Tripping through time on the information superhighway

Originally posted on 1000wordvomits.

I wanted to write about “tripping through time”. I was telling another friend about this essay that I’ve been wanting to write– I’ve told maybe 3 or 4 about this, and I figure that after a while it’s easier to just write out what the essay is supposed to be rather than keep talking to people about the essay I’d maybe-someday want to write. I know from experience that sometimes writing about what you want to write is the best way to get started on writing the actual thing that you want to write.

Where do I start? I’d like to have some sort of clever introduction, but really the first thought that comes to my mind is Facebook, and what a trippy experience that is. The word “trip” originally meant to ‘tread or step lightly and nimbly”, and grew to mean a short journey or voyage – and later on it even meant ‘a psychadelic drug experience’. I mean “trippy” in the last two senses– that it gives you a sort pf psychadelic experience. Something is trippy if it takes you on a journey or voyage, internally, sometimes instantaneously by moving the frame, giving you a new context, a new point of view. Sometimes many different points of view all at once.

That’s what Facebook is like. It was originally meant to be a sort of massive address book, but it’s become so much more than just that. It’s become an endless stream of photo albums and snippets of thoughts and memories, all splayed out together. You can click on a person’s profile picture and scroll through their past– often a single tap to the left shows you a picture of them from a full decade ago. That’s trippy– to travel a decade in a second.

I find it interesting to read my old messages and statuses and look at my old pictures. I’ve often felt the compulsion to just sit down and go through all of my history chronologically, to re-experience my younger days with a more neutral, distanced, dispassionate view, to contextualize all of the mess and chaos through the lens of an older, more experienced, more world-weary me. The past on Facebook isn’t a remembered past– memories are fallible and constantly edited and modified to fit our present narratives. It’s a recorded past, and it often yields inconvenient bits that DON’T fit the convenient narratives. Things that we said we wanted to do.

Just today, Facebook’s On This Day feature showed me a friend sharing a video from 3 years ago of how she’d like to be proposed to, and her boyfriend commented “shit, so much pressure” and got 6 Likes for it. A couple of weeks ago, her latest boyfriend proposed to her, and she’s engaged now.

But Facebook doesn’t allow those old inconvenient memories to decay or fade out– they’re every bit as bright and clear today as they were when they first happened. Hardly anybody in the history of mankind has had to live with that sort of high-fidelity recording of their past selves– except maybe highly public figures like Presidents and Kings.

I don’t think Facebook was prepared for this. I don’t think any of us were prepared for this. We thought we were just adding people to our superpowered address book– even adding acquaintances like that girl from the class next door in college that you never spoke more than a few words to. And now you get a constant stream of updates about her life, and you’ll get to see her wedding photos, watch her children grow up, hear about her political views– all sorts of things nobody ever had to contend with in the past.

It’s also really interesting to look at the pasts of older people, and see what they were like when they were younger than we are today. I find that really trippy. I can go on Facebook and look at pictures of my older colleagues from 8 or 9 years ago, and get a sense of what they might’ve been like when they were even younger than me. I get to see comments and messages from people I’m no longer friends with, people who I miss– people who continue to occupy parts of my mind not because of any specific intent on my part, but because of the nature of the medium that we’re all embedded in.

Before mobile phones became a thing, there was a very clear distinction between “online” and “offline”. You went on the Internet to go and hang out with people in cyberspace, the space that is no space, a realm of ideas and representations. The online world has since begun colonizing the offline world– software is eating the world. Tonnes of things that we see in meatspace have representations in the digital ether, so the phrase “cyberspace” seems awfully irrelevant.

Cyberspace is no longer somewhere we go to, away from the world on clunky desktop computers with big CRT monitors and dialup. We’re all on the Information Superhighway, but we’re not using it to GO anywhere– it used to be presumed that it would be like a great library, and we’d be able to access any content that we wanted.

That dream has been realized. But even the dreamers hadn’t foreseen that we’d want to contribute, we’d want to send and not just receive. We’d end up writing and making videos and communicating with one another, and relationships would be built and destroyed, people would find spouses, find friendships, stalk one another, kill and murder one another, that regimes would be toppled, justice would be sought.

The Information Highway has led us not to either salvation or damnation, but to ourselves.

When I think about it, I realize that everything everyone is projecting about VR and AR must be necessarily flawed and incomplete. We have no idea how these technologies are going to be used. People are going to be artistic and talented and improvise and do all kinds of crazy shit. It’s going to redefine, probably radically, our relationship with ourselves, our own thoughts, our own minds.

It’s a hell of a trip.

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