When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth

He swallowed hard and scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. Van awkwardly patted him on the shoe.

“My beautiful son and my beautiful wife died today. Millions more, too. The city is literally in flames. Whole cities have disappeared from the map.”

He coughed up a sob and swallowed it again.

“All around the world, people like us are gathered in buildings like this. They were trying to recover from last night’s worm when disaster struck. We have independent power. Food. Water.

“We have the network, that the bad guys use so well and that the good guys have never figured out.

“We have a shared love of liberty that comes from caring about and caring for the network. We are in charge of the most important organizational and governmental tool the world has ever seen. We are the closest thing to a government the world has right now. Geneva is a crater. The East River is on fire and the UN is evacuated.

“The Distributed Republic of Cyberspace weathered this storm basically unscathed. We are the custodians of a deathless, monstrous, wonderful machine, one with the potential to rebuild a better world.

“I have nothing to live for but that.”

There were tears in Van’s eyes. He wasn’t the only one. They didn’t applaud him, but they did one better. They maintained respectful, total silence for seconds that stretched to a minute.

“How do we do it?” Popovich said, without a trace of sarcasm.

The newsgroups were filling up fast. They’d announced them at news.admin.net-abuse .email, where all the spamfighters hung out, and where there was a tight culture of camaraderie in the face of full-out attack.

The new group was alt.november5-disaster.recovery, with .recovery.goverance, .recovery.finance, .recovery.logistics and .recovery .defense hanging off it. Bless the wooly alt. hierarchy and all those who sail in her.

The sysadmins came out of the woodwork. The Googleplex was online, with the stalwart Queen Kong bossing a gang of rollerbladed grunts who wheeled through the gigantic data center swapping out dead boxen and hitting reboot switches. The Internet Archive was offline in the Presidio, but the mirror in Amsterdam was live and they’d redirected the DNS so that you’d hardly know the difference. Amazon was down. Paypal was up. Blogger, Typepad, and Livejournal were all up, and filling with millions of posts from scared survivors huddling together for electronic warmth.

The Flickr photostreams were horrific. Felix had to unsubscribe from them after he caught a photo of a woman and a baby, dead in a kitchen, twisted into an agonized heiroglyph by the bioagent. They didn’t look like Kelly and 2.0, but they didn’t have to. He started shaking and couldn’t stop.

Wikipedia was up, but limping under load. The spam poured in as though nothing had changed. Worms roamed the network.  .recovery.logistics was where most of the action was.

> We can use the newsgroup voting mechanism to hold regional elections

Felix knew that this would work. Usenet newsgroup votes had been running for more than twenty years without a substantial hitch.

> We’ll elect regional representatives and they’ll pick a Prime Minister.

The Americans insisted on president, which Felix didn’t like. Seemed too partisan. His future wouldn’t be the American future. The American future had gone up with the White House. He was building a bigger tent than that.

There were French sysadmins online from France Telecom. The EBU’s data center had been spared in the attacks that hammered Geneva, and it was filled with wry Germans whose English was better than Felix’s. They got on well with the remains of the BBC team in Canary Wharf.

They spoke polyglot English in .recovery.logistics, and Felix had momentum on his side. Some of the admins were cooling out the inevitable stupid flame wars with the practice of long years. Some were chipping in useful suggestions.

Surprisingly few thought that Felix was off his rocker.

> I think we should hold elections as soon as possible. Tomorrow at the latest. We can’t rule justly without the consent of the governed.

Within seconds the reply landed in his inbox.

> You can’t be serious. Consent of the governed? Unless I miss my guess, most of the people you’re proposing to govern are puking their guts out, hiding under their desks, or wandering shell-shocked through the city streets. When do THEY get a vote?

Felix had to admit she had a point. Queen Kong was sharp. Not many woman sysadmins, and that was a genuine tragedy. Women like Queen Kong were too good to exclude from the field. He’d have to hack a solution to get women balanced out in his new government. Require each region to elect one woman and one man?

He happily clattered into argument with her. The elections would be the next day; he’d see to it.

“Prime Minister of Cyberspace? Why not call yourself the Grand Poobah of the Global Data Network? It’s more dignified, sounds cooler, and it’ll get you just as far.” Will had the sleeping spot next to him, up in the cafeteria, with Van on the other side. The room smelled like a dingleberry: twenty-five sysadmins who hadn’t washed in at least a day all crammed into the same room. For some of them, it had been much, much longer than a day.

“Shut up, Will,” Van said. “You wanted to try to knock the Internet offline.”

“Correction: I want to knock the Internet offline. Present-tense.”

Felix cracked one eye. He was so tired, it was like lifting weights.

“Look, Sario—if you don’t like my platform, put one of your own forward. There are plenty of people who think I’m full of shit and I respect them for that, since they’re all running opposite me or backing someone who is. That’s your choice. What’s not on the menu is nagging and complaining. Bedtime now, or get up and post your platform.”

Sario sat up slowly, unrolling the jacket he had been using for a pillow and putting it on. “Screw you guys, I’m out of here.”

“I thought he’d never leave,” Felix said and turned over, lying awake a long time, thinking about the election.

There were other people in the running. Some of them weren’t even sysadmins. A U.S. Senator on retreat at his summer place in Wyoming had generator power and a satellite phone. Somehow he’d found the right newsgroup and thrown his hat into the ring. Some anarchist hackers in Italy strafed the group all night long, posting broken-English screeds about the political bankruptcy of “governance” in the new world. Felix looked at their netblock and determined that they were probably holed up in a small Interaction Design institute near Turin. Italy had been hit very bad, but out in the small town, this cell of anarchists had taken up residence.

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