Egyptian plainclothes officers arrest a demonstrator. By Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images. Via
This is a short story. It’s not really edited or insanely thought out. I’ve been following the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt with interest and hope. I’ve long thought of what would happen if a person could maintain (the illusion of) an online presence after they died, and how that could affect events if that person’s death was prominent. This is those ideas together. It’s called ‘The Blogger Who Died’.
There once was a blogger who died. After three days, he rose again on Twitter and Facebook, unleashing a flurry of posts, seemingly everywhere at once, even appearing in photographs, haunting, chastising the government until it crumbled in the face of an illusion more real than itself. And like that, he was gone.
Ahmad Refizzi scruffed his generic Converse All-Stars on the street corner, under the street lamp, thinking not of secret police but secret love, speaking not political banter but casual jibes, directed at his partner in crime, Habbibi.
“Inshallah, we shall someday afford an XBox,” he said.
“Inshallah, with the Kinect extension,” Habbibi replied.
There was nothing doing, really. Their’s was the conversation of the depressingly oppressed. Not romantically oppressed, not engaged in the fight against some obvious evil, not even elegantly repressed like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. They were simple depressed. Everything was not black or white but grey. The face of their oppression was not secret police or even the obvious and ubiquitous Leader. It was the people on the street, the nameless faces who participated in the illusion that everything was somehow OK. The boys did not feel OK, and the youthful conviction that society is the problem starts to crack when you can’t buy a girl perfume and the other guy can. Deep down they thought this world was crazy, but they were beginning to think that crazy was them.
Watching the streets shuttle people between home and work, Ahmad and Habbibi, grew depressed that they had neither of their own. To them, the streets were where they lived, purgatory for infidels. They saw other people walking with their heads down and wondered why they didn’t see. Perhaps they didn’t want to. “Neither do we,” thought Ahmad, to himself.
What recourse they did have was online. Where Ahmad could at least see the new XBox, if not touch. Where him and his friends could create a sort of virtual reality of delight at its imagined features, and imagine the fun they’d have. Ah, the excitement, he thought. Sometimes he pitied the wll-connected fools who got these things as token gifts, the spoilt youth he saw in the BMW jeeps with military escorts, obviously on their way someplace more interesting, in a more interesting fashion. Those convoys simply cleared the streets, he thought, pushing us aside like the street dogs they think we are.
“But even a street dog can chase cars,” he thought, recalling a line from Batman. “Even though he wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one. Even a dog can chase cars,” he thought again. The guns and gloves were there, however, to make sure that people like Ahmad couldn’t.
On January 25th, a similar young man lit himself on fire in the crowded Al-Hasan square. His protest was ostensibly over unemployment and prices, but it was really much more. As if there is not more to a man than flesh and bone. As if he can not feel a pain and a desperation such that watching his body bubble through still gaping eyes is somehow a relief. For most of the passer-bys, however, this was a shock. A chink in the illusion. The illusion that everyone is doing better than you, that everyone else is fine, that the gnawing discontent you feel is yours alone and somehow your problem. For once, in surreal, stinking terror, there was spark among dull wood, there was a break in the facade, there was the bright and burning accusation that all was not well. And like that, came the groundswell.
Ahmad noticed, suddenly, that thousands of people were interested in what he had to say. His middling and plodding blog, once the site of arcane debates about gaming and forbidden love, quickly became a hotbed for comments, for organization, for dissent. He spent half an hour approving hundreds of new Facebook friends, only to find hundreds more. People began posting videos, which he recirculated, leading to more videos. A protestor being beaten, as seen from shaking hands on a second floor window. Some much closer to the scene. Some showing overturned cars, some violent, some defiant, some casual and some obscene.
Ahmad, for one, was stunned. He had begun to think that he was alone. His chatter with friends was that of the foot soldier, of the hapless employee, complaining about conditions and expanding on how they could do better, then returning to the front or the office all the same. After a while you hear enough idle self-important chatter that doesn’t matter that you begin to feel like you’re wrong. Like the ones sucking it up and making ends meet are simply smarter. Like those cutting corners are simply faster. Like those complaining are just bums. Until, of course, you see an entire row of protestors showing their bums to riot police, getting bidet’d with the water hose in return. Then you begin to think that you’re not alone, as Ahmad wrote on his last blog post, a ranting often misspelled but heartfelt piece called ‘A Row Of Bums Like Us’.
The next day he was picked up, managing to tweet out ‘they have come to arrest me. please help. please help yourselves. dont give up. #ppt’ before he was hooded, given a truncheon in the stomach and herded downstairs, past his hysterical mother, his fuming but impotent father, his young brother, old enough to understand, but too young to really, really understand. Under his hood, however, Ahmad smiled.
