This story is a thought exercise more than anything else, imagining a Berlin in 2040 where the Berlin Wall is still up. What would the GDR do with the technology we have today? What would any totalitarian state do with the technology we are developing right now?
The drone takes off from Checkpoint Charlie and glides sinuously above the great gash of metal and light that marks the path of the Wall. In a darkened booth, a young man moves the mechanical bird, turning its camera hither and thither, and imagines the eye of the machine as the black eye of a crow. In Berlin crows are omniscient. They peck and poke and swoop and reconstitute everything that catches their little black eyes. They fight endless wars amongst themselves, for territory, for prestige, for food. How they shriek and caw! As a child he had loved to watch them from the window of their rooftop apartment in Prenzlauer Berg. Especially when they fought the drones flying over, and sometimes, just sometimes won. Then he would watch in amazement as the metal and light buckled and bent and clattered down. The crow, resplendent in victory, would scream as it flew away.
Now he is a professional drone operator, wielding a perfected machine that no living creature could destroy. The technology has vastly improved since his childhood. His drone is a weapon against contamination from the West, preserving the country he calls home. In the eighties they thought they had great technology to preserve their Berlin Wall, but his Berlin Wall, now in 2040, is a far greater a thing. The soldiers in their decrepit towers have been replaced by the eyes of robots, AI machines that shoot deserters at the outer Wall in micro seconds of them being spotted. No hesitating young hand holds the gun anymore. When in ‘wait mode’, the robots look like trees, so calming and beautiful. Their programmes run hummingly out of hearing of human ears. Their waiting is the infinite waiting of the machine, that does not hunger or thirst, or count the hours. They are infinitely, infinitely competent.
There are still human guards of course. The Party deems it necessary to humanize the death strip of the Berlin Wall. Robots add no drama to the scene, but merely stand motionless until firing is necessary. Young men in uniforms are still the best for generating energy. And of course, solidarity is important in the Land of Living Socialism, and it wouldn’t do to have workers replaced entirely by robots.
But what robots. Such magnificent creatures. The young man observes the area around the Wall along Niederkirchnerstraße with the eyes of his Bird. In West Berlin the Propaganda Holographic installation above the Springer Press continues its impertinent broadcast into East Berlin. The usual mirage of lies sent to destroy: tropical beaches, beaming space ships rising above America, dancing men and woman at a disco on the Moon Station. Such preposterous nonsense. The young man brings his Bird in as close to the shimmering light as possible, and sends out a strong beam of interference that scrambles the internet connection from which it originates. There is a splutter and a brief whirring coloured ball indicates the breakdown. Quick as a cat the young man moves the drone away. It is petty behaviour, he knows, but he believes in the right to defend his homeland.
The arrogance of the West has only grown with the years, but socialist states are banding together more and more. China, Russia and East Germany had developed their own internet. Beijing, Berlin and Moscow, the heartland of the great project of Communism, declared their works in beautiful Holograms along the line of what people used to call the Iron Curtain that divided Eastern and Western Europe. Images of daily life in the Worker’s Paradise shimmered on the horizon, a dreamscape for the dreamers and strivers of the GDR. No vulgarity like the Western Propoganda, just the beauty of togetherness, the healthy humans farming and building and rising together. If the holograms sometimes bit, it was only those who tested their teeth. Better was to watch them, not get past them. Watch them rising up above hills and along the paths of rivers, reflecting the landscape, and peopling it with great pictures of the promise of universal brotherhood. Towns, cities, spaceships. Soon Moscow would be launching a probe to Mars, where they would look to build a settlement. How paltry that reality would make the silly Moon Station, which most people in East Germany believed was a fake story in anycase. All it took was a camera, a few actors, a hologram. No such fakeness in eastern Europe. Every East German was fitted with a small implant at birth that helped to process the reams of data available on their internets. Anything fake was simply deleted by the implants. No need to struggle against the falsehoods of the West. They could not penetrate the truths of the East any longer.
