Suddenly five very big guys were in the room and a short guy was asking who’s in charge.
Andrea started to explain they were a team, no one was in charge, they made decisions collectively.
“Don’t give me that commie BS little lady!” said the short guy.
“Hey squid brain” said Maria, “Lay off the tough talk. What do you want?” Heads turned; this was a side of Maria they hadn’t seen before.
“OK, since you asked so politely” replied the short guy, who did kind of look like a squid, “We’re here for your physical networking app. You can sell it to us – Sand Hill Road will pay big bucks – or we’ll just take your laptops and blow town before the coppers know what hit’em.”
They looked at each other – did people really talk like that in San Francisco? But there wasn’t time for an anthropological discussion.
“Yeah, and just how do you plan to steal our idea? It’s in our heads, you can take our laptops, but we’ll just develop it anyway,” said Andrea, before realizing exactly what she’d implied.
“So, little Miss Marxist has some big plans,” – they would have laughed if Arnold Schwarzenegger had said it in a movie – “but naturally doesn’t know how venture capital firms work in the real world.”
“No, please elucidate us – if you know what that means, Mister mini von Hayek” answered Maria.
“We got lawyers. Once they get their hands on code it’s as good as ours. We patent it and sue your behinds if you try to use it. But, like I said, if you want to sell …”
Suddenly, a flash filled the room. A guy with a camera and a woman filming with her handy rushed in.
“We’re from the Falter, and we’re doing a story on the app these folks are building. Who are you guys?” asked the reporter.
“It’s not important Miss Newspaper-lady,” answered, naturally, the short guy, “Our clients will be happy to buy your poor excuse for a newspaper. People don’t usually turn ‘em down.”
“Not likely Mister moneybags, our paper’s committed to making the world better, one story a time. I’m sure your clients will love seeing your pictures on the front page of next week’s edition. Who did you say they were again?”
“It’s not important. We were just leaving,” replied the muscular one, pushing the short guy out the door as the others dashed out.
“Smile for the camera boys” added Maria. Maria!
Francesco walked in. “It sounded like you might need some back-up, so I called the Falter restaurant critic, who was here last week for a review, and asked if they’d be interested in the story. He said the Falter-Morgen people were just wrapping-up and he’d pitch it.”
“Yeah, it sounded like something we’d like, especially when Florian mentioned the coffee,” said the reporter.
They had a lot of work to do, now they’d be competing directly with Sand Hill Road VC mercenary coders – the best of the bunch – but they had a head start, and maybe a Falter story would help them get a grant for the new work.
“We better get out of here,” continued Pat, stating the obvious.
Andrea said coolly, “OK, let’s go to Mercato and set-up in the back room. Francesco’s there early and we’ve got a couple hours before he opens for lunch.”
And I can finally get some good coffee, she thought before continuing, “Philipp and I were talking about our time problem last night. We have an idea, and if we can code it before they find us, we’ll be safe.”
There was never hesitation when Mercato came up, but this time – laptops were slammed shut, power cables stuffed into backpacks, and out the door – before Andrea even finished describing the plan! They surprised Francesco, but he liked those bambini pazzi and quickly agreed.
Philipp explained, “You know how Sibel says the biggest problem in the Speckgürtel is that people need to drive everywhere. So, cities build more roads, and then people need to drive even more. They wind up spending all their time in cars.”
“Yeah, but now planners are talking about 15-minute cities – just like central Vienna – where you don’t have to drive everywhere,” interrupted Sibel.
“Of course, and our app will help people create the communities needed to make 15-minute cities work – the social infrastructure so to speak,” Philipp said as Francesco walked in carrying a tray of espressi.
“But there’s always going to be longer trips, how does that work?” interrupted Maria.
Meanwhile, back at the bunker … “They must have just left, I still smell coffee,” said a guy whose muscles were too big even for his XXL suit.
“Yeah, I found some over here, but it’s really bad,” came a voice from the corner. Apparently even the hired muscle in San Francisco were coffee critics, “I wonder where they went?”
“Hey, wait!” interrupted muscle man, “Remember that bike we were chasing? I saw it chained-up in front of a café we passed on our way here.”
