Discover more from pageturner
The Human Operator
“We’re giving ourselves God mode.” Hale whispers to her ragtag team of engineers even though their glass pavilion is air-tight, silenced, impenetrable. She gives them a wide manic grin to inspire confidence as her engineers stare back dumbfounded at points beside her face. Hale is awkwardly tall and dressed like a bag lady. This is not a person who has bandwidth for fashion: she was comfortable dressing from thrift stores at Stanford and saw no reason to ever stop. Her face shines as she types rapidly, setting up the new protocol.
There are server racks in here that are not connected to any other servers on earth. There is a private intranet. There are sealed glass walls jailing them in.
Nobody would ever guess this cramped airless pavilion was going to be the very heart of government power.
Hale’s engineers steal looks toward each other. Everyone here is autistic, it’s just a matter of how. They all wear security badges on lanyards around their necks.
“God mode is illegal,” says Gould. Gould is a young cis male software engineer whose look, demeanor, personality is tightly regulated. He’s by the book. He gets rewarded for playing by the rules, while Hale has had to make a career of making up new games. Gould finds Hale’s wolfish energy alarming - he reacts to her by withdrawing and retreating. The more she jumps and shouts, the quieter and tighter he gets. If he could institute more rules to follow he would.
“Code moves faster than law,” says Hale. She’s wildly making adjustments on screen to her liking.
“Laws exist for people who don’t have code,” says Zakaria. Zakaria is a small non-binary engineer whose family emigrated to the US from Chad. Zakaria is quiet and flat and small and self-effacing in all ways. They cannot afford to make themselves seen in any way. They wear layers. They are twitchy. They look anxiously through the glass walls that surround their pavilion at the work stations beyond. Colleagues bend over their computers far across the open plan.
“You guys think ‘you don’t have to trust people, you just have to trust code.’ But I absolutely do not trust code,” says Hale.
“Well, who writes code?” says Gould.
“Code is written by people,” says Zakaria.
“It still comes back to trusting people,” says Hale.
“The best paid devs are the ones who develop the best back doors,” says Zakaria.
“I don’t even trust my own code,” says Gould.
“I don’t trust your code either.” Hale jumps up from her computer and jumps up and down. Thinking, stimming. She’s a weirdo.
“That’s why I don’t get God mode. If we give them God mode, that’s giving them ... everything.” Zakaria’s utterly flat affect and slow delivery makes them seem developmentally disabled, and not, say, the fabled 10x engineer companies like this jizz over.
“God mode is not for them. It’s for us.” Hale with a deep smirk of satisfaction at what she’s drumming up on the keyboard. Her younger team look absolutely petrified as they try to keep up.
Zakaria’s eyes are wide. “Can we even do that?”
Hale rolls her eyes. “We can do anything we want.”
“It’s literally impossible to create God mode just for us,” says Gould. “We cannot do this. There’s no way.” He modulates his tone to sound upbeat and reasonable - the model corporate teammate - and yet, Hale hears his meaning. You can’t do this.
“It can’t be literally impossible, that’s impossible.” Hale is determined to re-assert her authority. She’s got a feral expression. “But I can’t do it without your help.”
It’s like a dream. Skimming down the screen. Her keyboard shortcuts flying. One decision leads to another leads to another -
And all her decisions - her code - are cast up on the wall via the projector. Her team watching.
Gould seems endlessly pained by this woman. “They are never ever going to let you get away with this.”
“They won’t even know.” Hale’s eyes glow. She ignores how skeptical he seems.
“What are you talking about? They watch everything we do. They have God mode on us.” Gould keeps looking back through the glass walls at the Security guard stationed outside. Security glances back casually to meet his eyes.
Their workspace is a glassed-in pavilion in the middle of a large open plan office, guarded by security and countless co-workers at their work benches. They’re like monkeys in a zoo.
“You’ve always said ethics is everything in this business. You taught us that.” Gould leans over his computer to clear intra-office notifications that keep popping up.
Zakaria stares at the camera hidden in the ceiling overhead.
Hale is unperturbed. “Watch what I do, not what I say.”
Zakaria looks like they’re going to puke. “Can I talk to you?”
Zakaria steps toward a specific corner of their pavilion and pleads with their eyes to Hale to come join them. Hale glares back - really? Now? Hale has important coding to do and Hale is in charge here. Hale calls one-on-one’s, not Zakaria’s generalized anxiety.
