“YOU’RE NOT PL AYING WITH FIRE , AND YOU’RE NOT PLAYING WITH MATCHES;
YOU’RE PLAYING WITH M-8Os
IN THE BACK YARD,
YOU’VE ALREADY LOST YOUR THUMB. ”
The Replicant What the Blade Runner sequel can tell us about the state of sc-fi, the dark future of futurism, and America’s appetite for dystopia. BY BRIAN RAFTERY
88 Meet the CamperForce Inside the grueling, nomadic lives of Amazon’s RV-dwelling retiree army. BY JESSICA BRUDER
SET DESIGN BY EDWARD MURPHY/CONSOLIDATED SOUP, INC.; WARDROBE STYLING BY NICOLE SCHNEIDER AND MARK AVERY; GROOMING BY MALANIE ROMERO; SWEATER BY VINCE; JEANS BY LEVI’S
98 Searching for Facts in a Post-Fact World A closer look at Snopes, the internet’s favorite mythbusting site, shows just how hard it is to pin down the truth. BY MICHELLE DEAN
106 Black Market The tech economy runs on highly purified polysilicon. Two Alabama factory workers found it surprisingly easy to steal. BY BRENDAN I. KOERNER
Noted by the editor
12 Release Notes Behind the scenes of this issue
14 Comments Reader rants and raves
Body Double Peer inside a synthetic cadaver
26 Knead to Know
Fetish: Schuberth C4 Helmet
Glutinous secrets revealed
A head protector that’s smarter than you are. (No offense.)
28 Popping the Red Pill My week on extremist social media
48 Top 3: (Semi)-Autonomous Vehicles Sit back, but be ready to drive
50 Gearhead: Commute Essentials for a multimode trip
52 Benchmark: Cessna Skyhawk The single-engine bird that defined safe and reliable aviation
54 Drive in the Sky
The #FreeBassel Effect
Flying cars are finally preparing for takeoff
Don’t give up. Online activism is powerful enough to spark change.
BY ERIC STEUER
BY JACK STEWART
The science behind the fiction
20 X-Ray Visionary Abigail Allwood searches for tiny signs of life on Mars
32 Jargon Watch Keeping up with the latest in the WIRED lexicon
36 The Rise, Rise, and Rise of Podcasts How audio went viral
FILE: // 58 Fast Forward What happened when Myanmar finally joined the online world BY DOUG BOCK CLARK
38 Do (Just) Before You Die Snorkel with sharks off Oahu
40 Mr. Know-It-All A Turing test for customer service representatives BY JON MOOALLEM
Us and His Kingdom of the Flubbings of Shadows
Call off Google’s search
116 Stories by WIRED readers
42 Venture Ball Silicon Valley shoots and scores s s
A neural network writes sci-fi titles
22 Angry Nerd
SIX BY SIX
44 Stop the Chitchat Bots don’t need to sound like us BY CLIVE THOMPSON
ON THE COVER Photograph by Dan Winters for WIRED. Set design by Edward Murphy/Consolidated Soup, Inc. Wardrobe styling by Nicole Schneider.
ADDITIONAL COVER CREDITS: WIRED LOGO POST-PRODUCTION BY ERIC HEINTZ; GROOMING BY DAWN MATTOCKS, SWEATER BY BELSTAFF, JACKET BY RICHARD JAMES (VILLENUEVE). WARDROBE STYLING BY MARK AVERY, GROOMING BY MALANIE ROMERO, SWEATER BY VINCE, JEANS BY LEVI’S (GOSLING). GROOMING BY GUY ROMERO/CELESTINE AGENCY (SCOTT). HAIR BY KAREN ASANO-MYERS, MAKEUP BY BILL CORSO (FORD).
Associate photo editor Ruby Goldberg and the valuable material she wrangled for this issue. ▲
In the three years she spent documenting America’s aging nomads, journalist Jessica Bruder worked at the beet harvest and went undercover in an Amazon warehouse (page 88). But she didn’t expect to get so attached to the 1995 GMC Vandura she lived in while following her subjects across the country. “When I got it, I thought I would sell it afterwards,” Bruder says. “But now I’m in love with it. I show people pictures of my van the way people show pictures of their children.”
She writes about transportation for a living—but Aarian Marshall doesn’t know how to drive. A city-dweller who grew up using public transit, Marshall is well-versed in the ways people get around without a car. “I feel like I have a very real stake in how America’s urban transportation is changing,” she says. See Marshall’s ideas for making your commute a walk in the park, on page 50.
PROP MASTER Janelle Shane
is not a replicant. Our chief photographer knows this because, to capture Ryan Gosling for our cover story on the new Blade Runner (page 76), he built a DIY Voight-Kampff machine—that Philip K. Dick invention for identifying corporate creations who are more human than human—along with all the other sets and props. He also produced the images for “Black Market” (page 106), about the heist of thousands of pounds of polysilicon, the substance used to make pretty much every microchip on the planet. Winters couldn’t have done it without associate photo editor Ruby Goldberg, who called half a dozen companies in three countries to get the material for him to shoot. Eventually she struck, uh, polysilicon, when a couple of them agreed to send her 5 pounds of it. 0
Her day job is working with lasers, but Janelle Shane has a geek-tastic hobby to match: training artificial neural networks, a type of AI modeled after the brain. Shane has taught AI to name craft beers, Star Wars characters, and now sci-fi novels (page 22). Want to start training your own neural networks? Go for it, she says. “The barriers are low enough that even a noncoder can get interested and learn.”
When journalist and critic Michelle Dean started reporting on the couple who run the popular fact-checking site Snopes (page 98), she wasn’t expecting to sort through volumes of legal paperwork. “What I thought was going to be a sweet little character story turned into this mess of a business dispute,” Dean says— complicated infinitely by the co-owners’ messy divorce. Sifting through the rubble, she uncovered a core challenge of fact-checking: “The truth proved more elusive than just getting people to tell me their side of the story.” OCT 2017
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARIA LOKKE (GOLDBERG); WACKER CHEMIE AG (POLYSILICON); TODD GRAY (BRUDER); LAUREN JOSEPH (MARSHALL)
@WIRED / MAIL@WIRED.COM
Re: “Dadbot”: “Dadbot””: James James Vlahos’ quest qu uest to digitally diigitally preserve his dying father’s personality “I’m crying here at work in the parking lot, wishing this was something I could have done for my father when he was battling cancer. He had the same sort of wry wit and love of words—and stories I’d heard hundreds of times.” Kayla Harris on wired.com
the stories that got the most attention confronted issues of masculinity and femininity. In “Bots at Work,” Laurie Penny explored how automation will disproportionately affect men’s jobs, pushing them into professions that are traditionally female. And “The Unbreakable Lexi Alexander” profiled the direcdirec tor, a martial artist turned Oscar nominee who’s the only woman to direct a Marvel adaptation. The future, it seems, is about being brave enough to try something different, whether that’s men doing more teaching and caregiving or women kicking some serious ass. IN OUR AUGUST ISSUE,
Re: “Bots at Work”: Men will lose the most jobs. That’s OK.
“ROBOTS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP AND SMASHING THE PATRIARCHY ” Molly Ginsberg on Facebook
“If traditional work for men is becoming obsolete, that’s not a problem for men; it’s a problem for society. The women with the jobs of the future will want mates, and they’ll want fathers for their children. They will want a society not full of unemployed men and
the problems of addiction and suicide and everything else that comes with that. We all have a stake in the well-being of our fellow citizens. Just telling men to ‘change their mindset’ is a cop-out.” Sean on wired.com
“This is a sad, doomed, hopeful story about death and memory and our bullshit machines.” Hayley Campbell (@hayleycampbell) on Twitter “Having an empty mechanical representation of a loved one would be way worse than just learning to accept that the person you love is gone.” Doctor_Candy on Reddit
Re: “The Unbreakable Lexi Alexander” “@Lexialex helped me get the fight scenes right in Chapel of Ease, and she’s now a major voice for change in Hollywood.” Alex Bledsoe, author, (@alexbledsoe) on Twitter “Hire women directors. Listen to @Lexialex.” The Opinioness (@opinionessworld) on Twitter
Re: “Viva El Internet”: Inside Cuba’s DIY internet revolution “This has much in common with the line from Jurassic Park, ‘Life finds a way.’” Darryl Samuel (@itchgrid) on Twitter (@ “To el mundo “Todo debería leer este de reportaje sobre el rep internet en Cuba. int En serio.” Victor Lezcano Vic (@vlezcano) on (@v Twitter Tw OCT 2017
THE #FREEBASSEL EFFECT DON’T GIVE UP. ONLINE ACTIVISM IS STILL POWERFUL.
by Eric StEuEr
RECENTLY I LEARNED, along with the rest of the world, the heartbreaking news that my friend and colleague Bassel Khartabil was dead—and in fact had been dead for two years. He was secretly executed by the Syrian government after having been imprisoned since 2012. While those of us in Bassel’s global community of friends held out hope that the free culture advocate would eventually return home safely, his covert murder at the hands of the Assad regime was a scenario many of us had long feared. We kept these thoughts to ourselves, though, as if sharing them might make the worstcase possibility more possible. Instead, we focused on doing what we could to honor Bassel, motivated by the faint hope that by creating attention, we might free our friend. Or,
if we didn’t, at least we could further the causes he so dearly believed in. Bassel wasn’t particularly radical, but he believed the Syrian people should have a basic understanding of the technology and tools that many of us take for granted. “Authoritarian regimes feel the dangers of technology on their continuity,” Bassel wrote to a friend in a letter from prison. “And they should be afraid of that, as code is much more than tools. It’s an education that opens youthful minds, and moves nations forward.” Although the protests and revolts of the Arab Spring revealed the power of such digital tools, the citizenry in Syria was far from empowered. So Bassel dedicated his life to promoting freedom and openness on the web and technology education in the Arab world. He joined Creative Commons, the culture nonprofit I’m a part of, as our Syrian project lead. He became an active contributor to Wikipedia and to open source projects like Linux and Firefox. He founded Syria’s first hacker space; working out of a small room in Damascus, he taught locals to become more digitally literate. Merely showing people how to use a smartphone, though, made Bassel a threat in the eyes of the state, and he was jailed in March 2012. He did his best to continue his quest to spread freedom from behind bars, creating the first-ever Arabic translations of seminal books on open source software. Then, in October 2015, he was abruptly transferred to an undisclosed location, and all contact with him ceased. Like tens of thousands of other Syrian prisoners, Bassel was “disappeared,” a torturous scenario for his wife, Noura, who was left in emotional 0
limbo with only questions about the fate of her beloved. Finally, this past August, we learned the awful news that he had been executed shortly after his transfer. Around the time Bassel was first imprisoned, a group of his friends launched an online campaign, #freebassel, to raise awareness of his plight. By putting a name and a face to an issue that is just an abstraction to most of the world, we hoped to under-
Syrian activist Bassel Khartabil, 1981Ð2015
MERELY SHOWING PEOPLE HOW TO USE A SMARTPHONE MADE BASSEL A THREAT IN THE EYES OF THE STATE. score that citizens like Bassel are real people with dreams and talents and passions. It felt like what Bassel would have wanted. As the campaign grew, hundreds of us tweeted photos and facts about our friend. We used Facebook to organize synchronous parties for him in cities across the globe. We printed posters of the hashtag and displayed them in public places. We celebrated Bassel by sharing and expanding on the work he did before being detained. His final project, an effort to digitally preserve Syrian archaeology, was kept alive by friends who created and exhibited 3-D-printed replicas of structures that existed in the ancient city of Palmyra— before they were systematically destroyed by ISIS. Admittedly, these efforts sometimes felt fruitless. Could drumming up attention on social media ever amount to anything tangible, especially when the
Eric Steuer (@steuer) is creative director of Creative Commons and a frequent contributor to WIRED.
world’s energy was focused elsewhere? We persevered not because we were so naive as to believe our campaign would actually persuade the Assad regime to release Bassel, but because it was the best thing we could think of to do. Ultimately, the story came to the most tragic end possible. But there’s hope that #freebassel will have far-reaching consequences. When Bassel’s execution was finally discovered, the news was covered by the world’s major media networks, and Amnesty International issued a public condemnation. A man who could have been an anonymous casualty instead became an avatar of the fight he so believed in. It also led to the creation of a $50,000 annual fellowship that will support individuals working, as he so bravely did, to promote openness in oppressed regions. While Bassel himself no longer has a voice, there are many in his community who are ready to build upon his work. Bassel used to tell me about Syria’s thriving hip hop scene, and how outsiders were always astonished to hear that anything like it existed. My hope is that the same thing happens with the open culture movement in the Middle East. By turning Bassel into a hero, #freebassel will help other activists receive the funding they need to become leaders in their own right. Our friend’s work will live on through those it inspires and enables—and who will continue to try to bring his dream to the Middle East, and the rest of the world. �
JOI ITO/CC BY
ABIGAIL ALLWOOD’S WORK 2006
Allwood identifies the oldest evidence of life on earth in Australia. The discovery lands her on the cover of Nature.
As a postdoc at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Allwood looks for traces of past life.
NASA’s Mars program recruits Allwood to join its team of scientists.
The astrobiologist is tapped to be a principal investigator on the Mars 2020 rover mission.
Abigail Allwood, astrobiologist
Naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough
Oil painting. “It engages the other half of my brain, which is therapeutic.”
“My husband and I are growing a rain forest on a 101-acre farm in Queensland.”
LAST BOOK READ:
The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert
X-RAY VISIONARY LOOKING FOR LIFE
ABIGAIL ALLWOOD is a translator.
But instead of reading ancient texts, she reads ancient rocks, and for the past decade, the Australian astrobiologist has been exploring the most remote wilderness on earth in search of microscopic fingerprints of life. She uses a tool called the PIXL, which she invented as a postdoc: It fires a hair’s-width x-ray beam at a rock. That energy stirs up the atoms on the surface, which then shoot back their own distinct x-rays. Combined, those x-rays create finely detailed maps of the rock, potentially revealing the past presence of microbes. She previously used the method to study rocks in Australia’s Pilbara region. “I stood barefoot on a seashore that was formed 3.45 billion years ago,” she says. Now she’s gearing up to repeat her study—on Mars. Allwood is a principal investigator on NASA’s 2020 rover mission, the first woman to oversee a scientific instrument on a Red Planet expedition. “About bloody time!” she says. The PIXL will be one of just seven instruments aboard. “This isn’t going to be a shiny-object hunt,” she says. “It’s not like uncovering a dinosaur bone.” Her spectral science is far more subtle—but just as exciting. —Laura Parker BRIAN GUIDO
HAIR AND MAKEUP BY AMY HANLIN FOR THE REX AGENCY; PROP STYLING BY AMY TAYLOR; ILLUSTRATIONS BY FURR
Allwood’s invention will scan Martian rocks for microbial biosignatures.
US AND HIS KINGDOM OF THE FLUBBINGS OF SHADOWS
CALL OFF THE SEARCH
NEURAL NETWORKS are the computer programs that power everything from Google Translate to Facebook’s facial recognition. Instead of relying on rules prescribed by coders, they look at data sets and figure out patterns, mimicking the way brains work. I train neural networks and write about it at lewisandquark.tumblr.com, and they sometimes act kind of weird. So let’s get meta. I fed a neural network 67,412 sci-fi titles to see if it could learn to write them on its own. —Janelle Shane
THE THE THE BR THE BI THE BHE BHE THE BR BHE BHE BHE BI THE THE THE BHE THE BL WH O E E E E E E E E E EAE THE BHE THE THE
2. It’s actually pretty impressive—remember, the network has no idea what English is. It has already learned its first word and has selected “e” as its favorite letter. THE WOREE OF THE SEEEEE THE WORD OF THE THE SREEEEE
3. Now that it’s figured out line breaks and a bit of syntax, sci-fi-sounding titles begin to take shape.
THE WORD OF THE WEREN OF THE THE SIRE
THE RADION MANTH THE RADING THING THE ZADION OF THE STAR THE ZADL OF TIME THE ZADION STAR THE ZADION OF THING
4. Having experimented with “thing” and “star,” the neural network branches out to weirder obsessions, like eyes and (delightfully) cats. EYE OF THE GOOD BLACK STORM EYE OF THE KNOWN BEAST EYE OF THE SPOCKWOOD CATSCASTLE CAT WAARS CAT, FIRE BEAST CAT VERSUS ORBITS CAT FROM THE GOLDEN PEOPLE
5. Eventually the neural network progresses to the point where it can invent store-ready titles.
CAT MASTER AND MONSTER SPIDERS JAMESHEE LOVE DAYS; OR, CAT NIGHT AND QUEST OF MARS
THE FALL OF THE STARS THE FATE OF THE MOON THE ILLUSTRATED GODS THE DISTANT LIGHT THE SORCERER’S SEA THE FIRST DAYS OF SHADOWS
6. And some that might be in the bargain bin.
THE FEAR OF EDEN TOM SWIFT AND HIS ELECTRON GROWLING! THE FISHMAN-HAND GRIM FINGER RADIO LIVES AND THE MORAL REALISH
But doesn’t Cat Master and Monster Spiders sound amazing?
THE ALWAYS SHIP GRIP THE THUNDER COMMANDERS AND ADVENTURES IN THE WEAPON OF TIME
In the beginning, web search sucked. Stacks of spam, flashing banner ads, results nobody asked for. So when, like the cosmogonic deities of lore, mighty Googlers burst forth from the digital heavens to weave order out of chaos, the web rejoiced. Lo, the white space; behold, the quality-based rankings. Then these gods, capricious that they were, took it all away. Welcome to the new-age dark age. In 2017, my thumbs bleed from scrolling through the ads, the YouTube videos, the “related” searches, and all the other random crap Google crams above the actual results because it’s just so damn confident in its creepy monitoring of my daily existence that it thinks it knows what I want better than I do. You know what I don’t want? A dump of news articles, links to Wikipedia, and song lyrics. Also, have you ever tried looking for something that happened a few years ago? Hahaha. In Google years that’s antediluvian history. (Unless it’s the one article about your light brush with the law that some hyperlocal rag published in the early aughts—somehow that shoots straight to the top.) My favorite, though, is when Google presumes to just flat-out ignore certain search terms, striking through the keyest of keywords. I TYPED THEM FOR A REASON. And it’s only getting worse. Earlier this year the company experimented with autoplay videos in search, harvesting even more of our ever-scarcer attention cycles. Search is dead. No, it’s undead. Search is a zombie, and it’s feeding on our brains. — K L I N T F I N L E Y OCT 2017
ANGRY NERD ILLUSTRATION BY ZOHAR LAZAR
1. Here’s the neural network’s first try.
Materials SynDaver’s polymers range in texture from rigidly skeletal to slimily liverlike.
The fake corpse’s eyes have tiny screens, so the pupils can dilate in response to light or trauma.
Each body contains 50 feet of veins and arteries; valves restrict the flow of (fake) blood during shock.
A compressor under the table draws air in and out. Doctors can practice tracheotomies and intubations.
An electric pump provides a realistic pulse, while a heater warms up the fluids to body temperature.
Limbs To simulate a seizure, pneumatic actuators in the legs and arms create jerking motions.
More than 600 muscles are sutured to the cadaver’s 206 bones, and every joint is movable.
Diseases on demand! SynDaver can afflict the body with specific pathologies—a pancreatic tumor, say.
in Tampa, Florida, mad scientists are bringing bodies to life. Not Frankensteining the dead, but using a library of polymers to craft synthetic cadavers that twitch and bleed like real suffering humans. Hospitals and med schools use the fakes to teach anatomy and train surgeons, and the most lifelike model is the $95,000 SynDaver Patient. This exquisite corpse can be controlled wirelessly so practitioners can rehearse elaborate medical scenarios in which the patient goes into shock and even “dies.” It’s less messy, and a good deal longer-lasting, than real flesh and blood: As long as you keep buying replacement viscera, these bodies won’t ever decay. But because they’re 85 percent water, they must be submerged in a watery grave between uses to keep from drying out. —Jon Christian
AT THE SYNDAVER FACTORY
KNEAD TO KNOW THE SECRETS OF GLUTEN, REVEALED
IF YOUR HOMEMADE COUNTRY LOAF comes
out of the oven shrunken and unfluffy, you may have neglected a central tenet of breadmaking: Hydrate the flour. When you knead the dough, you are massaging moisture into the wheat’s proteins, creating a matrix of gluten that traps gases so the bread can inflate from the inside. “The gluten structure is stretchy but impermeable,” says Nathan Myhrvold, the tech millionaire, chef, and creator of 2011’s six-volume science-of-cooking megawork, Modernist Cuisine. Now, Myhrvold and his team of food scientists and photographers are back with five more volumes, focused exclusively on bread. The photos in the $625 labor of loaves, Modernist Bread, range from cross-sections of rising sourdough to artful, side-lit layers of injera. But so much about baking, as any practitioner worth their pinch of salt will tell you, takes place at the invisible-to-theeye chemical level, and Myhrvold wanted to expose that hidden process. For the image above, his crew rinsed a small ball of dough with water to wash away starch granules and water-soluble proteins, leaving behind a blob of near-pure gluten. Then, using a scanning electron microscope borrowed from Myhrvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures, they captured a slice of the gluten magnified to 734X, tweaking the contrast of the black-and-white image to give maximum visibility to the webby network at the heart of every perfectly quenched, ready-to-bake gob of pre-bread. As Myhrvold puts it, “That web makes wheat breads what they are.” Meaning: chewy, delicious, and upsetting to gluten-sensitive stomachs everywhere. —Joe Ray
Add water to flour and the proteins snap together to form stretchy networks of gluten. Scrumptious!
