The grep plantation (Op-Ed) By Turmeric Thu Dec 26th, 2002 at 08:20:28 PM EST

Deep in the inner recesses of the mythic Thai plateau, lies International Datacorp. Behind the steely walls of this monolithic black faceless soulless architectural edifice lies a human social organization as equally regimented. Amongst the faces of the workers you find the grepians. The people who make grep work.


Grepians caught on secret film

Sure, typing ‘grep’ into your terminal seems easy. After all, this is free software, made by free people. And yet what you may not know may surprise you: grep is carried out by crude manual labor, much the same way guinea pigs were used to power the automobile before the discovery of gasoline.

The greppians do not talk much, but then again, they have lost reason to. Day after day after day, Datacorp , (or “the corp” as they call it), rules their lives with an iron fist. Data comes in from around the globe. Address books. Mailing lists. MP3 sets. Meaningless garbage that someone typed in accidentally (way to go guy, /dev/kcore is not a textfile). The greppians pile through this data, gathering so-called “matches” against it, line by endless line, sometimes as many as 5 trillion lines a day.

The data comes into ‘the dump’, a 500 foot long printer in a cavernous central room, gray and drab with white board ceilings. The red light glows from the security camera, an ever watchful mechanical sentinel for the rulers of this little plantation beyond the mangrove swamps and banana jungles of the Thai rainforest.

“They say it was built on an Thep burial ground” , says the secretary, the only one who would talk to me, on his cigarette break outside the back door of one of the 4 500-foot concrete drab walls that surround the buildings. He flecked his cigarette, his eyes focused distantly, but his conversation more than present. You had the idea Pho would get out of here some day, that he had hope for a future beyond the mindless slavery of the grepponage system. But you would be wrong.

“I didn’t believe it until one day I saw a man dead outside, his heart cut out, grafitti on the wall. ‘Go home yankee’ it read. (The corp is owned by a multinational corporation, headquartered in Belgium, with a 30% shareholding by Proctor and Gamble, and 25% by Wild Oats Community Market, an organic food superstore). From then on I knew the legends were true. My aunt was half Thep and she told me I shouldn’t be working here.”

“I haven’t seen her in 3 years.” he added, in a way that I knew meant he didn’t want to say anything more about it.

Disappearances have become common in the villages surrounding the only known inroads to this jungle wasteland. His family had lived at Thoc-Pho, about 50 km southeast of here (although it is hard to reckon, since the only way I could get inside this place was to agree to be blindfolded and smuggled inside a Vespa scooter)

“I think she maybe works here. Arrivals. I don’t know. This place is so big, you could get lost for 10 years and not know it. It goes down underground” he looks at me, I ask underground? He motions his hands down and down, and I feel such an outsider, so separated.

Inside I get a look at the work. The greppers must take the torn sheets of paper data and search through them for a ‘matching phrase’. Sometimes this is plain, such as a simple phrase like ‘linux sucks’. Sometimes, however it becomes bizarrely archaic, like .*?[a-z-]*-[0-9af]?.* .?. “We had 3 people go insane last week”, he tells me, as we watch surreptitiously the proceedings. “poor bastards” is the only other detail he will reveal.

As the sorting happens, the paper is transported to the ‘sorting room’. The paper leaders carry while ‘readers’ follow. If they are too slow to keep up, they are screamed at by a ‘process monitor’. Or occasionally, as I saw happen to one 5 year old boy, bludgeoned.

The process monitors are a separate breed. They are chosen from the greppers, the hardest workers, for their loyalty to the company and their intolerance of deviation or dissent. They are made to feel that they ‘have no choice’ but to accept promotion, even though feelings of guilt may linger. Every trick is used on them to get them to kowtow, trapped between the masses of greppers and a higher, less damning place in the bureaucracy.

And that is why the greppers hate them. Or want to be them. Whichever, the greppers spend little time worrying about it, and more about survival. The sorting room is a madhouse of action, or, on a particularly long dataset, it is piled high with human feces and droppings of the liquid food that is supplied to the workers from ceilings. Once the reading is done, the room is hermetically sealed by the pneumatically operated doors. It is flooded with disinfectant and water, and ‘flushed’, one assumes into the local underground aquefer or perhaps piped a hundred miles to the Sea of Japan. The local reports of ‘poisoned water’ amongst the village people have gone ignored by the government and the media, both afraid of DataCorps increasing influence with the military: General Dhep-Loc was awarded the Fred S. Johnson (Datacorp’s founder) ‘Friend of Progress’ award for the years 1997-2001 at a recent underground banquet in Pnom-Penh. (out-country to avoid raising suspicion.)

