"...a confused clamor is heard on every side;
and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social
-- Alexis de Tocqueville --
In the five years since we've had the vCity up and running,
no referendum on any site has generated as much excitement as this one,
according to current projections. It's now been six days, and about 5% of the
vCitizens -- a little less than three million people -- have cast their
ballots. As I anticipated, the initial sentiment in favor of "unrestricted
expression" has worn thin, and more people, revolted by the Exon
Inspiration, are now voting to remove the link on the grounds that the
graphic acts of violence portrayed therein represent a future that is neither
sustainable nor desirable. Still, the vote is 85% against the ban.
Judging from the nowlinks, the main problem seems to
be casbar. The Bahamian server is swamped with vCitizens demanding to know what
the fuss is all about. There are very few vCitizens who will cast a vote
without seeing the issue directly and for themselves. I like that in a
community. Don't take somebody else's word for it -- link now!
Well, they better link soon, because judging from the phone
calls I received today, the casbar that has been generated is going to seem
like meditation compared to the flood of Internet hits soon to follow. Because
for the first time that I can remember, this is an issue that is generating
interest outside the vCity community, and striking a resonant chord among the
greater mass of real world citizens.
The first phone call came from a reporter working on a
story for Business Tomorrow. I forgot to ask him whether that was a
newspaper, news magazine, or a radio or television news program, but it doesn't
really matter. He seemed interested in the referendum process.
"So, you say that people can vote more than once?"
"Technically, yes. Each person with an e-mail address that
is registered in our database is allowed one vote. So if a person is registered
more than once, they can vote more than once. But. . ."
"Do you think that is fair?"
"Well, actually yes. What I was going to say was, most
people don't vote at all."
"Oh is that right? What's the typical percentage of voter
"About 30%. More on very controversial issues."
"Why is it fair to allow people to skew the results?"
"Because each persona helps build the virtual city. But
it's not a question of allowing it so much as recognizing the fact that there
is no way to stop it. We're not policemen."
"As I understand it, your corporation uses the virtual city
as a marketing tool, is that correct?"
"Then what do you tell people doing market surveys? How do
you know if someone isn't answering the same set of questions twice or three
"We don't. The marketing people are very well aware that a
few individuals can skew results in a very small sample. But two things on
that. First of all, they rarely rely on a small sample. The virtual city has a
very big population, you know. Second, the rapport between provider and
clientele doesn't work that way. It's a special relationship set up between
companies and their potential customers. They talk with each other, establish a
"I see," said the reporter. I knew he did not. "Well, thank
you for your time Mr. Green. Oh, one more thing."
"Yes?" Who did this guy think he was, Columbo?
"Do you believe that your corporation should be
providing virtual reality pornography?"
I hesitated, holding my temper. "I'm sorry, perhaps I have
not been as clear as I should have been. I thought I clarified the point that
our corporation is not providing VR pornography."
"But. . ."
"The digital content is not located on our server.
Please make that clear in your coverage."
"But you link to it. Aren't you acting as a publisher in
"No, absolutely not. The only part of the virtual city
simulation that we control is that content located on our server. We
don't tell people what to put on their servers."
"Okay, I understand that," he said. "But you're a conduit
nonetheless, aren't you? People can still link to it through your simulation,
through your links."
"So then your corporation does choose what you want
your viewers link to?"
"Yes," I said, feeling suddenly tired. "But that is always
true, for anyone. True for 3D or 2D environments. True for all of the
"So then, you do discriminate on the basis of
"No. We discriminate on the basis of format. We let
citizens discriminate on the basis of content."
"I see," he said. I knew he did not. "May I ask you how you
"I haven't voted yet."
The second phone call was worse, not because it was
muddle-headed but because it was directly to the point.
"Forest? John Warden here."
"Hello, Warden. How are things over in Thought
"You're a funny man, Forest, that's why we're going to put
you in jail last."
"Well, I appreciate that, Warden. Congress still gutting
"Oh no," he laughed. "We're not the FCC anymore -- don't
you remember? Our department reports to the NSA now."
"Ah yes, the National Insecurity Agency. So, what can I do
for you today?"
"Well, it's this pornography thing."
My stomach sank. "What about it?"
"I'm just surprised it's still available to the
"Why is that, Warden? Is the Internet broken?"
"Not yet. What I mean is, why is your corporation abetting
the dissemination of pornography?"
"That would be a serious violation of existing U.S.
statutes if it were true."
"Yes, my thoughts exactly."
We paused for a few seconds.
"So," I finally ventured, "are you saying that you're going
to issue a 59B?" This is shorthand reference to a stack of legislation that
empowers the NSA to fine an individual or corporation for a number of telecomm
He sighed. "No. Not at this time. Not sure the courts would
go for it."
