Melon Usk and the reinvention of the wheel
The following is an entirely fictional story. Any resemblance with reality is mere coincidence.
There was a time when bicycles, cars, motorcycles and other inventions of the devil had not yet been invented. Way before the time of Melon Usk, the famous entrepreneur who would go on and solve the biggest already-solvable-through-a-non-innovative-solution problem threatening to ruin the standards of living in every major city across the planet. I’m talking about the time prior to the dramatic transformation that would spur the invention of gas-powered vehicles and change urban landscape forever. I’m talking about the time when the only mode of transportation know to mankind was “walking”.
The time when cities enjoyed a pleasantly and serene life-style fostered by walking. The time when waking up to the sound of birds, the sound of rain, the sound of silence was the norm. Because what other noise could you hear when everyone walked? When people would walk to, and back from work, because walking, was all that there was. When people could walk wherever they wanted to, because “dangers” did not exist and because there was no need for delimitations such as raised pavements, traffic lights or zebra crossings. The time when all that existed was a fully pedestrian area by design, full freedom to walk wherever you wanted to.
The time when “safety” was not a concern. When kids would routinely play in the streets, turning them into football fields by setting up some piles of clothes as makeshift goalposts at each end of it. The time when space was abundant, and there was no need to flatten out green areas, leaving them aplenty. When pristine ecosystems were accessible to everyone. When wildlife was welcome by the low levels of noise and pollution, allowing it to thrive together with the habitants of the city. When birds would happily chirp in the early morning and late evening. When living in a city was not incompatible to enjoying low-stress levels and a pleasant lifestyle.
Sometime around this time, but still way back before Melon Usk’s time, some wise engineer came up with a contraption that allowed oneself to propel oneself up to five times faster than walking, yet using the same energy expenditure. A contraption that made “movement” so energy efficient, that would allow everyone with two legs to reach distances never before imagined. So easy to use, that children to elderly alike embraced it. And so cheap, that it ran on no fuel. A vehicle that radicalized and democratized movement, a contraption, which became known as the “bicycle”.
The bicycle was quickly embraced due to its simplicity, ease of use and affordability. But while the bicycle freed people from their two-legged limiting morphology, the simultaneity of being the passenger and the engine inherently imposed a limit on the maximum speeds that could be achieved. The humanly-capped speeds together with the clear viewing of the driver allowed pedestrians and cyclist to anticipate each other’s movements and coexist in a seamless flow, where everyone avoided each other without ever coming to a full stop. Moving by bicycle was also rather quiet, so noise levels remained at the healthy levels of the walking era, furthering the chirping birds and the local fauna. Space remained abundant as the invention took no more than a human body, so green areas were left untouched and those willing to walk were still free to do so. Such attributes cause the bicycle to be seamlessly introduced in the city, allowing the existing lifestyle to remain undisrupted by this transport revolution.
But such perfect balance would come to an end shortly after Melon Usk’s birthday, when an invention was created that would revolutionize the way people moved within the city. It was a gas-powered machine whose inventors claimed it could reach speeds an order of magnitude higher than anything seen before, all without breaking a sweat. Enchanted by the convenience provided by this new invention called “the car”, citizens began to ditch their bikes and enjoy the gain in autonomy, freedom and speed provided by this revolutionary invention.
But as more people started to hop in the car, driving became unsafe and speed limits had to be enforced. New markings and rules had to be put in place to regulate traffic. Streets were redesigned, green areas flattened and movement bounded. Space for pedestrians and cyclist was reduced to widen the roads; all to make way to the future of transport. Some historians report certain streets got rid of pavements altogether, under the assumption that walking was now unnecessary. Playing outdoors became out of the question.
And as more cars began to take all available space, cities became clogged and movement inefficient. Traffic, once a freeing and self-regulated flow, was replaced by a intermittent and enforced “stop-and-go”. Cities stretched for room and were rebuilt fit for the car, rather than people. Living close to work became no longer a choice, as nothing was now close. Commuting times rose above pre-car levels. Some questioned whether the car had really brought any gain in convenience.
Moving on a vehicle twenty times your volume posed another problem: where to put it while you were not driving it. Motionless cars called for a new type of urban parcel. Bare, idle flat surfaces of concrete started to permeate the cityscape to satisfy this demand. Space became even scarcer, as motionless cars took every inch of free space not already devoted to their motion.
But cars were also different from bicycles in that they produced noise and pollution. The smog and the loud rattling and roaring of the engines worsened the quality of life, already degraded by the removal of much of the pristine green spaces. Cities became grey, morphed into concrete jungles waking up to the jarring noise of the engines instead of the soothing chirps of the birds. Wildlife fled the city or simply succumbed under the harsh conditions. Humans somehow, became desensitized.
In face of this loss of freedom, autonomy, space and speed, some sought to bring back the old lifestyle of walking and cycling. But walking had now been made so inconvenient an unbearable, a liberating activity that was once calm and relaxing had been transformed into an obstacle race through the street lights, containers and other equally constricted pedestrians. An experience so seamless and expansive turned into restricted movements constantly interrupted by dreadful rivers of loud polluting cars, whereas cyclist, which had once nothing to fear, became outpaced and endangered by the disproportionately more voluminous and faster-driving cars. Driving, then, became the only alternative.
