The annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Sprawl and Existential Insustainability (ASPSEI) convened in Honolulu. Helen was not sure if this was an intentional irony or if the members just wanted a Hawaiian vacation. Whatever the reason, getting there was a multi-modal affair. There were no direct flights.
Air travel had sharply declined over the past few decades. Helen, like most of her generation, had never been on an airplane. There was not much demand; holocalls facilitated most business meetings and allowed families to travel to exotic locations without having to change out of their pajamas. Most airports were rotting away in tandem with an old urban core or already demolished to make way for two or three houses. There were ten large commercial airports remaining and they were strategically spaced so that anyone in the continental US was within a day’s drive of one. Planes were for the rare, but still real, need to travel cross-country in hours instead of days. Hawaii, a place that was once exclusively accessible by airplane, did not have a surviving airport.
This kind of meeting attracted a range of anti-establishment types. There were the hackers, a 20th century term applied, at that time, to people with thorough practical knowledge of digital technology and ambivalence about the law. The term was now reserved for those antique computer enthusiasts who never left the pre-integration era, young men and women who somehow managed to bootstrap fifty-year-old computers onto the net and could be spotted in holochats with ridiculous polygonal avatars. While their technology was the butt of many jokes, their disregard for law and social norms was wholly serious. At conferences, the cluster of hackers and commune dwellers blended. Of course, many hackers lived in the sort of place Helen was representing, but even those who would never flee the comforts of sprawl found common ground with the communists.
The communists divided into three camps. There were the spiritualists, who chose to separate from the rest of the country to practice their faith. The ones that came to the conferences were usually the new age types who worried about the effects of modern modes of life on the soul. There were the artists. The artists lived together to support each other materially through the creative process. Because they pooled their money, no one had to work more than 15 hours a week; thus, they maximized the amount of time they had to paint, write, sculpt, or sing.
Then there were the eco-communists, the most widely represented group at these conferences. They were not their grandfathers’ ecologists; nature and environment was important, but their focus had shifted. Long ago, ecology and environmentalism had become synonymous and correcting this conception was more than a semantic concern. Fighting for existential sustainability started with control of their public identity.
Journalists, marketers, and anyone with an interest in being cool comprised the remaining attendees. A pervasive militant element penetrated and transcended all these divisions. Most of those present identified as activists, but some were certainly more active than others. As a result, one or two undercover law enforcement agents always attended. One might think that a crowd characterized by subversion would avoid meeting in large groups. So many Americans coming together in person was unheard of and, frankly, dubious. Yet such events were not on anyone’s radar. The police presence was merely to give local officers something to do. There was no mass media coverage; there were journalists wearing press badges, but who knew where the stories they were writing actually wound up. Some were likely producing transcripts of the event; watching a video recording of the conference was a kind of sacrilege in the peek sprawl community.
Helen was initially nervous about someone she knew spotting her. For the first twenty minutes after they arrived she checked every face and turned in circles to look for new arrivals. Distraction in the form of a buffet quickly subdued her paranoia. This was a good thing: her crowd checking was nowhere near as inconspicuous as she thought. Also, she was starving. After days of “blending in” by eating at any horrible road-side chain restaurant they passed, she felt she deserved to indulge herself. Helen anchored herself to a spot within reach of the bite-sized, savory puffed pastries and the herbed flatbreads.
A queue was forming before the twelve foot, paneled teak doors directly opposite the buffet tables. Polite murmurs about the keynote address bounced off them and filled the room. A hollow thud sounded as the latch released and the crowd systematically crept into the room. There was no visible impatience or attempt to advance position.
Helen’s stomach sank. She had to attend this talk, which meant she had to set down the half-full plate she was holding and leave the table. She hesitated, playing with the idea of skipping the address and finishing her lunch. Perhaps those people to her right had the same idea, they were not yet in line and were still holding plates. A few seconds after Helen made this observation, they set their plates into the recycling bin and calmly filed into an auditorium. Tracing the line forward she saw her companions almost through the door and waving her over. Helen put up one finger as she stuffed the last bite of a vegan basil roll into her mouth.
“Some spread, huh?”
“Mrphm,” Helen asserted to a large boned Samoan man that had materialized next to her.
“Are you here with an organization?”
