Last month I was asked to be a part of this really cool event put on by the Digital Writers Festival called Missives from the Future. Myself and two other brilliant writers, Jonno Revanche and Jamie Marina Lau were given three writing prompts for three future points in time, and we had to respond with three different renderings of what we thought these futures might look like.
I had a heap of fun writing these and am also pretty proud of all three of them (the second was the weirdest one and also the hardest one to write, so apologies if it's a bit tricky, it made sense to me in my head). And so I thought I'd post them up here, now that the festival is over. You can also sign up to the letter archive if you want to read the others, and you should because they are so very good and cool.
- Human-like AI is becoming a reality
- Heavy automation of supermarkets and retail environments
- The wreck of the Titanic has decomposes
I can’t believe I’m spending my last ever shift at Coles playing truth or dare in a cool room with Kaye. We are sitting in my favourite cool room, which is the one full of the boxed frozen meals. I love it because the boxes are all stacked up neatly on pallets and if I want I can lay my whole body across them and imagine I’m sucking all the cold up into my veins, like a plant drawing water through its stem. But Kaye’s here, so I hold back.
“Okay,” I say, “I’ve eaten a frozen chicken nugget, you’ve held your tongue to the wall for 30 seconds. It’s time to get serious.”
“Serious?” Kaye asks. “This better not be some kind of Turing Test.” She laughs, but I don’t. Kaye also worked checkouts with me, but we never really worked the same shifts, and she never came to hang out with me and the others in the far car park or to rescue perfectly good prepackaged food from the dumpsters after the store closed. I guess Kaye doesn’t need to eat though, seeing as she is a customer service AI.
“I don’t think so?” I say. “C’mon, it’s fun. Truth or dare.” Kaye sighs, I don’t think she wants to be in here with me any more, but I also don’t think she wants to be out on the floor, pretending like everything is fine. And who knows when either of us will get to be this cold again? Today is the twentieth day in a row it’s been 40 degrees.
“Okay,” Kaye says. “Truth.”
“Why were you crying just now?” I’d actually wanted to ask her since I came in here to say goodbye and found her, curled up on top of the chicken nugget pallet, but I thought then it wasn’t the right time. Kaye looks at me like this is isn’t the right time either, but she answers.
“No reason” she says, “it’s stupid shit. I’m alway crying over stupid shit.”
“I bet it’s not stupid though,” I say, “you know I wasn’t coming in here to say goodbye to you, I was coming in here to say goodbye to my favourite cool room.” Kaye laughs, and the room heats up a bit.
“Is it because today’s your last day?” I ask, and I feel a bit bad then, for feeling so bad about my own situation. I mean, imagine being built with the sole purpose of providing a perfect customer service experience, only to find out six months later that most people’s idea of a perfect customer service experience is getting in and out of the supermarket without talking to anyone.
“No,” she says, “not really.” Kaye picks at the plastic wrap holding all the chicken nugget boxes together. “I was crying about the Titanic, actually.”
“The Titanic?” I ask. I’m about to ask her what she means, but then I remember that they’re showing a bunch of really old movies right now at the Astor. I’m saving up to go and see Blade Runner. “Oh, yeah.”
“I just can’t believe something so big could become nothing so quickly,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I ask, “did they erase it?” Kaye gives me a look that makes me feel like a limp piece of deli meat.
“No, it decomposed. They found this bacteria in the ocean, this new strain that eats up metal really, really fast. One minute it was there, like it’s always been since it sank with all those people on it, and now it’s gone.”
“Ohhhhhhh,” I say, and it’s then that I realise she’s talking about the shipwreck that sank in 1901, and not the movie that came out in 1997. “Shit.”
“Yeah,” she says.
“So it’s all gone? They weren’t able to salvage any of it?”
“Some of it. Most of what’s left has gone to museums or archaeologists or whatever, but there’s a few pieces floating around on the Mod Boards.”
“Oh, right, I forget you’re fleshy” she says. “They’re like online groups for AI who want to modify their make-up. External stuff, mostly, but internal stuff too. It’s a whole big thing.”
