“De-screened”

A short story on our obsession with pixels, and how to break free…

“Ok, see you soon,” she typed on her phone as she half-heartedly opened the door.

As she closed the door behind her, but not really in the room yet, she sent the message.

The narrow green room was empty, all but for one man, Roger, who was sitting alone in the corner, staring blankly at the screens in front of him.

Jaylia sat down on the sofa opposite, close to the door, and thought she should at least say hello. She got her phone out again, having only parted sight with it for a few seconds.

“Hi Roger,” she typed as casually as she could.

She heard Roger’s screen make a noise. Roger looked to his new message. He shifted his hands slightly and typed back. “Oh, hi Jaylia.”

There was a pause.

“What you doing?” Roger messaged.

Roger, as of yet, had not noticed that Jaylia was in the room with him, he was too transfixed by the pixels before his now robotic gaze.

“I’m just sitting over to your left,” she replied, unsurprised that he had not looked away from his screen or even been aware of his surroundings since she had walked in.

Roger read this response, but did not turn to look at Jaylia. Jaylia did not turn to look at Roger. She was just waiting for a response, slightly nervously.

“Oh, ok,” sent Roger.

As the message was sent, Jaylia’s two expected visitors entered the room. Jaylia noticed they had the latest upgrades, and in response she felt slightly jealous, whilst partially grateful that she herself did not have a holographic screen permanently in front of her face, with all her messages, updates, work, games and news forever before her eyes.

Jaylia was quite behind the times in comparison to her friends. She still only used a phone to send messages. She felt it convenient enough, and somewhere in her being did not feel as if she wanted anything bigger to consume her attention. Roger felt he was a bit behind the times, since his new computer was over a month old now. A new one had been released a few days ago that had a 0.1 trillibit extension on its Retherograde System, and he was a bit gutted that he was now missing out. He did not leave his chair very much, he already had everything he wanted where he was, in his chair, with his surround-screen that would completely encompass his entire vision. Of course his levitating keyboard was good, although he had forgotten how much he liked it — now it was just normal — and not as good as the new holographic ones that were coming out.

But the two new visitors were well up-to-date. They were really on top of their game. They had the new Hollo 1000. A small projector on their belt could project a computer screen right before their eyes, whenever they wanted, which lit up the skin on their faces with a bluish-fluorescent glow. The default setting for this projection feature was “permanent”, and the instructions, strangely, had not advised how this could be turned off. But that could be sorted out later. Why would they want to turn it off now, in the middle of the day with friends? A section of the screen produced a picture of what their surroundings looked like, so they could manoeuver around fairly easily. They could even type in the air with a holographic keyboard that would appear right in front of them.

One of these new entrants, Paul, a young man’s body with a screen on top of its shoulders, started a shared message between the four of them.

“Hey Guys!” he typed excitedly. “What’s going on?”

And so they continued, all four of them engaging in conversation, sometimes quietly laughing, sometimes excited, sometimes upset, sometimes shocked at what each one would write. There was a constant silence in the room that they were oblivious to (especially since all but one had now put their listening devices over their ears), and yet there was an eerie hum of electricity with the intermittent crackle of speedy and sporadic typing.

This, believe it or not, was actually becoming rarer with people as time was going on. Some of them had seen the absolute pointlessness of seeing their friends, and so did not even bother gathering in the same room anymore. They could talk just the same when in different areas, so why bother meeting up? The chat group of four had now increased to seven, as their housemates had arrived home from campus, and were over in the kitchen.

Jaylia’s phone was very old now, over a whole year old, and so it was not working so well as of late. But this was to be expected. “Just buy a new one,” people would say to her, “we have all got new ones.” But strangely, Jaylia had not instantly jumped to the command of her peers and elders, and did not particularly want to buy a new one. She was now in mid-type on the sofa, responding to a particularly boring joke from Paul, when the screen of her phone began to flicker, like a lamp-bulb with a bad connection. She started to panic, feeling as if she was about to be cut off from her friends completely, when suddenly…the phone went completely dead.

Darkness.

She couldn’t believe it. Maybe she should have just bought a new one the week after she had bought this one — then she would have had the extra Genulus Upgrade that may have saved her from this catastrophe!

“Aaaggghhh!” she screamed, in an astonishing mix of frustration, fear and also immense liberation.

“Aaaggghhh!” she screamed again, this time slightly smiling.

