Editor's Note: In this short fiction, the science-fiction author Cory Doctorow imagines an urban future where technology helps citizens reorganize their daily habits from the ground up, to everyone’s benefit.
When the parrots of Burbank, California, started screaming before the sun rose, you knew it was gonna be a hot one. Today was Wednesday, and for three mornings in a row, the parrots had roosted in the giant Australian eucalyptus outside Arturo’s bedroom window, screaming the sun into the sky at 5:00 a.m., a flock of green Amazonian complainers voicing their discontent with the world and the foolish, blazing orb it insisted on orbiting.
It was only March, but Burbank was baking: Three days in a row it had hit 120 degrees by noon, and Roosevelt Elementary kept its kids indoors—even fifth-graders like Arturo. Blinds drawn, the teachers reminded you and reminded you to drink water and slather on sunscreen, squawking like parrots. Parents met their kids at the school gate with parasols and solar-powered mister fans filled with ice water that they spritzed themselves with while slow-walking home, not tempting sunstroke.
“Day three,” Arturo whispered, and bounded out of bed.
“Day three!” he said, bursting in on his parents’ room. They slept under a thin sheet, the fan overhead scything the air into salami slices, whup whup whup.
“Arturo,” his dad said.
“Arturo,” his mom said.
“THREE DAYS!” he shouted, and they groaned.
“Three days,” his father agreed. You couldn’t argue with the thermostat, much less the parrots.
There had been some block parties on Lima Street when Arturo had been too small to remember them, but then there had been a long stretch of unreasonably seasonable weather and no one had tried it, not until the year before, on April 18, a Thursday after a succession of days that vied to top each other for inhumane conditions, the weather app on the hallway wall showing 112 degrees before breakfast.
Mr. Papazian was the block captain for that party, and the first they’d known of it was when Arturo’s dad called out to his mom that Papazian had messaged them about a block party, and there was something funny in Dad’s tone, a weird mix of it’s so crazy and let’s do it.
That had been a day to remember, and Arturo had remembered, and watched the temperature.
1. Check the hallway for Burbank Water and Power’s solar-buyback rate. Less than a penny was good. Zero was better. It was negative today, YES, more power coming into the grid than the company could absorb, and if you couldn’t use or store all the electricity that your roof was generating, BWP would charge you for taking the excess off your hands.
2. Check Roosevelt’s portal to see if there were any tests that day and, if so, message all the adults on Lima Street who were cleared to proctor tests to see if they’d come to the block party so the kids could take their tests remotely.
3. Spam the whole neighborhood with a block-party poll: He’d written eight different pitches for the party, and he had a spreadsheet for which one he would send to whom. One for old people, one for Spanish speakers, one for parents with babies, one for entertainment-industry people who kept weird hours, one for people with pets, one for kids. Kids got their own poll and it wasn’t binding, but it couldn’t hurt to let everyone know that there’d be a lot of pissy kids if they voted no. He recorded his pitches straight to camera, right there in the hallway in front of the screen, and decorated them with cool transitions and stickers of the best Jetsons-reboot fan animes in his collection.
Dad’s shop had three technicians scheduled to work that day and even though Dad was the best at unbricking modern gear, they could survive without him for the day; the one rush job on his bench would be sent to Andy at SBB Repairs, who sometimes sent customers to Dad when he was too busy. Andy was only too glad to help, because only a jerk would get in the way of a block party.
Mom was supposed to help tent and gas a house in the hills that day but the owners had taken two weeks’ holiday while they waited for all their termites to die, so it could go a day late.
The votes were ping-ping-pinging up on the hallway wall and in hallways up and down the block. There were 27 houses on their block, and they needed at least 18 to say yes to make it happen.
Five. Six. Eight. Ten. Twelve. Thirteen.
“Be patient,” Mom said, sliding a bowl of cereal under his nose and pushing him down into a kitchen chair.
Thirteen. Thirteen. Thirteen. Fourteen.
“Don’t worry,” Dad said.
“At least put sunscreen on!” Mom shouted as he bolted for the door.
Mr. Hartounian was easy. He just hadn’t bothered to look at his screen. He was retired and did everything slow.
