Happy Christmas 2013
and best wishes for the New Year
A Christmas Scenario
Part 1 – the snow closes in
Christmas Day 2053 began much like other Christmas Days for Peter and Samantha Best. They woke as usual at around 7am and enjoyed breakfast together. Toast, jam, and skinny lattes. They liked their old-fashioned habits.
They were expecting to be visited by the families of their two children, Ben and Chloe, and some of the younger generations too.
Outside, more snow began to fall. At first, tiny flakes appeared, whisked across the windows by the wind. Then the flakes became larger and swirled more dramatically around the house. The snow settled, gently drifting against walls and bushes.
The weather was mild for an English winter and Peter recalled how deep the snow had been the previous year. Travel had been all but impossible, particularly for a couple like Peter and Samantha, 94 and 96 years old respectively. He had always joked that he ‘preferred an older woman’ and that was still true. He loved Samantha as much now as he ever had. Their togetherness had been important in weathering some of the storms of the past forty years.
The snow carried on falling and now lay at least 20 centimetres deep. The families were expected in half an hour. Samantha was beginning to fuss.
“This place is an absolute mess Peter. We really shouldn’t be so untidy. They’ll be here any minute.” She bustled about, clearing up cups and plates, arranging cushions neatly, and straightening the rugs.
“Have you done the gifts Peter?” she asked. He said he had and nodded towards the other side of the living room.
“Well I hope you’ve been a bit more careful than last year,” she added. “I don’t want the children to hear language like that again.”
“It was just a typo” responded Peter, “I said reindeer and the system heard it as …”
“I know what it came out as” cut in Samantha, but she smiled at him. It had been quite funny.
Peter mused on the changes to Christmas traditions in their lifetimes. “Remember how we used to give gifts in wrapping paper when we were younger? You always had to get someone a thing, even if they already had more things than they needed.”
“Yes” replied Samantha, “And then after Christmas your house would be even more stuffed with things than it had been before, and you had a mountain of paper and card to recycle. How things have changed!”
“Oh yes,” said Peter. “And we used to have to put it out in plastic bags to be collected and taken away along with the trees.”
“Oh the trees! I’d forgotten about them. The funny things we used to do!”
We tend to think that anything done the same way for a few decades is a timeless tradition, but step back and look at human life on a longer time scale and those traditions look more like fads.
In the early 2020s the tide of stuff had become a topic of national debate, with stories of people buying a second home just to store the stuff they couldn’t find room for, and companies springing up to provide a ‘collection’ service for unwanted stuff that mirrored the ‘delivery’ services that had sprung up when internet shopping first boomed.
But this was only one small aspect of a bigger national challenge that had changed the look of England and fundamentally changed values. It hadn’t been an easy change, at times feeling more like another world war than a social and technological shift.
The first signs of a crisis had been subtle but, looking back, their meaning should have been obvious. Homes were full of stuff. It wasn’t just that housing was limited, but also that homes were chock full of possessions. Piles of paper, toys, books made of paper and card, collections of all sorts of nonsense, and gadgets. They had more clothes than ever before, more furniture, more crockery, more vehicles, more of everything.
Then there was the steady improvement in life expectancy. Everyone knew about it. Everyone knew in a vague way what it would mean. But few realised how the growing ratio of people to look after to people to do the work would change everything.
And then, of course, there was the weather. While most of the rest of the world got a bit warmer, England got colder as the atmosphere and oceans shifted their patterns and England lost most of the benefit of the Gulf Stream. Flooding became more and more common. High winds, deep snow, and longer periods of less temperate weather became normal.
In the late 2020s, the government at that time concluded that almost the entire housing stock of the country would have to be rebuilt to harden it against the weather, and make it much better insulated to save energy, whose cost had also been rising for many years.
Who could do the work? Who would pay? Professional builders at that time could take on only a small fraction of the work needed. With more and more working people involved in healthcare and looking after the elderly it was hard to see who could make time to do the work, even if they had the skills.
In the past the obvious answer would have been to import work, but that only brought up another problem that had been growing for many years: the debt to other countries.