"The First Amendment is such a nuisance, isn't
"Not at all, my boy. We love the U.S. constitution,
actually. It empowers the federal government to do anything that is necessary
and proper. Of course, this isn't a first amendment issue as you know.
Pornography isn't speech, and obscenity isn't a right guaranteed by the
"Okay, Forest. Just wanted to let you know we're aware of
"Our tax dollars hard at work."
"Yes. 'Bye for now." He hung up.
I looked at Londo sitting by the keyboard.
In my best southern drawl I said, "Now what we have
here, is a failure to tele-communicate." Londo sighed. He's heard
this moldy Cool Hand Luke joke many times, and he is bored with it. But
it really did fit the situation. I mean, how many times in one's life does one
get to tango with a bureaucrat named Warden?
The next phone call was from Roberto Canseco. For those of
you who have been living under a rock for the past ten years, Canseco is a
publishing mogul and one of the wealthiest men in the world. He owns, quite
probably, a piece of everything: banks; real estate; stocks; companies;
legislative representatives in fifty-seven different democracies. This man, a
Columbian-born U.S. citizen, is a very nice guy. Provided you are a business
associate and not a competitor.
"Doctor Green? I would talk with you for a moment
"It would be an honor, sir. I so rarely get a chance to
talk with one of our stockholders." This, of course, was an insane lie -- the
odds are even that anyone I talk to on the phone does own stock in our
corporation, even if he or she doesn't know it.
"Doctor, I have received information that the U.S.
federales will be signing a 59B against you."
"Your informants are quite efficient," I said pleasantly,
inwardly shocked. "I just got off the phone not too long ago with John Warden
of the Telecommunications Standards Division of the NSA."
"That man is the devil's spawn."
"I wouldn't know."
"His nose grows large from sniffing into other people's
"I've never met him."
"I have. He is a little man. Little men are dangerous."
I had to stifle a laugh, because of the pictures I have
seen, Canseco himself is a short, stout man a head shorter than most.
"Yes, little minds are dangerous too, because there are so
many of them," Canseco continued. "This is the reason I call you today. You
should not shut down the site of the Australian woman."
"Australian woman?" I repeated needlessly. This guy must
spend a fortune in spies.
"The woman, yes," he explained patiently, as if dealing
with someone who was hearing impaired. "The one who designed the Internet
"Oh, I see," I said, stalling for time. What was the
connection here? Why would Canseco call me himself instead of having one of his
attorneys do it? What was his personal interest in this matter? Or was it
business? "Well, don't worry, sir, we don't shut down anybody."
"You will not pull the link from your city simulation." It
was phrased in the form of a question, but somehow it didn't come out that
I decided to go over to the offensive. "Are you asking us,
or telling us?"
He chortled. "Asking, of course. Hey, you've got huevos, I
"Well, I hope to keep them. So as long as your asking, let
me ask you a question. What's your interest in this?"
"Eh, eh, eh, don't let your nose grow too long."
There was a pause. "You're a bright boy, you put on your
thinking cap and figure it out. Meanwhile you tell Smith-Jones or whatever the
hell his name is to call me if you get troubles." He was referring to David
Michael Smythe-Johnson, the head of our Office of General Counsel.
"I'll be happy to mention your support to him."
"Good, good. You keep up the good work, then. Adios."
"Gracias for calling," I said, but the line was
About twenty minutes after that call, I received another
one. Grand Central Station today.
"This is he."
"Doctor, this is Reverend Wallach of the Coalition for
Preservation of Family & Society. Do you have a minute to talk?"
"Sure." I thought for a second, who? What? Then it hit me.
This was the Christine Wallach. Executive Director for the CPFS, a
religious alliance of Christians, Jews, and Moslems. One of the most powerful
political groups in North America with a membership list and organization
larger than that of the National Weapons Association. One of the most powerful
women in all of North America.
"Excellent. I must say, Doctor, that I had a rather
difficult time finding anyone in your corporation who would talk to me."
"Well, they're just afraid of you, I guess."
Her laughter pealed out over the phone clearly, as water
might gush forth from a fountain. "But you, Doctor, you're not afraid of
"I fear nothing but the judgment of the Almighty, Ms.
"Ah, well spoken." She was all serious business. "You're a
God-fearing man, then?"
"No. I'm a God-loving man."
"Ah. Some would say they are one and the same. Well, I must
say, this surprises me. I did not expect to find someone who spoke my
"No, I meant . . . well, never mind. How is it that you
countenance what your corporation is doing?"
