There are days, more frequent lately, where I fear for the world. I’m worried about our inability to listen, to compromise, to accept others for who they are. Fear and anger lead to actions that go against our best values, our highest aspirations for ourselves. We are not the people we should be sometimes.
I could write a political rant about Brexit or Trump or whatever, but that’s really not my thing. So instead, I wrote this. In fact, I wrote it on my phone on the bus this morning and cleaned it up before I settled into my day’s work. It’s probably pretty rough; maybe it’s good, maybe not. But it reflects how I’m feeling about the future these days. I really hope I’m wrong, and I’m going to do everything I can to try to stop it from happening.
See me, I plead silently as I walk, head bowed, down the streets that I can only borrow, where I cannot linger for fear of infraction.
But they won’t. The people who walk past, uniformly clean and glittering, their eyes swathed in augmented realities, they never see me. They don’t want to. They don’t have to.
This isn’t the future my grandparents signed up for. There are no flying cars. There are no robots doing all the hard work. There’s just me, and nobody sees me. The walls are too high.
There was the first wall. They said it would be big and beautiful, but it is ugly and cold and a death sentence for those who test it. They said it would keep us safe, stop bad people from coming into the country, restore our jobs and dignity. It didn’t.
So they built more walls.
At first they were physical. There were walls around housing developments and manicured lawns, guarded by well-paid men with guns. There were walls around schools and parks and playgrounds, ringed in protection for fear of gunmen and terrorists and criminals that the rich refused to legislate against for the common good. The walls were cheaper.
Other walls grew stronger and stronger. The walls around universities, made of tuition, climbed to the sky and promised only crushing debt. The walls around warehouses and factories, made of chain link and low wages, were designed to keep people like my parents there and working double shifts just to put food on the table. They talked of upward mobility and opportunity, but the walls around opportunity rose higher.
Then new walls were created, made of checkpoints and scanners and buttressed by the rights of free association and free speech. Rights morphed from freedoms to exclusions before anyone really noticed. Free association became the right to “be with your own kind” or live in “communities of shared values.” Free speech became denunciations and echo chambers that reverberated through lives and freedoms without cause or care.
The enclaves grew, common ground shrunk. As I walk to the drugstore where I work – 12 hours a day, six days a week, agreeing to “overtime” only because I could not eat without it – I must take a roundabout path. I ride a rickety subway, not the monorails in the sky. On the surface streets, my paths are determined by the enclaves where my metrics do not allow me to venture.
If I am lost in my thoughts and make a wrong turn, if I cross a checkpoint scanner into an enclave, the advertising screens on the street turn red. DO NOT APPROACH. INFRACTION PENDING. If I venture further, the private security guards are free to detain me, and the infractions whittle away what metrics I have to my name. I become less qualified to work and less free for infringing on someone’s right not to see me.
See me! my mind screams silently. They walk past.
It wasn’t always like this, even after the first walls were built and the borders “secured” against the nebulous others we were so afraid of. There were chances, even then. But they were squandered on posturing and face-offs and the inflow of money from the wealthy who feared sharing their table scraps. The Internet allowed us to look inward, to find like-minded people who agreed with whatever opinions we had. We didn’t need to come together, to compromise. We were all correct, in our bubbles. And those who could afford the strongest bubbles won.
Then the heads-up displays were introduced, replacing the smartphone in ubiquity. First in glasses, then in contact lenses. With a glance, we could see so much more about who we encountered, we could take their measure in numbers and metrics. And we could filter away those who weren’t like us – filtering humanity by race, religion, education, credit score.
We didn’t have to see those we didn’t want to see, live next to anyone we didn’t want to be there.
Meanwhile, the waves lap at the seawalls protecting our cities – more walls, more walls – because climate change was filtered out of our realities as well.
Slowly, inexorably, the very laws changed. The blessings of liberty, enshrined in the Constitution, were focused on “ourselves and our posterity,” excluding many – even those who were educated, paid taxes, whose citizenry went back a hundred years or more. Even the Declaration of Independence, wherein “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are promised to all, was relegated to a footnote in the textbooks, where evolution and scientific inquiry were likewise banished.
I am a third-generation American. I’m not religious anymore, because my family lost faith when my grandfather’s land of opportunity barred us from attending services. Not because the house of worship was closed – oh, no, that would’ve been unconstitutional. But because so many streets and neighborhoods were closed to us, it took two hours to get there. And the freedom of expression of others meant we had to walk past angry men with guns who were just waiting for the infraction they needed to have us arrested or, worse, to allow them to Stand Their Ground.
I don’t think God sees us anymore. Certainly, other people don’t. I am only the red warning sign in their graphical overlay, othered into a series of metrics and numbers in an augmented reality that ignores my own. And those of us who can actually get a second-hand, black market display can see just how inaccessible other people can be.
DO NOT APPROACH. INFRACTION PENDING.
This is the future. We share the same air and an ever-shrinking common ground. We build walls of brick and money and technology and “rights” and fear. Those who have enough of those things see only what they want to see, go only to the nice places, spend only what they absolutely must to get the things from the drugstore, where my interactions with them are carefully scripted and largely silent. They do not want to see me, and so they don’t. They don’t need to.
Will no one look past the walls? Will no one see me?
I’m here. I’m right here. See me.