Imagining the Internet

Posted by on May 21st 2014 @ 12:49 pm

originally published in Mulberry Fork Review
May 14, 2014


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How are we supposed to understand the Internet?

Do we peel back the hood and learn about the guts of the thing? Read books dating back to its invention and the first primal experiments with data “packet switching”? Understand the how of the what we see on our screens every day: how our current form of the Internet came into existence, and the evolution of all the different iterations before it. Learn and become fluent in its spate of languages?

It may be more important to first take a step back and understand its historical relevance. We can look at analogous periods, like the advent of the printing press, and decipher broader themes about how disruptive technologies can alter their societies. Looking back on the past, we can conjure some notion of how the Internet is changing our world today and where it may be taking us.

Amazon founder and digital­-age “titan of industry” Jeff Bezos prefers to understand the Internet through the use of analogy: as a transformational “capability” on a similar scale to the advent of electricity. In his eyes, we’re at the beginning of another historical turning point, “only now coming up with the first generation of ‘household appliances’.”

But seen through other people’s eyes, the Internet can take all sorts of conceptual forms. It is an elaborate web of information super-highways, or a composite mega-brain encompassing all human activity. More poetic souls may see a new frontier, the Wild West, a gold rush for the 21st Century.

The Internet is so difficult to understand in part because it is difficult to fully perceive in the first place. It is, at once, massive and opaque, omnipresent and invisible, revolutionary and nascent. Its presence is expanding rapidly, through a proliferation of modes—an ever-multiplying number of devices and screens and streams and platforms—intersecting with more and more aspects of our physical world. It can often feel overwhelming, seemingly impossible, to try and make sense of the chaos—let alone remain persistent in seeking such understanding, knowing tomorrow will likely bring yet another fresh chaotic wave.

Metaphor is one way we attempt to crest the tide and—for but a moment—make sense of the Internet so that we can talk about it with other people. In the face of chaos, a metaphor allows us to assemble truth in a way that feels coherent and human and timelessly honest. If metaphors are our lifeboat, the truth may be that the way we describe the Internet in the stories we tell ourselves is just as important as understanding every line of code or minor upgrade tweak that underlies its functioning.

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In his essay, “When I Moved Online…”, alt­lit novelist Tao Lin employs metaphor on a galactic scale to understand the arrival of the Internet:

“I now sometimes imagine the Internet as a U.F.O that appeared one afternoon in the backyard ­­ to take humankind elsewhere.”

The digital world is central to Lin’s writing and various artistic endeavors. The tone of both his fiction and essay work conveys a detached persona, one that is compulsively aware of our psychological mechanics and human fallacies. This past February, Lin lectured in Berlin on “Internet & Identity in the Context of the History & Future of Life on Earth.” He perpetuates his world-weary musings in real-time on a variety of Twitter accounts, and through eccentric guest columns and pieces (e.g. “Drug-­RelatedPhotoshop Art” on VICE). His aesthetic has been hailed by some as characteristic of our new post­-digital existence, each of us feeling incrementally removed, watching the world rapidly change before us.

Lin’s “Online” essay centers around his early childhood experiences with the 1990s Internet. The dramatic question underlying his discussion is whether him and his parents might have known each other better if he was born at a different time. Although his parents never fully embraced the web—using it “mostly to check stock prices”—Lin took to it with the fervor of an addict. For six hours a day, after school, he logged into the virtual game­-world of GemStone III, a (perhaps unsurprisingly) text-­based game which functioned like a Goosebumps choose-­your-­own­-adventure book, except the player got to contribute wholly constructed scenes of his own to the game narrative.

“Maybe I intuited that the faster the world was relocated into the Internet, the likelier humankind would be returned to an original and undifferentiated oneness, completing what it began around 13,000 years ago with agriculture, which resulted in villages, then cities, finally the Internet.”

Lin’s vision seems simultaneously enlightened and spiritual, yet almost childlike in its naïveté. In his eyes, the Internet is a UFO sent from some vague, benevolent power that has come to carry us away and into a higher plane of existence. The transformation may indeed be under way, but it feels more accurate to describe our migration as a series of UFOs, all streaming from the same foreign place, but arriving in consecutive waves. The first primal online connection between two computers was a wave. The mass­-market PC, another wave. Email: wave. Google and Facebook and Twitter, all waves, each pulling different parts of ourselves further and further into the virtual.

The most significant of our recent UFOs may be the smartphone, which served as the catalyst bringing us into the post-­PC era. This critical transition forever altered one fundamental reality: the Internet can now be with us always.

Looking forward, the next wave of consumer tech gadgets will be even more seamless and native to our bodies. Dubbed “wearables,” they’ll wrap around our wrists and necks, we’ll wear them in our eyes and ears. It’s only a matter of time before space-­age implant devices become both fashionable and practical. What are the implications of this seemingly inevitable tumble toward cyborgism?

