By Hailey MacLeod
“The more virtual our lives become, the more we crave the physical.” –An IKEA catalogue in my home
There are two types of people in every university lecture. You have your Ghost Students – the ones who fear the slightest instance of being noticed, who slip in and out of every class without creating the slightest ripple on the waters of academia, whose sole goal is to avoid attention and gain their education in solitude and peace.
You then are left with your Go-Getters. These are the students who line up at the breaks and both the commencement and conclusion of each lecture, each vying for a chance to ask the professor to clarify something, or perhaps impart some wisdom of their own they feel is of the utmost importance and subsequently necessary for their instructor to hear. They do not all love the sound of their own voice, but it is also a common attribute amongst them.
Of the two camps, Lindsay Webber was a wholehearted Go-Getter. She enjoyed the thrill of hurriedly packing up her belongings as soon as any concluding words passed the professor’s lips and making her way to the front of the lecture hall, using elbows if needed.
On her school tour last spring, the guide had told them that one of the most important things to do was to reach out to their professors. The older student had simply expressed interest in her professor’s field of study in squirrel experimentation, and before she knew it was invited out to his laboratory weekly to observe side effects with him.
Lindsay’s efforts to do the same were met with positive results. She, who had never cared much for the follies of her fellow teenagers, relished her every conversation with her mature, adult professors. Despite being a Communications student, she had no taste for social networking, the favoured medium of her peers. You could count the collective amount of her followers across the social media spectrum on two hands.
Doctor Graham had been a particular example of success with Lindsay’s effortsin getting to know her professors.
“Yes!” he had cried upon her first innocuous inquiry into his work. “I’d be more than happy to tell you about my thoughts regarding social media and the mind.”
Lindsay had stiffly smiled as he prattled on. From then on, Doctor Graham only needed to note Lindsay’s presence to launch into a full discussion of his work. A great deal of it regarded social media and its positive effects on society, which was not of particular interest to Lindsay. However, her participation was scarcely needed. Lindsay once left during a particularly lively monologue on the affects on Twitter in the classroom to go to her next class. When she returned, Doctor Graham had moved on to Pinterest and its relation to parenting, but had not noticed the girl’s departure.
One day, her success became unmistakable. “Lindsay,” Doctor Graham began inquiringly after class, “how would you like to witness a little history in the making? See what you’ve been hearing so much about?”
She retained her cry of joy. She hadn’t been paying particular attention during much of those one-sided conversations, but if it could help in winning her the recommendation of such a distinguished man, how could she be discontent? “I would be honoured, sir!”
Waving away the swiftly disappointed crowd of Go-Getters that had assembled with a dismissive hand-batting gesture, the professor led her down a narrow hallway. Several Ghost Students fled in the opposite direction in fear that the professor should make an effort to greet them.
“As you well know, Lindsay, technology has developed faster within these past twenty-odd years than ever before in the history of humankind. With all these new advents using the Internet all available to consumers within their pockets, inside their smart phones…You know, we invest so much time into virtual communication that we forget the importance of physical communication – conversing directly, that is, face to face.”
Lindsay gaped at him. “Why, sir – that’s exactly how I feel!” she cried.
“With this new project of ours, we aim to reclaim that physicality and bring it back to all forms of communication.” Doctor Graham continued on as if she had never spoken.
“It is a phenomenon beyond words – really, you’ll understand once you see it. NEEMA – what we’ve been calling it – has been in development for eight years now. The Communications department has been working with the school’s Computer Science, Information Technology and Engineering experts in this venture. We have completely redesigned what it means to social network – and this is all under extreme confidence, mind you, Miss Webber. You’ll have to sign a form or two before actually viewing the thing. But pay no mind – you won’t have to keep the details to yourself for very long. NEEMA will be opened to the public in a campus-wide trial this Friday. Press from around the world will be flocking to our hallowed halls to witness such history – yes! History in the making, Miss Webber, nothing less.”
Still not quite understanding what in the hell her professor was prattling on about, Lindsay began her usual robotic nodding.
At long last, after several more minutes of endured explanations she did not understand, the pair arrived at the entrance to a locked room.
“After you!” Doctor Graham cried, punching his passcode into the keypad on the locked door with gusto.
Lindsay took a hesitant step forward.Doctor Graham dithered off in another direction as the young student got her bearings. Blinking in the suddenly blinding white floodlights of what seemed to be more of an endless space of white-on-white than a room, Lindsay shielded her eyes with cupped hands. As she adjusted to the brightness, she could just make out Doctor Graham speaking to several other lab-coated figures behind an enormous control panel. The rest of the room was shockingly empty, adding to its feeling of endlessness. About a dozen dark figures dotted the sea of stark white, either in a sitting position or standing dreamily on their feet.
