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Etienne Valk

Researcher at the Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam. Has a background in music, sociology, and law.

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Pion strolls through the sPark on his free Saturday night. A glow on his head from the trees above makes his blond hair appear dark blue, then red, then blue again. He walks to the outer edges of the park and looks across the water at the city center, a few hundred meters away. Up here, from the plateau on which the park sprawls, the city looks like a stone disco ball, Pion thinks to himself. A mosaic that reflects the many projected lights, not soaking any in. Suddenly, a large flock of birds hovers over the water. “Birds as the northern lights,” Pion murmurs under his breath. Then, in an instant, the sky turns to hallucinatory green, yet only where the birds are flying.

It’s 2062. Functional jobs largely evaporated. Everyone is a creator.

There is hardly such a thing as ‘online’ anymore. Ideas are materialized in the real world. Every painting, every sculpture, dreamt up with AI and human input, is 3D printed. The freedom of a Minecraft world is embodied. The swiftness of buildings enabled by new technology made for a resurgence of old classical-style buildings, yet they are elevated with dreamlike qualities. They look both older and newer than they could have in their originating times, simultaneously evoking feelings of nostalgia and glaring prophecy. The buildings’ walls are full of detailed engravings highlighting everything from ancient Greek mythology to Buddhist inscriptions to recent geo-digital history.

On several special stages scattered across the city center, live music is being generated by a mixture of choirs with dozens of AI-voices (light sabers as bow strokes over 3D printed vocal cords), synths, and instruments that are a hybrid of harps and samplers which sample the sounds of their surroundings and turn them into harmonious soundscapes. If you walk by while wearing noise-canceling earbuds, the music is altered to match your stylistic preferences based on your music library. Then, if you stop to listen, you can utter prompts and further change the direction of the composition you’re hearing.

Of course, not everyone is as artistically inclined, but for them, there is just as much to choose from. Take, for example, flareball. The already exciting game of football, enhanced to bring watching and, above all, playing it to new heights. When wearing the SportsOculars, a red flare follows the ball, which intensifies depending on the speed the ball moves with. New rotation designs enable the ball to curve like no ball could before.

Videos and animations are projected on blank buildings, in cafés, in waiting rooms, and on the ceilings and floors of swimming pools. When wearing the popular Oculars, every image is completely personalized. So, each time Pion stands in line to pick up the lab-grown food order for him and his family from FoodSynthre, through his Oculars, he amuses himself with quick sequences of Rapper Robots battle rapping about quantum dialectics or whatever is generated for him that particular day. He can also choose to project something on the palms of his hands that he himself sought out or thought up, though on such occasions he prefers the larger projection size and the ease of it being spawned for him.

The world has turned into a playground. Of course, every playground, and every game, needs rules. 

Offices are held in a way similar to how they were held during bygone aristocratic times, where work was mostly a matter of honor, but now not just for a select few anymore. Naturally, people’s hunger for status didn’t disappear, and if you seek to attain some by only focusing on creating things, there is a lot to compete with. And so, there are still legal practitioners brushing up on the law and developers ever seeking to innovate and compete with machine intelligence. One of the youngest love babies the two groups joined hands for is the copyright on smell and taste. Due to new analyzation and visualization technologies, scents, and tastes can now finally be protected legally.

Well-developed self-learning algorithms from the centralized MainStation run through all content, digital or physical, detecting the use of someone’s intellectual property in an instant. This either leads to compensation to the rights holder or to a takedown, automatically altering those parts of the image, shape, sound, or smell that are protected; the content is ongoing and seems never to be affected.

Rain ticks on the window where Pion sits in his bedroom on a Monday afternoon. He’s watching the Perfume series, which he heard was obviously the perfect way to test his new scent-simulator. He has been hooked since yesterday evening. Now, he had just decided to change the face of the main actor because his sleek features started to annoy him a bit too much, as he says aloud: “Give him the looks of a 12th-century stonemason”. Hardly before he can finish the sentence, to his surprise, he hears someone tapping on his window. He pulls his eyes away from the projection, and when he looks out the window, he sees a lanky guy with bronze skin and a scruffy beard walking to his front door. Pion remembers the appointment he had with his best friend. He has known Alwin since forever, as Alwin’s dad is friends with his parents. The endless afternoons they spent in Arc Forest just out of town remain some of Pion’s fondest childhood memories.

