01 Feb I Watched a Webinar I Wasn’t Meant to See, and Now I’m in Serious Trouble
My team was sent to a work conference this week while I was down for the count with some serious ick. I was pissed because the conference – which has historically taken place in Nebraska – was going to be in Florida. I had a grand plan to fly down early on my own dime just so I could catch some proper beach time before the conference started on Monday. Instead, I was curled up on the couch drinking tea and watching the panel discussions remotely on my laptop. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about boring myself to tears when all I wanted to do was binge Netflix and nap, but I needed the education credits to keep a professional certification.
Wrapped in a cozy blanket with Kleenex handy, I booted up my computer and started that day’s webinar from an email my manager had sent me. The email included a link to the stream and his login information, so I wouldn’t have to pay anything to watch it. Even virtual attendance of these conferences comes with a pretty steep price-tag.
The screen opened on a stage in front of a bright blue backdrop. On the stage were four empty armchairs, with a couple of side tables distancing them. Muzak played gently in the background as the panel speakers began to file in. To the left-hand side of the screen, a chat window popped up.
Welcome! Please use IM to submit any questions you might have, and remember to respond to the intermittent pop-ups. These will ensure that you receive credit for viewing this webinar.
Yep, no chance of snoozing through any of the presentations. The pop-ups were a handy little trick to keep remote viewers from leaving the feed running and walking away.
On the video, two women and two men, smartly dressed with radiant smiles plastered on their faces, took their chairs on the stage. They each had small stacks of paper held together with binder clips, which they placed in their laps before nodding at one another as a sign of readiness. The man on the far left, a bald guy with glasses, looked directly at the camera and addressed the audience.
“Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly. “And thank you for joining us in the Association of Civil Deconstructors’ 260th annual conference. It truly is a momentous day.”
There was polite applause from the audience. I blinked in confusion. 260 years? The regulatory body that oversaw my job had only been around 50 years or so. And I had no idea what the Association of Civil Deconstructors was – but I’ll admit it caught my attention.
“As always, I’m Arthur Blackgate, Founder and Eldest of the Association, and moderator of today’s panel discussion.” Polite applause. “Now, please join me in welcoming the panel members as I introduce them.
“To my right is Madame Tara, who has been with us for 220 years, and is our resident expert on Manipulations and Malfeasance. I believe it’s safe to say that we all greatly admired her presentation yesterday on undermining politicians of the Western world.”
Madame Tara, a woman with long, straight black hair and sunken eyes, waved at the audience. Her nails were blood red and filed to a point. I have to say, she looked very good for a woman of such advanced age.
“Next to her is our beloved Hans Becker, Master of Technological Exploits. He’s also been known to dabble in Interplanetary Mischief, the cheeky bastard.”
Arthur pointed a finger playfully at the so-named Hans, who grinned and threw his hands up in a “got me” sort of way. The audience laughed.
“And finally we have Mistress Hamilton, an up-and-coming member, and last year’s winner of the Association’s prestigious Miss Malicious award. Please give her a round of applause.”
The audience complied, and the beautiful woman on the far end waved a white-gloved hand with pageantry.
“Alright,” Arthur continued, looking down at his papers. “Introductions out of the way, we can resume our topic of discussion for this year’s conference: Subjecting Future Generations to Passive Control. Today’s focus will be on technological advancements. Oh and, uh, don’t forget audience, you can submit questions anytime on your phones or through the chatbox if you’re watching from home.” He adjusted his glasses and continued speaking, but the video was interrupted by a loud ding, and a pop-up screen.
This is a message to ensure your active participation. Please answer the following question to continue: On what date was the first conference held?
I had definitely never encountered attention checking pop-ups that included questions before, but I didn’t have much time to think about it either. A countdown had started ticking away from 60 seconds.
Below the question was a date input field. The moderator said the Association had been around 260 years, so I entered 1759 in the year field. As for the day and month… Well, the whole thing was a little spooky, so on a whim I entered 10/31 – Halloween. I hit submit, and it dinged again cheerfully.
Correct! Please enjoy the presentation.
Relieved, and maybe feeling a little clever, I returned my focus to the conversation on the stage.
“-and those are the tremendous strides we’ve made in malware proliferation in the past year – but I digress. We have a great discussion for you all. We’re going to start out with the topic of driverless vehicles.”
A slide appeared, creating a split focus between the video feed and a bullet-point list under a photo of a Tesla.
“As you all know,” Arthur continued, “Hans has been instrumental in the creation of the driverless vehicle, and embedding and enabling exploitable technology into their makeup. Hans, why don’t you tell us a little bit about the process, and where things stand today?”
