The Education

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The world received Peter Sensolite on a Tuesday in the birthing wing of the Mayview-Hartplus-Nadisco Snacks Hospital. He was strange and bare. The doctor, a Swedish woman whose skin crawled with the technicolor endorsements that had put her through med school, handed this blank child to his mother. Jostled by the transfer and blinking free from the numbness of coming to life, Peter howled. Little lungs sucked at the air and forced it back out again, making the small room ring with fury and pain and indignity.

Peter's mother just sighed. She shoved her exhaustion aside, forcing it to a dim corner of her brain where all her other stresses waited, and began to sing her new boy the Koko-Krispies nursery jingle.

Thus went the first four minutes of his life.

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The market value of a young exposure was rated at roughly thirty times the price of an adult influence. Scores of veteran analysts had combed over the numbers, sorting psychology and mathematics and neurophysiology into tidy little stacks, and thus had discovered the economy's new gold standard. An adult's eyes were tired and skeptical, rheumy and unaccustomed to fresh promotions and ideas. The eyes of a child where whole and unbiased. Glinting in them was belief, and that sold for more than any metal.

The bidding war for Peter's soul started three weeks before his Interval of Highest Market Viability—just shy of his first birthday. It began with a series of tentative infocasts to the Sensolite household, formal letters from the automated offices of company presidents about the importance of being a Raybrite or Snuggleknit boy. A Raybrite boy was sharp, smart, and tenacious, but a Snuggleknitter was gentle and kind—in no hurry to grow up. Peter's mother and father looked at their media-inked skin, at the shifting patterns of ads that ran across their flesh, and decided that they could afford a little innocence. They weren't ready to sell their son's skinspace yet, either.

After the Snuggleknit decision came Gherbar and Nutricare, Ramshead and Sportslyfe, ScrambleChannel and Baby Darwin Edutainment. Selections were made and ideologies embraced. Peter's parents mostly picked the brands they had been raised on as children. Competitors offered free product vouchers and scholarship incentives to in-brand schools, but most found themselves churning out dejected "we hope you will reconsider us for your next legal offspring" infocasts, resigned to being slowly squeezed out of the market in the next couple of generations.

Peter's first Multistream was a thick blue Cordlester, and his first infocast was a smile sent to his father at work. Peter's dad was a Sensolite campaigner, ranked third regional, and his run-of-the-mill media spectacles to promote healthy teeth and confident smiles were briefly enriched by the image. He was given a small raise, and his fellow campaigners began to work more closely with their babies as well.

After being presented with the Multistream, Peter's world expanded drastically. He discovered InstructorFrog—who taught him numbers, letters, and BrandGlyphs—and also his assistant Penelope. Penelope lived in a subchannel called HowToBuy, and was the first to show Peter how and when to make purchases. The rules were actually very simple. If there was a sale, or a promotion, or a charitable cause you cared about, you bought. If you had no credit, you could always go to AdviewAcademy and learn how to earn. Peter had his first job by five, watching infoclips about exciting products and then using that credit to buy samples of them. His father thought this was fine, but his mother was a little worried. This was two years earlier than she had started as a girl. Her little Snuggleknit boy wasn't going to be a Snuggleknit boy forever.

The final blow to that dream came when Peter turned thirteen and went on his first Actual. His mother, briefly emerging from her ConstaCast homemaking class, had wiped her eyes and hugged her son before sending him off to meet for the first time in person with children his age. The novelty of it was profound, she knew, but it wore off quickly. In a few minutes, Peter and the other kids at the Actual were streaming the event to their own personal channels, getting ready for the brief surge in viewership from their subscribers. Peter experienced a better wave of publicity than most and was able to buy a new Multistream with the social credit. Meanwhile, his autobrand—BlankBoyValues—trended upward to a new plateau.

This change did not go unremarked upon on any of the infocasts that he regularly attended. One of them offered him a chance for premium classes in autobrand growth logistics, but he turned it down. He had pirated the course years ago and little had changed since then. For all the flash and noise that the public adpanes made, nothing was ever really new in the market.

Sometimes, privately, Peter would just sit and think. He would leave his Multiscreen in another room, interrupt his current cast, and just live for the moment in his own body. He knew it made him strange, but he didn't mind. He had been raised strange—not like those sensationalists that broadcast the destruction of their autobrand for a last-minute upturn in views—but weird in a quiet way. His parents didn't really talk about why they had taken six years before letting the advertisements onto his skin, nor why they had refused to make a big deal out of it. Shocking behavior was almost guaranteed credit, credit they had passed up on, but then he didn't really talk about his little moments of meditation either. Sometimes it was just better to be alone in your own head.

Those moments came less and less frequently as he grew older, and as he turned the corner of twenty, they vanished altogether. His father, no longer young and vital, was retired from the warm glow of his publicity work to the cold glare of the Brand Expansion and Planning department. Peter stepped in to fill his shoes. They were first and foremost a Sensolite family-even though his mother had been a Dent-o-leen girl and he had never lost sight of that. Like the other promising young men and women of Sensolite households, Peter rededicated his life to the company, leaving his autobrand to waste away untended.

In-brand marriages were considered the most appropriate, but when Peter eventually met a nice young man from a Zetaflex family, his parents approved right away. They were an ideal couple. Being both young, healthy men meant that they were both prime earners and spenders. Promotions flooded their mailboxes: matching cottages in Agrivilla, stylized tuxedos from Faabricate, free massages at the local AcuStyle salon. They saw each other little, working different hours for different employers, but cared enough not to let that matter. Monogamy was in vogue, and they figured they could grow old together.

It happened faster than either of the expected, the vanishing from the public eye. Somewhere in their early thirties, their social credit went into decline. Their brand loyalties had already been decided, and there was nothing left for hopeful companies to fight over. Aging was offputting to the prospective consumer, and so they were pulled from active duty at their jobs—driving public spectacle in order to promote their products—and reassigned. Peter wound up in Offsetting Loss on account of his aptitude for problem solving and lateral thinking. His husband was made a database supervisor, checking the work of computers and automated processes for mistakes. They bought a house in the hills and hoped for early retirement.

Having no children hurt them financially. They had no new skinspace to sell, no new innocence to attach branding to. Fortunately, they were able to scrape together enough social credit to stay comfortable and to keep them healthy into their mid-hundreds.

Peter's husband passed first, after expressing the troubling realization that he had never really quite lived. Peter, determined to see if there was any truth to this, stuck around for a few years after. He threw away his Multistream, left his house for walks, and tried to remember what he had been like when he was thirteen. It was difficult. Over a century of habit had passed since then.

One morning, during his walk, he noticed a bird singing. It was nestled amidst a pair of vidpanes playing vistas from the old Amazon rain forest in promotion of the new Hydrocleanse superwater. The bird must have been soothed by the noise, because it didn't bother to flee at his approach. Peter studied it, taking in the contour of its wings and the layering of its feathers, and didn't once consider streaming the experience.

He died three weeks later, and was buried in a Sensolite plot. In amidst the product placements on his headstone was engraved a single prayer.

From untruth lead us to truth.

From darkness lead us to light.

Above it, the Sensolite logo—the handsome face of a cartoon man—smiled without a care in the world.