Charlie White remembered when all the trouble broke out. It had been his junior year at Tech, spring actually, although he barely knew it because he rarely left his second floor apartment cyber-cave on Washington Street about a mile away from the Institute. His carefully constructed enclosure, with wall-to-wall computer screens and keyboards linked to the Institute’s supercomputing Cray system, was backed up by specially rigged digital sound equipment. His self-created domicile kept him, not captive but ceaselessly enthralled in his projects, except once-in-while, he had to rush off to some class, lecture, or departmental social gathering since he was still enrolled, although barely, his advisers warned.
One afternoon that spring, the idea struck him out of his blue craze, almost like a gigantic joke. He had been working on “Digital Editing” for his junior Independent Project, a simulated “Gettysburg Address” read by him and then skillfully modified through voice altering technology he had spent a half-a-year developing. Finally, he approximated the high-pitch, intensely animated voice of what he hoped might have sounded like Lincoln himself standing on that hallowed ground. He had researched all he could about the way Lincoln’s voice sounded to the various spectators that day, a piercing almost shrill-pitched hypnotic, harmonic twang that cast some of his listeners into near trance, at least some of those who were close enough to hear in the vast crowd that assembled to pay their respects to their war dead. The rest was pure guesswork and inspired digital modifications using all the tricks he learned during his first three years in his cutting-edge classes for the chosen “geniuses” who had been recruited to the elite campus from across the nation, all expenses paid, plus bonuses for innovations and shared patents.
“Hey, I got a great idea,” he shouted as he lifted his 210 pound over-weight 5-foot-6 inch stocky frame out of his thickly-padded chair.
“Not another one,” scoffed his roommate Chang Young, who had his back to him seated in his own swivel chair facing an opposite wall of computer screens on which he was constructing a 3-D life-like moving model of Lincoln with his top hat off in one hand as he delivered the same address. The lifelike figure looked as though it was right out of the nightly TV newscast, no trace of animation or falsehood. Within a week they would combine their efforts for a joint class presentation, voice and animated body. They were psyched.
Chang barely looked up from his keyboard. He was used to these interruptions. Charlie had met Chang the first week of freshman year in their 13th-floor dorm hallway engaged in a bull session about the possibility of producing a DNA organic computer within the next decade and they had become inseparable buddies. Charlie had even traveled to China to meet Chang’s family during the last Chinese New Year celebration, missing a full week of classes, something that did not go unnoticed by their advisors. That had been an eye-opening trip! He had never been out-of-state, much less overseas. Chang and Charlie had taken almost all of the same classes in the accelerated bio-computing program, had gone to the same movies together at the Student Union and downtown, when they could get dates, they even went out together. More often, they just palled around with the crowd of 30 some select brainiacs training to make the next cyber-breakthroughs and earn a few patents before they even graduated into Tech’s Ph.D. program after three years of training, if they had proven themselves and were not turned loose to roam the marketplace with the other regular computer grads looking for work.
“I hope it’s not as bad as your plan to hijack those electronic directional traffic signs on the expressway and translate them into Chinese.” Chang was trying to teach Charlie Chinese, and he was learning, slowly, but had wanted to show off some of his newly acquired skills.
“Yeah that would have been a gas, and made the nightly news too.”
“Lots of fun until the state police showed up and threw us into the pokey for traffic jams and crash deaths.” Chang had come to America with a good grasp of English, but the last three years had picked up plenty of slang so that no one would even know that he was not a native, although he was pretty certain that once he got a high-paying job in the hi-tech security industry or some research lab that he would get permanent resident status and then work on his U. S. citizenship. He loved his home in Shanghai and missed his family dearly, but he had grown used to the independence and freedom that he felt here and wasn’t willing to give any of that up. Besides, he had lots of fellow Chinese friends on campus. Of course, he knew that he might become so valuable someday that the Chinese government might take steps to repatriate him, involuntarily. But if that ever happened, it was years in the future. Anyway, he had nightmares about that scenario from time-to-time.
“How about this?” Charlie queried. “Let’s launch an international student competition to see who can create the most convincing voice and body 3-D, digital doubles, simulations of a famous historical person, a digital twin indistinguishable from the real person?” Charlie was pacing back and forth excitedly in the narrow space between their display panels. “It could be the first in a string of annual competitions.”
“Aren’t they already doing that at Disney and Universal?” Chang seemed skeptical, but then he always was skeptical at first, then sometimes came around to Charlie’s wacky ideas. He had a highly trained critical scientific mind, yet his training with imagination left much to be desired, in Charlie’ opinion. That was one thing Chang liked about America. People had all sorts of wacky ideas, and sometimes they even panned out. He was working on his imaginative toolbox and that’s one reason he liked Charlie, he was always challenging him to think more creatively, to get out of his analytic rut if he wanted to do something big. Charlie showed him how it was done with a barrage of wild notions almost every time they talked, at least when he caught fire.
