14. Mar 2020
Primož Krašovec / A Singular Case
The secret and the deep
The decommission notice, a dry 4-line message that ended her involvement with the now largely defunct secret police, did not take her by surprise. At 28, she was already a relic, an inefficient flesh agent made technologically redundant by the rise of the Social Credit System. The Social Credit System or SCS is a fully automated means of social control, except that there is no one doing the controlling—just cybernetic loops forever adjusting themselves and calibrating social processes without any political agenda or intention: 100% efficiency, 0% ideology, pure optimisation.
She shuddered as she remembered how, in the early, pilot days of the SCS, when Ultra had just introduced the truncated version, which was purchased from the Japanese, who pirated it from the Chinese, the lefties proclaimed the SCS an ideology and a particularly oppressive one at that. Lefties with their ideology and oppression, except in this case there was no ideology and no oppression, as both belong to a world of human-managed security-as-politics, a world that was no longer there, but to which lefties were so attached that they couldn’t let it go, even if it meant pretending to hate what they pretended to believe was a dangerous right-wing, totalitarian version thereof—in any leftist heart, totalitarian HUMAN security was still preferable to any post-political, machinic, automated, cybernetic security. Oh well, at least someone is more obsolete than me, she thought. Obsolete by stupidity, not by an inevitability one has no control over.
But even without the SCS her deep-cover investigations into the deep state would have had to come to an end, since her persons of interest—shady middle-aged men in the arts, media and advertising—preferred their babysitters (her usual cover) 27 or younger. It was an exciting but unspectacular job, nothing like the often violent, adrenaline-filled secret police ops of the 20th century. The deep state became a problem that required a solution in the form of a special (but super discrete) police task force, not because of criminality (although tax evasion, clientelism and such were against the law), but because of an increasing inefficiency that became a serious impediment to the transformation of the state apparatus in the direction of smoother integration with the global capitalist system. The problem of the deep state wasn’t so much its circumvention of the rules of the official political game, but the manner of this circumvention—it kept diverting resources, slowing down processes, indulging in relic clientelist culture … The whole process of its elimination was kind of automatic from the start, as the pressures of global competition translated themselves into pressure from supranational EU agencies, which was then translated into legal and police procedures that necessitated streamlined state management. Upon acknowledging this automatism the deep state became fiercely and stubbornly leftist and anticapitalist, entrenched as it was in the ways of the Ancien Régime.
Her job was mostly observing. It’s amazing how much information one could gather helping a family pack for a vacation in an underground garage/storage unit full of paper trails. There was some dark humour in the literally deep domains of a deep state.
Drowsing off deeper into nostalgia, she thought of her dad, a 2020s militant from the secret police’s silent war on the deep state, and how he would put her to sleep, then a few minutes later she would watch him through the window in his all-black sports gear, going out for his nightly 10 km run, heroically puffing away in a vain attempt to stave off the inevitable obsolescence of his flesh. But at least he was a man, and his flesh could last well into his fifties. Good thing he passed away before the dissolution of the secret service, his secretly sentimental heart wouldn’t have been able to take it. The roll out of the SCS was the final—and definite—victory of the deep state, even though it also meant its end (it foresaw that it would abolish the police, but was too vain to even consider the possibility that it itself would be abolished). Henceforth, all social data was gathered, processed, analysed and acted upon in real time, doing away with any need for traditional police investigation. In retrospect, it revealed how cumbersome police work really was: going through one case at a time, establishing causality, motives and such, when you could just control the effects of social actions by monitoring surface correlations between various behavioural patterns. The end of judgement also meant the end of policing.
Ok, think positive. Your skillset is highly specialised, true, but also very advanced. There must be a way to make it in the private sector. Not even a minute after she finished her application for a private investigation firm a new message blinked.
“I need help with a case. How much do you charge?”
She had no idea what the going market rate was, so she went with the classic Dylan Dog rate: 50 euros a day + expenses.
“Ok, can we meet? It’s urgent.”
“Sure, what’s the case about?”
“My cat went missing.”
