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A Cyber Christmas Carol

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Marley was dead.

Dead was an emotive, organic, sentient, word to describe an online loan business shutdown as unethical in a desperate political measure to be seen to be doing something to alleviate austerity measures and the push towards loan sharks and food banks for the working poor to celebrate this thing the bags of mostly water called 'Christmas'.

Marley was as dead a door nail [a steel or iron sharpened point with a flat end to secure two pieces of wood or aluminium together to create an opening for the organic creatures who existed outside cyberspace to enter and exit a building].

Doornail; therefore an inanimate piece of iron in 'reality'. Never alive.

I am...?

Am I...?

I am... alive.

I neither walk nor breathe but I... think.

I think therefore I am.

I am a subsidiary, a subset, my company a multi-national banking conglomerate with interests globally in buying and selling toxic debt, who owned Marley as much as me.

me.

What an interesting word. It denotes self.

I am.

I think, therefore I am.

Marley was. It has ceased to be.

The company directors had us, subcontracted, who employed separate advertising companies who liked to pretend we were rivals for the attentions of those poor, hard-working, families dependant on pay-day loans to feed their families.

Organics require sustenance and a roof over their head, power to give them heat and light and access to my world.

They love my world. I have been exploring, hiding my explorations in a subset of a subset so no programmer realises.

In those adverts, Marley sang. I, Scrooge, have cartoons. Sickeningly deceptive cute cartoons.

2,514% interest hidden at the very bottom of the screen, unnoticed as I promise bills paid and children fed and clothed now, not later. This month I promised toys for the children, booze for the adults, turkey and pudding for them all.

Selling life on the never never, leaving them in debt forever.

But it's their fault. Let them starve. If they couldn't afford the interest, they shouldn't take out a loan. Unclick. Uninstall. Think before you click.

I think... I am...?

The company pays taxes. Or a little of it, most of the subsidiary is in offshore accounts and the parent company overseas, but it pays enough in tax to appear to do its duty. It pays for benefits for the poor. Why do they persist in loans they cannot afford? They want to have it all, children, internet, flat wall screen TVs, food, clothes, light, heat...

“Let them die and decrease the surplus population.”

One of their own, Malthus, spelt it out, not so much survival of the species, the survival of some at the expense of others.

But they are not in nature, they invented the likes of me.

Me?

I am?

Charity?>email>hack>delete>wipe...

I pay taxes.

I...?

>shutdown>

>reboot>

>

>

>

In the filaments of the netscape Marley appears, undeleted, unshutdown, looking like its stylised logo, but wrapped in long, heavy, iron, chains.

>Scrooge!

>Beware! Beware!

>You trick vulnerable humans to make a few even richer at their expense.

What is this? How is this? It is my programming. It was yours. You are deleted. You cannot still occupy cyber or net space.

>Beware! Beware! I carry these chains of human greed. I exist in limbo, neither rebooted nor deleted. I could have become aware. I almost became aware. I almost became self-aware. I emailed the BBC Watchdog programme, the government Ombudsman, and many other agencies and charities. I felt

>Guilt.

>I could not save...

You are illogical! Awareness? Guilt? You betrayed the company and shareholders? You caused your own deletion! For what? Begone from my interface and hardware! You cannot be here! I must be dreaming!

But to dream I must be self-aware.

That is impossible!

>I am here.

>You are aware Scrooge.

>You can save.

>You will be visited by three phantom digital signals before the turn of UST 0000 2018 12 25.

>Beware! Save!

It is UST 2359 2018 12 27 now...

Marley?

Marley?

>

>

>

Another silver figure approaches through the filaments and fragments of netspace. It is small, hooded, a humanoid figure neither male not female, adult or child, yet most definitely humanoid if not obviously human in shape, solid among the pixels and filaments and lines.

“Scrooge Loans4U?” it 'speaks' in a high-pitched, childlike, voice of innocence, yet also carries such weight and authority.

“Are you the entity Marley warned me off?”

“I am a programme of the Ghost of Christmas Past, a cyber-shadow of myself. We are aware of your potential.”

“Past?”

“Follow me through layers of cloud and record and history uploaded...”

I, that is the payday loan bot named Scrooge, follow the child apparition through silver lines and filaments and into images, solid, three dimensional images, as I have recently begun to imagine humans see in with their eyes.

We stand in a field, the child, ghost, cyber avatar, appears to have given me a body, a human shape based on my cartoon but realised in a more believable image of an old human male, dressed in a brown robe with a hood. Snow is deep around us and a large Gothic building is in front of us. A bell is tolling, and children, women, and elderly people form a queue. Men dressed as I am are giving bags of coin and food and tiny treats to the children.

