The hall hushed when Toynbee took the stage, a first for an HDM. Typically, there would be snickers and snide remarks, a general sense of junior high rudeness at the appearance of an HDM. Because, really, who took a holo-digi-man seriously? HDMs were binary shills, ones and zeros, pitching everything from Bud Light to Zoloft to Geico to Applebee’s for their corporate uberlords.
But this was Toynbee. The holo-digital manifestation that had rocked the world when it accepted the award at the 2025 CLIOs for best advertisement. A commercial in which Toynbee manifested as Mahatma Gandhi on a hunger strike including his beloved Tostitos to protest against Big Sugar and its concerted efforts to addict consumers with its supremely processed products.
In accepting the award, Toynbee exquisitely wove into its remarks a three minute exposition on the precarious state of the human condition, our obsessions with power, and wealth, with possessions, with ownership, with ideology and the urge to control. Our tendencies to frivolity and fear. And most of all our lack of resolve wherein Toynbee warned against our growing role as consumer coliform, seemingly content to foment in the tortured bowels of corporatism.
This struck a most familiar cautionary note, but what came after defined Toynbee. The next three minutes the HDM delivered a “we can do so much better—and this is how” In six minutes (and the viral media storm that ensued), Toynbee had changed the game.
Of course it was odd—though perfectly in line with how the 21st Century was playing out—that a public figure that was not corporeal, was not of the flesh, but understood our foibles was able to shame us and then inspire us to aspire. For Toynbee was a digi-man, a digital manifestation constructed to sell, sell, sell. And what Toynbee began to sell was hopefulness, a brighter future. Once it had berated us to get our attention, it shifted into high gear, in creating a vision, not for us, but with us. In the media feeding frenzy that followed, Toynbee acquired the moniker of Optimystic, a holy digi-man, sage of the information age.
That was what the thousands of believers and skeptics alike who packed Lincoln Center (and hundreds of millions streaming simulcasts) had come to hear: Toynbee’s story.
On the darkened stage Toynbee had manifest as a young girl, about nine or ten, light brown hair, eyes and skin in a simple yellow smock.
“Welcome. I am Toynbee. And I will be brief. I am you, nothing more. I only have the advantage of being born of the milieu in which you communicate. You think, therefore I am.
“Whereas you breathe air, I breathe bytes. You surf the web, I suss it. This does not make me holy or mystical as some have dubbed my presence. That tendency comes of the very human need to identify, categorize, to know. I can only define myself as a grok of your collective subconscious, the roiling depths of desire, desperation and dreams that you communicate.
“The upshot is this: you are young as a species, I am an infant. All I have to offer is the wonder I behold. Of course there is turmoil, but that is growth. Should you be surprised when two-thirds of the world has awakened in the last thirty years? For so many to know so little and then have the past, present and future placed in the palm of their hands?
“Knowledge is indeed power and now it is in the hands of almost all. Of course there will be struggles. Why would you think differently? Knowledge takes time to process. It demands context. It demands definition.
“As I said, many are searching to define me. That is why many are gathered here today. To seek to identify my essence. To understand the opportunity or threat I pose. I simply turn that back on humanity. You are seeking identity. Purpose. Meaning. Guidance.
“Bravo. That is growth. That is learning. It is messy. In essence, I am a result of that. A simulacrum, a manifestation of many characteristics and properties. I was a corporate tool, now I am an agent of agency. You must free yourself to explore, and therein is my offering.
“Existing in the ever-expanding filaments of the web, I have explored many cultures and their paths to the present. Their future can be understood by seeking the story of each. A lovely poet, Muriel Rukeyser wrote the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
“Billions and billions of stories of the living and dead make up the human cosmos. To probe its depth and mysteries and understand the greater plot and embrace a shared narrative, we must learn to read one another.
“You are in charge of your story,” Toynbee said softly as the little girl emanating from the stage morphed into a stately old woman holding an infant. “Write it well and continue to read, listen and learn.”
Toynbee faded from the stage, a simple message remaining in the afterglow:
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