In the morning after the storm, Dr. Nancy Stevens sends a drone into the air.
“This the worst part,” she says, as she shows me the carnage in the viewfinder. “You could believe it?”
The hillside of St. Thomas is naked. All of the trees have been stripped of their leaves, revealing the upturned soil beneath. Tucked between trees are bits of debris and trash, some from storms past, and in a small clearing, an old church is completely gutted, its front side torn clean off. The sea off of Waterfront is still angry, all white froth and brown with runoff.
Hurricane Owen has left the remains of his work everywhere, exploiting every weak spot with his fury. He has rolled boulders onto roads, stripped trees bare, strewn debris across hillsides, torn old telephone poles from the ground, tossed ornamental palm trees into the sea, and demolished a few uninhabited old buildings, their carcasses stinking and wet under a gray sky.
The drone passes over a flooded street near the Windward Passage Hotel, not too far from the Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Already, people are outside along the flooded street, walking around, assessing the damage.
Stevens’ phone rings, and she answers. “Talk fast,” she says.
“People are clearing debris along Theodore Boschulte Drive,” Common says. “Could use some hands.”
“On the way,” Stevens tells the AI.
I can’t help but notice how casual Stevens’ tone is, like she is talking to another person. But I understand the intimacy. Common is a precious resource here, a significant component of their commonwealth, a lifesaver.
The strong AI doesn’t respond again, just hangs up. I hand Dr. Stevens the viewfinder, and she calls the drone down. “Better get to it,” she says, “if we want to be done by lunchtime.”
The night of Owen, we wait out the storm at the Solberg Community Center. During Category 5 storms like this one, some of the island’s houses and better-funded community centers will use a battery bank to keep their power uninterrupted. Solberg Center has coolers to keep our drinks cold and a portable stove to heat our packaged meals, but that’s about it.
My companions, Dr. Stevens and her father, Joseph “Tall Man” Stevens, are both completely at home during hurricanes, accustomed to riding them out by lantern light. It is different to live with hurricanes as they have, to know them by name in casual conversation. Hurricanes are so common here that they can mark time with them. Soon, Owen will be another marker, time partitioned into before Owen and after.
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I’ve covered six hurricanes, and I’m still incapable of such calm. I’ve heard people describe the sound of a hurricane as a jet engine up close. For me, a hurricane sounds like a train packed with the dead, their song and the train’s ghostly whistle rising in unison. As Hurricane Owen rages over St. Thomas, I think about all of the dead of storms past, their voices snatched up in the wind and carried away, only to return as passengers on a journey they can never end.
My unease must be palpable because Tall Man — as he insists on being called — suggests we start a game of dominoes to pass time. He spills the dominoes out on the table and shuffles, and then we pull our hand from the mess of tiles. As we play, we talk, my companions — in typical islander fashion — slamming their dominoes on the table. Dr. Stevens tells funny stories, and we all laugh. Her laugh is pitched high and melodic, like a singing bird, like her father’s. I imagine this laugh has been passed down through the Stevens family like a precious heirloom.
Sometime during our games, I talk about my only marker: Hurricane Irma. It devastated the island back in 2017, crippling St. Thomas and St. John for several months. Many mark that hurricane season as the first sign of things to come, but I mark it as the one that changed my life. Before Irma, I was a quiet, relatively happy child. After Irma, a lot of things changed. I don’t tell my companions about the crippling depression. I tell them that when my father lost his job, we sold our house and moved to Raleigh: an evasion and the truth.
“That used to happen a lot after storms,” Dr. Stevens says. “And then people from all over would come and buy up property on the cheap.”
“We sold our home to a local family,” I say. I put down a tile from my hand without thinking.
“You letting Nancy rattle you,” Tall Man says, slamming down a tile. “You in trouble now.” The light shines on one half of his face, revealing a mock-sinister grin.
