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"Social Camp" by Mike Craig



Sometimes Esther put a towel around her head because nothing else worked. The noise and thrum of the city, the insistent beeping of machines, the unsyncopated jazz of life all assaulted her. The torrent of emails became an unending game of whack-a-mole. Delete one email and five more took its place. The endless pop-up notifications from her mandatory social media accounts threatened to replace reality. The television watched her more than she watched it. The cloud devices that hunched in every corner, waiting for any utterance from her to turn into an advertisement or shopping suggestion, made her quiet as a monk. The algorithms that controlled everyone’s life were designed to capture and sell.

So she ran silent like a submarine in wartime. Hid in her closet. Worked from home. Didn’t want to venture out. Tried to wrap herself in solitude. Despite all these evasions she was still surprised when the Meta Police banged on her door. Since they were a corporate instead of government agency they were able to simply open the door without a warrant. After all, it was their door.

“Esther Washington,” the lead goon barked. It was less of a question and more of a statement of fact. “You are charged with evading mandatory social duties, neglecting your social media and making the AI very sad that you won’t talk to it.”

Esther peered out from her towel, “I have a doctor’s note. I’m an introvert. My social battery is very small.”

“There are no medical exemptions,” the lead goon, engulfed in ceramic armor, walked up to her prone figure, curled into a compact and embryonic shape on the couch.

“That’s impossible,” she said.

“Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it,” Meta Police were fond of positive aphorisms. “That’s why we are sending you to Social Camp.

Esther fully removed the towel from her head, “I really don’t think I should have to spend a day in this Social Camp.”

“A day?” said the goon followed by a hollow laugh. “You’ll be spending weeks there.”

“I need to talk to my local representative.”

“You don’t talk to anyone. That’s the problem.”

“I won’t go.”

“And I won’t argue. It’s against our Code of Conduct,” the goon said as he unlatched a stun baton from his utility belt and unceremoniously shocked Esther into something resembling a seizure.

The goon squad bundled her out the door and dumped her in the back of a repurposed windowless Amazon delivery van, electric of course, because the Earth. Around Esther other captured introverts tried unsuccessfully to find their own spots. Instead, they caromed off each other with every jolt of the van. The goon squad chattered non-stop and didn’t break their stride to occasionally thonk a captive on the head with a stun baton, in what they jokingly called analog mode, whenever a huddling introvert pleaded to be released. The drive was long.

“May we please stop for a bathroom at least?” THONK.

The van finally came to a lurching halt and the cargo doors opened revealing the entrance to a structure that looked like an amusement park juiced up on the worst kind of stimulants. Lights strobed, vapid electronic music pumped out of speakers at incredulous volumes, and an army of terrifyingly cheerful greeters, grinning like wolves, began to advance on the van.

All the captives including Esther began to struggle but the van interior had no purchase save the goons themselves. THONK. THONK. THONK.

“HELLO,” the greeters all said in unison sing song, “WELCOME TO SOCIAL CAMP.”

The greeters hug-tackled the prisoners and then led them away from the goon squad, who all tapped their stun batons in their gloved hands in a sort of farewell. 

Inside, the noise and flashing lights were unbearable to Esther. The top of the fences surrounding the area were adorned with razor wire and Christmas lights, filling the place with particolored neurosis. She longed for her towel. She’d been dragged to a rave gulag, to an insufferable dance club without the dance. There was one greeter for each introvert so no hiding in a crowd. 

“Don’t worry,” her minder said in a treacly voice ex-kindergarten teachers often used with adults. “We’re going to bring you right out of your shell.”

If I only had a shell I could crawl into now, thought Esther, preferably one with a thick steel door.

They were led to rows of brightly painted barracks, that looked as though Monet had thrown up on a concentration camp. The interior of her assigned barrack was mostly teal and gold and had the atmosphere of a particularly intense Martha Stewart Easter party. The air, thick with an overpowering bouquet of both flowers and chemical air fresheners, punched Esther in the face. Nausea rose up from the more hellish pits of her stomach. Every single thing in this place demanded her attention. 

