The Price of Appreciation

Investigative-style fiction looking at the evolution of 'Likes' into digital currencies
15 Feb 2015

“We gave everyone’s opinion a genuine value and we turned that into a brand-new marketplace: people should thank us,” Tobias Plummkel declared last summer, as he announced his retirement from the Like business. The former CEO of OneLike, grinning behind the grey-blond hair of his topiary beard, claimed he didn’t want anything to do with “freakin’ ink jerkers.” But after spending five months harassing his secretary on the phone, he’d finally agreed to meet and tell me everything about his success story.

Appreciative Content Classification

Plummkel and I were sit­ting under the large veran­da of his bil­lion-dol­lar prop­er­ty, out in the Mal­dives. The gar­den fur­ni­ture was design­er shit, from the curvy white tables and chairs look­ing like space guano, to the min­i­mal­is­tic crys­tal mugs with ’T.P.’ laser-carved on the inside. Bad taste, but expen­sive bad taste.
	“Are we good?” he asked.
	The über-entre­pre­neur was pick­ing guarana seeds out of a Chi­nese bowl, eat­ing them one by one. “They’re good for you,” he said. 
	“Espe­cial­ly if you’re suf­fer­ing from erec­tile dys­func­tion,” I almost added. 
Plummkel looked old­er than his pic­tures, his beard shag­gi­er and whiter. Omega on his wrist, shiny Ital­ian leather san­dals, sweat drip­ping down his fore­head, play­ing with the col­lar of his brand new golf out­fit — Mr. Every­man dressed as Mr. Rich Guy. Try­ing way too hard. 
	“Hel­lo? Ques­tions?”, still nib­bling on guarana seeds. 
	I was almost cer­tain you weren’t sup­posed to eat those like peanuts. His but­ler brought us a glass of lousy air­port-grade whiskey, and I asked him about his obses­sion with Likes . 
	“See, there were Likes  on my pro­file before I was even born,” he claimed as if it were some sort of achieve­ment. “In school, among oth­er chil­dren, we only talked about what we liked. It was a secret lan­guage between us, a code for stim­u­lat­ing oth­er kids’ inter­est. What­ev­er we liked we want­ed to share.”
	In between dic­tion and rem­i­nis­cences of his child­hood, accom­pa­nied by fresh-out-of-the-sem­i­nar ges­tures, he proud­ly admit­ted to some fas­ci­na­tion for all kinds of social net­works, and big fat data. 
	“Today this might seem weird, but all this web con­tent was going to waste; it had to have some sort of fil­ing sys­tem. ACC – Appre­cia­tive con­tent clas­si­fi­ca­tion – that was our num­ber one goal,” he said, draw­ing the acronym in the air. “We saw a need and worked on it. Peo­ple did the rest.”
	“So it had noth­ing to do with Recon?”
	“It was just… a rev­e­la­tion. I saw it hap­pen­ing. The Like  was the thing, you know? I just fol­lowed my instincts. My guts. I didn’t even know what I was doing…”
	“And now you do?”
	“You don’t believe in kar­ma, eh?”
	“Can’t say that I do…  But try me…”
	He burst­ed out laugh­ing. 
	“What got you so inter­est­ed in me, anyway?”

The Summer of Likes 

Ten years ago, I’d start­ed work­ing on this inves­ti­ga­tion for a local mag­a­zine in my home­town near Phoenix. The mag­a­zine, now dead and buried, was to be titled ‘Soft Spot,’ and my friend Shawn Scott was to be its edi­tor-in-chief. He want­ed Soft Spot to be lit­er­ary, “like those mag­a­zines in which jour­nal­ists are called ‘writ­ers,’ and arti­cles ‘pieces’.” Shawn was going for a the­mat­ic first issue loose­ly titled ‘Web & Pol­i­tics,’ and I was asked to “dis­cov­er why the fuck peo­ple cared so much about Fire­Likes “ in Shawn’s own words. I took the job with­out real­ly know­ing what it meant, most­ly because I need­ed the mon­ey. 
