by Tadayoshi Kohno
Monday, August 24, 2054:
My name is Taylor. I work for the U.S. Information Command.
I’m writing these notes by hand and in the bathroom because I cannot trust Our Reality.
I initiated the first phase of my plan.
“So, how long do you think the war with China is going to last?” Sofia hears Aiden ask after his avatar unfreezes and his audio reconnects.
“You mean the war with Russia?” Sofia says.
“No . . . . ,” Aiden replies. “The war with China.” His avatar’s blond eyebrows furrow.
Sofia is confused. The war is with Russia.
“Are you playing a game?” Sofia asks. She and Aiden discussed their shared love of logic games on their last date. “If so, what is it?” She rests her avatar’s elbows on the virtual table that she shares with Aiden and supports her avatar’s chin with her hands.
Aiden’s avatar freezes, again, before he has a chance to respond. Sofia sighs.
She leans back in her dining room chair, in the real world, and adjusts her Goggles. Her Goggles, made by the company Our Reality, are truly impressive. That is, unless the person she’s talking with has network issues. Then they suck.
Aiden’s avatar resumes its movement.
“Is your network okay?” he asks.
“My network’s fine,” Sofia replies. “Your avatar froze.”
“No . . . . ,” Aiden replies. “Your avatar froze, and your audio disconnected.”
Sofia blinks, confused, and Aiden returns to answering her earlier question, “I’m not playing a game. The war is with Russia. I was just making conversation.”
Sofia stares at Aiden. A minute ago he said that the war was with China. Now, he’s acting as if he never said that.
Aiden’s avatar freezes. Again.
Sofia crosses her arms, turns her head, and watches the chef at the virtual Tokyo sashimi bar delicately prepare octopus. She hears the smooth sound of the knife as it cuts.
It is definitely Aiden who is having network issues, not her.
Sofia and Aiden have been taking their relationship slowly. They were really getting to know — and like — each other. It is rare to find someone with so many diverse interests who is also handsome, and nice, and an engineer, like herself. They love comparing their knowledge of classical philosophy — Lao-Tzu, Plato, Socrates, Mill, Nietzsche. He plans to teach her how to box. In Our Reality, of course. She’s going to teach him judo. He already has an MMA-capable robot.
Sofia was optimistic when the Meet-A-Love dating app suggested Aiden three and a half weeks earlier, and she was even more excited after their first date. With the fun and honest conversations they’ve had, she thought that maybe soon they would move past the friend stage and become more intimate. And then, maybe, if he is the one, they would someday meet in person and live together. She’s heard that being intimate in the physical world is better than using the Our Reality telerobotic intimacy systems, even the Premium ones.
She can dream.
Someday, she would like to find a life partner.
Aiden’s avatar morphs and unfreezes. Instead of having short blond hair like before, his hair is now long and in a ponytail. And, instead of wearing fashionable yoga clothes like both their avatars moments ago, his avatar is wearing grey sweatpants and a navy hoodie.
Sofia blinks twice on his avatar and sees the “Certified accurate representation” indicator.
On their first date, Sofia also blinked twice on Aiden’s avatar. It was “certified accurate” then, too. His hair could not have grown that much in just a few weeks.
Aiden’s avatar tilts its head to the side and looks puzzled. “You changed your looks,” he says. “Why?”
Sofia moans under her breath. No, her avatar still looks like her — a twenty-eight-year-old one-quarter-Japanese and three-quarters-white woman with shoulder-length brown hair and hazel eyes.
The rest of dinner degrades from there. He talks more about his imaginary war with China. He refuses to acknowledge the truth — that the war is with Russia.
Sofia’s glad they took their relationship slowly.
She can’t believe she thought he might be “the one.”
Sofia ends the date and takes off her Goggles. She could see a wireframe of her room, ever so slightly, behind the virtual presentation of the sashimi bar and Aiden’s avatar. Without her Goggles, and now that the sun has set, her room is even harder to see.
“Home, lights on,” Sofia says with a sigh.
In the morning, she will enter a zero-star rating for Aiden in Meet-A-Love.
Sofia stares at the half-eaten sashimi sitting on her small, faux-wood dining table. The drone delivered it two hours ago, before her supposed-to-be-great date.
