This is a special holiday issue of the AXIS Advisory. We wanted to give you a vision of what the Millennium might bring, not so much a prediction as a possibility,if we are vigilant about our choices. I felt the best way to explain how we envision trends coming together was to let you experience this future through fiction. But almost every technology and practice described in the”future” portion of this story is either already in use somewhere in the world or is approaching the threshold of being marketable. With all the doom and gloom in the news, we wanted to give you a positive note onwhich to move into the 21st Century. It’s going to be an exciting time!Happy holidays. –Darcy and Marsha
by Darcy Hitchcock. Copyright 1999 AXIS Performance Advisors.
Ebon Ezer set his alarm clock for 4:45 am to leave on a business trip.He chewed on some Tums to ward off the aftereffects of a hectic dinner where3-year-old Emily let loose with a “screw you,” yet another lovelyphrase picked up from daycare, and little Willy acted out a particularlyinappropriate scene from Harry Potter. Ebon slipped under the covers, puttinghis arm around his wife’s waist. She patted it perfunctorily. They bothaccepted that sex was out of the question; work and the kids took everyjoule of energy they had. Ebon just hoped that at least tonight, sleep wouldcome quickly, despite the adrenaline still coursing through his body froma no-worse-than-normal crazy day at work and a wicked two hour commute.This was just the price of getting ahead, he always told Alicia. He rolledover, turning his back on his wife and slowly slipped into a fitful sleep.
In his dream, someone was standing by his bed. “Sir, Sir! Get up,Mr. Ezer.”
Ebon opened his eyes to see a pale man standing as stiffly upright ashis crew cut. He wore a black suit with wide lapels. “Who are you?”Ebon asked.
“I am the Ghost of Corporate Past.”
Musta been something I ate, Ebon mused. “Yeah, sure. Then where’sTiny Tim?”
“Oh, he’s not in your dream, Sir. But I do need you to get up, Sir.We don’t have much time.” The man held out Ebon’s bathrobe so he wouldn’thave to go around town in just his T-shirt and boxers.
In the next instant, they were standing outside a sooty factory belchingblack smoke. The ghost looked over at Ebon. “Do you know where youare?”
“Sure, it’s the B-B gun factory Pop worked at in West Virginia.”A pipe spewed oily green slime into the creek.
“Can I see him?” Ebon asked expectantly.
“Yes, but remember, he can’t see you.”
The air inside the factory was even worse than outside. Ebon’s eyes burnedfrom the fumes in the dingy, cold space. After walking past forty or moremen on the assembly line, all doing the same task over and over in roboticoblivion, they found his dad. Being an immigrant, he was a packer, the lowestpaying job on the line. Ebon fought back the torrent of emotions: love forhis dad, anger about the accepted discrimination, horror at the surroundings.
“So why have you brought me here? I never worked in this place.”
“Do you remember what happened to this factory?”
Ebon recalled how the layoffs decimated the town. “They shut itdown.”
“Probably Nader, I don’t know. But someone decided that too manykids were being hurt.”
Ebon glared at the ghost. “I still don’t know why I’m here.”
“Think about it, Mr. Ezer. Your father toiled for 18 years, packingproducts that blinded kids in a factory that spewed toxic chemicals intothe air and water.”
Ebon felt defensive.” But people didn’t know any better then, andPop was just trying to care for his family.” He paused. “Are youtrying to tell me Pop went to Hell for working here?”
The ghost checked his watch, the wind-up kind. “I wouldn’t know,Sir. We’re non-denominational. But I doubt it. I think you have to be intentional…”
They were interrupted by an equally pale girl in Dockers with a ringin her eyebrow. “Hey, geek, time’s up. We gotta go.”
“Wait, let me guess,” said Ebon sarcastically. “You mustbe the Ghost of Corporate Present.”
“You got it, Bone.”
Suddenly they were in Ebon’s office. It was bizarre watching a re-runof yesterday’s meeting. The only difference was that he could hear whatpeople were thinking.
“Hey, I know you all have been working hard,” Ebon had saidas Beth nodded, thinking, Glad you finally noticed! “But it’s justnot enough.” Beth’s face fell. “We have to get our e-commercetoy site up and running before Thanksgiving or Amazon will eat our lunch.”
So let them, thought Kim, who’d been with the company since the inceptiontwo years ago. Then maybe I can have dinner with my family once in a while.
“This is the last push till our IPO,” Ebon continued.
IPO around here means Intense Personal Oppression, Maria decided.
Kim poked Maria. “Wait, here comes the Gates Bait,” he whispered.
Unaware of the cynical undercurrents, Ebon forged on. “Rememberhow many Microsoft millionaires there are.” Kim shot Maria a knowingglance. It even sounded hollow to Ebon. “Peter, I need you to get ona plane tomorrow to work out this problem with China.”
