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from the May 2021 issue

Outsider Mode

A currency linked to worker productivity becomes a global economic force—and the target of a devastating cyberattack—in this excerpt from Ahmed Isselmou's novel.


“Time is the God of our era,” Hammoud al-Jamloudi, the governor of Futurcity’s Central Bank, declared to the delegates packing the assembly hall. “Time is the sacred arbiter we worship today. Time is the true revolution that offers justice to all classes of society. Time cannot submit to anybody’s power. The era of wage slavery is over, and employees today are free to demand a fair wage for the work they do.

“There is no room for discrimination or favoritism in today’s world because no one can make the minutes go any faster or slower. A day lasts twenty-four hours in every corner of the planet. Competition is free and fair: people can work ten hours if they wish, or they can work twenty—and if they don’t want to work at all, they can spend all twenty-four hours relaxing.

“Human society has aspired to fairness throughout the history of its existence. Now, the rollout of the Pay Yourself system has made this ambition a reality.

“Today, no manager can have favorites, no secretary can seduce her boss, and no employee can claim overtime for work they didn’t do. The Pay Yourself system links a company’s accounts to its employee time management system, and when employees leave their workplace, the cash value of the work they have performed is deposited in their wallet within minutes. Nothing could be fairer. We’ve brought to life the Arabic proverb that says ‘Pay the laborer his due before his sweat has dried.’”

***

When Futurcity was established, there had been a fierce conflict over what the new country’s official currency would be, and in the early days a proposal was made that all global currencies, at their market rate, should be legal tender for day-to-day transactions. This caused such confusion and contention that the stability of the newborn island city-state was under threat when the then-young IT engineer Hammoud al-Jamloudi—who had recently joined the Union of Migrant Minds—came up with a proposal for a cryptocurrency linked to users’ smartphones that would automatically mirror their productive capacity. Individuals would earn units of the currency based on the hours they worked, with each unit equaling one minute. Since the currency’s market value would reflect the productivity of Futurcity’s labor force, he suggested it be called Time Coin. Employees’ salaries would be determined by grade, each grade commanding a specific value per minute worked.

The proposal met with an enthusiastic response from the tech companies, and the International Federation of Technology Industries funded the pioneering project. Jamloudi and his team designed the T-coin algorithms themselves. The system was carefully encrypted. Every resident of the island was assigned a unique identifier to log the start of their working day that could be authenticated by facial recognition technology. The Pay Yourself app was soon rolled out, and now every workplace in the country—even newspaper stands, flower stalls, and public transport stations—was equipped with facial recognition sensors. Jamloudi’s team had developed a feature for the phone app that allowed freelancers and home workers to sign in for work remotely and automatically signed them back out whenever they spent ten minutes away from their employer’s work page.

Meanwhile, T-coin was in use all over the world and was rapidly becoming one of the most widely trusted cryptocurrencies in existence.

***

As Jamloudi finished speaking, one of the IT engineers, a young African man holding a tablet in one hand, burst in through the door of the hall. He jostled past the high-ranking guests, excusing himself profusely and apologizing to everyone he bumped into or tripped over on his way to the front.

“Sir, sir,” he said urgently, “the central server is under attack and receiving commands to self-destruct.”

“Self-destruct?!” said Jamloudi. “That’s not possible! I programmed the thing. There’s no way anyone but me can give it that command!”

“Look, sir . . . ”

Jamloudi peered at the data scrolling across the screen. It was displaying the self-destruct algorithm, along with a countdown timer and a processing speed monitor that stood at 80 percent. The self-destruct operation was at 7 percent, and if it carried on at this rate, every piece of data about every last person living in Futurcity would be obliterated, along with the currency in their wallets, before the sun had even set.

“Mr. President,” said Jamloudi, “if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting an urgent call to go to the central server room. I’ll update you with more details as soon as we have a better idea of the extent of the damage.”

“You must be kidding me,” said the president of the governing council, who was appointed by the UN. “All these men are waiting to hear what’s happened, and you’re just going to leave the room?”

He gestured to the hall full of delegates, who were nodding and craning their necks, waiting for an answer.

“What’s happened, gentlemen, or at least what we know so far,” said Jamloudi decisively, “is that our servers have been targeted by a cyberattack, and time has stopped. Okay? Try to figure it out yourselves if you can. Argue as much as you like. I don’t have time.”

