Making the panopticon user-friendly

Lester solves messiness! Chapter 5 of "Themepunks."

Published October 10, 2005 1:30PM (EDT)

Andrea took copious notes. There'd been a couple weeks' awkwardness early on about her scribbling as they talked, or videoing with her pocket camera. But once she'd moved into the building with the guys, taking a condo on the next floor up, she'd become just a member of the team, albeit a member who posted nearly every word they uttered to a blog that was adding new readers by the tens of thousands.

"So, Perry, what have you got for Tjan?"

"I came up with the last one," he said, grinning -- they always ended up grinning when Tjan ran down economics for them. "Let Lester take this one."

Lester looked shy -- he'd never fully recovered from Andrea turning him down and when she was in the room, he always looked like he'd rather be somewhere else. He participated in the message boards on her blog though, the most prolific poster in a field with thousands of very prolific posters. When he posted, others listened: he was witty, charming and always right.

"Well, I've been thinking a lot about roommate ware, 'cause I know that Tjan's just crazy for that stuff. I've been handicapped by the fact that you guys are such excellent roomies, so I have to think back to my college days to remember what a bad roommate is like, where the friction is. Mostly, it comes down to resource contention, though: I wanna cook, but your dishes are in the sink; I wanna do laundry but your boxers are in the dryer; I wanna watch TV, but your crap is all over the living room sofa."

Living upstairs from the guys gave her fresh insight into how the Kodacell philosophy would work out. Kettlewell was really big on communal living, putting these people into each other's pockets like the old-time geek houses of pizza-eating hackers, getting that in-the-trenches camaraderie. It had taken a weekend to put the most precious stuff in her California house into storage and then turn over the keys to a realtor who'd sort out leasing it for her. The monthly check from the realtor left more than enough for her to pay the rent in Florida and then some, and once the UPS man dropped off the five boxes of personal effects she'd chosen, she was practically at home.

She sat alone over the guys' apartments in the evenings, windows open so that their muffled conversations could drift in and form the soundtrack as she wrote her columns. It made her feel curiously with, but not of, their movement -- a reasonable proxy for journalistic objectivity in this age of relativism.

"Resource contention readily decomposes into a bunch of smaller problems, with distinctive solutions. Take dishes: every dishwasher should be designed with a 'clean' and a 'dirty' compartment -- basically, two logical dishwashers. You take clean dishes out of the clean side, use them, and put them into the dirty side. When the dirty side is full, the clean side is empty, so you cycle the dishwasher and the clean side becomes dirty and vice-versa. I had some sketches for designs that would make this happen, but it didn't feel right: making dishwashers is too industrial for us. I either like making big chunks of art or little silver things you can carry in your pocket."

She smiled despite herself. She was drawing a half-million readers a day by doing near-to-nothing besides repeating the mind-blowing conversations around her. It had taken her a month to consider putting ads on the site -- lots of feelers from blog "micro-labels" who'd wanted to get her under management and into their banner networks, and she broke down when one of them showed her a little spreadsheet detailing the kind of long green she could expect to bring in from a couple of little banners, with her getting the right to personally approve every advertiser in the network. The first month, she'd made more money than all but the most senior writers on the Merc. The next month, she'd outstripped her own old salary. She supposed it meant that she should make it official and phone in a resignation to Jimmy, but they'd left it pretty ambiguous as to whether she was retiring or taking a leave of absence and she was reluctant to collapse that waveform into the certainty of saying goodbye to her old life.

"So I got to thinking about snitch-tags, radio frequency ID gizmos. Remember those? When we started talking about them a decade ago, all the privacy people went crazy, totally sure that these things would be bad news. The geeks dismissed them as not understanding the technology. Supposedly, an RFID can only be read from a couple inches away -- if someone wanted to find out what RFIDs you had on your person, they'd have to wand you, and you'd know about it."

