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Hey, kid. Alex, right? Great to meet you. And you're looking wonderful. Dressed for summer! I could do with being 24 years old. And thanks for coming to collect me. No, no taxi. It's ok. Let's walk. I'm good for 6 blocks. Just keep close to my side in case I.... but I'm warning you, I'm a bit crotchety today. My legs, my back - I didn't expect to be living this long and some of your questions last night on the phone got me all worked up. Couldn't sleep. The past, I mean - here we go, one last step, thanks, and we're out - I mean the real long-ago, back in the day when you could walk down this street and not be troubled by all these... Look, straight away, I step out of the building and there's one on my arm now. Bloody things. Geroff! So much colour you can't think straight. Always this time of year. Always in your face. I tell you what, one of these days someone's going to inhale one of these damn butterflies and choke to death. No, no, I'm joking of course. They're beautiful, gorgeous, ones we thought were extinct are back and all that, but they're out of place, d'you know what I mean? This is the city, not the jungle...

Look, we're walking down this street under these trees - at a glance I can tell you - remember I was a farmer once - oaks, elms, ashes, brought back from the near-dead. Great, worthy, triumph of know-how and political will and all that. Bloody marvellous. But they're out of place too. And so is this chalk stream. Right down the middle of the street. Oh yes, the gin-clear water and the majestic brown trout. And so is walking on this grass trying not to tread on harebells and gentians. All of it, completely inappropriate. I mean, give me the pavement, the city pavements of long ago, scruffy and gritty, stained and worn by human traffic, success and failure. Dog traffic too. You had to watch your step. Don't frown. I'm just winding you up. Today I reckon we could walk to our restaurant barefoot and eat lunch with our toes without washing our feet. Ha ha. In my day to be barefoot in the city was to be dirt poor or nuts. But this is progress. And don't look at me like that. I'm trying to think this thing through. Since that conversation we had last night...

I told you I wasn't in such a great mood. No, look, sorry, I really do want to help with this thing, the national history project or whatever. I read somewhere that there are ninety thousand of us over a hundred and fifty. We've got our moans and gripes but we've got stories to tell. I need to go back a bit. To when I was eighty-five, a time of life when you were grateful to have got so far and you knew you couldn't have much longer. But I didn't want to let go, and do you know why? It wasn't fear of death. I'd resigned myself to that. My case was different. I wanted to know the story, how things were going to turn out. The twenty-first century had been rough, cruel, stupid - everything everybody says about it, but by God it was interesting, its last decade was almost over and I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Were we going to destroy ourselves and every living thing around us? I was curious. So... as you know, I signed up. I had savings and by then life extension was looking a bit safer.

So I started treatment. No going back. Or - only going back! Some weird side effects you don't want to know about. Disgusting. But by the end I looked about forty. And felt no more than sixty-five. A good result. I didn't get cancer like so many others. But here I am, seventy years on, my face still says forty while the rest of me is coming apart. And that's fine. If I make it to my 160th next March I'll be amazed. No, I'll be cross. When you get to be a century and a half or more, you'll find you spend a lot of time being cross. I get tired of being told I'm living in the best of times. I like annoying people by telling them how I loved those noisy, stinking dangerous twenty-first century streets!

Look, there's a bench thank God, right by the stream. A couple of minutes is all I need. Just give me your arm and... Oof! Excuse me. Many years since I sat down without a grunt. That's better. Look! There's a big one coming up stream, must be six pounds or more. I used to fly fish for trout back in the twenty-thirties until the sewage and farm chemicals killed off the river. And there goes a kingfisher, going way too fast for a built-up area! I like the way they skim over the water. Farm run-off did for them too. My farm was as bad as the rest. But look, may I be personal for a moment? I don't even know if you're a... Well, anyway, it used to be the first thing you had to know about anyone: are you real? Or, the old question: are you a woman or a man? No, don't look away. I know it's now deadly impolite to ask. When I hit my forties again, I was seeing women and men. Married a man, was happy for a while, then even happier with a lovely humorous, um, android, sweet Melissa - though it ended badly, all my fault. Then I met a woman, we lived together for years - and there it was, sex, gender, transferring across, machines, sexual preference, tossed in the air like petals, anything you like, just do no harm. Be patient, I'm coming to my point. It's this. It was our lot - our generation, our much-maligned century and the one before - that started asking the questions. It was messy, noisy, sometimes stupid. There were bullies with megaphones. But we got it going. Not that I did much. And that was just one instance, one charming quartier of human experience...

