Check out our latest sci-fi story on the future of social networking for teens.
Ashley was the first in our school to go NI. On day one, she was surrounded when she entered the building, and everyone wanted to touch her, wanted to Affect her, wanted to see what all the fuss was about. She let them. I touched her, too. She was warmer than I’d expected.
We’d all seen the ads, which had started showing up on Twitter and Snapchat about a year prior. The first time I actually saw, in person, someone who’d gone NI was at the mall months before Ashley. I was with my mom, and this woman walked past us. She was just glowing. Literally, her perfect skin emitted light. I could see she loved Imagine Dragons, PINK by Victoria’s Secret, and doing squats. She’d had sushi for lunch, and she was going clubbing with some equally attractive man later that night. I knew this all in a glance, just by looking at her. She had an entourage, and everyone touched her, just like they touched Ashley, swiping and scrolling. Affecting. In hindsight, she was probably a bamNI plant: someone paid to go NI to promote it. My parents call people like that sell-outs. But I don’t know what that means.
At our school, Ashley was the first to go NI. And everyone surrounded her on the first day. Wait, did I say that already? Anyway, if there was such thing as a ticket to popularity, she bought it. Or her parents bought it for her.
She wore a skirt and tank top, and she looked flawless. Just like that woman at the mall. The freckles and tiny moles on her shoulders were gone. The acne on her cheeks cleared up. The birthmark everyone knew was on her hip, the one identified by everyone in swim class freshman year, had vanished. She’d always been beautiful, but now she was flawless. Everyone knew that it was just the “Perfection” filter on bamNI, but it didn’t matter. In that moment, she was it. Literally.
She stood there until first bell, hands at her side, smiling while everyone’s fingers ran over her, scrolling through her memories, her daily routines, her Adores and her Blahs. Photos were across her back. Playlists were on her arms. Her ranked friendlist, her Tribe, which adjusted in real time, was on her legs; one minute her best friend was Julia, but a few Adores later, it was Lilly.
Ashley’s current mood was on her chest. It said “princessy.” Each time someone touched the “Adore” button on the information on her skin, she giggled a little and smiled wider.
Touch touch touch. Adore Adore Adore.
Her eyes floated back into her head. People Adored her just to see her react, and they took pictures of her reactions using their phones and sent them to their friends on Kik and Twitter, all of which suddenly seemed ridiculously limited and dated.
I looked at my own phone. How quaint.
When classes started, Ashley still stood there, and a few others too, remained to Affect with her. When a teacher found them lingering in the hall, the other students scattered, but Ashley just stood there, smiling, eyes glazed over, as if on some drug. “You’re causing a distraction,” the teacher said. “Do you have anything to cover yourself with?”
Ashley looked down, and in a flash, her skirt and tanktop vanished, and in their place appeared jeans and a sweatshirt, all skin tight and glowing, digital, like the rest of her. Just another image on the body screen.
“Thank you,” said the teacher. “Now get to class.”
I didn’t see her again until third period when we had chemistry together. Ashley sat in the center of the room, and nobody could concentrate on the classwork. Marcus sat behind her. He clicked Blah on her sweatshirt, so she changed, this time into an open-backed blouse for him, so he could Affect.
That’s what interactions on bamNI are called: Affects.
Fifteen minutes into class, her body went black, and she opened her mouth and emitted an attention getting tone, a rhythm, some new music. I’d say that all eyes went to her, but by now you should know that they were already there anyway. She stood up.
“Ashley, please have a seat,” Mr. Johnson snipped.
“I can’t help it,” she said. And she couldn’t.
Just then her voice changed, getting more mature, sensual, alluring. She said, “Your regular bamNI experience will continue after this 30 second ad.” Her body now flared white, lighting up the room. Then images of people in public using their phones. “Twenty years ago, a new world of possibilities was brought to you by smartphones. Mobile technology and social media changed the way you interact with your friends, and improved the way you make friends. It changed the way you see yourself, and enhanced the way others see you. Now it’s time for new possibilities.”
