This is a sci-fi story.

The icers were out in force that night. Joey really didn’t like running into them. It wouldn’t be dangerous if he wouldn’t wear his lukers leather jacket when he went out alone, but unless he was a full-time luker—and flaunting it—he felt like a traitor. He felt like he wasn’t “real” or wasn’t noteworthy enough to be out on the streets. He also didn’t want to run into any girls while not visually declaring allegiance to his chosen subculture, so he wore the identifiers of his subculture even though it meant he’d likely get beaten bloody by icers or somebody else.

The icers were truly extreme, Joey thought. They claimed they would rather die than drink any but the most extreme ice-cold tap water. Lukers, like Joey, weren’t so picky, and indeed preferred avoiding brain freeze.

Water was no longer the simple commodity previous generations took for granted. It wasn’t exactly unobtainable, but most people had to save to get their monthly allotment, which was a very small amount, or perform community service for extra water which would then be delivered automatically to their approved smarthomes. Now that games, movies, music, fashion, food, cars, drones, jetpacks, body alterations, and everything else a youth could want was readily available through picofabrication, automation, and biotech, it was ironically the most basic substance of life, water, that became scarce—because desalination remained expensive—and thus became the marker of one’s identity as a young person: their subcultural in-group.

Aside from the icers and lukers, there were half a dozen other fine-grained varieties of tap-water subcultures (like the boilers and the JCs—”just cold”).

Mostly high-school kids, and mostly idle due to the abundance of free scavenged (recycled) energy for their picoautomation and their neural implants, these youths roamed the streets in their picofabricated faux-leather jackets emblazoned with their subcultural affiliation, and picked fights with members of other groups.

After the first few years of water shortage, this expression of identity through the one scarce resource that was critical for survival began to expand. Through a naturally stochastic clustering process, some hairstyles and preferences for clothes or shoes became associated with particular groups.

It just happened the way it did. There is no reason icers should prefer fur-lined boots and Christmas sweaters. If anything, one would expect the opposite. Yet, they wear them even in the summer… in the 130° globally warmed summers of Cascadia. That’s how you know you’ve got a genuine subculture: The clothing has got to be uncomfortable; it’s gotta require sacrifice.

The lukers likewise somehow ended up all having to wear havaianas, 20th-century motorcycle helmets over long green hair, tank tops (what the British call “vests”), bandannas tied right at the elbow, one on each arm, and pajama pants with teddy bears sewn unto them. (None of them knew that this last little detail originated with a bassist in a combo of ancient “rock” music from back when music was made by people playing instruments rather than autonomous conscious AI units that wrote every kind of music straight into digital encoding.) The more teddy bears one’s pants had on it, the greater would be their status as a luker.

Joey had found the time to get his automation to sew 37 onto his favorite pajama pants and another 24 on a different pair. The fact that he consequently couldn’t run was a big part of why the icers picked on him so much. They, on the other hand, spent most of their time getting their picobots to learn to assemble themselves into fists and feet for delivering punches and kicks from a distance.

So, Joey called up a game in his neural implant as he and his 37 teddy bears set out onto the streets of Seaportouver, bracing themselves—not so much the teddy bears but Joey’s bio-body and all his affiliated picobots and neurally linked semi-autonomous genetic floaters—against the onslaught of icer attacks and against old people who look disdainfully at his awkward teddy-bear-encumbered gait and transmit unsolicited neuro-advice that clogs up his game for an entire interminable microsecond, in search of a thimblefull of lukewarm water.

 

This mini sci-fi story is an attempt to draw a parallel between how ridiculous and unlikely such tap-water-based subcultures of street-fighting youth might seem to us, and how the music-based subcultures of my youth in the ’80s must seem to today’s youth.

Music, after all, is like water now: You turn the tap, and it pours out—out of YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, or SoundCloud, and in a sense, also out of GarageBand, FruityLoops, Acid, and myriad other tools for generating music from loops. A few dozen people in a few offices in LA may make those loops—they’re like the people working the dams and the people who run the municipal water bureau or whatever. They supply the water that we take for granted, and it just flows out of the tap, not requiring any thought or effort on our part about how it got there or how much of it there might be. Music today works the same way. You exchange memory cards or streaming playlists; you download free software that allows you to drag and drop loops and which makes sure they are in the same key and tempo. It’s about as complicated as making lemonade. Why would such a thing have any relation to one’s identity and individuality?

In contrast, when I was young, I had to save money for a year and still beg my parents for a long-playing record. I could also occasionally buy some cheap tapes or record songs off the radio (almost always with the beginning cut off and with a DJ talking over the end) onto cheap low-fi cassettes that had more hiss than hi-hat. My first compact disc, a birthday present from a wealthy relative, was like an alien artifact. It still looks a bit magical to me… so small and shiny. Today, I hear they’re referred to as “coasters” because… why bother putting music on a recording medium when it’s free and ubiquitous? 

Subculture-as-identity-marker has disappeared except among the old. (How old is Iggy today, or the guys from The Clash?) Young people today dress in combinations of the “uniforms” of ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s subcultures without having any interest in the sociopolitics or music of those subcultures. The last three times I talked to a―seemingly―fellow goth or punk rocker, they reacted with mild repulsion at the suggestion that they might listen to such music.

Expressing allegiance to a musical subculture must seem as silly to today’s youth (say, through age 30 or so) as expressing allegiance to a temperature of water would seem to anyone.

 

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