“Let’s roll!” said the small one.
Gulping down his espresso Philipp continued, “We’ll make long trips easier by making public transport trips faster, not simply speeding up buses and trams, but by giving people more control over their time. Planning today isn’t just a spatial problem, it’s a time problem. Speckgürtel living combined with social networking is a vicious circle, people just don’t have time for physical community anymore – and the Metaverse dials that up to 11.”
Andrea piped in, “So our idea is to develop a feature people can use to coordinate their activities with public transport. In other words, the bus gets you to the dentist’s office at 10:30 so you get an appointment at 10:30. It doesn’t matter to the dentist who’s first, so appointments can be moved-around in real time to make it easiest for everyone to complete all their far-away activities using public transport.”
“It’s an interesting idea, but it’s going to need a lot of coding and data,” said Adrian.
“Ja, natürlich. And it will also only work if people have flexible schedules, but I think things like working from home and online yoga during Covid have finally proved we don’t need to be locked-into a fixed place-time world anymore. The future belongs to the 15-minute city – with our app making it easy to use public transport for longer trips.”
“Ushering in a new age of Gemeindebau – places where people have time to know their neighbours and solve problems together – making city-life more attractive than the Speckgürtel,” added Sibel.
Suddenly they heard Francesco saying the café wasn’t open until 11:30, but the voices sounded like they weren’t there for the pasta.
“OMG, someone thinks we’re a threat to the Metaverse,” Adrian exclaimed.
“And they don’t like it,” added Pat, probably unnecessarily given they were hiding in an underground bunker.
“What do you mean Adrian?” asked Sibel.
“Well, probably you’ve heard about the Metaverse, it’s been in the news lately. The Metaverse is an immersive computer world like ‘The Matrix’ where people no longer interact physically, but only through an artificial interface like VR. In other words, social networks attacking more of our senses. And Facebook’s just decided to spend 10 billion dollars building it. Wow Andrea, did Facebook try to buy us?”
“NaJa, he didn’t mention names. But he did ask a lot about our app’s physical world connections. And, like I said, he didn’t sound serious. I planned to mention it next time we went for beers. Sorry.”
“I don’t get how our app is any threat to the Metaverse,” said Maria.
It was Sibel’s turn to surprise them, “Don’t you see, our app is designed to encourage physical interaction, the Metaverse is designed to replace physical interaction. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but that’s what it does.”
“Look how the Lobau activists have been using the demo app to spark real conversations about Donaustadt’s future – instead of just stoking social media flame wars.”
“And when people put down their phones, sit around and talk, they might find they have more in common than they think” added Adrian, “They might even decide they like the physical world better than the online world, which wouldn’t be so good for the Metaverse.”
“What a funny coincidence” Philipp interjected, “automobiles made it possible for people to abandon cities, places where they had to live and solve problems together – like in the Gemeindebau – and now digital technologies are turbocharging that separation. It’s ironic the activists are using our app to fight freeways – the original separator.”
“Yeah, but Lobau’s not really about roads and freeways, it’s about how we want to live in the 21st Century. Vienna’s doing a great job with its planning and climate programs, but just building a better suburbia in the Donaustadt isn’t going to solve the climate crisis or help make Vienna resilient to coming challenges,” Sibel really talked like a professor sometimes, “Our app, by helping people work together to create high density urban places – like central Vienna, not the Speckgürtel – would not only provide design input, but help build the social ties needed to make these new districts work.”
“Sounds like a digital Gemeindebau” Andrea mumbled.
“OK, I get it, but we’re no threat to big mainstream social networks. And our app isn’t even finished.” said Maria.
Pat’s phone buzzed. “Sarah from Senderkeller says she saw a bunch of big guys nosing around my Red Herring Keller, but they’re leaving now. I asked her to keep an eye out.” Pat had a nose for wine as well as security, Sarah and Peter made some of Vienna’s best Gruner Veltliner and their Heurigen was famous for its fantastic organic food.
“Where will they go next?” Andrea wondered out loud.
“Well, they could have found me from my Radlobby work with the Lobau activists.” Philipp said, “So that explains why they were in front of my apartment. And our name’s on the door at cowork.”
