The Online Conspiracy

By Eric Burns


Alaemon loves the Internet.

It's better than almost any other medium for the purposes of Secrets, really. It's tremendously simple to find out reams of information, lots of it confidential, simply by taking the time to finding the right sources and buying the right software. It's even easier to use it as a channel for misinformation. Obfuscation of even the simplest of facts is simple when you develop a convincing enough website. Already, students around the world run Google searches as a standard part of research on projects and papers. They site websites as authorities, accepting at face value pure fiction and unmitigated trash. There are coteries of Conspiritors entirely devoted to adding to the depths of dross online, and coteries of their fellows devoted to stripping the dross away to learn the truth.

All of this was powerfully useful, but it didn't strengthen Secrets in the minds and hearts of Humanity as much as might be wanted. He made clear (as clear as Alaemon makes anything) that he wanted that to change. If more information were going to be at the fingertips of the sheep than ever before, he wanted them burning to find the hidden, and hide themselves.

There were a few half-hearted attempts, of course. Online offers for software that would tell you anything about people proliferated -- in part to get people to buy and use it, but just as much to make people nervous about how easy it was to be cyberstalked. Stories of identity theft began making the rounds. Still, there needed to be a dramatic influx of Secrets on the web, in just the right way to make it palatable. And, naturally, it needed to be done discreetly.

In the Spring of 2001, the Demon of Murder Mysteries, a relatively minor Impudite of Secrets, hit on a strategy that worked: the A.I. Interactive Game.

The A.I. Interactive Game was designed as a publicity stunt for the movie "A.I." But, it was among the strangest ideas for 'publicizing' a movie ever devised. For one thing, the game was never announced. When asked about the game, representatives of Dreamworks and Warner Brothers denied involvement. The only connection was a credit in the trailers -- one that made little sense. A woman named Jeanine Salla credited as a 'sentient machine therapist.'

Eventually, some people became curious about this woman, and performed searches on the web. Those people found web sites claiming to be from the year 2142, with no information on who designed them. They were interconnected, forming highly realistic chains between realistic sites -- a nineteen year old's personal site. A prominent university's site. A site for a builder of "sentient houses." And through them, there was a common thread -- a murder mystery.

That had been the Impudite's idea, of course. He needed to strengthen his own Word as well as Secrets. But for the most part, he had stayed out of the creation process for the game. He had just charmed certain people, planting the seeds of the idea in their heads, letting them hire people to write and produce the game -- people who would one day be known as "the Puppetmasters." And then he sat back, and watched what happened.

Dozens of people found the sites, and then hundreds. Rumors began to spread across the board. Online communities formed to solve the mystery -- and the puzzles became harder as those communities organized and became powerful investigatory forces. Some puzzles needed a strong understanding of computers to solve -- Photoshop image manipulation, or codes buried in HTML source. One puzzle required that the Flash file it had been made in be torn apart layer by layer.

But the investigators couldn't simply be computer saavy. There were questions that required mastry of Shakespeare, of poetry, of literature, of history. One series of puzzles were encrypted using a World War II Engima machine -- not only did the investigators need a knowledge of what Enigma was, they needed to have machines (virtual or otherwise) available to decrypt them, plus some real world knowledge or intuition on what settings to use on the machine. Puzzles were encoded into chemestry equations, and were set up to be printed out onto paper, then folded into an Origami crane to be solved. One puzzle needed someone capable of reading music written expressly for a lute -- then transposed for guitar -- then played aloud.

And the puzzles weren't simply on the web. Phone numbers were found -- phone numbers that worked, with clues buried in messages, and voicemail boxes that the investigators had to break into to learn their secrets. Half of a chess problem was put into the print advertisement of the movie that appeared in a Los Angeles trade paper, the other half was in the print advertisement that appeared in the New York Times, requiring investigators from both coasts to work together. There was even a series of three live rallies, where one third of a code was given to each group -- unfortunately, the Chicago group weren't given the full code due to screwups behind the scene. The puppetmasters were going to reseed the clue into a different puzzle... only the investigators wrote computer software to distribute the possible codes among hundreds of machines, each one trying thousands of codes an hour until by brute force they found the right one. It wasn't so easy to keep puzzles away from the investigators.

The value to Secrets was incalcuable. Oh, the Word-strengthening wouldn't last all that long, all things considered, but with thousands of people playing this game, it was certain more and more of these games would be made, and as they were, the information found in web searches and on web sites would be more and more suspect. But that was minor. The real victories for Secrets were as follows:

1. A test community for problem solving had been created. The Conspiracy learned immeasurable amounts of information on how a community of human beings could be formed that could bring incredibly diverse expertise to problem solving. This let them begin to model how different secrets and puzzles they had been unable to solve might be solved by just such a distributed group of investigators, if properly motivated. In the same way, the danger of such a group to uncovering secrets that must be kept hidden was demonstrated, and possible methods for thwarting such a group were intuited.

2. The hunger for solving Secrets for their own sake was demonstrated. There were no promised prizes for this game -- the game never even acknowledge itself or laid out rules. Little dribs and drabs -- such as a list of a few thousand names on a special edition movie poster that itself bore a watermark that had a nigh-invisible barcode that translated into a phone number that was a clue for the game -- were acknowledgement enough for the investigators, who just wanted -- no, needed -- to uncover more, and more, and more, and more.

3. A vast amount of information was collected about thousands of investigators. What they liked, what kind of speculations and intuitions they individually made, how they interacted with others, what kinds of skills and knowledge they possessed, how easily they could be distracted from their legitimate jobs to play the game, and so on, and so on, and so on.... The profiles that could be developed were significant... and could easily be valuable in the future, in so many ways.

4. The entire game was deniable. As follows under the mandate of Secrets, this was an operation that -- if Demonic involvement were ever suspected -- could easily be blamed on Demons of the Media or Technology.

From here, many different projects can be initiated. Many different followup experiments can be played. Many different games can draw the human ability to form communities to solve problems together and sublimate it to the hungry needs of Alaemish demons. So much can be learned.

If you doubt it... go to Google or Yahoo, and do a search for Jeanine Salla. Find the puzzles. Find the investigating teams. Find what they have done.

But don't look to me for more answers. I have to run to the store to buy some modeling clay, to build a 3-dimensional model based on some found plans to decrypt the next puzzle.


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