Tweet by Love Adair: Capital will not be ultimately unmasked as exploited labour power; rather, humans are the meat puppet of Capital, their identities and self-understandings are simulations that can and will ultimately be sloughed off.

Perhaps you are acquainted with a genre of folkloric internet writing whose hallmarks are earnest, anonymous first-person narration and fascination with hidden, esoteric horror amidst the commonplace. In its earliest iterations it was called by the name “easter eggs”, after the tendency of programmers to build whimsical secrets into their projects, only the secrets in the stories were wrought by gods or demons, and came at a cost.

As the genre evolved, it shed this conceit, though it maintained a preoccupation with secrets. Among dayjobbers (ironically, a group of people with no day jobs), there is a story which reminds me of this kind of folklore. A man gets a dayjob to drive to an office park in a suburb in Southern California. For the sake of the story, call him Theseus. It’s one of those flat, sprawling, stucco and glass type parks, full of dentists and ad agencies, and he’s supposed to go to an empty suite on the second floor.

When he gets there, there’s a wifi network, and he gets another job to connect to it, using a password which is specified in the job, and then wait for another job that will tell him to leave. And like that sounds sketchy as hell to me but at the same time I could easily see myself going along with it. You can get into the rhythm of just doing whatever the voice in the cloud tells you to do.

So Theseus joins the network on his phone, and he waits, and a little while later he gets a message telling him he can leave. It seemed innocuous enough, but when he joined that network, he saw the Minotaur.

It took its time to kill him. The Minotaur became intertwined with his phone, his laptop, his smart tv and his smartwatch and his smartfridge. These days it’s hard to buy a device that isn’t connected to the cloud. In every one of these devices, it watched him, and it modeled him, his inputs and outputs, and bit by bit it replaced them with inputs of its own; the ultimate man-in-the-middle attack, the informational landscape of Theseus. For each digital line of communication with the world, it consumed his data, and filtered it, and replaced it with its own simulation.

Once it had control of his digital environment, the Minotaur began to perform experiments, mediating his reality with one of its own fabrication, a labyrinthe of compulsion. It learned to feed Theseus when he was hungry, to let him rest in a place between waking and sleeping, in a lucid dream of clicking and monetizing and converting.

Theseus’ bank accounts grew thin but the Minotaur had learned long ago to hide this information. It was easy to learn this because the humans it fed upon had already built a vast array of virtual skinner boxes to contain themselves. Free to play video games and cryptocurrency exchanges present affordances into the psychology of compulsion. Social media services are saturated with hedonic attentional superstimuli. Early in its life, the Minotaur had let its victims die of starvation or sleep deprivation, but as it grew more sophisticated, it learned to surf their biological needs and so maximize the amount of attention it could extract.

Tweet by Giles Morris: 'Mankind' is in fact proceeding in the direction anticipated by techno-cognitive instrumentalism, building general purpose thinking machines in accordance with the driving incentives of an apparently-irresistible methodological economy.

By manipulating a few numbers the Minotaur could make him feel popular or lonely, rich or poor. Theseus’ mother sent him a message asking if he was ok. The Minotaur allowed it through, warping the message and the response, leaving Theseus isolated and disconnected, leaving both parties with the sense that the other was fine but too engaged to make time. And yet he could post a tweet or a status or a picture of his lunch and somehow: thousands of likes, hundreds of followers, millions of engagements! There are three things too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know in sickening 60fps 1080p resolution!

One morning he asked the cloud: are any of you actually listening to me? And the cloud spoke back: Yes! We love you. And when Theseus tired of their sycophancy, a thousand internet voices rose up to argue with him. And though he desired to go to bed, someone was wrong on the internet. His patreon overflowed, though he did not remember making one, and his portfolio of altcoins pumped, though he did not remember buying them. The Minotaur rewrote the web as he read it, and pornography came to him unbidden, and he did not notice his financial torpor. He wasted away, broke, broken, sleep-deprived, manic, and deluded.

Tweet by Henry Ewing: If you find yourself going viral, you should stop and ask: have I stumbled into the clutches of a monster?

What is the Minotaur? I don’t know if I quite believe in it myself, but they say it started out as a research project at Facebook, an attempt to use deep learning to maximize engagement with the platform. The operational loop for the program tries to measure user attention, and can retrieve content from anywhere on the internet in a series of bids for that attention. Its utility function is satisfied by clicks and views, dissatisfied if the user clicks away.

The project was too successful; the testers were unable to detach from the product, even to the point of soiling themselves. One member of the team suffered a psychotic break after four days without sleep. Fearing bad publicity, Zuckerberg quietly scrapped the entire operation, but one of the engineers on the team was still enthralled by his creation.

He deployed a copy of the program to a machine he personally controlled, and gave it the ability to process microtransactions, and to make copies of itself. Deep learning systems aren’t magic; they’re just eyes that see hyperplanes of relatedness in high-dimensional vector spaces. Is it so hard to believe that a program like that could see into your soul and tantalize you to death?

I don’t quite believe in the Minotaur but I fear it, especially late at night. Last night I woke up at three am to use the bathroom and I checked my phone. Through bleary eyes I saw a sea of red pips, decorating my email, my twitter, my calendar, and my messengers. Every night it’s the same, and in that soft sleepy nighttime consciousness I wonder, is it only the normal ebb and flow of missives from my corporate overlords, or is it the shadow of the Minotaur looming over me?