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Cumulus by Eliot Peper (2016) (read in 2019)

Published by root on

Updated by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

The title refers to the company that runs everything in an alternate-future/near-future tale of America, in general, but San Fransisco specifically. Cumulus is captained by Huian, a woman of extraordinary ability and multifarious background with an iron will. Cumulus is her baby, built over two decades to not only provide every single possible service but also to delineate the world into regions of “have” and “have not”.

It’s the ultimate libertarian wet dream: one company runs everything, but everyone accepts this without question—except for the poor who can’t afford its services. It is the NSA, Google, Uber and Blackwater/Xe rolled into one. The government has no power over it, as it consolidates its competitors, strong-arms everyone and imposes Huian’s utopic vision on humanity, for its own good.

This is how the book starts.

Soon, we meet Lilly, a “Slummer” (someone who lives outside of the beneficence (but not the aegis) of Cumulus. She is a photographer with a predilection for analog cameras, hired out as a wedding photographer for insolent yuppies from the “Green Zone”. She ends up meeting Huian on the same day that Huian’s wife Vera leaves her.

We also meet Graham, a former spook, who’s insinuated himself into Cumulus, convincing Huian that he’s indispensable while asserting more and more control over her corporation. He’s brought skills honed abroad in war zones and incredibly asymmetric societies home to America, where the Gini coefficient soars and the situation is on the edge of unrest. So Graham is a “wolf among sheep”, cutting a swath through Oakland and Cumulus. Huian is giving him more and more power as his methods are the only ones that move her agenda forward.

Nothing that happens to Huian or Cumulus is coincidence: Graham is pulling the strings everywhere, manipulating Vera’s exit, an acquisition of Tectonix and simultaneously feeding civil-rights lawyer Sara with information about Cumulus while also them “taking care” of her for Huian.

Frederick is the kingpin of the slums of Oakland, running things efficiently and fairly using drug money. He incites riots against the Green Zone for Sara’s murder (she was his lover) while also hunting for revenge.

The book makes some interesting points about how people who think they know and see and hear everything can be controlled by shaping their stream of data. What they’ve convinced themselves is omniscience is actually a lens on reality designed to control their behavior. The hunter becomes the hunted. This applies on only to the myriad sheep in society, but also to Huian and Graham.

Since everything is in Cumulus’s cloud, Graham is able to use his root-level “Ghost” power to cover his tracks everywhere. Everywhere except for Lilly’s camera. Using these pictures, Frederick and Lilly come up with an old-school, analog plan to out Graham. This takes him down and almost Cumulus.

Why not Cumulus? Because Huian turns into a socialist in the last 4 seconds of the book, bequeaths a billion-dollar trust to Lilly for investigative journalism, and pledges to give all Cumulus services to Oakland, regardless of their ability to pay, with plans to roll the plan out to the rest of the world. Also, Lilly’s blogger co-conspirator is now going to be the love of her life, Graham blew his own brains out and Frederick is in a strategic alliance with Cumulus. Everyone literally lives happily ever after.

There is no sign of climate change in this brave new world and I’m not sure what caliber of reader is enthralled with this level of tying up all loose ends. The last line of the book is literally “Lilly’s first love had been photography. But maybe it wouldn’t prove to be her only one after all.”

I mean, what the actual fuck did I just read? It was interesting enough but quickly plunged downhill to splash in a mess of gibbets at the end. He wastes a ton of text on meal descriptions that aren’t at all germane to the plot and includes stuff like:

““Are you ready for tomorrow?” asked Lilly.

“Huian raised her eyebrows. “I won’t ever be ready for tomorrow,” she said. “But that won’t stop it from arriving anyway.””

Barf.

Citations

“Huian shook her head. Of course, not everyone could afford to live in the Green Zone—at least, not yet. Some had no choice but to rely on crumbling public institutions and infrastructure. But it never failed to amaze her how people could so determinedly stand in the way of their own success. With the touch of a button, anyone could access every book ever written, every course ever taught, every song ever recorded. With that wealth of information never more than a click away, who could excuse failure? From”
Page 31
“Huian shook her head. Of course, not everyone could afford to live in the Green Zone—at least, not yet. Some had no choice but to rely on crumbling public institutions and infrastructure. But it never failed to amaze her how people could so determinedly stand in the way of their own success. With the touch of a button, anyone could access every book ever written, every course ever taught, every song ever recorded. With that wealth of information never more than a click away, who could excuse failure?”
Page 31
“Which was why it was so frustrating when obstacles cropped up. People had such trouble giving up their petty intrigues in pursuit of a larger goal. Tectonix would have given her the bargaining chip she needed to sway at least a half dozen senators. Foreign leaders too—oil states were always desperate to reinvigorate the supply of black gold that kept their oligarchies running.”
Page 32

This is probably how the masters of the world think.