Zakaria steps carefully over to the corner and finds the dead zone, the spot outside range of microphones and cameras. Hale realizes this is real and stands and joins them.
Zakaria positions their body in the exact right place so mic’s can’t pick up speech, and their mouth can’t be seen by cameras. The dead zone. They still cover their mouth with their hand. They whisper urgently. “We cannot do this. We’ll get killed.”
Hale asserts her authority by refusing to step inside the dead zone with Zakaria. She crosses her arms and speaks at a normal register. “We won’t get killed. Nothing will happen to you, for one. If anything happens, it will happen to me. I’ll take cover for whatever happens.”
“What if we get fired?” Zakaria shifts uncomfortably and works their hands together. Their stim.
“What if we get left behind?” Hale with all the cunning of a wild raccoon trying to steal food.
Their eyes both look vaguely in similar directions, as if they’re looking at each other.
“Is something wrong?” Zakaria doesn’t at all know how to ask a personal question, but they don’t why else their boss would be acting this way.
“Everything is fine. Now are you going to do your job and help me or not?” Hale smiles way too big and dives back into her station.
Hale returns to her coding, keyboard shortcuts flying. The light of her screen lights up her face. She speaks deliberately. “Piece of advice guys, as you move forward in your careers. Everyone in a tech company always want to solve the sexy obvious problems, cuz you want to grab that shine and move on. But it’s better to work on the hardest, hairiest problems that your team lead actually needs you to solve. You’ll get rewarded for it. Eventually.”
Gould sits ramrod straight at the machine beside Hale, click-clacking on the keys as if he’s punishing them. He won’t look at her. “Eventually.”
Zakaria has awkwardly sat back down at the machine facing Hale. They don’t look up from their screen. “That would get in the way of his ‘climb the big tech career ladder’ playbook.”
“There’s a playbook?” asks Hale, stabbing her keys.
Everything Zakaria says is one monotone register, like they’re hoping no one will notice. “Get on every code red project you can, ship super fast and land ‘impact,’ then leave for another code red. What’s that? You left behind a mess of bugs, poor UX and tech debt? That’s the next guy’s problem. Repeat. That’s the playbook.”
Hale with a wry smile. “We used to call that ‘camping next to a forest fire.’”
Gould stands and props open the glass door for air. “Ever heard of ‘privatization of profits, socialization of costs’? What doesn’t work that way?”
Hale addresses Zakaria but neither look away from their screens. “The reality of this business is the most important work that happens behind the scenes without creating much noise almost never gets noticed.”
Gould sets up an elaborate fan on the edge of his monitor to point directly at his own face. “The real reality of this business is if you can’t sell it, the business doesn’t exist. It’s management failure to not reward good marketers and support their promotion.”
Hale catches his tone, raising her eyebrows and digging in with a tone of her own as she types furiously at her oversized monitor. “People get rewarded for supporting their superiors.”
Gould’s face lit up by his screen, not looking away from what he’s doing. Something hardens. “I’m not supporting my superior in secret.”
Hale leaps to her feet like a wolf. “This isn’t a suggestion. This is what this team is doing.” She moves to the door and closes it and locks it. “You need to help me. As my direct report.” The Security guy watches this closely. What is going on in there?
Hale leans across Gould’s machine from standing. She forces him up and out of his chair. He puts up his hands as if she holds a gun. He surrenders and backs away. He glares at her. “Why are you doing this?”
Hale’s phone buzzes in her pocket. She won’t look at him as she silences it. “The analyst should always be in control, not the machine. We live or die on this principle.” She types furiously at his keyboard from standing.
“We already have God mode but we give it to the companies. The clients. We don’t keep it!” Gould can’t help it, he’s shouting in disbelief now. The out of control unpredictability of this woman has summited the fortress of his serene white guy resolve.
Security guy outright staring at them now. He answers his phone without taking his eyes off them.
“We need eyes on our databases.” Hale looks up and down between Gould’s computer and the guard beyond the glass, between her employees and the door. Just need enough time to push this live.
“That we don’t keep God mode is an important boundary. That’s the boundary that lets us do this.” He pleads with her with his eyes. She won’t look at him. He’s not used to being ignored.
Security guy tries the door. It’s locked.
Hale’s sweat lands on the keyboard as intraoffice IM’s pop up over her screen one after the other after the other. She swats them away like flies. She looks up at the security guy, staring back at her through the glass wall. Security guy pounds on the door.
