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Techlands Unlikely Future

Perspective

Look forward, not so very far, and behold a changed world.

Ask, "What happened?", and the answer is — approximately — everything.

Global warming? Load a recent map from the Mesh and compare it to the ones from the first satellites, or images from the days of paper documents. The Dutch made some appalling triage choices, early on, but most other places acted like the frog in the hot water. Too bad about the east coast of North America, and all those islands, everywhere. Lousiana ends at Baton Rouge. BanglaDesh is gone, and Venice, and a chunk of Egypt. London claims to still exist, but some consider that debatable. Antarctica still has continental ice, though the shelves are mostly gone. Greenland isn't bare yet, but it's still melting. The last time so much inhabited coastline drowned was ten thousand years ago or more.

The winds and rains and ocean currents have all shifted, so some places that were valuable farmland aren't so valuable any longer, and no one is sure where the fertile places will be when (or if) things settle down. Europe is holding its collective breath, and shifting cultivars as rapidly as it can: so far things are only a little colder than the Little Ice Age and there is speculation that the Gulf Stream might pick up again if the Greenland Melt slacks off.

Officially, the worst cyclonic storms are still level 5. Some scientists disagree.

A lot of places people used to live are effectively gone, and a lot of people are gone, too, or are living places they didn't used to: think of the demographic disruptions of hurricane Katrina thousands of times over. That goes for animals, too.

The Polar bears are mostly gone, but there are mammothoids in Siberia: someone pulled about three quarters of a set of DNA from some frozen carcasses and spliced it with elephant. There are other chimeras around, too, but few of the others have established breeding populations. There are coyotes and raccoons pretty much everywhere north of the Tropics in Eurasia and North America — Japan is still managing to keep them out. No one is sure what is or isn't left in some parts of Africa.

The North American ecosystem is stranger than it has been since the Pleistocene: there are places where you can find the remains of llama carcases predated by tigers. The authorities blame the predation on individual escapees from pet owners and game farms and insist there are no re-wilded breeding populations. Tell that to the Cajuns: tigers LIKE swamps and there were some game parks in Texas where the storms hit, though there shouldn't be the biomass to support a large tiger population. There is probably someone working on mammoths — keeping up with the Ivanovs — but there are no known herds, yet. The occasional rumors of sabertooth encounters may be over-reactions to natural genetic variation, since cat populations generate sabertoothy individuals if you look at them cross-eyed (or maybe not).

Pandemics? HTAI, Human Transmissable Avian Influenza, took longer to arrive than anyone expected, so when it did arrive people were almost — almost — ready for it. Unfortunately, birds fly everywhere, and so, in the mid-21st century, did people, and the infrastructure was a lot more interwoven than it was the last time bird-flu hit in 1918. People died of the flu. People died because they got the flu and there was no one healthy to care for them or arrange for food or water. People died because they were healthy but infants or elderly with no one to arrange for food or water or heat. People died because they were already sick when the flu arrived.

In the Techlands, HIV patients already living on antiviral cocktails survived about as well as anyone else, or else died quickly when they ran out of meds, had no way to restock and encountered a flu carrier. Elsewhere, the places with the worst HIV statistics often had fragile infrastructures already... sometimes that meant fewer secondary deaths, sometimes there were results a post-Columbian Native American would recognize.

Worldwide, perhaps 10% of humanity either died of the flu or died because of it. (That's the official number, so it's probably low.) Governments and borders were even more frequent casualties, especially in places where the governments were shaky or the borders were arbitrary. GDP and most other measures of just about everything took serious hits at the same time. They officially call it "the Notch" because of what the graphs all look like, and it was argued that words like "Crash" and "Depression" and "Recession" implied economic causes.

Famine? The oceans are getting pretty empty (at least where edible fish are concerned — there are lots of jellyfish) due to over-fishing and disruption of habitats by local salinity, pressure and temperature changes. On land, the farmers and agronomists haven't entirely kept up with the climate changes, but they've kept close. It helps that world population plateaued at a lower level than many people expected, due to the Notch and various natural disasters. As in much of the twentieth century, the main problems are due to people and food being in different places, not an absolute lack of food.

AI? Is not universally agreed to exist. But the people who define "true language" as anything a sign-using chimpanzee can't do, and "true intelligence" as anything the Mesh and big Web clusters can't do are going to run out of places to move the goal-posts pretty soon.

