May 6, 2023

The convenience store chain Lawson is one of those things that started life in America and got transported to Japan during the occupation years. The American original died out, but its Japanese offspring thrived enough that here we are in Shanghai, a city that is very certainly not Japan, and they have them all over the place here.

Lawson is blue and it has self checkout machines. That’s not something every chain of convenience stores has. For instance, every time I go to C-Store — the place with a tomato logo — to buy a three-kinds-of-egg sandwich, I have to go to the counter and get the cashier to ring me up. Sometimes they ask me if I’d like to put my sandwich in the microwave. I always instinctually say no, then go outside and start eating my sandwich, thinking about how nice it would be if my sandwich were warm. Despite Lawson having the self checkout machines (which even have little anime girls which act as your virtual cashier) and in general being the most aesthetically pleasing of all the convenience stores in Shanghai, they don’t even have a one-kind-of-egg sandwich. If I want to eat some meat-free savory item at Lawson, I have to order their Mushroom-Vegetable Buns, which are all sold out by 11am at every single Lawson location I’ve visited.

The convenience store closest to my girlfriend’s house is Buddies, which is pink and has a cat crawling all over the counter half the time I’m there. They have a shortage of refrigerators, so instead all their beverages are kept on shelves that line the walls. They have a bunch of beverage brands I’ve never heard of before or seen in any other convenience store. If I need to buy disposable underwear, eggs or cigarettes for my girlfriend I go to Buddies. For anything else, I go down the block to FamilyMart (which does have an egg sandwich — though it’s much smaller than C-Store’s) or I cross the street to go to Lawson, which at least feels like a nicer place to stand in.

One evening a few weeks ago when my girlfriend wanted ice cream, I didn’t even try Buddies. I went directly to Lawson. I knew that Lawson didn’t just have a freezer on the floor, but also a wall freezer. I imagined that meant twice the variety. This was before I found out about the place down the street that is like a little single-room glistening-white miniature mall arcade, but instead of video games it has a multitude of freezers containing every variety of ice cream imaginable, with a guide in the front that lists prices instead of having them directly on the racks. If I knew about that place at the time, that’s where I would have gone. But I didn’t so I went to Lawson’s instead.

She wanted to see all the options they had. I sent her pictures. This wasn’t enough though. She had questions about each type of ice cream that were too specific for me to know how to answer, so any time she was interested in a particular box I pulled it out and sent a close up picture of its front and back for her. After five minutes of this the cashier walked up to me and demanded to know what I was doing. I said I was helping my girlfriend decide what ice cream she wanted. He immediately snatched my phone out of my hands and said “why don’t you just video call her then instead of spending an hour standing here like a creep?” He then dialed her. I never call, let alone video call, so my girlfriend was shocked to see WeChat notifying her I wanted to video call. This was especially so because her last message to me, which the cashier didn’t see when he grabbed my phone from me, was her final decision about which ice cream she wanted. I didn’t want to offend the cashier so I went through the motions of asking her what she wanted again. She told me, I paid, then I walked home. When I got back she demanded that I explain what the video call was all about.

I didn’t really know what to say. I wasn’t really sure why the guy was so annoyed with me sending messages rather than video calling.

I wonder if what was going on was this person of the same generation as me saw me using what he perceived as antiquated technology — text messages — and treated me the way he would a grandparent who doesn’t know how to use their phone. For me, I’ve always perceived talking on the phone — video calls or traditional voice-only calls — as old people features, with text messages being the more refined usage of this advanced technology we now all have access to. In another world, where I too worked at Lawson and had the same willingness to confront strangers that this cashier had, it might be me telling an old man that he could just send his wife a few messages rather than scream into his phone describing all the brands of ice cream.

Why then are text messages for young people and phone calls for old people? Is this just a me thing?

I think it might be that I just have an elitism with regards to the written word versus the spoken word. I, as this weird introvert, can’t help but feel writing contains more potential for expression than speaking. Text messages, as short pieces of writing meant for just one person seem like expression in its purest form as a means of communication.

