A favorite meeting place of mine for many years now has been the Revolution Cafe. Sunday, a day like any other, I had made a plan by text to meet with a friend there. He was to text me again when he was ten minutes away and then I would head over and meet him. It sounded fairly straightforward.
I was busying myself at home with various tasks when eventually I got another text saying, “Hello? It’s been 20. Should I just come over then?” I wrote back saying that I had been waiting for the ten minutes “heads-up” but that I would be right over. A simple miscommunication, most likely. English was not his first language. It was no great enigma.
The first whiff of mystery wafted into the Rev when my friend informed me that he had indeed sent me a ten minute “heads-up.” Nevertheless, I told him, I had not received his text. I even showed him my inbox, devoid of said text.
A small mystery, perhaps. Not one that merits further investigation, you might think. Just one of those vagaries of daily life in the digital age. Random texts sometimes evaporate into the ether, never to be seen again.
Until, that is, you learn, as I did, that the text had contained the words “revolution” and “corporate oligarchy” in it.
We wondered. Could it be possible that the content of the text, those particular words that were used, had somehow triggered a kind of message censor system? Did the phone companies have some means to scan and block messages with specific content? And, if so, whose company was intercepting the message? His or mine? We became suspicious. Curious.
He tried to resend the text. We knew that if the second time around I still did not receive the text, we were on to something. Something really big.
“I’m 10 min away from revolution. I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy ;-).”
The message didn’t go through! What were the phone companies up to? I sent him a text that said, “Revolution corporate oligarchy. Testing 1 2 3.” My message went through . . . But what did that mean? The mystery only deepened.
Not satisfied to entertain mere hypotheses, we decided to run some more tests, disprove some possibilities in the hopes of narrowing in on a plausible theory. What specific words might have triggered this filter? Was it simply all three together, a specific pair, or was there one in particular? We designed the first experiment.
We began by testing one word at a time. “Revolution”—the text went through. “Corporate”—the text went through. “Oligarchy”—the text went through. No real surprises, there.
Our inquiries continued.
Next we tested pairings. “Corporate oligarchy”—the text went through. “Revolution corporate”—the text went through. And finally, “Revolution oligarchy”—the text went through.
Then we tested all three words together. The text went through.
So, we determined, the words by themselves were not enough to trigger the filter. Yet something about the particular wording of his text had.
Why, those sneaky motherlickers, we thought! Those phone companies, trying to stop the revolution against corporate oligarchy by blocking any texts that appear to call for, you know, revolution against corporate oligarchy. We wondered how many companies were involved. He had Verizon, I had MetroPCS, so at least one of those, though we had yet to determine which one. Probably AT&T too. Of course, AT&T! And maybe he was now on some secret government list of people trying to incite revolution against the corporate oligarchy by text message.
Perhaps they would be reading all his texts from now on, those backsterds! They were trying to suppress the goddamn revolution against corporate oligarchy and we had accidentally stumbled upon their nefarious scheme. We would expose them and, in doing so, would foment an actual revolution against the corporate oligarchy. We would hoist them with their own petard. We would bring them down by sending messages that they would then block, and thus everyone would know that the corporate oligarchy was trying to suppress the revolution against them.
But then I wondered, what if that message my friend had sent had been corrupted in some other way that had nothing to do with the content? Maybe the phone companies were not that smart and it was just a random coincidence. We had to be sure. I asked my friend to type a new message with the exact same content as before— “I’m 10 min away from revolution. I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy ;-).”—and try sending it to me anew.
Again, the message didn’t go through. We were definitely narrowing in on the truth.
It was not just specific words, but specific sentences that triggered the filter. To be sure, the technology was impressive. It seemed rather sensitive, intelligent even. It appeared to detect nuances of the language that went beyond syntax, which in itself was a spectacular feat of artificial intelligence. The problem was these phone companies—and we didn’t yet know which ones—were using this incredible technology for dubious purposes.
It was obvious we would need to collect more data, we would need to broaden our experiments to include more people, more phone companies. Facebook, Twitter, word of mouth. We would use whatever resources were available to us. “Try it for yourself!” we would tell all our friends. “See if your phone company blocks messages about the revolution against corporate oligarchy!” And people would be shocked, outraged even, when their messages were suppressed. It would be glorious. It would be huge.
We started to wonder if it was the combination of these two particular sentences that had triggered the blocking system, or if one sentence or other might have been enough. We would need to narrow it down so we could give clear instructions to others who wanted to test the system on their own phones. So, there were two more texts that needed to be sent.
The first—”I’m 10 min away from revolution”—went through, which left us with “I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy ;-).” He sent the second message and we waited. Nothing.
So, here we had it. We had narrowed it down to a single sentence. The phone companies, apparently, did not want us expressing our dissatisfaction with corporate oligarchy. Unbelievable!
Unless . . . there was one more thing to test . . . the winking emoticon. It had to be ruled out, so we could be certain. He sent me another text with nothing but the emoticon. We waited. Nothing. It couldn’t just be that, could it? An emoticon?? He sent me one last text, this time without the emoticon . . .
My phone beeped. I had a new message, but what did it say?
“I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy.”
Message received, mystery solved.