Fiction by Michael Aronovitz
August 2029: The Big Reveal
“Good evening,” the news reporter said. “I’m Katherine Gray, live at the offices of Micro/Tec Industries, where they are about to roll out the device that will make all your computers obsolete and turn your laptops to bookends.” Her eyes sparkled. “This new device is revolutionary because Micro/Tec has found a way to directly connect the Internet with human neurons. We become the power source. I am here with Marty Wallingford, the creator, and I suppose the general public will first question whether or not this makes us slaves to our machines.
“It has nothing to do with slavery,” Marty answered, lab goggles up on his forehead. “On the contrary, it has everything to do with personal liberation. There will be no more lugging around a cell phone or laptop, no more hunting for a charger. Access will be round-the-clock and instantaneous.” He gave a pert nod. “Slavery?” he said. “How about baptism. The only issue our customers will have from this point on is how fast they can take in and enjoy the flood of information available at the tips of their fingers.”
“Or rather, a thumb,” Katherine added, and those behind them in the conference room laughed.
“Yes,” Marty said, “thanks for the segue. The Micro/Tec ‘Thumb Screen,’ model 77AB, and the micro-lens spectacle accessory you need to read it, will both be available tomorrow morning at 6:00 A.M. at your local electronics stores, retail $595.00 for the package. Of course, the 77AB is offered in children’s size and adult’s, both easily grafted to the thumbnail and inter-fused by any primary care physician right there in the office.” He smiled warmly. “And the procedure is covered by most standard health care plans.”
“However,” Katherine said cleverly, “I have attained information from reliable sources that you have not just been streamlining virtual access in the form of this new mini-screen powered by human energy. I heard that you are making certain… “data” available that we never thought possible. Can you explain?”
Marty’s eyes narrowed. It was a “gotcha” question, and he took a brief moment to wonder who went off the reservation leaking this. But he was also a realist, knowing how foolish it would be to go trying to put genies back into bottles. Especially on live television.
“We’re developing a program,” he said, “that will make all the Facebook Premium, Twitter 2, Instagram, Trend Trax, and Follower Files antiquated and most probably irrelevant, to be honest. This bold new platform will allow users, with consent verified by an exchange of access codes and PIN numbers, to join with the minds of their ‘friends,’ experiencing their thoughts, their feelings, and all their current physical sensations for a brief time period…like being a guest in another’s mind, reading his or her story firsthand. We’re calling it ‘Soul Text.’” Marty regained his tone of authority. “But let’s focus on the Thumb Screen for now. Mechanism first. Super-content, TBC.”
The camera zoomed to Katherine Gray’s close-up.
“A few years down the road then,” she said. “Truth and empathy. Full disclosure.” She flashed her signature smile. “For now, however, Internet access twenty-four seven, never on shut-down, powered by pulse in the form of a Thumb Screen. I’m Katherine Gray, here at Micro/Tec Industries, reporting for Eye Witness News.”
November 2036: The Thumb-Screen
“She’s a third grader who can read Shakespeare,” her mother Mrs. Joan Billingsly said hotly, “and you’re telling me she needs special ed. services. It’s not only astounding, but ridiculous. If she gets accommodations of any kind it should for the gifted, not the disabled.”
Dr. Tucker, the Principal, looked at her spec. ed. chair Reba Hatboro and gave a slight nod. Reba cleared her throat and brought out a thick pile of papers from an accordion file.
“Mrs. Billingsly… Joan,” she said, “these tests show that Marla has what we now call ‘severe inter-connective disabilities.’ Her allergic reaction to the Ocular Diamond has forced her into wearing Google Glass headgear, and it was phased out for a reason. It’s bulky, and without constant precision adjustments at the nose bridge and ear contact points, it makes a poor tool for learning.”
“We get it fine-tuned once a week. We’re paying outside of our insurance.”
Reba set down the papers.
“We’re sensitive to that, but our hands are tied. Results are results and the numbers don’t lie.”
