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The Future is Nice
By Ben Nardolilli
I normally don’t get asked to go to many expos. I’m generally not cut out to see what’s on the cutting edge. That’s not to say I’m someone who treats the word antique as a future-tense verb. My main exposure to expos has been a delayed one, walking the grounds of where they were once held in places like Montreal. The ruins of temporary utopias, if you will. I see what the future was, or at least what it was supposed to be. There’s never been a chance so far to step out in front of it to get a glimpse of what’s coming. Well, that all changed when a friend of mine invited me to a Pepcom expo for science and technology. I RSVP’d for it, and a few weeks later, I met said friend outside the Metropolitan Pavilion one sunshowery evening.
Inside, there was swag to glean and a bag for us to put said swag in, making it swag as well. The bag had Pepcom written on it and I remarked to my friend that it was the name of a company involved in one of the largest explosions in American history. Something about rocket fuel blowing up in a factory outside Las Vegas. I went to register and received my first disappointment. The first was that people wanted my business card. I recoiled at the request. Not just because I didn’t have one, but also because I thought we were supposed to be futuristic and progressive in the pavilion. Instead of business cards they should’ve been asking to see the barcode of the beast tattooed on my chest. The second was that my credentials were on a yellow nametag. It’s not that they got the information wrong, or that I didn’t like the color. But I was expecting something more, something visionary. I was supposed to be getting a glimpse of the future. The world to be. Was I to believe that in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years journalists would be attending pressers and expos wearing laminated plastic cards over their cyberkinetic suits of armor?
My friend was hungry so we ate first. None of the food was particularly futuristic but that was okay. The expo had a French theme and I didn’t expect that meant they would be providing us the Dippin’ Dots equivalent for escargot or bouillabaisse. There were tiny pieces of seared tuna, stacked in perfect rectangles and pink in the middle. That was probably the most futuristic looking thing to eat. The food made us thirsty, so we visited the numerous ersatz bars set up through the main room. None of the drinks were drinks of the future. You couldn’t get pills containing a Scotch on the Rocks, or a vaporized Manhattan. You could however get a French martini made with vodka and Chambord. I guess they should’ve called it a Martine.
I sailed on those through the evening. A futuristic choice? Hardly. I’d say it was closer to embracing the current nostalgia for the martini lunches of the fifties. I suppose if the expo wanted to be really clever, they could’ve created the drinks we might be reviving twenty to thirty years from now. Sex on the Beaches? White Russians? Wine Coolers? But I was fine with my French Martines, carefully walking around the stalls and exhibits with it while sipping the drink all the way down to the raspberry at the bottom of the glass. I don’t know why we stereotypically teach poise and posture by putting books on people’s heads. Get a person to walk without spilling a martini, or Martine, in a crowded room and you’ve taught them just as good a lesson. I became one with my drink and my drink became one with me. It wasn’t easy, not least because of the other people and the bag I had to carry.
Finally it was time to hit the stalls and see what was being offered. My partner wasn’t excited since she’d been to so many of these things before, however I was eager. Eventually I would leave her behind and go on my own, exploring what the future had in store for me, her and everybody else. I expected to see flying cars, underwater cities, and rockets making non-stop flights to the Sea of Tranquility, or at least models of these things. Instead, I saw a collection of small, mundane improvements over contemporary technology. Incremental stuff. My heart sank and my liver swelled as I went for another Martine. I was sure this was some kind of trick. Every display had someone next to it gushing about this or that product. How could they all be so excited? I decided it was a distraction. If they were not offering visions of Utopia, then they were misleading everyone to embrace a slowly coming dystopia. Voila! I understood what was going on completely!
I pulled my friend aside and told her what I’d figured out. It was in the name of the event. Pepcom. The company that had been involved in the explosion and had made fuel for rockets back when we had high hopes that literally reached for the stars. Since those had been dashed, the company had restructured. It was putting on events like this to push products that would make us content with a declining future and believe that all along we were promised a dystopia.
“For shame Pepcom,” I said, “for shame!” My friend wanted an excuse to go exploring on her own and it came in the form of a woman dressed in bright pink with a saucy beret. When she started to talk to me, my friend slipped away.
“I don’t want what you’re selling,” I told her. “I’ve figured out your whole rotten system.”
“Would you like a macaron?” She held up a small plastic box with a tiny cookie in it. There was a fake pink bow made of sugar on the top.