“Ah yes. Isn’t it exciting?” Doctor Graham suddenly appeared at her side once again, glancing around the place fondly as Lindsay jumped in surprise. “I could jump for joy too. Yippee!”
“Professor…what is this place?”
“This…is NEEMA. The future of all socializing.” He gestured grandly at all the white. With a flourish, he presented a thin booklet of documents with a pen to her. The gleam of the bright lights off the professor’s bald head blinded her momentarily.
“Before we go any further, could I ask you to sign our confidentiality pact?”
Lindsay nodded, doing so.
“Now that that’s settled, if you’d allow me to demonstrate, Miss Webber?”
Her vision now back to normal, Lindsay stared at the wildly coloured buttons scattered about the many panels, and the fluctuating charts that dissolved into one another on the attached screens so fast she had no time to take meaning from them.
“We have invented a way to make what was once merely virtual interactions, held so distant from ourselves in our personal devices, personal and physical once again, as communication should be. With the attachment of this simple earpiece,” he said, revealing a flesh-coloured piece of soft plastic, “you immediately have the means to physically access all of your beloved social networks. We’ve struck up deals with all the most important companies in the industry.”
Lindsay stared at the small device.
“Again, these are but words – nothing you can grasp or fully understand without physical experience,” the professor said. “And now, Miss Webber, I offer you the true chance of a lifetime.”
Lindsay glanced into her professor’s eyes. They held their usual sort of vacancy, but in the moment featured a great deal of intelligence and pride in this project of his. She needed to do this.
Feeling a reference for life nearly in hand, Lindsay grinned. “How does it work, Professor?”
Doctor Graham clapped his hands together in delight. “Simply place the device into either ear – you should hear a click.”
Lindsay followed suit.
“Now, I’ll ask you to sign in to all of your social networking accounts on these computers here, just for today’s trial run.” He motioned to a computer on the far end of the control panel section. As Lindsay began to do so, he peered over her shoulder.
“My, my…Miss Webber, eight Twitter followers? Five Facebook friends? Is one of those friends a fake profile for your pet dog? Lindsay, my dear child – aren’t you a Communications major?”
Lindsay’s face burned hot with shame. “Social networking isn’t really…my thing, sir. I just don’t have the time.” She could almost feel the man’s estimation of her lower in the face of this new revelation.
“Well, no matter. And with the help of NEEMA…social networking will be everybody’s ‘thing’!” Doctor Graham laughed merrily. “Well!Off we go!”
And suddenly, the seemingly empty and endless room that had stretched around the two before was filled with things. Lindsay looked about wildly. While still endless and predominantly white, it was now divided into different sections. The ceiling was an impossible blue and dotted with puffs of cloud. The other figures in the room were no longer shadowy figures, but vibrantly coloured people. They were all beautiful – familiar in a distant way, as if she had known them a long time ago.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” crowed Doctor Graham. Upon glancing at the man, Lindsay jumped again with a loud scream. The professor, before gleamingly and proudly bald, now had a full set of wavy chestnut locks, beyond the realm of a toupee’s possibilities.
“With social media, people choose how the world perceives them through what they choose to post. With NEEMA, that ability is available to you physically as well.” The professor gave a quick twirl.
“For me, it’s all about the hair. And, you know… a few other, minor adjustments.” Winking, he raised his shirt to briefly reveal chiselled abdominal muscles where a portly belly had been mere minutes before, devastating poor Lindsay.
“It’s easy, like all of NEEMA’s functions! Whatever you think, you become. Oh, how philosophical of me. Try it.”
Lindsay closed her eyes and, of all things, imagined herself with cat ears. Not a moment later, she felt points spring up from above each of her temples.
“Now, you’ll see NEEMA in its fullest form in its release on Friday, but I thought you’d be interested in seeing the basics before anyone else.”
He led Lindsay over towards the others, talking all the while.
“It’s a world of entirely your imagination – where you are in utter and complete control. You can change the weather, the atmosphere, with a thought. While we put the finishing touches on her, NEEMA is only accessible within the confines of this room – but we are fairly confident that come Friday, a user will be able to access the virtual world anywhere with the use of the ear piece.”
“When you say ‘fairly’…”
“Ah, here we are – the apps!” They stood before the sectioned areas, where the other people within the system spread apart.
“Since we are a college, we have only developed the apps we thought would be most…prudent for our students. See if you can guess which is what!”
While Lindsay was not the most socially affluent person, she also didn’t live under a rock. The section to their right featured a platform with just enough space for a person to stand, a large joystick rising out of its base. On the right of the platform was a field of daisies, on the left a raging pit of fire. She quickly identified it as Tinder. She winced as the girl operating it casually threw a boy into the fire.
On her left, beautiful blue birds flapped their majestic wings through the endless blue sky. When they opened their beaks, content such as words and images projected brightly in the air. Occasionally, the birds gracefully joined as one. Evidently, it was Twitter.
