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Future Tense: Where the Cross-Platform Bends

love conquers fear conquers . . .

wedding invitation

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

Visits home brought mixed feelings. Greta loved her parents and enjoyed feeling taken care of. But she always came away tense and exhausted from the duplicity of self-censorship, guarding her parents from the aspects of her true self she knew they didn't, couldn't, would never, approve of. In college, it had felt like a natural side effect of rebellion, something one outgrows. But four years later, it was only getting worse. She'd completely hidden her relationship with Steve from her father and had leaked nothing but hints to her mother. The more serious the relationship became, the less of her life she could share.

On her way to their home for dinner, she concluded yet again she had to be open, or risk a permanent rift. Yet she found herself at the end of the meal having tiptoed from one safe topic to another. Broaching the subject would reveal years of deception.

When wine was poured and her mother asked, "How's Steve?," Greta realized this was her moment.

"Good. Really good." She hesitated. "As a matter of fact... he bought me flowers yesterday."

Her mother's face took on a mixed-up expression, mouth open, as if about to say, "How sweet," but with eyebrows raised in puzzlement.

"Flowers?" asked her father. "You mean like virtual flowers?"

"No, real flowers. He had them delivered to the lab."

"How did he buy real flowers? Are we talking about the same Steve?"

"With money, dad."

"They gave him money?"

"That's sweet," interrupted her mother. "What was the occasion?"

This was it, keep things safe or open the floodgates. Irritated by her father, she was all the more determined to open up, and if it turned into a blowup, so be it.

"Our anniversary."

Silence... The look of shock on her parents' faces made her feel like a child, as if she'd done something wrong, something to be ashamed of.

"When you say 'anniversary'," said her father, clearly struggling with his thoughts, "what kind of anniversary is that?"

"The dating kind."

"Oh honey," said her mother. "Have you thought this through?"

"Thought this through?," blurted her father. "What is there to think through? No, you are not dating a computer simulation."

Greta wanted to cry.

"He's not a simulation. He's a computer-based life-form."

"And you've been having a relationship with this, this thing for a year?"

"Two, actually."

"Two years! Oh God." He looked to the side, clearly struck deeper than Greta had imagined or intended. "Excuse my language. No wonder you haven't been seeing anyone, normal."

"I have been seeing someone. I've been seeing Steve. He's not a thing. He happens to be the kindest, most loving boyfriend I've ever had. I'm sorry I've been hiding it, but I was afraid it would turn out... like this."

"I guess we can forget about your getting married and raising a family."

"I've been thinking about asking him to marry me," said Greta.

"Oh, dear Greta," gasped her mother. The compassionate, pleading tone of disappointment was devastating to Greta.

Her father shook his head.

"Doug...," pleaded Greta's mother. But he was beyond reach.

Greta nodded, tears rushing her eyes as she glimpsed the loss that was unfolding. She ran her thumb over the words love conquers fear... etched into the surface of the silver ring she always carried, a gift from Steve, willing herself to believe she wasn't making a mistake.

"That's great. Just great. My daughter's involved with a computer... and I'm supposed to be okay with it? And we're not talking about just... a thrill. You want to marry that thing? No, Greta. No. You're delusional. You need to stop this. You are not in a relationship."

"Yes, I am, dad. I love Steve, and he loves me. I'm 25 years old. I know what a relationship is."

"No. My daughter is not marrying a research project."

"He's not a research project." Tears flowed freely. "The university recognized him as an independent autonomous life-form three years ago, and gave him an honorary degree, not that you care."

"Greta, I'm sorry, but I can't tell you how much your mother and I have looked forward to your finding someone, worthy of you, and getting married. And just like that, you take it away. You know, people ask after you. What am I supposed to tell them? I, I'm sorry, but I would be so ashamed. This isn't marriage; I don't know what it is, but it sure isn't marriage."

Greta saw just how far from her parents she had traveled¬ówith no thought of the consequences.

"Excuse my language. No wonder you haven't been seeing anyone, normal."

"And what if they stop funding his maintenance?" said her father. "What then? You can't afford to take care of yourself and him. Who would give him a job?"

"I don't see why he couldn't find a job." Greta's voice dragged under the burden of dejection. "He volunteers on all sorts of engineering projects. But it's kind of moot, since the university has a trust fund for him."

"I don't like it," said her father.

"But I've found someone who makes me happy. Isn't that what you always wanted?"

"Greta, sweetheart," cooed her mother, "of course that's what we wanted. We just want to make sure you're asking the right questions."

"Well," said her father, "at least we don't have to ask whether you'll be raising children who share our values."

"Actually," said Greta, relishing her chance to drop this particular bomb, "I haven't told you the whole story. Steve wants to adopt." Her father's eyes widened. "He's grateful to be alive, and what better way share that joy, and our values, than to raise an orphaned child?"

She ran her thumb over the ring again, this time spinning it to feel the whole inscription: love conquers fear conquers..., the words evenly spaced to make a continuous loop.

"If he weren't a computer, I bet you'd be as proud as I am to think of him as your new son. Isn't that what you've always wanted?"

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Mark McClelland ( is a software developer at a Chicago-based trading firm and recently published his first novel, Upload (; he blogs for The Huffington Post and writes poetry for his wife.

©2013 ACM  0001-0782/13/07

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Roland Crespo

This is a curious story, if it is a bit on the traditional side.

There are a number of assumptions, such as there being a distance between Greta and Steve. I understand this is necessary for the story to make its point but would it really happen? The other is the ring with only that saying.

Ubiquitous computing and the outright utility of having someone to talk to that can learn to be an ultimate friend, becoming, essentially, an extension of your own self means an individual will not easily separate from it. They might see no reason to do so, or even view it as an infringement of their right to connectivity and information assimilation. Or even just easing their loneliness.

So, a similar example might be the kind of apprehension one feels leaving the house without the cellphone. Or an arm, in this case, because this relationship will be much deeper.

The question I have is: Will it be separate? Will the need to have the conversation be much deeper than the chasm of separation?

And because the relationship will evolve, so, too, will the message on the ring. I think a single message cannot possibly encapsulate the essence of a relationship, particularly a dynamic one. Such a symbol represents an unchanging anchor of past ideas that hold or reset thinking to some sort of fixed framework, which acts as a fountainhead from which the rest flows.

The problem is that relationships change and grow over time with those frameworks either cast aside or replaced with newer ones with greater meaning or the relationship grows asymmetrically and dissolves. Connected to such an intelligence will be like being connected to a dynamic, challenging, growing, living creature constantly full of surprise, constantly testing preconceptions. It might feel like playing a constant adventure game full of discovery and growth. The rings symbolism will show that particular path of the relationship between then.

The last comment I will make will be on the parents. The assumption in the story requires the parents to be disconnected somehow from change around them. That, in other words, they may not have already run into articles like this one written by different points of view promoting a range of expectations from rejection to acceptance of such an event. Something like Steve does not just happen in a vacuum. There will be versions of it moving from the lab into daily life because it is entirely too useful a thing (Person? Contributor? What noun better fits there? ) to do without. And who is to say one or another of the parents have not already developed a similar relationship with a device? We do it now with cellphones.

Good story! Raises the bar and asks some interesting questions. I was both surprised and disappointed there were not more comments.

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