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?
JaBoDeTaBekBan, the urban conglomeration with Jakarta at its heart, has more than four hundred centenals within the administrative limits, and perhaps another three hundred in its sprawl. Ken is now in one of the densest, most diverse places on the planet. In half an hour, he can walk through upscale enclaves where the intellectual rich have voted for tranquility and gardens, keeping out anyone who doesn’t belong with guard-enforced no-trespassing laws; squalid centenals where the whole hundred thousand seem to be packed on top of each other, sustained by subsidized drugs and cigarettes and probably subsidizing some far away co-constituents through cheap labor; neo-communist areas with massive canteens and service economies; governments where pork is illegal; where beef is illegal; where any meat at all is illegal, along with advertisements, soda, and material possessions. Of the two thousand, two hundred and seven registered governments, nearly one hundred and fifty hold at least one centenal in the northwest tip of Java.
The demographics of so many competing and overlapping identities could not be easily divided into hundred-thousand-person chunks, so many of the centenals have the potential to shift allegiance. Even more importantly, there are still strong links between the urban center, the spreading peri-urban borderlands, and the countryside and small villages beyond, raising hopes for swinging multiple far-flung centenals through some intensive work in the city. Convince one centenal to vote for you, and its citizens will tell their friends and relatives and business contacts, hopefully bumping you up in the Supermajority race by several counts without your actually having to go out to the sticks to campaign. Some people say the phrase “domino centenal” was coined here.
Information estimates that the population of the megalopolis goes up by a tenth of a percent in the weeks before voting, and it’s already full of election workers of all different stripes, not to mention PR people, vid producers, and various subsets of Information workers: the whole ecosystem generated by the massive undertaking that is an election. Sophisticated polls and predictive calculations are being run hourly at this point. Ken can see the results reflected in the intensity of the projections playing in the humid air, the layers of posters plastered on the pylons from the long-unused monorail (which Ken’s Information tells him was largely funded by the Japanese and ran from 2018 until its untimely demise in 2032), the sediment of stickers on every threewheeler, every wagon, every fence. There are centenals at play here, and it is massively competitive.
Not that Ken would know it from the informants he spends all day talking to, each of whom tells him that Policy1st doesn’t stand a chance with their particular demographic. They don’t say so directly; Ken’s job is to get that intel (depressing as it is) without letting them know that he’s looking for it. To that end, he presents himself as an annoying grad student. This is not entirely untrue; since it’s extremely difficult to lie in your public Information, Policy1st enrolled him in a cheap PhD program. He can put up more or less legitimate credentials and mute the rest of his public Information, as is common in professional settings. Unfortunately, this also means the informants treat him as an annoying grad student, and he spends much of his time begging for meetings, waiting for appointments, and stuck in traffic.
While sitting bumper-to-bumper on Jalan Antasari, he checks the polls. This far out, the predictions are still highly unreliable, a fact that some genius at Information has decided to represent by making the numbers literally fuzzy, so blurry that they have to be sixteen-point before anyone can read them. Even given the uncertainty, it’s not heartening. Heritage, the Supermajority government, has a modest lead over the next clump of governments, which are too closely matched right now to be cleanly ordered. Last time he looked PhilipMorris was in second place; now 888 has edged them, with Sony-Mitsubishi, Liberty, and several other corporates, trendy techno-governments, and 1China also in the mix. Policy1st needs another five hundred centenals to even be in the same weight class as those governments. Five hundred, from anywhere in the world. A hundred on every continent. Or all four hundred and ninety-nine here in Indonesia, plus one from Tuvalu, or the Faroes, or the City of London. Policy1st has around three thousand campaign staff globally, not including volunteers and government staff who occasionally lend a hand. If one out of every six staffers can eke out one additional centenal, they’ll be in the running for Supermajority.
