Ash Malik shouldn’t be talking to me. ‘Stuff like this makes investors nervous. Which is kind of the opposite of my job’. He is a planning officer for the council, and the stalled building site we’re on – in the eastern reaches of London’s Docklands – is testament to the challenges of the role.
But there’s no shortage of new developments along the archipelago of land between Bow Creek, the Royal Docks and the Thames. So why did this one fail? ‘It’s complicated’, says Ash. But the withdrawal of a major stakeholder didn’t help.
For those of us drawn to a London loose of its moorings, the events that led to that withdrawal are worth recounting.
The TimeEye prototype
When Ash was handed the public engagement remit for a proposed development near Bow Creek, he was pleased. He grew up nearby, and was keen to involve the community in the area’s regeneration.
The scheme would build new housing around a ‘creative business hub’. The hub needed a flagship business, and when the relocation of a major tech company’s augmented reality (AR) division was secured, Ash saw a way to fulfil his remit.
His idea was simple. Docklands already has a sculpture trail. How about an AR version? An ‘invisible’ art trail of digital works, routed in the history of the area, revealed by downloading an app and pointing your phone at the landscape. Pokemon Go meets an interactive walking tour.
Local artists and museums were happy to help. Before long the app had a name – TimeEye – and a beta version was downloaded to a handful of phones, ready to be tested.
The glitches began almost immediately.
The aurora field
Instead of superimposed evocations of farmland or the area’s wartime history, the TimeEye users encountered something that bore no relation to the landscape around them.
Their phone’s screens showed an interference. One commenter called it a ‘digital aurora’ – a shimmering field of apparently infinite depth, in which innumerable filaments seethed and crackled.
Since you could trace your screen across this vision, as if it actually filled the world around you, users assumed it was intentional; the result of a complex algorithm. By the time the app’s coders made clear they had nothing to do with it, it hardly mattered.
People had begun to explore.
Some noticed patterns. The constant interaction of ripples and waves within the field were not random. It was possible to locate ‘nodes’, places in the the aurora-scape which emanated and received activity.
These nodes had a fixed place, traceable in the outside world. That is, by using your device’s screen as a window to the aurora, you could follow a trail of disturbances to its source. Ash describes restlessly fizzing mini-suns, ejecting streams of light, popping pixelated clouds of primary colour. He found one above a residential roundabout in Silvertown.
It soon became clear this node system was unique to the viewer – in other words, each aurora was different. Some began to map the vast matrices suggested by lines of communication within ‘their’ aurora.
But these investigations stopped abruptly. The AR team deleted the app.
Which might have been the end of it, had Ash been using his phone to test TimeEye. Instead, he was trialling the prototype of a set of ‘fully immersive AR glasses’, aimed at VIPs. The coders were unable to delete Ash’s program remotely. Now they wanted the glasses back.
But Ash had seen something others hadn’t:
The field was consolidating.
Shadows in the aether
Ignoring the tech company’s emails, armed with the glasses, Ash traipsed the eastern Docklands (‘I must have looked a right tool, but it was great for my step count’). As he did so, he saw the aurora field fade to background static, watched shadows coalesce in the aether, solidify against a strange new sky.
He was looking at another city.
On this hidden plane, structures of impossible scale and architecture rose dizzyingly. A mega-city of vast, interlocked geometries, in which only traces of natural geography were familiar: the mirrored edifices that vaulted Bow Creek’s muddy meanders and warped high above the Thames’ tidal reaches defied description.
Not that the apparition stayed still long enough to be described.
Ash saw elements one day that he never saw again, or else he saw them again in different places. At the edge of vision, entire buildings folded in and out of existence, the ribbon-like structures that wove through the city’s upper reaches snapped and reared and writhed away in helixes.
Only when Ash viewed it directly did the city remain still.
He viewed it from every angle, climbing the roofs of disused mills, riding semi-deserted cable cars. He could see no endpoint to the city. But the vision itself had strict boundaries – it would flicker and falter, blur to the aurora should Ash approach a specific building, or stray beyond a certain area.
So he didn’t stray.
‘It was beautiful’, says Ash. ‘A utopia. Totally impossible. And yet, there it was… Except-‘
Except. Something was wrong. Something Ash hardly considered at first, but which slowly chilled him to the core:
The city was empty.
A pristine, perfect metropolis, deserted. Not a soul, not a light in a window, not – Ash saw now – a single natural movement in the whole contorting cityscape.
One day, wandering long into the synchronous twilight, he became frightened of the dark, unknowable, towers.
He returned to his office and locked the glasses in a filing cabinet.
He continued to fob off requests for the glasses’ return. But when -as he knew he would – Ash went to use them again, they were gone. The lock on the cabinet broken.
We have been walking. I am disoriented, unsure where Ash has lead us to. Beneath a low, muggy sky in June, the landscape seems like a vast interior. It has its own enclosed soundscape. The hum of an A-road, the rattle of the DLR.
Dull clanks from a nearby construction site give way to a gentle chatter: a hi-vis crocodile of school children has appeared, and disappears again – a nature reserve lurks beyond a gap between hoardings.
Suddenly, the air is torn open by a jet-roar. City Airport. The noise jolts Ash out of a reverie.
He isn’t interested in who took the glasses, or why the tech company broke ties. It’s time, he tells me, to get back to work. Strategic plans to follow, longterm visions to realise. I watch him set off, head down, for the office.
I have forgotten to ask Ash the best way back to a station. Somehow I don’t want to use my phone.
Scanning the skyline, the Dome’s insectoid protuberances must be south-ish; their analogues at the Excel Centre are north. To the west, a familiar totem completes the triangulation: the ever-winking pyramid of One Canada Square, still just about visible within a mutating sphere of skyscrapers.
- Candidate: The Bow Creek Utopia
- Type: Multiverse Infringement (unconfirmed)
- Status: Monitored