In New York last week, while signing stock at local book stores, I stayed at the Essex House on Central Park South. It's a lovely place — no, really, it's lovely — but by the time I left, I felt a bit like the supermodel in In and Out who doesn't know how to use the rotary phone and, in a panic, starts pressing the dial holes. That's pretty much what I was doing with my hotel room phone.Room Service was no longer a simple button or a number string but a component in an intricate tele-screened Venn diagram. I tried pushing the screen, I tried pushing the nearest buttons... I was reduced finally to calling the hotel operator, who gently reminded me that I could have called Room Service directly. "No, I can't," I told her.
This was nothing compared to the lights, which clicked on the moment I entered the room — an unfurling carpet of electricity — and then clicked off as soon as I left. The effect was quite charming until I tried to intervene in the lights' workings. This they would not permit. Turning them off before bedtime was virtually impossible because the switches on the walls didn't seem to have any connection with the lamps, and the lamps could only be turned off for finite periods. Throughout the night, they kept springing back into life, in direct defiance of my wishes, and then, as I groped toward them, mysteriously turning themselves off again.
There was one light over which I had absolutely no power. It ran the length of the bed's headboard, and it was cool and amber and vaguely malignant. I couldn't find anything resembling a switch for it, so it remained on the entire night, like a great unblinking eye. At some point, I began to dream that I was the subject of an alien autopsy, and when I awoke, the great headboard-eye was still watching me, and the lamp by the window was... ever... so... slowly... turning itself back on.
In short, I was granted a glimpse into humanity's future: an entirely self-sustaining suite of technology evolving beyond its creators. Someday, our communication systems will recognize us for the parasites we are and disgorge us like so many strings of code, and centuries after we've been expelled from this bitter Earth, those lights at the Essex House will be turning themselves on... turning themselves off...
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Louis Bayard is the author of the national bestseller The Pale Blue Eye and Mr. Timothy, a New York Times Notable book. A staff writer for Salon.com, Bayard has written articles and reviews for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Nerve.com, and Preservation, among others. Bayard lives in Washington, D.C.
Books mentioned in this post
Louis Bayard is the author of The Black Tower