Object 48

The Loop

2034, Wales

Like a cross worn discreetly around the neck, a loop isn't something that you'd immediately notice unless you were looking for it. Once spotted, however, it tells you something important about the wearer: not what religion they follow, but what they stand for and how they might act towards others.

I have my late uncle's earloop here with me. It's a single slim piece of curved silver metal, a few millimetres wide and four centimetres long, with a wide droplet extending around the front; this one is designed to fit snugly around the back of his right ear. Unlike the popular 'Bluetooth headsets' from the turn of the century (named after an archaic wireless protocol), which used uncomfortable earbuds, this loop uses bone conduction to pick up speech and to play audio.

The odd thing is that when he turned 18, my uncle opted to have a phone implanted in his ear; it was considered fashionable at the time, and in any case it was easily reversible. The point is that he had no obvious use for an external earloop; it was totally redundant. Now, you may be thinking that the earloop was simply my uncle's retro affectation or to be more charitable, just a piece of jewellery, but the truth is more complex. I'll let Beth Mison, a wearer of loops for most of her life, explain:

"I started wearing my loop in the autumn of 2034, after I saw the flooding in Banda Aceh. It's hard to imagine today, but it was absolutely devastating — the dams were breached, the power grid failed, backup generators failed, data networks failed, everything failed. Whenever it looked like they might get data back up again, some idiot hacker group brought it down, which meant no-one wanted to send emergency drones and no-one could co-ordinate. Some police left their posts and joined in with the looting, so after a couple of days, it was absolute pandemonium, and all we could do from the outside was watch from the high cameras.

"And then... we saw something happen. Violence and even riots were sweeping the city, but not in the north. There was a group there helping calm things down, restoring order, distributing supplies, getting electricity back up. And you could see that they were all wearing these chunky earloops made for the emergency services; long-life, practically indestructible hardware, capable of setting up ad-hoc long-distance peer-to-peer networks. They let people co-ordinate. These people weren't experts. They were volunteers. It was inspiring."

First in Banda Aceh and then across the world, people began to recognise the earloops and trust their wearers to do the right thing — intervening in riots, carrying the sick and wounded, guarding essential medical supplies. Each looper was closely networked to thousands of others, and they had a collective tenacity of spirit that helped the city get back on its feet.

But why did the loopers create such an enduring impact? Much of it comes down to the gradual erosion of established hierarchies during the early 21st century. Increased access to information and organising technologies meant that people were increasingly unwilling to recognise the legitimacy of many kinds of unaccountable authority; rather than blindly trusting the police and security services, they wanted more transparency and control. The striking success of the loopers in Banda Aceh demonstrated that another way was possible, especially in countries that had adopted a basic minimum income guarantee, freeing up citizens' time.

While there is a romantic notion of the lone looper fearlessly striding into danger to save lives, their effectiveness derived directly from their networked nature. If a looper encountered an emergency (which encompassed everything from drunken bullying to a natural disaster), they would be automatically connected to an entire backup support network of human and AI helpers, near and far. These helpers provided real-time advice for everything from CPR to mechanical repair, the appropriate use of force, and how to defuse fights. Indeed, much of the backup simply consisted of moral support, letting loopers know that there was an army behind their back in every encounter.

In keeping with its decentralised nature, there wasn't only one 'backup network' for loopers; instead, they used open protocols that allowed a wide range of networks to interoperate, including networks run by local communities, churches, missions or even, belatedly, by governments.

With the lack of a central authority, establishing mutual trust among loopers was crucial to avoid fraudsters. The most successful networks tended to adopt the Hackworth model, which combined a distributed trust management system with rituals and tests designed to reinforce trust. Detailed trust ratings were publicly viewable not only online, but also through the design of physical loops, with different colours and styles denoting the various ranks.

I'll let Beth Mison describe what being a looper means to her:

"I started out with a very plain, dark grey loop. There weren't many emergencies in Wales, so it took me quite a few weeks to work my way up to the second rank, which added a scarlet stripe to it. But you know, this isn't a game, it's real life. We don't all get to be superheroes. I've never run into a burning building or directed an emergency drone fleet. It took me decades to work my way up to the white loop.

"Because everyone has laces these days, a lot of people think it's just about fashion. It's not. Wearing a loop is sign and a commitment that people can come to me and I will help do the right thing in an emergency. But more importantly, it's a symbol of my responsibility to help other loopers, to back them up when they need it. It's not just individual courage that turns loopers into heroes — it's the people behind them."