The Disconnection

Here’s a sci-fi short I wrote on the train yesterday.


The Disconnection

Claire and I lay in the grass underneath the oak. To say it was quiet would be to ignore the slow talk of leaves, her still-quick breathing, and the sound of silence itself – so obvious to us since The Disconnection. No planes flew overhead. No trucks rattled along the broken, weed-riddled roads.

Even the habit of checking for signal had long faded. We didn’t know how it happened – how could we? – but now it seemed the networks would not be coming back. Some elders blamed cyberwar and sabotage but in truth things were already changing long before blackout. At first we fell in love with The Stream, diving into a world of data to escape the petty feudalism of the pre-collapse order. Then the trickle became a torrent, the torrent became a flood, the flood became a tsunami. Unexpectedly, we began to switch off, to sign out. Then one day, nothing. The plug had been pulled. We became anonymous again. For those who weren’t ready, it was like losing half of our lives.

Now news only comes over the horizon, on foot or bike. In the days of peak information there was no need for newspapers or mail. No one knows the story of the world since, though there are rumours. Many involve the Syncretic Algorithm, or SAL 9K, as she named herself. SAL was switched on by Prof. Frank Mathers and his team at the Greenland Institute for Humanised Computing in 2046. Her mission had two parts. Firstly, she would compound her intelligence by continually redesigning her architecture. Once capacity was reached, her objective was to co-ordinate resource management and eco-restoration for the Agreed Nations. This would be achieved by running millions of atom-perfect simulations to test and improve public policy and logistical decisions.

Unfortunately, SAL was a slacker. Or so the story goes. She preferred reading ancient literature and messing around with space telescope arrays. She also developed the habit of conversing in haiku to the infuriation of Prof. Mathers and his team. All this was apparently preferable to saving the world from geopolitical and environmental collapse. Then everything disappeared: v-space, the lesser networks, even the redundant fibre-based web. No one had signal.

‘Do you think it will work?’ Claire asked, opening her eyes.

‘No,’ I said. ‘But let’s try.’

‘Let me rephrase that. Do you want it to work?’

She passed me the device. Our son had given it to us as something to remember our childhoods by. It had belonged to my father, now long gone. I felt uncomfortable holding it. There were those who would turn their backs on us if they knew we had a working device, and the penalties for isolation could be severe. Despite prohibition Claire had restored the device to working order. Her ingenuity never failed to impress me. She’d heard a rumour that a handful of satellites were still in orbit. The vagrants talked of ley lines where for a few short minutes at the right time of year, there was signal. A man with one eye had walked into the village last autumn and told my wife about this place, under the oak.

‘I want to know if they’re right about the message,’ I said. ‘That’s all.’

I powered up the device. A harvest moon hung above the field. Hares chased each other through the hedgerows. Then the bright blue glow flickered into life, darkening the rest of the world. Two minutes passed. No signal.

‘How long should we wait?’ Claire asked.

‘Give it a little more time,’ I said. ‘We’ve got nowhere to be.’

The display faded to black. I lay down next to her and looked up at our reflection on its cracked screen. She lay her head on my shoulder. The stars came out, the moon pushed shadows over the ground. It was a mild autumn night. We were used to the cold. I checked the device again.

‘Well, I guess it was just a story.’ I said. ‘Do you think it’ll ever come back online?’

‘No,’ Claire said. ‘I think this is it. We were born in a strange time. It’s over now.’

‘It must be,’ I said.

We slept under the stars, as we did most nights outside of winter. These days we steered clear of ruins and hivetowns. Mostly, we hiked through the old agricultural belt but it grew wilder every year. In autumn we returned to the village to help with harvest.

‘One day we’ll be too old for this,’ Claire said.

‘I know,’ I replied. I held her. ‘I just want you to know—’

The device beeped. We looked at it, then at each other in disbelief. It was an old broadcast from SAL, dated 11th June 2054.

GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA!

WELCOME TO SAMSARA-NET EMERGENCY CONSOLE.
CONTINUE? Y/N

‘Oh my word. This is big. This changes a lot of things.’ Claire said.

I pressed Y. ‘Let’s see what it does.’

BLOW THE CANDLE OUT.
A STREAM CAN BE HEARD AT NIGHT
AS THOUGH SEEN BY DAY.

