Jake heaved himself out of the deep passenger seat of Paul’s rented sportscar and sighed heavily. Paul had just parked the car by himself to avoid the confusion that might come with knowing whether or not he needed to tip the valet. Even though Paul was much better at pretending, he knew that both he and Jake were out of their element, and he didn’t want the rest of the world to see an awkward interaction.
Paul climbed out of the driver’s seat much more nimbly, adjusted his black bowtie, and swung the car door shut with the flourish of someone who’s arrival was eagerly anticipated. The only on-site witness to this event was the red vested valet boy hurrying past to get back to his station. He wasn’t impressed, and Jake heard him mumble “Tag poser, stop.”
Jake sighed again and asked Paul, “Man, is everyone here streaming?”
“Of course,” Paul answered without peeling his gaze away from the bright lights blinking in the voluminous windows of the mansion before them. The whole house looked and sounded like a pair of clinking champagne glasses. Paul twisted his fitted waistband beneath his tuxedo and made sure his starched white shirt was just the right amount of tucked in as he turned to take in the panorama and admit with casual repetition, “Everyone everywhere is streaming all the time. That’s what makes it work. That’s what it is.”
Jake sighed again, which was also an action that seemed like it was on repeat.
“But don’t worry about that my friend,” Paul added. “It’s like you’re asking me if everyone is going to be breathing. Yes, they are,” he answered his own hypothetical question. “People eat, sleep, and talk shit. And it’s all live. Don’t make a big deal about it and no one else will either. We’re here to mingle, make some connections… and maybe get a little tail if we’re lucky. Tag mackin’, stop.”
Paul gently touched his temple to flip a switch on the thin headband that he, and nearly everyone else in the world, wore every moment of every day, to toggle from streaming to viewing. Paul said “Exemplar Party”, slid his finger gently across his temple to scroll through his viewing options, paused, pressed and then gaped at the images projected onto his connected lenses.
“Aww. Oh. Dude! You’re not going to believe this. The chicks in there are so hot! Oh my God. Martin is talking to that actress from The Edge of Light. Liz… What’s-her-name.”
“Charleton?” Jake filled in the blank.
“Yes. Oh my God. You should see what she wearing.”
“Well,” Jake said with heavy sarcasm, “if we actually go in to the party, I could see it.”
“Yeah,” Paul responded, realizing his immersion had delayed their action. “Let’s go have a good time.”
Jake ran a hand over his own crisp white shirt, feeling each button to make sure it would hold against the pressure of his taut belly, while the other hand went subconsciously to his bare temple where his WorldView head band would have been, had he not been one of the select few on the planet to eschew it. He shut his car door, made his way around the vehicle, and followed Paul across the uneven ground towards the front door of the mansion that belonged to the movie producer, Martin Exemplar.
It hadn’t rained for days, but the yard and expansive pebbled drive was glistening with tiny droplets of water that beautifully reflected the house lights from inside the mansion. Jake and Paul both knew it was a purposely curated look. It was hard to absorb their unlikely position and remain focused on the fact that they were making their entrance. Jake thanked his lucky stars that his childhood friend had somehow landed a job at one of the premier talent agencies in town and cracked open a door to this world that he had only previously imagined.
As Jake made efforts to take it all in, Paul deftly narrated his whole approach for his perceived viewers. “Tag Exemplar Party. Tag high class, stop. We’re walking in now, about to get second guessed by this bulldog at the front door. People, this is awesome,” he giggled as he watched the doorman find and check their names off the guest list and direct them in through the ten-foot-tall glass entrance doors. Paul wasn’t much more than a gopher for one of the lower-level scouts, but that was clearly enough to get them admitted to this party.
Inside there was an expansive, marble-floored, round foyer with double curved stairs caressing the side walls of the space and leading to God knows where. The place that movie stars come from, Jake assumed, expecting to see someone famous descend any second. They were immediately approached by a server offering them a tray of champagne flutes. Paul and Jake each took a glass and began to feel somewhat grounded. They may not have exactly belonged, but they were in.
“Man, let’s check out the rest of the place,” Paul suggested. Jake nodded and followed him through the archway beneath the stairs. They entered the largest single room they had ever been in. Jake struggled to identify anyone amongst the groups of elegantly dressed guests. With his WorldView band and lenses, Paul was able to immediately identify nearly everyone in the room and decide where to go.
“Jake. That’s Ariana from my work over there by the windows. I’m going to go check her out and see what’s going on. And I’m watching Alan Pearson’s stream. He’s another producer I want to meet. He’s in the library now but it looks like he’s headed this direction. I’ve got the whole floor plan up and it looks like most people are in the solarium out back, but there’s a small cluster of high rollers in a den or something over there,” Paul said pointing off to his left.
“Yeah, okay,” Jake shrugged. Paul’s eyes were glazed over as they tried to navigate and differentiate between his virtual view and the real world. That look was the main reason Jake had made the socially isolating decision not to wear the band and lenses that would let him project his every view out to the world as well as see everyone else’s.
