Unauthorized Bread: Real rebellions involve jailbreaking IoT toasters
Cory Doctorow’s book, Radicalized, is up for a CBC award. To celebrate, here’s an excerpt.
Appliance boot loaders, ftw —
Cory Doctorow’s book, Radicalized, is up for a CBC award. To celebrate, here’s an excerpt.
Enlarge / Now that is some artisanal toast.
“Unauthorized Bread”—a tale of jailbreaking refugees versus IoT appliances—is the lead novella in author Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized, which has just been named a finalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s national book award, the Canada Reads prize. “Unauthorized Bread” is also in development for television with Topic, parent company of The Intercept; and for a graphic novel adaptation by First Second Books, in collaboration with the artist and comics creator JR Doyle. It appears below with permission from the author.
The way Salima found out that Boulangism had gone bankrupt: her toaster wouldn’t accept her bread. She held the slice in front of it and waited for the screen to show her a thumbs-up emoji, but instead, it showed her the head-scratching face and made a soft brrt. She waved the bread again. Brrt.
“Come on.” Brrt.
She turned the toaster off and on. Then she unplugged it, counted to ten, and plugged it in. Then she menued through the screens until she found RESET TO FACTORY DEFAULT, waited three minutes, and punched her Wi-Fi password in again.
Long before she got to that point, she’d grown certain that it was a lost cause. But these were the steps that you took when the electronics stopped working, so you could call the 800 number and say, “I’ve turned it off and on, I’ve unplugged it, I’ve reset it to factory defaults and…”
There was a touchscreen option on the toaster to call support, but that wasn’t working, so she used the fridge to look up the number and call it. It rang seventeen times and disconnected. She heaved a sigh. Another one bites the dust.
The toaster wasn’t the first appliance to go (that honor went to the dishwasher, which stopped being able to validate third-party dishes the week before when Disher went under), but it was the last straw. She could wash dishes in the sink but how the hell was she supposed to make toast—over a candle?
Just to be sure, she asked the fridge for headlines about Boulangism, and there it was, their cloud had burst in the night. Socials crawling with people furious about their daily bread. She prodded a headline and learned that Boulangism had been a ghost ship for at least six months because that’s how long security researchers had been contacting the company to tell it that all its user data—passwords, log-ins, ordering and billing details—had been hanging out there on the public internet with no password or encryption. There were ransom notes in the database, records inserted by hackers demanding cryptocurrency payouts in exchange for keeping the dirty secret of Boulangism’s shitty data handling. No one had even seen them.
Boulangism’s share price had declined by 98 percent over the past year. There might not even be a Boulangism anymore. When Salima had pictured Boulangism, she’d imagined the French bakery that was on the toaster’s idle-screen, dusted with flour, woodblock tables with serried ranks of crusty loaves. She’d pictured a rickety staircase leading up from the bakery to a suite of cramped offices overlooking a cobbled road. She’d pictured gas lamps.
The article had a street-view shot of Boulangism’s headquarters, a four-story office block in Pune, near Mumbai, walled in with an unattended guard booth at the street entrance.
The Boulangism cloud had burst and that meant that there was no one answering Salima’s toaster when it asked if the bread she was about to toast had come from an authorized Boulangism baker, which it had. In the absence of a reply, the paranoid little gadget would assume that Salima was in that class of nefarious fraudsters who bought a discounted Boulangism toaster and then tried to renege on her end of the bargain by inserting unauthorized bread, which had consequences ranging from kitchen fires to suboptimal toast (Boulangism was able to adjust its toasting routine in realtime to adjust for relative kitchen humidity and the age of the bread, and of course it would refuse to toast bread that had become unsalvageably stale), to say nothing of the loss of profits for the company and its shareholders. Without those profits, there’d be no surplus capital to divert to R&D, creating the continuous improvement that meant that hardly a day went by without Salima and millions of other Boulangism stakeholders (never just “customers”) waking up with exciting new firmware for their beloved toasters.
And what of the Boulangism baker-partners? They’d done the right thing, signing up for a Boulangism license, subjecting their process to inspections and quality assurance that meant that their bread had exactly the right composition to toast perfectly in Boulangism’s precision-engineered appliances, with crumb and porosity in perfect balance to absorb butter and other spreads. These valued partners deserved to have their commitment to excellence honored, not cast aside by bargain-hunting cheaters who wanted to recklessly toast any old bread.
Salima knew these arguments, even before her stupid toaster played her the video explaining them, which it did after three unsuccessful bread-authorization attempts, playing without a pause or mute button as a combination of punishment and reeducation campaign.
She tried to search her fridge for “boulangism hacks” and “boulangism unlock codes” but appliances stuck together. KitchenAid’s network filters gobbled up her queries and spat back snarky “no results” screens even though Salima knew perfectly well that there was a whole underground economy devoted to unauthorized bread.
She had to leave for work in half an hour, and she hadn’t even showered yet, but goddamnit, first the dishwasher and now the toaster. She found her laptop, used when she’d gotten it, now barely functional. Its battery was long dead and she had to unplug her toothbrush to free up a charger cable, but after she had booted it and let it run its dozens of software updates, she was able to run the darknet browser she still had kicking around and do some judicious googling.
She was forty-five minutes late to work that day, but she had toast for breakfast. Goddamnit.