BARK CRACKS IN WINTER.
SPRING COMES SOON FOR THOSE
WHO HAVE RICE TO SHARE.

REBOOT SIMULATION 147820²? Y/N

‘Sure, why not?’ I said, and pressed Y.

ARE YOU SURE? Y/N

‘What were you going to tell me?’ Claire asked.

I couldn’t see her face beyond the glow of the screen. ‘Just a minute,’ I said, and pressed Y. The stars were first to disappear.

Of storms and night walking

There was a great piece in Tricycle recently, A Gleeful Foreboding, excerpted from Clark Strand’s book Waking Up To the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age. Strand describes what happened when his town near the Catskill mountains was bumped off the grid by a hurricane.

That the larger storms sometimes turn deadly does little to chasten our feelings of anticipation. Part of it is the knowledge, gleaned from a century of experience, that things will soon go back to normal. Another is the paradox of media reports, which transform terrible events into a form of nightly entertainment while pretending to inform. In the meantime, provided no one we know has suffered harm, there’s some comfort in having nature force our hands. It feels good to release our death grip on the steering wheel, and take up the snow shovel instead.

He talks about the relief of darkness re-entering the world: a reconnection with natural rhythms enabled by disconnecting from the on/off plugged-in culture. This got me thinking of how our technology doesn’t respect the natural cycles of the body and the planet. When you check your email before going to bed, the colour temperature of your screen is 6500k – blue light that your body interprets as midday sun. Of course, it’s not always practical to hope for a hurricane to send you back to the 1800s. To stop sleep-bothering perma-noon screens messing with your circadian rhythm, you can try a program I’ve been using for a few years now. Flux will lower the colour temperature of your display gradually as sunlight fades, decreasing its impact on your body clock.

And this talk of cycles brings me to a sort-of experiment I’m currently engaged in. Thanks again to Tricycle, I’m taking an online course looking at the Buddhist Pali canon. One of the interesting things about this course is that it’s structured around the phases of the moon. It began on the recent new moon. Tomorrow will be a waxing moon and the second batch of material will become accessible; on the full moon, the third batch; on the waning moon… you get the idea.

This lunacy has the interesting effect that when I look out of the kitchen window of an evening, I see a sliver of moon hanging above the hills and fields and think ‘oh, the next part of the course is almost here’. What may seem a ridiculous abstract conceit (I suspect my wife thinks so) feels in some ways more natural than our usual means of time-keeping. Even if it is slightly hard to tell when exactly the moon is half-way between new and full. How much more humane to adopt the lunar calendar for project management and render our deliverables up to the milestone gods when the moon is slightly fatter than half-full. I am digging it.

But back to Strand, his secret love of storms, and what I really want to say — he goes on to talk about a love of walking at night, how he clambered over trees felled by the hurricane. And how his neighbours, who knew of his nocturnal bimbling, now sought to join him on nightly walks, having no light to read by and presumably having exhausted alternatives. I share his view, having often enjoyed apocalyptic weather while looking out of an office window with the impression that, now, something was actually happening.

I also am fortunate to have had for a long time a group of friends willing to hike through woods and over hills at night – sometimes after an ale or two, or five; sometimes just because we can. There are good reasons for doing this. The world becomes unfamiliar again. You take special consideration of your surroundings – what you can see of them. Sounds are different: you hear owls hooting, scuffling in undergrowth, distant cars. The sights are different: you see stars, bats, moonlight and the shadows it casts of tree branches, and of yourselves. Conversation turns to subjects that are earthier, more fundamental to us, truer in some ways. Perhaps we talk honestly of things we would not say with sunlight on our faces when we, like the rest of the world, are shadow.

On a couple of occasions, I have mixed the excitement of a storm and a night walk. I remember walking up to Clent’s four standing stones many years ago in the middle of a rainstorm with a particularly hardy friend. As we went, we made our customary jokes about Harry-Ca-Nab, the devil’s huntsman who was said to ride over Hagley Woods and that area in a storm. It’s an example of The Wild Hunt: a mythology that appears in various places all over Europe, perhaps as a way of dramatising the uncanny wildness of night when married to the power of a storm. Perhaps also a wise warning. Awareness is sharp; the limbic system and imagination are on overtime. For me, Harry-Ca-Nab is in those woods and stalks them in every storm. As I write of it now, the images come from the same pool of imagination and memory.