COURTESY OF NATHAN MYHRVOLD; THE COOKING LAB LLC
SCROLL WITH ME HERE. Somebody named Beat-
POPPING THE RED PILL MY WEEK IN ALT-TECH
by Emma GrEy Ellis
lesBaby makes “a very badass chicken curry.” Look, there’s a nice sepia-tinted pencil drawing of Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. Apparently, “Walking is the new smoking #Health #Fitness,” and some guy’s wife loves her treadmill desk. Read this: A Marine gives his beloved bomb-sniffing dog a hero’s farewell. You could find these posts anywhere, on Facebook or Instagram or some homey subreddit. But that’s not how they ended up on my screen. I saw them on Gab, a Twitterlike social media platform catering to the so-called alt-right, the web-incubated whitenationalist movement that shot to prominence during the last election and made international headlines for its violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year. I was on Gab because, not long ago, I spent a week of my online life exclusively in the altright’s domain, a network of copycat sites collectively known as Alt-Tech. On Gab, when people aren’t chatting about exercise equipment, they swap jokes, revel in the camaraderie of the expanding #GabFam, and complain about the “normies” on other social media sites. I spot Alex Jones, host of the far-right radio show Infowars, using his (active, verified) account to sell merchandise and plug his website. Media commentator Mike Cernovich is there too, pushing his YouTube channel, Medium articles, and T-shirts. Gabbers love promotion. If they’re not elevating themselves, they’re supporting the cause, buying stuff and sending followers to Fox News and Breitbart—but also to places I don’t recognize, like Voat and Infogalactic and WeSearchr. I click. Voat is Reddit with different fonts— and is in fact home to many communities banned from Reddit. Clicking “Random” brings me to pages like /v/manspreading, then /v/MasculinePhilosophy (“A space to discuss the nature of masculinity and the condition of both contemporary men and men throughout history”), and then /v/SwedenYes (“A place to discuss all the problems of multiculturalism in Sweden and Europe in general”). On Infogalactic, the alt-right’s corrective to Wikipedia, I read that the extremist movement has been “widely adopted by mainstream conservative and center-right parties in the USA and Europe”; the entry for the widely debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory calls it a “crowdsourced investigation.” And WeSearchr? Users there ask for OCT 2017
Emma Grey Ellis (@EmmaGreyEllis) writes about extremism and online movements for WIRED.
ing Pepes and “Don’t Tread on Meme” flags, complete with Pepe-headed snakes. One user said he was “just another apathetic individual” until he heard Hillary Clinton badmouth Pepe. “Now all I want to do is laugh at the #LeftyLunacy,” he wrote. That’s what Cantwell means by gateway drug. Memes
ALT-TECH SERVES AS SOMETHING LIKE A SAFE SPACE, WHERE PEPE FANS CAN JUST “BE THEMSELVES.” focus people’s attention. When I mention to Alice Marwick, a social media scholar at UNC Chapel Hill, that extremists are using memes for recruitment, she suggests that the technique “is not that different from Islamic radicalization.” People come for the edgy aesthetic; some stay for the ideology. Then I watch a version of this mememachining in real time. Starting on Reddit, an alt-righter wonders if there’s a symbol “that liberals love that the right can co-opt into an ‘alt-right’ white power Nazi meme.” In short order, Alt-Tech picks up the thread and begins workshopping ideas. The black power fist? The peace sign? The rainbow flag? Each suggestion comes with a battery of hashtags that Alt-Techies could use to disseminate the misinformation. The winning idea originates on 4chan: the “OK” hand gesture, innocuous
Ryan Seacrest’s Pinterest account EASE OF HACKING
HOW MUCH WE WANT TO SEE IT
by Jon J. EilEnbErg
enough that Alt-Techies think they can convince “libtards” it’s really a symbol of white power. Eventually the meme finds its way to Twitter, where Mike Cernovich is seen flashing the gesture at the White House. That’s when Fusion reporter Emma Roller calls him out for what she thinks is a genuine instance of
white supremacy. “We have successfully falseflagged,” one 4channer proudly declares. In the aftermath, observers describe the effort as a “hoax.” After all, what immediate harm can come from people erroneously thinking a hand gesture is secretly hateful? More than you might think. You might not be susceptible, your friends might not be susceptible, but someone out there will start Googling phrases they never have before— “white supremacy,” “globalism,” “ethnostate.” Then they’ll find their way to Gab, where people are chatting about curries and posting funny cartoons. Hey, they’ll think. These folks are just like me. I’ll follow them to WeSearchr. That’s how it starts. Maybe they’ll leave disgusted. Maybe they’ll share a few Pepe memes. Maybe they’ll find themselves holding a tiki torch at a rally. �
Non–Blade Runner October Movies
White House senior staffer
My Little Pony HOW BAD WE EXPECT IT TO BE
money (known as “posting bounty”) to track down anti-Trump protesters. The site also operates as a sort of GoFundMe. Thousands of users contributed more than $150,000 to help neo-Nazi news site The Daily Stormer with its many legal bills. Since many of these people have been excommunicated from mainstream websites, Alt-Tech serves as something like a safe space, where they can just “be themselves.” The smirking cartoon Pepe the Frog is, of course, everywhere—in usernames, posts, even lurking in Gab’s logo. Sometimes he’s advocating for a balanced diet; other times he’s part of a goose-stepping army headed off to fight in what the alt-right has dubbed the “meme war.” Are memes weapons? In Alt-Tech, very much so. “Memes,” writes self-described white nationalist Christopher Cantwell, “are just a gateway drug to the alt-right.” (In late August, Cantwell surrendered to police to face felony charges of attacking counterprotesters in Charlottesville.) Last September, the Anti- Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol, and Alt-Tech had a conniption. Posters responded with furious, red-eyed, scream-
Assistant Redshirt manager, (Star Trek) Bennigan’s LONGEVITY
Status: Already here
Status: Near future
Many of the necessary capabilities for a medical tricorder, such as remote pulse tracking, exist now. Qualcomm recently awarded millions of dollars to teams that developed handheld devices capable of diagnosing 13 health conditions. Siegel expects further strides in the next decade.
Federation alienzappers are typically set to stun. The US military has developed weapons that fire high-energy pulses of light, creating charged particles. Additional light pulses quickly heat up the particles, forming a shock wave that takes out unfortunate human targets. Transporters
Status: Already here
Borg nanoprobes are terrifying. But doctors are using implants for good: Last year, Dutch surgeons successfully wired electrodes into the brain and a transmitter into the chest cavity of a paralyzed woman, allowing her to select letters with her mind.
TREKKIE TECH THE SCI BEHIND THE FI
WE ALWAYS WANTED one of those Star Trek PADD tablets or a magical wireless communicator—hello, iPhone! (Replicators that conjure up martinis, however, remain woefully unrealized.) Now, just in time for Star Trek: Discovery, the first TV series to boldly go in 12 years, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel’s book, Treknology, explores the original show’s most iconic inventions and the real-world equivalents that have materialized. According to the author, even warp speed could someday become reality. Make it so. —Caitlin Harrington
Synthehol Status: Near future
You don’t have to be a Ferengi to want hangover-free booze. Siegel sees promise in Bretazenil, a drug that partially stimulates GABA receptors, triggering that first-drink rush of sociability without the painful aftermath.
Status: Far, far future
Chinese scientists recently applied quantum entanglement to “teleport” a photon from the ground to a satellite orbiting 300 miles away. But humans won’t get beamed up any time soon. Warp Drive Status: Far, far future
In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre proved it’s mathematically possible to simultaneously compress and expand space, enabling faster-than-light travel. But that would require the equivalent of 20,000 megatons of TNT, plus speculative concepts such as negative energy. Siegel says we’re still light-years away.
hyperlanes n. / 'hī-p r-lānz / Proposed express lanes for self-driving cars. By handing the wheel to a central computer, vehicles can travel in dense packs at more than 100 mph. Advocates say the system is much cheaper to build than high-speed rail. synestia n. / si-'nes-tē- / A huge ' spinning disc of vaporized rock, predicted to form when planets smash into each other. Shaped like a doughnut with a thin molten center, the cloud will soon coalesce into a new planet; any leftover bits would roll up into moons. Yes, Earth may have begun as a jelly Danish. nuclear drought n. / 'nü-klē- r 'dra t / A catastrophic decline in global rainfall caused by a limited nuclear strike. A new study finds that detonating just a few warheads could kill a billion people through famine alone. —JONATHON KEATS
ISRAEL G. VARGAS
JARGON: LEON EDLER; ORIGINAL IMAGES BY CBS PHOTO ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES (CAPTAIN PIKE’S MOUTH, NUMBER ONE (M. LEIGH HUDEC) AND THE KEEPER, PHASER, CAPTAIN PICARD); PARAMOUNT/EVERETT COLLECTION (CAPTAIN KIRK); COURTESY OF CBS CONSUMER PRODUCTS (TRICORDER, SYNTHENOL, STARFLEET SHIP)
THE RISE, RISE, AND RISE OF PODCASTS of podcasts—how and when and why they went from the nichiest, wonkiest content platforms to a star-studded, self-contained media ecosystem with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual advertising revenue—comes down to three turning points, each of which triggered a wave of growth bigger than the last and only one of which has to do with murder.
THE SHORT HISTORY
The first came in 2005, less than two years after the launch of the first mainstream podcast to have an RSS feed (Christopher Lydon’s Open Source), when Apple offered more than 3,000 free podcasts on iTunes. Steve Jobs explained that podcasting was like “TiVo for radio,” which sounded cutting edge at the time because it kind of was. No pesky commercials! F-bombs for everyone! The iTunes push meant podcasts became more discoverable to millions of people who otherwise would have had no idea they existed. The next turning point came in 2008, when the iPhone 3G, along with the Android-powered G1, hit the market and let listeners download audio files on the go. Within a few years the number of people who listened to podcasts shot up (from 9 percent of Americans to 15 percent, by one estimate), and as more people started listening, everyone from technology geeks to comedians started publishing. The industry began to take shape, and ’casters started cashing in through advertiser callouts (“This episode is brought to you by …”) as well as direct-response marketing (“Get $50 toward any mattress using code WTF”). But the crude nature of audience analytics—which tracked the number of downloads but not the number of people who actually listened—made it hard to attract big advertisers. Annual ad revenue topped out at seven figures, according to some estimates, and most podcasts flew under the radar. Then, in 2014, two things happened: Apple’s stand-alone podcast app went native with iOS 8, elevating the medium to its highest level of public visibility, and a little show called Serial premiered. The series was the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams in Apple’s history, and people talked about it the way they talk about HBO blockbusters or Beyoncé drops. “We used to start every meeting explaining what a podcast was,” says Lex Friedman, the chief revenue officer at podcasting company Midroll Media. “After Serial, we started meetings with conversations about whether Adnan did it.” Advertisers were finally listening. In September 2015, the Interactive Advertising Bureau hosted the first “upfront” presentation for podcasts, where By Nicholas Quah, the founder and ad executives gathered in a small Manhattan perpublisher of Hot formance space to get previews of upcoming proPod, a newsletter about podcasts. gramming and buy ad time. Things were going 0
Marc Maron, host of WTF: “When my producer and I got fired from a project we were doing at Air America, we sort of hijacked the radio studios so we could start the podcast. That’s how it started: us stealing thestudio late at night, bringing people up the freight elevator. I was in a bad way at the time, so for the first 100 episodes, it was basically just me talking to celebrities about my problems.” Nick van der Kolk, host of Love + Radio: “My ambition with the show back in 2005 was to amuse myself and my 10 closest friends. But I might have felt differently if it had come about through pitching it, getting funding, and then having to make that money back. Instead, I spent nine years with basically no listeners, and I’m not expecting everyone to like it. I think that DNA is still in what we do.”
great until the AC broke, leaving the ad buyers sweaty and surly. Still, they wanted to hear more, in part because Serial proved that podcasts could play wide. For the first time, the world of podcasters stood a chance at making real money—and they did. Ad revenue is predicted to top $220 million by the end of 2017, up 85 percent from 2016. The story of podcasting, then, is a story of growing stakes, and the stakes are about to get even higher: Apple is planning to introduce analytical tools to measure both the size of an episode’s audience and whether people actually listen to it. Some longtime podcasters fear these new tools will only further commercialize podcasting and make it harder for independent, idiosyncratic publishers to attract those advertisers who value scale above all else. They might. Podcasting was born of a revolutionary spirit, the latest in a long line of technologies developed to democratize communication: blogging, social media, the internet itself. But all things worth a damn grow up, and all things worth a dime eventually get complicated. And things with podcasts could get very complicated indeed. �
final art tk
DO (JUST) BEFORE YOU DIE
SNORKEL WITH SHARKS
FIFTEEN SHARKS swirl in figure eights beneath me. But I’m not peering over the side of a boat or secured in an underwater safety cage. I’m snorkeling in the open ocean, 3 miles off the North Shore of Oahu. ¶ Ocean Ramsey, a shark behaviorist and cofounder of One Ocean, bobs in the waves beside me. Her company runs this open-to-the-public pelagic shark-diving program—the first of its kind in the US. ¶ When I first slip into the water, the Jaws theme song echoes in my head. I frantically recall the safety instructions I’ve been given: Don’t splash. Keep your arms against your body. If a shark nuzzles your GoPro, drawn in by its electrical impulses, gently flick your wrist. Most importantly, never take your eyes off the sharks. ¶ When I timidly submerge my face in the water, I’m soothed by the sharks’ slow aquatic choreography. Galapagos and Sandbar sharks glide within a few feet of my body, their eyes gleaming like buttons on a peacoat. ¶ Forty minutes later, I climb from the choppy waves into the boat and my stomach does backflips. When I stop dry-heaving, I chuckle at the irony: For all my trepidation, it wasn’t the sharks that did me in—it was the seasickness. —Ashlea Halpern
W H I L E O N T H E N O R T H S H O R E // S TAY: S L E E P A M O N G F R AG R A N T F R U I T T R E E S AT O R C H A R D OAS I S ( A K A T H E H O B B I T H U T ) , A C OZ Y A I R B N B W I T H A C H I C K E N C O O P A N D A H E AT E D O U T D O O R S H OW E R . // E AT : T U C K I N TO A P L AT E O F F I E RY J U M B O S H R I M P F R O M G I OVA N N I ’ S F O O D T R U C K , T H E N C O O L D OW N W I T H A L I L I KO I , G UAVA , A N D PA PAYA S H AV E I C E F R O M M AT S U M OTO ’ S . // D O : Z I P L I N E O V E R TA R O A N D C H E R R Y TO M ATO F I E L D S AT C L I M B W O R K S K E A N A FA R M S .
: IN, SAY, A CUSTOMER SERVICE CHAT WINDOW, WHAT’S THE POLITE WAY TO ASK WHETHER I’M TALKING TO A HUMAN OR A ROBOT? by jon mooallem
Back in June 2006, before any of us needed to worry about whether we were talking to a robot in our daily interactions, it was up to contemporary artists to make people feel vulnerable and confused. That month a friend invited me to see the preview of an exhibit by the artist Matthew Barney at a museum in San Francisco. (Barney is probably best known for making a series of films called the Cremaster Cycle, named after the muscle that raises and lowers the testes, and also for having a child with Björk.) Regarding the exhibit I’d been invited to, one critic wrote that, while everyone should go see the show, “no one should anticipate enjoying it.” Frankly, I didn’t enjoy it. Not being much of an art person, I didn’t even understand it. I remember a sprawl of chicken-scratch on a very high wall and a painfully slow film set on a surrealistic whaling vessel. And I remember something that happened that night, something that raised an equally disorienting set of questions about ethics, not aesthetics, that I’d like to try to unpack now, after all these years. ¦ One room of the museum had been overtaken by a tangled, plasticized, 3-D form—a “sculpture,” I suppose you’d call it. We, the viewers, mingled at its edges, stepping around where its lowest tentacles reached the floor. I heard a deafening thwack. Everyone turned around. A man had collided with one particularly disordered region of the sculpture. People naturally began
scanning for damage. But, given all the complexities of this great, bulbous sculpture, it was impossible to tell: Had some of those white bits broken off, or had they always been on the ground like that? I’ll never forget the silence that filled that room, as though the air between us petrified into a solid. And then everyone turned away, pretending nothing had happened—just turned our backs on the guy, freezing him out and, no doubt, adding to his mortification. No one even had the courage to ask if he was OK. That moment often comes back to me. It was a peculiarly fraught situation, which seemed to expose some latent discomfort around modern art—even there, at a modern art museum. Presumably everyone was trying to be polite—I know I was—but didn’t see an obvious or safe way to respond. And so, rather than risk impoliteness, we shut down; we turned away. And that wasn’t polite. I think it was cowardly. I know what it’s like to wonder if the intelligence on the other side of the internet is artificial or human. It’s profoundly unnerving; I worry, on some level, that I’m being hoodwinked, which, I hate to say, is also how I feel when I look at some modern art. And I’m tempted to behave in ways—tersely, snidely, with a muted but unmistakable F.U. undertone—that I’d hate for an actual person, if it were an actual person, to have to endure. What’s the polite way to ask if you’re talking to a robot? Well, I think it involves turning toward those feelings of vulnerability instead of away from them. It requires making some kind of confession, an admission of how perplexed and clumsy you feel, as a well-meaning person, sitting here in this chat window, nursing a potentially rude question about the entity on the other end. In short, it requires a gesture of our own humanity while asking for confirmation of theirs. So, next time you squirm in one of those customer service chats, I suggest you take a moment to describe where you are and the disorientation you feel—I’m sitting at my kitchen table, fidgeting in front of my laptop because these interactions always make me uncomfortable—then simply say, “There’s no perfect way to ask this, but: Are you a human being? I sure hope so. Because I’m a human being, and I need some help.” � Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The team tapped Sammy Gelfand, a Georgetown whiz kid three years out of school, as analytics coordinator.
OK, maybe l Silicon Valley is still learning this particular lesson …
VENTURE BALL SILICON VALLEY SHOOTS AND SCORES AS A LONGTIME partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Joe Lacob
Lacob assessed every employee’s role and stressed communication and innovation.
had a reputation for backing high-risk, high-reward startups. But when he paid $450 million in 2010 for the Golden State Warriors— then valued at a measly $315 million and considered the worst team in the NBA—even die-hard fans scoffed. Seven years later, the Warriors are two-time champs worth a reported $2.6 billion. In his new book, Betaball, Erik Malinowski (a former WIRED staffer) credits the slingshot turnaround not to Steph Curry’s swishing three-pointers but to Lacob’s application of Silicon Valley strategies to revitalize a sluggish team. First off, Lacob used his newcomer status to build a thriving corporate culture. He paid a reported $1.6 million for a flashy, startup-style open office that encouraged collaboration. Then he set up an email account where fans could submit feedback—and actually get a response.
Neuropsychologist Chris Johnson was brought onboard as a team psychologist.
As the first in his family to go to college, Lacob was a firm believer in hiring based on potential, not experience. He appointed Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr as head coach and former sports agent Bob Myers as general manager. Neither had ever formally wielded an NBA clipboard, but their passion for the game swayed the new owners. On and off the court, Lacob emphasized character. He signed upstanding players like Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes, and he traded Monta Ellis, who had been sued by a staff member for sexual harassment. (The case was settled.) The message: zero tolerance for brilliant jerks. Having spent decades investing in experimental technologies, Lacob was one of the first NBA execs to see potential in SportVU, a motion-capture camera system. Another company, MOCAP Analytics, used AI and machine learning to turn the raw SportVU data into play simulations. Like bigdata-obsessed startups, the Warriors began quantifying everything, from players’ sleep schedules to their shooting accuracy. Coming from the land of nap rooms and Soylent, Lacob embraced Jobsian mindfulness. His team experimented with meditation, sensory deprivation pods, and electricity-transmitting headphones. Turns out ballers like butter coffee too. Before pouring millions into a startup, investors set clear performance goals. Lacob’s target was ambitious: to win a championship within five years. His team clinched the title in four years, seven months. A Golden unicorn was born. —Andrea Powell
They gave each player a 185-question test that ranked various personality criteria on a scale of 1 to 10.
Two rings in seven years? Check.
A basketball key is painted on the break room floor (including a free throw line for the garbage can).
