Dark Spiral Publishing
- look beneath the surface of an ideal future at what can go terribly wrong

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Future Tense

/ a novel by John Johnson /

1 - Matthew

Matthew Parker was tired and looked forward to getting home to his own bed. Each day for the past week he had been commuting from his apartment in Berkeley to the annual IEEE Symposium on Nanotechnology, held this year at Stanford University . Few students owned cars anymore in the Bay Area, and there was no way his advisor would have paid for a rental anyway. The conference was an excellent opportunity for a young physics graduate student to present a paper on his latest research. If someone had taken an interest in his research, he might someday be one of those high paid research physicists and own a car and a home, instead of being one of the masses – renting and never owning; always getting further into debt. He certainly couldn't own one on a graduate student's stipend. While he was paid fairly well for a student, and enjoyed discounted housing and other university benefits, Matthew realized that would all end someday and he would have to earn a good living to stay in Northern California . The insurance alone on a car was more than his entire paycheck.

The South Bay used to be called “Silicon Valley”, but that was before Moore 's Law failed and quantum mechanics became the dominant force in computer processing. San Jose , Palo Alto and Menlo Park were now smack dab in the middle of the new Nano-Belt. Nanotechnology was hailed by the President as the centerpiece of the “New Economy”. Some of the first practical applications of Nanotech were simple, but far-reaching. Researchers at the beginning of the century started to produce nanotubes and “nano-processors”. These small computers, mere atoms across allowed a new industry to emerge over the next decades. An industry based on cheap and essentially invisible sensors and computers and limitless storage. Over the ensuing years, Nanotech became the hot field of study for physicists and engineers.

Matt gave his talk Thursday morning, so he was quite open to the idea of cutting loose that night at the Nano-banquet. It was an event much larger than the name implied; it was in fact the largest gala event of the year for the geeks of the Nano-Belt. There were plenty of distractions these days, and now that his coursework was behind him he could afford to be selfish from time to time and enjoy himself. Nevertheless, Matt spent most nights at home, alone. The joke was that he had become just another “Physics Monk”, married to his thesis.

Thursday night was a rarely seen side of Matt, the carefree and charismatic side. He set out on a quest to find the best long island iced tea at the banquet. He, in fact, sought out the best bartender. This was no small task, since the banquet took place at the Museum of Art and Science, and there were no fewer than ten open bars located at various spots around the sprawl of the old building. After the first drink, he started to mingle. He spoke to other speakers and students, and even ran into Dr. Edison; Professor Emeritus and leader in the field of new Nanotech applications who claimed a distant link to Thomas Edison, who over a century earlier created many revolutionary inventions at nearby Menlo Park .

When Matt was startled awake by the alarm clock at 6:00 am Friday morning, he staggered from bed and went right into a hot shower, where he recalled visiting a minimum of eight different bartenders from the night before. He caught a rush hour crowd at the BART station, and in turn arrived half an hour late for the first session of the day. Now, after a slow moving day he was ready to return home.

Matt avoided unnecessary conversation all day, and wanted a pod to himself for the ride home. He saw a crowd of Stanford students with facial implants: Mutants. They were more an aberration than the norm. Rich kids whose parents gave them money for any crazy trend. The price of cosmetic surgery had been dropping, with the advent of nano-assisted tools, and since there was nothing left on the body to pierce, kids were augmenting their faces and bodies so they could look like their favorite cartoon characters or animal. There was a time, about a hundred years earlier, when carnivals would travel the country with side show freaks. Now you could find “Dog Boy” or “Raptor Girl” at any random bus stop. Lucky for Matt, they all took an earlier pod and by the time he reached the walkway, he had an egg shaped, auto-sanitizing pod to himself.

Matt made himself comfortable in an auto-adjusting seat and reclined. The pods could seat up to six people comfortably and rode a superconducting rail at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, and faster once you left the sprawl of the Bay Area. The pods were always clean and had what seemed to be a new car smell. Integrated seamlessly into the walls of the pod were display screens that showed the pod's location, news, weather, tourist information and a never-ending torrent of advertising. It seems that marketing and advertising executives always found a way of squeezing a penny out of everything. Of course, pennies were no longer in circulation. The cost of distributing and managing all those coins led to their obsolescence. Now the smallest denomination minted was the quarter, and any reference to pennies was just an anachronism indicating something that was so common as to be free. Meanwhile, micro-payments were a part of every networked service - movies and entertainment, news and more. Anything you could once buy in a package seemed to now be a service delivered via the ether of the net, and the obligatory advertising at no extra charge.