Helen swallowed and cleared her throat. “Yes. United Eco-Anarchists. Or, United Anarcho-Conservationists… I just joined. They’re a group out of California concerned by the ecological problems inherent in ocean sprawl.”
“Yeah, we’re concerned about that too, but mainly my people don’t want our home turned into a highway stop on the way to Australia. You know, nothing against the Australians, but if the Americans want to visit, they should take a plane or something.”
“I know what you mean. It must be awful watching the development close in on you.”
“Yeah, I’m just glad not to be Micronesian right now. But I’m sure we’re next.”
“But there’s a lot of people on your side. Someone has to stop this expansion before it ruins…”
“I know I know. Of course, everyone here agrees, but it’s going to take more than a few kids talking during an island vacation.” He walked off towards the auditorium. Helen never did catch his name.
She shuffled to the double doors and saw Patrick waving from a set of chairs in the middle of the room. Mike and Al turned to give her an impatient look and turned back to the front where several people in frayed cotton pants and shirts with one button too many left open were scuttling around behind a podium. Helen stumbled through the row to plant herself in the vacant seat they saved for her.
A glance around the room revealed an eccentric mix of fashions. The wardrobe ranged from slim cut suits to torn jeans and tank tops. The outfits tended towards the extremes; few were moderately dressed. There was a hush of conversation, hesitant waiting. What was the big deal about the speaker? Helen wondered. She had read his book when she was living on Open Acres, more from obligation than genuine interest. When her comrades learned she had not read him it was always shock followed by constant harassment. Rick Smithson was cannon in this world.
His rhetoric, to her mind, was a bland averaging of opinions that others had been expressing for decades. His dust jacket photos revealed a handsome man that had great video presence, but essentially, he was no different from most of the people in this room. It was hard to tell if Smithson really influenced and inspired, or merely attracted those who already believed as he did.
“I can’t wait!” Al blurted out in a rare loss of cool.
“Calm down,” said Mike even toned as ever. “If you’re this wound up about a speech, you’ll just embarrass us when we meet him.” Three heads turned to Mike. Their faces loosened in shock. “What? Did you think we came here to network and listen to motivational speeches?”
“Well…” said Helen.
“Or for the free food?” Mike added.
Helen flushed. “What? There was all the food. And I was so hungry. And, and…”
“Alright, alright, I’m just saying we’re not on this road trip for a nice vacation. We’ve got to do something!” Mike finished a little too loud, causing several sympathetic faces to turn their direction. Patrick turned red and started waving the eyes away. Helen feigned surprise, but she knew she was not here to go to a conference. If that were the case, they could have skipped the three-day car ride and rode the train.
She had only been gone a few months, less than three months for sure, but the office felt like something from a past life. She could remember staring at gravity defying modern sculpture while she waited for Josh, her editor, to log-on. What was she doing here? The ink on her diploma, she graduated from the kind of university that still bothered to print diplomas, was barely dry when she took the job. After six weeks of working as a fact checker, the editor called her in for a meeting. Josh held group meetings in his office, but only the journalists ever met with him in private. Why was she here and where was Josh? She felt like a trespasser; she half expected that when he did show he would realize he had made a mistake and ask her to leave.
The room was fluid; it could have been made from molten silver. The chair Allison sat in was a droplet nominally supported by a razor thin base; for all practical purposes, it floated. Allison, that name was part of a different life too. Josh’s avatar resolved through a vertical beam of blue light. He looked long and pressed flat. His gray pinstriped suit fit his acute frame, but was not tight enough to reveal any kind of physique. The hay colored hair slicked back from his forehead completed an aerodynamic effect. What were the odds that her editor really looked like Jay Gatsby in the flesh?
After some pleasantries peppered with personal details that showed he had recently been reading her file, they got down to business. He had some sort of tip about a commune and needed someone to look into it. Communes did not get much media coverage; the concept of communal living was unpleasant to most Americans and the goings on of a commune was not very interesting anyway. People lived their lives in the home and the news reported little of what went on outside of holonet. Occasionally news broadcasts and txtfeeds would feature an international story that had nothing to do with pop star avatars or a new product for your ReLink. These stories were brief reminders that there were places where not everyone lived indoor digital lives. Less fortunate places.