	The only guy will­ing to take part in my inves­ti­ga­tion was a local lib­er­tar­i­an and self-pro­claimed econ­o­mist whose name I can’t even remem­ber. He wel­comed me to his office, which also turned out to be his home: a two-sto­ry, poor­ly built imi­ta­tion of a long-gone Amer­i­can dream — a Quon­set utopia of a house— with a gar­den tai­lored for shady fam­i­ly bar­be­cues, although the bar­be­cue itself was more of a rust agglom­er­ate crum­bling down damp coal left­overs. The inte­ri­or exhaled old dust and undone dish­es. He mum­bled an apol­o­gy for the mess and slumped into a shod­dy arm­chair, spilling its uphol­stery like entrails on the ground. The econ­o­mist — though I must con­fess I was get­ting the impres­sion he was no more than a bum hop­ing to make a quick buck — offered me a drink.
	“I’ll just go for a soda or some­thing.”
	He poured me cheap car­bon­at­ed lemon­ade, and made him­self a gin and ton­ic in a plas­tic Super Bowl cup.
	“So… Whatcha wan­na know?” 
	Hes­i­tant to go for the smart ques­tions I had pre­pared the day before, I sim­ply asked him what Fire­Likes  were. 
	“Fire­Likes … Basi­cal­ly they allow you to like the same thing mul­ti­ple times,” he explained. “It’s a cumu­la­tive Like  you can send real fast… Chop, chop! That’s why it’s called Fire, y’see? The more you click, the more Likes  you give. That’s all adver­tis­er bull­shit if you want my opin­ion — or big-ass com­pa­nies think­ing they aren’t get­ting enough love from their cus­tomers… I guess they’re scared there is going to be a point where every­thing, any­thing, would have the same amount of Likes . If not, earth’s population’s the lim­it, right ? Well, Fire­Likes  are an attempt at sup­press­ing that lim­it.” 
	This inter­view was a fias­co — don’t judge me, I was inex­pe­ri­enced and high on Lexapro at the time — but it stim­u­lat­ed my curios­i­ty, so I kept dig­ging. This ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion machine was in fact the prod­uct of the bril­liant minds at Recon, Inc., the social net­work­ing giant, fol­low­ing a tra­di­tion dat­ing back to the ear­ly aughts — Face­book and Twit­ter and all that jazz. Accord­ing to our econ­o­mist, Fire­Likes  were get­ting polar­iz­ing reac­tions: some were real­ly angry that their Likes  had become so casu­al and com­mon, while oth­ers were enthused by the abil­i­ty to over-like things, as if it restored the com­pe­ti­tion its true val­ue. 
	Fact of the mat­ter was, get­ting Likes  now relied more heav­i­ly on speed than actu­al atten­tion.
	This new fren­zy was fol­lowed by a just-as-fran­tic patent war. Jump­ing on a train dri­ven by Recon’s Fire­Likes , new Likes  were born every day — copies upon copies upon copies, with vary­ing degrees of suc­cess. In just a few months, over 300 types of Likes  were cre­at­ed by just as many star­tups. Back when Vel­com, moth­er com­pa­ny of the eco-friend­ly Green Like, was in the mid­dle of the infa­mous Star­net tri­als, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to exchange a few words off the record with an ex–marketing direc­tor at Vel­com, who was claim­ing — not with­out pride — that “patents have always been the best way for Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies to make mon­ey.” Fight­ing over intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty was more lucra­tive than any new prod­uct they could release. Even our dear Plummkel, own­er of a small but ambi­tious start­up at the time, had already patent­ed the Dia­mond  and Gold­en Likes .  
	To con­vert Likes  from a com­pa­ny to Likes  from anoth­er, you had to go through inter­me­di­aries, busi­ness­es trad­ing your Likes  for a small fee — small, but still hard, sol­id dol­lars. Mil­lions were spent by will­ing cit­i­zens, just to con­vert a blue Like  into a Tru­elike, Pink Likes into a Thum­bzup — what­ev­er stu­pid names those things were giv­en. 
