Come with me down the virtual crater of a digital volcano, located anywhere in the world – but for the sake of the story, let’s say Iceland. We are about to embark on an inconceivable adventure: an excursion to the center of the web. Our destination is a place of mystery and danger, teeming with viruses, zombies, and trolls.
Fair warning, fellow traveler: you will come back a different person, dog, or whatever species you belong to. Your identity will be stolen. The password to your inmost thoughts, not to mention your nude photos, will be hacked…
We begin our descent by penetrating a hard metal barrier known as the server shell. The view is panic-inducing: commercially pure aluminum boxes arrayed like a hostile army to the horizon in every direction. Impenetrable. “How many servers are there?” you croak, terrified. Nobody knows. Maybe 75 million, maybe a lot more.
“Then how do we get through?” Easy. In a decisive argument against intelligent design of any sort, the web has recapitulated the mind-body problem. Servers dwell in the world of matter. They are soulless automatons: a precondition for the web, but no more a part of its content than the mush inside your skull is part of the Lady Gaga tune you were just humming.
Whereas servers are manufactured in physical places like Carson City and Taipei, the web is immaterial, pure symbol – created from the stuff of dreams in a secret corner of the Twilight Zone. To get there, we ride on nothingness and toggle to a place without extension, despite abundant porn.
We Are the Bazaar
Once past the server shell, we arrive at a long corridor crowded with gaudy places of business. Shadows flit at random, making purchases to the sound of Beatles muzak. The atmosphere feels hauntingly familiar. “It’s a shopping mall,” you exclaim.
It’s the digital bazaar. For many, the only place in the web they know. They are familiar with Macy’s at Tyson’s Mall, so they shed their fear of spending money in a place that doesn’t exist, and shop at Macy’s online. Savvier shoppers enjoy a feast of rarified consumption, picking up anything from 1923 Bentleys to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark. Money changes hands at the speed of light: $1.4 trillion a year…
A voodoo-like drumming of keyboards announces our arrival at eBay. At nearby craigslist, primitive urges wrestle eternally with the laws of supply and demand. If you want it, you can buy it. If you own it, you can sell it. In the end, we barely escape being sold ourselves – to a rich Russian, for purposes that don’t bear thinking about…
In our flight, we stumble down a dim and shabby zone, deserted except for a few nerdy-looking young men making pirate noises. Two large structures appear ahead. Closest at hand is the devastated shell of a once-noble edifice, now shattered and charred. We gaze in wonder at the one object that remains standing – an enormous sign, stained, defaced, but still legible: “PROTECTED BY THE DIGITAL MILLENIUM COPYRIGHT LAW OF 1998.”
“What can it mean?” you cry, as we push on toward a church or temple, battered but stately, surrounded by a wall that looks like – seems to be – “Swiss cheese!” you confirm, taking a nibble. “And pretty bland.” In fact, the wall is mostly holes. We walk in, we walk out. Just for the hell of it. Not that there’s much to do inside: the gods have forsaken this temple. On our way out, we notice flashing neon lights somehow latched to the wall. In large black Gothic letters, they alternate their message, first
An ethereal entity materializes in our path, a sort of wingless angel, blocking the way forward no matter which way we turn. “Hi,” it says, sounding just like the gay android in Star Wars. “Amazon algorithm here. You may not know this – how could you? – but customers who bought this item also bought…”
Days later, and only after we have spent our last two bits, we break the spell of desperately desiring what other customers bought who had bought what we bought. “Internets,” says you, impressed, “is serious business.”
Googlestream to Blogline, ROFL
Leaving the bazaar behind, we jump on a raft that just happens to be zipping past. Except this raft always just happens to be zipping past. Everywhere. We ride on search, a force popularly known as the googlestream – only it flows uphill, and the view from the top bends and twists the mind: 55 billion web pages drenched in the symbolic distillation of our nature. Nothing human is alien to the googlestream, or feline either.
Below, we can see government bots across the globe busily erecting walls to keep out search. These walls aren’t made of Swiss cheese, but still they fall down. The web, methinks, hates a wall. The one I observe actually standing it hates most of all: the great firewall of China, red and immense, built to keep out the barbarian. But look closer: the barbarian inside the wall…
“I’m feeling lucky,” you shout happily, and aim the raft at the blogosphere. Off we zip, coming to a stop among a gaggle of political bloggers.
The blogosphere, I discover, doesn’t look like a sphere at all. It’s a long line spiking at one end. Around 200 million bloggers perch like sparrows on the line, doing what they do. This is what bloggers seem to do, viewed from inside the web: talk to themselves. Some say things that are quite different and original. They’re called ranters. Many endlessly repeat the same buzzwords and phrases and opinions that others around them are saying. They’re called a community, and are much admired.
The political bloggers near us belong to the second category. They adhere to the liberal persuasion, and every so often they engage in a brief but remarkable performance. Jerking spasmodically, in a loosely synchronized manner reminding me of nothing so much as the dancers in Thriller, they build up to a fevered pitch of excitement, then suddenly stop and emit an ear-shattering, semi-articulate blast – like the world’s most powerful foghorn, only with words.
I ask one of the performers what the point is. “Dude,” he says, shaking his dreadlocks. “Amplify.” When I look lost, he insists on a demonstration. “Say something political. Smack down Mitt Romney – but super soft, dude, like in the tiniest whisper…” So I murmur, almost inaudibly, “Mitt Romney has donkey ears.” Immediately the zombie dance cranks up, this time ending in a veritable eruption: “MITT ROMNEY IS FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER DRACULA SUCKS BLOOD OF WIDOWS ORPHANS GRANNIES BLACK PEOPLE RUNS OVER LITTLE DOGS WITH HIS LIMO.” Short pause. “OSAMA BIN LADEN!” Somewhat longer pause. “OH – DONKEY EARS…”
We are positioned directly on the path of the barrage: a terrible mistake. Our eardrums explode. Our brains drain. By the time we regain control over our body functions, we have been swept clear to the edge of the googlestream.
