For twenty years, I have had access to the Internet, or not quite. I commemorate Saturday, the 4th of December, anno 1999. My perfect web innocence ended that morning. It was the day my electronic engineer son (then thirteen) hooked me up, in my study at home, with email and the works.
He even persuaded me to link some new thing called “Google,” which was a “search engine.” Their corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” delighted both of us. (It has since been discreetly abandoned.)
I didn’t have to pay a penny for this link. It was only necessary to surrender several thousand dollars for equipment, which included a discouraging spaghetti of tangled wires.
“Hooked up,” or “hooked in” would be more precise. The medium is so absorbing that one does not subscribe, in the old-fashioned manner. It subscribes to you.
Gentle reader will not be surprised to learn, as I eventually did, that it functions as a universal spy service, on commercial principles, shopping everything that can be learned about you to paying customers, so that they can bombard you with tailored purchasing suggestions.
What could be more innocent than that? A lot of things I can think of.
Being a newspaper columnist at the time – thus already hooked into the mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio, TV – I didn’t imagine I had much to lose. I was already a “public figure,” in some quasi-legal sense, eligible for public insult; and necessarily addicted to “the news.”
The stargate had just opened on the news supply. No one had ever again to wait until the morning.
We’re all pretty much now “connected” in “live time.” I can follow local events on the other side of the planet (the underside, assuming a Flat Earth). I’ve seen weather reports from Mars. I’ve found all sorts of information that wasn’t in my library – most of it unsourced.
And through “social media,” which I still try to avoid, it is now possible to organize a violent mob of angry, misinformed people, to express their outrage a continent away – often within minutes of an event that did not happen.
Yes, the Internet is a wonderful thing. What did we ever do without it?
For my son, and others like him, who have a fascination for old mechanical things, an awareness of historical time, and a speculative disposition, together perhaps with some home-schooling in the art of skepticism, this past genuinely exists.
For most of the young today, it doesn’t. They are creatures almost entirely of that “live time,” like the mayflies currently clouding my apartment balconata, randomly but desperately copulating with each other. Nothing can be more dead to them than yesterday’s Tweet. Or than themselves, soon gathered into webs (by spiders).
Yet for those with some passing knowledge of the past (and thus curiosity about the future), the Internet can be a source of alarm. Wherever one turns in this cyberspace, one is apprised of events deeply repugnant to the civilized. Such as the reduction of politics to massive smear campaigns; or the proposal to reduce the voting age to sixteen.
The belief that the world is coming to an end is now shared, not only by the hormonally challenged, or members of obscure apocalyptic sects, but by the “rationalist” profane. Only the religious nutjobs (like me) expect life to continue beyond the most recently posted Extinction Event.
I’ve noticed that prominent public figures in your country as in mine (Canada), are now giving us twelve years, or were until they reduced this to ten. Unless, of course, we immediately establish a totalitarian dictatorship, with them in charge.
Such news is quickly spread through the Internet. It is usually accompanied by statistics.
Let me make up some of my own. Did you know that general anxiety levels are now more than five times higher than they were in my childhood?
And here is something to scare the most hardened consumer of end-time scenarios. What if our planet survives for a few more centuries? Who would be able to stand it?
Coupled with the latest environmental predictions, are the puff pieces on technological advance. It will soon be possible to perpetuate our species by medically transforming us all into biotech supermen. (Or, “superpersons” as my prime minister would say.)
Pound these two pop certainties together – the unstoppable force of infinite progress into the immovable object of total disaster – and what have we to look forward to? A post-apocalyptic world of superhuman zombies.
Arguably, it is already here. Consult Drudge, or any other news aggregator, any glad morning at all, and one may glimpse this “brave new” whatever. To my backward-looking Catholic eyes, contemporary campus life provides a Netflix preview.
It was going to be a world without “fathers” and “mothers,” or any other family or biological relations; now it’s going to be without men and women, too. Instead, we’ll have anything we want to socially construct.
Verily, the socially constructed will do the social construction, in perpetuity, according to some sage whose name I have forgotten. It will be like computers reproducing more and better AI computers – already a nightmare to some. Of course, they will conspire to eliminate the inefficient humans, perhaps the way we do with our unwanted babies, or now with our incurably futureless.
Perhaps the remaining humans will actually request euthanasia. The kindly robots will oblige to ease their pain.
Here, however, I take leave of the horror. While things may get bad – very bad in a foreseeable future, worse even than now – the worst will not happen. For even when almost universally denied, the truth will remain the truth, the good the good, and so forth. There is no such thing as a sustainable trend, whether among humans or machines.
Take men and women. They simply ARE. Sooner or later they will return, to slap us on both faces.
*Image: The Pacaline (replica), invented by Blaise Pascal in 1645, was the first-ever computer/calculator. [Computer History Museum, Mountainview, California]