Joan looked off toward the classroom’s American flag hanging off its pole by the listening station.
“The Ocular Diamond is a cruel device,” she said.
“Not to most children,” Reba countered. “After the adjustment phase it sits at the edge of the left eye unfelt and unnoticed like an earring or nose stud. Studies show most of the kids forget that it’s there after a month or so.” She sat up straight and folded her hands in front of her. “Please accept the fact, Joan, that Marla has consistent adverse reactions to the instrument, similar to the peanut allergies of past decades. She doesn’t need clunky, outdated technology. She needs individualized instruction.”
“But she can read Shakespeare,” Joan insisted.
“And that is admirable,” Principal Tucker said, “but this is a new age. Reading is a preliminary skill that does not require the depth of mastery we once affixed to the works of Shakespeare and the other literature in the antiquated canons and curriculums. The new state mandate is that children learn to access information quickly and efficiently, gaining the ability to navigate and manipulate virtual data at an impressive rate.” She sat back in her chair. “Simply reading a story or a play and pontificating about subtleties and symbols doesn’t make for a valid education anymore. It’s like being able to build a fire out in the wilderness. It’s a nice ability to have in your stable, but it doesn’t do you any good in the real world if you don’t know how to turn on a light.”
Joan put her knuckles up beneath her nose for a moment.
“It’s as if you’re telling me that because my daughter is allergic to a jewel surgically placed at the edge of her eye, she’s retarded.”
Reba and Principal Tucker eyed each other warily. Joan looked back and forth between them.
“What?” she said. Principal Tucker got a box of tissues and handed them over. Joan took them, set them down absently, and again said, “What?” but this time her voice was mouse-like and hushed.
Reba put her hands in her lap, looking at them. She spoke the rest slowly, carefully.
“It’s more than the allergy,” she said. “Even when the manual eyeglass device is fixed at precise angles, our testing has shown that Marla has trouble manipulating the thumb-data, often lagging behind the rate of expected pagination enough to make the Thumb Screen freeze.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We didn’t expect you to,” Principal Tucker interjected, “it’s a generational thing, but in short, you are aware that finger-touch manipulation of data has been made obsolete, and all gaming controllers and cell phones with texting options have basically vanished. In terms of Thumb Screens, you take in information as I do, Joan, reading the given page and blinking twice in order to access the next one. But what children are doing now is not simply reading their Thumb Screens really fast. They are moving the text with their eyes, a feature Micro/Tec embedded in the program specifically for those with newly developing optic muscles and nerves that can be groomed and trained from a primordial standpoint. In other words, Joan, our eyes are too old for the rigorous training, but the kids can do it, in most cases almost naturally. A child’s intelligence is first measured now by the ‘MEM Quotient,’ which is an acronym for ‘Metacognitive Eye Movement.’ Marla only looks for information in a linear manner, experiencing massive failure levels when she needs to backtrack, go circular, or access a pull-down menu. It is what is popping up on the grid nowadays as a form of severe modern dyslexia.”
“I want her re-tested,” Joan said.
“I would advise against that. Marla’s been tested enough.”
“Well, do it again.”
“No, we will not!”
That came from Gina Barnes, Marla’s classroom teacher, silent so far, but emotional now. “She needs specialized help,” she pleaded. “She can’t keep up with the rest of the class and she’s becoming a behavior problem, jumping up from her desk and running around the room for no reason. She hits other children, scratches herself, and claws at her own eyes, for God’s sake!” The room echoed with it for a moment, and Gina put her hand to her chest just below the hollow of her throat.
“Please help us help her, Joan,” she continued quietly. “Nowadays, the average beginning reader falls off the viewing plane two or three times per minute. Marla has trouble staying on-screen for five continuous seconds.”
“What’s the cure?”
“There is none,” Reba said. “But there are programs for medication that we can try. Side effects might include moodiness, bad dreams, skin rashes, and headaches, but we are willing to—”
Joan put up her hand like a stop sign.
“No,” she said.