The meat, grown in a factory, was never part of a living fish, so it is probably microbe-free. Still, she doesn’t like the idea of leaving raw food out for too long. Both her parents were biologists. The half-Japanese and half-white one who introduced her to judo had obsessive habits when it came to the handling of raw meat. He passed away unexpectedly when she was eight — a car accident. Still, the habits she learned in early childhood are hard to break.
Sofia gets up, walks past her blank, cream-colored walls and puts her leftovers in the fridge.
Friday, September 18, 2054:
I initiated the next phase of my plan.
I felt like a creep, eavesdropping on a private conversation like that. But I needed to.
I toggled Deep Change Audio three times: off, on, off.
I toggled Deep Change Video once: off.
Sofia is glad to spend time with her brother, Theo. He lives in Maryland, like her, but they never see each other in person. Today, for their sibling date, they decided to meet at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Italy. Theo is an art aficionado. Sofia likes art, too.
“The David is impressive, isn’t it?” Sofia says to Theo. Theo’s avatar, like Sofia’s, is wearing Lululemon’s comfortable yet fashionable avatar clothing. His avatar’s brown hair is cut to just below his ears.
“It is,” Theo replies.
They both look up at the statue — or, more accurately, the 3D virtual version of it — in awe. It is amazing what ancient artists did without technology.
“Who do you think were the last people to ever see The David for real, in person?” Sofia asks.
“Don’t know,” Theo replies. Then, after some contemplation, he adds, “There are probably people who check on it once in a while, to maintain it or whatever.”
“Don’t you think there are robots for that?” Sofia asks.
“Maybe,” Theo replies.
Sofia nods as she thinks. After a few moments, she says, “I wonder what people from back then would think if they traveled through time, to today. No one makes physical-world art anymore.” Sofia didn’t realize how sad that observation would make her until she said it. Her fathers used to make artistic, glowing landscapes in their yard with genetically engineered bioluminescent plants.
“Don’t know,” replies Theo, as he changes his avatar’s hairstyle to match the thick, moppy hair of The David. “How do you like my hair?” he asks with a laugh. His avatar winks at Sofia.
“Heh. It’s cool. I’m glad you kept your clothes on, though,” she laughs back. At twenty-three years old, her brother still has his youthful playfulness.
Sofia blinks twice at Theo’s avatar to pull up its metadata.
As expected, the floating blob of text reads, “Altered representation: Hair.”
Sofia begins to walk around The David, to view it from another angle.
“Speaking of hair changes,” Sofia continues as she walks. “I had the weirdest date last weekend. I told you about Aiden, right? Halfway through dinner, he started acting super strange. He said that we are at war with China, not Russia. Then, he said that we are at war with Russia. Then, his avatar’s hair and clothes changed and he said, again, that we are at war with China. I liked him, but we couldn’t move past that.”
Theo’s avatar turns to face her. She looks up at him. His brown eyes stare at her.
Sofia hears Theo’s avatar inhale.
“No, that’s not weird,” he says. “This is what’s weird: I had the same thing happen on my date last Saturday — my date with Ezra, who I told you about. His avatar also froze. After it unfroze, he argued that we are at war with China.”
Now, Sofia stares at Theo.
The puzzle-solving side of her brain activates.
Sofia tries to think of possible explanations as she circles The David; Theo is lost in thought, too.
Maybe Aiden and Ezra are both metaverse trolls just having fun?
No, the Aiden she knew from the first few dates seemed too nice for that.
And, on their last date, Aiden seemed to genuinely believe his delusions about a fictional war with China.
As she approaches The David’s front, a floating prompt manifests in her Goggles: “Enable content censorship?” Sofia dismisses the prompt. The censoring option is enabled by default for children under twelve, though authorized guardians can change the default. Everyone else always sees the prompt. Sofia was curious and tried the censoring view on her first visit. It resulted in a large marble fig leaf replacing The David’s genitalia.
Our Reality Goggles can, of course, present different users with different views of art.
Different users with different views . . . .
Different views . . . .
