It has been said that realists see the world as it is, and idealists see the world as it might be. Count me firmly among the ranks of the latter. I project as a glass-half-full, rose-colored optimist living out loud. But I had neglected to consider that seeing things as they might be doesn’t always mean it’s all good.
I only mention this because the arc of recent events challenged my rosy worldview. I suppose you could say that it was a crisis of faith that animated my journey to this place. But that’s too convenient, casting the blame outward and making it seem as if faith itself had some sort of crisis. It didn’t. It was me. . .
The day began like any other, with the usual buzz of impersonal interchanges (black or with cream? plain or glazed? paper or plastic?) as I negotiated the sidewalks of the metropolis. People bounded along in an oddly rhythmic yet uncoordinated routine, gazes cast downward into their palms, with stolen glances approaching the horizon only intermittently in order to avoid stepping directly into traffic. As one of the few left scanning the scene with my head up, I could see the patterns within the multitude’s chaos. This perspective usually felt satisfying, morally superior even, and provided a kind of authorial omnipotence.
But something was different on this day. Maybe it was a trick of the light, or a projection of my own fears. Possibly it was a type of posthypnotic literary suggestion conditioned by reading one too many of those sky-is-falling speculative fiction works (you know, the ones where robots go mad or nanotech escapes the labs or machines decide to eradicate human pestilence). Or maybe it was just from staying up way too late the night before trying to write one of those same sort of spec-tech works, only to find myself hungry at 3am and with just three-week-old olives in the fridge and Monday’s coffee in the pot.
Whatever it was, I saw it, clear and coherent and chilling all the way through. It was subtle at first, more like a faint haze emanating from the manholes and hydrants, wafting gently upward along the sheer edges of the glistening skyscrapers. As I focused on it more intently—or, perhaps better said, as I let my eyes go just a bit out of focus, like with one of those hidden-image pictures—I could see that the emanations actually originated with the people themselves. And I mean all of them, at least the ones who were digitally preoccupied with their thumbs-a-typing and fingertips-a-scrolling unconsciously.
So, yeah, like all of them, pretty much. Rapt with perplexed wonder, I stopped in the middle of the teeming masses. No one noticed, brushing past me with listless glimpses and occasional gruff snorts of disapproval. I held my ground, following the flow of this ethereal energy as it left its hosts and spiraled seamlessly toward the heavens. It was like a digital tracer, an algorithmic afterglow, a visual echo.
Yet it wasn’t actually going to the heavens—but rather, to the ubiquitous transmission antennae mounted atop the metallic promontories that dotted the city’s spectacular skyline. Somehow, as their devices transmitted data through these channels, the people themselves were also transmitting something, and I could “see” it. Was it their life force, I wondered? Now that would be a great story! More soberly, I considered that it could be the biochemical energy generated by human bodies, piggybacking on the invisible binary packets of data being beamed through steel spires into the ether.
This made sense on many levels, as each burst of information also contained something of the person who crafted and uploaded it—verbally, textually, or otherwise. Their intentions and longings were in that data, buried in the inner coding perhaps, but prevalent nonetheless. For a moment it was as if I could perceive the html of the human heart and the barcode on the body’s brain—highly sophisticated machines themselves—radiating energy signatures outward and upward into the evanescent web.
And it was indeed web-like, visibly so. A biological version of wi-fi, maybe, representing something more like “we-fi” in its collective interpersonal linkages. The signals emanated from individuals but they quickly entangled and intertwined, almost quite beautifully, like a techno tango, complementing one another and uniting to form a cohesive single-stream signal that galvanized upon reaching the antenna. One such signal alone would not have enough load to trigger the transmitter, but thousands or even millions—saturated in a network of invisible filaments everywhere—could trip the light, fantastically.
As I pondered the potential meanings of this, I was startled by the ringing of my own device, which was buried in an interior pocket within my satchel. I went to reach for it, but refrained—no, I recoiled, almost instinctively. Were these devices siphoning our spirits, evaporating our internal energies? Were we in fact the data being mined? I recalled once reading something from Gandhi in college, where he said that the British didn’t take India as much as it was in fact the Indians who had given it to them. People didn’t need to be mined; they were all too eager to give up their innermost longings and insights.
As quickly as the thought had entered me, it dissipated, along with the trails of streaming people-data I had observed ephemerally. Coming out of my reverie, the noise of the city heightened, and the pace of those around me quickened. I snapped back to attention, mustered my customary cloak of indifferent societal shielding, and headed for my usual destination—keeping my gaze squarely below the horizon.
Now, a few weeks later, I’ve begun to make more sense of this experience. The rose tint of my psychic bent has given me a unique rendering. This wasn’t something nefarious; it was simply the deep-seated and largely displaced longings of people to be part of something larger than themselves, to interface and network collectively and collaboratively rather than through the unrelenting alienation of their personal delivery devices. Stripped of many of the humanistic touchpoints that buffeted their lives before the era of digital ubiquity, the sublimated desire for exchange manifested nonetheless. In a world of heads pointing down, hearts and minds were autonomically projecting upward en masse. These weren’t the traces of cellular phone calls I was seeing: they were silent, subconscious, self-generated calls for help.
I hope the calls got through. I think they did; where they went was another story. Somewhere, perhaps, corresponding masses of other end-users were navigating a web and sending their signals skyward—and maybe receiving those of others. Digital smoke signals, maybe, from village to village, carrying the news of today and dreams of tomorrow. In my mind’s inner eye, I saw a fleeting image of people everywhere activating this web through mere thought, no longer tethered to the hardware of functional distraction, freed from its downward-gazing clutches and traversing the road together, heads held high, beaming.
This is the world as it might be. And maybe, in a sense, it’s not all that different from the one we have—if we would only look up.
Lemar Starland, tuning in and radiating out