David was very conscious of the bubble that had formed around him. More precisely, he now sat in a packed lecture hall surrounded by a circle of empty seats at a radius of 2 seats. It wasn't unusual--this was the first class of David's spring semester, and he was by now quite used to the "gaijin bubble" that came to define the seating experience at Osaka National University. David was mostly serviceable in Japanese, able to understand the conversations around him and voice some of his thoughts with ease.
It had been a few months since his arrival last September, so there wasn't so much of a disconnect anymore: any remarks about his appearance or general foreign presence didn't really bother him anymore, but that was just a mantra he told himself.
The class that marked his first day was some sort of criminology course, vague by definition and light on coursework--a sort of humanities-influenced class that didn't really get down to the subject of the matter but instead talked around it. Then again, most classes in Japan, even mathematics, were somehow humanities-leaning.
Trying to forget about how visible he was, David prepared his notebook. As he placed it on the desk, the door of the lecture hall burst open and a girl ran through, loudly making herself apparent, then running up, up, and right next to David, where she situated herself as his neighbour. Panting, she unloaded her backpack, and began to set up shop while the professor was calling out attendance.
"Here!" she said, catching her breath.
Just as theatrically as she made her entrance, the class continued to be full of episodes. David would steal glances at the girl next to him as she would make a scene out of trying to find a pen, then oscillating between intensely furious note-taking to staring off into some other world. By the time the bell rang, David realized he had not taken any notes, completely captured by whatever minute drama she had cooked up.
As he was cleaning up, he suddenly couldn't breath.
The girl had grabbed his nose.
"Um," he said. She started to laugh.
"My bad, my bad. I just couldn't help it! Your nose is huge!" It came from a good place.
"Thanks..." there was a pause. "Can you let go now?"
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Do you grab the noses of every foreigner you meet?"
"You're the first. I've just never seen one in person before! Or, more like I've never been so close to one before."
"But your English--it's great."
"I've just spent a lot of time online. Pretty kokusaiteki, huh?" She flashed a smile.
David was not used to such direct attention. Most Japanese nationals that interacted with him did so by talking around him, asking questions they weren't really interested in, using courtesies and phrases they wouldn't even use with another Japanese stranger. This girl had bridged the gap between them by force. He wasn't used to such tactlessness in a country so literate in the art of tactfulness, but she paid it no mind.
"I'm Eriko. Yoroshiku."
Later that evening David somehow found himself two beers deep and in front of three okonomiyaki. He had plans to see his dormmates, perhaps have a single beer, play some cards, and then retire to his room to study. But, when Eriko had asked him if he had plans later he was seated at the booth before he could even say yes.
"No, no, David, you've got it all wrong! The internet is where it's at, I'm telling you." After discussing nothing in particular until the alcohol began to set in, David had explained where in the States he came from, that he was studying criminology, and that Osaka National University's program on network crime intrigued him considering how new the field was. Finally, Eriko's fangs began to show.
"You think so?"
"I know so. The internet is its own society. But the beauty of this society is that it's the world's first anarchist society. It's sort of like that book, the one by Heinlein? Where they're living on the moon." She took a bite of her okonomiyaki. "Anyway, in that book--what was it called? Whatever. In that book, they all live under what a professor calls 'rational anarchism,' which argues that the people living on this lunar colony are so far removed from earth's laws," she swallowed, "that they don't apply. Or, it's more like they only apply to the people who are aware of them. Most people just go with a generally agreed upon set of rules and are punished by the community, not the powers that be. That kind of 'freedom' is what defines the net, don't you think? As the book goes on the earth government tries to impose their laws on the lunar colony, and they react through revolution. 'How can you impose earth laws on us?! We're not even on the same goddamn planet!' they yell across the stratosphere, but those damn earthlings are deaf to reason. It's a really wild book."
"I'm not one for science fiction," said David, spinning his glass of beer around--a failed attempt at looking cool and nonchalant.
"That's not what this is about."
"Well, I agree, and that's what I'm saying--how are we supposed to govern a lawless place like the internet? Nobody has a nation there."
"That's precisely why we can't rule it, and nobody should even try. Think about it--the real world is just as far away to the internet as the earth is to the moon." She gulped down her beer. "There needs to be incentives set. Like that Russian guy."
