"Commerce is naturally adverse to all the
violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and
studiously avoids irritation."
-- Alexis de Tocqueville --
Well, I was not going to stay in my pajamas this
Monday morning, that was clear.
Revved up the PC this morning to check on the vote count.
No doubt about it, the forces in favor of the banning gained in strength and
padded their 51% margin. If Lee Ward is smart, shell pull the site
tomorrow to squeeze the last bit of revenue out of it, then redesign it, then
My diablito informed me that I had a 1A priority
e-message. Those are pretty rare. There are only fifty or so people in the
entire world who I have tagged as 1A.
It was from the Big Boss. A meeting in his office at 09:00.
Also attending would be the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Financial
Officer, the Chief Information Officer, David Smythe-Johnson, and my own
"What are you doing?" my wife asked me, astonished.
"Im putting on a tie."
"I can see that. Are you going to a funeral?"
"Well, whats wrong then?"
"Nothings wrong. I have to go to a meeting,
"Oh. Who are you meeting with?"
"Nobody important. Not to change the subject, but how come
you arent leaving for work?"
"I have a doctors appointment this morning, so I
figured I go in later."
"Whats the matter?"
"Nothing, its just a check-up."
My wife and I looked at each other for a moment. Somehow,
each of us had figured out that the other one was lying. But neither of us knew
why. The moment passed.
"Its your 43rd birthday in two days," she said,
inspecting me. "Where do you want to go for your birthday dinner?"
"Maybe some place in Adams Morgan. We havent been
there in a while."
"That Jamaican place you like?"
"Yeah, that sounds good. Or surprise me."
"Okay. You look very nice in a suit."
"Thanks," I grimaced. Compliments always spelled big
trouble. "You look good in pajamas."
Alexandra Touissant is one of the nicest women Ive
ever known. According to legend, for seventeen years she has been Executive
Assistant and Chief Secretary for the Office of the Chairman and CEO. She is
the rock; we are the river.
"Hi Alex," I say, trying to sound cheerful. Ive never
been in HQ on a Monday morning; somehow despite the light-filled interior, the
building seems vaguely grim and depressing.
"Doctor, what a pleasure it is to see you again." Ever
since I have known her, she has always delighted in calling me
Doctor, as if that meant anything. Perhaps it is just that she
prefers to call people by their titles on the assumption that memorizing their
names is a waste of time. "How is your wife Eliza?" she adds. So much for that
"Shes doing fine, thank you very much. And you?"
"Fine, thank you."
"Well, that all sounds fine, doesnt it? So,
Alex adjusts her glasses. "You have a 9 oclock with
"I know that, Alex, strangely enough -- thats why
"Oh Doctor, you are so funny sometimes."
"Am I? So, whats going on?"
"They dont tell me whats going on."
"Perhaps, but that doesnt mean you dont
At this remark, she looks at me. Or through me. As if I
have seen too much, and must now be regretfully eliminated by the Empire.
"Hhmph," she says. "Not this time." She will not budge,
there is no use for the river to try to erode her.
"Okay," I say, retreating. "I guess Ill find out soon
Waiting in the outer office is difficult. My mind likes to
range over the possible reasons for my attendance. The problem is: none of them
Cynthia Stillaman shows up, my boss, the President of our
company, which itself is a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporation. The most
profitable one, I might add. She looks grim and determined this morning. Her
pale white face is even paler and whiter than usual. With her jet-black
close-cut hair, small nose, green eyes, and jutting jaw she looks like a
Patrick Nagel girl ravaged by the passage of time, with crows feet
wrinkles and a tight-stretched look that hints at one too many cosmetic
surgeries and one too many marriages.
"What are you doing here?" she hisses.
"I was invited," I reply tersely. She is evidently not in a
"I know that. I mean, why?"
"I dont know. It doesnt bode well."
She looks at me intently, then relaxes a little bit, even
manages to paste a wan smile on her face. "Dont worry about it. Im
sure they just want to ask you a few questions about operations."
I nod agreeably, believing her not at all. Information
doesnt flow that way and she knows it. If someone had some questions,
they would just e-mail them or pick up a phone. This isnt about
information, its about options and decision making. Or about imminent
Others arrive. There is "Koosh" Paddel, the COO. A short,
stubby, balding white man in his early fifties with enormous quantities of
energy. His favorite saying is that what he lacks in intelligence he makes up
for with sheer determination. I believe him. Not a man with which to trifle.
Trailing behind him, and even shorter, is Sue Tran, our CFO. She is birdlike;
no detail is too insignificant to escape her notice. Smythe-Johnson follows, a
tall, thin white boy with a permanently tired, hang-dog look on his face. Last
but not least to show up is our CIO, "Sledge" Hamner, a towering, impressive
black man who might easily have been a professional football player had he had
not blown out a knee in his sophomore year in college. He chose a life of crime
instead as a white collar info-weenie.
