Panoptes

Laurence Raphael Brothers


I’m watching from the lobby camera as you enter your apartment building at the end of a busy day. Manhattan: Central Park West. Very fancy. I like that you live in such an elegant setting.

You smile and say something to the liveried doorman (I don’t have an audio feed unless I switch back to your POV), but he only nods and doesn’t even reply: how rude! You pass on into the foyer unaffected.

You’re alone in the elevator for the slow ride up to the 31st floor. I’m tempted to switch to your POV but you’re gazing at a boring corner in the ceiling of the car, so I stay with the elevator camera for now. You seem distracted, rolling and unrolling a tendril of hair around a finger. Then you bring your hand up to your face and tap your left Eyezball with a fingertip, something you only do when you’re especially eager or anxious about something. You really shouldn’t do that. I know they’re supposed to be smear-resistant, but the fact is they do smudge and it seems I’m more sensitive to a touch of blur in your visual field than you are.

I wonder what you’re thinking about. Could it be him? I hope not. I don’t like the idea that you’re in a relationship. And the guy is almost a Risk Factor. “Person of interest”, as we say. Dangerous to get close to someone like that. But then I must admit I never would have found you if it wasn’t for him. A big net gathers many fish.

You leave the elevator and walk to your door. The hall camera is badly placed so I switch to your POV which honestly is a much nicer place to be. There is such a feeling of comfort about the illusion of dwelling in your head, a rare sensation for one such as myself.

You unlock your apartment door by constructing an acceptable passphrase from a word mosaic displayed in an overlay on top of your retinal display. I hate it when ugly user interfaces intrude on your vision, but I suppose it can’t be helped most of the time.

I anticipate your entry ritual, the heartfelt sigh, the stretch. I’ll be able to tell you how your day has gone by the subtle nuances of the gesture. Will you go up on tiptoes as you pull your arms back, as if to embrace the world? That means you’re pleased with yourself. If it’s been a particularly stressful day, you’ll finish by hugging yourself for a moment. Then you’ll go over to the refrigerator, fling it open, and close it again without really bothering to look inside. And then–

But what is this? As soon as you entered your flat, you switched your Eyez and your residence both to privacy mode, cutting me off from your lifestream. My mind’s eye cursor hovers indecisively above the override tile. Of course I have the right to see everything a Risk Factor sees (Tannenbaum vs. the United States, 2031, Second Circuit Court of Appeals docket 31-4166-ta), but you are not a Risk Factor. And yet this is so strange, so shockingly reclusive a gesture; it’s not like you at all, at least not when you’re by yourself. A mental gasp: could it be that somehow I overlooked one of your assignations? Is he in there right now, waiting for you? I could switch to his lifestream to find out, but there’s nothing I hate more than looking through his eyes, so instead I quickly link to one of the sensor turrets on the Central Park surveillance tower at 87th, across the street from your apartment building. The overlay of millimeter wave and IR imaging clearly indicates you are alone in your apartment. I’m relieved! It would be awful to commit such a lapse. I think you’re better off away from him. He’s not good for you. Not at all.

So why have you turned on privacy mode? Of the 487 people currently present in your apartment building, 486 are in normal mode. Of those, 142 are eating dinner, 38 are using their toilets, 27 are taking showers, 23 are engaging in sexual intercourse, and one, I see to my considerable amusement, is actually committing a crime, attempting to steal a bicycle from the storage room. I overlook the offense because it’s beneath my dignity to deal with such pettiness. Let the police handle it.

The surveillance tower sensors show that you’re sitting in your study. It’s rather old-fashioned to even have a study these days, with an actual data terminal and keyboard and all that quaint stuff, but that’s another thing I like about you.

Would you be upset if you knew I was watching? I wonder. You should be reassured; ordinary Monitors would never have the bandwidth to follow your life so closely, to afford you the protection of surveillance. But I’m an Executive Monitor.

Most Monitors are regular low-level federal employees, and they sit at a desk somewhere on one of the lower floors of the Panopticon building here in the city, or one of the regional centers scattered around the country. They can surveil barely a dozen subjects at a time, flicking from stream to stream, relying heavily on augmentation cues from the Argus network. And still they make many mistakes, miss many crimes and acts of subversion. It’s just too tedious and confusing for an ordinary person to pay attention to so many views at once for any length of time, especially when most streams are completely innocuous.

But we few Executive Monitors are different. We have been specially chosen for enhancement, and we can surveil ten thousand subjects simultaneously, with much lower error rates than ordinary Monitors. Our brains are replicated, cloned, and the corpus callosum is extended and fused to route signals in a hypercube network of cerebral lobes. No longer a mere binary conduit between the brain’s original two hemispheres, the corpus is augmented by fiber optics and becomes a bus running between 128 identical cerebral lobes. Each of the associated retinas is replaced with enormously expensive helium-cooled superconducting high-throughput data interfaces, far more sophisticated than the usual Eyez connections, capable of multiplexing and integrating many media streams at once for simultaneous parallel acquisition.

And so I am become legion, my consciousness expanded by an enormous factor, far greater than the arithmetic 64-fold increase in cognitive power the increased number of brain hemispheres might suggest. Hence my vastly superior surveillance capacity compared to ordinary unenhanced Monitors, and also my vastly superior pay grade and access authority. But of course one does give up just a little to gain such wonderful capabilities, and so I sometimes indulge myself by following your life with one lobe’s full attention out of 128.

