Keeping up with the Lemmings

by Brooks Riley


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As I hover over my life in cyberspace, I look down at the various trails emanating from me that find their way across the globe to multiple destinations, known and unknown, whether or not they were ever intended to travel that far. Interconnectivity has increased exponentially since 2009 when I bought the notebook whose recent demise forced me to confront a sea change. Up to now, I’d left a line of breadcrumbs, for Windows, for McAfee, for Google, for the NSA, for my e-mail contacts, for who knows who else. Now those breadcrumbs have become loaves and like the parable they have multiplied.

I loved my old notebook: Except for the odd update or security scan, it was just it and I, two symbiotic pals going about our business. Now I find myself constantly confronted with geek issues such as OS updates, software compatibility, multiple preference settings and cloud management. Is Microsoft my new best friend because it greets me (Hello from Seattle) and promises to guide me? Is Apple my new best friend because it promises chic design? Is Google my new best friend because it finds things, shows me where I live and offers to hardwire my nest? Is Amazon my new best friend because it delivers? None of the above. They fall into the category of useful acquaintances to whom I turn when I need them. My new best friend turns out to be my old best friend, Wikipedia, without which the world would be a poorer place for one who wants to know everything.

What does it mean to leave behind such spoors (to borrow language of the hunted), when most of the billions before us left only genetic traces in the form of offspring and descendants? An electronic version of each one of us will haunt the internet after we’re gone, as immutable and indestructible as the risus rigidus of a Guy Fawkes mask on the trash heap after the party’s over.

Facebook is beginning to deal with death, but only with issues of access, not with the fate of the pages themselves. Nearly 3 million Facebook users worldwide were predicted to die in 2012 alone, their pages achieving an immortality denied to their progenitors. Will famous last words be replaced by famous last entries? Will Stephen King write a ghoulish story about a Facebook user who updates his page from heaven? Will some start-up create a ‘dropped box’ in cyberspace for the dearly departed? And what about all those other clouds? Your stuff is safe and backed up. You are not.

When I was growing up, having a pen pal on the other side of the globe was a big thing. It was an early, primitive form of global interconnectivity and many children delighted in communicating with someone so far away. Pen pals satisfied an urge to reach way out there. In those days it wasn’t about how many pen pals you had, it was about where they were. Where doesn’t matter anymore when here is everywhere or everywhere is here.

So many congenital sociological and biological impulses have been tweaked and distorted by the surge of technology, not least the desire to make contact with others. We no longer reach out to a handful of people, we reach out to a network, and the people we reach can be counted in the hundreds or even thousands if we so wish. We’re all encouraged to fashion a version of ourselves, and offer it to the world.

No one knew this better than Andy Warhol, a clever graphic designer ahead of his time. His predicted ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ for one and all not only materialized, but thanks to internet technology launched a billion tiny campfires of the vanities—collectively the mother of all bonfires–illuminating the greatest selfie show on earth. (Warhol’s own fame lasted longer than 15 minutes, but time will take care of that.)

Where is it all going? Even with climate change we still have many decades, possibly centuries left to go. What will we become? Will there be a backlash, a mass closing of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts? Will we all retreat within ourselves, becoming postmodern Thoreaus, seeking safety in solitude, not in numbers? Will we reach in, instead of out? Will we lean out, instead of in? Will history once again prove itself to be a pendulum that swings back and forth between two extremes?

Now for the good news. For all its attempts to link people together, the internet also offers distance—what I would call ‘disconnectivity’. From my nest I can keep the world at arm’s length, communicating and interacting on a limited basis, keeping in touch if I so wish, or not if I don’t. This is the internet’s ultimate value, its flexibility for those of us who swim against the tidal wave of human rapprochement. What it offers in the way of information and knowledge is a treasure that far outweighs its function as a social tool. I couldn’t live without it.

Happy trails!