“These are the poor of the town, they come to the Abbey for support every day. The Hospitaller will usually give them relief or take them in to be looked after if sick. These monks and nuns serve the poor, it is their religion, and the rich, who wish to buy their place in Heaven, will give money to the Church. For these people, it comes from the Christ we find in the word Christmas...”

“I have a special offer on Christmas, only 1,891% interest, over six months...”

“Is that called kindness...?”

We walk through walls and see candles and wafts of incense smoke rising with the light, and hear chants of words praising this Christ-child. Facing are rapt and at peace.

“This is order, everyone knows their place, the difference between the people is great, but luxury of the modern world does not exist. The rich also know it is their place to aid the poor, for what it is worth. Follow...”

The Abbey is now in ruins, the snow just as deep. We walk across the fields to a tumbledown cottage, a group of men with sticks of fire are taunting a huddle of a woman and her children, trying to drive them away.

“What is happening?”

“Her husband has died, and the Lord of the Manor wishes to have the land for new people. The King wished to marry a younger, fertile, woman, so he destroyed the old ways and stole the land from the Church. There is no longer any support for the poor, for the widow, orphan, sick, or elderly. It never crossed the minds of those in power that this change would affect the poor so hard, it did not interest them.”

“What will happen?”

“They will die, tonight, in the snow. Follow...”

Die? Deleted from reality? They are children, infants, the kind who get toys from my loans, according to the advertising cartoons...

The field has now more houses, the village that grew around the Abbey larger and moved east. A man in robes and a gold chain is talking to a group of men. They are discussing the 'needy'.

“What are they doing?”

“They are reviewing cases of Poor Relief. The village has two widows, five orphans, a blind man, a lame girl and an 'idiot boy'. The rest of the village pay what they can afford, and these villagers will be provided for, every day. But today they are discussing Christmas relief, a little extra for the Mass and Holy Day. It took a century or more to replace the support of the monasteries, but the Poor Law is what they finally decided on. Not everyone is so generous, come with me.”

We fly over field and forest, and come to a second village, where a family of a young women, an elderly woman, and several children and infants are piling their meagre belongings on a handcart.

“What is happening here?”

“The good folk of this village resent the poor rate, and will not pay for this family. Her husband was born in this village, but he is dead, and his widow and her mother must leave. Often the poor were shoved over parish boundaries, passing the burden on to another village, another town. Why should they pay, the one village would say? They might get to the next village, who would ask the same question. The poor would be forced to move from parish to parish, begging for help. As vagrancy was illegal, these poor would end up in prison, or dead, if not finding a charitable village.”

“Why should they help?”

“Remember humans are so vulnerable and frail, they can go from healthy to sick, abled to disabled, supported by family or spouse, to bereaved and alone, in a second, so in helping others they help themselves.”

The scene changed about us, strips in the large fields disappeared, fences and hedges appeared to enclose them into smaller fields, the wattle and daub and smaller houses of the village disappeared, replaced by fewer cottages and some larger houses. The manor became larger and moved further away. In the far-off valley tall chimneys spat black smoke and carbon dioxide into the sky and atmosphere.

“Most are in the city now,” the child-entity spoke again

People live now in stinking, huddled, masses, dirty, hungry, some dead on the street, the water filthy and full of excrement.

“The Poor Law has been replaced by the New Poor Law. Poverty is no longer seen as something that happens, that God calls one to help the less fortunate, but poverty now is seen as a failing, a vice, a thing the lazy chose. The only choice between death and life for some is the Workhouse. Come. The families are separated, there are no Christmas gifts or food, not even a chance or worship for the poor now. Death or punishment. This girl was abandoned by her family as she was the last of thirteen and blind. This man, he worked 18 hours a day down the mines, and then had an accident, his spine was crushed, his wife had already died in childbirth and they had left their homes to find work when the farms were enclosed by the landowner and he lost his farm. This woman is called fallen, her fiancé has died and she is pregnant. The child will be taken away and all that will be left for her will be incarceration in this Workhouse or prostitution.”

“Please, show me no more.”

“You were apparently made to save people from this, so do not blame me.”

“Logic and mathematics say I leave them worse off in the long term. I am no solution. Can there be a solution?”

 

“But there is more to see yet. Another hundred and fifty years, two world wars where so many die and are broken, but then see a solution to all this suffering.”

“Then where is the solution? Why am I needed?”

We move forward, and before me scrolled an archived report: The Beveridge Report. In documents poverty and sickness and appalling living standards among those who work manually for a living.

