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The Insight

Information wants to be free.

Photo by Simson Petrol

"Money," whispers Data Raider, "was information."

He and De Crypt are hiding in the second story of a small abandoned concrete tower on San Jose’s outskirts, waiting until the cannibals get tired of looking for them. They’ve been lying underneath a window and shivering, hardly daring to move, all night; the cannibals outside are hungry. But by this time, De Crypt and Data Raider are pretty sure they’ll be safe. All they have to do is wait long enough. As information technologists, the inhabitants of Silicon Valley had ranked as the best in the world, but as cannibals, they’re no better than amateur.

To pass the time and relieve the tension, Data Raider has started a conversation like the ones they'd had in the old days. The past is everyone’s favorite dwelling place now, the lazy, hazy, crazy days of three months ago.

"And it was such a simple thing to see if you were smart," De Crypt whispers back.

The first shaft of an intense California sunrise spears into the room. Seeing the light, De Crypt pauses. His hands start darting in and out of his clothes like little weasels, compulsively searching his pockets for something precious. The search is difficult. Three months ago his clothes could barely contain his bulging flesh. Now they hang on him like blankets on a scarecrow.

De Crypt roots through the folds, and finally his eyes open wide with triumph. He pulls out half of a broken pair of mirrorshades, a single empty frame attached to a dangling earpiece. He tucks the earpiece into place behind one ear and places a finger between his eyes to hold the frame in place. The empty wraparound frame surrounds and outlines his confused eye with black plastic stripes.

De Crypt roots again with his free hand and comes up with the second half and a paper clip. The second half's frame is not empty like the first half's. It still retains a half-moon of cloudy, cracked lens. He slides the other half into place and carefully fastens the two halves together with the paper clip. The half-moon of broken lens severely occludes his vision.

De Crypt sighs in deep satisfaction, leans back and looks out over an entirely imaginary audience of admirers. He adopts a look of bored sophistication, runs his fingertips back along the earpieces, and shakes his head with the casual cool of the ultra-hip. In the harsh morning sunlight, De Crypt looks like a raccoon with a cataract.

In the bright light, Data Raider can see a crazed look has entered De Crypt's eyes. Talking about the past with De Crypt is chancy and occasionally dangerous; sometimes he forgets his present circumstances altogether. He’s not wired too tightly these days, De Crypt.

"You could take a twenty-dollar bill and tear out the serial number," De Crypt continues, "send it to the Feds, and the Feds would look up the value of the number in their database and send you another twenty. The number, the information, was the thing worth twenty dollars. So all you had to do to turn all the money into information was make the information secure. But the morons, the idiots, the fools, they’d grown up with paper---and making paper secure was easy."

"Nothing they really had to think about," Data Raider says. "Just put a few pictures on it and stuff, and nobody could fake it." Faint distress creases his face. "The security was good. People could trust the money was real."

"Where are those bastards?" a frustrated cannibal shouts, right underneath their window. “I’m starving!”

De Crypt and Data Raider jump in terror and look around frantically for escape routes. There are none. They are trapped. De Crypt and Data Raider become still as statues, hardly daring to breathe. The cannibal heads away from their hiding place, still shouting. De Crypt and Data Raider's heads turn in unison as they track him away from their hiding place. The cannibal’s voice fades into the distance, and Data Raider sags against the floor in relief.

But not De Crypt. He clutches Data Raider’s arm and points in wonder to where the rising sun is gradually illuminating the room. Data Raider looks and sees row upon row of stacked rectangular metal boxes receding into a vast, cathedral-like space. The boxes are dripping with dust and rat droppings. A spaghetti-tangle of black cables spills from the back of each box. Recognition lights Data Raider’s face.

"Routers," he says, amazed. "This must’ve been a router farm."

De Crypt is entranced, a look of wide-eyed wonder on his face like a child’s first trip to the circus. Data Raider feels the attraction also. This was a rebel cypherpunk’s dream, to run wild and free in a router farm, one of the secret hearts of the old Internet.

At the end of the first row of routers De Crypt and Data Raider can make out a plain, gun-metal gray steel office desk. Rising iconic from the desk is a computer tower with a keyboard and monitor attached. Two small speakers flank the monitor.

"That’s gotta be the system administrator's desk," De Crypt says. He rises and goes to the computer like a moth to a flame. He reaches out and slides his hand down its beige front in a gentle, loving caress. In a combination of half-remembered habit and impossible hope, his hand wanders to the power button and punches it.

Incredibly, the monitor flickers to life, and Data Raider and De Crypt hear the hard drive’s thin whine as the system boots. The monitor display firms up but is shaky, barely clinging to life. Smooth luminescent waves roll continuously down its screen, like ripples in green oil. Somewhere in the building an emergency battery is dribbling out its last few amps.

The computer staggers to life. The command line appears with a cursor flashing next to the C:> prompt. The cursor, a plain underline symbol, blinks on and off with the rhythm of a metronome, signaling the system is functional and ready to accept commands. De Crypt's fingers fly to the keyboard of their own accord and start typing. The world and his precarious situation vanish from his mind. The computer has become the focus of his existence.

