At some point, everybody stopped caring that the Internet is really big. In 2001, DirecTV was advertising the speed of their DSL with a video of a middle-aged guy reaching the end of the Internet; it was funny because at that time the Internet was big enough for that to be absurd, but new enough for bigness to be interesting. The meme the ad was playing off—any of various websites declaring themselves the end of the Internet, and telling you to go play outside—had already been circulating via newsgroups and forums for two or three years.
The main reasons the joke got old aren’t very interesting. Jokes get old, and it wasn’t a super-amazing punchline anyway. Somewhere in there was the growing realization that the Internet wasn’t a thing unto itself so much as an extension of real life. And we always knew real life was big.
Then again, there’s a difference between knowing the world is big and really starting to comprehend its bigness. It’s the feeling of the sublime you get when looking at mountains, or the sea, or when looking out the window of a plane. Artists have used it to shock a response out of their audience for hundreds or thousands of years. And when we gave up on the idea—even as a joke—of the Internet having borders, we also brought that sublime onto our desks.
Predictably, the artists followed. And they’ve made some fantastic art out of it.
Take Jeremiah Johnson’s Wave Muse, for instance. It takes the form of a text adventure, and lulls you in with a bunch of Internet metaphors in the form of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. The first time through, I wasn’t much excited by the metaphors. You find a stone, and when you pick it up you find you’ve left the original untouched; that’s digital reproduction, yeah sure. You find some “sigils lost in time and bound up with meaning”; one turns out to be the Netscape logo, yeah sure. By the time it turned to ocean metaphors, I was starting to get bored. Then the steady ‘>’ of the command prompt turned into the familiar ‘http://’, and the work gave me a simple command: “Go somewhere that you have never been before.”
It doesn’t sound like much, but I was stunned. Nobody’d ever asked me to do that before. It was, of course, the motive behind most of what I did online, even the reason I was looking at this artwork in the first place; but nobody’d ever said it outright. Just go somewhere, without a link, without a purpose, without some logic or narrative to the journey? It took me a minute to answer.
Hesitantly, I typed in an address I’d never been to before: catfuckers.com.
Obediently, the artwork turned it into a link, and sent me on my way with some guiding words: “Go to this place, and onward from there, to find the balance between making choices and being lead,” it said. “Let the INFOspirit guide you.”
After all that, Catfuckers.com was a disappointment. I think it would have been a disappointment whether or not cats had gotten fucked. For a moment, though, Johnson had struck at something core, something that tore down all the filters and social circles and search results “tailored for you” that the Internet insists upon today. For a moment, I sat at the shore of an ocean and really started to comprehend its immensity. And because the Internet is an extension of real life, it wasn’t an immensity of pages, but of people, and the billion possible selves I’ve given up to become who I am today. It was a big thought. I’m a little embarrassed it took a text adventure to get me there.
Along with that immensity comes a kind of futility. Nearly every good idea I’ve had in the past six months has already been a Kickstarter campaign. Rule 34 states that if you can imagine it, there is porn of it. Most jokes have already been made, by people with more Twitter followers than you, and for every subject from Cezanne to C-sections there’s somebody out there who knows more than you ever could, and who’s happy to lord it over you in a forum thread.
So what’s the point? In a 2008 interview with Gene McHugh, Internet spiritualist/net artist Kevin Bewersdorf got real: “Having your own website is like building an unnecessary shrine to yourself. We can try to deny this by convincing ourselves that what we are doing is somehow a selfless gift, but the web has not asked us for these gifts. The web would go on without us.” He’s not a hypocrite, either: in early 2009, he began a project to remove his work from the Internet entirely, replacing it with a single icon that slowly, over the course of three years, diminished into nothing at all. And the web has gone on without Kevin Bewerdorf, the net artist, just as life will someday go on without Kevin Bewersdorf, the person.
Other artists have noted the futility, but struggled against it; in art as in life, it’s the phrasing and motivation of the struggle that make it interesting. In an achingly poetic essay, artist Robert Lorayn has compared the Internet to a desert: still a sea, but a sand sea, with all the slow accumulation and erosion that entails. To share with the desert is to pour his water out onto it, endangering himself for no obvious reward. At times, it seems as though he might have the chance to build something real, to live in the Internet-as-city, with meaningful relationships and meaningful actions; soon, though, Lorayn finds that this is only a mirage, propped up by the castaway images of his friends and family. He gives to the desert so that the drying drops of his public persona can meet, for a second, the tiny arroyos left by the outpourings of his friends. It’s an essay to make you quit Facebook altogether.
There’s yet another edge to the internet’s futility, though: our own complicity. If we share without purpose, we also ignore each other’s sharing on a vast scale. Catfuckers.com came at the expense of some other, perhaps more worthy, webpage; Lorayn’s essay took time I might have spent reading something else. It’s not only sharing that takes from us without reward, but also reading, and the problem can’t be solved from either end.
Suddenly, we’re less like Internet Buddhists and more like Internet Catholics, in dire need of absolution. Like Catholics, we must start from admitting our sins, admitting the immensity not only of what we might do but of what we fail to do. If you don’t have an internet priest handy, I suggest Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano’s artwork Blind Mist. It displays images at random, from a list generated by users; each one is shown for three or four seconds, and then pushed down the page by the next image. At any point, you can click on an image to go to its source; if you don’t, it’s pushed out of view, and your chance is gone. There are no scrollbars.
Every three seconds, you have the chance to see something new, to go somewhere that you have never been before. Every three seconds, you can watch that chance disappear, and feel the tiny violence of ignoring someone online. Try watching it without clicking; it’s a terrible thing to do to yourself, a self-flagellation for the new century.