Culture

A paranoid chat from a future where even the air is online

Crave's Eric Mack time-travels to a future where everything, even the atmosphere and our organs, is connected to an Internet accessible from everywhere, save one room in Chicago.

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What if everything, everywhere and everyone were always online? Let's take a quick trip to that world. Microsoft

Editors' note: In the below piece of speculative fiction, Crave's Eric Mack imagines a future conversation involving two competing visions of a tomorrow where absolutely everything -- even the atmosphere -- is always connected.

"Don't you miss just not knowing things? The joy of discovering a place or a thing or a person you had no concept of one moment, and then the next, they're there, permanently added to your consciousness where before there was just a void you weren't even aware of?"

My friend questions me incredulously. The light from an ancient incandescent lamp bounces off the copper on the walls, ceiling and floor, lending him an orange-ish glow that seems appropriate for his level of passion.

"You can't even enjoy the delight of finding a free parking spot anymore today, they just announce themselves to the whole world. And do you know how long it's been since I've seen a banana that's more brown than yellow?" He's getting visibly agitated now. "You can keep all your ridiculous reams of data, just give me one good, mushy banana. I don't care how many apps say it's a week overripe, just give it to me. I mean come on, can you really tell me you don't miss anything?"

His interrogation seems a little unfair, given that I'm supposed to be the one asking all the questions. I've come here to Chicago to interview my old friend about his leadership role in the anti-sensor movement.

I think about the last time I was in this building in 2015, looking into the copper-lined room where we sit now. That was over a decade ago, and back then it was the global headquarters for Motorola, the company that arguably launched the mobile revolution, and this copper room was used to block out all signals for purposes of testing new devices without any interference. Today those copper sheets are still used to block signals by a small but growing group of concerned citizens looking to escape a fully networked world and the threat of constant and ubiquitous surveillance.

It's not entirely surprising that we ended up on different sides of the issue. Ten years ago, when I was writing speculative fiction about the Internet of Things and globally ubiquitous Internet access, he was roaming the remote valleys of Asia and the Middle East without ever posting a single selfie or status update.

When Google and Facebook turned on their satellite networks and handed out billions of free phones and tablets across the developing world, we were both cautiously optimistic that a comprehensively connected world would be a very good thing.

But like many in the "disconnect" movement, he had been turned off by the missteps made by Uber after it became the dominant force in global location and sensor-based services. Not that concerns over privacy or the squashing of that "sense of wonder" that made my friend nostalgic stopped the company's momentum. It kept growing just as it had after its first round of bad press a decade ago.

Do I miss anything? "Of course I do," I respond, although I'm really more troubled by my inability to receive any notifications or access any data from inside this room. "It would be nice to be able to go skiing without getting a warning ping about every patch of ice or exposed rock on the hill, for sure, but I don't miss the last concussion I got from one of those patches, either."

I remind my friend about the explosion of entrepreneurial successes in the developing world as a result of the new era of ubiquitous data access. Shouldn't he be happy that his old friend overseas who'd struggled with poverty was climbing out of it? He smirks and turns to a keyboard connected to an old desktop with a 20th-century blue Ethernet cable plugged in the back. He types furiously for a few seconds.

"3,500. That's pretty high, my friend."

"What?"

"According to the last update this morning from your very own metabolic network, you've already had 3,500 calories today. I know the pizza and hot dogs here are good, but I can't imagine they bode well for your health insurance subsidy, unless of course you actually believe that data never works its way back to the feds' marketplace or the insurance companies."

"I thought you never logged in to any of the health motivation groups?"

"I like to lurk."

"You can be paranoid about privacy all you want," I say, "but what about all those fatalistic talks we used to have about the climate and the droughts back in New Mexico? You know the consensus now is that geoengineering is working, CO2 and methane levels are dropping and none of that would be possible without all the quadrillions of smart dust units in the atmosphere."

My friend brings up the oft-cited conspiracy theory involving weaponized smart dust and the conversation disintegrates from there until we are interrupted by a loud rumble from outside.

I instinctively tap my earlobe to correlate my auditory input with all nearby sensor data, forgetting that none of that data can penetrate the room's metal shielding.

"Chill out, Inspector Gadget," my friend says. "It's called thunder."

"Are you sure? That wasn't in the forecast today, and the most recent data patterns from the lower atmosphere aren't favorable for a..."

"Relax, man. Storms move in fast and you've been here in Copperfield's dungeon for a while. I guess there are still a few surprises left for you."