The symbol du-jour of freedom used to be the car. You put fuel in the tank and air in the tyres, and then you could go anywhere. You could do anything. Nobody told you where you had to be or when you had to be there.
Fragile tin cans with wheels, massacring tens of thousands of people annually, became status symbols of the age. I understand the upset when they made you wear a seatbelt. You can’t pen the magic unicorn.
Now it’s the internet.
The internet is my home. When I go out to buy beer or hotdogs from the corner store, I feel like I’m on a diplomatic mission in a foreign country. My waking life is dominated by ten, twelve, fourteen, and sixteen hour long marathon sessions at the computer. A man from the 1930s would look at me and conclude that I’m suffering from a mental illness.
The internet has all the advantages of the car, and none of its disadvantages. Stick your ass behind the wheel of a Pontiac Bonneville and people can still see that you’re a pimply fuck (and probably a carjacker). The internet is egalitarian, you can be anyone, and anyone can be you. Cars are also subject to entropy, while the internet gets better with time. You too part of the collective that improves it.
All through history, mankind has struggled to tame the earth.
Here in the 21st century, we can just bail out and build a digital one to our specifications.
My friend Dwayne and I were sitting around the computer, shitfaced, watching Youtube videos.
We avoided anything that looked competently made. There is not much fun in watching something good.
“Good fucking grief.” Dwayne said. On the screen, a bipedal piece of shit expressed opinions at a loud volume. “What’s wrong with this douchebag?”
“I bet he made the video blurry and shitty so we wouldn’t see the crack pipe.”
Dwayne half laughed and half snorted. He was a skinny kid with acne and questionable hygiene. Girls were seldom found in his company, but he was otherwise well adjusted. He worked a landscaping job in the morning and flipped burgers in the evening. I haven’t met one of my bosses face to face in four years.
“You wanna do the honours, man?” he asked, indicating the mouse.
“Nah, I did the last one. This guy is yours.”
With the aplomb of a Roman emperor deciding a gladiator’s fate, he clicked the Thumbs Down icon.
We both roared with laughter. I accidentally knocked over the pile of empty beer cans on the computer desk. We froze, waiting to see if Lisa had been woken by the noise. My older sister Lisa is proof that there is a God and that he cares about me.
When I was 22, having dropped out of college and blown up two careers like landmines, she took me in. My rent is negligible, but she makes no secret of the fact that she does not like having me live with her. It is in my interests to keep her happy. One of her suggestions is that I be quiet.
The only sound coming from Lisa’s bedroom was the ticking of her alarm.
“Fuck, man, I’d better go.” Dwayne said. “Eayer’s been busting my balls about getting to work on time.”
“One more video?” I moused over to the Related Videos column. “We can still break our record of two hundred videos in a sitting.”
“What the…you count? It’s one in the morning. We’ve been doing this for hours. Fuck this. I’m making tail-lights.”
I shrugged. “See you Monday, Dwayne.”
“Yeah. Later, mate.”
He vanished out the front door, and soon I heard the roar of a car with a bad muffler. He had ingested a lot of beer, and could look forward to an exciting night of travelling back streets and dodging police traps.
What’s wrong with you? Hell of a question. I could give a philosophical answer and blame the universe. But if you want the truth, the real world doesn’t seem important. It has never given me rewards proportionate to the effort I put in. The digital world is easier.
It’s very simple. When you have eight or nine social media accounts, you probably won’t have enough time to manage all of them, so you might close one or two. Maybe it’s Twitter. Maybe it’s Ustream. Maybe it’s real life. Where’s the problem?
By half-past two I was coasting in a semi-vegetative state. My fingers danced their QWERTY dance on the keyboard, with my mind far elsewhere, thinking about the garbage that needed to be taken out and the SEO research client who needed to be pacified and what the Regex cipher for ignored repeats was. I am a morning person, but that does not necessitate getting up early.
Half aware of my actions, I clicked over to my Livejournal, abandoned for three years. At the head of the journal was a lengthy blog post talking about my poor memory. I didn’t remember typing it.
I saw that it had a comment, and I clicked to see what it was.
An anonymous user. His post consisted of the sentence “This website has all you need to know.” followed by an URL. I right-clicked and opened the URL, realised it was probably a spam post, went back to my Livejournal, and deleted the comment.
Out of sheer boredom, I went to look at the URL I had opened.
This was how I found The Information.
It was a website I had never seen before. Visually it looked like someone’s throwback to the early days of the world wide web, when finding information on an actor meant browsing six crappy GeoCities fan pages run by crazy people. The background was black, and the font was white Times New Roman. Nothing looked like an intentional design decision. It looked like the creator had simply never bothered to change the defaults of the template he was using.
The website was creepy. I had made things like it when I was fourteen, but I did not feel a sense of familiarity.
On the front page, in all caps, was a grammatically challenged message
THIS WEBSITE IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. TYPE BELOW THE NAME OF ANY PERSON OR ORGANISATION TO RETRIEVE DATA. WE HOPE TO BRING THIS WEBSITE TO THE WIDER PUBLIC AT SOME FUTURE DATE.
Below, there was a search box.
Idly, I typed “Google” into the box and clicked Enter.
It brought up a chronological list of bullet points, each prefaced by a date.