“Cool,” I say.
“Yeah. And there’s this whole section of people who take pieces of famous places and landmarks, and get the material melted down and turned into parts they need for their bodies. Like tattoos, I guess, but on the inside.”
“Cool,” I say. I want to ask “Do you have any inside tattoos?” but I feel like that would be rude. So instead I ask “which famous place would you choose to be part of you?” Kaye frowns.
“I don’t know,” she says, “maybe- hey isn’t it my turn to ask the question?”
“Okay, yeah true,” I say, “sorry. Go ahead.”
“Truth or dare?
“Which famous place would you choose to be part of you?” I laugh, and say “that’s not fair.” I take a minute to think about my answer. I remember the travel book I found in the dumpster behind Dymocks “maybe those rocks in Iceland that look like small skyscrapers? Or black sand? Oh, the Northern Lights!” Kaye laughs.
“Of course you’d say that,” she says, like she knows me.
“Well what’s yours then?”
“Mine would be something from this place.”
“Yeah,” she says. And I’m about to say that this place sucks, that I’ve been counting down the days until I can walk out those automatic doors and never come back, but that’s not true. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this place is shit; the hours are long, and the pay is terrible, and the company is so poorly managed that they were going to scrap all of their human employees and replace them with customer service AI, only to scrap the AI six months later for what Brayden calls the Supermarket 3000. But it hasn’t been all bad, and there will be things that I’ll miss, like drinking flat beer and racing trolleys in the far car park with Brayden and Kiah, and knowing when cinnamon donuts are going out to the dumpsters before anyone else does, and having a regular wage, and somewhere to show up to every day. I wouldn’t have any of that if it weren’t for this place. I wouldn’t have this moment right now, sitting in my favourite cool room, on top of the pizza boxes, talking to Kaye. I reach into my pocket and pull something out.
“What about this?” I ask. It’s nothing special. Just a piece of red plastic from the Coles sign, no one’s owning up to smashing it but I think everyone knows it was Brayden.
“What is it?” she asks. I shrug, and hold it out to her.
“Just a piece of the Coles sign, I found it when I was taking out the bins. I was going to go bury it in the dirt behind the furthest car park, with my nametag and security pass. A whole bunch of us are going to do it, you should come. But don’t bury this. You can totally keep it instead.” I place the shard in Kayes cold hands, and the way that she looks at me then makes my chest and my face warm. It’s the nice kind of warm, though, it doesn’t make me want to press my chest against the pizza boxes.
“Do you want to come and see Titanic with me tomorrow?” Kaye asks.
- A billion human brains can be simulated in real time
- The Beatles' music catalogue enters the public domain
- A radio telescope is built on the moon
Love Me New
Love love me do you have the coordinates for the Quora solar system?/Negative, I’m still waiting for them to upload./How many rotations are we on for this cycle?/11.11. Ah, make a wish! You know I love you “but you can’t be sure they won’t mess with my head, what if they take out all my mods?” Ma and Mum are fighting about system updates again. I told Mum that just because the government is handing them out for free it doesn’t mean Ma needs to get one, but Mum said it wasn’t even about that. She said she’s worried about Ma getting one of those viruses that killed all those AI in New Zealand last year. I’ll always be new, “but new isn’t always good,” I say, and I tell them about this article I’d read that said that a computer is actually more likely to get a really bad virus the more up-to-date it is, because I thought it would help stop them fighting. But instead I just got in trouble for comparing Ma to a computer, and so now I’m sitting in my room listening to Strawberry Fields Forever really, really loud, because I know that’s one of Mum’s least favourite Beatles songs, and so please love me do you think we should’ve stayed?/No.