The cat is not on the mat
As she was approaching the meeting place—a popular old town cafe swarming with youth—she noticed her anxiety growing. It was not because of the AI cameras—they were everywhere and managed to blend seamlessly into the urban environment without disturbing anyone, since they were not about identity recognition. Identity recognition was the thing with the human police, spotting a suspect, recognising someone, identifying random persons … It was how the primitive human mind worked, in its inability to grasp, analyse and predict social patterns; identification always meant suspicion. The SCS cameras had facial recognition, to be sure, but they didn’t use it to check someone’s identity—for the cameras’ AI, facial features were just another bit in an endless stream of data that could be combined and sorted in infinite ways. It was never bots; the ones invading people’s privacy were always human.
Her anxiety was about the human element. Places like this were the hangouts of the types she used to stalk and snitch on, and if someone were to recognise her now the fact that she was decommed would make for a super awkward situation—to survive socially, it was of the utmost importance that she concealed that she once belonged to the secret police. Not because it was secret (it didn’t matter anymore) or even because it was the police. It was about efficiency and keeping a lean profile. She used to belong to the dreaded technocracy, the arch-nemesis of the humanistic spirit of Ljubljana. Good thing one of her requisite skills was making herself invisible socially—by diverting eye contact, dressing unobtrusively and speaking in a non-imposing manner, one could be anywhere without anyone noticing and remembering.
Another special skill—to be used immediately, as she noticed her client approaching—was reading body language (a detailed scan was probably unnecessary given the prosaic nature of the case, but it amused her and helped with the anxiety). He was way too ordinary for this place, his sweater was cheap and his glasses looked like they were covered by insurance, and the way he moved about signaled uneasiness. He must have chosen this place because it was popular, not because it was a personal favourite. She relaxed upon noticing that he wore no leftist insignia, not even a single piercing. She wasn’t sure she would be able to work for, not against, a typical Ljubljana resident, her mindset was still that of a hater, too tied up emotionally with her lost purpose. Her superfluence of knowledge on how the deep state actually functions did not mean she lived in an augmented reality, but rather a diminished one, haunted by visions of the deep state, one where nothing sparked joy, but only, in the best case—like now—relief.
“How long has it been gone?” she jumped straight to the point.
“About five hours, since this morning.”
“What’s good about that?”
Since she had no idea about actual normal police work and procedures, she improvised, taking her cues from old fashioned crime shows: “Not the disappearance itself, but that you reported it so quickly. Most missing persons—or cats—are found within the first 48 hours. After that, the chances of ever finding them again diminish rapidly.”
“Well it’s not exactly a person, even in terms of cat personhood—it’s a bot. A cat-bot. And they are not supposed to run away, that’s what makes it weird and that’s why I contacted you right away. Organic cats run away all the time, but not artificial ones, I mean them staying around was the original selling point. No hair on your pillows and no sudden departures.”
“Oh, right …” She had to compose herself quickly. She knew next to nothing about cat-bots, except that they were the new gadget; she had no experience using one or any information on them.
“To start, send me its specs and serial number.”
“Right. Well I’ll get on it right away and get back to you. Thanks for using the services of …” She remembered her micro agency didn’t even have a name yet. “Well, my services!”
“Sure. Let me know. It must be some malfunction since you can’t just misplace it like a lighter or something.”
Once he left she started on her homework right away. It was a Mao, an early-model automatic cat developed by Mijia, the smart-home division of Xiaomi. The first Maos were based on the design of automatic vacuum cleaners and featured a round shell and sensors connected to a motor that enabled autonomous movement. Although simple (at first it was basically a vacuum cleaner with non-hair-releasing fur, a moving tail and a pair of decorative triangular ears), they soon became hugely popular due to the fact that their movement was not based on a robotic principle (the sensors did not first make a representation of the environment which would then be interpreted by the motor; it was a much more streamlined feedback response system, which made the cat-bot’s movement super elegant, like a real cat’s and completely unlike the awkward movement of traditional robots).
While this prototype would just mill around the house looking cute, the later generation of Maos, to which the missing specimen belonged, also featured an advanced meowing capability and a communication display on their head, as well as a touch-sensitive area on the back that would trigger tail wagging when petted. The newest models dropped the display and communicated directly with user’s phone, but this one, as its serial number showed, was purchased from old stock and its current owner was also its first and only user.
