Andrew assumed the anti-technology protests that were bubbling up around the country would pass by the city, but that assumption only survived until a few minutes past 8:00 in the morning. Emily came over and they rode together to Davidson University for Andrew’s debate. She said there were three groups of protesters and a car fire. It usually took a few minutes during rush hour just to get out of the apartment complex onto Holden Pike. A man in a rumpled blue suit stood on the corner holding a handwritten sign – “EMF kills!” A woman in a sundress was right behind him holding another sign – “Kill Your Computer!!” There were several smashed electronic devices at their feet. Andrew shook his head at the waste of money. “That’s new.” He laughed and looked at Emily. She just shrugged. “People are stupid sometimes.”
Traffic was light, something Andrew was thankful for even if it was odd. When he saw Elmsworth Pike was moving normally, he thought it might be national holiday or something. He saw a few abandoned cars along the road, but only after he turned into traffic and started driving. The cars slowed things down, to a stop. “That was nice while it lasted wasn’t it?”
At that moment the cars just ahead moved up. And stopped. Andrew could see a huge crowd had gathered. He crept closer to the protest or whatever it was. He was close enough to read the signs if he squinted at them. The banners both announced that CARS KILL and EMF KILLS. Andrew just skimmed a few smaller signs, which all urged people to give up their cars. “Get the hell off the road!” It came out louder than Andrew intended and his windows were down, so he knew a few of the protesters heard him. The protesters weren’t advertising the Beyond Technology Movement but he guessed they were all members or fans, or whatever. No one seemed to know much about this revolutionary foolishness that Andrew had noticed only 18 or 19 days ago.
As a social scientist, Andrew took an interest in this dangerous muddle of ecology, pseudoscience, primitivism, revolutionary politics, and conspiracy. If he hadn’t gotten a thesis topic approved before, he might have decided to focus on the BTM – a sociologically fascinating and practically infuriating group for sure. Maybe they can be my dissertation topic.
Andrew cruised past them, slowed enough to catch a few scowls and mouthed words – curse words Andrew guessed. Then he was through the protest. He’d heard of protests like this last week but none in this part of the country.
Then he found out how the police were responding. Two police cars were parked in the road blocking one lane in each direction. Four police officers watched the demonstration and did nothing. As he crept along in his car, two of the cops gave him the same hostile look a few of the protestors gave him.
The crowd parted as two burly men and a fat woman pushed through. They were pushing, shouting, swinging fists at three young men who were doing likewise. The fighters all showed every sign of being inept or high Andrew thought. The fight was moving parallel to the road past other protesters, so Andrew turned his attention back to the road.
Andrew didn’t see any other strangeness for a couple of minutes. One car parked on the street had its hood up. That was a bit odd, he thought. He told himself he was being too imaginative. Then, they saw the cop holding a plastic egg-crate loaded with what looked like smartphones. He was coming from a mobile phone store. A Middle Eastern man was behind him, carrying another milk crate full of electronics.
“What in the world?” Emily had more time to study the pair because she wasn’t driving. “It looks like someone trashed the store.”
Andrew sighed. “That company sucks anyway.”
“Andrew. This is weird.” Out of the corner of his eye he could see her looking around.
He couldn’t disagree with Emily, but he was focusing on the road, and on his upcoming debate. “Are you going to work on your thesis during the talk?”
Emily patted the spiral notebook she held in her lap. “Nope. Totally focused on you, babe.”
They both laughed. There was a sign reading “Car Free Zone” standing in the grass next to the parking lot. Andrew ignored it, just like a bunch of other people who had driven to campus for this or that activity. As usual, there were some night classes, other sleep-deprived grad students, a couple of community events.
“Be honest. How do you feel about my odds Emily?” He caught her looking at him for a second. She was probably thinking of how to be honest but nice about it. “Well, I’m sure you’ll make some great points.”
“So I’ll get killed then.” He laughed a short and artificial few laughs. He half-expected to be embarrassed when he had no way of refuting anything the other guy said. On the other hand, arguing we need to go back to a state of nature is pretty daft. How good could the arguments be? After a few seconds of thought, Andrew decided things would be even.
The time had come. The audience members were mostly in their seats. The moderator was talking to Gavin in whispers. Andrew wiped his sweaty hands on his pants again. Andrew wondered if the debate about civilization would remain civilized, given how the other side hated everything. Anyway, the moderator had wound up his opening remarks and it was time to make an opening statement. As the home team, he had to wait for the visiting side to make their point. The issue was whether we should continue with progress or stop progress and try something new.
Andrew wanted to make the point that we needed more and better technological progress, but social innovation. The other side, he assumed, would say something about technology and social organizations raping the planet and enslaving people. They usually went right up to the line and didn’t put things so bluntly.
