© Graphic Exchange, May 2055 (1995)
Illustration by Ron Giddings
henever my grandchildren visit, there’s always the expectation that I’ll unravel another of my tales for their eager consumption. I dare not deny them. Oh, certainly I tease them a bit. Grandpa’s too tired, too grumpy, or simply too old to remember what happened so long ago. It’s that last excuse that seems to worry them the most. Frankly, it worries me, too.
Our memories are no more than faint echoes in our synaptic maze of neurons, so prone to chemical imbalance, to radiation, to magnetic fields. And it is precisely this realization that can prompt one to ponder this very real threat; that the conscious sum of our experience can be virtually erased without warning or prejudice. Where would that leave us? If we have children, it leaves us with at least some reassurance that what we managed to accomplish in our lives will be remembered.
And so, as I always do, I acquiesce to the demands for a story. Partly, my submission is due to an irrepressible urge for self-preservation and, by its infinite extension, immortality — through storytelling. Mostly, though, it is for the joy I derive from seeing their eyes light up with wonder, with amazement, and, to some degree, disbelief. I didn’t raise no stupid children — nor grandchildren, for that matter.
Some of my yarns beg to be doubted, for they are, almost without exception, fantastic in nature. But then, that’s how life was in the waning years of the millennium.
This brings to mind the story of Paul Dearborne. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word. To qualify for that distinction, a tale must feature a protagonist of great talent and potential. He must raise himself up from humble beginnings to unimaginable heights, only to fall to even greater depths by imperfection of character. This was the way with Paul. If the story is to have a title, it may fittingly be called Paulus Maximus, Internet Lord…
It was summer, nineteen hundred and ninety-five by the calendar at that time, and it was hot.
Though it was only the end of the month — then called June and now known as Hexa — the sidewalks were far too uncomfortable to touch with the unclad foot. This was not a problem, as most people worked inside structures that cooled the air and protected the uncovered head from the relentless gaze of Helios. I myself laboured in one of these ridiculous constructs, venturing out only when the light of day had long since yielded to the cool allure of night.
It was on such an evening that the telephone, a remote speaking instrument, summoned me away from my work of bullying electrons. The voice at the other end belonged to Paul Dearborne. He wanted to talk to me.
I prompted him to continue but he declined, explaining that what he had to say was very private. I was very much consumed with my labours and told him so. But he persisted so emphatically that I had little choice but to agree to meet with him at my offices.
Now, I never did consider Paul a close friend, but, nevertheless, he seemed to regard me as such. He was always a bit too excitable for my liking and was, from time to time, given to bouts of almost delusional extrapolation. That is, he would tend to make mountains of apparent molehills.
When he arrived, it was to my weary chagrin that I detected that familiar glint in his eye.
I guess you could have called him an exponentialist. Once he began to speak (or should I say rave?), it was clear to me that he was extrapolating heavily. I begged him to take a seat, to calm himself, to swallow some muscle relaxants. My efforts to soothe him came to no avail. Finally, I popped him one, right on the chin. That settled him out very nicely.
Upon waking, he looked up at me through somewhat bleary eyes and uttered a single word. “Rosebud.” No, that wasn’t it. Oh, yes. It was “Internet.”
That was the word. Internet. What he meant by it, I could only guess.
Once he was able to regain his feet, he immediately started to pace and, before I knew it, he was extrapolating all over the place again. I took another swing at him, but he was ready for it this time and shied away from the haymaker I launched. He seemed to think that I was the one acting irrationally, and he exhorted me to calm down and relax. I said I would, but only if he would. Eventually, and with much visible effort, he took a seat and told me of an experience he’d had the previous evening.
He was surfing the Web, the graphical portion of the worldwide conglomeration of computer networks called the Internet, when he had what could best be described by him as — a vision.
There was a lot of this going around in the mid 1990s. Every technology company had at least one visionary on staff and ran their corporations on the pronouncements of these prophets. As far as I could tell, though, his vision had less to do with profiteering than social revolution.