Ashley appeared possessed. On her body, selfies and profiles and friend lists and like buttons scrolled by, the history of all social media. Everyone, even Mr. Johnson, watched. “Now imagine a life free of your phone’s limitations. Hate the feeling of a dead battery? Do you know the dread of a dropped, broken device? Tired of feeling withdraw because you can’t take out your phone at work or school? And really, consider the absurdity of defining yourself on a five-inch screen.” Now Ashley’s body came alive with video of others who had gone NI. Young people. Beautiful people. Not staring at phones but at each other. They were being seen exactly how they wanted to be seen. Ashely, or the voice that came from Ashley’s mouth, went on, “bamNI, Body and Mind Network Integration, bridges the gap between your profile and your reality. bamNI eliminates the feeling of disconnection when your phone is not in your hand. Leave the cell phones for your parents. It’s time to go NI. Don’t just be liked. Be Adored.”
The moment the ad ended, every student in the class jumped from their chairs to Adore it. They reached across each other to touch her, to associate themselves with the ad. And as they touched her, you could see the ranked Tribe members on Ashley’s leg adjust accordingly, while her face and body again took on that euphoric posture.
“That’s enough everyone!” Mr. Johnson yelled. “Please take your seats.”
The cluster of bodies began to break up, and Ashley was left standing in the middle of the room, videos of NI-bodied people laughing and smiling on her chest.
“Ashley,” Mr. Johnson said. “Please … get dressed?”
She looked down at her body, swiped at it with her hands, and appeared again in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“Sorry about that,” she said. Really, it wasn’t like her to cause a scene like that.
“Ashley, that thing’s not going to work in here. Can you shut off those ads? Turn it all off?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think they just run like that every ninety minutes.”
“Check your settings please.”
She closed her eyes and placed her fingers on her temples.
“Ashley … please wait until after class.”
She nodded, took a seat, and when the bell rang, that was the last I saw of her for the day.
By the following week, four more students had gone NI. Body and Mind Network Integration was just that, meaning those on bamNI were a part of something nobody else was. They occupied their own space, their own network. They played by their own rules. The five NIs were always smiling, always appeared to be in a state of euphoria. Non-NIs had no way of knowing what was happening in there. It was the most exclusive club in school.
And there is nothing like a closed door to make people want to get on the other side.
I was in class with someone on bamNI who would burst out laughing in the middle of the quiet room. Maybe he was laughing with another NI in the school. Or maybe together they were laughing with a NI in Lagos. Or maybe they were Affecting with Autumn Lace, a Snap Star who just famously went Ni. Who could know?
In another class, where we were made to spend time working out complex algebra problems on paper, the NI would shout out solutions before anyone else had even gotten their pencils out. I was supposed to keep my dumb smartphone in my pocket. Take it out and it gets taken away. But all the tools I had on it, internet and calculator and aps and friends, were all right there in the NI’s brain, and nobody could take THAT away. They knew answers to problems before I even had my pencil out. Wait … sorry I said that already.
Each week, more kids would show up on bamNI. In less than a month, the question changed from, “Who is on bamNI?” to, “Who is not on bamNI?” In fact, where they used to say non-NI for someone not yet integrated, they started just saying Non. It was like being a non-person. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be a Non. To not make bamNI a part of your life was to not have a life. So I went to work on my parents. And after so many nights of negotiation, they agreed to call our service provider.
The device looked sick and twisted before it was installed. It was draped over the installation table, which was the same type of table used for examinations at the doctor’s office. It was see-through, but not really. Kind of in a milky way, like molted snakeskin, white and scaley. The installer held it up for us to inspect before the procedure.
“What are those needles in the neck of the suit?” my dad asked.
“Just some of the connections,” the installer explained. “Some of them are the inputs, where the brain sends information to bamNI. Others are outputs: bamNI sending information back to the user. Then these right here,” he said, running his gloved finger over a set of longer needles, “these are the SD injectors. They’ll go right into the back of the skull. Safely, of course.”
“SD? What the heck is SD?”
“Dad!” I yelled, mortified.
“It’s okay,” the installer said to me. “These are good questions. SD is synthetic dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger in your brain that’s partly responsible for pleasure. Dopamine is released naturally when you get rewards, and we know that using standard forms of social media causes such releases. When someone likes your selfie, the brain releases dopamine, everything feels great.”
“I don’t selfie,” my dad replied.
“Well, people who do know it feels good to be liked. bamNI is just kicking things up a notch.”
My mom scrunched up her face like she always does when she’s confused. The resulting wrinkles were so deep you could hide a penny in them. “Isn’t dopamine responsible for addiction, too?”
