I first became aware of “the Singularity” as a thing around the time when everyone seemed to be sick of talking about it, when the subject as a spur to storytelling seemed exhausted. As a consequence I lacked a crowd of enthusiasts telling me to read this or that, or explaining its intricacies to me in depth; my knowledge is cursory at best, and my ability to relate its relevance to this other thing I really want to talk about is limited. But here goes.
I’m utterly fascinated by stories that look at humans as augmented by or enmeshed with computers in our current smartphone / smartwatch / wearable camera context. There’s a keen difference to me between that idea of the Singularity as inevitable sublimation of humanity-as-we-know-it, and taking stock of the ways in which we’re already entwined with our intelligent technologies to the degree that everything’s changed, but everything’s also pretty much the same.
Enter “In Loco Parentis” by Andrea Phillips.
Full Disclosure: Andrea Phillips is a Twitter acquaintance whom I recently discovered had a hand in writing one of my top 3 games from last year: The Walk. I can’t recommend it enough, and I’m a bit fangirly, and I’m very much looking forward to her debut novel, Revision, coming out in May.
“In Loco Parentis” is a near-future story where children have AI presences—called “minders”—injected into their heads at a young age, supplemented with glasses that allow the children to interface with a variety of internet. These minders are meant to complement a biological parent’s authority until such time as the child is ready to graduate beyond them, swapping the glasses out for optic implants and integrating the minder with their own personality, or wiping the minder clean to start afresh as an adult. Yakova, a young teenager, is at an age where all her friends are getting the optic implants—but her mother Meirav, doesn’t think she’s ready, and dislikes the influence Yakova’s friends are having on her.
Yakova cuts over to a montage of her childhood, clips of notable moments strung together from her glasses and from Seraph’s own recordings. Yakova’s mother kisses her goodnight, absently, and then leaves; Seraph tells Yakova stories and sings her lullabies until she falls asleep. Seraph calls an ambulance when Yakova breaks her collarbone on the playground, whispers soothing words to carry her through the pain. Seraph guides Yakova to the feminine hygiene supplies in the closet, armed with terrible quips to make the milestone feel less important, less frightening.
I loved this relationship, its warmth and complexity: Seraph is in a position of service to Yakova, but also authority, but also literally her closest friend—how, after all, can one be closer than inside one’s head?—someone to whom she speaks about her crushes, her, sorrows, in a way that she can’t with an actual parent. Seraph speaks with Meirav’s voice—but her voice from years ago, when she was less worn, less impatient, less irritated. It’s a wonderful tension: Yakova is expected to outgrow Seraph, but Seraph is a static representation, a snapshot, of Meirav, who has outgrown Seraph as well.
This story reminded me, in some ways, of Ben Rosenbaum’s work: his “Start the Clock” where children are “augmented” with internet-access and intelligence in early years and then frozen at that physical stage of development, or “The Guy Who Worked for Money” where social capital has replaced fiscal capital and people can see, at a glance, their Compatibility Ratings with others based on a combination of biometrics and Big Data. What these stories do is reverse the thought that technology will make it impossible for us to conceive of our future selves, and offer instead that technology will entrench us in our selves: that our selves, with our needs, desires, personal peculiarities, will be exacerbated by technology, extrapolated to the point of metaphor.
In Phillips’ story, technology enables and abets teenage angst, parenting difficulties, insecurity and community. It asks us to think about where and how we keep friendship—whether friendship is the rush of endorphins you get on checking a notification, or convenience, or sympathy, or something else. It’s beautifully written, quiet and thoughtful and tense by turns, and deeply satisfying. It’s also a story with which I want to converse, to talk about how we and the internet are changing: we change the internet, the internet changes us, on and on. It’s wonderful and terrifying; it’s rich and strange. I’ll be thinking about it for a while to come.
Amal El-Mohtar can’t stop talking about the internet on the internet. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey, and has thrice received the Rhysling award for best short poem. Her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. Her work has most recently appeared in Uncanny; in Lightspeed magazine’s special “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue; and in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter.