"And I miss you."
Campfire crackles firefly up; sky above seems speckled already. Chandelier crystal reflections - no cloud between me and black.
I reach to my left, crack the cooler lid and grab the penultimate longneck.
"But I suppose you know that already."
Embers glow. Behind me, there is a sleeping bag stretched out in the lee of a ute, mat and biv prepared. I’m just making my peace before this last turn of the world. Pep is snoring already, belly-on to the orange, four legs splayed, tongue lolling.
I kill off the last of the foam and throw the empty into the char.
"And I don’t suppose you’ll ever hear me say."
What would it be like to think nothing all day? Some people would find it very agreeable. Certain jobs would become far easier. Debt collector. Soldier. Mortician. Sewer cleaner. Wake up; turn up; switch off.
What about when we don’t need to? All of the 3D jobs* will become automated, sooner or later. Real automatons, not the minimum wage human facsimile.
What happens then? Where do those people go, and how do they eat? The jobs get done; who benefits? The companies providing these services? Perhaps not. They will drop their costs; as labour falls out of the equation, profits will increase. But undercutting will begin, margins will fall, and the robots will end up making owners no more money. The service buyers. They will benefit. Their services will be provided at a far lower cost, and by workers who will never strike and never complain. Thanks, Robby.
But say the buyer’s job has been taken by the local ED-209. They won’t have the means to afford the service in the first place.
What happens then? Do we end up rationalising ourselves out of existence, or do we keep people in minimum wage drudgery because we can’t figure out a way for economics to work otherwise?
Lifting dustbins sucks. Beating sheet metal sucks. Scrubbing other people’s faeces sucks. If an automated, unthinking machine could do these things, imagine what we could release. All those man (and woman) hours spent on creativity - generating economically unproductive happiness.
More automation should mean less work. I struggle to see how we have ended up making that a bad thing.
* 3D = dangerous, dirty, dull
She slammed left. Over the chainlink, down the drainpipe, gap the alley, sprint over the open rooftop (crouch low), roll behind the vent, onto knees, hang from the ledgefor a fraction (pulse jumping through extended forearms), and backward drop onto the fire escape. Three flights down, slam in (sixth floor), and full-on down the corridor. Shoulder first through a fire door. Internal staircase; over the handrail twice (fourth floor), shoulder leading through another fire door (flung back, booming against the breezeblock), then three doors down …
Tilly sat up at the pounding on the door. Bookmarking the hardback in his lap, he looked across his living room to where the hinges of his oak-panel were rattling under the fist of somebody obviously utterly impatient. Tutting, he set his book down, placed his feet in his slippers, muted the last movement of Mahler’s fourth with an absent handwave, and shuffled to the spyhole. He put his hand to the doorchain, and leant to peer through.
She wiped sweat from her eyebrows, eyes twisted shut as she tried to breathe in through her nose (flared) and blow (o-shape) through her mouth. A soprano’s voice drifted under and around the door, then spiralling violins, abruptly cut off. In the sudden quiet, she heard the dragging, carpeted footsteps of an elderly man at home. She unhitched the nylon pouch on the right-hand side of her belt, slid the autosyringe out (steady, steady). Her left hand went to another pouch, tugged out a surgically-wrapped needle. Tearing the antibacterial wrap (whiff of hospital sterile; split-second thought of mom) she joined the two together, and readied them at the convex eyehole. The diamond tip of the needle caught in the hallway’sfluorescent. Two shadows cast forward at the gap below the door. She took a breath. Held it. The spyhole went black; occluded (do it he’s there do it). She exhaled and shoved the syringe forward as hard as she could.
Let’s put nightmares out to tender. Let’s sell the insides of our brains. Let’s make all the things that we imagine lots for auction, hawked off to the highest bidder. The psychically deficient, the visualisationally challenged, they’ll pay.
You spend enough of your time thinking about making money, you forget how to make images and sounds and locations appear in your sleep.
Your nights are spent floating through chessboard landscapes, the white and black averaged out to overlapping squares of grey as far as the third eye can see. All the sky is currency, and all the wind is numbers. The moon is one great, giant zero, staring from the bottom of your trading account.
That’s when you realise that the waking world is turning grey, too. Pigments slipping away, sensations following. Returning to your monochrome house too late to see your monochrome children awake; mechanically fucking your monochrome wife; your monochrome commute to your monochrome office; swallowing glass after glass after glass of monochrome spirit to try to shatter the rims over your eyes and let some colour in somewhere, anywhere.