Alex weaves in and out of the waiting area, mysteriously
vanishing into the inner sanctum and returning out again, back and forth,
checking on whether Big Boss is ready or not to receive his colleagues.
Finally we are ushered in to the office, a pleasant, darkly
furnished interior that bespeaks of calm and rationality. Like a bank, perhaps,
or a library study. Sitting at his desk looking over some paperwork is the Man
himself, looking very gray and distinguished, impeccably dressed. He reminds me
somewhat of Alastair Cooke, only thinner and with sharper edges. Behind him a
large, tinted window reveals the splendid panorama of the verdant Reston
countryside on a sunny day in July.
"Have a seat," he says to all of us, waving at the chairs
and couches spread before him in a semi-circle. "Anybody for coffee or
"Ill take some coffee," I volunteer.
He looks at me and points over to a bar in the corner of
the office. "Help yourself."
I stand up, glad to relieve the tension. I am never very
comfortable in a suit, anyway. I look around at the others. "Anybody want
They stare at me in surprise, as if normal polite social
behavior were somehow out of place here. Suddenly I gain an insight into why
David Smythe-Johnson, and probably others, considers me an irrelevancy to be
ignored. These are powerful people for whom favors are routinely dispensed by
others. Its a foolish paradigm, the master and the servant, a social
relic of a bygone era when people rather than machines provided labor. My offer
to do someone a favor is misinterpreted as the obsequious behavior of a
servant. But there cannot be servants here, in a closed-door meeting. Hence the
"Nobody wants coffee but me?" I repeat, with mock
"Okay," I say, shrugging my shoulders. I move off to get a
mug of the freshly made java -- by the smell of it, a Kenya roast. The hell
with it. If they dont want to adjust to the coming of the new world
disorder, then let them sit in the past. It makes no difference. History moves
with the unpredictable force of a hurricane and one can flee or prepare for it
and enjoy the show. But one cannot wish it away.
Turning back to my seat, I catch a glimpse of the old man
sitting at his desk. His eyes show that he is amused. He understands where the
others do not.
The meeting begins, and everyone takes out a note pad or an
electronic notebook except me. I found out years ago that taking notes was a
distraction from listening. About the only good it does is to keep the hands
occupied. There are several items on the agenda and none of them have anything
to do with me -- projected alliances, legislation pending in the U.S. House of
Representatives and in the Russian parliament, projected release dates for the
latest software packages, a new advertising campaign, blah, blah, blah. I am
glad to have the coffee, it is keeping me from dozing off into a stupor.
"All right," says the Chairman with finality. "Now, onto
other business. Dr. Green, welcome to the parade."
"A pleasure to be here," I reply, lying.
"Dr. Green, this morning I received a phone call from the
White House. Is there any reason in particular why you have decided not to
return their phone calls?"
"I was told not to, sir."
"Oh? Who told you that?"
I look over at Smythe-Johnson. "Dave told me to refer all
phone calls to him."
"Is that right?" asks the Chairman.
Smythe-Johnson shrugs. "This recent flap with the Bahamian
content is a touchy issue."
"Ah yes," says the Chairman, "we'll get to that in a
minute. Well, as it happens, I talked to the Vice-President this morning, and
to get to the heart of the matter, he is very interested in what is going on
with the Internet city simulation. The White House wants to set up a blue
ribbon panel, and they want you, Dr. Green, to be part of the commission."
The Wheel turns. Big time.
"They want me specifically?" I ask. My voice sounds very
tiny. An octave higher and I'd be doing Mickey Mouse (Trademark, Disney
"That's what he said."
"To do what?"
The Chairman shrugs. "It isn't set up yet. Who cares?"
"With all due respect, sir, I like the job I have now." I
steal a glance over at my boss; like the rest of them, she is mortified that I
should even be questioning the Man.
"Of course I understand that, son," he says in a paternal
dismissal, as if I had told him that what I really wanted to be when I grew up
was an astronaut. "But you have to look at it from the corporation's point of
view. We need all the contacts we can get with this administration. And having
you there would be a real plus."
"This panel would report to the Office of the
"I think so."
"The OVP is worth a bucket of warm spit." I steal another
glance over at my boss; like the rest of them, she is now dead and pushing up
"Probably less with inflation," replies the Man evenly.
"Still, that's where you need to be, for now."
"Are you asking me, or telling me?"
"Well, since you put it that way, I'm telling
"You're giving me a direct order to take an extended leave
"With full pay?"
"In that case, I accept."
"Good. I'll have human resources draw up the paperwork, you
can start your leave next Monday. Now, regarding the Internet city, it seems we
have a problem."
