Like most advancements that wind up fundamentally altering civilization, the Exemplar System started out as a minor project in the basement of some corporate facility in Middle America. Not even its own product — just a feature, one of many on the augmented-reality lenses now everyone wears.
“Exemplar Mode” let you hide behind a computer generated, full body mask — basically you, but with the rough edges smoothed over. Like a photo filter for life. And thinly-customizable — want blonde hair one day, and blue the next? No problem at all. A little taller; a bit thinner; a little less tired? All well within your digital grasp — if you had the talent to code it, or enough money to buy someone that did.
There were limits. Some technological (hard-coded maximum and minimum heights and weights), some legislative (no impersonating anybody else or their Exemplar). And like with most rules that govern all of society, they were often enforced somewhat intermittently, depending on the net worth of the perpetrator. But even still, it wasn’t long before everybody used an ‘Exemplar’ all the time. Everybody.
Because while the intention behind Exemplar was to “inspire a greater equality among society” — at least according to Exemplar, when the company promoted it as the killer app for their lenses (this is back when they were only making actual glasses, the contacts came later). The reality was that it merely raised the bottom floor of attractiveness while having precisely fuck-all effect on the world at large. The rich still had the resources to shrug off the rules, with off-market digital cosmetics and de-aging plugins being installed as an open secret in wealthier circles. All while making an ungodly amount of money for all involved.
At first the Lenses were a toy, a novelty you used to snowball fight in the middle of July, or to follow along a recipe with ghostly premonitory visions generated before your very eyes of what you were meant to do next.
But as with all sufficiently addictive technology, the toy became a platform and the platform became a standard. I remember a small outcry at the beginning — privacy, attention span, that kind of thing — but that was quickly stifled by the desires of the whole.
And so it was that we all walked around with the lenses all-but-permanently bolted to our eyeballs. Which meant we all became permanently accustomed to the filtered, Exemplar versions of ourselves. I know I feel naked without them on, and I’m sure I’m not alone. And seeing someone else not wearing theirs — it’s like seeing someone outside without a mask in a public area. Bewildering. Seeing yourself ‘naked’ in the mirror used to be even worse.
Even the homeless population looks somehow uncanny without them, the lack of constant stimulation to the visual cortex giving them a glassy-eyed demeanor in a world where incessant stimulation is a near constant, happening to you, like a tidal wave, or a personal message from God.
(Besides, it was unsettling: you never really knew if they were cackling at hallucinatory slapstick — or at what was hiding behind all our collective masks.)
Then came E-Day. March 14th. Ten years ago. The day that the Prophet GoreDan47 (praise be) executed the Great Hack on Exemplar, changing the world and freeing us all from material bondage forever.
Post-E-Day, all the Exemplars were all replaced with pure text — a flat view of the Lenses’ raw visualization data; a running list of everything you’d done in the past 24 hours or so, all in incomprehensible machine code.
“Incomprehensible machine code” which our AR glasses translated like any other language. Why shouldn’t they? It is their native tongue. That language was how the operating system powering the Lenses had learned to describe interaction between the world and (itself/themselves/itselves?) — a necessity in order to display a continuous 3D overlay and HUD on the actual physical world.
That was what the glasses were, when you got right down to it: continuous, and a necessity.
The language the glasses’ AI came up with was surprisingly human-readable. Which meant that every single one of us was now walking around with a running list of:
We called it “the Feed”.
The Feed turned out to be real come to Jesus moment for just about everybody in the entire world, from political bigwigs on down to cheating husbands and beyond.
The first couple hours after the Hack were seriously dicey. Entire nations imploded all over the world, as leaders were made truly transparent to their peoples for the first time in all of human history, all at once. And The People were pissed, to say the least. It’s one thing to vaguely assume your leaders are probably corrupt to one degree or another. It’s another thing altogether to suddenly see it all written out plain as day for everybody to see.
The news was fairly certain nukes were on the way about fifteen times that night, so I spent the first couple hours smoking all of my best weed and the rest of it cowering under a blanket with a terrified cat and a picture of my family clutched to my chest.
I was working as a low-level IT guy at the time, one of a hundred others just like me at a big deal talent agency in Hollywood. My specialty was actually the Exemplars themselves — helping the celebrities tweak and refine their Exemplars to a pixel scale totally unachievable for anyone besides the unimaginably rich. It wasn’t my dream (I wanted to write) but it paid the bills so there I was.