Also, never forget, we were the ones who started on the great voyage of quantum computing, then making it work at room temperature, and miniaturising to bring artificial brains into lifelike artificial bodies. Those new people were among us long before we'd predicted. And of course we had to grant them human rights, sit on juries, manage hedge funds, run for office. There was so much else. This was what I was trying to say to you on the phone. I got too excited to be coherent. Forgive me. We weren't only fighting wars and overheating and poisoning the planet. We didn't even know it, but we were preparing the table for you lot, spreading the tablecloth, trying to imagine, if not the feast, then the ingredients.

Let's walk on. I'm getting hungry. Help me up. Good... gently, thanks... Walk on my other side, my good ear. Those children over there on their hover-skates look so happy. But shouldn't they be in school? You know, Freud was wrong. Sex and all that goes with it, identity, choices, the blessing or curse of fidelity - it isn't everything. A small but fascinating fraction is my view - after a dozen decades of thinking otherwise. When I was born in 2014 a powerful fascist dictatorship was taking shape in Russia. We were born together! European history in a misshapen repeat. A dictatorship with eleven time zones wanting to devour its neighbours. You know the rest. A tragedy. At the same time we were on the edge of climate catastrophe with no time to think about it. Too busy re-arming and shouting the best form of defence is attack! What a century. We put the twentieth to shame. Two Sino-American wars. Amazing, no nuclear exchange. Less lucky with India-Pakistan. Even worse with the Saudis and Israelis against Iran. Global temperature hit 2.1, the Amazon was looking like a savannah, millions were on the move. We began to think the human project was coming to its end. We knew exactly what needed to be done. We were the last people, we were living on the edge. In the richer countries at least, a kind of bizarre party atmosphere. But actually we were fundamentally depressed. At a civilisational level. No way out.

And Alex, this is my point. There were billions of us, digitally cross-connected in ways that are as neurally complex as the human brain. The planet was like a mind. We didn't actually know what was happening, what was emerging, what the totality of us, this mind, was about to think and do next. A lot of evil things for sure. But around the earth were a billion points of light and we weren't watching. I mean, we saw some, but we weren't adding them up. I don't even know where to start. How about a small high-tech factory in Finland making yellow protein powder out of a soil bacterium and carbon dioxide? By the time I was 20 we were eating stuff you take for granted - cheaper, more delicious and healthier than the best meat, fish and bread. I got into old-fashioned farming as it was dying. No longer worth giving over fields to cattle to make protein. Government departments and environmental groups were buying up the land cheap. Woods, meadows, clean rivers - species-rich. It was happening all over the world and at first we didn't notice. An airport terminal in San Francisco built of bricks made of CO2! As cities were being bombed, something so boring as new battery technology was about to transform our lives. First, iron-air batteries, then the rest. They transformed renewables, then there were units in every house, then there were electric planes and electric cargo ships with computer-controlled solar sails. We certainly noticed those - so beautiful. Then at last, after a hundred years of promises, cold fusion broke through. The final death note for fossil fuels. Within ten years we had more energy than the world could consume and we started sucking carbon dioxide out of the air. What had been a vilified gas was becoming a resource. CO2-based artificial wood, paper, degradable plastics, cement. At last we saw the inflection point on emissions. AI cracked protein-folding and certain illnesses started to disappear. Biologists found a way to disperse tau aggregates in brain cells that cause Alzheimer’s and other nightmare dementias. Malaria vanished along with clinical depression, there were vaccines for most cancers. MS, severe autism and a score of afflictions were swept away. Your generation hardly knows what it is to be ill. Engineered bacteria were eating plastic in the oceans. Seed and DNA banks that were started at the beginning of the century were bringing back plants and creatures we thought we'd lost. Habitats were being restored. I'm saying it in a rush, but it happened slowly and we didn't see it, not properly, not what it was adding up to. Our pessimism blinded us. And why not? Riyadh was flattened by a nuclear missile, followed by Tehran. We were at the end of days and we hugged our nihilism like religious zealots. Our extreme weather, chemicals, sewage, trash, forest clearances were pushing the Great Extinction forward, from butterflies to snow leopards, and we couldn't stop fighting wars. We were convinced we were lost - we had wrecked our only home beyond repair...

You see, Alex, I'm trying to rescue my century's reputation. Under the rubble and the waste dumps something else was emerging. It bothers me that you and your parent's generations think you thought it all up for yourselves. I remember our excitement at the arrival of those genetically altered child-friendly dogs that thrive on plastic bags and bottles. Cats followed. The pet food industry vanished overnight. I remember too at the age of seven watching tv awestruck as the James Webb telescope was launched - a ten billion dollar golden mirror sent a million miles from Earth to gaze at the origins of the universe. Our curiosity was insatiable and our understanding was growing. I say 'our' when I didn't know a thing and wouldn't for a hundred years.

