My election day story about a blogger and some supernatural goings on received mixed reviews. Some saw it as failed satire, while others enjoyed the ambiguity. It features a character I had previously put at the centre of a couple of unpublished stories. One (about an explosion in Jerusalem) is growing rapidly out-of-date, as the technology it describes becomes obsolete and the zeitgeist it tries to describe disappears into history.
The other is republished below. I’ve just read an article that mentioned ‘web-sentience’ and realised that this story, too, may become irrelevant if I do not publish without further delay. My other fiction you can read here.
When most people over-achieve beyond their wildest imagination, their voice betrays their desire to talk about themselves. They might be talking about some commonplace thing, but if you listen carefully, you can hear the eagerness to talk about What They Have Done. Eventually, they will find a way to drop their success into the conversation. It will as easy to them as dropping a lump of sugar into your tea. In both cases, you find yourself thanking them for their consideration, even if it is the precise opposite of what you desired.
But what was true for most people was not true of my friend Ebenezer, the prolific blogger.
“You’re always so quiet after a victory,” I said to him one afternoon. He had barely said a word since he had arrived at my apartment, but I knew one of his online campaigns had just scored a big win. “You can gloat if you want. I won’t tell anyone.”
It was a while before Ebenezer replied. He let out a slow, measured breath. It sounded as if he was exhaling the smoke from a cigarette, but I couldn’t smell any smoke. He was at peace.
“Just…” said Ebenezer, and nothing more.
One of the reasons I found Ebenezer so endearing was the way he handled success with almost absolute silence. He was vocal in his desires, and insomniatical in his pursuit of a matter to its conclusion. And yet as soon as he had found his prize, he would shut up, as if sated for a time.
This attitude was borne of his medium, the online world in which he spent he waking hours, and in which I had perceived the same traits in a few others of his kind. Online he had no face, and the name Ebenezer, under which he posted his blogs, was a pseudonym. On the street outside my apartment, not many would have heard of his exploits, and of those who had, none would have recognised him if he passed them by. He would certainly not enlighten them. His bank manager knew him as a Mister Someone-or-other, one of those customers who he barely saw, could not picture, and yet were fortunate enough to receive small yet regular money transfers from various US online advertising companies (“Those search-web things” said the bank manager, erroneously).
It was Ebenezer’s actions that were famous, and since these all occurred online, there was no audible applause when he won. Just an unspoken kudos, a common knowledge within the ‘sphere that he had achieved his goal. His Technorati rankings rose a little as others added links to his site, and he received a few e-mailed plaudits, to which he would graciously reply with a two-word ‘thank you’ and nothing more.
“… mulling the campaign,” said Ebenezer eventually, finishing the sentence he had started some minutes before. “I’m wondering whether I did anything at all really.”
This modesty was typical of his post-victory calm. To me it said control.
Ebenezer knew as well as I did that he had done a great deal. One of the biggest gambling websites on the Internet had been brought down by a coalition of activists. The site had been exposed as a fraud, and everyone who had been following the campaign from the start knew that this was due, in the main, to Ebenezer’s obsessive evidence gathering.
“Well that woman barely did anything!” said I. “Even if she takes the credit, people know it was you that put in the effort.”
This was met by another peaceful exhalation.
“No, not her,” muttered Ebenezer. “I think… I think the Internet woke up to help us.”
I turned around on my chair, and stared in his general direction.
In a world where time is of the essence and where one pays a premium for speed, Ebenezer had played the patient long game. More than three years previously, he had noticed that more than one blogger had been complaining about a particular online casino. The games, they said, seemed to be stacked against them. Initially, Ebenezer dismissed the allegations as those of sore losers, who were in denial about their own gambling problem. But nevertheless, the similarity between posts by two bloggers on different continents had piqued his interest, and he had the foresight to bookmark the articles. He kept them safely tucked away on his online del.icio.us account, where they could be recalled if he needed them.
