Blerd Takes
Published in

Blerd Takes

Digital Footprint or Virtual Soul?

E-pets at the Intersection of Personal Data and Future Tech

Via theverge.com

I just finished the second story in The Verge’s Better Worlds series “Online Reunion,” and it was a huge departure from the first story that I read, in the best ways. If you are following the series, I can offer one piece of advice, read the short story prior to listening to or watching the accompanying adaptation.

Writer Leigh Alexander has craftily woven together a fictional narrative that thrusts readers into an unnerving personal journey of an ambitious journalist. Our protagonist, Jean, exists in a future where metadata and time itself have evolved in ways that seem utterly impossible but by the end of the story Alexander makes you feel like the fantastical happenings in the story could actually be plausible.

I’ll be careful to avoid spoiling any of the critical elements of the plot but I will be discussing some key aspects of the story to describe my initial frustration and my eventual admiration of it. I started reading “Online Reunion” with a concrete schema for shorts stories in my mind. I naively assumed that all of the standard literary devices that define short stories would be present.

I was looking for lightning quick and direct exposition, clear and defined character building, a focused timeline of events, and the customary twist at the end. It definitely had a twist at the end that tied the whole story together but the other elements of direct exposition, character building, and a self-contained linear timeline seemed almost completely absent. What Alexander accomplished by doing this was nothing short of masterful. She subversively created an empathetic connection between the stories’ main character and the reader.

Via theverge.com

Jean is suffering from a disease that doesn’t allow her to perceive or experience time with the sense of linearity that we understand it. Hours will pass and Jean will feel like years have passed. Despite the fact that she uses an electronic wearable device that is meant to keep her on track, her memories and reality seem to run together. This was reflected in the seemingly sporadic and disparate scenes of Jean interacting with a lover and disorientation while working with a woman she is interviewing about virtual pets who have taken on the personas of their owners by animating the metadata gathered during interactions.

I was as frustrated as Jean was as I was trying to make sense of it all but by the end of it there was an emotionally moving twist that made it all make sense. There were a couple of thought provoking elements in terms of technology that I left this story thinking about. The first was connected to personal data, as the technology that we use becomes more and more dependent on knowing who we are and AI technology becomes more advanced it is conceivable that the essence of a person could be captured in the cloud an reanimated in different forms. The other thing that struck me was the use of virtual pets as the medium through which peoples’ “souls” were animated.

I am young enough (or old enough depending on your perspective) to have seen the birth of and. participated in the e-pet craze of the 90’s. I owned a plethora of the plastic devices with one inch by one inch screens that housed attention hungry digital pets. I vividly recall having a real emotional connection with these pets and feeling a real need to take care of them. I felt real sadness when they died even though I knew that I could just reset the brightly colored plastic devices.

Leigh Alexander takes the idea of creating an emotional connection with technology and turns it on its head. She makes readers conceive of a future where technology reaches out to make an emotional connection with us. As disconcerting as that idea sounds here, Alexander makes me believe that it’s a good one, especially if it could help folks with neurodegenerative diseases experience a better quality of life.

Originally published in BLERD Takes on January 23, 2019

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