"Yeah, that was bull," Perry said. "I mean, sure you can't read an RFID unless it's been excited with electromagnetic radiation, and sure you can't do that from a hundred yards without frying everything between you and the target. But if you had a subway turnstile with an exciter built into it, you could snipe all the tag numbers from a distant roof with a directional antenna. If those things had caught on, there'd be exciters everywhere and you'd be able to track anyone you wanted -- christ, they even put RFIDs in the hundred-dollar bill for a while! Pickpockets could have figured out whose purse was worth snatching from half a mile a way!"

"All true," Lester said. "But that didn't stop these guys. There are still a couple of them around, limping along without many customers. They print the tags with inkjets, sized down to about a third the size of a grain of rice. Mostly used in supply-chain management and such. They can supply them on the cheap.

"Which brings me to my idea: why not tag everything in a group household, and use the tags to figure out who left the dishes in the sink, who took the hammer out and didn't put it back, who put the empty milk-carton back in the fridge, and who's got the TV remote? It won't solve resource contention, but it will limit the social factors that contribute to it." He looked around at them. "We can make it fun, you know, make cool RFID sticker designs, mod the little gnome dolls to act as terminals for getting reports."

Andrea found herself nodding along. She could use this kind of thing, even though she lived alone, just to help her find out where she left her glasses and the TV remote.

Perry shook his head, though. "When I was a kid, I had a really bad relationship with my mom. She was really smart, but she didn't have a lot of time to reason things out with me, so often as not she'd get out of arguing with me by just changing her story. So I'd say, 'Ma, can I go to the mall this aft?' and she'd say, 'Sure, no problem.' Then when I was getting ready to leave the house, she'd ask me where I thought I was going. I'd say, 'To the mall, you said!' and she'd just deny it. Just deny it, point blank.

"I don't think she even knew she was doing it. I think when I asked her if I could go, she'd just absentmindedly say yes, but when it actually came time to go out, she'd suddenly remember all my unfinished chores, my homework, all the reasons I should stay home. I think every kid gets this from their folks, but it made me fucking crazy. So I got a mini tape recorder and I started to tape her when she gave me permission. I thought I'd really nail her the next time she changed her tune, play her own words back in her ear.

"So I tried it, and you know what happened? She gave me nine kinds of holy hell for wearing a wire and then she said it didn't matter what she said that morning, she was my mother and I had chores to do and no how was I going anywhere now that I'd started sneaking around the house with a hidden recorder. She took it away and threw it in the trash. And to top it off, she called me 'J. Edgar' for a month.

"So here's my question: how would you feel if the next time you left the dishes in the sink, I showed up with the audit trail for the dishes and waved it in your face? How would we get from that point to a happy, harmonious household? I think you've mistaken the cause for the effect. The problem with dishes in the sink isn't just that it's a pain when I want to cook a meal: it's that when you leave them in the sink, you're being inconsiderate. And the reason you've left them in the sink, as you've pointed out, is that putting dishes in the dishwasher is a pain in the ass: you have to bend over, you have to empty it out, and so on. If we moved the dishwasher into the kitchen cupboards and turned half of them into a dirty side and half into a clean side, then disposing of dishes would be as easy as getting them out."

Lester laughed, and so did Tjan. "Yeah, yeah -- OK. Point taken. But these RFID things, they're so frigging cheap and potentially useful. I just can't believe that they've never found a single really compelling use in all this time. It just seems like an opportunity that's going to waste."

"Maybe it's a dead end. Maybe it's an ornithopter. Inventors spend hundreds of years trying to build an airplane that flew by flapping its wings, and it was all a rat-hole."

"I guess," Lester said, "but I hate the idea that these things aren't good for anything."

"Like it or don't, " Perry said, "doesn't affect whether it's true or not."

But Lester had a sparkle in his eye, and he disappeared into his workshop for a week, and wouldn't let them in, which was unheard of for the big, gregarious giant. He liked to drag the others in whenever he accomplished anything of note, show it off to them like a big kid.

That was Sunday. Monday, Andrea got a call from her realtor. "Your tenants have vanished," she said.