Whenever I read about poets and writers of the distant past — say from before 1800 — they always sound like jerks to me. Writing in the days before most people could read of course meant something very different than the act of writing does today. This isn’t to say that the purpose of writing should be mass-consumption. It’s just — whenever I engage in an art form, I want to find the punk rock version of it. As an example from cinema of what I mean, Jim Jarmusch might be considered a punk rock director. This goes beyond his movies just being low budget. When you watch them, you might ask “why would you make a movie like this?” A first attempt at an answer might resort to the contrarian instinct as the explanation: “Because no one else was making movies like this”. But as much as this art may be opposed to the society it was created in, there’s an answer to the question of why it was made that is just as obvious, but perhaps a little embarrassing to admit: “There was nothing else I could make.”

Punk rock only exists when normal people make art. That's not a sufficient condition, but it's a necessary one. Returning to literature, writing as punk rock can’t exist when only rich people know how to write, or when the only people who will read what you write are New Yorker subscribers.

Once advances in technology made communicating by text such a normal thing to do — chatting on the internet or on your cellphone became this act that is both universal and intimate. Everyone texts, but everyone does it in a different way, and sending messages to a new person means learning a new way to write — even if much of your innate personality is retained.

For me, I don’t have a choice. I don’t know how to talk to people. Text messages give me a chance to put a little thought into what I’m saying — to give the other person a performance without it being rehearsed. Here I'm using the word "performance" in a positive way, hinting at a transcendence of mere communication of surface level facts through normal language, and instead using language the way poetry uses language, somehow escaping language's own restraints. It's a process that's hard to talk about without using a whole pile of pretentious sounding words. Talking on the other hand goes too fast. I barely have time to even communicate. I can only make a conversation into a performance if it’s scripted, that is, if I’ve already had time to formulate what I want to say in my head and therefore have completely removed the input of the other person — the more negative meaning of the word "performance". This might just be a problem with my own brain. Most people can think much more quickly than I can. With text messages however I have enough time with each message to think of a meaningful response and say it in a way that does more than just the mere utilitarian purpose of listing things I want to say. Beyond all else, these text messages leave a record. They can be an art form in a way oral conversation can’t — a participatory one — a collaboration with others. Being an art form, there can also be a punk rock version.

It’s not like I actually understand the spirit of punk rock. I’m just a child of the internet, listening to more music than is healthy. Do I even listen to that much punk? Most of the music I like is at least three generations removed from what could undeniably be called “punk”. Still, at some point I started considering myself punk rock’s disciple — though I do have to admit I’m quite an unlikely one. I’m a student of punk rock the same way that Sun Wukong is a student of Buddhism. I don’t really even talk to anyone else who listens to it. I don’t go to shows. I don’t even buy CDs. I just download music illegally and think about it late at night when I have nothing else to think about. Should people like me be allowed inside of the world of music?

I could make the following argument: Punk rock’s commercialization has already occurred multiple times over the past 50 years, so whatever purity it has left isn’t much of a concern. There’s nothing wrong with letting a loser like me desecrate its name even further.

I’m still left with a much more personal question: what effect has this music had on me?

It’s true that I can personally identify aspects of my life and personality that arose from punk. For instance, I’ve made so many dumb games sitting alone in my room that I have never shown anyone. These are games that explore the negative tactile sensations brought on by the machinery of human society in ways so amateurish that I could not possibly consider asking anyone for money to play them. And not once have I considered trying to make my games into something I could make money off of. I’m not sure that would be the case if I hadn’t listened to dozens of weird non-commercial bands whose music I got for free off the internet.

One can counter this by pointing out I have no problem making money in other ways — and have even considered working for big games companies. It’s only when doing my own thing that I have any concerns about purity. It’s quite easy to not care about making money when you’re already getting it from other sources. As for the system as a whole — this economic machine that determines all of our livelihoods — I’ve done very little tangible to try to change it. So once again I have to ask, have I really learned any meaningful lessons from punk rock?

