11 min read

Near-Future Nostalgia

A short story
This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for the upcoming issue is Dinosaurs.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The second season of Scooby Doo, Where Are You! (1970) added chase sequences with original bubblegum tunes sung by Austin Roberts. My favorite episode from childhood, “Jeepers, It’s the Creeper”, featured “Daydreamin’”, a ditty about blissfully ignorant love with an ostrich. It’s with the same pluck and swagger, or at least the simulacra of these qualities, that I now walk the streets of the metaverse with my pets in tow, blasting the lyrics for all to hear. My other favorite song to play is “What, Me Worry?” by Portugal. The Man, but while catchy it doesn’t hold a candle to nostalgia. Hardly anything does anymore.

Today’s virtual-reality sojourn has so far consisted of a Connect Four tournament I won after many a tie game, and it still promises a night of clangorous karaoke mainlined to me through my headset. The gang has just teleported into a small VR-model shop, a headless establishment from which people buy NFTs of wearable metaverse avatars. Transactions are operated by smart contracts such that the shop owner and any guest creators only ever pop in to hang out. My compatriots, fellow holders of the Animaly project and veteran JPEG degens to boot, have also come to chill—any and all shilling of our chubby, costumed, chimerical cat-penguin-critter forms to anons seeking a new avatar, along with any subsequent bumps in floor price when those same duly diligent anons become Animaly investors and buy the NFTs for themselves, is icing on the cake, or so I’ve heard. The people we don’t already know in the store compose a cavalcade of apes, seals, frogs, you name it. There are several weird fauna roving about too, like anime boys and anime girls, some chibi and others not. The overall assortment is prosaic, however, including that of the product displays: a microcosm of the generative profile-picture collections that happen to be trending this week, only a few of which deserve their slots. But as consistent as ever is an apparent lack of technical knowledge among these diverse and disparate tribes, a dearth of innovation: here and in any given room, only the Animaly posse has companions, pets. Noticing this fact, AlwaysBricked, our Secret Sauce Sorcerer cloaked in his namesake unique purple magician’s garb, gives the order to spread out, have fun.

Suffice it to say my fellow Animalies obey his command. Soryx, one of the project’s meme lords, uses his avatar to recreate almost any image or video made by the Animaly community with a single click. Coast Malone, community manager, tags along and records our virtual interactions as both memes and potential lore. Dollphin tends to spearhead events and rally the troops, and she’s the only human woman I trust to have my back on the trading side of things, so unquenchable is her thirst for busting scams. Squidpussy needs no introduction. Each of their avatars is loaded with reactions and dance animations that find frequent use and abuse. Finally, the project mainstays and most of the Animaly foot soldiers each have at least one pet with them—Dollphin flaunts five rares. The companions are 10,000 extra-chibi cat-penguins from a second collection that released last month, with brand-new traits and color palettes. They’re the first of their kind of which we’re aware, and the community’s current mission is to march them around the shop and show the metaverse what it’s missing, besides interoperability and ease of use.

I have my own fun parading down the center aisle, wherever a crowd is to be found. Metaverse goers have already convened around blackrockjanitor, whose Animaly random generation assigned a gray beard, a walking stick, and 3D glasses. Stark white in color, he hunches and claims blindness, always a crowd-pleaser. His onlookers then hear my siren song of cartoon rock, turn and part belatedly as my avatar passes freely through their midst, and witness my fat suit of armor and diamond chains. They marvel most at the snow-white dinosaur who brings up the rear. She’s no ostrich, but I digress. Leaellyn is a cutie, and kindly she takes my worries away.

“Leaellyn, speak!” I say, and speak my dino does. Her Leaellynasaura model, a tiny, lithe biped with fluffy feathers and a tail three times the length of her body proper, is rendered with all due speculative realism, custom-made to be lifelike, and the same goes for her animal cry. Her high-pitched chatter, chirps and warbles and trills, evokes the ambient noise of a full forest within the virtual space. Avatars make open-mouthed expressions and, some betraying motion controls, glance around.

I next urge the crowd to talk to Leaellyn, ask her questions, tell her what to do. Dogs and cats and monkeys and more get my 110 million-year-old polar reptile to click and whistle at various lengths, these sounds pulled from a library of remixed avian-reptile cries I paid a friend to compile for her. Leaellyn also walks between users’ avatars, sniffs their legs and outstretched hands. She plays dead every few times she’s told to do so; the frequency of this response is lower today, and that’s what I want. Like the sounds she makes, Leaellyn’s every action emerges from a programmed data pool, and her AI actively trains itself on how to use the options given to her. She works like the Animaly pets, except she does much more—and she’s mine.