The Griffiths were not sure because Lissa went to Catholic school and they weren’t sure if the block’s two proctors would be recognized by the principal, and Lissa had a social-studies test on the Puritans and the Middle Colonies that day. At Arturo’s urging, they googled the school FAQ for remote proctoring and confirmed that Lissa could take her test right there on Lima Street. Lissa gave him a grateful look as he dashed down the street. He was dripping sweat and the parrots were screaming.
Mom figured out that Chloe Shaw was shooting on location and got her to clock out as not counted in the vote. One more vote to go.
The Adeyemis didn’t know about block parties. They were new. He showed them pictures, trying not to panic. It was five to 8; five minutes until the window to organize a block party would close. The Adeyemis were clearly confused by him. He was flustered and doing a bad job. He took three deep breaths and used the skills he’d honed doing Speechifys that got thousands of likes, and ...
He struck a power pose and vamped. The Adeyemis were so impressed they live-streamed it to their friends back in Nigeria. When he was done, everyone agreed a block party sounded great.
Seventeen. Go time.
The City of Burbank dropped off the shade sails by 8:30 a.m., city workers in shorts and broad hats with cloth that hung down over the backs of their necks, sweating to get the sails off the trucks while the people of Lima Street milled around watching, offering them coffee and ice water. Arturo skipped around like a drop of water on a hot griddle, racing from person to person, conferring with them about their block-party plans.
Starting at the Magnolia end of the street and working down to Chandler, the city workers clipped the sails’ eyelets to the ropes dangling from the tall sweetgum trees on either side of the street; in the years since the rings had been placed, the trees had grown unevenly, and the foreman made a note of which trees had the greatest difference so they could be queued up to have their rings adjusted during five-year maintenance. The parrots screamed advice at them.
Then everyone pitched in to haul on the ropes, stretching the sails in huge, dark triangles that spanned the road, overlapping with matching triangles that stretched from the fronts of peoples’ houses to the trees, until the whole street was in shade. The parrots screamed in outrage, then found their way back under the canopy and roosted contentedly in the dim branches, screeching their approval (parrots really only have one register).
Almost everyone was in the #LimaBlockParty chat room by then. As the room’s mod, Arturo was able to push-to-talk it, so he tapped the mic button and shouted “AIR-CONDITIONING!”
The adults laughed, the kids cheered, and people ran into their houses to fling open their street-facing windows and doors and crank their AC to max. Soon the street was alive with cool zephyrs that convected over the xeriscaped lawns and twined around the cacti and Little Free Libraries and the bare knees and ankles of the people of Lima Street.
The solar cells on the roofs of their houses glinted in the morning sun, spilling their power into the ACs, using up the electricity that Burbank’s grid couldn’t handle. The people of Lima Street began to smile, and people went back through their wide-open doors to bring out speakers and pair them to the #LimaBlockParty channel, throwing songs into a set list for everyone to vote on.
Arturo stood in the middle of Lima Street, sawhorsed at either end by city workers, and tapped his feet to the music. He’d volunteered to organize a sack race, a hot-dog cookout, and a live Speechify contest. But that could wait. For now, all he wanted to do was watch as the block party took shape all around him.
It had been nearly a year since the last block party and when he remembered most about it was the kids, the games they’d played, the scavenger hunt and the tug-of-war and the epic hide-and-seek through everyone’s backyards.
But looking around now, what he noticed was the grown-ups, whose work-scheduling apps had been able to rearrange their schedules to give them all an impromptu day off, right then, in the middle of a week, in the middle of a beastly heat wave, in the middle of their very own street.
He thought about the social-studies unit he’d done on the industrial revolution, about the artisans and farmers who’d gone to work in the factories, how the cities had taken away their freedom to make hay while the sun shone or switch to outdoor tasks when the weather was nice and do their indoor jobs when it was miserable.
Cities used to be a trade-off between options for jobs and people to marry and things to do, and no options for when and how you did them, because you were all packed so tight that whatever you did rippled out to everyone else. No one could manage all the complexity of checking in with everyone who’d be affected by your choices.
Someone was shaking him by the shoulders. Dad. “Come on, kiddo, you’re a thousand miles away! There’s things to do!”
Arturo nodded and went to help his dad carry out their picnic table.
“What were you thinking about, anyway? You looked so serious.”
“Just coming up with my Speechify topic for this afternoon,” Arturo said. “They’re going to love it.”