The future of the internet and earth as told by the alt lit wunderkind at Netzkultur in Berlin
Over the weekend, alt lit legend Tao Lin confused much of the Berlin conference on Netzkultur with an is-it-an-act/is-it-genuine post-ironic deadpan. Rather than tackle issues of literature, Lin delineated a "theory" of the "history & future of life on Earth" that encompassed the conceptual entirety of everything, from the Big Bang ("nothing à everything") to a sort-of-optimistic vision of the future into which the internet has very possibly funneled us. Like Lin’s prose, the talk’s title was straightforward description, with the only flair coming in the form of ampersands-over-spelling appropriate to his emphasis on the virtual: ‘Internet & Identity in the Context of the History & Future of Life on Earth’.
Below, we highlight our top ten moments from Lin’s contribution to Germany’s Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (“Federal Agency for Civic Education”). Find the slides, featuring liberal application of MS Paint, here.
"Primates lived in the trees and then 7 million years ago they left the trees, and they call that humans – some people do – … and from humans came language, names, consciousness and then the internet. So life stalled at outer space and started to expand not into the universe but into another world, which is 'the imagination' I’m calling it for this talk."
Although Lin’s talk began with a quick outline of the creation and evolution of matter, primordial swamp creatures, etc. in the universe as we know it, the foundation of Lin’s argument can be summed up here: life – the high-school science textbook version of the term – first expanded into the physical universe, and when it, for all intents and purposes, ran out of room, it began expanding into the mental universe or the "imagination".
"Life has never died, which is something that I think people ignore."
While the destruction of our physical world seems imminent in the face of global warming and polar vortices, Lin’s interpreted the Internet as a potential alternate space for existence, which offers a way out of the seemingly certain destruction we have brought upon ourselves in having "stalled at outer space", or at least believed we have halted evolution. "Everyone is like, 'Life is so fragile'," Lin said. But, he points out:
"Unless humans detonated millions of nuclear bombs all around the earth at the same time distributed evenly and underground and in the ocean and even, like, in the atmosphere, then life will just keep going on."
Remember when you took your first chemistry class and they hammered into you the idea that "matter can neither be created nor destroyed"? This is what he’s talking about. What does this have to do with the internet?
"Well, first, let’s establish that the development of language as a critical mechanism for communicating with other sentient beings was proof of the importance of the imagination (as opposed to the physical world)."
For all the talk of Tao Lin as a monotone hipster drone, he’s actually pretty funny. After citing Schopenhauer and psychedelic-popping philosopher Terence McKenna, he summarized the development of language by acting out two early humans differentiating between danger that is close by ("wahoo!") and danger that is farther away ("wahee!").
Then Lin approaches a Matrix-esque understanding of the future as we can, ahem, imagine it – in a "non-anthropomorphised way".
Because life went from the physical world ("the universe") to the "imagination" ("language, names, consciousness"), Lin says we can assume it will move further into the imagination (the internet) and then beyond it into some other realm. If our physical world is destroyed, we’ll still have Twitter. And the "metaphysical space" that is the internet.
The idea of a life spent entirely online didn’t seem hopeless and futile.
Though he did acknowledge, after an I-know-I-sound-ridiculous-but-I-still-buy-what-I’m-selling chuckle of self-awareness/satisfaction, that he has "to be in a certain mood for this to make sense", Lin called the Internet a ‘human attempt at oneness’ – a lovely, though sad, interpretation of the desperate struggle for human connection our obsession with social networking sites suggests.
Although he said this theory "doesn’t have that much to do with [his] writing", it actually does.
The idea of the internet as a "metaphysical space" informs his interaction with and consciousness of what becomes both the content and sometimes the form of his work. In the Q+A following his talk, Lin said he "can’t just focus on sociological stuff" like relationships and characters when he writes; the Internet is always there.
"Before (the internet) was maybe a smaller room – no. It was rooms that were unfamiliar, and now they’re familiar…. It was like going in castle rooms or dungeons and now it’s like a house, maybe."
Lin’s 2013 essay for the New York Times, ‘When I Moved Online …’ implies a similar understanding of the Internet as a ‘metaphysical space’. He describes his youthful discovery of the early Internet as placing him in a distant place from his parents, which paves the way for this theory of the Internet (and/or what comes from the Internet as we know it) as the next frontier for existence.
"Maybe the Internet could be an extraterrestrial landing pad."
Basically, if aliens have completed this post-imagination transition already, they could be using the Internet in some way. Related: in "When I Moved Online…" Lin also writes: "I now sometimes imagine the internet as a UFO that appeared one afternoon in the backyard — to take humankind elsewhere, maybe. My parents… didn’t immediately begin relocating their lives, as if by instinct, into the UFO, like my peers and I seem to have done.’
"I’ve had maybe hundreds of theories like this…. I didn’t think 'Oh I’ve discovered the truth!' I read all this stuff and thought about it, and I had to pick one."
Lin’s talk ended with much of the audience arching its eyebrows in skepticism, and afterwards many were arguing about whether his whole persona is an act. But when asked if this was how he interpreted existence, Lin said no. Ultimately, this, more than any coffee-stained diagram, actually illustrates what he’s talking about: it doesn’t really matter whether he believes what he’s saying or whether he’s playing a part. It’s just interesting to think about.