Melbourne knowledge week
Melbourne Knowledge Week

A future street

By Briohny Doyle

A future street - image by Bob Hutchison

I was sad the day my apartment finally died. Though I knew it was ultimately for the best, I couldn’t help but feel loss. When I walked out onto my pretty little street for the last time with a sandwich and those few material goods that can’t just be reprinted in due course, I felt my cheeks moisten with tears. I looked down at my manicure to find confirmation by way of ten little sad faces, one for each nail.

The building had been withering for weeks of course, the facade bubbling, bursting and peeling back to reveal the algal foundation. We had to leave when it turned black. Those were the terms of the contract, which we had happily signed just seven years earlier, back when we were freshly in love and wanting to leave our respective agricultural landscrapers on the inland communes and get to the cultural hub of Melbourne city.

Like most young couples, Vanya and I met in Mixed Zone, a place of infinite possibilities, where people fly and vanish and take the forms of non-human beings and each other, merging and flowing in an empathic, magical existence that forms a stark contrast to the manual labour of working seedbanks on the microfarms. Not that I disliked ecowork exactly, and both of us were happy to do our part­­––we didn’t want to return to the bad old days of career ladders and burnout and un-curated internet dissemination. But not everyone can be thrilled anew each time a sprout pushes through the polyturf. Not everyone can be completely satisfied with the natural cycle of things. Or at least not forever.

That’s one reason this city still exists, even though very few people actually go there to work anymore. It’s a place for physical interface and cultural experience. An architectural demonstration of the diversity of our nation, our world. There are, for instance, over 300 languages spoken in Melbourne, though one of the first things I learned when my Uber Air dropped me off at the botanical gardens, was that translation implants, and emodecoding make that fact mere decoration, window trimming for an otherwise unified and harmonious scene. I gave the pilot a huge smile as he set me down by the pergola but despite the fact that he only spoke Bahasa, he could see through his smart glasses that I was more nervous of my new life than grateful for the bumpy ride there.

So that was my first taste of city life, a helpful tour avatar showing me around a natural zone that didn’t look so different from where I’d come from with its food gardens and integrated art installations in photo-voltaic mazes. When Vanya and I finally geolocated near a shorebird sanctuary and walked arm and arm to our new digs on the other side of the city, we hardly spoke. We were so intent on seeing more than the arrows on the footpath, on recording our first impression of this place and our own bodies within it.

Honestly, in the beginning, I was a little let down. I’d come looking for action and on the surface, Melbourne just seemed so sanitized. But soon Vanya and I came to love the city. We spent whole days meandering through the sprawling bazaar where you could try prototypes of clothes and gadgets to order later from manufacturing zones. We joined working groups, theatre sports teams, think-tanks, and ganja yoga classes. We met people who had come here from Iceland, from Venezuela and the Marshall Islands, and all the other places whose climates have forced them out into brave new terrains. They were all so happy to finally be in Melbourne that I began to disbelieve the other stories you encountered; the ones about vast pens full of stateless, unwelcome people, whose human identities and rights had burned up and sunk along with their homelands and who we steadfastly refused help.

The organic buildings that formed the residential enclaves of the city are mossy and cleverly designed. Vanya and I were overcome by finally having a place of our own and we loved personalising our little apartment, printing out wacky furniture that looked like cats in various states of repose and purred when you sat down on them. We were happy, we decided! And this decision registered, giving us access to another level of City Experience. I suppose, had we decided we were unhappy, we would have had other choices, other experiences. This was our rent after all; complete emotional transparency. We had gone from tending seeds to being the seeds for a completely different sort of plantation, one whose harvest would be a map of every human personality type, their proclivities, desires, behaviours, and biological responses.

There’d been outcry in the beginning, when the licensing of Melbourne as a datamine was first approved. But privacy had already come to seem like an old fashioned word and besides, what were the alternatives? Most of the city’s skyscrapers from the early 20th century had long since burst into flames or flooded between the walls. There was not enough government money to both compensate and rebuild, and no developers wanted to touch the city now that building was so heavily regulated. The only option was to turn the whole place over to other interested parties. Those who weren’t interested in the short term gains of currency, but rather in licensing an individual’s entire human capital, their biometric value.

