Thursday, June 25, 2009
Tweets at the end of the universe
by Larry Geller
As I was sifting through Mark Sanford tweets early this morning, I was thinking that I don’t recall that Twitter was foreseen in any of the science fiction that I read mostly as a kid.
The closest thing I can think of was a Twilight Zone episode in which a man buys a newspaper and tosses his coin into the box where people toss coins, and it stood on edge. At that moment the famous Twilight Zone theme plays, and you know something is going to happen. It turns out that the guy now has the power to read minds. Through the magic of Google, here’s a snippet of the synopsis of that episode:
Bank clerk Hector B. Poole is on his way to work when he stops to buy a newspaper. He tosses a quarter into the coin box and it lands exactly on edge. Hector goes on his way but starts to at first hear what he thinks are people talking out loud voicing their innermost thoughts. Distracted, he is almost hit by a car. The driver comes over and apologizes to him… but Hector realizes is thinking that Hector is an idiot. He asks the man what he's saying and the man says he didn't say anything, while still thinking Hector is an idiot.
That’s pretty close to Twitter, including the part about being distracted and almost hit by a car. People tweet the most trivial things in their thoughts and we all can tune in.
But otherwise, this Twitter phenomenon, whether it is a temporary fad or much more than that, didn’t break into any SF I remember.
In a way, my childhood SF experience was very conventional and literary. By that I mean there were big words in those books, bigger than I use in this blog. There were no Kindles or Tablet PCs to contain e-texts for reading, I had to carry heavy paperbacks with hundreds of pages in them. It took a week or more to finish anything by Robert A. Heinlein. There was magic in the reading. I read between classes, while walking in the hallways, during lunch, after school, obsessively.
In all that, no one tweeted, and few analogs to the cell phone existed.
But more important, look at the contrast between investing time reading a thick Heinlein novel and spending hours of a day sending or receiving 140 character tweets. What are we doing to ourselves?
When you go to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, I bet they’ll ask you to leave your cellphone back in your space ship. Just relax and enjoy the spectacle. After all, you paid an incredible sum to be there at that moment (or you will pay, please see below). Nowhere in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy do I find a mention of diners texting or tweeting their friends as the universe ended in front of them.
But the reality is, I think, that if the world ended today, it would be thoroughly documented by tweets and re-tweets until the very last cell tower vaporized.
“ "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "The Universe as we know it has now been in existence for over one hundred and seventy thousand million billion years and will be ending in a little over half an hour. So, welcome one and all to Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!" ” — The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Milliways, also known as The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, can only be visited practically by time travel, as it exists at the end of time and matter. Marvin the Paranoid Android is one character who manages to reach Milliways without the use of time travel, merely by being very patient. One of the restaurant's major attractions is that diners can watch the entire universe end around them as they eat. The terminal moment is followed by dessert. Reservations are easily obtained, since they can be booked once the patron returns to his or her original time after their meal, and the restaurant's bill can be paid by depositing a penny in any bank account of the present time: by the end of the universe, Compound interest will be enough to pay the extremely high bill.
(Now, why didn’t Obama’s bailout team think of a scheme like that? It could save us taxpayers all that future debt. I.e., we just each deposit a penny in a Goldman Sachs or Citibank account and ask them to wait awhile, they’ll get their bailout in due course.)
It would be interesting to check out Millways today (where did I park my time machine?). While the spectacle unfolds before them, the kids will no doubt be preoccupied with their little video games, their iPods plugged into their ears, while the adults concentrate on furiously sending their tweets. It’s an obsession which consumes them even though, as they can see out the huge picture window, no one is left out there to receive them.
In the SF take on twittering all communications will be limited to 140 characters, by law. Every time you violate the law you permanently lose one character until you have to shut up completely.
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