As his level of animation increased, I found myself wondering where I had stored away that Halcyon prescription I had filled but never ended up taking. Even back then my memory wasn’t all that reliable. So I let him continue, which is what he was going to do anyway. He talked about consumerism, and the laws of Supply and Demand, and the exploration of inner space through microchip architectures, worldwide unification of all markets into one cohesive whole — and then the lights went out. Undoubtedly, the strain of millions of cooling units on the local power grid had exceeded the capacity of the system to balance the load.
In the darkness, I found a candle left over from an office birthday party. By the wavering illumination of its waxy flame, he carried on his auto-discourse on the subject, but there was a change. His words came slower now, his speech more measured. It was as if the flow of electricity, which had invisibly surrounded us, had amplified the intensity of his mood. Now, with the room silent and our attention drawn to the tentative flickering of the wick, his words began to take on greater significance. I saw myself in the allegories he was painting with broad, bold strokes against the ebony folds of the enveloping night, like a sideshow painter doing Elvis portraits on black velvet. I had never seen him in this light.
We spent the fuller part of four hours alternately talking and searching for more candles. It’s amazing how those things could accumulate in a small, closely-knit company. It always seemed to be someone’s birthday.
Where was I? Oh, yes. After two greens, one red, three blues, six pinks and nine yellows, we had traversed the gamut of Internet-related topics. How odd, I thought, that I had never looked at it in that way before. The Internet was not a thing that could be regulated or controlled, although some were to try. But it would be like standing amidst a herd of stampeding gilderbok and holding up a sign that simply said, “Stop”.
After that night, I never saw Paul in person again. Oh, I saw and heard him many times on projection devices like the television and the radio. It seemed he was everywhere — and yet, nowhere. He spoke at convocations, rallies, trade shows, bar mitzvahs — anywhere he had the opportunity. Again and again, he told the story of the impending birth of a new entity. Sometimes, his words seemed more than a little obtuse.
One evening, I caught sight of him on Donahue. He was thoroughly outrageous, propelling the crowd to illthought outbursts of stupidity. Paul was pretty outrageous, too.
By everyone’s account, Paul was a superstar, though he had done little more than talk about the changes to come. Had he designed incredible Web pages that sang and danced their way into the hearts of millions? No. Had he written elaborate webcrawling search routines that could make sense of the ponderous morass of information? No. Had he negotiated reciprocal links between the home pages of Ford and GM? No. Had he spammed the Universe with unsolicited mail? Thank G-d, no!
What he had was a vision, glimpsed through the looking glass of his computer. For one brief instant, he had been the Internet itself. For less than a second, he had experienced true collective consciousness, and now it drove him relentlessly. It was his divine mission to open the eyes of the world to the power of the new crystal ball, his Kaballah of Komputerdom. And, in a world hungry for insight, he was lavishly rewarded for his ability to relate his tale.
One part of the story he would tell was particularly disconcerting. It dealt with the issue of security and data protection and hinged upon the existence of a semi-mythical person called Phoenix.
While the identity of this person could never be established, Paul contended that Phoenix and his minions were lurking about the ’Net in search of vital corporate and government information that could be decoded and sold to the highest bidder.
Rumour had it that this electronic fiend had scores of high-speed CPUs at his disposal for the express purpose of cracking code and promulgating electro- viral infestation. No data was said to be safe from the clutches of the villainous creature. Time and again he had risen, pulling spikes from railway ties in the late 19th century, throwing spanners into the engines of progress during the industrial period, intercepting sensitive communiqués in the midst of the second of the three Great Wars. Espionage for profit was his domain.
DES and Clipper encryption schemes, jealously guarded by the American government, could not be exported to other countries since it held out the hope for safe transmission. There was, however, no protection against the widespread re-encryption of data by viral means. That is, Phoenix was said to be working on a computer virus that would replicate itself in the fibre-optic brainstem of the Internet, randomly re-encoding any document it could lay its hands on. The rationale seemed to be that if Phoenix couldn’t read it, then no one would.