The other housemates were absolutely, completely, stunned. They even stopped typing. Roger even shifted the third panel of his surround screen so he could look at what had just made these weird noises.

And there Jaylia stood, after leaping up involuntarily. When was the last time she had made noise through her face? It was weird, it felt strange.

She struggled to remember how to do this…

“Mmm…ma…my fff…fffff…phone has just broke”…the last four words tumbled out, as if a dam had been built up for a while to hold her back, and it had now been knocked down.

Now it was easy.

“My phone’s broken.”

Quickly Roger responded, he pulled back his third segment of screen and typed in a blaze: “Well that means you can get a new one now!”

He felt a tinge of sickly happiness, mixed with a flavor of jealousy that his friend simply had to buy something new today…

But of course Jaylia had no idea what he was doing, since her phone was no longer working. The implications of this had not yet struck Roger, who was eagerly waiting for a reply on his screen.

“I’m just going to go outside for a bit,” Jaylia said.

Completely stunned, the two up-to-date hologram kids were relaying the conversation to the housemates in the other room. It seemed Jaylia had gone absolutely mad. Not only was she speaking words out loud, but she also had not suggested she would be buying a new phone today.

One of the up-to-date hologram friends, Paul, began to feel sorry for her. But there was nothing he could do, since Jaylia had no phone. The other up-to-dater, Susan, had no sympathy, and quickly began blogging about the stupendous event that had just transpired.

Jaylia left the room, left the house, and this time noticed herself opening and closing the doors. They felt different, like living things that always stood strong and sturdy without a word.

She walked outside, and realised she had forgotten what it was like to not be looking, or at least half-looking, at her once all-consuming screen. Her eyes felt strange, as if they were very tired, but grateful to be looking at something that was not electronic.

At first she began to itch a little, as if a screen would be her scratch, but it soon subsided as she began to actually look around.

Had she ever really noticed her surroundings? She was not sure. Everywhere she looked around her, people were hunched over, looking at and tending to their lives on screens. So much to say, so much to do, that they seemed to be missing everything around them.

Ever since the cars became self-drivable, what were previously windscreens on cars had now become large computer screens, and inside the cars would sit people, who would usually use the screens to search for new cars to buy.

She looked over to the local playing fields. She had a faint memory of how it was growing up, when the playing fields near her home were full of people young and old playing games, football, basketball, cricket, netball; whereas now the field was a large grey building, where people would go to play video games with each other, like the latest football, basketball, cricket or netball game. There were some sections of the building where people could pretend to play the game with their bodies, so that their character on the screen would move in the same way as they did. But this was becoming too tiresome, and most people were drifting towards the hand-held controller method. It just seemed more realistic somehow, as if you actually had better control over your on-screen character. Every game would end with praise from the screen, and an update as to the new games that were coming out.

Recently Jaylia had forgotten a lot about how it felt to have a body. Over the passed few months, she wasn’t really aware of it at all, she felt more as if she was just a head, that happened to have a body attached to it.

But now she could feel her feet on the ground, through a thick layer of rubber. What did the ground really feel like? She took off her shoe and stepped back on to the ground, but she felt a sharp pain and looked down to see her foot beginning to bleed. Not only was her foot very fragile now, but also the ground was made out of a dead, hard, sharp-feeling material called Cheepntuff. It made a hard uniform layer above the ground, since the normal earth beneath was too unstable, uneven, and frankly — messy.

So the shoe went back on, and this was fine for now.

A few miles away, news had spread of Jaylia’s excursion and abandonment of screenery living. The National Screen Association (the NSA), had picked up on the happenings from viewing the messages of her housemates.

The NSA, in this particular tale, were essentially a company owned by ScreenCo. ScreenCo made and sold most of the screen-devices at the time, and their products were distributed worldwide. Using shared technology, the NSA could spy on, or “oversee” everything that anyone did, clicked or typed on their apparently private screens. As ridiculous as this sounds, the NSA were allowed to do it. It was of course for security reasons, for the wellbeing of the nation, and for instances such as Jaylia’s.

The NSA had picked up on phrases like “broken phone”, “spoke out loud”, and even “screamed” on the messages of Jaylia’s housemates, (although the NSA had also heard Jaylia scream through the microphone on Roger’s third screen panel), and they could see no recent activity linking Jaylia to the immediate purchase of a new screen-based device. So, they knew something must have been wrong. In just a few minutes, the drones were deployed. They were ready and waiting in their dark armored aircraft, which sat in a big empty hangar, and when given the go-ahead, the pilot took off towards Jaylia’s house.