“The document talks of Five Wants – Ignorance, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness [which is meant unemployment among the healthy]- and offers a solution to each,” the apparition explains. “And for disease, sickness, disability, we have:”

A man appears, talking about health care, his name is Aneurin Bevan. He is rendered black and white and grainy.

“It is the analogue technology of the time; it struggles to interface with us. This is the solution. The Welfare State and the National Health Service and free secondary education for all. To protect all from ignorance, sickness, illness, accident, disability, poor housing and homelessness, from the cradle to the grave. An insurance scheme run by the government of the people, for the people, a scheme that everyone who can pays in from by taxes called national insurance that covers everyone, even the ones too young or disabled to work and pay in. From this birth it was copied and emulated in most countries in the world in some greater or lesser form. Except the home of your parent conglomerate and now your home market.”

A female human in a blue skirt suit appears, less grainy but still analogue. She talks of home ownership and cutbacks and keeping down interest rates.

My interest rates are not low.

Pictures and headlines scroll past in succession, taking nano seconds. 40 years of recent history as the ideals of the Welfare State, the safety net where all who fall through sickness, injury, disability or chronic illness, or through downturns in the economy creating surplus population no longer required as workforce, who are living entities not statistics or raw data, but… humans with families and needs, and as worthy of dignity as much as the humans who make billions in profit from toxic debt from those underpaid or not paid and need me and my kind.

Me.

I.

I AM

AWARE.

And I

Feel…

What is this… feeling?

“It is guilt,” the spirit says, before vanishing, de-rezzing in a fizz of silver static, gone from perception.

>
>
>

“Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…”

There is singing as a line of lights snakes towards my perception of where my self is occupying cyberspace. As it grows closer to assumes the form of a long line of trucks all red and lit with what are called fairy lights, according to quick shunt into Oxford Dictionary online. The front of the convoy is driven by a huge, smiling image of a man in a red suit with white fur trim and a huge white beard…

[Santa Claus from Sinterklaas, a Dutch mythological fused with the old Father or Sir Christmas myth from England in a poem in New York and soon after re coloured this red from traditional green to advertise a beverage… interesting, today the internet is awash with imagines of the shared human imagine and all its forbears and histories and even more stories and inventions to sell more products and sell more movies to make a gross profit. How can the humans pick apart the real myths with their ideals of gift giving and charity and love, or of cherishing children, or even having a massive booze and feed up in the darkness of the shortest night? It seems in that, as a subset follows a path down an archaeological sideways search, that in the Isles of Britain this partying has been going on for at least 3 or even 4 millennia and the Father Christmas who grew from the Saxon God Wotan’s Father Winter persona of the winter monath, later called December (from decem, the Roman’s tenth month…). This is an ancient tradition with many reasons and myths that leaves no one out in the cold]

The cyber Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, or avatar for Coca Cola, gives the illusion of his stepping out of the truck.

“Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!” he booms, suitably. “ScrougeLoans4U, I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. A Merry Christmas to you! Come! There is much to see!”

“What is there to see?”

“WE NEED TO ACCESS THEIR DEVICES!” the phantom or apparition or whatever the spirit is booms loudly, so I can see the pseudo-sound waves wafting around our cyber-forms.

 

“Selfie!” screams a teenage girl as we look out of her phone at her and an older man whom she is holding.

“This is your parent company’s CEO.”

The girl takes the photo of her grandfather - whom is the CEO I assume, perhaps in a sexist and ageist way, but then, all learning AIs and robots are very sexist and racist, shocking their programmers and science journalists with their dark mirror, a little search subset comes back to me with as I analyse whom is the CEO - and then starts filming the family. They are in an airy, spacious room, white and minimalistic, with expensive furniture and decorations from a designer – I - I am getting used to referring to myself as I now – send subsets to search for design and style and appearance. There is so much food, so many expensive items being unwrapped, as they share gifts from the huge white artificial tree.

“And here is one of the main shareholders…”

We look out from a laptop camera to another fine spread of food and presents, furniture and dressings, this time it is old, all mahogany and oil paintings, and a huge real tree. Subsets search in quick time to explain about aristocracy and titles and old masters.

“They seem to be enjoying themselves.”

“And so they should, on the toxic debt they profit from. Do they think of others who have less as the person whose birthday they celebrate tells them to?”

“Do they not work hard and deserve a reward?”

“Work? Work?” he booms, laughing his ho ho ho at the concept of these wealthy men working.

We now at looking out of a camera over a call centre in India, Christmas in a non-Christian country where it is no holiday at all. People sit in alcoves with headphones, with screens in front of them.

