Deus ex Machina
The whine of a 56k modem signals for me the beginning of an age.
An awkward, rocky beginning of single landlines and “Get off the Internet; I’m tryna make a call!” Geocities webpages. Neon font. Crudely embedded images in Metallica tribute pages. At that point, DSL and cable modems belonged to households outside our tax bracket, so time spent on the Internet was precious, sometimes transgressive. The whine of a 56k modem will always be attached to an obsession with Dragonball Z, music videos with the aerial acrobatics of snowboarders set to Korn and Limp Bizkit, that time when Napster made mp3s fall from the cybernated heavens like manna for us Israelites. Occasionally, the Internet contained resources for research. A school project on Nord-Pas-de-Calais for French class. A slow-motion guide on how to kickflip into a backside 50-50 rail grind.
Back in the day, above all else, it felt like a gift.
In the spring of 2010, I commenced one of my most enduring friendships through Gmail.
I was interning at The Carter Center down in Atlanta, when I met her, my twin and Other Half, my wolf sister, the Pollux to my Castor. One of our first conversations occurred while she was working in a cubicle on a floor below mine and we Gchatted Lil Wayne lyrics at each other for three hours. She introduced me to Twitter, and during a blessed period when we worked in cubicles right across from each other, we would write on each other’s Facebook walls about things we’d said to each other on Gchat, then tweet highlights from both conversations.
It was this friend who led me to That Girl.
A series of misunderstandings over the next year or two involving a blog on blackness and sports and the 80s and Atlanta, a massive March Madness-style bracket in search of Jay-Z’s greatest song, and Facebook resulted in me accidentally Facebook-friending a girl I would proceed to have a crush on for two years, a girl whose voice I did not hear until the summer of 2013, almost two years after we’d first “met,” when I watched her give a speech that had been posted on YouTube from my laptop at work in the West Bank.
She had accepted my Friend Request on July 12, 2011. During the rest of that summer, every time she ‘liked’ a Facebook status of mine, or shared a link I’d posted, or tweeted back at me, my heart did a triple axle smoother and stronger than anything I’d felt since third grade. I started reading Joan Didion and Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz to impress her. We were both writers. In law school. We wouldn’t find ourselves in the same room until more than two years after that friend request. At a Junot Diaz book-signing at the Barnes & Noble on W. 18th St. Goddess made flesh.
Here, in Paris during my final year of law school, when friends and schoolwork are not able to keep me company, I write and listen to the familiar clack of depressed keystrokes; and I read and listen to nothing. Here, I find myself on the precipice of the same problem I encountered in the summer of 2013 in the West Bank: I have several weeks left in my stay, after having exhausted the supply of books I’d brought with me to read. A crippling, existential dilemma. Back in 2013, my Other Half pointed me in the direction of Moby-Dick Big Read, an internet audiobook project wherein each chapter is narrated by a different person, be it Tilda Swinton, be it Tony Kushner, be it Nathaniel Philbrick, be it Chad Harbach, be it Benedict Cumberbatch, be it David Cameron. Having the book read to me by a panoply of British accents (and a smattering of American timbres) turned the tome into a swiftly-consumed meal. I hadn’t decided upon finishing, whether or not I had eaten that steak too quickly, whether or not I had cheated. But it had filled the hours on those occasions when I’d returned home before my flatmate or when she had gone out to run errands or see friends or buy groceries. And it was sound. It was a voice, many voices. It was a conversation.
Sometimes, when no one else is home, the TV will be left on while Mom vacuums or washes dishes or sweeps staircases. Sometimes, leaving perhaps to run an errand in the evening or to attend a meeting, the lights will be left on and they will buzz and hum. Perhaps the white noise of the Internet is the modern-day Millennial equivalent. It is the drone and bang of a washing machine at work, when everyone else is gone.
The Internet, despite its vastness and its penchant for self-replication and its bots, the Internet in all its capriciousness and obscenity and power, the very muscularity of the thing, is simply us. And it has transmogrified our personal experience of silence so that we now find our hellos and our goodbyes and our please stay with me’s and our chuckles and our sobs in a series of keystrokes. The emoticon and the animated gif. Noiseless. The music of human communication has become a percussion. Complex percussion, laden with implication and innuendo and nuance, but percussion nonetheless. A naked rhythm, rather than a cadence or tempo wearing the sundress of consonance. There is no longer a whine and a series of scratches signaling my entry and exit from that world. The gate has been so oiled as to open and close smoothly, so smoothly that one thinks it has remained open all this time.
The TV, the humming of the lights left on, the washing machine. It is all a curative. As is the Internet’s percussion. It is all a curative for the amorphous, unnamable malaise that had gripped me when I found myself in the West Bank without the calm promised by a new book. It is prayer.
