About ten years ago—a point at which some stage of an advanced technological future already seemed to have arrived—I sat with a friend at the People’s Republik, a bar in Cambridge, Mass., looking around the room and noting how nothing really looked too different than it would have in the 1970s or the 1990s, aside from the faint glow of phone screens illuminating some people’s faces, and maybe the stronger glow of Big Buck Hunter in the corner. In contrast to so much of the science fiction that had informed our ideas about what a technologically sophisticated future would look like, the version we actually got seemed to lack a distinct visual identity. A decade later, that’s basically still true—but then as now, it’s mostly just true when we’re sitting at the bar and looking around. This future we inhabit does have its own incredibly rich imagery that primarily exists in virtual space. We have to look at screens to see it, and we spend plenty of time doing so. That was already the case a decade ago, but the digital environments we access through variously-sized computers are no longer alternative spaces—they’re a robust world of their own. William Gibson and The Matrix did in fact anticipate a version of this: We didn’t get the flying cars we were promised, but a futuristic-looking future is still there—you just have to jack in to access it.
I recently read about the Gin Tub, a cocktail bar in East Sussex, England, whose owner is building a Faraday cage around the establishment “in an attempt to force his customers to actually talk to each other instead of just staring at social media all night.” The visual ordinariness I observed at the People’s Republik ten years ago has become a preservation movement reacting against the future we actually got. As bookends to the 2010s, those two images of bars, so superficially similar but so fundamentally different, tell one particular story about the decade: At its start, the internet was still relatively scarce, in the sense that we generally wanted more of it everywhere. iPhones were new; we were still excited about carrying portals to that utopia in our pockets and finding new ways to integrate two domains that were previously separate. Ten years ago, I could sit in a bar and wish that it better reflected the future I was experiencing. Today, a growing number of people understand the internet as something more akin to an all-encompassing miasma, one that seeps into every available corner of the world to watch us, listen to us, commodify us, and manipulate us—a condition from which the only true relief is physically walling ourselves off.
Last night, like every night, I left my phone in the kitchen to charge while I slept. I woke up with the feeling that I had air-gapped myself overnight, aware that I’d soon walk over to find a bunch of emails and notifications waiting for me, but also aware that none of those notifications would become real until I physically left the bedroom. The internet has become so ubiquitous that we rarely think of it as spatially bounded anymore, the way it always was before mobile phones. Twenty years ago we searched for islands of digital access in a sea of meatspace—homes, offices, internet cafes; now we seek equally scattered pockets of protection from that connectivity, and those pockets are increasingly the products of conscious design. The usual interpenetration of the two environments creates an illusion that they’re inseparable, and while one tends to organize our reality at any given moment more powerfully than the other, neither is necessarily more real. Earlier this year, the CEO of a Canadian Bitcoin exchange died. Much of the exchange’s cryptocurrency was in cold storage—on hardware wallets disconnected from the internet—and only the CEO knew where. For the rest of us, at the end of this decade, to have an existence decoupled from digital coordinates, like all of that now unfindable Bitcoin, is the same as disappearing altogether.
How a tiny town in Montana became a nexus for third-party Amazon sellers. “If somebody actually thought about how many people’s hands touch their product, it would creep them out.”