So, a couple of Halloweens ago, I released We’re All in This Together, a creepy bit of interactive horror fic set in a near-future London. I’d been working on it for a few months, and I’d built a little game engine that let me create a mishmash of hopeful visions of what London might be like in 10 years, peppered with bits of surreal body horror.

One of the things that can feel really weird making art online is this: Often you spend time on something, you think a lot about it, you jettison it to an audience – every one of whom has every means of contacting you – and quite often you get very few queries back about what you said, made or meant, besides maybe the odd technical “how did you do that thing?” The page that currently hosts the work says it’s been played (read: started) the best part of a thousand times. Why so little interest in what it’s supposed to be about? Did people play it until the end (and there is an end)? Did I end up making something so cryptic that people just took it at face value, as a piece of sci-fi horror?

We’re in a time when a really strong feedback loop between a work and it’s creator can exist, but that doesn’t usually mean it will. Very few people filter through to my main Twitter account from @str_voyage, for example. And that’s fine.

I guess I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me to write this. So for the benefit of anyone who did want me to – but for whatever reason didn’t ask – here’s an explanation of where my head was at with WAITT.

As a project, this started with a very “gamey”, mechanical premise. I find it very difficult to write traditional branching-story style IF and, so, when I’m learning a tool like Twine I tend to go more for attempting to build gamey little systems with it. I admire people who can write traditional IF but I don’t think my prose-writing is really up to it just yet, and I am drawn to trying to make tools do things they weren’t really built for.

So there’s that, for a start. I’d worked out how to shuffle together a couple of sets of phrases to form haikus and then ask the player: “Are these phrases all from the Good deck, or are some from the Bad deck?” This quickly went from a murder-whodunnit toward the concept of scanning people’s memories as a sort of inspector and trying to work out if they had some sort of hallucinatory infection. There’s a strong thread of surveillance-phobia, thought-policey type stuff, and the imagery that comes out in these hallucinations is visceral and violent – it’s all stuff I’d tossed about in my angsty little brain years and years ago when I’d toyed with writing comics.

But as I worked on the project more and more the meaning sort of morphed into something unexpected. I had this thought at the back of my mind; what if the game’s ‘infection’ was actually trying to do something beneficial for people, and these weird visions and violent episodes they were having were more like a side-effect; their minds and bodies rejecting this new state of being that they weren’t ready for? Whether it was something alien to the world, or something man-made didn’t really matter – the idea was that it was trying to connect people together and some people were simply having a negative reaction to this.

Let’s face it – social media is a bit of a shit-show.

I’ve deleted my Facebook account at least twice, usually after some meltdown involving an argument with someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries or display what I’d consider a decent grasp of etiquette when talking to my friends. Twitter is frequently a place where the more toxic elements of 4chan, reddit, the MRA community and so forth will occasionally bubble to the surface, and too-frequently pick a fight with me. There are many occasions when I have given individuals far too much credit, far, far too much of my time and the benefit of the doubt when dealing with them.

So this is where WAITT started to turn into a bit of an allegory for me. There is a common criticism floating about that we tend to be creating or entering echo chambers where we don’t allow dissenting opinions. It’s the kind of thing cultural conservatives say when they feel unfairly shut down by LGBT activists, feminists etc. The thing is, we’ve heard the conservative point of view all our lives already – it’s still the status quo upheld by most of the institutions of our culture.

It’s not a matter of the culturally progressive left needing to listen more. To put it more clearly; I believe echo chambers are a thing, but I don’t think this phenomena is equally distributed across the political spectrum, because conservatism was always-already grounded in not-listening. Not-listening, not-acknowledging, or pretending-to-have-acknowledged are all important parts of conservative political praxis.

I say this as someone who grew up in a place that voted single-issue nationalists in as members of the European Parliament because they thought it would help them kick immigrants out of their country. These people are loud, and there’s nothing they’re louder about than the idea that they’re being silenced.

What I see happening today on social media isn’t a blanket refusal to acknowledge differing views. What I see is reactionary elements losing their shit whenever anyone asks them to listen to something other than the status quo.

This is the allegorical heart of the silly piece of tech-noir body horror garbage I built 4 years ago. Communication should be a good thing. It should increase empathy. And you can make plenty of perfectly valid criticisms of our social media technologies and how they have this or that impact on our ability to properly communicate complex ideas. But when a group are so deeply entrenched in this sort of social Darwinism – that they see everything as a contest for resources of some kind – they can only react with derision and aggression toward the notion that they should listen to other people for a bit. Listening is conceding. Listening is losing ground. Listening is allowing one’s mind to be poisoned by the idea that you just might have a social responsibility to people you don’t even know.

People can already plug into a device that gives them access to millions of other brains, some very different from their own. And how do they use it? They find someone suffering and react with “triggered” memes and similar types of performative callousness.

There’s this level of perverse pride, a sense that “well, other people in my peer group and society at large are going soft and using people’s preferred pronouns but I’m the rational one who doesn’t listen to other people when they say they’re hurting”.

Nearly everyone has the technology on the bedside cabinet to spend 10 minutes reading or listening to something that might give them a unique insight into the internal life of another person who’s different from them.

But there are a lot of people who find this level of interest in the thoughts of others completely alien. The emotions, the beliefs, the subjective experience of others are pollutants. They reduce meaningful, theory-grounded terms to buzzwords and perform all sorts of deliberate misinterpretations to avoid these contagions, like it’s going to make them stronger, like it’s going to stop them being on the wrong side of history.

As a piece of sci-fi, WAITT is a pretty biased, personal concern about what would happen if something were to come along and make it easier for us to read each-others’ minds. And, of course, like a lot of speculative fiction, it’s clumsily commenting on the present rather than thinking about the future.