“Hello Doctor, how are you feeling?”
“Under employed,” I said flatly.
This was Winona, my outplacement co-worker at UC San Francisco Medical Center. We were on a phone call. She lived somewhere over the bay near Tiburon. I’d never met her face to face.
“I see your divorce got date stamped,” she said.
My profile was updated just prior to the call.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, it looks like you came out on top.”
“I have your test results,” she said, “very interesting.”
“They suggest you might be open to something a little different.”
Winona and I had talked for a couple of months about my retraining and what I might do next. The ER where I’d worked for the last five years was the last part of the hospital to be automated. I’d taken a gig as the surgical project lead for commissioning. To be honest it was make-work; the robots were near flawless. All I did was squeeze plasma bags and straighten QR codes; it was nothing a process monitor couldn’t do. I’d spent most of the time cerfing.
“I’ve found you something that’s a bit left-field,” said Winona.
“Hit me,” I said.
“Hand-made vintage leather goods.”
The cab took me south along Interstate 880 for half an hour. I’d packed a couple of days’ of clothes. I glanced through a few screens but couldn’t get into anything. I eventually looked out the window and was startled by the brilliant blue-green of San Francisco Bay. It reminded me I hadn’t been out of the hamster wheel of apartment, hospital and gym for a while. It really was a pretty part of the world. The cab turned off the highway and let me out near a large main gate. Off to the side was a smaller entry gate in the high chain link fence. Beyond was a multi-coloured building complex constructed of steel shipping containers. It was a clever arrangement, clearly an architect was involved, and it sat atop a green, rolling hill that ran gently down to the bay. In the distance I could see acres of agricultural condensers like red mesh tepees. I stood at the gate for a moment waiting for it to open. What the hell? I checked my screens. The appointment was confirmed. I watched the cab shuttle off down the road. Then it dawned on me.
“Doctor Arnold Tsui,” I said to an old-style voice recognition panel. The small gate opened. The first thing that struck me was the smell of wood smoke. A boy of about 15 came over to meet me. He was dressed in early century clothing, some kind of hipster farm-hand mashup.
“Doctor Tsui?” he asked, smiling and extending his hand.
“I’m Finnegan, welcome to New Amsterdam,” he said. He was a picture of health - tanned and athletic. I was conscious of his eye contact, intense - not unfriendly – just, engaged. I looked away. He led me into the main building.
“I’ll have to ask you to check your screens Sir, we’re an offline community.”
I was taken aback. I had a last glance at my tablet and took off my watch. I handed them to Finnegan.
“Oh no Sir, I wouldn’t dream of touching your screens,” he said politely. He gestured to a shelf with storage bins. I hesitated again. The bins were unsecured.
“Don’t worry, they’re no good to anyone here,” he said, sensing my reluctance. “You’re just in time for lunch. Maggie will be there.”
Finnegan took me to the covered meal area and introduced me to Margaret-Mead Callaghan, one of the founders of New Amsterdam Manufacturing. She was about my age, late-30s, willowy, calm. I was expecting her to be some sort of scruffy hippie, but she was neat and well groomed. Nice skin. Lovely.
“Hi, please call me Maggie,” she said, shaking my hand.
“Something smells wonderful,” I said, looking away towards the kitchen.
“Hope you like beans,” she replied.
I lined up at the counter and served myself chilli beans with poached eggs and fresh bread rolls. There was a wood-fired oven and the smell of the bread was intoxicating. There were about fifty people having lunch together, lots of animated chatter. As we sat down at one of the long tables I found myself involuntarily patting my pocket and touching my bare wrist.
“Screen withdrawal,” said Maggie, smiling. “It might take a little while.”
“Yes,” I said, slightly embarrassed.
“Winona says you’ll stay for a couple of days?”
I nodded. “Yes I need to get back to town. This bread is superb by the way. So how do you find living without technology?”
“Oh there’s plenty of technology around here,” said Maggie.
“Really?” I asked.
“The bread was made with a great old technology called fire. Your spoon is bronze-age tech. I think you mean information technology?”
“Of course. I’ve come to think of them as the same thing,” I replied.
“We’ve just rolled back the IT to a slightly simpler time. Want to know what gets my vote for the best technology ever?”
“The washing machine.”
“How do you figure?”
“Think of the impact of releasing millions of women from four hours of hand washing every day.”
“When you put it like that,” I replied.
After lunch Maggie took me to the leather workshop. It smelled like a forest. It was an invigorating environment with natural light and a fresh breeze coming up from the bay. Bamboo Palm, Chinese Evergreen and Peace Lily were planted between the workbenches. New Amsterdam Manufacturing used vintage leather to make accessories: tablet cases, belts, notebook covers, watchbands. It was beautiful stuff. Maggie gave me a hardback notebook and pencil.
“For notes,” she said. She turned my hand over. “You know Arnold I think your surgeon’s hands will take to this kind of work. Let me show you how we make belts out of old shoes.”
By the end of the day I’d braided a passable belt. That night after I showered and brushed my teeth I bumped into Maggie on the way to my bunk.
