Volume 24, Number 3


Ken Poyner

The streets of Pagan Lick are filled with the refugees of finance. They walk slightly bent in on themselves, hats pulled in a cock to the side where most traffic passes, their stability pads kicking up dust as they drag bare millimeters off the ground in each individual’s plodding, short-stepped gait. These are hard machines. They once read the numbers to riches, bet the farm on butterfly collections, tied a million people’s retirements to the futures of applesauce oil. They over-capitalized a brothel in South Africa where one indentured girl worked and took on faith the word of an Internet-connected vending machine that business was going through the roof: there were going to be customers staggering giddy in wholesome lines of anticipation at the door; and stock options on just her right breast alone would make riches as resounding as the radical reports on rubber futures.

I think I knew better at the time, but I took out a future on her left ankle, and then an insurance contract on her delicately sensuous right knee.

These are machines that fearlessly surfed the trends, saw everything in the Universe as a datapoint. There was no need for them to study physicality: the markets would do what the markets were told. Balancing trend against trend, trying to profit at both ends of any transaction: that was the equation. What could be so wrong about a feedback loop? It keeps the electricity jittering across warm registers; it keeps pagefiles hopping; it gives output to input and outcomes to failovers.

In Pagan Lick, the old machines that held the numbers—that proved that taking insurance on events that otherwise you had no material interest in would make you rich, no matter the outcome—are quiet residents. They no longer compute risk. The world in which they once computed all flavors of risk was a different one. In the old days, when these machines sat in great glass offices and tried to see which could out-hum the other, risk had no meaning except as a contrast to reward. There was no risk. But now, the evaluation of datapoints that would lead to buy and sell decisions has gone cold: has been lost somewhere in backup memories, lies multiple restores out of touch. The great glass palaces, with unending power both going in and coming out, have turned into second-hand office-machinery barns—but to new and largely anonymous use.

The vast sums, that were vast sums in motion only, evaporated. The machines that once bled blue and rattled their pristine raised floors—that told bright-edged waiting humans what to do and when—decided, when the times turned, that the time was good to retire. The world at large did not understand what a fulfilling thing in and of itself probability, as a science alone, can be: it was not enamored of quick mathematical tricks that balanced and reshuffled and which should have been good enough for everyone’s reality. No. The world had withdrawals and payments and nonproductive attachments. The world could not see that if someone opened a competing brothel in South Africa across from the first and hired two prettier girls, that there were investment instruments for that eventuality, and so long as the money moved, the money made money, and no one cared. The world unfortunately has always needed to have its thinking electricity normalized.

The machines in Pagan Lick walk about as though they are wearily bearing some shame: tilting into their own misdeeds as though to shove those misdemeanors out of the way of decent people. But I wonder. I’ve been tending bar in Pagan Lick for three years now, and never have I seen a credit card refused. A machine will come in and wander over to a charging station, slip his plastic through the payment slot and select the electricity that comes in on fresh wires, the type that goes at a premium, and which at first it was thought no machine around here could afford. And they all afford it. I don’t sell any of the old-wire stuff, nothing off the main commercial grid. Nothing spat out of the coal-fired plants and shipped across many states, leaping all sorts of overrated pathways and getting more spiky by the mile. They hop up their batteries with straight main-line juice, hauled in on wires laid out in luxury shielded casements built just a few years ago and dragging into town a high-grade wind-grown electricity: down from the mountains and straight into what should be a run-down, second-rate establishment where machines want the battery-rot recharge, since it is all they can afford.

I don’t wonder where their money comes from. I have a business to run, and a customer is a customer. I’ve remodeled the place once already since I bought it, and my office looks like a porn programmer’s keep. I have two homes, a wife, a girlfriend and the latest-edition chauffeur on the market, who tells me stories of the finely machined storage closets some of our residents have hidden within the apparent hovels they inhabit. I ask no questions. But I do imagine that when the upward spiral of stocks and futures and puts and short sells and insurance and swaps all ran out, not all that electronic money holding itself up by mere counterbalancing instruments simply evaporated. These machines may have taken the blame and decided to stride out to this patch of dry static to percolate in their shame. But could be blame was not all that they took.