3. The Flare

by key stakeholder

There we were, wooly-hatted in the mid-afternoon’s mid-winter dusk. Blowing into our hands and stamping our feet against the rime. Standing out in the back garden, waiting…

> Just a few seconds… a few seconds more… I don’t see it! Where is it? <

> There! Look! There! Look! Ahaaahhh.  <

She’d spotted it high in the sky before me. Not far from the Moon and Jupiter, there it was – a man-made celestial event – glimmering above. Silently sliding past the only other two things visible in the cloudlessly gelid afternoon sky. Closer to the zenith than I’d estimated, but yes, amazing, there it was: arching over the world – polar orbit, from south to north. Already a shockingly bright phenomenon, like an LED torch in the sky – and quickly getting brighter against the still-yet fairly light-blue dusk. Just about directly overhead now and still getting brighter. Five seconds into the event and the reflected sunlight was already glinting – flaring – off one of the comsat’s big oblong antennae – big as a billboard advert; a flat panel closely related to those rod-clusters you see on cellphone masts –  this orbiting antenna one of four cardinally cantilevered to the comsat in low earth orbit, just 350 km above us. Like the school-boy jape, flashing sunlight off a watch face into the eyes of the hapless teacher, the antenna-flash glints its reflection of sunlight onto the face of the earth and the upturned faces of we breathless earthbound observers. Now brighter than Jupiter – this season’s big but natural ecliptic show-off – and competing with the brightness of the half-full moon. The moment of maximum brightness comes about fifteen seconds into the event as the dead centre of the reflected light’s footprint tracks across the surface of our planet. Magnitude -9.5, as the astronomer reckons it. That’s as bright as a gibbous moon. Bright enough to cast a shadow, breathtaking but not blindingly bright, and at the peak of the flare comes a glinting dazzling flash; astonishing, magnificent, surprising even – for all its clockwork predictability.

This comsat’s flash came from just one of the sixty-six in this particular constellation – they progress in order one after the other, each one in constant communication with the one which preceded it in its orbital path, and relaying to the one which follows. They are arranged in six polar orbital planes, eleven comsats to each. And these orbital slices themselves communicate one to the next,  and so the Earth is girded like a bird in a cage, netted in the packet-switching network, no point on the surface of the planet below uncovered by the cellular transceiver footprint of this glinting grid, these flying flaring heralds. And this constellation of comsats is itself one of many which relay and switch and keepsafe and pass the worlds voice and vid and data, gossip and community and commerce.

And all round the world, that network had recently and quite suddenly enabled entire supra-national economies to leapfrog whole eras of industrial and infrastructure development. In Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, in high-arctic boreal North America. In the archipelagos of the South Pacific and the forests of Amazonia – in a period of just a few short years (seasons, in some cases) whole populations transitioned from an existence of agrarian exploitation and pastoral subsistence to become fully-fledged scaleable and highly agile information economies with sophisticated perfect-knowledge market-pricing mechanisms and logistic optimisation expert-systems to enable perfect cashless inter- and intra-community barter. Negligible cost-of-entry based on distributed grid computing levered from the second-hand discard of the gadget-crazy FirstWorlders last-year’s cellphones, and hooked – open source – to the sky’s unfixed infrastructure. Who’d have thought it? That the late-stage final flowering of the full potential of free-market capitalism would enable the scalable leveraging of pre-economy tribal-communitairianism where they scratch their heads and thumb their noses at the first-world’s consumerist status-display fetishisation of fixed infrastructure and permanent possessions – our hangups – our hierarchies. For their model is flat, without hierarchies and based upon shared resources, highly mobile, yet incredibly local.

Community cellphone in hand and a touchpad tablet library for every child to share access, the developing world’s polities develop and accelerate past the rest of us to the future on a path which we cannot see, even less understand, even though we’d built the outer-space communication infrastructure which is its substrate. What’s happening is going right over our heads.