Ken would like to be able to chalk up at least ten to his name, but so far it’s not looking likely. His assignment is to feel out possibilities in unlikely centenals, and while it sounds exciting on paper, Ken has found that unlikely centenals are unlikely for a reason. Most of them seem all but impossible, and in his lower moments, he wonders whether this is a sham job that Suzuki made up to keep him busy and out of the way. “We have a special task that only someone like you can do, impeccably loyal but not publicly connected to us…”
Anyway, he’s not giving up yet. He has more interviews tomorrow, and in the meantime he can catch up with one of his friends from the office here, siphon off some of his frustration, and cross-ref to get a better feel for how things stand. He messages the strategy director for the Policy1st office, and an hour and a half later (Jakarta traffic), he’s sitting in his favorite bar in Kemang, telling her about that day’s interviews.
“‘Why don’t they have actual people representing them?’ ” he mimics to Tanty, between swallows of a strong and spicy cocktail. “Every single one of them said that, and for most it was their first reaction when I asked about Policy1st. That’s what we come down to: no people. No pretty airbrushed faces, no glib speeches straight from the heart via the teleprompter.”
Tanty is not surprised. “It’s depressing, ya? I mean, what part of ‘policy first’ do they not understand?”
Ken, who’s on his third drink at this point, shakes his head. “Is it better to be popular or to be right?” he asks rhetorically, and then attempts to look on the bright side. “At least I didn’t hear anything about Liberty trying to start a war.”
“Liberty?” Tanty laughs. “Not much chance there. As far as corporates go, PhilipMorris has this place sewn up. That’s why these are so cheap.” She flicks the ash of her kretek cigarette. “And why I can still smoke them in here.”
“Better to be right,” Ken decides, waving away the clovescented smoke.
Tanty laughs again. “Not in a democracy, Pak.”
Ken drinks. “This is a micro-democracy,” he says. “A vast improvement. Any chance of edging them somewhere?”
“I thought that’s what you were here to figure out.”
“Just curious about your perspective,” Ken says, surprised.
“Come by the office tomorrow?” Tanty suggests.
“I’ll be there, but I doubt your boss will make the atmosphere conducive.”
They’ve shared their frustration with Agus in the past, but this time Tanty doesn’t laugh. “Short answer is, unlikely. Besides the tobacco, PhilipMorris subsidizes jobs, sometimes even cars. People don’t care that it’s unsustainable; for the moment, they’re doing better than their neighbors in other governments. They feel like the smart ones. Meanwhile, their compatriots in PhilipMorris centenals in Papua and Maluku are making it all possible, working their asses off for little money and no infrastructure. You should be looking there.”
She glares at Ken, who shrugs somewhat shamefacedly; no one has the time to go campaign personally on an isolated island where the people are fully indoctrinated to their bum deal. “We’re running advids,” he offers, knowing it’s weak.
“In Jakarta, then?” Tanty lifts her tumbler, swirls it, digs out a strawberry with the swizzle stick. “There are a couple of outliers, but I don’t want to talk about it here.”
“Here?” Ken asks, raising his eyebrows and glancing around. They chose this bar not only for its powerful swills but also for the level of noise and the general lack of interest from the patrons in anything other than their own latestmodel projectors. Most of the clientele look like young professionals, educated (maybe even foreign-educated) and chic (some of them retro-chic). “First of all, this looks like our demographic, or at least more us than a corporate. And secondly, do they even care?” He sighs and drinks. “Which is exactly the problem with our demographic.”
“It’s not that clear-cut. These kids all look cool, right?” Tanty flicks some more ash, trying to look cool herself. “Most of them are probably living with their parents. And their parents are definitely not our demographic. Some of them PhilipMorris, maybe one of the moderate Islamic governments, a couple in YouGov or Oranje or SecureNation. But that’s normal; that’s not the problem. The problem is PhilipMorris has been making noise about other governments ‘spying’ on them.”
“Spying?” Ken feels his face slowly going red, although it’s probably invisible against the alcohol flush. “This is normal! It’s called campaign research. All the governments do it. Hell, you should see some of the things PhilipMorris does to get intel.”
