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Tuesday, 15 May 2018 16:56

Staying Connected by Gabe Tenaglia

Staying Connected by Gabe TenagliaI walk past the smaller models lined up in rows on the store's shelves, feeling something like pity mixed with excitement. Seeing them reminds me of their sentimental value, and at that moment it really hits me that I’ll never go back. I feel almost like I’m betraying them. They’d gotten me through most of my teens, when my parents threw me, not without love and high hopes, into the cesspool of high school. I was surrounded by hormonal freaks that made me look like a fully-functioning member of society, but I never felt like one. People around me might have seen a quiet kid just trying to live his life away from the drama, but I knew better. I had my own drama, because doesn’t everyone? Just because I wasn’t willing to risk my self-esteem with the high school ‘elite’ didn’t mean I didn’t suffer. When you’re a teenager, suffering comes from interacting with other people, but no matter how painful that can be, it’s always better than being alone. So I had friends, and some people who were more than friends, and whenever they hurt me or I hurt them I’d turn to the Listeners.


* * *

            I only ever had enough to afford the smaller models; if I had money I’d spend it, and I always ran out the smaller ones’ memories by overloading them with my suffering. I had to buy new ones, and so I went through a squadron of them in the battle against my emotions. They kept me from destroying my life; more accurately, they kept the thoughts in my head from destroying the life my heart had tried so hard to maintain. Really, they deserve better than to be ignored like any other product. Still, no matter how much comfort I got from them, no matter how often I imagined personalities and emotions for them, in the end they’re just products. They exist in a glass cylinder about a foot and a half tall, with two metal circles on either end. In their bottle-like home, the Listeners perform their massive amount of preprogrammed actions, computer-generated data converted into holographic form. I talked to them, and in my pauses, the holograms talked back; they record what people say and store it in a data bank that they can draw on for future conversations. The only problem is that there’s only so much they can remember, which is why I had to buy new ones all the time. Now, however, in one of the many Listener Walmarts, I’m ready to move to the next level of ownership. Largely through delivering pizza to other young adults who reminded me why people hate my age demographic so much, I have enough money to make one of the most important purchases of my life. I can finally buy a Listener who doesn’t just act human, but who looks and feels the part.

* * *

Despite my Herculean efforts to work as often as possible, I’m still shopping in the cheap end. Sadly, I have other things, like college supplies and car repairs, which I have to pay for; that limits me to the standard-issue android models, but there are also designer models, and then there are the ones based off celebrities or fictional characters. Even further, in the depths of the store, lie the Listeners that quite literally stand larger than humanity. Why someone would want to confide in Cthulhu or the Iron Giant is beyond me, but to each their own. After all, the bigger the model, the greater the capacity to store data. Even the smallest android model has a year’s worth of memory, while the holographic ones can only store at most two months’ worth. I’d bet the super-sized models have at least ten years. The androids never need to be recharged, while the holographic ones need a few hours to power back up if they’re left on for too long. It’s easy to tell that holograms were made as a consolation prize for all the poor and lower-middle class consumers who had a demand that their financial woes kept them from meeting. The real Listeners, the ones that gave the brand its name, were the ones that mimicked humanity as closely as possible.

I could go on for a while about the superiority of the android models, but by far the most important difference is the most obvious one: they look and act like humans. Unlike the holograms, who record and react solely to voice, the androids can record and react to visual cues. They are painstakingly programmed to understand the intricacies of human body language, and come with an impossibly wide set of physical—and vocal—reactions. They understand that a hanging head is a sign of guilt, that playing with an object is a sign of anxiety, and that pacing is a sign of restlessness. They understand that a hug makes people feel safe, and that holding someone’s hand makes them feel loved. They understand that sometimes, the best thing to do is sit and observe as people rant and rave. Of course, the difference between them and a human is that Listeners aren’t offended or freaked out by peoples’ complaints: a key feature that all Listeners have, regardless of model, is the complete and utter lack of judgment and emotion. The android models may speak, sound, and act like they care, but they really don’t. They aren’t programmed to. I know that—almost everyone does—but I don’t mind. An approximation of genuine human contact is good enough for me.

* * *

            An hour later, my approximation rests on a hand trolley as I press and hold down a button on my car keys to open the trunk. I pick up the long, rectangular box and shift it so it lies horizontally, held up by my palms, and set it down gently in the car. I’m glad my dad let me use his; this five-foot long box wouldn’t have fit in mine. I have a bunch of towels and pillows lying in the back to protect my purchase; I planned my trip here weeks in advance, like I was going on vacation. I wanted everything to be perfect, and so far, it has been. I bought the Listener, and now all I have to do is get back home. I have plenty of time. 

