I don’t know what it is, but it wants our children.
It forms its secret alliances with them. I’ve seen it happen. On the bus, two exhausted young parents, bearded and broken-down, blood vessels shattering in the whites of their eyes, and the kid will not stop screaming. They offer it the bottle. No bottle. Screams spin higher. They offer it a toy. No toy. Thrown furiously into the grubby aisle. They pick up that little sack of white-hot ancient fury, kiss its head, bounce it up and down; nothing works. Then, in desperation, they give it a phone. Suddenly, silence. The baby’s entranced. Slowly, dutifully, it smears its wet fingers over the surface, flicking through the panels of the home screen, hypnotised by how the lights and colours respond immediately to its touch. A look of unworldly concentration. You’ve heard the horror stories. You can buy prams with a built-in iPad attachment, so the children can suck in unreal worlds as you take them out for a walk. Children swiping at windows and photographs, expecting reality to be as intuitive as the ghosts on a screen. This baby: mute, dabbing, sated, like a rat blissed out in a lab experiment, wires delivering a constant pulse directly to the pleasure centres in its brain. It’s the shape of the future. And then the phone rings, and one of the parents has to pick it up. The baby starts roaring again. It doesn’t yet understand what a phone is, it doesn’t realise that this, not the dazzle of instant response, is what it’s actually for.
At least, that’s what I used to think. Now, I worry that the babies are right, and we’re the ones who’ve got it wrong. There’s something they can see on those screens, and adults can’t. Something that flickers, that whispers secrets to them in inaudible frequencies. It tells them to do things. And I think I’ve started seeing it myself.
An eight year old girl in Ontario tried to throw herself out of an open window. Her mother caught her just in time, but the girl kept struggling, reaching out for the drop with all four furious limbs. It wouldn’t hurt her, she said, once she hit the ground nothing would ever hurt her again. She would break through her own body. She would fall through the cracked screen of the world, and into the dance of lights beneath. Momo had told her. Momo had explained everything, and she would be with Momo forever, in a place beyond touch.
A boy, six, died in New York. He was always a happy, exuberant, creative child. He’d had his own YouTube channel. He was a natural. The child, lounging around in strange outfits, chatting happily for the camera about his day, himself, the things he likes and doesn’t like. He was born for the screen. His parents – a fashion writer and an advertising executive – had encouraged his hobbies. Privately, they whispered with excitement: the kid had it, he knew how to brand himself, he was destined for great things. They found hundreds of pictures in his room after he took his own life, drawings of human-like creatures with the hard, staring, pitiless eyes of a bird of prey. Sometimes, they had a name scrawled in crayon underneath. Momo.
A girl in Manchester is in hospital. Four years old, the third child of a single mum. Life is stressful, there’s never enough time or enough money either, and how are you supposed to explain to a four year old girl that you simply can’t afford ballet lessons, that you can barely afford her tea? There’s a way to make all the unfairness of the world go away for a while: sit the child down in front of a screen, and they’re happy. You don’t need to worry about what they’re watching; it’s all been made, it’s educational. Until the girl stands on her tiptoes, in a perfect pointe, and pulls a knife off the counter. Peppa Pig told her, she explained, dazed and bleeding out on the kitchen floor. The cartoon told her to peel off her skin. A new character. Momo: a dark, still, silent bird.
The boy’s videos were taken down from the internet immediately, but someone had archived them. Nothing is ever gone forever; it lingers in caches, in hollow domains, in the eddies of the code. The internet is haunted. I watched them, and didn’t see anything unusual: just a strangely articulate and effortlessly chatty child. Until right at the end. A shadow falls across the boy’s face, like a dart, a flash, a falling leaf; like he’s been swiped. And now his voice is surrounded, from somewhere in the distance between us, by a grinding mechanical croak. It could almost be something else: feedback, a compression artefact, digital noise. But it’s the noise that comes first. It whispers its command, and the child repeats, a split-second later. Don’t forget, says Momo, to like, share, and subscribe.
A picture started circulating online, somehow connected with this child-killer. It showed an artwork, a sculpture of a woman with bulging round eyes and a predatory beak-like mouth. The piece was based on an ubume, a ghost in Japanese folklore. Ubume are weather-beaten old women who sit by the side of the road, holding out a child for passers-by to take off their hands, just for a moment – but as soon as the child is taken, the ubume vanishes, and as the pedestrian walks off with the child, it gets heavier and heavier, until they look down and see that what they’re carrying is only a rock.
Ubume are strange ghosts. They don’t return to haunt their victims. They don’t bring curses or bad luck. They leave nothing but a perfectly ordinary stone. They’re sad more than they’re frightening. Their children are still, silent, and heavy, and they do not cry.
Another child died in southern Germany. Investigators opened up her phone, and found it was three inches wide, six inches high, and infinitely deep. In those black depths, in that tunnel that bore through invisible dimensions, it was the nest of endless screaming crows.
Not so long ago, there was another minor panic about children and the internet. There were millions of kids’ videos, it was discovered, that had been generated by algorithms, and some of them featured highly disturbing content. Cartoon characters are tortured, decapitated, commit cannibalism, drink poison – all to cheerful electronic nursery-rhyme music and flattened-affect vocals. But the really creepy aspect wasn’t even the violence. That was basically random, an inevitable quirk of the software that generates thousands of video concepts every second. The problem was that people, real human people, had gone ahead and animated it, their hands tugged around by invisible strings.
The Guardian has started adding a brief message to the end of its online articles. Every time a reader like you makes a contribution to The Guardian, no matter how big or small, it goes directly into funding our journalism. I can’t stop hearing it in Momo’s voice, that hoarse scratching black-feathered croak.
I didn’t notice, at first, what the things I read online were really saying. Democratic lawmakers fired back against the President’s claims on social media, urging you to UNBURDEN YOURSELF OF YOUR SKIN AND DISCOVER THE SHINING MINERAL LIFE INSIDE.
An eight-year-old boy was found hidden in the corner of a school playground in Canberra. He’d broken a stone in two, and used its sharp edge to open up his forearm. He’d been digging around inside his own flesh. He was broken, he wailed, he’d slit himself open because he was broken, and he needed to be fixed. The stones had been laid as a small rock garden around the base of a tree. The boy leaned against the tree and mumbled, and in its branches a raven cocked its head, and let out a single ringing caw for each of the child’s sobs.
I started furiously watching children’s entertainment online. I never saw Momo. Just shapes and colours, friendly animated animals, nursery rhymes that were just slightly off, minutely out of tune, lyrics bafflingly twisted. Old McDonegal had a farm. Twinkle twinkle little star, let me know just where you are. It all felt stupid and mass-produced and mean, so much uglier than the loving hand-drawn cartoons I’d watched growing up, back when there were only two channels on TV. But surely everyone feels like this about the new things that come to bury their childhoods. I only had the faintest, most imperceptible urge to rush into the kitchen and grab a cleaver to chop off my own hand.
And it’s only the faintest, most imperceptible noise I hear from the phone on the bus, as the two harried parents finally give in and allow their infant child to swab its hands over the touchscreen. The parents slump their shoulders and collapse into the restful silence, and the bus shudders in the congestion on the Newington Causeway, and something croaks inaudibly out of the motionless machinery of the phone. Look at me, it whispers, look at me, look at me, look.
The child hardly makes a sound. A voiceless velar burp. ‘Uk.
And then it rings.
I don’t know what it is. But I know the name of the thing on the other end of the line.