In my imaginary novelisation of the collapse of Western Civilisation (sic), the fall starts with a series of minor glitches in routine systems that have disproportionately big impacts. Mostly, these are human-nature errors that are taken up and spread all too widely by technology, but there are a few instances of sloppy programming, and one or two where the accident investigators work out that some critical person didn't take ownership of whatever he or she was supposed to be getting just right. Instead did what the car industry used to call a Friday-afternoon job (strictly, the phrase I'm remembering is "Friday-afternoon car").
So a bank's systems start to reject long-standing routine payments, for example. Not all of them, but enough to cause bankruptcies and other awkwardnesses down the line. Welfare payments also stop randomly, and there are deaths from starvation and imprisonments for hunger-motivated thefts - but these don't get as much publicity as the hedge-fund manager embarrassed at the country club because her membership wasn't auto-renewed. Hospital admissions are snarled up, patient records go missing (and if you haven't got records, you can't be treated), and whole fleets of cars are recalled because their wheels fall off when they go above 40mph. That hedge-fund manager kicks up a stink. Then the country club goes bust and important people realise that this is serious.
I'm deliberately not using any real-life examples, although I can't stop thinking of them, because Lessons Have Been Learned and we can rely on those companies (governments) not to do anything like that again. Can't we? And by the way, I'm not making the old-guy point that technology makes us careless and prone not to bother too much about details. We've always been careless, et cetera. It is worth asking: what does technology assume? Because the answer tells us something about ourselves. The boom in audio books tells us that we don't read as much as we did, for example; the success of grammar-checking software suggests that we can't write accurately any more.
I'm not a "grammar nazi" (telling phrase) because I'm okay with the idea that language evolves, and I'm wrong to think that I'm in a dying business - writing this in words rather than speaking it straight to video - because the USA and beyond is full of young people writing fantasy novels and putting them out via Kindle, Kobo, et cetera. Look up Angel Medina ("Aspiring Author") on Facebook, for example. Read him. The "But" that corresponds to the "It is worth asking" line in the paragraph before this one goes like this: "But that's all it does." Technology makes assumptions that tell us about ourselves - but that's all. And even that's just an example of how technology just extends human nature. Towards inertia, or perhaps even laziness, but the point stands. On the plus side, technology extends us towards publishing our fantasy novels.
I'm writing about big human organisations. Those vast corporate entities where, for example, the front-line duty of care to customers is outsourced either to computer systems or to minimum-wage workers (and no offence to them, but they're not exactly incentivised to "take ownership" of their employer's reputation). Western capitalism is a hotel where nobody cares about the state of the rooms nor the timely delivery of room service; where tips are grabbed by the management; where management lives in the penthouse suite and buys in services from outside. What do you mean, you can never leave? You can ride through the rooms on a horse with no name, for all I care, and those people over there are convinced they can burn it all down. No, that's early-morning mist on the water. Put down that guitar - now!
Capitalism, civilisation, back on track. In Chapter Two of my imaginary novelisation, the CEO of a tech giant seethes at the head of a boardroom table. The meeting is about the tiny little errors that have been creeping into the code - that have been exposed in the source code, et cetera - that have been causing minor frustrations for customers - including customers with big social-media followings. Something has to be done. Finally, after listening to the tech people for too long, the CEO bangs the table. The word has to go out that the problem has been fixed. Lessons have been learned. The CEO is doubling the company's social-media and advertising budgets, and he wants to get even bigger celebrities promoting the brand.
The word goes out. Vloggers, bloggers, celebrities are all brought in to bolster the brand and tell the world that everything's fine ... and all the errors and the viruses go on trickling through the system, spreading through the networks, cue sinister music. But Lessons Have Been Learned and the future is bright. By now, the astute reader is beginning to suspect that I have a thing about the way big organisations never quite seem to get it right. And the astute reader is onto something. Big organisations - especially the ones that send me text messages addessed to "Hey William" - never quite seem to get their act together. Chapters Three and Four depict a world in which Everything's Fine, with Business As Usual, and if rising sea levels are beginning to flood low-lying suburbs - yeah, that's really serious, and our PR people are right on it.
I mean, global corporates like ours are teaming up with governments to harness the power of technology in declaring a worldwide campaign against global warming; you can download the declaration to your smart device. We've agreed unanimously - at 11.59 last night, actually, isn't that cool? - that global warming is a bad thing and Action Must Be Taken. Of course our CEO's available for interview, but why don't you save yourself some time by using these pre-approved remarks in your article? What's that? Oh, we'll go along with everything that we all decide to do. Pro-actively, of course. Governments must act, and we'll go right along with what they do. And hey, we're the good guys, right? The CEO demanded an assurance from the tech people that everything was fine with the software. You'll read about it in the media release. Really demanded. They caved in right away.