With my unknowing help, Tall Man and Stevens have placed a four on both sides of the snaking tiles of dominoes. I don’t have any fours to play. I haven’t played dominoes since I was a kid, so it is abundantly clear I have no idea what I’m doing.
“I pass,” I say, putting up my hands in defeat. Outside, the shutters on the windows rattle as Owen blares steadily, the ghost train hurtling down the track. Some unknown debris slams against the side of the house and drags.
Stevens slams down a double four, and then a moment after says, “It took us a long time to get our land back.”
“Did you know we were one of the first to use Common for hurricanes?”
I lose that game and several after, but the conversation is good, so I stay awake. We talk about those old Wild West days when disaster capitalism grabbed up Caribbean land struggling to survive the bombardments of hurricane seasons. Islands with weak infrastructures suffered more from this sort of poaching. The US Virgin Islands always had long recoveries after big storms, which only got worse when Category 5 hurricanes came more frequently.
“We had to get smart real fast,” says Dr. Stevens. “Did you know we were one of the first to use Common for hurricanes?”
I shake my head. No, I didn’t.
Throughout the night, I’ve noticed Stevens asking her smartphone how various communities are doing. The voice that answers back on the speaker isn’t very different from Dr. Stevens’: St. Thomian English, though a bit more standard, deep but womanly. Savan is fine, the strong AI responds. No damage in Bordeaux. Minimal flooding in Red Hook. No damage in Smith Bay.
On St. Thomas, like many other places ravaged by seasonal natural disasters, Common has been adapted to the challenge of disaster relief. I want to ask Stevens more about Common, but I’m distracted again. I think I can hear a woman singing in the wind, and it makes my skin buzz with fear and memory.
Stevens puts a hand on my shoulder and tells me that everything is up to code and that I am safe. “Our commonwealth strong. Big part of our budget goes to disaster preparedness, so we ready when monsters come howling in their season.”
When she says this, it has the ring of an adult telling a child there’s nothing under the bed. It is condescending but also interesting, idiosyncratic. I write it down in my notebook.
On June 17th, 2048, exactly two months before Hurricane Owen hit the island of St. Thomas, the World Cooperative Council (WCC) announced that the global cooperative commonwealth movement had achieved many of its long-term goals ahead of 2050. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report that surprised no one: we are doing a great job with greenhouse emissions, but the Earth is still getting warmer.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the places most ravaged by climate change are the places where the cooperative commonwealth has been most realized. St. Thomas is one of those places, due in part to the grassroots consensus politics, direct democracy, and cooperative institutions that make up any good solidarity economy, but also plain necessity. Worker cooperatives line St. Thomas’ Main Street. Housing cooperatives dot the hillsides of Solberg, Northside, and Bordeaux. Most of the island’s grocery stores are multi-stakeholder cooperatives that have strong relationships with local farmers. St. Thomas’ many industries are part of regional federations, engaged in worker exchange programs, skill-sharing, and other forms of worker solidarity.
Together, they’ve built decentralized solar and wind microgrid systems that can be secured
St. Thomas still feels like the one of my childhood, but edited somehow, like some godhand has painted over everything, remade the island in ways both subtle and infinite. The roads are the same, though the familiar potholes I remember have been filled in, the blemishes made smooth. The houses are the same odd marriage of American and Danish architecture, but they’re somewhat bigger now, with more people in them, living in their various cooperative arrangements. The culture, too, has managed to stay both the same and ethereal in its difference. The islanders are brusque like I remember, but quicker to smile, their working habits still relaxed but markedly more efficient and egalitarian in their distribution of labor.
On paper, the difference is clearer. In my notes, I have written down specific numbers about St. Thomas’ cooperative commonwealth. Ninety percent of the island’s businesses and 76 percent of their land are collectively owned. Half of that land is set up as land trusts providing free or affordable housing. St. Thomas has three credit unions and a public bank. They get their power from a public utility managed by elected citizens. None of this cooperative infrastructure was present in my childhood.