“It is. But this is different.”
“This is synthetic.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. That makes sense.” The wrinkleface remained. She was still confused, but she was trying not to embarrass me. Unlike my dad.
“How the heck does her brain know how to talk to that thing?”
“It’s okay. Everyone needs to understand.”
The installer kept trying to reassure me, but I just wanted my parents out of the room now. They weren’t even paying for this; I’d agreed to use the car money I’d been saving. Having a car wouldn’t do me any good anyway if I wasn’t on bamNI.
The installer went on, “The science is simple really. The brain changes and adapts. Especially at these younger ages,” he said, gesturing at me. “Neural pathways are still being formed. So it’s important to tap into her now. Her brain will figure out this new way of operating in no time.”
Now my dad took the suit from the installer’s hands, held it up to the light. “How are we supposed to see her through this thing?”
“It becomes mostly transparent when it adheres to the skin. Kind of like a wet sheet of paper. But transparent isn’t exactly the goal here.”
“How is her body supposed to grow when it’s on?”
“Well, it probably won’t. bamNI fully acknowledges that the device will restrict some growth and development. They recommend taking a break and having the suit removed in about a year. Give her body a chance to catch up. It’ll be time for an upgrade by then anyway. bamNI PLUS is already in the works.”
“I just don’t know about any of this.”
“I understand. But, if you folks would like to step outside, we can get started.”
As I lay in bed that night, it may have looked to anyone watching that I was sleeping. Really, I hardly slept at all. I was up most of the night setting up a profile, or, as it was known on bamNI, a Self. On the outside of the suit was the body-integrated touch screen. But on the inside were thousands of tiny sensors. Together they collected a three dimensional image of my body. I applied the Perfection filter, of course, and, for a small fee, the Sculpt filter, which took off here and added there. I actually felt the suit cinch up and mold me. Instant diet!
I found some stores from the mall that had gotten on the bamNI network and picked out this sic digital skirt and top, and I set the image as my Self. In minutes I got my first Adore. It was nobody I knew, but the rush was immediate. He was Affecting me and I liked it. The back of my neck tingled and the SD worked its way in. I’d never felt so good.
I started Adoring my favorite bands and stores and restaurants, and I sent Tribe requests to everyone at school. Then I made my first LifeLine entry. “Almost died going NI today … I have a terminally embarrassing dad. No cure!”
I waited. And waited.
It was like … like … it just felt so good.
But that was the only one. No more Adores. Was I not clever enough? I thought hard about what my next entry would be.
For Ashley, the first day of school after going NI was about the excitement of standing out. She had everyone’s attention, and everyone wanted her attention. For me, the experience wasn’t about standing out. It was about the relief of finally fitting in again.
I didn’t get anywhere near the Adores she did. A few Nons Affected me while I was at my locker, learning lots about me while I knew nothing about them. My friend April clicked Adore on my skirt and it sent that SD rush to my head. And in first period, when my ad ran and I stood up in the classroom, along with seven other NIs, and recited the bamNI sales pitch while my body glowed, nobody turned and looked at me. They’d seen it all before.
Still, I wasn’t bothered. I didn’t need to be the hottest thing in school. But you want to know who was bothered? Ashley.
She walked into third hour that Monday morning in digital jeans and a hoodie and stood at the front of the classroom with her teeth clenched and her eyes narrowed. She made scornful eye contact with each new NI, myself included. The mood on her chest said “glamorous,” but her face said contemptuous. Weeks ago, everyone rushed to her when she entered a room. Everyone touched her screen and devoured her pics. I’ll never forget the way her eyes rolled back with all the Adoration. But with so many more people on bamNI, it was getting harder for her to stand out. It was hard for anyone to stand out.
She looked to make sure the teacher wasn’t in the room yet. When she felt it was safe, she stretched out her arms, her body flared white, and when it dimmed, she was in her bra and panties, and there was a new digital tattoo stretching from her side, down her hip and onto her thigh.
“What do you think of this tattoo?” she said as she walked slowly between desks, stretching out her leg for people to soak in the colorful, vibrant, digital ink. “I met the artist while I was in bed last night. He was in New Zealand. I let him try a new design on me and it was like I could feel the needles.”
Touch touch touch. Adore Adore Adore.