	Best part: the ‘Sum­mer of Likes .’ That’s when ‘lik­er’ became a job — peo­ple hired to spend entire days send­ing vir­tu­al TLC to their employ­ers. The job was paid by the click or, for the luck­i­est ones,  short-term con­tracts. One of the lik­ers I met dur­ing my inves­ti­ga­tion con­fessed her job was “the best evaaaa,” and assured me that “no one in Ari­zona could like faster than her.” Uni­fied Media became the first pro­file to get more than 100 bil­lion Likes , fol­lowed by all major multi­na­tion­als and pop­u­lar fig­ures. Thou­sands of folks left their jobs to become lik­ers, and the race for appre­ci­a­tion took on an absurd­ly fast pace. Of course, main­stream media were drawn to this like flies to a buck­et of horse shit: every day, on TV, on the web, you’d see dozens of reports with peo­ple tap­ping fran­ti­cal­ly on mas­sive but­tons, lik­ing as fast as pos­si­ble, as com­fort­ably as pos­si­ble, for the longest time pos­si­ble. There were machines shaped like a stick which the lik­ers shook all day long, with dumb and sat­is­fied smiles on their faces, like ama­teur actors in a nev­er-end­ing mas­tur­ba­tion scene from a neon-lit Swedish movie.  
	But, as J. Ker­ouac once wrote, “the beau­ty of things must be that they end.” By the end of the sum­mer that saw the emer­gence of this brand new job, high-fre­quen­cy lik­ing algo­rithms (‘lik­er ghosts’) had replaced almost all lik­ers. Pieces of code that could do their jobs bet­ter, faster, and cheap­er. We had all those peo­ple in the streets, in some par­o­dy of a rev­o­lu­tion, who had giv­en every­thing up for this, and were now los­ing their dream jobs to zeros and ones. The own­er of iQuest, Steven Mylen­donk, assured me, off the record again, that “the race was down to the dis­tance between data cen­ters and Like  emit­ters, with ever-updat­ing algo­rithms lik­ing all sorts of con­tent by the mil­lisec­ond. Algo­rithms were sim­ply bet­ter because they did some­thing no human being could do. And they were damn cheaper.”

The Greatest Like of Them All

The end of Patent Wars and the inter­na­tion­al leg­is­la­tion of Likes  at the first ever World Like  Sum­mit flew so far under the media’s radar it felt sus­pi­cious. I guess it had to be done swift­ly, and the best way to do so was to sign a bunch of papers behind closed doors, in a three-day meet­ing between politi­cians and Sil­i­con Val­ley fig­ures. Dur­ing WLS, author­i­ties agreed upon a Uni­ver­sal Like  Dec­la­ra­tion that each cit­i­zen would have to file twice a year, for gov­ern­ments to dis­tin­guish fraud­u­lent Likes  from gen­uine affec­tion. Each and every Like  was tracked, and iden­ti­fied by its emitter’s IP address. If those dec­la­ra­tions didn’t match the num­bers, colos­sal fines applied. This sys­tem was con­sen­su­al­ly dis­agreed with, but, peo­ple being peo­ple, they nev­er­the­less filed their dec­la­ra­tions. 
	The sum­mit was also where we first saw the Dia­mond Like  come to life. Onelike’s first tru­ly inno­v­a­tive con­cept.
	‘THE GREATEST LIKE  OF THEM ALL,” read the tagline. 
	You’d only get one at the end of Novem­ber, and you could spend it on your favorite thing. 
	Nobel Prize win­ner Felix G. Span­may­er argued the New Eco­nom­ic Rev­o­lu­tion — buzz­word alert — was on the verge of hap­pen­ing, and he took the Like  as an exam­ple for what he called “the vir­tu­al­iza­tion of econ­o­my.” I had tried to set-up an inter­view with him, but gave up try­ing after his office’s fifth rejec­tion. I took it per­son­al­ly at the time, but it turns out the guy was trag­i­cal­ly ill. He died of stom­ach can­cer lat­er the same year, and nev­er saw his prophe­cy come true.  