“Yeah, but here they don’t have to.” Tanty shakes her head as she stubs out her kretek. “You would think, with all the access to Information, that people would pay more attention to what their governments do in other centenals, but you know what they say: you can give a voter Information, but you can’t make him think.”
“Why didn’t you tell Suzuki-san about the spying accusations here before he sent me?” Ken asks, trying to shake the feeling of having done something stupid.
Tanty rolls her eyes at him. “You think Suzuki asked my opinion? Or even told Agus? First we knew of it, you were already on the flight. It’s true Agus is an asshole, but in this case he has a point. Nothing personal.”
Ken has no answer to that. No wonder Tanty didn’t want to talk. He wonders how much griping about Suzuki goes on behind his back.
“It’s not that bad,” Tanty softens. “We do need the intel, it’s just… things are sensitive this time.”
“You said it,” Ken mumbles into the bar.
“What was that about starting a war?” Tanty asks, but Ken waves her off, asking for the bill. He shouldn’t have said anything, he thinks as he takes the stairs down to street level with exaggerated care. Though it is late, the road in front of the bar is still alight with the brake lights of a startling range of vehicles, of which only the motorcycles and unicycles are moving. Ken decides to stumble back to his hotel room, a kilometer and a half away over uneven sidewalks.
As he turns a corner, his antennae twitch. They are literal antennae, microfilaments that run from his earpiece, hooking over his ear and following his hair to the nape of his neck. Their wake-up twitch is designed to raise the hairs on the back of his neck to mimic, physiologically, the feeling of being watched, in case the wearer is too drunk to remember the significance of the twitch.
Ken remembers. But it doesn’t necessarily mean he has to worry. The antennae keep an eye out behind him and alert him in case of abnormality, but that abnormality could be anything from a person’s face appearing too many times in the crowd to a microscopic feed camera turning minutely to follow his path. He’ll have to review the vid later to see what triggered them. For the moment he doesn’t look back, but attempts to heighten his own alcohol-dulled senses.
It’s dark where he’s walking, and he’s aware of an everso-slight rhythmic tilting below his feet. This part of the city floats; the crowded, crazy-quilt neighborhoods are built on huge barges, sometimes made from recycled tires, sometimes illicitly made from the tires themselves, tied together in massive rafts. The seams tend to fall along the roads, and in the crevice bordering this narrow street Ken can see the glint of seawater, or floodwater, or (judging by the smell) sewage. The neighborhood is dark but not empty. There is a tented warung up ahead on the left, the bare light bulbs illuminating a woman as she ladles sop buntut from a vat, and four men crouched against a garden wall smoking next to it. Ken blinks twice to bring up the map of his location at eyeball projection level. He knows how to get to the hotel from here, but he wants to see if there are any likely ambush sites ahead and check what centenal he’s in. As Tanty could have predicted, it’s PhilipMorris. Ken might not agree with their public health policies, but they have a pretty good reputation for security. He’s unlikely to have to deal with a random mugging.
But what if it’s not random? He enjoys the taste of fear in his mouth, and it feels too soon when he arrives safely at the hotel. He’s tempted to walk around the block, see if he can draw out whoever’s tailing him, but his antennae haven’t twitched since that first time. It was probably nothing. Besides, he’s tired and drunk. Spying!
* * *
The Information hub in Singapore is one of the oldest and best-developed in Asia, located in an unmarked but subtly imposing building not far from Bugis Junction. Mishima knows it well. She passes under the digitally-engraved quote about a well-informed public, flashes her badge, and walks past the vast translators’ bay. The glass-fronted elevator gives her a view of floor after floor of endless cubicles as it rises, like cross-sections of a hive: the mindful drones of Information collecting, processing, and compiling records of every bit of human action or interpretation they can get their feeds on. She has sometimes wondered if this is why people hate Information; whether the idea of all those people working for an enormous bureaucracy, supposedly sapped of their individual identities, spurs some primal fear in people. Or guilt that unimaginable masses of workers have to sort through vids and grind out commentary nonstop to provide the extraordinarily individualized Information that almost everyone on Earth now feels entitled to. She usually concludes that it has nothing to do with the structure of the organization. The power it wields is enough to make people hate it.