Jamloudi had dropped any pretense at diplomacy, and, clutching the tablet in his hand, strode out of the hall.

The president turned to the room and called to the assembled delegates to take their seats and listen. He had to raise his voice and repeat himself several times before the first person pulled out a chair to sit down, his attention still on the phone in his hand. Everybody was either making calls or tapping out messages.

“Gentlemen. You are here as representatives of the international scientific and industrial community. I am also joined by representatives of the Central Authority. I’d like you all to muster the forces of your technical teams to work out what’s going on here. We’re going to split into two teams. One will work with Mr. Jamloudi’s staff on a technical solution, and the other, under my leadership, will be working on a political response to this crisis.”

“This isn’t just about Futurcity,” shouted one of the delegates, president of the International Federation of Technology Industries, which represented the world’s twenty biggest tech companies. “This is happening to every company in Silicon Valley. Everyone’s clocks have stopped.”

“It’s happening at the Seoul stock exchange, too,” shouted another, this time the president of the Union of Migrant Minds, looking down at a message on his phone.

Futurcity’s interior minister came rushing into the hall. “None of this makes sense,” he said. “Has anyone here sent any messages from their phones?”

“Yes,” said two people at once.

“We all need to stop using the internet right now,” said the minister.

“How are we going to communicate with the rest of the world?” someone asked.

“We have a secure communications room,” said the minister. “If anyone needs to make an urgent call, they can come with me now. And if you’ve communicated with anyone, tell them to switch off their internet and pass on the same message to anyone they’ve communicated with. We’ve never seen an attack like this before. But we’re going to deal with it.”

The delegates stared at each other in incomprehension. Seven of them followed him out, along with the president. Others hesitated, then one by one left the hall, each hurrying away in different directions.

“I told you, it’s an order from the senior council leadership,” yelled the minister into his phone, paying no attention to the anxious people trailing mechanically behind him. “How dare you argue with me! I want all internet connections cut, across the whole island, right now… To hell with the USA, and the rest of them! They can get their own internet. This is our network and it’s independent. We built it, we put the satellites up there, and we run it. It isn’t up to them. I told you, cut the internet, now.”

It looked like the person on the other end of the line was carrying out the order, because the minister was looking at the faces around him and muttering, “We’ve stopped the virus spreading. Now we just need to eliminate it at the source.”

The president of the International Federation of Technology Industries and the president of the Union of Migrant Minds hung back from the fray around the minister and stepped into the office next door to the Central Bank’s server room, where governor Jamloudi and his engineering team were frantically working on a solution to the virus that was consuming data protocols the way a caterpillar chews through a fresh leaf.

“Turn on all the coolers and get the backup generator going,” barked Jamloudi at the engineers. “Goddammit, if everyone in Futurcity worked this hard all the time we’d be running the world. Get administrator accounts set up for these two. You can sit at that desk.”

He didn’t look up once as he spoke, or stop writing, but the engineers knew his orders were directed at them. One of them came to assist the two guests, who’d immediately taken off their jackets, loosened their ties, and rolled up their sleeves. Sweat stained a wide circle around their underarms.

Suddenly the words SHUT DOWN THE “PAY YOURSELF” NETWORK flashed on the screens where the Central Bank engineers were at work. None of their attempts to shift it succeeded.

“I can’t get into the system!” screamed Jamloudi. He looked around at his team in desperation, but their faces were grim. All their devices showed the same message. Jamloudi picked up his phone and called the minister of the interior.

“I need the entire cybersecurity team here at the Central Bank,” he said.

“We’re losing control over the city,” hissed the minister. “And it’s all because of your greed. So how about you get your team over to the ministry, fast.”

“This isn’t the time to bicker over whose remit this is. I need your engineers over here. We’ve lost access to the central servers.”

“I’m going to transfer you to the head of cybersecurity. He’s on the line. You can talk your tech talk together. Do whatever you have to, just put an end to this farce.”

The director of cybersecurity came on.

“We can’t get on to the network anymore,” he said, sounding panicked. “The attackers have gotten control of all of our machines.”

At his end of the line was a vast hall one hundred yards long. He paced up and down the rows of desks where dozens of engineers were hunched over their devices. Every single screen showed a clock face with no hands, and the same message blinking ominously each second: SHUT DOWN THE “PAY YOURSELF” NETWORK.

© Ahmed Isselmou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Katharine Halls. All rights reserved.

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