	I did get to talk to Aoife O’Hara-Jones, though. Author of New York Times best­seller The Day the Earth Start­ed Lik­ing, spam­mer of Span­may­er-style buzz­words, and glo­be­trot­ter devot­ed to preach­ing the Good Like  to every liv­ing soul, O’Hara-Jones was a busi­ness­woman with a heart of stone. She had the balls to make pro-Like  speech­es in sub-Saha­ran Africa, tak­ing self­ies with starv­ing kids and ask­ing her fol­low­ers to “like if they cared.” In the end it worked: she got bil­lions of fans and fol­low­ers, while the kids from the pic­tures are most like­ly dead by now. 
	A friend of mine who knew her owed me one—he gave me her num­ber and put in a good word. She reluc­tant­ly agreed to an inter­view, and gave me an appoint­ment in New York’s most expen­sive bistro. The place was filled with yup­pies sport­ing fake tans and thou­sand-dol­lar suits, drink­ing cock­tails named after finance celebri­ties. I ordered a Mad­off and wait­ed, over­hear­ing con­ver­sa­tions about how one company’s Likes were a bet­ter invest­ment than another’s, and blah, blah, blah… 
	She showed up late and in a hur­ry. 
	“I’ve got two con­fer­ences tonight, so make it quick.” 
	I asked her about the Dia­mond Like  straight away.
	“The Dia­mond Like ? Let me put it this way: no oth­er Like  ever man­aged to give appre­ci­a­tion its true val­ue before that one. It was a pre­cious and mean­ing­ful cul­tur­al sym­bol — a com­pa­ny with a hun­dred bil­lion Fire­Likes  and not a sin­gle Dia­mond Like  was worth noth­ing.” 
	Accord­ing to her, not only was it answer­ing a need for pre­mi­um Likes , it was also the first one to become a tra­di­tion­al end-of-year rit­u­al. Months ahead, peo­ple talked about whom they were going to give their Dia­mond  to.  
“And there was this stu­pid reac­tionary response to the Like  soci­ety – we had to deal with waves and waves of Turd Likes, open-source dis­likes, left-wing jokes from activists. We nev­er caught those lit­tle punks.”
	I still had a lot of ques­tions but she didn’t have time to talk any­more. I said the drinks were on me, and she gig­gled, pulling out her Amex from her purse. 
	“I don’t think you can afford it,” she said, leav­ing a tip that exceed­ed my cur­rent bal­ance, all sav­ings includ­ed. 
	Her gold­en smart­phone rang. She mimed an “excuse me,” answered it, and dis­ap­peared, nev­er to come back again. I fin­ished her drink and gave an embar­rassed smile to the bar­tender, who kept look­ing at me like I didn’t belong. I didn’t. We agreed on that one. 
	“Thanks fam,” I said. “Have a good one.” 
	“Good­bye, sir.” 
	“Next time try to put actu­al vod­ka in those,” I added as I turned the glass upside down to get the last drop. 
	“Good­bye, sir.” 

We Made the World a Shittier Place

I asked Plummkel to tell me more about Likoin , anoth­er one of his company’s inven­tions, which fol­lowed the Dia­mond Like  as anoth­er attempt to cre­ate lux­u­ry Likes . The Likoin  could be exchanged, trad­ed, spec­u­lat­ed on, like a real mon­e­tary unit with its very own mar­ket. 
	“When all Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies were cer­tain of the futil­i­ty of Likes , I decid­ed to take them seri­ous­ly,” he laughed with sat­is­fac­tion as we wan­dered around his pri­vate golf course. “That’s pret­ty much all I did my entire life and I’ve been quite suc­cess­ful.”
	I asked him about Philip Brandt, ex-hack­er turned cryp­tog­ra­ph­er for the U.S. gov­ern­ment, and Plummkel’s orig­i­nal part­ner on the Likoin. 
	“I already told you I wouldn’t answer any ques­tions about him.” 