The only thing that seems indisputable to me (and perhaps invisible to everyone else) is that I have a constant craving for communication that goes beyond the linguistic constraints that I have been wrestling with my whole — and the exact texture of this craving clearly came in part from early exposures to punk rock. I heard music that no one I knew in “real life” was listening to, only people on the internet that I didn’t have the tools yet to communicate with beyond a surface level. I had never had these feelings before, and being young, I suspected I was feeling things no one else had felt before, not even the people who made the music that induced these feelings. I tried describing what I felt and failed. I started learning how to become a “true internet user”, talking the way people on the internet talk, so I could meet other people who would understand me. Ultimately that never happened! At least not in the total way I envisioned.

Of course, the way I narrate the process above is kind of misleading. It’s not like I found myself submerged in this technology, at first not grasping what it was. When I got on the internet, I was after something more than just a confidante. My purposes were a bit more sinister than that. The reason I embraced the internet so whole-heartedly was that I’d seen and heard of other people doing it, and it seemed like a cool thing to do. It was as much more a hope to replicate others’ experiences than a blind attempt to forge onward, unaware of what lies ahead.

This isn’t that unusual. Lots of people who talk to strangers online do so in a way clearly influenced by imaginations of the romance and excitement imbued in the internet.

When I was 20 I’d dropped out of college under the assumption that I’d probably never return. I met a lady from Italy on the internet. She was in her late 20s I think. Maybe she was already in her 30s. She had a British boyfriend whom she kept cheating on. He had come to Italy to study art history. She said when they started dating she had tried to get him to have sex with her and he had asked her to wait, which was quite romantic to her.

What I remember distinctly about talking to her was that for the first week it felt like we were playing the roles of sad people of opposite genders talking on the internet. Of course we both actually were sad — but sadness doesn’t need to take an external form. It doesn’t have to influence your behavior. You don’t need to talk like the characters from Lost in Translation (which I’m only imagining — I’ve never had the guts to actually watch it).

I had infinite amounts of time. I could talk whenever she could. She had plenty of time too. It was around Christmas. I forget what her situation was. I think she had quit her job and was back at her parents’ house in a smaller town than the one she had lived in and worked in for many years. She said as a teenager there she was the only one with dyed hair, but now she saw a few kids with dyed hair skateboarding. I forget if it made her happy for the future or sad that she didn’t have anyone like that to be her friend growing up. I told her about someone I’d recently had sad sex with who I thought I’d never see again (I actually got back into contact with that person a few months later and we continue to be friends). She told me about her boyfriend. It was that kind of vague discussion of sex between people of the right genders that invites imaginations of sex with each other, without any commitment towards anything more. At the time it was still pretty new to me. Even if I pretended to be world weary, I was still more a child than an adult (I still am). I’ve had a lot more of these sorts of conversations since though, enough for me to see patterns and be weirded out by them. It’s one of those dynamics of heterosexuality that I assume when homosexuals get together they make fun straight people for. Though I don’t know — there’s probably a gay version of that dynamic too.

Eventually we did manage to transform into just normal people. We continued to talk. All of my friends have a certain genre of message that I feel is appropriate for me to send to them. Becoming friends in some sense figuring out the appropriate genre of messages to send. Something happens in my day, and since I don’t have a Twitter and feel creepy sending the same message to multiple people, I only have one person I can send it to. I go through the catalogue of people I know and through some mysterious process determine who the right person for this particular thing I did or saw is. Then I send a message about it. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. If you asked me which kinds of messages go to which of my friends, I’d have no idea how to answer. Sometimes I have things I want to say, but I can’t really imagine sending them to anyone I know. Those things must be left unsaid. Perhaps I feel something like loneliness when I encounter them, though perhaps it’s a premonition of a new friend I still haven’t met yet whom I can talk about those things with.