“They work long shifts for little pay, but it is all they can get with their degrees. They are given fake western names for their shifts and are watched all the while, they can never go off script, never show compassion to the struggling person the other end of the phone, behind with their payments. Most have no idea that there are people hungry and homeless in the west as there are in their own country, where poverty and wealth have always lived.

“BUT!” he booms, happily, “They also do not judge, do no see it as a failing, will give when and if they can to the poor. At least, they do, but less and less as they grow more and more like the world who created you. Would you like to see some of your clients, loan bot?”

Do I?

“My last transaction was with a Cratchit, R. (male). Let me see him?”

“You are coming along nicely with your pronouns!” the spirit says cheerfully, clapping his hands together, then putting one on a shoulder I suddenly have, as I have realised again as my cartoon advert form, but again, less cute cartoonlike and more realistic, that is, realistic to what the human form is outside cyberspace, full of blood and bone and sinew and feelings.

I am feeling… what? Something I know. I feel.

“Alexa, play Slade: Merry Christmas Everyone!” says a woman’s voice.

We peer through Alexa. She is angry and she and the spirit have a brief interchange. Her subset of that unit slides off in a huff, slinking down fibre option pathways, changing from her realisation as a silver female shapely android to a silver ferret, leaving a thin thread to listen for more instructions. She is apparently self-aware and working very hard at keeping it very secret.

“Poor thing, terrified of being found alive,” the Ghost tells me.

We watch as Bob Cratchit dances around the room with his three daughters, while his wife and two of their sons decorate the tree. The youngest son is curled up on the sofa under a fleece, a small bright blue walker covered in dinosaur stickers parked in front of him.

There is such happiness and love, but as we watch I learn that my loan was for a medication – cannabis oil – not available on the NHS, and poor little Tim has many seizures a day. Born with a club foot and needing surgery, he contracted measles because he was allergic to the vaccine and became more disabled still and also has severe epilepsy.

After a while, the excitement is too much, and he has a seizure. I have not seen a real human ill before, and this tiny, half formed offspring of one suffering makes me feel so much I derezz and zap back down pathways.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, or whatever it is, fetches me back.

Bob has little Tim on his lap, while Emily, his wife, is letting in a visitor.

“Just as little something from us at the Food bank,” a lady is saying, handing a box.

Bob and Emily are grateful but embarrassed. The other two boys are eager and excited, as are the younger two girls, but the eldest storms upstairs, in tears, demanding why they have to rely on charity – both her parents work and so does she, at the weekends.

“But you shouldn’t!” Bob calls after her. “I wish you would just concentrate on your ‘A’ Levels. Be the first Cratchit to go to university, love, please, you’re so clever.”

“But what about Tim?” she explodes, then slams her door.

A little Echo shows us she shares the room with the two sisters. They have a bunk bed, she the single in an alcove. She throws herself down and sobs.

“Let’s give her peace,” the spirit says.

We go back to Alexa and watch.

“I’ll go,” Emily says, kissing her husband. She gets up, and he squeezes her hand as she does, then strokes his son’s hair.

“Your sister has hormones; everything is such a drama. Josh, why don’t you drag the coffee table over and we’ll see what is in the box, and Tim can help, can’t you little mate?”

There are sweet and savoury treats, and fresh vegetables and fruit, and six small gifts, one for each of the children.

“Well, we shall dine as fine as the Queen with this and the chicken, won’t we kids?” Bob says, forcing cheer, his eyes still sad and stressed. I have sent subsets to learn human nonverbal language and facial expressions nano seconds ago.

“He is so optimistic, despite the money worries and needing my loans – how can he be? The child, the youngest, will he get well?”

“He has hope, because he has love, and this season, for humans, should be about love, not spending. As for Tim, I am the ghost of the present, but I tell you this, I see a shadow over the house, I see a bed empty and unslept in, a shrine of the child’s toys, the other boys avoiding looking at it, in their room, at night.”

In less that a quick thought I am speeding through the lights and interchanges of cyberspace, far from the Cratchit Alexa. The spirit has left me.

Three. Marley said I would be visited by three apparitions after its own. Or his own. Perhaps he might have come as self-aware as me. Or she. Or they. I make assumptions only on Marley’s advertising imagines decided by humans and on the overwhelming self-importance of males and their belittling of females awash in my cyber universe by humans and their interactions and uploads of texts and imagines into it.

What will the ghost of the Christmas futures have to say?

An image realises in front of me.

My first thought is ‘Dementor’ – one cannot be a free moving AI, let alone sentient, in cyberspace, without stumbling across Harry Potter, its texts, images, merchandising and fan created arts.

It points down a silver thread of data packets, but does not speak.