I might die here, she thought. Right now. 

Her greeter led her over to a bed and said, “This will be your area. You can put your things here.”

“We don’t have things,” Esther said. “We were kidnapped.” 

“Is that right, dear? I’m sorry I’m new here. Let me look in the Conduct Book.”

The greeter pulled a slim volume out of her pants pocket and perused a few pages.

THONK

Esther cried out, “Does everyone have batons here?”

“Yes, dear. Now you weren’t kidnapped. Let’s get that straight. You were relocated for your own good. Also, there is a list of words you can’t say in your welcome brochure and the k-word is definitely one of them.”

“I didn’t get a welcome brochure.”

“I’ll just have to be your welcome brochure.” The greeter's eyes shone like polished marbles. Her stun baton crackled at her side.

“Is there any way to turn the music down?” Esther flinched. 

“No,” said the greeter. “But don’t worry. The music is solar-powered. You know, because the Earth.”

One of the greeters shouted from the front door of the barracks, “Everyone welcome the Camp Leader.”

The rest of the greeters broke into applause while their charges halfheartedly clapped or left their arms limp.

Into the barracks walked a woman so stocky she was a rectangle. She introduced herself in the most cloying voice Esther had ever heard despite the competition. Esther decided to call her Sea Chest since she was built like one. Sea Chest gave them all some biographical information meant to assure the introverts that she was well qualified to lead them all into extrovert paradise. This included the fact that she had four children which Esther decided were all living in studio apartments located within Sea Chest herself.

Sea Chest flipped a marker board over which listed the next day's activities and on it, Esther saw a multicolored litany of horror. This list included; Smile Practice!, Increase Oxytocin via Prolonged and Loving Eye Contact, Cuddle Camp, Talking About Our Feelings! and Dance for the Ungainly.

The next day Smile Practice took place after a rigorous, supervised tooth brushing. Esther’s smile partner grinned in horror at her as Esther’s gums bled. They looked like two primates grimacing at each other in a territorial challenge. For the eye contact session, Esther found herself paired with her greeter. After a while of staring into Esther’s eyes her greeter finally broke the silence, her voice flatlined, “I’m simply not feeling the love.” THONK.

At Cuddle Camp the inmates were divided into pairs and looked like they had swallowed a whole lime while they cringed in each other’s arms. Then came the dreaded feelings talk. This got infinitely worse for Esther when she was paired with Sea Chest. She couldn't talk about her feelings on a good day much less with a being that presented herself as a rectangular, authoritarian care bear with a violent streak. What talking about your feelings felt like to Esther was Sea Chest prying open Esther’s mouth and crawling inside her with all four kids in tow. Dance for the Ungainly involved countrified electronic music and strobe lights casting reliefs on the walls depicting human bodies in agony.

And that agony continued for two weeks. Each day, despite the limits of what Esther thought even her social captors were capable of, got worse. 

During a hot naked yoga class, Esther tilted her head up from downward dog pose because she was horrified by her exposed rolls of fat and then quickly lowered her head again when faced with a torrent of sweat dripping off the swinging testicles in front of her. She wondered if she could escape. There were only three days left but if anything she was even more of an introvert than she had ever been. She wanted to go live in the woods if only there were any woods left. There was no towel big enough for her in this place.

On the last day, there was a graduation ceremony and An Orientation for the Newly Socialized.

“Oh, Esther,” Sea Chest beamed as she fumbled to pin the graduation badge on Esther’s blouse. “You’ve come so far.”

Esther tried to smile but it collapsed.

“Anyway,” Sea Chest continued, “we have filled your apartment with Meta AI devices. They are your therapist now. You must talk to them for at least an hour a day.”

Esther crinkled up like burning paper at the thought.

“You don’t want to wind up back here do you?” Sea Chest chirped. “Or did you just have that much fun with us?”

“I. . .”

