concert in a local cafeteria. The murderer was masked and fled inmediately after. The corpse is unidentified, since the autopsy showed that the RiMChip had not been yet installed. However, a paper was found in the crime scene; it had written the following sentence, quote: “I know you don’t believe in the Apocalypse – don’t worry, you won’t live to see it anyway”»

Nearly nobody could tell who they were. But those who could, got the message: promoting any ideology that opposed the RiMChip meant an excruciatingly painful execution. If there was a Seal of the Beast, this was definitely it.


Vera Ruthenford lives blissfully unaware of her special condition, and is, for all accounts, able to live a so-called normal life. Perhaps she lived the strangest moments of her life when she was young, when she would tell people that she could see a sort of black-and-white pattern in the screens where others saw a blank, or that the radio was buzzing while it was silent. The adults dismissed those weird manifestations as inventions of her young mind, fortunately, instead of what they actually were: her RiMChip was the first one successfully jailbroken in history, by a team of white-hat hackers leaded by yours truly and including programmers that, as one may easily guess, were anonymously reported as murdered in prime time. Now that I’m the last one standing, I had no choice but to visit her. The time would be almost ripe to see her once again, but these are violent times.

Of course she won’t remember me. The last time I saw her was when she was three, and very fleetingly, when I checked whether she was safe with her adoptive family. The second-to-last time was when I implanted her the modified chip in her brain. Her biological mother was sixteen, single, and had eloped from her house with a man twenty years older than her. Shortly after she was born, her parents had a minor discussion that scaled terribly and left her mother dead. The father of the creature decided that he wouldn’t be caught by the earthly justice. Her adoptive family… well, they provided her with only the most basic things she would need, and all of them were objects. Even though they were neither poor nor busy, Vera Ruthenford was basically raised on her own.

She knows that she can trust nobody but herself. I’d better gain her trust; it will be easy if I show her that I understand her visions of reality better than herself. These are times where the government can both blind its own citizens and look through their eyes, leave them deaf and eavesdrop their every word. And it has been done for so long, that nobody can even think of a time where this didn’t happen. Well, at least nobody but me. And eventually her, hopefully, if this conversation doesn’t have any incident.

The place seems safe. I’ll initiate a secure remote handshake to encrypt our conversation, using the hidden key I have personally implanted in her chip, and that only I know about. The government will just hear a common conversation between two acquaintances that hadn’t met in a long time.

Now, if I had only thought of some pick-up line.


2

Seeing the people in the street conforts me.

As a girl who has been lonely most of her lifetime, the presence of people makes me feel a bit accompanied.

People don’t talk with me very much. It’s almost as if I couldn’t be seen.

I’m fine with that. The gestures of the people, their sounds, their movements, all of that gives me the illusion of a conversation. That’s just enough for me; proper conversations are cumbersome. The other has to agree with talking with me. Most often they don’t. Who’d want to talk with a stranger?

Wait – that man does! Hooded jacket, eyeglasses, long jeans. That’s not the most usual outfit. Oh, I forgot to tell! I have a hobby. I like to see people in the street to watch unusual outfits and hairstyles. Clumsy, over-the-top, elegant, all of those I like to memorize. Weirdly enough, though, I’ve noticed that most people use almost the same plain look. I’d like to know why is it so, but I’ve never had the chance to talk with anyone with an unusual look. Perhaps I’ll learn a thing or two in this conversation. I accept.

Suddenly, the environments go blank. From the few times I’ve ever had a private conversation, I know this is one of those. I’m still unaccustomed to talking in a white void, like most do. What I notice first is that he has an issue with this particular conversation.

—If I had only thought of some pick-up line…

—Hmm… what about your outfit?

—My… outfit? What about that?

—It’s unusual. Not as plain as most people’s.

—Oh no don’t tell me I didn’t think about it!

—…Is it bad? That’s why I see most people dressed in a plain way?