"It was a few years ago now. That virus that killed seven people. Deadly Flash."
"Oh, right. He was sentenced to death, huh?"
"That's right. Organizations like the WNC are a step in the right direction--there needs to be a soft watchdog, but because they're tied to the UN they can't really run free. They already messed up big time by putting that guy to death. The point is not enforcing laws, but creating codes--a system of checks and values that can be easily parsed by the type to live on the net: programmers. It’s been barely a year since we finally got consumer access to the internet again, and the race to dominate its vast networks is a million times faster than before. We have to respect the Net, nurture it--anything less than that will blow up in the faces of those who try to govern it."
"I know it sounds perfect to you, but that kind of thing is both hard to enforce and hard for the old men in charge to understand."
"That was precisely the problem of those lunar revolutionaries. But they did it."
"But that's fiction--this is reality."
"Fiction refracts reality. It's symptomatic of the times. If we can seek out those specific symptoms, then we can treat them--like a vaccine to a virus."
"Quite literally sometimes, too. Just look at their track record so far. Pluto's Kiss, that Hello WNC virus, Deadly Flash... so far, they've done nothing. They're shit for brains, I tell ya. Nothing has really been done to combat this stuff. They just sit and pass bureaucratic nonsense like that whole ALTIMIT scam to tighten their grip on your balls, but they don't actually do anything."
"But that ALTIMIT law was passed to make sure stuff like this doesn't happen again."
"Yeah, but at what cost? You know why Deadly Flash was such an epidemic? Because people weren't smart enough not to click a shady attachment on an e-mail from a sender they didn't know. And that's fine--stupid people have existed since the sun started rising and will continue to exist until the sun never rises again. But even something as simple as antivirus software didn't exist at the level it does now until we went through the worst of it like that. People need to be educated, David. Letting others do the thinking does nothing."
"You can't fully expect that everyone just undergo some mass re-education on the internet. What should we do--sit them in front of those awful 1990s informational programs called 'How to Get Online'? I doubt that'll do much."
"Soon the Net and reality will be one in the same. When it gets to that point, these things will come naturally to the younger generations while we get left in the dust. It'll be like some kind of artificial evolution, and we don't stand a chance. So no, David, I don't think re-education will work. I know my parents, bless them, will never actually use a computer. But the people who make the infrastructures that they exist in on the off-chance they do should not and cannot be the government, a corporation, or anywhere in between."
"This is sounding very Guy Fawkes of you."
They both took a swig. The rapport between them now fizzled as the alcohol mellowed out their sense of existence. It was halftime, and they needed to take a step back. Eriko had just met David less than 24 hours ago, and she was already rattling on. Though this was usual of her the second she would find anyone who would care enough to listen.
"At the very least, I think the internet needs people in place to manage it--and I don't mean the corporations that are paid to provide it."
"Oh, of course. What those guys at ALTIMIT are doing is completely immoral."
"I mean, the security of it is one thing..."
"The security of it is besides the point. And trust me, they're not that secure."
"You speak from experience?"
"I know a guy."
"Come on, David, you don't get into studying cybercrime without getting to know a few hackers."
"I suppose so," he said with a nervous laugh.
"So what is it you want to do?" asked Eriko through another mouthful of okonomiyaki. "I mean, like after this. This whole Japan episode is just that, huh? An episode? What comes after?"
"Well, I agree with you--there needs to be a system of checks and balances. I guess I'm just so used to seeing things ruled with an iron fist that I never considered an alternative. In other words, I think before tonight I wanted to be part of the establishment." And he meant this, too. This wasn't a lame attempt at looking cool--the amount of alcohol in his system no longer allowed that.
"That's the thing, David--you don't want to be one of the bad guys, do you?"
"Not at all. The exact opposite."
"You gotta spend a bit more time online. That's where the real stuff is happening. All of this, all of this stuff around us, even this beer--it's all fake. It's all part of what we've accepted as truth," said Eriko, now slurring her words. "It's the farthest thing from living. But when you're online, when the world starts to unravel around you, when you become someone else--that's when the real things start to happen. That's why we need to start nurturing this shit, David. We need to make sure it stays safe and untouched. If we don't, some ojisan or the other is going to make a goddamn mess out of it."
"I believe in you."
"Don't believe in me. Believe in the net."