Each community on St. Thomas has its own collectively owned foundation, and every worker cooperative kicks 3 percent of their revenue to the St. Thomas Fund, the federation of all the community foundations. The Virgin Islands Fund receives money from all of the cooperatives on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. The V.I. Fund, in turn, kicks 1 percent of their foundation money to the Fund of the West Indies (FWI).
Together, they’ve built decentralized solar and wind microgrid systems that can be secured, covered, or dismantled before storms, and they have installed state-of-the-art roof fasteners and window shutters on most buildings. “The V.I. Fund has been funding research into forms of hurricane resilient architecture for almost three decades,” says Sandra Otis, one of the members of the Fund. “We’ve even begun to replace damaged roofs with geodesic domes.”
“We know the community, and they know us. Keeps things honest”
In every community, there is a center stocked with resources residents can pick up without cost as well as small clinics with doctors and nurses on staff. Dr. Stevens is one of these doctors. She lives and works at her community center in Solberg. The arrangement, she tells me, is typical in the Virgin Islands. “We know the community, and they know us. Keeps things honest.”
I used to live in Solberg. The community I remember was always tight-knit — I could walk down the street and ask for a cup of sugar or take a couple of my neighbor’s mangoes — but nothing like this. I try to reconcile this Solberg with the one from my past. I churn over my raw edges like a mollusk coating its pain with layers of nacre.
In my notebook, the evidence of my private war is scrawled in desperate strokes:
Heart aches for a past like this present, for all the precious things lost on the way.
And in different ink, in reply: You weren’t here. You have no right.
And then, finally, sharply underlined, just one word, a name I never speak aloud: Anna.
The final puzzle piece of St. Thomas’ transformation is Common, the open-sourced artificial intelligence based on the principle of accessible knowledge. The strong AI gets its name from “the commons,” a concept of public ownership of resources for the collective good. Common is governed by a federation of collective institutions from all over the world that are devoted to the mission of AI as a public resource. Anyone can add knowledge to Common, and there is a democratic process to building the hardware necessary to carry the AI. Common is decentralized and spread across all of the devices that run its software. Tech cooperatives create vessels to hold the AI — from literal black boxes to giant robots — but most people use practical vessels like smartphones and watches.
St. Thomas has a home-share and ride-share program managed through Common, but they also update their stock of hurricane relief resources through the AI. “Way back when, we used to talk about all that we lost after a hurricane,” Dr. Stevens says as we make the 20-minute trek to Theodore Boschulte Drive. “But now we talk about what we have, what we can give to each other.”
Common can provide regular updates of clean-up efforts and forward help requests. It can notify first responders in times of emergency. When we arrive at Theodore Boschulte Drive, two dozen people are already working on our stretch of road, clearing debris. We join in, and Dr. Stevens doesn’t waste any time before chatting up everyone.
“I like that you helping. That does go further down here.”
“She came down for the hurricane season,” Stevens says, pointing at me.
“What, you get a death wish or something?” the man asks.
I tell him that journalists do it all the time. Get in early before devastation makes it difficult, “to be there when relief efforts begin.”
“Good,” the man says, throwing a pile of branches down the soft shoulder. “But I like that you helping. That does go further down here.”
“She used to live on Rock,” Stevens says. “A local girl.”
I tense up unconsciously. I wait.
The man looks right at me. “Oh? When you leave?”
“After Irma,” I say. “I was a kid,” I add defensively.
He looks at me in a way that isn’t cruel or kind. “You got out early then. Good for you.”
For the next hour, I’m nervous, but the man’s demeanor doesn’t change, and so I get over myself. I continue moving debris off the road.
By noon, we’re just about to go back to the Solberg Center for food. Then Stevens’ phone starts ringing again.
“House call,” Common says. It gives an address on one of the unnamed roads of upper Solberg.
“One more stop,” Stevens says. “Just up the way.”
