An engineer, making his way to the front of the crowd began to explain himself. “I want to start of by making something clear to all of you,” he said, “I work on things that are real. Everything I’ve ever worked on was real.”
I’m Quinn Norton, I write (for Wired and many other outlets) about very strange things people do on the internet.
When Mark asked me to do this talk he asked me for a title for myself. This is my least favorite question, because I don’t know how to answer it honestly. I suggested internet weirdo, and my assistant suggested “kitten enthusiast” — which I think might be the best title I’ve heard for what I am.
My job is awesome, but in recent years it’s gotten very strange. My writing is deliberately non-objective, but sometimes it is so strange as to feel like a tissue of lies, even to me. So this talk is as much about describing new landmarks on the landscape of the semi-consensual hallucination that is our shared reality, as it is about the people doing strange things on the internet.
My daughter, before she could read, taught me what the internet is. She was very anxious about what was written about her on the net, and made me go through all of it with her. This seemed crazy from a little kid from the world where we’re told by jackasses that kids don’t care about privacy, so I tried to tease out why she cared. As she described why, I began to see what the net was to her, and really is to all of us: the net is what we all already know, but haven’t thought of yet. And because of this, because of how strange this is, we who seek to understand and explain the world are in terrible trouble.
But let me give you an example from my field.
There is an aesthetic crisis in writing, which is this: how do we write emotionally of scenes involving computers? How do we make concrete, or at least reconstructable in the minds of our readers, the terrible, true passions that cross telephony lines? Right now my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.
It’s the same problem filmmakers have with hackers – during the height of their drama, they sit there, inert, typing. This is why fiction keeps inventing high drama metaphors of traditional physical life for the shared internal life of the net, ala The Matrix and Snow Crash.
We’ve long wrapped a ribbon of description around the outlines of subtle gestures of life to focus the reader’s attention on a single person, building dyadic connections moment by moment, between the character and the reader. We have used tiny details to evoke the sympathy of shared emotions, as Archibald MacLeish said, “For all the history of grief, an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”
But how do we describe all the history of grief when, in fact, it’s in this one giant room with us?
Contemporary literature’s dyadic and subtle writing is nearly passive aggressively avoidant on the net. It isn’t a meaningful way to talk about the networked self, because by definition you aren’t just yourself when you’re on the network. You are a smeared entity, multiply identitied. You are different in every packet, sometimes the receiver, sometime transmitter, mostly all at once. You are a node, like a forgotten memory to everyone else, just as they are to you. The sum of human knowledge is your latent, unthought thoughts, the words of all the other humans your memories to never be remembered. Your potentiality is diffuse in the ocean of human imagination, and all of it is there for you to drink.
We often fall into a trap: if we make net life just like real life, we can write about it! But net life is real life. It deserves its own aesthetic of language, and it only suffers the paucities it’s accused of when clumsily translated to our old ways of being in the world.
And if ever we needed evidence, it is this: when it steps back into real life it brings its strange back with it. These are examples of graffiti from the Egyptian revolution, they are values of an incorporeal world, made corporeal, to the great disruption of accepted political structures. This is the Polish parliament, taking on the momentary identity of a 4chan based non-group that first materialized four years earlier to harass the Church of Scientology, to protest an intellectual property treaty. These protests eventually destroyed the international treaty, and no one really knows how it happened.
Consider the case of Pepper Spray Cop. We know it as a meme, a sudden idea that went across the network and was integrated by thousands of people into every scene and every artwork people could reach for. We could describe it in terms of people getting the idea and sitting at their computers, carefully redrawing Lt Pike in one scene after another, uploading and downloading him in his brief, infinite, variety. But have we captured anything there? Are we defeated by of computer interaction that can’t discern Pepper Spray Cop from a love letter, and neither of them from the day work of an insurance adjuster?
We are defeated. We are stuck with facial expressions at a monitor, the little clicking and tapping of prone hands, maybe if we’re daring, even a description of the screen. We are further cursed by the fact and an insurance adjuster could very well be penning a love letter while making her own pepper spray cop. As writers and artists our literal tools are not only locked out of the loop between humans and their computers, but distantly removed from the drama of their networks.
But what if we reached for the language of myth and magic to describe Pepper Spray Cop?