As an engineer, Sofia knows that it would be possible — however unlikely — for Our Reality’s software to detect when Aiden says, “war with China,” and replace it with, “war with Russia,” using a synthesized replica of Aiden’s voice, just like it replaced The David’s genitalia with a fig leaf.
Sofia feels her chest tighten.
A glowing blue blob with the word “Breathe” in white letters manifests in the upper left of her Goggles’ display.
Sofia rubs the center of her chest, hunches over, and forces herself to inhale.
Saturday, September 26, 2054:
Good news (1): I was wise in selecting Aiden + Sofia and Ezra + Theo as the first two couples — my first cluster — to activate.
Good news (2): I have not (yet) attracted the attention of my superiors at the Information Command.
“Hey, Aiden,” Sofia says to Aiden’s avatar as soon as she sees his audio connect. His blond hair is still long and in a ponytail, and he is wearing dark blue sweatpants and a maroon hoodie. They are meeting at a beach in Grand Cayman — the location of their first date. “Thank you for meeting me.”
“Sure,” Aiden replies. They are sitting in the sand, facing each other, the ocean to Sofia’s left. Aiden’s avatar is leaning back, legs extended and crossed at the ankles. His arms support his weight from behind. His voice is skeptical. “I thought you never wanted to talk with me again.”
“I didn’t,” Sofia says.
She sees a “Breathe” warning in her vision. Its light blue background is cool and calming.
Sofia takes a deep inhale, pauses, and then adds, “But now, I definitely do. I want to talk more about our last date. Can you trust me for just a little and not argue until I’m finished?”
“Okay . . . ,” Aiden replies. His avatar raises its left eyebrow.
“Who do you think we are at war with?” Sofia asks. She takes another calming breath.
“China,” Aiden replies matter-of-factly. He grimaces as if preparing for a fight.
Sofia nodes and continues, “And whenever I mentioned the war, on any of our dates, which country did I say we are at war with?”
“We talked about the war with China on all of our dates, except the last one, when you said that we are at war with Russia,” Aiden shakes his head and replies.
“Thanks, Aiden,” Sofia says. “Here’s why I asked. For all our dates, except the last one, regardless of what you actually said, I heard you say that we are at war with Russia.”
Aiden starts to say something. Sofia puts up her right hand and he stops.
“All my friends know that we are at war with Russia,” she says. She thinks about the news that she and her friends encounter on a daily basis. Usually, the news is about Russians hacking critical infrastructures like water purification plants or food distribution systems. Today, the news was about autonomous U.S. fighter jets intercepting Russian planes off the coast of Alaska.
Sofia clarifies, “Or, at least, all my friends think we are at war with Russia. All my friends, that is, except you.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Aiden replies. “We are at war with China.” His avatar frowns.
“Hear me out,” Sofia says. She takes a calming breath and continues, “My brother is dating this guy named Ezra.” Aiden’s avatar blinks. “Dated, I mean, not dating. An older guy — older to him — our age. My brother said that on his last date, this Ezra person switched from saying that we are at war with Russia to saying that we are at war with China. That obviously —”
“Hold on,” Aiden interrupts. “My best friend from college is named Ezra. He mentioned a strange date to me, too, though no details. Is your brother named Theo?”
Sofia gasps. “Yes,” she replies.
The “Breathe” warning reappears in her Goggles’ display, this time with a larger font.
Sofia rubs the center of her chest, takes a breath, and continues before she loses her train of thought, “You know how Our Reality does real-time language translation? Like, when you meet someone from another country, they can speak to you in their native language, and Our Reality translates it on the fly and you hear them speaking in English?”
“Yeah,” Aiden replies. His avatar is sitting cross-legged now, its torso leaning forward and its hands on its thighs. His blue eyes are focused on hers.
“I think Our Reality is doing that to our communications. Was doing that, I mean. You would talk about a war with China, I would hear you say something about the war with Russia.”
“Why would Our Reality do that?” Aiden asks.
“I don’t know,” Sofia replies. She has the same question. “It used to change our appearances, too.”
“I don’t know if I should believe you,” Aiden says. He leans back, again.
“I didn’t really believe it myself, either, which is why I wanted to talk with you,” Sofia answers. The warning in her vision changes to, “Relax and breathe deeply.” She will relax when she chooses. “And now, we discovered that your best friend was dating my brother. Coincidences like that don’t just happen.”