The world powers would have to pay him for the unlock codes so that they could decrypt their own messages. Essentially, a sorry state of senility would settle upon the young ’Net unless the ransom was met.
Getting caught up in conspiracy theories was tiring work, but Paul took to it with relish. One day, he pronounced that it was the Kennedys who were financing the work of the Phoenician demon. The next day, it was the Trilateral Commission. The day after that, Nancy Sinatra. I began to worry more than usual about Paul.
He looked too old for his thirty-two years. He had, by that time, taken to calling himself Paulus. It served to impart a quasi-biblical tone to his words.
I never felt quite comfortable with his change of handles. Paulus Maximus, the newspapers called him, and they called on him often — mostly for a counterpoint argument to any Internet article they happened to be carrying. They were legion.
When his book came out, I wasn’t all that surprised. It was called The Child Awakens, and, in the pitched hysteria that surrounded anything to do with the ’Net, it outsold the Bible in twelve weeks!
The basic premise was pretty much the same as in the candle-lit conversation we had had two years earlier: that the earth was an evolving, sentient being on the verge of self-consciousness and was made up of innumerable suborganisms, one of which was man with his machinery; that the communication of man through the Internet would begin a lightning-like acceleration of consciousness that would result in the actual physical birthing of an entirely new planet from the loins of the earth — that was a new twist I hadn’t heard before.
He related it to Greek mythology. As Hyperion had been brought forth from the Earth (Geae) by the interaction of Jupiter, her son, similarly the interaction of Helios, son of Hyperion, with Geae, his grandmother would result in the delivery of a new entity of untold power. The ancient Greeks always had a way with incestuous melodrama.
Soon after the book was released, strange reports began to come in from all over the world. Signs had been seen in the skies. Strange storms of all descriptions were ravaging the planet. Earthquakes. Floods. Pestilence. While St. Peter’s Square was crammed with new Catholic faithful, the mosques and synagogues were brimming with congregants. People flagellated themselves in processions through the streets, except in San Francisco, where they took the day off.
Temples and shrines, yeshivas and convents, all did a bang-up business. Collection plates overflowed with the guilt-ridden money of the freshly converted.
Amidst the din, from every speaker port on every radio, television and computer in the world, came the voice of Paulus Maximus. Sure and steady, it was. The madding crowds ceased madding as The Word was about to be spoken.
“I, Paulus, beseech Thee, O Universal Host, to take these,
Thy raindrenched and abased people into Thine Heart and
console their weary souls as Thou takest them to the stars.
Protect them from the ravages of the evil Phoenix.
We stand amidst the Deluge of Thy Divine Mother’s
breaking waters, awaiting Your Birth!”
Well, everyone was pretty patient for the first couple of hours. The slightest tummy rumble was greeted with expectation and treated as a sign. After a while, though, the awe turned to “aw”. The less faithful began to slip away from the crowd, first in ones and twos, then in droves. Those that didn’t drove had to walk or take the bus.
Still, Paul stood there in the drizzling rain, waiting for Redemption. After a few days, he took ill and was carried away to a hospital. The skies cleared. Phoenix was a no-show and, for that matter, so was the new planet many had expected to burst forth from the Mariana Trench as Paul had prophesied.
Some said it was influenza that did him in. Others maintained that it was pneumonia. Still others, a broken heart. But, your old Grandpa knows… it was extrapolation.
That, and the fact that he was kind of a goof.
Huh? What’s that? The Internet? Oh, sure, the Internet still exists today. We call it The Stream. It allows us to consume fewer resources in resolving problems. There is less need to move objects, since we can move our ideas so efficiently. It is the repository of all our combined knowledge.
Paul was right about many things, including the convergence of political regimes through interactive commerce, the development of a catalogue of Internet resources by multi-layered cross-indexing, and the parallels between human brain function and Internet architecture.
After all, if we want to draw a comparison that Paul would have favoured, we could say that The Stream was created in the image of its maker. What we thought was the creation of artificial intelligence has, in fact, turned out to be but a reflection of our common sense.