Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Failure to Connect

A generation or so from now in the future, advances in technology have helped usher in an age where people communicate solely through texting, videos and social networks - even if they're in the same room. Life in big cities has adapted to this as well - services such as coffee and cable are ordered via text; self-driving taxis can take directions via text. Work, play and everything else in life revolve around the phablet, the smartwatch and the plasma screen. Verbal Communication is propped up in a hospital bed, dying a slow and painful death. Intimacy and Privacy are missing, presumed dead.'

Penelope landed clumsily onto the back seat of the taxi, and slammed the door shut. And then she exhaled. It felt like she hadn't done that in a long time.


The voice was trying really hard to be human, but it couldn't completely shed its mechanical undertones. Then again, maybe that was the point; it was unsettling enough that cars could now drive like humans (and, in most cases, a lot better than humans) - it would be terrifying if they started talking like them too.

"Apartment Block 423, Theodore Street."

The car didn't take off just yet though. It started to hum like a seamstress preparing her sewing machine, and then stopped abruptly.

"A link to your bank account could not be established. Please switch on your mobile device."

Penelope thumped the front seat's headrest.

"I don't have mine with me! Can't you just take cash?"

The taxi took unreasonably long to reply with a very unhelpful "This taxi cannot function without a connection to your bank account."

Penelope then ripped open the door and stomped out into the light, only to find dozens of phablet cameras gazing at her, a swarm of one-eyed polymer-coated bees. She ran down the pavement, and the swarm eerily followed, accompanied by a buzzing laced heavily with curiosity.

When she finally lost them a few hasty detours later, she collapsed against the cleanest patch of wall she could find, and exhaled once more. It still felt like she hadn't done that in a long time.

All this because of that damned coffee.

Minutes earlier:
Penelope impatiently tapped the edge of the plasma screen inside the counter she was in. Somewhere behind the placid barrier, both her smartwatch and her phablet were being probed and picked at like butterflies at the mercy of an entomologist. She hoped her unseen helpers could hurry up.

The screen flickered on, promptly plucked at her hopes, crumpled them into a ball and flung them deep into a trashcan of apathy.

"Your devices cannot be repaired. The best course of action would be to transfer your data to a new identical pair of devices. The process will take an estimated time of 30 minutes to complete. The total cost of the service and the new devices will be $842.79 - this will be deducted from your linked bank account at the end of the process. Would you like to proceed with the transfer?"

As she tapped on the luminous green "Yes" button, she wished it had been an actual choice. She could feel the hole that would soon appear in her bank account, as though it was being dug into her insides as well.

The counter hatch below the screen popped open, revealing a buzzer. The screen was pointing her to the waiting lounge with suggestions for how she could occupy herself with the public phablet and touchscreen stations there. She gingerly took the buzzer and walked over to the lounge.


The waiting lounge was teeming with muted despair that Saturday morning. There were more people than stations, so some unfortunate souls were ambling about restlessly, their thumbs twitching and their eyes staring lifelessly at the carpeted floor a few feet in front of them. Either that, or they were muttering darkly to whichever working device they had on them. With some of their body parts chomped off and their listless faces doused in buckets of blood, they would make a very convincing zombie outbreak.

Penelope sat down for a bit, but immediately felt as though she had submersed herself into a pool of thick, stifling depression, with little waves of gloom lopping about her ears. She got up again abruptly and thought to herself, Screw this - I need some coffee, right now.

Somewhere in Brazil, a butterfly flapped its wings.

Later that day:
Kelly was idly surfing Facebook at work when a headline in her RSS feed caught her notice:

"This woman walked into a cafe. You will not BELIEVE what happened next!"

The attached video already had close to a hundred thousand views and typically colourful comments trailing along with it:

TheMatt4Sho: "Fuck that womans a fucking socipath!! #dontwannaliveonthisplanetanymore"

IAmAGentlemann: "@TheMatt4Sho It's sociopath, moron. Who the hell taught you English!"

