Cardboard Friction

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I.

Rafaella’s hand jerked as her head whipped sideways, straining to catch exactly who it was that was texting her at five in the morning. In that moment, a clash, cracked glass on the floor and a rush, a burn of hot water as the glass teapot crashed onto the battleship grey concrete floor.

“Goddamnit.”

She muttered loud enough for Toni to look up from her perch on the kitchen table. A meow, the thump of a tail as it thwacked the pile of unsorted mail – renewal notices, credit card offers and bills – that she had made her bed. “Why do cats make beds on the smallest things they can find?” the question slipping away as soon as it had appeared. Grabbing the cloth kitchen towels and throwing them onto the expanding pool of hot water, dreams of coffee shot, Rafaella stepped over the fibrous mass, reaching for her phone as an endless stack of notifications appeared, one always making room for the next.

“Just give me a goddamn minute.”

She scrolled and scrolled through a litany of blue beveled bubbles – once again, her boss had used her as a fleshed out, sentient notepad, sending Rafaella her manic thoughts in real time.

“Authenticity reigns”
“accepted authenticity”
“i need to give you the breakdown tomorrow”

But it was tomorrow. At that moment her fifth alarm went off. Snooze. The perky upbeat harp intended to gently awaken her after a night of slumber was quickly silenced with her thumb.

“It’s like realtime has been such a great untapped space”
“realtime has never been real”

“What does that even mean?” Rafaella thought to herself. Giving up on coffee, or a semblance of a morning, a moment of quiet as the Los Angeles sun crept through her iron-worked windows and passed her by unnoticed. She threw a Nonbar in her bag, gave Toni one head-to-tail full-body pat, and swept out the door. The quick intermittent spurts of buzzing continued, from her hand to her purse to her hand again, where it remained. Opening the door of her Ryde, Rafaella sunk into the black leather seat overwhelmed by the scent of the black ice air freshener she spied hanging on the rearview mirror. Putting earbuds in to avoid any unwanted 5-star rated small talk, she continued down a seemingly endless scroll of texts from Veronika, who had never touched a piece of content a day in her life:
“Props: fresh fruit, orchids, various water bottles”
“Shots of smiling employees”
“Money shot”

Antilla’s VP of Communications clearly knew what she wanted out of that evening. Slow panning, desaturated video of elegant spreads. Workers hands picking ripe, organic fruit and crudite from plastic platters, smiling. Crowds of employees, smiling, looking up to the heavens as a swarm of Antilla’s new drones descended upon them. A moment of sublimity, the workers bearing witness to the fusion of creativity with technological disruption. And then, clapping, the noise made by the crowd triggering the new feature we would all be there to celebrate. The swarm would flinch, respond to the movements and sounds of the crowd. Programmed to respond to human gesture and sound, the drones would dart and shudder, turn back or dive forth to the waving of hands, though could they yet distinguish cheering from screaming? Gestures of joy or rage? The “money shot,” as Veronika so delicately put it, invoked a porn cinematographer’s sublime commitment of the moment of ejaculation to celluloid history. She wanted Rafaella to capture the employees’ reactions to seeing what they had built do so much more than deliver packages to homes and business, performing a precisely choreographed dance of dark elegance.

Now that communication was two-way, would these drones be able to recognize fear on their customer’s faces? And would they take mercy when confronted with expressions wrought in terror? Trying not to think too hard about it, Rafaella reached into her vegan leather bag, pulling out a pink plastic pouch filled with equal parts makeup and prescription drugs, laying low in bottles of various supplements: fish oil, cordyceps, L-Theanine. Popping into the palm of her hand, a Wellbutrin, one half of an Ativan, birth control, she used the other to unscrew the cap of her water bottle. She swigged, swallowed, digging one hand deeper into her cavernous bag, pulling out two loose fish oil capsules and two capsules of ashwagandha root. Another swig of water, and then another swallow.

“Look at this!” the driver gesticulated towards an unmoving trail of cars rolled out as consistently as the asphalt below for as far as their eyes could see. She looked back instead, watching the layered smog do exactly as it always does, hovering and inert, as the sky had graduated slightly from a grey blue to just a hint of ochre. Rafaella did not have it in her to entertain yet another conversation about the worsening Los Angeles traffic with yet another Ryde driver who would be friendly enough at first before slowly beginning to reveal their covert bigotry. Realizing she would be at least five minutes late, she unlocked her phone and dialed into the weekly marketing call.