The responses to the grep command are piped back through the ‘input rooms’, vast storehouses of outdated computer equipment. Racks line the walls with obscure knobs and dials and levers. One might think a simple windows PC would be more efficient, but for two things. One, the compound is run by the most extreme unix zealot I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Two, labor is so cheap when it is forced, and the nimble workers so fast, that it makes little economic sense to retrain them on a new system.

I glimpsed the zealot once on an underground foray to a bathroom. His sullen eyes and hasty paranoid walk reminded me of something I had only seen when I accidentally poked my head into the server room at engineering college one fateful january morning in the mid 90s. The disheveled hair, the rank clothing, the general detritus of chaos that seemed to tail these people wherever they went. He had the air, but in a moment he had disappeared, no doubt something important to administer. Some ‘enjoyable’ hacking to attend to.

The hum and whir and frenzy of the input room was enough to drive anyone insane. It made wall-street trading rooms look like a spelling bee. And then I saw a man die.

The power cables were strung along the ceiling, sometimes held by gaffer tape. Sometimes held by people standing there, handing off to each other as they needed. And one fell, the frayed cord completing a circuit with the man, mother earth, and father 220v. Ordinarily one would expect something to happen. Buddhism and sentimentality are like brother and sister in this region, where life is still precious.

Rather, the tripped up coworker, gasped, stopped a second, and got back to work, which was more than the others. The victims limp body, his glassed and hazy eyes, his limp neck and head cocked at me as if to say ‘help me’. I could have sworn I detected a slight movement. That was when the guards came, injected him with a syringe of I could not tell what, and took him away, limbs dangling, and lifeless.

I had had enough. Just being here was enough to get me arrested by the Thai Government, let alone what International Datacorp could do to me. I asked my friend Pho to expedite my egress, and so he did, without shaking my hand, but glancing at me for a half second, understanding that my presence represented a separate life outside, that he may one day be part of. If he lives.

On the boat back to America, ( I had gotten a passenger-class accomidation on a freightliner shipping plastic American flags out of Shanghai to Mexico) I was boarded with two wealthy Intellectuals who owned a fiber optic company in California. And a winery.

“Damn shame about the market” he told me, concerned for my wellbeing. His wife, hand to her chest, as though I might be a wounded soldier of capitalism in need of some morale boosting.

I was not in the mood so I tried to play them off, “Yeah,” I said, knowing the type of solipsistic aphorism that would shut these people up, “but it will recover. There are a lot of excellent opportunities now”. They chuckled, predictably, offered me wine, and between the chance they would want to be my friend and the chance they would now feel guilt-free enough to go wander off on their own, my solitude won.

So I thought. The sea stared back at me, saying nothing, for 3 days.

Then it spoke. A memory came rushing back to me, soemthing I’d thought I’d forgotten. Something I had before considered meaningless and trivial.

In a village store/cafe I had overheard an old woman talking to a young man. She had been dottering on endlessly about crocheting or her son’s wife or some inane detail I was annoyed with , so I neglected to listen to her. But I did catch her say once, “Those people, they are not human beings anymore. They bring the plastic, the metal, the machines, but they have no hearts. They are full of excuses but empty of spirit, I have seen this with my own eyes, though they are old and half blind. Do you see, young man?” Maybe.

When I got home to my Apartment in Tijuana, I instantly booted up my machine. I erased all traces of unix and installed a stable, secure, easy to use operating system. One that would not necessitate endlessly searching through configuration files, that would have pre-built easily used function buttons to search my own mail, one that required no slavery on the part of man or beast. In the name of Pho, his Aunt, the dead worker, the Thep natives, the surrounded villages, and good honest people everywhere, I installed MicrosoftWindowsXP . Never again would my lust for searching be tainted with the blood of innocents. Never again would the colonized be oppressed for my benefit. Never again would blood drip from my keyboard as I made my living. I was on the path to honest work, one more step closer to becoming a human being.

i cannot believe you people posted this sotry, WITH PICTURES? it was too long and the wording was awkward. although i still like the bit about the rich ppl on the boat asking how your stocks are doing — turmeric

Au contraire, it is hilarious! And posting was a simple matter of cut-and-paste! – FrancisTyers 10:22, 25 Jul 2005 (BST)