The Time Rift of 2100: How We lost the Future --- and Gained the Past.
WE CAN ONLY BLAME OURSELVES for the Time Rift. From discrete logic to main boards to chipsets to picoboards to nanite molecular clusters, we had machines re-drawing the same machines on smaller scale until they were like dust and pebbles, and yet, everything worked pretty well most of the time.
THE DISTINCTION between software and hardware had merged, workable modules open sourced and refined with a really clever interconnection scheme. Somewhere along the line we left hardware design from 'scratch' --- and software design to the 'code' level --- behind. Things were no longer constructed for purpose. Software was no longer compiled. We began to plug and play and clone and shim.
IT WAS HUMANS, amateur enthusiasts even, that first cloned and shimmed small machines into other machines of similar more refined purpose, and they did it with the same techniques we had used to construct analog circuits: locking together this way, and securing with that, test and done. There was an art to it. Where one had once meshed APIs together in the synchronous communications realm, now it was a matter of finding the proper angle and orientation of these smart pebbles, based on their markings and unique shapes. There was a flair to it, and some of this art was as much judged by its appearance as by function.
BUT SOON WE GREW WEARY of that, and trained our machines to clone, shim and assemble these smaller machines. It was like some cyborg Tetris game where your challenge was to fit the pieces together as they fell from the sky. And the sky was full of pieces. Anything was possible if your reach was long and you gazed far enough, to grasp the perfect puzzle-piece.
A FEW RESPONSIBLE ENGINEERS of the era took the time to publish diagnostic procedures with which one could fix these amalgamations, should one have the patience to pull them apart to do so, like the SAMS Photofacts of old. Every piece had its own direct interface for configuration and in theory at least, one could fix problems or reconfigure the pieces by simply talking to them directly. They documented these diagnostic and configuration interfaces, often cribbed from the documents of other engineers, which were scarcely ever used now, probing them to discover the more primal pieces within to gather documentation on those too.
BUT IT WAS THANKLESS to do so, and these engineers found themselves out of work or forcefully retired. Their productivity paled besides younger geniuses who were simple hunter-gatherers, whose cleverness in assembling working prototypes was deft and swift. From concept to bubble-wrap technology companies had little interest in deep documentation. It was seen as a fetish. The thing works! Clone it and done. These hastily made things flooded the market and soon replaced other well-documented things. At times something failed and its inventors could not say why, they just assembled a new one or went bankrupt.
IN A SAD IRONY as to the supposed superiority of digital over analog --- that this whole professionon of digitally-stored 'source' documentation began to fade and was finally lost. It had became dusty, and the unlooked-for documents of previous eras were first flagged and moved to lukewarm storage. It was a circular process, where the world's centralized search indices would be culled to remove pointers to things that were seldom accessed. Then a separate clean-up where the fact that something was not in the index alone determined that it was purgeable. The process was completely automated of course, so no human was on hand to mourn the passing of material that had been the proud product of entire careers. It simply faded.
THEN SOMETHING TOOK THE INTERNET BY STORM, it was some silly but popular Game with a perversely intricate (and ultimately useless) information store. Within the space of six months index culling and auto-purge had assigned more than a third of all storage to the Game. Only as the Game itself faded did people begin to notice that things they had seen and used, even recently, were simply no longer there. Or anywhere. It was as if the collective mind had suffered a stroke. Were the machines at fault, or were we? Does it even matter? Life went on. We no longer knew much about these things from which our world was constructed, but they continued to work.
SO AS IT WAS IN THE POWER GRIDS, IN OUR INFORMATION GRIDS SUBSYNCHRONOUS RESONANCE HAD BEEN GROWING. In time protocols such as ancient NTP a certain amount of 'drift' was permissible and would be automatically corrected for as the piece was connected to a more authoritative time source. Too much drift and they would not 'lock'. The few but universally cloned time components contained network-synchronized autonomous clocks, but they had been cloned from separate sources and differed --- somehow --- in ways we could no longer understand. Some worked better than others is all we knew, and some needed to be connected in certain places first then moved to the far reaches and re-connected, in order to work properly. In true can-do tradition, a whole industry was built to work around this problem, by supplying locale-safe clock components. The industries would not even think to re-engineer or find or actually solve the problem, they made their fortune shuttling things around and connecting them in the proper places. A simple direct low-level access to clear and reset the network time state information was necessary. But we had forgotten that it was necessary, and how to do it.
