paused in the hallway to study a picture of his grandmother. She was about twenty or so in this one, smiling warmly in a white dress. He’d seen it before, of course, but each time he saw a photo of her he was struck by how beautiful she was. He wished he could remember her better. The memories he had were few and grainy. But he liked the photos. He liked that his grandfather had so many.
He moved the rest of the way down the hall and peered into the den. His grandfather was where he’d expected to find him, in his chair at the window with his eyes in a book. He took a moment to glance around the sunlit room, then rapped on the door frame. The old man looked up and smiled. “Kutho, my boy.”
“Am I disturbing you?” the fourteen-year-old asked.
“Absolutely not. Enter, have a seat,” his grandfather said, gesturing to the opposite chair.
Kutho crossed the den, running his eyes over the bookshelf that encompassed the entire east wall. “What are you reading?” he asked as he seated himself at the window. His grandfather glanced down at the open book in his hands. “Oh,” he said. “Just a little history.” He closed the book, brought his eyes back up to meet his grandson’s. “Rather dull, to be honest.” He set the book onto the table next to him and settled into his chair. “Now then. What can I do for you?”
Kutho examined the book. It was two inches thick, leather-bound and seemed about a billion years old. He didn’t know what was between its covers, but he was almost certain it wasn’t dull. He looked back at his grandfather, who was grinning at him with steepled fingers.
“I wanted to ask you about something you said at lunch.”
“You mentioned an article you’d read about how OwnZone was…I don’t know…experimenting on its users or something?”
The grin widened. “Yes, I saw that piqued your interest. Have you read about it?”
“No, sir, I haven’t. But it reminded me of something I have read about. Or heard about. Or something.” Kutho shook his head. “I can’t pin it down. But something you said made me think of something else. Some idea or some concept or something. I don’t know. It’s…,” he began, then pointed to his head. “Floating.”
“I see,” his grandfather said, his eyes squinting. “You know, I only brought that up to give your sister something to think about. She was going on about how many friends she has on OwnZone. I thought she might like to know what all that personal information she so happily volunteers is being used for.”
The old man eyed his grandson a moment. “Well,” he began, his hands falling to his lap. “Very simply, it’s been discovered that a couple of years ago the programmers at OwnZone did, in fact, conduct an experiment on its users. Just south of a million of them, I believe. It was based around the idea of ‘emotional contagion.’ Are you familiar with this concept?”
Kutho considered it. “Sounds like…a virus. Of feelings.”
His grandfather nodded. “Essentially, yes. It’s the idea that emotions can be transferred from one person to another, or even one group to another, through contact. As you say, like a virus. Psychologists have long observed the phenomenon with people in physical contact. What the OwnZone experiment sought to discover was whether or not emotional contagion could be applied to people in virtual contact as well.”
Kutho sat still, his brow furrowed in concentration. “I understand.”
“Not yet,” his grandfather said. “There’s more.” The old man crossed his legs, placed his folded hands on a knee. He looked at the teenager with eyes that spoke of contemplation. This was the reason Kutho was so fond of talking with his grandfather. No one else in his life treated him like an adult. “Tell me, Kutho. Are you on OwnZone?”
“I tried it for a few months a while back. Didn’t really do it for me so I deleted my account.”
“What didn’t you like about it?”
Kutho shrugged. “I don’t know. Never really thought about it.”
“Think about it now.”
The teenager looked down a moment, then out the window. A hummingbird was hovering at the feeder hanging from the old oak in his grandfather’s back yard. “It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, exactly,” he finally said. “It was more just,” he began, then turned to his grandfather. “I guess, for me, it didn’t really add anything. Of value, I mean.”
The old man’s face softened. “You’re a clever boy, Kutho. And you know something?”
“That’s going to get you into a whole heap of trouble one day.”
The grandson broke into a laugh and the grandfather smiled. Then, as quickly as it had vanished, the seriousness returned to the old man’s face. “They manipulated news feeds.”