	Quick heads-up. Philip Brandt was the most dis­crete per­son on the web — no pro­files on any social net­work, no pho­tos, and just a short Wikipedia arti­cle with lots of [cita­tion need­ed]. Every jour­nal­ist who had tried to approach him had faced imme­di­ate refusal, and all you could find were spec­u­la­tive pieces seek­ing to unveil the mys­tery behind Sil­i­con Valley’s invis­i­ble wun­derkind.
	The clos­est I got to an inter­view with him was in San Fran­cis­co, sit­ting at a bar called Metrop­o­lis, which looked as if a micro­brew­ery had sex with an old-fash­ioned arcade cen­ter. This place had been the unof­fi­cial head­quar­ters to many star­tups and was still a con­ver­gence point for young com­pa­nies rife with rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas for Apps or life-chang­ing giz­mos. I was alone at the bar, sip­ping on a cold beer, when a guy sat next to me and start­ed the con­ver­sa­tion. We chat­ted for a few hours, exchang­ing opin­ions about almost every­thing tech relat­ed. I even­tu­al­ly told him about my arti­cle, and he said he could prob­a­bly give me a tip or two about Brandt, men­tion­ing that he’d been work­ing with the famous devel­op­er back in OneLike’s ear­ly years. Imme­di­ate­ly, I took out my note­book. Among less impor­tant details about the One­Like cam­pus, he insist­ed that Autocrypt, the sys­tem behind Likoins, was extreme­ly secure and encod­ed pieces of infor­ma­tion on a bil­lion dif­fer­ent servers before they could be decod­ed by ded­i­cat­ed appli­ca­tions. He also told me that peo­ple weren’t ready to entrust machines with such valu­able tokens of appre­ci­a­tion, and that on the first attack by inven­tive hack­ers, all Likoins’ cred­i­bil­i­ty had been blown to smithereens. 
	“What­ev­er you do, hack­ers are always one step ahead. With the media empha­siz­ing on the Likoin ’s dys­func­tion­al side, and with­out any help from offi­cials, it was impos­si­ble to make Likoin  a sta­ble cur­ren­cy. Since the Fire­Likes , peo­ple had got­ten leery of new Likes , and both state and fed­er­al author­i­ties were very care­ful when it came to their involve­ment in this field of research.” 
	Those were prob­a­bly the rea­sons this mon­e­tized take on the Like  nev­er real­ly panned out, despite the efforts of a very devot­ed com­mu­ni­ty. Remem­ber the Time cov­er? “9 Out of 10 Amer­i­cans Don’t Believe in Likoins.”
	I asked if he’d also worked on the Gold­en Like .
	“No,” he said, “I didn’t want to have any­thing to do with that. In the end, Likoin  was a the­o­ret­i­cal joke, a cri­tique of the Like  econ­o­my. The Gold­en Like , on the oth­er hand, embraced this econ­o­my. It made it real. If you want me to be hon­est with you, Likoin  was a mis­take. The whole thing was a mis­take. We made the world a shit­ti­er place.”
	He fin­ished his soda, gave me his card, and left. I looked at the card. It read “Philip Brandt,” on thick white paper. With no oth­er infor­ma­tion whatsoever. 

We’re Not a Fucking Humanitarian Company

“Likoin,” claimed Plummkel. “was a nec­es­sary fail­ure. It was the ground we built the suc­cess of the Gold­en Like  on. When we intro­duced it, peo­ple were already crav­ing for a way to endear intan­gi­ble appre­ci­a­tion. But this time we had the bless­ing of polit­i­cal and finan­cial author­i­ties. It was a glob­al thing.”
	Unlike Likoins, Gold­en Likes  were a hit the moment they were released. They were a type of Like  with lim­it­ed sup­ply, giv­en direct­ly by the lik­er to the recip­i­ent, bypass­ing all social plat­forms. You could spend your Like  on oth­ers, and incite oth­ers to spend theirs on you. It was all a game of earn­ings, and accord­ing to sur­veys that popped all around the coun­try, cit­i­zens were now spend­ing “more time earn­ing Likes  than actu­al mon­ey.” 