Since her phone was now broken, Jaylia’s exact location was not certain. But the NSA and its drones figured she could not be far from her home. She was not even registered to sit behind the screen of a car, and surely her out-of-practice legs would not be working too efficiently.

This may all sound rather sinister. A young innocent civilian being tracked down by a secret spy group who knew before she did what her own friends had been saying about her. But there is nothing sinister about it. It was for the good of the nation and for the good of Jaylia, who surely by now was missing the benefits of screen-on-face technology.

The dark grey aircraft approached Jaylia’s area, and the search began from above. They were too high up for any human to see from the ground, but using their surveillance equipment, the NSA could view the ground and its inhabitants quite well.

Jaylia was easy to spot from the sky, since she was looking horizontally in different directions.

“There she is, deploy drones,” the air-watchmen next to the pilot ordered.

“Deploying drones,” replied the pilot. He pushed a button and the drones were deployed.

The drones, until recently, were salesman. They would be stored in the cargo-section of a standard plane, waiting with their own parachutes that they had bought from one another, and when the hatchet opened, out they flew, keen to spot their target, armed with their most clinical sales pitches. It was a race to the ground, all keen to earn their commission from the next screen they could sell.

But they had been replaced recently. They required a wage and half-decent working conditions, and ScreenCo could no longer comply with these demands.

Now the drones were…have you guessed? They were screens. Big screens on wheels. They had large curved bases for more secure landings, and were released into the sky without a trace of anxiety.

They flew through the air silently, completely motionless, not even turned on yet.

When they had reached a certain height, but still out of customer view, their parachutes were released, their screens went from darkness to brightness, and their cameras locked on to the device-less girl, who was now beginning to wonder about certain things, like what on earth thoughts were, and how they even emerged in the first place.

“Hurry!” shouted the NSA boss from their miles-away headquarters, who, although having not yet incorporated the mind-reading technology into Jaylia’s area, had a feeling that after a few hours of screen-less contemplation, this girl would start to become dangerous. There was nothing worse for ScreenCo than a human who could de-screen other humans, and for other humans, there was nothing more attractive than a happily screen-less being.

Somehow Jaylia knew they were coming. They were still too high to see as of yet, but she somehow just knew, without even needing to use her head. It was as if her body was like a receiver of information, rather than just a lump of flesh like the screens would usually tell her. She felt as if she was being watched from above. An image flashed in her mind of a group of faceless bodies in grey suits, crowding round a big screen that showed off a bird’s eye view of her road.

She looked to her left and noticed a nearby abandoned running track. It was all overgrown with wild grasses, flowers, birds and insects. It was absolutely teeming with life. Signs were posted around the edges of the oval-shaped hub of nature, which read: “No trespassing. Coming soon — free screen-dating,” with the underlying slogan: “Meet your perfect screenpartner, and enjoy the perfect life.” The small print at the bottom read “To enjoy this free service, you must purchase at least one Screendater 300 on the door, along with the Tuesday, Wednesday or Weekend software, depending on your screening day.”

Of course Jaylia had not the time to pay attention to this. The screens were now visibly overhead, and how glorious the sky looked! A seemingly limitless screen of blue, with four specks of brighter blue with their puffs of parachutes descending from above, sometimes making little corkscrew patterns in the wind.

She walked past the signs and delved deep into the thicket of plants and flowers, with the noise of birds and clicking of insects becoming louder and louder. The grass was coming up to her ears, and the freshness of it all seemed to give her a slight tingling buzz under her skin. She reached the centre, where there was a small patch of flattened grass, as if someone had been sitting there before. She sat down, submerged in the undergrowth. All she could now see was the blueness above her, and the wildness around her.

Despite the chaotic and uncontrolled appearance of this field, she felt protected by it, and the variety of colours and sweet fragrances that the flowers were blooming with, had left her lost for words.

The screens had lost sight of her, although they knew she had gone somewhere into this untamed overgrowth. They were programmed to land near their target, and provide the best deal, on the spot, there and then for their customer.

