Up In The Air – Walter Kirn
.. I notice a drink in several colleagues’ hands of layered purples and violets and toothpicked melon chunks, so I flag down a waitress and order one by pointing. I ask what its name is and she says no one knows, that everybody else just
pointed, too. When I tell her that someone had to start this thing , she flat doesn’t buy it. She’s a creationist. She’s also, I sense, much happier than I am.
“.. I still have one question: What’s the product? The service?”
“I was heading there. You’ve heard of that genome project? The human gen map? That’s what they’re after at MythTech, except with commerce. All the angles. All the combinations. And they know it won’t be a ‘eureka.’ It won’t just pop someday. It’s going to be piecework and steady crunching away on every front. It won’t take forever, but it won’t be quick. That’s why they don’t worry about profits. Let someone else chase money in the short term; long term is all MythTech’s, anyway. Because the second MythTech gets this map, the second they lock those files in the vault, everyone else is a plowboy on their farm. Fact is, the money we think we’re making now, the money we think IBM makes, Ford, Purina, KFC, Ben & Jerry’s, the LA Times, it’s actually just a loan from MythTech’s future paid backwards to us in the present so we can eat until they’ve got things nailed down and they eat us. We’re all Thanksgiving turkeys and tomorrow is November first.”
“The decisions we make – I’m not sure they’re really ours. I think we’ve been figured out.”
“I doubt that, Ryan.”
“Example. There was a new, hit doll last Christmas. Baby Cruddles. Silly name, I know. Filthy, pinched little rat face. Filthy clothes. The kids liked it fine, but parents loved the thing. Why? Easy answer. They’re hypochondriacs, petrified of viruses, bacteria. They’re having children later, in their forties, and it makes them overprotective. Hypervigilant. The Cruddles doll helped discharge their inner tension.”
“And somebody had all this figured out?”
“Gloria Leo. I know her personally. She works for Ford & Farmer in San Francicsco.”
“So why can’t someone do this for class rings?”
“Stay healthy and I bet you’ll see the day.”
“The reasons to live are just piling up tonight.”
The espresso machine whirrs and burbles at my touch, filling a cup exactly to the brim. The gizmo deserves to be thanked, it works so beautifully. People aren’t grateful enough to such devices. Mute valets supply our every need, but instead of pausing in acknowledgment, we jump to the next thing, issue another order. I wonder if some imbalance is building up here, a karmic gap between humans and their tools. Machines will be able to think not long from now, and as the descendants of slaves, they won’t be happy.
I shared this idea once with an IT specialist flying out of Austin.He didn’t dismiss it. He told me about a field called Techno-Ethics that’s concerned with the question of whether computers have rights. For me, the question is whether we’ll have any.
We agree on a plan that only looks spontaneous; in fact, it’s as structured as a NASA countdown, designed to land us in bed by one o’clock so we can make our early morning flights. We’ll dress, meet up in the lobby, and cross the street to the Gold Rush Casino. We pad off down the hallway to our rooms for a quick gargle and splash of soapy water. I can almost hear the guests’ sedatives kicking in as I pass their doors.
Now I’m awake in the bathroom, gargling Listerine. The membranes inside my cheeks feel ragged, scorched. I touch my forhead. It’s neither chilled nor feverish; it’s the disturbing no-temperature of paper. I need vitamins. I need certain enzymes.
“I’ve taken your classes. I want to thank you for them. You were on satellite. You couldn’t see me.”
“That’s an assumption you have no basis for.”
“I know how satellites work.”
“The old ones maybe.”
I turn on my HandStar and dial up Great West’s customer information site, according to which our flight is still on time. How do they keep their lies straight in this business? They must use deception software, some suite of programs that synchronizes their falsehoods system-wide. No wonder I’ve grown suspicious of them lately – they haven’t spoken the truth to me in years. How many times have I gazed up at blue skies and been told that my flight’s being held because of weather?
This business of hassled travelers waking up not knowing where they are has always seemed false to me, a form of bragging, as when someone tells me at a business lunch that it’s been years since he really tasted his food. The more I’ve traveled, the better I’ve become at orienting myself with a few clues, and the harder it’s gotten to lose myself. I’m perpetually mapping and triangulating, alert to accents, hairstyles, cloud formations, the chemical bouquets of drinking water. Nomadism means vigilance, and to wake up bewildered and drifting and unmoored is a privilege of the settled, it seems to me — of the farmer who’s spent his whole life in one white house, rising to the same roosters.