This made way for a Like -exchange mar­ket­place, a ”Wall Street of Likes ,” aswarm with traders, oppor­tunists, and con artists, most­ly try­ing to swin­dle away some Gold­ens  for them­selves in the process of mak­ing their com­pa­nies Like -tril­lion­aires. The cur­ren­cy had a val­ue (that was a first) but retroac­tive­ly gave val­ue to all types of Likes . A Gold­en Like  was worth 10 Dia­mond Likes , 100 Fire­Likes , or 1000 Blue Likes . One by one, small­er com­pa­nies and their patents were absorbed by One­Like, which was build­ing a gar­gan­tu­an empire of appre­ci­a­tion from the ash­es of pre­vi­ous fads. Even lik­er ghosts had re-emerged, but this time in the hands of trad­ing com­pa­nies com­pet­ing to influ­ence the mar­ket in their favor.  
	“The real sur­prise was the lev­el of servi­tude peo­ple were will­ing to achieve for a few Likes ,” says Plummkel, pro­nounc­ing “servi­tude” with a hint of bour­geois dis­dain. 
	“Do tasks for oth­ers — get a good rank as a trust­wor­thy per­son (some­one who “has earned his or her Likes ”) — and then do more tasks for oth­ers (and hope to make some mon­ey on the way). Obvi­ous­ly, get­ting as many Likes  as you could was the only way to get a good rank. Walk­ing on the lines of Airbnb, TaskRab­bit, and oth­er net­works for cheap and ille­gal labour was like mod­ern slav­ery for peo­ple seek­ing vir­tu­al appre­ci­a­tion. And there were stars of these net­works. Elite mem­bers. Peo­ple ded­i­cat­ing their lives to their rank. If more Likes  meant more mon­ey, maybe Likes  meant mon­ey after all! It could be con­vert­ed, it could have a mar­ket, it could be exchanged, giv­en, tak­en, stolen… Long sto­ry short, you give peo­ple an entire vir­tu­al space on which they could build any­thing they wants, and they build the same shit over and over again,” com­plained rock-star evan­ge­list Arthur Paingrove dur­ing the fifth WLS in the only kind-of-viral talk of this bor­ing con­ven­tion. 
	“We only cre­at­ed the offer, not the need,” Plummkel replied when asked about this re-cre­ation of a flawed eco­nom­ic mod­el. “Besides, we’re not a fuck­ing human­i­tar­i­an com­pa­ny.”
	Walk­ing me back out of his prop­er­ty, puff­ing on his over­sized Cuban cig­ar, and apol­o­giz­ing for not hav­ing the time to let me try the jet skis, he added: “Look, I can’t deny that our goal was to make mon­ey. There is no com­pa­ny in this world whose pri­ma­ry goal isn’t to make tons of cash. The ones who claim oth­er­wise are just lying sacks of shit.”
He gave me a father­ly tap on the shoul­der, and dis­solved into laugh­ter behind thick scrolls of smoke.
	“The suprema­cy of the vir­tu­al over real­i­ty is tak­ing alarm­ing pro­por­tions. Noth­ing can stop this cir­cus any­more,” wrote crit­i­cal thinker Ivan Piriv­gin, PhD. “If you add to the equa­tion a dying man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­try hav­ing a hard time vir­tu­al­iz­ing its prod­ucts, you get com­plete chaos. That’s the state of tran­si­tion in which we are right now. But if we man­age to sus­tain a state of abun­dance, we might pave the way to a com­plete dema­te­ri­al­iza­tion of cur­ren­cy, with mon­ey becom­ing as vir­tu­al as the goods it can buy. And, sad­ly, this might be the only way to get out of the lim­bo we’re cur­rent­ly trapped in.”

This is You. Computer 136.