Andrew nodded briefly when he was introduced. He smiled just a bit when he spied Emily coming in the back door. The other guy argued that, in some way, we needed to move beyond civilization to save our species and the planet. Andrew modified his speech to directly address each point. Just as they train you in Toastmasters, he slowly looked from one face to another. Mostly, he saw stony disinterest, a couple of people shaking their heads – a firm ‘no’.
His key points he thought, were that new AI applications, systems science, and new innovations in the social sciences would make it easy to manage resources and people to allow for a decent quality of life and a healthy biosphere, even with nine billion people on the planet. He could sort of read a room. His summary statement went over badly, like telling people that eating an aborted fetus is totally cool. This is the second time in 48 hours he had encountered that sort of thinly-veiled hostility. Had he been oblivious before? Was he over-analyzing things because he was nervous? He made a mental note to run this thinking past Emily.
In the end, he felt pretty good. It was his first time debating in front of a crowd and not really his favorite topic. He’d mentioned conspiracies and their virus-like nature. Apparently, he needed to work on his powers of persuasion because he saw eyes glazing over even before he finished talking.
After the debate, Andrew said a few words to a couple of people. But he mostly wants to leave as soon as he could. He almost made a quick, but polite, escape when a wide-eyed man in a flannel shirt and old jeans stepped in front of him. He smelled faintly of alcohol.
“You didn’t mention that electromagnetic fields are wrecking lives.” He paused for half a second. Andrew wished he could interrupt. “You forgot that fossil fuels and smartphones and computers are all ruining everything. “No, whoever you are, I did not forget that stuff. I mentioned environmental problems.”
“You breezed over it all, like the rest of you smug technophiles.”
“I only had a few minutes. And you could have asked a follow-up question…” The man smirked at him. “I bet you would have continued defending fossil fuels, smartphones, Wi-Fi, and all the rest.” Andrew didn’t know where that idea where the part about fossil fuels came from.
Emily tugged at his shirt sleeve. “I’m leaving.”
The man seemed like he was about to say something, but Andrew was on his way toward the door by the time the man could say ‘that’ and point a finger.
“Have you ever noticed this many stations being off the air at once?” Andrew didn’t know what else to say.
“They’re public radio Andrew. They probably ran out of money and got the power cut off”
Her monotone delivery made Andrew wonder if she were joking. Anyway, he tried another subject. “Can you see a crash or a street demonstration or something?” From the driver’s side of the car he could only see cars, motorcycles, and a few bikes. College-aged people were on the bikes, which was normal here close to a couple of colleges. A couple of cars in the road seemed to have been abandoned. This was in the lanes going the opposite direction.
“I’m checking the news.” He switched on the radio and loud rap music blared. He changed the station past loud rock, loud country, loud static, then NPR.” Emily reached over and turned the volume down a few notches.
They stopped again. “Story of My Life is next.” Andrew wanted to change the station. Then the discordant, static-y buzz of the emergency alert system came on.
“Oh shit Emily.” Andrew turned off the radio.
The car ahead crawled forward and edged around a parked car. It was a Nissan Leaf. It looked like no one was in it. Andrew took a look. Nope.
“Emily, how many abandoned cars have you seen tonight?” He glanced over at her in time to see her shoulders shrug. “I’m going to call someone. You just focus on driving.”
She got through but only to someone’s voice mail Andrew could hear the faint generic message. “I don’t know why I had to see if Mom’s mobile network was up.”
“You are being paranoid, to a reasonable degree.” If Emily liked the joke, she didn’t show it by laughing. Andrew shrugged mentally and told himself to work on his sardonic quips.
The radio announcer said something about seven states declaring states of emergency. “The RCMP Web site announced that they will no longer use radios or the Web last night. Phone calls to RCMP headquarters are not being answered. Something beyond an anti-technology fad is going on here. We are...” and Emily turned off the radio.
Travis James “Captain” Blake woke up at 6:05 as he always did. He dressed at once in jeans and a polo shirt, as he always did. Blake was a man who valued discipline and routine, even 12 years out of the Army, some of the old habits remained. He went to the kitchen for breakfast and a cup of cheap coffee. While eating his banana and breakfast sandwich, he watched a little of the news.
The local news recapped a press conference with the chief of police yesterday afternoon. The gist was that city officials were losing control of the streets. This was obvious. “Where the hell is the governor?” He wanted the Governor to the get the National Guard involved, today. But he knew it wouldn’t happen. The state government was hidebound and slowed he thought. That was better than being liberal and soft like the officials here in Robertson. Still, he assumed law-abiding locals would be on their own.
It was 7:05. Time to leave for the bus stop, perhaps for the last day. Blake was looking forward to getting his truck back.