Alwin rushes into the house with an uneasy air about him Pion isn’t used to. The series are still playing, and Pion continues watching, saying to Alwin:

“This is good stuff bud, you have to smell this! It might relax you a bit, too.”

Only a few minutes in, Alwin starts talking about his programming pursuits. Pion listens just enough to hear what the pursuit is about and sometimes nods in unknowing agreement.

After a while, Alwin falls silent. When a new episode starts, Alwin gets up.

“Alright, P, I have to get going now.”

“Oh, oh… Now already?” Pion asks without lifting his eyes from the projection.

“I just told you why, buddy,” Alwin replies with a slightly mocking laugh.

“No, yes, of course. Good luck, man, see you soon!”.

“Yeah, till next week!”.

Alwin sees himself to the door and steps into an already dusky city.

For the rest of the week, Pion doesn’t really leave the house. He finishes Perfume on Wednesdayand drifts into another scented series. He enjoys himself greatly by altering whatever comes to mind. However, to his annoyance, things sometimes don’t change the way he meant them to, unaware that infringement in those cases is what stands in the way of his alteration. At other times, he prides himself on the original or witty ideas he comes up with, now unaware that he simply spawns an existing idea, gathering plenty of compensation every day for the many creators out there.

The following week, he starts watching a historical series on the Democratic Upheaval of the 30s. During the first few episodes, he laughs his ass off about the cat’s ears and eyes he gives both the Chemocrats and the members of the New Democratic Movement, and the dog’s tongues he puts on the Democriticals. When Pion finally gets over his giggling, Pion ponders what he sees and wonders how people could ever make the time for that, organizing themselves in such a way, especially when daily work is the norm. He was busy enough, like today, when he’d drop by Alwin again, very pleased with himself for recalling the appointment. 

Alwin lives near the edge of the city center, where the buildings are about as high as the density of projections on them. After having stopped his AutomatiCar at a few of them, Pion arrives at Alwin’s place only a couple of minutes late, again pleased with himself. When entering his apartment on the 7th floor, Alwin is even more restless than last time. They both sit down on the windowsill in Alwin’s tidy living room, from which you can see the crowded street below, their usual spot to hang out. Pion doesn’t really notice that his friend can hardly sit still while Pion shows him a video he discovered on the way there, projecting it on his palms. Out of nowhere, Alwin says in a grave manner,

“I seem to have lost you, Pi”.

Pion looks up with vaguely questioning eyes.

Alwin continues, “I won’t blame it on you, though. So many around us are lost, too, or about to be… We have more free time than ever. But that time, is it really free? Yes, there is an endless amount of choice, but do you still sense the freedom, being surrounded by all that buzzing noise? It often seems to me that there’s so little actual attention left. Instead, it feels more like the detention of the mind.”

Alwin stands up from the windowsill and starts pacing through the room, using his hands and speaking more and more excitedly, while Pion slowly drifts back into the projection on his.

“I’ve been reading into this matter a lot lately. The histrionics, too, you know. Warnings have been made as early as the 10s in documentaries, studies, and everything. Rising problems of what they called attention deficit disorder. Young people struggle at school, feeling aimless. Adults who felt constantly restless, stressed, and burned out.

A short period of backlash followed and made temporary changes to people’s daily lives. As a first step, a right to disconnect was introduced in France in 2016, to enable employees not to always be available for their bosses’ e-mails and call-ups. After a while, this new right was implemented in other countries as well. However, as traditional employer-employee relations diminished severely, so did the effectiveness of the right to disconnect. And insofar as it would still be relevant, people don’t even begin to consider using this right anymore. I mean, how could they disconnect? You can’t choose a meal without first getting the algorithmic nutrient recommendations list about the food from your fridge, for Kite’s sake!”

After this exclaim, he looks at Pion. Pion soaks in some of his friend’s bombast but without showing it as he continues to gaze into the projection on his palms. Alwin continues regardless.

