The best way to comfort the grieving is to bring their loved one back. Right?
“Hello, This is Automatic Antigrief” by Jenna Hanchey, published in Nature: Futures in April 2022, deals with this question in a way that reminds me of this XKCD comic, which I read many years ago but which stuck with me. (Uh, beware Final Fantasy VII spoilers? Some of us are 25 years late to the game.)
I read “Automatic Antigrief” in May, I believe, and it also stuck with me – vividly enough for me to want to write about it in October.
Short and bittersweet at 973 words, this story lets readers listen in on one half of a customer service call to the eponymous company. Automatic Antigrief’s augmented-reality simulation, downloaded to the customer’s mental implant, conjures up a simulacrum of the customer’s lost loved one before they can even feel grief – and that’s the problem. “I miss what it feels like to miss her,” the customer says. But when offered the opportunity to temporarily turn off the Antigrief program, they seek the reassurance that “When the pain gets to be too much, when the feelings start to overwhelm me, I could just … turn it back on?”
I won’t spoil the story by telling you what the unnamed customer chooses, though this piece doesn’t rely on a startling twist ending. Rather, I want you to read it yourself and experience the poignant commentary on pain and the way we flinch from it. “What does avoiding our grief cost us?” Hanchey muses in her accompanying “Story behind the story” section.
And “Automatic Antigrief” explores more than just grief, highlighting capitalism’s insistence on peddling a product – on erasing symptoms rather than treating causes – on customer satisfaction over customer wellbeing. Rather than make any attempt to truly understand a customer’s pain, the customer service representative – who may, in fact, be automated – hears the narrator’s feelings of emptiness as another positive review, leading them to say, “Sure, I guess you could say that the problem is that the app ‘works too well.’”
Sure, the app staves off grief. But is that really the best way to deal with it? “Automatic Antigrief” doesn’t try to answer this question, exactly – just to pose it in detail. Perhaps that’s why I’m still thinking about it.