Some months later, when he detected a few more similar posts freckled over the web, he was able to instantly recall those earlier blog posts, and unify them all into a single article of his own. This he had posted one slow Thursday morning, and by Friday lunchtime he had received enough embarrassed e-mails from readers with similar suspicions, to convince himself that www.casino-shakuni.com was worth investigating. By the early hours of Saturday, he was filling my inbox with requests for computer code.
“We need to track the odds on this” said one of his more coherent e-mails. “You need to write us a little script to log the results of each game.” I remember being amused that Ebenezer had written “we” and “us”. He had already drawn a line in the sand. Without any particular evidence, and without further discussion with any of those who had e-mailed him, he had formed a one-man coalition. And he assumed I would be his ally.
“I’m not hacking into any more websites,” I e-mailed back. “And certainly not on the say-so of some drunken gamblers.”
But Ebenezer’s ploy was more legitimate than I had first assumed. After that exchange, he had made his way over to my apartment, rapped on my front door, ignored my protests about the lateness of the hour, and narrated his strategy in person.
“We’ll not be hacking into anyone’s website,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t collect some statistics.” His voice became deeper and then lighter in turn, as he paced up and down the room in front of me. “I need you to create a script that can be run on a player’s computer, not on the casino server. If they run the script before they gamble, then the statistics of the game can be e-mailed back to me.”
“That’s easily done,” I said. “But it wouldn’t be useful unless everyone had installed the script on their machine.”
Ebenezer’s voice oozed confidence. “That, my friend, is why blogging is such a magnificent thing.”
And so we got to work. My contribution to the cause was straightforward. I spent a couple of evenings creating a script that, if installed on a player’s computer, would track the statistics of any game played on casino-shakuni.com, and automatically send those statistics to Ebenezer.
He, on the other hand, had a much harder task ahead of him. He made the script available on his blog, and began urging people to run it on their machines. He posted links and made comments on hundreds of gambling sites. He even participated in some online poker tournaments with the intention of promoting the little piece of code. Being terrible at poker, he lost dozens of game-dollars in the process, but the messaging feature included with most games allowed him to advertise the little project. On more than one occasion, he was denounced as a one-man spam machine, although most other bloggers and gamers accepted he was a real person, with a real project, however eccentric he might be.
“Most spam e-mails advertise online casinos,” said Ebenezer one day, about a year into the campaign. “And I’m campaigning against a casino. So I must be The Anti-Spammer!” This was the pinnacle of his humour, and I struggled to laugh. The code I had written worried me slightly. Players had, of course, agreed to install it on their computer, but I was never confident that Ebenezer had explained just how much play-by-play data we would be collecting. The script had a similar modus operandi to some viruses and spy-ware, and there was a chance that some people might begin to complain about the level of intrusion Ebenezer (and, I suppose, myself) were perpetrating.
But the agitators were silent, and the results began to trickle in. Players installed the script, and returned to their gambling ways, forgetting it was there, watching them like a little guardian angel in their machine. However, every time they played roulette, or dice, or anything else on www.casino-shakuni.com, the results of their game meandered back through the ether, homing their way into Ebenezer’s inbox. From just one or two results a week in the beginning, the number grew quickly, to dozens and then hundreds a day. Eventually, when he complained that the results were cluttering up his inbox, I wrote another script just for him, which caught all the e-mails and added their figures to a database. After that, Ebenezer ceased complaining, and I almost forgot that the clandestine harvesting of data was taking place at all.
It was eighteen months later that Ebenezer’s work bore fruit, and I became embroiled in his campaign once more. One day, an intriguing e-mail from Ebenezer arrived in my inbox. It was many megabytes in size, and yet contained only three words: ‘THE CHEATING BASTARDS’
It took me a while to remember what data he had been collecting, and who his libellous message might be referring to. Attached to the e-mail was Ebenezer’s analysis of the figures that my code had been sending him over the past year and a half. He had accumulated thousands upon thousands of results, and applied some statistical tests. I opened the file and began to read his conclusions.
Much of the file was made up of graphic images that I couldn’t read. But even though my computer read the Executive Summary to me, I could somehow hear Ebenezer’s triumphant tones in the electronic voice.