And while most citizens were aware of these problems, there was now a new problem that had only been recently started to be talked about. People heard that scientist had discovered that all this gas-burning polluting gas, was also polluting the atmosphere, which was causing the planet to warm up, causing climate patterns to change and making severe draughts and deluges all the more common. People were sceptical. For a while, scientists were largely ignored and people continued to drive business as usual, if not more.
But after a few years, climate patterns started to change, exactly as predicted by the scientists. People quickly realized they were right and demanded what could be done about it. Ditching their cars was the obvious solution, but no one wanted to give away the freedom and comfort of their cars. Instead, people looked at technology for the salvation in the hope of continuing with their lifestyle. A new type of vehicle as fast as the old one was needed, but clean.
And where there’s a need, there’s always an entrepreneur thirsty to capitalize on it. It required a very certain type of genius to come up with this revolutionary idea. But it came…
A savvy engineer and business man named Melon Usk was said to have the solution, to have come up with a new type of vehicle that required no gas burning at all. It was exactly like the car, but it run on some other widely available form of energy, which was 100% clean. Moreover, the lack of burning meant that these new high-tech cars were noiseless and lighter, making them even faster than their gas-burning counterparts. They had it all: cleanliness, quietness and speed. People were ecstatic.
Melon made the impossible: reconcile a car-driving lifestyle with an environmental-friendly mode of living. Through his technological innovation, he showed the world that there’s nothing “impossible”. And he was worshipped for it. His cars sold by the millions and became a symbol of environmental consciousness. Gas-burning cars were avoided like the plage. Traditional auto-makers were forced to phase them out or go bust.
But it was too good to be true… It turned out that this whole “clean” energy was not that clean after all. It turned out that these high-tech cars still required burning to happen, it just so happened that the burning occurred far away, at the energy generation point. It was then this combustion-generated energy that travelled through complex networks of thousand-km long metallic wires all over the country into your car, where it was stored into something called “batteries”, something that could store energy but required rare metals to be dug up in remote areas of Congo, and that the disposal of such “batteries” was of extreme concern due to their toxicity when decomposing into complex chemicals. This meant that this so-called “clean” cars were not so clean after all. This was a big blow, as people had already accepted it was possible to save the environment without sacrificing their seemingly convenient lifestyle. Another solution was needed, and again, people prayed to the Gods of technology for yet another miracle…
And prayers were heard. Melon Usk knew exactly what to do, again. He was working on some high-tech panels, that required more rare toxic metals to be dug up from Congo, that through a complex physical process discovered by Albert Einstein ages ago were able to transform direct Sunlight into energy suitable for these high-tech “electric” cars, without any burning whatsoever, and only after that, only after all this complex energy process of generation and transportation, only then, could you drive your speed-limited car through the city in a clean and noiseless manner.
But while electric cars solved some of the climate-related and noise concerns, they did little to solve the scarcity of space and dangers brought up everyone driving a metal cage twenty times their own volume. If anything, they had the contrary effect. The cleanliness of the electric car suppressed the bad feeling of knowing you were polluting the environment when driving, making drivers all the more eager to indulge in car trips. Still, it was clear that no one liked to be stuck in traffic. The issue was no one was willing to stop being traffic. This was in part because even if it seemed impossible at the time, people were confident that high-tech innovation would be able to solve this last inconvenience associated with car driving, as technologically-advanced solutions had worked like magic in the past.
Thankfully, Melon Usk had it all laid out. He had been working on some super-sophisticated self-learning data-parsing algorithms that when connected to a complex set of cameras, radars and ultrasonic devices attached to the car were able to perform supra-human level of image recognition, and after being trained on countless peta-bytes of real-driving monitoring data enabled them to direct the car autonomously, as in like out of a sci-fi movie, in a manner undistinguishable from that of a human or even surpassing it, and that by connecting and allowing all these algorithms to speak to each other wirelessly, things such as traffic lights and zebra crossings would be rendered useless, as the communication between all these algorithms connected to their respective cars would allow vehicles to anticipate each other’s movements and react in a seamless manner, allowing traffic to self-regulate, eliminating the need for those inconvenient “stop and go” introduced to mitigate the dangers associated with old-school monkey-driven cars. And while the viability of such complex engineer feat was yet to be demonstrated, Melon Usk confidently proclaimed that “the future is going to be great!”, at which point everyone realized that all the conveniences brought up by these newly highly complex network of telepathically-communicating clean high-tech cars were exactly those already brought thousands of years ago by the bicycle, which turned out to be cheaper too, causing his stock to plummet and everyone to bring back the non-innovative traditional modes of transport of walking and cycling, restoring the peace, the freedom, the silence, the plentiful of space and the green habitats that had been displaced with the introduction of the car in every major city across the globe.
Inspired by David Foster’s story of Interlace’s Internetted Teleputers from Infinite Jest