One Edge of the End
We're all working together. Working together even to the extent that we meet face to face. And by face to face I mean in the flesh, so that one of us could even smack the other on the shoulder at any time or note a pimple on the other's chin. And yes I should point out that we even dare leave our domiciles in order to meet and work together, now while it's still safe and the air can be breathed. But how long this will last none of us know.
There's Bill, from New York, Dan from Sheffield, Steve and Trent, both from Canada, and now Stew from Liverpool. Like Bill, I'm from the States: a place called Wisconsin.
Steve from Canada had gone home early on the night in question, so he doesn't enter into this brief tale. And Dan was off talking to others in the pub, so he too was out of the picture.
The pub is called simply the Tavern. It's in Taipei, Taiwan, where we're all working to teach English, the language of the Empire. The pub's walls are covered with video screens to keep pubgoers updated on football games happening on the other side of the planet. We ourselves are all from the other side of the planet too, from over there where the Empire started. We're here teaching the Empire's language.
I'm not going to narrate much on this page, so you shouldn't expect much. In fact this page will just be a memo of sorts: a record taken of part of one conversation that night. The words said were such as will probably not be heard in the Empire for very many years longer, if even the Empire survives that long given the state of the air. So I've decided to make note of these words: otherwise they're liable to disappear.
Sitting at the bar that night, Stew from Liverpool and Bill from New York had started an altercation. It seems in the afternoon Stew had planned to meet Bill in the latter's office at the institute where we all work. Stew had arrived on time for the meeting, but the institute's front door was closed and locked, a massive impassible steel front door, you can't be too careful in this day and age.
So Stew began to pound on that steel door and to kick it. He began to kick and pound.
In fact Bill was inside the office, but from where his desk is one can't hear such things as kicking or pounding on the door. So Bill sat there wondering where in hell was Stew. As Stew meanwhile abused the door, to no avail.
"If you'd had a cell phone you could have just fucking rung me up and I'd have come and let you in," Bill said.
This was a barb aimed right at Stew, since Stew is known to resist getting a cell phone on principle: he loathes the devices, sees them as another step away from true humanity, another step in our decline here in the Empire. And let me note that presently, the year 2004, Stew's principled refusal to get a cell phone seems almost as eccentric as if a man had steadfastly refused to use shoes back in the 1980s: "I've never worn the damn things and I'm not going to start wearing them now no matter how many restaurants put up signs." Such a man becomes a hassle if you're ever planning to go out to dinner.
"Have you ever heard of a fucking doorbell?" Stew asks Bill. "Why don't companies have fucking doorbells any more? Every time I want to enter a place am I supposed to ring their fucking phone? Sounds like an excellent way for the phone companies to make money, don't you think?"
"Well, the fact remains that if you'd had a phone like everybody else you could have rung me up and I'd have let you in," Bill says. "And even if I wasn't in the office for some reason you could have found me."
"Oh, yeah," Stew says. "That's a great notion of liberty you have there. Make sure anybody can find you and bother you no matter where you are. No way to escape."
"I used to think that too," Bill says. "Before I got a phone. Now I realize it's not an issue. I get about five calls a day, at the most, and if I don't want people reaching me I just turn it off."
"Sure, then you have to make all these excuses about why your phone was off."
"You're gonna get one eventually," Bill says. "So why don't you just do it now so you don't have to keep bothering other people to use their phones? Why don't you just fucking get one?"
I have great sympathy for Stew's position in this argument, but Bill has a point here. If Stew while out at the pub asks to use someone else's phone to ring up his bird--as these Brits say--well then he ought to have his own phone. And yes, I've heard Dan talk on other occasions with a tolerant grin about how Stew is always asking to use other people's phones but he's too principled to get one himself.
"I'm in the middle on this one," I point out. "I kept from getting a phone for a long time just because of what Stew is saying. But finally I realized I was wasting too much time. I'd have a class to do on the other side of town, say at three p.m. or so, and I'd leave my house in the morning and the class would be cancelled. They'd call my home phone to cancel, but since I'd already left I'd never get the message, so I'd end up going all the way across town for nothing. Now it doesn't happen."
"Yeah, but there's an opposite side to that coin too," Stew points out. "Since people have cell phones nobody's willing to make a commitment any more. They can never fucking say 'I'll meet you at such and such a place at five o'clock.' Instead it's always 'I'll ring you later and we'll set it up.' And the plans get changed five times before you can actually meet."
"The fact remains it was you standing outside that steel door today kicking it like a monkey," Bill says. "You can't fight a new technology. You just gotta accept it, that's what I think."
"Fine, Bill, so maybe ten years from now you'll be walking around with a fucking computer chip sunk in your fucking wrist and the government will know twenty-four hours a day where you are," Stew says, holding out his right arm belly-side up to Bill and indicating the place where the Empire will presumably want us to implant the chips. "And then you'll be one of the ones telling me it's for my own fucking good to let them implant the chip, that I shouldn't fight against the technology."
Stew is clearly riled. His gesture with the arm held out and pointing to the underside of the wrist is a significant one that all of us understand. The gesture is so established by now that Stew can make it without really having to think about it.
But what is the genealogy of this gesture? It is composite: a sign made up of different elements.
First off, there's the fact that the Nazis chose to tattoo the ID numbers of concentration camp inmates on just this area of the wrist. (The Nazis: one of the Empire's earlier forms.) The concentration camps are thus an allusion, whether latent or conscious, in any talk of planting ID chips in the wrist.
Second, there's the fact that most of us, Stew included, wear a timepiece strapped around just this area of the body. (The wristwatch: one of the Empire's earlier control devices. The wristwatch attaches the machinery of schedule directly to the body itself.)
Third, the wrist is what you slit if you want to kill yourself. (Suicide: maybe the only surefire way left for the individual to escape the Empire's steady encroachment. Suicide: the rash act of someone driven mad by the meaningless technological rampage that is modernity.)
By holding out his right arm and pointing at the underside of his wrist Stew intends to throw all these meanings at Bill as signals of the latter's foolishness: he is the collaborator, the wage slave, the one driven to self-destruction by his own obsession with technology. This gesture is meant to stand as the final word in their argument. It is Stew's most essential point.
But the fact remains: It was Stew who was maddened and kicking the steel door (steel: one of the Empire's greatest triumphs) while Bill sat in the office smoking, typing up lesson plans, and occasionally watching birds on the sidewalk below.
As I've indicated above, these notes do not really narrate all that much. They only make for a memo of one conversation: an altercation the likes of which the Empire will not tolerate for much longer. Yes, it's almost certain that the Stews will be absorbed by the new technology and the chips will be implanted sooner or later.
But what does it all mean? What is this slope we are slipping down? That is something that remains opaque to us.
If you are still able to breathe the air fifty years from now and if you are still allowed to read this, you may be wondering with a wry smile at our quaintness here in the first years of the twenty-first century: how we blinded ourselves to A or didn't understand B. You may, on the other hand, already be idealizing our lives as part of some Golden Age, a time when there were still real pubs and when men still traveled around the globe to work and meet face to face, before the risk of viral contamination made hermetically sealed living quarters standard: a time when humanity was still humanity. In fact here in 2004 we can only speculate about your future reactions to such a debate as that between Stew and Bill. For my part, however, and regardless of these last considerations I've typed, I don't much wonder about your reactions to this memo. Because I suspect you will not be reading this at all fifty years from now: the air will have gone and you and the Empire will have gone with it.
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