“Then there were scholars advocating for a ‘right to attention,’ also as early as the late 10s. As I now understand it, such a right should protect the receiver of information, as attention is seen as a property right and part of our individual dignity. A demanding party would need a valid interest to supersede an individual’s right to attention, in order to attain his or her attention for a certain amount of time.

During that same decade, the term ‘attentional pathogenic culture’ was coined. If such a term was already used back then, how should our current culture be described? Yes, I’m calling you ill, P, are you even listening?” Pion shrugs, still keeping his eyes on his palms. Alwin continues with a calmer, more downcast tone.

“A real disruption never occurred. The call for establishing a right to attention was never answered by legislators. People weren’t paying enough attention to this very problem; they only continued to pay attention. So digital tools and their algorithmic attention-grabbing technologies kept seeping into everyone’s lives unavoidably, taking over almost each and every part not yet digitalized.”

Pion finally does look up from his video and curtly replies:

“Look, Al, I don’t know what wordplay generator you’ve been using lately, but with all due respect, it’s really boring me right now.”

Alwin clearly is displeased by Pion’s gruffness and apparent unwillingness to engage, as the desperate look on his face shows. Yet he simply says to Pion:

“I hope you’ll get better soon,” and leaves the room.

When he returns with his jacket on, he directs himself to Pion again with the same plain voice,

“I have to run some errands now; you can stay for a bit and finish what you’re watching. Later.”

Now that Pion is by himself, he stares through the window, randomly switching between video’s projected on the buildings across the street.

There might be some truth to what Al was saying, Pion admits to himself, despite the irritation he feels. Attention-grabbing videos are projected everywhere and anywhere, and some things sure have changed over the years.

Alwin’s dad had told Pion last month about old practices he finds very hard to fathom. People apparently used to listen to the mere virtual sound of other people talking, with no images or other senses activated, and no possibility to participate. Especially during the 20th century this had been a popular past-time, and even made a short-lived resurgence around the 20s due to a rebranding of some kind.

“That’s probably why granny can spend hours on end just listening to her eNurse chatter,” Pion thinks as he grins.

Perhaps even more unbelievable were ‘books.’ Words printed on a material made out of really thin wood, just an endless stream of words, which often took at least 10 hours to finish, sometimes even several days.

Endless stream of words… Pion jumps up and turns on the alter function on his Oculars and says, enthusiastically: “Stream of words like a waterfall from the building.” He watches words starting to trickle down the building on the other side of the street, first slowly, then it starts gushing, and he takes a snapshot and forwards it to some friends.

A friend invited him for a game of flareball this evening, he sees now. Pion rushes downstairs.

Many months pass by. Every week or so, Pion receives messages from Al inviting him to go out. He ignores them most of the time. Sometimes, they hologramophone for a while, but Pion always cuts the conversation short when Al starts asking too much about how he is doing and how he is spending his time, afraid that Al would start rambling about his attention obsession again.

Apparently, Al is working on some plan to fight what he now calls the “attention apocalypse,” but over time, he becomes increasingly mysterious about it, and Pion doesn’t at all care to pry into it. He has plenty of other friends anyway, guys he met playing flareball at the Stadium downtown.

During the last weeks of the year, Pion somehow made a change in his doings and only consciously began to notice it these last couple of days. Now, the time he spends looking at content gives him much more satisfaction, and he notices he engages with it more deeply, like he hasn’t done in a very long time. He even feels a desire to go out on a walk in Arc Forest with Alwin again, yet when he tries to contact his old friend, strangely, his calls aren’t answered. Perhaps Alwin has started to hold a grudge against Pion after the difficulties they had had. Though for what reason? Alwin’s fatalistic predictions sure weren’t justified; Pion clearly can just control his habits whenever he wants to, as he has proven to himself now.

The last Saturday evening before New Year’s Eve, Pion arrives home after a game of flareball. From outside, he can see that the living room is uncommonly crowded. His dad’s downstairs and not wearing his VR balaclava… And then there’s someone else. His parents appear to be bent over, sitting at the dinner table. While opening the door, Pion recognizes who it is: Alwin’s dad, who seems to be… Yes…he’s crying! While entering, and before Pion is even able to say something, his mother hurries to him and, with a lot of effort, tries to calmly ask him to take a seat. Confusedly and uncomfortably, he does. Alwin’s dad only now notices Pion. He gathers his strength and says to Pion with a crushed voice:

“Alwin is in jail.”

