Online Archaeology

"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is..." The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Some aspects of life are so jarringly big, so all consuming that they often escape notice. Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was one of my first experiences of having this thought presented to me clearly and concisely. I will never know how big space is, my perspective contains too small a percentage of it's size to comprehend. But space has always fascinated humanity. People in ancient times shared my compulsion to look up and imagine. But lately my mind has traveled elsewhere to grapple with issues of size, triviality, and meaning- the internet.

I'll begin with a disclaimer: I have no knowledge of how the internet works. Few people do. All I know is that the Internet is a 'series of tubes', and even that provides little in the way of understanding. After some 'research', some things become apparent. The Internet is a proper noun, spelled with a capital 'I', referring to a second order network. It is a network of networks, connecting computers and people using a standardized protocol. My further efforts at understanding how exactly this occurs seemed to me to be written in some alien language, testing my patience, vocabulary and sanity . I know very little about computers, networking and the technical examination of same. 

Yet I know that the Internet we use is not the only one. There exists something called the "Onion Network", or the so called Deep Web . The deep web, as accessed via the Onion Network, requires a different web application and browser, and looks very different from our own. There are no search engines. Web pages are accessed by name or number, meaning you can only view what pages you already know of. Because of this secrecy, and other encryptive and protective measures present in the system, the deep web is home to many illegitimate activities and exchanges. From my limited understanding of some of the services available, if you can think of it, you can buy it. Payment usually occurs in an anonymous currency called Bitcoin, which recently made headlines due to it's volatility. This internet proves to be much different from the  Internet most people are familiar with.

This difference again emphasizes issues of size, scale and recognition. If we stop and consider Youtube for example, a single website that we are all familiar with and are aware of, we still have few ways to quantify size. Let's get concrete:  

According to official Youtube statistics, seventy two hours of video are uploaded every minute. That makes 259 200 hours per day.To put that in perspective, assuming a lifespan of about 80 years, it would take less than seven days for enough content to have been uploaded to allow you to watch new content, 24/7, for the entirety of your life. Youtube is vast, and it is only the third highest traffic website, losing out to Google and Facebook. But Youtube, and other websites such as Soundcloud, present an interesting opportunity, and one that I find quite haunting. 

In March 2006, Youtube introduced a ten minute limit to it's content in order to combat copyright infringing replications of movies and television shows.  What followed was nothing short of an online revolution. Over the next few years, tens of millions of video blogs were created. These videos often feature a single person in front of a webcam, sharing about their life, experiences and opinions. I find myself fascinated by these videos in a particular way: In that they are sad and profound relics of our age.

When stumbling upon these videos several years after the fact, I was reminded of looking through old photos of people I have never met. When presented with these photos, often of distant and deceased family, I am saddened. I find this sadness strange for a few reasons. Mainly, I have not and never will meet the person in question. This places a level of abstraction between myself and them. Yet there is a part of me that cannot consider the person as entirely unlike myself. The emotion, environment and experiences that define them are all real and present in the photograph. Further, the photograph is the only direct link that connects the two of us. We have no shared experiences, only whatever I can infer from the picture. I am sad because while to me they may not be real  , they lived lives just as real, vivid and involved as I. The feeling is haunting, giving these images a ghostly feeling.

This feeling is multiplied while seeing and listening to these online archives. Seeing people in motion and articulating themselves gives them more a more concrete existence than a photograph would. The more intense this emotion within me becomes, the harder it is to describe. Several weeks ago, I discovered a pseudo-word that gets as close to a definition as I have ever seen:  

Sonder  n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background

While this definition is flowery and poetic, the feeling is real. These videos, and my fascination with them is a pursuit of this realization. I watch and listen years after the fact, when all meaningful internet traffic has long gone, in order to remind myself that I am a cog in a machine of such scale that my mind cannot comprehend. It is both humbling and haunting. The faces in these videos are ghosts of years past, and artifacts for others to find. 

What also triggers my imagination is the near compulsion that some people seem to possess when it comes to the video blog. There are millions  of these videos, depicting all types of people. As you can imagine, these videos cover topics ranging from the unique to the dull and banal. The question that helps fuel my fascination is 'why did (do) so many people feel the need to film, edit and publish these videos?'. If so many people are making the same videos, why did each person consecutively make another?  

Here the question begins the arduous trek towards philosophical questions of determining meaning from experience and of the purpose of life. Told simply, I believe that when faced with the huge (read: HUGE) scale of life, the universe and everything, people present a desire to have a space designated as theirs. When Youtube presented the means to host videos in a simple manner, it provided an outlet for these millions of video bloggers to solidify their online existence. They are the product of peoples desires to say, and prove that they were here . The video blog forever changes the landscape of the Internet, if only in a tiny way, and is a token that will survive as long as Youtube preserves its servers. 

Perhaps then the analogy between the Internet and Space holds after all. Both are unbelievably complex and defy common understanding. And in much the same way that the vastness of existence influenced in part cave paintings in ancient peoples, The same is true for the strange and bizarre trend of video blogs. They are in part the product of our realization that we are a small piece in a large system. That we can't often quantify exactly how large that system is only makes that feeling more intense, which in turn spurs our desire to create and alter the small space we are allowed. These dead webpages, long forgotten, may well be our age's cave paintings. Perhaps in a hundred or a thousand years, some person will share my fascination with watching people document their lives and speak personal truths into the deep.

Space, life, and the Internet, are big.  Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big they are. And I am in here. 


Duncan FieldComment