New Internationalist

The Box And I

Issue 269

Illustration by SARAH JOHN
The box and I
Society is highly ordered. But it has its rebels. A woman’s bid to make
sense of life in 2025 by Irish writer Evelyn Conlan

I wouldn’t normally think of my mother so much, but I’m having a small problem managing at the minute, so I’m going to the Therapy Box in the Library next week. I’ve just picked up my Box Link at the Central, and I need to do this list to key in. Last week it told me to write out what I felt every day and it will give me back a diagnosis. I’ll have to take a pen and paper with me to write down what it says on the screen. I’m useless at reading through fancy rainbows, actually I can read fine but I’ve trouble remembering what it says. Embarrassing really, I’ll probably be the only person in the building, the entire block, with a pen. I hope the screen doesn’t move too fast. I didn’t keep the list every day, but I should be able to recall my thoughts, if I can get the noise turned down everywhere. The box instructed me not to talk to my mother but I sort of like the old bat, so I asked her a few questions. She was born in the first half of the last century, 1949 for Christ’s sake, she hates me invoking that name, being proud that she reared us beyond all that gobbledygook shit, her words. As if it matters. She says we’re lucky to have a library, it’s the only one in an 85-kilometre radius, she claims that they used to have them every 20 or so streets, I find it hard to imagine, all those rooms filled with untidy books, she’s probably exaggerating.

4 April 2025
On Monday I telephoned my mother. She’s hilariously old fashioned, she won’t have a viewer machine, as she calls it, preferring not to be seen or see. She says that a conversation on the phone should be a private thing, you should be able to concentrate on the words rather than be distracted by continuous things to see. She still lives over in a ‘job street’, because by the time they divided us all into our quarters she had some scam worked out whereby they couldn’t move her. Fearless, some of these twentieth-century people! She doesn’t mind that she’s the only one not working there. I find it funny visiting, quiet during the day and then an uproarious noise as all the transport units descend on the place in the evening. I prefer to be among my own, where the only place we go is to one of the centres. Our street is redbrick paved, clean, we’ve got a tree scheme and we don’t move out much, having enough company among ourselves. We were a trial for a global village but we got sick of it. Had to key in information to our sister cities every evening, one in Egypt, one in Australia (Townsville I think it was called), Chicago, and one in Argentina somewhere. My neighbour said that we should be talking to Cork, that’s when the trouble started, so we gradually let it slip. We had virtual friendships in these places and yes I suppose some of them were interesting, but we weren’t allowed to talk about certain things; the screen would become a blur of XXXs for the most peculiar of reasons. Some of the people my mother’s age, the ones from the last century, wanted to work out patterns of the blocking out, but the rest of us couldn’t see the point, waste of energy. We were never a tired family, my mother said. Actually maybe it is still going on, maybe some of them have kept it up and who knows, maybe someone somewhere has defeated the XXXs. I doubt it. We call our block Careless, this may mean that we have few worries or it may mean that we couldn’t care less, take your pick. That’s the sort of thing that would get Xed on the Global, no sense of humour that machine. We have a mini-government. I went once, when I was called for duty, but frankly I hadn’t my info keyed in, so I gave my vote away. My mother said that I should have sold it. I have a good relationship with her. I’ll have to think of another word for that because the machine doesn’t know it, it hasn’t even got it in its OFF file, its Old Fashioned File. It’s odd that we get on, for several reasons, but primarily because I’m paid to mind her. We opted for the 60 scheme – that means that a son or daughter takes on to mind the parent after they reach 60 and gets paid weekly out of Central Fund, they then pay for hospital or home or whatever has to happen. It’s a gamble really, so of course she couldn’t resist. Tomorrow is a distant century to her, something to do with crossing a millennium, leaves time less serious. The cusp of thousands banishes thoughts of pension schemes. My father’s dead, of course, years ago. He both drank and smoked. He smoked five cigarettes a day, and apparently had a few pints – not one, a few – every week or so. Obscene, but there you go, he’s dead. My mother clings to this peculiar notion that he wasn’t a poly-addicted mess. Retrolove, I suppose. My daughter says that the 60 scheme is a rip-off, it’s there only to relieve the Euorists of their responsibilities to ex-working citizens, it preys on the need for immediate Visa Credit – she has a lot in common with my mother. Before my father inflicted death on himself, he used to visit me when the children were small, everyone in their street had just lost their jobs and he used to want to get out of the neighbourhood, getting out of the house wasn’t enough. He would jaunt my children on his knee, his big rough hands touching their silk skin, they seemed to like it, they tickled themselves up against him. We were a right old regular family then, would make you laugh, my husband was there too. But now that I think about it my father affected him, they discussed work day-in, day-out, and the memory of all that regularity drove my husband in search of ridiculous dreams. They all do that these last few years, they have their bags almost ready under the beds, they decide in hours, pack, and they’re gone, running after work. Here, there, plane-hopping, new countries, continents, acting in strange places as if they had it all, hiding the states of their own nations inside their empty pockets. We don’t move much, in fact we don’t move at all, we’ve decided that it’s too difficult with children, we stay put with the women, the old men and the few young ones who are satisfied enough.   

