Emil Cartwright scanned the horizon for clouds. He had been working from his home in Mexico as a computer programmer for about six months now, and he had learned that the locals had an indifferent attitude toward planning, so if he wanted not to get stranded in a storm, he had better predict it himself.
Satisfied, he climbed into his dune buggy and raced off into the sands that surrounded the mid-size city he had chosen as a retreat. Every day, he got up and fixed web sites and point of sale systems for his clients, working remotely for up to four hours. Then he had the rest of the day for himself and, like today, he often explored the surrounding land, similar to that of his native Arizona.
It was nice to get outside of the disorder of the city. Unlike the city he grew up in, this one was marked by disorganized and apathetic activity. Construction work happened while people still occupied the building being altered. Some buildings were simply abandoned, rotting away. Theft was common. Open sewage streamed through the street.
Being a libertarian, Emil saw the situation differently. Everyone had to go to work anyway, so they should set up society based on transactions. People could pay more to live in nice places and the disorder would not exist there. Since people are rational, he reasoned, they would work harder and earn more to have a nice place to live, and soon the disorder would disappear.
The free market fixed things. He knew that soon technology would make so much suffering obsolete the way it had removed buggy whips, whale oil lanterns and rotary phones from our lives. He had faith in the rationality of people, and looked forward to the day that humanity woke up and stepped into the glowing world of progress.
Today he felt good about his situation. He ventured far beyond the city, relishing the full tank of gas and moderate cruising speed of his vehicle. As the day warmed up, he wanted to get out of the sun, so pulled into one of the antiques shops that dotted the countryside, flypaper for tourists. But today it felt right to stop here.
“Desk, sewing machine, desk, sewing machine,” he muttered under his breath. This particular store was less interesting than he had hoped it would be. Most of this stuff was junk, old furniture that had never seen maintenance and so was falling apart at the touch, or recycled technology from the past decade. But something caught his eye in the corner.
1950s styling distinguished the red metal case. At first he thought it was a refrigerator, but then looked inside and realized it was some kind of radio or computer. He tried tracking circuits, but could make no sense of it. The bottom was badly corroded but the circuit boards intact.
“$25,” he said to the man behind the counter.
“The price esays $50,” said the fellow, a middle class Mexican mix of Spanish and Asians who had been here since before the formation of Europe.
“I want to pay $25,” said Emil.
“Whatever you like,” said the man. “It seems like it has always been yours anyway.”
As he roared back into the city that night, the heavy machine strapped between the seats of his spare parts dune buggy, Emil reflected that this might have been his first impulse purchase ever. With the help of the night porter, he struggled to get the thing into his apartment. There it sat for the next two days as he answered calls and fussed bits into place to make machines far away work.
When he did turn to it, he first vacuumed it out, then disconnected the rusty base and corroded power supply. He did not recognize this old style of parts despite it being only six decades old, but he was able to remove the rust and oil the base, then went hunting for a power supply. He found one at the end of the day, dusty in a corner of a typewriter shop.
“$5,” said the owner. “It hasa been here for years. Just take it away, please.”
When Emil got home, he made himself a light risotto with Chianti for dinner and watched the sun set. Then by the flicker of old incandescent bulbs, he got to work bolting the base back into place and then screwing the new power supply into place. He cleaned the face, watching the logo gleam back at him: El Autismo d e l u x e.
He searched for some way to interface with the device but found only two RCA ports like he would use to connect it to an old television. These were made of cardboard, wax and lucite and looked old fashioned in their handmade, slightly off-center way. It took some calling around but he was able to hire a personal assistant for $5 an hour to find him a converter to hook the thing up to his monitor.
All plugs attached, he flipped the switch on the front of the device and watched as his screen flickered to life. The circuitry looked advanced; surely it must be some kind of radar, or a really fancy television? His spirits fell as he saw the picture on screen which was barely as good as the three-dimensional viewers of his childhood. But he soon relaxed and found himself simply watching.
It seemed he was receiving a television broadcast, but not from any time he recalled. A hand-lettered 1950s style sign proclaimed THE SINGULARITY above a building of a strange modern architecture, based on curves and not cubes, that he did not recognize. People filed in wearing the attire of earlier ages that always struck people from his time as oddly formal, but they carried cell phones.
