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CanadaChanging: Community, by Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder is a writer of speculative fiction and fact who makes his home in Toronto.


Under the rose-and-peach of a northern sunrise, the town’s mountie found Amaruq looting his own library of its books.

Ross watched as Amaruq defiantly heaved another heavy cardboard box into the back of his truck. Then he sauntered over to peer through the door. “Enlarging your collection?”

Amaruq scowled at him. “They’re throwing out the books today. After the legislature voted to close the place I did a book sale. Nobody wanted to buy them. I couldn’t just sit there and let it happen. Couldn’t sleep.”

Ross stared at the canary-yellow band of light on the horizon. Then he grinned at Amaruq. “I could say, ‘everything’s on-line now’ so what’s the loss?”

Amaruq just shook his head. “We were the only library for two hundred kilometers. Where will the community meet? --And don’t say, ‘on-line.’”

Ross shook his head and walked up the wooden steps. “I said I could say that. But I won’t. What I was going to say was, need some help?”

Amaruq grinned at him. By the light of a canary-yellow band of sky they emptied the contents of the little library of Bell’s Lake.

#

The ringing phone found Amaruq sitting alone in his main room, staring at what he’d saved. Boxes were stacked everywhere, all of them jammed with books. Most were in Inuktitut, the syllabic script of the Inuit language. It had been his dream that kids like Katie Qamaniq would grow up with such easy access to Inuktitut that they need never learn English. But then the internet had come. It brought people together, true--the whole of the north was connected now, and people from Baffin Island to Siberia were working together to develop and preserve their part of the world. But still, there was something missing.

Would Katie come over to his house to visit his books? He somehow doubted it. “Hello?” he said into the phone.

“Uncle, you’re up! I was afraid I’d wake you.”

“Men my age don’t sleep much. What’s up, father?” Amaruq’s nephew Nauja was widely supposed to contain the spirit of Amaruq’s father; Amaruq knew Nauja didn’t like the idea and called him father to tease him.

“I made it!” said Nauja. “I finally pulled a maintenance shift on the aerostat. I’m there now--looking down from 120,000 feet!”

If he stood on his porch and stared straight up, Amaruq would see the aerostat blimp, a brilliant unmoving star at the zenith. The blimp was a kind of mirror for microwaves, allowing the Hudson Bay wind farms to beam electric power across much of Nunavut. Nauja had been in love with the thing ever since it had gone up.

“That’s great,” said Amaruq neutrally. “What can I do for you, father?”

“I just thought... you’re the one guy I know who could understand. Why it’s important to be power-independent. How it feels to be taking charge of our own lives. You were at the first session of the Nunavut legislature, uncle. You got the library going in Bell’s Lake. You fought to keep the Inuk ways alive. Remember when you used to take me hunting?”

“Yeah. And today the town closed my library.”

“Ah. Yeah, sorry about that. But the books are all on-line now, you can download them from the back of a skidoo. I thought you’d be happy about that.”

“But our meeting place is gone.”

There was a pause. Amaruq imagined his nephew huddled by a porthole in the cramped Bigelow inflatable twenty miles overhead. Finally Nauja said, “We’ve talked about this. The meeting place is on-line too. SimCanada is--“

”--Not connected to the land, Nauja. It may be about the land, but it’s not anywhere on the land. Why can’t you see...”

Amaruq’s foot was cold. He looked down.

Both his bare feet were wet. In fact, the whole carpet was turning black as water wicked into it from somewhere. The same water was spreading around the cardboard boxes. “Aw, shit! I got a leak, Nauja. I’ll have to call you back.”

He dropped the phone and scrambled to save his books.

#


The weight of all that paper must have pressed down on one of the floor joists, which in turn had cracked an elbow joint of the main water line beneath the main room. Most of the water had gone down, but some had sprinklered between the walls, dangerously close to a power outlet.

Late that evening he and Nauja squatted in the crawl space, inspecting the damage. Amaruq’s back ached from hauling boxes. Worse, he felt heartsick, realizing just how futile it was to try to preserve all those fragile books.

“Maybe duct tape would work,” he said doubtfully, staring at the elbow-joint Nauja was holding. Bell’s Lake had exactly one store, and they didn’t have the part. Back when the winters were cold enough to freeze the rivers solid, the winter road system had allowed hardware like this to be trucked up. Nowadays, the winter roads no longer ran to Bell’s Lake, and the heavy-lifting airships from Winnipeg hadn’t yet settled into regular service.

