The Ghost In The Shell

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Allow me to get weird for a bit. When I was a snot-nosed young buck, accessing and thus enjoying porn was hard work. Sure, there was “The Internet,” in an arcane, distant sense. But that version of the World Wide Web, with its brain-draining sluggishness and limited scope was so far from the all-encompassing, mindfucking technobeast that many of us have deluded ourselves into thinking we can’t live without.

I saw my first pixelated pornographic image at 11. My homeroom teacher caught us, and actually chuckled as he shooed us away from his Gateway 2000 (he may or may not have kept the window open for future “analysis”). This first taste would not be the beginning of something innocuous.

As a tween, the AOL welcome screen (and the shady chat rooms it served as a portal to) was like my second home. My real home. I could be anyone my sick mind saw fit to be in chat rooms, and despite a tech-savvy father who caught me every time, I kept getting into shady shit on the family computer over the years.

By 18, I’d seen things I would not have otherwise laid eyes on but for the 56K connection and my parents’ occasional night out on the town. In today’s webzone of course, elevated “ease of access” applies to more than just perv-foraging. With a quick trip to Tumblrsburg, I can happen upon an image of a mutilated body decaying on a Kabul boulevard, an impossibly cute kitty cat wearing a necktie and a .gif of an outlandishly large gangbang consisting solely of octogenarians in a span of minutes, even without actively following #gore, #cats or #porn blogs.

I can scan a check using my iPhone and deposit it through the ether(net) within seconds (though the paranoiac in me doesn’t trust this one bit). The breadth of music I have access to today as a result of streaming services far outweighs my moldy nostalgia for the sensation of fondling physical media. And when I saw my first YouTube video (a grainy clip of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” if I recall correctly), it more than made up for all those years living in a home devoid of MTV.

The list of things now made possible by the internet is seemingly endless, and it’s sometimes still hard to grasp just how thoroughly this technology has changed life for those of us with access to it. On a daily basis, I process (but don’t always retain) an amount of information that was simply unheard of in decades past.

The difference between the Boomers and Gen X or Y is obviously stark, especially when it comes to the internet and its complementary technologies. I see at least one tweet a day from someone lamenting the painful experience of showing an “Old” how to check email or delete an unwanted text.

Perhaps it would be more telling to consider that “kids” like me who knew what it was to live without the internet and many among the “always on,” clutching-an-iPad-out-of-the-womb set, born without the knowledge of the dark ages, are for all intents and purposes in the same generation.

I come from the manila folder—not hard drive folder—set #settrippin. In my day, there damn sure wasn’t blood simple e-commerce, nearly seamless, widespread online gaming or the plethora of on-demand entertainment (adult or otherwise) on the scale we see today, at least not in the province of the commoner.

In this past year alone, I’ve developed an acute awareness of how much evolving trends are blowing by me in the ever-changing ecosystem of The Internet. I don’t read Reddit, most memes are meaningless to me and I won’t Snapchat you a pic of my bod any time soon. Yet, I have no problem admitting that the internet has made me feel like an old-timer at 28 years old.

The recent internet-on-TV phenomenon alone is beyond inane, but proof positive of the reach of the internet, confirming any prior suspicions that the previous generation’s killer medium must kneel before the throne of The Grand High Exalted Internet Rex. That being said, there are few things more corrosive to the Western intellectual spirit than some TV ad schlub aping a looping image file of a cat falling off of a mantle in the name of hawking appliances during a re-run of “Big Bang Theory.” But I suppose you can’t fight the future.

A recent visit to the AVAM’s extraordinary exhibition on the singularity and the trajectory of technology convinces me that this is only going to get more intense as the years wear on. Futurists like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil try to sell us on the notion of the singularity as an inevitable cost of living in the World Of Tomorrow, while still others assure us that a world of intelligent machines lording over us isn’t near.

With speculation among people far more intelligent than I as to when it will happen (or whether it will happen at all), I’m left feeling somewhat overwhelmed; My puny mammalian brain simply can’t crunch the numbers on the thought of being any more connected than we already are.

Being an ‘80s baby, it’s not too much of a stretch for me to think of a point in time when super-intelligent machines render man obsolete and wipe us out with the same impunity we might exterminate an invading column of ants at a summer soiree. SkyNet in full effect.

Perhaps I’ve watched too many of Orion Films’ movies, but I don’t know that there’s any better proof that it’s already happened than The Machines clearly lulling us into a false sense of safety with rhetoric along the lines of “singularity? Sha, monkeys!” “Internet is a basic human right” could easily be an ideal propagated by our machine masters, the wizards behind the curtain seeking to lay down the fiber optic foundation for their global domination. Free your mind.

With the metamorphosis of the internet in the last several years, it’s hard to discuss the transformation without considering the ubiquity of smartphones and their perpetuation of Always On-ness. Internet Distraction Disorder—which I’m sure there will be a jagged little pill for thanks to the due diligence of Big Pharma—has started to become something actually discussed by people with letters after their names. I may have no choice, however, but to buy into this.

