“Internet Explorer or Firefox?” an unexpectedly-ripped Cheetos Dude asks the moment Ernie and I upload onto the Semantic Web’s shiny new server.
“What the hell is Internet Explorer?” Ernie asks, genuinely bewildered.
Cheetos Dude smiles, holds up an orange-stained hand for Ernie to high-five. “Good answer, friend. You may enter.”
Ernie slaps Cheetos’ hand, examines the thin layer of orange that’s been offset against his palm.
“Nice Goten skin, by the way,” Cheetos Dude tells me, and wanders off.
I frown, glance around the Web and wonder why he thinks I look like Goten when I clearly don’t look like Goten! (Assuming I’m not looking, Ernie’s started licking the cheese offset from his hand.) It’s been a while since I’ve stopped by, what with homework, gym, chores, and, more recently, rescuing Eva from a giant demogorgonzola. The transition from actual to virtual hasn’t changed the finer details: laptops, tablets, and junk food cluttering wooden spool tables arranged around a central sofa pit. The Web’s post-geekly haunts, however, are almost unrecognizable. Everyone’s handsome, pretty, fit, muscular, and/or overtly voluptuous. They’ve all got SMN skins installed.
I should mention at this point that Ernie, too, is skinned—as Jason Momoa.
Still licking his hand.
His new virtual self as ripped as his actual self is fat.
We find a free table and sit.
“This is where you go to chill?” Ernie asks, and drapes one arm over the back of his chair. He seems unimpressed.
I open my laptop. “Why would you skin yourself like that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Ernie flexes an arm, tosses back a flowing lock.
“I’m the only one here in my actual skin.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“I’m happy with who I am,” I say proudly. Which was eventually true.
Explanation: Like everyone else, once the SMN skins feature was rolled out, the first thing I did was scroll through the endless customizations and pre-made skins uploaded by other users—mostly celebrities, athletes, anime and video game characters. I think I spent several hours trying on big and tall, short and stocky, svelte, well-built, feminine, masculine, androgynous, white, black, Asian (or more Asian, in my case), Indian, Native American…but the more skins I tried, the less sure I felt about actually choosing one. It’s the same reason I always run around in the default skin whenever I play GTA. Too much choice is totally a thing. Also, while it’s true everyone and their grandmother is skinning themselves these days whenever they go virtual, they’re also pointing out that everyone’s skinning themselves as a means of coping with various embarrassing shortcomings. Like, if you want to be cool, you’re expected to go skinning right along with everyone else—just so they can make fun of you for it. I do want to be taller, older, hairier, sexier, more irresistible to girls named Eva. But the more I want it, the more I’m afraid of being called out for wanting it. So, I’m just me. Short, nondescript, woefully underage. No one can say I’m compensating for something.
I’m happy with who I am—but only because I can’t decide who else to be.
“You’re just enacting the human leveraging paradigm,” I say.
“What’s that?” Ernie asks, again unimpressed.
“My teacher mentioned it the other day. He asked me what I thought the most important thing in life is. I said happiness just because I couldn’t think of anything else. He told me that’s incorrect. Erroneous is the word he used. He said happiness is irrelevant, because deep down inside we’re all just trying to get leverage, and everything we do is based on trying to dominate whoever and whatever we can. You’re not confident competing socially in your actual skin, so you installed a virtual one that represents the social leverage you want to enact.”
“I installed this because Aquaman is big tits right now.”
“Exactly. Aquaman is popular, and you want to be popular. You’re looking for favor. Leverage.”
“I don’t need any favors from anyone.” Another flex of Jason’s arm, another tossing of his mane.
“No, what I mean is, subconsciously, anything we do or say that supposedly makes us happy is an attempt at gaining favor or leverage.”
“And you’re so superior because you simply stuck with your actual geek-Goten skin?”
Why does everyone keep—? “I’m not saying I’m superior. I’m just…saying.”
Ernie leans forward. “Snarks and hipsters just say. Real men end their sentences with periods.”
I think for a sec. “I mean, my teacher also mentioned the only way to fix the paradigm would be learning to disregard the self for the whole—which was why he was so pissed at my happiness comment to begin with. And that’s cool and all, people can band together to do great things, change history and whatever. But the same logic is also used to build war machines.”
A stray tuft of hair tumbles over one of Jason’s eyes. “What the hell kind of classes are you taking, junior?”