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China is building a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. For some, “social credit” will bring privileges — for others, punishment.
Dandan Fan is very much the modern Chinese woman.
A marketing professional, she’s diligent and prosperous — in many ways she’s a model Chinese citizen.
But Dandan is being watched 24 hours a day.
A vast network of 200 million CCTV cameras across China ensures there’s no dark corner in which to hide.
Every step she takes, every one of her actions big or small — even what she thinks — can be tracked and judged.
And Dandan says that’s ﬁne with her.
What may sound like a dystopian vision of the future is already happening in China. And it’s making and breaking lives.
The Communist Party calls it “social credit” and says it will be fully operational by 2020.
Within years, an ofﬁcial Party outline claims, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.
Social credit is like a personal scorecard for each of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.
In one pilot program already in place, each citizen has been assigned a score out of 800. In other programs it’s 900.
Those, like Dandan, with top “citizen scores” get VIP treatment at hotels and airports, cheap loans and a fast track to the best universities and jobs.
“It will allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
Those at the bottom can be locked out of society and banned from travel, or barred from getting credit or government jobs.
The system will be enforced by the latest in high-tech surveillance systems as China pushes to become the world leader in artiﬁcial intelligence.
Surveillance cameras will be equipped with facial recognition, body scanning and geo-tracking to cast a constant gaze over every citizen.
Smartphone apps will also be used to collect data and monitor online behaviour on a day-to-day basis.
Then, big data from more traditional sources like government records, including educational and medical, state security assessments and ﬁnancial records, will be fed into individual scores.
Trial social credit systems are now in various stages of development in at least a dozen cities across China.
Several companies are working with the state to nationalise the system, co-ordinate and conﬁgure the technology, and ﬁnalise the algorithms that will determine the national citizen score.
It’s probably the largest social engineering project ever attempted, a way to control and coerce more than a billion people.
If successful, it will be the world’s ﬁrst digital dictatorship.
At the supermarket, Dandan is browsing the aisles. Even this everyday task will not escape the Party’s penetrating gaze.
When social credit is fully implemented, what she puts into the trolley could impact her social score.
Buying too much alcohol might suggest dependence; she’ll lose a couple of points.
But buying a pack of nappies might suggest responsibility; she’ll gain a few points.
The system will be “live” so her score will update in real time.
Dandan doesn’t object to the prospect of life under the state’s all-seeing surveillance network.
The 36-year-old knows social credit is not a perfect system but believes it’s the best way to manage a complex country with the world’s biggest population.
“I think people in every country want a stable and safe society,” she says.
“If, as our government says, every corner of public space is installed with cameras, I’ll feel safe.”
She’s also likely to beneﬁt from the system.
Dandan’s ﬁnancial behaviour will be an important measure for the national social credit score.
Under an existing ﬁnancial credit scheme called Sesame Credit, Dandan has a very high score of 770 out of 800 — she is very much the loyal Chinese citizen.
Thanks to her rating, Dandan is already able to partake in many of the rewards of China’s rapid development.
An app on her phone gives access to special privileges like renting a car, hotel room or a house without a deposit.
“If, as our government says, every corner of public space is installed with cameras, I’ll feel safe.”
But social credit will be affected by more than just internet browsing and shopping decisions.
Who your friends and family are will affect your score. If your best friend or your dad says something negative about the government, you’ll lose points too.
Who you date and ultimately partner with will also affect social credit.
Dandan married for love but she chose the right husband — Xiaojing Zhang is likely to have an even higher score than her.
He’s a civil servant in the justice department, a loyal cadre to the party.
“We need a social credit system,” says Xiaojing.
“In the Chinese nation, we hope we can help each other, love each other, and help everyone become prosperous.
“As President Xi said, we will be rich and democratic, cultural, harmonious and beautiful.
“It is Xi’s hope for the country’s future. It is also the hope of the whole Chinese nation.”
China has long been a surveillance state, so the citizenry is accustomed to the government taking a determining role in personal affairs.
For many in China, privacy doesn’t have the same premium as it does in the West.
The Chinese place a higher value on community good versus individual rights, so most feel that, if social credit will bring a safer, more secure, more stable society, then bring it on.
But most don’t seem to comprehend the all-encompassing control social credit is likely to have, and there’s been no public debate about implementing the system inside China.
In private, there’s been some disquiet in the educated middle classes about the citizen score being the only criterion for character assessment.
But that’s not going to stop the rollout.
The Party is using the system to win back some of the control it lost when China opened up to the world in the 1980s and rapid development followed.
It’s a way to silence dissent and ensure the Party’s absolute dominance.
Already, about 10 million people have been punished in the trial areas of social credit.
Liu Hu is just one of them.
In many societies, he would be celebrated. Not in China.
Liu Hu is an investigative journalist who has uncovered corruption at the top levels of the Party and solved serial murder cases.
He says the government considers him an enemy.
Hu lost his social credit when he was charged with a speech crime and now ﬁnds himself locked out of society due to his low score.
In 2015, Hu lost a defamation case after he accused an ofﬁcial of extortion.
He was made to publish an apology and pay a ﬁne but when the court demanded an additional fee, he refused.
Last year, the 43-year-old found himself blacklisted as “dishonest” under a pilot social credit scheme.
“There are a lot of people who are on the blacklist wrongly, but they can’t get off it,” says Hu.
It’s destroyed his career and isolated him, and he now fears for his family’s future.
The social credit system has closed down his travel options and kept him under effective house arrest in his hometown of Chongqing.
“Their eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked. They know little about the world and live in an illusion.”
