We don’t live there, but we’re not far away. We’ve been lucky in an idiosyncratically human way. There was a time, in the early days of digital technology, when the workings of these new machines were beyond our understanding. Strangely – or perhaps inevitably, given human nature’s weakness for mystery – that drew us in. A whole generation accepted the complexity of the new technology as the price of the simplicity it seemed to offer. But it was as if, in return for mystifying us, we gave computers power over us. We wanted them to run our lives.
We mistake inscrutability for wisdom. For a time, computers ran everything: our healthcare systems; our transport infrastructure; our communications and our finances. Algorithms told policy-makers about human behaviour; databases updated doctors on our medical conditions; at the simplest level, even the judicial system automated itself – speeding fines, for example, were levied by machines on the evidence of automated cameras. Aircraft began to land themselves; empty trains travelled to where they would be needed. Machines oiled themselves in silent factories*.
We began to build self-driving cars and intelligent roads. We remembered the Turing Test, whereby a machine would pass as a human, and now we spoke of the Singularity, whereby a machine would surpass a human. We spoke of these more readily as milestones to be passed, than as dangers to be avoided. And as we spoke of the future, all the complexities of the present – of the machines; of the lives we had once lived – became hidden. Generations grew up for whom every task could be undertaken by the simple expedient of tapping a screen. 3D printers took over manufacture for us; intelligent assistants flipped every switch for us; machines not only ran but lived our lives for us.
Near-anarchy. And everything became argument. Detached now from the physical world, with no challenge left for us to face, with every creative achievement mediated by a machine, we sat at our screens projecting our own frustrations onto the world around us. We attacked each other as though other people were figments of a hostile “Them” that existed nowhere outside our own hazy sense of injustice; we defended our rights angrily, although they were not under threat except in our own minds, and many of us came to need the fight. It became a lightly done thing, a ready impulse, to sign up for a cause. Much good was done in those times, but at the price of a discontent that brought us to near-anarchy.
Then madness brought sanity. Suddenly, at the end of a short debate that was charged more by emotion than reason, prompted more by the MPs’ self-interest than the public interest, a government of the time, riding a wave of public anger, made it illegal to distinguish between people on the basis of gender or ethnic origin. In any way whatsoever. Even gender-indicative pronouns were to be phased out. Reaction was swift, hostile and loud (as it was to everything, back then). But governments do not admit mistakes, opposition to the new Act split into factions, and inevitably, given the mood of the time, that opposition provoked a countervailing movement (array of factions) in support of the new Act. The government did not fall; the Act was not repealed.
Blurred boundaries. The Act was, perhaps, the “Act of Madness” that some suggested, but it is the clearest marker of the new beginning – it was the idiosyncratically human stroke of luck. Scholars have struggled to explain what happened next. Some suggest that there was already a strong undercurrent of public feeling against exclusion of any kind; others to the launch of the #AllOfUs movement (which was responsive not causative, surely?). [There is even an argument that the Left-Handed Rights campaign, which in its short life achieved the banning of handles and grips moulded for right-handed use, also served to draw attention to so-called “invisible minorities”.]
We all agree, though, that the new Act succeeded in blurring a boundary that had become an obstacle to mutual understanding. “You can’t run a fence down the middle of equality,” was a saying of the time.
It is scarcely believable now that the not-so-gradual repurposing of the word “populist” – to refer to people in the way that the word “feminist” had referred to a gender-identified subdivision of the people – took some observers by surprise. But the crucial point here is not the speed of the change, but its substance. The old movement, feminism, had expressed so much injury, so much injustice, so much resentment, that on a superficial analysis, a simple change in the law should not have been enough to bring about such a transformation. But it did, and the reason for that was, crudely, we were all newly able to share the pain. There is a technological explanation for this, of course, and we'll get to that. But first, let us further explore the human aspects. They were important too.
Humanity found. This was a long-overdue time of boundaries crossed and broken down; it was a time when we began to discover how to find peace before conflict; how to share ourselves in ways that had not been possible when we had defined ourselves by difference. It was a time, we can now say, when we began to look for similarity and found empathy. We were beginning, in that time, to reach out to each other in ways that seem commonplace now but were unheard-of then. “We were all feminists then; we are all populists now,” was a transitional slogan. It was a brave time.
Yes, the first populists – in the new sense – belonged to the same subdivision of people as had populated the old feminist movement. But the Act, mad as it might have been, stroke of unintended luck, had opened us up to each other. We embraced this opportunity to be together. The People’s Institute increased its membership by a third in a month; the popular podcast and radio programme People’s Hour reported a doubling of its audience in a single audit period. So much hurt – suddenly shared. A dam broken.
Dressed for tech. So far, so idealistic. It would be good to believe that human nature achieved harmony on its own. But this is where technology finally proved its worth. First, the Summer Heatwaves of the early 2020s saw the launch of [gender-neutral] Cool Clothing – a brand name, but it neatly summarises a durable fashion; whatever the influences from other cultures might or might not have been, whatever the PR and marketing that convinced us, we all began to wear “Summer dresses” back then, and we still do. Intelligent dresses. It is, in both senses, Cool to do so.
