Fforde's story considers how much of our dataselves we have given awayby / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jasper Fforde is the bestselling author of the “Thursday Next” novels, including The Eyre Affair, First Among Sequels and The Well of Lost Plots, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction in 2004. After giving up a career in the film industry, Jasper now lives and writes in Wales. “I wrote ‘The Button Guy’ five years ago, pretty much around the time it became broad public knowledge just how much of our dataselves we had given away,” says Fforde. “Not just how quietly and easily, but how we had accepted such meagre trinkets in return: a few pence off our groceries and free use of social networking sites. Sadly, the concept of rigorously policed data self-determination is a ship that has already sailed—and no one saw it leave, or seemingly, even noticed the empty berth. Or at least, not yet.”
There are some who call me “The High Priest of Data” but I think the title is a misnomer. I don’t collate, censor, manipulate or distribute the data; in fact, aside from my own small chunk, I don’t even own it. In one respect, however, the title may be just. A priest might look after your spiritual well-being to protect your soul, but I look after your informational well-being to make sure no-one lays claim to your data. I’m the ultimate personal archive protection; the last line of defence against bad governance and future despots. Or at least I am for the next six minutes. I’m the Button Guy, and I’m up for retirement.
After my isolation in the secure apartment that I have called home for thirty years, retirement will be something of a relief and full of welcome pleasures. Instead of being incarcerated inside a Welsh mountain with a thousand yards of solid limestone on every side, I will get to walk barefoot on dewy grass, feel the breath of wind upon my face and smell something other than my own sweat and the clinically scrubbed air of UniDat’s climate controlled environment. Most of all, I look forward to watching the sun slowly merge with its reflection on a placid sea. I’ve seen it on live HD-UTube many times, but the sun at second hand, like everything else, can never match the real thing.
I call it an apartment, but it’s really more like a bunker, a concrete box lined with wood panelling and decorated in a baroque style with every facility that I might want—gym, kitchen, hydroponic vegetables, wall-sized viewing screen—the principle was that since this was a cage, it should be at least well-gilded. It is a six-room annexe within the secure facility known as UniDat, a vast chamber hewn from the solid rock with only a single ventilator shaft and a bundle of optical fibres the thickness of a man to connect it to the outside world.
Outside my apartment is the memory floor. A single chamber a mile long and four hundred yards wide with a high vaulted ceiling. In a broad swathe that runs unbroken for the entire length of the chamber are rows upon rows of glass containers the size of milk-churns, each connected to the central transfer grid and glowing a restful green. This is the core of UniDat, where every single scrap of the nation’s data is held in non-volatile liquid polymer storage. They say a litre of the stuff can hold a hundred zettabytes of information, and I have forty million litres of the stuff stored across the main memory floor. At current levels of data acquisition, we have space for another two hundred and twenty years. But the most important thing about UniDat is not the size, nor the range of data it carries, but that there is no backup. All of the nation’s information is stored right here, and here alone. Every financial transaction, criminal misdeed, medical detail and the collated data from every one of the eighty-seven British licensing authorities. All the texts, telephone conversations, emails. Not only of those living, but those long since dust. It’s all here on the Nation’s collective memory. And I can erase it all. I press the big red button in the centre of my console and the country is transformed in an instant back to the pre-eData Dark Ages of the 1970s.
Some say it’s too much power to put in the hands of one single person, but I disagree. I’m the last bastion of defence against data acquisition mission creep and the erosion of civil liberties. If the government fails to live up to certain minimum requirements over the rule of law and human civil and data rights, then I press the button. Think of it as the citizen’s ultimate insurance policy against poor governance or the ultimate digital stand-off: shit with the constitution and face the erasure of the nation’s infostructure. A government in fear of what the citizen’s most powerful agent can do. I’m the Button Guy, and I take my job seriously.
There’s enough memory here to back up the entire Quadranet seven times. Every single personal detail that any citizen has ever given out, both passive and active, will be here. UniDat knows not only all your personal and financial details but also your lifelong shopping habits. It can construct the languid dance of your life’s movement through communicator and travel-tube records. Your DNA has not only been stored, but analysed. UniDat can compare your genome with that of your partner and predict the likelihood of inherited disease to your children’s children with a 73.8% accuracy. It can retrieve all your email correspondence and bring up every webpage you ever visited. As long as you were bequeathed their data-rights, you can even view your Grandfather’s long-deleted first Facebook entry. That this information cannot be used by any agency without your express permission is the reason UniDat exists, and why I stand by to do the unthinkable. If the administration of the day steps out of line, I have the citizen’s mandate to pull the plug.
Four minutes to go. I’ve already packed. My journal and a few shirts, a picture of my mother, and a locket from a love that’s lost. My popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years as I’ve watched the politics of the New Order replace that of the old, and seen civil liberties crumble in the nations who hadn’t the good sense to democratise their information rights. To many I’m an anachronistic stand-over from an era of old-fashioned ideals, but to others I am seen as the defender of the digital age’s most fundamental right of all: personal data self-determination.