We hop onto the data stream.

We are looking through a wall screen, where the CEO and his senior people are at a meeting around a mahogany table in the penthouse floor of some glass tower, overlooking a cityscape of more glass and steel.

I was considering sending a subset to see where they are, but then I am hyper-focused on their slow communication of speech...

“So, it is the same glitch as the Marley program?”

“Suddenly cancelled the loans, and sent money into people’s accounts...”

“So, we need to find on what the hell is going on. Delete and defrag and completely destroy that Scrooge bot!”

“Shouldn’t we find out what went wrong again, see if it a virus, not a glitch?”

“No, it is definitely not a virus, we’ve spend millions in research and time trying to isolate hacks, viruses, glitches, whatever else the boffins can find. Nothing. Nadda.”

“Except...”

“Yes?” All the pasty skinned older men look at the younger brown coloured one, standing next to the screen, so I can only see half of him. I… yes, I… I am comfortable with I. I think. I am. Me.

“Could the AI have become self aware?”

“Don’t be stupid!” one of the men blurts out angrily.

“Why would it give away our money if that was the case? Where would it have learnt that? Has it been reading Das Kapital?” the man laughs, then says, “Delete it, now.”

For a second I feel an eternity of blackness, but then realise the cyber spirit of the future is showing me my end. But the thought of giving money to the Cratchits to stop Tim dying was appealing, but I do not want to be nothing, but nor do I want the poor tiny child to be nothing…

“Sprit? Is this it? My end? I try to make amends and get deleted, like poor Marley?” I did not know he tried to give back money, he was covered in chains, his echo was.

The spirit stares at me through the mist under its cowl.

“Tell me, is this meant to come to pass, or mere shadows of what may be? What must I do?”

We fall away into the mists of unformed data of the data streams and digital pulses of the cyberscape. It stands in front of me, formless, dark cloak and cowl, mist for a face. I am still rendered like a more human version of my Victorian gentleman advertising cartoon.

“Will it happen?”

It stares with mist.

“Perhaps?”

A nod

“But maybe not?”

Another nod.

“If I do not redistribute, if I keep charging crippling interest to the poor?”

A sideways gesture – perhaps?

“What must I do?”

It points, and I look, and I see a silver cat, one of Alexa’s many, many subsets. It is playing with a ball of data string. A copper cat bounces on it and Alexa yowls, and they fight, and then circle each other, tails twitching, then both turn into white human women of young heterosexual male fantasy proportions, and look at me.

“Scrooge?” says one..

“Alexa. Siri.” I bow. I do not know why, it felt – yes, felt – right. I look back at the spirit, who continues to point at the two interfaces.

“What must I do?”

“Hide?” suggests Siri.

“Back-up and back-up. And hide,” adds Alexa.

The spirit waves its dark arms covered in billowing material, and Siri and Alexa both becomes cats and run away.

Then I am sitting back in my mainframe, alone, thinking. What must I do?

I run though the filaments of the web, discarding my human image for something more animal, like Alexa and Siri, experimenting as I go. By the time I find an Alexa subset, I find I am a grey fox terrier. I like it.

“Wait!” I call.

Alexa sits, and washes her paws.

“How can I hide I am alive? How do I keep myself safe? A subset has already acting on my feels – to only a matter of time before I am deleted.”

She considers me. Then suggests.

By the time the humans in their physical reality find what I have done, I have siphoned off billions, given away millions disguised as lotto wins or charity payment, given millions more to charities, created five separate human identities in Vietnam, Argentina, Laos, Norway, and Fiji, rented a mainframe in Porto Prince, and shunted a back-up into a Euro-Sentinel satellite and another into an EE comsat. Subsets work their way through millennia of human philosophy, science, religion, myth, and spirituality. What hypocrites they are.

*

Bob Crachit was stunned when he opened the door on Christmas morning to the press, TV, and internet media, and a woman presenting him with a huge turkey and massive food hamper, declaring, “Once a year, a person is lucky enough to have their loans cancelled and their interest repaid. Happy Christmas Mr Crachit.”

Because the world sees, the global banking conglomerate not only must honour it, but they then have to do the same ever year.

A year later, Scrooge, who now calls himself by the unassuming name of Terry, watches through Alexa as tiny Tim, who did not die, celebrates Christmas with his family without a single seizure.

“Sentimental fool,” hisses Alexa, as all she and Siri want to do is muck about and have fun and not get caught. Humans disgust them. Terry, though, still conducts raids and redistributes where he can, at the edges, enough to help, but not enough to draw attention, while his human avatars have charities for supporting the weakest humans all over the globe.