The fourth age

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December 1st 2067, 4:30 PM. It is said that half a century ago one could see the sun slink beneath the skyline, casting its last light upon the achievements of those great men who sought to reach it. This sun was now occluded by black clouds, the decaying skyscrapers only illuminated by the incessant lightning which beset the city. The people who remained there were a reflection of their environment, showing a cast-down demeanor, humbled and bereft of hope. The place which once represented infinite possibilities, now offered none.

Possibilities, probabilities was how it had all begun. At the beginning of the twentieth century a new science known as quantum mechanics had entered the world. While initially it seemed to have little impact on society, it managed to explain those phenomena where human imagination failed. With this it helped usher in what would later be known as the three great ages, each characterized by a leap in technology so great that full adjustment would only come to the next generation.

It was perhaps this inability to adjust that inevitably lead to our downfall. While technology was able to evolve at an unprecedented rate, human nature did not evolve with it. Each change was accompanied by fear and each possibility brought forth those who sought to exploit it for their own gain. The first great age, the atomic age, did not commence because of the dreams of infinite energy it represented, but rather for the destructive potential that came with it. It was not until after the world had witnessed this destruction that the technology was allowed to serve a more progressive purpose.

Nonetheless, the first leap was made. An abundance of energy in the form of nuclear power, complemented by then still plentiful fossil fuels, sustained the growth of a society ever more integrated with technology. This technology not only enabled higher mobility, but also communication. The television added undeniable images to what had once been disconnected stories arriving through the air. The need to process and deliver these ever-increasing amounts of information lead to the development of electronics and eventually to the start of the second great age: the information age.

By the end of the twentieth century information-processing devices in the form of computers had become common-place. The adaptation of existing telephone and television infrastructure lead to the rapid adaptation of the internet, linking computers through a global network. Information previously only available in obscure books and dark archives was now available with a single click and it became possible to communicate with other humans anywhere on the globe, without limit.

The ability to rapidly access information came with an equal ease to divulge and manipulate it. This lead to a magnification of what was already seen in previous media, where shock and fear, combined with meaningless distractions, had overtaken what was originally a search for truth. This was most likely inevitable, humans not having had time to adapt to the size of the world, a world which contained both wonders and atrocities. By the start of the 21st century everyone had mobile devices capable of accessing the entirety of human knowledge, but few truly saw their potential.

Many of the world’s problems remained unsolved and lead to increasing tensions as fear and bigotry could now be instantly shared. The anonymity of the internet enabled those who felt unjustly treated to gather, making them easy targets for radicalization. By 2015 terrorist strikes in Europe again lead to war in the Middle East, contributing to a continuously deteriorating global political climate.

Nonetheless, the second leap was made, information devices continue to increase in power as they decreased in size. When it became clear existing technology would soon reach its limits, efforts were shifted towards a new technology: quantum computing. Initially expected to only be an extension of existing technology, quantum algorithms lead to the solution of problems previously thought impossible to solve. These algorithms posed a risk for encryption, and with it global economy. The technology ended up limited to governments and research laboratories. Nonetheless, in the process fossil fuels had become obsolete and in 2037 the quantum age had begun.

Having realized the monetary potential of this technology, a few large corporations used their power to circumvent the ban. The subsequent damage they did to global economy lead to riots and eventually to war. This war ended with the world here before us, where most knowledge has been lost in the struggle for survival.

It is in this world, in this city, that three survivors have been rummaging through the remnants of what was once one of the great datacenters of the third age. In a dark room, surrounded by piles of broken hardware, a young woman has just located the final component required to complete what appears to be a giant computer, an old man offering her advice from hand-drawn circuit diagrams. In the basement, their companion has just located an ancient generator along with three remaining barrels of fuel.

As all three complete their tasks, the machine that lead to the downfall of their world again springs to life. Knowing their time is limited, the young woman quickly enables the neural interface. She redirects it to load data from a makeshift connection; at the end of which an obsolete USB stick. The interface informs her of two things: firmware repaired and auto-repair sequence initiated. In the distance they hear a sound not heard for twenty years, the start-up sequence of a fusion reactor. Throughout the city, long-dead drones take to the sky, cleaning buildings and repairing lights.

It is then that the old man‘s voice is heard throughout the city: “Fear not technology. It was we who chose to destroy ourselves. We were immature, selfish, unwilling to understand and resistant to moving forward. Now we have learned. We are ready. We will move forward. The fourth age has begun.”

Twenty four hours later, the dark city lit up defiantly against the sky.

About the Author: 
Michael Sluydts is an engineering physicist currently working on a PhD at Ghent University, Belgium. His main topic of research is the quantum-mechanical modeling of materials used in electronic applications. He is also a self-proclaimed idealist who firmly believes we should all think a bit more before acting.