85% or higher: that’s all Kaley needed to gain the gold star emoji next to her name on all social media platforms. The effect would be immense; everyone wanted to associate with a star. The Corporations would be falling over themselves to advertise on her page, and the crowd-funding for her comic books would boom. She’d be able to eat proper food again; maybe even dine out! She’d be able to buy from exclusive shopping sites, access the expert forums and apply for plane tickets. All she had to do was prove she was authentic.
“I hope you’ve prepared!” said the cynical voice of a beggar crouched outside the dramatic, mirror-clad tower that was the test centre. Prepared? She thought. How can you prepare for an authenticity test; either you are, or you aren’t?
She waited in a transparent booth at the request of the robotic receptionist. There wasn’t a seat, so she hooked one leg around the other and folded her arms to hide her awkwardness. The occupant of the next booth posed in a half lotus, radiating a soft smile. Kaley took a step back to lean against the glass, looking casually in the other direction to avoid eye contact.
“Knives,” said the booth. The lights flickered, and panic darted through her veins.
Her eyes widened when she realised the test had, in fact, already begun, and the automated system was firing out a torrent of seemingly random words.
The words went on and on until they lost all meaning. Kaley no longer felt nervous, just confused and desperate to get out. The opacity of the glass was shifting, projecting a series of familiar faces onto its surface, and there was a strange smell. The guy in the next booth didn’t seem to respond to any of it.
When the test was over, she spoke with him. He was “Chris, an inspirational life coach,” he said. He made his living from videos sharing ‘simple spiritual truths’. They were each handed a piece of paper by the receptionist. He scored 98% authenticity and received a recommendation to continue using the star emoji: his future was secure. Kaley scored just 64% and would bear the mark of a failure.
“But I don’t understand,” she said with tears forming in her eyes. “I didn’t do anything!”
“The glass back there is more intelligent than it appears,” smiled Chris. “They were monitoring your body language from the second you walked in here, along with your interactions with others and your heart rate. They continuously scan your face to note subtle changes in response to the stimuli, and from that, they know your true feelings on a subject.”
“And that’s what they compare to my social media records?”
“Sure. Your posts, time online, conversations initiated, reactions, photos, all that stuff.”
“But I’m a good person!”
“Irrelevant, I’m afraid. The persona you project must be exactly the way you are in real life. No filters, no opinions built from peer pressure, no hyperbole. You have to give people a reason to trust you, or your voice is just another computer worm.”
“My intentions are genuine; I don’t understand!”
“May I see your result?” Kaley handed over her results: a radar chart showing scores in various categories.
“It says your online persona is 116% more extroverted than you really are. 47% more agreeable, and 59% less neurotic.”
“If I were as introverted online as I am in real life,” she said, “I’d never be on there. And if I bared my insecurities – how would I make connections then? How would I even earn a penny?”
“OK. Try thinking about this from another angle. What if, instead, you could become as extroverted and agreeable in real life as you are online?”
“That’s my personality though. I can’t change that; it’s just who I am.”
“Come with me.”
Chris took her on a bus to an unfamiliar side of town. She was always open to new experiences, even though she didn’t like interacting with people. That had shown up in her test results, too. He ushered her into a tech store, hidden away beneath Jay’s Phonz.
“This is where I got myself sorted,” he said.
There were racks and racks of blister packs containing headsets, pads and wires. They were all different colours and displayed illustrations of the same radar charts as the test reports.
“You just take the outline of your online persona,” he pointed to the red line on her chart, “and match it up to these.”
She wandered along the aisle and found a close match: high in extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness; low in neuroticism.
“It’s our most popular line, that one,” the store assistant robot said.
“Oh yes, it’s the way a lot of people want to be, and rightly so. Who would want to back a neurotic introvert?” He laughed in someone else’s recorded tone. “Would you like to try it? You can take a quick trial and tutorial right now, and if you get home and it doesn’t feel right, we can offer a hassle-free return.”
She was hesitant, but Chris nodded his encouragement. She’d only just met him, and yet she trusted his judgement immensely. He was so together and relaxed.
Kaley had played virtual reality games many times, but this was something quite different. When she put on the headset, she saw a solid representation of her body standing in front of her, and around it, the ghostly trace of her real outline. The tutorial showed her how to align her body language to match her ideal traits. She could change the severity settings, so a light shock was applied to her arm if she strayed too far from the pattern. There was also a program for conversation practice, which would train her in using the correct vocabulary, speed and tone to give the impression she desired.
“It feels weird at first,” Chris told her, “but you’ll be surprised how quickly you get used to it. You’ll be passing that authenticity test in no time at all.”
“We can spread your payments, or you can put down a deposit and pay the rest when you’re earning the big crowdfunding bucks,” chirped the store assistant. “Flexibility and success guaranteed. How does that feel to you, Madam?”
Without hesitation, Kaley responded. “I’ll take it.”
The Test was originally written for the Virtual Futures Near Future Fiction salon Virtual Persons, and was read live on 20th March by Dan Coxon.
For more of my flash fiction, please check out my book Fragments of Perception. You can also follow this blog for thought-provoking and weird fiction, book reviews of similar, articles, and news on my forthcoming release of interconnected short stories, Mind in the Gap.
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