Opinion | Keep Your Augmented Reality. Give Me a Secret Garden.

My friends and I found hidden spaces where we could be teenagers again. We must be allowed to keep them.

By Hannu Rajaniemi

Dr. Rajaniemi is a science fiction author.


Credit Credit Mauricio Alejo

Editors’ note: This is the second installment in a new series, “Op-Eds From the Future,” in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years from now. The challenges they predict are imaginary – for now – but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow. The opinion piece below is a work of fiction.

My name is Mary Lennox. You’ve probably heard about me and my friends. I bet you think we’re delinquents who cause trouble in places we have no business being. But we claimed those hidden spaces for a reason, and we must be allowed to keep them.

When I was 11, I read “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book is about a girl, also called Mary. In the beginning, she’s sickly and a bit of a jerk. But then she finds an unkempt garden. While fixing it up, she gets better, learns to be nicer, makes friends and helps an ill boy get better, too.

I was jealous of the adventures the other Mary was allowed to have, all by herself. After my mother went part-time, she started constantly checking my iGlasses point-of-view. I’d be tending the glowing petunias in my room, and ping: There she was, watching through my eyes. When I was younger, her presence in my glasses made me feel safe, but now I flinched every time I heard the sound.

I became depressed. It was hard to get up in the morning. I didn’t want to eat. I stopped talking to my best friend, Sheree, on the school safenet. I didn’t want to go to class. That upset Mom: She wanted me to study so that I could keep up with the A.I.s. Just to make her happy, I pretended I was fine.

One day, my self-drive to school was stuck in a traffic jam. I knew that sooner or later, Mom would check in. My stomach tied itself into a knot while I waited for that awful tinkle. And then, without really knowing what I was doing, I took my iGlasses off.

I know, I know. Who does that anymore? It’s so easy to forget you’re wearing them, especially since they delete other peoples’ glasses from your field of vision. I got this rush of panic when the object tags, memory aides and search bar disappeared. It felt like diving into a pool and not knowing where the surface was.

Looking out through the car window was even weirder. Everything jumped, and the whole city around me changed. I had no idea iGlasses hide the places where people aren’t supposed to go: condemned houses, vertical farms, drone mews. Without the glasses, I could see entire buildings that augmented reality made invisible. And right next to the car, a huge dark hole opened up, like the mouth of a cave.

It was the old Castro Muni station, converted into an entrance for one of the Boring Tunnels that the self-drives use. In my glassless daze, it looked like a portal into another world. I felt dizzy and had to put the glasses back on.

I finally got a chance to check out the cave on the night of my 12th-birthday party. My mother went all out to cheer me up and invited my friends and their parents. Afterward, she was really tired and zoned out, binging GANflix. She didn’t even notice when I took off my glasses and went outside.

It had rained during the day, and the air wasn’t too bad. Without their fantasy skins, all the houses looked the same, and I had trouble finding my way at first. It took me half an hour to walk to the old Muni station.

It was really dark inside. A broad staircase and a couple of the platforms were still intact. The dim dashboard lights of the self-drives streamed into the tunnel, like glowing plankton in a current. It was strange: Even with all the cars whizzing past at 40 miles an hour, I felt safer than at home.

I’d found a secret garden of my own.

I told Sheree about the cave, and she agreed to go see it with me. She was paranoid about her parents doing a point-of-view check while we were there, so we came up with a simple hack. The iGlasses record your point-of-view by default. We set up old footage of us doing homework playing full screen in our glasses, took them off and sneaked away to the cave. We spent almost an hour there, just sitting on the old Muni platform, watching the cars go by.

The Secret Garden Movement grew from there. At first, we told only our friends and friends of friends about it, but word got around fast. Before long, other kids were using the iGlasses hack and coming to the cave with us. We played music and painted on the old concrete walls. I even smuggled in my petunias and UV lights. And yes, some of the older kids had sex in the quieter corners of the cave – what do you expect?

It didn’t last. One evening, all our stuff had been cleared out. But by then, we’d already mapped out all the white spots in the city’s augmented reality and had more places where we could be invisible.

When city surveyors discovered that I was the leader of the movement, they contacted my mother. I confessed to her right away and told her about the cave and the other gardens we’d found. Mom said she was so happy that I’d been myself again for the past few weeks, but she was worried, too. More than anything, she wanted to keep me safe.

I understood why she was scared. When my mother was growing up, the internet was so broken that even a baby monitor could spy on you. It took years and years to fix it all: breaking it up into the safenets, with every single link quantum encrypted; permanently recording every A.R. skin into a blockchain. Her generation didn’t do it for themselves – they’d already hemorrhaged too much data to have any privacy left. They did it for their children, for me and my friends.

Even so, we both knew the world was still dangerous. Today’s threats are drone stalking and gene phishing; tomorrow there will be something else. Mom could never keep me perfectly safe, but she could keep me too safe. I told her that if there was nowhere for my friends and me to be alone, we would never figure out who we really were – that was more dangerous than any bad guy I could imagine. To my surprise, she agreed.

Since then, Mom has been helping me to turn our movement into a proper nonprofit. We provide legal help for people like Sheree’s parents, who are being sued because she turned a delivery drone mews into a garden. We are fighting a piece of legislation on the governor’s desk that would change the augmented reality settings of the entire city, making the invisible parts visible again and destroying our gardens in the process.

We are not going to stop. We need spaces where we can be teenagers and figure out the world without adult supervision. We know it is scary not to have someone watch over us all the time, but if we can’t experiment and explore on our own, we’ll never be strong enough to face the future you can’t yet imagine. We need secret gardens so that we can learn to be brave and how to heal. And if you let us have them, maybe we can heal you.

Hannu Rajaniemi is the author of several science fiction novels, including “The Quantum Thief,” “Summerland” and the forthcoming “Darkome.” He is a co-founder and the C.E.O. of HelixNano, a start-up developing cancer treatments using synthetic biology.

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