“I suppose Our Reality could do this,” Aiden says. He pauses and looks at the ocean. As a fellow engineer, Sofia assumes that he is puzzling through the technical details, just like she had. Aiden looks back at Sofia and continues, “But I can’t believe that they would. First, why would they? Second, it would not be easy.”
“I know,” Sofia replies.
“Sofia,” Aiden says, “I want to trust you, but I have to be honest. I think it is much more likely that you are trying to con me. Why? I don’t know.”
“I thought you might say that,” Sofia says. “I want you to talk with Theo. And now I want to talk with Ezra. And, of course, you should talk more with Ezra, too.”
This conversation — and the new knowledge that Ezra is Aiden’s best friend — has convinced Sofia that there is a greater truth to discover.
She massages the tightness in the center of her chest.
“We are both problem solvers,” Sofia adds. “We both like logic puzzles. Can you suspend your disbelief for a little and help me try to figure out what’s going on?”
Sofia sees Aiden nod “yes” behind a new floating text bubble that reads, “Relax, breathe deeply, and listen to the soothing sound of rain.”
Rain begins to fall on Sofia’s and Aiden’s avatars. Aiden looks at the sky. The sound of rain drowns out any words that Aiden might be saying. Sofia closes her eyes and takes a deep inhale.
Monday, September 28, 2054:
Given my initial success with Aiden, Sofia, Ezra, and Theo, I am going to disable Deep Change for more clusters.
I am hopeful.
Still, there is a chance that I will be discovered before I fully succeed.
If you are reading this notebook and I have failed, please continue my fight.
To help me, you need to know the truth.
When Goggles and Our Reality were created, the world — or at least those financially able to afford them — saw them as gifts to society: a means for people to interact with others from around the world in a much more personal way than by video conferencing and online chats.
By the late-2030s and early-2040s, almost all social interactions moved into Our Reality.
By the mid-2040s, governments realized that since all communications had transitioned to Our Reality, and given the feuds and hatred between different peoples in the world, it would be possible to use Our Reality to completely separate those groups into isolated Our Reality bubbles.
By the 2050s, the bubble system was fully operational.
Creating completely isolated bubbles was surprisingly easy. People just kept believing what they wanted to believe.
Eventually, hate subsided as governments controlled and directed the beliefs and values within each bubble.
The main challenge occurred when people interacted across bubble borders. That’s how the Deep Change systems came about. In the rare event that Deep Change cannot modify audio or video in real-time, it causes a network “failure.”
Some people (e.g., service workers, the dwellingless) still exist mostly in the physical world. They don’t experience the world through Goggles, so governments can’t modify their perceptions and put them in bubbles. But that doesn’t matter. When most people in bubbles interact with the bubbleless, they ignore them. When they can’t ignore them, they don’t believe them.
The bubbles have started to diverge, too, in technology and scientific discovery — engineers in different bubbles are creating their own technologies and applications. If you read this notebook in five years, the divergences will have widened. If I am unsuccessful, I worry that it may soon be permanently impossible to reconnect society.
Sofia is seated on her stationary bike, waiting for Aiden to arrive. She sees a virtual representation of the Golden Gate Bridge ahead of her through her Goggles, still partially obscured by the morning fog. The bright light of the morning sun to her right is hurting her eyes. Her room is generating a gentle breeze from her left and has lowered the temperature, fully immersing her in the San Francisco environment.
She puts on her avatar’s sunglasses. Her eyes hurt a little less, and she stops squinting.
Is San Francisco really this beautiful, in person and for real, Sofia wonders. Or does today’s real San Francisco also have too much smog, just like her neighborhood in Maryland?
A virtual bird chirps in a tree behind her.
Sofia looks down and sees her physical-world water bottle, barely visible behind her slightly transparent view of San Francisco. She grabs it and takes a drink. She squeezes the bottle a little too aggressively and wipes the excess water off her face with the back of her hand.
Waiting is torturous. Aiden is not late . . . she is fifteen minutes early.
Sofia reviews their experiments for the one-billionth time.