Zakaria does not comprehend what they are hearing. “So even though we have the most powerful automated engines ever developed, you’re saying we make it so ... our system is ... not computer dependent.”
“Machine learning sets the table, but human intelligence makes the meal.” Hale wants to jump out of her skin but she has to put on a show of calm and control so they’ll actually follow her direction. Her desk phone rings. She silences it.
“What makes it ok for us to scan digital trash with algorithms every day is that no one actually looks at it.” Gould thinks he sounds carefully neutral but he always sounds mildly condescending and lecturing to them, even when talking to his team lead.
“Not no one. Us. It’s that we don’t actually look at it.” Zakaria stims by pulling a piece of their short hair out straight over and over.
Hale’s eyes bug out at the both of them. It’s like she’s running a kindergarten. “Well now we’re gonna look at it.”
A second Security officer has arrived. Hale notices them conferring from a small distance away, looking back through the glass partition at them all lit up. The engineers make a brightly lit tableau, hunched over their elaborate machines. What are those eggheads doing in there with the doors locked? Who has the key?
Hale jumps up and snaps off the lights. She leans over the keyboard, her greasy face lit up now by just the screen.“Artificial intelligence just isn’t there yet.”
“Would you want us looking through your data waste?” In any other environment, Gould would just be one of the cute young guys at work. Just asking questions.
“We’re getting hit in the face with a firehose of data every fucking day.” Hale has all the persuasion power of a methed out carnival barker at this point.
From outside the glass, the Security guys clock the muted shouting. They can’t hear what’s being said but they can watch through the glass.
“That’s what we’re here for! If we can bucket it fast enough -” And the pushier Hale gets, the more Gould retreats into his white cover-your-ass corporate non-speak.
Security guy knocks on the door. They ignore him. He talks into his walkie.
“Who cares about bucketing it! Data by itself is worthless.” Hale laughs with a sharp edge. Zakaria stares and stims, pulling their hair over and over.
“We care about bucketing it. That’s what we do.” It’s like he’s getting blander and whiter and less confrontational by the minute.
“Bucketing. Data viz. Data mining. It’s all meaningless without analysis. Eyes. That’s what creates intelligence.” Hale coding like her life depends on it.
Zakaria is standing now, anxiously fixing an invisible problem on their tower. “I thought we empower companies to create their own intelligence.”
Security knocks on the door more urgently.
“I create intelligence. But I can’t do that without being able to see inside the streams.” Hale types in a frenzy. She looks at her team with glassy eyes, like a drug addict who needs to get well. “Will you goddamn help me with this? For christ’s sake.”
Security pounds on the door now.
Gould’s face is hard as he helps Hale compile her code. “so are we supposed to just forget everything you’ve ever said up to now? And do the opposite?”
“Look, I can’t action data. I can action intelligence.” Hale rolls her chair across the floor in a sharp swoosh to a machine on the opposite side. Security watching through the glass clock this violent move.
“Are you ... sweating?” Zakaria openly stares across at her, long past the time any normie would stare. What is wrong with this woman?
A new security guy arrives outside. He’s got a tool set. The security team confer outside the door.
Hale looks up from her machine at them examining the lock on the door. She swallows hard and returns her focus to the compiler.
Gould whispers to her without letting his lips move or looking away from his typing: “If they get this, they’ll have everything. We’re giving away the candy store.”
Security guys drilling out the lock on the door.
Hale keeps typing like she’s being chased, eyes glued to her own screen. She whispers back to him, lips not moving: “I need you to trust me.”
Zakaria stands at their monitor, their fixing movement on the computer devolving into just working their hands over and over and touching the computer. “But the entire point of the system is you never have to trust anyone.” Zakaria’s voice never rises or falls, which sounds even more devastating.
Hale finishes typing and jumps up just as Security breaches the door. “Yes? Did you need me?”
Behind Hale’s back, Gould and Zakaria don’t even look up. Zakaria calmly stands and leans over Hale’s machine.
The Security guy watches Zakaria’s tiny androgynous frame as they stretch over the keyboard. “This door is to remain open at all times. And - you’re supposed to report to the all hands. I was sent to retrieve you.”
“Sent by whom?”
Gould’s eyes shift over to watch as Zakaria pushes the code live.
“Don’t know. Maybe you’re in trouble.”
He was trying to lighten the tension, but Hale just stares at him. The joke landed too close to home.