What if, instead, we say his sin was so shocking that it scarred the collective dream of the net, that it reverberated so widely it was heard from heaven to hell, pressed its way into the imaginative ocean, from Guernica to Star Wars? We can call it more, we can call it a moment where the net collectively dreamed of police brutality, and the networked creatures were ever so slightly changed. A new signal received, a new wariness, perhaps undreampt of yet by any particular network creature, but at the very least latent for all.
We could say more… we can say the net reared back and laughed, horrified, and cursed him. It placed on him a terrible form of one of its many kinds of fame, such that everywhere he goes in life, all he will be known for is his inescapable moment, like some ancient greek disfigured by the gods. In this, haven’t we said many more true things than if we counted the number of pepper spray cops, or remarked how they were made, or even the apparent mindstates of those who made them?
The network is a place of corporeal metaphors, intellectual landscapes painted out of math. Perhaps we should write about network life like we write about art. Or see it as a kind of magic, best approached with mystical description. We don’t understand what we’re doing, what we’re writing about, our own creation has surpassed the methods of reductionism we used to create it. Isn’t it more honest and true to write about it with a kind of vetted mythology?
For the purposes of this next bit, I dub myself Pope, so that I may canonize a saint for the internet, and that saint shall be
Jorge Luis Borges. He gave us the Library of Babel, and we are endeavoring as hard and fast as we can to give it back to him.
Here is a convenient Celestial Emporium of web culture, ala Borges. I’d like you to consider how this is a useful research breakdown:
All this is to say that because I study and am part of something largely illegible to 20th century taxonomies, but born of them, I have to use the language of the wrong century to describe my life. My problem is I need a new literature to describe network culture in terms that are true to itself, your problem is you need a new science to do the same.
So, if we accept the weird environment I’ve painted, how do we make it tractable? to some degree, we don’t. We have to start by accepting that to truly describe a weird thing, only a weird description can be true. But there’s so much to say that needs to be said.
There is the way we think of how we interact with computers. But beyond there, I think, is an untapped wealth of wisdom in the stories both technical and non-technical people tell about what their computers are and are doing, and in what they think is happening on their network, not ours. We need to ask them what other people are, online, to them. Because they’re right, even if mapping it to the underlying technologies and protocols can be hard. There is a vast truth in the delta between someone’s online life and there time afk. People don’t go online to become someone else, they go online and the network makes them into many selves, all as true in the moment as any other, and all changing the world with their tiny ephemeral footprints, making a trillion memories none of us will ever remember to remember, all watched over by machines of loving grace.
Let us consider how all these lies are, in fact, more true than all of our statistics about them.
I found my file of quotes from Aaron. They mostly happened before we were romantically involved, and some of them are obscure in-jokes, but I preserve them here for anyone.
quotes from my roommate:
a: “Fonts are about the human condition.”
q: “Some of us had to live through the 80s…. all you had to do was potty train.”
a: “Some of those bands made potty training pretty hard.”
q: “I considered converting for the food, but then I realized I could get it anyway, and I was like, ‘fuck your god!’”
a: “Damn! She found our loophole! We need more Manichevitz DRM!”
a: “I think a lot of what I liked about it was sexy shots of Helvetica.”
a: “United sure has come a long way from bankruptcy. I remember the good old days when they couldn’t even afford Helvetica. They had to print signs in Arial instead. It was disgusting.”
q: “I wonder if the United channel is on, I switched to being a United frequent flyer for that.”
a: “I switched because of Helvetica.”
a: “I’m not joking.”
a: “Mandatory minimums is your way of locking up people with small penises!”
a: “If skullfucking is wrong, I don’t want to be right!”
a: “Genes load the gun, but it takes parenting to pull the trigger!” (making shooting motion)
a: “I’m part of the Jewish cabal that controls the internet.”
q: “I haven’t actually heard anyone say there’s a Jewish conspiracy running the internet.”
q: “You don’t have crotch prions.”
a: “You don’t know that!”
a: (Looking at his glass) “This fruit juice is making me paranoid.”
a: “Your shirt is in italic, mine’s not.” (We have the same shirt)
q: “No, that’s just my breasts.”
a: “Your breasts make a really nice italic.”
a: “I bought a new font. I’m out of my mind with glee.”
q: “I learned a phrase in Swahili.”
a: “Was it ‘My daughter thinks her hand is a pontoon bridge?’”
q: “Oh, you’re not cynical. And the pope’s jewish.”
a: “Don’t say that! it’s a secret.”
a: (Holding a ticking small clock) “Can I take the batteries out of this thing? It’s like a constant reminder of my impending mortality.”
a: (On Lasik) “Lasers are supposed to come out of your eyes.”
a: (looks at aaronquotes file) “You have to put lines between them! See this file, you know how to make lines.”
a: “Give it to me, I’ll do it for you.”