He saw a woman wearing an elegant summer dress that came down to below her knees, talking on what looked like a thinner iPhone, resting her arm on a Packard in the parking lot as another pulled in. People filed into the lecture hall and the camera followed without a single shake, revealing a gleaming glass tower of octagonal shape rising above the audience. It pulsed with a grey-violet light.
There was no sound, but a balding man in a suit was speaking, gesturing toward the machine. Emil could see more of the strange hand-lettered signs around, talking about processing capability (“one trillion UNIVACs”) and memory (“seven billion LOCs”). Then from the way the man gestured, Emil could tell that he was talking about joining these units together… many of them.
More 1950s hybrid 2020s imagery passed: nuclear tests, wars he did not recognize, space flight from a strange glider plane, telepathic imaging. Then, soldiers in the awkward old uniforms and carrying old-fashioned looking guns jumped into some of those tiny Jeeps to go up a winding mountain road. They went deep inside the rock, and through the darkness ahead he could see light.
A city, he thought. No — some kind of crystalline nexus. As the lead Jeep rounded the final bend, he saw that it was neither. Instead what lay before him was a city block or more worth of these octagonal towers. The cave pulsed with their light. Then the Jeep drove down a tunnel carved through rock, past nuclear reactors, bomb shelters, small factories, hospitals, schools, control centers filled with flashing lights and what looked like streamlined, more powerful versions of 1950s computers…
He dozed off. He awakened to images of flying through clouds. The plane landed outside Los Angeles, or what he imagined was a city like it, and then white-coated scientists hopped onto ten-ton military trucks to drive into the mountains. There, he saw another crystalline city of supercomputers, but this time the film emphasized the thick cable running off through the mountains.
New Year’s Eve. Champagne was poured; chorus girls in red, white and blue danced to what he imagined was the national anthem. At the stroke of midnight, a portly boffin strode purposefully to the center of the stage and threw a lever. The lights dimmed and flickered. Then on the wall, a screen came to life. It showed nodes across the United States coming online.
Next came a news report showing the outside of a brick building that was both ornate and stately, suggesting a university or a church. The video cut to a huge immaculate room in which young men in lab coats were feeding books into ports the size of a microwave oven. The books went in, and a light flashed, producing the shadows of moving pages. Then the book slid out the other side.
On the screen, a hand-drawn illustration popped up, showing stacks of books increasing by the millions. Then another room: photographs were offered on one side, and on another, video and audio were being screened. Intermittent shots of giant memory units, apparently using a solid-state technology, showed how much information went into the machine.
Finally it seemed over. Some years had gone by; the narrator looked slightly older. As he spoke, the camera moved to five scientists in oily lab coats smoking pipes over coffee in a kitchen somewhere. The lights dimmed and flickered again. They looked up, with joyful expressions. The next scene showed more military activity.
Emil lost track of the progression here. The phone rang; he checked email on his laptop; later, he ordered some food. But he caught the scenes of electronic equipment being installed in planes and tanks, submarines taking on new computer units, and then a completely automated factory churning out a car every thirty-eight minutes by the stopwatch of the narrator.
Munching down Chinese food, he lit a cigarette and watched more. The first scene showed the distinctive architecture of St. Basil’s Cathedral against a grey Moscow night. A brightness formed on a nearby building, which then vanished in billowing smoke as multiple additional bright spots struck. As twilight deepened he could see laser beams striking targets across the landscape.
The next news report covered first a charred city somewhere in America, with bodies carried from homes. Since he had no allegiance to America, Emil paid little attention. But other shots showed tanks, more like futuristic versions of present tanks, cruising through snow and mud to attack a clearly panicked enemy. He slowly realized that the computer — whatever it was — had made them, or thought them up. They moved faster and more lightly than other tanks, and fired missiles and shots too quickly for a human.
In the next clip, Soviet flags were dragged across the pavement in Washington, D.C. The film cut to an open ditch dug in frozen snow by what looked like a radio-controlled bulldozer. Soldiers herded several hundred civilians to the edge. Tanks moved from outside the woods, and fired a rapid valley of machine gun fire, puffs of smoke cresting the ice and snow. Bodies fell into the grave, and another group were led out to the same fate.
