Jessica had installed the LifeLine kit two days ago. She had been the last of her friends to do so, although living in the comparative isolation of Zermatt, she should have been one of the first. This morning, like most, she woke at 5am and swiped from alarm to email to catch any correspondence coming from PST. There was, as there had been for the past three days, nothing. This happened from time to time; she knew there’d be more soon.
She wrapped a blanket around herself and shuffled into the bathroom, brushing her teeth while scrolling through Facebook. She went upstairs, made coffee, and sat down to tweak work she’d already tweaked last night. Jessica worked from home, writing copy for a legal firm based in Santa Barbara. Her mother had ensured she was fluent in Mandarin by 14, which did not make her unique, but enabled her to write for both the firm’s sites, their second office being in Shanghai.
She logged into her LifeLine account. 104 new ‘watchers’. 263 people were ‘watching’ her now. 690 had the access to ‘watch’ her, but in theory, with the click of a button, anyone could. She was only ‘watching’ 43 people and already felt overwhelmed by the intimacy of it all. She’d heard about LifeLine endlessly – people either damning it or raving about it – before signing up in an attempt to assimilate herself into an updated world.
LifeLine was invented by the late Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who died before his second most revolutionary idea was realised. Now, everyone has LifeLine. It’s free to install, as the homepage makes more in advertising than anyone could ever spend. As soon as a user registers, three small glass balls are dispatched by drone – the cameras. Most install them in their bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Jessica had made the usual choices, and so, as she sat at her breakfast table, pretending to work, 263 people watched her as she watched others.
“I have to stop feeling like this is intrusive. They want to be intruded upon,” she thought. LifeLine was an open invitation to see people pretend they were ignorant of their audience. It was intended as socialised voyeurism, but felt too staged. It reminded her of seeing her ex-boyfriend repeating the same stand-up routine night after night, intoning each line as if for the first time.
Drinking beer had become a performance piece, heavy make up was applied to watch Holo-TV, coronaries soared, as no one wanted to be witnessed slacking during a workout. Some woman in Carolina caused outrage after a man in Prague persuaded her to show him “inside” – her other watchers were not forewarned of the intimate direction the party was taking. Many were aggrieved. Many more copied her.
What had begun in South Korea was soon everywhere: each pavement boasted a special lane for crowds wearing virtual reality, or V Real, lenses, except ‘virtual reality’ only took off in the porn and gaming industries; the rest of the users were glued to ‘real’ lives in real time. People gawped at each other as they ate, slept and fucked. Never alone. Never themselves. Millions of different facets to one giant, vapid face.
There was someone Jessica really wanted to ‘watch’, but it seemed too predatory. She had accepted his request to ‘watch’ her, though. Instead, she watched her friend Margolis ‘getting ready for work’ and then switched over to Pete, who had just farted and needed to make a gag of it, so went up close to the lens and started shouting. Jessica let a laugh escape, then worried she’d been rumbled, so she switched, “People must have nerves of steel for this,” she thought. She scrolled across to Martin, who was in bed. She watched his hand trace the sheets; a flush spread from her chest and she switched to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next. She jumped as her phone rang, then shook her head – hundreds were watching.
Ava was up early.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was watching you and thought I’d just call.”
“Are you still watching me?”
Ava laughed, Jessica followed.
“I’m so weirded out by it. I mean, should I be apologizing to everyone for saying I’m weirded out by this? How true to life is this supposed to be?”
“Just be yourself; it’s fun. You’ll start enjoying it. I thought it was weird at first, too.”
A lie. Ava was a natural exhibitionist.
“Ok. So I’ll just have some cereal, or whatever.”
“Yeah. So, what’s happening?”
“Nothing. I have lots of work. I think my parents are coming to visit in a couple of weeks; that’s about it. What’s your news?”
“Oh, god, I don’t even know where to start …”
To have so much news as to not know where to start must be exhilarating. Jessica always had the beginning, middle and end down pat.
“Well, how’s the shop?”
“Yeah, fine. It’s making money. Oh, I know what I wanted to tell you! Remember Jack?”
“Yes.” Jessica knew her low tone verged on disappointment, so raised it, making her sound unhinged. She had a tendency to martyr herself and her opinions.
“He’s back. I saw him on Saturday and it just… I don’t know. I just think it could really work this time.”
Jessica nodded, knowing Ava (and everyone else) could see her. She’d been acting her whole life, but no one had been scrutinizing her – until now. Was she being true to “life”? Did she play it right?
The next morning, work came in from the Pacific and Jessica decided not to log into LifeLine. She’d been watching some friends last night and felt she’d seen more than friends ever needed to, which made her wonder if she was somehow indebted to share an equal amount. It seemed she didn’t have the constitution to be a ‘watcher’, but she was yet to decide if she could handle being ‘watched’.
All too aware that people were constantly watching, she’d slept on the sofa last night and only used the en-suite bathroom, without the bath she had previously revelled in. It felt like a step she wasn’t ready to take. But she had begun, ever so slightly and despite its inconveniences, to enjoy being seen. She started sleeping in make-up, switched from the BBC World Service to Beats7, she ate less and only vaped by the window where a crooked snag of the Matterhorn would be visible. She sipped her morning coffees as if being ogled outside Les Deux Magots, she watered her plants more regularly and reduced her bodily functions to as close to zero as possible; except for breathing, which could be exaggerated for desirable effect.
