This story is told by an unknown narrator in the future after an apocalyptic technology event that has erased life as we know it after a collapse in infrastructure.
It reflects my feelings on the consequences of a world like we have today, where we have lost the ability to survive without the complex and complementary systems of technology that comprise many of our major industries.
One of the many themes I find myself interested in throughout my adult life is not what we gain through technology, but rather what we lose. While technology has the potential to inspire, connect, create and solve, we rarely spend time thinking about what it consequently has the power to corrupt, disrupt, and destroy if taken away.
- Is our reliance upon technology misplaced?
- Are our systems, mostly top-down infrastructures and architectures dependent upon large service providers and corporations flawed?
- What would happen to us if there was a mass-virus, electro-magnetic pulse, or some other “cataclysmic” event that either corrupted or destroyed electronics and electronic signals?
In this short work of fiction, the narrator is trying to explain what the world was like before this event to someone who was not alive at the time and has no conception of what the internet is, how it worked, or what connected technologies meant to society.
I encourage you to ask yourself how you would describe the complex web of digital relationships and networks that comprise modern life to someone who had never seen it. Better yet, what kind of accountability would you take for being their when it fell, failing to read the writing on the wall?
All the Small Things
A short story by Dana Martens
MFA D+T Fall 2015
It started out small…
I don’t know what to tell you now, after the fact. We weren’t fools like I know many of you may think, and we certainly weren’t blind to what was happening. But it all started out small, how were we to know what it would lead to?
I don’t even know how to explain it. In fact, it will sound unbelievable and fantastic to someone who hasn’t seen it, hasn’t lived it, and never will. But then the world was just… busier, more crowded. Every day I would wake up to a little device I slept with and took everywhere. It connected me to everything and everyone through invisible waves that created places in the air. I don’t know quite how to describe it really, a whole world that we could only see through these devices, a separate world that overlaid our own and made it so much more. It is still there, in fact, just existing, but we can’t see it anymore. In this world we could draw pictures and words together, speak to someone instantaneously on the other side of the world, run complicated equations, store all of the knowledge we had gained for millennia in one place so we could learn and grow. It was amazing. But it was also distracting! I mean, when everything and everyone can talk to you – people, companies, robots, nearby items like your lamp or watch – it’s hard to sort out that the message is going wrong. And that was the problem.
As I was saying, it started small. At first it was things that no one would notice. You would like something your friend said on Facebook… Right, so Facebook was a place in this world – the Internet we called it – where people would update their friends on what they were doing. They would take and share pictures of themselves, their food, their kids, or more likely, their cats. But one day things started getting weird. You would, as I said, like something your friend said or did, but when you went back to check later, the message would be gone or wrong – maybe you would have liked the wrong thing, the wrong friend, or worse, something would be liked you hadn’t added. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it could be really embarrassing and somehow the worst possible mishaps seemed to be the ones occurring. One day it reached me too. My Facebook – all by itself – liked a picture of my best friend and my ex-girlfriend kissing. That did NOT go over well! And this was happening all over the place, you can imagine all the sorts of problems that were occurring.
Errors started popping up on other tools we used in this Internet world. For example, there was something we used called Instagram that let you share photos with everyone. Again it started small. At first, photos you put up might get listed wrong. We used something called a hashtag to track things in the photos so people could find them. All of a sudden, the wrong hashtags would be in your photos. And not just any hashtag, bad hashtags. People started accusing each other of being racist, sexist, violent, or worse, someone who did bad things to children. There were even arrests and interrogations about some of the things that got shared! Later it got even worse. Images just started appearing under our names, images we never took, but still somehow got shared. Well, I mean, we had taken the pictures, but we never shared them! They were there, stored on our devices, privately, hidden. But all of a sudden there they were for everyone to see. I’m sure you can imagine some of the things people do in private are not meant for the public. The scandals were insane! Politicians started dropping left and right, corporate leaders. No one was really spared, but most people didn’t have too much to hide I guess. Are you starting to see the picture here? What was happening? No? Well either did we really.
It started out small, but it kept slowly getting bigger. Soon our emails started to go wrong. Emails are electronic messages we would send in this Internet world. Kind of like a letter that you send invisibly through the air, you can’t see it travel, it just shows up on your friends device after they receive it. First it was little changes, one or two wrong words in the message, a wrong line, maybe a no or not where there should be a yes. But those little changes can go a big way. Things started getting sent to the wrong address, people’s money started going missing, or in some cases increasing, depending on which way the decimal error went, police were arresting the wrong people, showing up at wrong addresses, business deals and partnerships started going wrong and people just kept getting more and more angry and accusing one another.
Other little things were happening too, unrelated to this Internet world. Our cars were run by computers back then too of course – not like the ones you see hacked together now, those are all older models that survived. So the navigation we used, the things in the cars that helped them steer and stay in those lines you still see painted on the roads automatically, or to help them find directions, they all went a little wrong too. Nothing big, just a couple of degrees off when you were trying to find something, a couple of inches with systems that helped you keep the car driving right… But it was enough! People found themselves lost without gas in the middle of nowhere. Some starved or died of dehydration. Others got into accidents with other cars using the same systems, and people just kept fighting about who was responsible more and more – after all, the car was supposed to know what to do.