She tethered her laptop through her phone, dialing into the Zoom Conference chat just in time to disable her video and watch as her colleagues eked in. She could already hear her, the shrill of Veronika’s voice and tap of the heels resonated down the hall, she could only wait to see her turn the corner in a perfectly disheveled green parka, a thin embroidered scarf and black-and-white polka dot kitten heels. She was not disappointed; the neon yellow of her pants was magnificently blinding even on Rafaella’s screen.

“Rafaella, are you on the line?”

“Yes, stuck in traffic, be there in 20.”

“Good great, you sound like the voice of god in here.”

Veronika cackled, all others around the table following their leader’s suit. Rafaella had been there only four months, but could already recognize her coworkers’ laughs through the crisp headphone audio. Amongst her cohort, she fancied herself a creator. She did, after all, have access to a shipping and manufacturing black site as a content producer, creating the only images that exited Antilla’s monolithic assembly and distribution center. There was power in creating images and video, a lesson learned from a B.F.A. that left her two hundred thousand dollars in debt. And here, while she may not have had a voice, Rafaella did have power, in some sense, to make something visible and just as easily, to make an image, a scene, a face invisible.

“Raffi, for today, we need you to go through drone assembly and capture a few portraits in-situ. Workers on their benches, checking and assembling new machines. We need images of human-drone interaction, a human reaching upwards receiving their package from above. Be sure to get their names and the name of their managers, make sure workers look alive and happy. This is our big moment to tell the haters to fuck off – everyone fucking loves it here.”

“Roger, on it!”

“Make sure to ask each of the workers you talk to one question: what are they most excited about, what was their biggest challenge and biggest win, what role did they play in this momentous success.”

“Will do!”

The adderall had started kicking in, Rafaella’s amphetamine-fueled enthusiasm got her far, far enough to keep this job, make a notch in her student loans, keep her prescriptions filled, and carry out her ambiguously prestigious title of “Social Media Creative Director.”

“Oh, Veronika, I just wanted to get clearance with you now but I thought it’d be good to bring in a social photographer to capture b-roll during the event.”

“Can’t you just pick someone from marketing?”

“They just don’t get it, we need something more social, it can’t look too polished it needs to be authentic.”

“You mean you want it shitty?”

“No, just, believable, off the cuff. Jaden is available and is happy to come, and he’s already been cleared and is under NDA. Easy.” “I mean if it’s about making it look shitty just use the intern.”

“The more hands the better, trust me.”

“O.k., fine, but if Nayland asks it’s on you.”

Rafaella had spent nights with her roommate crafting a Finsta with carefully curated photos of alleyways, light trails on dirt roads, a lone dog at the crest of a mountain. “Such unique vibes from east to west,” one caption read under a photo of an auto rickshaw he had taken during a between-jobs trip to India. Jaden worked as a coordinator for a mid-tier food delivery startup, leaving him jaded and having barely dented his student loan payments. Even so, Rafaella was able to sluice off some of her production budget for an influential travel photographer, Jaden Duran a.k.a. J.D. to Veronika and anyone at Antilla who asked. “Are we still on for this event, I kind of need to know soonish.” A message from Jaden popped up on Rafaella’s laptop. “Yes, come at 5 call when you’re outside don’t get lost don’t try to come in just stay put and I’ll get you.”

“What happened to the kettle?”

Rafaella didn’t answer.

She closed her laptop and looked up, catching the Ryde driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Shit!” Rafaella thought to herself, knowing that gossip around the drone release had blown up on Reddit earlier that week. “If this guy has the balls to post something he’d heard about the drones and said he heard it from some girl in the back of his Ryde, I’m fucked.” Rafaella pulled three twenties out of her wallet and thrust her arm between the front seat dividers. “Here, you didn’t hear any of that” – knowing full well that she’d be refreshing the r/Antilla subreddit throughout the day like a nervous tic.

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Rafaella trudged down the alleyway between two buildings of corrugated metal into the side employee entrance, shoulder to shoulder with fulfilment center workers – pickers, packers and shippers. But it was not only floor workers jostling through the entryway; shouldering alongside them were engineers in their cargo pants and logo emblazoned t-shirts with slogans like Delivering the Future. Under one thin metal roof, engineers worked in their pods on the technology that would soon make their fleshy neighbors’ labor obsolete. Rafaella thought to herself that for an upwards of five billion-dollar construction, they could have given a bit more thought to ingress and egress – for humans at least. The front of the corrugated monolith was pockmarked with loading and unloading docks and portholes of various shapes and sizes, some for cars, more for drones.