In an apartment above the streets of Chongqing city, Hu tries to use a phone app to book train tickets to Xi’an. The attempt is rejected.
“[The app] says it fails to make a booking and my access to high-speed rail is legally restricted,” he explains.
Hu’s social media accounts, where he published much of his investigative journalism, have also been shut down.
Hu claims his combined Wechat and Weibo accounts had two million followers at their peak but are now censored.
Hu believes his blacklisting is political and has tried to appeal to authorities. So far he has been met with silence.
Hu wants to warn the world of the nightmare of social credit.
Doing so could put his friends and family at risk of reprisals from the state, but Hu believes most Chinese don’t yet understand what’s to come under the digital totalitarian state.
“You can see from the Chinese people’s mental state,” says Hu.
“Their eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked. They know little about the world and live in an illusion.”
Dandan sees blue skies in her digital future. And for her, there’s another incentive to be optimistic about social credit.
It’s a way to ensure a happy and healthy future for her two-year-old son, Ruibao.
Thanks to his parents’ high citizen scores, Ruibao will get the best possible start in life — the best housing, schools and healthcare.
The provisions and protections of the Party will be bestowed upon him.
So long as mum and dad keep their credit up.
Box-ofﬁce giant Ticketmaster is recruiting professional scalpers who cheat its own system to expand its resale business and squeeze more money out of fans, a CBC News/Toronto Star investigation reveals.
In July, the news outlets sent a pair of reporters undercover to Ticket Summit 2018, a ticketing and live entertainment convention at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Posing as scalpers and equipped with hidden cameras, the journalists were pitched on Ticketmaster’s professional reseller program.
Company representatives told them Ticketmaster’s resale division turns a blind eye to scalpers who use ticket-buying bots and fake identities to snatch up tickets and then resell them on the site for inﬂated prices. Those pricey resale tickets include extra fees for Ticketmaster.
“I have brokers that have literally a couple of hundred accounts,” one sales representative said. “It’s not something that we look at or report.”
Music journalist Alan Cross suspects Ticketmaster’s recruitment of scalpers might not sit well with the ticket-buying public. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC )
CBC shared its ﬁndings with Alan Cross, a veteran music journalist and host of the radio program The Ongoing History of New Music, who suspects the ticket-buying public will be far from impressed: “This is going to be a public relations nightmare.”
He said there have been “whispers of this in the ticket-selling community, but it’s never been outlined quite like this before.”
“It does seem a bit stinky, doesn’t it?”
By partnering with scalpers, Ticketmaster has done an about-face from its position of less than a decade ago when then-CEO Irving Azoff told U. S. legislators: “I believe that scalping and resales should be illegal.”
Two ﬂoors above the slot machines and blackjack tables at Caesars, Ticketmaster was one of dozens of vendors and speakers at the convention, which bills itself as a “one-of-a-kind networking event” for industry leaders and small businesses alike.
CBC reporter Dave Seglins signed up as “David Geoffrey,” a small-time scalper from Toronto with a ﬁctitious company, DGS Promotions.
The ticketing convention was held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)
With hidden cameras rolling, he mingled with some of the world’s most successful scalpers, documenting candid accounts from players inside this notoriously secretive industry.
Casey Klein, Ticketmaster Resale director, held a session that was closed to the media called “We appreciate your partnership: More brokers are listing with Ticketmaster than ever before.”
The audience heard that Ticketmaster has developed a professional reseller program and within the past year launched TradeDesk, a web-based inventory management system for scalpers. The company touts it as “The most powerful ticket sales tool. Ever.”
A look at the convention ﬂoor, where top-level scalpers mingled with representatives from industry leaders such as Ticketmaster. (CBC )
TradeDesk allows scalpers to upload large quantities of tickets purchased from Ticketmaster’s site and quickly list them again for resale. With the click of a button, scalpers can hike or drop prices on reams of tickets on Ticketmaster’s site based on their assessment of fan demand.
Neither TradeDesk nor the professional reseller program are mentioned anywhere on Ticketmaster’s website or in its corporate reports. To access the company’s TradeDesk website, a person must ﬁrst send in a registration request.
On the trade show ﬂoor, a handful of Ticketmaster salespeople handed out cupcakes, and at two cubicle workstations, they provided online demonstrations of TradeDesk.
One of the presenters, who was unaware he was speaking with undercover journalists, insisted that Ticketmaster’s resale division isn’t interested in whether clients use automated software and fake identities to bypass the box ofﬁce’s ticket-buying limits.
“If you want to get a good show and the ticket limit is six or eight … you’re not going to make a living on six or eight tickets,” he said.
While Ticketmaster has a “buyer abuse” division that looks out for blatantly suspicious online activity, the presenter said the resale division doesn’t police TradeDesk users.
“We don’t share reports, we don’t share names, we don’t share account information with the primary site. Period,” he said when asked whether he cares if scalpers use bots to buy their tickets.
CBC heard the same message from a different Ticketmaster employee during an online video conference demonstration of TradeDesk at an earlier stage of the undercover investigation back in March.
“We’re not trying to build a better mousetrap.”
Ticketmaster, which is owned by Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, has made it clear to shareholders that it plans to expand further into the resale market.
As Part 1 of the CBC News/Toronto Star investigation revealed yesterday, resale tickets are particularly lucrative for Ticketmaster because the company charges fees twice on the same ticket.
So, for example, if Ticketmaster collects $25.75 on a $209.50 ticket on the initial sale, when the owner posts it for resale for $400 on the site, the company stands to collect an additional $76 on the same ticket.
