DATELINE: JUNE 6, 2051
NEW YORK — Call it the end of an era. The first virtual child has been put into cold storage.
Lara Barta-Fougere (VC), the first virtual child and debut product of now-defunct MaMaSolutions, has been tranferred to a server storage facility in Niagara Falls, according to a spokesperson for Karachi, Pakistan–based DataConclude. The subject of the ’30s Barta-Fougere scandal is, virtually speaking, no more.
It is difficult to conjure now the world that produced Baby Lara in 2031. The legal latticework, the VC school programs, the VC social stacks—all of this was yet to be.
Because the virtual-child industry was unveiled to the public (and Congress) as a sophisticated therapy for mothers who had miscarried or lost their biological children, its critics were few. (It was also, for a time, presented as an environmentally sound alternative to a carbon footprint–producing human child.)
But insiders at MaMaSolutions soon leaked what many had quietly suspected from the start: Most of the clients were very affluent women in their 30s who couldn’t find a suitable partner or who simply wanted to “test-drive” parenthood.
Jeremy and Catherine Barta-Fougere (now divorced), each extraordinarily successful as a maverick venture capitalist, used their own money to start MaMaSolutions.
“It was an incredibly exciting time, a really beautiful time,” said Mrs. Barta-Fougere from her home in St. Kitts. “We were bringing in geneticists, people from the virtual-pet space in Japan, child development specialists, hologram artists from the Rhode Island School of Design. To have them all at one big table interacting, the buzz was just incredible. We knew we were on the brink of something truly revolutionary. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.”
The power couple submitted their own DNA for combination, and the code for a physically probable baby, embedded with a normal human growth-trajectory algorithm, was attained within six months.
The legal birthdate of the first virtual child, projected via hologram into the company’s main conference room in Manhattan, was March 11, 2031.
Two months later, Mrs. Barta-Fougere learned she was actually pregnant.
Anyone alive in 2036 knows what happened next: Au pair Zehra Demir filed a complaint with New York child protection services alleging that the Barta-Fougeres had, for all intents and purposes, abandoned their biological son Thomas for their virtual daughter.
“They would just take off,” says Demir, now an associate professor of regional planning at Istanbul Technical University, via telephone. “It’s a good thing I was a live-in. They wouldn’t even bother calling me after the fact. I’d wake up, Thom would be crying, and the place was empty. I’d have to go onto [the Barta-Fougeres’] media accounts just to see their coordinates, and then you could see: Not only were they on some other continent, but they were spending all their time with Lara.”
Domestic scandal was not only speed bump in the couple’s lives at that time. The industry that MaMaSolutions had spawned now presented that company with fierce competition from virtual-child firms and products offering a more personalized parenting experience: fewer bodily functions, the ability to edit out flaws of character or appearance, and the ability to mute VCs’ emotional needs.
In 2037, Demir began proceedings to adopt Thomas Barta-Fougere away from his parents. By 2039 she succeeded, and returned with the child to her native Turkey.
Now known as Mehmet Demir and an Islamic scholar in Ankara, the Barta-Fougeres’ biological son was not available for comment. However, his adoptive mother reports that Mrs. Barta-Fougere has repeatedly tried to reach him in the past year. Zehra Demir declines to state whether Mehmet has responded.
“You know, you try to talk to these people,” says the former au pair. “You try to say, look, you’ve got a completely distorted view of reality. But [the Barta-Fougeres] are the kind of people, if you don’t have money, they just can’t imagine you could have anything intelligent to say.”
MaMaSolutions spiralled into insolvency in 2040 after being sued by the family of Rebecca Liu, one of a handful of women who did purchase a virtual child for purposes of grief therapy following several miscarriages. Liu’s depression instead worsened, culminating in her suicide in 2038 at age 29. The Barta-Fougeres won the case, but by then, similar stories had begun to surface and gain press coverage. The reputational damage to the company was irreversible, even as other VC firms were experiencing exponential growth.
Sources conflict as to why the couple gradually began neglecting their virtual daughter as well.
“I think the ’30s were just an incredibly difficult time for them,” says Dahlia Mangrove, CEO of Mangrove Capital Group and a close personal friend of the family. “No parent is perfect, so I’m certainly not going to judge. I think as time went on, though, they started to associate Lara with failure. I mean, Lara was MaMaSolutions in a way. When the company went under they had her transferred to another one, but it was never quite the same, as you can imagine. Imagine the humiliation! I support Jeremy’s decision to cold-storage her. You have to move on.”
Medical and academic criticism of the virtual-child phenomenon has since evolved into a formidable body of work, but for now the VC cold-storaged last weekend—as of this month an attractive, college-aged young woman seemingly capable of expressing independent views, just as her parents had programmed her to evenutally do—has changed our landscape forever. Few prep schools are without a VC program (Choate Rosemary Hall, in fact, reports it is their only growth area of enrollment, and they are not alone) and the VC playgound spinoff industry alone is worth $2 trillion as of last fiscal quarter.
“Yeah, I guess there was always some moral hysteria around the whole thing from day one,” says Mr. Barta-Fougere from his estate in Montauk, New York. Following his divorce and the MaMaSolutions bankruptcy, the entrepreneur then turned his talents to the burgeoning VC auxiliary-needs market. He has since remarried. “But come on. We’ve made so many tens of thousands of people happy. I have no regrets. None whatever. This is about evolution.”
Floral tributes to Lara Barta-Fougere (VC) and memorial donations to ChipEd, which works to bring hologram-based charter schooling to Cambodia, may be sent to DataConclude, 500 Industrial Parkway, Niagara Falls, New York.