Author: Peter Fossey

Ria is eating one of those flaky pastries with almond paste in, so my coffee tastes like I’ve snuck in a shot of Amaretto, and that makes her laugh. Or one of us, anyway.

It was hard to get to know people, for a while. Meeting face-to-face became too risky, then illegal. Then everyone had holos, and we sort of went off the idea of being in the same place. We still talked, sure, but some things can’t be done at a distance. There was this one summer when delivery drivers suddenly had massive social capital, not to mention sex appeal; but then they got the drones legalised, and that was that.

It turns out that most of us need presence, and we need to be able to share experiences. Not just the visual, but everything. Meeting up feels like such a huge step. You’re so exposed, so vulnerable. There are creeps who get their kicks meeting randoms, but most of us don’t. There’s no stepping stone between the holos and reality, so a great many people have stopped trying.

I think that’s how it started. It was there to fill a simple need. I’m in my office, leaning out of a sash window to enjoy the autumn air. The coffee is bringing on my nicotine cravings. Or someone’s, anyway.

So we lived alone, packed in next to each other, paths never crossing if we could help it. My kitchen, my bed, my office, my jogging route; a razor-thin slice of space and time that I don’t share with anyone. There was no world any more; we segmented it into oblivion.

The Sharenet changed everything. A monofilament web that sinks painlessly into the skin on your fingers, tongue, cheeks; as much of your body as you can afford to cover, really. AR contact lenses and microscopic aural inserts. You could kit yourself out in minutes, make a connection in holo, and sync up your sensory data with a friend. Not just see them, but see what they see. Not just seeing, either; you would feel everything.

We’re making something together. I’m not sure what it is; I get bits of it all over the place, but I only fully understand my own piece of it. It’s something new. A kind of multimodal collage, created simultaneously by all of us, everywhere at once. An installation.

And then, the shift. It was innocent enough. A handful of modders wanted to see what would happen if you synced three or four streams at once, and it blew their minds. In a fit of blissed-out bohemian anarchism, they set their code loose in the central servers. They let everyone sync with everyone else, all at once.

I write about the satisfying thunk of Ria’s chisel biting into the wood, the slow-burning wonder of creating a thing by introducing space into it. Yang mixes thick acrylic paste and the plastic smell becomes a refrain in Luca’s melody, which Ita is jamming to; Amos is setting my words to their music, and Ria’s giving it shape. I can feel a rush of movement, muscles tensing for a pirouette or plie, but the sensation drops in and out, and I don’t know who’s dancing, so I must be getting it third hand.

You see, old habits die hard. We still don’t meet face-to-face all that often; but we aren’t alone now either, unless we choose to be. We’re making something new. Sparrows in the hedge outside my window flitter in time with Luca’s guitar, and Yang paints the clouds.