“George Orwell was 100 years off.” Sam Harkins: The Timkers — Déjà Vu.
I was six chapters into Borrowed Time, the next book in The Timkers series when it occurred to me that in order to take readers into the future, I would need to fully understand what 2084 would be like. Unlike earlier books where I did exhaustive research on 1930 and 1862, there’s not a lot written about what’s really going to happen in 2084. What would life be like for ordinary moms, dads and teens, and workers, and bosses? Would life be easier, or filled with new challenges and threats we (and I) can’t even imagine? Would the people of 2084 hate, envy, admire or laugh at us? Will there still be traditional families, or something else? Will there still be those hungry for power and wealth, and those hungry for food and basic subsistence? Will technology and advancements in science lead to an end of cancer and disease, hunger and poverty? Will religion be seen as quaint primitive culture, or will it dominate society, pitting one faith against another as church elders try to fend off attacks from atheists, agnostics or other religions decimating their flocks like rustlers picking off sheep from the flocks of panicky shepherds? Will government evolve so political influence and legislation are not bought by the wealthy, or will a revolution topple the American Tsars and bring an end to for-profit government? Will the United States as we know it still exist or will it be replaced with a borderless society struggling to survive — or something in-between?
This essay is my attempt to describe the place we now call the United States as I foresee it in the year 2084. As you read this you’ll see that I’m a realist — some would say a pessimist, but my predictions have (sadly) come true a lot more often than not. Sure, some people envision a Jetsons future — sky-cars, floating houses, home robots and appliances that prepare meals and serve them with an android’s smile. Frankly, I don’t see “progress” going in that direction.
My view of American cities in the future is closer to those depicted in The Fifth Element, Soylent Green, Brazil, or Blade Runner. In these accounts, the rich live relatively well, high above the despair in the streets below while the common man ekes by in a walk-in-closet-sized apartment. Dystopia is a common theme in many popular books and screenplays. Perhaps it doesn’t take Nostradamus to foresee the future.
Why so gloomy? As I see it, the dark forces of greed which prioritize profits and power before humanity are stronger and more pervasive than ever. In too many American states, worship of ignorance and Christian fundamentalism have replaced science, learning, and tolerance. I (realistically) don’t see this changing in my lifetime — despite the quixotic efforts of Bernie Sanders and others — myself included.
2084 is but sixty-nine years away — the expected lifetime of an average American. Consider the integrated circuit, the electronic foundation of personal computers and a host of civilian and military systems was created in the mid-’70s — about forty years ago. So yes, in twice that time, a lot could change. Technology continued to accelerate at the pace predicted by Moore’s Law as described by Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel). Each theoretical barrier fell away as approached like fences made of wandering sheep. Unfortunately, the fragility of this vastly complex system of computers, networks and support infrastructure is still frightening. How many of our electronic gadgets last more than a week past their warranty? Perhaps that’s because the manufacturers are not incentivized to make them last longer because when they fail, customers go up on Amazon and get another with same-day delivery.
And the system as a whole is just as fragile. Consider that a single mistake in space could cause catastrophic destruction of the satellites which serve as the spinal cord of the Internet. This would mean banking, communications, data processing, credit-card validation, GPS services and more (including Facebook and Netflix) are all vulnerable. This means if the satellites go, you’ll have use a paper map to find your way to your mother-in-law’s house or actually sit down and write a letter to tell your aunt Tillie about your new kitten.
In the ’60s we learned a single EMP pulse (as emitted from a nuclear warhead) could take out every electronic gadget new and old from coast-to-coast in a millisecond. We also know a solar burst, an asteroid or meteor storm brushing the satellite field or a simple mistake could darken much of the globe and send humanity back to the technology we used in the ‘50s.
These are not imaginary, hypothetical, hysterical threats but very real events that could happen — and there is little we (or any ordinary person) can do to prevent them. They would most certainly affect the future.
Other problems future earth-dwellers face include the long-term effects of our dependency on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Even the way these energy sources pollute the environment before being consumed. To extract petroleum and natural gas from oil shale, companies inject drinkable water and poisonous chemicals into underground wells and spew out a slurry of waste water that the oil companies don’t want you to worry about. After all Dick Cheney says it’s safe, so how bad can it be? Meanwhile, nearby freshwater wells spew methane gas. Ironically, the oil companies plan to charge homeowners for this fracking byproduct.
To make matters worse, instead of capitalizing on solar energy research and development, our fossilized oil company executives have dug in and done everything they can imagine to stifle solar development.