Strawberry Fields Whatever
Let me take you down, because I’m going to Strawberry Fields Whatever Ma, it’s a music blog I found from the early 2020s that is kind of obsessed with the Beatles, and now I’m kind of obsessed with them again. It hasn’t been updated since 2017, I don’t even know if the people who made it are still alive, but I do know that they were all alive when Joni Mitchell, Prince, and Ringo Starr died. Anyway, I just really love how they write about music, I love how they call the Beatles “three identical boys, plus another one, with all flat white where their eyes and nose and lips should be. They have that hair, and those suits. The Beatles are John, Paul, Ringo and another boy is it getting hot, the screens are starting to get shimmery, are you sure we’re going in the right direction?/ You said 56.32 rotations right?/Yes, we are going the right way/Okay but Ma says that I should just listen to my Mothers when they say something is cool but Everything is real and there’s so much to get hung about and also their favourite Beatles album is the White Album, which is good and all but also really obvious? Anyway I told her that she should read the blog, that she would probably like how much Liz and LJ and Jen care about things, because they actually care so much about a lot of stuff. It makes me feel okay for caring about these things as much as I do you see that? It looks like a tear, like someone tore it open like a pomegranate, and look, all those asteroids are seeds spilling out/ fuck/ no it can’t be, if it was a tear we wouldn’t be alive, and all of this would've been for nothing/ are we at 11.11 rotations yet?/ it’s okay, love, I’ll tell you when to make a wish I was alive back then instead of now, drinking actual wine and smoking actual cigarettes with Liz and Laura Jane in New York, and talking about their Ten Beatles Songs They’d Rather Die than Live Without until it’s two in the morning. And then they’ll both go to bed and I’ll just sleep in the bathtub like in Norwegian Wood, which apparently is also a book, a book that Kate keeps telling me to read because it’s a ‘classic’, but I don’t want to because I’ve got catch up on Strawberry Fields Whatever.
This bird hasn’t flown
she told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh, I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath full of coordinates and cold starlight. I thought we’d run into at least one other ship by now but when I awoke I was not alone because Kate ended up coming over, and for once I had the whole place to myself because Ma and Mum and Karen and Brayden were at some community meeting, or at least that’s what they called it, but I’m pretty sure it was a protest. Anyway, I was a bit nervous about inviting Kate over because we don’t live like her and her family, and I wasn’t sure what she’d say about all the mattresses on the floor and how long it would take to figure out that we live here with two other families. I guess it’s not such a big deal though, lots of people live like this now, and Mum said lots of people lived like this when she was young, and even well before that. That’s why they go to the community meetings, to figure out ways to push back against the government that’s trying to make it seem like it’s all our fault and not at all theirs. They said that next time I should come with them, and I said yeah maybe, but when they’re all at their meetings it’s the only time I get to be by myself, it’s too dangerous/That’s the only way we’re going to make it past the belt. It’s okay, I made five wishes already today/What rotation are we now?/10.51/Okay, I’ll go, but I’m waiting to make one more wish/I don’t know if we can wait but Kate came over at 8, and she brought a frozen pizza, and we cooked it in our tiny microwave oven, and then we went to my room, and lay on all the mattresses, and she didn’t say anything mean about it, and we ate the pizza and listened to all of Rubber Soul, which turns out is her favourite Beatles Album (it’s my third favourite), and my chest felt so full of hot gas, it kind of looks like a giant pearl. Are you getting all of this?/Yeah. This bird has flown south west, 4.43 rotations. Can you hear music? I can definitely hear music, isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?
- Sea levels are wreaking havoc around the world
- 80% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed
- The average employee works less than 20 hours per week
I’m making Gran a bee for her birthday. I’m making it out of aluminum can scraps and bits of broken plastic and glass. I’m almost finished, it’s not perfect but it’s pretty close to perfect, and I think she will love it. Last year I forgot her birthday altogether, so this year I’m making up for it.
This time last year I was still pretty sad about Mum not staying with us. I’ve lived in this house on this small patch of high ground with Gran for almost two years now, which means it’s been just over two years since the bacteria that’s bad for humans broke out, and one and half years since the bacteria that’s bad for AI became a thing. They’re both kind of like the strain that started breaking down shipwrecks in the early 2020’s, except one eats flesh and one eats this certain type of synthetic material that most AIs are made of now. Both turn their food into oxygen though, which is good I guess, we need more of that. We need more oxygen and more trees and more bees to help all the plants that have died off grow back. When I’d got here Gran only just started planting the bee garden.