Money rich; dream poor.
In living we still bear the oak of dying.
He breathed on the lens of the camera before he took the shot. Thought about wiping it clean, again, but only had his sweater cuff and didn’t want to introduce any possibility of a scratch to the milled German precision optics.
He took the shot. The water’s surface completely still; black; glassine. Perfect.
His sweater began swatting against him as a breeze picked up, rocking the small dinghy and setting up wobbles and ripples across the lake. He had been just in time.
Mountains troubled him. Folded rock; rumpled earth. Geographic, geologic processes worked all wrong there: freeze/thaw left rough jagged edges. Where he wanted to be, where he felt much more comfortable, where he could stop picking and chewing at his nails, was at the shore. That calmed, placated him. The rolling and jostling in the breaks made, eventually, perfect ovoids from even the hardest rock. If only the waves themselves could be made flat; the surf becalmed.
At home, surrounded by multi-layered, many syllabled flouropolymers. Smoother than anything produced by nature. Polytetraflourethylene, polyvinylflouride, polyethylenetraflouroethylene. Frictionless, dry, sterile at the molecular level. Made for the space race, of course, what became his wipe-clean surfaces should have been shearing through the atmosphere cleanly, leaving no turbulence. Touching nothing and being touched by nothing. Not even the thin air they were in.
The opposite of his beautiful, American-lab-made kitchen coatings (clean) was the city (unclean). So many sticky, scraped, shuffling things, everywhere. When he wandered its streets, he couldn’t help noticing how horribly organic it all was. Of course, he had been to the museum, seen its unrelenting sprawl from above in twee dioramas. Fishing village turns to trading port turns to colonial provincial capital, and on and on. Just grown - without any plan at all! And now - as he turned around himself, head tipped to see the peaks of the City banks gleam - it was everywhere, and unending, and irredeemable. Watching from above, he thought, staring up at the millionaires’ viewdecks, it must seem like an infernal hive. Insects scurrying along pheromone trails. Or vermin back and forth through tunnels. GPS trackers active in every tailored suit pocket, cell towers triangulating on every handbag. Trace those, he thought, mind spinning to an imagined control room, trace those and you could recreate the city plan. Each telephone signal a light on a black background; Oxford Street a cable-thick trunk; Piccadilly Circus a seething cauldron; Hyde Park a chasm crisscrossed by strollers’ paths, ribbon-thin and campfire-spark bright.
He had heard, or read, or perhaps just it had just been a black-and-white photograph in a film magazine that had lodged in his memory, about how special effects shots had been produced, back before VFX and Pixar and server farms. Spaceships, space stations, and the like. Models, of course. The technique was to rough out the substrate, plank together the balsa or the carbon fibre or such. Next came the functional components: the light-speed power drives, or space lasers, or other nonsense. After that, once they had created whatever box-, dart-, or disc-shaped marvel for their intergalactic adventures, clean and sharp and idealised, they would glue on irrelevant surface details. Cubes; windows; pipes; corners; foliations. They called them greebles. The thought of it. Taking an slick, atmosphere-cutting surface, and - on purpose - adding intricacies, depths, angles, corners, edges, crenellations. Shudder. Clench fists. Cold fingers and wet palms.
He had the photograph blown up and printed on glossy professional quality paper, then framed in black aluminium. After hanging it in his flat, he looked at his collection in turn. He supposed that a casual viewer, some interloper, would think that they appeared identical, or at least a number of shots of the same object. But what object? He had gone to some effort to make them appear so, but each was a photograph of a different thing or place. There was cut obsidian, mined in Armenia and polished in Antwerp; black gabbro, reflecting away the light it could not absorb, from a blank face of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington; the frontispiece of the newest Apple iPad, unsullied with epidermal grease, shot on a cavernous production line in Shenzen. And this latest, the surface of an English Lake District mere, still and blank. Scree-grey, the day had been, he recalled, the carpet of cloud descending almost to touch the fells about his dinghy. It had been an unsettling sensation as he sat, waiting for the marks on the surface from his oars to fade. Like being in the centre of an amphitheatre, or - yes - a city square. The sense of crowding, towering presence on all sides.
