Updated: Jul 7
Q: What if society was districted according to age?
Chapter one - Alpha
I was special. I felt it. They told us over and over again until I began to believe it. Well, only once I passed my probationary period and got my official hot desk anyway. Until then they left us hanging in a state of angst, tantalising us with statements like ‘only a few of you will belong’ and ‘we’ll be watching carefully to see if you are one of us’. Oh, the tension. I so wanted to fit in. Find my place in this world of segmented sets.
But you already belong, I hear you say. Aren’t you a part of Generation Y, a Millennial? Well yes, technically I am, but…where do I begin?
The segregation happened naturally. As naturally as deigned by the bosses who controlled most of the media. We were getting our news feed from differing sources but the BBs, AKA Boomers were making sure that we were reacting exactly how they wanted us to. They should have been retiring on their golf courses or sailing around on their yachts, named after their mistresses but no, they were clinging on. Gripping on for dear life, afraid to let go of their legacy. They had worked hard, I give you that. Built the society that our foundations wobbled upon and they didn’t want to give it up.
They kept portraying us as entitled and precious, gaslighting us with their cleverly chosen words, provoking us until we finally stood up to them. It didn’t stop there. They pushed us further, so the societal disharmony became too much, so much so that we thought it was our free choice that led to us being corralled into gated, age-based communities in order to feel safe. That’s how the three major Districts of BB, X and Y came to exist. I now see that it was their choice all along.
Only a chosen few of us now worked in inter-age workplaces like Alpha. We were a part of the Tech Core that kept the Districts running smoothly without the communities having to interact with one another. A beacon of altruism and civil values, aiming to simply deliver to you, our customer. Deliver what, I hear you ask? Whatever you needed, whatever you couldn’t find a solution for. Any gaps in your knowledge or experience that in past times would have been handed down through the generations or shared up the age cohort, we now had the answer.
It goes without saying but intergenerational relationships disappeared. Perhaps exacerbated by our delivery of various distractions that lit up the frontal cortexes and buzzed the pleasure arenas of our brains. The once loving embraces of our grandparents were being replaced by the all-enveloping grasp of the virtual world, while the pride and creeping senility of the elderly were preventing any real discussions on the matter. Invisible voids were forming in people’s hearts but people were too entranced to notice.
I noticed though. I was beginning to really miss him. James. We now hadn’t seen each other for over a year, ever since the Districts formed. Ever since he decided we were too different. Ages and values apart, he said. As if reflecting the tensions being played out in public between the generations. In my role as Alpha employee, I was able to see him in his District but a misunderstanding kept us apart. A misunderstanding that meant that I never truly belonged to my generation.
My mother told me to give him space. That all men appreciated space. Although too much and they were gone. How right she was.
I missed her terribly. She lived in the furthest corner of District BB, away from the others. She found the change too much and sequestered herself away. I could have seen her regularly with my rare Alpha privilege. I’m sure other mothers would have killed to see their children but not mine. She would only let me visit once in a while. It wasn’t enough for me. I needed more. More reassurance, more answers. It broke my heart.
That’s how Alpha saved me. They got me. They got all of us. Made us feel special.
When they introduced the iSkin, I was so proud. We were going to help the different generations understand one another and bring everyone together again. I could hear Atticus Finch saying ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’ That was the basis of the ad campaign and it went viral.
Of course I put my name down to experience the iSkin. Who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you? It was like a wet suit that you pulled on, transporting you into the body of your chosen subject and vice versa. Use was restricted to inter-generational switches to adhere to the messages of co-operation and empathy that Alpha embodied. Both parties needed to agree to the transference but as an Alpha employee, I had special codes to allow one way transports. The incumbent would be none the wiser.
Finally my turn came. Alpha asked me who I wanted to transport into. I immediately thought of him but I pushed it away. He was too old for me. I understood that. So what was the point in trying to understand him anyway? We would never work.
Who else would I want to get under the skin of I wondered? My Dad? To find out why he left. Or Piers Morgan and men like him who seem to be attacking independent Millennial women? Or a random Boomer to just simply learn?
Come on Jess, said my colleague responsible for iSkin. Who are you going to choose?
Yes, I wondered. Who was I going to choose?
Chapter two - OK Boomer
I watched on while she slept. The only time when my conscious self seemed to be able to return to the surface and be a part of the present moment. Of being within her. Of being her.
The rest of the time, it was as if I was muzzled, tied up, restrained from even thinking my usual thoughts. All I could do was observe; understand how she felt, what she said, what she thought, the choices she made. It was torture.
I had to watch on as Jess surfed her way through waves of emotion; one moment buoying herself up with pointless affirmations and my word, they were pointless…then the very next, she was flipping her wig. They were so easily crushed, these Millennials. We were made of sterner stuff. Life happened and we dealt with it. We never played the mental health card. Never.
It was awkward at first when I found myself in her body. Young and nubile, curves in all the right places, asking to be touched. Then I realised that it was mine to do what I wanted and I began to explore more confidently.