“The computer throws fives and sixes with a greater frequency than one would expect from a random event,” wrote Ebenezer dryly. “The outcome of the games is NOT random!!!!!!” (This confused my computer, which was not used to dealing with multiple exclamation marks. I had to wait for it to actually say the words “exclamation mark” five times before it would continue). The summary ended with confidence: “I conclude that casino-shakuni.com is cheating its players.”
Ebenezer now had some evidence. The first stage of his campaign was complete. Naturally, he posted all his results on his blog, and he fully expected that this would force some kind of investigation. But unfortunately for Ebenezer, his calculations were lengthy, statistically heavy, and laden with mathematical jargon. A few dedicated bloggers read his posts to the end, and even wrote about the veracity of his results on their own web spaces, but the public furore he had expected, the outrage required to force any kind of investigation, somehow never seemed to materialise. He was at first incredulous, then aghast, and finally demoralised. About two weeks after he had posted his findings, he asked me to disable the script I had written, and stopped collecting data.
And yet a year later, here was Ebenezer in my apartment, mutely drinking the success of his campaign. I suspect it was the manner in which his research had finally gained publicity it deserved (some might even say the notoriety) that had inspired his wistful attitude, and had prompted him to doubt whether he had really have been of any use at all. For in order to achieve victory, he had be forced to go into league with his least favourite sort of person, one whose values he all but despised. Incredibly, he had found an ally in that kind of woman whose lifestyle was in direct opposition to his own: A celebrity.
Debbie Draupadi – or Deedee, to her many fans – was the new A list. She had been one of the first Reality TV stars, winning the inaugral series of one of the talent show contests that took television by storm in the early years of the twenty-first century. She had won at a time before the true potential of these shows had become apparent to the audience and producers alike. She had approached the competition with none of the slightly disconcerting over-confidence, which characterised most of her successors in the many series that followed (I think Ebenezer would have admired this, had he watched any of the contests, which of course he had not). Instead, DeeDee had been honest and genuine, and won over the judges with her throaty rendition of “The Power Of Love”. Her subsequent single, “You’re Not The Only One” went platinum in weeks.
From then on, it seemed as if she was on fire. A small part in an action movie was followed by a lead part in a rom-com. She dressed down for a role in a more cerebral thriller, and then lost ten pounds and released another record. Many people scoffed when she launched a brand of lingerie called Double-D, but her sales remained strong. And when she started dating LA Lakers star Bobby Alamo, her media coverage went supernova.
It was obvious (even to obsessive celebrity-avoiders like Ebenezer) that by getting together both Deedee and Bobby had increased their celebrity stock. No-one could be sure whether it was Deedee or Bobby who had gained more from the relationship. Yes, it was true that Deedee had begun to endorse more products and appear in more magazines at more events. But it was also true that Bobby only became the undisputed ‘face’ of his team after he and Deedee had become an item (much to the annoyance of many hard-core Lakers fans, who found him lazier on the court). For a short while, the more hyperbolic of magazines were calling them the most famous couple in the world.
It was the cataclysmic break-up of Deedee and Bobby that ultimately led to her unlikely alliance with my friend Ebenezer, that obsessive blogger and hater of celebrity gossip.
A few weeks after Ebenezer’s lack-lusture publication of the casino-shakuni.com statistics, he sent me a link from one of the US news sites: “ebenezer59 has seen this article and thought you might be interested in it: BASKETBALL STAR DECLARES BANKRUPTCY, ANNOUNCES DEEDEE SPLIT”
Bobby Alamo had a gambling problem. At first he had been spending time in Nevada casinos, but after his coach had told him to stop, he had turned to online casinos. I did not need to read Ebenezer’s lengthy, indignant e-mails that soon followed, to understand that the website at the centre of Bobby’s woes was none other than www.casino-shakuni.com. It had stripped him of everything.
“I’m going to e-mail him” typed Ebenezer.
“You’ll never get through” I replied. “Do you even have his e-mail address?”
“No, but I’ll e-mail his agent.”
I chuckled ruefully as I typed back once more. “He’s bankrupt. He’s been sacked from his team. His girlfriend’s dumped him. He doesn’t have an agent any more. This won’t help you.”