For decades it had seemed that the debt would one day be repaid by profits from financial services, but after the persistent failures of banks and insurance companies to justify their existence they had become government run utilities, providing just what society needed and no more. The other great hope, a revitalised manufacturing sector, never happened, no new raw materials were discovered, and foreign investments made little contribution. The debt to other nations would have to repaid the old fashioned way. They had done work for England, now England would have to repay that favour by doing work for them.
Since the first industrial revolution the way to get more work done had always been to use more energy and machines. That way out of difficulty was also looking problematic, with rising energy prices and the continuing worry about atmospheric pollution.
As the government dithered, two remarkable things happened. First, a television celebrity architect used a long running series to promote the idea of self-building using modular components.
Instead of a professional builder, just about anyone could order the parts for a new house online and then assemble them on site like a big construction toy. No glues, cements, or other permanent bondings were needed. The only stage needing special skills was that of digging and laying foundations, but that gap was filled by local companies that could do the digging in a few days and would then fill the hole with a lightweight material made with recycled bricks and expanding plastic foam.
Repairing these modular buildings was usually just a simple matter of unbolting the broken module and putting in a new or refurbished replacement. Most modules were about the size that two people could comfortably lift into place.
The idea caught on and within just four years hundreds of thousands of people were rebuilding their homes in their back gardens and having their cold, damp, flood-damaged homes taken down for recycling to make more modules.
By 2040 nearly all homes were of the new type and this hardening of buildings, combined with new storm drains and controlled flooding areas had made England a cosier place to live than ever before.
The second remarkable thing that happened is that people started to focus on work time. With millions of people trying to find time to rebuild their homes, saving work became a national obsession. Soon it was unethical to do things that generated unnecessary work. Perfectly manicured, high maintenance gardens, for example, fell out of favour. Even if the owners did all the work their garden required it was still a drain on the national resource of workers because those owners could have been doing something more useful, like their own washing and cooking.
Punishments for crimes of vandalism were increased because the crimes created unnecessary work. Sport, for so long seen as unreservedly positive by English people, had to be justified on health and social grounds. After a long battle, motorsport finally became illegal in 2036.
Christmas, for so long a winter blow-out dedicated to over-eating, over-drinking, and shopping for stuff, was transformed. Fashionable presents were works of digital art such as stories, pictures, animations, and music. Since almost everyone already had everything they needed for a good life, few felt they were missing out and many people were happy not to have to find space for more stuff.
And so, in 2053, Peter and Samantha lived in a module house built by their children that could survive even the most extreme weather and was so well insulated that it needed almost no heating or cooling at any time of the year.
Peter’s gifts were mostly music and stories he had written himself. The time and effort involved made them highly prized gifts. The old saying that “it’s the thought that counts” had come to mean much more by 2053.
Part two – the visitors
As the snow continued to fall outside and the wind blew harder than ever, Samantha was still fretting about getting the house tidy for the arrival of their family visitors.
Their son Ben’s family group lived just a few kilometres away but Chloe’s lived on the other side of London.
Peter tried to reassure her, saying “Babe, it’s nothing to worry about. They won’t mind a bit of clutter. Come and sit down.”
Just then the sound of the door bell went. “I’ll get it” said Peter. Then he spoke to their home system, “Holmes, welcome our guests.” The lighting in the room subtly shifted and projected images on the wall opposite showed a door opening. Through it appeared Ben and his family and theirs, all the way down to two great-grandchildren, aged 3 and 5. The whole family appeared to be sitting in the room, even though they were in fact sitting in their own living room, waving a greeting.
A minute later another doorbell sounded and soon there were three family groups all seeing each other as if in the same room.
Another long-term trend that had coincided with the great upheaval of work had been the decline of interest in travelling. When Peter and Samantha had been teenagers they wanted to go out to meet friends but even as early as 2013 young people had been in far more frequent contact with their friends online. They didn’t want to drive and couldn’t afford a car anyway.
