Sent: Thursday, November 21, 2002 7:49 PM
Subject: Viridian Note 00347: Ivan Ubiquovich
- Key concepts
- Doors of Perception conference,
ubiquitous computation, Punish.Net, Military Ubicomp,
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, worst-case scenarios
- Attention Conservation Notice:
- Papal-Imperial speech
delivered in Amsterdam.
The gig. It rocked.
Viridian Design, for you newbies.
Doors of Perception
RAI Conference Center, Amsterdam
"Two Days in the Life of Ivan Ubiquovich"
by Bruce Sterling
Ladies and gentlemen, times like these call out for
heartfelt acts of gratitude and human solidarity. I want
to offer a personal confession this morning. I have never
been so happy to be here in Amsterdam.
Maybe it's a little naive of me, maybe it sounds
strange, but Euro-cyberculture, the digital-avantgarde,
the Doors Crowd as it were... Well, you people have
finally become a tribal global village for me.
Oh yes, I know our scene here at Doors of Perception
is still a little frazzled. Economically suspect.
Overwrought. Always still in beta. Way ahead of the
curve, part of the bleeding edge, with hot, sizzling,
uninsulated wires sticking out of it at dangerous angles,
but I accept all that. I'm a grownup, I can forgive you.
I always liked this gig, but this year, I truly love it in
here. You good, sweet, civilized people. You delightful
I certainly wish I could say the same for the world
OUTSIDE the Doors of Perception. No such luck though.
Not this season. Outside our delightful "space of
flows," the world is in cultural deceleration mode, where
the videocams of secret agencies are always standing by,
where every civilian aircraft is a pogrom in the making.
That quiet hum of Predator aircraft. That crackle of
small arms fire.
A few days ago I was in Florence, in Fiorenza, at the
European Social Forum, with about a million antiwar
campaigners in a march 7 kilometers long. Banners up
everywhere, Communists, anarchists, greens, Catholic
peaceniks, street puppets, sound trucks.... And they
weren't walking under those big banners, either. These
protesters were almost jogging, in some kind of mad dash,
as if they thought that History was standing by, dressed
in black robes, with a scythe and a stopwatch.
That's why I have chosen to create a rather special
little morning presentation here at Doors Flows. It's
about the theme of ubiquitous computation and the flows of
data. In following the Viridian principle of "Look at the
Underside First," I have chosen to dramatize some of the
darker, spookier aspects of this ubicomp phenomenon. My
model text is a work with surprising resonance for the
year 2002: Alexander Solzhenitsyn's very personal novel of
Soviet prison life, "One Day in the Life of Ivan
I didn't choose this text of Solzhenitsyn's just
because I spent a day in the streets of Florence with
about a zillion Communists. No, what really interests me
about Ivan's story is the design angle. Ivan Denisovich
Shukhov is a "zek," a convict, in a Stalinist prison
camp. He's one of millions of such prisoners. Ivan is an
ex-soldier, a World War II veteran, who is doing a ten-
year prison sentence for nothing in particular.
Ivan Denisovich is not an industrial designer, but
he has a remarkably intense relationship to material
objects. Basically, that's because Ivan doesn't have
any. Yet Ivan must get some flow of food and warmth and
energy through his body, in order to survive, and so he
does this. Ivan is almost starving, so Ivan steals bowls
of soup. Ivan is almost freezing, so Ivan steals rolls of
felt, for insulation. Most of the rest of the time, Ivan
is either hauling concrete blocks in the snow, or being
counted. The gulag authorities are always, always
computing the prisoners inside the camp. Everything is
rationed in a gulag camp. It's a very intensive
Our Ivan has the common, unromantic name Ivan,
because he's a Soviet Stalinist version of Joe Sixpack,
the classic American everyday consumer. Ivan Denisovich
is a regular guy. He's not a saint or a hero or a
martyr. There's nothing unique about him. Ivan is just
methodically doing the everyday things that are necessary
to get by in his extraordinary, monstrous milieu.
Solzhenitsyn's novel scarcely even has a plot. It centers
on two things: intense attention to physical detail, and
the passage of time.
Therefore I present to you: two days in the daily
life of Ivan Ubiquovich.
Scenario Number One: Punish.Net
Ivan Ubiquovich is a prisoner. He's been doing time,
as prisoners must. He tries to keep fed, to keep in
shape, and to keep his nose clean. Ivan is a young man.
He tries to avoid the attention of the authorities, who
are fascists, and the prison gangs, who are terrorists.
Ivan's plan is to avoid despair and someday achieve a real
After an endless grind of weary days in the
underbelly of society, Ivan meets his parole officer in a
small gray plastic room lined with radio tracking units.
"So, Ivan Ubiquovich, congratulations on surviving
two years under the security regime here at Punish.Net.
Have a federally subsidized tobacco cigarette."
Ivan lights his cigarette with an ID-tagged,
globally-positioned, wi-fi desk lighter.
"Ivan, I hope you've learned your lesson about
smoking that terrorist-subsidized Zapatista marijuana."
"Mr. Parole Officer sir, as I told the martial law
court, I never actually inhaled that marijuana. I was
just standing next to a Dutch guy. That was my big
"Ivan, the Comprehensive Homeland Security Act made
it a federal crime to possess even airborne molecules of
marijuana. Our air-sampling drug detection chips can
sniff out marijuana fumes, coast to coast. So we're
finally rooting out narcoterrorism where it lives: where
the American people themselves really enjoy it. Another
"No thanks, sir. I've got that blood test to pass."
"Ivan, a young man like you should be serving the
cause of freedom, not rotting here in the American digital
prison system along with nine million others. I think I
could arrange a parole for you == if you join today's
hard-hitting ubicomp Army. Think about that, Ivan. I'm
giving you a chance to remove those 24 hour ankle
bracelets. To build a new life. You could learn a trade
in modern electronics."