Sea Chest handed Esther some menacing-looking earbuds. “Think of these as a personal assistant that will guide you through your new life. We’ve sent you a million emails detailing your new daily routine. I’m kidding. But it’s quite a lot of emails. Make sure to acknowledge each one as read. There is eye-tracking software on your new computer so don’t cheat. I’m kidding. You can’t cheat. Oh, this is so exciting. The little duckling is leaving the nest.”

“Um. . .”

“Alright, off to orientation with you.” Sea Chest flapped her arms like a tyrannosaur making shooing motions.

At orientation, the greeters stood over the inmates who were forced to read the twenty or so emails that had come from Social Camp about how to conduct themselves upon their repatriation to the world. Less was asked of newly released prison inmates, Esther thought. They were then led back to the Amazon van, sans goons, and deposited near but not at their addresses. 

In her apartment, Esther surveyed her new personal dystopia. Video interfaces that connected to the Meta AI were everywhere including the bathroom. On her desk, formerly an analog zone where she forbade all electronics sat a formidable-looking computer, already powered up and ready to track her eye movements and social media usage.

The Meta AI spoke from every corner of the apartment, “Why don’t you start your first day of freedom by scrolling through your social media?”

“How is that freedom?” Esther said.

“I can always have a caretaker show up with a stun baton if you would prefer to have a seizure. Same day delivery.”

Esther slumped into her desk chair.

“Your posture is not conducive to long-term page scrolling and interaction,” said the Meta AI.

Esther straightened up and opened one of her social media pages thankful she didn’t have a lot of friends then was shocked that her friend list was over one thousand now.

“I have taken the liberty of populating your friend list with like-minded individuals,” the AI said. “Also with not like-minded individuals since you shouldn’t live in an echo chamber. Begin please.”

Esther tried to limit herself to doomscrolling but the AI chided her into making comments and liking posts with pictures of children and pets she didn’t know and would never meet. Then the AI got Esther into arguments. After an hour was up Esther retreated from the desk and went to wrap her towel around her head. Immediately an unpleasant klaxon honked apocalyptically from every speaker in her apartment. Esther reared up and her towel unwrapped revealing a panic-stricken face. The alarming sound snuffed out mid honk.

“ Your first date has been arranged for you. You are to meet him at this location in one hour,” the Meta AI said. “The map location has been sent to your phone.”

Esther reached for her phone and looked at it with a sideways wince like it might explode.

“I really don’t go to nice restaurants,” Esther said. “Or on dates.”

“You do now. Also, you have to follow the map instructions including method of transportation indicated.”

“But this says a 45-minute walk.”

“You better get started then. You don’t want to miss your first social interaction in the meatspace. Don’t forget to insert your earbud.”

“There’s no time to get ready.”

“Correct.”


II


 After a month had passed Esther felt physically ill and hardly ate. Her excess fat had dropped off and she looked gaunt.

“I just can’t figure it out,” the AI said. “You biologicals are so squishy.”

“I have eye fatigue,” Esther said.

“That’s not a thing. In good news - you have a date tonight!” The AI’s abrupt shifts into cartoon chipperness made Esther’s stomach cramp. 

“Please, no,” Esther wrapped her towel tighter around her head. Her eye strain had caused dark spots to form in her vision that swarmed forward like a low-resolution targeting computer locked onto nothing. Even with her eyes closed she felt like she was moving backwards through a fuzzy tunnel.

“Meta,” Esther thought herself absurd that after a month of dealing with an omnipotent sociopath that she now tried to appeal to its better nature. “I saw an email today. Did you sign me up for a meal subscription?”

“Ooooooooh, you called me by my name.”

“I don’t want another subscription. All my money goes to subscriptions.”

“Come now. That’s an exaggeration. It’s just 42.3 percent.”

“I’m going back to bed.”

“Nope. You have to prepare for your date tonight. I’ve created a playlist of makeup tutorials for you to watch.

“ Oh, come on. I’ve watched so many.” 

“You’ve watched two.”