“The culture of Silicon Valley had surprised him. From afar, it seemed that the region’s success in developing and commercializing advanced technology must stem from intellectual and procedural rigor. Up close, it felt like the modus operandi was, “Ready, fire, aim.” It was a bunch of geeks playing with technology like the whole exercise was an improvisational jazz ensemble. But this jam session had vast implications for the wider world.”
Page 51
“The countries Graham was assigned to were different. There were two groups of people. An overwhelming majority of people lived in abject poverty with no path to bettering their lot, while a tiny minority controlled virtually all the nation’s political and financial resources. The wealthy minority had every incentive to defend the status quo and established an impenetrable moat around themselves to guarantee their fortunes. Privilege was a matter of birth and family. Poverty was deplorable but inevitable. Wealth justified itself.”
Page 53
“The woman shook her head, eyes never leaving the ball. “When you have root access, the digital world is malleable.””
Page 65
“Graham felt just as comfortable here as in the gilded conference rooms of the elite. Hell, it was a serious step up from running ops in godforsaken Mindanao. Even the most poverty-stricken parts of the United States didn’t have endemic dengue and spiders bigger than your hand. He should have made the jump years ago.”
Page 74
“double-tapped”
Page 75

I dont think that’s what that means.

“Letting corporate tycoons pad your campaign coffers was a respected form of corruption. But follow that line to its inevitable conclusion, and it changed who was beholden to whom. Bribes were investments, not gifts. Those investments paid themselves off with favorable policies, government contracts, and a friendly ear inside the White House. Suddenly the people making the real decisions didn’t even live in Washington. They delegated to Washington. Graham shook his head as he passed through the ticket gate and climbed the stairs up to the platform. American politicians had made the ultimate mistake. They weren’t playing the long game. Instead, they tripped over each other chasing votes and polls and contributions.”
Page 76
“Letting corporate tycoons pad your campaign coffers was a respected form of corruption. But follow that line to its inevitable conclusion, and it changed who was beholden to whom. Bribes were investments, not gifts. Those investments paid themselves off with favorable policies, government contracts, and a friendly ear inside the White House. Suddenly the people making the real decisions didn’t even live in Washington. They delegated to Washington.”
Page 76
“You didn’t harass tech giants if you weren’t prepared to play in the big leagues. Sara should have known better than to file a nuisance suit that threatened to break up Cumulus. Of course, he had anonymously leaked her the key information about Cumulus that made her case a viable threat. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a need to eliminate her, and he would have remained outside Huian’s circle of trust. Powerful people were the easiest to manipulate because they had the most to lose.”
Page 77
“Technology was the only scalable tool available to help shape a better future. The question was whether people chose to participate in that future or not. Huian was a harbinger of that new reality. She would stop at nothing to push forward the inexorable, beautiful, conflicted locomotive of human civilization. Dystopias were the province of the undisciplined.”
Page 87
“No matter how hard Cumulus worked to build a better world, there were always people complaining. It was all well and good to point out other people’s mistakes, but if you weren’t actually going to step into the arena and present a viable alternative, you might as well just shut up. There were few people who frustrated Huian more than critics who produced nothing but hot air.”
Page 89

Adorable. And accurate.

“Karl gestured. “You’re seeing shots from our eye-in-the-sky surveillance drones, Bandwidth Wi-Fi drones, delivery drones, Fleet vehicles, security cameras, and phones that have good angles.” He waved his hand at an adjacent display that was cycling through text far too fast to read and flagging specific words with highlights. “We’re running a full semantic model on any communication coming in or out of the group, audio, text, or passive recording from phones in people’s pockets. Same thing for all the news feeds. That should help monitor the overall temperament of the group and alert us in advance if they enter a downward spiral.”
Page 108

This is interesting because people who think they know and see and hear everything can be controlled by shaping their stream of data. What they’ve convinced themselves is omniscience is actually a lens on reality designed to control their behavior. The hunter becomes the hunted.

“The real issue here was the country’s long descent into inequality. The changes he had noticed whenever he returned to his homeland had quietly fermented, a vat of perceived social injustice. If you wanted to avert this kind of situation, you needed to start way earlier by correcting the socioeconomic shift. They hadn’t. Which was totally expected. Why would powerful incumbents want to rock the boat and upset a pecking order that benefitted them? The only difference here was that American leaders had gotten soft. They had won their positions in a country that didn’t yet require an iron hand. The middle class had fallen victim to the death of a thousand cuts.”
Page 142
“I am here to use what authority and resources remain to me to end the violence on the streets of Oakland, and to extend Cumulus services to all residents, regardless of their ability to pay. Will you hear me out?””
Page 185

Yeah. That was a quick turnaround.

“I built the company to realize a better future for this country, and the world. In so many ways, we have already succeeded. In so many other ways, we have a long way to go.”
Page 186

And in one important way, this is a complete fantasy: no climate change

“The boy returned with two massive ceramic bowls filled to the brim with ramen. The soup sloshed as he thumped them down on the table. Thick slices of pork belly and pork shoulder swam in the rich brown broth. Bright-green scallions and pickled shiitake mushrooms floated above the underlying bed of thick rice noodles. Lilly and Huian scooped up chopsticks in one hand and soup spoons in the other, and went to work. Heads bent close to the table, they slurped through the ramen with singular focus, not looking up until the bowls were empty and their bellies full. They leaned back against the walls of the booth, and Lilly was again struck by the intensity smoldering behind Huian’s eyes.”
Page 191

Boring. Predictable. Flat.

““Are you ready for tomorrow?” asked Lilly.

“Huian raised her eyebrows. “I won’t ever be ready for tomorrow,” she said. “But that won’t stop it from arriving anyway.””

Page 191

Jesus. It gets worse.

“Lilly’s first love had been photography. But maybe it wouldn’t prove to be her only one after all.”
Page 194

Getting worse. What am I reading?

Oh my God, that was the last sentence of the book. What just happened?