"Vanished?" The couple who'd rented her place had been as reliable as anyone she'd ever met in the Valley. He worked at a PR agency, she worked in marketing at Google. Or maybe he worked in marketing and she was in PR at Google -- whatever, they were affluent, well-spoken, and had paid the extortionate rent she'd charged without batting an eye.

"They normally paypal the rent to me on the first, but not this month. I called and left voicemail the next day, then followed up with an e-mail. Yesterday I went by the house and it was empty. All their stuff was gone. No food in the fridge. I think they might have taken your home theater stuff, too."

"You're fucking kidding me," Andrea said. It was 11 a.m. in Florida and she was into her second glass of lemonade as the sun began to superheat the air. Back in California, it was 8 a.m. Her realtor was pulling long hours, and it wasn't her fault. "Sorry. Right. OK, what about the deposit?"

"You waived it."

She had. It hadn't seemed like a big deal at the time. The distant owner of the condo she was renting in Florida hadn't asked for one. "So I did. Now what?"

"You want to swear out a complaint against them?"

"With the police?"

"Yeah. Breach of contract. Theft, if they took the home theater. We can take them to collections, too."

Goddamned marketing people had the collective morals of a snake. All of them useless, conniving, shallow -- she never should have...

"Yeah, OK. And what about the house?"

"We can find you another tenant by the end of the month, I'm sure. Maybe a little earlier. Have you thought any more about selling it?"

She hadn't, though the realtor brought it up every time they spoke. "Is now a good time?"

"Lot of new millionaires in the Valley shopping for houses, Andrea. More than I've seen in years." She named a sum that was a third higher than the last time they'd talked it over.

"Is it peaking?"

"Who knows? It might go up, it might collapse again. But now is the best time to sell in the past ten years. You'd be smart to do it."

She took a deep breath. The Valley was dead, full of venal marketing people and buck-chasers. Here in Florida, she was on the cusp of the next thing, and it wasn't happening in the Valley: it was happening everywhere except the Valley, in the cheap places where innovation could happen at low rents. Leaky hot tub, incredible property taxes, and the crazy roller-coaster ride -- up 20 percent this month, down 40 next. The bubble was going to burst some day and she should sell out now.

"Sell it," she said.

"You're going to be a wealthy lady," the realtor said.

"Right," Andrea said.

"I have a buyer, Andrea. I didn't want to pressure you. But I can sell it by Friday. Close escrow next week. Cash in hand by the fifteenth."

"Jesus," she said. "You're joking."

"No joke," the realtor said. "I've got a waiting list for houses on your block."

And so Andrea got on an airplane that night and flew back to San Jose and took an extortionate taxi back to her place. The marketdroids had left it in pretty good shape, clean and tidy, clean sheets in the linen cupboard. She made up her bed and reflected that this would be the last time she made this bed -- the next time she stripped the sheets, they'd go into a long-term storage box. She'd done this before, on her way out of Detroit, packing up a life into boxes and shoving it into storage. What had Tjan said? "The self-storage industry is bigger than the recording industry, did you know that? All they do is provide a place to put stuff that we own that we can't find room for -- that's superabundance."

Before bed she posted a classified on craigslist for a couple of helpers to work on boxing stuff, e-mailed Jimmy to see if she wanted lunch, and looked up the address for the central police station to swear out her complaint. The amp, speakers, and A/V switcher were all missing from her home theater.

She had a dozen helpers to choose from the next morning. She picked two who came with decent references, marveling that it was suddenly possible in Silicon Valley to get anyone to show up anywhere for ten bucks an hour. The police sergeant who took the complaint was sympathetic and agreed with her choice to get out of town. "I've had it with this place, too. Soon as my kids are out of high school I'm moving back to Montana. I miss the weather."

She didn't think of the marketdroids again until the next day, when she and her helpers were boxing up the last of her things and loading them into her U-Haul. Then a convertible BMW screeched around the corner and burned rubber up to her door.

The woman marketdroid was driving, looking crazy and disheveled, eyes red-rimmed, one heel broken off of her shoes.