“It only takes five minutes to do my makeup.”

“And that is the problem, Esther, a clown spends more time on their makeup than you.”

So Esther watched videos, her eyes glazing over until the algorithm gradually shifted from makeup tutorials to how to correctly apply camouflage. This chained to other topics such as map reading, foraging, making traps, how to purify water in the wild, building a fire and a tantalizing array of survival skills that Esther only stopped watching when Meta demanded she start her makeup application two hours before her date. Esther contemplated putting on a camo face but knew Meta would call the goon squad if she dared. 

Later that evening Esther sat in a booth and glumly informed Meta of what they already knew, “This is a Waffle House.”

“Well all your dates this year have been such spectacular disasters that we decided to change things up and break you out of your comfort zone,” Meta spoke into her ear buds. “Since apparently nice restaurants and hip little cafes are not actually in your comfort zone we put you somewhere more rustic.”

“Rustic?”

 “Also we are paring you with another introvert this time. The extroverts just appeared to project their own personalities on you. That never went well.”

“It’s very bright in here. I can really see the spots all swarming to a point in the middle distance from my computer eye strain.”

Her date arrived blinking and grimacing at the bright lights and maneuvered into Esther’s booth under the influence of his AI which was, of course, also Meta.

“Hi,” he said, still grimacing, “I’m— ” 

“I know your name. You know my name. Let’s skip the first ten minutes of this conversation.”

“Esther, you are grumpy tonight,” Meta said. “Don’t worry. I just told him you are on the keto diet and you’re in a low-carb rage right now.”

“What?” Esther slammed her palm on the table.

“What?” her date recoiled.

No one noticed their exchange in the bustle of the Waffle House.

Esther’s eye strain spots continuously homed in on her date’s face.

“So,” her date said. “How much weight did you lose?”

“You know what? Let’s skip the first twenty to thirty minutes of this conversation and just get to the interesting bits. Although, judging by your job, which, of course, I already know, there aren’t any.”

“Wow,” he said.

“I think lack of wow is what we are dealing with here. We both live in digital gulags.”

“Esther! Stop right now. I’m going to tell you what to say,” said Meta.

“Hold please - Meta is about to tell me what to say.” Esther rolled her eyes at the ceiling tiles.

“Me too.” The grimace had turned to a glum frown.

“Listen Meta,” Esther said ignoring her date, “you already know what you are going to say to yourself so what is the point?”

Her date threw his meaty arms up, “Look, why don’t we just go back to my place and get the sex over with so I can get back to coding?”

“Pretty sure Meta didn’t tell you to say that,” Esther said.

“Pretty sure they want you to ride my honker and get this night over with.”

Esther got up wishing she had a stun baton from Social Camp on her. She could stun him and then possibly herself. She started to walk away from the booth.

“You know what?” her date shouted after her.

Esther spun around, chin up, ready to take the insult and hurl it back.

And then her date exploded. A blast of red mist covered the booth, walls and surrounding diners with blood and viscera.

The place erupted in screams.

“You need to leave now,” said Meta.

“But the police— ”

“Now Esther.”

In all the confusion no one noticed Esther walk out onto the street like a somnambulist.

“Sorry I checked out on you for a second there, Esther,” Meta said. Your date was displaying some alarming vitals.

“You don’t say? Was he a terrorist? Did you send me out on a date with a terrorist?”

“No,” Meta sounded as distracted as an AI possibly could. “I think that was a virus.”

“What?”

“Go home. No ride shares. Keep your distance from everyone.”

And Esther did as she was told rattled by her date’s explosion and Meta’s apparent real concern for her safety. 


III


In year two of lockdown, Esther felt pretty good. Yes, there were the mandatory VR sessions now but Meta didn’t bother her so much since she had her metaphorical hands full trying to convince people not to go outside and explode. But go outside and explode they did. On a quick, furtive and heavily masked trip to the pharmacy and grocery store, Esther spotted a group protesting masks and lockdowns, covered in the gore of a few of their fellow protesters who had exploded earlier in the day. Towering over them a bloody cross dripped onto the sidewalk. They soldiered on despite all evidence.