"Let me guess. In reference to our virtual city
"Yes. How can you, of all people, allow such filth on the
"Ms. Wallach, filth was on the Internet long before I even
had a job with this corporation. Filth existed long before there was an
Internet. But anyway it's not a question of whether I should allow it or not.
Are you aware of our referendum process?"
"Not precisely, no."
"Well, in short, I don't tell people what they can see or
not, I just call a referendum for the people to decide whether a particular
site should be listed in our listings. Think of our virtual city as a big
Yellow Pages where the customers on the mailing list choose which phone numbers
they want to be listed. It's that simple."
"Sometimes people don't always know what is right; they
"Like children? I suppose that's true in some
circumstances. Almost all of the people who access the virtual city are over
five years of age, however."
"Why expose people to such perversion, though? This is not
something your corporation should be doing."
"Even if we pulled the link, Ms. Wallach, the perversion
would still be there."
"But you don't have to make it easy for people. You should
pull the link."
"I just got off the phone with Roberto Canseco. He insisted
that I not pull the link."
"That man is the devil's spawn."
"I wouldn't know."
"We are very much against this," she warned.
"Well then I have a suggestion for you. And if you say the
idea came from me, I'll deny it."
A short pause. "I'm listening."
"The CPFS favors preservation of family and social values
within the framework of democracy, right?"
"Democracy. Go on."
"Okay, I'll take that as a yes. So what you might consider
doing is asking your membership to get on their computers and access the
virtual city, and become citizens of the virtual city. They would instantly
have the right to vote on the referendum. You could tell them all to vote
yes in favor of banning the site."
"Would that get rid of it?"
"Well, it would give me the authority to remove the
listing. It would disappear from the virtual city. But the files would still be
available on the Internet."
"But your corporation provides Internet access all around
the globe, so how does that solve the problem?"
"It doesn't," I said honestly. "The problem isn't about
technology but about morality, which is a bigger issue. All I can do, to use
your own words, is not make it easy for people. Force them to go outside the
virtual city using a different browser."
"Software. In other words, make it inconvenient to switch
from one pair of glasses to another. Most people don't like doing that."
"I see your point. So what you're saying is, that we can
affect the outcome through force of numbers?"
"Create a virtual City of God?"
"Become the new St. Augustine, if you like."
"It's an interesting idea, Doctor. I'll consider it.
"Don't thank me; it's your idea."
She laughed. "Right. Well, thank you for your time. God be
About an hour later, the phone rang again. It was David
Smythe-Johnson, Executive Vice-President for OGC. Probably the Number Four man
in the corporation.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he
shouted over the phone. The connection sounded bad, as if he were on a low-cost
"Are you on speaker?" I asked quickly.
"I'm on my car phone. Hold on, I'm going to pull off the
road." He switched to his handheld. "Is that better?"
"Okay, great. Now, what the fuck do you think you're
doing?" he shouted again.
"In reference to what?"
"I just got a phone call from Sandie. She says she
just got a phone call from one of the attorneys working for Literati Inc. And
she says that Canseco has already talked to you. Is that true?"
"Yes. He just called me about an hour and a half ago."
"Well you are NOT supposed to talk to anyone about
anything, is that clear?"
"Sure, Dave. Next time Roberto Canseco calls me, I'll just
hang up on him."
"That is NOT what I mean and you damn well know it. What
did he say?"
"He just wanted to warn me that if we pulled the link on
the Exon Inspiration site, he would cut off my testicles and eat them
"Actually, his exact phrase was huevos, so maybe I
misunderstood him. Maybe he meant that he wanted to eat an omelet for
"Don't fuck with me, Forest. Did he threaten you?
"No, not really. He seemed quite concerned that we would be
getting a 59B in the mail, though."
"A 59B?" wailed Smythe-Johnson. "Are you shitting me?"
"No. John Warden hinted that he might send one to you."
"You talked with Warden too?!"
"About two hours ago."
"Fuck! You are NOT supposed to be talking with him."
"Okay, I'll hang up on him, too."
"Jesus," wailed Smythe-Johnson again. "What did he
"It was just a courtesy call. To let us know that the TSD
is watching the situation."
I heard a moan on the other end of the phone.
"Dave, you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"I really think you should take a stress pill, Dave."
"Listen to me very carefully. If anyone -- ANYONE -- calls
you about corporate business, you refer them to me. You understand that?
Because you are lower than whaleshit. You hear me?"
"I hear you. Run silent, run deep."
"No talking to anyone. What about my wife?"
"Don't fuck with me, Forest. I'll . . ." Suddenly the
connection faded and disappeared.
Thankfully, I hung up the cradle. "Well, it wasn't a very
interesting conversation," I explained to Londo. "How far down does
whaleshit sink, anyway?"