On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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It followed the usual pattern: commercial utility before cultural change.
By the mid-2020s, wearable augmented reality devices were becoming common. By the end of the decade, they were nearly ubiquitous. A nexus of technological challenges had all been overcome at the optimum moment; display resolution, connectivity, and battery life. The rest is history.
In less than ten years, reality changed. Before, there was the potential to be recorded by anyone at any time, at a moment’s notice. After, there was the fact of being recorded constantly, by everyone, everywhere and always. That was the least of it.
The first applications, of course, were in advertising. Ads were freed from screens and dedicated spaces, and instead occupied the air around our heads, always in our eye-line, reacting to our movements and our glances. Permeable barriers for the attention, intruding into physical life, like ghosts of avarice haunting our footsteps. Even within the first handful of years, there was fascinating data showing how parents started to alter their walking routes to avoid places which triggered the sort of displays which prompted yet more demands from their children. A law was passed limiting the virtual height of AR ads to always fall below the local roofline, after a fast food chain managed to paint the sky red and yellow with their logo across several town centres.
Then came the next and equally inevitable phase; that of subversion and rebellion. For a while, before more outcry and legislation, you could substitute a more pleasing face onto anyone you encountered — metrics showed it was most often used at home, and probably prolonged a few thousand doomed marriages — or watch life-sized pornography in public without fear of detection, or digitally doodle on the faces of unsuspecting passersby using a sophisticated system of eye gestures and finger taps. These were the compressed teenaged years of the new age. So very human.
The software became much more clever, and it paid attention to what it saw. Keys and purses were no longer left behind. Appointments were very rarely missed. Navigation became all but foolproof. This was the phase of utility, when a technology has matured enough and also been in the public eye for sufficiently long to attract innovation beyond its creators. And thus, quick on its heels, came something even more human: the phase of overreach.
Laws sprang up like weeds, passed by old men about things they didn’t understand, in an attempt to constrain the dangerous new to be more like the flawed and broken familiar. It was a time of co-opted mass surveillance, blanket censorship, unavoidable broadcasts, and of course the age-old vehicle for it all: manufactured moral panic, in favour of incumbent powers.
And so the oscillation phase began, as tyranny and liberty fought for dominance or even equilibrium. The dictators put their faces on every street corner, projected directly onto the retina, and the irreverent techno-anarchists put the dictators’ faces on every dog’s arsehole instead. Devices were wirelessly hacked, arrests were made, and the cycle continued.
An agreement came, with the unlikely and benign name of the international augmented attention accord. No AR system could superimpose any graphical element at greater than forty percent opacity, and nor could any such element primarily occupy the user’s area of central vision unless explicitly glanced towards for a sustained period of at least zero-point-eight seconds. The accord lasted six whole days before being abandoned, due to the wave of episodes of vertigo and balance disorders caused by billions of people suddenly being incentivised to keep their gaze moving rapidly.
The ultimate outcome was perhaps the most inevitable of all. Our species is split, and extremely unevenly. The majority are the new generation of what used to be called smartphone zombies, and how eerily prescient that term seems now. Staring into a digital space unique to themselves, hands relaxed at their sides at last, with no more awareness of the world around them when awake than when asleep. Being told not just what to think and feel, but what to see and hear too, they are the realised dream of the autocrat. Entire political systems have shrivelled into single-party states, without fanfare or revolt. Children have become passive. Adults have become slaves to both distraction and information.
They vote in unison, and do almost every other thing in an isolation constructed from walls that are strictly their own. The filter bubble is a visible thing for them, distorting the world through a microscopic but very real lens, and leaving them always sated, and always dulled. In a way, their thinking has been pushed forward by mere millimetres or centimetres, but far enough to be outside of their own minds. The technology thinks for them, now — or rather, those who control it do.
Then there are the ones outside of the blended physical and digital world, existing only in cold reality alone; the luddites and the squeamish and the would-be resistance. To them, so much is hidden, and thus the truth is laid bare: they live in a world of blank surfaces, and shabby buildings which they know look far better through the filtering eyes of a machine. They live in a world where they hide from a groupthink that begins at the cornea, and whispers into the brain an instant later, with no hope of deflection. They walk down streets inhabited by strangers who can no longer quite see them, and who are no longer quite human.
And there are the genuinely blind, of course, in the physiological sense. Frustrated and locked out in an even more profound way than before, but also born with an immunity against a new type of pathogen that we made ourselves.
In time, they come to think of themselves as lucky.
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