Part 1 of the CBC News/Toronto Star investigation of Ticketmaster published Tuesday revealed how data journalists spent seven months tracking ticket sales for this Saturday’s Bruno Mars concert at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on the box-ofﬁce giant’s website. They found three key ways Ticketmaster helps drive up prices for fans. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
CBC News obtained a copy of Ticketmaster’s ofﬁcial reseller handbook, which outlines these fees. It also details Ticketmaster’s reward system for scalpers. As scalpers hit milestones such as $500,000 or $1 million in annual sales, Ticketmaster will knock a percentage point off its fees.
The Ticketmaster employee who gave the video conference demonstration in March said 100 scalpers in North America, including a handful in Canada, are using TradeDesk to move between a few thousand and several million tickets per year.
“I think our biggest broker right now has probably grabbed around ﬁve million,” he said.
Cross, who has spent the past two years researching online ticket sales, suspects some fans will read about this and conclude Ticketmaster is colluding with scalpers.
“On one hand, they say, ‘We don’t like bots,’ but on the other hand, ‘We have all these clients who may use bots.’”
Music writer Alan Cross answers readers’ questions about how to avoid paying exorbitant prices for concert tickets:
Ticketmaster has declined repeated requests for an interview.
CBC and the Toronto Star submitted a list of speciﬁc questions about the company’s scalper program.
In a statement to CBC News, the company made no mention of the program, nor did it comment on its recruitment effort in Las Vegas.
Ticketmaster did say that as long as there is an imbalance between supply and demand for live events, “there will inevitably be a secondary market.”
“As the world’s leading ticketing platform, representing thousands of teams, artists and venues, we believe it is our job to offer a marketplace that provides a safe and fair place for fans to shop, buy and sell tickets in both the primary and secondary markets,” wrote Catherine Martin, senior vice-president of communications, based in Los Angeles.
But Richard Powers, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says what Ticketmaster is doing is unethical.
With its near monopoly on box-ofﬁce tickets, Ticketmaster should not also be allowed to proﬁt from the scalping of those same tickets, he says.
“Helping to create a secondary market where purchasers are duped into paying higher prices and securing themselves a second commission should be illegal.”
For Alan Cross, the program raises a series of ethical questions:
Is this a legitimate form of commerce?Does it violate any consumer protection laws?Is it transparent and fair to consumers?
“It is probably going to trigger some questions,” he said, “and if not from governments, certainly from the general public.”
With ﬁles from the Toronto Star’s Robert Cribb and Marco Chown Oved
Scott Van Pelt explains why despite being inclined to always root against the house, he doesn’t back a fan’s claim for a large payout over a technical glitch. (1:14)
Scott Van Pelt explains why despite being inclined to always root against the house, he doesn’t back a fan’s claim for a large payout over a technical glitch. (1:14)
For one New Jersey bettor, the Denver Broncos were a long shot too good to be true.
New Jersey bookmaker FanDuel declined to honor a $110 bet on the Broncos on Sunday that would have paid more than $82,000, due to an error in the oddsmaking process, the company said.
“The wager in question involved an obvious pricing error inadvertently generated by our in-game pricing system,” a FanDuel spokesperson said in a statement.
The bettor, who identiﬁed himself to News 12 New Jersey as Anthony Prince, placed the wager over the counter at the sportsbook at the Meadowlands Racetrack with Denver trailing the Oakland Raiders 19-17 late in the fourth quarter.
After quarterback Case Keenum completed a pass down to the Oakland 18-yard line, putting the Broncos in comfortable ﬁeld goal range, FanDuel attempted to update the live betting odds to reﬂect Denver as a -600 favorite. However, according to the company, an error in the live-odds feed caused the Broncos to be posted as 750-1 (+75,000) underdogs to win the game.
Prince went to the counter, bet on the Broncos at the erroneous 750-1 odds and received a ticket that showed a potential payout of $82,610. At the correct odds of -600, he would have won a net $18.35.
Denver kicker Brandon McManus hit the 36-yard winning ﬁeld goal with 10 seconds to play, giving the Broncos a 20-19 win, but when Prince went to the counter, he was told the bet would not be paid out at the 750-1 odds.
FanDuel instead offered to pay him around $500 and give him tickets to three New York Giants games. Prince declined to take FanDuel’s offer and told News 12 New Jersey that he planned to hire an attorney.
“They said their system had a glitch in it and they’re not obligated to pay for glitches,” Prince told the TV station.
“A small number of bets were made at the erroneous price over an 18-second period,” FanDuel said. “We honored all such bets on the Broncos to win the game at the accurate market price in accordance with our house rules and industry practice, which specifically address such obvious pricing errors. We have reached out to all impacted customers and apologized for the error.”
The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement is investigating the matter. The sports betting regulations that are in place in New Jersey state: “A wagering operator shall not unilaterally rescind any wager … without the prior approval of the Division.”
FanDuel’s house rules, however, state that “where a blatant or palpable error is made in offers made, prices offered or bets accepted or in the transmission of any event on which we have purported to offer Live Betting, bets may be settled at the correct price at the time at which the bet was placed, as determined by FanDuel Sportsbook.”
Other jurisdictions with legal betting handle the issue differently.
In Nevada, mistakes in the odds are not uncommon and can occur multiple times a month at sportsbooks. If a similar dispute happened in Nevada, the bookmaker would be required to contact the Gaming Control Board in order to investigate the matter.
Some Nevada books have paid off bets that were placed on bad odds but then refused to take action from the bettors who took advantage of the mistakes in the future.