I left Plummkel con­fused. I had been obsess­ing over Sil­i­con Val­ley fig­ures, pol­i­tics, and aca­d­e­m­ic war­fare, but it occurred to me I nev­er got close to the peo­ple who were, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, sup­port­ing this econ­o­my. On the sur­face, there was a war on whether Likes  were gen­uine or not, if they meant some­thing or not, fuel­ing a spec­ta­cle that seemed futile. But under the water…
	I heard about click-farms in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, where peo­ple spent the whole day lik­ing, trad­ing fraud­u­lent affec­tion to make num­bers on major com­pa­ny home­pages grow beyond rea­son, bypass­ing the over­whelm­ing leg­is­la­tion we had in the US. Through C., a film stu­dent at Berke­ley I had met dur­ing a trip to Cal­i­for­nia, I found the oppor­tu­ni­ty to enlist in a Guatemalan Like -farm he had been to a cou­ple of times. 
	“I’m doing it to pay for my stud­ies, and, hon­est­ly, it’s not a very com­pli­cat­ed job. Just try it, go there for a few weeks, see if you like it. Trust me, if you're good, you'll get good pay. Here, call this num­ber and ask for Guiller­mo.” 
	I called from a burn­er phone, and with­out much of a job inter­view, I got hired for one test week. When he asked for my name I real­ized I hadn’t thought of one, so I grabbed the copy of “A Farewell To Arms” stand­ing on my cof­fee table, browsed through it quick­ly and said “Hen­ry. Fred­er­ick Hen­ry.” I pulled my “under­cov­er” out­fit out of the closet—Hawaiian shirt, worn-up shorts brand­ed with some long-for­got­ten tobac­co com­pa­ny logo, and a D‑backs cap—and hopped on the first plane to La Auro­ra air­port.
	The first thing I saw when I walked out of the gate were dozens of guys with brushy mus­tach­es hold­ing dozens of signs read­ing 'Señor this' or “Señor that'. Not many Señori­tas. I casu­al­ly walked towards the one who held a “Señor F. Hen­ry” sign, hold­ing tight­ly to my lug­gage whose lock had been forced by secu­ri­ty for a rea­son the girl at the counter couldn’t dis­close. Along with a bunch of peo­ple, I board­ed a fake “Los Com­pañeros” tour bus, the whole vehi­cle bulging with anx­ious folks from all across north Amer­i­ca. While dri­ving through the dense traf­fic, the guy sit­ting next to me, a white Rasta­far­i­an with dread­locks look­ing like blonde and smelly turds, asked me where we were going. 
	"No idea."
	To kill time, I asked him about his life sto­ry. 
	"Got mar­ried too soon… Made a livin' sell­ing weed for a while… But, man, get­ting weed has become so easy in Cal­i­for­nia nowa­days," our sad entre­pre­neur regret­ted. "Like the entire Cali’s depres­sive now… Ha!” 
	“And now I’m broke, and my wife left with our two kids,” he said while ner­vous­ly twist­ing his dread­locks. "Last I heard they were liv­ing in some hip­pie com­mu­ni­ty 'tween San­fran and some­where up north." 
	He had become so unem­ploy­able he had to take this Like  job. “Just like every­one else here, I guess…”
	I scanned my sur­round­ings: the bus looked as if it were dri­ving the entire cast of “Oz” to some remote south Amer­i­can set. 
	This was the new crime. 
	The bus stopped on a dusty park­ing lot in the mid­dle of nowhere, and the dri­ver gave us a quick heads-up. 
	"Now we change car."
	We got out of the bus and lined-up in font of some big guy with a blueish eight ball tat­tooed on his bald skull. He whis­pered some­thing to his lieu­tenant, a short guy with an angry gaze tot­ter­ing on torn flip-flops. One by one, they sent us to cars parked in the area. Ras­ta boy got in the blue pick-up, while I got asked to jump in the back of the red one. 