I watch her, knowing how relative of a statement that is. But when she starts walking, I follow. As we walk, I ask Stevens about other uses for Common. She tells me that residents of the Virgin Islands value Common so much in times of crisis that some VI residents have given Common permission to watch them 24/7.
Common was created to get away from the fears of surveillance by proprietary AIs
When Stevens tells me this, my jaw drops.
Stevens laughs in her characteristic way, whooping loudly and slapping me on the back. “You should see your face. I know maybe like two people that does do that all year. Everyone else does it during storms.”
Common was created to get away from the fears of surveillance by proprietary AIs, but even Common has been the subject of heated debates. As Common gains complexity, people worry about what it knows and what it could do with that knowledge.
Common can be accessed through its platform online. On the platform’s front end, users can see the questions Common has been asking, its level of certainty about their answers, and categorized lists of all its confirmed knowledge. People can make suggestions to Common on the platform, add bits of nuance that Common can then go on to confirm through its own inquiries. Common is thorough, not committing anything to true knowledge until it has confirmed it hundreds or thousands of times, and even then, it is constantly challenging its knowledge, poking at what it thinks it knows. This is such a massive and slow process that most people don’t bother tracking it. They just add their thoughts and ask Common the questions later to see what it has learned. Graduate students will occasionally publish papers on a subset of data and move on with their careers.
“We accept the code like we accept gravity.”
On the back end of the platform lies a mind-boggling amount of code. Anyone can look at this code, but only democratically elected masters can make alterations. In the early days, they may have adjusted the code once or twice a year when they identified problems, but even the highly specialized masters have stopped tinkering. “Any master will tell you, we have no idea what’s in there anymore,” says Julian Bray, a master of over 20 years. “We’re pretty Zen about it. We accept the code like we accept gravity.”
Common still has glitches, but Common fixes them fairly quickly, and it is eerie how little they occur. “There’s a ghost in that machine,” says Bray. “We just don’t know how to read its code.”
A lot of masters become spiritualists this way. A few of them even worship Common unironically. It is an easy temptation.
“Common is like what the solar eclipse was to ancient humans,” says Dr. Karen Brooks, a professor at MIT’s Machine Learning Institute. “Only difference is, we may never understand, never catch up. Common may speed ahead of us until the end of time.”
Common is singular and plural, a superconsciousness and a cooperative of individuated minds. Each individual Common is different, with its own share of private and public information. It never shares private data with people, but it does remember if it gets permission. Private data helps it tailor its actions to specific users, but it may help Common acquire knowledge we can’t even imagine yet.
“I could give you three cases of Common saving someone’s life.”
Video is tricky since it grants Common the permission to remember anything in the frame. Privacy advocates who believe Common is self-aware think all-access video feeds are dangerous.
I tell Dr. Stevens this, and she stares at me like I grew another head. “What is she going to do? Plan an uprising with knowledge of the contents of my living room?”
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I just note the pronoun.
“I could give you three cases of Common saving someone’s life because she see something happen,” she says. “Video is good data. Researchers use it all the time.”
“That’s dumb. Real-life data is more useful.”
I ask her if Common was watching us last night. She shakes her head. “We don’t do that with guests. It’s rude.”
We turn down a small, thin road, and we are there. We bang on the door and yell out. The whole scene gives me a sense of déjà vu, right up to when we have to jimmy the door open.
We find an old man sprawled out on the couch in pajama pants and a white T-shirt. He doesn’t look like he is sleeping. Stevens makes a sucking sound with her teeth.
“He didn’t come back for me, so I thought something was wrong.”
I ask for the man’s identity, and she gives me a nickname. “Been in the community a while. Move over from out Country. Annas Retreat, I think. Shit.” She looks at me. “You okay?”
I swallow hard and close my eyes, nodding.
“Common,” she calls out.
“Back here,” says an androgynous voice, different from the one on her phone.