"What the FUCK is your problem, lady?" she said, as she leapt out of her car and stalked toward Andrea.

Instinctively, Andrea shrank back and dropped the box of books she was holding. It spilled out over her lawn.

"Fiona?" she said. "What's happened?"

"I was arrested. They came to my workplace and led me out in handcuffs. I had to make bail."

Andrea's stomach shrank to a little pebble, impossibly heavy. "What was I supposed to do? You two took off with my home theater!"

"What home theater? Everything was right where you left it when I went. I haven't lived here in weeks. Tom left me last month and I moved out."

"You moved out?"

"Yeah, bitch, I moved out. Tom was your tenant, not me. If he ripped something off, that's between you and him."

"Look, Fiona, wait, hold up a second. I tried to call you, I sent you e-mail. No one was paying the rent, no one told me that you'd moved out, and no one answered when I tried to find out what had happened."

"That sounds like an explanation, she said, hissing. "I'm waiting for a fucking apology. They took me to prison."

Andrea knew that the local lockup was a long way from prison. "I apologize," she said. "Can I get you a cup of coffee? Would you like to use the shower or anything?"

The woman glared at her a moment later, then slowly folded in on herself, collapsing, coughing and sobbing on the lawn.

Andrea stood with her arms at her side for a moment. Her craigslist helpers had gone home, so she was all alone, and this woman, whom she'd only met once before, in passing, was clearly having some real problems. Not the kind of thing she dealt with a lot -- her life didn't include a lot of person-to-person hand-holding.

But what can you do? She knelt beside Fiona in the grass and took her hand. "Let's get you inside, OK?"

At first it was as though she hadn't heard, but slowly she straightened up and let Andrea lead her into the house. She was twenty-two, twenty-three, young enough to be Andrea's daughter if she'd gone in for that sort of thing. Andrea helped her to the sofa and sat her down amid the boxes still waiting to go into the U-Haul. The kitchen was packed up, but she had a couple bottles of Diet Coke in the cooler and she handed one to the girl.

"I'm really sorry, Fiona. Why didn't you answer my calls or e-mail?"

She looked at Andrea, her eyes lost in streaks of mascara. "I don't know. I didn't want to talk about it. He lost his job last month and kind of went crazy, told me he didn't want the responsibility anymore. What responsibility? But he told me to go, told me it would be best for both of us if we were apart. I thought it was another girl, but I don't know. Maybe it was just craziness. Everyone I know out here is crazy. They all work a hundred hours a week, they get fired or quit their jobs every five months. Everything is so expensive. My rent is three quarters of my salary."

"It's really hard," Andrea said, thinking of the easy, lazy days in Florida, the hackers' idyll that Perry and Lester enjoyed in their workshops.

"Tom was on antidepressants, but he didn't like taking them. When he was on them, he was pretty good, but when he went off, he turned into... I don't know. He'd cry a lot, and shout. It wasn't a good relationship, but we moved out here from Oregon together, and I'd known him all my life. He was a little moody before, but not like he was here."

"When did you speak to him last?" Andrea had found a couple of blister-packs of antidepressants in the medicine chest. She hoped that wasn't Tom's only supply.

"We haven't spoken since I moved out."

An hour later, the mystery was solved. The police went to Tom's workplace and discovered that he'd been fired the week before. They tried the GPS in his car and it finked him out as being in a dead mall's parking lot near his old office. He was dead behind the wheel, a gun in his hand, shot through the heart.

Andrea took the call and though she tried to keep her end of the conversation quiet and neutral, Fiona -- still on the sofa, drinking the warm, flat Coke -- knew. She let out a moan like a dog that's been kicked, and then a scream. For Andrea, it was all unreal, senseless. The cops told her that her home theater components were found in the trunk of the car. No note.

"God, oh God, Jesus, you selfish shit fucking bastard," Fiona sobbed. Awkwardly, Andrea sat down beside her and took her into a one-armed hug. Her helpers were meeting her at the self-storage the next day to help her unload the U-Haul.