Peter’s lips tightened. But it’s Bobby’s third birthday. Lisa is goingto kill me if I miss another one. “Sure, I’ll get right on it,”he responded, twisting his lips into an obliging smile.
Ebon turned to the ghost, shocked. “I had no idea it was his son’sbirthday. Peter never said a word.” The Ghost of Corporate Presentjust scrunched her face into a mask of disbelief. “Hey, you look awfullyyoung to be a ghost.”
She nodded. “School shooting,” was her response.
As if those two words together explained anything, Ebon thought. Uncomfortableand unsure of what to say, he changed the subject. “Back to the meeting.So what’s your point in showing me this anyway? We all make sacrifices.The world isn’t fair. Competition is fierce, and if we don’t grow, we’llgo out of business.”
The Ghost applauded weakly. Imitating a game show host, she said, “Comeon down! You get the prize for the longest string of trite platitudes. Letme give you another interpretation, Ezer-Geezer.”
This teeny bopper was really getting on Ebon’s nerves. Is this what Ihave to look forward to with my kids, he wondered.
“You sell toys, right?” Ebon nodded impatiently. “Andthe competition is so great because there’s an oversupply, right?”He nodded again. “So you have this zero sum game going on where allthe toy catalog merchants and retailers are fighting to get a greater shareof the kiddie market.”
Finally the snot-nosed kid was where he wanted her. “Maybe theydidn’t teach you economics in high school. Actually you’re wrong. The toymanufacturers are always coming up with new products and they advertiseto stimulate demand.” Ebon thought he had her now.
“But then you’re just going after a larger share of the householdincome. It’s still a zero sum game. And, I might add,” she said soundingmuch older than her years, counting the infractions off on her blanchedfingers, “you’re running your staff ragged so you can sell all theseplastic items made from fossil fuels, contributing to global warming, productsmade by poor people in developing countries who make $2 a day in unsafeconditions while their factories pour their chemicals directly into riversthat their communities use for drinking water.” Finally she had runout of fingers and breath.
Now Ebon was really steamed. “Hey, we don’t do any of that. We don’tmanufacture anything.”
“No, but you sell the stuff.”
Ebon lost it. “Well, Miss Smartypants, exactly what do you expectme to do about all this? My company employs 150 people, many from the poorneighborhoods. And at least the people in the Asian factories have a job.Not to mention our toys put a smile on children’s faces.”
Ebon heard a tisk-tisk behind him. “My, my.” Both of them turnedtoward the disapproving voice with a thick ‘Loosiana’ drawl. “Thisis the worst tangle I’ve heard since my dog caught a possum.” The Ghostof Corporate Future glared at the younger ghost and then turned her attentionto Ebon. “You’ll have to excuse the Ghost of Corporate Present. She’syoung and still gets preachy, if you know what I mean. If she’d lived, sheprobably would have been president of Greenpeace or something.” Smiling,the ghost held out her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Ebon Ezer.”
Ebon was still too stirred up to be polite. “Oh, great. Now you’regoing to show me grizzly scenes from the future, I suppose. Skin cancers,rising water levels, famine.”
“My word, no. Dickens was so dour, don’t you think. And what goodwould that do anyway? You want to do the right thing.” Ebon shot anaccusing glance at the younger, pimply ghost. “But you just don’t knowhow. So touch my caftan and I’ll show you one possible future. What youdo then is up to you.”
They were in Ebon’s and Alicia’s bedroom now. Ebon glanced at the clock,horrified. It was just before 7 am. “Wake up, Alicia. You’ll be latefor work! The alarm must not have gone off.”
The Ghost shushed him. “Remember, she can’t hear you.”
“Even if the power goes off, the furnace usually wakes us up. Thethermostat runs on batteries.”
“Ah, but you don’t have a furnace anymore. With the extra insulationand superwindows, you don’t need one. Even the north facing windows getsolar gain.” At exactly 7 am, the clock chimed. Ebon watched as thecouple snuggled in bed, clearly in no hurry. Finally they rose.
“I’m going to go pick some strawberries,” Alicia said. “Whydon’t you go wake the kids.”
The Ghost suggested, “Let’s follow Alicia.” They walked upa flight of stairs that Ebon had never seen before, which led to the roofof their townhouse. As Alicia opened the door, Ebon had a moment of vertigobecause he thought he was going out onto the street level. The roofs ofall the townhouses were covered with communal gardens, native plants anda greenhouse, a verdant landscape all but for the sloping South facing overhangsthat were covered in solar tiles.
The ghost explained, “The buildings collect rainwater for this andother uses and every time you flush your new water-free toilets, a plantsmiles.” They watched as Alicia chatted with old Betty Woodworth whosupplemented her retirement by putting her green thumb to good use for theneighborhood. Alicia picked a quart of strawberries from a cold frame beforedescending back into their home for a leisurely breakfast with the family.