Josh was the executive editor of The Project, a txtfeed subscribed to by hackers and ecologists and funded by The HoloNetwork, which owned over ninety percent of the entertainment market. The Project had a reputation as an authentic investigative news source and specialized in the sort of stories that most people without an anthropology degree find aggravating and boring. Allison subscribed to the feed in college and was active on the comment threads. She considered herself lucky to get an internship there but tried her hardest to behave as if they were lucky to have her.
The mention of radical commune activities sent her knees into tremors, but she affected cool confidence. Project readers ate up these kinds of stories, but occasionally extremist plots made it into more conventional news sources as well. She did not want her eagerness to show; fortunately, she had remembered to turn down her avatar’s sensitivity before the meeting. In the holoroom, she was motionless.
“There’s rumors about Open Acres,” Josh paused, “you know Open Acres?”
“Sure,” Allison replied, “out in California. They have a few members who write Op-Eds pretty regularly.”
“Right, so there’s rumors that there is an eco-terrorist faction there.”
“Those aren’t really new rumors,” Allison knew this was a perennial accusation on the comment threads.
“No, but I have a source that says they’re planning something, possibly something on Nesson.”
“Don’t they protest Nesson and Links Corp every week?” Those protests usually climaxed with minor property damage and Surveillanet drones rolling in to distribute fines and tear gas.
“Something is different this time. Anyway, what do you think about taking on an assignment?”
Allison was the youngest, least experienced of person in the office, why was Josh asking her to write a story that required undercover work? Perhaps he was worried that the staff writers might be recognized. Maybe she had the dreamy look of someone that would join a commune run by a possibly, but never proven, violent eco-terrorist. Maybe she was the most expendable. Whatever the reason, she left for the commune with a backpack full of impractical clothing and an inflated ego.
Whatever she had expected following that meeting, she was sorely disappointed. All the work up to getting on the mission had been exciting, but now that she was here there was nothing to report besides some minor annoyances. Helen hoped for something to happen, or at least meaningful open discussions. Throughout the ride, Mike had hinted at something more than conference going and protests, but she could not predict where the next few days would take her. There was a sort of mental block on her ability to imagine the future. She tried to pierce the fog to guess what might be going on, but she got only more fog. Helen had always been a planner. The inability to prepare herself for the coming days left a pit in her stomach. Well, at least she knew she would be meeting a sort of celebrity in a couple of hours.
The lights dimmed. A spotlight slid across the room until it stuck on the outline of a thin man with just enough height to be considered tall. An amplified echo sounded when he walked across the stage, silencing any remaining conversation.
Rick Smithson stepped on stage, waving and chuckling, waiting for the applause to die down. He managed just the right amount of humility to maintain the cheers several seconds beyond their natural course. As he stepped up to the podium, silence blanketed the crowd and he waited several heartbeats before beginning to speak. This was less for dramatic effect and more because he had planned for a longer ovation.
“Thank you, thank you all so much for being here. I mean, really being here. Some of you out there might be wondering, especially those of you from the press, why this talk, this whole conference actually, is not available remotely through Holonet. The answer will become, I hope, obvious. But, let me just say how great it is to see a room full of real, live human faces. As my grandfather used to say, ‘warts and all.’”
Smithson had allotted time for laughter to subside before he continued; but instead of good cheer, the crowd gave him solemn interest. He reached for a glass of water he had stashed on a shelf in the podium. It was bottled water, but it would not do to be seen drinking from anything but a glass before this crowd. He took a sip, clenched and unclenched his hands, and continued.
“Now, to the point. As we near a new century, the American sprawl is nearly complete. By complete, I mean near total equality of distance from one’s neighbors, the lowest population density could possibly be. If the average person living in the American heartland were to move their house any further from their neighbors, why, they would only succeed in moving closer to another neighbor.”
Odd, still no laughter. This was supposed to be a lighthearted satire. A good twenty percent of the notes Smithson had prepared was breaks for cheering, laughing, or general merriment. The crowd was showing interest, sure, but the jokes were hitting a spot of righteous indignation rather than a funny bone. He would have to adjust his tone.