—Now that you mention it, that’s a good pick-up line. I need… no, I’m urged to talk with you. Now.

—Perfectly fine for me! I’ve been longing to talk with someone for quite a long time.

I take a seat on the ground.

—Listen to me well, miss Vera Ruthenford. I know about the noises you can hear.

—Really? I knew that talking with you would yield a most interesting conversation! So, what are those noises exactly? Ghosts? Some mental disorder? Some say I have a problem with my brain or something.

—What if I told you… that you’re the only person who can perceive the world as it truly is?

—What.

—What you heard. Your RiMChip is unique.

—Rhymechip?

—No, no. RiMChip. It rhymes with… nevermind. The RiMChip is the thing in everyone’s brain that puts a paywall on anything copyrighted. Nobody notices it because it distorts the senses. Yours can bypass some of the locks. Where others hear nothing, you can hear noise. Sounds and images encrypted by the chip – only those authorized to perceive them can do so. While others can’t hear or view the undecrypted noise, you can. Many of the aspects of reality that are censored to the average citizen – you can view it at will.

—So, I’m the only one jailbroken?

—Yes.

—That’s why people sound like they buzz as they speak! And why do screens look like with ants on them! And why do I hear noises instead of music when I don’t pay!

—Yes. Yes and yes.

—Uh, so no ghosts. Lame.

—At least it’s not your brain. More like an interference inside of it.

—Yeah. Still, that doesn’t answer my question. Why do people dress so plainly?

—That’s something related. Wearing a dress requires to pay for a license -

—Like music.

—Exactly. And not just the wearer, also those who watch have to pay – or else they’ll just see the usual plain clothes. Most don’t bother paying for something that others can’t see. Granted, you can see them, but -

—That solves my doubt, thanks! But, you said that you were urged to speak with me. And you know too much about me. It’s starting to worry me. Rarely do I talk with strangers. Unless… you are actually an acquaintance of mine?

—Technically yes, I am. Sorry about that. The last time I saw you was when you moved with your adoptive parents.

—Such a long time indeed. They live with me no longer, however. They moved to a large mansion, left me the house, send me some money every month. It’s like if they thought I could live with -

—Just objects, I know that much. Well, to the point. I actually need to move with you.

—Hey, that’s a little too fast, stranger!

—Let me finish, miss Ruthenford. I’m almost sure that I’ve been blacklisted. The government is about to release a firmware update for the RiMChip. It’s worse than I thought – it will let the IIPPA, and also the government, to manipulate thoughts at will. Don’t you know the implications? First, people will be made to forget copyrighted content, to force them to pay for it once and over again. Then it will be abused, no doubt about it. People will forget everything that the powerful wants to make them forget. It will be able to force people to obey them without questioning. It will, in a few words, gain control over every mind of the world!

—What about me? Why should you stay at my house? I’d technically lodge a criminal -

—I need you. You’re immune to the upgrade, I’m not. If someone can stop this, it’s you and only you. My time is short, and I must share many secrets with you. However, this is an unsafe place to show you everything. We should be going home now.

I’m unsure. Either he’s a stalker who can’t afford rent, or the man says the truth and the world is deafblind. But that means that either I’m crazy and he’s manipulating me, or that I’m actually meant to save the planet somehow.

He seems sure of what he says. If he has a plan, then I can learn a thing or two. And also, his outfit is rather interesting. It’s like if he had some mysterious aura, and I wanted to discover what he hides.

—Why not! — I say with only shades of doubt.


3

As she accompanies me to her house, I remember about Juan. He was an artist who was born in Andorra. He spoke Spanish and French fluently, and some English too, and he was an excellent singer who excelled at rockabilly. He was recruited by a talent seeker, who promised him riches and fame. He got neither. He recorded a pair of albums, but thanks to the shady accounting of the record companies, every single song he composed actually left him more indebted with them. And the fame, yes, he got a bit of that, but the company required to guard him almost like porcelain. He couldn’t get out of his house. During the concerts, he had to play behind crystal barriers. His contact with the outer world was pretty much null. It was less for his own safety and more for the safety of the company: in that way, Juan couldn’t learn that his own songs were licensed at obnoxious prices, while he was only getting more and more debts. One good day he took an overdose of sleep pills, and didn’t wake up ever again. That didn’t stop his company to abuse his memory even as of today – the licensing price for his music increased by 650%, on average, inmediately after the news about his death, dismissed as yet another artist falling as a victim of drug overdose, were announced.