And yet somehow, I was proved wrong. Within a few days, Ebenezer was sending me triumphant, capitalised messages once more. “I HAVE DEEDEE ON BOARD” he shouted.
And sure enough, he had. Miraculously, it was she who had contacted him, having found his polemic about the www.casino-shakuni.com fraud on his blog. Apparently she had “sworn revenge” against the casino, and wanted to use Ebenezer’s report in a lawsuit she was planning to bring against the company that ran the site. I wasn’t sure whether he was star-struck at the mention of Deedee’s name, or whether he thought he could use her celebrity to further his own campaign. Either way, he was all too happy to pass on all the figures and colourful graphs he had created some months before. He never met her.
And so, thanks to Ebenezer’s hard work, Deedee had won her case against www.casino-shakuni.com. Bobby had been given some kind of compensation, enough to check into a rehabilitation centre somewhere, and Deedee was starting a new round of celebrity endorsement. Meanwhile, Ebenezer was silently imbibing the anti-climax of his long awaited success, muttering something about how The Internet had ‘woken up’ just when he needed it. And I was doing my best to look inquisitive.
“I mean”, said Ebenezer “that the Internet guided Deedee to me.”
“Well, of course it did. She e-mailed you.”
“It was her agent, actually. She never e-mailed me.”
“But even so…”
“What I mean is, they wouldn’t have been looking for me, if the Internet hadn’t saved her first.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I didn’t say any more.
“Deedee swore revenge against www.casino-shakuni.com” said Ebenezer. “Let me tell you why.”
I sat back in my chair as he sat forward in his. He began to explain her motives, and the bizarre theory he had formed to fit them.
Bobby Alamo, we knew, had lost everything. He first gambled away the money his account, then all his assets, and finally cranked up debts on dozens of credit cards. He was sure that www.casino-shakuni.com would reward him with something, eventually, but no win ever came. Eventually, he decided to liquidate the one asset he had left.
“It was a tape,” said Ebenezer, with a conspiratorial air. “A most interesting tape.” And what he meant by this was that it was a porn tape. One featuring Debbie Draupadi, in bed, in flagrante, with Bobby Alamo.
“How did he get that?” I asked. “I mean, how did he make it? Was she…” I took a breath. “Did she know about it?”
“No idea,” said Ebenezer, sheepishly.
“But didn’t you ask!? You must have asked!?”
“Just imagine how much it was worth,” said Ebenezer, ignoring my question. “Two A-star celebrities in their birthday suits. And-and-and: guess, just guess which porn site he sold it to.”
“I don’t look at any porn sites,” I said. “Obviously.”
Ebenezer collected himself. “Ah, no, of course, I don’t suppose you do.”
I smiled, and bade him continue.
“It was called ‘Shakuni Dreams’. It’s run by the same people as the casino site!”
“Wow. So they were bleeding him twice over. Just imagine how much it was worth. Two A-list celebrities.”
“Presactly,” said my friend, and lent back in his chair. “And just imagine what it would have done to Deedee’s career. You know I can’t stand all this celebrity culture crap, but even I know that she wouldn’t be A-star after the tape was released.”
“It’s worked for some people,” I retorted, and began to list some names.
“Yes, yes, but it worked for them on the way up,” said Ebenezer impatiently. “But Deedee was already a celebrity. This would have ruined her endorsements. And anyway, its embarrassing. She wouldn’t want people to see the tape even if it did make her more famous.”
“Whatever. Why haven’t we seen it?”
“Well, you wouldn’t have seen it anyway, would you…”
“I mean, why didn’t they schedule a release, this Shakuni Dreams.com?”
I heard Ebenezer stand up. “That’s just it – They did! The day after the bankruptcy news, all the blogs and porn sites were full of the news of this tape. Shakuni Dreams was promising a high-resolution download. They promised exclusive access. They started a countdown to the launch-date. They were calling it Deedee-Day.”
“How lovely,” I remarked. “So what happened when Dee-Day arrived.”
“Are you sure you’ve never been to a porn site?” asked Ebenezer.