The only way to work with a single piece of the Mesh is to keep it out of range of all of the others, and any group is greater than the sum of its parts. And pieces of the Mesh are everywhere: Green first generation educational laptops, and the Pink girly ones meant to encourage equal access to education, both made well before the Beowulf mod created the true Mesh. Purple second-generation edupads, and the ones in grownup colors with larger keyboards. And the rainbows of the later generations, and the metallic colors with uplink interfaces as well as the mesh links: WiFi or Cellular or Satellite connections linking the Mesh-clusters to each other and to the older Web. If the Mesh is a hive-mind like an anthill, the Silvers and Golds and Platinums are the queens.

The older-style web nodes, individually more powerful but less obsessively connected, form their own clusters but can also coordinate with the Mesh and its parts.

Nano-engineering?It's there, but the laws of thermodynamics still apply, and no one has found any better molecular scale power supplies than ATP and mitochondria. Inside the labs and fabs in the Techlands — the big urban centers with the infrastructure to support exotic materials work — they can build just about anything. Molecule by molecule if necessary. Elsewhere, nanotech looks a lot like really strange applied biology.

Even in the labs and fabs, the boundary between nanotech and genetech can be pretty fuzzy. What counts as which may depend as much on local religious prejudices as actual functional differences.

Medical miracles? In the Techlands, they can rebuild you — "they have the technology" — and in many cases they can do it from the molecular level instead of using something as 'primitive' as prosthetics or medications. Elsewhere, things are a lot more hit or miss. Pharmaceutical and medical tech patents have distorted the markets in some odd ways. Drug smuggling doesn't just involve psychoactives.

Petroleum shortages? Oil is still available. It's quite expensive, as much because of transport and delivery problems as actual scarcity, and tends to be reserved for use as an industrial feedstock and for aircraft and other key transportation modes. Road vehicles tend to use biodiesel, or electro/biodiesel hybrid systems. Off-road, especially in rural areas that never completely mechanized, draft animals are making a bit of a comeback for specific uses. There are camels and mules carrying nanotech products through mountains and across deserts, in caravans navigated by GPS.

There was a breakthrough in fuel cells for small portable devices just before the Notch. Power pods are small, and high capacity, providing longlived laptops and cell phones and such. The charging units are expensive, but universal, and they can be adapted to pull power from electric current or from almost any source of rotary power: the donkey walking in circles around a windlass forever may be charging pods as well as pumping water. The individual pods are a little pricey, but they can be recharged many times and traded back to the manufacturers when they weaken (some of the nanotech materials are easier to reuse than build fresh). Outside the Techlands, chargers are sometimes the targets of thieves and pods may be carried by smugglers or used in lieu of cash.

Space colonies?There are a few orbitals, and people on the Moon, probably permanently, and on Mars, possibly not permanently. About half the off-world settlements are Japanese. The Japanese had demographic problems for a while, but they were less affected by the Notch than some places, and their coastlines tend to be steep. They also had tech, and decades of popular entertainment with stories set on space stations, space ships and other worlds. Eventually they built the real thing.

They have mecha, too, both human-piloted "suits" and AI robotics.

Nuclear war? There were a few tactical missiles used, and a few "dirty" bombs. The Leader's palace in Pyongyang was destroyed by what seems to have been a small nuclear device after one of its bouts of saber-rattling, but it wasn't a missile and no one officially claimed responsibility for delivering the bomb. Things got very polite in East Asia after that, at least on the surface.

West Asia was another matter. The blasts were fairly localized, and there weren't a lot of them. But anything in the desert slouching toward Bethlehem might want to be equipped with a Geiger counter.

World government? Not exactly, though aspects of economics and technology are controlled by supranational organizations or international treaties. Too many of the political borders left behind by the nineteenth and twentieth century empires were stupid or actively malicious, and far too many of them had to be dissolved in blood. Some territories and borders are still being debated and probably will be when the sun turns to a red giant.

Most "states" in the Eastern hemisphere are evolving to federal unions of tribal territories (not that they would appreciate that description). Some of the unions are largely formal, involving partners who have hated each other for a thousand years but happen to be geographically adjacent, or hinterlands of the same Techland patron. Memberships in regional alliances like the EU are often less stressed than the alliances that generate the nominal national entities.

The Western hemisphere nations had different problems. The Napoleonic wars gave them a head start on resolving regional border disputes, but they were hit much harder by the sea rise and climate changes.

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Copyright © Elyse M. Grasso 2006