Liz took another sip of her IPA. In her lectures, surrounded by international students, she could have been anywhere in the world. The rooms were built as if they were outside space and time; no natural light or sense of where they might have been. Just her and her students. But afterwards, once she walked through the double fire doors and let the cold wind race across the cobbled streets to hit her, it was obvious. It couldn't be anywhere else. And she wouldn't change it for the world: Edinburgh was so far from her native North Carolina, but for generations of her ancestors, it was home. For her, it was a place she could work in peace, far away from the bankrupt ethics and brutal dog-eat-dog social warfare of where she'd grown up.
Anyway, home didn't have the Regent: despite the blood red walls and the microwaved food, a place she felt like she could be completely herself. Completely at ease. Even when she found herself surrounded by a handful of her students.
"I don't think all venture capital is inherently evil, no," she was saying to Jiyeon. "I can understand why you'd think that from today's lecture, but there's a nuance to it."
"I mean, based on what you were saying, I don't see the upside," Jiyeon said.
Liz smiled. "I think how you feel about venture capital in the abstract depends on how you feel about capitalism. It's all about making people who are already rich much, much wealthier. But on the other hand, anyone who's trying to get a company off the ground, unless they're already pretty rich themselves, is going to need some kind of investment. And venture capital takes these really risky bets in people who haven't proven themselves. It doesn't necessarily need to lead to adverse behavior or these harmful business models that incentivize corporate surveillance. But I think it's fair to say that this kind of behavior has been the path of least resistance. It's been easier to behave badly than behave well."
She took another sip. "It still comes down to having a good conscience. Being a good person." She smiled. "But of course, that's if you think this kind of unhindered capitalism itself is an okay idea." She looked up. "And speaking of capitalism."
The barman arrived at their table with a couple of plates of food. Fresh vegetables weren't quite as prevalent in Scotland as they had been in the US, and everyone had ended up ordering some variation on meat and potatoes. Some of the newer international students opted for German sausages and potatoes - the safe choice - but anyone who had been in the country for more than a couple of years went for the haggis, 'neeps, and tatties. Haggis had a terrible reputation, but these days it was really just well-spiced meat. The turnip and mashed potato it traditionally came with was stodgy, but worked well in the cold, wet climate, where comfort food added necessary insulation.
It might have been freezing cold outside, with driving rain that seemed to fall sideways and was accompanied by wind that sliced through your clothes like daggers, but the Regent was cozy and warm. Liz hadn't really understood pubs until she'd moved to Britain, and her conception of them had instantly shifted from bars and sit-down restaurants to shared living rooms where people would meet with no agenda other than to talk and be together.
Or in this case, be together and talk surveillance capitalism.
Edinburgh was the home of Adam Smith, the father of free market economic theory. His book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was some of the first modern writing on capitalist economics. These days, however, Scotland was more of a socialist democracy: a place where healthcare and education were free, and it was generally understood that everyone in a society had a duty to each other. It had some of the most progressive social policies in the world, and although a statue of Adam Smith had recently been erected in the heart of the city, it had taken major financing and pressure from a group of libertarians based in London and the US to do it.
Jiyeon cut into her sausage and took a bite. "I mean, basically this is just fat," she said, "but I'm into it."
"Ah, Scotland," Liz said.
"So," Jiyeon said, swallowing her food, "why haven't there been other centers for technology? Silicon Valley is this big global hub and most of the industry is still connected to it in some way. Why can't anyone else compete?"
"I think it depends on how you measure it," Liz said. "Yes, if you look at the technology companies that have made it into the Fortune 500, for example, then they're almost all in Silicon Valley. There are a handful of exceptions, but there's nothing mind-blowing - Microsoft is in Seattle, for example, and there are some military contractors in places like Virginia. But if you go beyond the companies and look at the technology movements that have been created, it's a completely different story. Let me ask you this: do you know where the web was created?"
"CERN," everyone said in unison.
"Right: the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Which straddles two countries - France and Switzerland - and has twenty-two countries taking part. Very, very far from Silicon Valley. And the guy who invented it, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is from London. How about email?"
Nobody said anything. Shrugs around the table.
"Ray Tomlinson. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thousands of miles away from Silicon Valley.
"Okay, so here's my final question. Open source software, which you all know, is written by people all over the world. Every single software application you use has code from an open source project somewhere inside it. And these projects don't have to be owned by any one company. Sometimes projects are organized and sponsored by large corporations like IBM, but they can also just be a group of random hackers who come together because they agree that something needs to exist. So, where in the world do you think most open source contributions come from, by capita?"
"America," everyone said.
"Wrong! You get one more guess."
"China," Jiyeon guessed.
"Hungary," Liz said. "By far the most open source contributions come from Hungary, adjusted for relative population size. None of you guessed that; none of you probably would have guessed that if I'd given you another ten minutes. But there it is. A lot of the applications and software libraries that power the internet and all the devices you use are at least a little bit Hungarian.
"So when you think of most software as having come from Silicon Valley, you're wrong. Silicon Valley is the leader in commercializing it, and making money from it, but often the real work has been done in other places. There are incredible engineers, hackers, and computer scientists all over the world. Right here in Edinburgh, we have one of the most important centers for artificial intelligence. The thing that we're missing is the incredible money that American companies have to put up behind them.
"Every so often, America is threatened - somewhere else starts to emerge as a place where really valuable companies can thrive. And what usually happens is that those companies are bought for huge amounts of money by these really well-financed companies with capital coming out of every orifice. Or they receive huge amounts of venture capital at really great rates. And there's only one thing they're asked to do in return."
"Move to Silicon Valley," Jiyeon said.
"Exactly. Money isn't always deployed just to make a profit on an individual investment. Sometimes it's deployed to keep the venture capital investors themselves - or their Limited Partners - competitive. Massively successful founders in Edinburgh or Berlin or Reykjavik are probably going to invest in their local communities and take wealth that could be destined for California instead. So if those founders don't take these giant offers, they're probably going to find that another company mysteriously has an enormous amount of funding to compete with them. And it gets deeper and darker than that, as you might imagine - that's true whenever huge sums of money are involved."
"And that's the point, isn't it," said Paul. He was the only Scotsman at the table: a student who Liz had allowed to attend her class even though he wasn't technically enrolled at the university. She had seen his open source work, and knew she needed him. And having read his blog about transitioning, his life with a family that would no longer acknowledge him, and his struggle for acceptance even in the hacker community, she knew that not having been able to matriculate was not something anyone should hold against him. "That's what we really came to talk about."
Liz smiled slightly and nodded. "This goes far beyond class. But it can't go beyond this table. Not yet. Agreed?"
Each of the gathered students - Jiyeon, Paul, Lex, Taylor - nodded. "Agreed."
"Good," Liz said, "because I don't know what to make of this information yet. It could be real, it could be someone messing with me or trying to mess with someone else, or it could be nothing at all. It's all new to me, and I haven't been able to verify any of it. But if it's true, people have died as a result of it. At the same time, if someone doesn't do something to stop it, and there's absolutely no indication that anybody will, based on the history that's laid out here, we could all die. All of us. It sounds ridiculous to talk about, and I wouldn't blame you if nobody believed me. But it's a conspiracy that has reached into every major company on earth, into every government, and has driven every war we've fought since 1945.
"But that's not the terrifying thing. The terrifying thing is what they want to do next, and why. We're on the brink of the world's largest descent into war for almost a hundred years. It's been planned for decades, but it's being set into motion now. The result will be a new kind of world where even the illusion of democracy has melted away. All in the name of wealth, and resources, and power in the hands of the few. It's all been laid out.
"And I have the files."