After so many characteristic calls and replies, Leaellyn startles those nearest to her when she burps, parrots an “Excuse me!” and resumes twittering, head cocked. Laughs ensue, and she feigns embarrassment, covering her face in feather-duster tail.

Again, she’s told to howl in public. I had waffled over whether to introduce the word to her since dinosaurs aren’t dogs, but that she would be treated like one seemed inevitable. She cries to the sky, the pitch-black roof of the shop, and several metaverse goers use their microphones to convey surprise. The excitement isn’t leveled at her, however, but at what they see overhead.

Leaellyn’s model is built to scale on the assumption that from head to tail her species was three feet long. The wingspan of the giant dragonfly above her is almost as great.

Here I introduce Megan, who is not quite a giant dragonfly but a griffinfly, of the extinct genus Meganeura. Unlike modern dragonflies, her four wings flap independently of one another and do not let her hover in place. On my mark she exaggerates her flits down into the mob. A thrum ignites the airspace, though it is low and lasts but a few seconds. I stay as true to life as I can in the metaverse, but in the end I must respect people. We’re all frens around these parts, or so I’ve heard.

The response upon Megan’s entry isn’t all horror—far from it. Two Japanese users affect cheery faces in the wake of her gyre; I smile back, and not just with my avatar. A potent cultural symbol for her similarity to dragonflies, Megan tends to be a wonderful presence in the metaverse’s many digital art galleries. Even if I myself can’t speak with half the international users in these settings, let alone half the artists, I can speak through her, as with Leaellyn. These moments always make my day.

Eventually we’re joined by more fellow Animalies. Dollphin cheers us on, unmissable with her cotton-candy color scheme, and blackrockjanitor stumbles his way onto center stage, then triggers a trip animation that his hellspawn-esque pet copies to laughter and applause. As usual, AlwaysBricked takes a front-row seat, chatting with other users and selling them on the finer points of his pets and mine. It’s a move that used to endear him to me. Now I send Megan silently over to him, and as she closes a single brick appears, secured between her legs. She releases it to the cartoonish whistle of something falling at high speed, and our dear leader looks just in time to see the brick’s image fly right through him. There follows the sound of broken glass. Megan concludes a shuttle loop back at altitude, wings thrumming to punctuate the moment. Her drone is soon drowned out by hilarity, this being the first time even the Animaly cohort has seen the gag. It’s a recent addition, inspired by a content-minded facts video the narrator of which stated, in yet another attempt at humor, that Meganeura was large enough to put a brick through your window. My first impulse had been to adapt the line for creativity’s sake—slapstick is my kind of funny. AlwaysBricked’s username is a happy coincidence, nothing more.

The virtual nature of the space becomes all the more transparent the moment the brick passes through our leader’s head and vanishes, leaving behind the semblance of a decent joke to fester and die. Yet the virtuality of things also conceals my sentiments from the crowd, and further removes my tense, shivering body from the experience with which it grapples.

I look down and flex my actual hands. I probably hate AlwaysBricked. I hate his name’s origin in what—from the strange jargon I gather—is the average NFT trader’s proclivity to “brick up” from over-investment in illiquid pictures and never run out of yet more art they “like” and fiend to buy. I hate the fact that many usernames I see in the Wild West have to do with magic internet money and its hollow parlance. Fuck this existential concern about profit and the impetus to shill that comes with. I want to see art! I want to meet people!

I want to be myself here.

I’ve put much thought into Leaellyn and Megan, from the moment I scooped up NFTs of them from a months-dead prehistoric collection hidden in the dirt. I paid pocket change for them, but it was money I paid, and never have I intended to flip them for more cash. Indeed, I haven’t bothered to track what I’ve shelled out commissioning work on their VR forms, and this is to say nothing of the other ancient beasts in my collection, many of whom I would model, voice-equip, and take on walks if I could. Large landed carnivores and marine reptiles don’t mesh well with the small, private spaces the metaverse tends to comprise though, so NFTs they stay, if that. My favorite obscure species have yet to be minted and remain as fossils, traditional art, wiki entries, ideas in my head. By day, I draw extinct wildlife, a paleoartist, and I personalize as much of my digital experience as possible while still remaining anonymous. I make an effort to show, even implicitly, my core personality and interests, populate my space with what for me are childhood wonders. But the more I try to cultivate my digital identity, the further I feel from many users with whom I interact. And the further I feel from my chosen social circle, the further I feel from who I am.