Gangsta476: "Must have been yo mama, @IAmAGentlemann you twat #mamajoke"

TheMatt4Sho: "Hahahahaha nice one @Gangsta476!! #sickburn"

xDaemonChildx: "DAT ASS"

UnkleMacker3L: "Wow that chick really wanted some #hotcoffee huh ;) ;)"

She did a cursory sweep of the surroundings and found them suitably devoid of her superiors. She then clicked 'Play'... and promptly gaped at the screen when she saw the woman's face.

Penny! What the hell?

Her good friend Penelope had her spirited moments, but this was a level of fury hitherto unreached. Something must be seriously wrong.  Brimming with concern, Kelly immediately fired off a barrage of texts to Penelope.

Oh my God, I really hope she's okay...

At the cafe:

It was full of people having a late breakfast, but a blind person would have walked through the cafe thinking it was a museum just before closing time. Even the kids who had come with their families had their eyes glued to phablets in their hands; gaudily coloured headphones framed their frowning little faces, and their fingertips were a nimble blur as they tapped away at the screen. The occasional voice command and clink of cutlery nearly echoed as they popped out from under the blanket of silence that smothered the place.

The atmosphere (what little was there) left an unsettling feeling in Penelope's stomach - it wasn't long ago that she too was one of the people here, headphones and touchscreens yanking her attention away from the dullness of the immediate surroundings.

She found a seat, reached for her pocket before realizing it was empty, and then resigned herself to the arduous task of summoning a waiter.

The waiters bustled in and out of the kitchen with one hand holding a tray with food and drink (or remains of them), and the other being spoken to in bursts, as it bore their smartwatches - their heads jerked up every so often to get their bearings, giving them the appearance of squirrels high on energy drinks. Short of barrelling into them in a cascade of colourful drinks and overpriced food, there was no way Penelope could get their attention.

In a huff, she turned to the man opposite her. He sported a ponytail and a pallid face, both of which exuded a thin film of grease. His suit looked like he'd put it on by throwing some clothes into a revolving door and then running into it himself. It took several carefully positioned waves to drag his eyes from the screen.


The look on his face, disdain with a hint of unpleasant surprise, was pure irritation distilled into a potent shot. It took all her effort, with some help from his glistening skin, to not punch him right there.

"I don't have my phablet or smartwatch with me. Can I borrow yours to get some coffee? Please? I'll pay you back."

He sneered at her. Whatever specks of likeability he had were instantly vaporised by that sneer.

"Use your own phablet or smartwatch or whatever."

Penelope felt her blood pressure rising.

"I just said I don't HAVE them with me! That's why I'm asking for yours in the first place!"

Another sneer, this one dripping with condescension.

"Yeah right. Hashtag cool story, bro."

The rage within Penelope was now a mad bull with a red blindfold held in a cage with plywood bars. In the time it took for the man to return to his phablet, the bull broke free.

She stood up with stiff purpose, grabbed the mug of steaming coffee in front of him and introduced his suit to it with a hearty dose of vigour.

As the phablet dropped onto the table from his trembling hands and his face twisted in pain, she grabbed the phablet and swiftly texted an order for a takeaway - and looked up to find an army of phablets gazing at her, a throng of miniature synthetic Cyclopes.

Oh no.

Somewhere in Texas, a tornado broke out.

The apartment door was flung open and slammed shut in a single breath. Penelope leaned back against the door, listening for the buzzing that had disappeared long ago, but seemed to linger around her like a confused lamb missing a mother.

When she had finally convinced herself that no one had followed her to her apartment, she walked into the main room and immediately buried her face inside her palms. The plasma screen in her room had automatically switched on when she entered, and her face and throwing arm were plastered all over the newsfeeds, with headlines such as "Woman Without Phablet Goes Berserk for Hot Coffee" trying to paint a gaudy picture with excessive shades of scandal.

One of the more popular Youtube celebrities (who, despite their only credentials being able to speak brashly and the knowledge of how to use a video camera, were treated as Purveyors of Truth) had only just commented:

"If a guy had done this to a woman, he would have been arrested by now! You call this gender equality, feminist bitches? Huh?"