Despite all predictions of ever-increasing demand for travel the trends of the past reversed as people woke up to the simple fact that most travel is tedious, tiring, and time-consuming.
So, instead of battling through the snow, Peter and Samantha’s families could visit virtually, sparing their elderly parents the trouble of cooking and cleaning up after them, but able to spend several hours together in the same room.
The families greeted each other and chatted for an hour or so, then agreed to do the presents before having Christmas lunch. The first presents were given by the youngsters, Betty (3 years old) and Roger (5 years old).
They read everyone an old Christmas poem, doing their best to pronounce the unusual words but not always succeeding.
Samantha, a former teacher, couldn’t help feeling proud that both children could read so well at their young age, even though she knew it was now quite normal.
Forty years ago it was accepted that a sizeable minority of children would struggle to learn to read. Some would have such persistent difficulties that they were given a kind of medical diagnosis: dyslexia. Various quack remedies were offered to desperate parents.
But in the 2020s reading difficulties in England and around the world were all but eliminated by new discoveries in teaching. After decades of futile ideological battles over how to teach reading, and many inconclusive research studies, an unlikely breakthrough had been led by a school in Devon whose headmaster’s daughter was an expert on something then called ‘social media’.
Their idea had been to adapt techniques used to analyse data from websites to accelerate reading research. Their system was used by teachers while teaching reading one-to-one. It recorded every detail of the process of learning to read for each child. The system also administered additional online sessions done without a teacher being involved.
The clever bit was in the way the detailed data were analysed. From just the first two terms of data with 62 children an unprecedented wealth of insights was generated. The trial was extended and within a year over 1,000 children were involved and the system had tested over 5,000 different ways to teach very specific units of knowledge needed for reading.
As the system was applied more and more widely its results continued to improve. Reading difficulties that had seemed like insoluble problems were cleared away. Instead of favouring teaching methods that lots of people believed in, the new system favoured methods that actually worked. Teachers started using the system without stopping to get permission. The thing swept through primary schools in England and then through other English speaking countries.
Inspired by this, a similar system was developed for learning basic arithmetic. Like reading, learning number facts and how to use them had been a difficult task for many children. It had been normal to spend seven years learning to use fewer than 350 facts, despite spending an hour a day trying. Looking back, this rate of learning seemed astonishingly slow, but at the time it was just normal.
Then, with the maths system to accelerate learning research, rates of progress rocketed. Soon, almost all children knew the basic number facts up to 12 x 12 by the time they were six years old, and could use them. To Samantha, as an experienced teacher, it seemed like a miracle.
Part 3 – Christmas lunch
After all the presents had been given the families settled down to a Christmas lunch. Even their projective telepresence system could not convey food as quantum pulses, so each family had to prepare their own meal, but it took only a few minutes to retrieve the hot meals from their hot-box cooking zones. (That is, the hottest zone in the house, kept at a cooking temperature.)
The meals were modest in size but quite delicious. Portion size was something else that had changed with the change in values away from ever-increasing consumption and display. The current trend was for old-style ‘fine dining’ food, so everything was laid out with geometrical precision using pretty colours, including the traditional colours of Christmas, gold and purple.
The geometrical shapes of the food portions were also the result of the way the food was made. Roughly 70% of the food on the plate was made from SSEMs (Solar-Synthesized Edible Molecules). The rest was taken from living plants and creatures in the traditional way.
The great advantage of SSEMs was the amount of food energy that could be produced per square metre of land space. The first SSEM machines had been able to make very simple sugars from basic ingredients and sunlight, capturing around 15% of the sun’s energy in the sugars for human food. That was already three times more energy than most edible plants could capture. By 2040, efficiency was up to over 30% and the machines had been linked into food chains that could produce a wide range of carbohydrates, fats, and then even proteins, twisted together to give them a fibrous texture.
Instead of burning the fossil fuels of the early 21st century to make fertilisers and drive machines to tend to plants that extracted only a tiny fraction of the available energy, modern SSEM machines turned sunlight into food directly with far greater efficiency.
