The men in the white coats looked down on us from their windows. They had clipboards and were continually taking notes. What about, I had no idea; although I imagined it has something to do with us. The ‘us’ was a group of about 75 people, milling around aimlessly in a massive warehouse of a room. We all had bald heads and were wearing rough gray garments like a group of medieval monks. I had no idea what we were doing here. I mean, I know why I was there, but I had no idea what I was accomplishing by being there. I didn’t know what the men in the white coats wanted from me.
I’d been here for three weeks. I’d been incarcerated by make-believe lab technicians. Three weeks earlier, I’d been a god, CEO of a successful and growing company. I ate in the best restaurants, surrounded by the best people. But three weeks later? Three weeks later, I was trudging around in a rough smock, pointlessly circling an empty room, and eating the plain bread and water that the lab coats seemed to think was food.
Others had come and gone in the time I’d been here. Others had figured out what those men wanted. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t work out the logic in my situation.
It had all started a little over two months ago. I’d been at an industry conference. I work in digital security. But I wasn’t just one of the participants, I was the keynote speaker and it was an industry CEOs conference. And I wasn’t just any kind of keynote speaker, I was the kind of keynote speaker who dashes into a conference at the last minute, puts on a song and dance and escapes out a back door before any of the regular CEOs can waste his precious time. It was quite an awarding experience. But it was entirely appropriate. My company was going places, it was taking risks, it was establishing new ground. The attendees were really nothings in comparison. None of them had real spark to them. They were just your standard issue lemmings; showing up at my presentation just so they could be near real greatness; as if listening to a lecture could somehow impact the drive they fundamentally lacked. Whether it was a lack of talent or a lack of hunger, they didn’t have what it took to take on the world. I knew it, and so did they.
The first signs of trouble weren’t long in coming. A man like me makes his living off information. Be it up-to-the-minute revenue reports or streams of industry content, I live off data and my ability to digest it, filter it and act on it at super-human speeds. So I get a lot of information. Well, I had gotten a lot of information. I actually had a team that provided it to me. Fifteen analysts, collecting whatever they thought was relevant (each in their own domain) and then three gatekeepers ensuring there was no duplication in the news feed that sustained me. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it. The relevant bit ticked past my screen in a millisecond “You have received a TSRAT score warning.”
I had no idea what a TSRAT score was and so I simply disregarded the message. I just kept going with my day. I was a busy man.
But the TSRAT score didn’t just go away.
The next message came a few days later. My driver had been racing me home, as he always does. I hate to waste time in the car. I hadn’t really noticed what was going on, but I guess there were a few horns. Anyway, I got home and then I was texted again “You have received a second TSRAT warning.”
I remember what I thought then. “Why the hell do I care?”
I was on the verge of firing that particular analyst when I decided to ask him: “Why the hell do I care?” It wasn’t very hard to do. I have a single button on my phone that sends that phrase instantly. It is generally a prelude to getting a new lemming. Sometimes (well… often), my people can be such incredible idiots. But there’s a reason they’re followers and I’m the leader.
The analyst didn’t do the smart thing. He didn’t simply stop sending me stupid TSRAT notices. Instead, he actually replied, “I’ve heard bad things happen to people who don’t care.”
He forgot, I’m not ‘people.’
I decided to ignore him.
But he didn’t learn his lesson and shut up about the TSRAT. The next day, he sent another message “Your Total Social Rating Assessment & Analysis (TSRAT) score has risen again. The Assessors say they’re going to go public if you don’t respond.”
I hit the “Why the hell do I care” button. This time, the analyst wasn’t stupid enough to actually reply. Maybe one of the other lemmings actually warned him what would come next.
I almost wish he had responded though. I mentioned that I get live cash flow updates, right? Well, I got one right then. A sudden dip in revenues. It was totally out of the blue. A 5% drop from normal averages adjusted for time of day, season and all the rest. At first I just dismissed it as bad modeling. Not every predictive forecast can be perfect. But, an hour later, the deviation was 10%. Something was seriously wrong. Not only that, but the stock price of the company took an immediate 25% dive. 25% of the equity I’d created, had been wiped out in a few minutes.
