Floating on the Overage
How it feels to be untethered on today’s sprawling internet
Here is how it feels for me, now: I am floating in the ocean on my back with my eyes closed. The swells under and around me are as warm as bathwater, and the day is hazy and hot; the sun is not exactly bright on my face, but the high summer density of the day is all around. There’s a strange and humid equilibrium to it, with the ocean exactly as wild and labile and palpably vast and buoyant as the ocean would necessarily be, and the everything-that-is-not-the-ocean is roughly as dangerous and strange and unbreathable but maybe slightly less wet. It’s a state of suspension, basically, one queasy and complete enough that at the point of contact between the heavy atmosphere and the actual substance of the sea, things get vague, elastic, disconcertingly negotiable, to the point where it becomes unclear what is holding me up and what is holding me down.
And then a wave comes, one that I did not see coming because my eyes were closed and I was floating and also wondering if I really know what “labile” actually means, and this wave just absolutely wrecks my shit. It bounces me hard off the bottom and blows balmy saltwater at least a quarter of a mile into my sinuses. I surface, gasping and rattled and suddenly reminded of how strange it is that people even go into the ocean, which is, after all, huge and inhospitable and brutally indifferent to the well-being of every living thing in it. It is at that moment when a shark swims up and bites off my arm.
So, overall, not a great day at the beach. But the next day, I am out there again, somehow whole and somehow having forgotten the traumatic events of the previous day. I am floating in the stalled boggy summer heat, thinking about the usual things. And then, whenever the deeper water sends it, the wave comes again, and the shark again, and then the same bleeding staggering hideous walk back up the beach, again. I think: I should stop coming to this beach; this beach fucking sucks and also honestly seems to be trying to kill me. That would make sense, that is obviously the smartest route, but also I have lost a lot of blood by that point, and I am suddenly so tired.
And then I wake up new again, in my little place near the beach. I wake up and make coffee and have a sensible breakfast, and I take my two arms and two legs on down the avenue in the thick and forbidding heat of the day. I clear the dunes and lay out a towel and once again make my way back out past the shorebreak and into the water. I float on my back with my eyes closed, and I wait for the wave that I know is coming and the shark that I know is circling.
But, again, this is just me. Your experience of being alive and on the internet in 2017 may be different.
If you are old enough, or just old, you remember not only a world without the internet but also one in which the internet was new and larkish and seemingly half-empty. There were things on it, but there seemed to be a great and silent distance between them. As a teenager, my internet was a long expanse of wild flatland, illuminated here and there by little outposts occupied and decorated in idiosyncratic ways by the odd pioneers who had, for whatever reason, lit out for these particular weird territories. So you would travel through the long interstices and knock on a door and find yourself someplace that would offer you some anonymous 13-year-old kid’s home-brewed appreciation of Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn, say, or a single photo of Melrose Place starlet Josie Bissett that took forever to load, or the skeletal prehistoric version of the Internet Movie Database.
Or you’d find something else, maybe something more like what you might have been looking for and less like what I was looking for. There was a decent chance you wouldn’t find it at all. The internet was still in the process of becoming itself, and as such was raggedy and goofy and oddly charming for all that. Because it was still something of an unsecured construction site, it was penetrable in a way that almost invited vandalism. There were so many surfaces to deface, and there was, to all appearances, no one on duty keeping an eye on things. My imagination topped out at graffiti, more or less, and so a friend and I added each other’s names to the casts of various B-movies on the Internet Movie Database. It was easy, and when it was done I’d call to let him know that he’d been added to the cast of an obscure Yaphet Kotto movie, in the role of “Sgt. Homestyle.” He stayed there for weeks.
Of course, that internet is gone; it was too goofy and too pure to survive, and also there was no way to make money on it. People born just a few years later never really saw that version of it, and while the internet stayed ugly and even silly for years, it was already along on the towering and metastatic generative process that has made it whatever it is today. The wilderness metaphor doesn’t quite work anymore. There are still some places on the internet that do not appear on maps, to be sure, but in a real sense, the frontier is closed, the cities and the suburbs now growing up in throbbing and heedless symbiosis across the old empty flatlands.
In considering all this, which is a thing I sometimes do while waiting for the shark from that other metaphor to swim up and bite off my arm, there’s a line from John Ashbery’s prose poem “The System” that I have kept coming back to: “All the facts are here and it remains only to use them in the right combinations, but that building will be the size of today.” Maybe this is more what I mean: not a closed frontier giving itself to anomic sprawl, and not an ocean with great garbage gyres swirling in the deep water and predators snacking in the shallows, but one big building, one roof over everything. A mall without an exit, or an uncommonly loud and crowded tomb.
At any rate, you are getting the idea: The situation is stressful, unpleasant, unhealthy, and it is not getting better. So, last option, no metaphor: For all the ways in which contemporary life is an improvement on what came before, it is also unmanageable and crushing and crazy-making. At some point, a crucial miscalculation was made in conflating technological connectivity — an issue of wherewithal, fundamentally, and one that is solvable with enough money and muscle and a critical mass of fiber-optic cable — and actual human connection.
It turns out that connectivity and connection not only have nothing in common beyond a shared etymological root, but also the former may be both the opposite and enemy of the latter. It further turns out, in this case, as in a near-infinite number of previous instances, that the technological solution has not solved but created an entirely new human problem. It turns out, even, that the tools and attendant incentives of connectivity perversely conspire to make connection more difficult — that instead of bringing people together, these various nexuses of connection have simply created larger and louder crowds of increasingly alienated and anxious and overwhelmed individuals.
None of this was quite on purpose, really, but it doesn’t feel like an accident, either. The tidal pull of the marketplace governs all of it — it’s why those various drivers of connectivity exist in the first place — but not in a way that can be petitioned or negotiated with or stopped or even really slowed. There is a sense in which the construction of all this can be viewed as progress, at least insofar as farther and bigger and more are words used to describe a specific type of progression. And then there is the complicating factor of how bad it feels and how poorly it works.
Or, anyway: It works, but it does not really seem to be working for us. We see so more each day than we could have imagined we’d ever be able to see even a few years ago, but it’s tough to say that anyone is better informed or better equipped for all that; it is just about impossible to say that anyone is better informed for any of it, or demonstrably more free, or lord knows any happier. The tools themselves improve geometrically, as predicted in various technologists’ eponymous laws, but they are still used in the same ways: to signal, to pry, to lie, and for a thousand species of wounding.
In looking over what this set of market incentives and these tools have made, the question that springs to mind is not so much what we are going to do about it, although in point of fact that is a pretty good question. The more urgent question, the one on my mind as I walk bleeding from today’s shark bite back up the beach at the end of another turn afloat in the overage, and the one on my mind as I crest the dune at the start of the next one, splits in two. One needs answering before we can get to work on the other. Half of it is what is all this doing to us? The other half of it is how — how to do the work of living this way, in this moment, close together if not quite together, in a building the exact size of today.