Illustration by SARAH JOHN 5 April 2025
I’m going in today so I’d better get this finished. Maybe there’s no need, I do hate communicating with machines, I think I was born in the wrong century or else my mother has had too much influence on me, she claims that our whole lives changed over a period of only a small number of years. Because a few fellahs got carried away, loop de loo, with technology. By the time the noise level had damaged our hearing and we couldn’t move ten inches without keying in somewhere, it was too late, the old systems were unrecoverable, scrapped. I think I would have preferred the privacy of that time. There’s a street near us here, behind a wall, or it could be a few streets maybe, the wall travels quite a distance. We believe that there are half-human, half-robot people in there, now why they should be called ‘people’ rather than ‘robots’ I don’t know, wishful thinking I suppose. Maybe though they were people first and the robot bits were added rather than the other way about. We speculate a little as to when the wall will come down but my mother says that she has no interest because as far as she’s concerned the people walking about with their machines are robots already. She’s sharp, acidy, she has seen real war, dead bodies, blood on the ground, they always fell she says. Wars now are clean, all zap on screens and we’re not allowed to see anything below twenty metres from the ground. She says that we could use our imaginations if we weren’t so lazy, but it’s not encouraged, and I guess we do tire easily and it’s better not to know anyway. There’s a shadow to my mother’s sorrow when she talks of war. Oh dear, now I’ll have to key the central question, what do you think your problem is? Ahh, yes. I have two children, a son and a daughter, I did the ‘Choose Sex’ one, but I don’t admit that when asked, because a woman always has to justify her choice if she owns up to making one. Also, people think I’m more interesting if they think that I trusted or gambled on ordinary fate. I like to be thought interesting. I did do both choices because I liked the notion of variety, had still a streak of anarchy in my programme. But my children are strange, and are drawing attention to our street, our house, people have begun to look, I see blue lights flashing on the ceiling when I go to bed. Not that my neighbours won’t be helpful, we have a secret called friendship, we help each other with touches and smiles. We’re all soothing the Walshes now because since they’ve speeded up the time on death row and dropped the last appeals, too expensive, it looks as if they’ll lose two sons very soon. For selling cigarettes. But I hate to think of the extra attention my neighbours will have to suffer because of my son and daughter. All for history and a song. My daughter, who has spent all her life asking questions – ‘researching’ she calls it in her old-fashioned way – is trying to think of a thing, any old thing, in the Socialist Calendar, so she can have a centenary this year. I know what that will mean. She says that instead of getting people to write bad poems before they qualify for money, they should be taught history, and they should join together and have meetings, off camera, about old movements, revolutions and fads like that, about how to get real information as she calls it. I forget why she wants the meetings held off camera. My mother of course thinks that’s great, she says that we didn’t just kill conversation, we gave it away. And my son, do you know what he spends his time doing? Learning old songs! He sits with his grandmother and she sings all the big ones that her father taught her, some of them in Irish for God’s sake. He travels around the country getting other people to do the same. I ask you, where will it all end, where did I go wrong? What will become of them? Where will the touch of a question that surrounds both their bodies get them? So, what will I tell the machine the problem is? I will say it is that I seem to be born in the middle ages. I am in the middle of mother’s and my children’s time. I do not seem to have lived a life at all. She’s from an exact time, they have settled into theirs, but I’m lost between them. Was it always thus, I will ask. When I die I hope to be stuffed and put in the middle of a fountain; I like water. I’ve put this on my death arrangement file at the Centre. My mother now, is not choosing euthanasia at all, but that would be her.

