Politics continue as normal, with regular updates from senior politicians on the progress of the negotiations. The BBC airs a prime-time investigative report under the title What are we negotiating about now? and gets its first-ever zero rating. A well-known news anchor is rushed to hospital after complaining of head pains. “I just can’t get the urgency into my voice any more,” he says. “I just can’t do it.” Reports are denied that he had been reading the same headline story off the autocue every fifteen minutes for sixteen hours. “We take care of our staff,” reads a spokesperson from a prepared statement.
Nothing continues to happen. In one twenty-four-hour rolling newsroom, a desperate producer resorts to sending journalists out to find real things that have actually happened and report on them. Two days later, that channel’s 2100 bulletin leads on a bus crash in Wallasey. By 2115 that’s been knocked off the top slot by a freak wave at Cley-next-the-Sea. Footage of the Cromer lifeboat dominates the 2130 update, floodlights and sirens, but by 2145, even that’s been knocked out of the schedule by the live report from the scene of the small fire in the chip shop in Whitby.
The producer’s fired, of course, but his story’s picked up. Next morning, “the day the news agenda went walkabout” runs as the “and finally” item every fifteen minutes across the networks. On Facebook, to everybody’s surprise, the story goes viral. The Campaign For Real News is founded, with the fired producer as head of its news channel, and journalists everywhere start plumbing their smartphones for heartwarmingly realistic-looking stories that could pass as real things happening. News goes local. Fires are started in chip shops.
Four journalists die when the coffee shop in which they’re looking for news is raided by a trigger-happy SWAT team. They have been so busy with their smartphones that they failed to notice the hostage situation building up around them. Another journalist is fired for enticing cats up trees and calling the fire brigade. There are calls for a new Code of Conduct for news, but these are ignored by the news channels. Principal photography begins for the documentary about the making of the film about “the day the news agenda went walkabout” - on a sound stage in Berkeley, California.
Meanwhile, in a parallel world similar to the one in which you’re reading this, the first wifi-enabled cat’s eyes are installed on the M25. London’s orbital motorway is already coated in recycled plastic, in which is embedded a “smart comms lattice” carrying road-sign information, traffic-density reports and any emergency warnings via wifi and bluetooth to autonomous cars. Reaction is immediate. An MP calls for a ban on “lewd and immoral” behaviour in the tipped-back front seats of “driverless cars”, as he calls them.
Two late-night TV shows are launched, Naked at the Wheel and Driving Attraction, and there are calls for drones to be banned from the airspace above motorways. The driving-seat passenger of an autonomous car is successfully prosecuted for painting over the windows of his car, but several new models on show at the Paris Motor Show dispense with seats altogether - passengers in these cars will share one “couch”. The driving test is abolished; car owners must pass a basic IT-proficiency test before taking to the road.
A baby is born in a traffic jam on the M11 just south of Cambridge. Road-haulage operators diversify, offering creche facilities and kitchens on their car transporters. “Just sync your car with our vehicle and drive up the ramp,” says the advertisement that runs on car dashboards. It shows a young couple getting up from the couch to hit the red button and do just that. Docking’s automatic, so they don’t even have to dress before picking up their lattes from the machine in the car transporter's kitchen. On the road around them, drones pursue cars, carrying takeaway orders as well as high-definition cameras.
The English government unveils a massive infrastructure project: over five years, every road in England will be coated with wifi-enabled recycled plastic. The Scottish government announces a similar project, but with a four-year time-frame. Wales announces that roads will be replaced entirely with plastic, but only as they wear out. Prices of recycled plastic soar on the Baltic Exchange; trawlers returning from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch report a thinning in the plastic cap - “plasticbergs” are breaking off. There are warnings of a shortage of waste plastic.
Armageddon arrives, heralded by pictures of young women in Summer dresses cooling themselves in Paris fountains. Large parts of the planet’s surface become uninhabitable to warm-blooded mammals. Insects start to mutate. A video clip goes viral, in which a termite kills and eats a crocodile. Students on campuses across Asia riot against climate change while world leaders debate the terms of a declaration that they will commit to reversing climate change. A tall thin figure in a black hooded cloak carrying a scythe is decisively no-platformed when he arrives uninvited to address a graduation ceremony at a small college in the southern United States.
Sea levels have risen now, and there is no ice at the poles. As the water continues to warm, dense fog forms over land and sea. This baffles meteorologists, who know more about the formation of fog than I do. Aircraft are grounded; only the autonomous cars keep buzzing around, although the fog soon gets into their electrics. The world falls silent, and then, in the deep silence, we hear the sound of horses galloping towards us.
*From the Guardian and Observer style guide, an entry on cheese. “Normally lower case, even if named after a place: brie, camembert, cheddar, cheshire, double gloucester, lancashire, parmesan, stilton, wensleydale, et cetera.” Eat that, spellcheck.
What rules our lives? Not the people on the screen, nor the colleagues of my friend who works on the local council. Works - represents. We’ve somehow accidentally built an amorphous, invisible, distributed dictatorship of the mind that treats us as - fools? I went to Facebook yesterday, for example, and there was a post telling me to bring home plastic waste from the beach, but not sea life. Well, yeah. If I wasn’t going to do that anyway, would I do it because I’d been told?
I go to work, or the doctor, or just about anywhere, and there’s a poster about “safequarding”, which is like caring for people except that it’s a series of processes to be gone through. Thinking not feeling; there’s no injunction to “feel”. The significant verb on the safeguarding poster is “assess”. Yes, I agree that we need to care for children and vulnerable adults. No, there’s no argument against safeguarding. But do I care enough to do it, just because I’ve seen the poster?
Where are our hearts in all this? Where are our minds? There - first sound of the day. Not a seagull, nor the dawn chorus; it’s a distant car alarm. As so often happens when a car alarm goes off, we’re all rushing out of our houses to prevent the car being stolen. Not.
I have a DBS form - Disclosure and Barring Service - which certifies that I’m not a criminal. Officially. Nobody asked me, but there are databases somewhere. I remember the time I looked up the information that some online shopping entity held about me, and found that its algorithm had me pegged as a Spanish woman in her - my - mid-thirties.
Crimes aren’t committed by people who declare themselves in advance. I can see the point of DBS forms, can't argue against them, but would you trust me, because I’ve got one?
You would? Really? In that case...
Ah, here we go. The day’s first trip to Facebook. A post reading, in white type on a purple square: “I have known for years there are no gurus on this earth - just YOU.”
I have spoken. We’re here.