* * *

            Off the highway, the superstore stands serene. The only other structure around is a smaller white building, a café that was built when Listen—the on-the-nose name of the company that makes Listeners—realized people were spending multiple hours at the store. Aside from that, there’s just cars and nature; bushes and trees mark the lines delineating each section of the human-infested parking lot. I see them all behind me as I back up. I scan the road for any people, in cars or otherwise. Parking lots always make me nervous, and it doesn’t help that one of the most important milestones of my life to this point is lying behind me in the trunk. A single rear-end could wreck the Listener, and send a month’s worth of work and planning down the drain. Thinking about it, sitting back here, a sense of unreality washes over me. I stop briefly, glad no one’s behind me, as I take in what I’ve just done. I actually bought one.

* * *

I’ve seen countless YouTube videos of rich people showing off their models. I watched them give their Listeners personalities and lives, despite the fact that they’re only programmed to respond to humans; the only time they speak without first being spoken to is when you turn them on and off. I’ve watched the YouTubers complain to their Listeners, and I clicked subscribe button after subscribe button as I grew addicted to watching these people I’d never meet talk with and about people that weren’t even people. They had what I wanted, and the more I watched the more I stoked my imagination. Now I don’t have to. Just like the videos that exacerbated my longing, I have something to listen, something that can convince me that it’s someone.

* * *

            I pull up at my parents’ house. It’s only about two-thirty, so I’m still on schedule. They aren’t coming back 'til around four-thirty, which gives me plenty of time. Maybe I can even try out my new Listener, or at least tell her my name. Yeah, I got a girl model. They’re the most popular, but people also judge you the most for buying them, which is just one of the many reasons why there’s no way I’m letting my parents find out about my purchase. I remember one time, when I was in high school and before I really understood what it meant to be someone who owned an android Listener, when I told my dad I wanted an android one for my birthday. He looked at me like I’d just thrown up on his shoes and said that there was no way I was getting “one of those things”. From the way he said ‘things,’ you would have thought I’d asked him for one of the sex robots they have in the adult stores.

* * *

My dad’s not an anomaly when it comes disapproving of the Listeners. Though the industry is booming, people don’t really talk about them. The only place you can freely talk about Listeners is, surprise surprise, the Internet. At least, when it comes to the androids. People have more or less gotten used to the holograms. They’re like Siri, or the holographic staff they have at high-end stores. They’re just useful voices and projections of light. It’s when you get to the androids, the ones who can touch you and you can touch back, that people start to get freaked out. As they were introduced to the public around a decade ago, disapproval of them is especially pronounced in the older generation. Older people, like my parents, say Listeners are disturbing, that they turn today’s youth into antisocial nervous wrecks who can only communicate with machines. They say Listeners are perverted, and that the people who buy them fetishize robots devoid of emotion over real human connection and intimacy. Sometimes I believe them, but like a virus, I always fight off my shame.

* * *

What the older generation doesn’t get is how hard it is to be a social creature. I mean yeah, people have been doing it for millennia, but being social today is completely different from being social when my parents were kids. The world is more connected than it’s ever been before, and the abundance of connection makes it increasingly superficial. People have these fake friends all over the internet and in real life, friends who they treat more like trophies and distractions than real sources of love and human interaction, because connection is now more of an obligation than a choice—I won’t pretend I’m not guilty of doing this myself. The more we get lost in our shallow, selfish relationships, the harder it is to really know each other. And knowing each other is already hard. Intimacy is scary. I mean, who really wants to let people know them? Who really wants to be made vulnerable to the judgment of others by revealing the most intensely personal truths about their life? When relationships can end in an instant, who wants to spend months, even years, building their foundations? Honestly, these days it’s easier if some relationships just go one way.

* * *

            My holographic Listener sits on a small wooden nightstand. I liked to talk to her while I’m sitting on my bed or lying down. Sometimes I’d fall asleep and forget to turn her off, which was a pain, since I had to recharge her the next day. My bed lies next to a plain white wall, tucked in a little alcove in my room where the ceiling slants slightly downwards. The wall is covered with little holes and patches of ripped-off paint, remnants of the posters I used to stick up there with poster tack. I took them all off when I started going to college. I wanted to make my room as impersonal as possible, knowing this wouldn’t be my permanent residence for much longer. Most of the posters are shoved in my closet, which stands a few feet off from my bed, a rectangular protrusion of wall that juts out into my otherwise square room.