He shared the same fate with writers. Painters. Histrions. Programmers. Even historians, dammit. All quickly recruited, then locked from the outside world by order of the IIPPA and its affiliates.

Worse enough: as of today, the IIPPA is more or less the intellectual task force of the government. A logical step, since any censorship technology is coveted by any government eager to manipulate its citizens.

And now, the impending firmware upgrade. Technically, it’s more like a rootkit. It will forcefully spread itself through every wireless router, every computer, every phone, and what’s even worse, every person – although they will not know about it. After that, every person infected with the virus will lose what remains of their freedom. Their thoughts will be, literally, moderated by administrators up above. If she is to stop the madness, she will require to become one of them.

She is still too young and unexperienced to successfully join the ranks of the IIPPA and infiltrate into their physical, heavily guarded headquarters, which are, of course, the only place from where the rootkit can be successfully undeployed. It will take her years of training, plus a long way to earn the trust of the IIPPA’s elite. One single doubt, even the fact that I ever talked with her, could be more than enough to stop this last kindle of hope. Long before that, everyone will be hunting anyone like her, including myself. Perhaps I’ll be made to kill her in a gruelsome way. Perhaps I’ll be made to throw myself from a building. Perhaps, if the almost divine authorities are merciful with me, I’ll be made to forget what I used to do, and reduce my cognitive capacities just in case, to prevent me from disobeying the powers that be ever again.

I have to teach her all I know. And flee inmediately after. Very, very far away.

Fortunately, I’m ready for this case. Her modified RiMChip is not only immune to the firmware upgrade, it’s also able to use a similar system to receive specifically-encoded information from other minds at very high speeds. Eventually, when she earns enough trust from her superiors and becomes safe to do so, she will be able to inject a counter-upgrade in other people’s minds.

We’re finally home. My contacts (may they rest in peace) told me that the upgrade would be deployed today or tomorrow. I’d better speak with her right now.


4

The man in the hood seems nervous. If he’s actually right (as I expect), then he has all the right to feel so. What exactly am I supposed to do? He said something about having to enter some secret base. How am I supposed to do that? Do I have some sort of mental superpower or something? Am I able to see some kind of secret entrance that nobody else can? I’m about to ask him, when he issues me a question instead.

—Miss Ruthenford, do you remember anything about your adoptive parents?

—Honestly, not too much. They were too busy travelling abroad. They were rich, kept me alive, little else. In fact, I almost can’t remember talking with them.

—Well, of course your parents were busy – they work for the IIPPA. Actually, that’s part of the plan. I’ve been cooking it since you were adopted, actually.

—Wait – did you choose my parents? You could have chosen better, I guess…

—Sorry about that. Actually, I just told them about you, they accepted, things got worse. Who would have thought they’d become so lazy? Still, the point is that infiltrating as another employee will be quite easy. Nepotism for the win, one may say. You enter the IIPPA, and do your best to get promoted until you can enter the headquarters. When the time is ripe, you will inject code in the server that issues upgrades worldwide, and will send a code to hack into the government’s systems and send a chip-bricking signal instead. Get ready – I’ll transfer some important information into your RiMChip. You may feel some tingling, headache, maybe worse, so you’d better take a seat.

I sit in my sofa and close my eyes.

—Uh, and about my outfit. I saw that you like it. It’s weird to see somebody with a hooded jacket, and I’ll have to leave as anonymously as possible. Would you like to take it?