Other images flashed across the screen. The Eiffel Tower, collapsed. The Brandenburg gate dynamited. Bombers with graceful lines dropping scattershot bombs that erased buildings from the landscape. They looked like traditional Chinese architecture. Again with the mass graves and tanks firing impassively, never missing. The scene repeated in multiple countries.
The camera switched to a university classroom. The narrator stepped up and pointed to a population chart. It showed a prior year list of billions, then a present year number in the low tens of millions. The camera panned to the class, and he saw a sea of white faces, attentive. There were no blacks, Mexicans or Asians present.
Another shot showed these same students studying, quickly marking answers down a page in a physics class, or building complex electronic devices in shop class. In the corner a short octagonal computer stack hummed, pulsing as it assessed answers. The children with the good answers went to meet the principal. The others went to another mass grave scene.
“It worships intelligence,” said Emil. He stared deep into the pulsing machine as the camera zoomed in on it, but just as he seemed to feel a sense of its personality, the scene cut to another setting. It showed people out the in fields, cultivating crops. Then a bell rang and they all ran inside to study. Then another bell, and they were practicing martial arts.
His breath slackened as he watched the incredible vitality of these people. A machine checked test scores; the narrator, quite an old man now, nodded approvingly. Emil saw the new master race emerge from the tutelage of the machine: dark-haired, rigid-featured, a mixture of European ethnicities. From the charts he saw, each one crushed him in educational, athletic and martial abilities.
“Way to make a guy feel inferior,” he said, and started giving the movie half of his attention. He snapped to however when the war films resumed. Tanks surged into foreign lands, their guns seeming to fire indiscriminately, but then enemies — civilian and military — fell in heaps, like reaped wheat. Emil realized that a powerful post human intelligence was at play here.
The Singularity, he thought. The moment when humanity finally got its act together, fed all of its knowledge into a supercomputer, and found some ultimate answers. The charts flashed on screen showed even fewer survivors this time. The computer was saving those who had intellectual possibilities and worked hard, and filtering out the rest.
A new video came on. The narrator was very old and looked barely conscious. The new generation of geniuses was about to enter university. The camera panned over the group, and Emil noticed how similar they looked. Not Nordic, but a generic round face and dark hair and eyes, almost Asiatic.
The videos after that showed the expansion of society. Everyone worked in the fields, then worked at a desk, then exercises and practiced fighting. Society was rigorous, orderly and scientific. Standards prevailed: now any one part of the world started looking about like any other, with the same safety rules, signs, roads, houses, shops and cars.
Emil nodded off again. When he awoke, he saw a new video. It described the glorious merger of East and West, since both were high IQ societies who engaged in the same behavior. Now the parents of college students were all mixed partnerships between Asians and Caucasians. The students looked Eurasian, smooth square faces with narrow eyes.
The camera hovered over the machine. Now it took up dozens of caverns, each pulsing with the same glow, and every aspect of life was managed by the machine. Literature, philosophy and music had vanished; instead, only STEM fields were pursued, and every person lived this regimented life, ruled by the Constitution, the philosophy of Karl Popper, and the inerrant machine.
As the video faded out, Emil saw what society had become. Apartment blocks, each distinctive in architecture, and private plots of land. These covered almost the entire globe. Every person was intelligent, studious, hard-working and rigid in focus. All extraneous activity had been lost. In fact, life had become… mechanical.
The screen quirked and then faded out with the pulse of blue light that happens when analog machines lose power.
“No,” said Emil, pounding on the cold metal face. “No, it can’t be!” He had spent his entire post-teenage life hoping for the Singularity, but now that he saw it, he was unsure. Rather, he felt ill.
As it turned out, his cries had alerted some nearby criminals. The doorframe exploded apart near the lock. Two men, squat and Asiatic in the style of the region, burst in. When they saw Emil’s meagre possessions, they cursed. One of them raised the shotgun and Emil had just enough time to register the burst and think that it must be buckshot. Then his body stopped working, became immensely cold, and he fell to the group.
His eyes unfocused and then came back again. He could feel something leaving him, an event like the shattering of hope. From where he was on the floor, he could hear people arguing in a foreign language. His last vision was of the metal frame before him and the cryptic words which now he understood:
El Autismo d e l u x e