Emily had decided not to stay with him last night. He was at home in the morning, looking up some journal articles and writing an taking notes. At about 9:00 am, Emily texted him.
Power’s off at the university.
Seriously. What about your place?
Everything’s fine here.
Andrew hesitated a moment before pulling out a little notebook. He made a note about the power failure and then a note about the anti-technology kooks from two days ago. That was all he had time for. It was roughly 90 days before he had to finish a draft of his thesis. He sort of hoped the power would off in her neighborhood too.
Andrew made it for about 10 minutes of real work before the sirens disturbed him. At first, he put it aside, but they were getting closer. He thought he detected a couple of police cars, an ambulance, and a fire truck. The sound grew and faded. He made a mental note to forget about what was going on and just focus on work.
A guest on the local news was talking about the dangers of electromagnetic fields. Andrew had never been interested in the topic before, but now he paused and watched. The caption identified the speaker as Neil Thompson, TTU. Andrew didn’t know what TTU was.
He continued to speak after a pause. “This crime wave may not be connected with exposure to electromagnetic fields, but the fields can cause subtle changes in the brain. Our brains control all of our habits and attitudes.”
“So, do you think long-term exposure can cause destructive urges?”
“In some people, probably.”
“Now, you’ve done research on how electromagnetic fields can cause various effects on the brains of mice and rats.”
“Exactly. I have to say the fields were much stronger than you would experience talking on your mobile phone or operating a microwave oven every day.”
Andrew lost patience and turned off the television. “There’s one way to reduce my exposure.”
It was just by chance that Andrew had heard about some protests against computers, fossil fuels, and smart phones that each descended into rioting and looting, on a small scale in all three cases. The first big American demonstration was 11 days ago in San Diego. Over the next three days, more protests broke out at several locations in North Dakota, Texas, and California. Los Angeles saw a couple of dozen fatalities and several large buildings burned. The governor had declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard.
At least that’s what he thought he heard. The last time he or Emily paid any attention to the news was that rant about crime in Nashville two days ago. He made a mental note to pay more attention to the news.
Then, he and Emily passed the newest demonstration of anti-technology hysteria, back-to-nature mania, or whatever. A line of people holding small rectangular objects in their hands waited to toss the objects – smartphones most likely – into a donation box of sorts. The container looked like one of those metal boxes where people donate books or gently used clothing. Only this one had been covered in white paint. A wild-eyed man stood next to the box. He was having a quiet but animated discussion with a Black woman in a security uniform. Andrew noted that the holder for her radio was empty. She wasn’t holding it either.
Detective Jenkins pulled up to the site of a small protest outside the recently looted Joule store. He’d been tipped off by the radio, which he didn’t like to use. But, it was part of the job, like driving the car. He didn’t have time to stew over these insults to his dignity because he’d rolled up to a violent protest all by himself. Some units must have been on the way, but he turned off the radio.
A couple of the scraggly protesters, or looters as Jenkins saw them, kept looking at his car after the others turned their attention to whatever they were protesting. The dispatcher had mentioned vandalism at the computer store. And they were standing in front of it.
A couple of people, not the same ones as before looked back. A middle-aged woman with stringy black hair wearing a faded sundress and sandals began to chant:” Now he noticed what they were chanting. “Stop killing the planet! Stop making us sick!” Others joined in before she had even finished the second sentence.
Detective Jenkins got out of his car and spit some tobacco juice in the protesters’ general direction.
He got out of the car without any thought. Now five of the 11 protesters were looking at him. “This is an illegal demonstration folks. You’re on private property.”
Only one person looked at him.
He stayed where he was, keeping the car between himself and the little mob. “Two more units are on the way. You need to disperse immediately.”
They all looked around, not at him in particular. No one spoke and no one made any sudden moves either. The silent standoff continued for about 15 minutes, Jenkins thought. It was really closer to 60 seconds. A police siren disrupted the silence. Then another siren joined that one. Jenkins risked a glance over his shoulder to see one police car less than 200 yards from the entrance to the parking lot.
The woman who started the chant stepped forward. Jenkins went on alert because her right hand was in her hemp purse. “We need to stop using cars. You know that but you’ve been cowed into submission by modern life.”
“Take your hand out of your purse.” He put his right hand on the butt of his sidearm.
She hesitated for an instant then pulled out a large marijuana cigarette. “Yeah, I know this shit is illegal. Arrest me.”
Jenkins spit again. By now both of the back-up units had arrived and all four officers had gotten out.
The crowd of protesters began to wander away, to the alley between this strip mall and the next one. A young man handed the hippie woman a lighter.
Detective Jenkins turned to speak with one of the other officers. Before he said anything, he made a note to consider what the lady said. Maybe she had a good point. Maybe electronics were really ruining everyone. He found those thoughts odd and silly for just a moment.