This is the written version of my eulogy for Aaron. I would like to not write any more eulogies for a while.
(The campfire at Lassen)
An event like Aaron’s death divides a life, the BC and AD of one’s personal story. From now on, my own biography will be divided into when Aaron was alive and after he died.
We look for the words that bring him back, we look for the memories that contain him like an incantation that can contain a soul. I have a thousand stories of our pieces of time together, a thousand little nets to trap the smoke he is now.
But I can’t. He has slipped away. I loved him, but he’s escaped me.
Aaron has left us, and entered the realm of mythmaking. He doesn’t belong to any one of us anymore, not even himself. He belongs to memory and history.
Still, I lost a person, a person I loved. That’s who I’ve come to talk about. Not the internet saint, or the incredibly accomplished activist, or the young and notable internet technologist. The Aaron I’ve come to talk about is the one that sang little boxes to my daughter in Daly City. The person that almost never did the damn dishes. The one that stole my camera to take long exposure of Ada and me sleeping. The one who complained all the way through camping trips, grinning, and always agreed to the next one. The one that climbed 30 feet to the top of a tree and sat there insisting he liked it and wouldn’t have any trouble getting down. He ate a lot of water crackers. I studied how to feed him, and in time I managed to get a few vegetables down him on a regular basis. Mostly though I managed to feed him cakes and cookies and creme brulee. He was terrible about making plans at the last minute. he could be a terrible pain in the ass.
We talk about how extraordinary he was, but he wasn’t. Aaron was another human, with all the flaws and glories that each of us have, infinite wells of solitude that we are.
He was scared and self conscious, funny, greedy, and petty, loving, curious, hopeful, and strange. He was irreducible, difficult: a person, the most complex thing we’ve yet found in our universe. He turned to me once in a movie theater and said, like someone that had just realized the answer to a difficult math problem, “I contain multitudes.”
To call Aaron extraordinary is, in a way, to sidestep the message of his how he lived his life.
The only reason we’re all here at this memorial holding up this 26 year old as a paragon is that in a culture ruled by fear he learned, and taught me, that trying was more important than being afraid. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “no one remembers your failures.” Don’t waste time doing small things and being cautious. We’re here because he did so much much in his 26 years… despite a culture saying you have to be careful and risk nothing, be responsible, deferential, go through the proper channels, he rejected that. He didn’t wait to start living. That’s all it took.
Aaron understood that learning was more important that accreditation, and that intelligence is a poor and pale substitute for caring. He burned with love for humanity. He surrounded himself with people — also infinitely complex — struck dumb by a love of the world. He lived a life of thought and action.
We shared an understanding, that a life is a thing made in the living of it.
He inspired me, and here, in the AD, I will carry that little inspiration like a jewel gripped in the hand, beautiful, valuable, abrasive, and impossible to forget.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion. I love Aaron. I loved Aaron. There are no words to can contain love, to cloth it in words is to kill it, to mummify it and hope that somewhere in the heart of a reader, they have the strength and the magic to resurrect it. I can only say I love him. That I will always love him, and that I known for years I would. Aaron was a boy, not big, who cast a shadow across the world. But for me, he will always be that person who made me love him. He was so frustrating, and we fought. But we fought like what we were: two difficult people who couldn’t escape loving each other.
On the last day I saw him, he grabbed me in the rain while my car was blocking the road and held me and said “I love you.” I don’t know if I said it back. Not that time. I had always told him. Sometimes I told him when he didn’t have it in him to say. I’d say “I love you, and you love me, too” and he would just hold me.
When he was 20, he carried me through my divorce. We promised each other a year. I apologized so many times: that I was better than what he was getting, that he got me destroyed. Still, what a year. Later, I tried to take care of him while he was being destroyed, from inside and out. I struggled so hard, but not as hard as he did. I told him, time and again, that this was his 20s. It would be better in his 30s. Just wait. Please, just hold on.
He read to me and Ada compulsively; he read me a whole David Foster Wallace book. He read Robert Caro to me, countless articles, blog posts, snippets of books. Sometimes, he would call, just read, and hang up. He loved the Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, and the three of us read it together many times. We loved George Saunders. We loved so many things together.