In Chapter Five, the maverick programmer gets fired from her job (for arguing yet again that they should fix the source code rather than adding more patches), and while wandering in Company Park afterwards, meets the feisty young anthropologist who will be her sidekick through the rest of the book. He's been trying to introduce insects into the park (with its imported trees and underground heating for the exotic plants), and talks excitedly about how it's not too late. By Chapter Six going on Seven, Lessons Have Been Learned to the extent that the electricity grid has failed, the suburbs are under water, and the tech giant has Invested In Excellence to the extent of distributing massive generators around the downtown area (except where it's under water, of course), so that customers can charge their smart devices and keep up with the tech giant's progress in Demanding That Global Warming Must Be Stopped.
By now, the feisty anthopologist and the maverick programmer are living in a beach hut somewhere, and he's convinced her that using nanotechnology to make smart replica insects is not the answer. They've built their beach hut out of washed-up plastic, and now they're working on a boat. One day, using a rod and line, casting from the beach, the anthropologist hauls in something that the programmer has never seen before. Why, it's not made of plastic at all! It's almost ... alive. As the sun comes up over the distant horizon, and that weird music starts up again in the background - they've never been able to track it to its source - he teaches her that there were once fish in the sea, in the time before plastic, and that they could be eaten.
But she flatly refuses to believe that, so - reluctantly - he throws the fish back into the sea and teaches her about vegetables. "I thought apples grew in baskets, in farmers' markets," she says at one point. But no. They light a fire and huddle together under the blanket, watching - the continuity's completely off here - the sun go back down again. Chapter Eight happens, and then Chapter Nine, and by the time sea levels stop rising, they're living in a beach hut on the edge of Las Vegas, which blew all its fuses years ago and is now a deserted tropical paradise, overgrown with trees and creepers and thick green undergrowth. There are lakes, and mangrove swamps, and populations of animals that were either near-extinct or thought to be actually extinct. She's relaxed the vegetarianism to the point where she will eat coelacanth. They're becoming a nuisance.
The novelisation's quite slow in this middle section, but so's the film - critics were divided on the director's decision to tell most of the story in flashback. "There's no tension," said one. "We find out far too early - and it's too obvious anyway - that the world is going to be saved by people working together, in small groups, rather than by governments and big corporates, with their self-interested agendas." And many of them found the ending contrived. I mean - really! The programmer and the anthropologist are sitting on the shore of their reduced America, and they see a boat come towards them over the horizon. It anchors in the bay, and a group come ashore in a launch. They're from somewhere else, and their technology is also something else. Their leader approaches, and says something.
You'll remember the scene. The programmer looks at the leader for a moment, and then offers him a strip of freshly cooked coelacanth. The leader says something, and the programmer shrugs. "De nada," she says. Come on, you do remember the scene. The leader goes back to his people, waiting by the launch, and tells them, in his own language but also in subtitles, "This land is called Denada, and I claim it in the name of the Emperor."
I don't have a video doorbell actually, but any description of my front door would have to include the words "glass" and "can see it easily from". My video doorbell would transmit a picture to my phone, so if I didn't want to look out and see who had arrived, or if I was in my kitchen (with my phone) and didn't want to turn round and see who had arrived, it would be very useful. I like the way you think, algorithm. No, really, I'm not laughing at you at all.
And here's another one. "William, live your best life with Fitbit Versa." I had a Fitbit once. Unlike the Fitbit Versa, though, it didn't offer "phone-free music". It just went several ways about measuring my health. Useful, it was, until I stopped wearing it.
I like the person they think I am - this shadow William Essex, this doppelganger, so busy dropping clues online that he wants ... this eclectic range of consumer products and services. Who is he, this guy? In some ways, he's so real to me that I want to call him up and tell him that I'm getting all his mail. In others, he seems to be the kind of everyman that you'd create if your customer profiling only went ... so deep.
Do the people tracking the shadow William Essex really want to gain an intimate knowledge of his wants, needs and desires, or can they sell enough video doorbells without really bothering to get to know him at all? I mean, I'm as impressed as anybody by the overall sinisterness of algorithms and all that - big data and analysis and ooh-scary electronic surveillance - but a video doorbell? Really?
PS. Wifi-enabled (solar-powered?) smart cat's eyes embedded in the roads to communicate with smart self-driving cars. That's the indea I'd have if I was an innovator. The smart self-driving car rolls along, and the cat's eye tells it about the speed limit, the stop sign coming up, the congestion ahead and the school. If we got really sophisticated, we could coat our roads with recycled plastic - people are doing this already - and put a pressure-sensitive grid into the plastic - I don't think anybody's thought of this yet - so that the smart car would have another way of knowing about the stationary big heavy truck dead ahead.