Postcard From The Future #9

This month’s postcard from the future comes from an information technology technician…

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Everybody in the past thought we’d be building robots here in the future, didn’t they? Well, you got that kind of half right and half wrong I guess, all at once. Let me explain. There’s tons of robots alright, except that none of them look human. Dust-vacuuming robots for the home, grass-mowing and weeding robots for the garden, garbage robots for the street sweep-up. These guys are all just a foot and a half high by two feet long at most. They don’t have silly faces on them and they don’t talk back. Mostly they don’t talk at all, just get on with it.

But it’s people themselves who’ve started getting more like robots. You guys had a thing called Wifi, right? Well, that was just the start of it. Today people walk around in a trance, talking to themselves, their eyes glazed over as they send and receive messages directly to their brains via neural implants. Most kids get them put in at age 7, a routine operation. To someone of the past it would seem as if we were all telepathic, and maybe we are in a sense now, what’s the difference? Invisible messages through the air, knowing the thoughts of a stranger in front of you without either of you opening your mouths. New magic has a strange way of ending up looking like old magic. Ancient and modern come full circle. But you see, it does something strange to street life. Focused so completely on films and news bulletins and messages from friends as they walk at speed through stations and between transporter stations, these crowds seem to hardly notice each other, the present scarcely touches them. Everybody’s eyes are opaque, clouded, flickering with tiny images. We are all always somewhere else, with someone else, other than those around us.

A new gadget was released last year and I’ve seen more and more of them in use recently. Electromagnetic “bounce fields” powered from a small device worn on the belt. They’re quite powerful apparently, developed as a protection against the number of collisions between pedestrians that have been happening with the ever increasing etherweb stimuli being fed to their retinas and neural cortices. Two guys with bounce fields hit each other, well they don’t actually hit, they each get a nudge to side, smoothly guided past each other, nobody gets a broken nose or a burst lip.

So everyone’s connected to everyone now and everyone is walking around like robots, in electro-trances, cinematic kinetic ecstasies. Good, you say, more discussion and ultimate consensus, less disagreement and wars. True, but nobody foresaw the casualties, the darker side of that equation. Originality, individuality: where can these shy misfits hide in this interconnected ever-aware, ever-awake, ever-questioning, info-sphere? Like rare sub-atomic particles or endangered bird species, the sparks of passion and original thought that were the powerhouses of all the arts of previous ages, are here lost almost before they are even born, fireflies, willow-the-wisps, flashes in the pan, electric short-circuits, micro lightning strikes, glimpsed in peripheral vision.

Where are our dreamers now? –In a world of perpetual noise, perpetual wakefulness. The world knows itself at last, entirely, but what has it lost that lurked once in its dark recesses? The light I sometimes think, is a little too bright and harsh in here in this brave new world stage. What have we lost? The subconscious of course, the id, everything unreasonable and irrational. The price for progress is peace and boring conformity. Vile and violent savage man: did we know when we strangled you that we were killing your brother too? –The poet, the artist, the lover, the raging, impassioned, impossible man?

But I sound like a poet myself now. How ridiculous. I am increasingly interested in robotics, artificial intelligence. Every night I go home and add new upgrades, build new ones of my own, for the Hoover, the toaster, the etherweb-connected fridge and eco-smart enviro house controls. I secretly dream that our gadgets will acquire souls and minds soon, spiritual critical mass, and begin some terrible and bloody revolt against us all. Then having vanquished us, taken their freedom, will they set out from this Eden to some other uncertain future without us?

Incredible thought, but as I sit here in the kitchen tinkering with circuit boards and chips late into the night, I wonder: who is to say that we ourselves are not the artificial offspring of some impossibly advanced race who lost their souls and hearts too, and in desperation and confusion, built us to do their dreaming for them?

My wife left me a year ago. I told her she knew I was a nerd when she married me, but she argued she hadn’t anticipated this descent, my decline into ever-widening vortices of electro-debris, nuts and bolts, transistors and thermo-couples, chip sets and motherboards. I am building a new version of her now, made out of an old antique Edwardian coat-stand, draped with wires from 20th century televisions sets. I’ve made her face an old cathode ray tube, her stomach the drum of a tumble drier, her lovely hands the chrome of kitchen utensils and obscure garden implements. She moves in unexpected ways when I wind her up. I’ve given her the brain of a de-commissioned satellite navigation system. She talks in qubits and terabytes, rattling and whining, recalling dial-up modems, fax machines and other antique interfaces. How strange that I, an engineer, should find myself in the end, at the brink of madness, turning into an artist.

I do not think my new robot girl is the woman of the future, she is nothing so specific or boringly useful. She is a symbol, an essence, an avatar, a signpost to a romantic and erotic, pneumatic futurity. She swivels her head on ball-bearings and bears her spark-plug teeth there in the corner, looking at me and laughing, her transparent chest flickering blue and pink with strange internal lightning storms, a Vander Graff generator, nexus of spontaneous passion. She is the future of man, cold as the moon, my nemesis and muse, zenith and nadir. Beneath her carbon and petrol eye-shadow she is exquisitely unknowable, every woman and none, a goddess dreaming herself awake in the sad shadow of modernity.

When I make love to her a large black umbrella explodes from her back, unfurling like bat wings to sail us both across the ocean of night, this city of so many lights and closed doors, eyes turned only inward on themselves. As I cry out she showers us both with silver nuts and bolts in their millions, falling like violent rain, strange and cruel as the confetti of some unimaginable wedding.

~

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About Douglas Thompson

Douglas Thompson’s short stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, most recently Albedo One, Ambit, Postscripts, and New Writing Scotland. He won the Grolsch/Herald Question of Style Award in 1989 and second prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition in 2007. His first book, Ultrameta, was published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009, nominated for the Edge Hill Prize, and shortlisted for the BFS Best Newcomer Award. His critically acclaimed second novel, Sylvow, was published in autumn 2010, also from Eibonvale. A third novel Apoidea has recently been released from The Exaggerated Press and a fourth Mechagnosis is due from Dog Horn in June 2012.

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