Evelyn Conlan is a short-story writer and novelist, born in rural Ireland in 1952. She now lives in Dublin. Her book titles include My Head in Opening (Attic), Stars in the Daytime (The Women’s Press), Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour (Blackstaff Press) and she has just completed another novel and play on the lives of Henri and Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska. She has sporadic bursts of political involvement and then retreats gratefully into fiction. Almost a Luddite.

How wrong can you be?
Very – when it comes to trying to forecast the future.

In the early 1890s a US news agency commissioned 74 prominent citizens to write brief essays on what life would be like in 1993. If the 1893 forecasters had been right the workday would now last only three hours; transcontinental mail would be transmitted in pneumatic tubes; laws would be so simplified that there would be no work for lawyers; all forests would have gone; there would be state-run colleges for servants; and, most bizarre of all, marriages would be happy because couples unsuited to each other would be executed!

Chicago Senator John J Ingalls predicted that by the 1990s ‘It will be as common for the citizen to call for his (sic) dirigible balloon as it is now for his buggy or his boots’.

Journalist Walter Wellman confidently predicted that there was no future in subway trains and travel would be by elevated trains moving along glass-enclosed tracks.

None of the forecasters anticipated the automobile which was to revolutionize travel in the decades just ahead. This was in spite of the fact that gasoline-powered cars were successfully run in Germany in the 1880s. One forecaster was certain, however, that the 1993 traveller would be able to ride by rail all the way from Chicago to Buenos Aires – something which is still not possible.

Lawyer Van Buren Demnslow predicted longevity would so increase that a life span of 120 would not be unusual. Baptist Minister Thomas Dixon Jnr declared: ‘Democracy will reign triumphant to the farthest limits of civilization.’

Meanwhile, in France, journalist and illustrator Albert Robida was regularly publishing his visions of the future and contributing to the growing popularity of this kind of speculation. He had some quite accurate foresights – the television, for example. But he also depicted airborne hotels as a solution to overcrowding in holiday resorts and saw the Egyptian Sphinx in the middle of a lush garden thanks to a gigantic engineering project to control the climate.

In 1922 Swiss architect Le Corbusier proposed a city in which airplanes were the answer to traffic congestion. In the 1930s machines that were half-car and half-aircraft were built and communities were prepared to build ‘air parks’. According to one wartime survey, one out of every three car dealers also planned to sell aircraft after World War Two.

Ironically, some more fanciful fiction writers have come closer to the mark than their more ‘realistic’ counterparts in the worlds of business, politics and journalism. HG Wells, for example, foresaw nuclear power, Aldous Huxley genetic engineering.

Perhaps the safest forecast we can make for the year 2025 is that it won’t be like whatever we think it will be like.

We trust that examples from this issue of NI will find their deserved place in a similar article in 2025.

Sources:
The Futurist
, May/June 1993.
Today Then: America’s best minds look 100 years into the future on the occasion of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition
compiled by Dave Walter, American and World Geographic Publishing 1993.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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