Out from the Desert

Somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

—W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Palm trees rustled in the wind. The air was crisp, with the slightest hint of a sea breeze. And for hundreds of miles around, there was nothing but the Sonoran desert.

Oasis Bay had just opened as a residential development in the heart of the Phoenix Autonomous Zone. It had been variously described as “the eighth wonder of the world”, “a frivolous playground for the jet-setting set”, and “a monstrous monument to human hubris”. Regardless of its spiritual merits, there it was: where a hundred years before had existed nothing but scorpions and cacti stood enormous arches of glass and steel, beachfront high-rises, and the metaphysically dubious tang of salt in the air, all facilitated by wind turbines, wave generators, and the importation of vast quantities of water from Cascadia.

Walking admiringly down the ersatz shoreline in the bronze twilight were two of Oasis Bay’s newest inhabitants. Adrian Vale oversaw systems design at Phalanx, a fintech colossus that had recently confounded the financial world by expanding into the education sector. Jason Wren led the cloud architecture team at Terravore, which had started off as the data analytics unit of a bedraggled discount retailer before breaking off and debuting infrastructure management techniques that had left the rest of the industry a decade behind. Both made the salaries of executives twice their age, and had the confidence to match.

Wren turned to Vale. “Well, this beats the hell out of the dorms back at Goldwater.”

Vale smiled. “At least there's still plenty of glass and steel.”

Wren intoned with faux melodrama: “Steel is so last century—ours is the age of the wireframe. Zarathustra came down from the mountain with a message for the people, and lo and behold—”

They recited at the same time, drily:

Software is eating the world.”

Vale smiled. “You Terravore guys didn’t have to take that so literally.”

Wren looked at him with mock innocence. “We can’t all be gladiators like the fine minds at Phalanx.”

What Phalanx had done was genuinely revolutionary—it had given every child in the Phoenix Autonomous Zone access to private tutors, once the exclusive province of the exorbitantly wealthy. With backing from Jason Dare, the controversial genomics tycoon, the executive board of the PAZ had introduced a universal school voucher credit equal to the cost of educating a student at the best public schools in the country. Phalanx, famous for upending orthodoxy, had quickly swept in and released a platform that connected families directly to talented teachers dissatisfied with dismal salaries and bureaucratic mandates, along with the legions of postdocs stuck working as baristas due to a lack of openings in their chosen academic specialties.

Vale said breezily, "If you understood incentives instead of just algorithms, you could be a gladiator yet."

Wren’s innocent act dissolved into the grin of a kid who had just snuck into an R-rated movie. "And what incentives might those be, dearest Adrian?"

Vale spoke. “In management theory, there’s a concept known as the principal-agent problem, where an agent is supposed to look out for the interests of a principal, but is instead incentivized to look out for some other interest. A lot of the time, that’s self-interest, but sometimes it’s the interest of some other party, and sometimes it’s the interest of no party in particular. Phalanx solved the principal-agent problem in finance by removing the conflict of interest between investors and the organization they invest their assets with, and we’re solving it in education by removing the distorted incentives that result from basing a child's access to education on their zip code or lottery number."

Wren said brightly, "So, if Terravore’s competitors offering free storage were perceived as, oh, I don’t know, having a business model that renders their principals particularly susceptible to data breaches, we perfect angels could point out that paying out the ass for our services is really the only choice if you want an agent that will look out for its principals’ security."

Vale nodded. "It's pretty basic, but so many people in the PAZ only think in terms of ones and zeroes that it’s a great advantage to have."

Wren smiled mischievously. "That it might be, but I'm not sure for how long."

Vale cocked an eyebrow, and Wren continued.

"As elegant as the incentives behind your systems may be, your algorithms—like everyone else’s—are kids’ toys compared to what we’re playing with at Terravore. Back when the company started out, our secret sauce was infrastructure-as-code. Why have a bunch of Morlocks toiling away in server farms when you can just automate it, right? Massive efficiency gains, cost savings, blah blah blah—personally I just thought it was badass we could turn on a server cluster that was literally sitting at the bottom of the ocean. But eventually you guys and everyone else caught on, and now you're all automating infra and feeling cutting-edge. Meanwhile, we've got the best machine learning engineers in the world, so why stop at automating infrastructure? Automate everything. Everything-as-code."

Vale's eyebrow remained raised. "'Everything-as-code'? You don't usually go for buzzwords, Jason."

Wren smirked. "I don't, and I'm not. When I say everything-as-code, I mean everything. You were a full-stack developer before you got promoted to systems design, right? Think of this as fuller-stack. We've automated every process involved in software delivery, from front-end design to generating business logic to administering databases. We've created a system that fulfills every company's dream—code without coders, design without designers. There's not a human in the loop, beyond the business telling the system what they want it to do. Forget outsourcing, there won't be any jobs left to outsource—it's all automated. We call it Kraken."

Vale said blandly, "Well, if it does what you say it does, that's certainly disruptive. When's release-to-market?"

Wren laughed. "Adrian, neither of us is stupid enough to divulge confidential information to a competitor—your little speech about incentives was nice, but we both know it’s nothing that isn't already in Phalanx's marketing copy. We released Kraken two hours ago; that’s why I’m celebrating here with you. With the bonus I've gotten for that, I don't have to work for anyone else ever again. I take it you've gotten a similar payout for Phalanx's new platform."

Vale nodded, and a gondola in the distance sparkled as though it were a jewel.

He looked around pensively. “Do you ever feel...I don’t know...unworthy...of all this?”

Wren looked at him curiously. “What, like imposter syndrome or something? No. Hell no—look, you earned this, okay? We earned this. Eat, drink, and be merry, right?”

Vale smiled disarmingly. “Absolutely.”

But as the two gazed across Oasis Bay in the strangely blinding twilight sun, standing on top of the world they had made, Vale could not banish a thought from his mind.

That night, he slept restlessly, as in his ear the unspoken corollary to Wren’s words whispered as though on a loop:

Tomorrow we die...tomorrow we die...tomorrow we die...tomorrow we die.