The Last Manufactured Thing?

The memory ends, and you are back in the tropical heat, breeze on your skin, scent of frangipani, but this time still in Arnold's body, looking at Halwaz. Surprisingly, fifteen years have made a positive difference. Arnold is fitter and healthier now than she was then, and also more relaxed. Halwaz is looking relaxed as well, in her trademark grey, but appropriately dressed for the warmth, her long chestnut hair caught back in a pony tail and her intense dark eyes serious.

"So," she says, "tell me about your backers."

You smile. "Don't you read the papers? It was the Jewish-Muslim-Catholic-Pagan Illuminati lizard aliens from the House of Windsor Rand Corporation."

Halwaz laughs.

"No, seriously, someone must have staked you, but as far as I can tell you've never said who."

"And I won't be changing that today," you say. "You wouldn't recognize the names in any case, but I have a contractual agreement not to name them. You'd be surprised, though, how little investment there was in the research stage."

"Really? This doesn't strike me as the kind of science you can do on a shoestring."

"Well, shoestring is a relative term, but we all lived and worked in the same old building with a basement full of several hundred cheap servers, a genius programmer - that would be Ted - and state-of-the-art greyware that we'd put on our student loans, so that we could have a completely virtual development environment, walk around inside the molecules and feel how they moved. We lived on ramen noodles and worked mostly for equity. When we were absolutely convinced that we had the design right - absolutely convinced, no shadow of a doubt - we rented time on an orbital lab and made about 150kg of the stuff for final testing, and for the demo."

"Ah, yes, the famous demo."

This time a lap-dissolve into the memory, around the same period as the last. The setting is a large meeting room in which a number of men and women in business garb are seated, not in theatre-style seats but in individual chair-desk combinations like an old-fashioned classroom (which is probably where they have come from). There is enough distance between the seats for someone to walk freely around the whole room, except where people have moved them together to talk, which a number of groups are doing. The overall tone of the conversations includes complaint, mystification and impatience; overheard words indicate that the attendees are not impressed at the invitation's insistence that they must be here in person.

You are at the podium, scanning the crowd, reading their broadcast metadata. You feel pleasantly surprised that so many of the attendees are relatively senior - not just regional managers, as you expected, but a few vice-presidents of technology and the equivalent. You have chosen to launch in Los Angeles, at some trouble and expense. You hold in your mind the knowledge that your whole team has been busy for months, pushing buzz out on every channel they possessed to say "Gu is amazing", without ever quite saying what Gu is.

You broadcast an attention-request to the room and it slowly quiets. The audience regards you somewhat skeptically.

You smile mischievously.

"Welcome," you say. "I suppose you're wondering why I called you here today."

Mutters on the general theme of "Damn straight."

"You've heard the rumors of something radically new in materials science," you say. "You've heard that it's called 'Gu' - that's our brand name, the name we've been using in the literature is 'morphmass'." You pause while they associate, and as the journal abstracts highload through their hippocampi and they "remember" them, you see a few early eyebrows go up. Mostly people with first degrees in engineering, from their metadata. Most of the other eyebrows draw together, though, in puzzlement. You press on.

"The technical details aren't why I called you here, into this room, though. You're here to experience Gu. And so, without further delay, here it is."

You flip a mental switch.

Out of the tank of Gu in front of the stage, immediately below the lectern, morphs, then steps, a smooth, slightly shimmering dancer, silvery-pale all over and looking and moving a little like a claymation figure. You know that it is being controlled by Serena's niece, a dance student, from backstage. She's using an interface bodystocking from a Nintendo LiveConsole.

Most of the audience are unimpressed, but a few - mostly the engineers who have already gained some idea what Gu is - sit forward a little. You put the a virtual targeting spot on the forehead of the one sitting nearest the front, and the slim figure pulls the transparent cloth off the two large trays of snacks on the table to her left, picks up one tray, moves gracefully between the desks-and-tables, and offers it to him.