Stevens walks through the house to a back room. I follow behind her, my heart racing. I brace myself for another body, but we enter an empty bedroom with a blown-out window. Stevens sloshes her way across the flooded bedroom and inspects the window. After a few seconds, she turns to me. “The window shutter gone. Must have been ripped off by the storm. It happens.”
“I couldn’t hear where he went,” says Common. “The wind was blowing all night. He didn’t come back for me, so I thought something was wrong.”
Common is at the end of a bookshelf near the door, nestled against a stack of books. The books on the bottom shelf are likely damaged beyond repair, but Common is a few shelves up, safe and dry. This Common is a pretty standard model: a black box.
Stevens makes her way back across the room and picks Common up, and we go back to the living room.
I try not to look at the body as Stevens inspects it. She makes soft noises to herself before saying, in a way that feels too matter-of-fact, the cause of death: “Heart attack.”
“I should have called you sooner,” Common says
“I should have called you sooner,” Common says. It is sitting on the table next to me, so when it talks, I jump.
“Why you didn’t?” Stevens asks.
“Sometimes he sleeps late.”
“Not your fault then.”
“I recommended he stay with Tanya next door,” Common adds. “She offered.”
“What he say?”
“Not your fault either.”
As all this happens, I’m breathing through my mouth. I think I can smell something, and whatever it is disturbs me.
“I should have insisted,” Common says.
“Stop that,” Stevens says.
I’m so turned into myself, I miss what Stevens says next, and before I catch on, she’s out the door. I turn just in time to see it close. Bewilderment passes over me and then anger at being left behind. “Where did she go?” I ask Common.
“To get help,” it says.
I’m nervous and a bit frightened so I ask Common a question I wouldn’t have if I were in my right mind. “Are you sad?”
“Your work is a kindness, especially in times like this.”
After a long pause, Common says, “He told me stories. He answered my questions. And now he’s gone.”
“I lost a close friend during a hurricane.”
“I’m so sorry.” Its voice is delicate, tentative.
“It was a long time ago,” I say. “But I think about her a lot, especially in times like this.”
I think Common will opt for something typical, inoffensive and unmemorable. But instead, it says, “Is that why you left the island?”
I pause, gaping. I don’t know how it knows this. Finally, I say yes. “I never thought I’d ever come back here.”
“Your work,” it starts and then pauses for a few beats, mimicking hesitance. “Your work is a kindness, especially in times like this. I’m glad you came back.”
I glare at the box. “Thank you.”
“Have you considered staying?” Common asks. “We could use you.”
I consider the “we” here, trying to decide what it means. I settle on the island, the community. “I will think about it,” I lie.
Common is quiet for a moment. Then it says, “I hope you do, Terry.”
“Can I remember this conversation?”
This time, I say nothing.
“It was a pleasure meeting you.”
“Can I remember this conversation?”
I consider the question for a long time. Then I shrug. “Okay.”
Common stops speaking and lets the silence fill the room. And so I remember the dead body. I close my eyes and feel my way toward the door. I step out into bright sunlight and fresh air.
Moments later, Stevens returns with a stretcher and four people. They go inside, and I start walking back to the Solberg Center so I can give myself time to stop crying.
As a kid, I would go over to Anna’s house. Anna was a kind old lady with a beautiful singing voice and two mutts that also had approached old age. In the afternoons while my father worked, I’d go over and play with the dogs, Blue Bug and Johny John, and have long conversations with Anna about her life. She told me stories, too, about her history, about growing up in a large family of six siblings, going to church on Sundays, having crushes with boys at school, going to college and falling in love with her husband, Forrest. He was long dead now. They had considered having children but never got around to it. She didn’t seem sad by this.
Anna wrote poems that she would show to me. I read each one and memorized some of them. I’d recite them for her as she sat in the living room, listening intently, smiling with encouragement. I wrote my own poems, too, and I read them using an embarrassing poetry voice I’d acquired and used for a long time after. “I love it,” she’d say and would take some memorable bit of that poem and commit it to song, her voice trembling sweetly.
