Imagine you live in a country. It’s larger than Lichtenstein, but smaller than America, lots smaller. Maybe something like Portugal or Austria even. That’s significantly smaller than Texas. France is a bit smaller than Texas. We’re talking some country only a quarter or less of California. It’s still a country with cities and such–it would take quite a while to walk from one end to the other, especially if you stopped to talk to folks along the way.
Now suppose, in order to make it much, much easier for everyone in the country to talk to each other, all the sports fields–soccer pitches both professional and amateur, all the school yards, all of the parks–were converted into Talk Bubbles. A new technology. Inflated domes were put over these areas, shiny so you couldn’t see inside. Everyone could step inside the Bubble nearest them and talk to anyone…anyone, that is, who also had stepped inside a Bubble in their own locale. You didn’t even have to pay to walk inside your nearest Bubble; all you had to do was agree to wear a monitoring device which you were assured didn’t listen in “exactly” but parsed words it heard and relayed those words back to the folks who ran the Bubbles. Oh, and the device also relayed where you walked in the Bubble. That’s all. Easy-peasy, ever so sleazy. (woops, sorry about that).
You love it at first. Your job took you to Lisbon but look, right over there’s a handful of schoolmates from college, from that little village we loved so well (and so long ago)! And more, from your elementary school! You can just talk to them! Of course, as you walk over to them you have several persons intercept you and say things like, “Have you ever wondered about removing your ugly warts?” and “Let me tell you why you should never invest in stocks!” It’s annoying but you brush them off, basically just ignoring them and walking away.
Over time you start to wonder why the guy about the warts–or a woman; it’s not always the same person but the message is the same–keeps intercepting you no matter where you walk. You realize you once said to your friends, “Remember that song from when we were children, ‘Walter Wart, the Freaky Frog’?” (That’s a real song by the Thorndike Pickledish Choir; look it up.) Suddenly you realize you started seeing Wart Guy after you asked that question. Then you realize you’re starting to see that guy and his cohorts everywhere you walk. Even weirder, nameless folk come up to you and say things like, “Do you know Melissa Mickleberger? She’s over there.” Sometimes you do know Melissa, but sometimes Melissa is just some stranger. These interruptions occur a little more frequently now…plus your paranoia starts to grow, making it doubly annoying.
Later you find out the owners of the Bubbles actually are listening to what you say, and they’re selling that information. Never mind why, it’s too boring and scary all at the same time. What’s far more annoying to the point of effrontery seems to be occurring more and more: a contentious election approaches, and when you’re having a nice polite discussion with your friends, someone else walks up and screams “WHAT A COMPLETE IDIOT YOU ARE!”. Your friend just smiles and says, “Oh, don’t mind Roger, he just gets a little worked up is all.” Then pretty soon your friend starts saying to you, “You know, I’m not sure about that. My friend Roger says, ….” and then adds something so outlandish, you wonder what has happened to this friend of yours. If your friend and you were still in grade five, you would merely point out that Roger also wears his shirts backwards and the two of you would laugh, secure in the knowledge that you’re both still on the same friendship page, and Roger is a Very Peculiar Individual who shouldn’t be trusted to provide accurate, truthful, relevant information. Instead, when you cautiously query your friend privately, you find out she thinks Roger might be on to something. “After all, a lot of Roger’s friends are saying the same thing, and lately so are quite a few of my friends. You’re still my friend, aren’t you?”
Disturbingly, you’ve noticed your friendship now depends, at the very least, on tolerating Roger, and you can see the writing on the wall. Pretty soon you’ll have to agree with what Roger says if you want to remain friends. A friendship built on shared experience has become predicated on Belief and Opinion. You start to notice also that all of this friend’s friends say almost the exact same thing, much like a Twilight Zone episode or that Stepford Wives thing from a long time ago.
It finally comes to this: when you’re standing around as part of a circle of old high school chums–and frankly you don’t know a lot of them, but the ones you do know are all friends with the other ones, and hey, it was a big school–the topic turns political again. Strong opinions get stated, opinions you agree with. One person, though, says something not logical and all the others immediately say, “yeah! That’s right!” When you speak up to say, “well, but that’s not actually factual or logical” the group turns on you as if you were carrying typhoid or you had just molested a child or something equally reprehensible.
You walk to the Bubble’s exit. To the attendant there you state, “I am not coming back. You can take my name off of the list of approved entrants.” “Oh, no!” cries the attendant. “You can’t be serious! Are you sure you don’t want to just take a vacation from the Bubble?” You’ve taken vacations before so you say, “no, I don’t,” to which the attendant replies, sorrowfully, “well, okay, but any time you want to come back in, all you have to do is show up, say to the current attendant ‘just reactivate my Bubble Device’ and you can rejoin the Community!” The last phrase has a near-religious tone to it.
While walking the streets of Lisbon you begin to realize some things. Virtually all of those friends with whom you connected were not so important that you ever took time to look them up when you were in the home village. The few you talked to who weren’t historical friends–in other words, people you met in the Bubble–were people you only knew from limited conversation in the Bubble. You’ve had similarly engaging but shallow conversations in bars on a Thursday evening with strangers. Your friend who kept bringing Roger to the conversation had a habit of listening to and spreading outrageous gossip about teachers and students when she and you were classmates. You also realize your True Friends were those you stayed in contact with before the Bubbles. Though a few say they miss your presence in the Bubble, when they see you on the streets, you still see them, you still laugh/cry/argue with them. Nothing has changed; life still goes on outside the Bubble; the Bubble is not life or an approximation thereof.
And then it hits you: the Bubble has somehow focused, distilled, accentuated the tendencies we had before. It has connected the gossips from your early schooling with those of your university and those early co-workers. All of the people who annoyed you individually but in isolation as you grew up now have the ability to connect in the Bubble and reinforce each other’s message. They’ve grown in volume simply because they speak in unison. The promise of the Bubble–that we can connect and forge a more social and socially aware community–has produced just the opposite. People are meant to interact differently: anonymously sometimes, reservedly most of the time, and definitely more intermittently than in the Bubble. In the Bubble people seem to talk as if they are in their cars where no one can hear what they’re saying. What the Bubble has produced then are people revealing the thoughts which just ought not to be revealed. Not that individuals should repress themselves, but any psychotherapist will likely confess they hear things which should remain between the patient and the therapist for the good of society, for the individual, and for the individual’s friends and social life.
After a few weeks you notice other, rival Bubbles have sprung up which you did not know about. You see that the people entering these Bubbles do not enter your former company’s Bubble. Far from encouraging societal discourse, you realize people have been splintered into non-communicating Bubbles built, not on ideology but on the corporate interests of those launching the bubbles. Still, you try one, thinking it might offer something a bit less manipulated than the first Bubble. It does, in a limited way, but none of the people you want to talk to are here. The Bubble itself is confusing. Soon, lacking patronage, this alternate Bubble shuts down.
You go back to the Bubble nearest you operated by the original Bubble company (OBC?). When you approach the door, the attendant gets ready to admit you but you say, “No, I want you to erase me from your lists. I want you to make it so I will never enter a Bubble of yours again. I want you to delete all of the information you’ve gathered about me. I frankly never want to enter a Bubble of yours again.” The attendant huffs and makes you sign some forms where you acknowledge you will lose all of the conversations you’ve ever had in the Bubble–to which you inwardly say, “oh thank God”–and then it’s done.
You walk away with a bounce in your step, knowing you will have True and Real conversations for the rest of your life.