“Macaron? I see what that really is. It’s supposed to represent what kinda hamburgers we’ll be reduced to eating in the future! While the rich get their filet mignon, we won’t even get a quarter pounder with cheese!”
I remembered the theme. “Sorry, a Royale with Cheese.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re just as much a prop as the miniature Eiffel Towers on the tables. Get away with your savaged hamburger.”
“I mean, excuse-moi, un ammburrgerr sah-vaghe”
I realized I was about to make a spectacle of myself. It was better to leave and continue investigating on my own. It was probably best to leave altogether, but as an Aristotelian man, I hew to the golden mean in everything. With a fresh Martine in tow, I hit the booths. The first one was for a service that would coordinate image posting across different social media platforms. I listened to the presenter give her spiel and tried to grill her. However, she caught me off guard at the end by asking for my business card. Business card? She of course had one. I didn’t want it and I tried to block the exchange with my drink. It was her turn to be caught off guard and she left her card floating on top of cocktail. I didn’t have anything to add to the discussion so I asked if there were video capabilities along with the image ones and she replied that sadly, no, there weren’t.
It was hard to fish the card out but I managed to get rid of it using a toothpick I pulled out of a pate sandwich. Once it was gone, I moved onto a man demonstrating a new kind of television screen that was thin and crisp. Looking at it made me want a bag of potato chips. The screen showed a series of waves crashing on a shore from a bird’s eye view. I guess it would’ve been a seagull’s view to be more exact. It was a mesmerizing sight and I watched the waves rise and fall, rise and fall, dissipating into gentle lines of surf. The demonstrator tried to give me his business card and for once I was ready with a question that actually interested me.
“The resolution is realer than reality, isn’t it?”
He laughed. “You sure could say that.”
“It’s no laughing matter. Well, I guess to you all it is. To me it’s of the utmost and uttermost seriousness.”
“Don’t you see? No, of course you don’t. That’s the point. You’re not supposed to see.”
“What, the sea?”
“Yes, the sea, the sea, the real sea from reality.”
“What’s that from? A song?”
“No, reality! Out there! You’re trying to block people from it. One day these screens are gonna surround everybody and it’ll make people think the world is fine when in reality it’s crumbling and polluted!”
“It’s just an HD-”
“I’ve no time for your abbreviated jargon. There’s a war going on! The future is at stake here! You’re lulling people to sleep! This is a screen you can get high to, I mean, get high with, I mean get high next to!”
“Can I have your card?”
I stumbled to a demonstration of robots led by a woman who kept bowing to me while offering her version of a business card. I didn’t stay long. For one, I understood pretty much what they were trying to sell, the idea of replacing human labor with lots of bots and bits. Also, I couldn’t understand what she was telling me. Apparently there were these building blocks that were supposed to help program the machines to accomplish various tasks. I didn’t know enough about the cyber to fill in the blanks. Next to the robots was a woman demonstrating powerwashers. You could attach them to a hose, a bucket of water, or even a bottle to spray. The nozzle had several settings for the jets, all of them strong. There was a video that showed men with bulging muscles using the device to wash the dirt off porches and cow shit off the wheels of some kind of farm implement. A guy next to me asked if the device had an urban applications and I butted in.
“I know exactly what the urban implication is.”
“You do?” The woman at the stand asked me.
“Yes. You can use them against people.”
She laughed nervously.
“I mean it. In the future, every homeowner is gonna have one of these and when the food riots start, they’re gonna use them against the protestors. Probably before that too. They’ll use them against the war protestors. The oil shortage protestors. The protestors against the inevitable junta. All of them. This product,” I finished my drink, “this product is for the future. In the future we’ll all get a chance to be Bull Durham.”
“Yeah.” I paused for effect. Yeah!”
The hall was getting crowded and I started to sweat. One of the caterers offered me what he said was a lemon bar and I took it. After closer inspection, I didn’t eat it. I was convinced it wasn’t really made with any lemon, or real food at all. It lacked the translucent color of normal lemon bars and it felt too heavy. What could it be? I licked the surface and it definitely felt off. The lemon taste was there, but it was the kind of lemon you find in bathroom cleaners and air fresheners. Not that I’ve devoured those, but when they smell strong enough you might as well be eating them. I left the bar on the edge of a mattress, sure the so-called dessert was actually a non-digestible reflective surface designed to transmit messages of some sort. Though perhaps not immediately. It might’ve been a prototype, I thought, or a sleeper cell ready to be activated when the necessary technology became available.