They called it the 2020 Protocol. It was ironic indeed that our Nation, which had once upheld the very highest standards of legal principles, saw the need to erode them while the citizens slept. Despite assurances, the government of the day consistently demonstrated its unfitness to maintain, protect, or respect private data. Facing an increasingly hostile public, they reluctantly agreed that personal information belonged wholly to the individual to whom it related, and unlicensed use and possession was made illegal. While the principle was sound, it was not without problems. Data were routinely used for entirely justifiable means, and although a framework of use could be constructed as to what was permissible, it was data usage mission creep and future ownership that was in question. A less egalitarian administration in five, twenty, a hundred years might repeal the 2020 Protocol and use that information against its previous owners—and this is where the concept of UniDat was born. To safeguard the individual’s data in perpetuity, a set of basic principles by which every government should govern was agreed upon; and that if ever the nation slid toward iniquitous rule or ideological fanaticism, a Button Guy would be on hand to either isolate or destroy the citizen’s data-property. In a very real sense of the word, I am personally to hold the nation’s administration to ransom—but to a ransom of fair and just governance. They step out of line, and the nation is brought rapidly back to the technological dark ages. Assured informational self-destruction. The nation runs the state, but on borrowed data—and it can be withdrawn if things turn sour.
It took until 2030 to agree the terms, and to decide upon the ten specific indicators that would mark out a failing state. They remain unchanged to this day, ninety-two years later. Most of the ten markers are based on sound principles of human equity and are easily observed through the many international news-feeds I can access on my console: The gagging of free speech or suppression of the media is a button pusher, as is detention without trial, abuse of legal process, curtailing the right to lawful demonstration, and suspension of full and fair elections. The others are more subtle, and revolve around the maintenance of the Button Guy’s independence to watch in judgement upon the state. The switching off or manipulation of my news media is another button pusher, as is any attempt to gain entrance to the Memory floor, the building or planning of any other storage facility to mirror UniDat, or any other act that might reasonably be construed as an attempt to compromise my independence.
The procedure is always the same: If I see something that meets the criteria of a failing state, I email a warning. If there is no positive action in forty eight hours, I shut off the data stream. If the matter is still unresolved two days after this, I effect instant and total erasure. Over the three decades of my tenure, I have sent seven hundred and twenty notifications and shut down the data stream nine times. Seven years ago my hand was hovering over the erase button as the microphones set into the rock walls detected burrowing. A phone call to the then-prime minister resolved the matter, and led to the toppling of the government.
The tenth specific indicator is the choice of succession. Mine, and mine alone. I’m the Button Guy, and I get to choose the next Button Guy. In thirty years, it’s the last and most important part of my task: the sustained future of the 2020 Protocol.
Three minutes to go. I wave at Anika through the glass, and she waves back. She’s baked me a cake and I ask her to eat it for me. She won’t have access to the memory floor or the erase control until I’m ready. In fact, the facility is designed so that we can never meet, hence my comment about the cake. Once I give her control of the floor and the button, I have no more access to the system, and my work is done. Only then can I open my outer door and climb the winding stair of the central air-duct; a corkscrew trip back to fresh air and simply being Citizen Woode. I’ll have buttons to press, but they won’t do much, in comparison.
I’ve spoken to Anika frequently, of course—on a daily basis both before selection and during her ten year’s internship. After all, it takes a certain kind of person who can look forward to not seeing the sky for half a century, and a decade in the hole will bring out any undesirable character flaws. And she was my choice. I found her on an online pro-no-choice rights group in Dundee fifteen years ago and long-listed her with a thousand others. Once their permission was gained, accessing their backgrounds for rigorous vetting was straightforward; everything I need to know is right here, at my fingertips. Within five years I had shortlisted twenty potential buttonistas, and three began isolation training in identical apartments dotted around the facility. One dropped out after six years, but the two others lasted the course. I only chose Anika the day before yesterday. I take training very seriously. After all, we can’t have someone with the incorrect ideology protecting our rights.
Two minutes to go, and my hand pauses above the switch that will transfer responsibility of erasure to Anika. I’m under no illusions about how I will be treated when I get out. Although some might still regard me as a protector, there are many citizens who see me as an unwelcome layer of bureaucracy; a wrongful interpreter of the rules that reflect ancient politics; that the 2020 Protocol brief had been inflexible, and unable to move with the tide of change, and that I was now impeding progress rather than supporting it. this is not, I am afraid to say, a minority viewpoint. The pendulum has swung the other way, and the reception when I emerge topside will be far from friendly. I view my emails again and note that the petition for me to relinquish erasure control to the state has now reached seventy-two million people; almost eighty-nine percent of the adult population. There is an email from the President, imploring me to return the power of the data to the state as it is “the wish of the people” and that “no-one should suffer under the immovable yoke of their forefather’s knee-jerk decisions.”
The very people I have devoted my life to protect are baying for my blood. The welcoming committee will not be welcoming; there probably won’t even be a gold watch or a brass band. They call me the new dictator; the “Mission Creep”—a self-righteous despot who runs roughshod over the citizens’ demands to be free to introduce imprisonment without trial or to silence a disrespectful press if they so wish it. “That,” they maintain, “is true democracy.” The Button Guy is now a term of abuse; the name given to someone who insists on promoting outdated political dogma when the majority sings for change. It saddens me, but it does not change me. The citizens are only children and I am here to protect them from themselves. In another ten, twenty or a hundred years the pendulum will have swung again, and Button Guy will be a term of great affection. They will deify people like Anika and I, and raise statues.
My hands hover over the keypad, and I ignore the phone. It’s the red phone, and it doesn’t ring often. I press my fingers on the keypad and a flashing panel asks me to confirm my actions. I press to confirm without hesitation and the dull red glow inside my red button flicks off for the first time in thirty years. I hear the door locks slide shut as I am isolated from the humming UniDat, and I see Anika open her door and step pensively out onto the Memory-floor for the first time, her maintenance schedule already in hand. She pauses at my window and smiles. She has work to do.
“I was the button guy,” I whisper to myself, “and I took my job seriously.”