A quick cut here. Halwaz has evidently tracked the man - a Du Pont executive called José Thomas - down and obtained his memory.

You reach out slowly, not completely believing, not wanting to be made a fool of by some new hologram technology - and pick up a canapé. One eye on Callie Arnold, one on the salmon roll, you lift it, convey it to your mouth, bite it. You feel a visceral shock as you understand. The canapé is real. The tray is real. The girl is real - for a very specialized meaning of real. She's solid, she can pick things up, but you just saw her morph out of a tank of Gu.

Cut to Halwaz's view of José Thomas, present day. He is greying slightly now, heavier.

"Mr Thomas," you as Halwaz say, "you were perhaps the first person outside the project itself to realize the implications of Gu. Can you remember what you thought in those first few seconds?"

"Susan, it took us all a good deal longer than a few seconds to realize the implications of Gu. I don't think we've realized them all yet, for that matter. Every year, someone comes up with a major new use for Gu technology. But what I do remember thinking after I bit into that canapé was, we have to make this - because if we're not making this, pretty soon we won't be making anything."

"You foresaw the end of manufacturing?"

"Uh - no, that's a bit of an exaggeration. There's still plenty of manufacturing going on, even now. There are things Gu can't do, or can't do as well. There are plenty of applications where you need a frame made out of something more robust, or a special-purpose brick that sits inside a Gu construct and does processing or control. Our slogan "Gu, the last manufactured thing" was - well, it was a marketing slogan. We'll see manufacturing for a good long time to come. But there are also many, many, many products that we will not see mass-produced again. I was in the fortunate position of seeing that in advance and being able to plan for it."

"How do you plan for a thing like that?"

A shadow crosses Thomas's face.

"You have to make some tough decisions. For some of our people to keep their jobs, a lot of others had to lose theirs. It wasn't easy. None of it was easy."

Back to Callie Arnold, Halwaz's viewpoint, present day.

"You had to know the implications of this technology for old-style manufacturing."

A cut to Arnold's viewpoint. You're a little tense.

"Yes, we did. You have to remember, though, Susan, that 18th-to-early-21st-century manufacturing was itself a disruptive technology - highly disruptive. It moved people who made things from working in family groups in their own homes, often in rural or semi-rural environments, to working in factories in an urban environment, with all the alienation and poverty and ill-health that came along with that. In a sense, Gu helped restore something of the previous situation, without wiping out the gains that had been made in the meantime in communications and medicine and human rights. Manufacturing, old-style manufacturing, isn't exactly a romantic technology. I don't mourn for it."

"But what about the human cost? All the people out of work?"

"I..." you're quite unhappy now. "Yes, I know. I could say the pat thing, that the days of conventional manufacturing jobs were numbered anyway, that automation would have replaced them in a few years, but I know I helped accelerate that process, and I know that for the people affected it was a terrible shock. I've had trouble sleeping sometimes, believe me. I've tried to do what I could, through my foundation and by lobbying governments, particularly the Latin American governments whose people were most affected. I tried to get such planet-based support industries as there were located in the regions where most manufacturing jobs had been lost. I tried to arrange for education, retraining, so that people who had lost those jobs had the option of moving to better jobs, more interesting jobs. But a lot of people just suffered, and I'm sorry for it. I mean, my own grandparents were uneducated people in manufacturing jobs. I remember my grandmother's stories of how hard it was when they were laid off."

"So," Halwaz says, "was it worth it? Was it worth the pain?"

You look her directly in the eyes. "I'm not the person who can answer that," you say. "You need to talk to the people who felt the pain."

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This entry was posted in Callie Arnold, demo, José Thomas, manufacturing, poverty, Serena Koslowski, Ted Anderson, unemployment. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Last Manufactured Thing?

  1. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    The launch of Gu – 15 years in the past, at the time the story is set – provides the main structure for the story. I’ll be cutting back to it almost throughout, and then following trails away from it to explore the main themes that come up. Wealth and poverty is the first of these.

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