"Do you have someone who can stay with you tonight?" Andrea asked, praying the answer was yes. She had a house to move out of. Christ, she felt so cold-blooded, but she was on a goddamned schedule.

"Yes, I guess." Fiona scrubbed at her eyes with her fists. "Sure."

Andrea sighed. The lie was plain. "Who?"

Fiona stood up and smoothed out her skirt. "I'm sorry," she said, and started for the door.

Groaning inwardly, Andrea blocked her. "You'll stay on the sofa," she said. "You're not driving in this state. I'll order in pizza. Pepperoni mushroom OK?"

Looking defeated, Fiona turned on her heel and went back to the sofa.

Over pizza, Andrea pulled a few details out of her. Tom had fallen into a funk when the layoffs had started in his office -- they were endemic across the Valley, another bust was upon them. His behavior had grown worse and worse, and she'd finally left, or been thrown out, it wasn't clear. She was on thin ice at Google, and they were laying people off too, and she was convinced that being led out in handcuffs would be the straw that broke the camel's back.

"I should move back to Oregon," she said, dropping her slice back on the box-top.

Andrea had heard a lot of people talk about giving up on the Valley since she'd moved there. It was a common thing, being beaten down by life in Bay Area. You were supposed to insert a pep talk here, something about hanging in, about the opportunities here.

"Yes," she said, "that's a good idea. You're young, and there's a life for you there. You can start something up, or go to work for someone else's startup." It felt weird coming out of her mouth, like a betrayal of the Valley, of some tribal loyalty to this tech-Mecca. But after all, wasn't she selling up and moving east?

"There's nothing in Oregon," Fiona said, snuffling.

"There's something everywhere. Let me tell you about some friends of mine in Florida," and she told her and as she told her, she told herself. Hearing it spoken aloud, even after having written about it and written about it, and been there and done it, it was different. She came to understand how fucking cool it all was, this new, entrepreneurial, inventive, amazing thing she was engaged in. She'd loved the contrast of nimble software companies when compared to gigantic, brutal auto companies, but what her boys were doing, it made the software companies look like lumbering lummoxes, crashing around with their fifty employees and their big purpose-built offices.

Fiona was disbelieving, then interested, then excited. "They just make this stuff, do it, then make something else?"

"Exactly -- no permanence except for the team, and they support each other, live and work together. You'd think that because they live and work together that they don't have any balance, but it's the opposite: they book off work at four or sometimes earlier, go to movies, go out and have fun, read books, play catch. It's amazing. I'm never coming back here."

And she never would.

She told her editor about this. She told her friends who came to a send-off party at a bar she used to go to when she went into the office a lot. She told her cab driver who picked her up to take her to the airport and she told the bemused engineer who sat next to her all the way back to Miami. She had the presence of mind not to tell the couple who bought her house for a sum of money that seemed to have at least one extra zero at the end -- maybe two.

And so when she got back to Miami, she hardly noticed the incredible obesity of the man who took the money for the gas in her leased car -- now that she was here for the long haul she'd have to look into getting Lester to help her buy a used Smart-car from a junker lot -- and the tin roofs of the shantytowns she passed looked tropical and quaint. The smell of swamp and salt, the pea-soup humidity, the bass thunder of the boom-cars in the traffic around her -- it was like some kind of sweet homecoming for her.

Tjan was in the condo when she got home and he spotted her from the balcony where he'd been sunning himself and helped her bring up her suitcases of things she couldn't bear to put in storage.

"Come down to our place for a cup of coffee once you're settled in," he said, leaving her. She sluiced off the airplane grease that had filled her pores on the long flight from San Jose to Miami and changed into a cheap sun-dress and a pair of flip-flops that she'd bought at the Thunderbird Flea Market and headed down to their place.

Tjan opened the door with a flourish and she stepped in and stopped short. When she'd left, the place had been a reflection of their jumbled lives: gizmos, dishes, parts, tools and clothes strewn everywhere in a kind of joyful, eye-watering hyper-mess, like an enormous kitchen junk-drawer.