The result? Unprecedented levels of CO2, methane other greenhouse gasses are heating the planet, acidifying the oceans and causing the climate to go amok. Rising sea levels, freak “1000 year” storms, brutal winters and summers, record droughts and flooding are already here — not sometime in the distant future. These are wounds we (as men and women) have inflicted on ourselves — intentionally or not — but done none-the-less. If we continue on this course, 2084 is not looking very habitable.
Mother Nature’s Revenge
And then there are natural disasters which could adversely affect the future. Today, seismologists predicted there’s a 99.9% chance that a magnitude 5.0 or greater earthquake will occur in the Los Angeles area before 2016 — that’s just LA. Similar (but more dire) predictions have been made for Seattle. This year, fracking has increased earthquakes in Kansas from a few a year to over 877 (so far). But earthquakes come and go — even large ones. Tokyo, Anchorage and other cities hit by giant quakes are still standing and rebuilt to withstand quakes, so this does not concern me.
One other sleeping disaster threatening life as we know it is the so-called Supervolcano resting under Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Some say it would bring life on earth to its knees — an extinction event. Reality would likely be short of that, but it would bring us all into a new age of darkness.
Let’s hope that the natural disasters don’t happen. They’ve waited 650 million years, and while long over-due, for the purposes of my fictional future, I’m going to focus on the things we (as men and women) could have addressed but didn’t.
2084 as I see it
So given this long list of possible world-altering events, what would life be like in fifty or sixty years? Without considerable effort, which has barely been planned and not implemented in the US, I expect outside air will be virtually unbreathable by 2084. In a worst-case scenario, plant and animal populations are decimated or wiped out in broad areas of the country. The oceans will fare no better because of temperature changes and acidification — not to mention the billions of tons of plastic garbage forming islands in the middle of the ocean.
Because of unbreathable air, people venturing outdoors will have to wear supplemental oxygen masks — especially in the cities. As I see it, full-face masks will substitute for the iPhone-under-the-nose social norm we see in every restaurant, in every schoolyard, and by too many distracted drivers. The masks will provide video chat, advertisements (of course), political propaganda (ala George Orwell’s 1984), surveillance (masked as “health” monitoring) and a way people interact with others six inches away.
Overpopulation and mass migrations will be a serious problem all over the world as resources, especially pure water and food grow more scarce. Loss of habitable land exacerbates this problem as coastlines retreat and entire regions are made uninhabitable because of war, nuclear disasters and lack of planning — and action.
Of course, the rich will be relatively unaffected by these changes. They create massive towers and compounds that produce their own weather, food and water as well as security for those unfortunate to be left outside. Think Under the Dome.
The Social Climate
As I see it, sex, before, during and after marriage may indeed be outlawed — as it would be today if certain fundamentalists have their way. Social intercourse will be, by necessity, very different, not only to reduce drug-resistant communicable diseases but for security. I envision a world where males and females (especially teenagers) are kept apart to avoid unwanted (impure) “interaction.” Sexual gratification might be achieved in planned encounters using orgasm-inducing inhalants, or pills not unlike those moviegoers witnessed in Barbarella. Government mandated dress codes will evolve to require clothing which hides alluring body features.
Yes, a minor rebellion by those who worship yoga pants was quickly suppressed.
Of course, teens everywhere are driven by hormones driving them to find innovative ways to circumvent their parents, principals and the state’s attempts to keep them (and their genitals) apart. To deal with this pervasive problem, everyone will be inoculated or fed a substance to quell or at least dampen the fire that overheats the teenage id. And, of course, teens will fail to take this medication at every opportunity.
“War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” (G. Orwell, 1984)
Will Facebook be around in fifty years? I expect it will, in one form or another. In my future, Mark Zuckerberg’s daughter buys Amazon by the time she’s twenty. People are connected through government-sponsored social media using continuous video feeds which record and broadcast every aspect of one’s life every hour of the day — even as they make clandestine connections with not-their-spouse partners. Privacy will be a dirty word.
“What are you trying to hide? If you’re not doing anything against the Good, why worry if they’re watching.”
Every aspect of our lives past and present will be available through massive search engine databases.
The FTC looks the other way as corporations absorb each other as if the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was repealed — it was. While the EU protests these changes, the American government ignores their petty concerns — threatening to cut off their supply of some precious substance only made in Cleveland but makes it possible to transmute Oklahoma red dirt into sandwiches. Well, probably not Cleveland.