Ebon figured it must be about five years into the future, because Emilywas wearing earrings and Willy, now insisting on being called Bill, waswearing a whisker.
Alicia addressed her husband at the table. “Honey, I’ll be hereall morning, but I’m going to have lunch with Evelyn and Chris at noon.We thought we’d meet at Brottard Station where the Yellow and Blue linecross, figured that was the closest node to all of us. We wanted to checkout the shops and I hear they’ve got a new Italian restaurant opening up.I have a business meeting there in one of their rental conference roomsand then I’m going to catch the tube to Emily’s class. It’s my day to volunteer.But I should be home by 3:30 or 4:00. If I’m not here when you get home,I’m just going on a walk around the lake.”
“What lake?” Ebon asked the Ghost. “There’s no lake aroundhere.”
“She’s referring to the waste treatment facility. It’s gorgeous,geese sashaying through the water, street vendors, and the…”
Ebon wasn’t in the mood for her Chamber of Commerce commercial and cuther off. “All you ghosts take me places that I don’t get. I thoughtyou were the Ghosts of Corporate Whatever, so what are we doing at my house,anyway?”
“That is the point, Ebon. The point of it all is to have a life.”Since his expression didn’t change, she added, “But don’t worry, I’llget you to work.”
When Ebon turned back to look at the breakfast table he found himselfinstead seated behind a grayer version of himself in the car as they backedout of the driveway. The clock on the dash said 7:45. “He’ll nevermake it to work on time.”
The Ghost just nodded knowingly but he wasn’t sure whether she did itto agree or disagree. “Why doesn’t he pass the bus?” he fussed.
“The buses control the stop lights. Think of it like following anambulance.”
In a few minutes, they merged onto the freeway, going 60 miles an hour.And all Ebon could hear was the wind rushing by. “It’s like being ina glider, hardly any road noise. And I don’t hear an engine at all.”
“It’s a hypercar. Runs on fuel cells. Passes water vapor out thetail pipe instead of greenhouse gases.”
Ebon twisted to look out the rear window. “But where’s all the traffic?”
“Oh, most people telecommute for part of the week. They get a lotmore done that way. They can meet via VRC (that’s virtual reality conference)with anyone in the world…only difference is you can’t shake their hand,but they’re working on that right now. Equipment can be run and monitoredremotely. No more using people like machines the way your dad worked. Whenpeople need to get together in person, their computers identify the closestmass transit node, usually only 10-15 minutes away, and they rent a conferenceroom at the station. The Brottard one your wife is going to looks a lotlike a European plaza. Families still have two cars but most people preferto leave at least one at home hooked up to the grid so that the power companyowes them money at the end of the month instead of vice versa.”
At a few minutes before 8:00, they arrived at an office building Ebondidn’t recognize. “Your company was doing so well, you moved into thisoffice building,” the Ghost explained. Ebon couldn’t believe it. Theentrance was an atrium filled with plants, chirping birds and a tricklingbrook that wound through the offices. Someone was picking a banana off atree. “The experts discovered that putting people in a natural surroundingincreased productivity and creativity by several percentage points.”A light breeze ruffled her caftan. “Everyone has individual controlover the natural light and fresh air too. ”
They followed the older Ebon into a room furnished like a living roomas he greeted the employees. “Are Sao Paulo, Bern and Beijing on-line?”he asked. Kim, not looking any older except for reading glasses, nodded,handed everyone a pair of goggles and pressed a button on the coffee table.Instantly, five more people were present in the room. The next best thingto being there, thought Peter, grateful for having spent yesterday afternoonin a kayak with his son instead of in the air.
“Thank you for coming,” Ebon said. “As you all know, weare planning to help you all launch a new line of toys.” A holographicscreen appeared in the room, listing Ebon’s key points, readable from alldirections. “We were the first to phase out all persistent toxic chemicalsand use only plant-based plastics. But now the other toy manufacturers arefollowing suit.
“So our new products must also achieve these criteria….”Ebon pointed to each line on the screen. “It must be able to be manufacturedwithin 1000 miles of the original customer base to reduce transportation.Production must be zero waste meaning any waste streams must be recycledback into production, sold as a raw material to a nearby facility, or resoldthrough our distribution system to one of our other suppliers. The plantsmust run on solar energy or other renewables. The toys must be durable enoughto be resold three times in our Hand-Me-Down Distribution System. And onceit is worn out, it must be designed for disassembly so that everything,and I mean everything, must be reusable, recyclable or compostable. And,of course, the toy must be a hoot to play with.” Everyone in the roomnodded. Maria thought, Now that’s something I can finally be proud of!
Kim jumped in. “Our trade-mark is 4-Local: toys for local kids,
made in their own communities, employing local labor, using local materials.
Siphoning off resources from developing countries into the industrial world
was 20th Century. Now we want to build sustainable economies and be able
to thrill children everywhere.” Everyone burst into applause.