This story is by Jennifer Palmer and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Life With No LENS: The View From Elliston, Missouri
By Mike Shenck, New York Times
My first glimpse of Elliston, Missouri is from the back of a Sikorsky Tonkawa, the elite military helicopter reserved for special ops. Riding in such a craft – like visiting Elliston – is an honor not normally afforded to members of the press, but the recent resurfacing of anti-LENS propaganda has sparked curiosity about places like Elliston, making it possible for me to get my visit approved.
From the air, Elliston looks like any other rural American town. Automated cars populate its roadways. Buildings of all sizes line Main Street. The town appears to be both prosperous and charming, the kind of place you might like to visit for a weekend away.
You’d never know it’s actually a prison.
(Government officials are quick to point out that Elliston and the more than 500 similar settlements around the country are not prisons in the traditional sense of the word. Residents can leave whenever they choose; the only requirement is that they receive a LENS implant before they do.)
We land near the only entrance: a ten-foot-square gap on the southern side of town. I peer at the air as we approach the guard station, unsure of whether I can actually see the transparent Secure and Safe™ shield, or if it’s a trick of my LENS. As we pass through the shield and enter town, I suppress a shudder. I’ve never met somebody without a LENS; at least, not to my knowledge. Today, they’re the only people I’ll encounter.
My first stop is at the First Baptist Church of Elliston, where I meet Debbie Lewis. Debbie, who oversees the children’s ministry of FBCE, tells me she has no problem with modern technology.
“You think we’re all backwards hicks who refuse to join the twenty-first century. But look, I’m all for connection.” She waves an ancient watch, dating from the early smart-technology days, in my face as proof. “This thing does everything – counts steps, makes calls, records lists. But I can take it off anytime I want. Putting a computer in your brain, though … it isn’t natural.”
She flashes a grin. “Now, if they let me have one of those simulators – the ones they bring around during their propaganda fests – I’d be all for that.”
She’s referring to the informational fairs that tour the settlements each year, a targeted federal campaign to educate residents about the LENS. Attendees are encouraged to try a headset that mimics the device’s main features: contextual information displays, instantaneous facial recognition, and immediate access to emails and texts. The simulator is severely limited in scope; for those unused to enhanced reality and the constant availability of information, the full-featured version has been known to induce a catatonic state.
Despite its limitations, however, the simulator has proven effective: some studies show as many as 65% of settlers under the age of thirty-five will opt to join society after just two interactions with a LENS simulator, compared with a mere 15% of those in the same age group who have never tried the device.
Samuel Vanguard falls into the latter group – he’s never been anywhere near the annual fair. In fact, he rarely ventures outside of his home, citing concerns about government spy satellites and “big brother” surveillance. Of those quoted in this story, he’s the only one who asks me to deactivate my LENS as I talk to him. He refuses to open his door during the half-hour long approval and shutdown process, so I wait on his front step. It isn’t until I hold my Console’s large red “DEACTIVATED” flashing indicator up to the peephole that he lets me in.
He’s nervous, pacing in front of me as I take notes the old-fashioned way: with a pen and paper. I’m nervous, too; without my LENS, my brain feels sluggish and jittery all at the same time.
“People aren’t meant to live under constant surveillance,” he tells me, pointing his finger at my chest. “We need the space to live our private lives, to not have every moment monitored and recorded. With some chip in your head, seeing what you see, hearing what you hear, who’s to say someone isn’t looking over your shoulder, just waiting for you to mess up? That’s the road to tyranny.”
I ask him about crime – on average, a shocking 2.5 out of every 100,000 people in the settlements are murdered each year – and remind him that, since the introduction of the LENS, violent crime is practically nonexistent in civilized society. He responds with a (mis)quote from Benjamin Franklin. “Whoever gives up freedom for safety deserves neither.”
After the claustrophobic feel of my time with Samuel, it’s refreshing to be outside with my LENS reactivated. I do a quick scan of headlines, catching up on everything I’d missed, and reply to a handful of emails with apologies for my delayed response. Then I head to a local park – one of five multi-acre greenspaces in Elliston – to meet with Ron and Kristin Clydsdale.
The Clydesdales are a unique case. Both have LENS implants, but their parents do not. When faced with the prospect of their young children not being able to have a relationship with any of their grandparents, the Clydsdales opted to deactivate their LENS devices and move to Elliston. They’ve been here just over a year, and have no immediate plans to leave.
“Family is important to us,” Kristin tells me.
We sit at a picnic table as kids of all ages run and play around us, a striking – and noisy – contrast to New York City’s public outdoor spaces. She points to where her father pushes Ellie, her four-year-old daughter, on a swing. “That kind of interaction can’t happen virtually.” Before I can say anything, she waves away my objection. “Oh, I know sensation triggers are supposed to make the virtual feel real. But it isn’t the same. It just isn’t.”
When I ask whether they think they’ll return to civilization some day, Ron shrugs.
“It’s hard to say, really. It was tough at first, sure. Those first few months without the LENS, I felt like I’d lost a limb, like I’d been cut off from everything useful. But, well, you get used to it. We’ve built a life here now. I don’t know if we’ll want to go back.”
Carole Thompson, a retired schoolteacher who has lived in Elliston since it was first incorporated ten years ago, is my final interview of the day. For her, refusing the LENS comes down to quality of life.
“You’re so rushed, doing so many things at once, just because you can,” she says as we sip sweet tea at her kitchen table.
A part of me admits she’s right: in the fifteen minutes we’ve been talking, I’ve answered seven emails, begun the draft of another story, checked the score of the latest Yankees game, peeked in on my daughter’s kindergarten class, and finalized my daily grocery delivery list. All while taking in every word Carole has said. I’m not alone in this; official data from Genmari Labs, manufacturer of the LENS, shows that users average between 7-12 active processes at a time.
At Carole’s statement, I shutter everything and look at her with no overlying displays. Her return gaze is clear, direct, piercing. I get the sense that, even without the benefit of a LENS giving her real-time biographical and microexpression data, she’s the first person to really see me in a long time.
A timer beeps behind her. As she pulls chocolate chip cookies from the oven and slides them onto a plate, I blink, calling back my shuttered windows. She must sense a difference. She sighs, then sets a glass of milk in front of me.
“Don’t you ever want to rest? To just be wherever you are?”
I don’t respond. She settles herself into her seat and takes a bite, chewing slowly.
“You know, I was teaching third grade the year they made the implants available to kids. About half my class got them. The change was … remarkable.” Her voice trails off. Her gaze is far away. She swallows, then continues. “My so-called ‘problem kids’ didn’t act up anymore, but they didn’t laugh much anymore either. Or create. Or play. They retreated into the world of the LENS. I lost them.”
She shifts her gaze to me. “I knew in my bones then that those devices were wrong.”
As our time together draws to a close, I ask her if it’s worth it. Do her principles justify the prison she’s chosen for herself? She shakes her head and gives a rueful smile.
“Oh, Mike, honey,” she says, and somehow, the words sound endearing instead of patronizing. “We both know I’m not the one in prison here.”