She approached Building 200, sinking her arms elbow-deep into the vacuous bag, fumbling for her ID card. Bodies pile behind her, jostling her tired body left and right as a flow forms around her. Rafaella, a log in the stream. Shards of her splintering off, only to be reclaimed by beaver-like workers taking her remaining energy to make themselves something of a dam. Found it. Pulling the ID from its cord she swiped in, making her presence known to the technological ether. At least she didn’t have to wear one of the wrist bracelets that the floor workers did, buzzing at intervals to correct movements and indicate the always counting-down timer. She quickened her pace to the elevator, squeezing in amongst the bodies of workers, men and women, manual and immaterial laborers. The pickers and packers continued on to the fulfilment floor. Most of Antilla’s product shipped out of smaller fulfillment centers serving local areas – but it was important that the new facility have something to show for itself. For the investment, the years of political lobbying, the physical imprint on a city, the displacement...Rafaella stepped into the elevator, feeling a sense of stale-aired serenity, elite distinction that came with a higher floor. Stepping out of the elevator she felt the hum and vibration of heavy machinery beneath her, the floor sending tremors throughout her body.

Walking to her standing desk, she passed her colleagues: Christina, Krista, Kristen, Kathryn, Cate and Carl. Twelve white cordless headphones wedged in their ear canals indicated their owner’s occupation. Stern voices, “Now Dan, it’s called an embargo for a reason, em-bar-go, no you cannot by any means publish, Tweet, print, or whisper anything you’ll be hearing at the press conference until five p.m. Pacific Standard Time. If I hear you’ve pulled some shit I swear to god you can go back to making Antilla unboxing videos.”

Unboxing videos. Those were always a hit. Rafaella thought, “what if I get bunch of pickers and packers to make their own unboxing videos? Might make them look a little less miserable, if only they could keep the product.” She twitched, disgusted at her impulse to ameliorate an irredeemably shitty situation, though granted, it was her job. To make all of this look as seamless as possible – happy workers, moving products.

She arrived at her standing desk, kneeling over to open a locked drawer, replacing a camera with her bag. She grabbed the fluorescent orange vest with “Social Media” emblazoned on the back, put on her steel-toed floor boots, and walked to the main thoroughfare. Hopping on the battery-powered golf cart, she pressed the ignition with her chipped ash blue, self-manicured nails. As the automatic double doors opened, she was hit by a wave of climate-controlled wind, a manufactured cool that she was certain had been proven to increase productivity by a whatever percentage point. She stopped to grab plastic-wrapped ear plugs, inserting the foam to protect against the industrial din.

She drove along the demarcated lines, knowing how many times she’d gotten lost here before. Following the signs towards “drone assembly.” she had to first wade through the sea of pacing workers two-stepping towards her, or rather towards the break room, a seven-minute walk behind her, wrist trackers blinking in shades from green to orange indicating time left in their break before they would accrue points against their daily goals. Fewer points at the end of the day meant stagnation, another few weeks or months before you could even become eligible for a departmental move, from picker to packer, or better yet a position that took you off of your feet – drone operator or quality control. The squeal of white rubber sneakers on the concrete floor, the hurried shuffle towards rest. Rafaella drove onwards. She was driving towards another rest area, one where she could find both engineers and assemblers of the new model drones. Driving down the central thoroughfare, she could barely see the inter-building pathway into drone assembly. Through her ear plugs she could hear the battling sounds of different picking teams’ chosen Spotify stations, reggae and black metal welding seamlessly with the metallic droning on conveyor belts meters overhead. Through and through the endless gray, the overlit green, she approaches and then for a moment, the blinding light of sun before again, she descends into the neighboring hangar – Drone Assembly.

She pulled the golf cart up to the cafeteria, a little hungry herself and still direly in need of caffeine. Not for energy–the adderall had that covered–but for a feeling of forward force, perpetuating linear movement, forward, ahead. She walks up to the vending machine, inside finding maple water switchels and CBD water, but she opted instead for a caffeinated sparkling water, flavored with a hint of acerola and lime. She swiped her ID, opening the refrigerator door and reaching in for her drink. The RFID on the bottle would register and charge directly to her employee account once she removed it. Pausing for a second to consider her purchase, Veronika’s voice entered her head, “...images of human-drone interaction, a human reaching upwards receiving their package from above…” This was always the hardest part, where to start. Putting the drink in her vest pocket, she pulled out her camera, scanning the cafeteria’s periphery for an interesting face, of someone who looked like talking, like being her guide. Feeling the cold metal of her camera pressed against her face she scanned the walls, lined with the bodies of resting workers, laying slumped over themselves, chin in chest, eyes closed. Bodies slouched against planters resting under the shade of a potted monstera plant, shielding them from the fluorescent indoor suns. At their hands, liquid in crisp neon blues and greens filling transparent cups from the cafeteria vending machines. Saccharine sweet energy drinks straight from the tap, tinting each of their blood, staining their livers, leaving chemical residue deep in their fat cells. Over enough time, shifting the speed and syncopation of their neural pathways. All for only a slight extension of stamina, not a ten but sixteen hour shift. These taps offered options: workers could opt for pH balanced water, flavored caffeinated seltzer, natural cane sugar colas, and radiating energy drinks with taurine, sweetened with stevia. Antilla’s version of a water cooler, workers gathering round, though small talk was rare as the blinking, vibrating arm cuffs called them quickly back to the floor. There had been webinars offered on the benefits of polyphasic sleeping, and out of practice or pure exhaustion, the workers managed to drift off to deep slumber during their fifteen minute breaks.

