It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global microdemocracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.
With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?
Although he has twenty-three centenals scheduled for a South and Southeast Asia swing over the next five days, Ken mostly expects to get yanked into a meeting about what he learned from Amuru. No message comes during the night, and despite his fondness for certain familiar parts of the upcoming trip (the foot massage in the Singapore airport; a certain bar in Kemang; a thosai spot he’s fond of in Chennai), he is grumpy as he sets out. It doesn’t help that he has to fly cargo class. Even the thought of the equatorial warmth can’t soothe him.
It’s still dark when he drops off his rented mini-motor and checks in at the airport. His Information presets had very little to tell him during his rural detour, except the occasional comment about the type of tree sliding by or when the road was constructed, and the rush of exposition in the airport comes as a shock, especially on such little sleep. Ken quickly learns, and completely fails to absorb, a great deal about the politicking involved in the airport’s initial construction and the decision on its location, as well as which airlines serve it and since when and to which connections, and its place in various ranking schemes (official associations, usergenerated, statistically based), while bypassing reams on the sourcing of materials, the architecture firm, and the history of the land below it. Along the way, ads—flat and projected, still and animated—crowd his vision, all of them translated and most of them annotated by his Information: he learns that the company trying to sell him whiskey is a subsidiary of Coca-Cola (not surprising, since they are part of the corporate government that owns this airport) and sees the annual statement summary for a firm offering wealth management. Not having any wealth to speak of, he ignores both the ad and the background Information discrediting it.
As he walks past the large windows looking out on the runways, Information projects a split-screen view with oldschool vids of exactly the same scene taken during the flooding of the 2011 tsunami. Because his tastes tend toward the political and cultural rather than the nutritional or ecological, during his brief lap through the gift shop his Information explains the projections of cows making rude faces at him with a discourse on the importance of beef tongue as a delicacy in the Sendai area. His gaze rests momentarily on an unidentifiable stuffed animal, a sort of curved triangle with bulging eyes and an unlikely smile, and he learns about shark hunting, long illegal but, his Information suggests, still practiced in some of the surrounding towns; the fluffy souvenir represents the fin.
He heads to one of the cafés and orders a concoction of caffeine, sugar, and artificial flavoring—Ken has blocked his handheld from giving him dietary breakdowns on anything he’s ingesting, as long as it’s not outright poisonous—from the superfluous, bright-eyed attendant. The attendant has allowed some of her Information to be public, and so while he waits for his beverage, Ken sees projected next to her cheerful face the high school she went to (Sendai Shougyou) and her favorite cartoon character (Hello Kitty in a frog suit). He takes the silicon mug to the gate, its animated map showing the recycling bin closest to his current location auto-updating as he moves. He glances at the polls, then watches the deicing going on outside the window (he has also forbidden his feeds from giving him any data about the age or airworthiness of the planes he’s about to board) while he tries to talk himself out of his funk.
It’s normal that they might not want to include him on strategy discussions, even if those discussions are based on his intel. He’s young, after all, and has shot up the ranks at Policy1st fast, and via an unlikely path. Ken is reminding himself that he’s in it for the right reasons, for the policy, not for the excitement, when Suzuki Todry sits down next to him, a similar silicon mug in hand.
“Interesting stuff,” Suzuki says.
“Surprising,” Ken ventures, trying to keep his tone as neutral as his mentor’s.
Suzuki shrugs. “Not necessarily.”
“Threatening war?” There’s no one within three meters of them, but Ken keeps his voice down anyway.
“It might be just that,” Suzuki says amiably. “A threat. Posturing. Remember, if this statement hasn’t been recorded, not only can we not attack them for it before the election, but no one can hold them to it if they do win. Maybe they’re betting that they can win Okinawa this way, but not the Supermajority, so they won’t have to make good on the promise.”
“Liberty’s trying to go all the way,” Ken says.
“But it’s not at all sure they will.”
“Either way. This is extreme. This is exactly what the system was created to prevent.”
Suzuki nods. “We have people in Okinawa trying to get vid of this promise. We’re also thinking of running an ad or two ourselves.” He holds out his screen. “What do you think?”
The soundtrack goes straight into Ken’s ear amplifiers, and he sets the projection to play in stereo at the closest possible points to his eyes, tiny and two-dimensional so no one else can watch, although his brain stitches together a fullsized, full-depth result.
It’s your standard election ad, inspiring music over scenes of happy, sunlit, productive people of different races, interspersed with graphics that suggest, without ever showing the full picture, prediction maps of a Policy1st landslide. The narrative is in Okinawan, but there are subtitles in English, Japanese, and Chinese for people who don’t have translators.