He nods to Smythe-Johnson. "David?"
The hawk-nosed, dog-faced man with the steely grey eyes
looks at me with great embarrassment, as if he were about to tell me that my
fly was open. "We're on track to pull the link on the Bahamian content,
"It looks that way."
Koosh Paddel interrupts. "Excuse me, but what the
hell is this Bahamian content?"
Smythe-Johnson stretches a palm outwards towards me, as if
handing me responsibility for the explanation.
"He's referring to a server-array located in the Bahamas,"
I explain to the COO. "It contains pretty graphic virtual reality pornography
sold at $30 a site visit."
"Oh, that," says Paddel quickly. "Okay, never
"So, you think we're on track to pull the link?" repeats
"Well, we can't."
A monstrous silence descends upon the room, a silence so
profound that it might just as well have been the sound of one hand
"I don't understand," I hear myself say. Wow, a near
"I talked to Roberto Canseco this morning, and he's pretty
"Why?" I ask. "What does he have to do with it?"
"Apparently one of his companies owns that content and the
servers and the bank and probably about half of the Bahamas, too," replies
Smythe-Johnson nervously, looking at the rest of us. "That's confidential
information, by the way, so don't go spreading it around. Also, for your ears
only, his group has plans to introduce similar material on ten new sites
throughout the Internet."
"How much money are we talking about, David?" asks the
"Between $40 and $50 million already, with projected
revenues in the hundreds of millions."
"Jesus," somebody says, "maybe we should look into it."
"Not a good idea," says Smythe-Johnson, shaking his head.
"The only thing that's keeping us all safe from the NSA right now is the fact
that we are not profiting directly from this. That, and the fact that we are
attempting to remove it."
"So then calling a referendum was a smart thing to do?"
says my boss.
"To keep the government at bay, yes," says Smythe-Johnson.
"However, we're caught between a rock and a hard place here, because if we
don't pull the link then we'll have more trouble than a dog has fleas,
and if we do pull the link then we'll be facing a very stiff lawsuit
from Literati Inc."
"On what grounds?" I ask.
"Unfair practice, restraint of trade, a grab-bag of
"David," warns the Chairman.
"Sorry. Any number of possible dubious claims revolving
around the fact that we have seventy million viewers to which we won't give him
fair access. All of which would have to be answered, possibly even defended.
But that isn't really the dangerous part."
"What is?" asks Paddel.
"Well, Canseco is a stockholder. A very big
stockholder, almost 5% of our class B, and that's just what is listed. He could
easily own more through surrogates. He doesn't need to sue us to rock our boat.
Just dump his stock. He could start a bear run on us simply by doing that and
"That would not do at all," sighed the Chairman. "So, Dr.
Green, this is your brainchild. What's the solution?"
Everybody looks at me. Oh right, I think, give me
the easy ones.
"Permission to speak frankly, sir?"
"Absolutely," replies the Chairman easily. "I insist upon
"Okay," I answer quickly, before he changes his mind. I
address my comments directly to him because he is the one that will be making
the final decision anyway. That, and the fact that it is impossible to address
a group of people simultaneously and effectively without the Internet. "First
of all, we seem to be stuck in the middle of two very powerful opposing forces.
So the obvious strategy would be to sidestep the battle, and get them to oppose
each other directly."
"Hmm-hmm," he says.
"Secondly, we need to examine just how powerful they really
are, and what their motives really are. If you know their mass and their
velocity and can predict their acceleration, then you can figure out where they
might end up. Like billiard balls."
"Hmm-hmm," says the Chairman, looking very non-committal. I
steal a glance at the rest of them and they are all looking at me as if I just
recently arrived from another planet. Oh well. In for a pence, in for a pound.
"Now, let's focus on the government first, and more
generally, the forces in favor of removing virtual pornography from the
Internet. The NSA's DTS currently has the authority to fine, jail, or seize
assets of people and corporations who violate federal comm laws. Mostly those
statutes refer to encryption, however. There is a section on making obscene and
pornographic material available to minors, which we are not doing. There is
also language that prohibits abetting transmission of obscene or
pornographic material. The U.S. government would have an exceedingly difficult
case trying to prove that. Furthermore, since the content is located outside
the U.S., it isn't even clear that this is under their jurisdiction. But at any
rate, if they attacked us, they'd have to take on all twenty-three
internetworks and hundreds of access providers, which they're not about to
"Now, the reason why the DTS is waving its stick and
shouting is that the administration is feeling political pressure from the
family rights activists and other puritan groups. That's a smokebomb, because
DTS knows damn well that accessing content over the Internet is a pro-active,
individual event. In short, puritans could simply ignore evil if they chose to.
So what's the government's real interest in all of this? It's got to be
revenue. I think if we dig deep enough, we'll find out that the real concern is
coming from the Federal Revenue Disservice."