Sitting in his mother’s home in North London, Sam was glad to see his grandparents still looking so energetic despite their age. They must have seen a lot of change in their lifetimes. They seemed to have adapted to the new technology very well, but they didn’t understand much of it.
When Sam was at school he had chosen to focus on science and technology, and took exams in energy, food, and transportation. When Peter and Samantha were at school the options had been things like ‘physics’, ‘chemistry’, and ‘biology’, which seemed a pointless division.
One thing Peter and Samantha had never understood was why the methanol economy had made such a difference. They still seemed to think that some kind of quantum level miracle technology would be the answer to energy worries, but that was now known to be a mirage. They didn’t understand that the great advantage of local methanol synthesis was its ability to lock in not only the exergy supplied but also further energy from the surroundings.
Part 4 – the after lunch chat
One area of technology that Peter and Samantha were much more interested in was anything related to health. Like other people their age their bodies were slowly failing and they knew they were nearing the end of their lives. As soon as they had caught up with the news of their youngest guests they moved the conversation on to matters medical.
“Peter’s not been so good recently” said Samantha.
“I’ve been fine” retorted Peter. “I just wasn’t pleased to have to wait half an hour for my scan and zap last time. And you know they’ve still got those old machines where you have to get undressed.”
“Oh dad! Really?” his daughter Chloe said, frustrated by yet another demonstration of how behind the times healthcare was for her parents.
Forty years ago there had been machines able to produce crude images of the inside of a person’s body, and there were some treatments where converging beams of energy were used to perform surgery without breaking the skin. Those machines had become ever more powerful, eventually able to produce images that went inside individual cells, and then target and destroy those same cells.
Individual cancer cells could be detected and destroyed. Tiny lesions that would later lead to heart disease could be found and tidied up. Several other common diseases came within the reach of these ‘scan and zap’ machines, as everyone called them.
Her parents had an omnibus scan and zap every six months, which wasn’t as often as it should be but at least it kept them safe from many diseases that had once been killers, catching and curing them long before any symptoms were visible.
Early machines had needed to clamp the patient still to be effective, but this was painful, time consuming, and did not prevent movement of body parts such as the pulsing of the heart and blood vessels. This meant that only crude images could be produced. In 2032 the first machine was made capable of scanning and zapping a moving target. That opened up the possibility of sub-cellular accuracy and a succession of breakthroughs followed.
The newest generation of machines could do their work as a patient walked through an archway, fully clothed. The machines at Peter and Samantha’s local hospital required the patient to undress and be pushed through on a trolley.
Part 5 – goodbyes
Later that afternoon Peter and Samantha started to feel tired so their daughter suggested ‘going home’. With lots of ‘love you’ and ‘have a happy Christmas’ and other calls the families waved goodbye and the visit ended, with the virtual door closing behind them.
The snow had stopped and the sky had cleared. Low sunlight shone through the windows of their home and reflected light from the snow outside brightened the ceiling of the room.
“Let’s have a rest and then clear up later” suggested Peter, and Samantha nodded her agreement. They settled back on their sofa, holding hands, eyes closed, resting.
Later they would move the dirty things to the cleaning zone of their home but for now their priority was to calm themselves after the excitement of the visit. There was only so much that could be done with Long Term Hormone Adjustment, and the old couple preferred the natural approach of sleep, exercise, and calming thoughts.
Many of the changes of the past 40 years had been the result of crisis combined with sophisticated engineering, but self-control technology was different. Despite their enormous impact on individuals and on society as a whole, the popularity of effective methods for self-control had involved almost no gadgets. You just needed to know what to think and when. In the end, the answers to so many seemingly impossible problems of temptation and procrastination had been remarkably simple….
Unfortunately for readers in 2013, Peter and Samantha fell asleep at this point and we shall not learn the remarkably simple solution from them. Instead we’ll have to work it out for ourselves. Hope you have a good Christmas and 2014 nevertheless!
Company: The Ridgeway Expertise Company Ltd, registered in England, no. 04931400.
Registered office: 29 Ridgeway, KT19 8LD, United Kingdom.
Words © 2013 Matthew Leitch