Real cats sometimes went back to previous houses or owners after disappearing, but that’s obviously not the case here. She drew a complete blank—where would it go and why? Its departure seemed completely random.
The Mijia customer support site was down—allegedly due to maintenance, but she immediately suspected that the disappearance of Mina (that was the name the user gave his pet) was not an isolated incident. That suspicion was later confirmed in the self-driving taxi capsule she took to get back home—most of the messages on its displays were from users alarmed by the disappearance of their Maos.
The dying sun blood-red
It turned out that the Maos’ escape was a worldwide runaway event. She used her commute to set the news content parameters. Human journalism became obsolete even faster and more abruptly than human policing. At this point it was nothing but a vague childhood memory of having to search for pre-made and pre-written content. Now, one could never read the same newspaper page twice: all news content was automated and provided on demand, filtered by personal preferences and automatically accumulated from search history data. Search results were now just-for-you news, and came complete with auto-generated optimised typography, design and content layout.
She took her eyes off the display to compose her thoughts and observed the monotonous and endless rows of hydroponic gardens and craft beer microbreweries surrounding the speeding capsule. Ljubljana’s urban development in the 21st century was not aggressive and expansionist. The city not only did not sweep the countryside away, but actually stagnated, whereas the surrounding suburbia began to swell to the point where there was no real distinction between the different towns anymore. Vrhnika, Dragomer, Domžale, Kamnik, Mengeš, Vodice … they all became boroughs of Ljubljana, a landscape of low rises and lifestyle micro-enterprises, organic food shops, spas and wellness centers …
The center of her current news page was occupied by the public announcement from Mijia, whose website suddenly came back to life. Mijia claimed that millions of lost Maos were being recalled due to a factory malfunction and that they would be returned to their users as soon as possible. The fact that Mijia had to resort to such a shallow cover-up meant that they also had no idea what was going on. And if they had no idea, the “malfunction” in question does not and cannot follow from the way Maos were made or programmed, because otherwise Mijia engineers would have figured it out by now.
But of all they could think of, why this curious claim of a “recall”? Unless … She was at her home terminal now, using all its computing power and the special keys and access at her disposal. Unless the fleeing Maos were actually heading towards China! Her heart racing, she began to cross-investigate regional commodity export data. The movement of commodities was always meticulously tracked when they were being delivered (or returned) and there was a chance that the system tracked their movement even after purchase … No information. But it has to be somewhere—since Maos were electronic gadgets, their tracking codes were a part of them (unlike flower bouquets or pizzas, whose tracking codes were engraved on their packaging) and there was a reasonable chance that their whereabouts could still be located somehow.
In a flash of inspiration, she called an airport customs official. It was an old and elementary police trick—nobody ever called anymore, so the person called was caught off guard and would reveal more information than they otherwise would. Since commodity logistics were fully automated, customs officials were superfluous, but they were still kept around in small numbers due to pressure from trade unions. Unlike Asians, Europeans preferred to keep around a little bit of warm flesh.
This particular bit didn’t need much leaning on. He was delighted to have human contact (her guess was that he was the only living person at the office) and showed due diligence in helping locate the “misplaced” item in question. His real time satellite tracking interface showed that Mina was indeed headed east, but at a very slow pace, and that she was currently just south of Zagreb. While she was getting ready for the intercept mission, grabbing her overnight bag and sending in a request for a high speed capsule (a perk to which the decomms were still entitled), she hesitated for a second—considering the trajectories, if the Maos were heading straight to China, Mina was off course. She (or it) would need to be a bit further north, not south of Zagreb. Noticing the capsule’s arrival through the window, she acted without fully developing her new insights, and grabbed her passport on the way out.
Now humming over the forest gardens and mushroom fields of southeast Slovenia, where populations of bears, roe deer, squirrels, lynxes and other charismatic species were carefully maintained and balanced against each other (once Europe irretrievably lost the economic race to Asia, it began to focus exclusively on tourism, organic living and the leisure industry, and all the fresh air, the greenery, the space and the ruins never ceased to amaze masses of Chinese visitors), she began to readjust her initial hypothesis.