After having survived a cataclysmic 2L fall semester, I’d developed an affinity for Wallace Stegner’s malcontent narrator-avatar Lyman Ward in his novel “Angle of Repose.” In one portion towards the book’s beginning, he writes of what he calls in that novel the Doppler Effect:
“The sound of anything coming at you–a train, say, or the future–has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a somber sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne.”
Among the members of my graduating high school class, back in 2005, those of us heading to the Ivy League heard speak in hushed, knowing whispers of TheFacebook.com. That fall, I started an account, and by the middle of August, had forty “friends” (still of the mindset that the word belonged between qualifying quotation marks), had joined five groups, and already had a message. August 20 of that year would mark my arrival at college, and I already knew some of the music these strangers listened to.
The first posts we splashed across each other’s walls were largely congratulatory. I don’t remember if notifications made sounds back then. The sounds of the future, of that new age just beginning, were pitched so high, at a frequency so vertiginous, that I, with my human ears, could not have possibly heard them.
A recipe: three cups of Millennial ennui baked in a pan half-full of melted technological facility, two scoops each of youthful insouciance and crippling worry about the future, stir vigorously but with occasional tenderness, throw that in a preheated oven for a quarter century and, voilà, a Crisis of Post Modernity.
Even if we manage once again to find ourselves in the same room, that girl I had a crush on in 2011 will likely forever remain, I fear, a picture of a girl. A funny tweet, an enthusiastic Facebook post, an excerpt from a poem posted on Tumblr.
When I watched her give that speech on YouTube, she sounded exactly as I had imagined she would sound. A triumph of imagination on my part, maybe. But I had heard that voice before. The linked post, the Facebook message, the tweet. Each was a trill that formed the grand melody of her. So when she finally spoke, flesh and blood and soul, it was less revelation than confirmation.
It was not discovery. It was proof. That I had been right all along.
The Internet as Grand Distractor is an accepted fact.
Sociological thinkpieces and medical articles proliferate, in part because of the great democratizing of opinion performed by the Internet, but also because of the perceived widespread confirmation of the existential malady, if it can be called that, that forces us to stare at a glowing computer screen long after the sun has set and prudence has left us, and one last Related Links video and one last Wikipedia article and one last click, click, click.
Wisdom, or something, passed through the vessel of the eye.
I’m not completely convinced that it is the Medusa stare that has captivated me. More often than not, I am waiting for the bloop of a notification. Someone will have liked what I posted, commented on it, posted something in a group to which I belong. Someone will have involved me in their Interneting, and I can continue with the business of curating a boundless online presence, of which a Facebook profile, a Tumblr, a Livejournal, a LinkedIn profile and innumerable comment threads in innumerable online forums are a part.
There is no sound when someone unfriends you on Facebook.
Every Christmas Eve, the Congregational church back home performs a Christmas cantata, the choir in full bloom, that runs through the many Christmas hymns that have become, for me, a staple of the holiday.
As the members of our immediate and extended family scramble to assemble in time to catch the spectacle, no one except my Baby Boomer mother makes a phone call. For the rest of us, it is Facebook bloops. Maybe the whoosh of an email sent or the ping of a text received.
Mom, who for the majority of the year presides over an empty nest, would no longer have a problem with a 56k modem, except for the entire living of life and the conducting of business for which a soundless, eternal Internet connection is necessary.
The centerpiece of the Christmas cantata is a rendition of “O, Holy Night” sung by one of the baritones in front of the altar where our Pastor will later preach. Before this majestic, tree-trunk thick choir member begins, and even as he makes his approach, the silence in the sanctuary is thick enough to cradle in one’s arms. Everyone has begun holding his or her breath. A few people whisper excitedly to guests they’ve brought with them for this particular iteration of the event.
And then he begins, and his voice singing that song is what mercy sounds like.
Throughout the entire night, there is no glowing celestial luminescence, the choir wears no wings and sports no haloes. And there is certainly no James Earl Jones imitation thundering out of the sky. No gears, no routers, no notifications. It is only humans singing, and yet…
Mercy, that promise of “and yet….” Mercy, that calm that I do not have to make for myself, that is freely offered, that says, in the words of Francis Spufford, “There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. There is this as well.”
Christmas Eve is perhaps the one night of the year where I can know with absolute certainty what sound will promise me solace, and that it is not the whoosh of an email or the sonance of a Facebook notification.
But hearing God in the software has not kept me from listening for Him in the hardware.
Sometimes, the Internet’s chirp and clank is the “somber sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne.” But when at 4:35 in the morning I’m staring at that screen, maybe I’m hoping I’ll be gripped by a person or event that will provide an unexpected solution to the story of me. That bloop or that whoosh that promises me one more “and yet…” before I can go to bed.
Previously published in The Morningside Muckraker, Issue VIII