From Cradle to Grave

            It was a day like any other.

            Maddie woke to the sound of her mother screeching, the steel embedded in her cheekbones fluttering, bone conduction technology sending vibrations to her auditory nerve.  “I’m up,” she mumbled, hand reaching for her nightstand.  “I’m up, I’m up.”

            She fitted a slim visor over her head and plugged it into the port embedded beside her ear, bracing herself for the daily morning cacophony of reconnecting to the system, for the flood of missed notifications, messages, posts, and drunken selfies of her friends from the night before.  Oh, the things that happen while you’re sleeping.  She stumbled down the hallway towards the bathroom, images in the corner of her screen still flashing by in time to high pitched chimes.

            Mint Julep.  Lotus Eater.  Summer Poppy, Isle of Sage, Betel Vine.  What a delightful shade, what flawless skin.  Maddie thought the Absinthe filter from the day before made her look pale, wan, and bleary-eyed today, so she changed her settings to Salvia.  Constant reinvention of the self.  Perfection is as far as the flick of a hand, as a whispered command in this day and age.

            “Maddie, go wake up your sister.”  Her mother’s voice echoed once more in her head, but Maddie was already halfway there, mind still half asleep as muscle memory compelled the body to do what it had done a hundred times before.

            She sucked in a breath of air.  “Al- lis-son!”  Maddie’s shriek reverberated throughout the house.  “Allison, Allison, Allison, we’re going to be late, dammit!”  Maddie shook the little girl violently.

            Allison cracked an eye open to peer up at her sister.  “Maddie, you look like a zit farm.  What happened to your face?”

            Maddie ripped a visor from its charging stand on the table and threw it on the bed.  “Put on your visor, we’re going to be late.”  She slammed the door behind her and cursed as her own visor displayed its first notification of the day.

            Charlotte Lin checked in to The Thornfield School for Boys and Girls.

            Maddie hurriedly threw on her uniform, raced down the stairs, snitched a piece of toast off a plate in the kitchen, and tapped her visor.  “Message to Allison.”

           “Allison, I’m ordering a ride now, so you better be downstairs in 5 minutes or I’m leaving without you and taking all the toast!”  The threat was muffled by a mouthful of food, but the frenzied thumping of feet above Maddie’s head seemed to indicate that it got the point across.

           Maddie tapped her visor once more and whispered an address into her microphone as Allison came running down the stairs.

           Ava Park checked in to The Thornfield School for Boys and Girls.

           A small, generic grey car pulled into the driveway, and the girls rushed out to meet it.

            Kristen Osanna checked in to The Thornfield School for Boys and Girls.  Samuel Kay checked in to The Thornfield School for Boys and Girls.  Olivia Wilson checked in to The Thornfield School for Boys and Girls.  Nicholas Bell, Andrea Patel, Maxwell Zhang, Jennifer Uhlenbeck…

            Maddie stared listlessly out the window as Allison crammed bits of toast into her mouth.  The flashy, holographic billboards floating above the buildings turned the sky into a patchwork of light and lit up the street with their neon glow.  Advertisements appeared one after another in the corner of Maddie’s screen as they drove past bus stops, cafes, boutiques, and drug stores, so Maddie turned on some music to drown out the sound.

            Allison brushed the bread crumbs off her lap only to earn a disapproving glare from her sister.

            Maddie Williams checked in to The Thornfield School for Boys and Girls.

            Allison Williams checked in to The Thornfield School for Boys and Girls.

            “Maddie!”  A pink-haired, pig-tailed figure waved enthusiastically at her from across the room.

            “Hey Char!”  Maddie joined her by the lockers and began punching in a locker combo.  10-19-53.  “Bunny ears today?”

            Char beamed.  “And look what happens when I blink!”  Char blinked furiously, and cherry blossom petals began swirling around her head.  “There’s a whole new line of filters like these, you must’ve seen the ads for them –”

            Maddie laughed.  “Nice, Char, but let’s not be late to class.”  She tugged a t-shirt over her head and made her way to the door.

            “Good god, change in the morning and change again for class.”  Char groaned and laced up her shoes.  “Scheduling P.E. first period should be made a crime.”

            Maddie propped the door to the gym open with her foot for Char and turned to see something round and decidedly orange hurtling towards her head.

            The last thing she heard was Charlotte’s scream, the sound of liquid crystal shattering before her world fizzled and went dark.

            They began as a universal translation device.  Little stainless steel implants that used bone conduction technology to ensure that you would only ever hear the languages you understood.

