Future Shock

Sci-fi Novelist Samuel R. Delany Imagines New York City Circa 3000

We've seen people desert the city before. But give us the right catastrophe, and people will start leaving as fast as the new "mag-lev" train (that's magnetic levitation: they're already zipping around in Japan at twice the speeds of Amtrak) can carry them!

As much of a city lover as I am, I still suspect that, whatever brings its end about, the Great City as we have it today—an enclave of two million to 10 million inhabitants embroiled in culture, commerce, and capital—just can't hang together for an entire thousand years. It's too large and unwieldy, too likely to break up after a few centuries or so and disperse in general sprawl or what sociologists call "edge cities." Consider: There were no cities of more than a million inhabitants before 1800. In 1850 the population of Manhattan was only 500 thousand people with another 200 thousand scattered among the other four boroughs. The population passed the million mark only around 1875. The mega-population center is entirely the result of 19th century industrialization. Only with the advent of steam, iron, glass, electricity, and concomitant transportation advances could those river-and-market communities that had attracted folks around them into a growing township import enough food and materials for life and manufacture and export its growing number of goods—and get rid of a million or so people's garbage. The really big city may just be a 200-to-500-year historical flash-in-the-pan.

The late French historian Fernand Braudel estimated the economic moorings holding New York to its position as the capital of the 20th century started to slip in 1974. All over the world great cities will probably start to break up when our oil-based energy system is depleted in another 75 to 125 years. There's only a limited amount of oil under the ground and we've already used up a good deal of it. It's historical arrogance to expect the entire structure of the Great City to persevere intact like the pyramids or the Parthenon.

Meanwhile, out at the what once was La Guardia Airport, on the cracked and abandoned runways, those jerry-rigged nanotech homes of the homeless go up and down, up and down, day after day, because air travel as we know it today will no longer exist. Virtual travel will be cheaper and will use no oil-based fuel. In effect, people will scan themselves into their computers and then e-mail themselves wherever they want to go, or else hop onto a browser and, well, browse through space. Actual movement of people over long distances will become more and more restricted to the very rich who wish it for more and more eccentric reasons.

And Times Square? Well, the big movie industry will have folded for good. That's because your home computer will create Hollywood-style movies from scratch if you simply type in the topic and the kind of story you want to see. (I actually saw demonstrations of some prototype programs for this the last time I was up at MIT's media lab.) These films can star anyone you like—any movie star, or, indeed, yourself or your friends, if you just feed in a few pictures. So with only an art film market, the 13 theaters in the now dilapidated, 100-year-old E-Walk have become the site of Live Sex Shows, their names changed from the Majestic, the Imperial, and the Crown to the Anthony Comstock, the Mary Baker Eddy, and the Rudolph Giuliani.

By the time we get to 3000, I suspect even the United States itself will have long since been absorbed by other national configurations. (Historically, national boundaries are even less stable than the cities within them.) The most widely spoken language not only on Earth but in the several interplanetary colonies that will have grown up on Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (and a dozen more on the moons of the gas giants circling a few of the nearer stars) will be some dialect of (I pick one out of a hat: we just know it won't be English) Tagalog. The history of its rise to prominence over 150 years will be at least as complex and intricate as the history of France's rise once was when it became, for a century or so, the lingua franca of the world—before it gave way to English. Finally, allowed to dig along the rim of that island in whatever they're calling the Hudson River in those distant days, a few archaeologists may look curiously at all those ancient nanotech toothpaste tubes turning up in their excavations as reminders of a long-since superseded technology. And, hunting in the ruins of cyberspace for accurate accounts of the English language and accurate examples of texts written in it, a few scholars will, I hope, now and again retrieve some notion of the glory that was Brooklyn, the marvel that was Staten Island, and the grandeur that was the Bronx as well as the wonder that once flourished on that island in their midst.

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