STOP THE CHITCHAT BOTS DON’T NEED TO SOUND LIKE US BERT BRAUTIGAM IS SICK of having conversations with his devices. Like many of us, Brautigam, who works for the design firm Ziba, uses voice assistants like Google’s phone AI or Amazon’s Alexa. The theory is that voice commands make life more convenient. ¶ But these assistants are scripted to emulate everyday conversation. And everyday conversation is filled with little pauses and filler words, the “phatic” spackle of social interactions. That’s why Alexa says things like “Sorry, I’m not sure about that,” or Siri says “OK, here’s what I found …” when it delivers search results. It’s how humans talk. But when a bot does it, the chitchat clogs up the flow of command-and-action. ¶ It is gradually driving Brautigam nuts—not just the bots’ tics, but the ratiocinations he has to go through to make them do, well, anything. “If I want to turn on the flashlight on my phone,” he says, “I say, ‘Turn on the flashlight.’ It’s four words, but all I should need is one word, right? ‘Flashlight!’” ¶ For years, sci-fi promised that one day we’d interact with machines as if they were people. But what if conversation turns out to be a lousy idea? We’ve been down this road before. It’s the problem of so-called skeuomorphic design: In the early days of a new technology, designers mimic the look and feel of older media. Apple’s first iPad calendar app resembled a paper day planner, including “pages” that you’d rip away as time passed. ¶ Sometimes designers
use skeuomorphs because they’re imprisoned by the past, unable to imagine the demands of the new. (Early cars had buggywhip holsters.) And sometimes they do it on purpose, to ease future shock. Either way, skeuomorphs slow things down by adding functionally useless interactions. It’s only when designers finally abandon them that they’re free to create zippier interfaces. “Conversational AI” is suffering through these precise growing pains. Our bots talk like 19th-century butlers, clotting their replies with ponderous conversational fillips. When I ask Alexa “What’s the weather,” I get a needlessly verbose answer (“Today, you can look for …”). It’s not a big deal the first time, but after months of this I get impatient. I’m looking for some quick statistics; Alexa is auditioning for a role in an Oscar Wilde play. The designers of these garrulous interactions say we need bots to act like humans. “Most people feel uncomfortable talking to a machine,” says David Contreras, an Alexa designer. “Adding these ‘chat patterns’ or some kind of personality helps overcome this feeling.” Sensely, a firm that makes a virtualnurse app, has found that many patients appreciate it when a bot does things like let out a cheer when a blood-pressure reading is low. “They develop a relationship,” says Cathy Pearl, Sensely’s VP of user experience. I predict that many people will eventually want to move beyond all that. They’ll crave a more fluid, allegro pace of voice interaction the same way power users of desktop software eventually adopt keyboard commands. The question is how non-conversational bots ought to behave. A post-skeuomorphic world ought to allow more creativity—and weirdness. Some of the cutesier servant bots already mainly coo and purr. As a remedy to his own annoyance, Brautigam has suggested that bots abandon words entirely and speak in musical tones or f/x sounds, like R2-D2. (He’s silent on whether we’d do the same.) That kind of post-human design could unlock weirder, wilder AI. (The artist and author Joanne McNeil points out that nonverbal bots could also kill the icky convention of perky, subservient feminine-voiced interfaces.) We’re bothered by AIs that try to sound human. Let’s see how we like it when they try to sound like robots. � Write to email@example.com.
FETISH SKULL CADDY WHEN CHOOSING a case for your cranium, you want something that’s smarter
than you are. Schuberth’s sleek C4 motorcycle helmet is designed by Germans, so of course it’s modular; the chin shield flips up so you can pop in a snack, yell at a car, or breathe some fresh highway air. It also has a built-in microphone and speakers, which can be used as a four-way intercom or a personal stereo. The carapace was designed and tested in wind tunnels, so honks and engine whines will fade to mere murmurs as you chat with your riding partner or moderate a conference call while you split lanes on the bridge. Not that you would do such a thing. —A A R I A N M A R S H A L L
$749 and up
Schuberth C4 helmet
STYLING BY AMY TAYLOR
TOP THREE ENJOY THE RIDE Autonomous vehicles have arrived—as long as you can take the wheel when things get tricky. —ALEX DAVIES
Tesla Model 3
Elon Musk’s electrics have been using cameras and radars to drive themselves since 2015. With the “affordable” Model 3, Tesla brings its self-driving tech to the unwashed masses. The pre-order list is long, but by the time you get your 3, your robo chauffeur will likely tackle more than simple highway driving.
The conservative but clever Traffic Jam Pilot guides you through afternoon gridlock. Cameras and sensors make sure the human pays attention, or else it’ll tighten the seat belt and pump the brakes. The system handles only low-speed (sub35 mph) highway driving for now, but Audi promises faster cruising soon.
$35,000 and up
Price TBD 3
Cadillac’s Super Cruise system works only on divided highways in the US and Canada, but it handles all the driving up to 85 mph. A tiny camera on the steering column monitors your readiness. Look down at your phone for more than a few seconds and you’ll be zapped by a chorus of chimes, buzzes, and flashing lights.
$71,290 and up
CARS: COURESTY OF AUDI, GM, TESLA
GEARHEAD OK, COMMUTER When the trek to work involves multiple modes of transit, this gear will ease your way. ÑAARIAN MARSHALL
Microsoft Surface Laptop
Cole Haan 2.Zerøgrand Laser Wingtip Oxford
Your feet need mobility machines too. These resemble typical all-leather wingtip Oxfords, but the rubber outsoles, dynamic foam interiors, and tongue and Achilles padding say Go ahead, Usain, run for that bus.
E-bikes are ideal for hilly rides—but schlepping the unwieldy things around train stations? Hard pass. Enter the Vektron, Tern’s foldable, carry-on steed. At 49 pounds it’s not exactly light, but it can go the distance: 20 mph and up to 80 miles per charge.
Topo Designs Commuter Briefcase
Nau Quintessentshell Jacket
If you’re going to be lugging a laptop, a Kindle, a power brick, and tasty snacks, you’ll need a bag that’s both soft and tough. The Topo even has convertible backpack straps for when it’s just too damn stocked for one shoulder to handle.
Safeguard yourself from frigid gales and dampening fog on the morning walk to the office with this waterproof, cotton-
At 2.76 pounds, Microsoft’s newest ultraportable is light enough to practically disappear inside your briefcase. And thanks to more than 14 hours of playback time, you can continue watching movies when your evening train home is interminably delayed.
poly shell. The zipper extends up to your chin to shield your neck, and the cozy hood maintains your coiffure.
BIKE: COURTESY OF TERN
BENCHMARK SAFE PASSAGE Cessna’s single-engine bird is the Coleman stove of private aviation: simple, reliable, and unchanging. —JONATHON KEATS IN 1958, former bomber pilot Bob Timm decided to show the world
that private aircraft were safe by flying one nonstop for 64 days. He and a copilot traded shifts doing loops around Las Vegas, refueling by snagging a hose connected to a speeding truck. The craft he chose was a Cessna 172. First manufactured in 1956 and later dubbed the Skyhawk, the planes are still built today, essentially unchanged. Known for their steadfast dependability, more have been produced than any other single-engine aircraft. High wings with big flaps make them stable in the air and provide the pilot with all-around visibility. There’s plenty this old bird can’t do, and experienced pilots will tell you that the safe-as-milk Skyhawk’s performance is spectacularly unspectacular. They mean it as a compliment.
The Cessna Skyhawk’s trustworthiness has kept it aloft for decades.
$369,000 and up
ESSAY DRIVE IN THE SKY It’s been a science-fiction staple forever, but now the flying car is gradually approaching liftoff. —JACK STEWART OUR ROADS are horrendously jammed. The average US commuter wastes 42 hours a year driving to and fro; in Los Angeles, it’s 104 hours. Luckily, to solve our traffic epidemic, all we have to do is look up. Flying cars would not only disperse congestion (thanks, third dimension!) but also shorten commutes by allowing drivers to bypass twisty roads for direct routes. Initially, these airborne chariots will usher firefighters to a remote blaze, airlift patients to a hospital, or ferry rich tourists around flashy cities like Dubai. But after early adopters kick-start production, these new vehicles will eventually become available to everyone. As you can imagine, building a flying car is not easy. The vehicles themselves—basically giant quadcopters with enough brawn to carry a human—are feats of engineering. But the designers work-
ing on these flying machines have already cracked the hard stuff. “A lot of different technologies and business models are coming together, and I think they’ll transform how humans move around the planet,” says Pat Anderson, director of the Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Superlight composite materials allow for vehicles that don’t need huge engines. Advanced algorithms can handle the flying so the humans don’t need pilots’ licenses, and complex air-traffic-control systems can be computer-automated. High-capacity batteries paired with efficient electric motors give air cars a range of 10 or 20 or even 30 miles. And ride-hailing services have already created a blueprint for giving people access to vehicles that would be too expensive for most to own outright. Yes it sounds fantastical, but some bigname companies are starting to get involved. Uber published a 97-page white paper last year detailing plans for Elevate, a citywide network of on-demand flying vehicles. Dallas and Dubai are already in, and Uber wants flying cars operational in both cities by 2020. Airbus, one of the world’s largest airliner manufacturers, is running its own flying-car exploration called Project Vahana, which aims to test a full-size prototype of an electric single-person craft by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the Kitty Hawk Flyer, an octocopter backed by Google cofounder Larry Page, is due to go on sale at year’s end, and two other birds—EHang’s crazy peoplecopter and Germany’s Lilium Jet—have made proof-of-concept flights. As the technical challenges fade, government regulation remains a big hurdle. But the FAA is hustling to introduce more permissive guidelines for autonomous flying cars. “The regulatory end is moving faster than I’ve ever seen it,” Anderson says. Granted, “flying car” is a misnomer: Most of these vehicles don’t have wheels and are just upscaled drones that would carry a single person. The five-passenger concepts offering 200-mile ranges are further from reality, but the delay gives flying cars time to prove themselves with specialist applications. Someday, you’ll be able to summon one and leave Jack Stewart (@stewart_jack) behind the earthbound writes about the suckers in fume-belching future of transfreeway traffic. � port for wired.
OCT 20170 0 0
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? When Myanmar opened its borders, the country came online practically overnight. MOBILE SUBSCRIPTIONS PER 100 PEOPLE
80 40 0 1990
CHART SOURCE: THE WORLD BANK; WORLD DEVELOPMENT INDICATORS: INTERNATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATION UNION, WORLD TELECOMMUNICATION/ICT DEVELOPMENT REPORT AND DATABASE
Fast Forward Myanmar adopted the web more quickly than any other country. Here’s what that feels like. text and photographs by doug bock clark
DURING THE HALF
As Myanmar’s deputy communications minister from 2012 to 2016, Thaung Tin worked with the president to bring the country online.
century that they ruled the country, Myanmar’s military dictators occasionally turned to astrology for policy decisions. In the late ’80s, for example, the government switched the currency from units of 10 to nine, a more auspicious number. Economic turmoil followed. More recently, after an astrologer reportedly warned of an imminent American air strike, the capital was relocated from Yangon to a half-finished outpost in the middle of a jungle. Mass confusion ensued. Because of the dictatorship’s rigid controls on everything from media to education, hardly anyone had a mobile phone, and internet access was severely limited. People had little idea what was happening in the next town—let alone at the capital (wherever it was). Myanmar’s citizens have, over the years, expressed their frustrations through a 0
number of attempts at peaceful revolution, which the military leaders generally quashed with tanks and bayonets. But six years ago the government realized that modernity was allowing once-poorer neighboring countries to surge ahead, so it began to democratize. Aung San Suu Kyi, a founder of the National League for Democracy, was freed from house arrest in 2010. And in 2014, officials granted licenses to two foreign cell phone companies. Within a year, the price of a SIM card dropped from $250 to $1.50, leading to the fastest rise in mobile phone usage of any country in the last 10 years. Today more than three-quarters of the population have a cell phone, most of them smartphones. As I was traveling through Myanmar’s remote northern mountains early this year, I saw a boy sitting on an elephant’s head, steering with his feet while his hands swiped his phone. According to a man who was loading rice onto the elephant, the boy was heading to a rebel battalion in the jungle to help defend an illegal mine. Would he be able to call his parents back home? Sure, the guy told me. They even had coverage out there. Farmers in oxcarts, Buddhist monks, businesspeople launching startups—they all now have the world at their thumbs. But what is it like to endure, in just a few short years, the transition Western countries have had a quarter century to work through? Tech is powerful anywhere, but it’s particularly powerful when it’s brand-new and easy to exploit. In the pages that follow, six people share their stories from the forefront of Myanmar’s mobile revolution. Each account offers a glimpse of the boon of sudden connectivity— along with the consequences of disruption.
Thaung Tin AGE: 57
An early PC user who led Myanmar’s telecommunications reform I was born in 1960 and grew up under socialism, which meant that all people were equal together at the bottom. We had nothing: no TV, no exposure to the outside world. I learned from a government school, but there was a library, and I taught myself with books. Even when I went to engineering university in 1980, a telephone was a luxury item. You had to dress up to use it at the post office, and connections were very poor. That was the same year the government
brought in TV. At the university hostel, everyone watched the few hours of government programming each day. I saw the development in other nations. I loved the Six Million Dollar Man and James Bond for all their technology. I eventually became the maintenance engineer for the only computer in the country. Then, when an IBM personal computer was given to the university, I was chosen to help assemble it. That made me one of the first people to use a personal computer in Myanmar. It was like a James Bond movie. Around 2000, because of my expertise, I started representing Myanmar at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on technological matters. As I traveled, I saw that neighboring countries were surpassing us. Once, in Cambodia, when I
spotted a taxi driver with a cell phone, I thought, “A taxi driver isn’t supposed to have that!” I was also one of the first people in Myanmar to get the internet, and I realized that with just a few clicks, a kid from here could have the same access as one in Silicon Valley. In 2012 I joined the president’s advisory council. He had just begun accepting reforms, so in one meeting I nervously suggested: “Mr. President, we should consider telecom reform, because that could have a high impact on society.” I was shocked when he appointed me deputy communications minister. Because Myanmar had been a military regime for many decades, there was a lot of resistance to bringing in foreign telecom companies. It was a big deal for the government to be unable to track conversations. There
Honey Mya Win (left) and her sister, Shwe Yee Mya Win, help more than 4,600 people find work through their online platform.
was also pushback from the private sector—I’m sorry to say that corruption is a big problem here. They tried to co-opt me, but this was a national service. We ran a very open auction among over 30 foreign companies for the telecom licenses. Our selection process favored companies that showed a strong commitment to creating systems like mobile payments. Less than 10 percent of Myanmar’s people have a bank account, so being able to transfer money electronically can make a difference. Smartphones are a magic device that will transform everything—from communication to education, from agriculture to politics. I have one daughter, who’s 12. She’s already learning to code. If I say something, she doesn’t necessarily believe me— she just looks it up on YouTube. This is the new normal. Everyone thinks that the telecom revolution in Myanmar is finished, but really, it’s just beginning.
Honey Mya Win
Nay Phone Latt opened underground internet cafés and founded a blogging society.
Cofounder of freelancing platform Chate Sat My father encouraged me to become a computer engineer, even though there are very few women in technology, because he heard about the coming tech boom from friends in Singapore. He paid for me and my sister to attend computer classes after school. At first I didn’t enjoy it. I had to carry my whole computer around—not a laptop, but the CPU and monitor—and because I was small I could barely lift it. But eventually I earned my degree in computer networking. I thought I was going to have to leave Myanmar to work.
Instead the country opened up. Mobile technology came to me. I joined Huawei, the telecom company, as an engineer and became the project lead to improve the internet speed at 200 mobile towers. I was proud to help establish the internet in Myanmar. But even I didn’t expect it to take off so fast. Soon even my grandmother was using Facebook. As an engineer, there were some limits that I couldn’t cross. I couldn’t get a license to climb the towers, and my boss just wanted me to stay in the office and control them remotely. Many of the operations were done at midnight because that’s when
the network has the least traffic. Even though I was the lead and wrote every script, I had to give them to a guy to run for me. My parents felt it wasn’t safe for a woman to be out at night. Around that time, my sister and I participated in a hackathon. It was difficult because we didn’t know the slang, but we ended up winning. After that I knew I wanted to keep doing it. In 2016 we joined the Phandeeyar Accelerator program to make Myanmar’s first active freelancing platform, which would allow everyone who wants to earn extra cash in their free time to find work. We thought it would be easy, but soon we were cry-
“I had to carry my whole computer around—not a laptop, but the CPU and monitor.”
ing like babies. We were working every day, even weekends. Our website had traffic until midnight, so we had to stay up late to run operations. But at least in the startup world, I could spend the whole night at the office working. When we watched HBO’s Silicon Valley, it felt like we were seeing our story on TV. It’s hard for people from Myanmar to join an Americanstyle boot camp. Our way of learning is not the same. But it’s been worth it. The tech way of thinking has allowed us to execute our ideas better and more quickly. Now we have over 4,600 freelancers and 790 businesses on our site, and we’re expecting to be profitable soon. Before starting our company, my sister and I fought a lot, but since then we haven’t had time. When we’re pitching a project, we even complete each other’s sentences. We know everything just by looking at the other’s face. We’re sure the internet will transform this country—though there are side effects. Our family used to spend the evenings together, but now even if we go out to dinner, we just end up on the internet.
Nay Phone Latt AGE: 37
Pen name of Nay Myo Kyaw, one of Myanmar’s first political bloggers and a member of Yangon’s regional parliament I come from a political family; I marched in the 1988 and 1997 uprisings. Those
failed, of course, but I believed democracy would come. When I moved to Singapore in 2005, my friends introduced me to blogging. I realized how powerful it could be for spreading the prodemocracy message. By the time I moved back home in 2007, the government had licensed a few internet cafés. I pooled money with friends to open one. Normally the authorities kept tight control—café owners had to hand over screenshots of what every user did. But I took my cafés underground. People could access Gmail, news websites, and other banned things. A lot of political activists were interrested, so I organized the Myanmar Blogger Society. One day in September 2007, I saw hundreds of monks marching and shouting in the rain. I felt like, “Finally, we’re going to get democracy.” But then the police began rounding up all the monks and arresting them. Everyone was afraid, but the other bloggers and I knew we had to get the story out. We used digital cameras to record injustices. It became one of the few ways to get information out of Myanmar. The internet made the revolution more possible because protesters could coordinate and inform the world. But eventually the authorities shut off the internet for the country. Then they came and arrested me.
Doug Bock Clark (@dougbockclark) is a freelance writer. This article was written with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
I was sentenced to 20 years and six months in a remote prison. I swore to always find a way to speak out—I argued with the guards until I could write to whomever I wanted. If you lose your voice, you become invisible, and then the government can do whatever they want with you. Suddenly, after four years, I was released, and in 2015 I became a candidate for Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party. Mobile technology transformed the election, informing voters and helping the media make things more transparent. And if something went wrong at the voting stations, people could let
me know, because everyone had a cell phone. Now that we’re free, there are so many things to do for the people. Most rural people have never experienced anything like technology before, so they don’t know about digital security. A group of extremist monks is using social media to drive violence against Muslim minorities with hate speech, and many Muslim villages have been burned. So I’ve traveled around the country to provide training on how to use tech responsibly. While it can empower democracy, it can also have bad effects. Myanmar still needs to learn how to use it.
U Ohn Maung logs on to a farming app called Golden Paddy every two days to check prices of crops.
U Ohn Maung AGE: 56
A tea and ginger farmer in the Shan state My father and my grandfather were tea leaf farmers. We’d pick fresh tea leaves very early in the morning and work until dark—and then we had to boil, knead, and pickle the leaves. Today I still cultivate the same land they did and have 5,700 bushes. It’s our family business but also our tradition. I have always lived in the same town with about 900 people, which is in a very beautiful forest but also very isolated. When I was a child, we lived in wooden houses and used candles at night, and the mountain footpaths were too small even for oxcarts. For a long time, life didn’t change. But around 2012 we got 24/7 electricity. In 2014 a cell phone tower was built on the mountain ridge nearby. And last year a local NGO visited and demonstrated the Golden Paddy app. I was excited. Before that I had used my phone only for calling and Facebook. But now I could get information about the weather, market prices, and pesticides. Being able to know the weather in advance is amazing—before, I just had to watch the clouds! And the market information is very important. Before, we would sell our products to the brokers for very low prices, because we had no idea they sold them for higher prices in the city. But in the app I can see what the prices are in the big towns, so I don’t get cheated—especially for ginger and avocados. The web connection is not good here, so I walk all around looking for a better connection so I can use the app. Sometimes
“With a mobile money service, I can send cash to my daughter so she can make more shoe shipments.”
phone with her and my grandchildren! And since my son has become a soldier and is now on the front lines, it reassures me to hear his voice.
Ashin Wirathu AGE: 49
The most influential demagogue in a group of extremist monks that aims to expel Myanmar’s Muslim minority from the country
Mar Mar Aye and her daughter built a new business selling shoe soles by sending money and information via their phones.
I like to look at prices for crops I don’t even grow, in places I will never go, just because I’m curious. When I meet other farmers, I tell them how useful it is. Still, I wish someone would train me. I’m very hopeful about the future. I just have to learn how to use my phone better.