“Come on. Those Disney guys do it for money. We’ll do it for the thrill and humor of it and the tech breakthroughs that might result along the way. Think of all the replicas our fellow digital explorers could set loose on the world. Hey, someone might bring Marilyn Monroe back to life or JFK. He could run for president to serve out a second term he never got a chance to win.”
“Who’s Marilyn Monroe?”
“Oh Chang, you got so much more to learn about America. She was a beautiful 1950s blonde bombshell movie star who committed suicide after JFK broke up with her, or so they said. Lots of conspiracies about that one. She was JFK’s lover, but she slept with some mobsters too, so the Mob or CIA or somebody stepped in. That’s why their deaths within a year of each other seemed so suspicious.”
“Shouldn’t we leave history alone? The future is much more exciting, and hopefully less deadly,” Chang countered.
“You’re onto something there, Chang old boy. Let’s open it up then. Make the competition for any historical or contemporary famous person. Design a 3-D digital duplicate indistinguishable from the real person, voice and image, full body movements so no one can tell the difference, make them say something worthwhile that they normally wouldn’t say.”
“Wouldn’t there be legal problems? I thought people have legal rights here, control of their own image at least? Everyone gets a lawyer. Somebody would sue us.”
“Not if they’re in public view. Otherwise how could the cops get away with all this eye and facial recognition technology that is tracking everybody in public all the time? The idea of privacy died over a decade ago with the iPhone. Besides, this is a harmless competition that could be lots of fun.” Charlie was far from letting go of his latest brainstorm. He liked this one. At least he sat back down. All that pacing tired him out. He popped another can of Coke and grabbed a hand-full of chips, his steady diet that kept him manic 18 hours-a-day.
“I suppose we could put a call out for entries on our Networks and give them till June, see what comes in. We could judge them after Semester. Lots of students are working on this kind of stuff. We could be an International Showcase for their efforts. But what’s the prize? That’s the catch. This kind of stuff takes months of work.” Chang was intrigued, but not convinced.
“Prize? Prize! Fame of course, my friend, maybe a patent for some new technology, influence as a 3-D-cyber-techno-cultural visionary and practitioner.”
“Bull. Who’s going to compete for that?”
“Like everybody who knows how to do it,” Charlie laughed back in his deep, almost diabolical cackle. “The trick is in how we market this idea. We have to get people excited about it. Then who knows what can happen. As soon as we finish this Lincoln project, we can use it as a proto-type example of what we are looking for, without giving away our creative secrets of course.”
“You know, it might be fun if we said they could enter parodies of people as well. Instead of your U.S. President calling for new expensive projects in her State of the Union address, she could announce that she is going to cut government jobs by 25 percent. That would be funny.”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about Chang. You’re catching on to this imagination thing. That is a great idea, historical and contemporary parodies encouraged.”
“Of course, that could cause big trouble if regular people out there took them seriously.”
“All the better. But really, these digital duplicates will never escape the Web. So how much chaos could they cause?” Charlie laughed.
“All right Mr. Imagination. We got to get back to work. Our Lincoln is due next week. Remember. We’ve got to come through on this one. They’re still mad about our unauthorized trip home.”
That had been two years earlier. Now Charlie found himself locked up in a bleak interrogation room somewhere in the basement of an official building where they had been taken blindfolded one night under provisions of the “Reauthorized Patriot Anti-Terrorism Act” that he had only vaguely heard of before. No lawyers, no rights, no idea what the hell was going to happen to them. Charlie figured Chang probably thought he was back in China.
Their Competition had gone well, 23 student entries by the end of June, Winston Churchill doing a cigar commercial, Mahatma Gandhi buying a Rolls Royce, Colonel Sanders eating a large, sloppy hamburger, the Pope holding up a risqué blonde above his head as he called for an end to celibacy were some of the top vote getters when they set up their digital gallery for student voters. Then things suddenly got out of hand and more digital duplicates began to appear and escape the Web to turn up on radio and TV communication networks that were hijacked for a few minutes at a time. It wasn’t just the kids playing any more.
The first incident seemed harmless enough, funny actually. During that year’s Super Bowl post-game interviews millions of viewers watched losing Coach Bowler Hawkins sitting at a table with his team’s banner. He flashed onto the Fox Nitwit screens that had carried the thrilling game. Hawkins, normally jovial, slammed his fist on the table and shockingly lashed out against his previous once-defeated team, who after all had just lost by 7 points in the final minute of a tense game.
“That was the worst damn half of football I’ve ever been associated with in my entire goddamn football career,” he blasted in his familiar Southern drawl. “In the morning, I am going to suggest to our fine owner, Mr. Billy Johnson II that he get off his fat billionaire ass and trade that damn quarterback and half of the defensive line to any team that is stupid enough to take those poor imitations of professional football players.”