“Now the history of why this has happened is old hat, and if you’re here you already know it. So, let’s talk less about why and confront a more pressing question: what is this low density living doing to us? Of course, today’s sprawl is not your father’s sprawl. Well, not your great grandfather’s sprawl anyway. We have all sorts of ways to be with our fellow man, even when physically as far from him as possible. First, wireless communication is two centuries old but only recently perfected to the point that no one can tell the difference between the face-to-face interaction and remote interaction. We have all been to a holoparty, no?”
Smithson paused and began to wonder if some of the communists present actually had been to a holoparty. He did some quick calculations and scanned the room. Yes, it was possible that some of the young adults present had been raised on a commune and never used the holonet. The thought that a whole generation existed that had never known a time before holorooms was frightening enough, but the thought that there could be a second generation of the luddite fringe made him sag under the weight of his years. Honestly though, it was unlikely that anyone present was unfamiliar with holomedia.
“What a wonderful way to socialize! You can see all of your friends and family without leaving home and without cleaning up for guests. You can have your party anywhere; Paris is popular. I myself prefer the Amazon Rainforest. There’s no real mess, no clean up, and if you have too much to drink, your bedroom is only steps away. We see each other more because it’s easy and we almost never lose touch with a friend. Wonderful!”
He had practiced saying wonderful in front of a mirror trying to get just the right amount of sincerity to make the sarcasm sharp. It paid off and the word rolled out with a bright snarl.
“What about the ReLink? For most items smaller than a person, or at least made of parts smaller than a person, one need never leave the house to buy food, clothing, furniture, or whatever day-to-day items are necessary. The raw materials are trucked to your house in bulk and waste, as it has been for generations, is carried away as well.” He was careful not to mention that Links Corp eventually sold back the removed waste to households as material for new products. He was not sure how the crowd would respond; would they think he was praising Links corps for their highly sustainable recycling program? Actually, the system was highly efficient, all parties agreed, but ecologists worried about the dying of the marketplace. Anyway, it was better to keep the technical details out. Stick to the sprawl.
“Everyone’s home is, frankly, fabulous and delightfully idiosyncratic. No item or piece of furniture is out of reach. And, since no one, save the rare immediate family member, will ever see your house, there is little reason to follow the latest trends. Fantastic!” Same practiced tone here, but a little more exasperation.
“Now, what’s wrong with wanting to have it all: space, social life, stuff? We’re able to have it at low-cost. Thanks to high efficiency solar and nuclear power, energy is cheaper than ever and we can generate all the electricity we need for this lifestyle. Artificial nutrients and food chemistry allow us to replicate anything we want to eat, and if we absolutely must have “real food,” our electric cars are fast and cheap. We can be at our favorite restaurant in less than an hour. Terrific! And I mean that literally.” There were a few muffled chuckles. Smithson wanted a sharp transition from humor to sagacity. He hoped that the mood was not already too serious.
“In the ancient East there was an idea, a world view, sometimes called Maya. The idea was that everything we experience is part of a great illusion, a sort of veil pulled over our senses. Perhaps more accurately, our senses are the veil. So what is ‘real’ anyway? People have been asking this question for more than three thousand years. What, however, is true beyond doubt, is that whatever this world right here is,” arm extended, palm up, he made a sweeping gesture around the room.
“The life we are creating through isolation, holography, and home delivery is an illusion. At what point will we forget that we are in our holorooms? Again, whatever this world is, its corporeality is quickly going extinct. I would invite you to take a good look at our public spaces, what is left of them? They lay in ruins, forgotten. Eventually all US territory will be parceled out into private holdings, and then what?” He raised one thin eyebrow and waited as if looking for an answer.
“Does it stop? Let us ask Mr. Links shall we? The surface of the Earth is mostly covered by water. We have not even begun to spread out, to distance ourselves, to destroy the environment with grass lawns and asphalt, to forget we are part of this Earth. What are we going to do? Well, that’s up to everyone in this room. If you’ve truly heard me, then our future rests with you.” The lights dimmed and there was awkward shifting around the room, was that the end? Everyone wished someone would start clapping so he or she could be sure it was time for applause. It was only a few seconds, certainly less than a minute, but those seconds crawled. Finally, someone at the front of the room put his hands together and it only took one small smack before the whole room burst into palm stinging clapping. Smithson was pretty sure no one saw him making that first clap.