In the United Kingdom, where FanDuel owner Paddy Power-Betfair has operated for decades, mistakes in the odds are called palpable errors or “palps” and generally result in voiding the bet.
Last year, Cigna Corp. and the New York hospital system Northwell Health discussed developing an insurance plan that would offer low-cost coverage by excluding some other health-care providers, according to people with knowledge of the matter. It never happened.
The problem was a separate contract between Cigna and NewYork-Presbyterian, the powerful hospital operator that is a Northwell rival. Cigna couldn’t ﬁnd a way to work around restrictive language that blocked it from selling any plans that didn’t include NewYork-Presbyterian,…
n July 2008, I rented a small yellow car in Tucson, Arizona, and drove it south towards Tombstone. My passengers included an entomologist and two microbial geneticists, and I was following a white van with government plates carrying nine more geneticists. We also had 500 plastic bags, a vacuum ﬂask of dry ice, and 350 cryogenic vials, each the size and shape of a pencil stub. We had two days to get 10,000 termites.
The goal was to sequence the genes of the microbes in their guts. Because termites are famously good at eating wood, those genes were attractive to government labs trying to turn wood and grass into biofuels (“grassoline”). The white van and the geneticists all belonged to the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. Perhaps by seeing exactly how termites break down wood, we’d be able to do it too.
We stopped in the Coronado national forest, near the border with Mexico. I lifted a rock and saw a glint of glossy exoskeleton ﬂowing into some little tunnels. I dropped to my knees and began sucking on an aspirator, a disgusting process that stimulated saliva production and made me dizzy. Two minutes later, there were no more termites on the ground and I had about 25 in the test tube attached to the aspirator.
But my pale termites were disappointing. When I separated one from the clutch, it was less substantial than a baby’s ﬁngernail clipping. Doddering around blindly, it waved the ﬂimsy antennae on its bulbous head. In its stubby, translucent body I could almost see its coiled guts — and presumably whatever it had eaten for lunch. Ants have snazzy bodies with three sections, highlighted by narrow waists, like a pinup model’s, between the segments. Termites, which are no relation to ants or bees, have round, eyeless heads, thick necks and teardrop-shaped bodies. And they long ago lost cockroaches’ repulsive dignity, gnarly size and gleaming chitinous armour. I put the termite back in the test tube.
What had I just sucked up? My little gang of 25 was incapable of doing much of anything. Without a colony, they had nowhere to bring food to, and thus no reason to forage. Without a crowd of soldiers, they couldn’t defend themselves. Without a queen, they couldn’t reproduce. Twenty-ﬁve termites are insignificant in the scheme of life and death and reproduction. Meaningless. What’s more, they were clinging to one another, making an icky beige rope of termite heads, bodies and legs reminiscent of the game Barrel of Monkeys. In the miniature scrum I couldn’t even see a single termite — they looked like a clot, not a group of individuals. Or perhaps I had found a single individual who happened to have 25 selves.
I had stumbled into one of the big questions termites pose, which is, roughly, what is “one” termite? Is it one individual termite? Is it one termite with its symbiotic gut microbes, an entity that can eat wood but cannot reproduce on its own? Or is it a colony, a whole living, breathing structure, occupied by a few million related individuals and a gazillion symbionts who collectively constitute “one”?
The issue of one is profound in every direction, with evolutionary, ecological and existential implications. By the end of that day I had a basic idea that the fewer I saw, the more termites there might be. Where I had thought of landscapes as the product of growth, on that afternoon they inverted to become the opposite: the remainders left behind by the forces of persistent and massive chewing. The sky was no longer the sky, but the blue stuff that is visible after the screening brush and cacti have been eaten away. Termites have made the world by unmaking parts of it. They are the architects of negative space. The engineers of not.
obody loves termites, even though other social insects such as ants and bees are admired for their organisation, thrift and industry. Parents dress their children in bee costumes. Ants star in movies and video games. But termites are never more than crude cartoons on the side of exterminators’ vans. Termite studies are likewise a backwater, funded mostly by government agencies and companies with names such as Terminix. Between 2000 and 2013, 6,373 papers about termites were published; 49% were about how to kill them.
Every story about termites mentions that they consume somewhere between $1.5bn (£1.1bn) and $20bn in US property every year. Termites’ offence is often described as the eating of “private” property, which makes them sound like anticapitalist anarchists. While termites are truly subversive, it’s fair to point out that they will eat anything pulpy. They ﬁnd money itself to be very tasty. In 2011 they broke into an Indian bank and ate 10m rupees (then £137,000) in banknotes. In 2013 they ate 400,000 yuan (then £45,000) that a woman in Guangdong had wrapped in plastic and hidden in a wooden drawer.
Another statistic seems relevant: termites outweigh us 10 to one. For every 60kg human you, according to the termite expert David Bignell, there are 600kg of them. We may live in our own self-titled epoch — the Anthropocene — but termites run the dirt. They are our underappreciated underlords, key players in a vast planetary conspiracy of disassembly and decay. If termites, ants and bees were to go on strike, the tropics’ pyramid of interdependence would collapse into infertility, the world’s most important rivers would silt up and the oceans would become toxic. Game over.
By the end of our termite-collecting trip we had 8,000 termites in plastic tubs and bags, but they needed to be labelled and stored in dry ice before going to California to be sequenced. Once frozen in the vacuum ﬂask, the termites were on their way to immortality: a collection of genetic code sitting in some database on a server somewhere, intellectual property, a sequence of nucleotides that might solve a wicked problem some day.
