At the party, a woman in a silky dress makes conversation, “Hey, have you seen that show Halt & Catch Fire?”
“No.” I respond, shoving my mouth full of gluten-free things that look like chips.
A man in a fedora joins us. “It’s a hot show about computers.” He says, “It’s sexy.”
The crackers congeal with my saliva. I chew, swallow, then reflect: “Computers are sexy now. Nerds are sexy now.” Another lull. “Hmmm.” I fiddle with the wine bottle, refilling my drink. “I guess, at some point, a revenge happened?” I throw them a look, like, hey, remember that movie? But, they don’t laugh. They don’t like my joke. So, I wiggle around for my phone that’s not ringing. “Woo, gotta check this!”
I escape to a corner and scroll in silence. I wait for my page to load. Nothing new. I look up and scan the room. Everyone else is on their phones too. I don’t feel better. I don’t feel anything.
Later that night, at home, I sit up in bed and video chat with Chris, my old college buddy.
He wears a cowboy hat. It’s not cultural, but arbitrary, something found or stolen. Something for the time being. He is not from down South or out West. Chris is a slightly balding Philly man with a Fidel Castro beard who stretches out like a cat on his dad’s sofa.
“It’s weird.” I say, “The Web used to primarily be a place for outcasts: gamers, techies, geeks, perverts, nerds— and I guess it still is. But now, the Internet is more mainstream than ever before. You can’t tear my sixty-eight-year-old mother away from her iPad. Maybe this is a sign? Maybe the whole Internet is so mainstream it’s not cool anymore?”
Chris stares at me for a solid 10 seconds.
I put my hair up into a ponytail. “I’m talking alternate realities— it’s not happening online. Everything is flip-flopping. The true counterculture is offline altogether. No access at all. I’m so confused. I don’t know where I fit in or where I want to live. Do I want to be on the grid or off?”
“The Internet is a fad.” Chris picks up a plastic cup from the coffee table and gulps. “Always has been. Always will be. Right now, it’s reached an apex. It’s maxed out what we can do as human beings.” Water spills onto his white t-shirt. “Hang on, I’ll be back.” He walks away from his laptop to use the bathroom or fix a new drink. Probably both.
The video focuses on his now empty couch. I watch it like an Andy Warhol film— but without all the torture and pretense. So, I guess I watch it more like Paranormal Activity— waiting for a ghost to creep into frame.
“It’s just hyper information.” Chris stumbles back into the conversation without missing a beat. Adjusting the laptop camera, he continues: “Don’t get me wrong—the high was good. It was really awesome. But let’s get back to small communities again. Where can I find someone to work on my shoes? I want to relate to people again.”
Chris’s stature pops and his eyes glisten with a hilarious intensity. The energy is palpable. My body can’t help but mirror his, encouraging the behavior. It’s like a dance— a disease, contagious. Suddenly I’m nostalgic for my early twenties— when the Internet was a weird dive bar you occasionally frequented, not a neighborhood pub where you hung out at all day . . . with that girl you maybe graduated with . . . and that lawyer dude from your friend’s birthday party. Skype was not a known brand, much less a verb. In our early twenties, Chris and I sat at arm’s length on my porch— chain smoking, petting our neighbors’ cat Burrito, and promising to burn it out. Art. Work. Relationships. Everything. We pinky swore to dive in head first or die trying.
Now, we are in our mid-thirties on opposite ends of the country, talking through screens, sharing a similar dilemma. As teenagers, we never admired writers or artists who hobnobbed and had it together. We admired crazy people who made amazing art, for themselves, secretly, because a demon was chasing them— their father, their own self-esteem, alcoholism, the usual fatal flaws. They were social screw-ups who fled society for the underground or were forced there. Success was happenstance and distribution coincidental. Henry Darger was an an outsider artist. He didn’t draft Tweets, well, he couldn’t, the technology wasn’t available at that time. But, even if he could have, he probably wouldn’t have. He was pretty preoccupied with being a weirdo— writing and illustrating a 15,145 page book and jerking off in a broom closet or whatever.
He was lonely and insane. Troubled. Yet, we respect him— because despite having no promise of an audience and no money, he still made a shitload of fascinating work. We sorta want to be like an outsider artist. We don’t want to worry about how to market ourselves online, we just want to run wild, tear at our wounds, and leave traces of art in our wake.