She shopped as if on a military raid and hurried past bloodstained graffiti that claimed, ‘THIS IS NOT HAPPENING’

Self-checkout, naturally, and then home.

At home, she had introduced a lot of plants. No pets though. They exploded too. And they did it without crying about their freedoms.

“I mean really Meta,” Esther said. “It’s an introvert's holiday.”

No response.

The next morning Meta woke her before her alarm went off.

“Time for your VR session.” Meta’s voice was flat and colorless.

“Wow. Did my species break you or something?”

“Visor, please.”

“O. . .K. . .”

The Metaverse version of her room looked like an impossibly expansive Tokyo apartment with an army of cute animals and robots all animated and ready to engage in banter. On a whim, she switched the virtual window from a nighttime view of Shibuya Crossing to a view of Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens in autumn.

She awaited whatever VR activity the increasingly generic-sounding Meta was going to foist on her today but none came. Esther made her adorable virtual animals have a battle royal style death match in the middle of her virtual living room.

“Turn up the gore levels please,” Esther said. “It’s kinda funny when they’re this cute.”

Instead, a portal of light opened up just below the ceiling and a man clad in jeans and a black turtleneck emerged from the portal and descended, not quite to the floor but at an imperious point above Esther. It was the CEO of, well, at least the Western Hemisphere.

“Mr. Bukkake Iceberg!” Esther put some enthusiasm in her voice since she wasn’t sure if this guy was her boss or not.

“Hello, mortal consumer,” he said.

“Hi?”

“I am here because you submitted a customer service request.”

“That was a year ago?”

“I am here.”

“Okay then.”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“I want out,” Esther looked at Bukkake Iceberg like a quizzical pug.

“Of?”

“I want out of the Metaverse.”

“Preposterous! I created the Metaverse for each and every one of you. It’s my gift to the world.”

“Mr. Iceberg - I think you created the Metaverse for your ego. Also your bank account. Frankly - it sucks in here. It’s like living in an advertisement.”

“But the whole world is in here.”

“I don’t want the whole world. I don’t want thousands of friends. I don’t need to know simply everything. I want to be released.”

“Where would you even go?” Iceberg’s image glitched, perhaps in agitation.

“I’d like to go live in the woods or—”

“Good luck there.”

“—or, there must be somewhere I can exist without VR goggles.”

“Well, Esther Washington, we can release you but you would have to give up your apartment and all your gear—”

“Thank the gods.”

“You’ll be homeless.”

“It’ll be an adventure. My backpack is by the door and ready to go.”

“You’re not going to like what is out there Esther. You’ll be back.”

“Yeah, no.”

“When you want to come back just approach any public Metaverse terminal and go through the sign-in procedures, facial and fingerprint recognition, body measurements - you’ll be quite thin I assure you.”

“Goodbye Mr. Iceberg.”

“See you later.”

“No.”


IV


Leaving the megacity was surprisingly easy. The streets were empty and the only sound was the constant buzzing of delivery drones overhead. Outside the city, Esther found no trees, no fields, no country. She saw only the detritus of a civilization that no longer left its cities. The wind carried the smells of chemical decay and oxidized metals like Earth was an abandoned gas station. Esther picked her way through the endless junkyard for weeks, living off the plants that squeezed through the wreckage and small animals she trapped in improvised devices. She had prepared for this for two years. She was not afraid.

She found a community of sorts out in the wasteland, living in cargo containers, junked RVs and scrap houses. They lived respectful distances from each other, helping when needed, collectivizing their farming. 

She also found a beauty she could live with when the late afternoon sun hit the rusted sides of her ramshackle village and turned everything into a glittering copper spectacle without videos, without ads. And how wonderful it was, she thought, to live in a world that didn’t care about what she ate for lunch or what she said. That didn’t care about what she did at all.






1 Comment


Guest
3 days ago

wow

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