“Damn!” exclaimed Pat, “My office is upstairs, and the address is on our contact list. The Red Herring Keller threw them off, but they’re probably heading here now. And, since they’re pros they’ll surely find the bunker. Given the traffic they’ll probably be here in 30 minutes or so.”
They’d been careful, they hadn’t left much sitting around, Pat made sure of that! But, watching the burglars, it suddenly dawned on them, their project might have more impact than they’d written in the grant application.
They’d proposed a “positive” social networking app designed “to make people’s lives better by freeing them from doom-scrolling in mainstream social media,” nice, but, well, you know, this part needs to be improved, and we don’t think this will work, but here’s a little money to get going. Wishy-washy and idealistic, sure – but now they had to deliver.
Enter Sibel, stage left. Andrea had taken her grandmother on one of their regular visits to the Waschsalon Museum. When Sibel overheard Oma Schmidt talking excitedly about growing up in Karl Marx Hof and summers splashing around in Kinderfreibäder, she couldn’t resist introducing herself and asking Frau Schmidt endless questions about life in Rote Wien. Sibel was an architect obsessed with the Gemeindebau housing projects.
Andrea was steeped in the spirit of Rote Wien, but somehow, she’d missed the architecture connection. For her Red Vienna was social programs like the new baby welcome packages (which Oma Schmidt brought up frequently with her favourite Enkelin) and education programs like the Volkschule.
Sibel’s questions were about the physical spaces, but, somehow, maybe the way Sibel asked them, Oma Schmidt’s answers were always about feelings and how they’d been a community – during some very tough times as she reminded them. Listening, Andrea suddenly saw what was missing from their app – the physical connection.
Sibel came for coffee the next day and never left. Her enthusiasm for planning spaces that encouraged real-world interaction bubbled over and soon the wishy-washy app wasn’t.
The app would help people share stories and ideas for places in Vienna. Chairs would be set-up in these places to encourage real discussion. They called it “Digital Gemeinde Bau” (digital community building) and asked people to describe what Rote Wien would do today. The first story was Oma Schmidt talking about community in the Karl Marx Hof.
But, back to the bunker. Andrea told them about Franz’s call and asked whether anyone else heard anything – although it was hard to focus as they watched the burglars going through their stuff. Philipp started saying something, when suddenly the burglars gathered around the short one and looked closely in a notebook he was holding. After heated discussion they left in a hurry.
Pat snickered and said, “Ha, they took the bait. I planted a red herring in that notebook, and they found it. They’re probably on their way to an abandoned Weinkeller in Stammersdorf. They’ll have a lot of fun searching that old Keller!”
“Nice, but you really are crazy you know?” replied Andrea.
Philipp added “My kind of crazy though. You should have seen the two guys who chased me! I’m glad they’re off on a goose chase. But, Andrea, what gives, why are they after us?”
“Well, I’d meant to tell you sooner, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. Someone’s interested in our new physical place idea for the app. A couple weeks ago a guy called asking lots of questions and whether we’d thought about selling the app.”
“Wait” Adrian snapped, “you got an offer and didn’t tell us?”
“Yeah, sorry, I mean he was pretty unspecific, it didn’t sound like an offer at all. Now I’m beginning to wonder. One more thing, he mentioned the Metaverse.”
Pat hurried over and handed Andrea coffee. They’d humoured Pat with her drills, but she’d saved their asses so often with her secure messaging, open-source, and back-ups, why not a little cosplay every now and then? Besides, there was a great Italian bar around the corner.
This couldn’t be that grey empty room, could it? A few sips did the trick – Pat’s coffee was strong and as bitter as the anti-vaccination fight. But Andrea’d deal with the coffee later –she had bigger problems.
Everyone looked up when she came in, expecting her to explain, but, of course, Andrea didn’t know what was happening either. “Thanks for coming in so early guys” she said, “let me get organised and then let’s talk at the table.”
The bunker had been connected to one of the anti-aircraft towers built during World War II. The huge reinforced concrete towers were practically impossible to destroy, so they were simply re-purposed or abandoned.