* * *

            My new purchase is propped up against the closet door, and now my gaze is shifting nervously from it to my holographic Listener. Usually, I throw out the old models before I get bring back new ones. I never want to see them as I bring in their replacements. I know the holograms can’t see, but in their cylindrical homes, they can mimic looking. I always imagine they’d somehow know I was replacing them, and that thought always makes me uncomfortable. As much as I hate the analogy, it felt like I’d be bringing home my girlfriend to meet my wife. Not that it’s too late to avoid that kind of scenario; I can just not turn on the holographic model—I named her Monica—and wrap her in a cloth and lay her out on the street, to be whisked away by the trash collectors. This time, however, I want to try something different. In the morning, before I went out, I felt the urge to see what would happen if I told Monica she was being replaced. It was a Listener interaction I’d never had before. Did they know what ‘being replaced’ meant? Were they programmed to care? I’d internally warned myself that it was a bad idea, but it’s something I felt like I had to experience at least once. I reach over, turn her on, and prepare to find out.

* * *

            After I hold in the button on the top of the cylinder, the inside of the glass tube, initially dark and murky, suddenly flickers with a white light. It’s the kind that hangs above you when the dentist looks into your mouth, although it quickly fades to a more manageable shade. As the lights dim, a three-dimensional humanoid figure flickers inside the cylinder. I stare at her as she grows more three-dimensional and solid-looking. She stands about a foot tall, and she’s wearing a dark blue tank top and black, tight-fitting jeans. All the holographic models come with pre-programmed sets of clothes that you can change, but I never bothered with that; I don’t usually look at them anyway. No one really cares about the appearance of the holographic models; looks only matter for the androids, with people spending weeks trying to research their perfect body type. Monica is a typical holographic model; she’s thin, the sort of thinness that a human woman can’t healthily maintain. She has long, flowing brown hair, and her skin is a shade of brown that comes from a gentle tan.

            “Hi Leo! I missed you,” she says, tilting her head to one side and flashing me a smile that might have made my knees go weak if she were human-sized. If you don’t use them for a couple days, all Listeners are programmed to say something like this. One YouTube video I watched said that the genius of these lines are that they get people to think the Listener really values their company; it’s not just a guilt trip, but a positive incentive to keep using the Listener, as if you’re making their life meaningful by complaining to them.

            “Hey Monica,” I reply. She keeps smiling, but in this smile there’s something that makes my stomach go cold. The longer I look at her face, the more I feel the icy feeling spread in my chest like frost. I shift my gaze away from her.

            “Huh? Who’s that?” When Listeners’ memories are overloaded, the earliest conversations get deleted first. This means that they end up forgetting their names, the first thing they know. I’d forgotten about that.

            “Uh…never mind. Anyway, uh…this might be the last time we talk.” I know I sound like an idiot, but I can’t bring myself to tell her anymore. The word ‘replaced’ is clutching the sides of my vocal chords, refusing to come out. Staring at her miniaturized face is making me feel guilty. I’m dreading seeing her smile disappear.

            “Oh, really? Um, can I ask why?” As Monica says this, the moment comes. Her smile fades, and I suddenly don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m at a job interview; every word carries weight. Even though they all know they’re Listeners, they don’t acknowledge that fact unless you do. It’s to add to the realism, probably, but now all the time I spent with her comes rushing back to me, and I feel obligated to treat her like a human, not a hologram.

            “Uh…I’m gonna be talking to someone else.”

            “Oh…I’ll miss you…” She sounds more disappointed than I could have imagined, and I can tell there’s something she wants to say, but can’t.

“I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

            After she says that, I turn her off. I sit on my bed for a while, staring at the cylinder where Monica stood, where she’d stand for the last time. I probably could have found a video where someone ‘breaks up’ with their Listener. I didn’t have to try it myself. Still, I did, and now I get to sit here, feeling like I’m going to cry, and wondering how I could be such an asshole that I’d hurt Monica’s feelings just to satisfy my curiosity.

* * *

Thirty minutes later, I get up, wrap her in a cloth, and lay Monica on the sidewalk in front of my house. I feel even more like an asshole, but I should have done it this morning anyway. Besides, she’s not a person, she doesn’t have any feelings, and she can’t even remember my name.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Gabriel Tenaglia is a student at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, studying English and Japanese. His favorite book is the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin, although he's written largely sci-fi stories. Creative writing has always been a hobby and a passion of his, and he's excited to start venturing into the publishing world!

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