Fiction - What Presence?

Nobody could understand what Rob was doing. He was almost eighteen, yet since the age of twelve he hadn’t posted anything. It wasn’t that he didn’t have access, he could post at anytime. They all knew that he observed items they posted, some even posted about him in the hope of provoking a reaction. Rob saw it all, they were sure of that. Yet he never responded, never instigated, he just observed. It was almost like he didn’t really exist. He had no presence.

What was considered odd as a young teenager was by now causing concern. His parents had lost count of the number of doctors, analysts, and therapists they had arranged for him to be seen by. In some cases they had even taken him to meet these experts in person, instead of the standard remote interactive assessment. They weren’t rich people, and by now Rob must have been aware of the extraordinary lengths, both physical and financial, they were going to, in an effort to help him.

Talk? Oh yes, he would quite happily talk. His parents loved the slightly old fashioned way he would he would ask them how their day had been and tell them about the things he had done whilst they had been apart. He had a small and slowly decreasing number of friends, who also liked his quirky ways.

His parents had laughed when he told them about his idea for a debating society at school. Apparently he had read about such an event taking place at Cambridge University in the time before “@FulCon”, when people would come together to discuss a topic of the day. He was completely fascinated with the idea of motions, arguments and counter arguments being put forward by people in the same room, with an audience, who were a genuine part of the event. People who listened as complex theories and feelings were discussed.

He told his parents that he loved the idea of a conversation that didn’t quickly end up in a series of insults or symbols being exchanged on a screen, be it virtual or real. He wanted everyone at the debate to be truly involved and focused on that one thing. His parents thought he was cute and that it was a quaint idea.

His parents explained that “@FulCon” had been invented to replace all that. With “@FulCon” everyone was fully connected all the time. It didn’t matter if you were in the next room or the next continent everybody could interact with anyone else via the global mirage network that “@FulCon” had developed and controlled.

He mentioned his worry, that the more voices there were in a conversation, the fewer were actually heard. He also wondered what happened to voices that fell foul of the behavioural protocol that “@FulCon” imposed. What happened to those who didn’t follow the carefully prescribed lines of thought and deed that the automatic moderation system demanded? Sure, there was an amount of dissent tolerated. In certain circumstances it was encouraged even although he couldn't help feeling that this was to give the illusion of debate. Well he wanted something more real than that.

He had seen it happen many times when a figure such as Stephen Dry would engage in a dispute with someone like Toby Bung. The people of the globe would quickly fall behind their thought prompter of choice and ten minutes later the ritual abuse of the opposing parties would start. In a further ten minutes the topic would only be of interest to those with an interest in the rapidly homogenised world of global abuse. This was when the conversation, such as it was, would end.

The idea of a debate with real people present was confusing to his limited selection of friends. So much so, that one of them spoke to their Learning Instigator, Mr Brand about the curious suggestion. At first Mr Brand had joined in with the general hilarity about the backward looking nature of an event like this. He had though become intrigued by Robert Coles and his insistent refusal to follow the way the world operated.

He was convinced that this otherwise intelligent young man was throwing his life away. Maybe if this debate idea flopped it would finally prove to Robert that he needed to engage with the world as it was, rather than holding onto his fascination for the twentieth century. Mr Brand spoke to the Commercial Manager of the school to see if the abandoned assembly room could possibly be used for a debate.

The assembly room had been mothballed when, in line with other schools, they moved all meetings onto the “@FulCon” network. The government had covered the cost of providing “@FulCon” but were refusing to fund maintenance work on any room that held more than twenty people, so there was little point in persisting with this decaying relic of the past.

The classrooms had been adapted, housing a collection of learning pods where the students would take lessons from a central source; Teachers were reclassified as Learning Instigators and massively depleted in numbers. These days the ones that actually worked in a school were little more than glorified caretakers. Mr Brand was never the hardest working of men, so although the Learning Instigator role was poorly paid and with no social standing at all, it suited him until the time came when he would need to take a proper job.

It was agreed that the debate would take place on the first day back after the Christmas break, January 4th and Rob advised the school that the motion would be “This House thinks that “@FulCon” is not a force for good in our society.” Mr Brand told the Commercial Manager, who instantly wanted to cancel the event. Rob though had also told a bemused friend of the proposed event, his friend Chris did as everybody other than Rob would have done, he posted it on “@FulCon”.

