Microchips
October 5, 2020

A road winding up a wooded hillside. A narrow road, no dividing line. New, black asphalt. Shade all the way up. Here a driveway diverges, a thick vein. It takes us to a low-slung, cinder-block building, flat-roofed, with an industrial-looking garage door. You might suppose that the building itself is a garage, perhaps for municipal vehicles. But it is not. From the road, we look down upon the grey roof, level as a tennis court, featureless but for a small satellite dish in the far corner. If we could see the front of the building, we would notice that it does not differ substantially from the back. The front has two plastic urns with flowers and a door with tinted glass. To the left of the door, a small plaque bearing the name of a company. Which is unimportant. They build microchips here. This is immaterial to the story.

The mid-morning sun makes a dappled checkerboard of the road. It is late spring, or else one of those summer days that comes along all too rarely and shocks us with its mildness. A man jogs up the road. He is wearing a white shirt and red shorts. His hair is white all through. He possesses the body of a habitual jogger, yet is also starting to look like an old man. He moves up the hill quickly, fluidly. Have you noticed that the act of running often seems to have compromised some vital component of the runner’s psyche? Perhaps the soul itself must withdraw when confronted with so much pointless exertion.

In any case, something of the sort is evident in this person, in his eyes.

He always comes this way, up the road, past the back of the building I’ve just described, then on to someplace unknown — for he never jogs back down the hill. As he passes the building he turns his head to gaze down at it, over the flat roof and beyond, to the little one can see through the thick foliage, the ragged edges of the city, the city which peters out as it approaches the hill. He thinks to himself that this is a very marginal kind of place, this building where they make microchips, situated as it is on the very edge of this city which is itself a marginal city, more a glorified town, really, stuck about halfway between two more compelling urban centers. Can we know for certain that he has this thought as he passes behind the building? No, of course we can’t, but he does. And the thought pleases him in an indefinable way.

A woman sits inside the building, in her narrow office, with its white walls and tiny window. She sits in front of her computer, staring sometimes at the screen, sometimes at the bare wall behind. It’s difficult to tell which she is staring at at any given moment, and really, it doesn’t particularly matter. It doesn’t particularly matter, not because this inability to focus is immaterial to her career prospects — for this could not be further from the truth. No, the reason it doesn’t particularly matter is that the job itself does not particularly matter, and what’s more, this very marginal company does not particularly matter, and this small city or glorified town which she is currently at the edge of — it does not matter either. She knew this when she took employment here, when she sat for interviews and answered their many questions with a certain manicured enthusiasm; she knew it, yet she pressed on regardless, because after all she had to do something and this of course was something and sometimes this notion of importance is not really the most important thing, when you slice right down to it.

On the screen of her computer abstract patterns are shown, organic and yet angular and alien — the faces of the microchips her firm is developing. They’re not particularly important. They won’t change lives or alter the shape of history in any meaningful way. They are beautiful, but only a few people will ever get to see them like this, laid out on the screen like a cross between a tapestry and a puzzle of incredible, scintillating complexity.

The woman turns to look out of the small window. She’d seen a flash of red there, but now it’s gone. She turns again to her computer screen and the wall. For the remainder of the day she sits like this at her desk and doesn’t move until it’s time to go home. No one bothers her. She doesn’t realize that everyone in the building has also stopped what they’ve been working on and they too are all sitting now in front of their screens or their microchip assembly apparatus or whatever it is (it doesn’t particularly matter), and they aren’t moving — breathing, yes, and perhaps shifting slightly in their chairs, but they aren’t lifting their fingers or pressing buttons or discussing the benefits of a certain architecture in silicon they might otherwise be bringing into existence, provided that their machines were not idling, or running unattended for far too long….

The jogging man in the red shorts has made it to the top of the hill. Now he has crossed to the other side. He is thinking of other things.


Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

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