By Gary Presley
The father breathed deeply and slowly as his youngest son, Jeremy, sat down at the table for dinner. The rest of his family understood and respected his decision to stay out of it, and did what they could to conduct their business with him on the periphery, but Jeremy continued to ask, to cajole, to hound him to join in. Dinnertime, with all family members in attendance and all recording devices slurping real life into their digital bellies, was Jeremy’s bully pulpit. Contractually under the new law, the man had chosen not be shown or heard on any platform, giving the ten-year-old’s nightly pleadings a monologistic flavor. But it enhanced the ratings, views, clicks and time-shifted perusals of the dinners, as the public’s desire grew to learn more about this man they were forbidden to see or hear.
And it began.
“How was your day, father?” The man always smiled at Jeremy’s opening, which was different each dinner. The video monitor by the kitchen door showed an uptick on Jeremy’s feed. Jenny typed something on her phone, and the monitor showed her following rise as well. The click-whoring had begun.
“Leave Dad alone,” Jenny said. “You ruin every dinner trying to get him to go viral, and you know he won’t.” Small spike.
The family LOL’d at Jeremy’s practiced stunned, hurt look. “I am not. You think I’m too young to understand The Privacy Rights Act, but I’m not. I do understand it, I just want him to be part of the family.”
Lois, coming in from the kitchen with the pot roast, tsk-tsked as she set it on the table. “Your father is part of the family, Jeremy. What you want is for him to be part of your feed.” The line on the monitor that showed Lois’s approval rating nudged up. “Is that fair? Did you help your friend Billy last week when his ratings fell and he needed a boost?”
Sufficiently scolded, Jeremy tapped on his phone. His rating among peers spiked briefly, although his approval among married women 37-45 dropped significantly.
Lois sat down. “Everyone silence your devices and hold hands,” she said. They all tapped, then took the hands of the person on either side, and sat quietly, some with eyes closed, for a few moments. Ratings, approvals and trends flickered silently on the monitor. Phones and tablets sat beside plates, saying nothing but flowing with increased excitement. “Now eat!” she said.
“Oh, crap,” said John, at 17 their oldest son, a fan favorite with his shaggy, dark hair and bright eyes. “I forgot my afternoon reveal. It’ll only take a few minutes. School was pretty dull today. Mom?”
Lois sighed. Her husband rolled his eyes. “Oh, all right. Does anyone else need to reveal?” she asked, to mumbled “no’s” and “uh-uh’s” around the table.
There was a minute of unusual silence while serving bowls were passed before Tara, 16, blonde and bright, said quietly, “I broke up with Lance today.”
The wall monitor was like fireworks. Off camera, the father shook his head. On camera, the mother again tsked.
“I’m sorry, Tara. I hope they don’t run a poll to see who your next boyfriend should be,” Lois said, checking her tablet while buttering a roll. “Oh, dear.”
Jenny smirked and held up her phone near Tara. “Too late. Nathan Sponsell!”
“Girls!” Lois said. “You know your father likes the old mating rituals.”
It was true, he thought, he did. It gave time to talk about what was good and bad about the ex-boyfriend before diving into the new one. And it was private. He liked private, but he was no cave-dwelling technophobe. He had a phone. He used it to call friends so they could get together in a real place (“meat space,” his kids called it). And talk, face to face. Unabbreviated, unfiltered, unplugged. Why did he still call it “unplugged” when everything was wireless and battery operated, he wondered.
“Nathan’s not so bad,” Tara said. “Hey! He’s already sent me a text to ask me out. How old-fashioned!”
Everyone laughed, even the dad, and everyone tapped something into a device, except the dad. John retook his seat, having wrapped his afternoon reveal.
At his end of the table, Jeremy tapped something into his phone, then sat back. On the monitor the slope of his clicks-per-minute line started tilting toward vertical. His mother gasped. “What have you done?” then checked her tablet. “Jeremy?”
John checked his phone, then grabbed Jeremy’s phone and tapped angrily while Jeremy tried to grab the phone back. On the monitor, Jeremy’s clicks line returned to its previous level.
John handed the phone back. “Don’t be a punk,” he said. “They’ll let you off now because you’re ten, but if you do that after your birthday,” he paused, almost sputtered, “well, I don’t know what they’ll do to you, but it won’t be fun.”
The father looked down the table at Jeremy, then across to John, and cocked his head slightly.
“He posted a photo of you laughing just now,” John said. “I’m pretty sure I scrubbed it from all the sites before it rooted in the servers, and I blurred your face on the rest. I don’t think he understands The Privacy Rights Act as well as he thinks he does.”
Jeremy sat silently and glanced at the monitor, not quite smirking, looking satisfied.
“The law is the least of his worries,” Lois said, tapping quickly onto her tablet. “Nothing but inbound data for you for the next two weeks, mister. And there’s a whole backyard of leaves with your name on each and every one of them.”
Jeremy slumped, but Jenny grinned. “Swift justice with two weeks of real-world labor. Love it.” She thumb-typed a few sentences on her phone that showed up on the monitor, ending with LMFAO.
“Watch your language, young lady, we’re at the dinner table,” Lois said.
The father smiled, and reached for the carrots.