There was a time when software was sold in shrink-wrapped packages. The term “shrinkwrap” still exists, but with infinite bandwidth and storage, people no longer have the option of buying a disk with movies or music or applications, they instead pay monthly service fees to one of about three or four mega-corporations. These super-globals sell content like gasoline. Like buying crude oil from the Middle Eastern cartels, every piece of information seems to be priced and sold these days. Students now purchased a subscription to textbooks and studied in VR libraries. Video was on demand; pay per view or by subscription. The lawyers and corporations saw to it that, for the most part, information was never more than loaned out. It was an insidious course of events and government regulations that allowed corporations to dictate not only how much information was sold for, but by doing so, who had access to the information and how they could use it. There was a time when anyone could walk into a library and read a book, but now, with the cost of books and price of square footage being much higher than the electronic equivalent, only those who have money can read. It's not to say that there were no books any more, there was no shortage of old books, but it was rare that new books were published on paper and many cities found that large libraries were not cost effective. After the second dot-com recession, the super-globals offered to digitize all the paper books. The result seemed to be beneficial and understandable, in difficult times, however the result was much more insidious and the super-globals had found a way to offer books by any author, any printing, in any language for a price, from cradle to grave (with a side helping of advertising to keep the prices down.) Great marketing firms now knew what you read and what page you stopped on. Of course, you could opt out of such tracking; the laws demanded that – but it was so complicated that few consumers ever did.

That having been said, Matt's friend Marcus worked with the Open Technology Movement, OTM, to develop ways for consumers to record information for their own use. Along the lines of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the OTM supported the right of people or companies to charge to view their information, but not to tell consumers how they can use that information. Say you buy a movie, the super-globals don't allow you the right to watch the movie again later - to watch half today and finish the rest tomorrow. They have you hooked into perpetual payments by only offering a service. Once you stop paying for the service, you are cut off. With consumers increasingly reliant on technology, with the demand for content and with the technology being so ubiquitous, the divide is ever widening between the consumer and the technician.

If you buy a spatula, do you want the company that sold it to you telling you what you could flip with it? (Eggs in a pan but not burgers on the grill?) If you buy a weed-whacker, shouldn't you be able to sell it or loan it out to your neighbor? Likewise, there is a strong grassroots desire these days to reclaim rights to fair use of information and electronic media. Marcus' software company, if you want to call it that, is composed of several Computer Science grad students who support the OTM cause. They are all bright and still believe they can make a difference. Matt feels this is the arrogance of youth and has a more cynical outlook on life.

Matt decided not to rock the boat, but to make enough money so he could live comfortably, as a property owner, and content taxpayer. His father was laid off during the second big dot com failure. He had worked for a small firm that delivered multimedia content over the Internet. Matt barely remembered those days, when computers were still ugly beige boxes for the most part, wired into the phone system. After his dad was laid off, he couldn't find a good job for several years and it was always stressful when money was the topic of discussion. Matt used to be angry with his father for not choosing a better career; but now that he was older he understood that his father was bright and talented and couldn't have seen the paradigm shift in computing that was coming. Because of this, Matt was more practical - more pragmatic than his friends. He learned personal responsibility growing up, and although he dreamed of a perfect marriage and a white picket fence in the future, he'd settle for paying the bills on time.

A voice announces that the pod doors are closing. At the last second, two of the Mutants hopped into his pod. His relaxation turned to annoyance and Matt spoke quietly to no one in particular.

“Deflector shields at full,” he said. This was the key phrase that triggered his glasses to emit a white noise to shut out the co-occupants' pointless conversation. His glasses also darkened and he was able to relax again until he was notified his stop had arrived.

While his clothing would alert him if the rabbit or lizard sitting across from him tried anything funny, it was unnecessary since each pod, and most public locations were fitted with invisible sensors and cameras; invisible to the eye, but under the vigilant observation of 24x7 security monitoring software. Software that employed AI to discern every action, correlate behaviors and notify a security guard if anything out of the ordinary happened.

