I had a dream, or perhaps it was a nightmare, a few nights ago. Not the sort of thing that causes lasting trouble. It was a murmur, barely enough to banish sleep. In this dream, it was shortly after noon and I was standing on a ridge overlooking a vast valley. The place was alive with that preternatural crispness only found in sleep. I felt a calm breeze with the scent of the sea just beyond the nearest mountain range. The place was clean; it was minimalist, symmetric, sensible and never ending. I felt pure. Then it felt like the sun was descending, except I could still see it hanging high staring me down with its bright orange and waves of violet in the spotless sky. I looked behind me and saw where the dark was coming from. It was a storm.
From my vantage point it seemed like a sandstorm, one of those dark and angry plague-like monstrosities from the deserts I love so much. I could hear the hiss of its parts rubbing against each other, approaching with improbable haste. As high and as far as the eye could see. It was impossibly wide, impossibly dark, impenetrable, and I couldn’t move. It came over me and I braced myself, half expecting the flesh to be stripped from my bones, but all I got was quiet. Through that silence, with every ounce of my body saturated with adrenaline, I stood, afraid to look up or even breathe. After what felt like an eternity I opened my eyes to an environment that wasn’t as dark as I had expected. Floating in the air were, in place of dust particles, the pieces of electronics. The air had taken on a fluid texture, every flinch causing a ripple in the silicon parts.
I turned around to look back over the ridge and saw that as far as the eye could see; everything was covered in that dark. Somehow, deep down inside me, I knew it had overrun the world. It was then that I felt the tremor beneath me. There was something moving toward me with purpose, somewhere behind me. I couldn’t budge, I couldn’t look back, I was petrified – pieces of me turning to stone, tendrils of gravel spreading through my veins, refusing to let me move. I fought it with all my will, but no sooner did I see bits of it crumble and fall from me, it would be replaced. Then the cause of the tremors burst from the ground, cables – hundreds of tendrils writhing out like the tentacles of some implacable beast, grabbing hold of me to keep me steady as one massive cable with a usb head rose like the tail of a scorpion and rammed into the back of my neck, severing pieces of bone and sending white-hot fire down my spine.
I could feel my body heat up and through my periphery vision; I could tell I was glowing. The pain was unimaginable, but any attempt to scream was stifled by the simple fact that I did not know how to. I felt pressure in my skull, like some heavy liquid were being poured into it and then I knew everything. My head was flooded with information; the entire world became a data point. Tweets, Facebook statuses, headlines, all became points of light, playthings for my scrambled sanity. With a thought I knew the weather in Hong Kong, the exact geographic coordinates of some celebrity I’d never cared to know, the entire history of a single car, the deepest secrets of some girl named Ashley in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I think hobo vagina is illegal in Ohio. Fish tacos are not.”
“omg, when I get home I am so going to blog about your new haircut.”
“Jason is listed as single”
“A car bomb detonated today in a market outside of Baghdad”
“GLOBAL MILITARY SPENDING REACHES NEW HIGH”
The noise was unimaginable, no voice could be silenced, no voice could be heard, and all voices could be heard. I knew everything; I was everywhere, I WAS THE ALL SEEING EYE AND ALL EYES WERE ON ME. I WAS THE ALL KNOWING! I SAW A THING AND ITS ENTIRE HISTORY WAS AS AN OPEN BOOK! I WAS… exhausted. I awoke to a blade of light in my eye, drenched in sweat, and felt suddenly small and blind and disconnected. But I couldn’t look at my laptop. I couldn’t bring myself to switch it on. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up my phone or my iPod Touch or my CR-48 or my Kindle or my TV. I couldn’t bring myself to it. It had finally happened. The ‘creep’ had finally caught up to me. I was too connected.