Nauja clapped Amaruq on the back. “Forget it,” he said. “I have a better idea. Come on.”

They drove to Nauja’s house. Amaruq hadn’t been there in several years, and was surprised when he walked inside. The fifty-inch HDTV was to be expected, as were the laptops and roll-up computers lying among the socks and beer cans on the couch.

What he didn’t expect was the fabricator. Nauja had taken out the dining table and now a stove-sized fabricator sat where it had been. “I just got it,” he said, patting the unit. “They’re getting cheaper--it cost more to have it shipped blimp cargo than to buy it.”

“But why did you buy it?”

Nauja shrugged. “It’s the latest thing.”

Normally Amaruq would disapprove of Nauja tethering himself yet more firmly to the technological culture of the South. Despite himself, he was intrigued by the fab, which could turn computer designs into solid, physical objects. The two men sat down by the machine and Nauja unrolled a computer screen. They spent the next hour trying to duplicate the dimensions of the broken pipe using 3d software, but neither was particularly skilled with such tools. Eventually Nauja threw up his hands in frustration.

“We’ve only got so much feedstock for the fab. I don’t want to run off a bunch of prototypes. What do we do?”

Amaruq shrugged. “Maybe there’s design files online?”

“Could be. But how do we find them?”

He laughed. “Well, I am a librarian.”

#

That night he washed the dishes, marveling at what he and Nauja had done. There was indeed a huge library of open-source fab specs on the internet--for everything from transistor radios to pliers. After they’d printed Amaruq’s elbow joint, they had spent another hour printing off a dozen or more odd objects both had needed. “I guess you won’t have to order stuff in,” Amaruq said in grudging admiration. It was so difficult to get things shipped this far north that you usually didn’t order anything unless you absolutely needed it. Nauja told him that he’d decided to buy the unit when he found out that somebody in Iqaluit was manufacturing feedstock for fabs.

When they started to run low on feedstock Amaruq had started to leave, but Nauja said, “Wait. I want to show you something.”

When the splash screen for SimCanada burst across the 50-inch TV, Amaruq hesitated. But he owed Nauja some consideration after how helpful he’d been, so he sat and said, “Show me.”

Now as he set a slippery cup in the drying rack, he decided that Nauja wasn’t exactly wrong. SimCanada was an amazing thing. Its bank of servers in Ottawa ran economic, cultural and geophysical simulations of the whole country, at faster than real-time. You could log into SimCanada and manipulate the parameters--eliminate the GST, raise the carbon tax, or expropriate land for a high-speed rail link between Montreal and Toronto. Then run the simulation forward a few years and check the results against the status-quo projections. Or browse to see what other people were doing, and discuss or collaborate with them.

“Why debate public policy,” Nauja had said, “when you can sim it?”

Such dismissal of all his decades of back- and front-room politicking was galling to Amaruq. Nauja wasn’t exactly wrong--but he wasn’t right either. There were all sorts of collaborative tools in SimCanada, but what had been best about using it was using it with Nauja. It was being together--a community of two in Nauja’s messy house--that had made the experience worthwhile.

Dishes finished, Amaruq turned to contemplate the boxes piled in the corner. A big box fan whirred and vibrated as it blew warm summer air over the drying carpet.

He felt so sad that it had come to this. The books had been the library’s magnet, but the library itself was something more. Amaruq blamed himself for not being articulate enough to explain to the government what that something was. The men and women of the legislature hadn’t sat there with Katie Qamaniq and her cousins, helping them explore the wonders on the shelves. That exploration had been like being out on the land in some ways. It was the curiosity about what lay over the next hill, and having someone share the journey, that had mattered.

The irony was, he wouldn’t be feeling this nostalgia so keenly if he hadn’t spent the afternoon fixing that pipe with Nauja.

Amaruq had been reaching for one of the books; his hand hovered in the air an inch above it, and for a while he stared at nothing. Then, book forgotten, he hurried over to his own seldom-used PC.

It took a while to find SimCanada, and then a while to open an account. With one thing and another, the sunset had moved around to the northeast before Amaruq’s sims had finished, and he had the answer he needed.

Then he called Nauja. “Father, come over here. --What do you mean, early? You called me early yesterday. Now I’m calling you early. Just get here. I want to talk to you about your fab.”

He hung up the phone and sat back in his armchair, grinning.

#

Ross poked his head in the door. “Well, well,” he said. “So it’s true.”