She panned right, seeing a sleeping man, the leaves of browning palm casting shadows on his face. It was, in a way, beautiful. She could hear Veronika saying “Too artsy, Nayland won’t get it, why is he asleep we would never put that out. Ridiculous.” Rafaella pressed the shutter regardless, for posterity.

“Creeper alert, what are you doing taking photos of my guys while they’re taking a break. What are you doing?”

She jumped at the baritone voice appearing behind her, so close she could feel breath on skin before registering sound.

“It’s my job, I mean, to take photos. Social media.” Her voice cracked, this was not the first time Rafaella’s presence had been questioned anywhere outside of the upstairs offices. That’s why she made the vest, after once being nearly tackled by a vigilante floor manager.

“Oh, for like the Twitter?”

“Yeah, all of it, I’m trying to get some content for tonight.”

“Well you’re in the wrong place, let these guys catch a break.”

“What do you do?” She’d pulled out her phone to take notes, remembering: name, position, what they were most excited about.

“I work down on LiDAR for navigation.”

“Um, hate to say it but I have no clue what that is. Chris over in tour services mentioned it, and I watched the intro videos for every department but I still don’t like, get it.”

“It’s like RADAR but with lasers instead. How those hive-mind self driving cars don’t hit each other on the freeway. It’s like that for drones.”

“Oh…”

“And it looks sick.” The man said in his Southern California drawl as he fumbled in his vest pocket for his phone.

“I’m Harlan by the way.”

“I’m Rafaella.” She couldn’t for the life of her tell how old he was. 35? 45? 50? His skin was weathered, like too much time in the sun, he felt like one of these guys that probably goes surfing before work. Makes time in his day for some self care, like an hour or so. Meditates, but for heightened attentiveness at work rather than mindfulness. He seemed responsible, but Rafaella wasn’t sure how she could tell. Was it because he was drinking water instead of some electric yellow drink? He looked hydrated.

“So, tonight, are you excited?” Rafaella asks as Harlan clearly gets distracted by the flow of incoming messages. “Oh uh, yeah totally, my guys have been working around the clock for the last three months on this. Not sleeping, barely going home, one guy just had a kid and says he gets more sleep on paternity leave than he ever did here.”

“At least he’s got paternity leave,” she rebukes, knowing that in all likelihood Harlan’s guys were contract workers, “barnacles” as Nayland called them. Workers that needed periodic scraping from the side of this unstoppable Pequod, except instead of a ship, a drone. Luckily Harlan didn’t look up from his phone, not having heard her. There was not much room for sarcasm at Antilla, more need for a blinding positivity, a sheer force forward, inertia, an unwavering grasp on the idea that they were doing this for good, bringing joy to the world one cardboard box at a time.

Synchronously both of their wrists buzzed, although unlike their picking and packing cohorts, they had nowhere to go. “Decentralized Autonomous Organization launched to accelerate Puerto Rican independence.”

Harlan looks a little bit surprised, and asks “You also subscribe to the DecentralDaily? Didn’t think of you the type.”

“The type? So first I need this dumb vest and even then I’m not the type? What kind of type are you looking for?”

“That’s not what I meant, I mean, most of the guys I know that are into that stuff have got something to lose.”

“You mean most of those guys are, well, guys.”

“Sure, I mean, no. But, sure.”

“I mean are any of us are the ‘type’ if we’re here? Anyway, it’s my partner. Um, I mean my roommate, not boyfriend, Jaden. I don’t know, he’s been so into it, it made me want to see what’s up.”

“Yeah I get it.”