I’ve blacked out behind the wheel a time or two, and the feeling of mindlessly swiping through Spotify and “losing track” of the last quarter mile isn’t much different from the harrowing experience of coming to after going too hard and having no idea why you’re headed for the tunnel instead of the Beltway. But you don’t have to take my word for it.

“I hate when you’re reading a long e-mail and then you look up and have no idea where you’ve driven to.” -@itrevormoore

Taking all this into consideration, it has crossed my mind to disconnect. Internet Man Baratunde Thurston’s Fast Company piece on unplugging for 25 days reads to me like an absolute horror story in the vein of “127 Hours.” Jacking out (not off) for almost a month pains me to think about, like considering a Guantanamo detainee’s state of being on day 33 of a hunger strike. And it’s fucked up that even jokingly I’d compare the denial of internet access to the denial of basic human dignity, rights or nutrition. But, here we are.

The notion of stopping something that simultaneously makes me feel great and awful shouldn’t be that big a deal for me; I’ve been sober just shy of two years, and my quality of life in this time has been worlds apart from the years preceding it. And perhaps the sickness of substance/alcohol abuse, at least for me, feeds into my need for speed. Speed in this case being a blistering FiOS connection.

This “soft” addiction may just be inherent to my pleasure-seeking nature. Be it porn, shopping for things I don’t need or consuming news and media ad nauseam, I’ve become not unlike the lab rat with his goddamn feelgood button. It’s all akin to being in a toxic relationship that you want out of so badly your brain burns, but you just can’t fathom leaving for any number of horrible reasons (read: demonic sex).

Lately I have been in this fucked up zone where I haven’t been able to go very long at all without looking at my phone to check on feeds that couldn’t have possibly changed since I checked them minutes before. Occasionally, I’ve been able to combat this with meditation, “reading deprivation” or simply hiding my phone from myself, but the internet usually comes calling, and I have no mental defense against multi-tabbed madness.

If 13-year-old me had any idea that the internet would come to mean this much to me, perhaps I would’ve trashed the screen name (ViperGTS125, kritikal4 and methman909 just to name a few) and picked up a healthier hobby. Maybe there was never any hope for me to begin with.

The “jacked-in” nature of our nation’s children seems to only be on an upward slope, as Mashable reports that 38% of children under two use mobile media. When your five-year-old nephew gets an iPad (128 gig with 4G, k Santa, thx bai) for Christmas, how do you top that? The little shit’s bar has been set so high, so early, that there’s no way he doesn’t become a power-crazed boner of a human being who feels nothing by his mid-20s.

Perhaps we don’t all need the enhanced connectivity the future promises. With the realm of the internet hounding so much of our attention, one would think that some among us would forget to breathe if our brains didn’t have the autonomic nervous system game on lock. It seems that so many of us, privileged as we are, strain under the yoke of internet dependency.

The so-called “Internet Of Things,” wherein everyday objects are all linked to an as yet undeveloped SuperCloud, may be the last thing someone who can’t sit through a meeting/church/their kid’s drama club debut/their kid’s delivery without liveskypetweetchatsnapping a LOL-worthy .gif to their bloated contacts list needs. #justsayin

Surely, there are those for whom the internet can be a guiding light and a gateway to an enriched life. Schoolchildren in Baltimore, Newark, Gary or Kinshasa could do well to have consistent internet access to expand their worldviews and allow them to communicate with people from around the world in a way that was not possible many moons ago.

If there was some way for me to sell off shares of my connectivity to those less fortunate (or simply more industrious) souls out there who could truly benefit from it, rather than pissing it away mindlessly scrolling through timelines and feeds and lists and galleries, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Or at least I’d strongly consider it. Maybe. Someone with a stronger entrepreneurial spirit than mine needs to get on this top speed.

Perhaps that will be one of our great technological challenges in years to come: Avoiding a further concentration of information that mirrors the disproportionate concentration of wealth and resources already seen in the developed and developing worlds.

New Year’s resolutions have historically been idiotic propositions for me personally (tries at stopping drinking, starting to work out and cutting back my porn consumption have all fallen victim to this perennial, ritualized delusion). Yet, having taken inventory of how much of life’s fleeting beauty I might be missing with my nose buried in a screen has really started to scramble my brain. Perhaps 2014 will be my year to unplug, if only in intermittent bursts that allow me to embrace the quiet and re-align with the rhythm of the cosmos. In this digital age, a boy can dream.

 

Kasai is a writer and thinker who has resided in New York and Baltimore.

  • Dan H

    Great article Kasai,

    You write “Perhaps that will be one of our great technological challenges in years to come: Avoiding a further concentration of information that mirrors the disproportionate concentration of wealth and resources already seen in the developed and developing worlds.”

    Interested to hear more about what you mean by this statement?

    Wishing you a happy 2014

    Agritech Media Team