I even held out hopes (dim, dim hopes) of somehow using my meager connections at the agency to bootstrap my own success. Or, failing that, that I’d impress some famous person so much they’d buy a script or two off me, just to get me going. I spent most of my downtime at work waffling back and forth between which of those two scenarios was less likely. My gut said it was about equal.
The universal thing about people in show-business (the successful ones, at least) is that what they want most of all is to be thought about a certain way. Good or bad, it’s all performed identity, constructed — for money, for notoriety, whatever it is that wakes them up in the morning. The people who learn to operate in that world — they were built for it. And they tended to either be radiantly beautiful, or know somebody who is (or have enough money to fake it). So suddenly being faced with a world in which all those skills were rendered useless was less than ideal, from their archipelagics point of view.
Overnight the traditional media industry collapsed as everyone’s carefully corporate-crafted Exemplars were replaced with a public catalog of vile deeds. Even the ones who weren’t monsters found themselves so thoroughly compromised by their relative proximity that nobody had any time to protest.
With over ten thousand employees across the globe — not to mention clients — I had a full time job just managing egos alone. And then, without warning, it was all gone. The Exemplars, the IT Department, the Agency, the clients, the projects, the studios — the entire industry basically vanished overnight. Everything.
For example: it completely changed the face of acting (no pun intended). Practically speaking, the only kind of acting really possible after the Hack was going full-on Method. I mean think about it — the only expressive tool available was the actor’s personal feed. They had to live their characters. Literally.
There are stories, of course, about their off-days being debauched beyond belief. Society was already learning to restructure itself around the new, transparent reality — and the media industry always speeds just ahead of the curve.
There were other changes. Agents turned into actual agents of their clients — busying themselves with the upkeep and tasks (both tawdry and domestic) that the clients couldn’t do while they were working. Directors would rehearse for weeks to get the order of actions — and the way the Feed would reflect them — just right for the story.
It was a new age, and one I planned to be a part of.
But plans don’t always work out, which is why I was still an independent producer ten years later. In the Valley.
It was a director who put me onto this story in the first place. He wanted to a make a documentary, “The Search for GoreDan47”. “The documentary to end all documentaries”, was how he pitched it, “The Hearts of Darkness of our entire society, and the human being behind it all. Think about it — they must adhere to some sort of philosophy, to plan out and accomplish such a political act. And yet they’ve never revealed their identity to the public.”
This was true. There had been plenty of pretenders at first, of course, all claiming to be responsible. Most were trying to form a cult of personality or rip as many people off as possible. But for maybe the first time the Feed demonstrated the inherent value of its existence — none of these false idols gained any traction at all. How could they, wearing their lies like a blinking neon vert across the space where their Exemplars should be.
“So, what?” I said.
“So,” he replied, “Aren’t you the least bit curious why whoever did it, did it?”.
I was actually. I’d thought about it quite a bit in the days after I hit the unemployment line. After all, what good is a makeup brush without a face on which to paint? Digital or otherwise. So I was among the first to be shit-canned and out on my ass. So I did the only thing I could do — become an independent producer.
The director (a friend, the kind so successful you truly wish you could hate them — but also so deserving that you forgive them anyways) had come to me as a courtesy, a friendly favor to help an old pal get a leg up. But also because he knew that while I knew computers about as well as anybody, nobody knew the ins and outs of the Exemplar program more intimately than me.
You see, being digital surgeon to the stars came with a certain level of access otherwise unavailable to the mere work-a-day mortals. And as in all things back then, while the Exemplar system had a theoretical set of rules and standards and limits, it was in practice governed almost exclusively by money. That is to say, the application of money to the right personages within the ExemplarCorp chain of command. And nobody has more money to spend than the entertainment industry. In truth nearly everyone looked the other way — after all, who wants average-looking movie stars? A world without legends, without gods — who’s that supposed to serve?
So soon thereafter I was on the case. Without much to go on, I began by tracing what was actually known about GoreDan47. Not much. The username and IP had logged in under an obfuscated systems account so what they’d actually done was completely irretrievable, unknowable maybe forever (several triple-letter agencies from across the globe had tried, numerous times).
The IP had been traced back to a VPN, which was where the trail officially ended — the VPN was a Russian deal, real Russian, pay-us-in-bitcoin-and-vodka Russians not the state-sponsored honeytrap sellouts. Which meant that they really didn’t keep records of any kind. Unfortunately.