As the years passed and Vanya and I grew and learned and changed, we discovered the hidden pockets of the city, those dark subterranean spaces that only show up on maps once your full personality profile has been processed. Vanya was a type EF and I was F2 variable, and though I’m still not entirely sure what that means, we initially took our common letter as further evidence of compatibility and the rightness of our path. We danced, we consumed and communed, we took things that didn’t belong to us, so to speak, and as the years passed we felt entirely like cosmopolitans, as though we had always been here.

Now it was over.

Ducking behind the meagre shade of an artificial tree I quickly covered my face in camouflage make up. Though I was undeniably sad I felt oddly protective of the emotion, wanting to keep it to myself. The gesture was in vein of course, and as the atmosphere registered my freshly applied disguise, a shrubbery grew up around me, providing physical covering that I had to hack my way out of to go anywhere.

I have no idea if this phenomena is a spontaneous adaptation from the empathic foliage, or not-so-subtle mockery from its designers but it makes sneaking around aerobically challenging. Probably the thinking is that if you feel like you want to disappear, what you need is a really good workout. I lifted my feet high and walked quickly with my arms out, trying to push back the ferns that grew quickly around me. I needed to get to Swanston St and book myself a sleep pod before they filled up for the night.

Earlier in the week, Vanya and I had decided to take different pods. Our relationship seemed to have wilted and decayed at the same time as the building, and now it was best to let it become mulch for something new, with someone else. The fact that our relationship had run its course seemed to be the only thing we knew for sure though. Neither of us could decide what to do next. We were both a little bored with the cultural and intellectual pursuits of the city, of its designed temporariness and endless little monitored tasks. But we had no nostalgia for the landscrapers either. For now, we had both decided to sleep on it, and not to contact each other again.

I swatted the ferns away and trudged past the blank displays of the bazaar. If I didn’t have my camo makeup on they would probably be crowded with advertising for international aide crews, space mining fly in fly out work, or reproductive squads for single fertile biomes but they stayed blank, either as punishment for, or deference to my thick eye-shadow and tiger stripes.

For now, the future was anything. Anything at all. I tried to relish the feeling. I pushed away the suspicion that someone, somewhere, knew exactly what I would do next and was already preparing for it, forging onward as though Anonymity and Spontaneity were more than just the most popular celebrity baby names this year.

What would I do next? I had 58 fresh credits in my payapp. Same as everyone else. Or I think it’s the same. Vanya claimed to have once seen a forum post from someone who got 93, though when he tried to reload and show me the browser crashed. In any case, I had my health, which was in the 87th percentile, and I was young, six years younger than my bioage on account of living in this country, and getting the benefit and care of this experimental city. I was young and free and didn’t care who knew it.

Why did I feel so blue then? Tired of hacking my way through the spontaneously flourishing gullies, I wiped my makeup off and suddenly found I was right above the Yarra, where people swam laps between the water treatment bowsers. Buoyed by this bucolic urban scene, I walked down to the banks and sprawled out on the grass. I’d had my SPF shots, care of the city council, so I took off all but my underwear and let the harsh sun warm me to the bone. In a few minutes, when it got too hot, I threw myself into the river and swam a few brisk laps, careful not to cut my extremities on the mud oyster filtration walls.

As I churned my legs through the cool water, I thought about how this river connected to the sea, which connected to all the other places on Earth, the places of adaptation, and the places of collapse. I thought about all those different fates, and wondered whether, in the end, the human emotional anatomy that whoever had licensed the city of Melbourne was mapping would give any insight into the interior lives of those who lived far away from here, in completely different cities, with different challenges and ideals. And then I got to thinking about Vanya, about our happy life together in the mossy little apartment that had bloomed and wilted with our love and the tears rolled fresh from my eyes, hitting the water in little rosettes of Ph disturbance before vanishing into the ecosystem. Back on the shore, I lay on the grass to dry out, watching a yellow daisy bloom beside me, its petals imprinting with a message that read, simply, ‘life!’

I plugged my various devices into an approaching storm cloud and as I waited for them to charge, I wondered who I would be calling if I decided to call home.

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