	After a bumpy ride on what I would have a hard time describ­ing as “roads,” we made it to the farm, a three build­ing com­plex held togeth­er by dan­ger­ous-look­ing scaf­fold­ings. I was intro­duced to a guy called Guiller­mo, my men­tor, who had been in the com­pa­ny for two years. He guid­ed me to a hangar filled with dusty peo­ple and busy com­put­ers, and we made a stop in front of an already turned-on old PC, the low res­o­lu­tion dis­play all jit­tery and blurred. 
	"This is you. Com­put­er 136. You work here, do this."
	He point­ed at a print­ed piece of paper, writ­ten in Spang­lish and list­ing all the ads to click and pro­to­cols to fol­low for the day. It was impos­si­ble to under­stand what you were doing; you were just forg­ing pro­file after pro­file, click­ing on things, exchang­ing Gold­en Likes . An encrypt­ed trea­sure map except, well, you don't get a share of the trea­sure.  
	With no Uni­ver­sal Like  Dec­la­ra­tion here, it wasn’t an issue to over-click any pass­ing hyper­link on var­i­ous social net­works, as long as you went unno­ticed. The key was to switch iden­ti­ties to hide sus­pi­cious activ­i­ty. But even then, Guiller­mo assured me that, although com­pa­nies hunt­ed the coun­ter­feit accounts reck­less­ly, none of them would actu­al­ly dare remov­ing the Likes  them­selves.
"So same thing for clients." 
	I thanked him for the details, and asked him if he was hap­py to work here. 
	"Yeah… sure… hap­py!" he said with a loose thumb up. 
	Strum­ming on my key­board all day, I bare­ly had time to exchange words with my neigh­bor, so at the end of the shift I asked him to show me the dor­mi­to­ry. I intro­duced myself. Wav­ing at me, he said "I’m Jesus." I fol­lowed him to the sleep­ing quar­ters: anoth­er hangar, filled with squeaky met­al beds, and reek­ing of sweat and cold tobac­co.
	The work con­di­tions were ter­ri­ble, the life con­di­tions even worse, and the wages sucked. We clicked twelve hours a day, and were paid $0.005 per click, day or night, hol­i­day or not.  With a poor con­nec­tion to the Inter­net and com­put­ers from the Stone Age, I did five thou­sand clicks on my best days, work­ing twelve hours in a row. That’s 25 bucks. Jesus con­fessed this was the shit­ti­est job he'd ever worked in, but the entire area's econ­o­my now relied on buy­ing and sell­ing vir­tu­al appre­ci­a­tion, and there weren't many oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties in here.
	The worst were the super­vi­sors, who act­ed like nar­cos. Jesus once told me a sto­ry about three guys who hadn't earned enough Likes  and got shot in the for­est. “You do what you want, but you should not trust Guiller­mo,” he said. That’s not the kind of thing one should tell me. This turned my para­noid side on, and for the next few days I became obsessed with Guillermo’s behav­ior. The guy kept yelling at me. I began to think he had some­how seen me take notes, and had start­ed to get sus­pi­cious. By the end of the week Jesus had been "relo­cat­ed" to some oth­er part of the farm, and his com­put­er was assigned to a bald­ing Chi­nese guy who didn’t speak a word of Eng­lish. I was some­where between anx­ious and bored. And my fin­ger­tips were sore.  
They offered me to stay after the first week, but I turned the offer down. They paid me in cash, put me on a plane, and I flew back to NYC unharmed. 
	As soon as I got home, I took a long show­er, poured myself a glass of bour­bon, and com­mit­ted to fin­ish writ­ing this paper. I didn’t care if it was going to be pub­lished or not. I knew it had to be writ­ten. 
	For near­ly ten years now, I had chased intan­gi­ble tokens of appre­ci­a­tion, and in this mas­quer­ade beyond bor­ders the only com­mon trait I found in each and every per­son I met along the way was a blind trust in tech­nol­o­gy, as if we were only a few clicks away from our lit­tle utopia, where we com­pete for triv­ial things while automa­tons and algo­rithms take care of earth­ly mat­ters. Our spec­ta­cle machine, ful­fill­ing our shal­low and emp­ty dream. 
	Well, just make sure you like  this arti­cle.
	It would mean a lot…