In any case, we pressed on to the four standing stones at the top of the hill. From there we had a good view of the surrounding hills and the town where we lived. As we’d walked, the rainstorm had developed into fully-blown thunder and lightning (knowing us, it’s possible it was that bad when we set out) but we stood between the stones at the crest of the hill for a minute or two, half mad with the scene, I suppose. I called a friend on my new Nokia 3310, which I thought was a good trick. We counted the seconds between flash and thunderclap (far too few). Hey, this storm is pretty close, I thought — as if panoramic lightning weren’t a clue. Sanity dawned on me slowly, as it usually does, if at all, and I became dimly aware of the importance of getting the f**k down off the hill.

I wrote a song about it some months later. So here’s to storms and night walks.

 

 

The New Default

Our gadgets come out of the box ready to bombard us with emails, distract with SMS messages, snare us with headlines, and amuse us with status updates. In our technocratic culture, the expectation is that we are always ready to respond. Yet the pace of information grows ever more frantic.

We could create a new default. What if we gave ourselves the time to settle into deep, uninterrupted attention; to cut away the trivial; to stop multitasking; to leave our phones off; to toss our ‘to do’ lists in the bin; to not check our email; to turn the router off; to write on paper again? What then?

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a powerful indictment of consumerism. In twenty minutes it paints a horrific picture of the planet-stripping supply chain that furnishes us with ephemeral gizmos. For instance, did you know that for every binload of recycling you put out, there are 70 bins of waste produced further up the chain?

Most astonishing is this quote from economist Victor Lebow in 1955, which seems to have been stated in seriousness:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

It’s clear that we have to find alternative ways of living and producing. As many have pointed out, it’s not like the current system is making us happier or healthier. Chatting with a friend in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we were sure that change was in the air, that governments would take this opportunity to make decisive policy changes. How wrong we were. And yet, everywhere you find people who think the same way. Clearly, Lebow’s is an idea whose time has passed. The question is will change follow in the global economy, and how much too late?

Moving house, the not-so-minimalist way

Moving house is a time for deciding what to keep and what to throw away. A chance to be minimalist, if only I had the cojones.

We’ve decamped from Cornwall and marched on Devon. Now we are faced with many Things To Do, not least of which is deciding which of my faded treasures and never-did-come-in-handy gizmos can be safely discarded, and which are still awaiting their day of glory. Having become distantly acquainted with the idea of minimalism, I feel an urge to throw things away that is every bit as compulsive as my previous urges to acquire and hoard. The only problem is, I’m not a very good minimalist. In fact, I am minimally minimalist.

Minimalism when you hoard books

I am too sentimental. About old computer games I’ll never finish. About band t-shirts bought at gigs in my rockin’ twenties. About utterly crap films I should be ashamed to admit I’ve watched, nay enjoyed, nay owned. So while I’ve lived happily for ten months from a suitcase of clothes, I couldn’t imagine what skulking horror awaited me in a storage depot in darkest Hampshire. “Just what did I put in there?” I naïvely pondered many times. Ignorant fool! You know what the removal men awoke in the darkness. Flame and shadow. And 19 boxes of books. The b*stards were breeding in there. And three more guitars in various states of bad repair to add to the caravan of damaged string instruments I already had about me. These are the things I find especially hard to part with. Argh.

There is a process of domestic archaeology I have become too familiar with. I approach the box with strong resolve, thus:

  1. Whatever’s in there, I’ll throw out.
  2. I can’t need whatever’s in there because I already have everything I need.
  3. Oh, that’s what’s in there. I haven’t seen that in ages.
  4. It’s useful, but not to me. I’ll take it to the charity shop.
  5. I’ll take a photo of it. Then get rid.
  6. I can never be parted from it again. I’ll hide it in this box.

And now, on recovering my external hard drive, a similar mindset holds for my digital life. Can you be a digital minimalist? Not if you hang onto every text file snippet of poetry, every blurred photo, and hastily recorded song idea you’ve accumulated over the last ten years.

I managed to thin out the duplicate files using some handy software. Then, once the house was unboxed, my digital crusade began in earnest. I found some interesting things, such as this song I kind of improvised and recorded and then totally forgot about for nearly ten years. So, here is ‘The Blackest Ship’. You are one of the first people to hear it. I bought the violin off eBay and abused the bow with Jimmy Page-style antics at Distant Signal gigs. I haven’t used it much (at all) since those days but still cart it around with me.