Mar Mar Aye AGE: 53
A small-business owner outside Yangon My husband was in the military, so we’ve moved all over Myanmar for his placements. In the old days, whenever we were stationed outside the
cities, it was like we fell off the face of the earth; it could take a month for a handwritten letter to reach us. But today’s communication systems are much better. This is important because my daughter lives in Mandalay while I live outside Yangon. I run a small neighborhood convenience store, and mobile technology has allowed us to make a real business. My daughter buys truckloads of shoe soles and then ships them to me. Then I sell them to the shoe factories nearby. With Wave Money, which is a mobile money service, I can send the cash I get in Yangon back to my daughter in Mandalay, so she can make more shipments. Before mobile phones, it was much harder to arrange this, so we could only do four shipments a month, but now we
can do eight or nine. That makes me a lot more profit. Also, in the past, to pay my son’s boarding school fees I had to go to a long-distance bus terminal and send it through a bus service. Of course, we worried about the money being lost or not reaching my son in time. The banks in Myanmar weren’t a good option because they’re far away and take a lot of time. M o b i l e te c h n o l o g y h a s changed my life in so many other ways too. When I got my first phone five or six years ago, suddenly I could hear my daughter’s or son’s voice first thing in the morning, which is something I always wished I could do. It’s as if I’ve suddenly become a lot closer to my family again. I usually talk with my daughter twice a day. I just got off the
After eighth grade I was briefly ordained as a novice monk—as all boys are. I remained a monk because of how great it was. I started preaching in 2001 after I began to sense the danger of Islamization in our country. During that time, there were news blackouts and censorship. Town criers would walk the streets with a horn, yelling to announce my sermons. I was never allowed to speak on the radio, because the government deemed me controversial. Eventually they imprisoned me for almost a decade. I was freed on January 13, 2012, a date I will always remember. A few days later, one of my followers showed me how to use a Nokia mobile phone and a computer. Immediately I saw that, with those tools, the world had become small, and I could connect with anyone, from other
Ashin Wirathu takes to Facebook, with help from other extremist monks and laypeople, to spread vitriolic anti-Muslim messages.
monks to laypeople. I started using Facebook to talk about trends I noticed. Later, during the conflicts with Muslims, I began posting news. Social media is much better than using town criers. If I give a sermon, even people who cannot attend it can hear my message. Now I have thousands of followers. I write news items by hand, and then my disciples transcribe my drafts and post them for me.
It’s become so much work that I need other monks and laypeople to help me write and post articles. They work in shifts, morning and afternoon. My strategy resembles Donald Trump’s: I want to reach the people directly. The US may have a good standard of living but no security against Islam. Only Donald Trump can protect you. People say that I fan the flames of hate, but when there
“My strategy resembles Donald Trump’s: I want to reach the people directly.”
is a fire, it’s natural for people to get frightened. Only after the fire has been extinguished will people turn to thank me. Look! See this picture? [He holds out his phone, displaying a graphic photo of a corpse.] This is an example of what Muslims do. I lost some sleep over it last night. They tell me a Muslim family killed a Burmese man. Now, excuse me, I have to go post about this. � OCT 2017
mark dean veca
THE REPLICANT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . BLADE RUNNER 2049
WHAT A SEQUEL 35 YEARS IN THE MAKING CAN TELL US ABOUT THE STATE OF SCI-FI, THE DARK FUTURE OF FUTURISM, AND AMERICA , S APPETITE FOR DYSTOPIA. . . . . . . . . . . .
BY BRIAN RAFTERY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAN WINTERS
WATER RIPPLING ACROSS THE WINDOWS OF A FLYING CAR, ONLY TO VANISH—LIKE TEARS IN RAIN. AND I’VE SEEN THE ORIGINAL BLADE RUNNER HIMSELF SET OFF RUNNING AGAIN … AND AGAIN … AND AGAIN. I’VE SEEN THINGS YOU PEOPLE WOULDN’T BELIEVE: SKYSCRAPERS ENGULFED IN A SICKLY YELLOW HAZE; ELVIS PRESLEY PERFORMING ON THE STAGE OF A DECADENT ARTDECO NIGHTCLUB;
It’s a fall morning in 2016, and on a cavernous soundstage in Budapest, Harrison Ford— wearing a gray button-down shirt, dark jeans, and a Ford-tough grimace—is shooting a crucial encounter in Blade Runner 2049. For the first time in more than three decades, Ford is reprising his role as Rick Deckard, the pianoplinking, hard-drinking cop from Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. The 75-year-old actor has endured several on-the-job injuries over the years—this is a guy who had a chunk of the Millennium Falcon fall on his leg—but he shows little sign of wear as he sprints through Deckard’s almost tomblike condo, shoulders pumping vigorously and a wolfish dog galloping by his side. In today’s scene, Deckard is being pursued by a special agent named K (Ryan Gosling), who bursts methodically—perhaps even robotically?—through Deckard’s marble wall like a slimmer, grimmer Kool-Aid Man. But every time Gosling smashes into the room, it terrifies the pooch, who scrambles out of frame before Denis Villeneuve, the film’s 49-year-old FrenchCanadian director, can call, “Cut!”
ILLUSTRATIONS BY STEVEN NOBLE; SET DESIGN BY EDWARD MURPHY/CONSOLIDATED SOUP, INC.; WARDROBE STYLING BY NICOLE SCHNEIDER (ALL IMAGES). PREVIOUS SPREAD: WARDROBE STYLING BY MARK AVERY, GROOMING BY MALANIE ROMERO; SWEATER BY VINCE
Why K doesn’t just use the front door isn’t exactly clear, as the plot of Blade Runner 2049 is guarded with the kind of intensity usually reserved for Star Wars reshoots. (Even negotiating to get onto the set required more backand-forth than a Voight-Kampff test. I’m told I’m the only US journalist who passed.) Still, there are a few confirmed details: Thirty years after audiences left Deckard bruised and battered in 2019 Los Angeles, he has disappeared, and Gosling’s LAPD officer is on the hunt (possibly at the behest of his boss, played by Robin Wright, though no one involved with the movie will say for sure). Meanwhile, there’s a new breed of replicants—the series’ term for androids—being built by a mysterious inventor named Wallace (Jared Leto), who’s aided by a devoted employee, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). That’s pretty much all the 2049 team will tell me, no matter how politely I ask. “I’m not even sure I’m allowed to say I had a good time making it,” Gosling jokes. As Ford dashes repeatedly across the set and Gosling continues smashing through the wall, Villeneuve stands outside of the faux condo, his short gray-black hair looking early-morning tousled. When Villeneuve is satisfied with a shot, he tends to repeat his words, patternlike, in a rich Quebecois accent. (“When you hear three deeeplys—‘I deeeply, deeeply, deeeply love it’—you know you’re in the sweet spot,” Gosling says.) After the dog finally gets the timing right, Villeneuve puts his hands in his pockets and nods happily: “Greatgreatgreatgreatgreat.” Though the director’s demeanor is calm—when he’s not talking quietly to the actors, he’s chewing gum and stoically stroking his beard—the wall-breaking moment is one he’s been worried about for a while now. He doesn’t want his 2049 action sequences to be too noisy or audacious or, as he puts it, “too Marvel.” Instead, he says, “I want to bring them down as close as possible to the original Blade Runner: more simple, more brutal.” Which would make sense if the first film had been a hit and moviegoers had flocked to its chilly (and, yes, brutal) vision of a not-too-far-off future ravaged by ecological disaster and corporate corruption. But they didn’t, and even after the subsequent decades of mainstream discovery, critical reassessment, and massive cultural influence, Blade Runner 2049 remains the rarest of Hollywood propositions: an R-rated, $150 million sequel to a movie that not a lot of people liked (or even fully understood) when it first came out. What makes this all the more difficult to compute is that 2049—35 years in the making and arriving in theaters this month—promises an even darker vision of the future than the original, amping up the dystopic futurism-funk that bombed with moviegoers and critics back in 1982. If it took audiences years to connect with the future depicted in the original Blade Runner, how will they respond to Villeneuve’s version of how things are going to get even worse?
Ridley Scott swears he doesn’t think too much about the past. Ask him if he feels validated that the world seems to have finally caught up with Blade Runner and he’ll give you a cockeyed stare and a shrug: “I don’t give a shit.” Wait, really? “No, I don’t give a shit,” he says. “I’ve got a movie shooting in Rome in two weeks. The important thing to do is move forward and never look back.” Scott, 79, has been responsible for some of the most meticulously crafted, forward-moving sci-fi smashes of the past four decades. On a spring afternoon in Los Angeles, perched at the end of a couch in an all-black shirt-and-pants ensemble, his manner is cordial and kinetic, albeit in a let’s-get-on-with-this way. And while he says he hates to look back, he’s spent decades trying to keep interest in Blade Runner alive, even though (or maybe because) his difficulties making the film—angry financiers, a bitter crew, endless energy-sapping delays—were so extensive they wound up filling an entire making-of book, as well as a three-and-a-halfhour documentary. The offscreen saga began in 1977, when a struggling actor named Hampton Fancher set his sights on making a movie out of Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, an idea-congested, paranoia-stoked novel about an android-hunter, Deckard, who falls for a synthetic creation named Rachael. In the novel, as in the eventual film, the androids are built by a secretive, deep-pocketed corporation and are often sent to take up tasks that humans no longer want to do. Taking the name Blade Runner from an old William S. Burroughs book, Fancher joined forces with Scott—who was coming off the haunted-house-in-space hit Alien—and the two spent long, sometimes combative months BRIAN RAFTERY is a senior writer at wired.
He wrote about film director Lexi Alexander for issue 25.08.
working on early versions of the script, trying to conceptualize life in 2019. “Science fiction is a very special form of auditorium,” Scott says. “It’s a theater, a box, within which anything goes—but you’d better draw up the guidelines and the rule book before you begin. Otherwise, you end up with nonsense.” After one too many creative falling-outs with Fancher, Scott brought on David Peoples (later of Unforgiven and 12 Monkeys) to help finish writing the screenplay. In 1981, filming finally began, with Ford playing Deckard and Sean Young playing Rachael, and the English-born Scott found himself at odds with his American crew—and, it was rumored, with Ford. (In the 2007 makingof documentary Dangerous Days, one producer remembers that Ford would get “pissed off” about the constant delays in shooting.) Scott denies that the tension between him and his star was ever as bad as reports would have you believe: “Oh, we got on fine! I used to get drunk regularly with Harrison during filming.” When Blade Runner was released in June of 1982, even Ford’s post–Star Wars star power and Scott’s post-Alien cred couldn’t make it a hit. Set in a drab, undesirable future devoid of sunlight or serenity—and bursting with moments of (literally) eye-popping violence—the film turned off most moviegoers, who instead chose to spend that summer moon-swooning with E.T. or getting wrapped up in the wrath of Khan. (Blade Runner made a so-so $6.15 million in its opening weekend, barely beating Rocky III, which had been playing for nearly a month.) Many of those who did buy tickets were taken aback by its depiction of the future. “It wasn’t like Flash Gordon, where everyone had great spacesuits and shiny spaceships, and everyone looked really sexy,” futurist and physicist Michio Kaku says. “In Blade Runner, the people were misfits, and the robots did the dirty work. It shocked people.” The shock was especially hard to shake because, unlike so much other sci-fi of that era, Blade Runner wasn’t searching too far to find the future. As opposed to the Star Trek or Alien films—galaxy-questing adventures set centuries henceforth—Scott’s Blade Runner was an Earthbound best guess at what a troubled American city might be like within the audience’s lifetime. You felt as though you could almost reach out and touch the technology in Blade Runner, which made its take on where the world was heading all the more palpable—and terrifying. “It’s a film that haunts you,” says Gosling, who caught the original version of Blade Runner at home when he was a teenager in Canada, “because that future feels possible.” The film disappeared from theaters almost as quickly as it arrived, though Scott says today that he is not entirely surprised by its unicorn-rare second life beyond the big screen. “I knew what we had,” he says. “And I knew it was special.” A couple of years after its release, Fancher walked
“THE POWER OF SCIENCE FICTION IS THAT YOU’RE ABLE TO EXPERIENCE THE WORSTCASE SCENARIO WITHOUT ACTUALLY HAVING TO LIVE IT.” RYAN GOSLING
into New York City’s Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, where a clerk recognized the screenwriter’s name. “He said, ‘We have a Blade Runner club!’” Fancher recalls. “‘We bought a 35-mm print, and every month we get together and find a place to play it.’” Thanks to midnight screenings, cable TV runs, and home-video releases, more and more viewers found themselves lost in the future world of Blade Runner, drawn in by the electro grandeur of the film’s claustrophobic cityscapes and the poetry of Rutger Hauer’s soul-battered, rain-spattered speech, in which his replicant villain, Roy Batty, mourns a life he’d only barely begun to understand. (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe …”) And because of the film’s diffuse storytelling and
HARRISON FOR D
blurry genre confines, Blade Runner can feel like a different movie every time you watch it: a detective story, an action flick, a romance— or maybe all of them at once. “I definitely saw it as a love story, about people searching for their identity,” says 2049’s Hoeks, who first saw it in her native Holland. “And it’s about people trying to have control over their lives.” Within a decade, Scott’s enveloping technonoir tale—with its teeming city streets, culturecluttered skylines, and potentially toxic technologies—would prompt a new generation of filmmakers to pursue their own sleek, solemn visions of the future, many of which wound up looking a lot like Blade Runner. Its dank aesthetic coursed through movies and shows like The Matrix, Cowboy Bebop, Akira, The Fifth Element, and the original Ghost in the Shell. Videogames like BioShock and Perfect Dark, meanwhile, borrowed heavily from its visual vocabulary. “At first I was amused by the fact that Blade Runner
One night in early 2011, just as he was about to start filming Prometheus—his first return to the Alien series since he launched it back in 1979—Scott had a three-hour dinner in London with producers Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove. Their company, Alcon Entertainment, was just coming off hits like The Blind Side, The Book of Eli, and Dolphin Tale, and they had spent a year quietly acquiring the rights to produce a new Blade Runner movie. Would the director have any interest in joining them to discuss a sequel? “Ridley said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this meeting for 35 years,’” Kosove remembers. Not too long afterward, Fancher was sitting in his Brooklyn apartment when the phone rang: Please hold for Ridley Scott. The two hadn’t spoken for years, but with the director once again piloting the Blade Runner franchise, he wanted to see if Fancher could fly to London to talk ideas. “I immediately said, ‘Oh, you finally hit the bottom of the barrel,’” Fancher says of his old sparring partner. “And he laughed.” As luck would have it, Fancher had been working on a short story whose protagonist would eventually become 2049’s Agent K. Those few pages were eventually turned into a treatment and a short script, which was then turned over to a screenwriter named Michael Green, who at the time was known mostly for this TV work. The resulting script was so top secret that at one point it was given the code name Acid Zoo, based on a story Fancher likes to tell about the time he took LSD and stared at gorillas. Even early on Scott and Fancher had Gosling in mind to play Agent K, and Scott made a point of keeping Ford looped in on the script’s progress. In a 2015 interview, Scott recalled that when he first brought the idea of 2049 to Ford, the actor said, “Meh.” “I don’t remember saying that,” Ford says, “but I don’t know if he talked to me before I had a couple cups of coffee. The script is what convinced me.”
HAIR BY KAREN ASANO-MYERS; MAKEUP BY BILL CORSO
“IS ONE EVER SECURE IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF HOW YOU GOT HERE— OF HOW YOU WERE MADE?”
was an influence,” Scott says. “Then I got fed up with seeing pouring rain onscreen.” All great sci-fi inevitably gets replicated through other sci-fi—Star Wars begot a late ’70s/early ’80s load of junky, mumbo-jumbo space tales; The Terminator minted an entire video-store shelf’s worth of killer-robot dramas; Alien unleashed a galaxy of ship-devouring monsters. But Blade Runner stood out not just for its influence but for its possible prescience. Think of the animated lights adorning Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre building, or the illuminated spine of Los Angeles’ recently opened Wilshire Grand tower. Take a walk through the centers of Manhattan or Tokyo, with their LED-zeppelin screens and sky-plundering advertisements. They’re the kind of sense-assaulting landscapes that have come to represent our collective concept of “the future,” and though their designers no doubt had other things on their minds besides a decadesold sci-fi flick, it’s hard to look at them and not wonder where Blade Runner’s influence begins and where it ends. “Blade Runner changed the way the world looks and how we look at the world,” William Gibson says. The godfather of cyberpunk famously walked out of the movie in the theater, shaken that its visuals had “totally scooped the atmosphere of my first attempt at a novel”—a book, by the way, that became hacker tome Neuromancer—though he finally caught the full film a decade later and came to understand why it was so influential. “It’s a true classic,” he says today. “And it’s become our cultural-visual template for the future.” The most enduring legacy of Blade Runner may be the film’s never-resolved cliffhanger: Was the replicant-hunter Deckard actually a replicant himself? Fans have been debating the question for decades now, incited by new cuts of the movie that Scott has released over the years to sharpen and clarify his original vision. (The consensus seems to be: Yes, Deckard’s a replicant … probably.) No matter where you land, it’s the kind of existential quandary that only leads to more quandaries—about how we define “human”; about whether or not our most unique traits are, in fact, data points to be duplicated; about how much we can trust our own recollections. “It’s an ambiguous film: Is he or isn’t he, and does it matter?” says sci-fi novelist Madeline Ashby, who’s written extensively about robotics and AI. “It’s about who you are, and what you’re here to do, and which memories are important to you.” Adds Ford: “Is one ever secure in the knowledge of how you got here—of how you were made?” Existential id-scratchers like these are why Blade Runner went from outcast to oracle. And they’re also why Scott had long hoped to add a new chapter to the saga. “There was always,” he told me, “another Blade Runner story.”
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“Everybody going into this was apprehensive,” says Green, who would go on to work on four other big 2017 projects (American Gods, Logan, Alien: Covenant, and Murder on the Orient Express). “The prospect of diving back into many people’s favorite film, including my own—we all wanted to make sure we were getting it right. You’re not playing with fire, and you’re not playing with matches; you’re playing with M-80s in the backyard, and you’ve already lost your thumb.” Then, a hitch. In 2014, Scott’s other directing commitment made it clear he wouldn’t be able to helm 2049. Instead he became an executive producer, and Johnson and Kosove approached Villeneuve. At that point, the director was still not quite a household name: He’d spent the past decade making a series of unyielding dramas that were freeze-grab gorgeous but gut-wallopingly tough, like 2010’s sweeping war drama Incendies (yikes), 2013’s abducted-kid downer Prisoners (oof), and 2015’s stark, almost suffocatingly tense drug-war thriller Sicario (hoo, boy). These were films in which violence acted as a pathogen, spreading through one person’s body or an entire country’s history with devastating, long-term effects—especially for the characters on the receiving end. And with last year’s Best Picture–nominated hit Arrival—about a linguist (Amy Adams) who communicates with a pair of octopus-like aliens—Villeneuve proved himself to be one of the few filmmakers who can make sci-fi that feels at once fantastical and utterly real. Kosove, who also produced Prisoners, believed that duality was necessary for 2049. “Blade Runner is always put in the sci-fi genre, but we really think it’s more of a noir movie,” he says. “And if you look at Prisoners and Sicario, you know there isn’t a filmmaker today doing better noir than Denis.” But Villeneuve had some (perfectly human) reasons not to take the job. He’d just finished Sicario and was about to start on Arrival, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle another movie so soon. Besides, Blade Runner was one of his favorite films, and he suspected that reentering the movie’s complex world could be “a super-bad idea.” He initially said no, but when the producers came back with another offer to accommodate his schedule, he changed his mind
and decided to take the risk. “I said to myself, ‘If there’s a moment where I’m going to do a movie of this scale, it needs to be something that matters to me.’” Later, I asked Scott what it was about Villeneuve that made him comfortable handing over the keys to his beloved Blade Runner. “I wasn’t,” he says. He wasn’t? “No. But waiting for me to direct it would have only gotten in the way, and Denis was our best option, by far.” He smiles, before adding cryptically, “It takes one to see one.” Production began in Budapest in the summer of 2016, and for nearly 100 days, filming swallowed up a campuslike 10-stage facility. Unlike the famously calamitous making of the original Blade Runner, which Ford once described as “a bitch,” Villeneuve’s set hummed with brisk, amiable efficiency. (On the day I visited, at least.) Even shooting take after take of the scene where Gosling kept scaring the daylights out of the dog, Ford appeared to actually be … enjoying himself ? “Well, if it looked like I was, I probably was,” he says, his voice still reliably—and wonderfully— coarser than a quarry. “I don’t spend too much time trying to look like I’m having fun.” Millions of dollars went into re-creating the look and feel of the original film—and all without relying on too much green-screen chicanery. “So many science fiction films all look the same, because the effects are done by rote,” says 2049 cinematographer Roger Deakins. “We were desperate to create our own world.” Step up to Deckard’s windows, for instance, and you see that the hazy high-rises surrounding his home are towering illustrated backdrops that wrap around
“SCIENCE FICTION IS A THEATER, A BOX, WITHIN WHICH ANYTHING GOES. BUT YOU’D BETTER DRAW UP THE RULE BOOK BEFORE YOU BEGIN.” RIDLEY SCOTT
INGREDIENTS OF SCI-FI DYSTOPIA By imagining the consequences of, say, rampant consumerism or unchecked technological growth, we can hopefully—hopefully—avoid dystopia IRL. Here’s how Blade Runner stacks up against other genre classics. —caitlin harrington
A.I. GONE WILD
EXTREME WEALTH/ POVERTY
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) BLADE RUNNER (1982/2017)
CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)
THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)
DISTRICT 9 (2009)
12 MONKEYS (1995) THE MATRIX (1999)
GADGET LA B : 2 0 4 9 E DITION Prop master Doug Harlocker and production designer Dennis Gassner on the cars, guns, and manicure sets of the new film’s future. –c.h.
