DRAFT: Seat 14 C
The world is full of things constantly happening, despite us not knowing how or why; they just happen anyway. Kristin had boarded ANA Flight 008 trying to take on the perspective that it was futile trying to treat life as a story. The best you could hope for, she’d thought, was to recognize it for what it was: a series of events that had occurred, and best leave it at that.
If you spent your time looking for narrative, hoping to shoehorn a series of unfathomly complicated events into a story, you’d have no time left reacting to everything else that was happening.
Kristin understood that she wasn’t lucky, she was just… rare. One of the things that happened, that no-one could explain, happened only to her and less than three hundred other people. The other thing that happened, the one that didn’t happen to Kristin but happened to about seven billion other people, she took more personally.
The first of these happened at 4:58am local time. It’s an indication of how little we know that no-one’s sure if the discontinuity happened to happen right at that time, just at that place, or if it happened because ANA Flight 008, en-route from Tokyo to San Francisco, cruising at 37,000 feet, was there, right at that time, just at that place.
LIGO nor its sister VIRGO spotted anything. Super-K didn’t see anything unusual. Nor Chandra. Hubble wasn’t even looking in the right direction; JWST was in a crate.
Calling it a discontinuity was one of humanity’s attempts to pretend that it knew what was going on, that the universe was understandable. Hundreds of years of progress in terms of better explanations for why and how things happened more or less wiped at the speed of a disappearing transponder signal.
For a while, Kristin thought it best to treat the entire thing like some sort of uncanny valley.
Instead of a handful of specific valleys — which valleys could be unnervingly deep but, in her experience, relatively easily avoided (Twitter accounts with plausible text emerging from the black boxes of LSTM networks running on cheap, clean(ish) power; badly animated videogame characters rushed out too early to market, narrowly useful voice assistants) — the whole world had fallen into one.
Every time she felt like she stood a chance of climbing out, whatever hand or foothold had clicked like an existential epiphany, inevitably gave way and she’d slip.
Everything had changed, and yet everything still looked roughly the same.
The last time she’d felt like this was in the mid 2000s, when she’d been working in London. At the time, she thought that the same-but-different feeling would’ve been worse if she’d been anywhere else in the UK; as a city, London was like playing an open world game on easy, a city that depended on being just usable enough for a broad spectrum of cultures, helpfully international wayfinding symbols and affordances for a global consciousness.
Americans were supposed to find working in the UK easy: the two countries shared a language and enough of a culture that most people didn’t think about how different things could be. And yet, one thanksgiving, desperately homesick for pumpkin pie, Kristin had finally managed to find the ingredients she needed (canned pumpkin, syrup, Oreos in sufficient quantities) in Fortnum and Mason, of all places. Checking out, she’d felt a wave of loneliness and lack of belonging as someone who was neither a tourist nor an ex-pat’s assistant.
Because it was the mid 2000s, there was no easily Googleable FAQ, no Buzzfeed listicle precisely aimed at the lucrative demographic of Americans in London who had committed to entertain a Thanksgiving dinner.
Despite the surface-level shared culture — and there was a lot of surface, the western countries had frothed at the top, a mushy sea foam of everyday interactions exploding as an increasingly more connected world folded around itself, a fractal compression mechanism that would pack more and more opportunities for similarity and commerce into the same 24 hours — everything under that frothy surface, everything that wasn’t being made to move fast, everything that wasn’t being broken, was stubbornly alien.
In San Francisco, Kristin knew she needed to go to Target. In London, she might need to go to a grocery store (a big one, not a small one), or a pharmacy (a Boots, maybe?) or John Lewis, a sort of empire-era department store.
2037 was just like living in London, only worse.
She could never leave, and everyone assumed she’d want to stay.
The second thing that happened, the thing that happened to everyone else and not to Kristin and her fellow travellers, that biggest valley of all, no-one was sure of how that had happened, either. It ended up being the thing that mattered more than some inexplicable time travellers.