She wondered if she’d be going to all this effort if only women were watching. It was exhausting. Work had become of secondary importance and it was showing. There had been some mistakes in her translation the previous night and so today was spent groveling and correcting, trying to keep her mind away from what others might be looking at, focusing solely on what she could see.
That night, drained, she lay on the sofa shielded from the cameras and picked her nose. She stared at the wooden roof. The fire was burning out. She should go to bed, but there would be people watching. Would they think she was weird for sleeping on the sofa? Was that any weirder than watching strangers sleep? “What purpose is there, unless you’re a pervert or a suspicious spouse?” she thought, as she climbed into her cold bed, forgoing the vintage hot water bottle.
LifeLine had ensured competition was a crucial part of the experience by advertising how many, or how few, people were watching each free user to anyone and everyone. And so Jessica’s distraction only increased as more and more people applied to watch her, applications she accepted in a base desire to please. But she could always feel it; feel them, their attention. She couldn’t seem to look straight ahead any more. Everywhere she turned, she mentally framed herself for their eyes, for his eyes. She couldn’t watch him, it was too risky. “Is it too obvious to change my settings so only he can see me?” she thought. It would require explaining; but if she switched her profile to ‘private’; then people could only see the number, not the names of those watching.
She got up from her desk and cooked lunch with as much sass as she could muster. Her meal consisted of a fried egg, toast and the reserves of the ketchup she’d brought from London. “Why not buy more ketchup? Who buys one thing of ketchup?” she muttered, as she tried to shake the red clumps free of the container, momentarily forgetting she was being observed. Remembering, unease flooded through her. “People must think I’m mad. Oh, god, maybe I am. Or maybe I just can’t fucking deal this with this.” And so, in that moment, by the remains of the egg, Jessica decided that LifeLine wasn’t for her.
Not in its intended state, anyway.
She hurried over to her computer, attempting a relaxed expression. She logged into her account, paid for her privacy and noted that 663 people were currently ‘watching’. She smiled pleasantly as she deleted them one by one, until only one remained. But he wasn’t watching now.
Her phone icon flashed – Ava.
“Have you deleted me?”
“Have you deleted me from LifeLine?”
“Oh, right. Yeah. But I’ve deleted everyone. Honestly, I can’t deal. It’s making me crazy.”
“You haven’t deleted everyone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s still one person watching you! Who is it?”
“It’s an old school friend. She’s often suicidal; you never know what could push her over the edge.”
“She’ll go eventually. I’ll just have to explain nicely. So… how’s everything with Jack?” Jessica was impressed with her own nonchalance. It was much easier without anyone watching.
“Great – he came round last night. I saw you were watching us for a bit.”
“Oh, I think must have left it on by accident, while I was cooking.”
“Well, then if you didn’t see… It was incredible.”
“Great! I’m so pleased.”
“Yeah, me too. I’m starting to really trust him, you know. I’m sorry you’re getting rid of LifeLine; you could’ve had a lot of fun if you were a bit more open minded.”
Jessica conceded and hung up. She wondered if Ava sensed any tension in her voice. Still, it felt worth it.
She sauntered over to her computer, took a deep breath and logged into her account. He wasn’t watching. Fuck. Why not? He usually logged in now. She made coffee and sat by the window, intermittently checking for his icon. He didn’t watch all day, or the next. There was a lot of work to do, but she couldn’t concentrate. At night she lay awake, tormenting herself: “It was too obvious. I’ve scared him off. Who else is he looking at?”
By the fifth day the obsession had abated and she was back working (almost) normally, only occasionally wondering if she was being looked down on. She mindlessly logged in to LifeLine, assuring herself she’d delete it if there was still nothing. But the little green profile was glowing. He was watching. Seen, finally. She felt alive. He was all over her. She looked straight into the lens and dropped the blanket, drawing his gaze to her bare skin. She slinked downstairs, went into the neglected bathroom and began to run a bath.
She lit candles with a grace she did not naturally possess, turned off the light, closed the door and pouted at the glass ball stuck on the mirror opposite. She tried to steady her breathing as she slid off her top, nipples hard beneath the lace of her bra in the mirror. She slipped off her trousers and teased at her pants. She tensed her body in the golden light, shifting poses with his eye view in mind.
And this is what Jack was watching, as Ava crept up behind him. Of course, Jessica stayed unaware of her extra audience member – until she got the call some 20 minutes later.
“What the FUCK do you think you are doing?”
“Ava, what’s …”
“Why, the fuck, were you wanking up against a sink?”
In a split second, Jessica assessed her options. She thought how she could play Ava, tell her to be a little more open minded. That nothing had happened in 'real' life. She had never touched Jack. Except she didn’t care enough to lie. She felt detached. And strangest of all, not even a little embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. I …”
She absorbed the onslaught for an hour. Somewhere amidst the shouting, Ava informed her that she never wanted to see her “shitty, psycho face” again, in any medium. Jessica listened and cried, right up until the very second that Ava deleted Jack’s account and she was being watched no longer. Pressure lifted. She was free. And she smiled, naturally, for the first time in weeks.
Photograph by Man with a Movie Camera, Dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)