Why the corporates hate Information is clearer and just as evident in the structure of this building. Like much of the other hardware involved in the effort to keep people wellinformed, the Singapore hub was funded by the massive settlement accorded after People vs. Coca-Cola et al., the civil action when Americans realized that diet soda was depriving them of their right to be thin. Further support was provided by the subsequent lawsuit, building on that precedent, which led directly to the cable news collapse.
Mishima goes straight to the office of the director of analysis and tries to explain what she’s looking for: “It’s what they used to call a dog whistle. But they’ve gotten much better at it these days.” Mishima can already feel her vowels and rhythms molding themselves to Singlish speech patterns, and hopes no one will think she’s making fun of them. It’s not something she does on purpose, and it doesn’t help that she hasn’t slept in several timezones.
“Yeah, I know what that is,” Tabby answers. “So, you think Liberty is sending messages to extremists about what they’ll do if they get the Supermajority, messages that don’t register with anyone who’s not looking for them?”
Tabby frowns. “It would be a bit—strange, no? What would they be signaling that they wouldn’t want to say directly?”
“Really?” There’s a pulse of excitement in Tabby’s voice behind her incredulity.
“Or dismantling the election system. Something like that.”
“Yikes,” Tabby says, digesting it. Dismantling the election system, unlike war, leaves her out of a job. “How did you find this?”
“It’s more of a hunch than anything else,” but Mishima is pretty sure. She knows these bastards. “Look.” She projects the comparison sheets and highlights the Liberty line.
Tabby picks up on it almost immediately. “Restoration, retribution… that’s not the usual rhetoric for a corporate.”
“And look at this one,” Mishima says, highlighting. “Not under the IF ELECTED TO SUPERMAJORITY line, under WITHIN CENTENALS THAT SELECT. ‘Aggressive land tenure reform.’”
Tabby enlarges the explanation provided by the Information worker who glossed this: WILL WORK TO CLARIFY AND/OR REALIGN LAND OWNERSHIP. “They took it at face value,” she says, pushing the tail of her sari back off her shoulder. “But you’re right. That doesn’t make any sense in the context of the positions Liberty’s been putting out for the past two years. They’re all about protecting private property, especially land.”
“Unless they’re not talking about private property but about neighboring centenals.”
“And people will understand this?” Tabby asks.
“The right people will.” Mishima pulls up comparison sheets from the previous weeks. “What’s most impressive is how the rhetoric rises subtly over time. Look.”
Tabby nods. “Still fairly recent, though.”
“There could be a mistake somewhere,” Mishima says. “Or this might not have been fully vetted, might have been put out by someone who has gone rogue. It’s a huge organization.”
“They might have changed leadership,” Tabby says. They both know she is not talking about Johnny Fabré, the glossy good-looker who has been the public face of Liberty for over a decade. “Changed direction.”
“Four weeks before the election?” Mishima asks.
“Or…” Tabby says.
“Or they could have been planning this all along.” “Laying the groundwork.”
“Establishing their credibility as a major, legitimate corporate government, committed to micro-democracy, while making sure that the people they want to reach would hear the dog whistle.”
“Making sure those people want war.”
Every hypothesis seems scarier than the last.
“Do they have a chance at the Supermajority?” Tabby asks finally.
Mishima shrugs. “A chance? Yes. They are the fifth-largest government now, and you know the margins are tight at the top. How much of a chance?” She leaves the question hanging. Information employs hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, with an unprecedented technological infrastructure, and still their projections of election results are little more than guesses. Mishima’s intuition is one of the reasons she’s so valuable to them, but she’s still not ready to predict the Supermajority winner, not two weeks out.