He loved my daughter so much it filled the room like a mist. He was transported playing with her, and she bored right into his heart. In his darkest moments, when I couldn’t reach him, Ada could still touch him, even if only for a moment. And when he was in the light, my god. I couldn’t keep up with either of them. I would hang back and watch them spring and play and laugh, and be so grateful for them both.
More than anything, together we loved the world, with the kind of love that grips and tears. We were fearsome creatures, chained to our caring, chained to other people.
We were destroyed by the investigation, and by enduring so much together in the five years of the difficult love affair of difficult people. In the end he told me he needed to get away from me. I let him go, and waited for the day he’d come back. I knew that one day we’d have a day to be together again, though probably not as lovers. Together, as something that doesn’t have a word. He went on to another relationship, and I know he touched her like he did me, because that’s how he touched people.
A part of me died with him. A part will always be with him.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
–W. H. Auden
I don’t have anything to say to the world yet. But, not long after we moved in together in San Francisco, Aaron posted what follows. He was pressured to take it down; partly by me, out of fear. We do such stupid things out of fear. I regretted it almost immediately, and saved my little copy, untouched, in a place where I could get to it anytime. I carried it with me. I repost it here, because it should have stayed untouched, and I am done with this regret.
Some days it seemed like all there was was gray. An overcast sky, a broken bus, a freeway under construction, an edifice of concrete and steel. That office was dullening, full of gray pillars and florescent lighting, drones tapping at computers and talking about synergizing, forced conversations with the pleasant, strained tone of someone who knows they will have to live with these people. But Quinn was different.
A bright red shirt in a field of gray. Cargo pants in the land of business casual. Hunched over an iBook in the corner, surrounded by people with desks. She stood out like a stereotype. And as I walked past her to get some water, I felt electrified by her presence. I went to get a lot of water that day.
Late that night, after everyone had gone home and I was left alone in the dark, reading a New Yorker article on my monitor and listening to They Might Be Giants on my headphones, I felt a tap on my back and jumped. It was Quinn. “Hey,” she said.
There are some people you talk to and you just feel like you’re banging your head against the wall. You can’t understand what they’re saying, they can’t understand what you’re saying, you’re completely out of rhythm and unconnected and you just stand there waiting for a chance to sneak away without making things even more awkward.
Not Quinn. Within moments of seeing each other we’d begin laughing. I, normally shy and reserved, would suddenly find myself boisterous and cracking jokes — good ones, as far as we could tell. I felt like a different person.
Quinn was so out of place she didn’t even have a keycard. Whenever she wanted to walk down the hall for lunch or a snack, she’d ask me to come with her so she could get back in. And one day she asked if I’d go with her to the shooting range. I wanted to be that different person.
We went to Europe and I got fired and she started looking for a new place and asked if I would be her roommate. I said yes and she said why? and I said how else am I going to get out of the house?
We got a sweet little two-bedroom in the Mission, with a gorgeous view of downtown — close enough for you to see the skyline but far enough away that it doesn’t feel like the office. We cooked dinner and went to dinner parties, we bought a loft bed and brought over Quinn’s daughter.
I got a new job and there are days — getting up early to carpool to work, commuting home to a home-cooked meal, a great friend, and a lovely little girl — that I feel like I’ve finally found home.
or, why I need to accept that The Awl can publish good articles.
A few weeks of ago I found myself telling a teenager “You’re officially old now. That was quick.” after he’d tweeted “I don’t even understand the Internet anymore”, merely because our tweet conversation had been picked up and redistributed by @sodomy_bot.
Srly, in this way I am younger than my temporally challenged friend– I totally get the internet doing that. It loves a potty mouth, often algorithmically. It has loved my potty mouth for well-nigh 20 years. Despite my advanced age and the fact that I’m not a “digital native” I’ve often had an intuitive feel for the net. I get the inversion of privacy, I see institutions being disrupted, I’ve had a great track record in both predicting and participating in this whole rise of the internet thang. It has felt like something of a home for me for most of my adult life. In the 90s I taught a five week course that was a fire hose of protocols, clients, and social conventions called “The Internet From The Ground Up.” We started with what a packet switching network was and why it might help in the event of nuclear war, and got through why you should never type in all caps and what ttfn stood for, and eventually we all even made a website in class. My students, who were the staff and faculty of my college, often looked as if I had beaten them with a bat made of pure information. But I believed the more context you had, the more the next thing the net did would make sense to you.
