Surian Soosay

River Rising

After Twitter and Facebook comes the River—a social media platform embedded in the criminal justice system, where the crowd determines who lives and dies.

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Jan 6 2019, 7:57pm

Surian Soosay

The debate over the relative dangers of Twitter mobs and the impact of socially mediated justice media justice is wide open and ongoing. For a fresh view, step into the future as painted by James Yu, the co-founder of Parse and a former team leader of VR product at Facebook. And don't be too quick to upvote. Enjoy. -the ed


At noon sharp, Paz watched as the bailiffs wheeled the Host into the chamber, the red skull mark still fresh on his Adam’s apple. Even though he knew that the Host was the next to be executed, it was still shocking to see him—such a powerful personality—splayed out and vulnerable on the alloy slab.

It would be standard procedure; Paz would merely be fulfilling his duty as Assessor.

His conch piercing was unusually quiet. The silver bead vibrated the voices of the River straight into his eardrum. The city was holding its breath, watching him perform the ceremony. It was rare for the damned to be so well known.

Paz dipped a cotton swab as the Host’s eyes fluttered open. They were fiery, just as he remembered.

“Why even use alcohol?” the Host said. “I’m going to be a corpse soon anyway.”

Paz ignored him while making tender circles with the swab on the Host’s arm. He liked to conduct his duties in silence, arranging the tubes in neat rows like a conductor. Standard procedure.

“A slight prick,” Paz said as he pushed three needles in.

“Just push the damn button,” the Host said, shooting a stony gaze toward the camera on the wall. “Get it over with.”

Paz heard the River gasp. The Host certainly knew how to play to the audience.

“It is not time yet. The vote may be reversed,” Paz said. He twisted a valve and watched the saline slither down the tube. It was critical to ensure there was no blockage. Standard procedure.

“You might as well be an algorithm,” the Host said.

“You underestimate my role,” Paz said. “I interpret sentiment objectively. Even now, I am listening to the River—every citizen’s voice layered into a singular stream. Cacophony to an untrained ear, but not to me. Not after decades of listening. The voices arranged into a symphony: middle notes singing the majority anthem; the treble twittering the minority opposition; and the bass chanting the undecided.” He tapped his ear. “This task cannot be entrusted to just anyone, let alone a machine. You of all people should know how it works.”

“I just wanted to hear you say it out loud,” the Host said dismissively. “Because the River has chosen wrong.”

“The River does not make mistakes.”

“But you make mistakes.”

Paz knew this might happen—that he would be accused of bias. The Host fashioned himself a truth seeker, interviewing people on his show and exposing their lies to an enormous audience. Sometimes, they ended up here in this chamber, leading some to say that he and the Host were in symbiosis. But that was wrong—the River was the ultimate decider.

“Look over there,” Paz said, nodding toward the placard etched with the Host’s name. Below it sat a squat, rectangular gauge, its needle pointing to the result of the River’s daily vote:

Death.

“And what have I done wrong?” the Host asked.

The voices of the River crescendoed in Paz’s ear:

You lied! You slandered!

“I only spoke the truth,” the Host said. “That a high merchant had scammed people of millions, that the mayor had backstabbed her mother and father, that a quack masqueraded as an expert surgeon for years.”

Paz knew these people. He reluctantly brushed shoulders with them at the monthly galas. They always demanded to know what he heard in the River beyond what the algorithms could detect, but he didn’t answer them. They had an agenda. He didn’t.

“That is enough,” Paz said.

“Enough truth?”

The middle chorus of the River held steady:

Kill him.

But somehow the bands above had started to fray.

Paz took a step back. Lies were not new. Torrents of falsehoods sloshed the shores of this city. Had the River offered a fair vote? Of course. He couldn’t remember the last time there was a riot in the streets. Peace prevailed as long as someone paid the price each day.

The Host’s lips curled upwards. “You feel it. Doubt. Don’t you?”

“I feel no such thing,” Paz answered.

“How do you know I did it for evil reasons?” the Host asked.

“The River knows. It is not only the voices of people, but also the systems. They have analyzed your face and voice. The River knows your intent.”

“And what is yours, Assessor Paz?”

“I am impartial. I speak for the people.” Paz sighed. “It must be hard for you to believe I could be selfless. That I spend all my days in this chamber. The fact that we both broadcast our acts is the only thing we have in common. You act alone on your judgement whereas I listen.” Paz placed a hand on the tubes. “Any last words?”

The Host closed his eyes. Was he praying?

“You are a murderer,” he said suddenly.

Paz was unsurprised. First, they accuse or threaten. Then they bargain. Finally they die. Even the Host had succumbed to this pitiful pattern.

“The River begs to differ.”

