A Drone in the Life

    What does the future of the Alberta School of Business hold? What and how will students learn? What in the world is a "Disnapplezon"? We sent a drone to campus in the year 2036 to find out

    By Thomas Wharton on October 10, 2016

    Wednesday October 7, 2036, 6:30 AM

    Welcome to “A Drone in the Life,” the web show where one of our roaming video drones randomly selects one lucky person to follow around for a day. Today our subject is Calvina Toffler, a 19-year-old bachelor of commerce student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

    Our drone descends from a panoramic view of Edmonton’s autumn-tinged river valley and the High Level Bridge to the UAlberta campus, zooming in on a young woman in neon glasses and a jacket of photovoltaic fabric, unlocking a hoverpad from the rental stand outside Hub Mall Phase 2. Let’s meet Calvina and find out what she’s up to...

    A Drone in the Life

    Illustration by Raymond Biesinger.

    Calvina: You want me to be on your show? Cool! I’ve got a really busy schedule today, but if you can keep up, you can follow me around. My special project group has to submit our proposal later, so it’s kind of a big day, but right now I’m delivering breakfast to some other students in Lister Hall.

    Yeah, I work for Uber Waffle. I have a few other part-time gigs, too, to help pay tuition and rent. Only problem is all this grunt work means I’m up pretty late with homework. To be honest, my grades have been slipping lately and I think it’s because of all the jobs, so yeah, I was totally cruised to hear that with the booming alternative energy economy the New New Democrats are finally making post-secondary education free for all Albertans. Maybe my life will get a little less crazy.

    Calvina hops on her hoverpad, with the breakfasts in a satchel over her back, and zips off along the university’s solar-panelled roadway toward Lister.

    The “Disnapplezon” Complex, Saskatchewan Drive, 8:15 AM

    We’re following Calvina into the dazzling foyer of the new learning complex paid for and designed by the world’s largest megacorporation. She passes through the iTunes Nebulatorium, Amazon Prime Hall, and into a room of faceted glass panels, where animated snow is falling.

    Calvina: I’m meeting my special project group here in a few minutes. One last meeting before we upload the proposal. Well, actually, I’m the only one here. The rest of us are all over campus—business, engineering, computer science. We’re an interdisciplinary cohort. So, when we FaceTime, I like to sit here in the Frozen Pavilion, right in the middle of the 3D holographic snowfall. I guess I’m nostalgic for the way winter used to be in Edmonton. You know, cold.

    What’s my group working on? We have to come up with an original business idea, and a plan for financing and marketing it. What we’ve got so far is a concept for an iSpec app. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s so cool! It’s called spOiler Alert, and it calculates the team’s chances of getting into the playoffs based on constant real-time data updates on stuff like player stats and health, weather and stock market reports, ticket sales, solar flare activity. Anything that might affect the team’s performance. When we get the algorithm up and running it’ll be, ahem, the perfect app for the obsessive fan who hopes that THIS YEAR their play-off dreams will come true. Sweet, right?

    Alberta School of Business, 10:23 AM

    Our drone flies through an open window of a 13-year-old glass building, past orange beams jutting diagonally through the hallways, and into a state-of-the-art classroom, with living green walls and eye-tracking scanners monitoring student interest levels. Calvina, several other students, and an instructor are seated in a circle. Our drone is hovering over our subject’s shoulder, listening in on the lecture…

    Instructor: And that’s why, after the barbaric years of the Trump presidency, we must strive to be well-rounded, emotionally intelligent leaders of society who can truly connect with people…

    Calvina (whispering): You guys aren’t the only drone in the room. This is our Etiquette and Social Skills workshop, or, as the profs call it, Reality 101. They think we spend all our time looking at screens. It’s ridiculous, really—I mean (checking the SnapTwit feed in her iSpec glasses) I don’t… um… yeah… what was the question again? Anyhow, we’re practicing introductions today. You know, handshakes, maintaining eye contact, smiling. Our final project is to come up with a personal brand story we can add to our resume.

    What’s my story? Well, it’s still a work in progress, but I can sure talk about how tight things were when I was a kid. We didn’t have much money. In fact, I’m the first person in my family to get a university education. My folks are immigrants who worked menial jobs to help get me here and (she checks her iSpecs feed)—oh no. OH NO. (Calvina goes pale, stares blankly.) One of my group members just found out the Oilers launched their own playoff prediction app.

    Instructor (to Calvina): Ignore the drone and participate, please. There are more important things going on here.

    Calvina (under her breath): You’re telling me. We have to scrap our idea and start all over again. Oh man, this is going to brexit everything.


    Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

    Under a palm tree in the Quad, 1:27 PM

    Calvina munches on carrots and celery from the bio-sci rooftop market garden while browsing webpages in her iSpecs heads-up display, flicking and pinching at a projected screen only she can see.

    Calvina: I don’t have time for a proper lunch. No, we haven’t come up with another project idea yet, and as if I don’t have enough to stress over, I’m late choosing my elective courses for next semester.

    This class looks interesting. Here, have a look.

    Calvina takes off her iSpecs and slips them over the drone camera lens.

    Failure 302, Winter Term, 3 credits (maybe), MWF 10 AM – 12:30 PM

    How can we learn from our mistakes and move forward? How can one big humiliating epic fail strengthen our character and help us better adapt to the challenges of our time? This course will begin with a study of the history of failure, examining famous case studies, including the early flops, fiascos, and nosedives of Soichiro Honda, Lady Gaga, and the Edmonton Metro Line. But we will do more than just look at others’ rocky roads to success. You will have the opportunity to personally crash and burn in a major way, and learn valuable lessons from the experience.