Straight ahead of them, countless small brick walls were spaced evenly apart from one another. Nobody used it. Lindsay squinted. “Facebook?”
“Correct, Miss Webber. We constructed it before learning Facebook has largely been deemed to belong to the ‘old people’ now. That explains why even I understand it!” He chuckled. Lindsay could not.
“But sir…there are young people being pitched into infernos. How has this ever been approved?”
“Oh, dear, of course it’s all virtual! The users are sitting or standing quite comfortably in the real world, impervious from all danger. Life is infinite in NEEMA. You could live forever here. I would.” Professor Graham gazed around wistfully, losing himself in the moment. Lindsay was highly unsettled.
Eventually coming back to himself, her professor clapped his hands together once again.
“Now, Lindsay – how would you like to see all the other apps NEEMA holds? The virtual library? The virtual playground?”
“In all honesty, sir…I think I’ve had enough. It’s a lot to take in, and I only just learned how to use an iPad. Thank you for showing me, though – it’s been an honour. I can’t imagine how the rest of the world is going to react.”
“You won’t have to imagine for long, Miss Webber – Friday’s the day! I’ll walk you out. Give me a few minutes…NEEMA only releases you when you want to leave, and honestly, I never do.” He laughed again.
Lindsay dreaded the idea of Friday.
Friday came. The school had been alive with buzz about the mysterious new social platform all week. Lindsay had heard a rumour people had been lined up since Wednesday to be the first to buy the ear piece, and wondered about the sanity of all those who were so ready to throw themselves into a new method of socializing without even knowing what it was. As expected, press vans had been rolling up to the school since early Thursday. There was little free space to be found anywhere on campus.
And yet when Lindsay went to her morning class, the population of the class was about the same as Lindsay’s follower count. While she revelled in the sheer lack of other Go-Getters that hung about to speak to the Anthropology professor afterwards, the uncanny feeling she felt settle in her bones could not be shaken. After two more classes with ample professor time but few to none fellow students, Lindsay had had enough.
Marching towards NEEMA’s headquarters, Lindsay began to notice the vast amounts of dreamily sitting or standing students peppered all across the campus with flesh-coloured plastic in their ears. When Lindsay tried to awaken them, she was met with no response. Beginning to jog in her alarm, she passed by a cafeteria worker yelling at a vacant boy sitting cross-legged with his earpiece in the entrance of the kitchen, causing an unaware chef to trip over him while carrying two large pizzas.
She was not calmed any further by the sight of the previously locked door left wide open. She skidded into NEEMA headquarters to the sight of hundreds of her peers all in various positions of relaxation, all with earpieces intact. Spotting her professor seated behind the control panel, Lindsay dashed over.
“Sir?” He was gone too. Now frantic with worry, Lindsay grabbed a NEEMA earpiece from a nearby table and stuffed it in her ear.
The peaceful if uncanny space she had visited with Doctor Graham was but a distant memory now. The NEEMA platform was teeming with people and mayhem. Lindsay balked at the sight them. Most of them had changed their appearance drastically to bear a resemblance to popular celebrities, but the lack of originality amongst them caused for little diversity. Lindsay was knocked to the floor by a group of Justin Biebers sprinting from the Tinder section.
The horrors of what surrounded her began to dawn on Lindsay. Nothing was as it had been before. The rejected left-swipes of Tinder, trapped in the raging flames but unable to die, had begun to form a sort-of tower out of their bodies, pulling in those who had rejected them. Facebook had been taken over by a popular gang on campus, tagging every wall, resulting in brawls falling about all around them. The birds of Twitter dive-bombed the crowd, no longer sharing any pretty messages, despite the college students’ best efforts.
While most of the NEEMA users continued to try to use the applications of the system in vain, some had become aware of the garishness of the thing, but there was nowhere to run in the endless blue of the place. The people screamed and screamed while their bodies sat secure and safe in the outside world. Lindsay wanted out, but the system wouldn’t let her. It was enjoying the vast amounts of bodies within its walls, and didn’t care to release anyone.
A Twitter bird suddenly scooped Lindsay from the crowd and began to sail overhead while she thrashed and screamed. Through the throngs of panicked and playing people, she caught an impossible glimpse of her professor. Pushing with all her might, the bird released Lindsay right on top of her professor, both of them clattering to the ground. Lindsay inadvertently felt the old man’s synthetic abs through their clothing with a shudder.
Doctor Graham had never looked more cheerful, nor more at peace – his happiness was so consuming that Lindsay thought him to be drunk.
“What happened to this place?” She yelled to be heard. “Why can’t we leave?”
The professor smiled vacantly. “Why, Lindsay…you could live forever, here. I would.”
There was a pause.
“Can I still put you down as a reference?”