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I live in an alley now.

Well, I live above an alley. I recently upgraded from life at street level, moved into a sunny loft above a garage workshop. I spend a lot of time sitting on the landing above the alley, squinting through power lines at the ramshackle backyards of Albuquerque.

Building codes here are enforced on a discretionary basis, and the houses and sheds on this alley are like an architectural version of interpretive dance. The thick webs of cables slung from house to house give the place the aspect of an overgrown ruin, an archaeological artifact inhabited by a society of cyber-spiders.

In Seattle, where I spent 2017, the alleys were bustling places of action. Bikes, cars, junkies, and doofuses on “hoverboards” jostled together down the narrow canyons between buildings. Here, an alley might languish for days without seeing foot traffic. Only the occasional cat treads on the loose gravel, passing aloof as a diplomat through a DMZ.

Partly it’s because Albuquerque is a car city. It’s one of those sprawling quasimetropolises of the American West, a place that grew not up but out. It’s built in a wide valley between the river and the mountain, and oozes up and down the riverbed in a confusing series of municipalities and subdivisions. It wouldn’t win a walkability award.

So it’s a car city, and it’s a desert culture. Like every other lifeform, humans in the desert grow spikes and hoard their juice.

It’s not an unfriendly culture – the Seattle Freeze is way more alienating – but it doesn’t have the frenzied activity of a port city or a ski town. People here conserve their energy. If you’re not actively busy, then you kick back and chill. Shoot the breeze. Read a book. Play video games. Surf the web.

It’ll be another week before I have internet of my own. “Welcome to the land of mañana,” they tell me. So I stare at the cables, at the shuttered houses, at the backyards overgrown with nightshades and the lonely barking dogs, and I imagine the internet. I see my neighbors as nodes in a network. I watch as they weave worlds from the web, each one winding their way through unending mysterious mountains of information.

Everyone climbs toward coherence. We all want to live in a universe we understand, to minimize the friction between our expectations and our lived experience. Of course, we don’t succeed. The bias built into our brains is enough to ensure that we’ll always struggle to see the big picture. Not to mention all the dark wizards determined to hack our cognition. But still we seek a theory of everything.

Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t optimize for collective coherence. Whether by deliberate dark patterns or careless assumptions baked into its construction, the internet is a terrain of traps. It invites us to follow links and see patterns in noise, engaging that juicy part of the brainflesh that seeks meaning. It’s a rat maze of epic proportions, with infinitely more dead ends than cheese.

Everyone ends up in their own fantasy universe, self-contained and internally consistent, shielded from any possible contradictory data. It feels great. Everything makes sense, the world is simple and satisfying, as long as you can find a way to make enough money to pay the internet bill. As long as you can maintain the suspension of disbelief. As long as you can find a food tube to plug into your meat port and a place to charge your phone.

Cosmologists think this might explain why we don’t see evidence of alien life. One explanation for the Fermi Paradox is that all sufficiently advanced species prefer to digitize themselves and live in a simulated universe. And I can see the logic here – if we can make a perfectly convincing virtual reality, why would we bother going to the stars? Space is cold and dark and brutal. VR is cheap and you can have sex with celebrities and shoot fireball from your hands.

In fact, compared to VR, the Earth is kind of crappy too. You have to eat other lifeforms all the time, the air smells like burning, and everywhere you go there’s some guy with a gun telling you what to do. Why not downsize your life, liquidate your assets, and live in a tank of embryonic goo?

I can see the advantages of this. It’s becoming-dream, it’s an infinite universe we can build and explore together. If we could defend it from the archons of capital and empire, it might even cause a revolutionary transformation of society. What better way to prototype a post-scarcity world? We can demonstrate the devastation implied by climate models, give the Overview Effect to billions of people without burning an ounce of rocket fuel. We can wear each other’s shoes.

But considering the disagreeable state of global human relations, I think it’s likely we’d end up shattered into a million reality-fragments. If you don’t agree with someone, why bother arguing? Instead of attempting to come to a common understanding, you can just fork the simulation. You enter a branch world, where everything is exactly the same, except that you don’t have to hear that dissenting opinion anymore.

It’s not even that you’ve “blocked” that person. The mechanism isn’t some crude blur-and-mute effect. You can just delete them from your reality. The software will correct for their presence, making them invisible and inaudible, even adjusting other people’s avatars so they appear to ignore the non-person.

Or if that seems too humane, you could always just fork the person instead. You’ll still be able to interact with them just like before, except now they won’t believe that annoying wrong thing you hate! The reality operating system will simulate the person exactly as they would act in every other way, only altering the target behavior.

It gets worse. Maybe you always had a crush on that person. What if they were just a little bit more into you? It’s not a big change, really. Everyone’s doing it…

You know what? Humans are kind of gross. Maybe it’s better if we never make it off this planet. I’m just going to stay here, in my house, by myself, and think about stuff that I like.

Normal stuff. Not like the rest of you weirdos.

Thanks for reading.

– Max


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