But I’d been in this business long enough to have a few tricks up my sleeves. Accessing the Exemplar Program required a slew of specialized software, accompanied by truly staggering hardware requirements. I’d been slowly building my own rig at home with castoff parts from the office back pre-Hack, which sure came in handy. Renting server time kept me in beans for a few very lean, very close, months.
That level of hardware meant a digital fingerprint and a real-world trail of power bills and invoices for parts. All of which the Feds must surely have known.
But what they might not have known, what they might have missed, is that the Exemplar Program itself kept an informal record of access. Hidden in a subsection of a temporary file at the base of a folder structure both arcane and upsetting. It wasn’t referenced anywhere else, not a real backup or record of any kind. As near as I could tell, it was a “temporary” oh-shit protection mechanism the developer(s?) programmed and forgot to remove. I found it back when exploring the Exemplar system was still new and exciting. And it saved my ass at least once, back in the Old World when I accidentally deleted an A-list starlet’s cheekbones at her pre-Oscar tuneup.
The Exemplar Program itself also kept snapshot backups of its internal file structure at regular intervals. Space was cheap these days, so the available history was almost a hundred years. I pulled up the copy of the temporary file from the next morning — after the Hack, but before the Feds would’ve started tampering.
And there it was, plain as day. Not a real name, of course, but the internal user Ident assigned to that particular user’s hardware. With that, I could cross-reference the official logs and quickly uncover the hacker’s identity with any number of methods. We had them.
A few phone calls later and I had an address. Two days after that, the director and I — along with a minimal crew of three. GoreDan47 was apparently based in North Carolina, according to my amateur detective work.
Specifically Kernersville, deep in the heart of Tobacco Country. Not anywhere I’d ever been before, but nice enough to look at. It made a certain amount of sense — Kernersville was the center of a technologic gold rush around the turn of the century, when a local good-old-boy-turned-money-guy had fixed the region up with a collection of tech campuses with the bleedingest edge tech available.
Ten years hence that meant less than nothing, they might as well have been in the Stone Age for all they resonated in the real world. Which also meant that there might breed resentment.
Later we checked into the hotel. After some lightly derisive ribbing from the clerk about our point of origin, we got to our rooms and laid all our evidence out on the bed.
We had traced the original Ident to an apartment in the north end of town. But that had been fifteen years ago and we’d accounted for the time. Public info was more than enough to figure out that the house had changed hands several times since then. The people living there now had just moved in.
A local PI filled in the rest: Our suspect had moved, from the north end to the southern tip — exactly one month after the Hack. To the south side of town.
For the amount we were paying he was happy to show us, so off we went in his fearsome red four-door, eight-wheeled pickup. Local preference. The south end of town, it turned out, was much nicer than the north end where we were staying. Our suspect had clearly moved up in the world.
The house had twenty-five rooms at least. Enormous by LA standards, but relatively modest according to regional mores. We knocked on the door, not quite sure what to expect. A revolutionary? A political Geppetto? An anarchist hacker? Some combination of the above?
The woman who answered the door was not much like any of those things. She was, in fact, almost aggressively normal. She agreed to talk to us on camera only if she was concealed behind a curtain and a voice-changer of her own devising — some old hacker habits die hard.
But she laid everything out with zero resistance: for years, she’d been sick and tired of being the butt of every joke and having opportunity slam the door in her face simply because — as she saw it — she had been consistently unable to obtain an Exemplar worth a damn due to bad familial credit.
Exemplar customizations weren’t cheap, especially not good ones. And who doesn’t want to look their absolute best — whatever that means to them? So it wasn’t uncommon for people to go in for long-term financing, literally investing in themselves.
But ever since credit card companies successfully lobbied for credit debt to be inheritable, a lot of the same people who might’ve needed long-term financial planning to get into a good Exemplar were also now completely ineligible due to debts racked up by their grandparents.
Which was the case with GoreDan47 (real name: Callie Brewer) almost to the letter. She’d been born into the world already so crippled by debt she may as well have been stillborn. She had received no blessings in the looks department either (although on that bit we had to take her word, as she revealed her true face not even to us, off-cam).
So there she was, growing up in a life where the only real way out was striking it rich on the social media apps du jour. It wasn’t like jobs were plentiful these days. Even the entertainment industry was a constantly shrinking endeavor, always making a little more room here and there for marketing, and always at the expense of artistic integrity.