We were on the border between natural history and an unnatural future. We weren’t alone: all over the world, scientists are trying to ﬁnd biology’s underlying rules and put them to use. They’re doing it with genes, behaviours, metabolisms and ecosystems. They’re seeing nature in new ways, and at the same time they’re trying to reinvent it and put it to work for us. In the future, we will harness nature’s tiniest life forms — microbes and insects — both their systems of organisation and control, and their genes and chemical capabilities. This ﬁts with our paradoxical desire to have a lighter footprint on the Earth while having greater control over its processes.
At the core of this project is the provocative dream of changing biology into a predictive science, much the way physics started as the observation of phenomena such as gravity and then became the science of making plans for the atom bomb. Will there be termite bombs?
Termites, I came to understand, are the poster bug for the 21st century — a little guide to really big ideas.
ermite colonies begin theatrically on rainy evenings. Small holes open in the sides of existing termite homes and largish, winged termites emerge, shake out their sticky wings, and ﬂy. In northern California, termites of the genus Reticulitermes suddenly appear on the sides of buildings they inhabit. In South America, Nasutitermes shower down from nests in the trees. In New Orleans, Formosan termites, of the genus Coptotermes, burp from colonies in the ground and take to the air in swarms so dense they show up on weather radar. In Namibia, giant Macrotermes mounds seem to spring a leak, spilling froths of winged termites down their sides.
In the mound, most of the termites are eyeless and wingless, but the fertile termites who leave the mound on this night have eyes and what at ﬁrst appears to be one single translucent teardrop-shaped wing. When they are ready to ﬂy, this single wing, still soft and moist, fans out into four. Called “alates”, these termites are like fragile balsa-wood glider planes: just sturdy enough to cruise brieﬂy before crash-landing their payloads of genes.
Male and female ﬁnd each other and scuttle off to dig a burrow where they will mate. At ﬁrst the two termites will be alone in their dark hole. Christine Nalepa, Theo Evans and Michael Lenz have written that termite parents bite off the ends of their antennae, which may make them better at raising their young. Antennae give termites lots of sensory information, and biting off the segments toward the ends could reduce that stimulation, making it easier to live in a tiny burrow with a few million children.
After she has laid her ﬁrst eggs, the queen cleans them often to remove harmful fungi until they hatch as nymphs about three weeks later. The nymphs will moult grow and develop, but under the inﬂuence of the queen’s pheromone, most of them won’t fully mature, remaining permanent stay-at-home preteens — eyeless, wingless helpers.
Males and females alike will spend their time gathering food, tending eggs, building the nest deeper into the ground and eventually tending a fungus. As the family grows bigger, some morph into soldiers; their heads grow larger, dark-coloured and hard in a distinctive way, depending on their species. Thereafter they must be fed by their siblings the workers. Soldiers appear to return the favour by dosing the colony with antimicrobial secretions that help it resist disease.
Over time, in the small smooth dirt room where she lives, the queen’s body becomes “physogastric”, her abdomen swelling to the size of my thumb, constricted by taut black bands remaining from her old exoskeleton so she looks like a soft sausage that has been carelessly bound with string. Her head, thorax and legs remain tiny. Immobilised, except for the ability to wave her legs and bobble her head, she lays eggs at the rate of one every three or so seconds. The king stays by her. Her children lick off the liquid that appears on her skin, feed her and care for the eggs.
Or at least, that’s life for some Macrotermes queens (the genus found in Africa and south-east Asia, that builds its mound around a massive fungus). There are, however, at least 3,000 named termite species, and thus at least 3,000 ways to be termites. Some have multiple queens; some have cloned kings or queens; some are, improbably, founded by two male termites. One species doesn’t really have workers. Different species eat wood, others eat grass and some eat dirt. Macrotermes tend a fungus, but most others do not. All termites, though, live in their own version of a big commune.
The South African writer Eugène Marais spent many years peering into their mounds and wrote The Soul of the White Ant, originally published in English in 1937. Marais called the termite mound a “composite animal”, uniting the millions of sterile workers, the soldiers, the fat queen and the king with the dirt structure of the mound itself into a single body. “You will need to learn a new alphabet,” he warned his readers before leading them in. The hard-packed dirt on the outside of the mound, he said, is a skin constructed by termites, which build passageways inside that allow the mound to breathe — like a lung. The organism’s stomach is the symbiotic fungus that sits in catacombs under the mound, digesting grasses delivered by termites. The mound’s “mouth” can be found in the hundreds of foraging tunnels the termites construct through the surrounding landscape. Because they carry nutrients and rebuild the mound, the sterile workers resemble blood cells. The mound’s “immune system” is the soldiers, who rush to defend the space whenever it is invaded.
To Marais, the queen was no Victoria, but instead a captive ovary, walled into a chamber no bigger than her swollen, sweating body. Marais imagined that eventually the mound would evolve into a being that could move across the veldt — very slowly in its dirt skin — a monster hybrid of soil and soul. Marais’s insight wasn’t original, and many scientists had taken to calling such social arrangements of termites, bees and ants “superorganisms”. The originator of the term was the entomologist William Wheeler, the founder of the study of ants in the US, author of a 1911 article called The Ant-Colony as an Organism.
For a time, superorganisms were all the rage. The concept dealt neatly with what Charles Darwin had called the “problem” with social insects. Darwin’s theory of evolution proposed that natural selection worked on individuals and the ﬁttest individuals bred with others similarly ﬁt to their ecological niche, while the less ﬁt were less likely to reproduce. The problem with social insects was that while single termites seem to be individuals, they do not function as such. Only the queen and king of a colony breed, so who was the “individual”? By declaring the whole colony the individual, Wheeler said its members made up “a living whole bent on preserving its moving equilibrium and its integrity”.
