When I started writing this story, a few people suggested I include some hope in it; good organizing comes when you have anger, hope, and a plan. I’ll admit that hope is hard for me. I tend towards the dire, the energetically dark even. I know too much. My preference, of course, is that you all read this, and we begin to organize and resist to avoid full lock down. But if that doesn’t happen, what then?
Can a just society be rebuilt in the ruins of a Smart City or not? The next two installments are informed by my experience attending the Saturday Free School here in Philadelphia. I try to evoke elements of the black radical tradition and marronage, though perhaps not as successfully as I would have liked. Once I wrap this series, if there are others who would like to write an alternate ending, I would certainly be open to posting it. My goal with this project is to create a base of knowledge off of which others might riff, in new stories, graphic novels, plays, or visual art. The themes here need to be explored in other media, and I see this as a jumping off point. If this interests you drop me a line in the comments. To start this story from the beginning click here for Building Sanctuary Part One: Plugging In.
Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work
Part Three: Smart and Surveilled
Part Four: Data Mining Life on the Ledger
Part Five: Automated Education
It had been a challenging spring for Cam and Li’s family. Uncontrolled fires burned through California, disrupting both the tech and entertainment industries. Virtual Reality and gaming companies were recycling old content rather than offering new gigs, so the family’s income suffered. What made it worse was that Talia had entered into an income-sharing agreement to pay for VR classes, and their devices constantly buzzed with aggressive complaints from her investor.
Cam has been logging extra hours of SkywardSkills when she normally would be reading. The college prep partner she goes to once a week is running a competition, and the student who logs the most time gets a substantial payment to their Citi Badge account. Cam has put a lot of pressure on herself to stay ahead of the other students, but everybody is desperate for Gold Coin, and as the deadline approaches it is harder and harder to keep up. She’s lost a lot of sleep the past couple of weeks and it is getting harder and harder to focus.
Li responds to the stress by shutting down. She refuses to log on to her education modules, and it is getting harder and harder to drag her out of the house, even to go to her maker space placement. Her relationship with her AI learning assistant is on the rocks. She’s been entering false information into the social emotional surveys as a way of rebelling against the system, without realizing the long-term implications her actions will have.
Academic participation by minors is a key indicator that affects the family’s citizen score. If Li’s activity levels dip any further it will likely trigger a home visit, something Talia wants to avoid at all costs. Cam harbors suspicions that Li might be cutting herself. Even though temperatures are rising, Li hadn’t pulled out any t-shirts, preferring long sleeves even when it gets into the 80s. She doesn’t want to alarm her mom, but clearly Li needs professional help. All the local clinic can offer is an evidence-based chat-bot therapy program. That won’t be enough.
Cam is vaguely aware that her mom has been meeting with grandpa Rex online and has an uneasy feeling about it. Talia calls a family meeting to discuss a possible solution. Rex had been living alone in the family home after Talia’s mom died of medical complications after the lockdown. He’d been able to hold onto his property through the Bitcoin crash, but now seemed like a sensible time to let it go.
He’ll move in with them into the apartment in Queens. It will be tight to have all four of them there, but the proceeds from the house will surely be enough to pay for real therapy for Li; therapy with a real person, off the books, with no data collection. They expect it will be expensive, but worth it. Through word of mouth they find Mak, a counselor who still offers a face-to-face treatment.
Mak is an outsider who keeps his personal life under wraps. He sees clients in an office located in a former library in Queens. He serves mostly off-liners, doesn’t take Gold Coin, and prefers payment in bartered goods or services, especially books. Public libraries had been shut down years before the Solutionists finally seized power. As people were drawn inexorably into the digital life, fewer and fewer read actual books.
Some libraries were turned into maker spaces or even micro-schools, but the Richmond Hill branch, an antiquated building dating back to the Carnegie era, was deemed too small to be useable. The city simply closed it up, locked the door and walked away. Even though the building has much more space than he needs for his practice, Mak acquired it with the intention of supporting broader organizing, political education, and resistance efforts. He eliminated all sensors and removed RFID tags from the remaining books. He doesn’t take clients with chips, and no devices are allowed in the building. Anyone with an IoT tattoo must remain outside.
The building sits on a small triangle of land along a commercial corridor situated a half-mile from Forest Park between the Maple Grove and Cypress Hills Cemeteries. There are five rooms, in addition to Mak’s office in the basement. One is a reading room, another a spare parts and bicycle repair space, a third holds clothing and domestic items (non-IoT) for sharing, while the fourth is set up as a communal food prep area. The fifth, locked, is used for resistance strategy meetings.
An expansive arbor shades the south side of the building and provides a space where visitors who have IoT tattoos are still able to gather and join in discussions. As long as the weather cooperates, weekly political education sessions take place there in the shade of the grape, melon, and squash vines. The sound of jazz and blues emanating from the hedge is a sure sign people are sitting out. Music sets the mood and masks conversations from noise sniffers. Sometimes there is live music, but often it’s vinyl recordings. They never use digital, because authorities are keen to identify those accessing revolutionary music through streaming services.
Even though Mak owns the building, the community directs how it is used and gives the space its vitality. Most people come from the cemetery encampments at Maple Hill and Cypress Grove, settlements created shortly after the work camps closed. Targeted by the authorities, people of color, immigrants, the homeless, and veterans comprised the first wave of forced labor. Disenfranchised, lacking papers, or with mental health diagnosis, they found it impossible to acquire Citi Badges.