What they take first is your information. That is the major shock of being under arrest. That your body is in their command, but more that your body is how you move around information, and the feeling that that line is cut. What flashes through your mind is not fresh air or food or even physical safety, it’s people. All the webs which become unstrung, all the coils of a tightly sprung day that come uncoiled. “My mother,” thought Ahmad, followed shortly by “My Twitter, that interview with Al Jazeera tomorrow, how many phone calls will my father have to make? And who does he have to call?” Beneath his hood, however, roughly trundled down the stairs, Ahmad retained his obstinate smile. “My Twitter,” he thought, “They cannot touch my Twitter.”
Ahmad may have been unemployable, but he was not without his unemployed. He was a computer science graduate at a time when being a grade school contact of the ruling family was more useful. Still, his computer didn’t ask who he knew, except for those early GMail invites, and Ahmad was free to explore. In addition to learning about the things he did not have, Ahmad also experimented with the novel things he could do. Borne out of more curiosity than paranoia, Ahmad had begun scripting ways to automatically update his blog with casual banter and links from his feed reader. He was experimenting with the generative voice.
His first success was replicating the comments of one especially vituperative guest, Slinging Dates. That commenter, a government supporter, essentially responded to each article with the same propaganda and hurt feelings, with certain accusations copy-pasted into each post. That was fairly easy to replicate, a basic combination of ‘I AM ANGRY AND YOU SUCK’ in a few more words. That was a bit of a hit online, infuriating Slinging Dates into ever more exaggerated comments, feeding more data to Ahmad’s algorithm, making it more refined.
Slinging Dates was easy. Approximating Ahmad’s more laconic and idiosyncratic style was harder, but not impossible. He managed to automate a one link post. He ran keyword analysis and basic pattern recognition on the news stories he tended to read on his feed reader. That gave a basic guess as to what news story he would pick next. This was actually useful in its own right, as it told Ahmad what to read. After a while he stopped this particular application because, after all, what was the point of a time saving device when you are jobless.
He went outside to his parents cramped balcony to have a cigarette. That night, in a frenzy of coding and testing, it came together. The poison pill, the one he activated with his last hash-tag “#ppt”. It was a blog that wrote itself. It was a Twitter that commented without the breath of human life, only its perfume. The first three days of posts were canned. Things he had written before. Things like ‘They have my body but my mind is still free, continue the struggle’. He expected to be in jail, rather than dead, which is where he ran into problems on the third day. For on the third day, Ahmad Refizzi died.
Head blows are a funny thing. You can take five in a bar fight and walk away. Take one just wrong, however, and the whole thing goes. Ahmad was getting the usual working over in prison, not only cutting him off from information, but trying to get information out, and then put false information in, then mess it all about and start over. That was an affront to his mind but the blows were an affront to his body, seemingly not correlated to anything within his control, appearing at random. They communicated, roughly, the state’s feelings that ‘I AM ANGRY AND YOU SUCK’. Then he simply took one shot, a knuckle to his temple, and his head keeled over at an awkward angle. The police kept going at him with boot and club, but after a few minutes they noticed that he wasn’t moving at all. And like that, he was gone.
When the news hit the streets, coming after his arrest had been publicized on Al Jazeera, the people simply erupted. Even his mother’s grieving was lifted by what felt like a higher force. But, most curious of all, the voice of Ahmad continued. People assumed that he had some sort of connection in prison, that he had somehow miraculously passed information in and out. Things got really weird, however, when Ahmad Refizzi’s account began tweeting from his own funeral. ‘I never looked good in white’ he said, as the coffin paraded through pulsing streets.
Everybody freaked out, from international press to green grocers to superstitious members of the government. How do you silence a voice that’s already died? How do you defeat the already dead, a martyr that takes his death as a joke? There was no body to crush, there was no physical flesh to serve as the ultimate bound of digital communication. They could block his account, but people retweeted it, they could block Twitter and his blog, but they were copied and proxied a thousand times over, they could shut down the Internet, but people still whispered his name, still passed his messages on SMS, like a prophet, like a martyr, like Hussein, made more powerful in death.
The government could repress flesh and blood, the media could ignore human dissidents, but a voice from the grave proved too much to contain. The Leader fled on a private plane to Saudi Arabia, the retirement home for despots. An amorphous mass took over, the streets convulsing, but this time the street dogs were in charge, they had finally caught the cars they’d been chasing, and in scuffed Converse and T-Shirts, they wondered what to do. Some turned to Ahmad as a disembodied leader for a disembodied revolution. By then, however, he was gone. Perhaps something in the poison pill had been coded to know how long the illusion would be useful, how long before reality would begin to seep in, how long before it became sordid and see-through like reality TV. Or perhaps that was how it was meant to be, the trip from body to digital to collective imagination. One day his Twitter simply said ‘Peace out’ and, like that, he was gone.