These are the times that sell men’s souls.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®
In the beginning, a mother let go of a young girl’s hand.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®
Let’s start with a few things we can all agree on.
We can agree that Vaughan does not know Marsha and Marsha does not know Vaughan and that neither of them knows Eric, who does not know them either.
And we can agree that, though Vaughan would probably recognize Marsha, particularly if she were wearing the fuzzy sweater and knit cap she had on in the video, Marsha would not recognize Vaughan, though she has probably heard of him, and neither of them would recognize Eric (who would not recognize Vaughan, but like Vaughan and for the same reasons, would probably recognize Marsha), though, if Vaughan checked his website’s logs, he would find Eric’s metadata and could follow Eric’s digital fingerprints around online, but it would be a one-sided relationship because Eric doesn’t have access to any of Vaughan’s info.
We can also stipulate (and I’m sure they would all agree on this) that aside from being involved in this matter in different ways, there’s pretty much nothing they have in common. Marsha’s an art historian and single mother from Tulsa who now lives in Southern California. Vaughan’s an IT guy based in Memphis who travels 220 miles there and back each weekend to attend his hometown high school’s football games. Eric works for the Post Office in Dayton – which his old college friends consider a piss-poor place for a guy with a theology degree to wind up – and spends most of his nights reading eschatology or philosophy or wasting time online as a low-risk day trader.
Finally, let’s stipulate that we would not be here at all – I would not be writing this and you would not be reading it or listening to it be read back to you – if not for a scrap of video scraped off the net, video that means so much to Marsha, and to Vaughan, too, though in a totally different way, and that Eric has found similarly meaningful as he watched it spool on his laptop these past two months, though he can’t quite say why it moved him.
The pinker the lipstick, the less money rolls in.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®
This morning, like every one of the past 547 mornings, starting ten days after, Marsha does what she has always done: she runs the tapes backwards. The images from the three traffic cams and the security footage from the dry cleaner’s move into the past in excruciatingly slow slow motion like four synchronized swimmers doing a lugubrious backward backstroke. This reverse ritual is a deliberate invocation of what she craves. A return, a reincarnation of something that, in every passing instant, is draining from her memory, consigned now only to exist in these four electronic files.
As usual, when she reaches the segment she cares about most, she moves through the images frame by frame. It’s almost imperceptible – click – the way her fingers relax – click – then tighten over the tiny hand – click – as it forces its way back in. Somehow – click – though it’s the identical movement in reverse – click – she seems to accept the five pudgy fingers – click – with less effort than it took to let them go.
She dreams of printing out oversized stills of the moment – a quartet of silent, shadowy ultrasounds whose waves, all blown up, will obliterate the walls of her apartment and ensure she lives forever exposed.
Double-click, forward, slo-mo.
Marsha will stipulate, because she has watched the tapes in all possible permutations, that it really was an accident. Nichelle’s foot started its long looping stride from sidewalk to street 4/100ths of a second before Marsha loosened her grip and another 7/100ths of a second before the light turned green. Milliseconds later, the car began its autonomous acceleration. And half a second after that, Nichelle’s foot taps the tarmac.
Timecode doesn’t lie.
Marsha knows, because she has Googled it, that it takes ¾ of a second – at the fastest – for a human foot to move from the gas, or wherever it is planted, to the brake, and in that time a car going 55 will travel 55 feet. And no matter how hard you stomp on the pedal, another 130 feet before coming to a stop.
185 feet, preordained.
The block, Marsha has verified during a trip to the map room at the city assessor’s office, is 200 feet long. And a Tesla Model S, according to a review Marsha read in Motor Trend, can go from 0 to 60 in 2.3 seconds. On the video, the brake lights blink on 2.15 seconds after Nichelle’s toe touches terra firma.
No, timecode doesn’t lie.
Now the tapes scuttle forward in present tense. The car veers toward the center rail and the safety driver feathers the brake and steers into the skid like you’re told to in Driver’s Ed. Then, like one of Nichelle’s not-quite-out-of-control ballet turns, the rear arcs forward and to the right, dragging the vehicle toward the curb where – slow clicking now – it slashes through the negative space around Nichelle’s foot with only the slightest impact perceptible, then spins back toward the center, does a demi-pirouette, and, rolling unguardedly rearward now, ping-pongs off the bed of a massive Dodge Ram pickup parked a little too close to the far side of the crosswalk.
Marsha knows from the police report that the airbag deployed and punched the safety driver in the chest. She knows from the witness statements that, despite the bruises and what the hospital would later determine to be a concussion, the safety driver clawed her way out of the car and ran, first to Nichelle, just off camera, and then to Marsha, who she hugged so hard it explained why Marsha was sore three days later.
Marsha knows, as well, that there are people – absolute strangers – watching the tapes with her. Someone – a guy named Fawn or Vaughn, her niece from back East told her – hacked into the city’s cameras and put them online, and is selling access for a price. Her niece is pissed, but Marsha isn’t bothered. At least people – a lot of them, her niece said – are seeing her daughter in action, which makes Nichelle present once again.
Marsha clicks reverse one more time, again super-slo-mo. The forward journey only takes her back. The backward venture is her future.
In the beginning was the Monetization, and the Monetization was with God, and the Monetization was God.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®
Vaughan’s idea, at the outset, was to highlight our society’s sick and dysfunctional obsession with the individually owned and operated metal boxes we use for transportation. Internal combustion or electric, it hardly matters. We are crowding ourselves out with these personal assassination devices. And, as his site, he hoped, would show, they no longer even get us where we want to go.