HARPOON GUN Scavengers in the lawless outskirts of the Blade Runner universe use these grappling guns to snag loot. Inspired by whaling harpoons, the design is purposefully steampunk, Harlocker says, because they’re “meant to reflect a culture in which scavengers forge their own weapons from the leftovers of history. With futuristic movies, a lot of the technology is digitally advanced and based on computers, but we tried to make this movie with an analog bent.”
AGENT K , S BLASTER
Harlocker kept the double-barrel design of Deckard’s gun from the original film but streamlined it and gave it a single trigger instead of two. He also added textures, vents, and a top slide.
This three-wheeled flying vehicle is powered by a futuristic form of fusion. “It’s a new technology,” Gassner explains, “since in the world of 2049 they don’t really have a lot of fossil fuels or sun to power a car.”
DECKARD , S BINOCULARS
Harlocker and his team tried several color treatments for these restraints before landing on yellow. “In a police department that’s grubby and pale,” he says, “yellow stands out and makes criminals easier to spot.”
Inspired by real-life military rangefinders used for spotting targets miles away. Harlocker miniaturized them, painted them red, and gave them infrared night vision and thermal-imaging capabilities.
Ostensibly a (gnarly) manicure set, the team designed this toolkit with robot repairs in mind. Manicurists (or robot technicians) can work on a near-microscopic scale as fiberoptic lights guide their laser scalpels over hard surfaces.
These marbles store massive amounts of data (including VoightKampff test results). However, like human brains, their power declines with age. “As the spheres get older,” Harlocker says, they cloud over and “become less readable.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSEPH SHIN
the stage. Nearby, there’s an enormous Vegaslike nightclub in which a skinny-era Elvis, surrounded by feather-adorned showgirls and iced champagne bottles, crooned “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Outside, there’s a giant lot strewn with mini mountains of rusted beams and oil barrels, as well as a warehouse where crew members are hosing down one of several “spinners”—the insectlike police cars that served as Deckard’s transport in the original and have been upgraded for the sequel. “We wanted the vehicles to have a more chiseled, angular, graphic strength,” says production designer Dennis Gassner, who oversaw the design of the new spinner. “It’s a harsher world than in the first film, both environmentally and stylistically.” That harshness has marked much of Villeneuve’s previous work—though even the director is puzzled as to where it all comes from. If his movies follow a pattern, even an accidental one, “it’s obviously saying something about me,” he says. Maybe, he guesses, “I’m a nerd who is in contact with the shock of the world.” Which is part of the reason he’s drawn to the downcast future portrayed in Scott’s Blade Runner, one devoid of star treks or new hopes that has only become more immediate of late. It’s not too batty to attempt to draw a line from Deckard’s primitive Blade Runner VidPhone to our own FaceTime; from man-made snakes and owls to the critters being modified in labs; from combat-model replicants to the military robots deployed around the world. Indeed, the first movie served not only as a pre-viz of our possible future but a warning of just how brutal it would be to live in it. “The only violence I got in my life was winter,” Villeneuve says one summer afternoon in a small, Kubrickian-white office on the Sony lot in Los Angeles, several months after 2049 wrapped. Though the late-afternoon sun is breaking through the window, the director can’t help but think of the harsh weather he experienced as a kid—six or seven months of snow, stuck in his parents’ house in a small town in rural Quebec, a nuclear power plant visible from the kitchen window. “And weather helped me figure out this movie a lot. I started from the premise that the ecosystem has collapsed, and I started to build a new Los Angeles.” In a nearby editing room, Villeneuve has just shown me a brief scene from 2049 in which a bloodied-up K pilots his spinner over a series of low, tightly packed houses, before heading toward a looming LAPD headquarters. Once inside, he’s placed in a white room and subjected to a post-trauma stress test in which an unseen authority figure grills him. He then pays a visit to downtown LA, which is being pelted with snow. Even on a small screen, the sequence is absorbing, elegant, inscrutable. It’s Blade Runner. Ecological tumult also played a role in the original film, which was set in a world in which animals are extinct. But that film’s environmental
“WEATHER HELPED ME FIGURE OUT THIS MOVIE: I STARTED FROM THE PREMISE THAT THE ECOSYSTEM HAS COLLAPSED, AND I STARTED TO BUILD A NEW LOS ANGELES.”
GROOMING BY DAWN MATTOCKS; SWEATER BY BELSTAFF; JACKET BY RICHARD JAMES
DENIS VILLEN E U V E
warnings, Fancher says, “were whispered. I’m not sure people even heard them.” Villeneuve’s approach is far louder: The LA of 2049 is home to an immense barrier, called the Sepulveda Wall, that keeps the rising oceans at bay. With all the various real-life environmental crises that California has experienced in the past few years—droughts and wildfires, with the requisite debates over seawalls—it feels a little too close to our current reality. It’s enough to make you wonder if audiences are ready for a drama about the near-end of the world from a director who’s not exactly known for his light touch. The film lands in theaters near the end of one of the most restless, fear-feeding years in recent memory. (Your fears, of course, might be the
exact opposite of my fears—which just makes everything more terrifying.) And it arrives just as many of the technologies at the center of both the original and sequel—advanced artificial intelligence, genetic engineering—are no longer pure fiction. The once far-off dystopia seems to inch closer every day, which means Villeneuve’s follow-up isn’t just another adventure in the Blade Runner world; it’s a darker iteration of what our own future could be. “We’re so close,” Fancher says of the future world that he, Scott, and Philip K. Dick conjured so many years ago. “There are going to be replicants.” We’re not quite there yet. But it is this very closeness that could help 2049 succeed where Blade Runner first failed. The strongest sci-fi has always used the landscape of the future to help us process our worries about the present, and the nightmarish outcomes that audiences wanted nothing to do with back in 1982 are now talked about, debated, and noodled over by ever-growing numbers of people. Americans today feel the existential anxieties at the core
of the Blade Runner universe more deeply and fully than almost anyone in 1982 could’ve imagined, and so a sequel that doubles down on dystopia could resonate in ways the original never could. “The power of science fiction, and what’s positive about it,” Gosling says, “is that you’re able to experience the worst-case scenario without actually having to live it.” And when you consider that Blade Runner 2049 arrives a few months after such sci-fi bleakbusters as Alien: Covenant, Logan, and War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s clear that the shiny destiny of Flash Gordon has all but vaporized. We seem to enjoy our worst-case scenarios these days, in part, because it makes our present life seem tame in comparison. To paraphrase a certain android from Blade Runner: It’s quite an experience to live in fear, both in science fiction and in our flawed, fleshy reality. Like the first film, Blade Runner 2049 can help tease out where things may be headed, and allow us once again to see things we wouldn’t believe— no matter how inhuman they may seem. �
Every year, Amazon needs thousands of extra workers for the fall shopping rush. So every year, it recruits an army of nomadic retirees in RVs to perform grueling labor in its vast warehouses. Meet the CamperForce.
In the spring of 1960, just after he turned 16, Chuck Stout
went to work as a “garbage boy” at a McDonald’s in Toledo, Ohio. For 85 cents an hour, he swept and mopped the floors, kept the drive-in lot tidy, filled the shake machine, and washed dishes. Chuck loved the job. It was an escape— somewhere to go that wasn’t the Weiler Homes public housing complex, where he lived with his mother and sister. They were barely scraping by. “My mom drank so much,” he says, “she didn’t know what I was doing.” Not only did Chuck love his job, the job loved him. He went from garbage boy to french fry maker to burger cook to cashier. He became a manager, then a supervisor, then a field consultant, then a professor at Hamburger University, where McDonald’s trains new franchise owners and managers. By 1976, Chuck was serving as a director of product development for the entire corporation. The next year, he was on the team that brought ice cream sundaes to the chain’s menu. For the effort, Chuck was rewarded with a handsome bonus and a personal letter from founder Ray Kroc, whose wisdom Chuck was fond of quoting from memory. Chuck eventually got fed up with corporate culture and told his superiors he wanted to go back out “in the field.” When two planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001, he was 57 and running his own McDonald’s franchise in Columbia, Pennsylvania. He rushed to Manhattan, where
for three days he loaded up Egg McMuffins, hash browns, and coffee, first onto a luggage trolley, then a golf cart, and hauled them down to the debris pit to feed rescuers. The experience felt like the capstone of Chuck’s more than 40 years with the company. It was, he believed, the most worthwhile thing he’d ever done. Chuck retired from McDonald’s in 2002. Not long after that, he lost his wife of 25 years to cancer. And so at age 60, Chuck found himself starting over. He moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and bought a two-bedroom cottage with a hot tub on the 10th green of a golf course in a gated community. To stave off restlessness, he took a job leading open-air jeep tours of the Carolina Lowcountry. He began having dinner with a fellow guide named Barbara Gatti, then going bowling with her, then going to the local Unity church with her. In 2007 she moved in with him, and they started their own company, Carolina Adventure Tours. Chuck led most of the excursions. Barb, a church music director, gave lessons on the side. They were happy. They were not prepared. Chuck still remembers the call from Wells Fargo that brought the 2008 financial crisis crashing down on his head. He had invested his $250,000 nest egg in a fund that supposedly guaranteed him $4,000 a month to live on. “You have no more money,” he recalls his banker saying flatly. “What do you want us to do?” Unable to think of a better answer, Chuck told him, “Well, shove your foot up your ass.” Then he hung up.
Above and on previous spread: Chuck and Barbara Stout in their RV. Having lost their savings in 2008, the two are now nomadic workers.
nessee, then on to South Dakota and Mount Rushmore. By the time they settled in for the summer at Palisade State Park in central Utah, the adventure was already wearing them down. Whenever it rained, water began leaking into their RV from all sides; the rubber seals surrounding the windows and the bathroom skylight were shot. The Stouts named their rig “TC.” On a good day, TC stood for “Totally Comfortable.” On a bad day— when the furnace failed in freezing weather or the turn signals died—it meant “Tin Can.” In Utah they worked as campground hosts— welcoming visitors, cleaning toilets, shoveling out fire pits, running an office—but the job didn’t pay; it just gave them a free spot to park TC, with hookups for water, electricity, and sewage. Cash was getting tight. Chuck was receiving $1,186 a month from Social Security, and Barb got some money each year from her family. Neither of them had health insurance. That summer, while waiting for a check to arrive, they watched their food rations dwindle to two cans of black beans, a can of corn, and some iced tea. Their account was down to $8. They wondered how anyone managed to survive on the road. Then someone told them about a website called Workers on Wheels. There they found a sprawling employment network for job-seeking RVers, a community whose members called themselves “workampers.” A few weeks later, the Stouts were back on the move, driving west to Nevada, where they’d finally secured three months of full employment. For Chuck, the job meant he would occupy the lowest rung of a major corporation’s ladder for the first time since he was a garbage boy at McDonald’s. He didn’t mind, though. All that mattered was that he and Barb were together. And that Amazon would pay them. Barb had lost her savings too, some $200,000 in investments. And with the travel industry flattened by the Great Recession, bookings at Carolina Adventure Tours dwindled. By the time Barb and Chuck got married in 2009, they were upside down on their mortgage and grappling with credit card debt. The couple was facing bankruptcy, which scared Chuck to death. It brought back the terror of growing up poor—the pervasive insecurity he’d stamped out by going to work at 16. But by 2012, they had run out of options. After filing their papers, Chuck and Barb began liquidating their lives. They shuttered Carolina Adventure Tours and handed their 2009 Chrysler Town & Country over to the bank. They sold most of their possessions, including all of their appliances and furniture. What didn’t sell on Craigslist went to an auctioneer. Barb let go of her record collection and two pianos. Chuck surrendered his golf clubs. Objects they couldn’t bear to part with—including Chuck’s letter from Ray Kroc, framed and hanging on the wall—went to one of Barb’s daughters for safekeeping. (Barb
and Chuck each have three kids.) Whatever survived the purge had to fit in their new dwelling: a 29-foot 1996 National RV Sea Breeze motor home, which Barb’s brother sold to them for $500. The rig had dry-rotted tires, a dead generator, and a leak in the gas line. Back when the Stouts had money, they’d idly fantasized about becoming carefree vagabonds in a nice RV. Their current situation didn’t quite align with that dream, but they embraced it anyway. Perhaps, Barb reflected, this was destiny— the universe pushing them toward the lifestyle they’d wanted all along. She decided to call their next move “Barb and Chuck’s Great Adventure.” The Stouts set off in early 2013. First they drove south to Pensacola, Florida, where they stayed for a month in a downscale RV park. Next they moved into a New Orleans trailer court wedged between a rail yard and a highway. Then to Memphis, Ten-
II. In the mid-2000s, Amazon had a problem. Every year, the company scrambled to find temporary workers during the peak months of hectic commerce leading up to Christmas. In some areas of the country, reliable on-demand labor was so hard to come by that it resorted to busing in workers from three to five hours away. Then, in 2008, a staffing agency came up with something
JESSICA BRUDER (@jessbruder) is the author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, from which this story is adapted, to be published by W. W. Norton & Co., September 19, 2017.
new: inviting a team of migrant RVers to work at the facility in Coffeyville, Kansas. Pleased with the results, Amazon brought in more RVers the following year, expanding the program to warehouses in Campbellsville, Kentucky, and Fernley, Nevada. Amazon gave the new initiative a name—CamperForce—and a logo: the silhouette of an RV in motion, bearing the corporation’s “smile” logo. Many of the workers who joined CamperForce were around traditional retirement age, in their sixties or even seventies. They were glad to have a job, even if it involved walking as many as 15 miles a day on the concrete floor of a warehouse. From a hiring perspective, the RVers were a dream labor force. They showed up on demand and dispersed just before Christmas in what the company cheerfully called a “taillight parade.” They asked for little in the way of benefits or protections. And though warehouse jobs were physically taxing—not an obvious fit for older bodies—recruiters came to see CamperForce workers’ maturity as an asset. These were diligent, responsible employees. Their attendance rates were excellent. “We’ve had folks in their eighties who do a phenomenal job for us,” noted Kelly Calmes, a CamperForce representative, in one online recruiting seminar. He elaborated: “You guys have put in a lifetime of work. You understand what work is.” Camper Force hired aggressively. Representatives went on scouting missions in more than a dozen states, setting up recruiting tables at popular RV destinations like Yellowstone National Park and the motor home mecca of Quartzsite, Arizona, where tens of thousands of RVers camp in the desert each winter. They wore CamperForce T-shirts and handed out “Now Hiring” flyers, along with swag bearing the smiling RV logo—pads of sticky notes, beer koozies, handheld fans. They created a $50 referral bonus—later increased to $125—for existing CamperForce workers who convinced friends to join them. In a company presentation, one slide read, “Jeff Bezos has predicted that, by the year 2020, one out of every four workampers in the United States will have worked for Amazon.” Warehouses in other cities—including Haslet, Texas; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Jeffer-
sonville, Indiana—began using CamperForce workers. And as Amazon’s network of fulfillment centers expanded, the company hired trusted CamperForce veterans to be “away team associates,” responsible for training workers at some of its new facilities. Since it began, CamperForce has enabled Amazon to fill thousands of seasonal warehouse positions. The company is notoriously tight-lipped, but when I asked a CamperForce recruiter in Arizona about the size of the program, she estimated that it encompassed some 2,000 workers. That was back in 2014. And newer anecdotal reports suggest the demand for CamperForce jobs has continued to grow. “We can really look back at the last couple years and see how applications have come in earlier and more often,” said Calmes, the CamperForce representative, during a recruiting seminar in May. “Response this year has been just really overwhelming.”
III. When the Stouts arrived in Fernley, Nevada, in 2013 to start their first season at CamperForce, they didn’t know what to expect—apart from the wage: $11.75 an hour plus overtime. They landed at the Desert Rose RV Park, a gravel patch along Highway 50 dotted with cottonwoods and bisected with high-voltage wires that crackled overhead. It was the most popular of the halfdozen or so trailer courts that worked with Amazon to provide space for workers. All were filled up with CamperForce workers and their rigs, which ranged from colossal RVs to tiny travel trailers and camper vans. One worker had only a tent to live in. The Stouts reported to the warehouse on October 1 for orientation, training, and a period of half-days called “work hardening,” meant to help newcomers adapt to the physical stress of the job. Then the 10-hour shifts began. Chuck was a picker. His job was to take items down from warehouse shelves as customers ordered them, scanning each product with a handheld barcode reader. The warehouse was so immense that he and his fellow workers used the names of states to navigate its vast interior. The western half was “Nevada,” and the eastern half was “Utah.” Chuck ended up walking about 13 miles a day. He told himself it was good exercise. Besides, he’d met another picker who was 80 years old—if that guy could do it, surely he could.
Barb was a stower. That meant scanning incoming merchandise and shelving it. Stowers didn’t have to walk as far as pickers did, though Barb’s muscles still ached from the lifting, squatting, reaching, and twisting motions that her job required. Much of the strain was mental. With the holiday season nearing, the warehouse’s shelves were crammed, and one day she wandered around the warehouse for 45 minutes—she timed it—looking for a place to stow a single oversized book. Barb murmured, “Breathe, breathe,” to herself to stay calm. On days off, many of Barb and Chuck’s coworkers were too exhausted to do anything but sleep, eat, and catch up on laundry. But the Stouts were gregarious and managed to rally new friends for excursions. They went on a tour of the Mustang Ranch, a legal brothel, and organized a Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people at a casino. Chuck and Barb found that they had a lot in common with their fellow work-
Amazon does about a third of its business in the last three months of the year, aka Q4. It needs many more warehouse workers during that time, which is where the Camper Force comes in.
Amazon product sales (in billions)
SOURCE: US SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
Seasonal Sales Spikes
$23.1 $ 21.1
$5 Q4 2013
A map hanging in the Stouts’ RV shows where their travels have taken them, often for seasonal jobs.
ers, who came from all corners of the United States. Many had seen their retirement savings vanish in the stock market or had lost homes to foreclosure. Others had watched businesses go under or grappled with unemployment and ageism. A larger number had become full-time RVers or vandwellers because they could no longer afford traditional housing—what they called “sticks and bricks.” They talked about how Social Security wasn’t enough to cover the basic necessities and about the yoke of debt from every imaginable source: medical bills, maxed-out credit cards, even student loans. The Stouts’ Camper Force social circle included a couple from Beaverton, Oregon, named Bob and Anita Apperley, who lived in a 2003 Cardinal fifth-wheel trailer. Like the Stouts, they were new to full-time RVing and were doing CamperForce for the first time. When Bob looked around the Desert Rose, he recognized it as a place where the Great Recession had never ended. “This is a whole band of housing refugees!” he exclaimed. Before the crash, the Apperleys had been doing all right. Bob worked as an accountant for a timber products firm, and Anita was an interior decorator and part-time caregiver. They thought they would retire aboard a sailboat, funding that dream with equity from their threebedroom house. But then the housing bubble burst and their home’s value tumbled. Neither could imagine spending the rest of their lives servicing a loan worth more than their house. So they bought the trailer and drove away. “We just walked,” Anita says. “We told ourselves, ‘We’re not playing this game anymore.’ ” Bob blamed Wall Street. When he spoke about his decision to abandon the house, he’d rush to add that, before that moment, he’d always paid the bills on time. He’d kept good credit. His downfall had been his faith in the gospel of ever-increasing home prices. “I never had any expectation that a house would drop in value,” he says, shaking his head. Bob compared the “slow-dawning reality” of his new life to waking up in The Matrix: learning that the pleasant, predictable world you used to inhabit is a mirage, a lie built to hide a brutal reality. “The security most people take comfort in—I’m not convinced that isn’t an illusion,” he says. “What you believe to be true is so embedded. It takes a radical pounding to let go.” For the Stouts and their coworkers, the camaraderie of the RV park made Camper Force bearable. Other stuff helped too: comfortable sneakers, Epsom salt baths for sore feet, Icy Hot for tired muscles, daily rations of Advil, Aleve, or the free generic pain relievers on offer in the warehouse. None of those things, however, was a surefire preventative against jobrelated ailments. As the season wore on, people complained of plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, and repetitive stress injuries, including a condition
called trigger finger, which came from using a handheld scanner gun over and over. The weather made things worse. By the end of October, snow had already come to Fernley. Below-freezing temperatures left many denizens of the Desert Rose struggling to stay warm in RVs built for warmer climes. TC’s pipes froze, cutting off the water supply. Then its pump broke. Problems like this were common enough that Amazon created a CamperForce web page titled “Winterizing Your Rig.” It advised covering windows in shrink-film and putting reflective insulators over roof vents, and provided links so readers could purchase both materials on—where else?—Amazon.com. A chalkboard hung on TC’s wall. The Stouts used it to count the days until their three-month CamperForce tour ended. Finally it showed a triumphant zero, which meant the Stouts were free to leave Fernley and venture back into the unknown.