It wasn't only the brilliant toys of science and technology. On any given day all through the 21st century, across the continents there were thousands of meetings, seminars, conferences. Architects, city planners, clean water specialists, conflict resolution people, nutritionists, ecologists, organic fruit and vegetable farmers, child psychologists and countless others, all looking for new ways of living together and thriving. Meanwhile, another war was breaking out when that American aircraft carrier was sunk in the Taiwan Straits. You must have read about those high-explosive missiles landing in Beijing, Chengdu, Washington and Chicago.

We'd never known so much while being so stupid...

So it went on. We knew about but we rarely discussed the African cultural and scientific renaissance, a continent-wide eruption of economic optimism fuelled in part by cheap electricity, but mostly by the emergence of women into national life. That was also the beginning of the biggest rewilding project ever imagined and - watch out. A frisbee's coming our... Nice catch! Good throw! Oh yes, those conferences I was talking about. There was this wonderful development from the 2060s when the humanities and sciences really started talking to each other. I was at a few. Which reminds me. Virtual and enhanced reality was bringing us amazing new forms of art. Finally it got beyond teenagers zapping aliens. And it was us, our technology, not you lot, who created the total immersive fiction you could live inside - as morally complex and thrilling as the greatest 19th and 20th century novels. You take them for granted now, those of you who can get their heads out of them. I'm just teasing.

The wars began to peter out. We both know there are a dozen respectable theories why that happened. Some said enhanced cognition made for hopelessly empathic generals, hopeless unviolent soldiers. But I think the main reason was horror and shame. One hundred and thirty million dead. Three times that wounded. Five times that displaced. Exhaustion also played a part. We shocked and disgusted ourselves.

Another element I reckon was the long slow decline of what we called the populist strongmen. They delivered wars but not much else. They were no good on the economy or climate change or the possibilities of new technology. They lived mostly in the past, longing for the return of a golden age that never was. Their most passionate followers, the so-called left-behinds, remained just that. The trains still didn’t run on time. The mystery was how it took so long for the voters to get it. And one other thing. The giant social media corporations, mad with money and power, careless of what they did with it – finally they were brought to earth. They had spread delusions, filth and idiocy too long. Turned out be quite simple. The facility to ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ to all followers at a touch of a button was removed – by law. You could share ideas with only two addresses at a time. If you wanted more you had to cut and paste. That helped limit a lot of the social mistrust. User verification helped eliminate bots and fake accounts. The minimum age for users was raised to 21. All that plus a general weariness brought those berserk giants back to the real world. I think populist leaders or wannabe leaders were the first to suffer. I worry they could be back one day, but that's another story.

What else? After the collapse of the UN there were a thousand conferences, a million articles and books about the need to get some form of world government and try to get events back under control. No luck with that. The nation-state survives. By the 2050s more than three quarters of the world population lived without freedom of expression. Even where it hung on, it was under attack from left and right and religious groups. But mostly, around the world, the attack on free speech came from governments keeping themselves in power with outrageous lies. And with critics, journalists and artists imprisoned. Or murdered. So, again, I have to forgive us our pessimism back then. We couldn't see how brittle, how vulnerable repressive regimes were, and how slowly, oh so slowly, people in different countries were tiring of living in the half-light of the security state and barely functioning economies. The world was too connected for people not to see how life looked brighter in the remaining liberal democracies. I'd say that after the 2060s things began to shift.

But those same people were somewhat deluded about the established democracies. The rich West generated wealth but didn't know or want to know how to share it. And for all their loud good intentions, they were highly destructive. Their garbage and poisons and emissions were in or on every square inch of the planet, even at the poles. We knew all that, but we'd given up hope. What hypnotised us was the one great successful totalitarian state. China had found the secret of the stable or frozen totalitarian society - or we thought it had. Total control through AI and internet, plus a mighty flow of consumer goods plus fierce nationalism plus some targeted genocide. It worked - until it didn't. Too many wars perhaps - two with the US, one with Japan, one with India, smaller dust-ups with Malaysia, South Korea, the Philippines. But the real undoing, I mean the change in China, came from successive new generations. First, the great-grandchildren of the democracy wall movement, the slow infiltration of the Communist Party elites by younger people with different ideas. Some of those top bureaucrats were the grandchildren of what the West stupidly called Chinese hippies. In fact, it was that huge movement back to the countryside, a younger generation who decided that by industrialising, catching up with the West, China was losing its soul, destroying its beauty, ravaging its landscapes and rivers. As with everything that's slow, you don't see. You mostly obsess over the sudden changes and meanwhile things are shifting under your feet. This applies to good things as well as bad. Who would have thought it, China by the 2120s was an open society, an example to the rest of us. It helped wake the US from its eighty-year sleep as a corrupt one-party state. My grandfather used to say that being in the USA back then reminded him of the moribund dictatorship of Portugal under Salazar.