Pion’s heart drops. His eyes are wide. Again, before Pion could speak, Alwin’s dad continues, stammering:

“He was working on his Comp at home and outside the house with increasing dedication, especially these last few weeks; he did little else and seemed extremely exhausted. All the while, I assumed he was just developing some new app experience, but… and…”

Pion’s mom consolingly puts her hand on his shoulder as his speech falters. Still confused and mixed with disbelief, Pion switches to looking at his parents. Then Pion’s dad projects a large news flash on the table in front of them with his Oculars. Pion’s eyes widened even more, and his eyes appeared almost as big as his opened mouth.  

“22-year-old programmer hacked MainStation and reset its foundations”, a newsreader starts the item as Pion’s dad switches between countless videos. “Activist hacker incarcerated on suspicion of curing the system,” another newsreader declaims. Pion’s dad lets the video continue playing, “As the authorities found out earlier this week, serious changes have been made to the central detection and regulatory algorithms caused by a hack. Today, a young man called Alwin E. has been arrested with charges of unauthorized access and cyber terrorism, possibly facing up to 35 years in prison. In view of the scale of the breach, it’s suspected that more arrests will follow.” Several analysts appear before the camera, sharing their two cents on how the situation should be understood.

A female, middle-aged political commentator with a raspy voice starts off:

“Of course, the following is only based on what the authorities have discovered in the alterations as of yet, and on what Alwin E. has testified thus far. The first adjustments were implemented gradually as we now know, but this past week the MainStation saw exponential change, which led to the discovery by the authorities. A breach on this scale has never been seen before.”

A professor of AI in a dark purple suit continues, speaking excitedly:

“Every algorithm designed to tie users to the content or product in an unhealthy or even dangerous way is detected. Like a speed limit on a car or the strict dosage of drugs. Severe cases get altered automatically and brought down to acceptable functioning. Other cases that fall in a grey area are presented to an inspection team of AI-experts, lawyers, and neurologists. They make a joint decision whether to stop or allow the algorithm’s current functioning, based on guidelines on a ‘right to attention’ and the hampering thereof by the service and its algorithm.”

Her remarks are complemented by the commentator:

“It seems that Alwin E. had already gathered several of those expert groups worldwide that, in secrecy, had started to apply his plans. It is suggested that these groups are to be associated with an equally mysterious movement which calls itself ‘TeleMakeUs’, likely referring to Saint Telemachus. He was a martyr who jumped into an amphitheater’s battlefield to protest the atrocity of the fights, was stoned by the crowd, dying on January 1st in or around the year 400. Yet, his action moved Emperor Honorius to ban gladiatorial fighting once and for all. Who these people are, where they are based, and what their real motivations are, is unknown. Also, coincidentally or not, Telemachus translates to ‘warrior from afar.’”

The professor adds: “Apparently, the modifications and guidelines are stricter with children, then with adolescents and less with adults. The changes that have been made create the impression that at least the intentions are well-meant yet are faced with great suspicion both by the public and the authorities, given the scale and illegality of the breach.

Most frighteningly, efforts to revert the alterations have been to no avail. Either they get undone immediately, or new, unorthodox ways of encryption make any intervention impossible. All in all, the precise scope is still unclear. We will be looking forward to updates in the coming days.”

The video stops. Silence roars through the living room. Pion only now begins to realize what Al did for him, what he did for his family, what he did for everyone.

Pion is walking with five friends through the city center. They’re having their daily walk, where they brainstorm plans to release Alwin. It’s been three weeks since Alwin’s incarceration. He’s still in custody and isn’t allowed any contact with the outside world. Their mutual friends were quick to join the team, and others were convinced easily. The world has changed for the better. Alwin should be lauded, not punished.

Pion shifts his gaze up while pondering a new tactic one of his friends suggested. His focus could be anywhere, yet it’s only where the birds are flying.

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