But we sorta can’t be like that . . . because Chris and I are not insane. We both have our master’s, and feel compelled to use them since we earned them and paid for them with our own dumb money. However, unfortunately, the wayward lunatic in us never aspires to anything above adjunct. Instead, each month, we miraculously cobble together enough classes and odd jobs to slip by. In addition to teaching, Chris writes pornographic short stories and sells them on Amazon. I make and sell pillows and post them on Instagram. The Internet helps us avoid nine to five jobs— allows us to share our wares and writings as we wander from city to city. It encourages us to be Wi-Fi drifters, responsible lesser versions of our adolescent heroes.
In some ways, we need the Internet to make a living. It’s not terrible. However, we’re scared that our identities on the Internet will always being tied to monetization, popularity, or worth. We understand it’s a double-edged sword. Like an abusive relationship, the Internet uses us as much as we use it. We want to leave, but we can’t. It encourages our independence, but we’re nothing without it.
Visually, through Instagram or Facebook or Tumblr, we share our everyday travels, from the kitchen to the bedroom to a Parisian cafe and then perhaps a London tube. The photographs we snap and post online last forever. Electronically, we trickle into other people’s consciousness, begetting more foreverness. Perhaps each document and its reception feels more important than the actual experience at times because of this foreverness?
Susan Sontag writes, “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
I think that if Sontag were alive today, she’d be okay with me interchanging the word “camera” with “social media” . . . since our camera phone is a huge part of not only social media, but personal media, how we identify.
Who are we if we are not depicted in these online visual stories?
We are Henry Darger: illustrating a fantastical tale that is for no one, except ourselves.
I sorta love the idea of that, but I’m not sure if I’d like the reality of it. Embarrassingly, a part of me wants to be perceived to know that I am alive. Likewise, I want my art or stories to be received so I can communicate with more confidence or clarity, say things that I am too socially-awkward to say in conversation. I want to connect with other people, even if it’s in fragmented electronic text and still images. I want someone to find these personal documents while picking through their phone at a party, searching for social refuge. In a postmodern way, that also feels intimate and beautiful. I want to keep on living with other people— even if that means becoming a tourist in my own life from time to time.
Yet, despite all that, I just cannot believe that this is my adulthood.
This is it. Looking at screens. It can be depressing.
Lately, I’ve been feeling terribly old, out of touch, and resistant. So, I got drunk and watched an episode of Frontline called “Generation Like”.
Halfway through the episode, a man asks teenagers in the year 2014 about the term “selling out”—a phrase central to my understanding of society in 1994—and no one knows what it means. They say it’s something that happens in a store.
Surely, some teenagers know about “selling out” in a vintage way. They can Google it and watch videos. But, I’m pretty sure they don’t care— not in the visceral way we did– and if they do, it’s more about fashion than living with the guilt of it all.
I’m sure they’re happy not to have the guilt. I’m happy they don’t have the guilt.
In this sense, “sixteen year old Billy” is way more mature than me. He does not rage against any machine. Instead, he befriends the machine. On the Internet, he redistributes corporate content freely and with pleasure in this Buddhist and community-oriented way. He sees brands as people and people as brands. Everything is equal. No one is better. We’re all just trying to make a living. He will probably be my boss. He probably already is my boss.
Over Skype, Chris says, “Hey, why don’t you write a LiveJournal blog entry and bitch about it. That’s the most 1990s thing you can do.”
We both laugh.
Chris continues, “Let’s create our own avatars. Blah blah blah. We hide in technology, but at the end of the day we want to meet real people. You want to feel the flesh you know– like I want to meet you, dude.”
I understand the impulse to drift online. There is a love for life so big that you can’t settle on just one. You want more— to be everywhere, to share every minutiae of the day with everyone, like when I was 16 and would call my boyfriend on the phone and ask him what he had for dinner or just listen to him breathe. Only now, everyone is your boyfriend, and you are everyone.
On Skype, Chris rolls his eyes, then takes another sip of water. He was in Florida with his dad, a retired cop. They swam with manatees.
“Something happened when I was out there. Outside of writing and performing I’m looking into working with animals or something. And selling honey. More on that later. I have a story. I’m thinking business these days. Yup. I have a nature side. People don’t see it. You should have seen me with these manatees.”
I wish I had seen Chris with the manatees.
I wish I had swum with Chris and the manatees.
Charles Eames once said, “Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.”
This just might be where we’re at.
Stacy Elaine Dacheux is the proprietor of this blog. You can find more of her work at The Awl, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Atlas Obscura.