About a year after talking to my Italian friend for the first time, once I was already back in school, she told me she’d be in Los Angeles for the next few months. She had found a tiny apartment she could stay in for that time. She showed me screenshots of an argument she’d gotten on the internet with someone saying that people like her from distant countries renting apartments are why the rent in LA is so high. She invited me to come visit her. I said I could come over spring break. When spring break came around she ended up going to New York to see her British boyfriend. Shortly later she went back to Italy. A few years later I was going to Germany for some applied mathematics conference and would have two or three days where I didn’t have to do anything. Someone else in our little group said he had a friend in Italy he wanted to see while in Europe, so I figured I’d go with him to see my own Italian friend. I messaged her to see how she felt about it. She said of course she’d see me. However, this was all happening March 2020. Our group going to Germany had had about half a week where we debated whether or not we should go, then the conference made the decision for us by cancelling the whole thing all together. That was followed by two years where international air travel seemed like a fantasy reserved solely for fancy reporters on Twitter assigned to cover who knows what. They talked about their flights the way someone in the 1920s might write about riding a Zeppelin in an article for a weekly magazine whose readership would likely not experience flight themselves anytime in the next three decades.

As a result, I still haven’t seen my Italian friend. Who knows if I ever will.

I’m not really sure where her imaginations of the internet came from. Maybe I should ask her. She’s older than me, so maybe they simply came from past experiences on the internet and wanting to replicate those. In my case it’s a little different. Every fantasy I’ve ever had about the internet as a portal into other worlds was placed in me by a video game.

When I was in elementary school, my older brother had a friend Tim who, now, behind the melting glass prism of memory, seems to have been both constantly present at our house, in the basement that was my brother’s room (and would one day become mine after my brother moved out and I had to take up the family business of wasting time on the computer) and constantly inviting my brother to his own house, in my imagination a mysterious fortress of Playstation 2 games that I had never seen with my own eyes.

One afternoon during summer break Tim offered to let me borrow Katamari Damacy and .Hack//Infection. I played .Hack first, being enchanted by its blue-haired clown-like protagonist. While I was sleeping Tim took Katamari Damacy away before I could play it, denying me its pleasures until years later when I purchased it for myself. Perhaps in another life I’d slip Katamari into my PS2 first and .Hack would be the game snatched away from me — though that of course makes no sense. The reason Tim took Katamari Damacy away was that he wanted to play it. If it was in the PS2 then he’d just eject it.

By the time I bought Katamari Damacy myself, it was no longer new and I was no longer (100%) a child. Playing it had a different effect on me. Instead of the colors, the art, or the tactile experiences of Katamari invading my youthful brain, I had the wistful yearnings of imaginary teenagers living in an imaginary internet to contemplate that fateful summer. When you’re a kid younger than 13, teenagers feel more like adults than actual adults. They’re the protagonists of all the media you gorge yourself upon, and they’re what you imagine yourself turning into when you grow up. Actual adults are in a world of their own that feels so far away and irrelevant. In .Hack it is teenagers who walk beneath virtual sunsets, living in constant fear of a virtual virus with the power to break free from the computer and enter their very real human flesh. It is the protagonist, a teenager, who is infected, used by the virus against his will, and taking on a new form he only gradually comes to understand. This is what I had to contemplate that summer instead of rolling up Katamari.