In the future, textbooks (which don’t exist at all on paper) tell readers (listeners, as many can no longer read) the leaders of the twentieth century and those that followed in the twenty-first were corrupt, ignorant, buffoons, who permitted the world to degrade around them despite ample warnings. In the same breath, these same textbooks extol the virtues of the current leadership, who call themselves The Greater Good, as they justify draconian measures to deal with shortages of the basic ingredients of life. Of course, these books are under constant revision with entire government departments working night and day to make sure the historical accounts correspond with current thinking. Printed books are gathered up to use as fuel with the underlying reason being to eliminate learning the truth about the past. I expect Orwell will be proven correct.
Yes, however the future pans out, I expect those in the future will see us as ignorant, unenlightened, primitives who let greed, avarice, superstition, misinformation, and runaway capitalism overrule rational thought and decisive action until it was too late.
In the last twenty years, education has moved in the wrong direction. Blatant ignorance is seen as not only socially acceptable but rebellious in a positive way. In the future, the government will encourage this ignorance and as in Orwell’s 1984. An ignorant population is easier to control. In addition, the government takes steps to purge the knowledgebase of impure, dissenting or “incorrect” facts, figures and opinions.
Medicine will have evolved — but not by much. There will be no “cures,” only treatments. When one runs a hospital or emergency room as a business, it does not make sense to completely heal your customer — only make it possible for them to return for additional treatments. Miracle cures will evolve, but the cost will continue to tax society to further separate the classes.
The Political Process.
As today, the political parties in the future will choose candidates acceptable to corporate sponsors. Mock debates are held, but the outcome has been decided long before balloting. While anyone over thirty-five can run for office, the amount of money needed to buy the needed licenses and pay the media to gain attention is astronomical. It’s strictly a wealthy person’s game.
In the future, the pretense of corporate sponsorship of Congress is brushed away — candidates are openly sponsored by drug companies, arms manufacturers and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Of course, voting is done electronically without printed tallies, so results are as reliable as a lottery in Iowa.
When governments stifle freedom, history has shown some brave souls work tirelessly to find ways to protest. Perhaps it’s simply lower productivity, or tossing litter on the street. The underground resistance in France in the ’40s, and Vietnam in the ’60s went farther — killing enemy soldiers, and blowing up infrastructure. But suppose some girl in charge of burning old books tucks one under her coat, planning to read it as in Fahrenheit 451? Of course, gathering all the books in the country would be impossibly difficult — perhaps more difficult than gathering up all the guns in Tennessee. Some books (the best) would be spirited away to some safe place — even if only photocopied and archived in some obscure cloud server. But then again, if books are digitized and the paper copies are left unprotected, an electronic catastrophe, such as an EMP attack, would render them inaccessible — even those stored on physical media. The result? Bookshelves full of books as in HG Well’s The Time Machine — when touched, they turned to dust.
And what if someone revising the historical accounts notices a pattern of deception, as in 1984. Of course, when these functions are virtually, if not entirely automated, there would be fewer people exposed to the truth and fewer yet equipped with the will and desire to go against the system. Add loneliness, “have-not” envy of the “haves”, or simple greed, pride, lust, wrath or laziness, and you have more recruits. However, when that rare combination of chance occurs, the seed for a revolution sprouts.
In the future, as today, there will be those who wish for better times, extolled by spoken tales of idyllic yesterdays. Some still wish for stricter times, when “men were men,” or when people sat around the dinner table at the evening meal. Mom (wearing a dress and pearls) brings in a steaming tureen with chicken and dumplings, and dad and sons (save one) would grin and drool like bassets in anticipation.
But one son hates the slimy mess, hates how it sounds when plopped on the plate, hates how it smells and tastes, and that he was on the outside of this chicken lovefest. And when his mom laid a peanut butter sandwich on his plate, he returned her smile.
So far, I’ve written about eight chapters and I’m well into the parts of the book that describe 2084. One of the principle characters is a single mom in her forties who wants desperately to get home. She’s heard the news about something terrible and wants to be with her son. The car she’s driving is all-electric but floats when the roads permit it. So far, there are no flying cars, but that might be coming. There are flying machines and unmanned drones. And the freeways. They’re patterned after the new I405 here in the Seattle area which provide lanes for those who can afford the tolls. I call them the “Rich-folk” lanes. No vehicles can enter the freeway at all unless they support self-drive — the “system” takes control of all cars and keeps them moving far faster and closer than if they were controlled by humans — especially those addicted to texting. The toll lanes move far faster — just to make sure their drivers get their money’s worth. When necessary, the system takes over a car and all other cars move aside to let it merge or exit or be taken somewhere the police want it to go.