Suddenly, all the analysts were talking about the TSRAT. The TSRAT this, the TSRAT that. I flicked on the TV for an outsider’s perspective. And there it was, on CNBC: “TSRAT issues notice about LOCK-ME Inc. CEO James Buffalo.”
I had no idea what the hell was going on.
They explained it. The TSRAT was some kind of social score. I didn’t really know what the point was, as I saw it – you get the sheep in the world to want your product and you make money. It’s that simple. Social value scoring systems are a joke to make the stupid feel happy about themselves. But, for some reason, it wasn’t working quite right. Everybody – well, a lot of people – seemed to care about this TSRAT score.
It was when I looked up a list of previous targets that I knew what the ‘Assessors’ were up to. These people had a product. Some sort of idiotic social pressure. But the customer wasn’t the public. The customer was me. They were going to “assess” me until they bled me dry. I’d pay them whatever they wanted and they’d back off. It was the classic business model: you get the sheep in the world to want your product and you make money. They were just more brutal than even I had been.
But I wasn’t a sheep. And I knew they’d learn that rather quickly.
5 minutes later, using my home studio, I was on CNBC. A minute after that, I was railing against whoever in the hell was behind this TSRAT thing. They were a bunch of scamming bastards, ginning up business by blackmailing successful people like me. And I wasn’t going to stand for it. I had a product people needed. Anybody who didn’t care for blackmail, the customers and investors I wanted would keep buying. My company was bigger than these two-bit hacks. I wasn’t desperate, I wasn’t begging. I was powerful and I was serving my customers.
But it didn’t work.
Somehow, these TSRAT people were taking me apart. By the end of the interview, revenues had plummeted even further. So had the stock price. And this was a problem. I’m a leveraged guy. A highly leveraged guy. It is part of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. The problem with leverage is that bumps in the road can destroy you. If you can’t meet your covenants, or you can’t make your payments, you’re done.
So I stayed up all that night. I wasn’t watching successes unfold. I was watching my world fall apart. Around 11, the lemming sent me a message: “The Assessors say they can fix everything. You just have to meet them.”
I didn’t want to meet them so I decided to figure out who they were. But all I could find was that they were selected on the basis of some sort of analysis of their social media scores. I dug and I dug. I had my people ask every question they could think of. But I worked out exactly nothing. They seemed to be a black box. I had no idea why so many people followed their boycotts.
I hoped I could just outlast it. But I only had 5 days before a significant debt payment was due. And I knew, almost immediately, that I wasn’t going to have the cash. The only good thing was that my lemmings were quitting in droves, cutting my outflows substantially.
It took three days for me to give in. I asked for an address and they gave me one. It led to a massive and hulking warehouse. I entered a dimly lit conference room. And then I waited. I waited for three hours until, finally, a man in a white coat entered the room.
I asked them how much they wanted and they ignored me. I guessed they were just playing for higher stakes. But then they told me they’d make it all stop. All I had to do was stay there, in the warehouse, until they decided I could leave.
I asked if I’d be able to make the monthly debt payment. And they assured me I could. If all else failed, they’d make it themselves. It was an odd form of blackmail. But I had no choice.
I agreed to their terms.
It was then that they took my clothes, my phone and my computer. They shaved my head and then they gave me a rough gray robe. And they left me there, amongst a crowd of other victims. There were no locks on the doors. We were free to leave whenever we wanted. But the implications of that decision were clear.
Others had been there a long time. Their eyes were angry and resentful. They had been there for months. I talked to them. They were lemmings, all of them. None of them knew what was happening or why. Others barely had time to warm up their robes before they left. I never knew who they were in advance, but nobody seemed to shout “I’ve got it” moments before their escape.
The entire time, of course, I worried about what I’ve built. I worried about my business. They interviewed me every day, sometimes several times a day. But I couldn’t figure out what they wanted. I couldn’t seem to negotiate my way out of their trap. I was sure, after a week, that everything I’d built was gone. Nobody else could run my enterprise.
