An interviewer recently asked me whether I am a futurist. After all, in my book, I make many predictions about the shape of the future – a practice that is taboo among social scientists. What, the interviewer asked, would be my response to criticism from social scientists? I answered that my response would be to request that they put the book down and back away slowly. It was not written for them.
I am more of a “presentist” myself, and a reluctant one at that: I see the world around me, observe its general direction, and then make predictions about its destination, which, I hope, it will take a long time in reaching. In this I am often frustrated, and developments that I would wish to take the better part of a decade materialize in a mere year or two.
Still, the idea of futurism sounds lovely. I have enjoyed reading futurist writers, Olaf Stapledon especially. And so I see no harm in trying to channel Stapledon. In sincere imitation of his great work “The Last and First Men,” I present here “The Last Cars.” (As for the “First Cars,” should you find the subject interesting, I encourage you to visit your local public library.)
In the middle of the year 2008 C.E. information technology finally reached a point of development known as the Singularity. Beyond that point, the combined intelligence of networked computers made further technological developments fast and effortless. The Singularity had little or no impact on cars, which, being rather bulky and slow to replace, continued to move at or near the speed limit, which was usually much, much lower than the speed of light. Nor was the Singularity able to achieve much when it came to increasing oil production, in order to alleviate the gasoline and diesel shortages that were beginning to put the economy in a state of shock.
However, the Singularity did manage prove its worth organizationally, by enabling the swift and universal introduction of so-called “driving plans.” Fuel could no longer be purchased directly, but only by entering into a contract with one of the two remaining oil companies: ExxonMobilShellBP and RosNeftGazProm. A driving plan entitled a driver to obtain a certain number of gallons per month from a set of approved gas stations. Unused gallons became “roll-over gallons,” which could be used during one of the subsequent months, and which eventually expired. A driving contract could be cancelled simply by going to the nearst hospital and donating a kidney – a brilliant arrangement that made cancellations quite rare.
The introduction of driving plans likewise did nothing to improve the situation with regard to the availability of transportation, which by the autumn of 2008 was bordering on the disasterous. To remedy the situation using a quick, Singularity-powered techno-fix, American auto companies teamed up to quickly design and mass-produce much smaller cars. In this, they recruited the help of the Shriners – America’s secret weapon when it comes to small car design. After a kick-off prayer breakfast, the executives and the Shriners poured out into the parking lot, where they torched three effigies of America’s previous failed attempts at small car design: a Ford Pinto, an AMC Gremlin, and a Chevy Vega.
Again, thanks to the Singularity, the Shriner design team was able to produce a new product in less then a fortnight, and by Christmas America had a new car it could love: a NASCAR micro-racer. The enthusiasm of the early adopters was somewhat tempered by the realization that the new car could only turn left. This resulted from the design team’s use of a certain Rapid Development methodology which forbade impementing features that were not considered strictly necessary. In spite of such minor annoyances, millions of NASCAR micro-racers were manufactured in Japan, Chrina, India, and other countries where America did its manufacturing, and the Federal Reserve obliged by printing enough money for all Americans to be able to afford to import and purchase these cars. However, this strategy had the unfortunate side-effect of destroying what little value remained in the US Dollar, effectively cutting the country off from two-thirds of its oil supply.
Very little is known about the period that followed; apparently, the Singularity crashed when the power grid collapsed, and by the time it came back the one engineer who knew how to cold-boot it could not be found, and the page of instructions he taped to the side of the server rack could not be deciphered. And so nothing further is known about cars as we are used to thinking of them. But some information survives about some alternative meanings that the word "car" subsequently acquired.
For instance, the term "car" came to be applied to wheeled contraptions with straps used by obese Americans to paddle about, to position themselves in front of television screens, to watch videos of bunnies that baked and ate cupcakes. They made it easier for their Iraqi handlers to feed them, hose them down, and to push them into the liposuction pens when it came time to harvest the biodiesel.
Later on, the term "car" came to be applied to an ingenious confection, which emitted the "new car taste" when you bit down on it, and produced exquisite "Vroom-vroom!" sensations when rolled about on the tongue.