That wasn’t the only thing of hers that I delved into. I began probing into her phone - much easier now that my fingers weren’t so fat and cumbersome - and came across her financial files, her social media accounts, her surfing history. Being inside a Millennial, it was as if some of her modern day knowledge was seeping into my brain. I somehow understood everything I was seeing. Nothing pleasant to discover though. She was heavily in debt with no clear path for recovery. Her social feeds were full of abuse from Alpha haters. How could anyone keep sane with a constant barrage of animosity? No wonder this generation was so anxious.
I could see from her search history that she was keen as mustard to get her Covid vaccines. The idea of Long Covid scared her. She would have to be patient though. District BB and X were nabbing all the jabs and reaping the benefits of their early bird status. It wasn’t enough that her cohort suffered the most financially and mentally during the lockdowns, mandated to protect our generation from the virus. Now we were preventing them from doing things because they were yet to be vaccinated. No wonder they had so much contempt for us.
Slowly I was beginning to see the picture of a sidelined generation. They were being asked to wade in deep, dirty waters from pool parties that they were never invited to. Through her eyes, I was now seeing things that I hadn’t seen before. An unconscious bias becoming more conscious as time passed.
As she slept, I could feel the tension in her body. Things were happening to her, not for her and there was no way out. The pressure was metamorphosing into a toxic anger that I knew would erupt one day. This was a generation so powerless that complacency had set in. What was the point in calling something out when it went unheeded? That was, until the injustices became too much. Too unworkable. The Millennials started pushing back, fighting against us. Forcing us to become woke. That’s when we had no choice. We had to create the districts.
Maybe we acted rashly. Having spent the past few days in this girl’s body - having had unfettered access to iSkin as an elite Alpha member - I was slowly realising that our generations had similarities as well as differences. We both wanted validation.
I sought mine through material success and status, while she found hers through instant gratification and community manifestoes. We both wanted to be wanted. We were all just trying to survive.
Suddenly I had to leave her body, to return to mine and do what I needed. This whole thing was no longer fun. I could feel her stirring. I had to get out before I was dragged back under by her consciousness. I tugged at the zipper at the back of my iSkin. It was stuck. Contorting myself, I tried to reach as far back as I could to pull down the zip in one steady movement. Nothing. It wasn’t budging. Bloody hell. She was beginning to wake. I was sinking, being pulled down into the murky waters like a diving bell. Back into my locked-in syndrome.
I tried to find the escape toggle within the sleeve of the iSkin as instructed in case of emergencies. I yanked it but nothing happened. I called out the safe word to alert my Alpha colleagues but there was no response. I was stuck.
There was only one thing for it. Destroy the iSkin. Slash my way out to save myself. I looked around for a pair of scissors. There was one on the desk, far end of the bedroom. I had to somehow overcome her will once fully awake and rip myself out.
I held on as she came to, usually my thoughts disappeared on her waking but this time I clung on for dear life. I had to get out of her.
My heart raced. I felt my stomach groan under the stress. But wait…I paused. I needed a moment to think. It dawned on me. By cutting my way out of the iSkin, I would damage the neural interface and block the transition of her consciousness back into her body. By saving myself, I would be sacrificing her.
Before iSkin, I wouldn’t have thought twice about putting myself first. I still had a lot to give, even if I was past my peak. But having got to know her, I wasn’t sure any more. She had her whole life ahead of her. She deserved her chance like we had. To build her own worlds, to realise her own dreams. But could she do it? She was still green, still forming her thicker skin. Was she ready to take over from us?
I faced a dilemma. Save myself and protect our legacy or save her and hope for the best. What was I to do?
Chapter three - Under my skin
I was calm. I felt it. It was as if there was a wise voice in my head when I awoke, telling me that everything was going to be alright, that I’d got this. It gave me confidence.
It was a male voice, giving me advice, vocalising my intuition; a father figure that I had never quite had. It made me miss my Mum. My Mum before the Districts swallowed her up. When laughter and lullabies were still a part of her being. How I missed her.
The voice inside reassured me that I was ok, that I didn’t need her for validation, that I had been doing well on my own. I was enough. Trust yourself Jess, it said. Trust me.
As I logged on to the Alpha motherboard to start my day, another feeling washed over me. An uncanny feeling. Of something not quite right. I pushed it away.
It kept gnawing at me, trying to overcome my concentration until the force of the feeling knocked me into a daze. Frozen-eyed. Staring at a flashing cursor on the screen. I wasn’t quite sure how long I had been like this when I noticed my hand tapping on the keyboard, inputting secret passwords for a restricted area on the Alpha platform. Tap, tap, tap. I was in. What was I doing? How did I know the passwords? What was going on?
My fingers worked away as I got deeper and deeper into the matrix of Alpha. It was as if I was on a mission, trying to uncover something buried within the recesses of the labyrinth. There’s something wrong here, the voice said. There is something wrong with Alpha. We need to get to the bottom of this.
I tried to push away the negative thoughts. What are you talking about? Alpha had saved me. They got me. They got all of us. Made us feel special. I wasn’t going to go against them.