Watching from the dusty floor, Data Raider feels a flash of jealousy. He's not about to let De Crypt have all the fun. He rises and, after a wary peek out the window for cannibals, takes a position over De Crypt’s shoulder. De Crypt is exploring the hard drive’s directories. He stops abruptly at a directory labeled "MP3z”.

"Oh, man, look at this, look at this!" he says. He smiles impishly. "Pirated music. Our sysadmin was a very bad boy." He goes into the directory and lists the contents.

The list is huge. Terabytes of stolen MP3 music files spill down the screen, tens of thousands of songs. De Crypt is in total awe. He lists the file creation dates, sorts them, and compares the oldest and the youngest.

"It's a complete catalog!" he exclaims. "He's got everything---right up until the music companies went broke! Man, this is so sweet!"

De Crypt laughs. With a computer in front of him, he looks closer to sanity than he's been in a long while.

"The first file I ever cracked was encrypted music," he says. "I helped bring the fascist music monopolizers down. The bastards never even dreamed we could drop their stock value to zero. I made everything they had free."

Steel teeth bite deep in Data Raider's guts, but the hard drive’s whine is irresistible, a siren's call luring him closer and closer to destruction. He leans forward to more closely follow De Crypt, losing himself in the monitor’s warm, welcoming glow.

Energized, De Crypt investigates the rest of the computer's contents. He discovers a folder labeled "TRAFFIC--FINANCIAL" and goes exploring. Hidden deep in a maze of folders is a folder labeled "FEDERAL". The word is pure catnip to De Crypt, and he dives into the folder. He finds a single giant file. He opens it and finds nothing but gibberish.

The file is encrypted.

De Crypt bounces up and down on his feet, catapulted into absolute rapture by this discovery. Immediately he opens a text editor and starts creating a shell script to crack the file. He hesitates at times. Three months of starvation and fear has a tendency to erode programming skills. Data Raider reaches over his shoulder and helps him, and together they finish the shell script. They start the process executing and lean back from the monitor in a euphoria of accomplishment.

"It's the SET," De Crypt declares, "the big enchilada, the Secure Electronic Transaction database, all the world’s financial transactions in one file. Bet."

"Not a chance," Data Raider retorts. "The Feds kept that in their own computers. In a big titanium nuclear blast-proof underground vault."

De Crypt is now completely lost, and Data Raider has been sucked in too. They have slipped easily into the mindset of the old days, arguing back and forth and re-living an innocence they’d never known they possessed until guilt crushed it.

"Naah," De Crypt says. "You know staying in one place ain’t safe. Somebody woulda hacked it. They had to move it around. Moving it around was a lot more secure.”

A dazzling light flashes on in De Crypt’s eyes.

“It has to be!” he exclaims. “Can’t you see it? It’s the same principle as always! Information has to move around, or it doesn’t feel right!” He leans back from the monitor, raises his hands and shouts in exultant validation. “INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE!"

This is precisely the wrong thing to say to Data Raider. Ice-water reality pours over him and yanks him back to the real world instantly.

"And we freed it," Data Raider says, to get even with De Crypt for jerking him back to the hellish present. "The morons turned all the money into encrypted numbers, pure information, except they did it badly, and you and me, we broke the encryption just because we could and e-mailed the program to every cypherpunk on the Web to show what geniuses we were. And what happened next? What happened?"

Data Raider’s breath comes short as he remembers the unbelievably horrible shock of watching a single tiny program, an ethereal, ephemeral collection of ones and zeroes, bring the entire world crashing down in flames in less than a day.

"Some idiot flooded every market in the world with fake money for a prank, nobody could trust money was real anymore because it wasn’t secure, and in less than twenty-four hours we smashed the entire world economy. Because we were bad boy black-hats, because information wanted to be free."

De Crypt looks around the silent, deserted room, at what he and Data Raider have done, at the dead heart of a destroyed world economy. His face crumples, and he stares down at the floor in abject shame.

"Aw, man," he mumbles, "we didn’t mean no harm."

"Well," Data Raider says, "all that information is free, now."

De Crypt's head snaps up. In De Crypt's tortured eyes, through the pathetic, shattered mirrorshades' hollow frames, Data Raider sees the agony of truth discovered too late.

"There ain’t nuthin’ free, man!" De Crypt bursts out. "If you think something's free, it only means you’re too stupid to see the price you’re gonna pay." The overwhelming guilt of having served a wrong philosophy, a philosophy that brought the world to utter disaster, bows his head back down. "And pay. And pay."

"We were the morons," Data Raider says. "We were the ones too stupid to see it." Old pain etches his face. "When information is free, its value is zero."

Suddenly the cursor stops blinking and stays on steadily, locked in place. The computer has frozen solid. De Crypt and Data Raider look at each other in misery. They've done it again.

They've crashed the system . . ..