I put my tuchis to the edge of the mattress by accident and immediately stood up. A guy who was showcasing it asked me if the mattress hurt.
“No, it’s too comfortable.”
“Well, I’m sorry about that. I guess we aimed too hard to give the customer what they want.”
“Yes, yes you did. You’re not from the same company that makes those TV screens over there, are you?”
“Well, maybe you didn’t know this, but there’s choots afoot.”
“You heard me. I understand this tag-team you’re trying to set up here, a demonstration for what you’ll do in the future.”
“Yes. In the future people will be lulled to a zombie like state of false consciousness by the TV screens and they’ll be lulled to regular sleep by the mattress.”
“We want to lull people to sleep.”
“Ah yes, but…um…you’ll make people sleep too well! You’ll make them never get out of bed and if they do, they’ll be trapped looking at the perfect screens. The screens will be the soma for people who are awake. You’re providing the soma for people while they sleep.”
“Soma. Huxley was no hoax! I see it all around me here. And don’t tell me I need to get some rest…especially on that contraption!”
To avoid a full-blown conniption, I left in a huff. On the way, I passed by a German woman demonstrating a new kind of remote control. It was about the size of a piece of Starburst confectionery. Of course it wasn’t the same color. It was a black cube with a slick, shiny surface.
She smiled at me. “Are you interested in how it works?”
She held my hand and opened up my palm. Then she took the cube and moved it over different points, for instance, where there was a joint, or a unique wrinkle. Then she calibrated these regions with a nearby computer. This allowed her to allow me to change the various settings on the screen. I could lower the volume or raise it by sliding my thumb along the side of index finger. By touching the center of my palm I could alter the color of the background. If I did the same thing with the little black cube itself, it rebooted the computer. Then the woman took hold of my free hand while it still held the cube. She directed me to make a triangle on my programmed palm with the device. It brought up a playlist. The woman said I could select some songs to play but I didn’t. Instead I said the dumbest thing yet to one of the demonstrators.
“Does that cube thing also vibrate?” I grinned. I shouldn’t have asked the question and I shouldn’t have grinned. It must’ve been the Martine in me.
She slapped me and the computer screen suffered a little blue screen of death. I gave her the cube and decided to leave. I had unmasked enough awful material for one night. Pepcom might be fooling everyone else but it wasn’t going to fool me. As I waited for my coat, I first thought about how the process of retrieval could’ve been helped by a robot. Then I realized I was happy there was a human voice to listen to and a human face to ignore while I looked down at my phone. My friend had sent me a message saying she was leaving early. Since it had been sent an hour before, it meant she had already left. I got my coat and made sure my swag bag was ready to go with me. It was filled with pens, magnets, chapsticks, and memory sticks. I remembered the woman by the powerwashers and how surprised she was by my reference. How did she not know Bull Durham, the infamous police chief who used firehoses to break up civil rights demonstrations? I looked him up online to confirm what I knew about his reign of terror and only confirmed that I’d said the wrong name. It wasn’t Bull Durham. That was a movie. I’d meant Bull Connor.
Boy I felt like a fool. I looked at my Pepcom bag and noticed the wording underneath it. “The Leader in Technology Showcases.” I thought that was a fitting motto, of sorts. Given how they had clearly given up on the bright promise of space travel, and with it the whole possibility of a Utopian future, I thought it was certainly a more appropriate slogan than per aspera ad astra. Maybe it was all for the best then, since they were responsible for such a massive blast. Maybe another company was better suited to make the fuel. I was curious now about how big the disaster was, and how deadly. I couldn’t get a straight answer online. However, I did find out another fact. It wasn’t Pepcom. It was Pepcon. That was the company behind the blast. If I didn’t already feel like a fool, I would’ve felt like one just then.
Stumbling down 18th Street in what used to be Hell’s Kitchen, I tried to think about who to apologize for, if they’d even let me back inside the pavilion. Then I realized who I’d really insulted and made the appropriate act of contrition. “Dear Future,” I said, “please forgive me (though even if you could, I guess I’ll never receive it) for losing faith in you. I was wrong to demand so much and for signs specific to me. I now see your ways are mercurial and your choice of prophets is a mystery. If I want to live long enough to see you reveal more of yourself to me, I’ll have to accept that you manifest yourself in power washers and people still obsessed with collecting business cards.” When I finished I looked up and I thought there was one star shining through the dome of Manhattan’s bright lights. Well, at least I hoped it was a star, and not a particularly reflective piece of space junk.