Thursday 11th September 2130

Netiquette has come a long way in the hundred and twenty years since people first started to play virtual reality games with each other remotely, as has the Greek chorus of dire predictions about the decay of moral standards that for some people will inevitably accompany unsupervized teenage behaviour.

It wasn't until 2030 that a solitary computer player could begin to experience at least some of the sights, sounds, feelings, smells and other sensations that go along with shared social experiences, and the apparatus was clunky indeed until RCRs began to deliver what amount to 'real' streams of conscious experience to their inhabitants.

From having someone tread on your feet to the overwhelming sensation delivered by a recreational drug after five hours of pounding physical exercise, the whole range of mental experience is there for the taking, and teenagers in 2030 at a cyber-disco are really no different from their forbears five hundred years earlier who danced La Follia at Versailles.

RSRs have introduced some exotic refinements, however, such as three-dimensional dancing. Didn't you always want to fly on the dance floor?

It's amazing, though, how the social mores than accompany teenage get-togethers have failed to change. It's still possible, and just as agonizing, to be a spotty wallflower, to want to die when you see your flame whisked away by someone you envy and totally hate. And it's still definitely possible to fall in love, hopelessly or beautifully, everlastingly or evanescently. Or just to mingle bodies in an orgy of sweat and sex in an upstairs bedroom.

Clothes are all important, of course, and the verities have to be respected. You can't turn up in one pair of jeans and then suddenly change them halfway through the evening. You'll be laughed at, just as much as if you'd gone to the car park to change after a couple of hours at the local hop in Chattanooga or Barking, Essex.

Other recognizable traits have accompanied the cybermogrification of discos. They are commercial affairs, for one thing. People, even RCRs, have dance parties at home, as they always did, often quite amateurish, but for a full-on, well-produced, stylish, popular environment with a couple of hundred clubbers there is no substitute for the Ministry of Sound; and it's not cheap to go there.

From the beginning, it was a notable feature of most of the gaming or social networking sites that they had developed economies, something that in most cases was not predicted by the owners and operators of the sites. In many cases, the operators actively discouraged economic activity, and even when trading was built into the workings of a virtual Internet commuity (VIC) from the beginning, they failed to anticipate that in-game values would come to have 'real-world' value. By now, the operators have come to understand that they are powerless to resist the human proclivity to trade, and usually provide 'official' channels for exchange of in-game currencies for real-world currencies. The economies of some VICs are far from small; some users actually make their living from participation in VICs.

Although grown-ups are increasingly judged according to their contribution earnings and balances, certainly from a career perspective, money still flows around the system, not just in the form of the 20% annual contribution 'tax' which goes to support the structure of the cloud, but also as a means of exchange for consumer goods, both in fizz and in the cloud. Fizz banks have branches in the cloud, just as much as clothing chains exist in both. In terms of consumer experience in the cloud, the big differences are the lack of any need for transportation, the absence of a food chain and the absence of physical habitations. People create familiar surroundings for themselves, such as Ferdinand's breakfast table, but that's as far as it goes: they exist in a vacuum, used for the nonce and then just disappearing. People have kept the best, the most useful bits of fizz life in cyber-space, like bacon, and abandoned the rest.

Inevitably, it would seem, they have also conserved their essential characteristics. You can't be a member of a group unless the other members know what to expect: what you look like, how you speak, how you behave. I can't discuss our mutual friend Henry with you unless we know the same Henry, and he stays Henry. RCRs allow me to become almost whatever I want, whenever I want, but that's understood to be a kind of fantasy existence outside the weal of everyday life.

Actually discos allow this kind of behaviour more than most teenage hangouts because they are individualistic rather than group occasions. In a coffee bar, on the street, at a private party, you are with your gang and constrained by their group norms. That's how you want it. But the noise and fury of the disco acts as a kind of wall, cutting you off from contact with others, allowing you to be yourself, something different anyway from the you that the gang knows to expect.

So here is John dancing a kind of very elaborate rock and roll with a girl he has known just for a few months - she is fun and charming, but not serious, he thinks, while over there Jocelyn moons along on her own, doing strange jerky motions which are probably the height of fashion, but simply look peculiar to you and me. If we were there, that is.

Shall we have a chat, says John when they bump up against each other. Look, there's a bar over there with a quiet area. Jocelyn is keen for this, and they close the door behind them with a sense of release from the pounding music.

They look at each other. It's different, now. They are not individuals any more, they are representing their groups. Responsible for - who knows what? Scary, indeed.

Jocelyn smiled uncertainly.

"I want to say such pretentious things. Like, I feel the hand of history on my shoulder."

"What we do next is important," agreed John. "First, I need to know, how was it?" he formulated shyly.

"If you need to ask, it didn't happen," she joked. "No, seriously, we were blown away. We've had no time to absorb it. But it's real; and different. We're going to reply, of course."

"That's one thing," John agreed. "But what do we do next?"

"We want to attack, probably," said Jocelyn. "We think they may be vulnerable. We think they know; we're sure they know. Our only chance is to be stronger. They can stop one of us, but a hundred of us? It's time. We've all discussed it separately. Haven't you? It's time to get together."

"Is there anyone else here tonight who you think might be up for it? I can make a guess at a couple of other groups. Shall I go and get them, one by one?"

And so it happened. They ended the night with very little dancing, but representatives of a total of nine groups, all but one in Brain Sciences, each of which was pushing at the envelope of the 15-18 educational space. There could hardly have been a safer environment in which to make plans, of which the first and most pressing was to create a standard RCC clone to insert into tutorial RCCs.

IT whizzes aren't the type to go to discos, usually, so none of the nine was qualified in that direction.

"Who will do it?" asked John?

"I hear that Jocelyn's IT pro is really excellent," said Marcus, the leader of BSGX98. "Slavica. Is that her name? If she's already got a good clone, let's just roll it out. We're still working on ours, and we can't seem to get it right."

"I'm not the boss," warned Jocelyn, "but I'll ask the group about it tomorrow; I guess they'll agree. Then Slavica can have sessions with each of the other IT people. The patch is quick enough to instal: we do it every time we have a tutorial - it's too dangerous to leave it in the RCC while we're not there to watch. She's my cousin, by the way."

"Then we need to proselytize," said John. "We've got to get critical mass as fast as possible. If each of us tries to find one other fellow-feeler a week, we'll get to a hundred in just a couple of months."

"I can see lots of discos coming up," said Jocelyn. "Better go out and buy more shoes tomorrow."

"Ohmigod," said John. "Women. Shoes. Is this what we're risking our necks for?"

"MCP." In English. She barely voiced it, and gave it such an ambiance of good feeling that he could only laugh.


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