Ivan examines his own hands. They are rough with
harsh outdoor labor, stacking sandbags and digging levees
for the climate change from fossil fuel abuse. Thanks to
ubicomp, no one needs mere chain gangs any more. Because
the chains are all digital now, and they work even better
than cast iron. "How about those motion detector rings,
sir? It would be a real privilege to wave my own hands in
time and space without every tiny motion being instantly
tagged, logged and registered."
Ivan has got some so-called private areas that he is
really eager to scratch. The parole officer presents a
brown paper package holding Ivan's clothes from before his
arrest: his old running shoes, his wallet, his shirt, his
nylon cargo pants and his Palestinian solidarity
neckerchief. "Ivan, let's be realistic here. If the Army
gives you an honorable discharge, THEN maybe we remove the
monitors. We haven't forgotten those unfortunate
discipline incidents when we detected your smuggled comic
book and that chewing gum."
Ivan weighs his chances of survival. "I'm ready to
join up, sir! I've really learned my lesson!"
Scenario Two: Military Ubicomp.
Ivan Ubiquovich is shivering in a electronic
foxhole. He is eating a console programmer's Meal Ready
to Eat, which consists of freeze-dried golden-grain
spaghetti with genetically altered meatballs. Ivan's
platoon is engaged in an endless search-and-destroy
mission across the barren mountains of Central Asia.
Every time Ivan's platoon stops to camp, they call
in a remotely targeted cruise missile. Then they line the
resulting crater with Central Asian handmade wool rugs
they bought from local collaborators. They then have a
snug dugout, and they hide inside of it. Then they set up
their ubiquitous computation monitors. They use sideways-
looking radars, infrared telescopes, nano-seismographs and
a scattering of smart-dust human presence sensors. They
can inspect the landscape for kilometers around. If they
detect anything suspicious, they call in air strikes.
Ivan gets some urgent email from an ambitious general
in Florida. This general is trying to determine the
broad-scale strategic flow of the enemy forces, which is
impossible, because the enemy doesn't have any strategic
plans. The enemy are fanatical, chauvinistic Luddites who
are a few tottering steps away from cannibalism.
Ivan hooks up his targeting screens to the general's
strategic dashboard. Luckily Ivan's platoon lieutenant is
a very sensible guy. The lieutenant hacked the platoon's
screens so that they feed false data. Ivan's platoon shows
only reassuring lies to the superior officers in distant,
cozy Florida. Because otherwise, the platoon would have
to climb out of the warm, safe foxhole, strap on their
fifty kilos each of satellite-linked weapons, rations and
equipment, and climb up steep rocky slopes, to suspicious,
cave-riddled areas, to seek out the local terrorists.
Despite the colossal technical advantages of Ivan's army,
soldiers have been known to get killed that way.
Inside their thoroughly digitized hole in the ground,
however, life is not so bad, considering. "So,
Lieutenant, how about another game of Tetris? The old
games are the good ones, sir! I just installed Super
Mario here on my GI palmtop!"
Ivan's lieutenant is looking very blue. His wife
back in stateside has run off with a Nokia salesman and
sent him a Dear John text message. "You know what, Ivan?
There are some pretty damn serious personal drawbacks to
all this comprehensive battlespace awareness."
Ivan is very patient with his superior's gripes.
These include dust, stench, rats, frostbite, fleas, the
lack of hot food and the fact that they are hundreds of
kilometers from any women or beer.
Ivan's lieutenant is a military lifer. So he's a
nostalgist. "Private Ivan, back in the bad old days
before this infinite war on terror, they used to have
actual wars with actual battlefields!"
"That sounds fantastic, sir."
"In real wars, they used to send a million guys to
kill a million guys, and a hundred thousand of them would
die. Nowadays they send ten high-tech guys to kill a
thousand no-tech guys. Only one high-tech guy gets
killed. It's hard to get an accurate count on the enemy
dead because they are basically pulverized."
There is a warning beep. Ivan Ubiquovich examines his
targeting screen. It's an attractive amber color and
offers a nice light in their insulated foxhole. Ivan
switches to overhead satellite view. He tries unmanned
aircraft video surveillance. Then he examines the
scattering of tread detectors and the body scent
detectors. But there is just no getting away from the
fact. The target is a pretty girl.
"Female suicide bomber at eleven o'clock, sir. She is
165 centimeters tall and to judge by our gait detection
algorithms, she is carrying an extra ten kilos somewhere
in the midriff area. And boy, this thermal emission is
showing quite a set of curves under that burqa."
The lieutenant looks regretfully into his remote-
relay anti-personnel telescope. "Okay, it's standard
procedure, then. We crisp her with the hundred-megawatt
AirBorne Laser. She's hit from the sky like the Finger of
God and turns into a column of fine white ash. Then
there's this violent secondary explosion because she's
already chock full of dynamite."
Ivan offers a troubled response. "You know, sir,
this isn't in our manual, but I happen to know personally
that sometimes mistakes are made with these ubicomp
systems. That pretty young girl is probably alone, lost,
freezing and starving. I'm going out there to throw a
package of food at her."
"I don't think she'll be grateful for long, Ivan.
After all, consider the geopolitical situation."
"That remains to be seen, sir." Ivan prepares to
leave the foxhole. He is choosing to personally expose
myself to another human being. "Who wants to live
forever?" are the last words he offers his lieutenant.
"Sooner or later, somebody has got to try this. And if
the likes of us aren't expendable, then who is?"
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O
IT GOT A LOT OF LAUGHS,
CONSIDERING ITS INSPIRATION
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O