Foreseeing the Unintended
Mild summer weather had brought floods of weekend tourists into the city. Swollen white clouds lazily drifted across the ocean blue sky. The rays of the gentle sun tantalized the flesh while a fresh and sporadic breeze softened the touch of the heat. The brimming sidewalks channeled currents and counter currents of pedestrians through the confines of the busy commercial district. Stylish young women carried large paper bags displaying designer logos, while their male counterparts prowled the streets wondering where these fashionable ladies might be congregating. Mothers navigated the dense crowds pushing strollers while their husbands herded the children old enough to walk on their own and listless teenagers compelled by their biological rhythms actively sought out potential mating opportunities.
None of them gave a second glance to a U-haul truck box in by the idle traffic. The driver was a 25-year-old man named, Dale. He had spent his late teen and the better part of his early 20s in the army. He kept his light brown hair neatly buzzed and as a matter of habit kept his clothes neatly pressed. He stared through the windshield in quiet contemplation. His foot tapping the gas as a reflex whenever the cars in front of him began to move.
His companion in the driver seat looked much his opposite. Dave had thick curly black hair and wore a loose fitting t-shirt. Unlike Dale, Dave couldn’t stop fidgeting. He displayed every nervous tick imaginable. His eyes darted in all directions, he drummed on his knees, and continuously adjusted his seat.
“Why does there have to be so many kids here?” Dave muttered.
Dale didn’t answer. He kept his gaze fixed and lightly tapped the gas when the light changed.
“Can’t we try another spot?” Dave asked nervously.
“Now’s not the time to get cold feet,” Dale said in a voice absent of any emotion.
“You’re right for the greater good, for the greater good,” Dave repeated the mantra again and again.
“Right here,” said Dale as he maneuvered the truck out of traffic and up to the curb. He set the parking break and turned to Dave.
“Read?” He asked.
Dave inhaled deeply and nodded his head.
On the outskirts of the city software engineer, Scott Drenstein was toiling away in an office complex. The building had a shell made with glass tinted so dark the building looked like a shimmering ebony cube. The 36-year-old wunder-programmer was average high, slightly pudgy, and looked almost boyish. Despite his sizeable salary he dressed modestly and was considered by most to be a nice guy. His home life was average, quiet, and serene. He was happily married and had a healthy infant daughter.
Scott was the star employee in a private intelligence firm. A company he had helped transform from just another start-up into an emerging titan of the industry in just a few short years. Scott was the architect of a program that almost solely financed the young company’s move from a rented loft space into a steel citadel. Scott affectionately referred to his creation as the Messiah maker. In short, it was a program that created digital social movements. The algorithms automatically constructed media materials across every known social networking platform. Video manifestos, memes, and even people were generated by the program. It was used to root out the angry and the dispossessed and to lure them into an arena where they could be easily monitored. Scattered hopeless souls that might spontaneously and violently lash out at society found a place in illusionary communities where they became adherents to carefully crafted ideologies designed to appeal to people just like them. It was here they could be controlled. Movement leaders who were nothing more than a social media account could call their followers to any kind of action, and this suited the shadowy power players who either hoped to pacify them or use them to stoke the fears of the wider society.
Scott was analyzing a spike in online activity on the message boards of a second American revolution group constructed by his program. Its membership prescribed to an ideology that was a blend of libertarianism and religious authoritarianism. Like most of the groups created and monitored by the program, it was made up mostly of young men who for one reason or another felt the society they lived in condemned them to a meaningless and frustrating existence. While Scott couldn’t explain the pulse, he had already decided it was probably benign. He scrolled through dozens of posts and messages containing numerous keywords that had alarmed the program. He had been at it for a few hours and was growing fatigued. He looked at the time. It was already almost 5. He decided he would breeze through what was left and head home. His phone began to vibrate across his desk. He looked at the screen it was his wife.
“Hey there,” he said jovially.
“Hi hon hows it going?” she asked sweetly.
“Not bad, almost done here,” he replied.
“Oh, good so will you be home for dinner?” she asked.
“Yeah, I should be. What do you wanna do?”
“Hmmm, want to try that new Thai place?” she suggested.
“Yeah sounds good,” he concurred. “I should be home in about an hour.”
“Ok I think we should be home by then too,” she said.
“Oh, where’d you go?”
“I met Stephanie downtown for lunch and took Alex shopping for some new onesies.”
“Again?” Scott said feigning surprise. “She just keeps growing.”
“I know won’t be a baby for long,” she sighed.
“Yeah, I guess not. Well, I’ll see you later,” Scott said.
He hung up the phone and turned his attention back to the screen. He tapped away for a while and looked back at his phone.
“Damn how has it been half an hour already?” he mumbled to himself.
“Whatever I’ll finish up with this tomorrow,” he said to himself as he pushed his gliding office chair away from his desk.
He was startled by a rapid knock on his office door.
His secretary opened the door; she appeared panicked with dark glistening eyes and quivering lips.
“What’s wrong?” He asked even before she uttered a word.
“Scott there was an attack downtown. Someone set off a truck bomb or something,” she said in a shaky voice.
“Wait, who set off a bomb?” Scott asked in a raised voice.
“I don’t know,” she whimpered.
Scott grabbed his phone and redialed his wife. It went straight to voice mail. He hung up and tried again and still only the prerecorded message answered his call.
“Fuck,” he hissed
He dialed and redialed again and again and never got a single ring. By the fifteenth time, he threw his phone on the ground in frustration. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. “Her phone’s probably just dead,” he muttered.
His computer monitor caught his eye. The screen was starting to fill up with posts of pictures from the massacre. There was the immolated husk of a truck surrounded by burning car parts. The sidewalk and streets were smeared with blood and rescue workers were gathering up the charred and dismembered bodies strewn around the street.
“Today is our day!” the caption above the picture declared.
It was a classic case of what those in the intelligence industry call “blowback.” Only this time the dead were not just statistics. He could not distance himself from the pain of the mutilated victims by thinking of them as just “collateral damage,” not when it was the people he loved. No matter how much power Scott imbued his creation with it was still just as incapable of him of predicting the horrific consequences of such profound mass manipulation. Unintended consequences are by their nature unpredictable and no technology, no matter how cutting edge can ever change that.