So Callie became a hacker (her handle “GoreDan47” was a carryover from her high school days as a self-described “heavy metal addict”). Or rather, as it turned out, she tried to become a hacker. The reality was she’d learned the smallest fragment of coding and then set out to craft herself a suitable Exemplar.
She actually got pretty far — at least two or three steps out of the thirty or so needed to accomplish what she was after. First, she figured out how to locate an old Exemplar templating file somewhere on the dark web. That was the surprising part. The rest was just logical extrapolation.
Like all grand, fundamental corporate computer systems, the Exemplar System was far too arcane for anyone to fully understand. Instead the code was more like Scripture — cryptic and up for interpretation. And I say that having hacked the system itself to enable “custom exceptions” for certain extremely well-heeled agency clients on an all-too-regular basis. I know as much about it as anybody.
All of which I’m telling you so you believe me when I say that also like all grand and fundamental corporate computer systems, the Exemplar system’s coding was a house of cards looking for a reason to blow away.
So it was no real surprise to me what she said next. That she uploaded her file — her carefully crafted, guaranteed life-changer of an Exemplar file — and the system attempted to interpret the invalid code and then, unable to do so, promptly went into a death spiral.
Because the template was years out of date. Decades, even. The system was running on an entirely different programming language by then. Completely incompatible.
The modern system had plenty of safeguards in place, but by loading an ancient template file, Callie had unwittingly directed the machine to attempt to retrieve the older version of itself that would be able to open it. That older version had none of these safeguards, which meant that the modern system found itself unable to shut it down. And so the two systems became irrevocably enmeshed, even to this day. Inextricable and inexplicable, a complete black box — even to the Feds.
Callie hadn’t come forward in the decade since for two reasons. One, she was afraid that what she’d done was illegal (it was, particularly since she didn’t have money) and she didn’t want to be punished.
The second was that the Great Hack turned out to be a relatively sweet deal for young Callie. She ended up introducing us to her family (kind husband, two unruly kids) as “old work friends” and giving us a quick tour of her minor mansion.
Callie had gone into business as a software consultant for the small businesses in her immediate community just after the Hack. She talked to us about feeling accepted in a way she’d never felt before. As she put it “all it took for me to get taken at face value, was to get rid of my face.” And everyone else’s, she didn’t say.
What she did say was that “It’s easy to be a good person if everybody else is too. Otherwise you gotta take care of yourself”.
So that was it then. An accident. No revolutionary ideals, no grand theory of social mobility, no philosophy at all really outside of pure animal instinct. Just one sad woman’s shot at a better life, fired in a system all but designed to keep her holstered.
A reasonably compelling case could be made that it was the mere confidence boost of shedding her hated skin that changed the equation for Callie. The placebo effect, in other words. But as a good producer, I figured we could Pandora that particular box in the editing room.
Except that, even as we rode in the shuttle back to the airport, I knew this was the end of the road. It wasn’t that nobody would pick up a documentary ruining the last legend the world had on offer. It was that nobody would buy anything about someone so aggressively boring.
Particularly one obscured behind a curtain. Who knew what ugly jealousies might shape her testimony, what repulsive undercurrents lurked beneath the surface? People preferred the new world anyway, and their existing stories about how it came to be, and that was that. If The People wanted a true account of how the Great Hack came to be, they’d make one up. A better one. A truer one.
So the project was never going any further than this. Which meant I wouldn’t even get paid back for expenses.
The director understood this too, so on the flight back to LA we discussed another idea of his about an online game where players logged on to be characters in a world where the Great Hack had never happened. There they could pretend to go about their daily lives in a world still populated exclusively by smiling, beautiful people. It sounded marketable for sure.
Later I watched videos off the plane’s library as I tried to sort out the meaning of all this. A vert blasted into view — a new one, I’d never come across it before.
A girl with a luscious voice and the cleanest feed I’d ever seen — wall-to-wall charitable works and snuggling babies — was hocking something called a “Shade”. I missed the details on how it worked — too busy taking in the view — but what it amounted to was an opaque censoring bar that dynamically covered all items in your feed, unless specifically revealed by you.
Up till now that had been impossible, but some bright young star had apparently figured it out. A total game-changer, obviously — the beginning of a new stage of history, almost certainly. Celebrities were already wearing it, showing off exclusive texture packs.
There would be 337 different textures available at launch, with more expansions on the way. The vert ended and the flight attendant asked me which DisPepCo beverage I preferred.
Fiction + Film