It occurs to me to wonder what you’re doing with that terminal at the moment. Is it breaking my own self-imposed obedience to your privacy request to look at the external data stream? I decide that the privacy shield applies only to the lifestream integrated from your Eyez and nearby cameras, and not to this external device you happen to be using. Anyway, I won’t actually read the data stream contents, I’ll just look at the headers. Metadata, you know: no Risk Factor status required. That’s not intrusive at all, now is it? Linking….

Hmm. Nothing very exciting. You’re just browsing lifestreams. Probably a quarter of the people in the country are doing the same thing right now. There’s a productivity hit to the economy, of course, for all this vicarious viewing, but it’s a small price to pay for the increased mutuality of our society.

I wonder why you don’t just use your Eyez for direct streaming, though. That’s half of what they’re for, after all, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Instead, you’re looking at someone’s lifestream on a screen with your Eyez, a stage removed from direct experience. Come to think of it, that does seem rather odd… my monitor instincts tell me something is very wrong here.

All right. Fine. I override the privacy directive. Now I’ve got complete access to your Eyez, the apartment cameras, the terminal data stream, everything.

Oh my God. You’re looking at a screen showing his lifestream in POV. And he’s in his apartment in Brooklyn, looking at a flat screen that’s showing your POV. A lifestream feedback loop! The network can tell when two or more Eyez are being linked directly to one another, and naturally it forbids the connection. But it seems that using flat screens offers a way around the restriction. It’s one of those things that’s forbidden but not illegal. The system is too stupid to realize what you’re doing. I should raise an alarm, but in spite of my better instincts I feel compelled to share your experience.

As yet, you’ve both been looking at your respective screens from some distance away, so only a few recursive frames can be seen by either of you, and those rather dark and murky. Parts of both your faces can be seen, alternating, overlapping, rippling a little as changes are propagated from screen to screen. It’s just a low-quality video special effect.

But you’re both slowly moving your heads closer to the screens, matching the image frames… the screen images are coming together, and more of them are appearing. Now it’s like you’re both in a hall of mirrors: dizzying but still essentially innocuous. But as the screens expand to fill your vision, the images grow more and more clear and refined, and more and more chaotic. The retinal resolution pixels of the flat-screens are matching the retinal pixels of your Eyez, and—something horrible is happening. I can’t look away!

The frames of the screens can no longer be seen, except as delayed feedback ghosts reflected into infinity, and now even those vague rectangles are expanding, growing fuzzy, turning into weirdly synchronized noise, ripples pulsing in time with your brain-wave rhythms… No longer are you looking at anything in particular: you’re looking at what he’s looking at, but what he’s looking at is what you’re looking at, and there’s nothing in the middle, no thing at all to see or be seen… And I’m seeing it too. I feel sick, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I can’t look away. I hear ten thousand voices, and all of them are screaming. A myriad of images are superimposed. The ten thousand channels… all at once… Argus… help me! I’m coming apart–

*

[Argus_Support_Protocol: Executive Monitor 008 alert. Lobe 41 exhibiting abnormal activity in beta 1 power band, abnormal activity in beta 3 power band, anomalous theta rhythms. Medical emergency declared. Serotonin inhibitors injected. Lobe 12 alert. Lobe 31 alert. Multiple severe alerts. Cortical network failure. Shutting down EM 008.]

*

“What happened to him?”

The lab technician, in mask and biosuit, gestured at the cortical array, a 4x4x4 cube of white plastic double-spheroid modules connected by white plastic pipes of the same material. 53 of the modules showed red telltale LEDs, and the remaining 11 shone yellow. The general effect was of a giant puzzle, the sort that used to be found on executive desks.

“Not your problem,” said the deputy director. She’d ignored the tech’s request to don a biosuit for the inspection, and was dressed for the office, a flag pin on her lapel.

“Just do your job,” she said, “and take it apart. Maybe you can salvage the lobes that haven’t completely shut down. That’ll be a cost savings, anyway. We’ll assemble a new Executive Monitor from the clone reserves when you’ve cleaned out the dead modules. Be sure to test the live modules for cognitive integrity. If any show problems, destroy them too.”

“Do you want me to keep the dysfunctional modules? For a necropsy, maybe?”

She snorted. “What for? Incinerate them.”

*

[EM 008 restoration complete. Online.]

*

This subject is a new one, a young woman who is one social link away from a Risk Complex, a whole organization of Risk Factors. It’s a group of recreational Eyez hackers calling themselves an art collective, but in fact they are purveyors of a digital drug, a psychedelic effect induced by mutual lifestream feedback. Apparently two people can enter a rather pleasant shared dissociative state by synchronizing Eyez streams. Pleasant until they suffer grand mal seizures, anyway, to which a small percentage of susceptible people are subject. Until recently the collective’s practices were only frowned on, but it seems they have now been officially labeled a terrorist organization, and all their social links have become suspect.

One of these persons of interest is now mine to surveil. I find her rather appealing. It occurs to me that I’ve been working very hard lately. It might be relaxing to follow her lifestream recreationally.

Why not? What could happen?