“You have to!” Gina spouted. “You absolutely must get her help, tutoring, and accommodations. She can’t continue this way in front of her peers. She’s teased constantly, and I have forty other students in the room I have to attend to!”
Joan’s eyes were wide as moons.
“It’s your job.”
“Then help me do it!”
“She reads Shakespeare . . .”
“It doesn’t matter, Joan! Marla can’t function in public!”
“Oh, don’t beat around the bush, just tell me what’s on your mind!”
Gina opened her mouth as if the hasty retort was right there on the tip of her tongue, but she held it, smiling tightly.
“I’m sorry if this all sounds harsh, Joan. We sympathize. But we are in the world of the blunt and the literal now, information and speed, not poetry and metaphor. Euphemism is death in a modern age.” She reached out and took Joan’s hand, that which the woman surrendered grudgingly. “But I get it,” Gina continued. “I’m an old-fashioned girl like you, so I’ll put it figuratively. When it comes to moving information across the screen with the eye, adults like me and you and Dr. Tucker and Reba have good old-fashioned, fine-tuned pointers. Kids nowadays have the advantage over us, employing high-tech mouse and cursor systems. Marla is trying to do all this with nothing but an old pair of blurry glasses and the end of a busted crayon.”
You could hear everyone breathing.
Joan Billingsly removed her hand from Gina’s and reached into the tissue box.
December 2037: Soul Text
Frank Hall stood in front of her facing away, backed in hard against her, hands spread so she couldn’t move. His expression was one of absolute blankness. He was the Vice Principal at the People First Charter School in downtown Philadelphia, and he thought he’d seen it all. The girl behind him in the stairwell was wearing a winter coat. The coat had slashes in it. If her attacker had come at her stabbing forward or jabbing downward instead of swinging out with wild swipes, this would have been a different story altogether, oh yes, quite different. Frank was a year away from his retirement, and right now he had containment. He was a short, stocky man with a grizzly moustache, a bald head, and a band of fat on the back of his neck. The police would be here momentarily, and he had to keep contain. His face was a blank. The subway came screeching into the tunnel below, and kids passing by were trying to get a look at the girl.
“Move along now,” Frank said calmly. From behind him the girl struggled and tried to do a duck-under. Frank adjusted. She screeched in rage and he ignored it. The open-air stairwell smelled like old rust and urine. It was raining and there were puddles on the concrete by his shoes. He had not had the opportunity to radio security, but he was fairly sure Gerald Richards had run back to the school. That meant reinforcements if the police took too long. Gerald Richards was a snitch and that was a wonderful thing. For now, Frank Hall had contain.
Two girls were clapping up the stairs from the subway tunnel, both in uniform, so at first glance he knew they came from People First and not Franklin across the street. That was good. From what he had gathered there were girls involved from three other schools, but he couldn’t suspend or expel those he didn’t have a file on. One of the girls was wearing sunglasses. The other was in the process of taking out her earrings.
“Turn right around and go back down those stairs,” Frank said. “It’s over.” The one with the sunglasses had tears streaking down her face from under the dark rims, and the moisture had pooled in the creases of her nostrils.
“Bitch!” she spat to the girl behind Frank. “You scratched up my sister and when I get your ass out from behind there I’m gonna fuck you up like you was a with a dick!”
The girl behind Frank Hall went nuclear, punching and struggling, pushing and kicking. He put all his weight into it shoving back hard, and her head clumped the wall. Liability. But it could have been far worse, and her mother would have to understand that her daughter had attacked another girl out on Broad Street five minutes after school let out, coming up from behind and ripping out part of her weave, raking her face and neck with the spike-hook fingernails that were the latest fashion, and punching her repeatedly on the right side of her head. The victim’s friends, two from Franklin and one from George Washington up the street, had been over in front of the Korean hoagie shop, and in a hail of screams and profanity they’d swarmed in like a gang, the one at the forefront swiping the knife.