It was during the third week that they let me see something of the outside world. There was a newscast, CNBC again. The idiot lemming who told about TSRAT was being interviewed. He was identified as the “Provisional CEO.”
I watched him for a minute before I realized what the Assessors were showing me. The business was alive. It wasn’t quite flourishing. It wasn’t doing quite as well as it had before. But it was far from dead. The lemming was doing a decent job.
They didn’t ask me any questions that day, they just let me go back to the big room. And so I left, utterly confused about what was going on. I still didn’t know what they wanted.
I went back to the big room, with the others. And I circled. And I thought. And then I had my “ah ha” moment.
I suddenly realized what it is all about. Less than a minute later, they pulled me off the floor.
As I sat in the conference room, the men in the white jackets watched me, waiting for me to speak. And I did. I told them what I’d learned. I told them I’d realized the lemmings aren’t just lemmings and I’m not a god. I told them I realized those around me make everything work. I told them that I recognized, in a flash of insight, that I had defined myself – the core of myself – as a superior being. But then I realized it might not be true. Others might not have had my gifts or drive, but they all could contribute something.
I told them that I knew now that the rest of humanity was not simply made up of lemmings and sheep.
They gave me back my phone. They gave me back my computer. They gave me back my clothes. And then they gave me a small medallion. It had a sequoia, flowing waters, a flying bird and rays of light.
I asked them what it meant and they told me. It represented my rebirth. The sequoia represented deep roots, the waters represented change and renewal, the flying bird represented the ability to rise above the weakness of the world and the rays of light represented the presence of a higher power.
“Because,” they explained, “there is always a higher power.”
And then I walked out of the warehouse, both humbled and raised up.
My business bounced back. The stain of the TSRAT went as quickly as it came. Unlike any other social media boycott, when it was lifted, it was gone without a trace. It was almost like the world around me was rewarding those who found their way through the Assessors’ world.
In the end, I did give the Assessors money. It wasn’t a blackmail payment though. It was a contribution. I contributed so they could help others rise above their hubris.
The Torah Readings of Tazria-Metzora deal with the mysterious ailment of tzrat. It has a few suggestive causes. It strikes stone houses – those with permanence. It seems to be hidden at first, but then revealed. It requires those who are struck to seek out the Kohanim for relief. When it strikes clothes, their fabrics are insulted and lowered. And those who are struck are exiled from the camp and required to say “unclean, unclean” again and again.
There are many discussions about what Tzarat is. I think it was a mold – it could strike buildings, clothes and people. But it had a purpose. It’s purpose was to strike down hubris. Why else would the sufferers need to repeat “unclean” if they are surrounded by other “unclean” people in a place designated for them? Who are they speaking to other than G-d and themselves? Fundamentally, for me, Tzarat would strike those who imagined themselves to be fundamentally greater than those around them. Their belief could come out as Lashon Hara (gossip) or it could take many other forms. Tzarat takes those who suffer from it down a notch. It is in keeping with many other parts of the Torah – parts that emphasize the evils which attend “men of name.”
The TSRAT score in the story does the same thing. The judges are chosen from those who do not exhibit this sort of hubris. And the process is the same as that in the Torah. Those who suffer must seek out experts. They must submit to them. They must accept what they cannot, themselves, diagnose. And they are freed when they recognize their limits.
At the end of the Biblical Tzarat process, a living bird is dipped in the blood of a bird which as been killed over waters of life. It is mixed with cedar, tola’at shani and ayzov. The cedar represents deep roots, the tola’at shani represents G-d’s faith to us and the ayzov represents the ability to flow and change. The water of life represents our ability to be spiritually renewed – water takes away toxins and brings nutrients. Fundamentally, the living bird represents our potential. We can soar towards the skies – a place without death and destruction. But we can only soar if we realize our limits. By dipping the live bird in the dead one, the Tzarat sufferer is shown that he can soar precisely because he has come to understand the limits of his mortal self.