Later on, the traffic lights and electronic road signs went a little bit off too. That is when people really started noticing. It was just a couple of seconds that started getting out of sync between the different lights, red (that told the cars to stop), and green (that meant go). Cars were supposed to wait their turn at a corner using these lights, and I mean these lights were everywhere! A couple of seconds wrong was all it took for disaster. Thousands and thousands of people started dying as cars kept going for an extra couple of seconds while cars going the other direction slammed into the side of them. This was happening all over the country, again and again. These same systems controlled the bridges, the tunnels that went under the water to get to islands and across rivers. They also started to get a little bit off. Lanes that were supposed to be closed for cars going one direction suddenly switched open and people followed… right into the front of cars going the other way. It culminated in the great Midtown Tunnel incident… Over 1,200 dead in under one hour. Still, I’m telling you, no one knew what was wrong. We all thought we were going crazy.
I mean, by now you can imagine people were getting a bit suspicious of what was happening. How couldn’t you? We all realized that technology was getting a bit off, but no one would admit it. It sounded ridiculous! Technology is neutral, we control it, not the other way around! No one could admit that we were losing control. I mean, there was speculation: hackers, aliens, conspiracies about population reduction and scarcity. The truth is, no one knew what was wrong, and no one still really figured it out either. The important thing is that no one acted, no one did anything – at least not to my knowledge. Why didn’t I do anything? Well, I didn’t know what was going wrong either. The worst that had happened to me personally was embarrassing things being shared to my friends, and getting stuck in a taxi – a car you pay to drive you around – after there was a bunch of accidents. But I mean… you don’t blame technology. You blame the people who use it. So I thought it was a big sort of government conspiracy or a new virus that was messing everything up. I didn’t think I needed to be worried though, I thought our government had the best people and machines in the world working for them – that is certainly what they said to us over and over again. But it wasn’t enough. Or maybe, it was that sophistication that actually sealed our fate.
All of these little errors, just a 1 here, a dollar there, a yes, a like, a favorite, a poke, a wink – I know you don’t understand what those mean but bear with me – struck at the seemingly innocuous root of what it meant to be human back then and still is now – communication. We all wanted to communicate with each other better, faster, more efficiently, and with more knowledge and perception. That was why this hurt so much. We had built a system, an infrastructure, where we relied on our technology to communicate with one another directly, like sending the emails I mentioned before, or indirectly, like those lights acting as symbols for how we should drive our cars together. Technology had come to be one thing thought brought us together and connected us to our world. In many parts of the world, it had become the only way.
The little errors kept spreading. New systems started to have them, systems that were more important. Airplanes, those are flying machines that carry people around, relied on complicated computers and communication to navigate in the air, to land the machine, or to steer away from storms. Suddenly hundreds of them were being lost over the ocean, or crashing into the ground when they tried to land, the angle just a little off on their descent, or their speed just a little too fast, or their wheels coming down a little too slow. The same thing happened with trains, kind of like cars that only travelled on those tracks you still see around, but faster. They are supposed to know which track to run on so they don’t hit one another. You can imagine what started happening there. That is when it really hit me too. I used to ride an underground train called the subway everyday. One day a train standing still right in front of me, letting people get on and off, got slammed into from another train travelling behind it at full speed. People boarding the train went flying into the air and others were trapped in the wreck of metal and steel, burning to death. I still remember their screams. That was the day I decided to get out of New York City as fast as I could.
I’m glad I did too. Next the very things that kept the technology running started to go wrong, and that is when people really panicked. Nothing really went wrong with the connection mind you, it was the power plants, the electricity that kept everything running. Humans are responsible for running these plants, cooling the heat that is generated and making sure things don’t break. Turns out if you are just a little bit off with your calculations – rather if your computer is a little bit off – things can explode. When those things explode, the electricity they are supposed to generate goes off for lots and lots of people. When the power goes out, people really start to panic. Half of New York City tore itself apart to get to the other half that had power after it didn’t look like there would be a quick solution. Then they tore that half apart too as it got colder. No one could really go anywhere, all of the trains I told you about ran on electricity, or worse were killing people. All of the roads were shut down because of the lights. Everyone was trapped.
Finally it all came to an end. I remember just hearing the sound of whistling in the air, far in the distance. I had never ever heard that sound before, but I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. I don’t mean to sound inappropriate, given how many people died, but it actually reminded me of something I had read when I was little from a book called the Hobbit. In this book, some dwarves were describing the arrival of a dragon, Smaug, to attack their mountain kingdom. They said that the first sign they had of him was a hot wind roaring in the heights, cracking trees. That was how it sounded after the bright flashes, and that was how the wind felt, hot, dry, and full of the smell of smoke.
I watched my city burn from afar, wondering what had possibly happened, other bright flashes going off at the very edges of my vision to the North and South. Later I found out the truth. You see, there was just a small error, one line wrong in some code in some program in some government. Yes we have safeguards about these things, but those safeguards are just human, and we can be fooled as well. So one small person, hit one small button because of this one small error. And that small button started an global arms race that changed our world forever.
So before you judge us, judge me, o’ heirs to this world of ashes built and destroyed in our hubris, remember that we weren’t bad people, and no one meant for this to happen. Remember that it really did start small. But also remember and beware. When things become so essential to every part of your life, your safety, your world, you just don’t notice they are going wrong when the errors are small. And technology was so much a part of us, so much a part of our lives that no one questioned what was going wrong until it was too late. Turns out, it doesn’t matter how small the errors are when they happen to the one thing that is in control of everything.