Viewers across the nation were stunned at his poor sportsmanship, until the regular authorized broadcast resumed and the real Bowler Hawkins, steaming mad, repudiated the fraudulent indistinguishable cyber-replica of himself and threatened to “sue the ass off whoever done that to me and my boys, not to mention the brilliant Mr. Billy Johnson II.” But it was all anyone was talking about around the water cooler on Monday morning, once the office bets were settled up. And the incident kept the Sports Talk show buzzing for days. When the FBI eventually hunted down the high-tech student culprit, they found an identical file of the opposing coach who might have been in Hawkins’ place at the end of the game if they had lost. It could have been substituted in the hijacked broadcast instead and caused the same stir, since he said the same thing, except the owner’s name.
“We’ve just received this secret footage from the Davos conference in session this week in Switzerland,” the young, attractive brunette news anchor of France 21 International TV read from her teleprompter, “Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau, EU Economic Minister, is evidently speaking in confidence to a small, elite group of the EU’s most influential bankers and financiers.”
Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau appeared on screen, her image evidently captured through some kind of linen cloth to hide the camera. “The situation is dire. I’ve just received the preliminary results from our on-going investigative unit on the solvency of Continental financial institutions. It has discovered assets over the past four months since the last official audit have been seriously manipulated, with massive untraceable withdrawals, and now are overvalued by 21.75 percent. In short, our institutions do not have sufficient funds to meet obligations. If this report gets out before we are prepared to shore up the system, there could be panic in the International Markets. We of course are sharing this with you to allow you to adjust your portfolios and get ready for the storm when we will be obliged to publicly disclose our findings next week. I suggest …”
The screen went blank. But anyone who knew Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau’s distinctively stern voice and precise pronunciation, or had gazed upon her dazzling professional appearance felt a sudden jolt of fear.
Suddenly France 21 went off the air. Within a few minutes, a male anchor was apologizing for the unauthorized intrusion into their international network feed and disavowed the authenticity of the report. But the damage had already been done. Was that or was that not Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau? Anyone with eyes and ears knew it was and that the cover-up must have begun. No doubt the person who recorded the insider information would be hunted down and punished the way the elites punished their own. But any investor with an ounce of sense was already taking action to protect their financial holdings, going to gold, many of them, to cash, others just hiding their assets anyway they could. The international markets tumbled for the rest of the day, even though it was only 15-minutes later when the real Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau appeared beside French President Gabriel Guillemette and the France 21 Director of Operations to denounce the cyber-hoax. Some markets seemed to stabilize, before tumbling again.
A day later in an apparent news conference, Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau appeared again. This time declaring that because of the results of an official audit, she would be forced to suggest a 25 percent devaluation of the Euro at the coming EU emergency summit. Once again, news feeds across Europe had been hijacked. This time, the reaction was not shock but real alarm, not at first with the banks, but at the ease with which communications networks had been misappropriated and manipulated. No one knew what was going on, which version really to believe.
The next morning, Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau announced in a brief media statement she was stepping down from her official EU position and returning to the French National Bank and would no longer assume a public position. She had been publicly abused and her reputation for stolid honesty besmirched by the “cyber-anarchists,” as she called them. But later in the morning, French TV was again interrupted by Mademoiselle Chanet Dubeau’s fiery rebuttal that she had no intention of quitting her post and that those who were trying to force her to do so were actually at the center of a conspiracy to crush her secret investigation of massive financial fraud and bring down the Republic.
And so it went back and forth for a week, with cyber-shadows of the French President, EU officials, Chanet Dubeau, and police commandants making statements and counter-statements. Evidently, whoever had taken up Charlie and Chang’s challenge had made stunning technological breakthroughs that allowed them to create digital duplicates with amazing real world speed, so that by the end of the first wave of attacks, the average citizen had no idea what to believe or disbelieve. A deep reaction of cynicism, rancor, and calls for officials to step down if they couldn’t do anything about it followed swiftly. People withdrew their life savings, banks sagged under the strain.
A month and a half later, at 11:33 PM Meridian, Russian President Taras Rybakov looked solemnly into the camera from behind what looked like his official desk. His feed appeared on CNN International. “My dear fellow Citizens, I have distressing news to share with you this evening.” English subtitles translated his remarks for International viewers. “Regular Ukrainian army units have penetrated the western front of our Federation overwhelming border defenses and have begun an all-out attack on Belgorod with their American-supplied missiles and weaponry. Our proud patriotic forces have fought bravely but have been forced into temporary retreat. This cannot be tolerated. I’m left no option except to strike back with fury. That is why I am giving the citizens of Kiev three hours to evacuate before we turn the Ukrainian capital and military installations to rubble. We will strive to keep civilian injuries at a minimum. We did not ask for this conflict. Nor will we bend to it. Thank you.” The clip vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
Again, anyone familiar with President Taras Rybakov’s quirky smile, strange penetrating military voice, fear-inspiring eyes had little doubt that the border crisis that had simmered for decades had finally broken loose. The red phones in the White House and European capitals and military bases around the globe lit up instantly.