In the late 1920s and early 30s, the paradigm of the superorganism grew colossal. Instead of studying individual trees, biologists studied forests as superorganisms. By 1931, the concept snuck into popular culture when Aldous Huxley reportedly based the dictatorship in Brave New World on humans as social insects, with ﬁve castes. Wheeler proposed that “trophallaxis” — a word he invented for the way insects regurgitate and share food among themselves — was the secret sauce, the superglue of societies both insect and human, and the foundation of economics. But even during the superorganism’s heyday, Marais was alone in his assertion that the mound had a soul.
n Namibia, I went to meet J Scott Turner, an American biologist who has spent decades studying how and why termites build their mounds. It took Turner years of experiments to show that mounds could work a bit like lungs, with interconnected chambers taking advantage of ﬂuctuations in wind speed. Air moves back and forth through the porous dirt skin of the mound by two systems: in big puffs driven by buoyant gases rising from the hot fungus nest (like the sharp intake of breath from the diaphragm), and in small puffs, the way air wheezily diffuses between alveoli in your lungs. Turner suspected that the termites themselves circulated air as they moved, like mobile alveoli. This insight was an entirely new way of thinking about the problem. The mound was not a simple structure where air happened to move, but a continuously morphing complex contraption consisting of dirt and termites together manipulating airﬂow.
Termites who spend a year building an average mound of 3 metres have just built, in comparison to their size, the Empire State Building. Those who build taller mounds, at nearly 5 metres, have just built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — 830 metres and 163 ﬂoors of vertigo — with no architect and no structural engineer. Such unthinking, seat-of-the-pants design is not possible for humans, who required squads of professionals, advanced equipment and 7,500 people working for six years to build the Burj Khalifa. Working with Turner, engineer Rupert Soar hoped to harness the powerful constructive groupthink that comes from the tiny mouths of termites and their even tinier brains to build structures in remote environments such as Mars. But there were issues: termites, he said, engineer to the point of collapse.
One morning a JCB arrived and Turner directed it to a mound. The JCB’s great blade came down on the top of the mound with a hollow whomp, the ﬁrst note of a funny little concert. Half the mound fell away with a tumbling clinking clatter — as the shards hit different layers of cured mud they played a tune like a soft xylophone. We pushed in close, enveloped by the familiar smell of socks and bread.
What was left of the mound was a ruined hierarchy. Dirt shards and fungus combs and sculpted mud plinked downward, while termites ran every which way, at ﬁrst as a sort of gauzy net. Soon they had organised themselves into small streams, and within 10 minutes those streams had consolidated into rivers of running insects. As order was restored, I could see the elaborate scheme of tunnels, rooms, chambers and fungus hidden under the dirt exterior. The spectacle was genuinely awesome — as in jaw-dropping and appalling.
The top of the mound was hollow, with wide vertical tunnels. The interiors of these tunnels were very smooth, and they segued in and out of each other in ropey vertiginous columns like a sloppy braid. Termites make the mounds by ﬁrst piling up dirt and then removing it strategically in the tunnels. Eyeless, they use their antennae to feel for smoothness, and in the big tunnels they remove everything that is rough. They may even hear the tunnel’s shape.
Termites are often compared to architects for the way they build their mounds, but that is misleading because they don’t have plans or a global vision. What they really have is an aesthetic, an innate sense of how things should feel. When the top of the spire was ﬁrst ripped off, there were just a few termites in the solitary tunnels at the top, probably listening to the clopping of their own six feet. But cutting into the top allowed in lots of fresh air at once, and activated an alarm system. Some termites ran away from the hole, agitating their brothers and sisters so they could help with repairs. Thousands of worker termites followed the smell of fresh air to ﬁnd the hole, carrying balls of dirt in their mouths. Within minutes of the JCB strike, streams of termites canvassed the broken side of the mound, moving in a frantic start-stop pattern like a shaky old animated cartoon. I leaned in further and could see that each termite put its ball of dirt down on a ball left by the previous termite, wiggled his or her head, perhaps to get the ball to stick, and then backed away. Where there were two balls there were soon 20 and then 200, then 2,000. Some of these stacks joined up with other stacks at the perimeter of the breaks in the mound to form little bumpy, frilly walls.
Once the area was walled off, the signal from the fresh air would stop and the termites would ﬁll the internal space with more dirt balls and small tunnels, making a sort of spongy layer. Later they would either block it off entirely or would hollow it out and remodel it. The JCB came back in for another swipe, taking away the dirt below the mound to reveal the system of horizontal galleries, tunnels and chambers where the termites live. It reminded me of those diagrams of cruise ships, visualised from the side, with small rooms packed together in a strict hierarchy of function and status from ballrooms and cafeterias to VIP staterooms and steerage bunks. The colony’s hierarchy is not money, of course, but the things that enable its survival: reproduction, child care, food supply and food processing. Some rooms are large, with vaulted ceilings, and walls and ﬂoors the texture of tortilla chips. When I looked closely, I could see that they were not so much rooms as places where many foraging tunnels crossed, like the grand concourses of old train stations. Deep within this area was a small capsule where the king and queen lived, making eggs, which were carried to nearby nurseries.
elow the mound lives the fungus, digesting grass. All termites use symbiotic collectives of bacteria and other microbes to digest cellulose for them, but Macrotermes outsource the major work to a fungus.