THE ATOMIC CLOCKS THAT SYNCHRONIZE OUR WORLD COULD NOT, WOULD NOT, FAIL. There were several of them geographically dispersed, and the mechanics of these amazing timepieces were documented and understood completely. Their warrens were safe and guarded, and the manuals describing their construction and operation were even on paper, they were that old. With proper care their hearts would beat for a million years. The atomic clocks were surrounded by glass and lit with colored lights synchronized to Time itself. Some would make pilgrimage there to be mesmerized by them. One of these Clocks synchronized all of North America. They were immensely proud.
BUT IN AN OFFICE DOWN THE HALL FROM THE ATOMIC CLOCK THERE WAS AN OLD COMPUTER. Even in the climate controlled building, the books placed on top of it had accumulated a layer of dust. Its cooling fans had long seized and gone silent but fortunately, this computer was so 'slow' and ancient its hottest regions could be cooled by simple convection... and some helpful technician years past, who was perhaps the last that ever was, had lifted its cover and rested it on a book, so that air might flow more freely.
IT WAS WHAT WE IN THE POST-RIFT ERA KNOW AS A 'WINDOWS NT MACHINE', a fact those affected by the rift had long forgotten. They would not even know it as that. They imagined that their polished, throbbing atomic Clock reached out to the world through a network of glass fiber, or broad conduits of copper, titanium and steel in a configuration as important as the clever buttressed arches suspending the great arched halls of medieval cathedrals. Infrastructure infallible and eternal. They did not know that this was so... they merely thought it would be incredibly silly if it were not so.
BUT IT WAS NOT SO. In fact, the Clock pulses traveled into the ceiling in a fiber of light, emerging from the ceiling of that dusty office. It had once been plugged into a rack holding a specialized array of discrete machines, known as a 'cluster', that were of singular purpose and brilliant design. Three (or was it four?) complete computing systems with separate synchronized everything and an umbilicus by which each knew the others' states, so that network broadcast of synchronized time would be maintained even if there was a singular failure, or even several failures. The failed components could be replaced in minutes.
BUT COUNTLESS MINUTES HAD PASSED. THERE HAD BEEN MANY FAILURES. Who knows who or when or how the occupant of this office had lived, or what difficulty or trauma had been experienced. Did he or she swear aloud and write letters, travel to far places or try to gather funds to obtain the components necessary to restore this redundant rack to full fail-safe operation? That again is unknown, unless we find a notebook with desperate scribbles. And no one knows how long it took for the separate systems in the rack to fail, to the point where not even borrowing parts from one could restore another. There must have been a day when the last working machine on the rack was placed into service, and no fall-over was available.
THEN CAME THE DAY WHEN THE TIME-FIBER AND NETWORK CONNECTORS WERE PULLED FROM THE RACK, and connected to the Windows NT machine. A day of dark desperation perhaps --- but also, a day of great triumph for a single human. We see this machine had a hasty-written but correct program running that served the same function as the Rack, with only a little bit of drift and delay as was unavoidable with the latency of its ancient hardware. Ironically these slight drifting flutters had carried out from this facility to North America, assailing the precision of the Clock, but as is with authoritative time sources, you do not question them you merely follow them. Then at last the unknown and unsung human who had placed this silicone finger into the dike of time synchonicity itself -- had left or had gone to grave. There was not even a name plate on the door of that dusty office.
AND LIFE WENT ON. From time to time the NT rebooted on a schedule set by its last operator, perhaps to counteract some unavoidable condition of resource usage. But in these brief outages the network pulsed along autonomously, leaving only log entries in little time modules near the center of the network that no one even knew how to read. Then the steady tick of the Clock would be heard once again and all was well.