“Pretty positive, thank you.”
“Then allow me to demonstrate the experience,” he said, and I heard his footsteps plod past me to my computer.
I protested at this movement. “We’re not visiting a porn site are we?”
“Just one, quick example of what I mean.”
He paused for breath, and I heard the tap-tap-tapping of my keyboard.
“I am visiting www.shakuni-dreams.com” said Ebeneezer. I heard the confident clap of ‘enter’ key on the board, before my screen reader sprang suddenly into action.
“New window,” announced the machine. “New window. New window. New window.” I reached for my control panel and turned the volume down a couple of notches.
“You visit one page, and the web site opens all these other browser windows,” said Ebenezer. That’s what happens on most porn sites. They have so many adverts for other sites, every time you open one window they open another five for adverts as well.”
He clicked about on the page some more, and I heard the machine announcing several more windows had opened.
“Each page promises to be the last before you access the movies, or the pictures. But each click just leads to another page of adverts. Its actually very difficult to get at the porn. You have to hand over your credit card details before you see anything good.”
“What does this have to do with Deedee?” I asked.
“Well, they launched the video. In fact, they launched a special Deedee page on the website.”
“So everyone downloaded it then? Deedee was exposed?”
“They tried to, but the Shakuni Dreams site developed some kind of error. Every time you clicked to view the video, it automatically opened a dozen more windows, like we just saw. No-one noticed to begin with, because they thought it was just a typical X-rated site. And each new page that was opened had another link to the Deedee sex tape, so they just clicked on that instead. But all that did was open more windows.”
“So the website kept putting more barriers in the way,” I reasoned.
“Yes. All the punters thought they were peeling back layers, and eventually they would get to see Deedee exposed. But instead, each click just adding more confusion, more layers… or barriers as you say.”
Ebenezer returned to his chair. “Eventually, the punters got bored and denounced the video as a hoax. Shakuni Dreams lost thousands of dollars in subscriptions. By time they had arranged for it to appear on a different site, Deedee had already sworn revenge. She had the statistics I had collected, and she managed to get a court somewhere to stop the publication of the video. Now she’s ruined the casino site as well, I imagine the video is suppressed forever.”
I remembered why he had begun the story in the first place. “So, how does this mean that the Internet ‘woke up’ to help her? Surely it was just an error on the site.”
“But they never found that error!” said Ebenezer, with delight. “The day before Deedee got that injunction out, I visited Shakuni Dreams. The HTML for websites is, as you know, visible to anyone. I’ve trawled through all the code, and it doesn’t have any errors. And it no longer opens dozens of windows. You can view all the other porn quite easily.”
“So you’re saying that someone blocked Deedee’s video from becoming public?”
“No, I am saying the files prove that no-one did such a thing. And yet the punters were presented with a bunch of diversionary pages. It was the Internet. The Internet itself woke up, and blocked access. And because of that, Deedee was able to find me, and exact her revenge before she lost everything too!”
With that, Ebenezer closed his eyes, and returned to the peaceful meditation on his success that he had been indulging in before, leaving me to ponder what he had said: ‘It woke up.’ He was implying that the Internet had roused itself into consciousness somehow. Somewhere within the millions of nodes around the world, and billions of calculations that are made each second, a new kind of connection had been made for a short while. A virtual synapse had been fired and inspired to protect this young starlet for a short while. Ebenezer was not at peace because of the success of his campaign, or because he had curried some favour with this goddess of the small-screen. He was at peace because he fancied he had been given a fleeting glimpse at something supernatural, within the technology that he already loved so much.
I had inspected no code, and was not convinced by his ramblings. Thinking about such things was making head hurt, so I turned up my screen reader once more, and began to read the latest headlines. In celebrity news, I heard that Deedee had won a contract to endorse a brand of shampoo, and would now earn money every time she washed her hair. She had left Bobby Alamo behind, and was on her way to even more fame and fortune. I was blind, both in sight, and to the Internet angels that Ebenezer had begun to perceive. And yet even I could see that Deedee was, in some strange way, blessed.