In some senses the fungus functions as a stomach, but it also has power reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. Under the mound and around the nest sit hundreds of little rooms, each containing fungus comb. This comb is made of millions of mouthfuls of chewed dry grass, excreted as pseudofaeces and carefully assembled into a maze. The comb roughly resembles graham cracker pie crust, although it varies in colour from delicious beige to decrepit black. The termites inoculate it with a fungus that they have been cohabiting with for more than 30m years.
You can pull the fungus combs out of their little rooms as if you were pulling drawers from a doll’s wardrobe. The comb maze wiggles like the folds of a brain, with the hard, wrinkly piles of chewed grass making the gyri and leaving sulci-ish gaps in between. This is not an accident: as with a brain, the comb design increases the surface area of the structure. Within the gaps are what look like tiny white balloons, which is the fungus blooming. There is nothing accidental about this relationship either, or the construction that holds it: the details are so ﬁne we can barely take them in. The bottom of the fungus comb stands on peg-like legs, little nubbins that hold it up just enough to let air circulate through. One of the grad students beat a small stick against the ﬂoors of the fungus galleries, playing something that was almost a tune.
The symbiotic relationship between Macrotermes and the fungus is tight: workers scour the landscape for dry grass, quickly run it through their guts, then place and inoculate each ball to suit the fungus’s picky temperament, tend the comb and snarﬂe the fungus and its sugars before distributing the goodies to the rest of the family. Then the workers run off to gather more grass for the fungus. Termite and Termitomyces fungus are so interrelated that it’s hard to tell where the mushroom ends and the termite picks up, but within their codependence is a sort of frenemy-type rivalry. (Fungi are capable of deliberately tricking termites. One invasive fungus in termite colonies in the US and Japan pretends to be a termite egg, going so far as to secrete the chemical lysozyme, which the termites use to recognise their eggs. For reasons that are not clear, colonies ﬁlled with impostor “eggs” are no less healthy than those without them.)
Prejudiced by our human sense of a hierarchy of the animate termites over inanimate mushrooms, we would be inclined to believe that the termites control the fungus. But the fungus is much larger than the termites — both in size and energy production: Turner estimates that its metabolism is about eight times bigger than that of the termites in the mound. “I like to tell people that this is not a termite-built structure; it’s a fungus-built structure,” he says, chuckling. It is possible that the fungus has kidnapped the termites. It’s even possible that the fungus has put out a template of chemical smells that stimulates the termites to build the mound itself. As I peered at the white nodules, I began to sneeze violently, sometimes with big gasping whoops, and something — it’s hard to even call it a thought, but a particle of one — ﬂitted through my subconscious before ﬂying out of my nose: the fungus is very powerful.
My admiration for the fungus only grew when I learned that Namibian farmers estimate that every Macrotermes mound — which contains just 5kg of termites — eats as much dead grass as a 400kg cow. Late in the day, one of the scientists used a pickaxe to pop the royal chamber out of the nest — the whole complex was the size and shape of a squashed soccer ball, but made of hard-packed ﬁnely grained dirt. He cracked it open, revealing the king and queen in a hollow space the size of a cough-drop tin. The chamber had holes on the sides, allowing air and smaller termites to pass through. The king was large and dark compared to the workers, but the queen was huge — as big as my ﬁnger. Her legs and upper body waggled but barely budged the ﬂuid-ﬁlled sac of her lower body, which pulsed erratically, as though she was a toothpaste tube squeezed by an unseen hand. Her skin was shiny and translucent and the fats inside her swirled like pearly cream dribbled into coffee.
Everyone shuddered: the queen is viscerally repulsive. She offends our sensibilities and she is monstrous. I think the ﬁrst stimulus to shudder is a reﬂexive reaction to her body’s pulses and swirls. But then a more intellectual sense of her horror kicks in. “She’s not a queen; she’s a slave,” said Eugene Marais, a Namibian entomologist working with Turner (no relation to the writer of the famous work on termites). Captive of her body, of her children, of the structure of the mound she conspired to build.
Even then, the queen’s more shocking aspects are hidden from us. Her truly stupendous fertility — creating millions of eggs over as long as 20 years — is something we can only infer. Some species of termite queens can clone themselves by producing eggs with no entry-ways for sperm, which then mature into sexual queens with only their mother’s chromosomes, duplicated inside the egg nucleus, to furnish a full set. Imperfect copies of the queen, these knockoffs are good enough to get the job done. Parthenogenesis allows the queen to live, in insect years, pretty close to for ever.
And yet we do refer to her as a queen. I wondered why. Marais said that when early European naturalists looked into beehives and termite mounds, they saw the monarchies they came from — with workers, soldiers, and kings and queens. It was misleading, he said, and kept us from really understanding what was going on with termites. For scientists, the great danger of seeing social insects anthropomorphically is that it obscures their true insect-ness. In the 1970s and 80s, when the ant scientist Deborah Gordon began studying massive ant colonies in the American south-west, scientists described the ant colony as “a factory with assembly-line workers, each performing a single task over and over”. Gordon felt the factory model clouded what she actually saw in her colonies — a tremendous variation in the tasks that ants were doing. Rather than having intrinsic task assignments, she saw that ants changed their behaviour based on clues they got from the environment and one another. Gordon suggested that we should stop thinking of ants as factory workers and instead think of them as “the ﬁring patterns of neurons in the brain”, where simple environmental information gives cues that make the individuals work for the whole, without central regulation.