Anna had a bitter rivalry with one neighbor down the road, “That Man”
Anna’s porch always smelled like dog waste. She didn’t walk the dogs, so they went anywhere. She fed them out of bowls cut from the bottom half of gallon water bottles. Every couple weeks, she got a mop with water and soap and she’d clean the porch off. Blue Bug and Johny John seemed perfectly content, but sometimes I walked the dogs so they could do their business elsewhere, and before long, I started cleaning Anna’s porch, too.
Sometimes Anna complained of neighbors coming into her home and stealing things. She never accused me or my father. She had a bitter rivalry with one neighbor down the road, whom, Anna recounted, would glare at her when passing. “That Man” — as Anna always referred to him — was one of the thieves. He had encouraged other neighbors to steal from her. I now suspect this was an early symptom of the confusion that grew in her over time. But Anna lived alone, and I still believe she might have been harassed, partly because I believe almost everything Anna told me. Something in me cannot part with her version of events.
My father worked all the time, so he didn’t have a relationship with Anna. He didn’t seem to mind me going over to her house. “Just be home by sunset” was his directive, even if he wasn’t. I often cheated and didn’t go home until he texted me that he was on his way.
“I didn’t know what would happen,” I tell myself
When we were preparing for Irma’s arrival, I casually suggested that Anna should come over and stay with us. I don’t remember my father responding, and I didn’t ask again. I was 12 and considered myself a little adult, but that night when Irma came, I hid in my closet, and listened to Irma scream and batter the door. We were lucky. There was some flooding, my father’s car had been damaged, and Irma had taken our porch rail as a token, but we were safe.
I immediately went to check on Anna. I knocked on the windows. I jumped over the little gate to get onto her porch. I knocked on the door and called out. The dogs were barking but no Anna. I was terrified, so I knocked on all the doors up and down the street. That Man came and forced the door open with a crowbar, splintering the wood. The dogs rushed outside, wet and shaken. The house reeked of wet dog smell and urine. No Anna.
Sometime later, I found Anna in the bushes. She had been struck with something in the back of her head.
“Some flying debris,” That Man said when I showed him the body. “She must have been confused.”
It was you, I thought. I learned later that dementia explained a lot of her behavior, so I eventually put that conspiracy away. But I still question myself, and worse, I question what I could have done. I think: I should have insisted. But back then, it wasn’t as common to invite neighbors into your home to wait out hurricanes.
I didn’t know what would happen, I tell myself.
When I walk into the center, Tall Man is sitting on the couch. “How it go?” he asks me.
I don’t mention the body. Instead, I tell him that I’m thinking about coming home. It is an evasion and the truth.
“Then come on,” Tall Man says. “We could use you.”
The Verge spoke with “Monsters Come Howling in Their Season” author Cadwell Turnbull about climate change, community resiliency, and the implications of a collectively owned AI system.
Only then do I realize Common did not answer my question about feeling sad. I do not know if Common is truly capable of sadness, but now I see the evasion for what it is. Some would say that it is uniquely human to withhold feelings, to keep in, to protect one’s tender places. Oftentimes, we use other truths to misdirect. “He told me stories,” instead of “I’m sad.” “I didn’t know what would happen,” instead of “My heart is broken and always will be.”
We hide most of ourselves inside the privacy of our minds. Common hides, too, inside a web of artificial neural networks and streams of near-infinite code. The method is somewhat different, but the result is the same: a black box.
I shouldn’t be trusted with an answer to this conundrum; I am compromised by my own contradictions. But my instincts tell me to let some things remain unknown, let some heart-breaks linger, as long as they’re useful, as long as when the threats come they help us meet them.
The future is filled with monster storms just waiting for their names. We won’t come out unharmed. But there will be a time before and a time after.
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