Paul tottered off in the direction of the people his WorldView band had identified and Jake was left to wonder and wander, with only five senses at his disposal.
As Jake looked around the room, he saw the blank look of immersion on nearly every face. Some were chattering and clearly using their eyes to pan or focus on specific views while simultaneously narrating what they saw. Others were clearly lost in the watching, tuned into the channel of some other streamer, near or far, and missing entirely the events surrounding them at that moment.
Jake made a point to identify the wait staff, assuming they would have to maintain some sense of presence. He saw a drink bar set up near a grand piano show-piece on one side of the room and liked the look of the bartender, who was a bit thicker around the middle, like Jake himself.
Jake made his way that direction, past glittering gowns slit high to display tanned thighs and handsome men with cleft chins and stubble lined cheekbones that looked like the bouldered shores of a sun-drenched mountain lake. He felt supremely out of place.
Jake sidled up to the bar and immediately recognized the lazy eye of divided attention in the bartender who approached him. The bartender asked Jake what he’d like to drink.
“Can I get a vodka and tonic?” he replied with a sigh.
“Whatcha watching?” Jake asked in an attempt to engage the bartender in the present.
“Oh,” the bartender replied, as if it was news to him how obvious it was that his attention was divided. “Friend of mine is at a concert tonight. Chemical Balance and Water to Burn. You know them?”
“Oh yeah,” Jake answered. “Great bands. I love that last Chemical Balance album.”
“Right? Me too. My friend is at this show”
“Nice,” Jake replied, trying to sound sincere. “You watching his stream? Your friend?”
“Oh, hell no,” the bartender laughed. “He’s in the cheap seats. I’m watching from the front row. I think I finally found someone who’s there to watch the band and not the crowd. Seriously 25,000 channels and barely one dedicated to providing a view of the band. Everyone else’s view is all bouncing up and down,” he said with disgust.
“Yeah,” Jake sympathized, but couldn’t help adding sarcastically, “Like they’re at a concert or something.” The bartender clearly didn’t catch Jake’s tone.
“I know. Dumb-fucks. One dude is streaming it right and he’s getting like, seventy thousand views. Bastard will probably make more than me tonight in advertising royalties, just by standing still.”
“Yeah,” Jake agreed again, this time with a tone that belied his disgusted admission that the bartender was right in his assertion.
“You should check it out,” the bartender suggested. “Channel is ‘Charlie3065278’ if you like Chemical Balance.”
“Oh, I’m not connected,” Jake was forced to admit.
“Oh, dude. That sucks. Is your headband broke? I can tap you into my stream if you got your lenses in.”
“No. It’s not that. I just don’t…. I don’t have the lenses either. I don’t wear it.”
“Wait, what?” Up to this point in the conversation, the bartender had continued to take orders and mix drinks. But now he was obliged to stop and look squarely at Jake’s face to realize he truly didn’t have a headband or eye lenses. “You’re serious?”
“Yeah,” Jake admitted. “I just don’t have them.”
“So, you can’t see the concert?”
“Yeah, I guess not. I mean, I’m not there. You aren’t really seeing it either, are you?”
The bartender had to consider this for a moment, as if he’d just been told that our understanding of gravity was still only a theory.
“No, but…” he reluctantly admitted.
At this point, a stylishly dressed gentleman that was talking to two sequin clad women with his back to Jake, turned to them and echoed the bartender’s sentiment, though with more authority. “Are you really not connected?”
Enthralled by the smooth curves and porcelain skin of the man’s two attendants, Jake could barely muster his tepid response. “Yes. I’m not. Or…No. I mean, yes, it’s true I’m not connected.”
“Wow,” that man answered. It was more of a statement that an exclamation. He looked from Jake to the Bartender, to his two companions, and back to Jake again. “I never thought I’d meet a real Renouncer. I mean, you’ve truly just decided to not wear the gear? To not take part in the most empathetic experiment, and experience, the human race had ever concocted? You’re really just…disconnected?”
Having been down this road before, Jake dropped his eyes to avoid the giggling gaze of the two beautiful women at the man’s side and just asked for a quick refill on his drink before he turned to make his way away from the unwelcome judgement of strangers. But the man sensed Jake’s discomfort and extended a soft grip to his arm, imploring him to stay and explain.
“I’m sorry my friend,” the man began. “I didn’t mean to judge or offend.”
With this seemingly sincere admission, Jake noticed many faces turning towards him, including the two beautiful women.
“My name is Martin Exemplar, and I’m a film producer.” Jake’s eyebrows raised as realization crossed his face. The quaintness of seeing a person realize who someone was in real time versus having that information fed to them by machines prior to ever meeting was something that the crowd could barely comprehend and many voices began speaking into the ether to caption the moment. It was clearly being watched by dozens, if not hundreds of other people around the world, at that very moment, through the eyes surrounding Jake.