The creep is a steady encroachment that moves to surround you and is never really noticed until you’re caught in it. You see it with vines sometimes. You watch the vines crawl up trees and walls and it never seems that bad until one morning you look at your walls completely consumed. You stand there and wonder: how did we get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’? The same thing happens with a messy room. It starts with one shirt tossed on the chair; wallet not put away, shoes left out. Each time it seems like no big deal, a little thing to sort out, then one day you walk into your room and it’s a pigsty. That is fundamentally how creep works. Unlike a flood that is sudden and tumultuous, creep works slowly enough for you to adapt and get comfortable with. Unlike a flood, it can be predicted and you had plenty of opportunity to stop it. But you didn’t. You didn’t because you always had tomorrow to take care of it.
This was the situation I found myself in with my gadgets. The thing is I don’t have as many gadgets as most people. The gadgets I do have are sometimes endearingly outdated, but what sets me apart – and I presume most of the geek persuasion as well – is that I know how to paint miracles with my gear. There’s no question, I am plugged in. There is no place I go where I cannot check my email, tweet, update Facebook, look up the entire history of an item, purchase an item that can be anywhere in the world, etc. At the speed of thought I know the latest news from anywhere in the world. Oh, it’s in Chinese? I have Google translate for that. Oh it’s in metric units? I wouldn’t know because my device converts it on the fly. No it’s alright; you don’t need to tell me what other book I might like. Amazon’s algorithm already sent me a list that will probably be more accurate than you.
I’m not an internet addict, I’m merely part of a generation for whom being plugged in is like drinking water. It is natural and needed. My parents grew up in a world where you only had five senses. I grew up in a world where I had a billion, and that number is growing. If it amused me, I could wire my coffee maker to tweet at me when it’s done (fortunately, I don’t find such shenanigans amusing). In general, this is a good thing. The human brain’s limits have never been about what it can do when it has information. The bottleneck has always been the specific absorption of information. It’s fair that we find ways to outsource the acquisition and storage of information and in return we can access it whenever and wherever we like. The process is fascinating. However, we may be losing something in the process. The connections we make in the digital world aren’t any less real than those made in the meatspace, but it becomes a problem when we completely neglect one over the other.
At the moment that I fell victim to creep, I realized that my fellow noisecasters were capable of reaching me in more ways and with more tools that my own mother. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that I live in the same house as my mother. (Hey, don’t judge me. This is the 21st century, it’s a recession, we live in the same city, and I’m not American – staying with family is culturally normal for me). It was suddenly crazy to me that you could reach me faster by tweet than by phone and faster still by email. Half the time I don’t remember where my phone is and the other half I have it on silent or vibrate. What happened to my boundaries? A few weeks ago on a whim, or perhaps by some latent prescience, I started forcing myself to switch off all my gear for a few hours and do nothing remotely digital. I’d spend the time either being aimless or napping. TV isn’t an issue for me any longer. Insanely enough, it didn’t offer enough information at the speed I wanted it and on my schedule. I lost my interest in it and only catch up on TV shows in batches on sites like Hulu.
I don’t know how I feel about all this. I don’t know that this is a problem and needs to be addressed. I don’t really know why I’m writing this. This is what it is. I am more powerful, more intelligent, and more connected than ever before. All the same, perhaps a slight pull-back is in order. What that means, I don’t know yet. Perhaps a few hours away from the computer, or a minimum number of hours each week completely disconnected from everything. Without my constant flow of information I feel blind, it’s like I’m talking in a cavernous void. Thankfully, I’ve always valued solitude. Whatever I do, whether this is good or bad, surely I don’t need to be in contact with fellow noisecasters 24/7 through gmail, facebook, twitter, phone, convofy, yippayap, skype, and Teamspeak. Perhaps today, the chances of rain in Hong Kong should mean less to me and I should come to terms with the fact that I will never purchase property in Croatia so property prices in the area are meaningless. Contrary to my subconscious belief, Wikipedia doesn’t cease to exist if I stop hitting that ‘random’ button.
One final thought on that dream. The reason I was dubious on referring to it as a nightmare was because of the way I felt when plugged in. I was powerful, it was glorious, and for one genuine moment I didn’t feel alone because no one and nothing was a stranger. If you describe it as a high, then perhaps I’m an addict. But it didn’t feel like a high, it felt like seeing for the first time. The question is: do I want an all-seeing eye, or a world of infinite uncertainties?