Now the place was spotless -- and what's more, it was minimalist. The floor was not only clean, it was visible. Lining the walls were translucent white plastic tubs stacked to the ceiling.

"You like it?"

"It's amazing," she said. "Like Ikea meets Barbarella. What happened here?"

Tjan did a little two-step. "It was Lester's idea. Have a look in the boxes."

She pulled a couple of the tubs out. They were jam-packed with books, tools, cruft and crud -- all the crap that had previously cluttered the shelves and the floor and the sofa and the coffee table.

"Watch this," he said. He unvelcroed a wireless keyboard from the side of the TV and began to type: T-H-E C-O. . . The field autocompleted itself: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and brought up a picture of a beaten-up paperback along with links to web-stores, reviews, and the full text. Tjan gestured with his chin and she saw that the front of one of the tubs was pulsing with a soft blue glow. Tjan went and pulled open the tub and fished for a second before producing the book.

"Try it," he said, handing her the keyboard. She began to type experimentally: U-N and up came UNDERWEAR (14). "No way," she said.

"Way," Tjan said, and hit return, bringing up thumbnail gallery of fourteen pairs of underwear. He tabbed over each, picked out a pair of Simpsons boxers, and hit return. A different tub started glowing.

"Lester finally found a socially beneficial use for RFIDs. We're going to get rich!"

"I don't think I understand," she said.

"Come on," he said. "Let's get to the junkyard. Lester explains this really well."

He did, too, losing all of the shyness she remembered, his eyes glowing, his sausage-thick fingers dancing.

"Have you ever alphabetized your hard drive? I mean, have you ever spent any time concerning yourself with where on your hard drive your files are stored, which sectors contain which files? Computers abstract away the tedious, physical properties of files and leave us with handles that we use to persistently refer to them, regardless of which part of the hard drive currently holds those particular bits. So I thought, with RFIDs, you could do this with the real world, just tag everything and have your furniture keep track of where it is."

"One of the big barriers to roommate harmony is the correct disposition of stuff. When you leave your book on the sofa, I have to move it before I can sit down and watch TV. Then you come after me and ask me where I put your book. Then we have a fight. There's stuff that you don't know where it goes, and stuff that you don't know where it's been put, and stuff that has nowhere to put it. But with tags and a smart chest of drawers, you can just put your stuff wherever there's room and ask the physical space to keep track of what's where from moment to moment.

"There's still the problem of getting everything tagged and described, but that's a service business opportunity, and where you've got other shared identifiers like ISBNs you could use a cameraphone to snap the bar-codes and look them up against public databases. The whole thing could be coordinated around 'spring cleaning' events where you go through your stuff and photograph it, tag it, describe it -- good for your insurance and for forensics if you get robbed, too."

He stopped and beamed, folding his fingers over his belly. "So, that's it, basically."

Perry slapped him on the shoulder and Tjan drummed his forefingers like a heavy-metal drummer on the side of the workbench they were gathered around.

They were all waiting for her. "Well, it's very cool," she said, at last. "But, the whole white-plastic-tub thing. It makes your apartment look like an Ikea showroom. Kind of inhumanly minimalist. We're Americans, we like celebrating our stuff."

"Well, OK, fair enough," Lester said, nodding. "You don't have to put everything away, of course. And you can still have all the decor you want. This is about clutter control."

"Exactly," Perry said. "Come check out Lester's lab."

"OK, this is pretty perfect," Andrea said. The clutter was gone, disappeared into the white tubs that were stacked high on every shelf, leaving the work-surfaces clear. But Lester's works-in-progress, his keepsakes, his sculptures and triptychs were still out, looking like venerated museum pieces in the stark tidiness that prevailed otherwise.

Read Chapter 6.

By Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ( is the author of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town" and other novels, including "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." His latest short story collection is "Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present." He is the co-editor of Boing Boing (

MORE FROM Cory Doctorow

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fiction Science Fiction And Fantasy