The girl had broken free and made a run for the subway. Frank had seen the whole thing from the top of the steps and had managed to trap her just behind him on the first landing in the stairwell. To get contain. Her name was Mia Jenkins. She was thirteen years old. And the girls who had attacked her for attacking one of their own were not strangers to her. They were all thick as thieves, a big friendship group including the one with the sunglasses named Paula Butler and her second cousin Melodi, both of whom had heard about the incident down below just before boarding the express train to Market Street and had rushed back up the subway stairs looking for blood. Ironically, they were Mia’s very best friends as far as Frank knew, constantly hanging out with her along with Ashley and Asia and Dominique, messing around in the hallways, practicing pep squad cheers at lunch, and cutting class in the bathrooms, being loud. They were always in a state of relative chaos, talking about one another, laughing, keeping secrets, stealing one another’s boyfriends, the usual. But Frank Hall had never seen anything like this. Not since Twitter got popular—and that was nothing in comparison, not even close.
From behind him, Mia had recovered, gaining back strength, screaming and choking out a string of expletives that were crazed and incoherent.
He should have seen this coming.
He had heard about it through the rumor mill, but he’d been buried with other duties, refusing to believe in the end that the use of the new technology would get so heinous so quickly, especially since Micro/Tec had advertised its product as being directly linked to a package of such heavy and “foolproof” safeguards.
But he’d been around long enough to know that it didn’t take a genius to pick a lock. And he’d just lied to himself by thinking he’d shrugged all this off because he was busy. He had seen it coming a mile off, but in truth he hadn’t known how to run the meeting, getting all these girls in a conference room and letting them hash it out. The whole issue was so grossly inappropriate it seemed even knowing about it could have meant his job, his pension, his sterling reputation. No, sir. He’d opted for pretending that this was kid stuff, none of his business, and something that would simply blow over.
Evidently, Paula’s twin sister Brianna had Soul Texted Mia Jenkins late last evening, faked a sign-off, and ghosted her. Mia had then pulled up her favorite Thumb-Sketch music video, the one with pop sensation Brett Wallace without his shirt on, and she’d masturbated there in her bedroom under the covers. Brianna recorded it, hit “send,” and publicized the experience to everyone in their “Soul Group,” including three thousand five hundred and thirty-nine user-participants. Within minutes it had gone viral, national. By now, it had probably spread worldwide.
This was just the beginning.
And he was way too old for this shit.
September 2038: Infiltration
With all the new laws and regulations, a girl would have to be super-talented to gain this kind of access, but please . . . Annie McClinty was all that. First off, she could run a scope of up to three hundred thumb pages in less than a minute, and now that they’d finally squared off the viewing screen it was just too damned easy.
The real trick, however, was her ability to manipulate screen changes without looking, all of it performed with her inferior oblique lower eye muscle like some crazy contortionist. Since it was a misdemeanor to Soul Text outside of the house and an actual felony to do it in the company of others in public domains, it would take someone like Annie to pull this off. Last night they’d toasted her with bong-shots of Purple Gorilla Plus and offered her a half-gram for free. She was a star. So how could she refuse?
Professor Filmore was a total prick anyway, he had it coming. No one in the class had above a C and seven of them were failing, all because he wouldn’t allow them to cut and paste even in their technical programming papers. He wanted them to be “writers” and use “proper grammar,” like out of their heads and shit. He had this theory that the act of lifting script from one source to another in a simple celebration of the rate of extraction was a modern evil, eventually destined to shatter our world because a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy lost its resolution to the point of linguistic manslaughter over time or some such lame horseshit. Who needed Comp 101 anyway? You learned to write for the Heaven Center (once known as “The Cloud”) in all your other classes anyway in blunt declarative sentences of the literal. You only needed rhetoric past 101 if you were going into journalism, and even in community college people had the sense to avoid classes doomed to be dropped from the roster. There was no such thing as “the news” anymore—you just “Souled” right into the “flow.”