In one scene from Lin’s latest novel Taipei—largely of autobiographical inspiration—the protagonist, named “Paul,” returns to his NYC studio apartment and experiences the “interesting” feeling of moving his MacBook onto the floor and flailing his limbs across the bed:

“Because, [Paul] knew, it was probably [only] the second or third time he’d lain on this mattress, while awake and alert and not impatient toward himself, without reading a book, looking at his MacBook, or [being] aware of his MacBook’s screen.”

The Internet is already intimately tied up in our lives. One of the thrills of Lin’s literary potential is anticipating how his aesthetic and generous philosophy toward the Internet might shift as our relationship morphs, the digital realm becoming ever more entwined with our physical selves and connecting with us on deeper levels than just peripheral screens.

Novelist Dave Eggers’ latest book, The Circle, attempts to provide a glimpse of that world, similar to ours, but set in the near­-distant future, where “wearables” have already been widely­-adopted. Though his fictional retina devices are as advanced and seamless as Google hopes to one day make its Glass, Eggers’ characters continue to break off in private for intensive web­-surfing. They huddle in corners and stare into walls, the blank slate an optimal background for their transparent contact­-lens screens.

The story follows young protagonist Mae Holland as she begins a career with the Customer Experience team at Circle, Eggers’ fictional version of a next-­generation tech company. Circle’s headquarters are located in the equivalent of Silicon Valley, its offices as lavish and new­-age as those at Google or Facebook, and the building’s architecture (shaped into an almost-­closed circle) is eerily reminiscent of Apple’s new campus, one of the last visionary projects by its late­-founder Steve Jobs. Circle’s online services also represent an amalgam of all the major platforms dominating our world today, containing elements of each (e.g. their Zings = our Tweets) but combined into an ecosystem with such aggregate scale as to be an evolutionary successor to them entirely.

Working at Circle forces Mae to reconcile the two (probably over­-simplified) worlds of 1) the Circle’s twenty-­something, algorithm­-minded, privacy-­free, compulsively share-­happy community; and 2) the antiquated and private world of her ailing parents and luddite ex-­boyfriend, Mercer.

Not long after her arrival, Mae’s assimilation into the world of the Circle begins to feel nearly inevitable. Maybe Eggers’ most vivid illustration of this transformation is his depiction of Mae’s day-­by­-day workflow. With every tiny raise or promotion, her bosses add an additional screen to her desk, an ever-­multiplying stream of work and messages to manage and keep up with constantly. Once her workspace reaches its physical capacity, a supervisor she’s never before met asks her to wear an earpiece that will survey her with marketing questions throughout the day (since, being a Circler, her status as a trend­-setter is highly valuable).

At its best, the online world and work of the Circle provide Mae with a steady flow of positive reinforcement: “[She] found that she appreciated the rhythm of it, the almost meditative quality of doing something she knew in her bones.”

But during the weeks when Mae is sidetracked by problems at home (e.g. parents, Mercer), or social events and flirtatious sleepovers around the Circle campus, Mae finds herself awake in the late hours of the night, riddled with anxiety and sitting at her desk surrounded by all her screens. It doesn’t take long before these occasional episodes of digital binging—spending six to ten hours poised over her screens, catching up on all the unread messages (often stretching into the hundreds, even thousands)—become routine.

In the midst of these nighttime episodes, fully plugged into the Circle’s online ecosystem, Mae loses herself in a universe that both fosters and demands so many different dialogues, at such rapid speed, simultaneously, that the only way for her to adapt and survive is to ignore some basic, human part of herself that pines to slow down, to achieve some deeper connection. Often, it wrecks Mae to eventually descend back down out of the Circle-verse and reacquaint herself with the physical, the unavoidable earthly.

One night in particular, Mae works distractedly while trying to locate a boy’s identity online whom she had met and flirted with at a Circle social event. She knows his first name—Kalden—but nothing else, and struggles to find any trace of him in the digital ether. Clashing with her online work and communicative conditioning as a Circler, which is so fully transparent and instant and always concretely known, this Kalden­-inspired feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability feels to her like an “unnecessary” burden:

“There was something very wrong when you couldn’t find someone you were trying to find… If she could eliminate this kind of uncertainty… you would eliminate most of the stressors of the world, and maybe, too, the wave of despair that was gathering in Mae’s chest. She’d been feeling this, this black rip, this loud tear, within her, a few times a week. It usually didn’t last long, but when she closed her eyes she saw a tiny tear in what seemed to be black cloth, and through this tiny tear she heard the screams of millions of invisible souls.”

In Taipei, Lin describes a similar epiphany:

“He couldn’t ignore a feeling that he wasn’t alone ­­ that in the brain of the universe, where everything that happened was concurrently recorded as public and indestructible data, he was already partially with everyone else that had died.”

