Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, a flowering plant you can put in your pocket. That's right, this rhododendron first appears as a seed on the screen of a computer no bigger than a granola bar. Press a button and you water it; another, and you add organic fertilizer; another, and you remove pesky weeds; another, and you gently soap away aphids as the rhododendron, to which you have by now given a nickname like Dody, grows before your eyes.
But neglect any of the steps that a plant requires, and Dody dies!
Does this sound like fantasy? Well, we were only predicting a virtual plant. But an actual virtual pet has been sweeping the market in Japan - and is due to hit the US before long. Named Tamagotchi (lovable egg), the device, which some hang from a necklace, shows the tiny-screen image of an egg. Your pet hatches and grows day by day - if you push the buttons to feed it, clean up after it, train it, and make it happy. Otherwise, it's curtains for your little chickadee. In memoriam a bereaved owner reportedly wrote: "You were so much fun. If only I hadn't turned the sound off, I would have heard your cries of hunger."
Both French philosophy and Japanese salesmanship have been used to explain why so many people pay money to voluntarily take on new dependents. Will the virtual pet infiltrate America as the pet rock did a while ago? Personally we're going to wait for the virtual rhododendron. Or is it better to remain enslaved to the real thing?