“Good morning,” Professor Filmore said. “Today we are going to talk about tense and pronoun antecedent, a couple of issues I keep seeing in your connective drafting.” He was standing beside a small podium. He had on a sweater even though it was 87 degrees outside, and he was a bit ashy between the eyebrows. His gray hair was sticking up kind of wiry, but that was his usual.
In the front row five desks from the left, Annie pulled her feet up onto the chair, sneaker heels at the corners. She was wearing a gray cross-fit half-shirt and pink silk short shorts. Annie was a redhead with a swimmer’s body. She had a lot of freckles, but she knew from hacking Filmore’s school profile and sneaking a split-second soul-probe last night, that he liked texture.
The desks were those old-fashioned things that had the flat teardrop shape to write on and an open area beneath. When Annie pulled her feet up on the edges of the chair oh-so-casually, her shorts between her legs shrunk down to the thinnest of strips. She wasn’t wearing underwear, and she hadn’t waxed. Total beaver-walnut.
Filmore didn’t miss more than a beat, glancing at it briefly, pausing slightly between the words “murder” and “they,” accenting the latter as the offender in the sentence, “If one commits murder, they should get the death penalty,” and then turning to write it on the board.
To hide his erection.
But Annie had hacked him and recorded what he felt looking at her barely covered vagina, briefly imagining himself fingering aside that band of cloth and cramming himself into her, rocking his hips, and pushing those pretty knees back nearly to her ears.
In vivid, living color.
Without looking of course, she twitched “send” and let four thousand nine hundred sixty-four of her followers look at her pussy through the hungry eyes of Professor Ray Filmore, along with the entire student body of the community college and all its staff, including maintenance and food service.
Ray Filmore was put on leave the next day.
Annie McClinty wound up getting an A in Comp 101.
October 2039: Freedom of Soul
There was a massive rally at Temple University out in front of the Johnson and Hardwick dormitories. Participators and observers were jam-packed all along the courtyard going back past the Annenberg building and out front as far as the Liacouras Center and Diamond Street up the other way, north. There were people with signs and glow sticks and beach balls and air horns, people in knots, people with sign boards, people climbing light poles for a view, and others sitting on rooftops. There were people drinking and pushing and smoking and shouting, and someone was blaring music from shitty speakers that might have been coming from the alleyway between Pi Lam and Sigma Pi, but it was hard to pin down with the echo, making everything hazy and surreal. At the center of it all in front of the dorm lobby doors were the virtual purists on a cheap wooden stage, all dressed in army fatigues as if to prove they were in this for keeps, holy war, and they weren’t giving speeches. They were chanting, over and again, louder and stronger, megaphone for megaphone, fists raised and pumping.
“We want to fuck!
We want to fight!
We want the real truth,
that’s in the heart and mind!”
There was a massive group Soul Text, and before the police could fortify their positioning, there were two marriage proposals, twenty-six inquiries for dates, seven hundred fifty-three dirty propositions, forty-six fights, twenty-two rapes, nineteen stabbings, and seventeen shootings.
It streamed to eighty-three percent of the world population.
Neighborhoods emptied into the streets to discuss.
October 2039: Lock Down
“This is a recording. Anyone found doing a soul-trace on this voice will be arrested. Anyone performing a soul-search for the identity of this vehicle’s driver will be arrested. Stay in your homes. Curfew is twenty-four hours and surveillance will be constant. Food rations will be brought to you, so make sure the area by your front door is secure for delivery. Anyone reported making contact literally or virtually with a distribution attendant will be arrested. Poachers will be shot on sight.
“Residents are required to cover their thumb-screens. Articles found to be acceptable are duct tape, electrical tape, and adhesive bandages. You are not permitted to use sports mesh or anything with a degree of transparency. You are required to cover your thumb-screens. There will be raids. They will be random.
“It is your patriotic duty as American citizens to do your part in this emergency campaign of suppression and temperance. The responsibility is yours. This is not a drill. Your immediate cooperation and response is mandatory because Soul Text cannot be shut down.
“Repeat, we cannot shut it down.”