The words had sizzled through the airwaves before setting alight the fuses in the vault of unstable explosives that was the Internet. And like dry twigs in a parched scrubland, the social media world was consumed by the flames and the fireworks.

When she couldn't take it anymore, Penelope nearly smashed the power button while switching off the screen. She then collapsed on a beanbag and glanced around, the sounds of the plasma screen fading into the silence that was rapidly rushing into the room.

It struck her then, more than any other time, how much she depended on her smartwatch and phablet. Her compact apartment without them was some cheap furniture, a fridge with smatterings of food and the plain faces of the walls - even the plasma screen could only be controlled with the smartwatch, and its current channel of choice was causing more calamity than comfort. Without her electronic devices and their entertainment to occupy her, her thoughts began to leak out and mix with the silence in the room, echoing off the walls and returning to her with more severity than when they left.

When she couldn't take it anymore, there wasn't a power switch she could shut down the frustration with. But there was one option.

The one that was always there, even if she rarely thought so.

Trying to ignore the feelings of guilt starting to rise within her, Penelope bolted out the front door.

The greasy guy with the ponytail was back in the newsfeeds, this time because he was threatening to file a lawsuit against "the crazy bitch in the cafe" for physical assault unless she apologized to him. Words like "lawsuit" and "religion" were juicy slabs of red meat lovingly beckoning to be gobbled up by the hordes of slobbering hyenas on Reddit and Digg who called themselves 'journalists'.

Reclined on the couch, Renard snorted. Leandra didn't share his cynical optimism.

"He might go through with it, don't you think?"

"He doesn't have the balls for it! - or the grounds. Physical assault? Psh! The only way that coffee could cause anything more than a badly needed change of clothing is if he had some weird skin condition. They've tested it scientifically after that earlier lawsuit, remember? Coffee shops are required by law to ensure their drinks cannot cause bodily harm now!"

"Still, he might be rich enough to do it just for the publicity. You know how desperate people are for their 15 minutes of fame these days, it's like heroin to some of them! And Pennyreally doesn't need the headaches that come with lawyers - and neither do we!"

"There won't be any headaches - anybody with enough sense knows the kid's only going to embarrass himself and his attorneys if he takes this to court. He can't be stupid enough to want the wrong kind of attention - then again, with kids these days, I wouldn't put it past him..."

The doorbell's guitar riff sliced through their conversation and immediately brought it to a stop.

Leandra walked over to answer it. Standing in the doorway was a young woman with Renard's warm brown eyes and Leandra's voluminous hair.

"Hi, Mum."


Penelope found herself roaming the corridors of her parents' much roomier house, a mug of fresh hot chocolate and marshmallows cupped in her hands. After she had filled them in on the day's chaos, Renard had arranged for the repair centre to deliver her phablet and smartwatch to their place, and Leandra had helped her contact her more important friends and assure them that she was okay, and no, she was definitely not going to be admitted to a correctional facility.

Now, while the delivery was on its way, she was taking the time to de-stress, and let her mind lie down on a comfy couch, stretch its legs a bit and watch cooking shows. She wasn't fully aware of where she was going until she ended up in a room with a strangely welcoming feel to it.

It was her parents' recording room.

Renard and Leandra had met when they joined forces in a professional rock band during their college years. Some harsh doses of reality and surmounting responsibilities had taken them along less musically inclined career paths ever since, but like true musicians, they could never abandon their craft completely.

Her hot chocolate almost done, Penelope placed it carefully on top of a stray amp and inched towards a vocal mic next to an audio interface. She could hear it summoning her. Or so she thought.

The room wasn't completely in disuse, but even so there were thin films of dust settling in patches about the room. Penelope had to blow off a few particles, and briefly appreciated the way they danced gracefully off the surface of the mic.

She pressed the power button on the interface. A few lights on it woke up, and a faint humming seeped into the room. In her hand, the mic looked more ready than she felt.