They were the original off-liners, people who never had to unplug, because they’d been written out of Solutionist society from the outset. They gathered together among the gravestones under the shelter of venerable trees to build their own community. With no stake in the old system, the cemetery contingent became the core of resistance in the borough.
They are a creative bunch, devising ingenious guerrilla tactics that target the Solutionists’ surveillance and police systems. The expertise of veterans has proven invaluable, as they have direct knowledge of the technologies’ military applications. A number of edge-computing technicians, software engineers, and roboticists have found their way to the encampments. Most went underground in the months prior to the lockdown, knowing that refusing to comply with authoritarian demands would lead to their execution.
These experts, in collaboration with encampment residents, continue to refine low-tech ways to decommission IoT monitoring systems, robot patrol charging stations, and the solar Bitcoin dust miners that keep the ledger running. Nan is one of the Maple Hill Cemetery elders. She retired from a career in telecommunications, and saw the Internet evolve from broadband to 5G and edge computing. People look to her for her technical insight, foresight, and people skills. Nan has been a guiding force in efforts to destabilize Solutionist control of their sector. The resistance has been able to secure a corridor of relatively free movement between the encampments and Forest Park and hopes to expand its reach into Flushing Meadows once they train more teams.
The resistance cautiously embraced Mak when he arrived two years ago; access to power, water, and secure storage was a compelling reason to partner. The cemetery contingent shares provisions they scavenge and help keep the space secure, while Mak provides a satellite base of operations where members of various encampments can come together and strategize. Behind the locked door in the basement, the inner core of the resistance has been working on a lab to investigate more technologically advanced techniques to undermine the Solutionists’ systems.
That first year they bestowed the name “Wheel House” on the library, understanding that a wheel steering a course forward was a powerful image, even if the final destination remained unknown. Bringing people together to imagine a world in opposition to the terror of the Solutionist regime keeps hope alive. It is a space where each person, like the spokes on a ship’s wheel, is essential, and by coming together around a central hub they will move in a new direction. In a surveilled, digitized world, the Wheel House offers a safe place where people can strengthen the relationships needed to build a different future.
Mak comes from a moneyed family, a sanctuary family, which is how he was able to acquire the Wheel House, and why he is so concerned about technology; he knows its power. He grew up on Gonave, an island off the coast of Haiti. Before he was born, Gonave was sold to an investment consortium that expelled the local population and remade it as a sanctuary zone. He grew up surrounded by self-absorbed people whose lives revolve around what they own. Most made their fortunes in defense contracting, software development and social impact investing, as militarism and rising global poverty created unlimited financial opportunities.
Mak never fit in there. As a child, he spent most of his time reading and hanging out at the helipad chatting up pilots about the larger world. Rather than material wealth, Mak is interested in books, ideas, and the natural world. He has a rebellious streak. His late father named him after Francois Mackandal, the eighteenth-century revolutionary who believed in freedom for all people and used his knowledge of native plants and medicine to wage guerrilla warfare against Haitian slave owners. Mackandal’s weapon of choice was poison, because the slaves had no guns. He understood that you use the knowledge at your disposal to disrupt oppressive systems.
As a teen, Mak became increasingly disaffected with island life. His mother, an executive with a global VR outfit, eventually packed him off to New York for a community service placement, feeling certain the harsh environment there would be such a shock that Mak would run back home, chastened. This didn’t happen. Instead, Mak trained in social work and made a life for himself in a world unlike anything he had ever known.
Sanctuary kids are raised with very little technology. Being raised on an island community, the small population means everyone knows everyone else’s business. You can find space to be alone, but you really have to go looking for it. When Mak first arrived in the states, the level of social isolation he felt in the midst of so many people was hard to process. Everyone was absorbed in a world of their own, mediated through devices. He’d never seen anything like it.
Mak joined a large health system once he completed his training. It was run by Alphadata and specialized in urban populations with “complex” mental health needs. He left that position after less than a year. It hadn’t taken long to realize that the protocols that had been developed were intended to force to people conform to and manage themselves within the Solutionists’ oppressive systems rather than lead them to healing.
There was tremendous pressure on counselors to expand caseloads to the point that they were primarily data managers and had very little time with patients. Treatments like Virtual Reality, prescription video games, and text supports had taken priority over face-to-face treatment. This approach generated the data demanded by the municipal contracts, but did little for his clients, many of whom were veterans of the drone wars before operations shifted to AI and facial recognition.
After leaving Alphadata, Mak spent several more years in self-directed training, finding through informal networks elders who knew the work before it became data-driven and had experience with alternative, non-digital therapies. He returned to Queens and slowly began to build a network of contacts. He gets no algorithmic referrals, has no online reviews, no online reputation presence at all. In fact, you can only find him by word of mouth, and since few people actually speak to one another anymore, those who end up on the doorstep of the Wheel House are generally of a like mind.
Mak’s treatment goals are to connect his clients with their humanity and empower them to find personal agency in a world where Solutionist systems undermine both. A key part of this approach is connecting his clients to community. In this sector of Queens, a community has grown up in the encampments, at the farm, and at the Wheel House. They are a community of the unplugged. Through their connection to Mak, Li, Talia, Cam, and Grandpa Rex have been brought into the fold.
Social Impact Bonds and Behavioral Health Home Visits: Link
Gonave Island, Haiti: Link
Francois Makandal and Haitian Revolution: Link
RFID and Internet of Things: Link
Micro Schools: Link
Citiblock Health Care: Link
Drone Swarms: Link
Robotic Security: Link
Saturday Free School: Link
League of Revolutionary Black Workers: Link