I moved into the NFT space because my self-employed work wasn’t too profitable in the old way of things, commissions via DMs and emails and DeviantArt and whatnot. My original art often went unsold. I quickly found that the art world gated by crypto knowledge tends to self-select, both its creators and its collectors. Generative artists, AI-assisted artists, anime artists, surrealists, photographers—whatever their specialty, most creators do true and tireless work, and clients respect them for it. Thanks to automated transactions, sales and requests stay kind and lax and often pay top dollar. Even with the easy ability to resell pieces, collectors rarely do so, and indeed they become genuine fans of artists they support. The artists themselves back one another too. This has been my experience, such that I was able to quit my wage job and make this current stab at drawing full-time. I finally have people who get it when I talk about my artistic struggles, what I did and what I do now. We give gifts and even buy from each other when we can afford it. That said, I supplement my art by investing in NFTs, both to swing-trade and to find further community. I gain access to networks through which I might find more patrons of my art.

Still, even in artist-led NFT communities, buyers of a solo artist like myself are needles in a haystack, much less fans who become friends. Generative profile pictures grew out of the early speculative bubble and have yet to release their grip on who crypto-native people are once they log on. By now, I’ve started to concede the fact that there will always be traders; find what collectors you can and get out. But when you genuinely like the art, the Animalies, the flashes of fun and games where your interests do intersect, making any sort of exit is hard. This digital identity I’ve produced is a ghost with tethers beyond my comprehension, a persona that by starts and stops has reached into the network and gotten its hands stuck in whatever sort of honey trap we’ve made for ourselves. It contributes to an ever-emerging egregore consisting of the space’s mimetic production, what passes for culture here. The Animaly community traffics in memes at a light-speed clip, congratulates itself on fostering an always-growing contingent of degenerate cute-lovers, and while I love cute as much as the next person, adore the innovation of the pets, and earnestly look forward to the storefront drop so I can buy more plushies, I balk at the rapidly approaching singularity of it all. Is it the destiny of digital identities to converge on a point of insanity faster than we can understand what to do with them?

In contrast to the Animaly pets, subtle or not, Leaellyn and Megan act as my vanguards against such acceleration. They remind me of who I am, what I like, and what I want when I’m in the metaverse, while I participate in community happenings, Connect Four and karaoke alike, as much as I have to for the rewards, the extra income I need to keep hacking it as an artist beholden to no one save whom I grant commissions. Really, the metaverse is alien to me, antithetical to being someone who feels put together and whole, save for those rare moments when I share a bit of soul through Leaellyn and Megan, with someone who finds joy in my art and my vision and vice versa.

Am I fighting a losing battle? Winning a battle, but losing a war?

At what point can I step out of the metaverse altogether? Given those flashes of brilliance, and how much Leaellyn and Megan mean to me, should I? I don’t know. If someone offered me 50 ETH for the two of them, some six or seven figures for their NFTs and models, would I take the money? I have a sense that things are presently entangled such that I can’t have my cake and eat it too, and that this is the state of things once you log on. It used to be fun logging on. Time spent playing flash games and MMOs with your buddies wasn’t bound up telically with anything else. Now it is. And if everything is gamified, where’s the work?

I was sold on making frens participating in the wave of the future. To a degree, here and there, I’ve found shimmers of the honest desire in that. Who doesn’t want to be a pioneer? But this perversion of the real, this realm of psychological, quasi-spiritual torture that seems to swell the more you become aware of its what and how…

The cat-penguin simulacrum of blackrockjanitor, again, claims blindness. He wanders toward Leaellyn now, who has curled on the ground, resting, wrapped in her tail. He trips over her, initiating the action himself, and flies into the crowd. Some users step back, and one clicks a button to fall over too, impacted by the rogue Animaly. Laughs ensue. I have little doubt that the one who pretended at being bowled over will buy into the project after they leave the shop. AlwaysBricked doesn’t come over to me and hazard the same guess, but I can imagine him doing so. I glare at him closing another sale in my screen’s periphery, aware that my avatar faces my pets, eyeing a spot somewhere between Megan in the air and Leaellyn on the floor. We’ll figure it out, whatever I do, whatever medium I do it in. I will not forsake what I love.

“Get up,” I tell Leaellyn.

She does.

She doesn’t belong on the floor.