As “@FulCon” was developed in America, it followed the American method for dating, inexplicably this still managed to cause confusion in some older people in Monarch Land (formally the United Kingdom until increasing parts of the Kingdom were lost to it), the date was mistakenly reversed and soon word spread of this very funny, upcoming April Fool event.

The people behind “@FulCon” were always keen to promote the wonderfully benign quality of their product. Their strap line was: “One system, one world, one shared understanding.” The thought went around their HQ that this would be great way to show that despite what small groups of people who misunderstood their company said, they weren’t so humourless that they didn’t get the joke. Obviously it must be a joke because to their minds “@FulCon” was a magnificent success for the shareholders and governments that had invested in their wonderfully unifying product.

When they looked up the “@FulCon” ID for Rob Coles they were confused to find that the data on his page had not been updated for six years, this was unheard of. They sent him messages but received no replies. Next they turned to the school.

The Commercial Manager of the school had half been expecting contact about the proposed debate, he wasn’t though expecting the insistence that the event must go ahead or their wish to allow Rob to publicise his views. A message was sent to Mr Brand, asking him to bring Rob into the office so that the people from “@FulCon” could talk to him and attempt to arrange an interview that could be posted.

Ten minutes later, Rob and Mr Brand were talking with a marketing person from “@FulCon” and Rob was firmly and persistently saying that he had no wish to be interviewed or post anything about the debate until the day of the event, which due to the confusion of the date format was almost four months away.

Over the forthcoming months Rob was true to his word, something that was often surprisingly difficult to achieve. “@FulCon” steadily ramped up the coverage of “The event the world won’t see.” Questioning the right of an indidual to deliberately withhold his idea’s, no matter how cranky they were, from an ever more curious world. Features were posted about the strange case of “The boy with no presence”. There were rumours that he was a Fascist or that he was part of a sinister cult. What did he have to hide? Why wouldn’t he ever post?

The school became increasing anxious about the event. They were inundated with requests for information or tickets for the debate. Nobody could have imagined how curious people were about physically being part of an event. A few months ago most people would have recoiled at the idea of spending any time in a room with a mass of people that they didn’t already know. Yet, somehow Rob had stirred a latent desire in people and by the day of the event the assembly room could have been filled several hundred times over.

Obviously Rob was to speak in favour of the motion but who would present the counter argument? Initially it was going to be another pupil at the school. However as interest in the event grew, other names were put forward. On the morning of April 1st Rob found out that he would be debating with Mr Shant Grapps, the global marketing manager for “@FulCon”. Apparently he had been flown in from the company HQ in Austin, Texas the week before and had been posting false stories during that time, so that nobody outside the company and his family knew how seriously they were taking it.

On the afternoon of the debate there was briefly some talk of the whole thing being cancelled on safety grounds. There were worries that a huge crowd of people would try to force their way into the event. As people no longer gathered in large groups, crowd control was now such an alien concept to the security forces that they had no idea how they would deal with any potential invasion. By this time though “@FulCon” could not afford to back down so it was decided that the event would have to go ahead. Several high level posts were aired which lambasted Rob for his irresponsible approach to the safety of others. What made this person think he was so important that others people’s safety should be put at risk? He was a brat, a holigan, and an intelectual terorist. Rob quietly went about his day ingoring the ever-growing frenzy.

Then a strange thing happened. People started to post that as they could not use their visulisers to watch the debate, they should have their own versions of the event. People started to encourage each other to meet and discuss the question themselves. Word started to go out that people should all go their nearest school at 7pm. If they couldn’t get into the school they should meet outside and hold a debate there. Post after post appeared with the title "7pm School Debate". The “@FulCon” moderation system either had to delete thousands and thousands of posts or let them run. Quick decisions had to be made.

At around 5:30pm Rob answered a call from his mum, he thought that she was a little early, they didn't need to leave for another thirty minutes or so. She didn't say anything when he came downstairs, just pointed at the large floating screen in the lounge. Rob took a while to take in the posts. Then the reality dawned on him. People weren't going to listen to him talking, they were going to talk for themselves to each other, in the flesh. Maybe he would have to change the thrust of his debate, perhaps "@FulCon" could be a force for good after all, it was just that people needed to manage it, not be managed by it. As he made his way to the school, people were on the move wherever he looked. It was just before 7pm and nobody was feeling like an April Fool any more.