“Excuse me, um, Detective” Now two officers were facing him. They both looked a bit confused.
“Yeah, Detective Jenkins. I guess the protest is over isn’t it?”
Andrew sat in the passenger’s seat, letting Emily drive to work. He needed the time to catch up on his academic reading. This time the old car started up right away. He was relieved, but probably not as much as she was.
The riots and looting had been depressing. Andrew was way too interested in talking about them and reading the news. The UFO sightings were another thing. She almost pulled out in front of a car making a left turned just quarter second after the light changed. “Shithead.” He looked up for a second. Emily only cursed when she was unusually stressed and tired.
He mentally checked himself before he could say or do more. Anyway, the UFO sightings were interesting. She imagined the human mind might be wired to see aliens or spirits coming from somewhere else to help us. Or punish us. She supposed their alleged goal would depend on what kind of person you were. A misanthrope would imagine hostile aliens. An optimist would imagine that aliens are helpful.
Either way, UFOs were unidentified and that was all. Emily turned her attention back to traffic. As usual, it was so busy she would have some time to think at the traffic lights. Nothing was going on, so she reached for the radio button when she had to stop at the next light.
A couple of young Black men were fighting with a security guard outside a Boost Mobile store. One of the men stepped back and pulled a brick out a black gym bag he carried. The other guy tried to wrestle with the guard.
“What if this is just how things are now? Chaos and looters and all that nonsense”
Emily sighed. “It can’t happen can it?”
Andrew hesitated for a few seconds. He really wasn’t sure how to answer
Brick Man threw his brick through the window. He looked right at Emily and Andrew right after throwing the brick. He pointed at them, Emily then Andrew.
Andrew took a deep breath and just stared back at the man, who was kneeling to pick up another brick. She took a deep breath and looked at her dashboard. The light changed. She looked over at him. He was hoisting another brick and muttering something about electromagnetic something or other and killing everyone.
“Just go, Emily.” The man started toward the car. “Jesus!” She made an illegal u-turn. Not many cars were going the other way so it was easy enough.
The Joule Wireless store by the convenience store she used to visit when she and Andrew had more money was closed. It was usually open by 9. She checked her car’s clock. It was 9:30. It had been closed yesterday evening, a Tuesday at about 6 pm. Unheard of. He resolved to discuss this in more detail, later.
“Emily, if this gets any worse we’re getting out of town!” He was only half joking.
“We’ll be okay Conspiracy Guy. Try to relax.”
The trip to school was easy again. “I love this new rush hour.” The campus seemed almost normal except for a few broken electronic devices. Inside the Social Sciences building, it was just another busy day during the first week of classes. Faculty, staff, grad students, and undergrads rushed around. A very confused and very young-looking guy studied a schedule and a map.
Andrew noticed a new flier on the wall when he looked at the confused or lost student. The flier advertised “After Civilization: A Discourse on the Unmaking of Technological Civilization.” Smaller print below explained the idea in a bit more detail. “Ha!”
The confused young student looked at him, at the flier he was clearly staring at, then back. “No, they have a good point. I’m changing my major from Computer Science to Soil Science.”
“Why?” Andrew didn’t care, but the question slipped out.
“I want a job that doesn’t put me in touch with stuff like that every day.” He pointed at the flier. Andrew took another look at the montage – two smartphones, a car, a tablet PC.
Andrew shrugged and went on his way. He resolved to text Emily about that encounter as soon as he got a little work done. But before that it was business as usual – essay exams to grade and record. For half a second he thought about the university computer network being down. He didn’t think it would be.
The alert sound for an instant message distracted him. He was going to go right back to grading those social movements essays for the professor. Instead, he got a message from someone he did not know. It was a group message from a sociology group.
Things are getting crazy around here. Maybe we should make an escape plan. Hate to sound alarmist but this could be an apocalyptic disaster. Weirdness everywhere. A member of the city council apparently said the city (I’m in Indianapolis) should ban the sale of motor vehicles, personal electronics, and fossil fuels. That won’t happen. Obviously. But I don’t have to tell anyone how weird and worrying recent events are.
Andrew felt like this person did need to tell them how bad things are. Maybe the poster was hungover and not thinking clearly. The timestamp was 5:08 Pacific Time. Off-topic. Weird. He was tempted to jump over to the discussion and see what others had posted. If anything. Then he decided he needed to get work done.
Later that night Andrew mentioned the weird message. “I got something like that! It was a women-in-science discussion group. I ignored it.”
“What did the writer have to say?” He explained the key points to Emily. She laughed. “Sounds pretty much like what I got.”
“Did anything else happen today that seemed off?”
“Nothing except what I already told you about.”
“Okay. Let’s say things are good for now.”Andrew went to his corner and got to work.