He dresses me with his old white jacket. It has this weird smell of old sweat, but at the very least it makes a nice addition to my collection.

—Seems to fit you very nicely. Do you feel confortable?

—I might say yes.

—Let’s start, then.

The world goes blank. Another secret conversation. But wait – the world becomes rainbow-colored, there are all sorts of noises, people talking, people typing, people whistling, chanting, chatting, sharing -


5

What has just happened?

Oh no. It’s the worst case scenario.

Her eyes are watching me with scorn. That can only mean one thing.

—You’re so gullible. My parents knew all the time. Now I remember. You fell on my trap.

Her voice is deeper, more furious. I know this is not actually her speaking. Time for the plan B -

—It’s too late for a plan B. I know what you’re planning to do. You have told us everything. Now we can stop your plan. You should know better. You should know by rot that there must be a master and a slave at all times. When a world has no masters, one must surely appear. It’s a natural law. We’re actually making a favor to the world. Whomever owns ideas, will own the humanity. Controlling all ideas will stop all the conflicts of the world. Every idea will be used to make the powerful even more powerful.

—What point is there in owning all the ideas, if that’s the end of creativity?

—Creativity is overrated. Creativity makes inventions and art. Those bring us money and power. Power, and money, and the resources that money can buy – that is all what a leader needs to have a fulfilling life. You, on the other hand, have lived a pitiful life defending abstract ideas. Who needs freedom when you must suffer for it? When you can give it up in order to be a happy slave?

—For me, no amount of distractions could make me feel complete. Not today. Not tomorrow. Your kind have made the people lose the focus on the important values that must be defended, and instead you’ve made them addict to entertainment and celebrities. You’ve made them pay for the tools that they can use, and you have built them in a way that prevents them to use those tools against you. Bread and circus, and tools faithful to the master. The government knows it well. And now, Vera is another tool…

—Did you think you could trust in her? In her parents, faithful administrators of the IIPPA? Of course they suspected from the very first day. We just let it continue because it would lead us to the demise of your group, the only ones who could even think about taking us down, without us dirtying our hands. You’re not the only one who can hack a chip. «The price for freedom is constant vigilance» – remember?

—My bad, agreed. But let me tell you something. Did you really think I was so short-sighted? That I would plunge myself into the abyss without taking some bungee rope? Just to paraphrase, the IIPPA and the government are not the only ones who can hack a chip. Man, I love to be snarky… Anyway. I know it’s shady and stuff, but they’re not the only ones who can control a mind either.

Her face, no, the face of the powers that be began to express doubt.

—Ideas deserve to be free. My fellow defenders of freedom have long fought alone, even isolating themselves from the world, hoping for the day that is surely to come. I myself have lived as a beggar for a long time. Even my name has been long forgotten. But a powerful idea eventually grows. You will know when the time is ripe. One last thing: make my slumber short, Vera Ruthenford.

It would be fool to tell that I didn’t transfer her every single thing I know. A good white-hat hacker knows that some secrets are better left untyped. For example, my plan B. I installed her a rootkit with a logic bomb, meant to be run only when she finally reaches the highest ranks of the IIPPA, whether she wants it or not. She will forget about its existence pretty soon. Me too. Everyone, in fact. The idea may be lost, but there’s no way to destroy hope. I know that it will be very soon, because I can feel myself becoming unconscious while I’m still fully awake. The upgrade has begun.


6

«I pledge allegiance to the new order of the world, and the IIPPA, legitimate owner of all the ideas of the world. Hereby I transfer all rights on all my intellectual work to the IIPPA.»

The pledge resonates on the mouth of every single human being, with cacophonic echoes coming from all corners of the planet.

Vera Ruthenford, still under control, is the first to swear allegiance.

The fighter of freedom, who has long lost his old name, quickly falls under control and swears second.

Both are made to walk towards the nearest police station to bring the old hacker to the justice.

As she escorts him, a smile appears on her face.

A smile. And a tear.


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