The saving grace was that since the discontinuity had already happened, the people whose job it was to understand, explain and reassure ended up very obviously and publicly backpedalling, making nervous in-jokes about sufficiently advanced technology and magic.
The best picture of the second thing looked a bit like this: a Silicon Valley design shop that had previously achieved notoriety for employing a black-hat attitude toward ethics (an attitude which was steadily becoming less and less notorious) had replied to a run of the mill Department of Education RFP.
The RFP was for electronic teaching methods supporting the Kushner/Ivanka Every Child Codes initiative. There’d been nothing particularly out of the ordinary in the design shop’s proposal, at least none that warranted any special attention. It was, in the way of the administration of the time, Yet Another Large Technology Boondoggle, sprinkled with the right kind of buzzword incantations that would’ve made it a popular enough play in the public and would’ve allowed everyone, Silicon Valley CEOs included, to pat themselves on the back about a job well done for the children.
Afterwards, after not only the delivery platform but the proposal itself had been forensically examined (even the five hard copies and one (1) copy submitted on DVD), there wasn’t anything that would’ve raised any flags of any color.
That was the embarrassing problem: it worked. Nobody could dispute the results. Some combination of generally accepted, science and evidence-based educational pedagogy, along with what a famous public scientist had called “an offense of meaningless buzzwords forced together in a way that doesn’t make any sense” (spaced repetition, training content produced on the fly by generative adversarial networks, customization powered by local tensor processing units) had actually worked.
There was a chance that it had something to do with a rumored CRISPZika experiment that had gotten out of hand, but how many things needed to have gotten out of hand to explain one thing that had gotten out of hand? Most of the world shrugged: they didn’t need to know how it happened. It was enough to know that it did.
By the time Kristin’s flight landed on June 28th, 2037, everyone on the entire planet could code.
Out of everyone on ANA 008, Kristin was supposed to have had it the easiest.
She’d stopped off in Tokyo to catch up with an old client and meet friends after a conference in Singapore on, of all things, digital government and deep learning, fully aware and wracked with that sort of helpless guilt that, she was the kind of person who stopped off in Tokyo on the way back from an expenses paid conference gig. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d offset any carbon. Maybe when Dopplr had still been working?
If she hadn’t stopped off in Tokyo, things would be different.
As she lay reading in the dark, unable to sleep again, Kristin slowly became aware of a familiar feeling creeping over her. She paused, breathed and counted to four a few times. It didn’t work. There wasn’t anything that needed to be dealt with the next morning that couldn’t wait, so she accepted the feeling and tried to accept the consequences: she’d be up late, and voraciously consume everything.
Knowing it was late, but trusting the presence indicator, Kristin messaged Cyd.
“So everyone can do it?”
“And… they can all do it well?”
“They can all do it well. I mean, the funny thing is… the funny thing is that those of us who learned how to do it the old way, well. The theory is that we didn’t learn it in an… optimal way.”
Kristin blinked, trying to figure out the implication.
“They’re better than us?”
“Remember those startup managers who were obsessed with finding 1000x engineers?”
“We made fun of them.”
“Pretty much everyone is a 1000x engineer now.”
“But… things aren’t that much better?”
“Oh, Kristin.” A beat, and Kristin could hear the sad smile on Cyd’s face. “You know the answer to this one.”
A few years before Kristin had left, there’d been the first big software-political scandals the world had seen. A new effort at improving healthcare in the United States had successfully run the gauntlet and emerged from the legislative stage. All that needed to happen was for the bruised policy to be delivered. As some of Kristin’s cohort were fond of pointing out, pretty much everything in the 2010s relied on software to some extent, and when the software behind the healthcare policy fell over (something like Servergate? There had been a Time magazine cover), more middle class people than ever suddenly had an opinion about computer systems.