So yes, even six decades from now, America is still dependent on single-occupancy vehicles. That’s the way the automobile manufacturers want it and the public is convinced it’s their Constitutional right to drive their own car.
One of the underlying themes of The Timkers is the invention and commercial exploitation of time travel. This permits anyone with the money (a lot of money) to travel back in time for short visits and carefully guided expeditions. Time agents (the timkers), acting as tour guides, covertly attempt to alter time to prevent the cataclysm their own time. As they attempt to “null” out key individuals (erase them from time), they discover their task is virtually impossible to achieve. The task is simply too complex given the unforeseen and unintended consequences. In the process, they discover the fabric of time is as brittle as a fine tapestry left out in the sun for a millennium.
In 2084, the ability to view and edit the past, as if watching and editing old Turner Classic Movies, is not lost on those looking for an escape from the ever-deteriorating world their ancestors (we) have left for them. A select few hatch a plan to transport large groups of their friends and financial backers back to more livable times, hoping to take their modern technology with them. They expect to live like kings. To this end, they create a list of travelers and make plans to relocate. Unfortunately, the list is compromised — lost and in unknown hands. They will do anything to get it back. Anything.
And then again, mankind might turn things around. We might elect a reformer like Bernie Sanders and a Congress eager to bring the country back to sanity and wrest it from the hands of the oligarchy. A year into the new President’s term, three members of the Supreme Court have been impeached; replaced with moderate progressive judges. The new Attorney General is fully funded and she hires an army of prosecutors who take on the bank executives who drove the country into near default back in ’08. As in Iceland, hundreds of bankers, (those who don’t flee prosecution,) check into the big house in Leavenworth. The feds then turn on the treason perpetrated during the Obama administration by members of Congress. At the same time, they indict the Bush cabinet for war crimes and deliver them to The Hague.
The new SCOTUS quickly redraws new Congressional districts using an impartial computer program which ignores existing boundaries and political parties. As a result, many long-term automatically elected representatives from both parties are shed from Congress. A year later, the country’s lawmakers are making laws instead of voting against each other’s proposals. In the second year, Obamacare is replaced with universal healthcare paid for by the government. A system patterned after the best systems world-wide. A new federal mandate ensures schools focus on knowledge, science and tolerance — not religious doctrine. A new source of revenue is discovered when church income is taxed and all incomes pay into Social Security — without an income cap. Sweeping changes to the tax law throw out special-interest benefits that encourage companies to move jobs and assets overseas.
The new SCOTUS then takes up the 4th Amendment and stops sales of guns and ammunition to unregistered individuals and companies. Every gun and bullet sale is tracked and all ammunition contains tagins to trace spent rounds to the buyer. Gun stores, dealers and individuals are held libel for the offenses perpetrated by the people who buy (or acquire) their guns. Guns stolen from homes or stores are not an exception. Every gun owner is licensed, insured, tested and certified on an annual basis just as when they want to drive a car. While there are protests, the lack of available ammunition slows the number of deaths by gunfire to a twenty-year low. The NRA is shuttered as a subversive organization and its leaders jailed for subversion.
And then the country goes back to work on its infrastructure. It hires and retrains millions of idle workers and brings in men and women from Mexico, Canada and displaced families from the Mideast and all over the world to rebuild bridges, highways, power distribution systems, broadband, including a land-based backup system in case the satellites fail. As with the REA, high-speed (as in not DSL) connectivity is brought to every home in America, regardless of the distance from the service provider. The government spends billions to design, refine and implement a country-wide array of solar power facilities and wind farms to eliminate the need for fossil-fuel or nuclear power plants.
Because of the increased number of employed workers, the revenue raised by taxes soars and the economy grows at an unprecedented rate. Corporate taxes return to the rates paid in the Eisenhower administration. Other tax laws are revised to ensure corporations pay their fair share of taxes and to penalize companies who don’t pay a living wage. Funding for the social programs, infrastructure and social programs is well in the black.
And then the prisons are emptied of non-violent drug offenders as for-profit prisons are shut down. Marijuana is legalized and instead of arresting drug offenders, they’re placed in treatment centers and given job training.
Political lobbyists and contributions of any kind are outlawed. After a bitter fight, the Congress is purged of for-profit representatives and convictions for bribery and profiteering soar. Two years later, K Street is abandoned.
Nahh. Like this is going to happen.
The Dream or a Nightmare
So The Timkers — Borrowed Time is being written with the aforementioned realistic, okay, pessimistic scenario in mind. It’s more exciting to follow ordinary men and women, and their families cope with their mortality as it stares them in the face.