“So?” Tabby says, impatiently. “Did you find anything?”
Mishima opens a sheaf of files on the projector. “It’s all small stuff—very circumstantial. They’re being careful.”
“But why…” Tabby stands back, shakes her head. “There are plenty of governments that want to change the system.”
“But they’re all fringe governments. Liberty is huge. They might take the Supermajority—they could make this happen if they win. And if it breaks too soon, they lose their chance. Look at this one.” Mishima opens an advid playing in eastern sections of Europe. The images are innocuous: the usual peace and prosperity, shot through with corporate icons. Mishima isolates the soundtrack. “So, this means nothing to anyone who didn’t grow up hearing… this.” She pulls up an ancient advid, a television ad. “This was ubiquitous in those areas of Europe forty to fifty years ago.” It’s for the digital upgrade of the game Risk, and the same jingle plays through it over videos of children advancing their avatars across a map of the world.
“Wow,” Tabby says. “That’s… subtle. Are you sure it would get across to anyone?”
Mishima shrugs. “If it were only that one, I’d say maybe it was a coincidence, but take a look.”
Tabby flips through Mishima’s projection, scanning the documents as they hang in the air in front of her eyes. All the search terms are so oblique as to be almost counterintuitive, a reminder, if Tabby needed one, of how good Mishima is at her job. “You were being careful,” she says.
“I think they’re going to be looking for someone looking for them.”
* * *
Yoriko is looking for them. She starts by using Information, reading everything Liberty has put out in Okinawa over the past three months. Not unaware of the danger (although she tells herself it’s silly, this isn’t a spy vid, nothing dramatic is going to happen), she hopes her searches will look like those of a potential new voter practicing due diligence. She finds it hard to imagine anyone doing this much background research for voting, though; most of her friends don’t even talk about the election except to say how annoying all the advids are.
The searches don’t turn up much. The adwriters for Liberty have been careful (if there is anything to be careful about). They stick close to their tagline of Freedom, and attach it to everything. Economic Freedom, Family Freedom, Educational Freedom, Consumer Freedom. Mostly Economic Freedom, the headline accompanied by sharply animated 3-D vids explaining wordlessly how lack of regulation leads to economic growth. Yoriko’s seen it all before, during the last two election cycles and lots of times this one, but even so, she finds herself sliding closer to the almost-convinced voter she’s pretending to be. Wouldn’t it be great to have a whole house for her family? To take vacations somewhere far away? She wonders how much Suzuki will pay her if she gets him what he needs.
There are a few places that make her pause the vid to rewatch. One explanation of economic growth shows Liberty’s centenals, colored an attractive aquamarine on a stylized map, spreading toward an island that looks vaguely like Kyushu. This wouldn’t mean much, standard campaign “yes, we will be the Supermajority” sort of signaling, except that Yoriko notices that particular vid was only shown in Okinawa. Feeling slightly squeamish, she pulls up Liberty vids from other parts of the world, vids that were only shown in limited regions. It takes some looking, since they weren’t released on the same day, but she eventually finds a counterpart for Aceh, with an undefined archipelago being threatened; a release for Malaysia, showing the tip of a peninsula being surged by light turquoise color; and a version for China, with Liberty swamping an island that’s shaped more like Taiwan. She doesn’t bother to look beyond Asia.
Spooked, Yoriko closes her feeds—then worries that she closed them too suddenly. She reopens to watch as many more Liberty vids as she can stomach. When she has calmed down—after a bath, a short nap, and a couple of innocuous fares in her taxi—she begins to think it’s less significant. It’s a campaign, and there’s always posturing. Not every government is going to be like Policy1st, so principled they won’t even use spokespeople. Yoriko shakes her head. When she finishes her shift, she’s going to start checking through Liberty’s public appearances in Okinawa. Maybe she’ll even go to one.
Excerpted from Infomocracy, © Malka Older, 2016