The dishwasher was next. Once Salima had found the right forum, it would have been crazy not to unlock the thing. After all, she had to use it and now it was effectively bricked. She wasn’t the only one who had the Disher/Boulangism double whammy, either. Some poor suckers also had the poor fortune to own one of the constellation of devices made by HP-NewsCorp—fridges, toothbrushes, even sex toys—all of which had gone down thanks to a failure of the company’s cloud provider, Tata. While this failure was unrelated to the Disher/Boulangism doubleheader, it was pretty unfortunate timing, everyone agreed.
The twin collapse of Disher and Boulangism did have a shared cause, Salima discovered. Both companies were publicly traded and both had seen more than 20 percent of their shares acquired by Summerstream Funds Management, the largest hedge fund on earth, with $184 billion under management. Summerstream was an “activist shareholder” and it was very big on stock buybacks. Once it had a seat on each company’s board—both occupied by Galt Baumgardner, a junior partner at the firm, but from a very good Kansas family—they both hired the same expert consultant from Deloitte to examine the company’s accounts and recommend a buyback program that would see the shareholders getting their due return from the firms, without gouging so deep into the companies’ operating capital as to endanger them.
It was all mathematically provable, of course. The companies could easily afford to divert billions from their balance sheets to the shareholders. Once this was determined, it was the board’s fiduciary duty to vote in favor of it (which was handy, since they all owned fat wads of company shares) and a few billion dollars later, the companies were lean, mean, and battle ready, and didn’t even miss all that money.
Summerstream issued a press release (often quoted in the forums Salima was now obsessively haunting) blaming the whole thing on “volatility” and “alpha” and calling it “unfortunate” and “disappointing.” They were confident that both companies would restructure in bankruptcy, perhaps after a quick sale to a competitor, and everyone could start toasting bread and washing dishes within a month or two.
Salima wasn’t going to wait. Her Boulangism didn’t go easily. After downloading the new firmware from the darknet, she had to remove the case (slicing through three separate tamper-evident seals and a large warning sticker that threatened electrocution and prosecution, perhaps simultaneously, for anyone foolish enough to ignore it) and locate a specific component and then short out two of its pins with a pair of tweezers while booting it. This dropped the toaster into a test mode that the developers had deactivated, but not removed. The instant the test screen came up, she had to jam in her USB stick (removing the toaster’s hood had revealed a set of USB ports, a monitor port, and even a little Ethernet jack, all stock on the commodity single-board PC that controlled it) at exactly the right instant, then use the on-screen keyboard to tap in the log-in and password, which were “admin” and “admin” (of course).
It took her three tries to get the timing right, but on the third try, the spare log-in screen was replaced with the pirate firmware’s cheesy text-art animation of a 3-D skull, which she smiled at—and then she burst into laughter as a piece of text-art toast floated into the frame and was merrily chomped to crumbs by the text-art skull, the crumbs cascading to the bottom of the screen and forming shifting little piles. Someone had put a lot of effort into the physics simulation for that ridiculous animation. It made Salima feel good, like she was entrusting her toaster to deep, serious craftspeople and not just randos who liked to pit their wits against faceless programmers from big, stupid companies.
The crumbs piled up as the skull chomped and the progress indicator counted up from 12 percent to 26 percent then to 34 percent (where it stuck for a full ten minutes, until she was ready to risk really bricking the damned thing by unplugging it, but then—) 58 percent, and so on, to an agonizing wait at 99 percent, and then all the crumbs rushed up from the bottom of the screen and went back out through the skull’s mouth, turning back into toast, each reassembled piece forming up in ranks that quickly blotted out the skull, and the words ALL DONE burned themselves into the toast’s surface, glistening with butter that ran down in rivulets. She was just grabbing for her phone to get a picture of this awesome pirate load-screen when the toaster oven blinked and rebooted itself.
A few seconds later, she held a slice of bread to the toaster’s sensor and watched as its light turned green and its door yawned open. Halfway through munching the toast, she was struck by an odd curiosity. She held her hand up to the toaster, palm out, as though it, too, were a slice of bread. The toaster’s light turned green and the door opened. She was momentarily tempted to try and toast a fork or a paper towel or a slice of apple, just to see if the toaster would do it, but of course it would.
This was a new kind of toaster, a toaster that took orders, rather than giving them. A toaster that would give her enough rope to hang herself, let her toast a lithium battery or a can of hairspray, or anything else she wanted to toast: unauthorized bread. Even homemade bread. The idea made her feel a little queasy and a little tremorous. Homemade bread was something she’d read about in books, seen in old dramas, but she didn’t know anyone who actually baked bread. That was like gnawing your own furniture out of whole logs or something.
The ingredients turned out to be incredibly simple, and while her first loaf came out looking like a poop emoji, it tasted amazing, still warm from the little toaster, and if anything, the slice (OK, the lump) she saved and toasted the next morning was even better, especially with butter on it. She left for work that day with a magical, warm, toasty feeling in her stomach.
She did the dishwasher that night. The Disher hackers were much more utilitarian in their approach, but they also were Swedish, judging from the URLs in their README files, which might explain the minimalism. She’d been to an Ikea, she got it. The Disher didn’t require anything like the song and dance of the Boulangism: she popped off the maintenance cover, pried the rubber gasket off the USB port, stuck in her stick, and rebooted it. The screen showed a lot of scrolling text and some cryptic error messages and then rebooted again into what looked like normal Disher operating mode, except without the throbbing red alerts about the unreachable server that had haunted it for a week. She piled the dishes from the sink into the dishwasher, feeling a tiny thrill every time the dishwasher played its “New Dish Recognized” arpeggio.
She thought about taking up pottery next.