The highest tech

Some years ago, as we prepared to cross something called Maple Avenue in a small Ontario town, John Sommer and I were nearly run over by an ebullient young driver. We were too deep in conversation to notice the muscle car gunning down (quiet, residential) Charles Street behind us; it swerved with a tremendous screech of rubber onto Maple about two feet ahead of our toes.

John, watching the car recede, said, “Beautiful things, some of these cars. Too bad they will not be with us much longer.”

Neither of us has ever operated one, though I had the privilege of paying for a couple in my days as a bourgeois paterfamilias. John, a remarkable man from Germany who founded the late (and lamented) Gallery House Sol in Georgetown, Ontario — of which more, perhaps, some day — is old now. All his life, like me, he has preferred to walk, or if the distance is great and the need urgent, take some public conveyance. (And there were coaches and ships two centuries ago.)

I suppose the best thing that could be said for cars, is that they are totally unnecessary. But not useless, I fear. Some, as John noted, are rather attractive feats of engineering and styling; and I can see the fun in racing them. In a sane and stable society, they would of course be banned.

As to the proposition they will be not long with us, two practical observations. The first is pedestrian, indeed.

From what I understand, “driverless” cars, trucks, and buses will replace the drivered kind in the near future: much sooner than we realize. (“Ten years,” a self-styled expert told me.) Truck and taxi drivers will all be out of work. Those who actually enjoy driving will find that the practice is now illegal, and their old roadsters will be legislated into extinction. A large part of the population will not know what hit them, but there will be no vote, any more than there was when motor vehicles first came into the world. The new laws will be worked out between the large commercial interests and government departments, and “the people” duly taxed to pay for vast new infrastructure. Those opposed will be laughed off as “Luddites.”

This is the way business is normally done in a modern, progressive democracy. Some may organize, and if their numbers merit, they will be bought off. If their numbers don’t, they can be imprisoned.

But there is a second proposition, to which the first merely contributes. All motorized vehicles will now be vulnerable to a universal computer crash, which will come with the inevitability of the subduction earthquake that will sooner or later level Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and, by extension through known, charted faults, SF and LA. But that will be a local story, compared to the next “Carrington Event” — a reminder of which I was pleased to see flagged on the Drudge Report this week.

The last one happened in 1859. The Earth was hit by a cloud of magnetized plasma from a “coronal mass ejection” — something that our Sun often does. Most fly off in other directions; the last that barely missed us was in July, 2012. (You can tell it missed from the fact that the Internet still exists.) The last bullseye on our beloved planet was named after the brilliant English amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington (1826–75), who, in the course of figuring out what happened, demonstrated the existence of “solar flares.”

He was trying to explain why telegraph operators all over the world, on the 1st of September, 1859, were suddenly getting electric shocks; and then, prior to the whole cable system going down, why some had been able to send and receive messages even after disconnecting their power. Too, why auroras had lit up the night sky at temperate latitudes so bright people could read newspapers by it; or why those at higher elevations near the equator could enjoy the aurora borealis and the aurora australis — simultaneously.

Now, the world a sesquicentury ago was not so dependent upon electricity as it is today. And the system of telegraphy was so ridiculously simple, that it was soon repaired. I daresay Morse Code is worth learning in preparation for the next Carrington Event — which, when it comes, we will be able to predict, at best, a few hours in advance. (Other cosmic events might impinge on our lifestyles meanwhile, but I like to consider my apocalypses one at a time.)

Gentle reader may do a mental inventory of the gizmos in his environment that are connected directly or indirectly to the power grid. Then add in anything that contains a computer chip, whether it happened to be “on” or “off” when the Earth’s magnetic field was impacted. For I assume it will all turn “on” of its own, for a brief but memorable interval.

The “beauty” (as they say in Cape Breton) is that we have no back-up system, and moreover, there can be no back-up, except what we can rig from horse, or paddle. For we have made ourselves totally dependent upon sparks.

On the plus side, the environmentalists may exult, because the quick reduction of the world’s population to post-Plague mediaeval levels could prove a lucky break for the other endangered species.

It will, even more happily, improve national security for the survivors in USA. For the same magnetic storm that makes the cities (and towns) of America uninhabitable will also have disabled the military capacities of Russia, China, and Iran. If they want to come at us they will have to do so in sailing ships. Moreover, the depopulation of Mexico will probably reduce the invasion threat from there, whether or not Donald Trump is President.

But most visibly, the congestion problem will be solved, from all these cars. For even if we have the chance to enjoy a Carrington Event before the changeover to “driverless,” I should think only those motor vehicles made before about 1970 will ever again start. And then, only after chance stores of petrol have been carefully ladled into their tanks; and for as long as their spark plugs hold out. (Unless, of course, they’ve been fritzed, too.)

Perhaps this effusion was not really about cars. Perhaps it was instead about the arrogance of post-modern man, who turns to technology, where more sensible people would build with stone and, rather than to Progress, direct their more important petitions to God.