Most of the year, the town of Quartzsite, Arizona, lies dormant, a lonesome outpost between Los Angeles and Phoenix with a couple of truck stops and temperatures high enough to make you hallucinate. In the inferno of summer, it has fewer than 4,000 inhabitants. But every winter, when days grow mild, nomads stream in from all over the US and Canada, turning the area into a pop-up metropolis. It’s estimated that more than 40,000 RVers dwell in the desert near Quartzsite from November through February, in an annual pilgrimage that has been called Burning Man for Geezers, Spring Break for Seniors, and America’s Largest Parking Lot. Rather than paying for amenities, most “boondock” on the public lands outside of town, using solar panels and gas-powered generators, hauling water in jugs and tanks. During the frigid
Left: Pete and Sarah Francis, CamperForce workers staying at a campsite in Clarksville, Indiana. Right: A trailer at the same campground.
Retiring on Fumes
SOURCE: US GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE
41 % of American house holds approaching retirement age have $0 in retirement savings.
months in Fernley, Barb and Chuck had heard longtime RVers speak longingly about Quartzsite. So they decided to give it a try. It felt like a rite of passage. It did not go so well at first. Another couple they’d met on the road had invited them to join a large, shared campsite. When the Stouts arrived, they saw that the campers staying there all had vehicles of the same type—luxury Blue Bird Wanderlodge motor homes—parked in a circle around a large bonfire pit. The Blue Bird owners, who generally seemed more well-to-do than Barb and Chuck, called the Stouts’ vehicle an “SOB,” slang for “Some Other Brand.” It was not invited to join the grand formation. So Barb and Chuck parked behind the Blue Birds. Some nights, they had their own bonfire. They soon connected with a more welcoming tribe—one whose bonds had been forged by hard labor. One afternoon, an unofficial CamperForce reunion sprang up on a patch of desert called Scaddan Wash. The gathering included nine Amazonians—Bob and Anita Apperley among them—one retired police officer, and one writer: me. I was staying in a tent not far from the Stouts’ campsite. I’d been interviewing CamperForce workers for months by that point, so Barb—one of the organizers of the gathering—invited me along. That night, we sat in camp chairs and the CamperForce alums reminisced about warehouse work while munching on pork rinds, tortilla chips, baby carrots, and Barb’s homemade vegan “egg salad” sandwiches. They sang “The Twelve Days of Amazon,” a mocking parody of the holiday classic that Barb had cowritten with a friend. Then they drew names from a hat to award door prizes: CamperForce-branded key chains, bottle openers, lanyards, and flash drives. A few weeks after they arrived, the Stouts visited a sprawling RV expo that comes to Quartzsite every year, which folks around town call the Big Tent. Barb and Chuck wandered aisles where more than 200 exhibitors sold all manner of RV services and supplies. But just as conspicuous were all the recruiters. Workampers seemed to be in demand all across the US. Amazon had representatives stationed at a recruiting table for CamperForce; several booths were hiring campground hosts for various national parks; a staffing agency sought workers for the annual sugar beet harvest in the Red River Valley region. (Its flyers read: “Be part of an ‘unbeetable’ experience!”) There was also a booth for Adventureland, an Iowa amusement park where workampers helped run rides, games, souvenir shops, and food courts while living in a company-owned campground. For the Stouts, it was as if the world they’d begun to explore on the internet over the past few months—the online job boards that connected RV dwellers with work in all corners of the country—had materialized in front of them.
V. Over the next two autumns, the Stouts reported for a second and third tour of duty with CamperForce. In 2015 they joined a convoy of CamperForce workers headed to the Amazon warehouse in Haslet, Texas, near Fort Worth. Chuck was now 71. Barbara was on the cusp of 59. I was 37. The Stouts arrived at the warehouse in September, and I was hired by CamperForce to start working in Haslet two months later, in early November. After hearing so many stories about their jobs, I wanted to experience the work firsthand. Due to a shortage of trailer park space near the warehouse, the Stouts ended up at a Kampgrounds of America site 34 miles north of the facility. Heavy morning traffic around Fort Worth meant they had to wake up at 4 to arrive on time for their 6 am shift. “We went to work in the dark, and we came home in the dark,” Chuck says. The 1.1 million-square-foot Haslet warehouse was just two years old. It was gigantic and stateof-the-art, the paragon of Amazon’s modern, hyperefficient distribution chain. But Haslet had never used CamperForce labor before—so it was just beginning to incorporate an army of senior citizen nomads into the system. Miles of conveyor belts wound through the facility, rumbling like freight trains as they shuttled tubs of merchandise between stations. Paths marked in green tape told workers where to walk to avoid smacking into a belt, making the warehouse floor look like a giant board game. A horn kept blaring over the din, signifying that a jammed belt had just been fixed and was starting up again. The walls featured murals of Amazon’s warehouse mascot, a bloblike orange character called Peccy, along with Orwellian slogans like “Problems Are Treasures” and “Variation Is the Enemy.” Wall-mounted dispensers labeled LIL’ MEDIC
offered free pain relievers. A poster told workers to prepare to be sore. Everything was regimented. Handheld scanners tracked workers’ progress around the warehouse. Inside bathroom stalls, charts showing a palette of colors ranging from light yellow to terrifying puce instructed workers to examine their urine and drink more water. The most futuristic thing about Haslet was that it operated a fleet of industrial robots, one of 10 Amazon facilities at the time that did so. The giant Roomba-like machines transported merchandise around the warehouse, essentially abolishing all the legwork that had been done by pickers like Chuck. Many of the freshly arrived CamperForce workers were curious and strangely excited to work alongside the robots that threatened to replace them. But the Stouts didn’t get to work with the muchtouted bots. Instead they were assigned to the receiving department. Day and night, semi trucks backed up to the loading docks, disgorging their freight onto conveyor belts. Large boxes traveled down the line into the warehouse, where workers like Barb opened them, scanned their contents, and transferred everything into yellow bins called totes. Barb marveled at the tide of weird, meaningless junk that swept past her in the course of each long shift. She decided that the year’s most inane product was something called a potty putter: a tiny golf set with a green, a flag, and two balls, designed for use in the bathroom. Chuck became a “water spider,” a catchall position—sort of like garbage boy—that entailed pushing carts, resupplying stations with totes, emptying garbage cans, and other odd jobs. He was in constant motion, walking about 15 miles per shift, pausing only on rare occasions. One such occasion came when a box flew off a conveyor belt and knocked him flat on the ground. The sound of his head hitting the concrete floor was terrifyingly loud; in an instant, he was surrounded by worried coworkers and an Amazon medic. The medic held up a finger, asking Chuck to watch as he moved it slowly back and forth. Soon he had good news: Chuck hadn’t sustained a concussion. So he went back to work. (Amazon declined to comment on the incident.) When I arrived in Haslet in November, it took me a long time to cross paths with the Stouts; we were staying in different campsites more than
40 miles apart and were assigned to different departments, and different shifts, in the vast warehouse. At my orientation, I was the only recruit under 50. Our trainer—herself a CamperForce veteran—said that Amazon was thrilled to welcome the RVers, adding that they were known for “the camper effect”: a can-do work ethic that rubbed off on younger, less experienced laborers. My job assignment was in a department called Inventory Control/Quality Assurance, which meant scanning merchandise so it could be matched against inventory records. It also meant working with the robots. The 350-pound orange contraptions were called drive units in official Amazon parlance, but most people called them Kivas, after the name of the original manufacturer. They scooted around inside a dim fenced-in area—after all, robots don’t need light to see—on a floor nicknamed the Kiva field. Their job: ferrying open-faced shelving columns full of merchandise to stations operated by humans like me along the perimeter. No one, except for members of a labor unit called Amnesty, was allowed to enter the Kiva field, even when products tumbled off the shelves. I’d read a lot of hype about the Kivas: They were supposedly the harbingers of a jobless dystopia in which manual labor would be obsolete. The reality was more slapstick. Our trainers regaled us with tales of unruly robots. They told us how one robot had tried to drag a worker’s stepladder away. Occasionally, I was told, two Kivas—each carrying a tower of merchandise—collided like drunken European soccer fans bumping chests. And in April of that year, the Haslet fire department responded to an accident at the warehouse involving a can of “bear repellent” (basically industrial-grade pepper spray). According to fire department records, the can of repellent was run over by a Kiva and the warehouse had to be evacuated; eight workers were treated for injuries and one was taken to the hospital. Amazon, for its part, says it “can find no record of an employee being taken by ambulance right after the incident.” One CamperForce worker, a white-haired septuagenarian, told me that she was on the verge of quitting because she found the robots so maddening. The Kivas kept bringing her the same shelf to scan. After it happened to her three times, the shelf began going to her husband, who was working 25 feet away. He got it six times. She told me this outside the break room, as we walked past a cheerful-looking member of the cleaning crew. Trailing off from her story, she stared at the worker and demanded, “How’d she get that job? I’d rather do that! I’d rather clean toilets.” At the start of each of my own shifts, a ponytailed manager in her twenties said “Helloooo, campers!” while her assistant coached us through stretching exercises. Then I spent hours scanning barcodes on
The Reality of #Vanlife
If you’re going to live in a van or RV for less than $1,000 per month, you need to learn a few tricks that life in a house never taught you. Fortu nately, workamper websites abound with advice on manag ing life on the road. –andrea powell
Do Your Laundry Turn three 5gallon buckets and a toilet plunger into a portable washing system. Soap the clothes in the first bucket and use the others for rinsing. The plunger (stuck through a hole in the lid) serves as an agitator.
Stay Clean When there’s no hot shower available, get a large pumpaction garden sprayer, paint it black, and fill it with water. Then set it in the sun on top of a reflec tive foil sunshade (the kind you use to cover a windshield).
Keep the Lights On Electrical hookups in campgrounds can get expensive. With a few hundred dollars and some simple assem bly, you can add solar panels to the roof of your camper, go off the grid, and power your appliances.
DonÕt Freeze Vans and RVs get dan gerously cold in the winter. Hang reflective insulation and space blankets over win dows to keep out the chill. Affix sheets of Styrofoam, available at buildingsupply stores, to your roof and walls.
whatever the Kivas brought me: everything from gun accessories to dildos (Cloud Nine Delightful Dong). On one occasion, a Kiva carrying 18 boxes of patchouli incense rolled toward my workstation—and then returned twice more to be rescanned. When my shift was over, my coworkers could still smell the incense on me. “Saturday Night Fever!” exclaimed a retired minister. One evening, I managed to meet up with Barb and Chuck at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Denton. They cracked up when I told them about my experiences with the Kivas. But our reunion was brief; I had to report to work for the overnight shift. A few hours later, a manager asked me to scan items in “Damageland,” where all the broken merchandise gets exiled. But the readout on my handheld scanner insisted I was supposed to be driving a forklift. (I do not know how to drive a forklift.) After much futzing with the scanner, I finally made it to the land of damaged goods. After a few hours taking stock of dented cans, broken boxes, and a novelty gift called a BUTT/FACE
towel, it was time to clock out. And with that, as if to confirm Amazon’s impression that younger workers are less reliable than older workampers like Barb and Chuck, I quit. I’d made it through all of one workweek.
VI. After they finished their stint in CamperForce that year, the Stouts returned once again to Quartzsite—this time as veteran nomads. Barb had a job in the Big Tent, selling Bloody Mary mix to the Spring Break for Seniors set. One night, they invited me to take part in a small ritual: They were going to burn their old bankruptcy papers. Near a crackling bonfire, Chuck opened a Miller Lite for himself and one for me. Barb sat on a cooler with a glass of wine and offered a benediction over the event. “I’d like to give thanks to the universe for this very poignant moment, where we can get on with our lives,” she said. Chuck rifled through an accordion folder, pulling out individual documents. He inspected each one with a flashlight before dropping it onto the pyre. A batch of invoices flared up brightly. “Those were some hot bills!” he cracked. They talked about how they hoped to upgrade to a newer motor home that didn’t leak. Barb mused that she never wanted to own a credit card again. They marveled over the past few years. Chuck found a letter they’d written to their creditors before declaring bankruptcy in 2012, back when he was seized by terror at the thought of backsliding into poverty. It seemed like another lifetime. He read a couple of sentences aloud. “We have done everything in our power to make ends meet but have fallen short due to the economy and our circumstances in owning our own business. It is our full intention to pay our creditors,” he intoned. After a pause, he added: “We tried.” Then he slipped the paper into the fire. When most of the papers were gone, Barb brought out her guitar and improvised a ditty: When we signed in 2012, We didn’t know what the future held. My brother gave us this piece of shit, And now we’re living in it! It was our destiny To be living in TC, And now we’re moving down the road.
Scenes from a campground in Clarksville, Indiana, which hosts workers for an Amazon fulfillment center nearby.
The song was short, but she held the last note long and clear, as if it were already pushing them into the future. �
When you take a closer look at Snopes, the internetâ€™s favorite myth-busting site,
you see just how hard it is
Illustrations by Marijn Hos
to pin down the truth.
The Search for Facts in a Post-Fact World by Michelle Dean
IT WAS EARLY MARCH, NOT YET TWO MONTHS INTO THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION, AND THE NEW NOT-NORMAL WAS SETTING IN: IT CONTINUED TO BE THE ADMINISTRATION’S POSITION, AS ENUNCIATED BY SEAN SPICER, THAT THE INAUGURATION HAD ATTRACTED THE “LARGEST AUDIENCE EVER”; BARELY A MONTH HAD PASSED SINCE KELLYANNE CONWAY BROUGHT THE FICTITIOUS “BOWLING GREEN MASSACRE” TO NATIONAL ATTENTION; AND JUST FOR KICKS, ON MARCH 4, THE PRESIDENT ALERTED THE NATION BY TWEET, “OBAMA HAD MY ‘WIRES TAPPED’ IN TRUMP TOWER.” If the administration had tossed the customs and niceties of American politics to the wind, there was one clearly identifiable constant: mendacity. “Fake news” accusations flew back and forth every day, like so many spitballs in a third-grade classroom. Feeling depressed about the conflation of fiction and fact in the first few months of 2017, I steered a car into the hills of Calabasas to meet with one person whom many rely on to set things straight. This is an area near Los Angeles best known for its production of Kardashians, but there were no McMansions on the street where I was headed, only old, gnarled trees and a few modest houses. I spotted the one I was looking for—a ramshackle bungalow—because the car in the driveway gave it away. Its license plate read snopes. David Mikkelson, the publisher of the fact-checking site Snopes.com, answered the door himself. He was wearing khakis and a polo shirt, his hair at an awkward length, somewhere between late-career Robert Redford and early-career Steve Carell. He had been working alone at the kitchen table, with just a laptop, a mouse, and the internet. The house, which he was getting ready to sell, was sparsely furnished, the most prominent feature being built-in bookcases filled with ancient hardcovers—“there’s a whole shelf devoted to the Titanic and other maritime disasters,” Mikkelson told me—and board games, his primary hobby. Since about 2010, this house has passed for a headquarters, as Snopes has no formal ofces, just 16 people sitting at their laptops in different rooms across the country, trying to swim
against the tide of spin, memes, and outright lies in the American public sphere. Just that morning Mikkelson and his staff had been digging into a new presidential tweet of dubious facticity: “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!” Trump had the correct total, but the overwhelming number of those detainees had been released during the George W. Bush administration. “There’s a whole lot of missing context to just that 122 number,” Mikkelson said. There are other fact-checking outfits, like PolitiFact, which is operated by the Tampa Bay Times, or FactCheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. But Snopes has kicked around the internet since 1994—which makes it almost as old as what we once called the World Wide Web. In this age of untruth, it has become an indispensable resource. Should your friend’s sister start a conspiracy trash fire in a Facebook comment thread, Snopes is a reliable form of extinguisher. Because of this reputation, Snopes was listed as a partner in a Facebook fact-checking effort announced last fall after the social media giant acknowledged it had become a conduit for fake news. Potentially false stories could be flagged by users and an algorithm, and then organizations like Snopes, ABC News, and the Associated Press would be tasked with investigating them. As pretty much anyone knows, the truth can be a slippery bastard. Getting to the bottom of something requires what you might generously call a fussy personality. Mikkelson possesses that trait. He spends hours writing a detailed analysis of a claim and feels frustrated when readers just want a “true” or “false” answer. He’s got the worldview of Eeyore, had Eeyore been obsessed with cataloging the precise history, variety, and growing seasons of thistles in the Hundred Acre Wood. He can even get pessimistic about whether his work makes a difference. “Since a lot of this stuff is really complicated, nuanced stuff with areas of gray, it requires lengthy and complex explanations,” he said. “But a lot of the audience, their eyes just tend
MICHELLE DEAN (@michelledean) is a journalist in Los Angeles. Her first book,
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, will be published in 2018.
David Mikkelson has been debunking myths on Snopes.com for more than 20 years. “It’s kind of like the site is my baby,” he says.
to glaze over, and it’s just, they don’t want to have to follow all of that. So they just fall back on their preconceptions.” Among those preconceptions is the rightwing view that Snopes is anti-Trump, its efforts to separate fact from fiction merely a cover for liberal bias. Mikkelson disputes this, saying that if you look at the totality of the posts Snopes has written on the subject of the president, “the vast majority of them are debunking false claims made about him, not affirming negative things said about him or disproving positive things said about him.” But nobody is looking at the totality; if that sort of intellectual honesty ever existed in the public sphere, it’s gone now. And sure enough, the week before I went to Calabasas, Tucker Carlson on Fox News had been jeering at “those holy men at Snopes, those gods of objectivity.” “Do you ever get sick of the stupidity of all this?” I asked Mikkelson in his kitchen, a couple of days after Carlson’s rant. “Yes,” he said. His eyes rolled heavenward, and he gave a weary little laugh. But what I didn’t know then was that more chaos was coming, and it was chaos that threatened the very existence of Snopes. Just days later, Mikkelson would start a fight with the new co-owners of the business, which led them to freeze the distribution of the site’s ad revenues, making Snopes so cash-poor that by July it had to resort to a “Save Snopes” GoFundMe campaign to keep operations afloat. The appeal worked. It had raised, as of late August, more than $690,000. The groundswell of support was a satisfying, even humbling, ratification of the work Mikkelson and his staff had put into Snopes. But amid the good feelings were some questions. Articles mentioned a messy divorce; they mentioned “embezzling claims.” And just as it’s hard for Snopes to nail down, absolutely, definitively, certain truths about the toxicity of a copper mug or the meaning of the president’s words, it can be trickier than expected to nail down the truth about Snopes.
his “nom de net,” snopes—lowercase, at first—in the early 1990s in a Usenet group called alt.folklore .urban. The name comes from a lesserknown William Faulkner trilogy, but MikMIKKELSON FIRST ADOPTED
other nerds. The site got attention from local media when reporters wrote up the dangers of believing your email forwards—the closest thing to fake news the early internet could come up with—but it remained, mostly, a hobby for the Mikkelsons. Then, on September 11, 2001, out of the clear blue sky, everything changed. The planes flew into the Twin Towers and crashed at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and America turned, panicked, to the internet to try to explain those events to itself. “I posted the first of the September 11 articles just after midnight on September 12,” Barbara wrote to me. It was a post debunking the rumor that the 16th century astrologer Nostradamus had predicted the attacks. “I researched and wrote that first article only because I needed to do something other than just cry and feel helpless.” The tenor of their site was about to change. Where once they had been conducting tests with marshmallows and houseplants, now they were debunking claims that there were 4,000 Israelis who worked in the World Trade Center who stayed home that fateful day. Traffic spiked. Suddenly the press, which had treated Snopes mostly as a curiosity, took real interest. The Mikkelsons found themselves doing newspaper interviews, appearing on television, talking about the lies Americans were telling themselves in the aftermath of the catastrophe. When David’s job disappeared in a round of layoffs in 2002, it seemed natural that he would work full-time on the site. In 2003 the Mikkelsons incorpo-
the bookkeeping while David managed the technical aspects of the site, and both of them researching and writing posts. They were both active in the user forums they had set up too. Kim LaCapria, a frequent poster who later became one of Snopes’ first employees, says she relied on Barbara in those years. “She gave me lots of advice, she was probably one of the most influential adult women on me when I was a young woman.” The world kept churning out bizarre rumors. Snopes let the world know that sushi did not cause maggots in a man’s brain and, at the height of tensions over the war in Iraq, debunked a claim that a South Carolina restaurant was turning away service members. And in 2008, as Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency and won, Snopes explained that he was not, in fact, the Antichrist and refuted a fake Kenyan birth certificate circulated in 2009, which, among other signals of inauthenticity, was stamped “Republic of Kenya” before such a country existed. Finally, with a growing stream of falsehoods to attend to, the site hired LaCapria as its first writer in 2014. The next year, David brought on a freelance journalist named Brooke Binkowski, who quickly became indispensable, and hired even more researchers. Binkowski now serves as the managing editor of the site. These new employees came just in time for the massive challenge to accuracy that was the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump. The researchers looked into the ever-multiplying rumors popping up online: Did Trump fly troops home from the first Gulf War on his own airline? (No.) Were the black supporters in a photograph that Trump retweeted actually Trump fans? (They were not.) The site also confirmed that the Trump campaign had sent food and supplies to hurricane victims, and it debunked
COURTESY BARBARA MIKKELSON
kelson just shrugged when I asked if he was a big Faulkner fan. The attraction was the sound—“short and catchy and distinctive.” Alt.folklore.urban was a place for people who enjoyed collecting, sorting, and organizing facts. These were people who might spend hours trying to figure out if hot water froze faster than cold water or whether “Puff the Magic Dragon” was actually about drugs. Barbara Hamel was in her thirties, married, and living in Ottawa, Canada, when she first found alt.folklore.urban, via the Ottawa FreeNet. She’d worked as a secretary and a bookkeeper, but it wasn’t really what she’d imagined for herself. “Under different circumstances, I would have gone on to become a journalist,” she wrote in an email to me recently, “but after applying to Ryerson University in Toronto, I was felled by Crohn’s disease and thus had to abandon that plan and find another way in life.” She posted several times a day, a funny, wry, and engaging presence. David and Barbara began flirting in the Usenet group, and by the fall of 1994, Barbara had moved to California to be with David. They wed in 1996. It was in the early days of their romance, David says, when he had the idea that would become Snopes. The graphical web had just been born, and he saw an opportunity to rescue his careful research from the relentless chronological stream of the Usenet group. The page grew. It was a joint effort, though at first David kept his day job as a computer tech and coder at an HMO. His income paid for their expenses and the cost of running the site. David and Barbara lived frugally in a rented condo in Agoura Hills, and their stories about these salad days sound like tales from an endearingly dorky public-access television show. Barbara remembers the tests they would conduct to prove a fact or a falsehood. “One had me sitting for half an hour with my mouth full of marshmallows; another had me sequestering plants in our glass-enclosed fireplace lest the cats gnaw on them before the conclusion of a multiweek experiment on the effects of microwaved water on their growth.” For the first seven years or so, the site stayed firmly in the realm of what you might call Weird America: Was Walt Disney cryogenically frozen after death? (No, he wasn’t.) Google was not yet officially a verb, and the internet was still in some ways the domain of nerds whose web pages were read by
THE GOFUNDME APPEAL SEEMED TO DIMINISH BARBARA combining their names MIKKELSON’S ROLE rated, to form Bardav Inc. They each a 50 percent interest in the IN BUILDING SNOPES. took business, with Barbara doing
fake stories that Mike Pence had called Michelle Obama “vulgar” and that Ivanka Trump had disavowed her father. Snopes had been hoping to vault itself out of partisanship by sticking to the facts. But the times we are in don’t allow for any such creature. For years—since Snopes started writing about politics—the underbelly of the internet has been vomiting up conspiracies suggesting that Snopes is a liberal front. Mikkelson, for his part, claims to be neither Democrat nor Republican; he says he’s essentially apolitical, with loosely libertarian views. His protests made no headway with Fox News, and sites like The Daily Caller complained that Snopes has hired researchers of a liberal persuasion and insist with regularity that Snopes is “fake news.” None of the aspersions being cast hurt Snopes as an enterprise. Traffic hit an all-time high of 3.7 million pageviews just after the 2016 election, thanks to controversies large and small. Ad revenue was growing. It should have been a great time for everyone at Snopes. But for the Mikkelsons, things were unraveling.
