How Net Art Helped Me Find God

09/12/2012 4:00 AM |

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:

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, 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.