In .Hack we’re telling the story of teenagers sitting in front of their computer, but if we told that story just through how, say, their parents or a hypothetical fly on the wall would observe it, it’d be a lot more boring and sentimental — see the Netflix series Father of Light which tells the tale of a father and son playing Final Fantasy XIV together. So in .Hack, instead of seeing the physical bodies of the characters involved, we see what these teenagers are spending all their time thinking about: first and foremost, a game called The World, but they’re also doing other things at their computers: reading message boards, sending mail, or checking the news. Like a lot of stories about the future, the future is the same as the present except for one big thing. The big thing in the narrative universe of .Hack is that a virus put a halt to all networking for several years and forced everyone to use a new OS that kind of looks like a PS3 menu (the PS3 of course didn’t exist yet when the .Hack games came out). So this particular future looks even more like the present it came from than most stories about the future. You hear tidbits about the world gradually computerizing in scarier and scarier ways, but they’re ways that the world was already moving in when the game came out. Stuff like controlling traffic lights with computers rather than just timers. VR is also on the horizon, as it turned out to be in our real life year 2015, and continues to be eight years later. There is nothing about the ubiquity of smartphones though, which is what most visions of the future before 2010 tend to leave out. All of the paranoia about technology that was floating around in the year 2002 when .Hack//Infection came out has, for the last decade, been concentrated on smartphones and the social media apps accessed via smartphones.

We’re of course still in a world where disaffected teenagers play games and talk to other teenagers (or middle-aged men pretending to be teenagers) living in faraway places, but there’s something about the nature of these activities that’s different. Perhaps one of the clear differences between my own experience and the experiences of the generation (measured in internet years) before me, was that when chatting with strangers on the internet was new for them, it was new for everybody. By the time I had unrestricted internet access, the meaning of this technology had not just changed for me alone — I’d had years to observe it vicariously — it was different for everyone else too. New platforms had arisen. The kind of people who wanted to do “old internet” stuff were old people (again, measured in internet years -- so people in their late 20s or early 30s). All throughout history, old people have been known for talking about how much better the past used to be. So from my very first days on the internet it was made clear to me that everything good about it no longer existed.

I played .Hack before I’d ever talked to anyone on the internet. I didn’t even have a computer. When I got access to one, I knew I needed to download some MMOs right away. I found some website listing free MMOs and decided upon Maplestory, since I liked pixel art. Later on I played Phantasy Star Online Blue Burst. I wanted the real world .Hack experience — which of course is just playing more video games.

There is something foolish in hearing about a place and experience (in my case from my brother and by media like .Hack) then trying to go there to have that same experience — though isn’t that one of the greatest pleasures in life? Description is not sensation. Description seeds yearning that cannot be fulfilled in the moment. Even more diabolically, some of the people who do the describing happen to be artists. These are the sort who can dig sublimities out of mundanities and paint multilayered reveries that are supposed to represent the most commonplace of human experiences. It’s not always clear who is being an artist and who isn’t in everyday life. There’s of course some value in imagining feelings, places and ideas that couldn’t possibly exist — and it takes a great deal of skill to stimulate others’ imaginations — but sometimes I just want to hear things as they are and confirm with my own eyes and ears and hand and tongue that everything is indeed as advertised.

Playing games was just the first step in living the .Hack life. I did indeed take the next step: having my own conversations with blue haired people from the other side of the internet. I got to experience some of those conversations feeling so real the the people I knew in real life, touched in real life, and had sex with in real life felt like figments of my own imagination — people I’d made up to talk about with my internet friends. Then at some point everything flipped around — it was the blue haired people (without blue hair at the time) that I was staring at inches away from, then touching, then having sex with — and very real blood poured out (period blood — we all of course have no patience). Somewhere inside their brain was both the sensation of my real touch, and the (perhaps dormant) memory of the tens of thousands of words from all my emails. Not the brains of two different people spread across two different worlds, but a single brain, a single person. I wonder how it felt to them? I wonder how it felt to me?

In the moments of recall, all of this is real again, but real in the way things that already happened are real. It’s as if I’m telling myself about a place I visited, a person I knew, a friend I had. When these experiences are communicated to you through others, you can think “I want that too.” But when it’s your own self telling you about it, what are you supposed to do? Those people were you — maybe those people still are you. They also don’t exist anymore. Did they ever exist?

