Entropy. It comes for us all—galaxies, planets, empires, and iPhones alike. Even the sophisticated machinery of late-stage capitalism, its supply chains spanning the globe, is starting to show its seams. No longer can we reasonably expect everything to “work” anymore; maybe some things should never have worked to begin with. Fresh from Terraform’s new print anthology, the great essayist and novelist Ellen Ullman proposes a timeline for total techno-collapse. Brace yourself. — The Eds.
One day the human inhabitants of earth woke up to find that their headphones no longer worked. No one knows exactly when it started because some people worked nights and slept in the afternoons, some woke up early and some late. But as the world revolved longitude by longitude, the global nature of the problem revealed itself.
The first to go used Bluetooth. The initial response was a joke: It's a sign from above that persons who walk around wearing white plastic earrings deserve punishment. Soon, though, people in the dwindling supply of rationalists tied the failures to an update to the Apple iOS, which had been downloaded overnight in the various time zones.
Raged postings, tweets, texts, emails burned across the digital landscape. When users tried to contact Apple support, they received a recorded message that said, in essence, that due to heavy call volume, it was unlikely that anyone would answer within the caller's lifetime. Those who had called at once, when representatives were still available, reported that the support staff also used Bluetooth headphones, now useless, and what they heard was a cacophony of people yelling into speaker phones, so that no one understood what anyone else was saying.
The most rational of all pointed out that Bluetooth headphones failed everywhere: on iPhones, Androids, and outliers like the senior-citizen devices on Consumer Cellular, not to mention those paired with TVs. So it was no use blaming Apple. But then, who? or what? Had someone globally hacked the Bluetooth algorithms? Not possible because Bluetooth speakers still worked. Geeks everywhere tore out their green-tinted hair and long gray ponytails trying to come to terms with this absurdity.
Those who had resisted the onslaught of Bluetooth felt smug: their headphones that plugged into jacks still worked. Others raced to join them. This produced a run on those older style devices, which were sold out everywhere, as were the Apple dongles that allowed simultaneous power and headphone connections. Those who could not buy a fallback solution were out of luck. But no matter. Within two days those jacked-in headphones also fell silent.
The populace was stunned. Suddenly they were aware of sounds their earbuds, earrings, and ear-surrounds had protected them from: car engines, emergency sirens, truck airbrakes, the rustles and shuffles that indicated the existence of other people. The awareness became torture. Cell-yell was omnipresent. Speaker phones squawked at every turn. Music blared as in the days of the boom boxes. It was as if the very concept of private listening had been snatched from the world.
Yet humans are adaptable, and soon, over the course of a month, callers on the streets retreated into doorways to speak softly. People who lived together came to some agreement on the contents of the soundscape. A general acceptance arose: One can survive decently well without a headphone.
Just when everyone had calmed down, there came the next wave of failures: Laptop screens went dark. All of them, on Macs and PCs of every brand. It made no sense, it was absurd, it could not be happening, yet happening it was. We made entries: beeps, chimes, longer beeps, but, without seeing the screen, we had no idea what was going on.
But, ah, perhaps we could see through the eyes of the sightless: software for the blind. It spoke aloud, describing the screen. Yes, that would work, but the average sighted user had no experience with ease-of-access tools and could not visualize where they were on a web site. Blind people were suddenly in hot demand. Organizations bid up their bounty offers, six-figures, seven, eight if the experienced users would contract with them. The blind, still happily emailing and browsing and texting on their own, gloated, laughed among themselves, joined forces, and refused.
As with the headphone failures, sighted people, the majority of users, turned back in computing time seeking the only screens that still worked, CRTs, desktop behemoths, few of which were still extant, and not for sale anywhere. But again, no matter. Those stopped working too. This cascading disaster happened even more quickly than the death of headphones. It took but three days.
We were dumbfounded, afraid. Was it gremlins? aliens? Hate groups got out their Crayola sets and blamed it on swarthy tan Jews, yellow Asians, red Native Americans, Black people, Brown people, anyone who did not look like themselves, which is to say, Pink people. (They cursed Crayola for discontinuing what they considered their perfect tint, "Flesh.")
We trembled to think of pending disasters. Please God, we whispered, if you exist, we beseech you to protect the Internet. Then, to the world's amazement, it stayed up.
Those who understood the system explained that it was not the work of supernatural beings but the genius of the design, which let the Internet operate semi-independently. Bits travelled from node to node under the direction of software and protocols, not human beings. Yes the mesh of machines needed adjusting, tuning, bug-fixing from time to time; yes it would be nice if we could see what was happening internally; but, overall, short of a dire emergency, it was best if humans stayed out of it entirely. Intervention by people left the door open for subversive control. The fact that the system still ran proved a basic tenet: When the Internet sees trouble, it routes around it.
And, halleluiah, phones still worked! In the whole inexplicable roiling world of crashing machines, we still had the most essential elements of our digital being. Phone. Internet. Months of calm followed. We emailed and texted and minded our Facebook pages. We shopped shopped shopped. We felt almost normal.