Baltimore was first – basically because the city didn’t encrypt or even password-protect its feeds. Then, a few months later, Vaughan penetrated the security around the cameras in Santa Monica and Baton Rouge. This brought new site traffic, but not enough for Vaughan to quit his day job running the computerized security set up for a local hospital. It was while sitting in the system administrator’s chair, where he sometimes spends 50 hours a week, that Vaughan started toying with another app, a writing engine powered by Artificial Intelligence – though, to be fair, Vaughan knows that this description is a marketing ploy: all he really did was assemble a text-searchable array of public domain classics including The King James Bible, Shakespeare, Whitman, Adam Smith, Joseph Conrad, and a bunch of philosophy. Plug in a word or phrase and Vaughan’s ‘AI engine’ will zoom through all these tomes, outputting suggested embellishments or augmentations or completions. The best of these, the cream of the AI crop, Vaughan culled and clipped in a binder he registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office as “The Book of Derivatives®,” since despite their base human prompts, these koans were machine-made, derived wholly from the texts in the database.
After a year of this braindead work, Vaughan used a spear phishing attack – the same strategy with which the Russians breached the Clinton campaign – to hack his way into some traffic planners’ emails, and this gave him access to a few more cities. Miami, first. Then Denver and Houston. These three bumped his site visits by 25 percent, and, for the first time, Vaughan began to believe he would eventually break even.
And then, six months later, a friend of a friend of a friend got Vaughan into a chatroom frequented by people who worked in California local government. And there, after some simple snooping – it’s shocking how bad otherwise smart people can be at op-sec – he was able to extract the keys to the kingdom: a username/password combo that got him in to the big Kahuna of tie-ups: LA.
Los Angeles boosted his number of unique site visits by 300 percent the first day, and 500 percent on top of that by the end of the week. After this, he was inundated with offers from firms that wanted to serve ads to his site.
But online ads don’t bring in much income and people hate pop-ups. So Vaughan took a different route. After a weekend bingeing on Krispy Kreme, he debuted a new site on which people could wager on all aspects of traffic congestion. Vaughan still made sure it was full of anti-car content, but the big pull now was that congestion is so bad that you are almost guaranteed to grab a profit simply by betting against efficient traffic flow.
Then, a few weeks on – BOOM – Marsha’s worst day became Vaughan’s best. His site metrics proved it: those three tapes – the traffic cameras only, not the dry cleaner’s footage because the store’s videos were not archived online – quadrupled his site visits in one hour. His stats told him that the average visitor watched the tapes three times over.
Vaughan only viewed the videos once, but he understood their power immediately. They sparked him to think of a new site feature, an app he called The Derivative of Death® Calculator – essentially an algorithm that offers a quick and dirty estimate of the monetary value of a person’s death based on the time and money all the strangers on Vaughan’s site were willing to spend on them. Vaughan also began to think of brand extensions: hacking into CCTV cameras, say, or, even better, live feeds from police dashboard and body cams.
Just a few days ago, at halftime at the weekly game, an old high school classmate asked how things were going. And for once Vaughan had a good answer: “Not bad,” he said. “Everything’s looking up. My web biz just cleared its second million.”
I mean, in the end, the means always becomes the end.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®
Eric never imagined himself a gambler. He will tell you what he tells himself every morning: I’m better than this.
He knows it’s wrong. Wrong to wager. Wrong to watch. Wrong to even witness. Yet he finds it impossible to pull away.
This was his old routine: Schwab, then Ameritrade, then e*trade (using these sites mostly for analytics and research, while making his transactions mostly on the Robinhood app to save money). Followed by carsdirect, autotrader, and Hemmings. Always in that order.
Now, Vaughan’s site has replaced all the others, always the first site he visits, often the only site. It has also completely displaced his nighttime philosophy reading.
It was on Hemmings, sixty days back, that Eric read about The Derivative of Death® Calculator. It outraged him. And the fact that someone was using this to make money was doubly outrageous. Eric was ready for war, ready to flame the site administrator, to fire off cease and desist letters to the web hosting service, to start a DDoS attack — Distributed Denial of Service – using bots to send too much traffic to the site, causing it to crash, at least temporarily.
Until he clicked the link and found himself paying the $10 minimum and running the tapes. And then spooling them again and again. Each time, at $10-a-pop, Eric sees something new:
- the Tesla’s headlights glaring at nothing, like a bull scratching the dirt in the center of the ring, ready to charge at anything after it has been jabbed by the picadors.
- the safety driver emerging punchdrunk from the metal chrysalis, in pajama pants and a pink Y Combinator hoodie.
- the dented Dodge Ram dawdling half-in, half-out of the crosswalk, a modern parallel to the parable from Genesis, except this time Abraham sees the ram too late, after he has already offered up Isaac.
- the woman across the street unfurling and twirling a black umbrella as if auditioning for the Zapruder film.
- the smoke seeming to rise from the skid marks, as in a cartoon.
Though the impact was largely off camera, Eric knew immediately that a young girl had died. He understood that the woman in the fuzzy sweater and jaunty cap was her mother, that the car companies involved – the manufacturer and the related firms behind the autonomous driving system – would deny all responsibility and all liability, that the people who control the site on which he is watching would rake in millions in tiny $10 increments from people like him.
It strikes Eric as supremely un-American to bet on someone else’s demise, yet distinctly American that someone would find a way to profit from that death. Ashamed and annoyed with himself, Eric spends his days avidly awaiting the night, when he can ante up. He, who never throws away money, who, just 60 days ago, was perhaps the web’s most prudent small-stakes investor, now settles in and runs the tapes, night after night, several times a night. He uses the technology set up by Vaughan to watch the tragedy that enveloped Marsha and places his bets on the lost cause of life.
The higher the murder rate in a country, the greater its homicidal capital.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®