As for the brother of my youth — the person who ultimately introduced me to my fantasy of the internet — he doesn’t exist anymore either. He became someone else. Whatever weird objects I caught glimpses of in his room or on his computer monitor are irretrievable — and it’s doubtful I’d be all that interested in them if I could see them now. As a kid though, I looked at all the nonsense my brother seemed to be unearthing — both virtual and actual physical stuff he’d gotten from thrift stores and off the side of the road — and I assumed one day I’d be able to find stuff like that. And I have! But also I haven’t. Not in the same way at least. A lot of what made up my brother’s environment was the technology of the time, his LG Chocolate feature phone, the multitude of Myspace pages he maintained, the stacks of CDs he had to burn in order to listen to things in his friend who could drive’s car — some of these I would experience too, but not in the same way. For instance, I too had a feature phone, but by the time I had one everyone else I knew already had a smartphone. I felt I was simultaneously behind everyone else in terms of technology, while also not having a chance to fully understand everything this already old technology I had access to was capable of.

The possibilities imbued in these old phones in some ways feel more tangible even today than modern smartphones. I remember accompanying my mom to buy a new phone when the salesmen mentioned that the average person only uses 10% of the features their phone is capable of. At the time I didn’t have a phone, but when I heard that sentence I aspired to be above average. I wanted to be the special person who puts every single feature of their phone to use.

As these machines are meant to connect with others, one only understands feature phones if everyone they know has one. One of their most defining aspects when compared to modern smartphones was how much variety they had — which is something that can’t be fully appreciated by reading Wikipedia articles and old fanpages. You have to catch glimpses of the wildly different interface your friend’s phone had, or drop your phone in the toilet and have to use someone else’s old one for a few months before you could afford to buy a new one.

Now phones can do so much — there’s not a checklist of features I could work my way through trying out or discovering for myself. I could spend my life figuring out new things to do with my phone, and most of them would be pointless.

I’d venture to guess that similar feelings make up a significant portion of most people’s emotional selves. Perhaps these feelings are directed at more serious things than frivolous consumer electronics — say someone assuming they had their whole life to understand the parents, only for them to, at the age of 16, see their parents die in a car accident. When put in those terms, it’s silly to feel this secondhand nostalgia for the technology I never got to immerse myself in. It’s also possible that if my whole timeline was moved up a decade I’d feel the same way about tapes and vinyl that I do about mid-2000s technology. This is very much a me problem rather than a problem with society.

The reason why technology developed the way it did and the more interesting seeming past disappeared is clear: Only luddites, or at least people with “a philosophy”, are going to buy the thing that can do less. So as long as the technology keeps developing, consumer electronics all converge towards “the everything device.” The economics involved in how we got here aren't that difficult to understand.

I still think it’d be nice if technology converged towards something more interesting than more compact and distracting devices that do all the things we could already do in the 20th century. I mean, being able to send dumb jokes to your friends while they’re at work and you’re staring at your phone, bumping into people and dodging parked bikes as you walk to the subway station — this is indeed a leap forward in human communicative capabilities. Though it’s still all just linguistic communication. Why does everything have to just be different ways of sending words (or sometimes little emojis that might as well be a stand in for words that don’t (currently) exist in dictionaries)?

As humans we interact with most objects by bumping into them with our bodies -- except for other humans, who we treat with special reverence. We communicate with them at a distance, either through sound, hand motions, or visual markings. Bumping into a human is very meaningful and can be terrifying or fascinating depending on the context. The desire for touching and to be touched, and the inability to do so underpins a lot of human interactions. There are of course times when through words alone a great artist is able to arouse tactile sensations that might as well be indistinguishable from personal experience.

I wonder if some of what I’m nostalgic for, either in my own firsthand or nostalgia or the secondhand nostalgia that media like .Hack slipped into my brain, is a sort of tint or accent that the combined limitations of older display technologies and the kinds of places I could use my computer (for a long time I only had a desktop) placed on all my attempts to use computers to communicate with this big world of ours.