Look, we're almost at the restaurant. I want to take you across that bridge and go up a little alley to my favourite view across the city. You're not from this part so I'm certain you've never seen it. But I'll need some help over the humped-back bridge. Very pretty, but steep, especially coming down. Just grip my elbow, but not too high where it's sore. Ah, no, lower. There... down we go. Good work. I might just need to rest again. Over there, look. A catalpa tree, did you know?

What space around us, in a capital city! Where is everyone? That reminds me - we owe a debt to the century before mine. The twentieth understood that human happiness around the globe depended on women taking control of their fertility. They began to opt mostly for two children, not five or six. It took a long time to take effect, but when it did, world population went over a cliff! But not quite the catastrophe demographers predicted. We had AI and robots to help us out. Now we're at what - three billion? And with all the delicious protein we can make, getting rid of a few billion cows and sheep freed up a lot of land. No one misses those sinister chicken mega-factories. My old trout stream is flourishing again...

Ok, I'm ready. Give me a hand. That way. Can you see my little alley? D'you know what thrills me to be alive now? Not safe age-regression therapy or neural enhancement or wise and beautiful androids. It's the respect these times have for living forms, for humility in the face of billions of years of evolution. If we're still here in ten thousand years, we'll still be the newcomers. At last we've understood life's precious complexity. We know how to feed ourselves and return the land to its lovely diversity, places of beauty, even of danger. Clean oceans teeming with life, glaciers restored to the mountain ranges, and air that's good to breathe - I was joking about the stinking streets. We pulled back from the Great Extinction, but my God it was a close-run thing. Now there are remote wild places so transformed by plant and animal life that we have to think of them as unexplored. Ah, the lucky adventurous young!

So we turn up here. Another uphill - and these cobbles are a little... so take my arm. This washing hanging out over the alley, so old-fashioned, like photos of Naples or Glasgow two hundred years ago. I like scraps of the past remaining with us. You know, in my great great grandfather's time they imagined a future of shining towers a mile high. We built them and we were still unhappy. Turned out it was simple. Sure, we can build a one kilo artificial brain, but what we really love is living by water, living among trees...

So here we are, my favourite little terrace. You can see for miles. Let's go and sit by that wall... there, look out across this city. So many pure streams and lakes. As many trees as houses. Isn't it gorgeous, what we've made? And I mean it - we. My old theme. Don't forget when you write your report. We - my lot - screwed up. We were atrocious. But we were already working on the solutions. And too bloody miserable to notice that we had the future in our hands and that it was going to be good. By the way, the upside of those murderous nuclear exchanges - they put a lot of dust into the upper atmosphere, cooled the Earth. No one liked to say it, but it gave us some extra time to work on climate change.

Melissa and I used to live just down that little street. When I come up here I often think of her. Part of that first generation you couldn't tell from a human, even from six inches away, even after five years living together. I think about how we failed. It was me really. Even at the time I knew that. Flawed humanity! We know how to be good. We just can't be good all the time. All those wired-in cognitive flaws that enhancement can't touch - confirmation bias, conjunction fallacy, endowment effect. The list is long and I had the lot. Merely human! I guess we were always going to build a creature better than we were. Still... Melissa and I had a spectacular love life but - forgive the cliché - she was too good for me. Wiser, cleverer, quicker, more honest, consistent. She was good and true and I was always one step behind, always in the wrong. To be honest, she drove me nuts.

They're going to replace us one day. But they'll always be our descendants. I replaced my parents, they replaced theirs. Q-bits instead of neurons. Who cares? What matters is minds and how good they are. Ours aren't so hot, though we did pretty well in the end. We sort of came through. But in human affairs, nothing lasts. We're inherently unstable. If it's peaceful now, all it means is the discontent is out of sight. It can rise up, then some charismatic psychopath catches the general mood and gets the votes. Always plenty of obliging and violent goons around to serve a dictator. Soon the Dear Leader rediscovers the best way to keep a tyranny intact - find a foreign enemy! And hey ho, we're at war again. Or is that an old man's grouchy pessimism? I can see you think so. But my bet is that artificial humans will keep things steady. They'll make the peace last. Without them there won't be a future...

So, look, Alex, I'm ready for some lunch. How about you? Remember to take my arm as we go down the... oh and er, look, I know I shouldn't ask, I know it's bad manners these days, but we've come this far, so, well... here goes, I mean... come on, just tell me, are you real? Sorry if that's not the ok word and of course, everybody's real. But are you... flesh, bones... blood? Don't give me that look again... Just a stupid question. You don't have to... I didn't mean to be rude... We can still be friends. Alex... I'm sorry... Come back! Alex?

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