Ordinary World

A fictional story about being late for a meeting

I stumbled to my boots and laced them as best I could and, without fully righting myself, crammed yesterday’s underwear into my black gym bag under the desk. I speedran out of my cubicle and into the lab’s empty maze, alternating breaths of mango vapor and the lab atmosphere, thick with dust and VOCs. Pushing through the emergency exit, I shut my eyes hard against the heat and unrestricted light. A few blind steps forward across the outdoor walkway, and I felt for the chipped layers of bleached paint on its metal railing. I forced my eyes open and let the wind drive particulates into my face. It helped to clear my head and gave the meds time to take hold; no use showing up before I was properly online. I hunched over my forearms and looked down two stories to the asphalt that filled the spaces between haphazard loading bays and side entrances, belonging to generations of engineering buildings. The same service vehicle that hadn’t moved in weeks, the industrial-sized tank that once held liquid nitrogen for use in student experiments (perhaps it still did), and mostly empty dumpsters.

I was standing at one of the final stops of a procession carried out seventy years ago, on a Labor Day. I’d found the archived photograph that provided this was the precise spot. Once again I let myself reimagine that event.

A small crowd squints from the ground below as the crane raises a computer two stories into the air. Against the din of crane engine, someone takes a black and white film picture. Two men in overalls pull the computer to the deck where I stood, grunting as they right it against the weight of its steel frame. Reaching above their heads to the top of the machine, they detach chains from the four hooks that are part of its military-ruggedized design, which includes a riveted metal tag that is stamped, in part, 001. Later that year, engineers succeed in bringing it online and the experiment begins with another machine a few hundred miles to the north. That black and white is deposited with the university archives. The experiment succeeds, and the Defense Department orders more such computers for more locations, connected together in a distributed topology. It becomes an infrastructure with a proper noun. Someone in the public relations office finds the old photo and digitizes it. The federal government hands management of the infrastructure over to the private sector and its growth is now exponential. The archives shut their doors forever, and just before the digital photo is taken offline too, a teenage fan of ancient computer aesthetics copies it to a social media profile where she (quite properly) hashtags it #arpanet and #internet. That site is eventually bought for pennies a user by a cutout for a foreign intelligence service, but right before it is shuttered, its #arpanet content is partially mirrored by one of the Amerinet Archive groups, where it sits for decades. Then one night Siri, acting on my behalf, locates the image and places a copy in my own archives.
I cannot tell if there is still a reason to separate our existence into distinct eras, to excavate the strata and identify the fundamental architecture of each. But I knew, then, that I stood at the site of one of those ruptures that replaced one society with another, when the people (or most of them) remained in place but their order, their function and interrelationships, was reconfigured anew. On worse mornings I would spend more time here, in the late afternoon sun, trying to decode that moment. I do not know if on that day, there was a cheer from the crowd of senior professors, students, bystanders, and attending technicians when the computer was set down. I know from interview data that it drew crowds to room 3420 when they installed it that week. Maybe we should remember the cheers as a requiem, and the whole procession as a funerary rite, all held in advance for the social order and for our own consciousness, all predestined for reconfiguration with the flick of that machine’s on switch.

My eyes adjusted to the sun after half a minute. I always took this time to reflect: self-care doubling as a systems test. I pushed my thoughts back centuries to industrial factory 001. They, too, spread like wildfire. They turned farmers into workers and families into the urban proletariat, all of whom watched helplessly as the new machines tore their society apart. But they couldn’t see the new system architecture. They barely made out small details and individual changes. They saw the new slums, the railroads, the clocks, everything detailed like never before on bills of lading and balance sheets, and all covered in fine poison: but not the inner logic/reactor core that powered it all. It took an entire generation to identify the industrial revolution as the change, and capitalism as the system logic—but by then it was already too late to even just slow it down. The apparatus had already dug itself in and would only grow more powerful. I tried to relax and peered down between my arms to my boots, to the spot where they lowered the ancient computer onto the deck. Nobody had any idea what it would unleash. A generation ago. I hope we can discover its inner logic, I thought, and put a name to what is happening now. Because I can scarcely feel anything at all beyond our own thin layer of poison, and I can see so little without the machines.