No longer could you escape the law – if nothing else it had become very difficult. One of the first sensors developed with Nanotech was simple barcode nanotubes. Lasers could scan items to determine what they were and track them with unprecedented acuracy; the next stage of point of sale scanning. This technology was combined with tiny radio frequency chips – giving packages barcodes and a communication conduit into the wireless Internet. Soon after, marketers could tell not only that you received their junk mail, but also that you opened it. Software vendors would use this technology to verify that a user had broken the license agreement seal on shrinkwrap packages. Grocery stores became self-serve food warehouses, and every piece of mail was now tracked end-to-end.

Wireless sensors began to blanket major cities first, and then became ubiquitous throughout all but the most remote of locations. As sensors and nano-chips became cheap and plentiful, it made sense. The consequences were that eventually smart cards and multiple userids were replaced by one code. Everyone carried these chips in their clothing or on their person and when combined with a biometric, like a fingerprint or voiceprint, they could easily travel and pay for goods without the inconvenience of pockets or long lines. While most people had a National ID card, when Bob from Montana came to the Bay Area, he found life a pain in the ass unless he first registered his ID and got a chip. The bottom line was that crime in most cities was close to non-existent - at least in most public places, like the BART. Most of the world's citizenry found the convenience and safety well worth the loss of privacy. Marcos and the OTM sympathizers, the ACLU, EFF and other fringe organizations continued to try and turn back the intrusion of technology into individual's privacy to no avail.

Matt's pod accelerated swiftly on a side track before popping onto the main SC rail. The sensation of acceleration was all he felt, as the pod reached a cruising speed of 200 MPH. He would be home in about 20 minutes. Before he dozed off he smelled a strong fragrance of roses. No doubt the mutants employed the hottest new Doc-Bots; ones that feed off methane and turn the long polymer scent of flatulence into the perfumed scent desired by the owner. Designer farts. “Damn punks,” he thought as he drifted off.

His glasses dimmed and the white noise generated by the base of the glasses, which wrapped around and under his ears, was replaced by a quiet female voice.

“Matt, wake up,” said the glasses.

“Thanks Betsy,” he replied. The glasses didn't need feedback, but his computer used the latest personality AI and he tended to enjoy anthropomorphism.

Matt stood up and waited for the doors to open. His companions had obviously gotten off at an earlier stop. The doors zipped opened, Matt exited and walked swiftly up the hill to his apartment. His door opened as he approached and he took his glasses off. He didn't wear a prescription, but he had become accustomed to the technology. Everyone wore Viewz these days; some to manage their worlds better, and some to filter and change it to their liking.

“Betsy,” he said, “I'm going right to bed. Anything important happen while I was out?”

“Some bills arrived Matthew. I paid them. Your mother called. Would you like to call her back?”

“Sure.” Matt kicked off his shoes and dress shirt and put on a T-shirt.

“Hi Son.” Matt's mother appeared in full length; her kitchen replacing the image of the ocean that had been projected on the wall. “How are you doing?”

“Pretty good Mom, tired. It's been a long week and I'm heading to bed.”

“Matt, how did your talk go? Did you knock ‘em dead?”

“Mom, no one says that anymore. You know it isn't politically correct. But thanks anyway, I did pretty well. Dr. Edison congratulated me afterwards. How are you and Dad?”

“We're fine Son, we're more worried that you're eating right.”

“It's hard not to eat right with Betsy here. You know the routine: the Doc-Bots monitor my bloodstream. The toilet records what I've eaten and tells the fridge. Betsy puts it all together and orders groceries and pretty much cooks all my meals.”

“It sure isn't like when your father was in college. He ate way too much pizza and drank too much beer.”

“Well, some things haven't changed much. Tell Dad that I drank too much last night. The bar was open and I took advantage of it. The Doc-Bots took care of the hangover, but I am dead tired. I'll tell you what, if you want to check my records, I'll let you access the toilet logs.”

His mother laughed and shook her head. “Go to bed.” Then she disappeared and the ocean view returned. The sky was dark and star filled in the image, and the moon was a sliver to the south. Matt said good night to Betsy as he fell onto his bed.


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