Then, to the wails, sorrows, cries of despair from earth's humans (add depression, anxiety, rage, fury, and so forth), the Internet fell to its knees. No messages, no emails. Web sites disappeared without so much as a 404 Not Found.
Among the last tweets that reached us was a message from the experts who had reassured us that the Internet did not need us, begging our forgiveness. Some systems had a degree of independence, it was true, but that state could not last for long, they admitted. All of computing technology -- from manufacturing to logistics to power generation to sales to agriculture to the rolling computers still called cars -- wears down as anomalies arise. Machine-learning algorithms learn the wrong lessons. "If" clauses in all code move to ever more remote "then"s and "else"s, walking paths never before trodden, routes that lead to formerly hidden, paralyzing bugs. For our systems to survive, humans and machines had to communicate. Without those conversations, the digital universe seemed to die of loneliness.
Farming and ranching faced particular stresses as the machinery broke down over time. Fishing declined as boat motors failed. Reduced to home gardens, hand cow-milking, and herding on horseback, we stared down a future of looming famines, starvation, not only for people but also for the domesticated creatures we relied on for food, and those who helped us find it. Only gun owners felt secure as they scoured the woods and fields for game, but soon the land was denuded of edible creatures. Then, while out on more and more desperate, competitive hunts, they turned their long guns on one another.
The very last tweet released on earth revealed what any half-conscious person should have known from the outset. The common denominator among the various dysfunctions was this: The device worked when you went to bed; it did not work when you woke up. Which meant the failure infected your digital life while you slept.
Alarm! Awake! Without the Internet, all we had left of our phones was the content we had downloaded. Movies, books, videos -- those thousands of precious photos -- save them!
So began another mass attack of panic buying. Coffee, No-Doze, black tea, pseudoephedrine, Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, reds, speedballs -- any upper to stay awake -- all scraped from the stocks of pharmacies, groceries, doctors' offices, hospital store rooms. Accomplished sellers of illegal drugs made a fortune. Yet no one can function without sleep indefinitely. En masse, we went insane. We became like our machines, cut off from external inputs, now trapped in the horrors of delusions.
Small groups scattered across the globe decided to sleep, let their phones die, and regain sanity. Independently, they came to a theory: What if we broke the bonds of private ownership and socialized the machines? Imagine if the Internet had become a public utility and not a tool of corporate monopolies. Yes, some new digital order could arise if we understood that it was the humans, not the machines, that had to change. The groups hand-cranked flyers to spread the word. Alas, announcing the thought was exactly their mistake. Deranged militias declared them to be lefty commie pinko traitors. They hunted down the pamphleteers, raided their homes, smashed the presses, made sure that humans could never again promote the great evil of socialism.
The most venal of the earth's richest human beings hired what were essentially slaves, who were forced to stay awake for a pittance so they could baby-sit the sclerotic phones while their owners slept. Ah, but the enslavers failed to save their phones with this maneuver. The devices were part of us. We were entwined with our digital companions like lovers. No one else could watch over your beloved. No enslaved person could save it. For once, those who had enslaved others lost all.
Failures continued apace. Electric grids blinked on and off. We survived the cold by burning the plenteous supply of discarded plastic and steadily poisoned ourselves. Paper money, what little was left of it, tattered and dirty, was useless. There was nothing to buy.
Strangely, it was the loss of our adored phones that most tortured us. Migrants could not tell one another the safest path to their desired lands. Day workers on street corners could not warn others about the pick-up drivers who took them off for hard labor and never paid. We missed multiplayer Candy Crush.
Yet the universal human loss, no matter what our lives had been, was about memory. What was so "precious" about all that content? Yes, we longed to see images of our loved ones, those who had died, those still alive in some place now unreachable. And pictures of the rare sparkling days when we had been deeply happy. But those were like eddies drowned in a raging river of birthday cakes, designer sneakers, beloved tchotchkes, drunken young people downing shots, great deals from Etsy, sofas found on sidewalks, preferred toasters, electronic toilets, naked women with hair-denuded privates that made them look like children, weddings of now divorced and feuding friends, babies babies babies, cats cats cats, dogs dogs dogs, YouTube and TikTok videos on how to dance, dress, vamp, apply make-up, clean your gutters. Why did we save those episodes of crime dramas when we already knew the ending? Those movies that could not survive a second watching, books that were mostly trash? A few had saved masterpieces of literature and cinema, but, after continually revisiting them, boredom set in. What had possessed us? We'd hardly had time to look at what we were accumulating while we frantically added more, a world-wide collection of human digital detritus growing into a landfill of rotting infinity. We tried to recall what in all that pile had been of value, but the memories dissolved into the acid reality of the present.
What fails next? we wondered. What devolution awaits us? Do we lose even paper and ink in the great demise of manufacture? Lose the gift of language? Slide ever backwards into whatever primordial soup from which we emerged? Soon we were all too exhausted to be afraid. We asked ourselves, What was the point of all that technology? What good are humans anyway? Did the cosmos really need us?
In the end we came to believe that the experiment of life on earth, like our machines, would fail. And then we thought, So what.