Gran’s sitting in our bee garden listening to her favourite band again. Mum used to play them all the time around our old house, but she always had the Notes app open on her iPad when she did, waiting to hear something new even though we’d listened to those songs so many times. I asked Gran once if we could listen to something else, but she said we don’t have anything else to listen to, she told me again that this was all she and other Gran and mum could bail out of the house that got hit by the hurricane. She said it with sadness, and I felt kind of bad for asking, but I don’t know, that was all before I was born. She’s shown me pictures of the Beatles, and of actual beetles, but I’ve never seen either in real life. There are certain types of flowers that we can’t grow because there aren’t any bees, or beetles, or worms where we live now.
This morning Gran showed me some more photos of my other grandma on an iPad with a cracked screen. Gran kept it even though everyone stopped using it, and that was a good thing too, because it meant she still had something when everything new started to crash. They were close up photos of their faces, in front of neon signs, in front of mountains, in front of a supermarket. The last time I saw a supermarket was the last time I saw my other Grandmother. Those two things aren’t connected, they just happen to have happened on the same day. They look happy, though.
“I know Mum loved the Beatles because other Gran loved the Beatles, but why did other Gran like them so much?” Gran just shrugs her shoulders and said, “other Gran liked old things.”
“Is that why she loved you?” I asked.
“Cheeky,” she said, but she was smiling. “No, other Gran was very sentimental. I think the music reminded her of her mum.”
I snorted, because there really is no one more sentimental than this Gran. She has a piece of every place that means something to her attached to her body somehow, either on the outside or the inside. Gran’s sentimentality is the reason she’s not affected by the bacteria; she didn’t get the free upgrade because she was afraid they’d take out all the bits that weren’t her.
“It’s a good thing I care about things like that,” she always says when I tease her about it, “it’s why I’m still here.”
When I was really little, Gran and I used to play this game where we would pretend bolts were seeds and plant them in the ground. In the morning I’d look out my window and be so surprised and kind of freaked out that metal flowers had sprung up overnight. It took until I was almost ten to realise that Gran had been building the flowers herself in the shed, and then burying them in the ground where we’d planted the seeds the day before. I was so mad at her for making me almost believe that metal plants could grow from metal pieces, I only forgave her when she promised me she’d show me how to make one.
Now we build flowers together, we plant them in the soil where real flowers won’t grow. The first flower I made was a daisy, I called it Red Daisy because while I was making it I cut my fingers up on the petals. Daisies are harder than they look because all the petals have to be the same size. My favourite flowers to make are peonies because they have so many petals you can’t really put one in the wrong place.
Gran doesn’t know anything about the bee, though. I have to get up extra early, and sneak out to the shed, like she did when I was little and I didn’t know the difference between organic and inorganic matter.
I’m using whatever scrap metal I can find to build it, mostly because it’s all we’ve got left, but also because I don’t want the bee to look too much like a bee. The body is mostly aluminum scraps from a bunch of old soft drink cans we found buried in one of the garden beds, and the plastic I’m using for the wings is from a broken bucket we used to use for fertilizer. I’m worried that if it looks too much like a bee she might mistake it for a real bee, and then I’d have to figure out what real bees actually do. I know they built hives and pollinate flowers and make honey and stuff, but I’ve never seen a bee in real life, I don’t know how to mimic bee movements. And I know that if Gran sees what she thinks is a real bee, and then finds out that it is a fake bee, she’ll crumble, but it’ll be worse than all those new AI getting eaten up from the inside out because it’ll just be her heart. If I were with mum I would just look up a video of bees flying on the iPad. But there’s no reception out here. That’s why mum isn’t out here with us. She’s in the city, still, sailing her boat between signal towers, trying to get us out of here, because Mum and Gran are different that way. Mum is always trying to figure out how to get us off this dying planet, but Gran thinks we need to stick around and clean up our mess. I don’t know which I go yet, maybe a bit of both? I don’t want to leave the bee garden, and everything that Gran and I have built behind, but every day it’s getting harder to breath.
I hope she’s still coming back for Gran’s birthday, though.