Kutho had been rubbing the back of his neck. He paused, looked up at his grandfather. “I’m sorry?”
“In the experiment, OwnZone manipulated users’ news feeds. In some accounts, positive new stories were withheld. In others they withheld negative stories. It was that simple. They managed users’ content. And then they sat back and watched.”
Kutho took a moment to consider that. “So what happened?”
“The same thing that happens all day, every day on OwnZone. People shared. Only this time, unbeknownst to the users themselves, the sadness or the love or the anger they were spreading had been implanted in them, not born.”
Kutho ran his fingers through his hair. His mouth felt dry. “So the experiment, really, was to see if they could get people to feel a certain way?”
“Or,” his grandfather said, “in keeping with your virus analogy, one might say they wanted to know if it was possible to infect a population with a particular emotion.”
The teenager shook his head. “Why? I mean…why would they want to know that?”
“Well,” his grandfather began. “You might want to—“
“—Wait,” Kutho interrupted. “I see it.” He worked the thought out to its conclusion. When he had it he looked up at his grandfather. “Control.”
The old man raised an eyebrow.
“People are led by their emotions. If you can control the emotion you can…” His voice trailed off as his gaze moved to the window. He took a deep breath, released it. “Wow.”
After a moment he turned back to his silent grandfather. The old man seemed to be waiting. Yes, that was it. He was waiting to hear what his grandson would say next. “I’ve been reading a lot about the Plexus lately,” Kutho continued. “How it came to be, where people think we might be headed because of it, that kind of stuff. Whatever it is you reminded me of at lunch, it’s in there somewhere.”
His grandfather was nodding. “There’s no question,” he said. “The Plexus has changed everything. In ways humanity was never able to conceive of before. But we mustn’t forget, this isn’t the first time technology has fundamentally altered the landscape. One need only look to Phlelohr in the 5th century. At that time the priesthood was the ruling class. At least, where the common man was concerned. All information was filtered through the church. One of the only groups that could read, in fact, were the priests, and they had to write all their religious texts by hand. I suspect I don’t have to tell you what happened to change all that.”
“The mechanical press.”
“Top marks for you, young man,” said his grandfather through a smile.” Suddenly the masses had access to words, language, ideas. There was an explosion in literacy, an absolute explosion. Now people had alternative sources to consider. They were no longer dependent upon the priesthood for authority and guidance, and subsequently the priesthood’s dominance waned. Such is the power of information.”
Kutho nodded comprehension, looked over at the mammoth bookshelf. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s just with people my age, but I feel like all anybody uses the Plex for is stuff like OwnZone and Chirper. Well, that and video games.”
The old man had an elbow on the arm of his chair, two fingers at his temple. “I can see how it might appear that way. And you may in fact be right. But I suspect it will only be this way for another generation or so. You have to remember, Kutho, these are the early stages. The world is just beginning to come to terms with the reality of global interconnectedness. Instant access, instant communication. Instant action, even. No, I think the social media frenzy is an appropriate response to such stimuli.”
Something stirred in Kutho’s mind. Instant action. And then it came to him. “The spontaneous collective.”
Kutho turned to his grandfather, realizing he’d spoken barely above a whisper. He opened his mouth to repeat himself when a woman’s voice cut in from the hallway. “What are you telling him?”
Kutho turned to find his mother leaning against the doorjamb, staring at his grandfather with wary eyes.
The old man held up his hands, gave her innocent. “What?”
Kutho’s mother shook her head and turned to her son. “We have to go. Your sister has ballet.”
Kutho hesitated, then turned to his grandfather. He smiled. “I’ve got it now. Thank you.” The grandfather studied his grandson a moment, then returned the smile and winked.
Kutho stood and left the room. His mother remained at the door, arms crossed, gaze fixed, a disapproving look on her face. “Dad...”
The good cheer slowly drained from the old man, and there was weariness in his voice when he spoke. “The boy has questions.”
On a table by the front door rested a large photo of Kutho’s grandmother. It was one of his favorites of her, and Kutho always gave it a moment’s attention before