assorted musings on our digital x analog selves
Parts of my self are stored in the cloud, some in my squishy meat computer, and the rest are on my friends’ squishy meat computers. Friends who might be anyhwere on the planet and servers under my feet. Written journals, stored photos, parts of life I can download again; rewind in time. I can be reached, I’m safe.
This connection requires much to go right: cell towers and undersea cables, international standards, batteries, satellites, signal, and information translation.
When that link is broken, a transformation occurs. I become more aware of my body and the environment it’s embedded in; the presence of a world beyond my phone. I can think longer thoughts. I’ve lost a piece of my voice, to rediscover another. I can’t be reached. I’m safe.
Since middle school, I’ve existed in two worlds simultaneously. The first I was born into: full of people I met through family, school, church, and my first job. The world of phone books, paper navigational maps, and the dewey decimal system.
I entered the second world around age 9 or 10 with my first laptop and an internet connection. This world quickly overtook the first in terms of attention, information, and outcomes. Early forums, reddit discussions, youtube videos, video games, torrented movies. Eventually I found myself a startup job – you guessed it, through the internet.
In 2020 I hosted my first internet meetup in nyc focused on people interested in roam research. As we were going our separate ways, I said “see you all online.” Little did I know a few weeks later we’d be entering lockdown and would exclusively be seeing everyone online for quite a while.
The next years of my life involved a lot of travel. This converted all my connections to “online” connections, whether that’s how we met or not. And for the most part, the internet is what’s allowed me to remain connected to many of those people.
When I was growing up in church, the internet was my portal to information about the world and myself. Countless hours on r/christianity, r/atheism, and r/philosophy. Somewhere in there I was looking for the reassurance that other people felt as lost and confused as I did. Almost everyone I knew or was related to was devoted to the religion, and I had few adults I could be myself around.
I spent a lot of time playing video games with friends in my teen years. Though most of us lived in the same city (met through church) we enjoyed the flexibility of playing from home late into the evening. Sometimes we’d pick a time and date and bring our computers together for a LAN party, plugging our computers into the same switch.
Yet, most of the games we played were massive multiplayer online games – our computers were still connected to servers far away. The ones that truly allowed us to inhibit a shared world between our computers were the most magical, latency being reduced to nothing and knowing as long as we had power and food we were fine, beyond the grasp of internet outages.
A road trip offers a felt map of signal coverage as I drive through the landscape. A call with a friend drops, google maps gets confused, my phone displays “No Service”. Certain highways offer the occasional yellow call box. Do they even work? I sit in silence, looking out at the passing landscape, disconnected; like a ship in deep space or in a vast ocean.
On one such trip my phone got lost in the wreckage. People asked me things I coulnd’t translate on my magical device. Nancy finds and hands it to me. I feel safer. Google Translate. A map. Camera. Phone calls. Messages to a friend. Photos of my documents and injuries.
The difference a phone makes while disoriented and helpless in a foreign country. Yet the complete lack of need for translation to accept the offers of care from bystanders.
Every interface I use (hardware and software) changes what and how I say through it. My username, or lack thereof changes who sees it, or if anyone sees it at all. Certain communities see more of me, others only as much as I share. How does one be genuine on the internet? How does one share the most vulnerable stories while hiding the most recognizable parts of myself? Who is allowed to know what? Who knows what?
Driving a friend’s car near the San Ysidro U.S. / Mexico Vehicle crossing. Took a wrong turn, can’t reverse out of a seas of cars, entering the U.S. Slowly approaching the border. Signal disappears, my podcast stops, can’t call my friends to explain where I am. Stuck in a conveyer belt of offline people to be processed by a very connected and online system. Everything is recorded, monitored, and tracked.
How to call the not-internet part? I don’t like any of the current ways we refer to it:
- “in real life” – implies the countless relationships, revelations, stories, and creations spawned through digital interfaces are not real.
- “meatspace” – a bit crude and fleshy. we’re more than meat. Also, an artificial intelligence can be disconnected from the broader internet but still function (see: voice recognition on phones).
- “offline”, “disconnected” – connotes disconnected, separated, unpowered, unreachable. Like an unplugged lamp.
What might better words for it be?
It can be tricky drawing a line between these two worlds: I love introducing everyone to everyone, regardless of how we met.
connections to cyberpunk; a separate layer to reality; “jacking in” - The Matrix, VR/AR, Ready Player One, Diamond Age, Tron: Legacy.