She met one-on-one with Ezra. They met in a bar at the top of the tallest skyscraper in Dubai. Whenever they talked about the war, Sofia heard Ezra talk about the war with Russia. According to Aiden’s debrief with Ezra, Ezra heard Sofia talk about a war with China.
Sofia takes a deep inhale and slowly exhales. She doesn’t want her Goggles to remind her to breathe for the one-billionth and one time.
Aiden also met one-on-one with Theo. From Aiden’s report of the meeting, they talked about a war with China; from Theo’s report, they talked about the war with Russia.
Sofia, Aiden, and Ezra also met at a barbeque joint in Texas. The start of their conversation — the introductions and pleasantries — was uneventful. But immediately after Sofia mentioned the war with Russia, Ezra’s avatar froze for several minutes and then evaporated. Aiden talked with Ezra afterwards; his Goggles crashed, he had to reboot them, and, even after being rebooted, he couldn’t reconnect to the restaurant.
That last experiment, combined with Aiden’s prior friendship with Ezra, fully convinced Aiden that Sofia was right about Our Reality.
After a few minutes of cursing and shouting, Aiden was ready to talk. Sofia had already moved past that stage. Together, they concluded that Our Reality modifies only messages between different “boxes” — they are calling them “boxes” for lack of a better word — and that Sofia and Theo are in the same box and Aiden and Ezra are in the same box. They also concluded that whoever wrote the software to modify between-box communications expected all between-box communications in group settings to be modified. When Sofia mentioned the war to Aiden and Ezra, the software was unable to change “Russia” to “China” for Ezra while at the same time leaving “Russia” unmodified for Aiden, which is why Ezra’s system crashed.
Sofia and Aiden have not figured out why their between-box communications are no longer being modified, however.
Aiden’s avatar and his bicycle materialize to Sofia’s right. His bike — a sleek, aerodynamic road bike — is crystal blue carbon fiber. He is wearing shoes that electromagnetically lock to the bike’s pedals.
If their meeting were purely social, Sofia would purchase a road bike upgrade — her mountain bike will only slow them down.
But today’s date — is it okay to call it a “date?” — is not purely social.
“So, what do we do?” Sofia asks as soon as Aiden’s audio connects.
“Still don’t know,” Aiden replies.
“Yeah . . . . ,” Sofia says.
“There is still the easiest option: do nothing,” Aiden says as he pedals his bike. He turns his head to face hers. She sees her avatar’s reflection in Aiden’s avatar’s designer sunglasses.
“I know,” Sofia replies, “I know.” She continues, “Life was fine and we were happy when we didn’t know about the boxes, right?”
“Right,” Aiden agrees.
“But now we know.”
“Did I ever tell you about how my dad died — the first of my dads to die?” Sofia asks.
“No . . . . ,” Aiden replies. Sofia realizes that he probably didn’t expect the topic change.
“He died when I was eight. A car accident.”
“I’m sorry,” Aiden says in a gentle voice.
“Thank you,” Sofia replies. “That was 2034. That was when cars would fail in ways that people — the companies, the police — couldn’t explain.” Autonomous car safety is much better now. The roads are also much emptier, and safer, now that everyone with a good job never leaves their homes.
“That sucks,” Aiden says. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Sofia replies. Aiden is a nice guy. She continues, “I’ve been thinking about his death a lot since we finished our experiments. The uncertainty and lack of knowledge around his death really affected me. As a child, I wanted someone to explain how the crash happened. I wanted to know everything. Ever since then, truth and transparency have been essential to me.”
“That makes sense,” Aiden says. His avatar’s eyes are soft and filled with compassion.
“Yeah . . . ,” Sofia replies as she takes a drink from her water bottle. It was a brilliant decision to meet while biking. Biking is forcing her to breathe and relax. She continues, “My point is: I’ve decided that I must do something. You should choose whatever path is right for you. But I want to understand what is going on. We are being deceived. We and all people deserve to know the truth — the whole truth.”
“I don’t have such a compelling story,” Aiden says, “but I agree.” He looks briefly at Sofia and then turns his gaze back to the road. “My grandfather was one of the pioneers of modern computing, back in the 1990s. He was an old-fashioned technology tinkerer. He made his own ham radios, he assembled his own computers, he wrote and distributed open source software. He believed that technologies make the world a better place. He would roll over in his grave if he knew that technologies are being used to manipulate people.”
