White Elephants

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Augmented Reality's darker side is exploited to hide the true world from users. Poverty and decay vanish when seen through the ultimate in rose-colored glasses, but to what effect on the users.

Submitted: November 22, 2017

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Submitted: November 22, 2017



Up in the northeast they called them white elephants, big houses built 100 years ago for a family that had more money than most. Looking at the elephants now, all Andrew could say was much had happened over the last hundred years, none of it had benefited these houses.

The original family designed and built the elephant as a lovely home where they could raise their children. No expense was spared in the home’s construction, it was a beautiful, open and inviting house. Children were welcomed, parties were celebrated, graduations were marked, the men wore suits, the women gowns, the parents watched their family grow in one another’s arms. The family held the home until their kids moved away. Then, when mom and dad couldn't keep up with such a large house they reluctantly put it up for sale and moved to the edge of town to be closer to their they grandchildren.

By the time of that first sale the economy had begun to shift, the neighborhood wasn't as nice and the new family moving in wasn't as well off. They cut the basement into a rental apartment to help make ends meet and deferred maintenance on the house, there were always more pressing bills to pay. In the years and then decades that followed the economy shifted more and more pushing money to the town’s edges where larger lots, safer streets and better schools beckoned. The elephants were left at the town’s center to receive successive families of increasingly meager means. When hard times hit the elephants were stretched to absorb the blow; walls were moved, kitchenettes added, more and more family members moved in, all to help share costs.

In time the floor plan degenerated into a hodgepodge mess. In time the original tasteful decor was deemed boring and out of style: hardwood trim was painted over, oak floors covered with shag carpet, brass fixtures replaced with cheap tin and crystal baubles, plaster cracked, windows dimmed under years of coated dust, and the smell of the decay descended onto the house. Finally, some 30 years ago, an investor arrived, and bought the house from the bank for pennies. Work crews were called, the house was cut into eight units. Enough was paid to bring the structure into compliance with 8A government subsidize occupancy requirements, but not a penny more.

Andrew stood with his back to the bus station staring down the street at the white elephants, one after the next, block after block. It was the same in every town his bus stopped. He wondered if the original owners, were they alive today, would they have cried at the sight of the home they had built to raise their family?

None of the other passengers seemed phased by what Andrew saw, maybe, Andrew smirked dryly, because they didn't see it at all. Like most folks Andrew had ARSoft's “Historical” app installed on his augmented reality glasses, ARSoft’s trademarked “ARGlass.” But unlike most he almost never used it. Andrew preferred the reality of the world with all its faults, all its cracks and inconsistencies, rather than ARSoft's airbrushed renderings of reality.

ARSoft’s amazingly popular Historical app matched the user's location with a massive database of historical photos. When a match for the structure the users was viewing was found an AI routine converted the 2D photo into a 3D representation, color was added, adjustments made for ambient lighting and the image rotated to the user’s orientation relative to the structure. The image was projected onto the user's ARGlass layered array. Without the user even being aware, blight was replaced by the architectural beauty of 100 years ago. The day the app launched all the world’s white elephants disappeared, replaced by the beautiful, bright, open homes just as they appeared over a century ago. The users went wild.

Andrew remembered it wasn't long after the app’s introduction that people started to see it's darker side. People now had the ability to ware the ultimate in rose colored glasses critics ranted. Pop culture call using the app to gloss over life’s shoddy spots “Rosein’.” Didn't like that shabby strip mall? “Rose-it over” with the Historical app. That creepy old house freak you out? “Rose-it baby.” People everywhere began to live in an augmented alter universe where every part of town look brand new and where the poverty on the outside of their ARGlasses disappeared completely on the inside.

It was about a year after the app’s release that the public discovered just how “augmented” their reality really was. Some sharp folks at a local historical society marveled at their town’s transformation when seen through their ARGlasses. Learning that the buildings were imaged based on historical photos they requested ARSoft release their town’s pictures so they could add them to the local archive. ARSoft declined. After a months long search the historical society couldn't find a single photo of many of the structures projected in ARSoft's app. How could the app have projected these structures if there were no photos available they wondered? What the historical society found next pushed the topic into the national news. Several photos were found in a private collection which contradicted the images projected by ARSoft. When the press demanded ARSoft release the photos on which their ARGlass projections were based the truth final emerged.

ARSoft used historical photos where it could, but in areas where there were no records ARSoft’s AI constructed an artificial representation of the building based on “like structures” found in its historical photo database. When an analysis was done by a news agency over 87% of the buildings were either partially or completely fabricated by the AI and projected into the users ARGlasses.

The historical society was certain this discrediting of ARSoft's so called “Historical” app would result in a large scale drop in users. It didn't. The users didn't care that most of what they were seeing had no historical relevance. Finding out that ARSoft's ARGlass app was showing them a complete fabrication, built by an algorithm, while passing it off as historically accurate, didn't seem to matter in the least.

Andrew saw that people were willing to let technology fabricate the world around them. But technology, by definition, is a collection of tools, it has no ambition to sway people in one direction or another. The people building the technology on the other hand; this and other events made Andrew question just how pure their intentions were.

Andrew was surprised how upset he was users would accept a fabricated world over reality. He pondered the reason while in the wheat fields of his grandfather’s farm and while studying in Boston, but he had never come to a satisfactory explanation. Debates and conversations with fellow students in the halls of his university and at local student bars moved him no closer to an understanding. He felt the answer had to be obvious, this wasn’t a fringe group, millions were opting out of reality, yet the reason had eluded him for years. Now suddenly at this bus station, far from the bustle of Boston and his university. Far from the quiet windswept beauty of the Montana wheat fields he grew up on. Here, looking at the dilapidated white elephants, across the cracked sidewalks and potholed road, just across the way from the bus station, maybe here under gray skies and fading light, Andrew could start to see why.

© Copyright 2019 PT Ambrose. All rights reserved.

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