That sneer on her face when she entered the room was gone now, and in its place, well …
It really was beautiful. And must have been expensive. People don’t do tattoo work like that for free. But I couldn’t get comfortable looking at her walking around the classroom nearly naked. It all felt so desperate. She was a changed person. Not that I’m judging. I guess if you want to stand out in a crowd, if you need that kind of validation, you need to push your boundaries.
Touch touch touch. Adore Adore Adore.
She got to my desk. I looked her in the eyes.
“Don’t you Adore it?” she said.
I looked around the room. All eyes were on me.
“I do,” I said. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. It occurred to me then that where this tattoo now was, there used to be a large, purple birthmark. I reached out and touched it, helping deliver that dopamine fix she needed so badly.
“Mmm.” She closed her eyes, them opened them again. “And I Adore your profile. Nice playlist!” As she said the words, I felt her finally accept my Tribe request. I guess that made us friends. She touched Adore on my skirt and top, and I got my own double-euphoric rush.
Then she moved on to the next person.
By the time spring break was over, the entire school had gone NI. The school board had met and put specific policies in place regarding bamNI conduct codes. Some teachers were on bamNI now and had integrated the technology into their lesson plans. Some even planned breaks during their classes to allow the ads to run. The school started saving electricity by turning off lights in the hallway, allowing our luminescent bodies to do the work.
My brain did change: I could hold so much more information than I ever could before. I had the ability to know exactly where in the building every member of my Tribe was, and what their mood was. All those people. All at once! Their status updates and posts were fed to my mind in real time. So I just knew it all. I could hold so much more information than ever before. Wait, did I say that already?
But there started to be rumors that bamNI had changed something in their SD. We all remembered those hits the first few weeks, but over time, it just didn’t have the same kick. It took me three or four Adores to feel the same way that one used to make me feel. And others claimed the same. bamNI denied any changes. So we all just tried harder to be Adored.
Behavior like what Ashley pulled off in the middle of class that day became more common. And where the term Non used to mean someone who wasn’t on bamNI, it now meant someone who was thought to be Non-Affecting. Like, nobody wanted to Affect them, because they weren’t trying hard enough.
There was a small group of people, mostly Nons, who said to me, using real, untraceable, words as opposed to LifeLine entries, that they were ready to get off bamNI. But they were afraid, because as hard as it was for them to be on, getting off would be social suicide. Instead, they just played along as best as they could.
There was a rumor that started about a group of Nons who would get together and Adore each other just for the sake of Adoration. Not because of any superficial effort. Not because of what they were willing to do to excite each other, but just because it felt good to Adore and be Adored. They Adored each other just for being themselves. I never did find out if that group really existed.
The rest of us continued to push. We got used to seeing each other with flawless skin and perfect outfits and Enhanced bodies. The boys all had six-packs and pecs and chiseled cheekbones. The girls all curved in the same ideal shapes. Perfect was the new normal. We got used to knowing everything about each other all at one time, immediately. See someone new in the hallway? Here’s what they did last weekend and a list of what turns them on. Want to tell someone you have feelings for them? Let them know immediately without the embarrassment of eye contact. Love a song? Here’s a list of 47 other people who love the same song. Want to Adore them? Maybe they’ll all Adore you back. By the way, here’s where they’re located. It was exhausting. So goes life.
But it does make what happened next less surprising.
Sophia had just moved to the city, was new at school, and was the first girl in ages to walk through the doors as a non-NI. She was surrounded immediately upon entering the building. Her face was freckled, and her hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail. Her body didn’t look like everyone else’s, wasn’t bamNI perfect. Her clothes didn’t come from any of the bamNI retailers we knew. Nobody knew where she’d lived before, or what what sports she played or didn’t play, or what music she listened to or what she looked like while she was just out of the shower or laying in bed. Nobody knew who her friends were, or if she wanted to be their friends, or whether she Adored their Selfs.
It was because they couldn’t have that information that everyone wanted it. There’s nothing like a closed door to make you want to be on the other side. Did I say that already?
Sophia pushed through the group to her locker and everyone followed, their bamNI bodies a hot mess of needy images, begging for her to engaged them, to Affect them.
She stopped in the hall and turned to face the mass. “What are you all doing?”
Everyone stopped to think, searching their minds, searching each other’s minds, scanning the network, looking for an answer, but finding none.