One thing that is very noticeable whenever I look at the old computers my brother and I would have used in the mid-2000s is how pixelly everything is compared to my Macbook Retina Display.

There was of course a time when pixels were an art form (and they continue to be one in indie games). Pixel art is an example of advanced technology creating new freedoms, and in doing so opening a space for what would have previously been considered a needlessly restrictive art form. We invented super powerful machines that can manipulate anything their programmer wants them to in response to user input, allowing for a new medium for human expression — but for a time if you wanted these machines to be able to react instantly to the user’s input, they could only manipulate several blocks of colored squares at a time. Pixel art of course isn’t unprecedented. Cross stitch, for instance, has a similar visual quality — but it also only became an art form that many people would engage in and develop techniques for because of the restraints of textile technologies.

But for a very long time pixels weren’t constrained to just video game art. They existed in the user interfaces for phones and MP3 players. Even on desktop computers they existed as a kind of veil laid on top of everything else — though rather than blurring an image the way laying a semi-transparent cloth over your computer screen would, low resolution displays where every pixel is visible if you look close enough do the opposite — images gain a sharpness they don’t naturally possess. If you see the pixels through a CRT, then there’s another layer to all of this, where each pixel has a hint of all the other colors it could be. The visibility of the display technology makes it obvious that whatever you’re looking at is coming out of computer world. This is even so when the images you’re looking at were already obviously computer generated: a ps1 game on a CRT looks more like a product of cyberspace than a perfectly smooth low-poly indie game running on a 4K display.

The text rendering on Macs is way cleaner and more “print-like” than Windows. Even as recently as the days of 1080p (which of course haven’t ended) you can still see the pixels that make up of each letter rendered by your Windows operating system. On a Mac at the same resolution, through whatever future technology goes on in the inner workings of these computers, every letter looks like it was directly printed on your screen by a magical invisible typewriter that somehow produces proportionally spaced typefaces. Is there any impact this has to the psychology? Does seeing the pixels day after day build up in your system, a constant reminder that you are indeed entering computer world — that the text you read was sent to you from the other end of the internet? Probably not. I imagine it’s mostly a thing you notice when you’re not used to it, then get accustomed to the pixels and forget about them. That being said I feel like my positivity towards the computers started to disappear right around the time I got a Mac, despite me finding my Mac many times more enjoyable use. Though maybe that just happened to coincide with me turning 18.

What I’m getting at here is that maybe when everything about a medium feels artificial and made-by-machines, the content takes on a distance from reality it wouldn’t have if it were transmitted to you by, say, a hand-written letter — even an internet acquaintance laying bare their deepest feelings feels like it belongs to nothing other than the cyber-realm.

A great deal of the romance of talking to strangers on the internet comes from the fact that you have no idea what the environment they live in looks like. If they live in a different city (or even just a part of your city that you’ve never been to), it can be hard to imagine what kind of grocery stores they go to, or what’s in walking distance. If they live in a different country, then basic details like what they eat for breakfast, what type of bed they sleep in, or what their high school was like might be totally different. You get the chance to ask questions about a place you’ve never been to, and the replies you get will just be words on the screen. Words inspire the imagination in ways pictures don’t — and when words are displayed to you on a cramped screen with a pixelly font, maybe that inspires the imagination even further. The discomfort leaves its impression on you in a way your memory somehow transforms into coziness. Once all friction is removed, there is nothing to grasp onto but the content — and of course the content is important, but it needs a context to exist in.

One could over-dramatize this process as follows: you talk to people, create a self that is trapped inside the computer, behind the pixels, then years later forget that that self originated from your own brain. You look at all the external stimuli associated with that other you and find none of it brings that person back, so you can only assume they continue to be trapped in the computers of yore, now non-existent, never to be revived. The barrier of memory ultimately isn’t all that different from the barrier placed between two people thousands of miles away talking on the internet.