America Online

Life in the Matrix

01010111011. In other words, welcome 2 the information age. Before you click away from this article, let me suggest that you’re living a life entirely more convenient, more expansive, more open to infinite exploration and possibility than has ever before been lived by any generation on this (now completely digitally mapped) earth. Feel free to Like that, even love it.

It’s also an incredibly bizarre and schizoid Wide Web World, one of degenerating interpersonal communication, dizzying pace and information overload. News and politics become instantaneous, constant and viewed through a goldfish’s eyes. Conversation succumbs to the shiny insistent lure of the digital brain; why listen to anyone when you can find it yourself with minimum effort? Endless choice and instant access in all aspects of life makes daily imperfection glaring. I often think our technology has enabled us to become like lonesome humming nodes, hoping our souls will catch five bars of perfect wireless fidelity. To misquote R.E.M., these days, everybody hertz.

Still here? Or at least, got me open in one window? I won’t take more than a few hundred seconds of your iPhone’s atomic time, which I know is accurate to the myriosecond. That’s one ten-thousandth of a second, or ten thousand times faster than a heartbeat, BTW.

You’re communicating in hypertext along fiber optic lines and accessing databases in the cloud. Your messages and thoughts travel at a rate measured in gigabits per second. You’re in the office, and you don’t talk to your coworkers: you interface. You’ve got an avatar and a page with its own link, and it’s all known by your admin. You commit casual blasphemy with letters, not words. Like a patient plugged in to an EKG machine or a CIA agent radioing in to HQ, you’ve got a status update. There’s society, and then there’s a social network.

Asked by Conan O’Brien if we take technology for granted today, goateed, soothsaying funnyman Louis C.K. got it right: “How quickly the world owes [us] something [we] knew existed only ten seconds ago.” He explains that these days, if something doesn’t happen now, it’s not happening fast enough. It’s an interview worth watching on Youtube, if your bandwidth stream isn’t clogged.

Ten years ago, surfing the web involved staring at two tiny computer icons while your modem mechanically whined, convulsed and seized. Sensorially, it was a fairly unpleasant experience and not particularly more useful than a trip to the library. Watching your website load was like seeing a painter unfold a fraction of his work every five minutes: an exasperating anticipation. Still, with an ache building behind our eyes and the electronic roar of the modem filling our eardrums, we waited. It was the promise of revelation, the guarantee of immediate knowledge, that glued us to the strange new service.

In 1998, the so-called “first cyborg” — a professor of cybernetics at Reading University named Kevin Warwick — had a radio frequency ID chip implanted somewhere between his elbow and shoulder that allowed him to turn off lights with a finger snap. Now intimately connected to his machine, he said, “Someday we’ll switch on [a] machine, and we won’t be able to switch it off.”

Now, now, don’t worry readers, I don’t see Skynet’s silver claws grasping for our afros and mohawks anytime soon. After all, my recently adopted cat’s a cyborg, with a VeriChip presumably stuck in a fur ball inside her, and I’m not worried. If she’s a feline version of Agent Smith, at least she’s cute. Plus, Arnold already had his chance at subduing Californians for use as energy sources. For a supposed cyborg, he had an all-too-human illegitimate parenthood.

What I’m suggesting isn’t that we are little tykes at the mercy of the MegaBytes. We haven’t engineered our own slavery to any machines. Rather, we’ve transformed our way of living in such a way that we’re inseparable from our digital devices. We can’t switch the machine off simply because it makes our life so much faster, easier, more stimulating. It’s the ultimate hamster wheel of the mind. I only hope to describe this way of living, this new mode of existence, which has taken everyone without a 408 area code by surprise.

Am I getting through to you? Maybe we should Skype instead so I can see your pretty mug. Then we can Yelp some good restaurants, get a Groupon so we can really pig out and Google Map the place so we don’t get lost on the way there. You text me your address so I can GPS the route to your house, and before I leave, I’ll Wikipedia some interesting topics to mull over at lunch. Hell, I’ll check Ticketmaster too! Maybe we can see a concert afterward. Sounds great, right? Who knows, by this time next year we might be checking Craigslist for cheap deals on two-bedroom apartments.

I think the most obvious things in life are the hardest to really notice. The other day I walked into Sack’s Coffee, and every single patron of the place had their laptop out. You’ve seen it so many times, in class, at the airport, in your apartment, that you don’t think twice about it. It’s time to think twice.