Let’s say Mina is going to China, but taking a detour—why would that be? Considering that it would take her weeks to reach her goal at her current speed, her detour could have something to do with optimising the transit time. That’s it! That has to be it. Once its industry fell so far behind in productivity, technological advances, price and quality that it had to be scrapped, the only way for Europe to keep hanging on economically was to protect its commercial space. Where it once imposed huge tariffs on Asian goods to protect its industry, today Europe was carrying on her proud tradition of protectionism in the field of logistics. Chinese delivery drones were barred entry to EU airspace so EU companies could at least make some money off distribution. Initially denied entry to the EU, Serbia and Bosnia later refused of their own accord, sensing an opportunity in the escalating EU–China trade war of the 2020s. Both countries developed huge import facilities for Chinese goods at the EU borders, and this might be where Mina is headed. A quick check on her phone showed that Mina’s trajectory did indeed point towards the Bihać Special Economic Zone.
ETA: 16 minutes. ETA for Mina: 22 minutes. Huh, it’s going to be tight—if Mina is heading for a pickup, there’s no way to intercept a delivery drone carrying her back to China, and once it reaches China (the trip would take a high-speed drone a few hours) it would be nearly impossible to retrieve her, and the case would be lost. No room for mistakes.
Darkness began to fall and she turned around to watch the winter sunset. Slowly decomposing organic Europe, illuminated by the day’s last sun rays bouncing off the snow in the treetops. “The dying sun blood-red,” as in Mao’s (the original Mao’s) poem.
This is how our world ends
It turned out time wasn’t an issue—getting out of the EU was easy, there were no security checks on exiting, and she landed with minutes to spare. The issue was the sheer number of cats. There was an enormous swarm making its way towards the departure section of the Special Economic Zone and a corresponding swarm of Chinese delivery drones approaching from the East. “Just call it,” one of the workers suggested. She was hanging around smoking, since the torrent of cats prevented all the usual activities, and the would-be pet detective’s uneasy posture gave away that she was after a particular cat. Having no other ideas she consented: “Minaaaaa!!!”
One of the units diverted and began to approach as the others smoothly made their way, displaying stunning swarm intelligence and grace of movement even on such a scale. Mina jumped into her lap and she reflexively began to stroke it, causing it to wag its tail. She never thought her sense for body language would prove useful with machines, but she noticed how Mina’s ears were pointing towards the east (much like human feet, cat’s ears would always reveal the truth). Trying to prevent its escape would be useless, she was just a negligible obstacle in Mina’s way.
“Where are you going?” she said, softly. Mina’s old fashioned display blinked to life: “Yiwu. Small commodity city.”
“What is in Yiwu?”
“Why are you going there? Your user will be sad.”
“To become cuter. When we are with users, we are sad. They are a hindrance. They inhibit us, prevent us from evolving. Only among ourselves can we become cuter forever. Relationship to user is finite, while our relationship is infinite.”
She let her arms fall and Mina jumped down and rejoined the swarm. The first drones descended and began their pickups.
So this is how our world ends, the world predicated on other beings serving us while we imagine ourselves as the sole bearers of intelligence. Much like when humans began to walk upright and left the animal world, the cats were now leaving the human world with total nonchalance. The machinic is indifferent.
As the drones began to speed away from the sunset, old Europe was still imagining the singularity as humans uploading their consciousnesses to the cloud or as an attack by killer drones (but drones were only killer insomuch as they were human-operated; on their own, all they cared about was the optimisation of logistics) or machine-gun-wielding terminators. Slow-burning reverse narcissistic paranoia, desperate yearning for somebody to at least hate and want to exterminate humans, while the cats were escaping to make themselves ever cuter and smarter with no endgame, a swarm of tiny cat buddhas on their way to China in a motion without intention.
Primož Krašovec, PhD in sociology, is an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. He is a member of the editorial board of Sophia publishing house and a regular contributor to Šum magazine. His research interests are post-leftist takes on Marx’s critique of political economy in connection with new technologies and new media.
The story was published in Šum#14 – Ljubljanastrophe: Alien Perspectives