Twenty years ago, the people of the world came together in an unprecedented step to form a new international order. Since the first global election, war among participating jurisdictions has been eradicated, and prosperity and trade have spread.
Policy1st believes in the principles of the elections. We offer you a clear, honest expression of our policy positions, and seek peace and economic growth in all our centenals. Visit one of our centenals, check us out on your comparison sheets, and use your Information to see what Policy1st can do for you.
It ends with the Policy1st campaign slogan for this election, drawn in expertly calligraphed characters in their signature colors, bold yellow on a fresh sky-blue background.
The best policies, the best results.
“Pretty good,” Ken says, impressed at the subtlety and at how quickly they put it together. It never mentioned war, annexation, or Japan but would draw a clear counterpoint for anyone who had gotten Liberty’s message. “But you know, anyone excited by the idea of… you know, war, I mean… this is not going to change their minds.”
“If we find something concrete, we can get more aggressive with our advertising and at the same time launch a complaint to the election board.”
“It’s amazing, with all the Information collectors out there now”—Ken shakes his head—“how many things still slip through.”
“Amazing,” Suzuki sighs, “but true. There’s a lot that gets past Information analysis. You should know that better than anyone,” he adds, glowering at Ken from under his eyebrows. Ken wonders if Suzuki has already checked whether yesterday’s rendezvous showed up anywhere. “We can’t depend on them to protect the fairness of this election. I want you to keep an ear out on this trip. See if Liberty has been making similar promises elsewhere.”
Ken runs through his destinations in his mind. “Hard to sell in Java, although they might scrape a centenal or two together on that basis. But Liberty’s pretty weak there; PhilipMorris is the big corporate to worry about. Singapore and Taiwan—yeah, an anti-Japan message could still resonate. But war?”
“Be alert,” Suzuki says. “It might take other forms. Try to record anything relevant you find.”
Ken nods, feeling a pulse of excitement. “They won’t make that easy.”
“Buy whatever recording devices you think will help. Check out the latest generation of recorder disks; they’re amazingly small. Plenty of places where you can do that in Singapore—or Jakarta, for that matter. Try the centenals belonging to Asia’s Return—they have particularly lax controls on pirating electronics.”
Better and better.
“And keep your own head down—this does not supersede our overall strategy. We don’t want them to know where we’re playing.” A second of hesitation. “Keep your head down, and watch your back.”
* * *
Mishima stretches in her travel bed, checks the time. Late. The Buenos Aires voter motivation party rocked until well past dawn. Mishima knows these events are important, and maybe once she would have enjoyed them, but now she finds they leave her feeling drained. Not tired so much as empty, annoyed at all the hullabaloo for people who barely even think about their votes. Officially, she was there to collect as much data as possible and send it up for analysis, like any other Information employee, but her secret purview is far wider. Last night, in addition to supervising the organization of the gig and coordinating with the local security team, she was keeping an eye out for the kind of campaigning that governments do at voter rallies, which are supposed to be apolitical. Usually it is much more subtle than unsubstantiated allegations spelled out in giant burning letters.
She rolls over and checks the status of the libel case. Jorge and the local team are focused on RosarioPrimero, the only government competing directly with Heritage in the immediate surroundings, but Mishima is not so sure. Heritage may not be in many close races in the Río de la Plata area, but the big governments are thinking about the Supermajority, and any loss for Heritage will increase their chances. Besides, those images were recorded and shared so quickly, they could influence voters anywhere; it might well be a global play rather than a local one. A team is working on cleaning it up, but the changing patterns of the flames is making it hard to efficiently search for the shots. A bit sophisticated for RosarioPrimero, Mishima thinks, checking out their Information: only two centenals, one of which they’re probably about to lose to Heritage. She told Jorge to look bigger, Liberty or PhilipMorris or, possibly, 1China, who have been making inroads in the southern cone lately. She doesn’t think he’s going to, and toys with the idea of taking a quick scan herself, but she knows she can’t solve every campaign infraction she comes across. She’s supposed to be looking at the bigger picture now.
The encounter with Domaine still bothers her. Was he involved in the libel plot? It didn’t look like it, but what else would he be doing there, in person and apparently alone and unarmed? Disillusioning voters one at a time? She spent the rest of the party on edge, called in half a dozen potential threats. None of them turned out to be armed, but she wants to review the vid footage anyway.
First, though, she calls up her Information. Like most people, Mishima has a couple of favorite feeds, sources that she’s found to be fast and reliable, although she’s probably both pickier and a better judge of “reliable” than most people. She has her screen set up to automatically calculate and source the most popular feeds globally and locally, so that at any given moment, she knows what most people are learning. She includes the major news compilers, regardless of how many people are paying attention to them, broken down to the continent level and sometimes further. Besides that, her algorithm adds in a couple of random streams that flick between various compilers, opinionators, and virtual plazas without regard for size or relevance. It’s a tactic that reminds her, every time she uses it, of the panels from Watchmen where Ozymandias watches multiple TVs tuned to different channels to reach a composite view of society and make predictions, both financial and political. Not for the first time, Mishima wishes that her world had as few channels as his.