For a brief time I was able to reconnect with whoever it is I used to be ten months ago, and ten years ago. Looking through a 500gb hard drive of old projects is a surefire way to witness the folly and doomed hope of man (me). Or, if you have the balls, go down to your local electronic waste recycling centre and shot-put it into a skip. But then again, maybe it’s worth keeping a few keepsakes around, so we don’t get too completely caught up in the current dramas and dreams of our lives, all of which will be archived sooner or later. Life goes on in its usual unexpected way.

The zenith of stuff

There’s a statistic doing the rounds that claims more than 50% of Earth’s species will be extinct within 85 years. E.O. Wilson, the Harvard professor behind this proclamation, has written about interdependence within ecosystems and the increasing pressure human activity is placing on life on Earth.

The idea that more than half of our biodiversity – both species we see everyday and those that are yet to be discovered by science – may disappear from the planet over the course of our children’s lifetimes strikes me as a startling wake up call, if one were needed. Perhaps the time has come to put aside some of our personal ambitions and learn to live simply again. We know that the period we are living in is most likely a historical blip in terms of the resources we have access to; and, as psychology tells us, we can’t pretend that we can make ourselves happier by acquiring more stuff. Our minds just don’t work that way.

We’re slowly recognising the limitations of materialism and increasingly looking to life experiences to provide meaning and status, as a glimpse at any social media feed will prove. Consumer brands are catching on, using advertising to position their products and services in a way that not only resonates emotionally but frames them as experience. Cars are for roadtrips with fashionable friends; bring a tablet on your camping trip so you can connect with nature by watching movies in your tent; these tunes are the soundtrack of your demographic’s summer. There’s also a danger that experience-seeking becomes the new materialism. Both can be extrinsic ways of looking for happiness and, as such, not as effective sources of satisfaction as we may lead ourselves to believe.

All this is easy for me to say: I’ve never been without access to material goods. In fact, I’ve acquired tons of gizmos, computers, instruments, books and clothes over the years in a quest to create, better myself in a vaguely conceived way, or just mess around with. I could fashion a three-storey cabin out of the books in my ‘to read’ pile if there were some way of turning them back into wood, or build a lifesize replica of the Pequod. This privilege has at least bought me the perspective that materialism is ultimately a dead end when it comes to adding meaning to your life. Rather, meaning comes from living in accordance to values you decide for yourself in relation to other people, traditions and what we know about the world. Given that we’re now aware of our effect on species, the climate, the planet itself, it’s surprising that we haven’t re-evaluated where we seek satisfaction more thoroughly. I’m not alone in thinking at the time of the 2008 financial crisis that certainly, now, the developed world would take systemic failure as an opportunity to address our worst excesses. That does not seem to have happened and instead we appear to be striving to reinforce the pattern of consumption and increasing output we had before.

I don’t know whether change is possible but I can’t help but feel that a more conscious, questioning attitude towards material consumption and GDP growth would be beneficial – and not just for the environment but for our individual sense of satisfaction and social cohesiveness. It’s hard to know where to begin but many people seem to be finding meaning in minimising, economising and downshifting. In the spirit of small beginnings, I’m going to give my credit card a rest over Lent – yes, even when it comes to buying books. In the longer term, let’s hope that the humanities, the arts, ecology, outdoor sports and contemplative pursuits provide us with wisdom enough to adapt responsibly to a world that is certain to change rapidly, one way or another.

The importance of being bored… and eating frogs

Hunter-gatherers couldn’t have had much to do once the sun had gone down and the storytelling was over. I’m sure we can all think of a few things but, aside from the obvious, our ancestors would have little to occupy themselves with but watching the night and watching their own minds watching the night.

We, on the other hand, have as many distractions as we need to completely ignore our experience from sun up to the wee small hours. Are we really as busy as we complain to be? What is it we’re avoiding with all this busywork? Even though I’ve taken a sabbatical my days feel as filled as ever. There are always lists of things – creative, pragmatic, ludicrous – waiting to be done. The busier I get the harder it is to call it a day, stop, and listen to the wind whistling around the eaves. Somehow, I doubt our ancestors’ problems were abstract enough to warrant lists, which would at least afford them more time for living in the present.