CNN, when it gained re-control of its network, instantly called for calm and denied the report. Five minutes later, the apparently real President Taras Rybakov furiously denounced the “cyber-terrorists” who were seeking to sow destruction and spark a hot war. Half-an-hour later, the digital twin was on the air again warning the residents of Kiev that they had two-and-one-half hours to evacuate their city. And so it went back and forth for the next two hours. Terrified by the threats and unable to distinguish who was real and who was not, and despite all the denials of their own state officials that no military offensive was ongoing, Ukrainians of all ages crammed highways with cars immediately running into grid-lock and panic. Those without motor transport hurried on trails and sidewalks leading out of their nation’s cities. When the attacks did not come by the end of the next day, some filtered back home, others just kept driving, fleeing the potential war zone.
Clearly, the civilized world was confronting more than a group of college students or even one cell of cyber-attackers. National police hunted down some of the guilty, but others sprang up utilizing the new terror tool of 3-D digital impersonation. The fear tactic had caught on around the world with those who wished to spread pandemonium. Soon the digital duplicates were turning up in countries everywhere, sparking digital twin chaos in their wake. Chinese President Jong falsely ordered a round-up of senior military officials. Nigerian President Obo falsely called for a month of food rationing to head off a famine. The Governor of Texas called for the arrest of all aliens with green cards. The perpetrators welcomed the label “cyber-anarchists,” some even publicized themselves with a nifty CA digital logo made of laughing animated faces of many of the digital replicas to date and warning of constant attacks.
The digital doubles spread through social media networks, through radio transmissions, through satellite feeds. They infected the entire global communications system, they caused psychological derangement and pathological responses of fear and dread. Religious centers were packed with the prayerful, and mocked by digital preachers. Even images of everyday people on the street began showing up on local TV news segments, projecting husbands or wives with showgirls or gigolos that their real wives or husbands refused to accept were fake. Nightly digital doubles marred newscasts, story-by-story, with fake advertisements, new cars sold at ridiculous prices, attacks on competitor products. Some folks were having a very good time spreading havoc, and their warped humor and animus was taking its toll on economic and political institutions. Most people were having a very bad time sorting out the truth, keeping their balance. Society seemed to shake under the cyber-assaults.
Two people who were having a very bad time through it all in their separate interrogation rooms were Charlie White and Chang Young. They had been held for months, repeatedly questioned, even tormented about who was in their cyber-shadow network, why they started it, how authorities could stop the digital-twins that were popping up as fast as warriors in the myth of dragon teeth cast to the soil. Charlie became sick from the stress, lost weight, and fell into despair. Then one morning, was it morning, Charlie didn’t know anymore, a lawyer was ushered into his room.
“How long have you been here, son?” Attorney Boyd Justus asked the shaken shell of an arrogant student.
“I have no idea of time anymore, months, years, how the hell should I know, I haven’t seen the sun since these bastards kidnapped us and threw us in these white wall dungeons.”
“We’ll sort this out later. All I want to say now is that you have been released on my recognizance, and we are leaving this place today. I want you to say nothing but “yes” or “no” when further interrogated.
Charlie began to cry. “Jess, why’d Chang and I have to go through all this? What the hell did we do? Nothing, but sponsor a contest to advance some skills and have some fun.”
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.” The attorney put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder as he shook. “I know, son. These secrecy laws are barbaric. We can’t even disclose any of this to the press, just a little to your parents. Now let’s clear out of here.”
Charlie rose, his legs weak, but able to carry him since he’d lost 35 pounds through distress and anxiety and limited food, no beer. “Thanks Mr. Justus. The first thing I want to do is talk to Chang. Is he coming with us?”
His attorney looked down and grimaced. “I’m forbidden from discussing that and we are under security surveillance here. Wait until we reach my car.”
Charlie was alarmed but went through the dismissal proceedings without saying more than a word or two, except to the judge who asked him if he understood the terms of his release. He glared at everyone he met on his way out.
Once they buckled up in his attorney’s BMW, Charlie tried again. “Where’s Chang?”
“I don’t really know for sure. The best I can tell is that he was deported a month ago and is being detained in Beijing to be tried for crimes against the Chinese State.”
R. Craig Sautter is the author, coauthor, or editor of 11 books, including two of poetry: Expresslanes Through The Inevitable City (December press) and The Sound of One Hand Typing (Anaphora Literary Press). He’s taught courses in philosophy, history, politics, literature, and creative writing at DePaul University. He served two terms on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Advisory Board.