    How it works: over the course of the term, you will complete several challenging assignments for which you will receive no grade or positive feedback, no matter how much time, sweat, and toil you put into them. In fact, the harder you work, the more the instructor will single you out for criticism and ridicule. If you can stick it out, if you can take the rejection and still deliver excellent work on time, you will receive a final grade of A+. Or not. You might be unfairly assigned an F.

    In this class, as in life, there are no guarantees. Either way, the experience will help prepare you for your inspiring transition from devastating early failure to stunning later success. EPIC WIN!

    Calvina: Geez, I don’t know. An A+ would save my GPA, but if we don’t come up with a new project today, I won’t need a course to help me fail (she sighs and shakes her head). After everything my parents have done for me… (Calvina takes back her glasses and then gasps.) Holy Kanye! My next class is starting!

    She pulls the augmented reality hood of her solar jacket over her iSpecs.

    Calvina: This class is Mandarin 100. Compulsory for all BComs now. Not a tough course for me, though—I lived in Shanghai for a few years before we immigrated to Edmonton. Anyway, it’s a virtual classroom, so we can be anywhere in the world. The instructor’s actually at Harbin University, and we’re going on a virtual field trip to the Great Wall to practice speaking with a real Chinese tour guide. Check it out…

    We see a stunningly realistic 3D representation of a large lecture theatre, filled with various cartoon and pop culture avatars of other students and an avatar of the instructor—a pointy-hatted cartoon wizard in an academic cap and gown—at a podium. The instructor begins a lesson, and the avatars respond and ask questions.

    I’m waiting for a text now. See, one of my other jobs is to proxy for students who are sick, or busy working, or just don’t feel like showing up. Someone texts me a question to ask in class, in their name, so they can still get marks for participation. I just have to do this little hack where I switch from my avatar to the other student’s and back again, and as long as the instructor doesn’t notice… No, of course the instructors don’t like proxies, and I know it’s redfording, so maybe I shouldn’t be doing it, but it earns me a few extra bitcoins. Too bad it’s right after lunch, because this is when I could really use a nap (she yawns). Which is probably what the student I’m proxying for is doing right now.

    Failure 101

    Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

    Under a palm tree in the Quad, 2:47 PM

    Calvina, her head resting on her satchel, snaps awake to an angry voice in her headset.

    Bizmaster99: Dude, what’s going on? I texted my question like an hour ago and my participation meter still hasn’t gone up.

    Calvina: What? Oh. Oh no. I’m sorry, I must have dozed off. I… I’ve been so tired lately.

    Bizmaster99: You dozed off??? Toffler, I paid you good coin to proxy me. There’s still a few minutes left in the class. Ask the question!

    Calvina (taking a deep breath): You know what, how about a refund?

    She exits the virtual classroom, brushes back her hood, scrambles to her feet and sets off at a fast clip across the Quad in the direction of the Students’ Union Building. Our drone struggles to keep up, dodging other students, a groundskeeping bot, another drone…

    Calvina: Where am I going? I don’t know. All I know for sure is I’ve been running in too many directions for too long, and I’ve got to focus on what’s important before this semester goes into the trash bin. I need an idea for this project! If only there were a place I could escape from the world and just think.

    Calvina slams into a giant inflatable orange, a juice bar that’s one of the many pop-up businesses dotting campus. She bounces back, finds her balance and looks up at the orange.

    Calvina: Couldn’t hurt getting something to wake up my frontal lobe.

    She orders a Brainberry nootropic smoothie from the server through a little window in the side of the orange.

    Calvina (to the server): Hot in there?

    Server: It’s got solar AC. And I’ve got the whole orange to myself, so it’s pretty sweet.

    Calvina: That’s cool. (She walks on, sipping her smoothie, then suddenly comes to a halt and looks back at the juice bar.) Wait a picosecond. That’s it! (She rushes off again, shouting over her shoulder to the drone.) I have to get together with my project group!

    The Humanities Solarium, 7:19 PM

    The solarium is a soaring glass polyhedron, the interior filled with plants and benches. Calvina is sitting with her group members, enjoying a late dinner of cruelty-free burgers grown in the UAlberta genetics food lab.

    Calvina: Oh, hello again. Yeah, so the group liked my proposal about inflatable personal bubble rooms that could be set up around campus. Imagine if students could rent an hour of solitude whenever they need it! No wi-fi, no VR, no drones… Can you believe something like this doesn’t already exist?

    We got our proposal in on time, and we can finally relax—something I haven’t done for far too long. Sure, I have to be part of the information jet stream—there’s no escaping it—but it doesn’t have to rule my life. I’m taking business because I want to make connections with people, real connections on the ground, not just in a cloud. That’s what I’m doing right now, and it’s great. So, if you don’t mind, show’s over, folks. (Calvina waves the drone away.) Zài jiàn!

    Our drone ascends into the sky, offering a panorama of the city, its domes, obelisks, and CO2-scrubbing dirigibles catching the last light of sunset on another busy evening in the Alberta capital.

    Thomas Wharton, MA ’92, is a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner and author of The Perilous Realm, a fantasy series for younger readers.