The internet, with its ability to free or enslave us, has changed the way we relate to money, and its ability to free or enslave us. We can work online from anywhere in the world as long as it has an internet café. We can even use BitCoin, the fastest-growing and stablest currency in the world, and one that is (almost) completely digital.
The internet has changed the way we relate to people, mediating our exchanges by way of social networking sites or chat apps and converting personal conversations into freakishly ungrammatical bursts of hyperbole. Now we can have the pleasure of video calling anyone we want to talk to, and witnessing their downcast eyes while they observe the pictures on screen, of us, also with our eyes averted.
The internet is also, I am realising, changing the way we think of place. Websites are, we assume, places to connect, meet, share, download, learn. It seems to be a word that pops up frequently online: Google’s Places for Business for example. Forums are another virtual meetingplace; the word refers back to fora, “a public square or marketplace used for judicial and other business” in Ancient Rome. Foro in Spanish has a general meaning of ‘capacity’, or the number of people you can fit into a place.
There it is again! And even if the word is not physically present, it is thought; because we’ve only ever known things to happen in a place, as most of us are not prone to conducting our daily basis on the astral plane, therefore whenever we ‘do’ something, there is the assumption that we must be doing it somewhere. In all our 58 million year history on earth, we’ve never had to deal with this concept of placelessness before, of carrying on an ordinary life in the depths of the void.
I am writing this with a little black-and-white furry bundle on my lap, two kittens abandoned by their mother and rescued by my best friend. The mother had abandoned them; one sibling had already died when the other two were taken, soaked in pee and sticky-eyed, out of the cardboard box they were born in, wrapped in a bit of hessian.
These days it is especially heavenly in this valley: the intoxicating smell of orange blossoms; poppies, sorrel, hundreds of kinds of wildflowers pepper the green; the sun is at its most benevolent, warm enough to get a tan but not so hot you roast. So when the kittens got their first look at the outside world they gazed with hazelnut-shaped blue eyes in wonder at the blue of the sky they had never seen, the sun they had never felt directly, the landscape and colours they would not have known existed.
They were badly dehydrated; I’m back to a newborn baby sleeping schedule to keep them pipette’d with Pedialyte. They’re washed and suddenly adorably fluffy. But mostly they are sleeping, if not on me, wrapped in an old towel, or in a box next to some stones heated up on the woodburner. They are still too young to be able to walk or lap milk out of a bowl. All they are wanting is warmth, stroking, contact. Cold means death; touch is life.
And so I return to this double falseness in the thousands of sites online that promote themselves, or are simply thought of, as ‘places to connect’. There is no place to actually meet or feel the presence of another person, let alone any touch being really got into. What can that connection boil down to? The flinging of scraps from a digital diary out into space with the confidence that other pods floating around this vast emptiness will be able to find and see them.
I am also understanding more now about why cats are the way they are. They like to be scratched or stroked on the forehead, on the ears, and all down their backs, because this is what the mother does with her velcro-coated tongue when they are still too young to see or move about on their own. The world is still a blur beyond the edges of the hedge, or cardboard box, or airing cupboard. The look of bliss is enough to signal that this is what they need, not only as babies, but as adults if they are domesticated.
The internet cannot produce this look of bliss, because in no way, and at no time, is anyone ever really connecting. There are words that are flung out of passing spacepods that might reflect the light or resonate for someone in another. But they are no substitute for the warmth of a gurgling stomach, an embrace, a kiss.
I fear that we are becoming a generation of emotional lepers, only capable of throwing out an emoticon instead of really feeling and sharing an emotion. It is easier, less painful, less raw, and less dangerous. Not having to deal with another person’s emotion means you can sink into the protective swaddling of your own ego, where the wounds can only fester.
In a more obvious way, internetic events are anachronistic echoes of real events. Information is a means to an end, and so the internet is a wonderful means – the kittens’ lives were probably saved by information found instantly online – but the information alone does nothing. Only when it is put into action, by a person, in a place, is it of any use. You have to get up in the night with a pipette to save a cat’s life – and even then you need something else, grace perhaps. The email won’t do it for you.
The void is filling up with scraps of information, some of it valuable, some of it poisonous, most of it junk. The trouble is now not how long it will take to get the information needed – we have spiders that find and select the information when we ask them to – the problem is using it appropriately.
The more time I am spending outside, finding herbs, sowing vegetable seed, planting trees, engaging my hands and eyes and feet with what there is around, the more perspective is opening up to me. A river from a distance, with all its tributaries, could just as well be a leaf close up, with all its veins. There is a sense of utter bliss, unlike anything I could receive from a screen, or even from a book.
I find the internet horribly addictive, especially sites like YouTube or Facebook, or even Wikipedia, where new information is added by users all the time. This design website sums it up quite well: http://huttonbrown.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/are-you-addicted-to-facebook/
The volume of information online is paralysing. My head feels like a million hamsters are ticking away furiously to keep up, and then where does it all end up going? The pressure it creates has to be vented by watching something truly stupid online for a giggle. And the cycle begins again.
Oh I am tired of all this information. Let’s go to the garden instead.