(AUTHOR’S NOTE: When taking real world situations as the jumping off point for a story you run the risk that reality will in some way outrun your idea in a way you did not anticipate. Such a situation arose during the writing of Pay the Piper. The Backboard app discussed in this chapter and in several others moving forwards was a part of the story from the first draft, assembled over the holidays last year. Early this year, the social media company Gab announced a very similar service called Dissenter. I had no way of knowing this program was in the making and Backboard is important enough to the story that I would have needed a solid month and a serious rewrite to take it out. Rather than be constrained by unanticipated developments in a situation only tenuously connected to my story, I have left these elements unchanged. However, I want to make it entirely clear that, while many of the characters and situations in Pay the Piper are inspired by very real conflicts brewing in Silicon Valley, Backboard and the plot elements surrounding it are not and should not be seen as a reflection on Gab or Dissenter in any way.
For example, I’m sure Gab did not employ any psychics in the construction of Dissenter.
Thank you and enjoy!)
“I’m sorry,” Natalie hesitated for a second, her attention scattered by too many revelations at once. “A.J. Jackson? Should I know who he is?”
“He’s an alternative media entrepreneur from Arizona,” Dane said, reaching out and taking a book off the shelf next to his chair. I noticed he had his life organized to the point where he didn’t have to look to find the right book. It was a copy of Jackson’s Freedom from Dependence, a book I’ve heard of but never read. Dane opened it up to the About the Author page where there was a picture of a tall, wiry man wearing a cheap suit and aviators. “He runs a news show and sells a lot of books, but he’s looking to enter the social media market. Lots of people think he’s a hustler or a conspiracy theorist but he’s very good at locating and catering too underserved populations.”
Natalie tapped her lower lip thoughtfully. “Should I know this guy from somewhere?”
“While you were working the Newell High case, did anyone suggest the disappearances were faked?” I asked. “Families paid off while their kids were laying low at some government program somewhere?”
Natalie snapped straight up in her chair. “Wait, he’s that guy?”
“He floated the possibility once, but abandoned the idea after some of his reporters interviewed the Newell locals,” Dane admitted. “Unfortunately a lot of people who heard the idea proposed held on to the idea longer than he did.”
“And you work for-“
“Agent Chase,” I said. “Maybe I should come back later and do this interview with someone else. Agent Fitzgerald is still on this case, isn’t he?”
That got her attention. Thoughts that had been scattered and tumbling, setting up an avalanche of indignation sufficient to sweep away any perspective on the situation, settled down and began to put themselves back in order. There were three psychometrics involved in the Newell case, two made it out sane and functional and neither of them had anything good to say about A.J. Jackson. I assumed the FBI agents who worked the case all had similar feelings. But the fact was he looked to be a more and more important player in this case and that meant we had to be able to ask questions about him without losing our cool. I was okay with subbing sunny Natalie for gloomy Eugene if that was what it took and she had to recognize that.
“Sorry,” she said, shaking herself back into the present. “You work for A.J. Jackson. Got it. On Project Backboard. Can you tell us anything about that?”
“Sure, it’s not a secret anymore.” Dane closed the book and set it down then pulled out his phone. A second later we were looking at a pretty typical social media app interface with a feature list that looked like it had been kludged together from most of the top apps in circulation. However it also seemed to function as a web browser as well. “Backboard has been in the wild for about a month now, it’s a kind of hybrid social media platform.”
“What is the social media hybridized with?” I asked.
“No, it’s a hybrid of social media platforms. You know how there are apps that let you program Twitter posts to go up at certain times, or manage your block list?” He waited until we nodded our understanding before he went on. “Well, this is an app that lets you streamline all your social media into a single identifiable profile. Then you can go to any other site on the Internet and make posts that are indexed to that page and linked to your profile. Basically like having a comments section for the entire Internet.”
I frowned. “So what – I could visit the website of my favorite restaurant and leave a post about how good the food is?”
“Right. No more having to see if they have a Yelp page.” He opened a webpage for the local paper. “And if a page already has a comments section any post you leave there will be attached to your profile on Backboard and other users will know you said it.”
“You built a bulletin board system for the entire Internet,” I said, impressed.
“Except it’s written on the back of the page.” Dane said, closing the app. “Thus, Backboard.”
“Mr. Dane,” Natalie said slowly. “How is this app being monetized?”