Sofia is listening carefully to Aiden, but she’s also concentrating a little more on her biking. They’ve reached the end of the bridge and are entering a climb.
Aiden continues, “coming back to his ideals, I share some of them. Technologies should help people, not confuse or mislead them.” Aiden pauses to take a breath as he ascends the hill. “So, I’m committed to discovering and exposing the truth. But what exactly should we do?”
“Come on, Aiden,” Sofia replies and smiles before taking a deep breath. If she didn’t need both hands to control her bike as she climbed, she would give him a friendly punch on his left arm. “You do have a good story too. But, yeah, I’m not sure.” Sofia takes another breath. San Francisco has too many hills. “Actually, I have an idea.” Another pause. “You said your grandfather was a ham radio operator? Did he leave you any equipment?”
Sofia remembers when the U.S. government outlawed the use of ham radios ten years earlier — too much dangerous radiation and RF pollution. But people had used ham radios for over a century and survived. Perhaps if she and Aiden could communicate via ham radio, they could forever talk in a way that Our Reality couldn’t modify. And, if they used encryption, in a way free from any eavesdropping by whoever controls Our Reality — another growing concern of hers. Moreover, if they could get other people, in other boxes, to use ham radios, then . . . .
Wednesday, October 14, 2054:
Good news first: Aiden and Sofia are planning to communicate outside of Our Reality. There are some precautions they must take. They mustn’t let the governments determine the locations of their transmissions, for example.
I have faith in them.
It wasn’t their original idea, but they are now also planning to create broadcast stations, so that citizens wanting to listen (and only listen) to the truth don’t need to transmit. There’s less risk with just listening. They are also exploring the distribution of old-fashioned paper flyers, which is lower tech (good) and lower radius (not so good) than radio.
A few other clusters are also strategizing about how to share their newfound knowledge. Of course, some clusters are not working out.
Bad news: At an Information Command meeting today, someone mentioned an unusually high number of complaints about bad matches in Meet-A-Love. They also observed that the matches were cross-bubble, which shouldn’t happen. The hypothesis is that there is a bug in the matchmaking algorithm. General Roberts assigned a task force to look into it.
I didn’t anticipate that many people would complain about their dates to Meet-A-Love. I should have.
It’s impossible to completely erase evidence of my activities, but I obscured them as much as possible. I removed all my code modifications. I also added a new “bug” into the governments’ code for preventing cross-bubble matches. This code now “accidentally” allows random cross-bubble matches (not controlled matches, like my previous code). Hopefully, the governments will think that this new code is the reason for the high number of cross-bubble matches and not look deeper and not find my original code in a backup. Or, at least, not until after I’ve safely disappeared.
I also made many more cross-bubble matches in the dating app, and I added another “bug” that disabled Deep Change for most of them. These cross-bubble matches were not strategically chosen. I created them to distract the governments from my intentional matches.
I re-enabled Deep Change for couples like Aiden and Sofia who have deduced that they are in bubbles and being deceived. I hated to do this, but I hope it keeps them from being discovered.
This is my last notebook entry. Soon, I will disappear into the physical world. I’ve done all that I can from within the government.
No one will pay attention to me once I become a dwellingless person on the streets. People will make assumptions about me, and they will be wrong. I’m used to people being wrong about me. Sometimes, people see my name — Taylor — and think I’m a man. Or, if they realize I’m a woman, they assume I’m white.
With the assumptions people make and believe, it’s not surprising that Our Reality bubbles work so well.
In a few years, after the bubbles are destroyed, I will (hopefully) return to a new society.
I am going to hide this notebook before I go. If I am successful and the world changes, I will return and retrieve it. Maybe I’ll donate it to a museum. If, instead, I have failed and you are reading my notes, please learn from my experiences and continue my fight.
Tadayoshi Kohno is a university professor with appointments in computer science, information sciences, and law. This story builds on his ten+ years of academic research on metaverse security: https://ar-sec.cs.washington.edu/research.html .
His short fiction appears in After Dinner Conversation, Haven Speculative, and Little Blue Marble.
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