Disassembling the World (3)

MCMTuesday, June 23, 2009

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse. When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story. You don’t need to read these to understand the book, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to know.

Part III: Factions Emerge

Adoption of the Worldwide Incubator Network (WWIN) was swift. Within a year, most G8 countries had installed at least a skeleton infrastructure, with Great Britain leading the way at 29 regional nodes. Brayhold Systems quickly became one of the most powerful companies on Wall Street, buying out smaller biotech companies, and quintupling their stock price in less than eight months. If any competitors wanted to try the field, they had a steep hill to climb.

European regulators were less enthusiastic about Brayhold's dominance, and put a hold on continental expansion until anti-trust concerns could be laid to rest. Meanwhile, an international consortium of universities developed a plan to use the older Genesis Incubators as part of WWIN, introducing competition into the market, and hopefully bypassing Brayhold's sizeable license fees. A proof-of-concept implementation was initiated at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, successfully downloading and synthesizing a vaccine for a strain of flu native to Mississippi.

Brayhold's response was swift: it filed lawsuits in dozens of regional courts, claiming license infringement and intellectual property theft (for accessing WWIN networks without authorization). In the United States, six colleges were dragged to court for anti-circumvention violations under the DMCA; all but one settled for undisclosed sums, and the last case resolved in the corporation's favour after the Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae in support of Brayhold's arguments. In Europe, the results were similar, with only Finnish, Swedish and German courts finding in favour of the academics. For all intents and purposes, the "open" WWIN was crippled beyond utility.

A major shift came six months later, when Russia announced major initiative to install incubators in every pharmacy in the nation. Though the motives were derided as an election year stunt, the funding was immense: over $5.1B (USD) was up for grabs, with decisions about specific purchases left up to the pharmacies themselves. A newly-formed Finnish company called Genesis Systems was onsite the next day, winning the business of the second-largest pharmacy chain in Russia within a week.

Brayhold President Mitchell Gentry spent a fruitless month in Moscow, running into stiff opposition from isolationist lawmakers, eventually leaving in well-publicized defeat. Before boarding his flight home, he remarked bitterly to the press: "Even a bear'll cry if you hit the right spot." The next day, Brayhold acquired Rosenteiz Pharmaceutical — a major supplier of drugs to Eastern Europe — and used it as leverage to force a cancellation of the Genesis Systems contract. Two weeks later, Rosenteiz began a hostile takeover of the largest pharmacy chain in Russia.

An especially bad flu season that year gave incubator technology its first widespread test, and it passed with flying colours. Every strain from every continent was diagnosed and defeated within days. In the words of one late-night comedian: "As part of your economy-class fare, anything you catch at the airport in L.A., they'll cure when you land in Australia. They'll still lose your luggage, though." Aside from a minority of the uninsured and "purist" ideologues, incidents of sickness were virtually zero in the United States.

Russia was a different story. A minor adjustment in the WWIN protocol — instituted by Brayhold during a firmware patch — disabled any Genesis-type incubators from accessing the network. The change happened just as flu season was hitting its peak in Moscow. The Rosenteiz takeover had just cleared regulators, giving Brayhold a major competitive advantage, now that its competition was neutralized. Its stock price skyrocketed overnight, as investors jumped aboard an unstoppable train. The Russian government, having narrowly avoided defeat in the election, did not appreciate the gamesmanship. It took the extraordinary step of nationalizing all major pharmacies — including Brayhold's recent acquisitions — and signing an exclusive contract with Genesis for all future incubator purchases. "This bear does not cry," said President Irina Maykov. "She hits back."

Facing a massive loss , Brayhold appealed to the US government for help. But its rivals smelled blood in the water, and soon a dozen start-ups were setting up shop in Finland and Sweden, building off the open source Genesis model, trying to provide a cheaper and more reliable alternative to pharmacies around the world. The Free Incubator Network (FIN) was set up, with "jailbreak" patches made available to allow Patriot-style incubators to share data. The Electronic Frontier Foundation launched a pre-emptive court battle to stop Brayhold from using the DMCA against the FIN jailbreaks, buying the movement crucial months, which it used to improve and expand.

No one would have predicted that two years after the end of the San Jose Avian Flu, the nation with the most incubators per capita would be Russia. Just as no one would could have predicted the devastation of the following two years...

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