A song she had heard a long time ago - before music had been taken prisoner by technological and cultural changes and been locked up in the dungeons by EDM, dubstep and other unsavoury characters - started crawling into her mind. The words were coming together, ethereal tendrils twisting into recognisable forms.

And then she took a crack at them.

We sit alone and watch your light, that sounded terrible. She was croaking like a toad with laryngitis. But then again... she tried once more.

Our only friend, through teenage nights

...a bit better. Hints of a voice that could soothe a raging wildebeest were peeking through holes in the fences of disuse. She gulped down the last of her hot chocolate and tried the next two lines.

And everything we want to get
 We download from the internet

She could feel flakes of rust being chipped off her voice. The toad's laryngitis was fading away, and the toad was turning out to be a songbird in disguise.

"That sounded terrible honey. And do you know why?"

Renard had been standing at the doorway for who knew how long. He strode in calmly while Penelope looked at him askance.

"You've got great pipes, Penny. But if you're going to sing a Queen song, you shouldn't have to do it alone. Not in our house."

And as he slung an electric guitar on his shoulder, he called out to Leandra, "HONEY! You still remember the beat for Radio Gaga, right? Penny wants to play it!"

Leandra burst into the room as Renard was twiddling with the knobs on the amplifier connected to his guitar.

"Of course I do! I'm not senile!...yet."

She yanked a couple of worn drumsticks from a pouch near the drum-set and twirled them as she sat down in the middle of the mass of metal and membranes.

Renard turned to Penelope.

"Let's take that from the top, alright? Don't worry about us, we'll follow you. Just let yourself feel the music and the beat, and you'll be fine."

With his reassuring smile almost as comforting as the hot chocolate, Penelope's confidence continued to soar.

As the rich purr of the guitar and the snappy beats of the drum burst out, Penelope began once more.

We sit alone and watch your light
Our only friend, through teenage nights
And everything we want to get
We download from the internet 

Yes! She felt the music flow into her, a tingling sensation roaming about her nerves. She sang the next verse with added gusto.

No need to think, no need to feel
When only cyberspace is real
It makes us laugh 
It makes us cry
It makes us feel like we can fly (we can fly)

Renard and Leandra backed her vocals, their voices only barely scarred by age.

Hope to record our life online
Touch any key, the world is mine
We're lost in space
But we don't care
Without your light our world's not there

Complete control, you are the power 
Our lives are programmed by the hour
Internet (Internet)

All three of them were now firmly locked together in the zone, the outside world only a suggestion. Penelope belted out the chorus as the guitar roared and the drums crashed in agreement.

All we hear is Radio Ga Ga
Video Goo Goo
Internet Ga Ga
All we hear is cyberspace Ga Ga
Marketing Blah Blah

Always something new
Internet, all the world loves you!

Her parents were screaming words of encouragement during the musical interlude. Penelope didn't quite hear them, but she felt their effects, and that was enough. The rest of the song blurred by in a haze of bliss.

We watch your shows
We watch your stars 
Across our screens for hours and hours
We hardly need our eyes or ears
We just log on and dreams appear (dreams appear)

We're not alone 
We have our friends
On cyber love we can depend
So stick around cos we'd all miss you
We need our graphics
Need our visual

Complete control, you are the power
We use our lives up by the hour Internet (Internet)

All we hear is Radio Ga Ga
Video Goo Goo
Internet Ga Ga
All we hear is cyberspace Ga Ga
Marketing Blah Blah

Always something new
Internet, all the world loves you!

Breathless and ecstatic from that last chorus, the three of them stumbled into each others' arms. And in the tight (and slightly sweaty) warmth of that embrace, amidst the rush of love and joy and all those warm fuzzy emotions, Penelope felt something she had never realized she sorely missed until now.


Proper, personal, human connection. Devoid of emoticons and hashtags. Something that couldn't be captured in selfies and Instagrams. Something that no amount of technology could ever transmit or tweet, on the airwaves or through the fibres.

The only kind that mattered.