Then, using a combination of biotech and quantum-generated AI, drawing on lessons learned during those early abortive attempts to evolve sentient cars, a small start-up company based in an industrial park on the edge of Peterborough, then unknown, without venture-capital financing, launched its initial range of Mood Fabric. Initial response was cautious – mood disclosure via clothing made from the fabric was involuntary – but then, shortly afterwards, came the company’s first range of defensive clothing. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Almost overnight, gender-related interpersonal violence became a thing of the past. After all, what would-be attacker could get past a defensive release of pheromones and relaxants? All violence began to decrease, mental health to improve, as intelligent clothing hit the mainstream and our emotional states became visible.
When the UK’s Ministry of Defence placed a bulk order for uniforms woven out of Peace Fabric, the world did change overnight. We can signal our own and respond to each other’s moods and desires: we can reject and disarm violence; we can extend warmth and understanding in bulk to whole regiments of would-be enemies; above all, we can negotiate (an archaic word, but still useful) our interactions and relationships on the basis of mutual understanding. To wear clothing that doesn’t signal our feelings is not illegal, because it doesn’t need to be: given what technology can do for us now, it would be absurd not to wear our hearts on our sleeves.
As a diplomat was heard to say, in the brief interval between the Five-Minute War and the Three-Day International Love-In And Peace Conference, “The only real change is that we’re all on the same side.” But what a difference that is, and all because technology finally helped us to be the people that we needed to be.
*This sentence a fragment of a poem that I can’t find right now, in my clumsy translation from the original German. A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, I think.
I can hear seagulls. There’s a cruise ship in, smaller than they usually are, reversed in against the dock. Smoke – steam? – rising from its funnel. I think later I might do some research on the correct (not exactly technical) terms I really should know already, if I’m going to start the day’s writing with a description of a short white cruise liner tied up in Falmouth and blowing off steam. Maybe it’s about to leave. It was here yesterday and they don’t stay long. Looming up over Events Square like a sudden apartment block.
Steam. The seagulls are still arguing and I’m sitting here looking out at an innocuous white cruise ship with a mental image of men shovelling coal into furnaces. I think maybe I should cut down on the film-watching. It’s a bright morning. Sun glittering on water. There’s a whole world outside. On that ship, people are waking up, and maybe a few of them are rolling aside the cannons and peering out of the gun-ports – sorry, looking out of their windows – portholes, I can say portholes, I think – at the sunlit townscape going up the hill I front of them.
Swag. Maybe somebody’s sitting over toast and tea and writing a description of the morning view of the town into a journal. Maybe there’ll be photographs in which I’m a tiny undetectable micro-pixel in a window-shaped blur. Or maybe they’re all huddled round their devices picking up the latest developments in the Trump presidency. Smaller cruise ships tend to be marketed as exclusive, high-end, whatever, blah-blah, pay more, get more, fewer passengers, et cetera, so I think it’s a safe bet they’ll all have state-of-the-art technology. Maybe they’re all huddled round preparing to meddle in the US mid-term elections.
Would they be immune from prosecution, if they did their meddling while in international waters? Wow – all this going on and I haven’t even had breakfast. Imagine the Bursar – Purser, whatever (I see a uniformed man in a small cabin tapping out a Morse Code message about an iceberg) – idly reading a few of the postcards before bundling them all into a sack marked ‘Swag’ and hauling them off to the Post Office.
“Dear children and grandchildren. Wish you were here. Grandad and I have had a lovely morning in Falmouth sewing doubt in the minds of voters in New Hampshire. I’ve marked a cross on the picture to show you where William Essex is writing his blog post. You know what to do. Love, Granny.”
Stumble. Ooh, that’s scary. Even considering that I’m making it up as I go along, spontaneously, never knowing what the next sentence will bring*, et cetera, that’s scary. Brings back a sudden memory of being read Treasure Island as a child, at night (Robert Louis Stevenson, long time ago). Didn’t the whole thing start with the tapping of a stick, heard late at night? And a black mark on a paper? Excuse me if I don’t look that one up (fact-check it, as we say these days); I may have confused more than one bedtime story, but I like the memory as it is.
Let’s all think happy cruise ships. Nice cruise ship. Happy passengers. Innocuous blog post. Blog post about seagulls and sunshine and NOT about stumbling across a massive international conspiracy to subvert democracy. [Anybody here from Facebook: do NOT take this blog post seriously. It is supposed to be FUNNY, which is like fake news but OKAY. No, it is NOT fake news. Nice Facebook. I like Facebook.]
Even the seagulls have gone quiet … maybe too quiet?
*I don’t always write that way, if you’re wondering, hardly ever in fact, but this post seemed to know where it wanted to go. Remember Microsoft’s early tagline, “Where do you want to go today?” Still looking for an answer.