All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace
Luminous globules of memetic counter-culture swirl through cyberspace like snowflakes, each imperceptibly unique, before they settle into an endless field of white noise, waiting to melt away into nothingness. Packets of quasi-information, opinion masquerading as fact, roll down the screen in the same way tumbleweeds do, gaining momentum from an unfelt wind. Website tickers scroll news, flashing mantras as if in electronic meditation. All the world at your fingertips.
Five minutes later and I’ve left the apartment, the tablet left lying on the coffee table, bleating out social media message alerts to no-one in particular. When I arrive back I will have seven new notifications and four unread messages.
But that is later. Right now is what matters, and right now I am heading down Franklin on foot. The weather has yet to decide what to do, and sits in that awkward grey between overcast and sunshine. Cars pass intermittently. Most have tinted windows, and it makes me consciously aware that I am the only living thing you can see, if you discount the birds that flock in V formations overhead. No other person is out on foot. Everyone has places they need to be, appointments they have to meet, TV shows they have to get back in time for, and even though they could set their DVR and watch it later that would mean they’ll miss the simultaneous webcast and live twitter interview with cast members that they’d follow along on their phones and laptops and tablets. The cars pass by in blurred indistinction.
I walk past apartment buildings, townhouses, gas stations and garages. I walk past signs advertising new constructions, a new mall containing a bowling alley and seventeen screen cineplex, and the signs show concept art that makes it all look green. Clean looking stores sit nestled among leafy trees, cars parked in perfect unison on flawless tarmac. People walk hand in hand inbetween stores, clutching bags emblazoned with the logos of stores that haven’t been built yet.
I walk on until I reach the site. The plywood sheets marking out the stores to be built stand like skeletons on ground churned to construction brown. Clods of earth mixed with clay mixed with sand make the area resemble a giant sandpit. Here and there, patches of yellowing grass struggle to break through the scattered soil. Workmen in helmets that match the color of the grass pace around in no particular hurry, directing equally yellow and equally unhurried cranes that arc into the sky. It is as if the world has turned sepia.
Five weeks ago, this was just open parkland with an occasional tree. Five weeks ago, this was a place you could walk through barefoot if you so wished. Five weeks ago you could walk right into the center and be unable to see or hear the world around you, just for a few minutes. For a few minutes you could hear nothing but the birds and the wind. Now all you can hear is the rumbling generators and muffled sounds of hammering.
I start to walk across the site, no-one bothering to stop me, to ask me where I’m going. I walk past the area reserved for a Nike store
(opening soon, hiring now)
and the skeletal frame of some drive-thru restaurant
(reserve your launch day seating)
and find that at the center of the parkland, a lone tree remains standing. A lone tree, leaves stripped, the bark greying and flaking off onto the brown land. The air smells acidic here.
A workman sees me staring at the tree and walks over.
“You from the nursery?” he asks.
“The nursery. Waitin’ to hear what trees we’ll be puttin’ in here. Wondered if you knew.”
“What about the trees that were already here?”
He laughs. “In the wrong spot and wrong kinda tree. Not the right kinda-”
He looks back over his shoulder at a nearby workman. “Alec? What’s the word that guy used about how everythin’ should look?”
“That’s right,” he says, turning back to me. “Ayes-hectic. Gotta fit in with the Ayes-hectic.”
I look up at the branches of the tree. A long-since abandoned bird’s nest sits in a crook near the top.
“So,” he says. “You know what kinda tree?”
“Sycamore,” he repeats. “Dunno what they look like, but okay, chief.”
“They look like this one.”
He wipes his nose on the back of his sleeve. “New ones should look better than this one, I guess. We’ll be diggin’ this one out t’morrow.”
I don’t answer. I take out my phone and take a snapshot of the tree. It uploads and self-publishes in fifteen seconds, and by the time I arrive home, it has received eleven likes and one share.