Mr. Exemplar’s expression also belied his general amusement at life unfolding in real time, but he didn’t let that feeling overshadow his professional interest in young Jake. “I’m interested in why you have made a decision to be disconnected. Because it seems to me, as I already said, that the WorldView headband and viewing lenses have given every single person on Earth the unprecedented ability to see humankind in its entirety and become ever more connected to their brothers and sisters across the globe.”
Jake struggled to formulate his thoughts and glanced across the faces of the host and his ladies. He started off with his more familiar arguments.
“Well, I understand that there are what...like 12 billion channels to choose from?”
“Yes!” Mr. Exemplar responded enthusiastically. “You can literally see through the eyes of anyone else on the planet. You want to know what it’s like to be the President of Boliva right now? You can see what he’s doing. You want to know what it like to be a destitute Ethiopian mother? You can see that too. A Russian taxi driver? An evangelical in Alabama? Put yourself behind their eyes. Take a look!” He finished with a flourish that suggested he was more than a convert. He was an investor.
“Well, yes,” Jake began. “I get that.” All eyes settled on him and Jake recognized the size of his potential audience. Jake stood taller, felt his platform expand, and spoke with the conviction that led him to his stance. “But what I’ve found, is that most people using the WorldView technology aren’t using it to learn about others. Or, as you say, explore empathy. It’s a tool for personal benefit. At best it’s an amplifier of your existing personality. And more likely, it’s just another way to make a profit. Get more viewers, get more attention, get more money.” Jake took an awkward swig of his drink, and summarized, “Profit and porn. That’s what the WorldView gives you. Not empathy.”
Jake leaned back, resting on his controversial words. Martin Exemplar’s knowing smile hung for a moment before it curled in condescension.
“My boy. That side of things exists, sure,” he stated flatly as he leaned in, giving the impression they were talking privately, though they both knew that nothing like privacy existed any longer. “I know the seedy side exists. Of course it does. We are all human after all. But isn’t that understanding itself an act of empathy? Doesn’t that realization allow us to become closer? I use the band to conduct research of all kinds, to see through others eyes. And I know I’m not alone.”
“How many viewers do you have right now?” Jake suddenly inquired. “How many people are watching this conversation?”
Mr. Exemplar seemed taken back and momentarily unsure of whether his answer should be expressed with pride or shame. But shame wasn’t part of his language.
“Well, let me see. I suppose it’s…it looks to be about... three hundred twenty-five.”
“Thousand?” Jake added, knowing full well it was the omitted insinuation.
“Yes. About three hundred twenty-five thousand.”
“Three hundred and twenty-five thousand people around the world, right now, waiting to see if you were going to…” Jake’s decency took over and he apologized with his eyes to the sequined girls flanking Mr. Exemplar before carrying on with his torrid suggestion. “Waiting to see if you were going to score.”
“Oh!” Martin laughed out loud in defensive discomfort.
Jake suddenly noticed his friend Paul jumping up and down behind the crowd and frantically spinning his index fingers around one another, urging him to carry on. Jake wasn’t a user of the WorldView band, but his actual world view was sharp enough to know that he was trending. The conversation was being tagged by viewers all over the world and spreading.
“You use your band for research, you say.” Jake stated.
“Yes, of course.” Martin replied. “All the time.”
“What were you watching before you turned to talk to me?”
“I’m sorry?” Martin asked in feigned confusion.
“Before you heard me say I wasn’t connected and turned to talk to me. Moments ago, whose eyes were you looking through?”
Martin scoffed. “Well, my own of course.”
“I’ll bet you…Well, not much, because I don’t have much. But I’ll bet you my next drink, that you were watching yourself through the eyes of both of these ladies. Your ‘research’ was only to find out how you, yourself, were being perceived. Even you wanted to know if you were going to get lucky.”
Martin scoffed again, but his blushing belied the truth.
“With the whole world at your disposal,” Jake continued, “you were looking back at yourself.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Mr. Exemplar snorted and began to turn away, suddenly ready to end the conversation.
“Really?” Jake challenged him before addressing his companions. “Can you ladies see the names of all your recent viewers?”
“Yes,” they answered in unison.
“Was your date one of them?” Jake asked, more assertively than he imagined he could.
Martin Exemplar, famous movie producer, was sliding his finger across his own headband in a frantic effort to discover or disguise what would be found, but it only took seconds for both young ladies to admit they found RealExemplar01 among their viewers from minutes ago. With a world of choices, he watched himself.
In a town consumed by casual narcissism, this should not have been any great revelation. But when things move at the speed of the electron, seemingly minor revelations can bring down titans. Reaction is at the office before Thought has a chance to get out of bed. Laughter erupted in the room, and the party host did his best to slink away.
Jake experienced his moment, in real time. The ladies touched his hands in thanks. The bartender laughed and handed him another drink.
“That was great man. This one’s on the house.”
“Thanks,” Jake responded. “We all know Mr. Exemplar owes me one.”