“How was your first day?” she asked, genuinely interested it seemed.
“Honestly? I’m finally alone with my thoughts and I can’t get the Chicken Tonight jingle out of my head!”
She laughed. “You can go up to the storage area anytime and get your screens. All I ask is you step outside the gate.”
“I’m going to try and stick it out for a while,” I said. “Goodnight.”
I lay awake wondering what people were saying about my divorce, whether my settlement had come through and who was winning the baseball. After 45 minutes of fidgeting I gave up and snuck out to the storage area to collect my tablet. Outside the gate two other re-trainees were checking their screens. One was a tax accountant, the other a lawyer. We exchanged knowing looks.
“Checking in with the world?” I asked.
“Giants are playing tonight,” said the tax accountant. He looked sideways at me. “You the Doctor?”
“I heard you got a Google divorce. How was it?”
“It worked well for me,” I said.
The lawyer chimed in. “They work too well if you ask me. I’ve lost most of my practice.”
“Well you know what they say, the internet knows you better than your wife,” I said.
“I remember the first time I realized that,” said the lawyer. “I’d bought a cocktail shaker online and the next day I went into my grocery store there was a special on gin and vodka – just for me!”
“So how does it work?” asked the tax accountant.
“Well,” I said, “some algorithm trawls through all your email, calendars, messages, spending history, who made the bookings for anniversary dinners, that sort of thing. You agree to be bound by the outcome and get an answer within the hour. Turns out I was a good husband.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the soft purr of electric motors overhead. My hair was ruffled by the downdraft from a Domino’s drone and its spotlight illuminated the three of us. Winona had sent me a pizza.
On the way to the workshop next morning Finnegan came running over to tell me there was a Sheriff at the gate to see me.
“I’m pleased I found you Doctor Tsui,” the Sheriff began.
“Is something wrong?” I asked, thinking of my wife. Ex-wife.
“You were offline for most of yesterday. With your recent divorce and job loss it came up as a risk pattern. Is everything ok?”
“Yes. Thankyou,” I replied.
“Well, be sure to update your profile if you’re going to be offline for a while. Continuity is important to social security and insurance. Good day.”
I hadn’t considered the consequences of my stay in New Amsterdam being so serious as to flag me as a, what, suicide risk? I shook it off and headed for the leather workshop. I passed a small animated group of children sitting on a classroom floor playing with LEGO bricks. I mentioned it to Maggie.
“I haven’t seen kids play with LEGO in years,” I said. “It wasn’t even the self-assembling stuff, it was old manual bricks!”
“We find it stimulates creativity - solving things with your fingers. They can also talk to each other while they’re doing it. There’s a heap of LEGO out there if you know where to look. We get a surprising amount of it from the landfill,” she said.
“Landfill?” I asked.
“New Amsterdam is located on the old Newby Island landfill that operated until early this century. We have the mining rights.”
“I’d like to see it. Can you take me there?” I asked.
After lunch Maggie took me over to the mechanical workshop. It was a wonderland of industrial equipment and farm machinery. Finnegan was repairing a steel printer. Maggie opened the door of a classic Prius.
“You’re going to drive that thing?” I asked.
“Would you rather?”
“No, no I mean … well, I drove a go-kart once, at my bachelor party. Would you mind?”
“Knock yourself out!”
I drove along the bumpy track to the landfill mine making childish noises and grinning from ear to ear.
“You okay there Doc?” asked Maggie.
The landfill mine appeared to be running autonomously – a couple of Caterpillar earthmoving machines had opened a thirty meter-wide cutting in the green hillside. About fifty general purpose trash robots were arranged in a conga line sorting and passing items along to a screening plant. Seagulls were hovering overhead. Smaller electric haul trucks took the sorted loads to a large shed.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Precious metals from consumer electronics mostly. There’s also plastic, glass and rubber.”
A middle-aged woman came over.
“Oh this is Karla,” said Maggie. “She’s our Atari process monitor.”
“Atari?” I asked, “as in the computer games?”
“Yeah, they’ve monetised them by getting players to control industrial robots. They think they’re shooting space zombies or whatever but they’re actually sweeping an alley, treating rust on the Golden Gate Bridge or, as in this case sorting trash. It seemed a shame that all those hours of gaming effort were lost to society. Such smart people too. It’s win-win.”
“And you’re here to keep an eye on the robots?” I asked Karla.
“It’s more like sheep herding than you’d care to imagine - green fields and all.”
“I think I’ve just finished something similar at the hospital,” I said.
“Excuse me,” said Karla. She jogged over to release a seagull snared by a trash robot. It squawked loudly as it was passed along the conga line.
“This is a very special place you have here Maggie,” I said looking back to the complex.
“Thankyou,” she said watching me as the pennies were dropping.
“I’d like to stay a little while longer, if that’s okay with you? Perhaps I could learn to bake bread?”
“Sure,” replied Maggie, “you know there’s another old technology you might like to get started on.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, curious.
“I was thinking of brewing some beer.”