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January 12, 2012

Something Cheery

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 10:16 am

I was up tossing and turning until about 5am. Fucking caffeine. I’m so sensitive to it. I finally got a couple hours of sleep, solid but filled with strange crunchy dreams about digital social networks, and woke with this phrase reverberating ominously in my head:

“BABY UNICORNS MAKING FRIENDS WITH OTHER BABY UNICORNS ON THE INTERNET…”

Um. What?

Anyway. I also realized something not baby-unicorn-related as I lay dozily under the covers. It was about death and technology.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Maybe because I’m turning 30 in a few months. Maybe because I studied too much Existentialism in college and have been forever altered. Whatever the reason, the “I only get to do this once and I have no idea how long I’ll get to do it for” feeling has been particularly acute over the last year or so.

What I realized this morning is something small but, I think, a little poignant: The majority of the content on the Internet today was put there by people who are alive right now.

So?

So that’s not true about any other major creative or communications medium. Most of the books that have ever been written were written by people who are now dead. Most paintings, most recorded music, most newspaper articles, even a large bulk of TV shows and movies, all made by dead people.

I realize, given the exponential growth of the world’s population, that what I’ve said above probably isn’t technically true. In fact, I vaguely remember reading a statistic somewhere (which, of course, I can’t source) saying that more books are currently published in a given year than were written over the entiretly of the 18th Century or something. And a disproportionate number of them are teen vampire romance fiction…

But when I said, “Most books were written by dead people,” you felt it, right? How the essence of book-liness feels different than the essence of the Internet?

Regardless of actual publication statistics, when we think of, say, a library, museum or other media archive, we mostly think of it as a place housing the creations of people from past generations. Not so with the Internet. Even places that exist on the Internet to archive the Internet are archiving work generated mostly by our own contemporaries.

To me, this explains part of why the Internet, as a sociocultural space, feels so incredibly energetic and vibrant. It’s not just how people are using it right now. It’s that the people using it right now are the only people who have ever used it. There are very few populations of people (relatively speaking) whose only experience of online communication was a previous historical incarnation drastically different from how we experience the Internet today.

The reason this trips me out so much, although I also think it’s really neat, is that it presages an interesting future in which that’s no longer the case. Imagine surfing an archival web in which the person who originally created the page you’re looking at died 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago. To me, in that future, the vibrant sociocultural playground where I grew up suddenly feels less like an archive and more like a graveyard.

To me. It won’t feel that way to everyone. It won’t feel that way to people for whom the Internet has been around for as long as they can remember. I suspect our generation’s children and grandchildren will experience the Internet similar to any other medium that has both a historical and a present state – and they will also experience that present in ways we can’t even begin to get our heads around. But it will feel different to those of us who will remember a time when the Internet was a place where you could (at least theoretically) have direct, participatory, two-way communication with the creators of most any work you were encountering and they with yours and now – not due to the specifics of how technology will or won’t evolve but simply because human bodies die – you can’t.

It’s going to feel intense. We’re not only going to experience our own oncoming deaths as we age. Because of the ways that we’re digitally linked into so many other minds, we’re going to experience the gradual deaths of whole networks that feel like they’re a part of us. There’s a way in which that’s amazing and beautiful, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s going to feel fucking hard.

We’re the last generation that remembers life before the Internet and the first one who can’t imagine our lives without it. I think a lot about the ways that the advent of mobile and digital communication have ravaged our generational psychology for the sake of building a bridge to future cyborg society. “All media work us over completely,” says Marshall McCluhan. Especially revolutionary new media. Work us over completely. Reprogram our soft, fleshy, living, infinitely adaptible human minds.

Sometimes I find that idea upsetting. Some days I find it extremely comforting. Especially on days when I’m thinking about death – about how soon it’s coming and about how little I’ve accomplished in the interim. McCluhan’s tenet is a reminder that my mind is capable of incredible, beautiful, breathtaking transformations – and a reminder, also, that sometimes that process of transformation is going to hurt like hell. And sometimes the transformation is so incredible, beautiful and breathtaking that it’s going to hurt an entire generation like hell for our whole lives.

And so perhaps, given the circumstances, it would be okay if we as individuals were to spend this entire one-and-only lifetime accomplishing nothing more than being as gentle with ourselves and each other as we can while History uses our brains to write the future on.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] shift for human minds, and human culture, to make. I was talking to Asa the other night about how the advent of mobile and digital communication have ravaged our generational psychology for the sake…. This isn’t exactly the same thing, but they’re related: The shift from a modernist to […]

    Pingback by An Incredibly Self-Indulgent Post on Archetypal Resonance « Bloggity Blog Blog Blog… — August 7, 2012 @ 1:28 am | Reply

  2. I stumbled across this post via an entirely tangential chain of events, but wanted to note that a project a friend of mine wants to do fairly soon involves setting up a live, interactive simulation of the Internet circa about 1970 (I think) — a comparatively quite small network of virtual machines that people can use to explore a snapshot in time. I feel like it’s a little bit like time travel, and like digital archiving, but in a way that can only be done with networked computation that takes advantage of technologies that have been developed since then (e.g., web browsers, VM sandboxing). Project Gutenberg is pretty damn awesome, but the texts it archives existed as printed texts first; AFAIK the majority of the films it archives existed as analog film first.

    I wonder what it might be like for those people of 10, 20, 50, 100 years later to browse living replicas of the systems that the men and women who created the ancestor of their digital communications systems used to *build* that very system. History buffs could follow in their footsteps. We’ve already lost some of the creators of Unix (Dennis Ritchie, most notably), and others are getting on in years. We can’t preserve them, but we can preserve their works in detail that may help future historians to know them better.

    Comment by Meredith L Patterson (@maradydd) — September 25, 2012 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

    • I don’t have much content to respond to this with but wanted to say: That sounds AWESOME! I’d love to hear more about your friend’s project as it develops. 😀

      Comment by thirdxlucky — October 3, 2012 @ 10:38 pm | Reply


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