"Now, if that's true, what we need to do is find out what
the FRS wants. Or you can step back even further, and ask yourself, how does
the U.S. economy stand to gain or lose from this? The answer is simple. If you
keep the content located in the United States, then its transmission within the
U.S. can be taxed at U.S. rates. Furthermore, people in other nations will have
to access U.S. content and deposit their telemoney in U.S. accounts. So the
U.S. gains two ways."
"Now, let's focus on Canseco. His revenue projections are
way off, because he's basing them on data gained from an aberration. The reason
why so many people are looking at the site is because it's a novelty and
because of the referendum. $30 per site visit is a very high fee. If you
measure it in relative entertainment value terms, it's fair market price should
be closer to $5, or $3/hour, something along those lines. He's smart to charge
a high fee per site visit, though, because that industry has got to have a very
high churn factor. I mean, if you've seen one, you've seen them all, if you
know what I mean. So setting up ten new sites would bust the market. I'm
not even sure what the real market is, to be honest with you."
"So what is Canseco really after? A fair access lawsuit
would be a waste of time; the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Jurgen v. ADCI
Network established that as long as Internet access itself is not denied,
an individual or corporation cannot be held liable for refusing to refer
to someone else's Internet address, or designing software that does not
recognize certain kinds of files, unless it were a deliberate act
intended to harm a business competitor. And that was a 7-2 decision,
which means that Canseco would have to purchase three Supreme Court
justices, which is impossible."
"But Dave is right about his capacity to make trouble, so
we can't afford to piss him off, begging your pardon. So what does he want?
Like any good businessman, he wants to make as much money as he can and control
as much market share as he can. He sees that the growth potential of the vCity
is almost unlimited and he knows that it is the strongest draw of any of the VR
worlds on the Internet. What he really wants is not access to our established
customer base, but access to our new customers. The ones who haven't
seen a VR pornography site yet."
The Chairman held up his hand, like a policeman directing
traffic. "Stop. What's the solution?"
"Have Canseco and the FRS caucus and agree to Literati Inc.
setting up new content and the servers within the borders of the U.S. Make sure
they put it in a fairly liberal state so that they don't get hung up on local
standards problems. Or even better, have them put it in the District of
Columbia, where the federal government can keep an eye on it or seize control
of the situation if the local regulators get antsy. But that won't happen,
because D.C. badly needs new sources of revenue. Give the TDS whatever
authority it wants to oversee the proper installation of safeguards against the
tender eyeballs of minors and God-fearing citizens everywhere."
The Chairman looked over at Smythe-Johnson. "David?"
The lawyer scratched his left ear. "It might be worth a
try. What I can't figure out is, how do we stop people from voting to remove
these things from our listings?"
"What about that, Dr. Green?" asks Big Boss.
"You don't," I reply. "That's the point. Left to itself, VR
pornography is basically boring, an exercise in meaningless futility. When
forbidden fruit is left in the open, it rots quickly. What makes it interesting
is that other people want to get rid of it, hide it. This is the basic design
principle behind the thong-bikini. What Canseco needs to understand, is that
calling a referendum to ban a site is necessary to its profitability.
Tell him that we'll be glad to call a referendum on each site he places into
the vCity, for a fee. Tell him that what he needs to do is place only one
on-line once a month, and to make sure that it has some conceptual design flaw.
The content, of course, doesn't really matter."
"But won't other people start putting up pornographic
content in the vCity?" asks my boss.
"Sure. But we don't have to call a referendum on
everything. Or anything, for that matter. If notoriety is truly valuable, then
we ought to receive some compensation for creating it."
The Chairman smiles. "Son, you're too smart for your own
"Then why are you marooning me on blue-ribbon
The smile vanishes, to be replaced by a thoughtful pursing
of lips. He thinks before answering. I like that.
"Do you play Go?" he says, referring to the Japanese game
"I know of it."
"Well, learn it. And when you understand the game, then
you'll understand the move."
It was a dismissal, and we left. It was just as well; my
coffee had turned cold.
On the ride down on the elevator, my boss said nothing to
me. She said nothing, in fact, until we reached her office.
"You're insane, Forest."
"Sanity is statistical."
"You can't talk to him like that. Jesus!"
"Oh, relax, Mamsahb. He's had so much of his ass kissed all
his life, I'm sure there aren't any hairy spots left."
She looked at me curiously. "You are one son of a bitch
"Well, I'm sorry to see you go. Who should take over
running your project?"
"I don't know. That kid Darrin, maybe. He's got a bright
future kissing ass."
"Okay, I'll think about it." She looks at me again with
curiosity. "By the way, what does Mamsahb mean? Or dare I ask?"
"Oh, it's just an honorific title. It means Honored