They landed coldly, one by one, a few meters from the edge of the field, and disconnected from their parachutes. They were like sturdy bright rectangles just standing there, in a staggered group, not doing anything. Then, all at once, four wheels shot out of their bottom edges, making the man-sized screens jump up like excited children.

They began to play their sales pitches from their speakers. They were full of energy, but extremely boring and insincere. They were all recordings of previous salesman, who after recording their own pitches, were told that they would no longer be working with ScreenCo or the NSA.

These giant screens were blind to the whereabouts of their customer. Their cameras were well designed to locate most human life forms, but standing before the living overgrowth of beauty, all they could see was light.

Their wheels were only built for flat surfaces, and so could only travel around the short grass of the perimeter, which still proved to be a challenge for them. Their wheels made a slightly laboring sound as they began to circle the edge of the overgrown field.

Jaylia was sitting in the centre, listening to the whirs and clicks of the screens and their wheels, with the sales-pitches blaring over the top of it all. She was quiet, slightly afraid of what may happen, but also enjoying the thrill. It seemed she had almost forgotten she was even alive until a few minutes ago.

Now was the time to go undetected. How could she be free from all of this? She did not wish to stay here forever, however lovely the field was, and the circulating screens appeared as if they may be inexhaustible in their attempts to gain her attention.

Hours went by, and it appeared to be a stalemate. The NSA were back at the headquarters, still watching on their own screens, unsure as to whether to send in a one-time human salesman, or begin to destroy the field to expose their customer.

But the NSA still wanted to remain discreet. If people were reminded again that they were being spied on, this could once again prove to be dangerous for the company.

Just last year an NSA salesman had let-slip his activities, feeling he needed to expose the apparent corruption. Luckily, he was soon arrested for treason, for breaching security rules, and the public was distracted by the story that a famous person was now engaged to be married to a non-famous person.

Sending humans in to take care of this blip was risky. And so they waited, leaving Jaylia somewhere in the undergrowth of the field, to succumb to the temptation of look, blink and click technology.

But Jaylia was way passed it. She was not interested anymore. It felt as if her brain were changing shape, like a memory-foam pillow emerging back to its natural form, after being sat on for a while by mistake.

An idea sprang up from within her, something she had always known but never been aware of. It was previously secret knowledge that all servants of ScreenCo — including the NSA, its employees and its drones — were only able to respond to, nurture and detect one thing: discontentment. It was discontentment that had been driving her this far, the dissatisfaction of events now passed, with the hope of the next purchase acting as a painkiller for her and humanity’s sense of discontent. The next message, the next confirmation of existence, the next screen, the next banishment of misery, the next video, the next attempt to keep the sense of incompleteness at bay.

“If I am not with discontentment, these screens can not see me. If I am free from neediness, the people watching will not notice me,” Jaylia said to herself. To the people of ScreenCo, if you were not carrying the energy of “need something else”, then it was as if you were invisible to them, non-existent, even.

And so how was this possible? How could Jaylia really loosen the habit of a lifetime, the seed within herself that had been watered, fed and grown by ScreenCo so that she could contribute to their own growth? She did not know. But she did notice, that it hadn’t ever worked. Needing something to banish the dissatisfaction, the restlessness, the background sense of lack, was only ever a temporary fix. No “next thing” had ever worked.

She could hear the gently humming screens, who were tirelessly circulating the perimeter of her hideout. “Perhaps I can not get rid of it,” she mused, “perhaps it is inevitable.” With her relinquishment of struggling with herself, suddenly her dissatisfaction was exposed like a burglar in floodlights. It froze, trembled and disappeared. It had never had any foundation other than her belief and avoidance. Her belief had kept it there, lurking around the edges of her being, taking what energy it could; and her avoidance had kept the lights off. Now the lights were on, and they weren’t going out. She stood from her meditation arena, and walked confidently from the ear-high grasses and insect noises. She walked in between two guarding screens, who had not begun re-playing their sales pitches yet. She barely even knew they were there, and they continued to circulate the area.

The NSA surveillors remained glued to their own screens, still waiting for some kind of movement. Jaylia was free. Out of the system. Completely de-screened, immaculately clean, like a walking diamond. She noticed each of her steps back towards the road from where she came, and noticed the eyes of her neighbours peering out of their windows at her, putting down their screens, and moving outside to join her.


This story is from the book “Inner Peace Fables”

This story is in no way linked to or representative of any persons or organisations whatsoever.

Thanks for reading.