1. Antimeditations (No. 1)
In the dawn of the New Age, in the days before Allysse was born, a new scourge spread across the land—but the land was no longer a land, and the scourge did not look like a scourge. It was sadness disguised as happiness, jealousy disguised as friendship, ignorance disguised as knowledge, darkness disguised as light. And the name of the scourge was Doubt. Now some years earlier, people had learned a few things about Doubt from a man who thought and was. Doubt could make you think you weren’t really seeing what you were seeing, or hearing what you were hearing, or feeling what you were feeling. Doubt made it seem like words weren’t really words, and numbers weren’t really numbers, and things weren’t really things. Doubt could make it seem like you were stuck in a whirlpool, able neither to touch your feet on bottom nor to swim up to the top. But in the end it was all OK because everything was what it was and nobody was being deceived and everybody could go back to normal. Doubt, in those times, was a temporary condition. Herein lies a key difference with the New Age: for Doubt is now everywhere, all of the time.
2. A world of looking-glasses
Allysse loved screens, and it wasn’t long before she had a screen of her own. But it wasn’t long before that screen had grown old, so she got another. And soon that one was old too, so the screens kept coming. Soon, she had a big screen on her desk, a medium screen in her backpack, and a little screen in her pocket. There were screens in almost every room of her house, screens at school, in stores, in cars, on planes, in almost every place you can imagine, and Allysse loved them all. When she went on her little screen, she stared down, down, down, and all the words and pictures were very, very small, and it was like the whole world became small with them. Allysse felt like a giant with her huge thumbs over the tiny, glowing buttons. Sometimes her parents took her places in the city where there were huge screens, as big as the whole side of a building. Allysse stared up, up, up, and all the words and pictures were very, very big, and it was like the whole world became big with them. Allysse felt like a tiny mouse, staring up at the giant screen.
3. Endless Scrolls and Rabbit Holes
And then all the kids were talking about memes and tweets and gifs and blogs, and Allysse wanted in. She was so mad when her parents said no! She wanted to know what everybody was saying and doing and liking and posting, and she wanted to know now, now, now! It was like she was late for a very important date, and she was afraid of missing out. So, she kept on, and eventually her parents gave in, and let her go online. It was like a well that you fell down very slowly and never reached the bottom. As soon as Allysse fixed her attention on one thing, another would distract her and she would scroll down to it, and then to another, and another, down, down, down. There were puppies and kitties and bunnies and baby goats, comics and cartoons, pictures and little videos that repeated again and again, and it was like everyone was there, friends, family, and famous people, one on top of the other, on and on, down, down, down. They said nice things and nasty things, silly things and serious things, things that made sense and things that seemed like nonsense. It all just kept going forever, and even when she knew it was time to put it away, Allysse found it hard to stop scrolling. She kept telling herself this would be the last thing she looked at before logging off, but then something else would distract her and she would scroll down to it, and then to another, and another, down, down, down. Allysse gave herself very good advice, but she very seldom followed it.
4. Cheshire Nights
Just for fun, Allysse looked up her name and it came back with over 6 million hits. There were Allysses in New York and Vancouver and Tokyo and Cairo and a bunch of places she had never heard of. There were even a bunch of Allysses in her home town. So, she googled her whole name, first and last, and found that there were many thousands of people with both of her names, too. “What if somebody tries to look me up?” Allysses thought. “How will they know who I am, out of all these other Allysses?” She looked at her profile, and photos, and posts, and felt a little lump in her throat as she realized how dreadfully ordinary they all were. Then she looked at her friends’ profiles, and photos, and posts, and felt a bigger lump as she realized how interesting and exciting and pretty they all were. Allysse spent half an hour putting on makeup, then grinned her biggest, prettiest grin, her teeth gleaming white like a crescent moon, and took a selfie. She posted it online. Almost right away there were likes and comments, and they kept coming for some time after. Allysse grinned again and kept on scrolling, late into the night, making little changes to her profile whenever she thought of something good.