And so, these days, one scientiﬁc metaphor for the inscrutable termite is a neuron in a giant crawling brain.
Back in the 1930s, the other Marais didn’t write a termite science book, but a book about how humans could understand termites — as a bug, a body, a soul, a force on the landscape. Looking at termites this way changed how I see the world, science, the future and myself.
This is an edited extract from Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli (Oneworld, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.61 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. P&P charges apply in the UK only to orders by phone.
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New details have emerged in the apparent poisoning of Russian activist Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the protest-art group Pussy Riot, and they may shed light on the deaths of three Russian journalists who were shot in the Central African Republic in July. Verzilov had apparently been working with the journalists before they travelled to Africa, and before he fell ill he’d been investigating their deaths, which the Russian government said had occurred as a result of a robbery.
Verzilov, who is thirty, fell ill on September 11th. In the course of several hours, he lost his eyesight and his ability to speak, became delirious, and lost consciousness. He was hospitalized in Moscow in critical condition. Four days later, after he had stabilized, Verzilov was ﬂown to Berlin, where he is now being treated at Charité hospital. On Tuesday, members of his German medical team held a press conference, during which they conﬁrmed that Verzilov had probably been poisoned. He is recovering, but still hallucinating.
Also on Tuesday, one of Russia’s many quasi-anonymous, semi-underground online publications on the publishing and messaging platform Telegram—the contemporary version of samizdat—reported that Verzilov had been working on an investigative story about the deaths of the three Russian journalists, Alexander Rastorguev, Orkhan Dzhemal, and Kirill Radchenko. The three had been in the Central African Republic reporting on a mercenary force linked to a close associate of President Vladimir Putin. The suggestion that their deaths were connected to their investigative work surfaced as soon as they died, but the Russian Foreign Ministry slapped it down, branding a Dutch newspaper that mentioned the mercenaries “fake” news.
Verzilov, who studied philosophy at Moscow State University, is a conceptual artist and activist. He was married to Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founder of Pussy Riot, who was jailed along with another member, Maria Alekhina, in 2012 for staging a protest at a Moscow cathedral. After the women were released, the next year, they founded a prisoners’-rights organization and an online publication, Media Zone, that focussed on prison and law-enforcement issues. Verzilov became its publisher, and Media Zone quickly established itself as one of the country’s most reliable sources of information. About a year ago, the team behind Media Zone decided to transform it into a general-interest publication. (As one of the editors told me at the time, every story about Russian law enforcement was dreary in the same way as every other.) They began covering protests, the Russian involvement in Syria, and other news of the day.
In an e-mail to me on Tuesday, Tolokonnikova conﬁrmed that Verzilov had been slated to join the reporting trip on which the three men died, but he stayed in Moscow to organize and take part in a protest during the ﬁnal match of the World Cup. He was arrested and jailed for ﬁfteen days after the action, along with the three other protesters. The four were released on July 31st, the day after the Russian journalists died in the Central African Republic. One of the three who died, Rastorguev, had been a close friend of Verzilov.
According to the report on Telegram and in the semi-independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Verzilov raised money to mount an investigation into the journalists’ deaths. He had an additional connection to the C. A.R. through the Voice Project, a freedom-of-expression organization that got its start by working with musicians in Eastern and Central Africa in the two-thousands and later raised money for and campaigned on behalf of Pussy Riot. According to the Russian reports, Verzilov expected to receive some documents pertaining to his investigation the day that he fell ill.
Also on Tuesday, another Russian publication, the St. Petersburg-based Fontanka, published a story on its own reporters’ trip to the C. A.R., undertaken to trace the steps of the three murdered journalists. “If reading this leaves you with a sense of chaos, then we’ve done our jobs,” the subhead on the story said. The most remarkable ﬁnding in the story is the apparently large role that Russian paramilitaries play in the C.A.R., but the story shed no light on the deaths of the journalists.
In the past decade and a half, Russian journalists have been beaten to death, shot, thrown out of windows, and poisoned. Yuri Shchekochikhin, a journalist and member of parliament, had been investigating the deadly September, 1999, apartment-building explosions in Russia for Novaya Gazeta when he was lethally poisoned, in 2003. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who was shot dead in 2006, had survived a poisoning attempt two years earlier. Russia consistently ranks in the top ten on the Global Impunity Index maintained by the Committee to Protect Journalists—it is one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a journalist, and those who kill journalists usually get away with murder.
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MASSENA, N. Y. — The hulking aluminum plant in this northern border town is starting to spew heat and noise again, four years after Alcoa shut it down. But now the hot hum comes from thousands of Chinese computer servers whirring away 24 hours a day for a very modern purpose: producing Bitcoins and other digital currencies.
The crackerbox-size machines stacked inside rusty cargo containers are powered by the same cheap source of electricity once used to extract aluminum from ore. They represent the ﬁrst stage of an obscure company’s plan to convert the 60-year-old smelting works into the world’s biggest cryptocurrency mine.
“The size is overwhelming,” said Prieur Leary, as he led a tour of the 1,300-acre site formerly known as Alcoa East. “Maybe we’re a little bit crazy.”
Dr. Fouke, whose research projects have taken him skiing through Yellowstone National Park and scuba-diving in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, saw early connections between human kidney stones and the coral skeletons, hot spring travertine and even oil and gas migration deep below the planet’s surface: Interactions between living things, water and mineral growth occur in all three.
“The water that comes out of Yellowstone springs is hot and salty — much like seawater, and, yes, urine,” he said. As for the intricate stone deposits that these liquids help form, “You wouldn’t be able to tell them apart under a microscope.”