That made him shift uncomfortably, his mind suddenly tinged with a deep shade of embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Agent Chase, I can’t talk about Mr. Jackson’s business model, mainly because he hasn’t explained it to me. I’m not a part of that team, I’m mostly working on metadata implementation. But if you’re asking if it’s connected to the incident a few days ago then probably not. They haven’t done business with Mr. Jackson for almost a year.”
“You haven’t done any business with them at all in a year’s time?” Natalie asked, incredulous.
“No, they haven’t done business with Mr. Jackson. The company is a payment processor, right?” Another pause that lasted long enough for us to nod. “They’ve refused to process payments to any accounts in his name, the names of his associates or his business accounts.”
“Oh.” Natalie sat back, a looking a little confused. “That’s… surprising.”
“Many companies in Silicon Valley are beginning to make decisions based not on business principles or principles of accessibility,” Dane said, embarrassment giving way to deep concern as deep undercurrents of memory appeared in his mind. “Rather, they are deciding things based on their moral standards. Many people in other parts of the country fall outside of those standards and are being actively refused access to the innovations tech ventures offer. The creation of Backboard is one symptom of that.”
And Dane’s employment by a little known Arizona shitstirrer rather than the world’s biggest search engine was another. I could tell Natalie didn’t catch that subtext but Dane didn’t realize that either and it was probably better to leave it for another time.
“Mr. Dane, can I ask you about your association with Mr. Charles Wu, otherwise known as TsunLao?” I asked, deciding it was time we got to what really brought us here.
“TsunLao?” Dane shrugged. “He interviewed me about six months ago, as part of his series on groupthink in Silicon Valley. I met some other people through him but I don’t think I’ve spoken to him more than twice since the interview. We’ve exchanged texts some. Mostly him asking if I’d be willing to talk to one of this other media contacts. Why?”
“We’re trying to build an idea of his associations, determine if he might have had a hand in this week’s events.” Natalie crossed one leg over the other, affecting a casual attitude she wasn’t actually feeling. Surprisingly, Dane was caught up in the mood change and relaxed a little. “Do you know if Mr. Wu was under any business embargos similar to Mr. Jackson’s?”
“No, we never discussed it,” Dane said. “And if we did I don’t think it would be right for me to talk about it with anyone else.”
“Are you still working with Mr. Wu in any capacity?” I asked. “Consulting with him or his network?”
“No.” There was an emphatic rejection of further connection there. “I’m very glad that they gave me a chance to tell my side of the story when I was fired. Mr. Wu and his associates are very aware of the problems confronting Silicon Valley today, but they’ve never worked inside of it. They don’t have an appreciation for the potential that still exists here and they wish to exert control over our technology sector that would ultimately hinder its growth. I’m not sure I could work on the projects I want to work on if I spent too much time with their group.”
“But you can with Jackson?”
There was a certain degree of cognitive dissonance there and he knew it. However, he was also gambling on something and, being the wonderfully forthright person that he was, he quickly explained it to us. “Mr. Jackson doesn’t like what he sees in Silicon Valley but he wants to put his own spin on what’s there, not remove the spin of others. It’s my hope that Project Backboard will prove it’s worth and Mr. Jackson will be able to bring fresh blood and fresh perspectives to the community without breaking down what has made it so wildly beneficial in the past.”
It was a fair answer and, like every other answer Dane had given us, had the advantage of being entirely sincere. There was no follow up that I felt was really needed. I could tell Natalie had a question she was debating, flipping back and forth between whether it was necessary or not. There was a moment of awkward silence as Dane waited for us and I waited for Natalie to make up her mind.
Then the lights in the apartment went out.
It was still midafternoon so we could see just fine. But the overhead lights did go out, changing the lighting of the room. I asked, “Your electrical bills are paid up?”
“I believe so,” Dane replied.
“Maybe a fuse blew out somewhere in the building,” Natalie suggested.
But I’d already noticed something deeply off. While it takes some practice, a psychometric can easily pick up on cellular signals and even do basic phone calls and texting. Browsing the Internet and other more advanced features are even possible if you have a SIM card – no expensive phone required – or you can just find a wifi connection and jack in there. The catch is you still have to get a signal from the local cell tower or a wifi router. And I couldn’t.
There was no wifi in the building, although there had been when we arrived. I couldn’t ping a cell tower. There was nothing.
Anxious, I got up and walked over to Dane’s balcony and stepped out onto it. It was the middle of the afternoon, so no street lights were on to begin with. But I could clearly see, down at the intersection below, that the traffic lights were dead and traffic was trickling through it like a four way stop. The power was out on the block. In fact as it would turn out the power was gone in half the state.