May 19th, 2011
(This was originally posted 2011-01 on Raptitude.com by David Cain. Reposted here by permission.)
I awake in bed. I’m warm and safe, like every morning. Outside it is twenty below zero, but from inside my home winter seems far away.
As I rise and stretch, I notice I’m sore. Not from tending the fields though. I have no fields. Some unseen person does all the field-tending for me. Sometimes I forget that there’s any field-tending going on at all.
I buy all my food — I wouldn’t know how to grow it or hunt it. Three or four hours’ pay gets me a week’s worth. It’s a pretty good arrangement. I’m thirty years old and I’ve never gone a day without food.
My soreness is actually from my leisure time, not work. I spent yesterday sliding down a snow-covered slope with a board attached to my feet. After that I was pretty worn out, so I went to a friend’s house, drank beer that was wheeled in from Mexico by another person I never met, and watched a sporting event as it unfolded in Philadelphia.
I don’t live in Philadelphia, but my friend has a machine that lets us see what’s happening there. I have one too. Almost everyone does.
The sun won’t rise for another hour, but I don’t need to light a fire or candles. I have artificial ones, mounted on the ceiling. Hit a tiny switch and I can see everything, any time of day.
I bathe while standing. The water comes out whatever temperature I like.
I use a few machines in my kitchen to get my breakfast ready. It takes about five minutes. Toasted buckwheat groats with raisins, almonds, dates and sunflower seeds. I don’t know where it came from but I’d be surprised if it was from anywhere near here.
As I eat, it occurs to me that my co-worker has a machine I might need to use at work today, so I want to make sure he brings it with him. We work about ten miles from my home, and he lives about ten miles from me, but that’s no problem. I’ve got a device that lets him hear my voice from that distance. Wherever he is, I can talk to him.
One minute later I’ve solved that problem, and forgotten about it.
I put my dishes into another machine, which will clean them for me while I’m away at work.
I get dressed and leave. My destination is ten miles in the distance and I’ve got twenty-five minutes, which is plenty of time, because I won’t be walking.
I get into my most expensive machine. It’s actually quite miraculous, but I forget that all the time. It allows me to sit in a comfortable chair, sealed from the elements, while it propels me at incredible speeds.
Just like my home, I can make it any temperature I wish inside. I don’t have to exert any real effort to make the thing go. I use my hands and my toes to control it.
I don’t know quite how it works, but it’s powered by a liquid I can buy pretty much anywhere. For two hours’ pay I can buy enough of it to transport myself hundreds of miles from here. I can transport hundreds of pounds of whatever I want, and even listen to long-dead musicians singing and playing instruments while I do it. I remain sitting comfortably the whole time.
So I hurtle myself to my workplace, which is well beyond the horizon, looking from my house. There, I do what a corporation asks me to, for most of my daylight hours. It’s not that tough really.
I hurtle home in the same manner, without really thinking about it. I make dinner for myself, and eat. Then I turn on one of my favorite machines. It’s about the size of a book.
It has a glowing window inside it. A single page. But I only need one page because its contents change at my command. Sometimes there are words, sometimes photographs, sometimes both. The photographs can move and talk.
The stuff in the book can be written by anyone in the world, even as I’m reading it. There’s more in that book than I could ever read. It provides me with unbelievable advantages. Anything I don’t know, I can find out in a few seconds.
I can get instructions on how to do pretty much anything that has ever been done. I can summon complete histories of almost any person or culture you could name, expert opinions on anything at all, unlimited advice, unlimited entertainment, unlimited information. I can buy pretty much anything from where I’m sitting, and have it brought to my door.
I can even write anything I want and publish it myself. I don’t need permission or credentials. The whole world could read it.
These are true superpowers, only we don’t call them that because they’re completely normal. Almost everyone has access to this kind of power. Yet somehow many people complain of boredom, or of not having enough power.
I know it sounds pretty good. Ease and power are everywhere, for almost everyone. But there are downsides.
Because we’re used to ease, we don’t deal with unease particularly well. We are addicted to machines and the powers they provide. Sometimes it’s hard for people to even have lunch without one of them using a machine to talk to somebody who isn’t at the table.
We’ve lost certain skills because machines and cheap services do things we don’t want to do. Some adults don’t know how to cook anything worthy of serving to someone else. Grown men have childlike handwriting. Almost nobody knows how to wait.
We lose track of what’s right beside us, because we can listen and talk across oceans. Some people are barely there because they’re staring at a machine in their hands while they eat, walk down the street, or even while people are sitting right next to them. Even while they’re hurtling down the highway.
We generally don’t fix machines when they break. We buy new ones and have somebody haul the old one off to be buried in the ground. Nobody knows how to fix them anyway.
Because we acquire new possessions so frequently — often without even realizing it — we don’t treat them very well. It’s normal to have boxes and boxes of tools, supplies and ornaments that we don’t use, and may never be used.
We have so many things that they cease to become things. They become indistinct stuff, and their value and usefulness become lost on us. I often marvel at the thought of the unimaginable value someone two hundred years ago could get out of a random box of somebody’s neglected junk.
We forget that what we have is more than what we need. Obscenely more. I know it may sound perverse, but here in the future people often feel like they need more than they have.
The sun went down hours ago, but with my artificial light I haven’t noticed. I’ve been up, writing without a pen. When I’m able to summon the willpower, I close my favorite machine and go to bed.
I’m warm and safe, like every night.