It may sound over-­dramatic, but the sensation is something we’ve already begun to diagnose in the real, nonfictional world. Pop psychologists and sociological-­bent writers refer to it as FOMO (a.k.a. Fear Of Missing Out) and warn of its imminent threat as society grows increasingly wired. The feeling can be so debilitating that people have begun to entertain periods of “unplugging” or “digital cleansing” to recalibrate themselves. Others turn to more pragmatic measures like blocking software that forces them into a state where they’re once again experiencing the real world sans Internet. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, cases of Internet addiction have been reported in corners of our world’s most wired cultures (e.g. South Korea, China).

Won’t there be a point, already evidently being felt by some, when the incessant change and demand of these technologies will be beyond reproach? A new technology will come out; some people won’t want to use it, many other people will. The pressing question becomes: Will we still be able to find a common frequency? Will we still inhabit enough of the same world to empathize with one another?

Over the past year, many of our cultural arbiters have expressed their imminent anxiety over this concern. The latest single from dance duo Daft Punk (“Computerized,” feat. Jay Z) reflects the condition: “Everyone will be computerized… I don’t know how I feel, somebody tell me what’s real.” Popular movie director Spike Jonze released his film Her about a lonely man who writes personal love letters on commission, and falls in love with the female voice of his intelligent Operating System. Novelist and infamous techno­-skeptic Jonathan Franzen decried the crippling effects of “techno­-consumer culture” and declared ours a “media­-saturated, technology-­crazed, apocalypse­-haunted historical moment.” Indie rocker St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) released her de facto reckoning with the Internet age, her album “Digital Witness,” whose title track posits existential questions such as “Am I the only one in the only world?” Comedian Louis CK seems bent on leveraging every late­-night talk show visit as a chance to pontificate on the ways Internet culture encourage in us short­-term memory, ignorance and ungratefulness, and dangerously compulsive behaviors. In his eyes, the Internet is making us meaner and less capable of stomaching life’s deeper-­down truths (e.g. “it’s all for nothing and you’re alone”).

Eggers’ dystopian narrative (which proceeds in an analogous vein to George Orwell’s 1984) offers the most ambitious yet pessimistic vision of the bunch. In his fiction, even the bright, innocent, Midwestern Mae fails to preserve her agency, and can’t help but mutate once inside the hive.

The leaders of the Circle (referred to as the Three Wise Men) eventually encourage their employees to commit themselves to a program called Clarification: by strapping a mic­-enabled camera around their necks, they broadcast their daily lives online for the worldwide public to see, 24/7. Needless to say, the experiment leads to some monumental missteps, and at one point Mae’s ex, Mercer, feels compelled to tell her:

“I’ll be sad to lose you [Mae]… but we’ve taken very different evolutionary paths and very soon we’ll be too far apart to communicate.”

The title and premise of Eggers’ book turns out to be startlingly reminiscent of Tao Lin’s talk about “completing what we began 13,000 years ago” and “[returning] to an original and undifferentiated oneness.” In conversation, the top ranks of Circlers often make indirect allusions to this mission, referred to as “Completion” within the company, but only understood by the masses in an opaque way, as some hazy myth passed down from the Three Wise Men. The implied goal of Completion is that, once everyone is fully wired and online, we will have achieved some corresponding level of utopia. The only sacrifice? Potentially the complete surrender of our privacy and individual agency; submission to a sort of mass, techno-­consumer groupthink; other “small” compromises, etc.—for a future vision so picture perfect that its very suggestion seems almost condescending.

Lin prefers to focus on the unbound potential of the Internet to transform our existence for the better, but it is equally important to realize the counter, potentially dystopian, plotlines. The Internet can be—and, in many ways, already has been—corrupted like any other disruptive medium or technology before it (recall: printing press). Its eventual state of equilibrium may more closely resemble our flawed human history, and inherently indifferent physical world, than the wild or spiritual projections of our imaginations. But at this point in time, where no one truly has the faintest clue what 2020 will look like, or even what Apple’s next “big thing” might be, our imaginations are as valid as any other predication.

The Internet as encapsulated in story may indeed offer a worldview (at least slightly) less prone to the whims of popular fads or exaggerated early-­adopter/techno­-fanatic hype. The goal of an author or artist is not to sell you on how ground-­breaking or revolutionary any new product or service might be, but to dig at what these technologies mean for us on a more fundamental and human level.

Tomorrow will bring a brand new cloud of chaos ­­ new Internet services and social networks and platforms and devices and advanced software integrations. How will we sift through it all to achieve new understanding, time and time again?

Maybe our best coping mechanism is to choose a guiding story to believe, a story that continues to ring true through various iterations of chaos. That, or take on the task of making up a new story entirely.

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