I still believe in that approach, and I think that’s what mostly kept me young in internet terms. Once you understand that there’s an architectural politics baked into technology design, it’s easy to look at the protocols and interfaces and say: I can see what will happen to the people that use this, and therefore the world they inhabit. It takes only a little understanding of human nature, largely unchanged in its dealings with sodomy since it began, to understand why humans would write a sodomy bot.
So it’s with some pause that I too must admit sometimes I don’t geddit, and that this is where I am internet old. Back in the day of the paleonet, publications as I knew them had a distinct personality. They had a voice you could count on, a topic area you could model in your head, and a tendency to respond to the world in predictable ways. They were like people, and some were even like friends. Wrapped up in the designation of some corporate entity was something I could treat like a distant human, a penpal I would never meet. This quality was, of course, deliberate, and the result of a careful set of professional techniques. Editorial meetings, house style books, longtime guardians worked hard to create the gestaltic imaginary friends that lived under publishing brands.
You can blame the speed of the net, the disintermediation of gatekeepers, but I think it’s at least as much the loss of the artifact of print that decohered things under the urls that should have been, damn it, my friends and enemies online. This brings me to my moment: a moment lost in transcendental reading, lifted off the page and into the world the author envisioned. I love it when that happens. The article was a beautiful, to the point of lyrical, piece on James Dempsey’s discovery of a lost work of E.E. Cummings, one of my favorite poets. I read through the whole thing off a link on twitter before looking at the URL and realizing it was The God Damned Awl.
I really don’t have a good impression of The Awl. I have read some truly turgid pieces of shit on its pages, and don’t get me started on Hairpin– Now Stupider for Girls! I even have good reasons, in my own mind, for not liking The Awl. It always felt like railing against the man when in this case the man had set up your trust fund. It was self indulgent, it was snarky for its own sake– and in a bad way. Every time I’d looked at it (which wasn’t often) or that one obnoxious friend had sent me a link to and Awl piece I’d been dissapointed. But here they had gone and betrayed me, by publishing one of the best articles I’ve read in ages. Did I have to love the Awl now? Did I have to visit it as a regular reader just to find out if they ever publish anything that wonderful again? I had no way of containing this new Awl in my head, or what I should do about it.
In the 90s I found myself explaining to companies that because of search engines there was no such thing as a reliable front door to their site, and that they would have to live with it. For them, everything was disjointed if they could not control the way their users would experience their site. Ad firms and old corporate entities balked at this lack of control. “Get used to it,” I told them, “this is the new world.” Well, to myself today I say, get used to it, Quinn, this is the new world. Publications are no longer gestalt monoliths. They’re messy, they are off message at the edges that butt up against search engines and timelines. They are more like poltergeists than old friends. Even in many cases, my old friends, moved online.
I read a wonderful debunking of Second Life by friend and sort-of occasional boss at ITP Clay Shirky years ago, and while I told him I loved the piece itself, I spent 90% of my time berating him for publishing it with Vallywag, at the time the most despised rumor rag in my little world of techies. Valleywag was truly awful, so why had Clay given it this legitimacy? Didn’t he understand that now everything else on the site looked more respectable? What The Awl made me realize that he hadn’t made Valleywag more respectable, and that my image of The Awl and Valleywag had never been real in the first place. Clay hadn’t made Valleywag any more believable because he wasn’t there when Valleywag was being stupid. It existed independent of any particular post, and yet because of that, not at all. Not the way magazines and newspapers had existed before, not with that singular voice, that one relatable attitude. There was nothing substantial for me to pass judgement on.
So The Awl can produce literary nonfiction art. My granny walker cognitive approach to this realization is what has made me, finally after kicking back hard for years, old. Getting to the party late. On the Internet important political movements come from /b/tards, E.E. Cummings comes from the Awl, and moral values are codified by lolcats, who in their own turn take their language from IRC script kiddies. At some point or another the Internet makes us all old.
1. Stop trying to improve myself.
2. Get Tim Maly to make me write more essays.
3. Make my peace with Wired, and Print Media In General.
4. Finish my anti-productivity essay.
5. Get more pitches rejected.
6. Send out the rest of my Christmas cards.
7. Continue to grow hair, nails.
9. Cut down on the obsessive precision crap.
10. Up my meds.
Was pretty, annoying, and also made me sad. But I can’t write the review of it Annalee already did, so just go read it.