It is going on 9 p.m., but noonday sun continues to stream through the windows. You’re tired. You look out longingly at the palm trees and roller skaters lining the Santa Monica beach outside the office.
“Alright, I’m done. I’m logging out for the night,” you say as you look up at your coworker, sitting across the large, clean, bright white conference room. You are one of the last ones working into the evening tonight.
“Goodnight!” waves your colleague with a smile, her hair and makeup, as usual, looking as immaculate as it did when she showed up that morning despite the wear of a 12-hour workday. One of the perks of the new reality.
You wave back and as you do, you let your hand continue up to your head where your hand meets the virtual reality headset strapped around your face. You pull the headset off, blink several times and rub your face. You feel slightly sick as you always do upon removing it. We weren’t meant to be looking at 12K resolution screens all day. You sit back in your chair in the semi-darkness of your studio apartment. The light rain characteristic to Oregon this time of year is patting down on the roof and rolling down the outside of the window next to your bed. No sunshine or palm trees here.
You stand up, grab one of the frozen dinners that work sends you out of the refrigerator and throw it in the microwave.
It’s such a relief to be out of the office. Today was particularly taxing. Not the work, so much. There is a lot of that but it is fine. No, the hard part is always walking on eggshells all day among other members of staff. Today, over lunch, the conversation steered into relations with China, tax policy as well as the continued civil unrest in Norman and Knoxville and now New York again. Every conversation seems to lead back to politics but the discussions have long since ceased to be interesting. Everyone just repeats the same few statistics and catchphrases they hear on the same few podcasts.
At least, you think to yourself, the avatar helps to handle some of the pressure. Back five years ago, before the advent of the virtual office, when it was all still run on video calls, you had to continually adjust your face depending on the topic at hand. Smile and bobbing your head up and down or else arranging a look of thoughtful, grave, or sympathetic contemplation depending on the sensitivity of the subject. Now your avatar handles it all for you.
An old quotation crosses your mind: “The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” You think again of your colleague’s avatar’s smile and wave to you tonight.
You pull the food out of the microwave, sit back down at your desk, and take out your phone. Your thumb goes on autopilot and opens up Facebook. Your name and face – your real face, not that of your office avatar – look back at you. You swipe back out of the app before you even check to see what is lying behind the red notifications in the corner.
You sigh and click into another social networking app as you take a bite of food. As this app fills your screen, with its characteristic forest green palate, your shoulders relax and you sit back in your seat. You scroll through content and posts covering all manner of controversial opinion. This app couldn’t be more different than the litany of virtue signaling and baby photos that filled your Facebook.
As you scroll here, you sprinkle likes throughout and stop every so often to reply to a friend. At least, you consider them friends. You’ve never actually met these people. You don’t even know their names, where they are from, or what they look like. You think of them by their usernames – @pers3us or @princesscult1 – and their profile pictures which are often abstract images or cartoons. These sets of pixels each, however, map in your mind to an individual with a set of beliefs and perspectives and experiences. You imagine briefly how they must perceive you, based on your choice of handle and picture. If they could ever guess where you’re from and what you look like and what you do.
The thought revives the sick feeling in your stomach. You put your fork down. You think you do a decent job of decoupling your various accounts, avoiding mixing up the avatar-you and the real you (though lately you’ve begun to notice the two blurring). You do all of the obvious things and follow best practices. You don’t reuse pseudonyms across apps. You are careful to never post details about your offline life for fear of doxing yourself. You even set up posts to be sent in the middle of the night to obscure what time zone you’re in. But there is always so much more you could be doing.
That said, it is not as though you post anything very controversial. Despite your dislike of the echo chamber at work, most of your opinions are actually very mainstream. But even being found to be spending time on some of these apps that are now thought of as havens of fake news and dissent could be grounds for “canceling.”
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You could get yourself booted or banned from other sites and apps with strict speech policies (or censorship policies as some circles call them). You could even get kicked out of your building based on the new laws around landlord rights. You would almost certainly lose your job if some of your online identities came out.
You suppress the twinge of anxiety and turn your attention back to the green app. As you click into an article toting a perspective that certainly wouldn’t have been welcome in the office, your phone buzzes with a notification. The Telegram app opens and reveals one of a handful of pseudonymous group message threads you are on. They are mostly people you met on the green app. You like to think that these messaging threads are a bit like the salons of Paris during the Enlightenment: a place where philosophies can be discussed, ideas can be heard, where questions can be asked, where voices can be genuine. Tonight, the conversation is about free expression.
As you start to tap out a question to the group, someone else sends a hyperlink into the thread. The link takes you to Twitter. It takes you to a Tweet bearing an image – a screenshot – and a caption. You squint and see that the image is of a messaging thread – this messaging thread! – and that the caption reads Wow. People are really still thinking this way in 2030.
Your pulse quickens and you go back to the chat. There is a long moment where no one is typing. And then suddenly everyone is. There are only a dozen of you in the group. The group has clear expectations around the privacy of the conversations within it. Who among you would share this publicly? This was supposed to be a trusted forum.
You open up Twitter and find the post again. It is blowing up. Calling out controversial content is, after all, the most effective form of clickbait these days. And revealing people’s multiple identities is a favorite sport, a new form of doxxing. Then it happens. One of the combatants starts to untangle the identity of the most opinionated chat participant in the screenshot. Pretty soon more people are piling on, tying the person’s Telegram pseudonym across Reddit, Tumblr and of course to Twitter itself. It is as if the entire internet is piling on, coming together to figure out who could possibly feel this way about free expression in 2030 no less.
And, inevitably, they do figure out who it is. It isn’t long until a Facebook profile is linked and shared on the Twitter thread. You open it and for the first time see the person behind the pseudonym you have been getting to know for months. A real face. A real name. He will have deleted all his accounts by morning. He will have lost his job. He will likely now be estranged from family and friends.
You close out of Facebook, then Telegram, then the others. You think through the 20-odd pseudonyms and personas you have constructed for yourself across the internet, running a mental audit.
Have you been careful enough? These personas, these identities are all a part of you. Perhaps they are even more authentic parts of you than even the smiling pictures on your Facebook profile. Certainly they are more real than the wax moon face of the avatar that shows up at work for you every day. But these personas, they might just be your own undoing.
You set the phone down next to your headset and plug them both in. You stand up from your desk, leaving your half-eaten dinner. Still wearing the same clothes from the previous night, you get into bed, alone with yourself – whoever that is – in the few cubic centimeters inside your own skull.