The library was busy today. Two of James Taliriktug’s boys sat in one corner, scanning an ulu from the museum. Hiram from the body shop was poring over plans for some engine part. Katie Qamaniq had come in early, and was puzzling over something on the PC.

Amaruq grinned at Ross. “I used SimCanada to show the legislature what the libraries could do if we changed them into fabshops.”

Ross nodded, looking faintly puzzled. “I can see that. But why?”

Katie had been glancing surreptitiously at Amaruq. She’d used to do that, he remembered, whenever she had a question about her books but was too afraid to ask. As he stood and went to lean over her he said, “Community, Ross. It doesn’t just come from what you say. It comes from what you do. And these,” he nodded at the fabs, “change what we can do.”

Amaruq squinted at Katie’s screen.

“What is that?” he asked.

“It’s a design I saw in a rock carving,” she said. “I want to turn it into a sculpture, but I’m not sure how.”

Taliriktug’s kids had stopped arguing and were starting to print something. Some new, 21st century ulu?

Ross shook his head in bemusement and left. Amaruq grinned. For so many years he’d fiercely hoarded things--books, his own identity and that of his people--as if they would all shatter if he once let go. Finally, he was doing what his people had always done, and needed to do again: he was making something.

A low murmur of conversation and activity filled the library, just as it should. Across Nunavut other meeting places would soon be busy, making all the things that had once kept them dependent on the ice roads--and southern factories.

Amaruq sat down next to Katie. “Let’s see what we can do,” he said.

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Comments

Folks over at Global Villages have gathered an (improvable) page on civilization networks.

Global Villages' vision is very much in line with this sci-fi story. In fact, there was this dream, with a few (unsurprising) parallels.

What this means and where we go from here, I don't know. It's all "open space", possibly.


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 22 Jul 06

Delightful glimpse into the future!

But this is a future that extrapolates current progress. In the face of so many resources nearing their normal-curve peak -- copper, gold, tin, not to mention Peak Oil, isn't it more likely that the old ways would return of necesitiy, sans technology?

Also, this future ignores global warming. In James Lovelock's dire vision, the surviving humans will be clustered around the poles in the next hundred years, as the hot, barren continents become uninhabitable. Even a partial path toward such a future would see the "south" as losing influence and power, with the resources of the great frozen north exerting its influence.

But still a good, hopeful read.


Posted by: Jan Steinman on 22 Jul 06

We'd all love to see more of these "stories to be in". Some details will come true, others won't, but stories will have an effect now. We need those stories. In fact, maybe we already have them - only not as stories?


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 22 Jul 06

Excellent story! I really like the theme of adaptation, carried out on several levels. Great read!

In response to Jan's comment above, I agree with the author and truly don't think we will see any regression from technology. New ways always evolve, and old ways fade slowly away. The new ways may not be what you expect, but they will be new nonetheless. Computers and networks are here to stay -- and with improvements in both, things like SimCanada are ultimately likely regardless of what happens with natural resources.

One of my engineering profs used to tell us to think about what you could do with an infinite amount of computational power and infinite bandwidth. It seemed like a silly exercise at the time. But since then both processing power and bandwidth have increased by a factor of 40. Yes, forty. In just another decade, we're likely to see another 40x increase ... giving us 1600 times more computational power and bandwidth than we had when he said that to us originally. This won't be truly infinite of course, but it *will* be unimaginably more than what we had at the time.

I'm still not sure it's possible for us to grasp exactly what's possible with an unlimited amount of computational power. We try to guess, but the real world seems to outdo our guesses every time.


Posted by: Drew Thaler on 23 Jul 06

I think the story is very interesting, and what I like is that the turn at the end is toward *production*. I think the way in which wikipedia is exploding demonstrates a heartfelt and untapped desire to participate in the production of knowledge, that heretofore has been limited by real (and socially imposed) constraints on the number of people who could reasonablly be accommodated. That is what the kids are doing in the library at the end, I think, they are becoming participants in the production of (in this case, tangible) knowledge.


Posted by: Richard Smith on 23 Jul 06

Thing is, production can be as easy as making a solar cooker as in solarcooker.org

So a compilation of how-tos would be a nice thing to review every now and then, no?


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Posted by: ringtones free on 4 Aug 06

Wait until we all get nano-fabricators in our homes. Then with infinite bandwidth we can call up any the specs for any physical object and "print" it out at home. Solar cells, solar cookers, wind turbines, everything.


Posted by: Kirk Schinter on 5 Aug 06



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