The uncanny valley Kristin had fallen into, with no hope of escape, was one where software was everywhere and had indeed eaten the world, but perhaps not the way the briefly famous venture capitalist had insisted. Instead, the idea of software had eaten everyone’s minds, and the end result was that somehow several billion humans had gotten very good at speaking good software.
Not just good software. Excellent software. Things just didn’t crash anymore. Operating systems were reliable. No-one got accidental doses of radiation. Parents bought internet connected teddy bears for their preschoolers without hesitation, safe in the knowledge that video feeds were secure. No-one really worried about connecting all manner of things to the internet. Teenagers would write code in C, first time, that wouldn’t be subject to buffer overflow attacks.
The problem was, people were still people.
Of course, Cyd was right. It wasn’t inaccurate to say that in Kristin’s time, bad software was a problem. It absolutely was. But the problem had never been solely about building high quality things, it had been about building the right things in the first place.
Kristin had experienced this the moment she got off the plane, only in her completely novel jet lag experience, she hadn’t quite understood the impact of what was happening. The bureaucracy she’d been used to, the long lines at SFO waiting to fill in customs forms, the sort-of-working touchscreens that had been operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection had been replaced by a shockingly efficient system.
A faint nagging feeling had lingered that Kristin now understood: the shockingly efficient system was exactly the same as the old one. It was the same dumb customs questions. It wasn’t any better designed. It wasn’t any more humane. It just didn’t fall over.
Progress, then. Of a sort.
She’d been checked into a hotel — a two-week stay authorized and paid for by some sort of collaboration between a whole host of government organizations (she’d picked out NTSB, DHS and FEMA, at the very least) — because she didn’t have an apartment anymore. In a way, it was nice to have a sort of practical demonstration about the sheer mundanity of time travel even if this was the first (and likely, only) time for it to ever happen. The generally accepted view in fiction had been that compounding interest would deal with these sorts of problems, but compounding interest didn’t take into account the fact that Wells Fargo hadn’t been sufficiently motivated to move money from her accounts in credit to accounts that were being regularly debited.
She was, variously, bankrupt, rich, missing, dead, owed lots of money to people who now wanted that money back and eligible to upgrade to a new phone. She was disappointed to see that Verizon still had her business.
On the second day, when she’d dealt with the bureaucratic cruft of re-appearing with her affairs in an order complicated enough for her to see the value in hiring a set of lawyers and accountants, she’d realized that she’d gone through exactly the same amount of bureaucratic cruft that she would’ve expected in 2017, only it had taken less time.
Everything had changed, and yet everything still looked roughly the same.
On the third day, someone from her former employer called. The call hadn’t taken her by surprise, she’d prepared for it after her call with Cyd. Kristin already knew what she wanted to do; her employment in 2017 had been a matter of convenience, a calculus that played off what she needed to afford to live in the Bay Area combined with interesting, stimulating work. She was toward the end of her sabbatical when she’d gone to Singapore for the conference.
She told them she wasn’t interested and called Cyd.
“You heard me.”
“You’re getting the band back together? No one even says that anymore. There aren’t even bands.”
“Okay, so you’re getting the band back together. To do what? They won’t listen to us. Everyone just goes out and does their own thing and you know what? It works. They just do whatever they want to do and it works.”
Kristin gave Cyd a look.
“Okay, it doesn’t work well enough.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
She’d come around, in the end. There were those who thought what happened was like winning a minor jackpot, all that better software meant that some things were easier. There were probably more self-driving cars than there would’ve been. Trillions of dollars poured into computer systems around the world that just didn’t work were now fractions of the same amount poured into computer systems that did work, but just weren’t particularly imaginative.
The world ran slightly better, on better mousetraps, faster horses.
“It’s like we know how to make flawless diamond now, Cyd,” said Kristen, “but all we’re doing is the same things we used steel and plastics for. It’s time for us to make what can only be made out of diamond.”
Kristen grinned. Today, the world felt like a valley she could crawl out of and build something wonderful.
“We can make everything better now.”