5. Who are you?
It came out of nowhere, a comment on one of her videos from someone called Hookah72:
“WHO ARE YOU?” Allysse, taken aback, replied, “Don’t you think you ought to tell me who you are first?” No sooner had she said this but other comments started appearing. MomeRath311 told her to check her privilege. TweedleDummm said that she should educate herself before making ignorant comments. Jabberwocky5 went on for three whole paragraphs, seeming to say in a roundabout way that it mattered more who was talking than what was said. Allysse knew that these comments could be seen by everybody and that she needed to stand up for herself. She wrote something that she thought was terribly clever, and checked back compulsively to see if anyone had liked it. Each moment that it went unacknowledged felt like a little rejection. The next comment that came was not only very nasty, but it seemed like the commenter hadn’t even read her last post, which upset Allysse even more. Her mind was racing to decide what to say next to these people she didn’t know (or didn’t know if she knew: you couldn’t tell with their made-up names). She typed a comment, then deleted it, then typed another and almost hit post before deleting that one too. She imagined many possible responses, but for each one she could picture a thousand nasty replies that these anonymous detractors might hurl back at her. She felt an overwhelming need to write something, but didn’t know what she was trying to say; and not knowing where she was trying to get to, she couldn’t figure out which way to go. She hoped they wouldn’t interpret her silence as a lack of anything to say. She stayed there, whirring and buzzing, glued to the screen, for a very long time.
6. The Tea Party
Allysse was in the mood for something light. One of her very first toys, from way back even before she had her first screen, was a little tea set that she had used to throw parties for her stuffed animals. She wondered if those were still around, so she googled ‘tea party.’ One of the first hits said NO ROOM in all capital letters. Curious, Allysse clicked on the link and learned that it was made by people in her country who didn’t want people from other countries to be allowed in. “Why, there’s plenty of room!” thought Allysse: it was a very big country, after all. So, she did another search and found a bunch of other stories saying completely opposite things about exactly the same people. Allysse tried to read them all, but there were just too many, and she couldn’t tell which ones were spurious and which ones were true. The stories that said there was no room linked to a bunch more stories about the bad things people did when they came from other places. The stories that said there was plenty of room linked to a bunch more stories about the good things people did when they came from other places. One blog called The Mad Hater talked about a wall, and said a lot of mean things about people who didn’t want to build it. Another called March Here said the wall was bad and the people who wanted to build it were bad and everything was just bad, bad, bad. And as nasty as the blogs were, the comments underneath were even worse. People called each other all sorts of terrible names, the kinds of words Allysse would be punished for saying to the kids at school. She didn’t know what to believe, and the more she read, the lonelier she felt.
7. Trial by Troll
“OFF WITH HER HEAD!” Allysse had seen this happen many times. People online gathered together into great hordes of people they agreed with, blocked and unfollowed people they disagreed with, and exploded with outrage when somebody said or did something they thought was wrong. People harassed each other mercilessly. There were death threats and public shamings, and Allysse found it truly terrifying. If ever she did not agree with people online about something, she would not post about it for fear of the certain retribution that would follow. But this time, Allysse had asked a question about a meme without realizing that it had been retweeted by a powerful famous person with legions of devoted followers. The first and second and third commenters had just made the same points over and over, which seemed to Allysse like nonsense and in any case didn’t answer her question. “Who cares for you,” she thought, “you’re nothing but a pack of cards.” But suddenly it turned personal, and it was like the whole mob rose up and came flying down upon her. They called her idiot and stupid and much, much worse. They said she was ugly and insulted her body. They told her she should kill herself. None of Allysse’s replies made any difference to the furious wave of anger. Again and again she tried to explain herself, to defend herself, but hysterical attacks kept coming from all sides, with everybody shouting and nobody listening. Her throat tight and her temples throbbing, Allysse desperately tried to think how she could set things right, but everything she said just seemed to make the situation worse.
8. Antimeditations (No. 2)
And then, in a moment of surprise, Allysse realized she was still in her room. She was alone, and had been all along. She started to calm down. It had all been on the screen: she had not been anywhere, or seen anybody, or done anything—not really. But she felt like she had just gotten back from a long, exhausting journey. Everyone—and everything—was everywhere, all of the time, on the screen. It was powered down now: its shiny surface looked like a deep, black hole. Allysse climbed into bed, and as she drifted off to sleep, she could see memes and tweets and gifs and blogs, scrolling and scrolling, down, down, down.