A newsletter about tech, culture, and the language of both.

Fossil Poetry #4: Surfing

We’re back. On a nerve-wracking, nail-biting and cold November day in the United States, we have a small bit of nostalgia for summer and the early internet to offer you: meditations on surfing the web.

“Monk by the Sea,” Caspar David Friedrich

Yi-Ling: To “surf” the web sounds antiquated when you say it aloud. Nostalgic, harking back to a bygone era of the early Internet — namely, the late 80s, when the phrase was first coined: the days of Atari, of the Whole Earth Catalogue, of Silicon Valley hippies and a young Steve Jobs, backpacking through India without his signature turtleneck.

Then, to go online was to catch a wave off the Hawaiian coast — spontaneous, liberating and unpredictable — an act of exploration. To surf the net was to go with the flow, ride a current of clicks and see where it could take you.

Today, nobody “surfs” the net. Instead, we “scroll” and “swipe.” Both verbs that have entered our mainstream online lexicon feel swift, efficient and almost brutal in comparison to a meandering surf. Both are singular and one-directional. Nobody “surfs” Instagram. Your preferences are fed into an algorithm which fuels your endless feed. Nobody “surfs” Tinder; a swipe doesn’t yield a sea of multiple others. It is not exploration but elimination — a zero-sum game and binary judgement of the worth of another human being. Right or Left, Liked or Unliked, Yes or No.

We don’t surf because the ocean has been conquered and replaced by a handful of Olympic-sized swimming pools, owned by the swimming pool companies GAFAM in the United States and BAT in China. (I’ll let you figure out the acronyms.) Don’t get me wrong, they’re really nice swimming pools — orderly, efficient, free of charge and much easier to navigate than the vast Pacific. But the convenience and low costs come with a few caveats:

1) In order to use the pool, we have to share a lot of things about ourselves— pretty benign information like how old we are, who our friends are, what movies we like, our political leanings etc. (We like easy and we like cheap, so we hand it all over.)

2) The companies get to decide on the pool rules. (Although lately, the lifeguards have been floundering —  pool-goers all over the world shove each other, yell racial slurs and pee rather blatantly in the deep end. In China, Chinese lifeguards have become particularly overzealous, escorting swimmers out of the pool so that they are never seen again.)

We don’t surf because we’ve become trapped in the dangerous comfort of these pools. I miss the days of the great Pacific surf — shreddin’ the sea and rippin’ waves and hangin’ ten — even given the fact that I was quite horrendous at it. (Visual evidence, Bali circa 2009.) Sure, back then, surfing the early net was messy, unpredictable and chaotic. But back then, we were also free.

Sophie: It’s been a long time since I’ve surfed the web. Maybe it was back in the heyday of Geocities, when I was a young Sailor Moon superfan and I found myself breezing through fansites, no destination in mind. I just took it in. Surfing through early-stage HTML was a mostly-pleasant ride through gentle swells. It was just exciting enough to keep you clicking; there was the occasional nasty surprise, but mostly there was earnest fandom expressed in low-fi gifs and wild fonts; it ended with a defined log-off, the end of my designated computer time, the return to the ground of real life.

There is, for many of us, and in particular for me, very little defined real life anymore that’s separate from online life. My experience of the internet no longer bears any relation to catching a wave and riding it to an endpoint on the sand. In part because I’m an adult, but much more because of the rapid technological development of the last decade, there is no computer time and not-computer time. Of course, this is too bad.

But perhaps what I miss most about surfing was its randomness. What might you stumble upon, if you were just Googling for the hell of it, as I was? I was an early adopter of the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on Google—a literal leap to a random website for your term. I have a distinct memory of clicking it when I Googled “Neptune” in first grade, and learning that the deep blue planet was also the Roman version of a Greek god.

There’s a way in which Twitter mimics the effect of surfing’s randomness, but it’s amplified to the point of becoming grotesque. And above all it’s too passive; on Twitter you scroll, rather than surfing, through the algorithm’s preferred methods of being. The closest I come to surfing these days is clicking through Wikipedia links, in moments of extreme boredom or procrastination, going down some rabbit hole that leads to knowledge of a certain sort, down a path I might not have expected. This is a form of surfing, but I’ll admit that it’s not as satisfying; I’m desensitized, and I’m seeking more stimulation than a gentle, pleasant ride.

Written and reading:

YL: wrote for The New Yorker about a rural farmer who rose to fame and fortune on Chinese live-streaming app Kuaishou. I’m watching People’s Republic of Desire, a documentary about another booming platform YY.com. (If you’re in NYC, it’s being released on Nov 30th.) Reading On the Noodle Road by Jen-Jin Liu, a food writer turned founder of Black Sesame Kitchen (where I now work as an assistant!) who chronicles the noodle from Beijing to Rome Still hunkering carefully through Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Listening to this conversation between Michael Pollan and Sam Harris on the future of psychedelic drug use — in clinical practice, end-of-life care, and just to get some ego-less perspective.

SH: I wrote an essay about the horrors of the New Gmail for The Baffler, and about Bob Dylan’s drawings for The Economist. I also wrote about the catharsis and complexities of rage rooms--and in case you thought all I did was critique, I wrote about the marvelous trash of Amsterdam for The New York Times! I’ve been on a tear through Sally Rooney’s two novels, Normal People and Conversations with Friends, and finished the slow-and-agonizing-but-wonderful Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk.

A newsletter about tech, culture, and the language of both.