The voice was insistent. Listen to me Jess, I know. I’m wiser. I’ve had more experience than you. Let me guide you. Let me continue.
Wait! I willed my fingers to stop, suddenly feeling as if I was trapped inside someone else’s body instead of mine. I overcame the force within and shook my mind back to the present. Back to me. Back to being in control.
I stared at the screen. Alpha’s secret manifesto for the Districts stared back. Of wanting to divide people, to pit one against another, to destabilise society under the guise of altruism. Alpha would be the solution, the glue binding the districts together but still ensuring that they were kept apart so that they didn’t unite and rebel. My heart raced. What did this all mean?
Who are you, I typed on the screen? The cursor flashed on and off in time with my heart beat. There was no reply. I tried again. Finally letters appeared on screen. A friend in District BB. A Boomer? Thoughts whirled in my mind. What was going on? Had I somehow become a human Ouija board, channeling overzealous spirits from other districts?
What do you want, I typed back. I’m here to guide you, he responded. To help you see the truth. I’m the little voice in your head offering you wisdom. WTF? How did you get there, I typed. There was a pause before the response came back. iSkin.
I suddenly felt violated, exposed. There was a Boomer inside me, watching everything I did, knowing all my thoughts, trying to forever influence. I wanted to run, to get away but there was nowhere to go. He was here. Not going anywhere. My very own parasite.
As if sensing my panic, he tried to calm me down. I’m sorry, you should have known, he said. I would leave if I could but I can't. They've trapped me. Made sure I couldn’t get out when I discovered the truth.
That was meant to relax me? Are you serious? There was a pause as I tried to take in my new reality. I had a Boomer inside my mind. Violating my privacy at every turn. How could I every be free to live my own life with the shackles of the past suffocating me. As if he heard my thoughts, he spoke once more. We can exist together, like this, together in your mind. I’ll share the wisdom of my years, guide you, help you to create your future. I have so much to give. Just take a look through my eyes. We’re in this iSkin together. We can make it work.
He transported me into his body, his thoughts, his memories, his experiences…and his adventures overwhelmed me; so varied, so rich, so much. He did have a point. He had age on his side and all the knowledge that came with it. I also understood what drove him, what he wanted in life. Like us. He was looking for validation. He was one of us.
This was no way to live though. A puppet controlled by invisible strings. I needed to make life happen on my own terms. Make my own mistakes and learn from them. Of course I saw the benefits of co-existing but not like this. Not with him inside me. I had to find a way out.
I wandered through his mind, aware that he was watching me. I had to run out of his sight, away from his view. I ran into the forest of his mind, where memories of his childhood lurked. Under the dark canopy I felt safe. I sat cross-legged and closed my eyes. I pictured his body lying in his room, iSkin on, motionless as he explored my thoughts. I willed myself to enter his body, slowly getting comfortable in his arms, his torso, his legs and then pulled myself up slowly. I made his arms reach the back of his neck. I felt the zip. The zip of his iSkin. All I had to do was pull it down and release him from me. I yanked it but it wouldn’t budge. Of course, he mentioned that. I would have to cut him out. I saw the scissors on the desk and reached out. Wait, a voice said. He had found me. What do you think you’re doing, he asked? Do you realise that by getting rid of me, you could lose yourself forever? I paused. It was a risk I was willing to take. I nodded. There was no other option.
It’s time, I said. For us to make our mark. I’m ready. You have to step aside and let us be. For the first time, I felt him understand. I felt him loosen his grip on me. Now was my chance. I took the scissors and started cutting along the zipper line of his iSkin, from the base of his neck, down his back. I felt him wince but I kept on.
Suddenly I was thrown back into my own body and felt a release within me, a weight taken off, of his presence leaving my body. Then my vision blurred as I felt my body hit the ground. I could see it lying there, motionless, watching from above. A powerful force pulled me upwards towards a dark hole and I knew this was my moment to fight. Fight against it and get myself back into my own body. The pull was insurmountable. I mustered up all my strength, will, determination, everything I had to draw myself back in but the energy was overwhelming. I could feel myself being beaten, my spirit weakening.
Then a flash of light. I looked up to see the outline of a man, age on his side, blocking the light trying to pull me up into the darkness. The grip on me weakened as his body was taken instead of mine. I was released. As he disappeared out of view, he pointed to my body on the floor, a smile on his face. I understood. I had to get back in, fast. Thank you, I whispered but he was gone.
I don’t know how long I had been out but I woke up and he was no longer inside me. I was free. There had been a surge in power when we destroyed the iSkin. It caused the Alpha motherboard to short circuit and go dark for hours. In that time I distributed Alpha’s secret manifesto and exposed the truth. It was all over for Alpha. It was all over for the Districts too. The walls came down.
I visit my mother once a week now that society was no longer districted. She allows me to, as if her barriers were now down too. Slowly we were learning to recognise ourselves in each other and coming together to appreciate each other’s views. We were all finding our places in the world. Every generation.
📷: Anne Nygård