But that organic growth was really as organic as those DuPont lab-grown materials, wasn’t it? The placement of those corporate headquarters and monuments and cathedrals, avenues and yards and lanes was actually as calculable as molecular formulae. Or a set designer’s fake details, his nurnies and greebles. Now, because scale plastic models glued all over with cutoff Airfix was a twentieth century bygone, surface detail such as that was generated by computer, by algorithm. Calculated randomness; fractal redundancy. And so it was with the city, seen from above just another scale model. Korzybski and Borges had it right, except that they had never seen CAD or RenderMan. Now the model was the territory. Run an algorithm, calculate a set of paths. Generate a machine-intelligence swarm of insects, run them loose between honeypots and breeding areas, map those paths according to six-limbed footfall, build a Starbucks on either side of the the fattest.
He woke abruptly. His dream had placed him on the ground, very small. He had been standing on a giant rubber sheet. White elastic underfoot, stretching in all directions to the horizon. He had become aware of vibration; rhythmic thudding. The noise grew, and as it became louder the rubber took up vibrations underneath him. The amplitude grew greater and greater, pitching him up and down, higher and higher. In an instant the noise became very loud behind him, and, turning, he saw a huge, grotesquely enraged Tetramorium ant with mandibles raised. Its carapace black, slick, reflective. Jaws outstretched and reaching. He flung himself back, arms reaching, and, for one instant, one hundred thousand reflections of his own horrified face filled his vision as the giant head swept down to attack. Back in his room, he reached for the bedside lamp, pushed back his cotton sheet, felt sweat roll off him, and all over, a crawling.
There’s a dread that comes, a fully enveloping and quickly overwhelming morbidity that comes from the experience of being buried alive.
Not literally. Not ashes-to-ashes, horror movie, Uma Thurman karate punch buried. Although how terrible that would be. Paralysed; trapped in a new and motionless body eight feet long and made of pine. Imagine! The breathlessness. The fading of all peripheral noise. And the sensation, the unavoidable and utterly perceptible weight.
I think that’s what gets to me most. There’s nothing natural at all about it - when we look at most parts of modern life I suppose that’s true - but the concept of involuntarily descending a moving staircase, to an overheated plastic and steel cylinder, where your every notion of a comfortable distance from other corporeal beings is destroyed — well, one struggles to think of any present-day ritual so overtly Dantesque. Oyster gates as TFL’s electronic Cerberus.
The heat. The rudeness. Even, up to a point, the bad breath I could have excused. What made me feel as if I was covered in lice, what made my fingers feel as if they had turned inside out from the nails on up, skin marching up my arm, was the silence.
My train came to a complete stop somewhere between King’s Cross and Highbury and Islington. It was the street sweepings of the rush hour and the train before had been very busy. Ours had already lingered at KX, awkwardly hanging out in the hope of picking up a few more passengers like a shy partygoer reluctant to join the dancefloor alone.
The train stopped in the tunnel. My ears were empty; it had been raining and I hadn’t wanted to risk my headphones in the wet. The lights from inside the carriage were the only things to illuminate the walls inches from the windows on each side, cables passing like bodybuilders’ veins. The noise of the train, electric hum and mechanical scream, drained away. Like tinnitus, or far off sirens, it was the kind of noise only noticed in its absence. The implied weight pressed above. The standing meat around me pressed on all sides.
Breath. Silence. Utter stillness. Like being underwater. Qualitatively opposed, the utter opposite, of the silence audible in wilderness.
And creeping in - like a virus; like steel under toenails - the arachnid scratching of earphone beats, treble worming out of iBuds into me.
A man gets on a train. Door opens automatically, bags come off in the hands of empty-faced travellers. Business smart strides impatiently down the platform. Pencil skirts followed by trundling cases; overcoats led by briefcases.
He stands for a second, at the head of the carriage. Looking for that one seat.
Do you believe in pre-determination? Not fate, or a destiny cooked up by a judging god. Determination: the certainty of a domino’s fall, given the toppling of a hundred others standing behind it. Probability: the spinning of a wheel; the accumulating, remorseless statistical prediction afforded by complex modelling.
When you reduce it down, it’s really a matter of clockwork. Gears turn, cogs click, springs unwind, and hands tick. Regular. Planets spin, galaxies turn, and the universe expands. It is all dictated by predictable, repeatable, reliable, measurable laws of physics.