As we stare in wild surmise at our new surroundings, we find ourselves on a gloomy intersection, with one path headed back the way we came and three more leading to the secret domains of cyberspace. I hear voices – hundreds of millions of voices, whispering. You whisper too: “What is this place?” Slowly the voices become distinct. They friend and unfriend. They like and they follow. They’re in relationships and out. They post and they tweet. They LOL and ROFL and ROFC and LULZ – a lot.
We stand at the social crossroads, on the verge of the deep web. Behind us, a billion Facebook users, 500 million Twitter users, and hundreds of millions belonging to other denominations squeeze their passionate but inarticulate hearts into preconceived formats. To a surprising degree, they do it in images – 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, 300 million photos uploaded to Facebook every day. When we peer back, we can see them – images of sex and revolution, tsunamis and little league baseball, presidents and pedophilia, Justin Bieber and Beyonce – and cats: a sickening number of cute cats.
But we can’t linger. We must plunge into the deep web – an upside-down universe with maybe a trillion shadowy pages. Al Qaeda and credit card hackers and sexual predators live there, but it has to be crossed if we are to reach our destination. Betraying some nervousness, you scout the way forward and find it explained, unhelpfully, by a direction marker:
“Which one goes to the center of the web?” you ask. Surprise: they all do. All emanate from the center, all are effusions of the hive.
In the end, we head down the sea of memes, for the sheer satisfaction of stomping on the heads of so many cute cats.
Hive Mind Dreams Pedobear
And suddenly, we are there. I point a finger at the logo designating our location. Putrid pink background, four clover leafs. We have entered a place of myth and myth-making, the legendary anime image board responsible for the invention of rickrolling, lolcats, Anonymous, LulzSec, and an astonishing amount of memes and smut: 4chan, the dark heart and foul center of the internet, known to practitioners as the hive.
“Dunno,” you mutter. “I expected pillars and statuary.”
No pillars. No statues. Just cylindrical openings off a cracked geodesic dome. . . Over 20 million visitors – almost all, socially deprived males between 15 and 30 – lurk in the hive every month, but we see or hear nothing of them. So we wait in anxious silence, until a portentous presence at last approaches, to the sound of electrified music.
In the world of matter, he’d be Christopher Poole, pale, skinny, 24-year-old nerd. But online he is moot, the great and powerful, lord of 4chan – eight feet tall, voice like thunder, face shrouded in mist. His arrival is announced by the guitar riff from Trigun.
“Hnngh,” he coughs. “I am moot, the great and powerful, and I’m kinda wondering wtf you guys are doing here.” We explain the purpose of our journey, and beg, in turn, that he reveal to us the secrets of the hive. “Awesome,” he nods his vaporous head. Speaking in 4chanese, which I here translate into standard English, moot tells the story of the hive: it’s all about freedom of expression, anarcho-artistic, uncensored and wild, but it’s also all about community, which means the only artistry anyone really cares about is in the form of anime, porn, and trolling. Pedophilia is a favorite. “Awesome memes, though… Pedobear. Shoe on head. Mudkipz. . .”
Initially cowed by the awesomeness of our host, you begin to nurse doubts. “This is it? Pedobear?” I intervene to avoid unpleasantness, asking moot to introduce us to the infamous hacker, Anonymous. Before vanishing behind a bank of swirling fog, he directs us to one of the tubular openings – “That way to /b/ – /b/tards, lol.” Meaning, in English, 4chan’s random chat board, breeding ground of hackers and hacktivists.
/b/ is a geometric point at the absolute center of everything internet, but it smells bad, and it looks like the boys’ toilet in high school. Fortunately, we are inside for a few seconds only, before we encounter a rickety figure wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta. “We are Anonymous. We are legion. Expect us,” he intones. Something about his manner makes us laugh. “You’re already here,” you observe. “In a lame get-up.” Anonymous goes rigid. He strokes his plastic chin, and I worry that he’s about to unleash some of his lethal /b/ mockery upon you. “Fuckwit,” he says. “Newfag.”
Rushing once more into the breach, I wonder aloud whether our hacking companion can relate some of his more famous exploits. He mentions getting a teenage kid to masturbate online, then showing the video to his mother. On hearing this, you utter a sound which loosely transliterates to “Gah.” “None of us,” sighs Anonymous, “are as cruel as all of us.” He also brags of taking down the Foxboro Baptist Church site. “Homophobic faggots,” he explains.
I observe – mostly for the benefit of my sanity – that if one believes in freedom of expression, no matter how outrageous the opinions expressed, Foxboro Baptist should top the list of the protected. What am I thinking? Anonymous goes rigid. Strokes his plastic chin. “Moralfag. Newfag.” Looking closer at my gray hairs, corrects himself: “Kind of oldfag newfag.” You? “Weirdfag.”
“We do it for the lulz,” he proclaims.
There it is. And there we are. We’ve survived a terrifying ordeal, penetrated to the beating heart of the web. Now we wonder: in a universe constructed entirely of symbolic stuff, of articulated dreams, is this the best we can hope for? Does the web represent an upper limit in the human capacity to reflect on our condition, and improve?
Just then I recall a rival site’s claim to online centrality. You’re game: “Why not?” We zip there – bingo. Heroic images. Triumphant goodness. Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Our adventure is at an end. We must head back to the surface – to the physical world, where matter rules and things can only be what they must – but we do so in good cheer, humming to ourselves a strange and wonderful hymn. . .