Ghost in the Machine

Eighteen Months in the Info-Quarry.

Maybe the war is mostly over cigarettes because that's where the medical research pointed, or because they are the biggest and most widespread use of tobacco. Maybe it is because both the nicotine empire and the crusaders can safely aim at identical markets: minorities, blue-collar workers, and women.

None of these groups except for Native Americans took up smoking in the beginning. It was too expensive. Smoking was an upper-class pastime until automatic machines of the 1890s turned out millions of cigarettes and they became cheap enough for mass consumption.

Cigarettes became a poor folks' smoke. People who, coincidentally or not, had less control over how they lived and died. People who, even if they knew the dangers, probably figured that the respite outweighed the risk.

This summer, Congress voted to continue a taxpayer subsidy of $34 million that pays 42 percent of tobacco farmers' crop insurance against crop loss. The same week, about 3,400 Minnesota prisoners who smoke got ready to quit cold turkey after the Legislature declared the prisons smoke-free. In Texas lockups, the price of a single prohibited cigarette has reportedly risen from 25 cents to two dollars.

It's a fair bet that when the nicotine litigation is over and the last greenbacks have fluttered into their appointed piles, soft Havanas will nestle together in their humidors and briars will line up in their walnut racks. And the son of a bitch who steps outside the foundry door for a smoke and brief respite from a punch press that could kill him in a heartbeat will have to come up with five bucks a pack to pay for the whole fucking deal.

Little changes. Not raw material or work itself. The new work is less physical, but its essential character is the same. Somewhere at the beginning of every epoch and empire people do repetitive labor. And raw material simply succeeds itself.

Assume a massive environmental lawsuit. But begin way back at the farms and quarries of the nation's earliest settlers. In time, succeeding generations of workers abandon those rustic sites to go work in the new factories and mills rising across the country. Cities grow. So do mountains of industrial and household waste. The easiest solution is to bury it in those old farms and quarries. Who would care?

Except in time oddities start cropping up. Some are spectacular. Methane burps from a landfill and forms a silent stream, flowing across low ground into the basement of a nearby farmhouse. Kaboom! More common are maladies and chronic complaints traced to a growing list of buried toxins. There is nervous talk about drinking water.

Public uproar finally requires action so Congress comes up with Superfund. The idea is to find whoever is responsible for creating those toxic landfills and make them pay the costs of cleanup. Only when liability can't be pinned down will taxpayers have to pick up the tab.

Hundreds of contaminated sites turn up across the nation. Around them circle indignant citizens, anxious politicians, reformers of all kinds, a nervous batch of potentially culpable polluters, a mishmash of environmental law, and cleanup estimates in the hundreds of billions.

Congress, it seems, has gotten itself off the hook not by coming up with a solution, but by acceding to a different venue. Mass tort litigation will determine the essential questions of every problem, every site. What was in the ground? Who put it there? What was the damage to whom? Who pays how much as a result?

And so the old farms and quarries come full circle, serving yet another new age by supplying its essential raw material: data.

We peck at our keyboards along 10 double rows of four 8-foot tables. There is a vista of downtown. Pigeons cower at our window sills. Peregrine falcons who nest in hutches built for them at the tops of office towers are out hunting, spiraling in and out of the sun and shadowed canyons.

Three Burmese women listen to earphones and sway in unison while they code. A woman asks that someone please return the chair she needs to ease her sore back. A man stands to shake crumbs and lint from his keyboard. The man across from him looks up. The first man holds his keyboard across his chest and says, "Any requests?" The second man says, "Lady of Spain."

We go back to work.

Today I am hooked up to my new Walkman. I am going to see if I can achieve detachment from the content of my documents. Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major fills my head.

Down my row waves of pages roll. Monitors tops are decorated as totems with coins, feathers, dried flowers, and seed pods. Gummed labels of supermarket fruit are stuck to the frames of screens.

My folder today is full of laboratory accounts of procedures testing potentially toxic materials. The chief participants are Sprague Dawley rats. All have led privileged lives. They are at the peak of health, well groomed and in comfortable, individual quarters. Feeding is ad libitum, meaning whenever they choose.

Earlier, on the news, an announcer reported that in Wisconsin, employees had forced an election to gain union representation at a rural Wal-Mart. The result is 54 to 27 against unionization. It is the first vote in the U.S. at a Wal-Mart store.

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