The young man brings the drone right down into the death strip. This place between the inner and outer walls has, over the 69 years of its existence, become like the worn bed of a river. It seems utterly carved into Berlin now, as inviolate as a mountain range. When he looks at pictures of divided Berlin in the nineteen eighties and nineteen nineties, it seems that the city then was so artificially cut apart. There was something ugly and temporary about that Wall, the 13 foot concrete wall facing West Berlin, the rickety looking inner wall facing East Berlin. The scattered anti-tank devices, the stubby guard towers with their electric spot lights, the hunched up lights that lit the strip, the crude deterrent devices like spikes and barbed wire. Almost medieval, the young man thinks.
He guides his Bird along the outer wall. The concrete is long gone. The strip of wall facing West Berlin is a metallic Smart Wall that detects movement, can produce images of people coming up too close to the structure, and immediately sends a report when any small problem is detected along the entire 155km of its length. It also interacts directly with the robots, who arm themselves instantly when the Wall detects a possible aggressive attack. It didn’t matter from which direction the attack might come. It might be a dissident attempting to escape from the East, although very few actually bothered with that these days. Or it could be an arrogant Westerner trying to mess with that gleaming barricade that marked the entrance to the great German Democratic Republic. Foolishly, always, for the consequences were deathly.
As for the inner Wall, this had long been replaced by a hologram. Few bothered to attempt a break through it, because only a catastrophic loss of power could inhibit the ability of the hologram to detect and announce an intrusion. The beauty of the inner Wall was that the hologram, when disturbed, triggered a sonic burst that threw even the most composed mind into madness. Dissidents foolishly practiced in illegal sound studios for weeks to learn to endure the sound horror, but no practice every prepared them for that sonic burst. It’s frequency was an absolute secret that only a very very few programmers knew, and those who had experienced it had no recollection of it. How clever, thought the young man, to build an inner Wall that avoided the physical destruction of people. That was an act of compassion, he thought How much better than the 1970s with the ugly clawing over a stumpy concrete barrier only to be shot to bits by guns or captured and sent to a jail where nothing productive could happen to you. You couldn’t not learn anything. But today, these great benevolent days, you could learn so much from your punishment.
Of course there was psychological fallout. He remembered his first year as a border guard. Attending the debriefing of an escapee found weeping just inside the death strip, begging for his mother and shouting that a great spinning galaxy was upon him, fringed with whirling dust balls that bounced and smashed at him. Such silly nonsense, how they had laughed at him. He had even soiled himself. Disgusting. And entirely his fault for trying to escape. So few now even imagined a life in the West, that every escapee was a case study. There were worried debriefings, a period of incarceration, and then a reprogramming that successfully prepared escapees for a more productive life of Socialism. This usually involved virtual reality training, that helped the escapees to see that they had not properly understood their society, and how lucky they were, and how free life actually was in the GDR. The few recalcitrant ones were sent away, usually to North Korea, but this was an utmost rarity. Everyone knew that their comrades there practised a more brutal form of public order policing, but then the Communist Bloc did not enforce a uniform policy on its members. It was necessary for individual countries to decide how to deal with dissent. And really, dissent was a cancer that, like real cancer, was close to being entirely removed from society.
For of course, the myth that life in the West was better had been shattered by technology. The internet of East Germany, the brilliance of its army of robots, and virtual reality training from a young age meant that East Germans knew what their forebears had been too ignorant to understand: they they were safe, beloved, held steady in the belly of a great, loving mothership of a country where everyone, absolutely everyone, was equal.
The young man pulls the drone back out and over one of the few remaining guard towers on Bernauer Strasse. Two young men are inside, hunched over computers, processing the endless data coming in from the Smart Wall facing West Berlin. A third man stands at the open window, rifle in hand, and smokes a cigarette. The little white puff seems so vulnerable amidst the metal and light of the outer wall. A flick of a button sets off a greeting light signal on his Bird, and the young smoker looks up, cocking his hat in acknowledgment, and briefly smiling. His bird cannot smile back, but the young man can, and does. Then soaring up again he chases briefly behind a darting crow, following for sheer pleasure the flowing path of the grey and black bird. But suddenly, he sees, the crow is going off course, the wrong way, over into West Berlin. Immediately the young man reigns his Bird in, turns it around, and directs it back homewards again.
© Lauren van Vuuren