ON MAY 8, 2014, BARBARA abruptly took her things out of the Calabasas house and moved to Las Vegas while David was away on a trip. Then she filed for divorce. Neither David nor Barbara would talk to me on the record about the divorce. But London’s Daily Mail gave the Mikkelsons’ split the full tabloid treatment last December, and the divorce papers have been uploaded to the internet by some unknown person, surfacing on fringe right-wing websites and providing the outlines of their dispute. At some point before Barbara left him, David began seeing a woman named Elyssa Young, whom he eventually married in late 2016. Today, Young works for Snopes as an administrative assistant but previously worked as a professional escort, something she’s been open about. In fact, in 2004, when Young ran for Congress in Hawaii on the Libertarian Party ticket, she wrote on her campaign pitch: “My background is in the adult entertainment and sex industry, so for once, you will get an honest person in office.” (Young did not respond to numerous requests for comment.) The Daily Mail played up the salacious details of this history, which included the more serious claims that David used company funds to pay for Young’s personal travel. For his part, David refuses to be bothered by this public airing. “It’s just stupid personal stuff that doesn’t have to do with any aspect of the work I or my staff does,” he says. “Also, know that the people interested in ferreting out this stuff were probably really hoping to find something like undisclosed financial sources, undisclosed political contributions, drug abuse, criminal record, something like that, and nope, none of that is out there to be found.” What the records do reveal, as any nasty marital dissolution will, are struggles over money and control. For at least some months in 2016, the records show, Snopes was pulling in more than $200,000 a month in advertising sales. And although the site had employees to pay, much of that money was profit. Barbara and David still each had equal shares in Bardav, which meant 50 percent of that profit was Barbara’s. David seemed to resent Barbara’s ownership stake. In his divorce papers, he argued that “in the last several years prior to the filing of the Petition, Petitioner did nothing other than bookkeeping for Snopes.com, while I oversaw all other aspects of the site’s operations.”
The divorce became so acrimonious that David and Barbara found it impossible to run the business together. In early 2016, David asked that his salary be raised to $360,000 from $208,000. Barbara said she found this “not even in the galaxy of reasonable.” Then, when David continued to ask for a retroactive increase, Barbara told him she’d sent the matter to their arbitrator, as was the procedure provided in the divorce agreement. David subsequently claimed he’d never signed the arbitrator’s engagement letter and now suspected the arbitrator was biased. In other words: Any business matters would result in baroque disputes that lasted months. They squabbled constantly about whether David was inappropriately claiming personal expenses as business expenses, with Barbara contending, for example, that David had improperly claimed a trip to India as a business trip when really it was a vacation. (David replied in the divorce papers that he had gone to India as a “business-building” effort.) Finally, in July of 2016, about seven months after the divorce was finalized, Barbara sold her stake in Bardav to the five principal shareholders of a company called Proper Media for $3.6 million. Proper Media was already familiar with Snopes. Since August of 2015, in exchange for a commission, it brokered advertising on the site, collecting revenues and disbursing them to Bardav monthly. The agreement could be terminated by either party on 60 days’ notice. This meant while Proper Media’s shareholders had become owners of Bardav, their company also, independently, contracted with Bardav to manage Snopes’ cash flow from advertisers. For a while, this arrangement seemed to work to the benefit of all parties; though it was initially supposed to last a year, it continued for almost 19 months. Then, on March 9, 2017, David terminated the agreement. Why David did this, as reporters often say in stories about unresolved lawsuits, is in dispute. Proper Media’s two main shareholders, Drew Schoentrup and Christopher Richmond, claim that David never wanted any co-owners. “Mikkelson was unhappy that Barbara maintained ownership of half of what he always considered to be his company after the divorce,” they wrote in the complaint they filed in May with the Superior Court of San Diego. Together, Schoentrup and Richmond now hold a 40 percent interest in Bardav. In the complaint, they say David was seeking to regain control of Bardav by conspiring with one of Proper Media’s other shareholders, Vincent Green, who left and began working directly with Bardav. They filed suit against Green too. David, in his court-filed response, says he ended the agreement with Proper because its disbursements
were often late, and Snopes could get the same services from other vendors “at significantly lower cost.” Still, David must have anticipated that ending the agreement would annoy his new co-owners. After he did so, Proper quit sending Bardav the money from advertisers and claims that David couldn’t cancel the contract without at least one of the co-owners agreeing to the decision. They also suggested that David had improperly claimed personal expenses as business ones, citing his honeymoon with Young to Asia as an example. In late July, with cash apparently running out, David set up the GoFundMe account. The fund-raising appeal referred to Proper Media as simply a “vendor” and made no reference to the fact that its shareholders held a 50 percent stake in Bardav too. The GoFundMe campaign’s rousing success suggested that the danger to Snopes had passed. Moreover, after a court hearing in August in San Diego, a judge ruled in David’s favor and ordered Proper Media to disburse advertising revenues to Bardav while the case was pending. Through their attorney, Karl Kronenberger, Schoentrup and Richmond confirmed that they will comply with the order, though they still intended to press on with their claims against the business. “The issue,” Kronenberger said, “is getting David Mikkelson out of a leadership position from Snopes, because he’s not fit to be there.”
OVERWROUGHT CLAIMS that eventually come around to a compromise are common in business disputes, and for now the judge has ruled that David will stay in charge of Snopes. I doubt that David will ever leave Snopes willingly. It’s everything to him. I’d asked him, once, if he’d ever seek venture capital, say, for Snopes. He shook his head. “I’m not interested in giving up ownership, no.” This was a theme. Snopes now has 12 people on its editorial staff, but David told me he still tries to read as many of the posts as he can. “I don’t mean this as an expression of lack of confidence in the other editors; it could be interpreted that way but it’s not how I mean it. It’s kind of like the site is my baby,” he said. “It’s like having to leave your child in the charge of a babysitter.”
Mikkelson and his current wife, Elyssa Young, married in 2016.
When the GoFundMe campaign was announced in late July, I thought about that statement. The force of Snopes’ appeal was emotional: Without giving his readers the full story, David Mikkelson was essentially pleading with them to help him keep his baby. People responded to that call because Snopes had made itself, as Alexis Madrigal, who wrote a detailed account of the lawsuit for The Atlantic, put it, “a vital part of internet infrastructure in the #fakenews era.” NPR reported that the site had paved the way for other online fact-checking sites. The story was largely covered as a small guy trying to maintain his integrity against the forces of business. That was, for sure, the most compelling way to characterize what was happening. The lawsuit was concerned with questions about
corporate governance and contract interpretation that are not exciting to describe. And most journalists rightfully admire what Snopes does. They understand what it means to feel under assault from both economic and political forces. Defending Snopes felt like a natural extension of the ongoing fight for truth in what can sometimes feel like a posttruth world. Whatever the circumstances, there are a lot of people who don’t want to see an enterprise like Snopes fail right now. The nobility of the cause was self-evident, but I had spent months trying to understand the history of the site, and something about the fund-raiser had stuck in my craw. It was six little words on the GoFundMe: David had written that Snopes had begun as a “small one-person effort in 1994.” There was no mention of Barbara. She only came up as journalists had begun to look at the documents in the business dispute, and then was usually mentioned as the other party in an acrimonious divorce.
The GoFundMe appeal was not the first time I’d seen David diminish Barbara’s role in building Snopes’ reputation. There was the claim in the divorce papers that she hadn’t been involved “other than bookkeeping” in Snopes for years. And a curious thing had happened as Snopes grew and changed and switched web templates over the past three years: Increasingly, it was hard to find Barbara’s name. She wasn’t listed on the site’s About page. Posts she wrote—like the one about 9/11 and the Nostradamus predictions—now bear David’s byline rather than hers. David told me this is the result of a technical change made after Barbara left—the site migrated to a WordPress platform, which automatically populated bylines with his name. When I asked Barbara to comment on the GoFundMe page, she noticed her erasure. “Was surprised to see my life’s work described as having been ‘a small oneperson effort,’ ” she wrote in a Facebook message to me. She refused to meet in person for an interview, but her first response to my entreaties—“Thank you for looking to include me”—was telling, and she did agree to answer some questions by email. She still lives in the Las Vegas house she moved into when she left David. She hasn’t published a word anywhere since she sold her interest in the business, but she still plainly likes to write. She gave me long and thorough replies to questions about her place in Snopes’ history. When I asked how many articles she’d written for the site, she came back with a “verified count” of 1,905. She told me how she came to that number: “By examining every Snopes.com HTML file on my computer, rereading every email David and I exchanged from 1997 until now, and in cases where doubt still existed, examining my research files. The task took a week, but I am satisfied I now have a fair list and that all lurking doubles (a result of David’s penchant for renaming files) have been excised.” I’d been communicating with David since our March meeting but hadn’t mentioned that I also reached out to Barbara. After the GoFundMe request went up, I called him to ask about it. I was sympathetic to his effort to keep his life’s work alive, but as we talked, I kept thinking about that “one-person” line in the fund-raising appeal. I hadn’t realized how annoyed I was about it until I found myself asking if he had a response to Barbara’s remark, about having her “life’s work” described as a “one-person effort.” David is a pretty unflappable guy, but he seemed sur-
prised. “She certainly contributed a great deal to making it a successful business enterprise,” he said, stammering a bit. “We jointly founded Bardav.” But he told me he felt there was a distinction between the claim he alone made to the idea behind Snopes.com and the successful business partnership he was willing to allow that Barbara had participated in. I pointed out that until their divorce, Barbara’s name had often been associated with the site in the press—searches in newspaper archives reveal that until about 2010, she had given many interviews about Snopes, more than David had, and that was true even before Bardav’s founding in 2003 and the inauguration of Snopes as a business. David, evidently frustrated with this question, said, “Well, she was giving all the interviews because I was working a full-time job,” referring to his position at the HMO, “whereas she never worked at all throughout the entirety of our marriage.” But then he seemed to regret this outburst, and backtracked. “I would not in any way try to slight her or say that she was not responsible for a good deal of success of the site,” he said. The problem is that David’s telling of the Snopes story does seem to slight her. However meticulous he might be in fact-checking the errors of others, there is always this slippage in his account of his own success, this insistence that he did it by himself. It’s not a slippage that has any bearing on his dispute with Proper Media or the contractual matters at issue there. He went through a bad divorce and emerged from it, as it seems to me people often do, with a blind spot. It’s one we all have to one degree or another, to fail to see the obvious when it comes to ourselves. It just stands out with David because he has spent his career being so scrupulous about facts. Snopes posted an essay on this phenomenon in 2001. After having trouble pinning down certain facts, Barbara and David had begun thinking about how everyone was unreliable and skepticism was a virtue. As a kind of demonstration, they wrote a few false Snopes entries. And then they published a lead entry called “False Authority”: No single truth purveyor, no matter how reliable, should be considered an infallible font of accurate information. Folks make mistakes. Or they get duped. Or they have a bad day at the fact-checking bureau. Or some days they’re just being silly. To not allow for any of this is to risk stepping into a pothole the size of Lake Superior. I’d assumed Barbara wrote this piece, and she said she had. But I wanted to be accurate, so I reached out to David to confirm. He wrote back pretty quickly. “That was so long ago that I can’t say definitively from memory. Reading through the article I would say it sounds like something that both of us substantially contributed to and not something that one or the other of us wrote entirely on our own,” he said. “It has a lot of Barbara’s voice to it, so probably she wrote the initial draft, and both of us contributed revisions to it.” But when wired’s fact-checker contacted Barbara, she searched her files again and found that David had written the first draft of “False Authority.” “Which means whatever I came to later believe, he wrote the base article,” she wrote in an email. “I’m utterly red-faced about this.” So those were the facts: David wrote the first draft, Barbara contributed. The precise way their powers combined? That remains an area of gray. �
BLACK MARKET 1
BY BRENDAN I. KOERNER
THE TECH ECONOMY RUNS ON HIGHLY PURIFIED POLYSILICON. ITâ€™S EXPENSIVE AND DIFFICULT TO TRACE. TWO ALABAMA FACTORY WORKERS FOUND IT SURPRISINGLY EASY TO STEAL. PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAN WINTERS
draining day of travel by the time he picked up his rental van at the Pensacola, Florida, airport. He’d left his West Coast home that morning in February 2009, then weathered a lengthy layover in Houston. But rather than pining for a comfy hotel bed, Syed was excited to conduct a bit of late-night business: He was meeting two strangers who called themselves Butch IN A WELL-LIT Cassidy and William Smith corner of the parking lot, Cassidy and Smith outside a nearby Walmart. unloaded the 5-gallon painter’s buckets As he pulled into the store’s that filled their truck. Syed pried open one parking lot around midnight, of the buckets’ lids and peered inside. He the 32-year-old Syed worried was pleased by what he saw: a pile of rockthat he might be robbed of like chunks of a silvery metallic substance. the $28,000 he was carryThese were fragments of polycrystalline ing. Cassidy and Smith were silicon, a highly purified form of silicon that already there, waiting for him is the bedrock for semiconductor devices in a pickup; Syed jotted down and solar cells. Nearly every microchip on its license plate number in earth is forged from the material. And at case the meeting went sidethat moment, due to a global shortage, the ways. But his worries eased average price for freshly manufactured polywhen he shook hands with crystalline silicon, commonly known as polythe two men, who struck silicon, had climbed to $64 a pound. him as harmless blue-collar Syed operated on the periphery of the sorts: Both were in their midpolysilicon industry as a trader in scrap. He fifties with bushy mustaches had built a $1.5 million–a-year company by and receding hairlines, and paying cash for any kind of processed silithey spoke in a honeyed con he could get his hands on: debris from southern drawl. Syed sensed chip fabricators, broken solar cells, cast-off they were every bit as nershavings from the plants where polysilicon vous as he was. is made. He would flip these materials to
BRENDAN I. KOERNER
(@ b re n d a n ko e r n e r ) w rote ab o u t d e p ro g ra m m i n g p otent i al ter ro r i st s i n i s s ue 2 5 .0 2 . 1
Theodore Industrial Canal is not quite as charmless as its name suggests. Created by an epic dredging operation that began in the late 1970s, the sun-dappled waterway on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama, attracts small fishing boats and brown pelicans that compete for speckled trout. But the sights and smells of less salubrious activity are impossible to avoid. The canal is ringed by a cement factory, a dock where grimy ships are scrubbed, and a phenol plant that caught fire in 2002. A mile farther west, outside a plant that uses hydrogen cyanide to produce a chicken feed additive, the water sometimes has a sickly green-brown hue, and the air can smell vaguely of ammonia. At the end of the canal, behind a rusting benzene barge and a copse of pines, loom the slender distillation towers of Mitsubishi Polycrystalline Silicon America Corporation. The Mitsubishi plant is arguably the most high tech member of South Alabama’s “chemical corridor,” a 60-mile stretch that teems with manufacturers of everything from protective coatings to artificial sweeteners to insecticides. After the closure of a massive Air Force base ravaged Mobile’s economy in the early 1970s, state and local governments decided to reinvent the region as a hub
PREVIOUS PAGE: POLYSILICON COURTESY OF WACKER CHEMIE AG
WASI I ISMAIL L SYED D HAD D ENDURED ED A
customers who typically shipped them to China, where scrap silicon is refurbished in noxious chemical baths and recycled into new products. Syed was accustomed to cutting deals with odd characters who’d lucked into their silicon and were eager for money; he never asked many questions about the provenance of their goods. Cassidy and Smith’s buckets contained 882 pounds of polysilicon, all of which looked to be of relatively good quality. But Syed knew he couldn’t just trust his eyes—it’s easy to get ripped off in the scrap trade. He spent 30 minutes sweeping a handheld resistivity tester over the chunks, to make sure there weren’t any duds mixed into the merchandise. All of the pieces scored above 1 ohm, meaning they were plenty pure enough to be sold to the Chinese for solar panels. Convinced that he wasn’t being conned, Syed handed over his cash-stuffed envelope and lifted the buckets into his van; he planned to FedEx the product to his customer the next day before flying home. Just before driving away, he asked Cassidy and Smith whether they could get him any more polysilicon at a similarly attractive price. The two older men said they would be in touch. The moment they got back in their truck, Cassidy and Smith divvied up the cash they’d just earned from their first-ever polysilicon sale—a deal in which almost every dollar was profit. The pair could see they’d stumbled into a potential fortune. And despite the risks they were taking, this was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
for chemical companies, which often situate their plants by rivers, lakes, and bays. (Water is crucial to chemical production as an ingredient, a coolant, and a receptacle for waste.) Today, Mobile’s sales pitch to the likes of DuPont and Evonik touts the area’s weak unions, abundant rail lines, and— crucially—openness to projects that might run into opposition in more green-minded locales. The Japanese-owned Mitsubishi polysilicon plant, which opened in the late 1990s, hasn’t committed any major environmental sins, but it does burn through vast amounts of energy. The plant’s feedstock is metallurgical-grade silicon, which can be extracted from pulverized chunks of quartzite. In this raw form, silicon exhibits the properties that make the element so essential to the tech industry: It can both conduct and resist electricity—hence the term semiconductor—even at high temperatures. But metallurgical-grade silicon is far too tainted with flecks of iron, aluminum, and calcium to be usable in high tech products that are expected to perform flawlessly for years on end. The material must thus be chemically refined, a process that begins by mixing it with hydrogen chloride at more than 570 degrees Fahrenheit. After having its impurities removed through multiple rounds of distillation, the resulting hazardous compound, called trichlorosilane, is pumped into a cylindrical furnace containing 7-foot-tall silicon rods shaped like tuning forks. Hydrogen is then added and the temperature is turned up to more than 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes hyper-pure crystals of silicon to leech out of the trichlorosilane and glom onto the rods. After several days the rods are thick with grayish polysilicon, which is then cut into foot-long cylinders, cleansed with acids until glittery, and packaged in thermally sealed bags for shipment. When the vast majority of manufacturers reach the end of this process, their polysilicon is as much as 99.999999 percent pure, or “8n” in industry parlance. This means that for every 100 million silicon atoms, there is but a single atom’s worth of impurity. While that may sound impressive, such polysilicon is only pure enough for use in solar cells—relatively simple devices that don’t need to perform complex calculations, but rather just create electrical current by letting sunlight agitate the electrons in silicon atoms. (About 90 percent of all polysilicon ends up in solar cells.) What the Mitsubishi plant in Alabama produces, by contrast, is 11n polysilicon, marred by just one impure atom per every 100 billion silicon atoms. This polysilicon, known as electronic-grade, is destined to be made into the wafers that serve as the canvases for microchips. Wafer makers melt down 11n polysilicon, spike it with ions like phosphorus or boron to amplify its conductivity, and reshape it into ingots of monocrystalline silicon. These ingots are then sliced into circular pieces about a millimeter thick, at which point they’re
ready to be festooned with tiny circuits inside the clean rooms of Micron or Intel. Mitsubishi’s facility on the Theodore Industrial Canal is one of fewer than a dozen plants worldwide that produce 11n polysilicon. “The barriers to getting to that sort of purity level are extremely high,” says Johannes Bernreuter, founder of a German research firm that covers the polysilicon market. “You have to imagine how many atoms there are in a cubic centimeter of polysilicon, and how only a few atoms of impurity in there can ruin everything.” There has been no single key to Mitsubishi’s technical success with 11n polysilicon. Insiders credit not only the precision of the engineers who oversee the daily minutiae of the manufacturing process but also the attention that was paid to building the plant and its components to exacting specifications. Yet Mitsubishi’s meticulousness does not seem to have extended to the more elementary task of security.
