I have an idea for a science fiction short story set about 100 years in the future. I haven't fleshed it out yet, but here's the premise: To satisfy people's otherwise insatiable hunger to be constantly connected, scientists develop a gene that, when incorporated into cells implanted in the cerebral cortex, coax adult or embryonic stem cells to build a biological, multifunctional communication device in the cerebrum.
This incredible device can deliver audio and visual signals directly to the brain and translate thoughts into pictures and words much more lucidly than the host person had ever been able to do when relying on vocalization and textual messages alone. It also flawlessly transmits and receives signals to and from other devices using waves that can travel up to 30 miles and penetrate large, solid objects such as buildings and hills. To ensure that everyone remains interconnected, the device includes biologically encoded software that facilitates the passing of signals, untouched and unread, to other devices within range, thereby allowing them to be delivered to the intended recipient through as many hops as necessary over a networked web of cerebrum-embedded communication devices. Inorganic base stations joined by fiber-optic cables are positioned to bridge all gaps greater than 30 miles, such as mountain ranges and oceans, thus allowing anyone anywhere to communicate with everyone everywhere.
Initially, only entrepreneurial yuppies take advantage of this invention. However, because the devices will become useful only when they are in enough people's heads such that no one is ever more than 30 miles away from another communications-enhanced person or a base station, the early adopters work hard and successfully to convince others of the benefits of being constantly connected effortlessly and intuitively.
Eventually, people become so enthralled with this tremendous biological enhancement that whenever they conceive a child they have the gene implanted in the fetus very early in the gestation period. Because the gene becomes embedded in babies' DNA, when the babies grow up and bear children of their own, the gene is automatically passed to their offspring through the conventional reproductive process.
Over the course of many, many generations, because people long ago switched to exclusively using their networked, cerebrum-embedded communication devices rather than the more traditional means of communication, natural evolution eventually eliminates human ears due to lack of use.
Marketers being marketers, they see this development as a tremendous opportunity and begin to take advantage of the devices to beam advertising directly into people's heads. My story ends with the extinction of all humans when everyone's brain becomes so overloaded by the processing of spam that it no longer has time to initiate autonomic functions such as respiration and the beating of their hearts.
The story still needs a lot of work, and I've got to do considerable research on stem cells, DNA, and the brain in order to make it more plausible, but you get the picture. I realize that the plot sounds somewhat farfetched. Nonetheless, as I walk around and see some people who refuse to remove their iPod earphones except to answer a cell phone call and whose eyes never shift away from their BlackBerry screens, I am coming to the conclusion that, for these people at least, the differences between current reality and my futuristic work of fiction are primarily technical, not behavioral. It may just be a sign of my advancing old-foginess, but what I don't understand is, what do these people find so great about being constantly connected?
Younger readers might not remember this, but there was a time, not that long ago, right here in this galaxy, when we used to enjoy something that we quaintly called "time off." Depending on your job and work ethic, your time off might not have been nearly as high a proportion of your week as you would have liked or you thought you deserved, but it was still something. Now, that's disappearing for many people. Today, some bosses have no misgivings about sending an employee a message at any time of the day, even on a day off. Worse, they always expect a fast response, no matter when they send the message. OK, I'm an old fogy, but I don't see that as a great leap forward for humankind.
It's not just a question of being expected to respond immediately to messages whenever they arrive, from wherever you are. In addition, if you're constantly connected, your boss is always able to reach you in order to call you into work at any time of the day or night to deal with that life-and-death, company-imperiling emergency that can't possibly wait until tomorrow. (It's enough to make you believe in miracles. How else can you explain the fact that the company never came crashing down in the bad old days when you were occasionally out of touch because cell phones and wireless messaging devices didn't exist yet?) Is that really what you want? Wouldn't it be better if you were plausibly unreachable at times?
And it's not just work. Think about it. Once everyone realizes that you are permanently reachable, that relative who's always trying to borrow money will know that you are using caller ID to duck him. And that other relative who is always trying to get back the money that you borrowed from her will eventually figure out that you are using caller ID to duck her, too.
Being constantly connected also means that sleazy advertisers can send you a continuous stream of spam, confident in the knowledge that you'll get it as soon as they send it. I don't like spam no matter how it arrives, but if I have to get it, I'd rather get it in one big batch instead of in a steady stream. I prefer to delete hundreds of spam messages at once rather than deal with them individually as they arrive in real-time.
That's not the worst of it. Cyberspace is not a safe environment. If you're constantly connected, the evil variants of the hacker genus always have an open channel through which they can infect your devices with a Trojan horse, worm, or virus. Do we really need to make things easier for them? They're already far too effective.
As far as I'm concerned, the moral of the story is that you should intentionally unplug yourself every once in a while. Don't worry. The world isn't going to end anytime soon. And, in the off chance that I'm wrong and the world is going to end, there's probably nothing that you can do about it, so you might as well enjoy your last few moments on earth, without all of those unbelievably annoying interruptions. While you're at it, let your boss fend for himself or herself as the world enters its final death throes. It's not your job.
Gadzooks. That ending was bleak. I don't know where it came from. Sorry. I usually try to end on a much more upbeat note. I guess I just got carried away as my mind raced on with that sci-fi short story. What I really meant to say in closing was, "Have a nice day and be sure to keep in touch."
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