“You are a murderer,” the Host repeated.

Paz looked at the clock. “Is that all?”

And then the Host said it:

“Remember Eve, Assessor Paz?”

Paz swallowed.

“I remember every single one. All 11,343 of the damned.”

“But she was special. You can’t forget her.”

Paz never let himself be provoked by controversies. He had been trusted ever since his early judgements in the city courts—before “the damned” was even a concept, when the River was a banal thing they called “social media.”

“A standard execution.”

“It was not!” the Host shouted. “This is why I’m here. To see your face after all this time, Paz.”

“This is not a game—”

“Of course not,” the Host interrupted. “I’ve studied the footage from the day you killed Eve. I slowed it down and saw it.”

Paz let his hand hover over the red button. But it was not the right time yet.

“You ignored a locus of voices. You didn’t listen to her family and friends. You glossed over the machines that told you about her past. You only listened to the loudest voices—the ones that you agreed with.” His eyes widened. “You hated her.”

Paz felt his hand shake. “I take into account all the voices.”

“Not on that day.” The Host’s gaze traced the tubes that disappeared into his arms. “You always stick the left arm first, then the right. Then you vocalize a few words. It’s very slight. No one can hear it. In fact, when I told others, they didn’t believe me. But I analyzed the footage. Your neck muscles. Your lips. I saw what you were saying.” He paused. “Standard Procedure.”

Paz almost laughed. “So what?”

“On that day with Eve, you never uttered those words. Not once. That’s why I looked deeper.”

The River was making a crackling sound like burning flesh. A few voices were shouting. Paz muted the conch. “That means nothing. I invite anyone to study the footage. I made the proper judgement.”

“You did not.” The Host’s voice had turned rotten. Paz had seen this before, too, during the Host’s shows, when he attacked people for pleasure while his audience ate it up. “Yet another lie.”

“You remember now, don’t you?” the Host went on. “How the River wavered at the last moment, sending the gauge sloping back—away from death. But you ignored it. You killed her because she had led a crusade to depose you. Because it was convenient.”

The Host spit, then said: “These tubes. This chamber. It’s all a gruesome farce. You’ve forgotten who you were, Paz. You’ve forgotten where we came from.”

Paz knew the Host was trying to plant a seed of doubt. But he couldn’t help thinking about that day again. Had he perhaps indeed been swayed by his feelings? No. It wasn’t possible. If he had been, the River would have punished him, and it did not.

The River had turned on two Assessors in the past because they had indeed been biased, not impartial and objective, and those Assessors had been executed, as they should have been.
Paz had never been accused of bias. He took pride in this, the same pride he’d felt as a child when he exposed his classmate’s dirty secrets to the world. People needed to see the dark truth about themselves before it festered, before the crowds punished them.

Even if Eve had led a crusade, he hadn’t been been angry at her. He’d merely interpreted the River correctly, followed what the people wanted. Hadn’t he?

The Host began bellowing. The sick laughter tickled the roots of Paz’s teeth. The Host was relishing this moment, as if he were the one enacting the punishment.

Paz tensed. “Stop it.”

The Host only laughed louder, writhing now as if possessed by a demon. How was it possible one could make such a sound?

A surge went through Paz’s spine and he realized he had pushed the red button. Had he pushed it prematurely? He checked. A few seconds from the standard, but that was all.

The clear barbiturate had shot down the tube, and a peaceful silence descended on the chamber. The Host’s face was placid now. Perhaps even a hint of a smile. In twenty seconds, his breathing would stop. Another ten, his heart.

Paz unmuted the conch. The River had sunk back into a whisper. In that thin, quiet stream, he heard a few straggling voices. What they were saying was surprising:

Murderer… Murderer… Murderer…

Surely not.

There was a sharp knock at the door as the River crescendoed:

Murderer.

It couldn’t be, but why else would the bailiffs be knocking? They had come for him.

“No,” Paz shouted. “You can’t really believe that man. Review the footage from Eve’s execution. Pull it up. I did what the River asked! No more, no less.”

The River burbled, became a single voice:

Not Eve! Not her.

The chamber screen came alive. Paz trembled. He now understood what the Host had done. The photo on the screen was a closeup of himself only moments ago. On his face was something he never would have expected, never allowed, never thought possible, not even in private.

It was rage—and the River had seen it and knew the truth.

In that moment, an old memory flashed in his mind. How he and the Host had played together as children, the one-room apartment, their father gone, their mother away at night, both he and his brother angry at life but happy to have each other, their paths not yet diverting.

Was this a lie, this memory? A waking dream but a lie? It didn’t matter. The scene was gone in an instant, and, though he could hear children’s laughter fading somewhere, it was the River’s rage that carried him now, as it would forever.