“Thank you, Arthur, I’d be delighted to share,” Hans said. “Unfortunately, the state of cars in this modern age is that they are just too safe. We peaked in 1972 with 54,589 fatalities in the U.S., while the total in 2018 was only 36,750. The number of car crashes and deaths are not increasing in the amounts we’d like to see, and with recent laws against distracted driving in some states – such as texting and talking on phones – we simply won’t see the desired increase. Even the highly regarded implementation of ‘sudden unintended acceleration’ has not lived up to its promise of increased accidents. That’s where the driverless vehicle comes into play. Let’s take a look at the first point on our presentation: disabling driver autonomy.”
At this point, you could probably guess I was beginning to feel a bit worried. This was clearly not the conference I was meant to see. Still, I had used the link my boss had given me. Did he know about this organization?
Please answer the following question: What topic was discussed during the conference of 1760, which later became the Association’s greatest achievement to date?
Below the message was a blank text field and another countdown timer. I was no history buff by any means, so using the little context I had gleaned from this crazy presentation, I guessed “witch trials.” I hit enter. The application made an unpleasant buzzing sound in reply.
Sorry, the correct answer was The Industrial Revolution and Long Term Climate Change. You have one attempt remaining. Please answer the following question: What is Elder Blackgate’s favorite food?
I stared at the screen. What the actual fuck kind of question was that? Figuring I didn’t have anything to lose, I entered “pizza” as an answer, and was met with a ding.
Correct! One chance still remaining.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d gotten it right? I mean, pizza is obviously very good, but I was still shocked.
The pop-up disappeared, revealing the panel members once again – only they weren’t speaking. They were all staring directly into the camera, and there was a minute of nearly unbearable stillness. It felt like they were watching me through the screen. Just as I was starting to get extremely uncomfortable, the moment ended and Hans continued.
“As I was saying, the ‘Trolley Problem’ thought experiment shows us exactly why autonomous vehicles are so desirable. It demonstrates that with a little tricky engineering, we can guarantee the decline of algorithmic integrity, which in turn will ensure vehicular accidents and consequences that will inevitably divide the nation. And once autonomous transportation is invested in as the widest mode of travel, there won’t be much opportunity for course correction.”
“Brilliant, my friend. Now let’s move on to any thoughts from our other panel members…”
I continued to watch in morbid fascination. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. The whole thing felt like a parody, and yet was taken so seriously. And why had they all stared like that?
The next time the attention check pop-up appeared, I had been so engrossed in the presentation that I was legitimately startled.
What former member of the Association was disgraced in 2009 and stripped of all honors and titles due to his mishandling of an instrumental Ponzi scheme?
“Are you freaking kidding me?” I mumbled. I had no idea. 2009? I was in college at the time, busy barely passing classes and honing my ability to shotgun beer cans. I picked up my phone to google major events in 2009, hoping to find something related, but I was too late. The timer ran out, and that awful buzzing sounded again.
We’re sorry, but the correct answer was Bernie Madoff. You do not have any more attempts. Goodbye.
The pop-up vanished, and again the panel members were staring at the camera. Arthur got up from his chair, his face transformed by rage. He pointed directly at the camera, hand shaking, and began speaking rapidly in a language I couldn’t understand. The guy never stopped to take a breath.
“Holy shit!” I said.
A message appeared in the chatbox.
Hello! Your access to this feed is being cut. Please forget the things you’ve seen today, or face the consequences. Have a nice day!
Arthur, still chanting and pointing, suddenly threw his head back and screeched unnaturally at the ceiling. The other panel members jumped up to their feet and did the same.
“Holy fucking shit!” I yelled. Then the window for the stream closed, and I was left staring at my desktop.
I sat perfectly still for several minutes, my heart pounding hard in my chest. Once I was sure I wasn’t going to have a heart attack, I picked up my phone and texted my manager.
Me: Hi Matt! Hope you’re enjoying Florida. I think you sent me the wrong webinar link.
Him: Oh, yeah, looks like it was the wrong one. Sorry about that, that was for someone else. I’ll send you the right link.
Me: cool thanks!
Him: Hey, you didn’t watch that webinar, did you?
Me: nope, just realized it was the wrong one after starting it. No big deal
Him: ok, just have to make sure because that one had highly classified information
Me: nope, didn’t watch
Him: Seriously, though. Extremely. Classified. Information.
Me: haha, no, I didn’t see anything I swear
Him: okay good. See you Monday
If that isn’t shady, I don’t know what is.
I’m probably going to end up dead for sharing this. I know it’s conspiracy tier stuff, but I really believe that all the nefarious things that are happening and have been happening in this world were put into motion long ago. This “Association of Civil Deconstructors” seems to be single-handedly creating all of society’s biggest problems – and we have to figure out how to stop them. Well… someone does. As for me, I think I might end up taking a trip after all – far away, and for a very long time. Wish me luck, I think I’m gonna need it.