Monday, May 14, 2012

Sir Arthur and the Reserved Section

Paul Theroux writes in his most recent travel book of a visit he paid to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction icon and co-creator of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Stanley Kubrick.  When he met Sir Arthur in his Sri Lankan fort-like home--surrounded by ten-foot walls--Clarke was wearing a T-shirt that said I invented the satellite and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.  Not strictly true--others worked on the details, but he did publish the first suggestion that geostationary satellites would one day revolutionize communication.   Lots of SF novels, including Clarke's,  have scenes in which people interact and conference while never leaving their homes and offices.  In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun, the inhabitants of an entire planet never meet physically, only in carefully crafted simulations.  One doesn't need to be a visionary to see some prescience at work in these somewhat dusty tales. (I love it when old science fiction books get the future spectacularly wrong, as in Clifford Simak's City, in which the "personal family airplane" leads to the demise of cities, because everyone goes buzzing off into the unspoiled country).

Good SF writers like Clarke have always admitted that predicting the future is a tricky business, and someone--probably several people--asserted that the best SF is really about the present seen through a set of quirky imaginative filters.  Even the keenest observer of technology and trends can stumble badly.  I was floored when seemingly overnight just about every other grade-school kid plus my night school college students began bringing cell phones to class with them.  Suddenly, everyone was staring into their palms like Narcissus into thousands of reflections.

"My mom calls me every half-hour," one 2nd grade girl told me solemnly.  Or "I have permission 'cause of my asthma." And "I need it because there might be an emergency." "What did they do in the old days before cell phones?" I asked.  "They got inside phone booths or rode horses or told the policeman."  (Fill me in on this: do policemen walk "beats" anymore?  And try explaining to a group of youngsters what 'dialing a number" on a phone meant just a few years ago.)

Shamefully, I first learned what a GPS (Global Positioning System) device was from a group of 3rd graders who told me tales of parents chasing them down at Billy's, an evil child who enjoyed torturing small animals with a monstrous device created with several 12 volt batteries.  Apparently feuding parents do things like microwave teddy bears to destroy the tracking chip when they want to take the contested kid to a Metallica concert.

Often a substitute teacher is called upon to perform outlandish duties like put on a silly paper hat to celebrate a newly-invented holiday or use a hand puppet to warn kids about bullying.  A more common duty involves handing out certificates of achievement--perfect attendance, good citizenship, etc.--at awards assemblies in the cafeteria.  One day I was struck by the fact that some busy-body had set aside a group of tables with folded cards reading "Reserved."  These were for the proud parents, there to see Junior get his gold-stickered, fancy-looking certificate for "Most improved reading."  On the best of these occasions, only a scattering of parents show up, but today was a cringe-making failure: only about five relatives showed up, some were clearly not parents but aunts or grandmothers, and the whole thing was mocked by the carefully placed "reserved" cards.  Still, I did my best to be a confident, Academy Awards-style M.C.-- shaking hands with the winners and making the occasional corny joke.

That night at the Mission I was taken aback by a roped-off section of chairs (actually it was coarse brown twine and some clumsily hand-lettered signs reading "Reserved section!  Don't sit here unless you are a reserve."  I puzzled over this: Reserve military? A visiting gospel choir?  Then I noticed all the wires and surge protectors scattered about the section.  At the beginning of worship it was announced that charging of leg-strap GPS monitors had gotten out of hand and was shorting out lights all over the mission.   So now charging was to take place only during chapel (I immediately thought of divine power surging into the ankles of these miscreants, most of whom are sex offenders) and only in the reserved section.  I felt oddly ostracised, even though I've never had a brush with the law, and my sexual proclivities are tame and boring.

I wondered, of course, what Sir Arthur would have made of this scene, these sad, scary men locked into a indoor/outdoor maze by exquisitely accurate eyes in the sky that make it impossible to even pass within a few hundred yards of a K-12 school without getting sucker punched by the police ("It fucking pisses me off, man!" I heard someone yell one day. "I'm really good with kids!  I've always wanted to work with them!") 

Observing weird, unpredictable consequences of technology is part of the fun of being alive today. This is a game being played in dozens of published books--some good, others tree-killers-- with titles like "Sugar," "The Pencil" and "Toenail clippers."  It's a speculative game you can play yourself if you're bored, and who's to say you're wrong: "If canned tuna hadn't been invented, we never would have taken showers, only baths, and only once a week." Or "Neckties were originally devised as a way of strangling your enemy in an argument."  Gee whiz!  Who'd a thunk it?

In the transparent society emerging daily in the form of micro cameras and nano-spies implanted under our skin, the world is indeed becoming one, as Sir Arthur used to put it, but in a mean and grungy form never imagined by those optimistic SF writers I loved as a kid.  Are you a garage "inventor" with patents pending?  Be afraid--very afraid--of what people do with your revolutionary device.

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