Less known were the tunnels for secretly moving soldiers and supplies between towers and bunkers in nearby buildings. The tunnels had been filled-in, but many bunkers remained. Most had had their doors bricked over and were soon forgotten. But, one day, helping a friend move, Pat had found one.
The door was hidden behind the cellar stairs and easy to miss. Secret cellars were just Pat’s thing, so she returned that night. Pushing open the door with a flashlight she saw a large windowless junk-filled room with several decades of dust and cobwebs. Pat rented an office upstairs the next day and, without saying anything – it was better that way – cleaned out the bunker to use as a safe space.
Faces turned back to laptops. Andrea did a silent roll call, Pat, Michael, Adrian, Maria, Sibel …
Reading her mind, Pat said, “Philipp noticed he was being tailed and is trying to lose them.”
This was getting scary. While she’d believed Franz, she hadn’t expected this. A denial-of-service attack, a hacked database, a false landing page – sure, but being stalked by real people? Pat pulled off her blond wig and smiled, “Aren’t you glad we have a bunker?”
After plugging in her laptop, Andrea looked around the table and thought what an odd group. They’d come together slowly, doing student projects at the TU, friends of friends joining, others dropping out, always self-selecting for that magic combination of social democratic convictions and technical expertise – worlds apart from those just in IT for the money.
Pat’s gasp jarred Andrea’s stroll down memory lane – “Someone’s broken into our office at cowork.wien. And look! Check out the size of those guys!”
Phillip, rushing in finally, exclaimed, “I rode by the office on my way. There was an SUV with suits parked there too!”
“Yeah, welcome back Austin” replied Maria – a huge Austin Powers fan – “They’re on the big screen now. We got up early just to watch’em rummage through our office.”
A single thought went through everyone’s mind, “What would the burglars find?”
Ring. Ring. Slowly Andrea realized it was the hotline. Why tonight? Although many forgot Mayday as social democracy struggled to find meaning in a neo liberal world – she still believed, and still celebrated. Ring. Ring. The phone wouldn’t answer itself.
They’re coming after you. Look out. Click.
He’d been careful, using static generation to thwart voice recognition, probably a historic pay phone in some forgotten corner of California. But she recognized him.
Franz. Why, of all people, Franz? He’d left them for the buzz of Silicon Valley and promise of stock options. While never central to the project and he probably wouldn’t name names, she was paralyzed by memories. Franz had been more than a colleague. He’d even asked her to come along to California, but, like her grandmother, Andrea was too stubborn to give up the dream.
Enough memories. This was serious. Franz might have left them – and her – but she knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t be kidding. Time to move.
They’d prepared. Patricia had drilled them while they’d hoped the moment would never come. Paranoid Pat, they teased, but like the best security geeks, she had it in her blood. Andrea reached for the burner.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Philipp looked at the clock. Not a drill. Andrea would have warned him last night at the Rathausplatz Mayday celebration. They’d been seeking beer-inspired wisdom: How had the right become so good at social media while the left remained clueless? Which led to shop talk and more beer.
Philipp replied to the Signal message asking how he liked his new refrigerator with a one. He was on his way to the bunker. He didn’t notice them until he was unlocking his bike. Damn, Pat was right. An SUV across the street with two guys in suits. At 3 AM, in Favoriten?
He answered the Signal reply asking how satisfied he was with the refrigerator delivery service with another one. In other words, he was being followed and would take evasive actions.
Andrea was luckier, she didn’t see anyone following her, but took a roundabout route just in case. Not only had Pat taught them how to notice tails, but how to lose them. Bikes were perfect for escaping through Vienna’s maze of narrow streets and squares.
When Andrea got to the bunker, she almost didn’t recognize Pat, who, of course was in disguise and already executing the crisis plan. The bunker had been built in the second world war and forgotten, now it was filled with the smell of coffee brewing and the light falling from a bank of monitors.
The first priority was protecting their infant application. They’d started building it as part of a grant they’d received from the city of Vienna’s digital humanities program. They hadn’t told the city how they’d planned to leverage the project into a new – secure and private – socially responsible social media platform. Their bad.
Now someone important had noticed and didn’t like it one bit. …