3 July 2024

The Firehose

I'm tired. I find myself more and more isolated from the world. As I try to strike a balance between my creative endeavours and my daily chores, I keep wondering where all my time, and energy, disappears to. Most of it seems to turn into dust too weak to direct productively, and too small to try and conserve, not unlike pennies that disappear between folds of my couch.

After my morning session of undistracted work, I try and catch up with the world the best way most of us know how to. Check the latest news - we're less than one week away from an election. What's new on the Hacker News front page? Let's read the latest discussions on the F1 forum. In the evening, after a long and exhausting day, YouTube is my main source of entertainment, with dozens of channels I follow cranking our excellent quality content to rival the best of TV documentaries of yesteryear. How can one ever be bored, and not up to date with the rest of the world?

I'm tired and I didn't sleep well. The sky is overcast, and it's cold for July. My earthly existence is often pretty pathetic and, behind the screen where everyone lives and where the world seems to happen, lies my sanctuary. 'There' feels more home than 'here'. But I am not ready to abandon the weakness of my flesh and upload my consciousness into the machine just yet. In those rare moments away from the screen I can still hear the faint, billion-year voice that reminds me that here, in the grey cold and tired meatsack leading an ordinary life, contentment can be found. Here is where I am meant to be.

Reality could never compete with the Firehose. Endless streams of information our brain tells us is important. All that you ever wanted to know about your loved ones, never miss a birthday or a smile. The entire compendium of human knowledge at your fingertips, in real time. The Firehose knows everything about your current hobbies, and your future ones. Find a discussion about your favourite TV show, seek people agreeing with you, paying attention to you, arguing with you, having sex with you, every time, every moment, forever. The Firehose has everything want, and everything you don't even know you want.

I often dream of a world where machines lift humanity into a world of content symbiosis with nature, where we have abandoned the urban prison and are able to create and stay in touch with everyone in the world, from within our automated gardens in the verdant countryside. Exploring this daydreamed utopia, I try not to think too hard about how these machines came to be, who and how programmed them. What's behind the screens people like me stare for hours to make these dreams a reality, because I know what lies underneath the glass of screens and fibre optic cables.

It is very hard for me to imagine the Internet without its firehose of recommendation algorithms, the stream of social media updates and mobile notifications. Apps competing for our attention, molding and adapting their digital spaces to retain our attention for as long as possible. As everyone spends an increasing portion of their lives within the expanding firehose, unplugging is to willingly choose a deeper state of isolation and loneliness from the last remaining human contact, now mostly existing in digital form. The Internet once was a tool to augment people's lives, to communicate and to learn, until the day the machine started to tell us what is important and what we should pay attention to. Now you just have to open your mouth and the firehose will keep you fed, engaged and stimulated.

Deep within me, I know I do not need it. I don't really care about knowing every single moment of my loved one's digital existence. I don't really care about the latest interesting video documentary about a topic that satisfies my curiosity but has no relevance with the rest of my life. All I ever wanted was to talk with the people I love, in real time, once in a while to keep in touch, and to use the Internet as a library that only I visit when I need. I want Internet to be a toolbox that helps me create, not an IV of morphine and dopamine which makes me hallucinate an engaging life, while my soul and fire gets drained drip by drip. I'm tired and only the zombies like me remain, plugged into the matrix, always hungry for more, better, flashier.

I keep wondering whether we should introduce artificial limits to our digital lives to find a happier balance. What if you can only make one social media post per week, what would you have to say? What if your chat app didn't remember everything that was said while you were away? What would happen if online communities were limited to 100 users? What if you could only speak with people living 50 miles from you?

What if we stopped having front pages on our social media websites?

What if we stopped creating recommendation systems?

What if the machines were to release us, and let us go back into the world?

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