The Age of Nothingness

Moscow News
July 19, 2000

       The times we are living in are referred to as the Age of Information. The contributing factor for this label is the emergence of the Internet. The world is suddenly at the touch of a button: The entire archive of civilization can be viewed at your leisure on a screen. When some time ago, Bill Clinton was competing for the affection of the American public in order to be elected president, he promised that every family in America will have access to a PC. Now, eight years later, most Americans are Internet-literate. But are they better informed?
        A recent poll indicated that an average American spends 12 hours a week surfing the Web. The same poll also listed the most frequented sites. It turns out that the only way this journey differs from the one taken in immediate reality is not in its destination but in its means. In other words, the Internet public frequents the same hangouts: Shopping and pornography are the most popular destinations for our “virtual” travelers. Bearing this in mind, I would hardly call this the Age of Infor-mation, if by the latter we mean an overall education of the public. However, neither would I side with those who put the blame on technology and support the view that the world has gotten worse owing to technological innovations. After we, men and women of the so-called Information Age, are gone, the Internet will stay on as our symbol – much like the pyramids are the symbol of the Egyptians. Future generations, with their customary detachment, will judge it to be a tool which provided us with more efficient ways for going backward. 
       Perhaps, the Clinton administration, as befits every successful political machine, was being insincerely optimistic when it proclaimed that the Internet would play an integral role in forming a globally informed village. It proved to be nearsighted because it underestimated the number of global village idiots. The public remained quite local in its aspirations, and instead of combing through the volumes stacked in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, it chooses to “virtually” visit shopping malls. Today, pretty much anything can be done virtually – and this is the uniqueness of our times. 
        Our lives have acquired Beckettian absurdity: They don’t actually have to happen in order to happen. The once physical impossibility of being in two places at the same time is now possible. You could sit at home and be “virtually” present on top of the Empire State building. There are two ways of looking at this phenomenon. On the one hand, nothing new is happening: Five thousand years of mankind’s recorded history has come to the apex of its falsehood because any experience can be faked. On the other hand, we are living in the qualitatively different times in which man’s alienation from his own nature has reached such a “perfect” degree that he has forgotten about his nature altogether.
        This might indeed be a lucky break for humankind. We should be rather grateful to the Internet for the opportunity to express our less than noble natures “virtually” rather than “actually.” But no matter what our attitude toward the Internet is, we might want to rethink the label which we attach to our times. The Age of Information is hardly fitting. The Age of Nothingness is more like it. The popular expression “virtual reality” dictates this change of epithet, since virtuality, being itself virtual, does not really happen. The on-line chat rooms where people hide behind computer screens are not conversations but their annihilation. Perhaps we have unconsciously reached such a desperate state of affairs that there is nothing left for us to do but to erase them, the way a first-grader erases a misspelt word.
        The Internet might prove to be one of the radically non-violent revolutions in human history. It could also prove to be more poetic than all the sonnets in the world because, unlike poetry, the Internet suc-ceedsin making the imaginary into the only real alternative. Its critics cite overall predictability as one of its major side-effects. The element of surprise, which, according to them, is present when one isclimbing Mount Everest in real time and space, is reduced to zero when one does so “virtually.” But the astonishment which virtual reality grants us exceeds the peak of any “real” mountain. A man in front of a computer screen is hiding in the network. What drives this man is not so much a thirst for information as the possibility of vanishing, the illusion of disappearance. It is, however, important to remember that this is only an illusion, whereas we are real, or so it seems to us. So what could happen when everything has been “virtually” given to everyone? Where would we go from there? This could turn into a very real problem, because once something is realized, it becomes an object and panic ensues.
         We are back where we started: at the beginning of our civilization, fruitlessly inquiring about the meaning of our lives. For centuries, various leaders and rulers have promised to give us this long-coveted meaning in exchange for generously spilled blood. Virtual reality is not going to provide us with it. Nevertheless, we should take comfort in the knowledge that, at least, the Age of Nothingness will not disappoint us and give exactly what it asks in return – nothing. And if we accept Ingmar Bergman’s dictum that everything is worth precisely a belch, with the difference that a belch is more satisfying, then we can become somewhat satisfied that, unlike the members of other Ages, we will leave less real and more “virtual” traces.

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