and Willie Richard Short both joined Mitsubishi when the company’s Alabama venture was still fairly new. Welford, a Mississippi native with a passion for woodworking and a taste for used Harleys, started at the plant in 1999; Short, a former Ford worker who’d migrated south from Kentucky, came on board two years later. The two men, neither of whom possessed a college degree, wound up working together in the plant’s finishing department, where they chopped up the U-shaped polysilicon rods and bathed them in nitric and hydrofluoric acids. Though they often worked different shifts, Welford and Short became close friends over the years. The two had much in common: Both were working-class products of the early 1950s, the parents of grown
children, and, as one mutual acquaintance puts it, “good ol’ country boys” who love football and fishing. With their wives, they went out for dinners, even went on vacations together. Retirement was on the horizon for Short and Welford when the financial crisis of 2008 torpedoed 401(k) plans across the country. The global meltdown came right as the polysilicon market was breaking records. The price per pound had risen by more than 700 percent in just four years, from around $20 to $180, largely due to increased demand from the solar industry. Manufacturers scrambled to build or expand plants, but they couldn’t move fast enough to satisfy customers. The supply crunch was so bad that solarpanel manufacturers often paid steep premiums for the top-quality polysilicon made by Mitsubishi and its competitors. Welford and Short spent their days surrounded by a product that was becoming ever-more valuable even as the economy teetered toward depression. Roiled by a potent mix of anxiety and the allure of easy money, the two men began to make plans to carry out an idea they’d previously only talked about: taking a little polysilicon for themselves. Such a caper should have been impossible to pull off, but Welford and Short knew that Mitsubishi had overlooked a major security flaw within its
finishing department: No one seemed to keep careful track of the number of polysilicon rods that made their way from the crystallization furnace to the cardboard shipping cartons. (Mitsubishi declined to comment for this story.) So Short and Welford, whose combined criminal history consisted of just two speeding tickets, devised a simple plan. Once or twice per shift, the men would swipe a couple of cylindrical pieces of polysilicon, each about 10 inches long. They would stash the pieces in small nylon coolers—ubiquitous lunch boxes in today’s workplaces—and place rags between the rods to prevent them from clinking together. On their lunch break, they’d head to the employee parking lot so they could stash the contraband-laden coolers in their vehicles; they would then retrieve identical-looking coolers that were either empty or held a sandwich or snack. When they returned to work with what looked like the same coolers they’d left with, no one had reason to suspect that a theft had just occurred. And if anyone happened to look inside their vehicles, all they would see was an innocuous nylon cooler perched on the backseat. Th i s s t ra te gy re q u i re d patience; each man could only pilfer a few rods a day. But as 2009 drew near, Short and Welford began to amass a signifi-
cant amount of polysilicon. At first they kept the stash at Short’s home in Loxley, a sedate town of 1,700 on the eastern side of Mobile Bay. But they quickly ran out of space in the garage and had to lease a storage unit up the road from Mitsubishi. As they collected more and more painter’s buckets—each containing 44 pounds of polysilicon—Short and Welford still faced a challenge that savvier crooks would have already sorted out: How were they supposed to convert their haul to cash? Polysilicon, after all, wasn’t something they could fence to a shady pawnshop. The partners’ solution to their quandary was to scour the internet.
FOR DECADES, Silicon Valley thought of polysilicon in much the same way that bakers think of flour: an essential yet unglamorous ingredient that can be wasted without regret. Wafer makers were spoiled by a steady and affordable supply of electronic-grade polysilicon from the industry’s so-called Seven Sisters, the only companies to master the 11n manufacturing process: Mitsubishi, Hemlock Semiconductor, Wacker Chemie, MEMC Electronic Materials (now SunEdison), Osaka Titanium Technologies, REC Silicon, and Tokuyama. When virgin polysilicon became scarce during the mid-2000s, demand soared for used or surplus silicon that could be recycled. Items such as irregular wafers or leftover polysilicon crumbs, which tech companies were accustomed to either selling for peanuts or tossing into the trash, became sought-after commodities. The scrap dealers who specialize in locating and reselling this cast-off silicon jockeyed to profit from the boom. “It created this absolute feeding frenzy,” says Rick Matheson, a veteran silicon dealer based in Boise, Idaho. “You could go down to the Bay Area
and polysilicon was being sold on the street— you could buy and sell it almost like it was a drug. The market was totally unregulated.” Along with the prosperity, however, came plenty of malfeasance: Matheson, for example, once lost millions when a supplier pulled a bait and switch and sold him polysilicon of lower quality than promised. One newcomer who prospered in the silicon scrap trade was Wasi Ismail Syed, a Chicago native who’d studied business administration at California State University in Hayward. After losing his Bay Area telecommunications job in 2007, Syed moved to Hyderabad, India, where his wife’s family lives. He found a job at a plant that refurbished old silicon wafers for the Chinese solar industry—a gig that taught him the fundamentals of the used silicon business. Syed spent a year at the plant before he and his wife decided that they didn’t want to raise their young children in India. He moved back to Northern California and started placing Craigslist ads offering to pay cash for almost anything that contained silicon. He soon got a call from a testing company in Los Angeles with 220 pounds of surplus silicon rods. “They wanted a person to just pick them up so they wouldn’t go into a landfill,” Syed says. “I remember thinking, ‘How is everyone not already doing this?’” He flipped that load to a Chinese broker for $30,000, a sum he used to help establish his own company, Horizon Silicon. Syed encountered some sketchy suppliers in his quest for silicon. He bought from scavengers who sifted through Silicon Valley dumpsters, for example, or warehouse workers who’d commandeered loads of remaindered solar cells or tainted wafers that had been marked for disposal. Syed had a bit in common with such hustlers. Once, when he was still operating out of a warehouse, Syed was seeking funding from a venture capitalist who required his beneficiaries to have an office. He hastily secured a six-month lease for a vacant office in a strip mall and furnished it with $125 worth of furniture and other materials from Craigslist and a local thrift store. Despite his appetite for risk, Syed was initially skeptical when, in January 2009, his company began receiving emails from a man named William Smith who said he had 882 pounds of polysilicon for sale. Smith explained that he and his partner, who went by the name of Butch Cassidy, were responding to a Horizon ad on eBay (which featured a stock image of $100 bills). He was also cagey about revealing his true identity, to the consternation of Syed’s assistant, Darlene Row. “Why are you being so secretive about who you are?” she wrote in an email to Smith on January 27, 2009. “Should we question the origin of the material?” Willie Richard Short, who had briefly toyed with using “the Sundance Kid” as his alias
before opting for something less suspicious, provided no satisfactory answers to such questions. But Syed flew east to make the deal anyway. His decision was welcome news to Short and George Welford, who had already failed to sell their polysilicon to several other companies they’d found online; those negotiations had all ended the moment the potential buyers asked for the polysilicon’s specification documents, which only Mitsubishi possessed. Syed was not so exacting when it came to paperwork. The Walmart parking-lot deal went smoothly, and Syed’s buyer was impressed by the quality of the merchandise. So Syed kept doing business with “Cassidy” and “Smith”: He bought another 441 pounds of polysilicon two weeks after the initial purchase, then 1,323 pounds more in July 2009, then 2.2 tons that November, shortly after he’d moved his family and company to McKinney, Texas. As the scale of the transactions grew, Syed enlisted a freight company to pick up the polysilicon in Alabama and truck it across state lines to his customers; then he, his assistant, or his brother-in-law, Shahab Mir, would travel to Mobile, Pensacola, or Shreveport, Louisiana, to hand over the cash. (At first they flew to these meetings but started driving after an incident in which Transportation Security Administration agents hassled Syed for carrying $30,000.) By mid-2010, Horizon was buying at least 1.1 tons of polysilicon from Short and Welford every two to three months. Buzzing from their entrepreneurial success, the thieves
YOU COULD BUY AND SELL THE STUFF ON THE STREET ALMOST LIKE A DRUG.
began to act as if their operation was a legitimate startup, which they named Southeastern Two. They purchased an aluminum-sided, one-story commercial building in the town of Robertsdale, 26 miles southeast of Mobile, to serve as their company’s headquarters. There, in a unit next to a consignment shop, they sawed and hammered apart the stolen rods and packed them into 55-gallon drums. They also quibbled with Syed over expenses such as stretch wrap and shipping pallets, coordinated logistics with freight companies, and fielded business inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org. As Southeastern Two raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, its founders spent with abandon. Welford treated himself to an enclosed utility trailer and a Sundance boat with a 115-horsepower Yamaha motor; Short scooped up a Ford F-150 truck for himself and a Cadillac SRX for his wife. He also used part of his newfound wealth to care for his troubled teenage grandson, whom he and his wife were raising.
THE SHORTAGE of solar-grade polysilicon had evaporated by 2011 as Chinese manufacturers cranked up production. Prices collapsed, dipping to $25 a pound in June of that year, and kept plummeting. With so much cheap virgin polysilicon sloshing about, lean times set in for scrap traders and their flyby-night suppliers. In the wake of the downturn, Syed had to make lower offers to Short and Welford. According to him, the two men were miffed by the falling prices and briefly threatened to take their business to a Bulgarian company that had contacted them. Ultimately, though, they stuck with Horizon—their only customer—and settled for reduced prices: In a July 2013 deal, for example, they sold Syed 13.2 tons and earned less than $4 a pound. With the risk-to-reward ratio having shifted so much in favor of the former, Short and Welford would have been well advised to shutter Southeastern Two that summer. But even the best thieves seldom have the perspective necessary to realize when it’s time to walk away. Around 2:45 am on January 31, 2014, Short arrived at the Mitsubishi plant for a 12-hour shift. Before clocking in, he snagged some product and headed back out to his truck. As he exited the building, his nylon cooler in hand, he was stopped by two men who said they were from a company called Baldwin Legal Investigations and that they were conducting a routine audit of plant security. They beckoned Short to join them in a conference room for a chat. The investigators, Max Hansen and Eric Winberg, were telling a half-truth: They had been hired by Mitsubishi after an anonymous employee accused Short and Welford of theft.
The informant had not, however, mentioned what he thought the men were taking. To solve that mystery, Hansen and Winberg had spent several days monitoring the pair’s parking-lot trips on surveillance cameras. They guessed that the men were pilfering tools. As the investigators peppered him with questions, Short tried to use his foot to nudge his cooler beneath the conference-room table. Winberg spotted the ruse and grabbed the cooler off the floor. “Damn that’s heavy—what’re you eating, bricks?” Hansen asked as his partner placed it on the table with a thud. Short meekly implored the investigators to leave his personal property alone, but they ignored him and opened the cooler. Inside were two thick rods of polysilicon. Short tried, rather lamely, to claim that he planned to use the rods to build a showcase. But Hansen and Winberg were former homicide detectives, well versed in the art of interrogation. They chipped away at Short’s resolve with a combination of threats and flattery. “This is not who you are,” Winberg told him at one point. “I guarantee your wife does not know this person. You’ve got a lot of pressure on you; you’re worried about your grandson. I think what happened is you saw an opportunity to supplement your income a little bit and you took it. People do that all the time.” Short was so overcome with remorse and fear that he asked the investigators for an anti-nausea pill. Then he started blabbing about the conspiracy: the regular thefts, the office in Robertsdale, the ongoing sales to “Wossie.” He did try to minimize the extent of Southeastern Two’s business, insisting that he and Welford had stolen only about 12 tons of polysilicon over a year and a half. The investigators offered Short a deal: After resigning from Mitsubishi, Short could pay the company back $125,000 within a couple months. If he did that, there wouldn’t be any criminal charges. “I don’t know how, but I’ll pay,” Short vowed. As he left the conference room, he passed a glum-looking Welford waiting in the hallway, about to receive the same treatment. Having spent too liberally during Southeastern Two’s heyday, Short and Welford were forced to raid their retirement plans and take out a homeequity loan to raise the combined quarter-million dollars they’d promised Mitsubishi. A month after the interrogation, they handed over checks at Baldwin Legal Investigations’ office and, for a brief moment, thought they’d wriggled free of more dire consequences. But they had erred by not consulting with attorneys, who would have told them that the investigators’ promise was empty. Even if Mitsubishi didn’t pursue criminal charges, there was nothing to prevent prosecutors from taking up the case. As Short and Welford were scrambling to gather $250,000, Hansen had flown to Texas to watch and follow Wasi Syed. Hansen and Winberg also
POLYSILICON IS EVERYWHERE We’ve come a long way since prehistoric humans used siliconrich flint to make tools and weapons. Today, mineral ores containing silicon—one of the most abundant elements on the planet—are chemically purified into polysilicon, a substance that’s fundamental to everything from the computer in your pocket to the solar panels on your roof. —saraswati rathod
E L E C T R O N I C S -G R A D E (9 9.9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 PERCENT PURE)
SOLAR-GRADE (99.9999 PERCENT PURE)
PHONES AND LAPTOPS
Chipmakers like Intel use polysilicon to produce a mirrorlike disk onto which they add layers of circuits.
When sunlight hits a solar panel, it excites the electrons in polysilicon, generating an electrical current.
M E D I C A L I M P L A N T S
New silicon implants could mitigate the effects of neurodegenerative diseases and give amputees more control over prosthetic limbs.
Some drone makers are turning to lightweight solar cells to keep their machines aloft longer before requiring a recharge.
At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers have developed illuminated devices made of silicon and silk that could be used to monitor blood sugar levels.
Many cities are installing traffic signs with solar-powered lights. A flashing stop sign is more likely to catch a driver’s attention than an inert red octagon.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY GIACOMO GAMBINERI
POLYSILICON COURTESY OF TARGRAY TECHNOLOGY INTERNATIONAL INC.
contacted a friend who was a special agent at the Department of Homeland Security. After hearing Hansen describe the stolen polysilicon’s circuitous journey from Alabama to Hong Kong, and the material’s importance to the American tech industry, the agent agreed to open a federal case. When Short and Welford walked into a conference room at Baldwin Legal Investigations to present their checks, payable to Mitsubishi, the Homeland Security agent was waiting silently at the table. As soon as they handed over the money, he told them who he was and informed them that they were under criminal investigation. The color drained from the men’s weathered faces; from that point on, the founders of Southeastern Two would do whatever it took to avoid getting locked up.
SHORT AND WELFORD soon confessed to the true and astonishing scope of their enterprise: They had stolen some 43 tons of electronic-grade polysilicon over five-plus years, earning more than $625,000 in the process. That sum, of course, was just a fraction of the 11n polysilicon’s actual worth had it been packaged and sold by Mitsubishi. What Short and Welford had done was akin to swiping some of the world’s finest 18-year-old Scotch from a distillery and then selling it to a liquor store as off-brand rye. Determined to cooperate fully, Short volunteered to wear a wire as he negotiated one last sale with Horizon, and Mitsubishi provided 1.5 tons of polysilicon for the sting. The transaction took place in March 2014, with the money exchanged at a rest stop along the I-10 highway. A month later, federal agents swooped in and indicted Syed; his assistant, Darlene Row; and his brother-in-law, Shahab Mir. Syed was facing up to 85 years in prison for conspiracy and money laundering. Though he had by then figured out that Short and Welford—whom he still knew as Smith and Cassidy—were Mitsubishi employees, he couldn’t fathom that they’d spent years strolling out of the plant with tons of prime polysilicon. “I thought they were somehow buying it from the scrapper who took [Mitsubishi’s] offspec material, or grabbing it from the bin where their trash was being thrown,” Syed says. He adds that Short frequently mentioned Southeastern Two’s alleged need to pay an unnamed source. (Neither Short nor Welford responded to numerous requests to comment for this article.) At first Syed vowed to fight the charges all the way to trial rather than take a plea, but the legal odds kept tilting against him. Row struck a deal to become a government witness, and Syed’s lawyer thought Mir would get a lighter sentence if Syed pled guilty. During the jury selection process, Syed also began to worry about the people who would decide his fate. “My lawyer said that these
people will see a Middle Eastern man with a lot of money talking about material they will have no clue about,” he says. “I said, ‘But my parents are from India.’ He said down here you’re either white or black—they don’t understand anything else. Once the prosecution brings out that you’re Muslim, it’s pretty much downhill from there.” On the eve of the trial, Syed accepted a deal in which he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy and another count of money laundering. He was eventually sentenced to two years in prison. (He was released to a halfway house in Texas in June.) Short and Welford, though, were fortunate to face prosecution on their home turf in Mobile. Their lawyers described to the court the intense shame that both men felt. “The defendant is a 63-year-old man who had led an exemplary life until the instant offenses,” Short’s attorney wrote in his May 2016 request for a minimal sentence. “He has acknowledged his wrongdoing and has attempted in every way to right his wrongs.” The judge was apparently convinced by such arguments, which included Short’s contention that he was needed at home to help care for his grandson. She gave the men just six months each. (Row received two months, and Mir got three months in prison.) Short and Welford served their time and are free men today. But the consequences of their time at the helm of Southeastern Two still haunt them: Every month, Welford is responsible for writing a $300 check, and Short must write a $500 check, to compensate Mitsubishi for the polysilicon they stole. Even if they don’t miss any payments, they won’t be free of this burden until well past their 130th birthdays. �
COLOPHON BLASTS FROM THE PAST THAT HELPED GET THIS ISSUE OUT: Henry Thomas’ audition for E.T.; an affordable happy hour; Brendan Fraser; “Is Steely Dan still together?”; a visit from a dear old boss; Soft Sounds From Another Planet on cassette; my favorite vintage reggae playlist on Spotify, “Wa Da Da”; Pepé Le Pew; scouring the office for a DVD player; 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Castro Theatre; Hubba Bubba Bubble Jug; Rip Torn is not the same guy as Rip Taylor; Stinkor vs. Pig-Pen; “Fly her apart then!”; being the youngest person at a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1888 classic, The Yeomen of the Guard; “I’m smashing up my baby bumblebee / won’t my mommy be so proud of me”; Gene Roddenberry; recalling that the California Chicken on Wilshire in Santa Monica was a Swensen’s Ice Cream parlor in 1981; Boyz II Men; “I am not lefthanded!”; my Little League Houston Astros hat, which I used to obscure my messed-up hair after some sleepless nights; my growing collection of Chuck’s unwanted New Yorker back issues; the loud-soft-loud of the Pixies album Bossanova; that time Twitter thought Colophon had, like, meaning or something. wired is a registered trademark of Advance Magazine Publishers Inc. Copyright ©2017 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Printed in the USA. Volume 25, No. 10. wired (ISSN 1059–1028) is published monthly by Condé Nast, which is a division of Advance Magazine Publishers Inc. Editorial office: 520 Third Street, Ste. 305, San Francisco, CA 94107-1815. Principal office: Condé Nast, 1 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007. S. I. Newhouse, Jr., Chairman Emeritus; Robert A. Sauerberg, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer; David E. Geithner, Chief Financial Officer; James M. Norton, Chief Business Officer and President of Revenue. Periodicals postage paid at New York, NY, and at additional mailing offices. Canada Post Publications Mail Agreement No. 40644503. Canadian Goods and Services Tax Registration No. 123242885 RT0001. POSTMASTER : Send all UAA to CFS (see DMM 707.4.12.5); NONPOSTAL AND MILITARY FACILITIES: Send address corrections to wired, PO Box 37706, Boone, IA 50037-0662. For subscriptions, address changes, adjustments, or back issue inquiries: Please write to wired, PO Box 37706, Boone, IA 50037-0662, call (800) 769 4733, or email subscriptions@wired. com. Please give both new and old addresses as printed on most recent label. First copy of new subscription will be mailed within eight weeks after receipt of order. Address all editorial, business, and production correspondence to wired Magazine, 1 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007. For permissions and reprint requests, please call (212) 630 5656 or fax requests to (212) 630 5883. Visit us online at www.wired.com. To subscribe to other Condé Nast magazines on the web, visit www.condenet.com. Occasionally, we make our subscriber list available to carefully screened companies that offer products and services that we believe would interest our readers. If you do not want to receive these offers and/or information, please advise us at PO Box 37706, Boone, IA 50037-0662, or call (800) 769 4733.
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Published on Sep 26, 2017