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Remember standing in a wide open field at night. Encompassed by a flat horizon and capped by infinite night, by depths ornamented with pinholes of light stretching out, out, out in unending succession. Connected to innumerable predecessors who had experienced that same strange alarm at the sense of an entire universe bearing down. One day seeing a tiny blinking light passing between the stars and that’s us now, that lonely, drifting light. That’s us high above the analog world, pacing the geometric corridors of the digital realm so sleek, beveled, and cool. Metal and glass joined seamlessly, light invading and being swallowed up by dark. We pace in solitude, the tiny echo of our footfalls punctuating the immense, vacant silence. Looking out at a downward arcing horizon, we almost know how it must have felt to be present ahead of the beginning, hovering over the void.
I came across a digital advertisement. A man was advertising for a babysitter. One that he could, upon sneaking home early, drag into a coat closet to have his way with. ‘Wife must NOT KNOW.’ ‘Good with kids a plus.’ His plan was to bring a total stranger into his home, whom he would have to admit possessed questionable if not downright alarming scruples, intending to entrust this imagined trollop with the care of his own blood. And the assurance that she wouldn’t dismember the kids, bury them alive, or mince their bones for a pot pie, that was a just a plus. You can bet that if he had been required to run that little classified in the paper and accept letters of application to his house, much less phone calls that anyone might answer, he might have given this whole scheme a second thought. Maybe even reconsidered altogether and just settled for his secretary. Hell, I bet a newspaper wouldn’t even have run the ad. But here we are in the digital world where nobody has to know nothing and there are just too many people to even keep track of them all anyway, and some bastard’s pitiable dynasty is about to get babysat by God knows what Grimm tart just so dad can scratch some depraved itch. This whole scene, mystifying as it is, was posted on a humor blog for folks to shake their heads and laugh at alongside pictures of cats and schoolbook-graffiti-quality devotion to Dr. Who and bacon. It’s beyond me. I guess the situation is a bit funny, or you had better find it so. The alternative being to get near suicidal thinking about mankind and especially about those kids. I bet they weren’t laughing. The wife either.
Oh what does come out to play when it thinks it can get away with it.
This bizarre scene heralds the individualism conceived in an ivory tower during the Age of Enlightenment having found its fullest expression in the ethereal tower of the Digital Age. A tower reaching high above the atmosphere atop an invisible mountain of signal, a bedrock of transmission. A mighty fortress with curious walls at once transparent and a shroud, pristine in both modes. Did the pursuit of individualism drive us to this place, or did the discovery of this place finally give people the freedom to live out their philosophy. Distilled to its pure form, individualism is isolation and the digital world, granting unaccountable choice in all things, fulfills its demands perfectly. In unrestrained anonymity, the individual unfurls, thrives.
To be truth for, in, and of oneself could only ever have happened if the individual could be fully in control of its presence in the world and so sovereign to itself. Out from beneath those it might disappoint, no longer shackled to those who might catch it out in a lie, plain facts become relative and the self-projected image of the individual becomes the absolute authority by which truth is determined. Locked in our ethereal towers (from the inside, mind you), we can finally be alone and figure out what kind of person we’d have been all along if we could have just gotten some space. We have the privilege and leisure of kings to issue doctrine about our selves and have it accepted unblinking by our adherents. (Of course, people can still smell a rat, so we may keep it subtle in some forums.)
A lament for the crush of the crowd back in the analog world: That old time seems so claustrophobic now, like a slow asphyxiating death narrowly escaped. A serpent had tried to bind us, but we turned to vapor and slipped its coils. As anecdotal evidence, consider the address, the great constrictor. An address used to demarcate a finite location packed with people. A house, an office building, a shop. A place to send and receive mail. A place to sit. A place to rest. But, we could only be in any one those places at a time and we actually had to physically move to get to another. The address would encircle and bind our presence, and our every move only served to tighten the grip of our limitation. What is an address now? A tiny coded signature by which we navigate the cloud. A place to send and receive tiny digital missives. A place to store pixels. A place to plug in. No longer a place to be but a representation of being. A new address takes just a moment to create. We have dozens and can be present in all at once, or none at all (though even in our absence we leave benevolent remnants of our presence, messages like scripture to assure our faithful that we haven’t abandoned them and shall return). An address isn’t a matter of location anymore, but one of will. Presence is now our private mystery to effortlessly multiply and disperse according to inscrutable whim.
Switching from location to communication, consider the telephone, a once-serpentine device. In the analog world, there was one softly hissing phone line going into a home. If you needed to contact someone immediately, you dialed a number and the signal passed undeviating through rubber-clad coils—the very picture of predestination—and rang a bell at the end. You never knew who you were going to get at the other end of the line. The interaction was complex and spontaneous yet completely contained. (Like a snake eating its own tail, you could even dial your own number, hang up quick, and have the line ring–the lazy man’s way to talking to someone downstairs.) Now, though, there is one phone number per pocket. The slithering network of linear wire has been multiplied ad infinitum until it became a permeate fog of radiation ascending to the heavens and falling back to earth. Signal has escaped the old coiled prison and life in the ether has subdivided our interconnectedness to cellular level. Precisely individual. (Sometimes even more finely grained than that—we all know someone with a work and a personal phone. One for each individual within the individual.) We don’t dial numbers, we press names and we always get the expected individual. The banal, unsurprising act of connecting with someone has become quite innate. We don’t answer with, “Hello?” anymore. “Hey.” The mystery is gone, evidenced by the blanked mind of a caller on the rare occasion when you answer someone else’s cell and an entire brain must reboot its expectations.
So what? People have cell phones and dozens of online accounts. They make life efficient. Having a unique outlet for every type of expression gives us greater freedom, and we move from forum to forum without even the effort of standing. Being reachable as an individual gives us autonomy, not to mention mobility. No more waiting for someone else to finish using the phone. No more answering unknown numbers (or known numbers that we’d rather avoid). Just think of how many unwanted conversations caller ID has empowered us to avoid. Custom-tailored communication across all mediums. Get with the future.
This is all true, sure. We are in more control as individuals and stronger in some ways. But think of what we don’t know anymore (besides anyone’s actual phone number). We have lost a dimension of accountability, of others knowing where we are or where we’ve been, of others knowing when we get phone calls, and even knowing who calls us. And of us knowing the same things about them. Even as we have become more interconnected, we have become more blind, more able to willfully blind one another. For some, unrestrained turns to unhinged. Think of those kids and that wife who just might have had one less deplorable memory in an analog world with a dad required to be slightly less invisible.
But, here we are in the digital world. Weightless in the void and completely alone. Millions of people are just a tap away, but we can banish them a million miles away with another tap if it suits us. In this vacuum, we are answerable only to ourselves. Perfectly singular. We speak and it starts to feel like divinity, revealing our presence as our digital world vibrates in response. We are in complete control and lonely hangs the crown. What inky parts of our nature loose their chains and escape their cages?