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Novel:
vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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vCity 1.0
Chapter 15

"...a confused clamor is heard on every side; and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants."

-- 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 turn-out?"

"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?"

"Absolutely."

"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 times?"

"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 multilogue."

"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 this case?"

"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."

"Correct."

"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 Internet."

"So then, you do discriminate on the basis of content."

"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 voted?"

"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 Control?"

"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 your budget?"

"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 public."

"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 violations.

He sighed. "No. Not at this time. Not sure the courts would go for it."

"The First Amendment is such a nuisance, isn't it?"

"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 constitution."

"Yes."

"Okay, Forest. Just wanted to let you know we're aware of the situation."

"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 please."

"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 business."

"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 pictures."

"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 way.

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 like that."

"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."

"Sorry."

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 already disconnected.

 

About twenty minutes after that call, I received another one. Grand Central Station today.

"Doctor Green?"

"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 me?"

"I fear nothing but the judgment of the Almighty, Ms. Wallach."

"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 language."

"English?"

"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 simulation?"

"Yes. How can you, of all people, allow such filth on the Internet?"

"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 need guidance."

"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."

"A what?"

"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?"

"Yes."

"Create a virtual City of God?"

"Become the new St. Augustine, if you like."

"It's an interesting idea, Doctor. I'll consider it. Thanks."

"Don't thank me; it's your idea."

She laughed. "Right. Well, thank you for your time. God be with you."

 

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 speaker phone.

"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?"

"Yes."

"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 for breakfast."

"Jesus."

"Actually, his exact phrase was huevos, so maybe I misunderstood him. Maybe he meant that he wanted to eat an omelet for breakfast."

"Don't fuck with me, Forest. Did he threaten you? Really?"

"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 say?"

"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."

"Huh?"

"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?"

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