Boil physics down, and you get chemistry. Boil chemistry down, and you get biology. Scale it all back up again, and you get clockwork. Start the universe again, with the same laws of physics, and it will play out exactly the same way. Give it four point five billion years, and one small planet will form from the crap swirling around one small sun. Give that another one point three billion years and germs will start to grub from the goop on its surface. And from there, it’s just a matter of time, chemical interaction, and physical laws. Oh, there are some hiccups along the way. Chicxulub. Tunguska. ELEs keep life down for a few million years. But what flung those vengeful rocks, what caused their path across the heavens and through space so neatly as to intersect with the one repetitive circle of this tiny planet’s orbit? No eschatologist; no moralising deity. Just the endless ticking of the clockwork universe.
Sidestepping to avoid a particularly large suitcase preceding an equally oversize owner, he checks the seat number on the ticket he booked five weeks previously.
And where this becomes apparent at the level of our own repetitive circlings, where it affects us, is all the time and everywhere. The entire universe’s expansion, cooling, coagulation, its genesis and evolution has always been predictable. Sooner or later, someone was going to work out the variables and the functions and the numerators, and that person would plug all of those vicious numbers into a glittering tower of a soulless machine. And from there. Well. All action, after all, is human. And all human thought is a matter of biochemical impulse.
And accurate enough modelling, he muses, as he settles into his seat and unfolds his tablet, can predict any number of physical, chemical interactions. He studies a triptych of charts on the small screen, fingers flicking over its multi-touch interface.
Dark stockings, a pinstriped skirt, and a shock of blonde hair slides into the seat opposite him, draping a beige pea coat over the table between them.
Her head snaps up, startled; her face shows shock, then recognition, then fear.
The latest model really was showing tremendous results.
I wonder at what point I stopped disliking specific individual people and started disliking, just - well, people. I used to dislike this one guy. You know the type. Quiet. Wouldn’t speak up in meetings. Always fiddling with his pen - I remember this, because he used a fountain pen. I mean, a fountain pen? Pretentious. Obviously thought he was better than everyone around him. But wouldn’t come out and say it - he’d just sit there, fidgeting, taking the metal cap off the pen and putting the metal cap back on. Never speaking up, never disagreeing. Weak.
I disliked him a lot.
But then, I suppose, once you start fixating on one person you don’t like, you start to notice the other people around you. They’re hardly perfect, are they? That one lady, she puts her eyedrops in right at her desk. There in front of you. I disliked her. Leaning back, squeezing those lenses out, dripping the solution into her big, droopy, red-rimed eyes. Inconsiderate. My neck felt thick, constricted; blood clanging to my face.
And the other one? Eats in front of her computer. Slurping away. Typing with one hand. Crumbs in the keyboard. Stinking the place out. Disgusting.
And that man next to me on the train yesterday. Dandruff. I disliked him. I told him. Who does he think he is?
The old man this morning, scuffed shoes and the buttons on his shirt in the wrong holes. Doesn’t he have a mirror? Doesn’t he give a shit about how he looks? About the people who have to see him?
Unclean. I hate them. Breathing fetid air from their unwashed mouths over their cracked lips into my lungs. I could be infected with their diseases. Infected with their apathy.
Television: an under-analysed word. Watching from afar, often alone, often in the dark; less immediately unsettling because of electronic mediation and ubiquity. She never made that leap herself, preferring to think of the voices and shapes leaving the wires and circuits as companions. “Oh, I don’t really watch it,” she’d say, shaking her head around, eyeballs tracking the screen all the while. “It’s just on for a bit of background noise.”
She didn’t seem to realise that sitting in that gloom, motionless, ticking down her hours and minutes inert, absorbing everything about the slowly moving figures through that lens - she made it so much easier for me to watch her.
Lately I’ve been screaming from Land’s End.
Symbolism’s sake. I empty my lungs from here into the Celtic Sea and wonder. Sound is a propagation of compressions and rarefactions; shouting myself hoarse, the waves I set up have nothing to stop them before they hit - where? Nova Scotia? New York City? Florida? Cuba?
I imagine the sounds of New York dying away, every car horn and subway screech disappearing and the collected millions of mouths closing at once. Every machine shop, telephone and amplifier cutting out within a second of each other. Still air suddenly silent. Just in time for my shouts, distant at seven thousand miles, to rattle windows; to shake eardrums; to become audible across the five boroughs.