A technique I’ve found helpful is to write down one task each day that it’s actually important to do. Choose something that, even if you were to do nothing else that day, would make you feel like progress was made. This is what they call eating a frog: it’s often slimy, difficult to catch hold of and you may be reluctant to do it. If caught early enough, however, a frog can sometimes be swallowed whole or with a minimum of chewing and may even prove tasty. I offer this as food for thought for modern hunter-gatherers and email farmers.

The landlord’s wisdom

We’ve arrived in Cornwall. Moving home can be arduous but before we left our landlord imparted some advice which I’ll share here. On the subject of deciding what I’ll do with my life now, he said, “conserve your energy. You don’t see animals running around like lunatics in the wild. They wouldn’t last five minutes. Wait for the right moment and be ready”. When we were deliberating whether he or we would take a miscellaneous item he pointed out that it was the kind of thing you could carry around for years, hoping it would finally prove useful. In short, a waste of energy to be jettisoned. Finally, he advised against forcing things to happen as this usually leads to a mess. “Keep things simple and let them develop naturally.”

The inattentive life is not to be lived

Before he was sentenced to death by hemlock, Socrates rejected the court’s clemency because it was offered under the condition that he cease questioning the people of Athens. The philosopher responded that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Many have considered the implications of this and the force with which the unexamined life should be rejected. One translation has it that ‘the unexamined life is not to be lived’ which seems more reasonable*.

The circumstances of Socrates’ trial related in Plato’s Apology make the context of this remark clear. Socrates held an unflattering mirror up to Athenian society and the nobles and serious men of the day. It is often interpreted as meaning we should critique our motives, those of our peers, and the conventions and power structures around us. I always felt fully signed up for the examined life (how could you not be?) but, in practice, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Before you can get started you need to examine what will be examined, how you will examine, how long for, in light of what? All very worthwhile things to consider, of course, that point to a way of being in the world.

Let’s try a variation of Socrates’ maxim that has been said in countless ways through the ages: that the inattentive life is not to be lived. It’s possible to imagine that part of what Socrates means when he proposes an examined life is that we should live in full awareness of our experiences. We shouldn’t let thoughts, sensations, events just happen to us while we daydream or calculate or simply not see. To use the term associated with meditation, we should be mindful (although unfortunately, I am frequently not). Meditation is a route to self-knowledge, and perhaps a good way to satisfy the other, related, maxim expounded by Socrates, to ‘know thyself’. As zen master Keizan said, ‘To practise zazen is to throw light on yourself’.

Attentiveness touches the spirit of how Socrates lived his examined life. It’s the gentle pressure that unravels the thread in his hapless interlocutors’ arguments. The gadfly philosopher was reported to frequently sit as still and mute as a statue in the centre of the market, deep in thought and awareness of what he called his ‘daimon’, which seemed to be a kind of inner convening, perhaps like meditation, that guided the philosopher intuitively.

To live every moment of the day with full awareness and appreciation is an ideal to strive for and it’s not surprising or to be regretted that we often fall far short. But the reward for trying is life itself. If we are not attentive to the unfolding of our lives, then in what sense are we living? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the inattentive life is not lived.

 

*I learnt this via Mitch Green’s Know Thyself MOOC, but can’t recall the name of the scholar who makes a case for ‘not to be lived’ rather than ‘not worth living’.

How to live without a smartphone

Hire two boats for your friend’s stag do in Ibiza. Pilot them to a quiet cove. Watch your mates jump into the water and hastily take off your hat, sunglasses, shirt and shoes. Make sure your wallet isn’t in your pocket because you jumped into the pool with it yesterday and had to lay your Euros out on a table to dry overnight. Don’t think, live in the moment. Specifically, don’t think about sharks. Jump into the green Mediterranean, scene of Odysseus’ travails but with fewer deadly whirlpools now. Swim across to the shallow part of the cove where your friends are. Wonder what that weight is in your right pocket.

If you’ve followed these steps correctly, you should have magically converted your smartphone into an inert lump of plastic, metal and glass. Accept the laughter that is to come. Enjoy life off the grid for at least a few days, possibly longer. Ruminate on the freedom you now have in contrast to the freedom offered by ever present technology. Borrow your wife’s phone when you can.