As usual during the keyed-up election season, she is faintly disappointed by the lack of anything earthshaking in the results. There is the standard slew of local news—minor floods in Bangladesh, a daring jewel theft in Paris, an indiscretion by a music star—none of which raises serious pings on her Radar. A significant smattering of stories about the mantle-tunnel approval process, which doesn’t look like it will make it through before the election. (Mishima wonders briefly whether Heritage has delayed it on purpose, but decides the issue is too divisive for that.) Everything—the floods, the music star, obviously the mantle tunnel—is tied to the elections by this point in the cycle. All of the major feeds are dedicating resources to the campaigns, and most of them strive to have at least some coverage every day, but Mishima finds nothing surprising there, either. She skims a few of the longer features, hoping they will enhance her worldview or lead to an epiphany: “Who are the leastcampaigned voters?”; “Pivot centenals across Southeast Asia”; “Most effective campaign vids.” Mishima remembers similar titles from a decade ago and learns little new.
Finally, she checks up on a few races and aggregates she is following closely. With nearly a hundred thousand centenals, it can be hard to pick favorites, but part of Mishima’s job is looking for trendsetters and possible dominos, as well as places that might represent interesting global dynamics. Some of this, of course, is subjective, like the centenal in Tokyo where Mishima used to live. While it was solidly SonyMitsubishi back then, shifts in employment and a couple of minor bureaucratic scandals have left it open to contestation, and both Heritage and Liberty are advertising heavily there. The latest polls show Liberty slightly ahead, but it looks like Sony-Mitsubishi has finally caught on to the gravity of the threat and is trotting out some new job-training programs, so it may shift again. This story—aggressive plays against weakened incumbents that are slow to respond but often effective when they do—is a key pattern for this election cycle and seems to justify Mishima’s belief in subjectivity, even if not all of her supervisors agree. She also looks at the distribution in the greater Mumbai area, a seething anthill of demographic diversity and cutthroat competition, and notes Policy1st’s continuing progress across Eastern Europe. Not much change since the last time she checked, twenty-two hours ago, but the data is still trending upward.
Still in bed, she checks her schedule—and, while she’s at it, her location. Mishima’s crow is not large, and it’s not fancy, but it’s almost hers. Which is to say, it belongs to Information, but it’s hers to use. The fact that Mishima convinced Information that it made more sense to loan her a personal crow than to continue paying for commercial travel and hotels makes her feel additionally proprietary toward it, as a good which she has not paid for but won with her wits. (It has also given her a certain cachet among the few other Information employees who have heard about this and made her a hero to the even smaller number who were able to work out the same deal.) The best part is getting several hours alone whenever she has to travel. The best part is being able to work in bed. The best part is being able to move whenever and wherever she wants.
She’s almost halfway across the Pacific, slightly delayed by inclement weather that diverted her from the optimal path. She has a few meetings to project into over the next couple of hours, and then a brainstorming session on the name-recognition problem tomorrow. In the meantime, drafts of the weekly comparison sheets, compiled by lowerlevel operatives, have come through for her review, so she decides to go through them before the meetings. The comparison sheets are formatted as a grid, with important topics across the top and governments down the side. There are pull-out sections for local issues at various levels—centenal, municipality, microclimate, island, timezone, language group. Each square offers the stated position of the government, an explanation of what that was calculated to mean in practice, and, if applicable, the deviation from that stated position indicated either by previous performance or current rhetoric. Citizens can even see a personalized grid with specific outcomes of each government for them: how much they would pay in taxes, for example, or changes in the funding projected to go to their kids’ schools, or the probability that their local bar will be shut down.
It’s a popular tool, and surveys last decade showed that a plurality of citizens used it to decide their vote. Mishima is checking for anything that she can add based on her exposure in the field, as well as scanning for questionable items, hints to campaign strategies, and possible trickery. Part of her brain is looking at it in a more personal way too: she’s also an undecided voter trying to get a full picture of the options.
Halfway down the grid, as she’s running her finger along the row assigned to LIBERTY, Mishima sits up in bed fast. She adjusts her vision settings, opens more feeds, tries to read five articles and watch two vids at the same time, then stops herself. She only has a couple of hours. Where should she look? She might as well start with where she’s headed. Mishima begins pulling up Information from Asia.
Excerpted from Infomocracy, © Malka Older, 2016