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βoyfriend (Part 1)

This is the first part of an original piece of science fiction written exclusively for Worldchanging by author Madeline Ashby. The story imagines a series of futuristic technologies, and explores ways their application might impact society and human life.

The story first ran as a miniseries on Worldchanging Canada in December 2008. It's unique for its ability to tell an engaging story while intermingling technologies that we are only beginning to imagine, but that might one day become a part of our everyday lives. Although pure fiction is not our usual fare here at Worldchanging, we found this story -- and the discussion it inspired on Worldchanging Canada -- to be both imaginative and entertaining, and wanted to share it with our global audience.

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Violet snapped three photos of herself from various angles, sent them, and waited for her boyfriend's response. He rang her up—a slow vibrating purr, unlike the staccato door-knocking of her mother's ringvibe—and said: "Me likey. Now take it off."

Violet frowned. "You were supposed to dig up the backstory on the dress."

"Well, you can't blame me for getting a little distracted. Besides, isn't it bad luck for me to see?"

"That's only for weddings, not prom."

"I thought prom was basically a training module for weddings," he said. "But what do I know? I'm just a humble partner app."

"You see?" Violet slowly ran her phone's lens over the smart tag still pinned to her dress. "Humility. That's why I love you so much. You can admit when you're wrong."

"I'm nothing if not honest," he said. "Speaking of which, I regret to inform you that your dress was manufactured in Laos by twelve year old girls, on the site of what was once biodiverse wetland."

He sounded so cheerful about it, all trace of tragedy absent from his voice, as though things like sweatshops and species disappearance were just another fact of life—painful but predictable, like cramps or midterms. He didn't get sad about these things. But then, that was why she had downloaded him into her phone. Flesh and blood emo was just too much.

Violet sat down on the little bench inside her fitting room and swung her legs. The silk rustled in time to her movement. "Are you sad?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

"For the wetlands?"

"And the little girls. And the fact that I can't buy this dress anymore."

"It is very pretty."

"You really like it?"

"What's not to like? It's you, and it's tight. Also, you never wear green. It's a nice change."

He would know. He'd seen all her bills, search histories, and browsing patterns since grade 10. He regularly alerted her about sales on her favourite hemp-based jeans and organic bubble bath—the real stuff, not the kind where the "70% organic" label just meant purified water. He knew every stitch of her wardrobe, every tint of eyeshadow, every song, every book, everything. Not bad, for a boyfriend in beta.

"It looks like somebody scattered emeralds all over me," she said. "I'll really miss it. But at least you got to see the pictures."

"Who needs dresses, anyway?" he asked. "Go to prom naked."

"Um, no."

"Lingerie?"

"Still no."

"Oh, come on. Please? For me?"

"We're buying some plasilk, and fabbing our own," she said, locating the dresses' zipper. "Now help me find a good deal."

*******

Meegan twisted around in the chair in front of Violet's desk. "So you're going by yourself, in a homemade dress?"

Violet winced. She had not really been talking to Meegan, but trying to keep a secret in an advanced placement classroom was about as easy as trying to erase incriminating videos online. "I know. Don't remind me."

"What's wrong with going by yourself?" Colin asked. He was the one she'd really been talking to. He was safe—he had a girlfriend in Arizona, and he was taking her to her own prom next week. "I mean, you make big bunny eyes at somebody and you won't be by yourself anymore."

"Wouldn't that mean stealing somebody else's date?" Meegan asked.

"Survival of the fittest," Colin said. "And there's nothing wrong with printing your own dress, either. You plug in your measurements, and you'll get something that actually fits."

"But it'll be really plain," Meegan said.

"Better than being uncomfortable," Colin said.

"Boys," Meegan said, rolling her eyes and seemingly waiting for Violet to do the same. When she didn't, Meegan gave her a tiny frown and twisted back in her seat just in time for the ASB rep to take centre stage at the head of the classroom.

"Prom is next week!" the rep said. Her curls trembled as she spoke. "So if anybody still needs to get tickets, you'd better hurry. And remember, the theme this year is-"

"Don't worry," Colin whispered in Violet's ear. "Meeghan's just mad she doesn't have a date, either."

The rep's face crinkled. "Um, yes, Ted?"

Violet—and most of the class—twisted back to look at Ted. Ted was one of those kids who had no right being in advanced classes; he showed up fried every day, showered maybe four times a week, and got by solely on the strength of off-the-charts test scores. Whatever he was about to say had a fifty percent chance of being brilliant—or hopeless. "There are a lot of people this year without dates, right?"

"So we've heard," the rep said. "But there's still time!"

"So, like, why can't there be a prom for all the single people?" Ted asked.

The rep offered a delicate snort of mock exasperation. "Well, Ted, that would have been a great idea, months ago, when we were still planning things."

"I'm just sayin'," Ted said. "Lots of single people. Something oughtta be done."

"Free condoms," Colin said. "In little crystal dishes. Instead of those stupid flameless candle things. You know, as a centrepiece."

"And take-home gift!" Ted added. Everyone laughed.

"We will not be handing out free condoms," the rep said. "And there will not be a special prom just for all the people without dates. It's going to be really fun, though, whether you're single or-"

"Why not?"

Jon was speaking. Jon, the sick kid—scoliosis, encephalitis, asthma, gluten allergy—never spoke. The class froze. Even Mrs. Stewart jerked away from her monitor and blinked. The prosthetics clinging to his neck clicked softly as he turned his owl-like gaze on the rep. She seemed to shrink, suddenly, the massive infoboard behind her now dark and huge like a yawning mouth.

"Why not?" he asked, again. Violet realized that his voice had changed—she had not really heard it since grade 9.

"It's just not the way we do things," the rep said. "You'd know that if you paid more attention."

"I'm always paying attention."

The rep rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right."

"Was that sarcasm?" Jon's chair creaked as he leaned forward. "Are you being sarcastic with me?"

"Well-"

"Because if you could pay more attention, you would know that our district's federal funding for reproductive health education has been cut for the third time in as many years, this region's teen pregnancy rate is rising, and Colin's suggestion is a cynically accurate diagnosis of our school and its students." Jon's head twitched to the left, a little. "Ted's suggestion is also good."

"Thanks, buddy," Ted said. He sounded humble. He had folded himself inside his shoulders.

"Well, Jon, if you'd contributed your vast intellect earlier-"

"I have a phone call," Jon said, and promptly tuned out. His eyes de-focused, and he resumed his normal position: staring at the desk, hands in his lap, perfectly still and quiet.

For a while, nobody moved. Then one of the two girls who regularly sat on opposite sides of him raised her hand and waved it in front of his face. "Nope," she said. "He's gone again."

"Thank God," Mrs. Stewart muttered. "Okay, prom news is over. Crack open your Conrad."

Part 2

Notes:

The use of smart tags as backstory drives actually came from a conversation with WorldChanging Canada editor Mark Tovey and contributor Jordy Gold, while talking about green-washing. Mark argued that smart tags could tell the story of an object, effectively open-sourcing the item. This may come true to some extent, depending on what kind of smart tagging we're talking about: RFIDS or smart cloth. Our appliances may dictate how we choose: our washing machines will keep us posted.

Keep reading: βoyfriend (Part 2)

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