“I mean that’s my basically my job, I can’t not know. It’s like–you focus on what you’re doing, LiDAR, and I’m supposed to focus on everything, jack of all trades or whatever.” She was blabbering at this point, half trying to say something, anything that would make him look up from his phone, half so she could start feeling like she had a reason to not leave.

“I wonder how this DAO for Puerto Rico would work?” There, a long shot, literally not a rhetorical question because she actually did not know an answer.

“Well, where are we starting from?”

“Say, zero.”

“Well, a decentralized autonomous organization or DAO is an organization that operates with smart contracts on the blockchain that--”

“Hold wait up stop please, even though I’m wearing a neon vest doesn’t mean I need mansplaining. Let’s say I understand it about 50% more than I understand LiDAR. I guess I am just kind of wondering where the DAO would start – like establishing their new constitution?”

“Yeah, that’d be a good enough guess as any – governance is essentially at the core of every DAO and it’s the design of the governance that sets apart one DAO from the other. You can think of governance as either the bylaws of a corporation, terms of service of a platform, or like the constitution and laws of a nation — which fits for Puerto Rico. Because of friendlier tax laws, a large contingent of mainland-Americans began moving to Puerto Rico at the end of 2017, shortly after Hurricane Maria, and they have been building up the island to essentially operate on the blockchain. Right now each resident in Puerto Rico actually has a digital identity, and their votes are registered on a special Puerto Rican blockchain — yet use unique cryptographic techniques for votes to remain anonymous. Meaning that the elusive blockchain is just knowledgeable of what each vote was, but not who voted what. For a subset of votes, Puerto Rico has also given control to residents, where as a result of the vote, it triggers a smart contract that transfers capital from Puerto Rico’s main “bank account” so to speak, to different projects such as infrastructure enhancements. This type of what you call “immutable” voting has allowed residents to have more trust in the system. I assume this new DAO is rooted in overthrowing the Jones Act, specifically, as it has been affecting economic growth in the region. Over the years, Puerto Ricans have been trying to repeal the Jones Act.”

“Ok, we can back it up…The Jones Act?”

“The Jones Act prevents foreign-flagged ships from carrying goods between two American ports. Any foreign ships inbound with cargo from Central and South America, Europe, but not all parts, and Africa, I guess the whole continent, can’t stop in P.R., offload P.R.-bound goods, load mainland-bound P.R. made goods, and continue to U.S. ports. They’ve got to go directly to U.S. ports, where U.S. distributors break it all up and send P.R.-bound goods to P.R. across the ocean by U.S. flagged ships.”

“That seems a bit backwards and inefficient.”

“Yeah, basically, by not being part of the states, Puerto Rico won’t have to do this little “dance” when it comes to their commerce network. And you know how the tech-elite are obsessed with efficiency. Antilla is at the top of the industry because of optimizing logistical efficiencies when it comes to delivering cargo, essentially.”

“Well that’s insane, is Antilla involved at all?”

“Not that I know of, publically at least. So I think what’s actually the logical flow in forming the DAO is that the proponents of it will fork the existing Puerto Rican blockchain, so they can create custom votes and proposals outside of the current governmental system – this is how they will start to elect new leaders to drive the constitution. By forking, it means that all existing residents will already have access to the voting system without having to ‘sign up’ again since it will be using the existing digital identity system. Think of it as if a business is starting a competitor to Facebook, but they don’t have to spend any money for marketing to get the users to transfer over. With blockchain forking, you get the users automatically.”

The P.A. blares over head, cutting through the ambient metallic drone. The intro music, an electronic interpretation of UB40’s cover of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” “Antilla employees, a friendly reminder to please confirm tonight’s attendance with your managers by 2 p.m.” Immediately Harlan’s wrist started buzzing with notifications.

“Now everyone’s asking for their plus one, this is an internal event they’ve just got to tell their friends and dates to livestream it. Everyone will be watching anyway.”

“Yeah, my roommate is coming. I mean, for social media he’s kind of an influencer, mods a few Reddit subs.”

Harlan barely acknowledges and starts walking. “Want to come meet the team? For social or whatever?”

Rafaella continues behind, looking down at her wrist. “Shit, ouch!” yells a body lying on the floor. She had walked straight into a sleeping worker. “Oh my god I am so so sorry jesus sorry!” she rushes to catch up with Harlan before losing him in the mechanical morass. Remembering her assignment she yells up ahead of her “Harlan, for social, what are you most excited about, what was your team’s biggest challenge, biggest win?”

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By Dena Yago & Yalda Mousavinia, for Rhizome's Seven on Seven. Follow on twitter: @CardboardFrict1