            Maddie came to in the nurse’s office and saw the shattered remnants of her visor before her.

            But along with this universal translation device came a wearable user interface which soon became part of the embedded system, the visor that smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers eventually gave way to.

            “You’re awake.  How do you feel?”

            “I’m alright, I think.  It’s just…”  Maddie looked once more at her visor.

            “The visor can be easily replaced.  The only issue with that is that some of the broken pieces are still stuck in your port, and we don’t want to mess with that.  At any rate, you should go home and rest for now. Should I call your parents or…?”

            “I’ll be fine.”  Maddie dumped what was left of her visor in her bag and walked out.

            And now they are a way of life, the primary form of connection between most individuals and the digitized world they live in.

            She couldn’t order a ride home.  Not without a functioning visor, at least, and she realized as much in the parking lot.  Maddie sighed and started walking.  “Go home and rest, she said.  Like there’s anything else I could be doing without my visor.”  Normally, the idle hours were spent wondering what her friends were doing, scrolling through timelines, looking at posts.  What else was there to do today?

            One foot in front of the other.  That’s all there was to this.  No need for a navigation system when home was less than half a mile away in a more or less straight line.  One foot in front of the other.

           Petrichor.  Petra.  Ichor.  In these cities of stone the gods still bleed as ever before.

           The air smelled earthy, fresh, and before long the pavement was speckled with water.

           They say that visors made the world a better place.

            The sky seemed so empty without its usual constellation of ads.  The drugstores, boutiques, and cafes were no different, grey and lifeless without their digital embellishments.

           Never lonely now, always surrounded by those you call your own.

           The city had never been this quiet before.  The constant ringing of notifications, reminders, messages, friend requests and the like was gone, and all that was left was the sound of her feet scuffing against the pavement, the sound of an occasional car passing by, the sound of the keychain on her backpack jingling in time to her steps.

           The steel in her cheekbones was silent, still; rain fell uninterrupted by the usual barrage of notifications, swelling from a drizzle to fill the silence left by the absence of her visor.

           Never desperate these days, not when things like beauty and friendship are little more than breaths away.

           She caught sight of her reflection in a windowpane.  Her face was tired, red.  Here was the stranger Allison had seen this morning, not her.

           Never lost anymore, not like the receipt in the pocket of last year’s winter coat, because there’s always someone, something out there selling you clothing, places, people, friends, selling you images of the person you could be tomorrow and roadmaps of how to get there.

            Who are we on our own?  When the lights turn off and the screens come down, what is left of us?

            Maddie passed by a bus stop and saw the people there, red, hunched over, and tired like her, tapping their visors and whispering to themselves.  No world outside their screens in that moment, no world but that beautiful illusion maintained by engineers and computer programs and greater things they weren’t meant to understand.

           They say the visors made the world a better place, and maybe they did, but can you really believe that, looking at this city right now?  Without their filters these people are little different from their ancestors, little different from the denizens of that grey reality that should exist only in textbooks now.

             They say the way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.

           Fueled by champagne, cocaine, gasoline, it shows in their faces but not on their screens.

            The rain was coming down harder now, and Maddie cursed as she fumbled with her house keys trying to unlock the door.

            And is this who you’re born to be, another piece in the machine?  Are you meant to live this way, slave to their algorithms from cradle to the grave?

            Maddie went to grab a towel from the bathroom but stopped to look at herself in the mirror, at the uncertain stranger without a visor, at the curious stranger with water in her hair.

           Bridge the gap between what you perceive to be the truth and what is real.

           The next morning, when they cleared out her port and plugged her visor back in, she longed wistfully once more for the stranger in the mirror, for the silence of the city, for the sound and smell of rain.


Notes:

  1. Mint Julep.  Lotus Eater.  Summer Poppy, Isle of Sage, Betel Vine” and “Salvia”­ – names of the filters are all taken from alcohols or narcotic plants.  Inspired by the “Lotus Eaters” chapter of Ulysses and intended to show how technology takes the place of religion in this society, how it is addictive and mesmerizing and lets people exist in a trance-like, pleasant state in their own mental bubble.
  2. Thornfield School of Boys and Girls – Thornfield Hall is the name of the Rochester’s hall in Jane Eyre.  There’s meant to be a parallel there between it and the people of this society – isolated, with a number of apparently unused rooms, and figurative skeletons in the closets.
  3. “10-19-53” – Maddie’s locker combo is the date of publication of Fahrenheit 451.
  4.  “They say the way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason” – Once again, a reference to the parallel between religion and technology.

Authors

Veronica Tang
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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