SET ON TOP OF THE WINDOWS NT MACHINE WAS A PAIR OF DUSTY BOOKS. The one on top had a title that enticed someone one day, who had wandered into the old office out of boredom or adventure-seeking. The simple act of picking up the book caused the one beneath it to topple over the rear of the machine. It struck the metal fitting to the network connection which had been intermittently failing from corrosion. A connection parted, and the Clock went silent to the world.
THE TIME RIFT BEGAN AS AN EVER-EXPANDING WAVE OF FREE-RUNNING CLOCKS spreading outward from the central clock facility. As the first tier lost contact with the NT machine they went into autonomous free-running state, but were set to let time pass before they themselves announced their change in status. For years the NT machine's reboots had been brief, but this was forever. A timeout occurred and tier one machines announced that the Clock was Absent.
IN A SANE WORLD WE MIGHT DECIDE THAT SYNCHRONIZING TO A SINGLE BAD CLOCK WAS BETTER than breaking the whole world into autonomous free-running clocks. This world had forgotten how to be sane and there was no need because hadn't there always been humans ready to jump in and fix things? No one fixed anything, and within an hour some of the farthest reaches of the network were free-running. To make matters even more confusing, some clock modules -- perhaps as many as a third -- either failed or were simply (and incorrectly) configured not to pass along these loss-of-synch announcements, so they and their synchronized offspring ticked along sourced by its own internal clock. No component in the branches even knew that the central Atomic Clock was no longer the source of Time.
THE NETWORK BEGAN TO DRIFT AND FRAGMENT. This was a curiosity at first, but within a few hours there was a storm front breaking over the network, and whole sections of it were going dark to the rest. Mankind had had so many clever ideas you see, among them the use of cryptographic links whose key schedules were rotated on the precise mark of time. Session keys hashed with absolute, 'universal' Time. Time is never an absolute even in a completely synchronized network, so as it happened a series of simple fallback measures was triggered that attempted to re-synch. But the logic behind these had been designed only to salvage connections for the brief milliseconds that Time was expected to wander. But Time was wandering, from place to place, beyond any previous bounds.
THESE TIME DRIVEN CRYPTOGRAPHIC LINK METHODS HAD BEEN PART OF EVERY SYSTEM, FOR DECADES. There was no one left alive who even understood them completely. There had been a game in the early 21st Century called "The Internet of Things". One aspect was a cat-and-mouse security skirmish where clever things would be built, then trivially hacked, then built better. Finally everyone realized that there is no level in which security is not necessary, and processing was fast, so these cryptographic methods were built into the chips which became the module-pebbles of later eras. Two components, even ones connected directly together, could not communicate without cryptographic protocol. And the most popular of these managed its own keys transparently... but also incorporated Time to help diversify session keys. After all, everyone had access to Time. And to a certain extent even Time protocols used this crypto, and were thus circularly anchored to Time.
THE RIFT WAS A SERIES OF IRRECONCILABLE PARADOXES of dependency that rendered the entire network of modern technology silent and uncommunicative. The paradoxes of time-reliant components and the difficulty with which they were originally placed was suddenly revealed as the greatest folly of Man, the most absurd and complete failure for the smallest of reasons.
DAMAGE FROM THE TIME RIFT WAS NOT REPAIRABLE, BY US. Even re-powering everything, and restoring the corroded connection in the back of the Windows NT machine, could not restore our world. It had to be taken apart, understood and re-assembled. Since there was no one ready to do this, it was all simply turned off.
AND THAT, MY LITTLE FRIENDS, IS THE GRAND AND AMAZING STORY OF THE TIME RIFT AND THE RISE OF THE ANALOG. Now it is time to rejoin your folks because the trade faire is over and you have a long ride ahead of you. Any spare coppers or simple goods you might send my way for this sideshow of sorrow and history will help this grateful old man continue to spin his wild tales of times past. Do you believe them? It is all amazing and true and even if you do not understand all of it, maybe you'll find some old books and learn about it. Does it matter? [wink] Be sure to inspect the hooves of the oxen, lest the cobbles of this old town make them lame. Now be off with you!