January 11, 1996 – Search engine called Backrub conceptualised by Larry Page and Sergey Brin
March 18, 1997 – Backrub renamed to Google. Name is derived from the term “googol”, meaning a number 1 followed by 100 zeroes.
April 9 1998 – Google Technologies is incorporated
It went on for what seemed like hundreds of entries.
Oh, I thought. So this website is a crappier version of Wikipedia.
I typed in “Adolf Hitler.”
As before, I received a long list of places, names, and events.
April 20 1889 – Born in Braunau am Inn, Austria
I scrolled on, reading about the dictator’s rise to power. I paged on and on, my mind going blank, until I realised with a jolt that I was reading dates well into the 1950s.
December 27 1952 — Escorted past the Iron Curtain curtain by Nazi sympathisers
January 6 – 1953 – Flown into Argentina by ODESSA
No. Hitler died in 1945. This was all wrong.
I quickly scrolled to the bottom of the page, and saw the final entry.
October 21, 1972 – suffered brain embolism in Chile and died. Secret funeral attended by Pinochet and various members of his cabinet.
Hitler still alive in the 70s? Who the hell is running this website?
I couldn’t see any footer at the bottom of the page. There was no swastika or neo-Nazi slogan. There was nothing at all. Not even a copyrighted message.
I’m jaded when it comes to the web. But this website was just odd. I had seen other sites claiming Hitler had survived World War II, but they were always jingoistic, slanted and obvious. This website seemed like a retelling of the facts, except it was describing facts that couldn’t possibly be right. Couldn’t they?
I remembered the message I had seen at the top of the page. TYPE BELOW THE NAME OF ANY PERSON…
I made the worst decision of my life then. I typed my own name.
It took longer for the page to load. I was aware of my heart beating in my chest, and the sweat on my palms. Why was I trying to do?
The page loaded, and under the header TIMOTHY JONAS O’CAMPBELL there was another list.
October 30, 1986 – Born in Redfern, Sydney,
January 2, 1987 – Parents divorce. No fault. Mother takes Tim and daughter Lisa to live with her in Blackheath.
November 12, 1987 – Learns to walk
I read on and on, my brain processing it all and refusing to make any logical extrapolations whatsoever. The details were sketchy and incomplete. But they right. They knew where I grew up, they knew what nursery school I had enrolled in. This suck-ass website had a page on me and every last detail was accurate.
“No…just…no way,” I heard myself muttering as I read bullet point after bullet point. I felt like specimen in a test tube.
Maybe there’s a mundane explanation for this. I found this link on my Livejournal. Maybe I’ve done more blabbing about my childhood on Livejournal than I remember. And maybe this is some new experimental search bot that harvests anecdotes and stories from online blogs and turns it into a biography of that person.
This explanation made sense. Another stage in the internet’s evolution. A website that collects blog posts and writes that person’s life story for them. Technology.
My relief curdled in my stomach when I saw the next entry.
April 22 , 1992 – Mother discovers Tim and Lisa studying each other’s genitals while in the bathroom together. This incident is a long-time source of psychological trouble for the boy.
Had I written that in my Livejournal?
I wanted to stop reading. I was shivering and sweating at the same time, paralysed by horror. Everything I’d ever done, everything I’d ever thought was private. It was all here. But I knew that if I looked away, I’d tear myself apart. I needed to see everything. My eyes continued scanning the page, clauses exploding in my mind like cluster bombs.
True, true, true. What the fuck? How did they know that? True. True.
I was now looking at today’s date. 30th of September, 2011.
…And what I saw next made me want to scream.
The dates did not stop.
I should have done something. I might have been able to change things. So why didn’t I? Because I’m a failure, or less than that. We see people who have nothing and call them failures. But what does that make a person who has something and does nothing with it?
I closed the browser. I made The Information vanish from my computer screen. Then my shaking, clammy hands erased my browser cache, my viewing history, and my cookies. It was as if I thought the act of deleting the records on my computer’s memory would retroactively extend into the past, deleting what I’d seen from my actual memory as well. I had read far too much, and despite the late hour I could not sleep.
I can tell you something else. Two days later, when the phone rang, and I heard the gravelly voice of Rob Eayer on the other end, I knew exactly what he was going to tell me.
“Is this Timothy? Timothy O’Campbell?” The burly foreman who employed Dwayne had an unmistakable note in his voice. Not a scared note. A resigned note. Something terrible had happened. The train had come and gone and it was too late to fix things.
“Hey, Tim, I’m sorry, but shit’s fucked. Dwayne Richardson was just in an accident.”
“What? How?” It felt terrible that I had to fake surprise. He fell off a scaffold. A website told me this would happen.
“He fell off a scaffold and landed on a pile of bricks. Me and the boys were having a smoke break, and when I saw him…oh God, he was a mess. I called the ambulance and sat by him. He kept trying to talk. Eventually he said your name and phone number.”
The hot and cold parts of my body changed places. “How is he now?”
“It’s bad, mate. He’s at St Leonard’s hospital. On the critical list. They’re telling me his lower back is destroyed. Fuck…I don’t now…he breezed through his OH&S induction…”
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
I was looking down at my friend’s face on the hospital bed, his breath raspy and irregular, his eyes glazed with painkillers. I was tearing myself apart on the inside. I listened to the orderly beside me explain what had happened to his lower back. The anodyne medical terms sounded barbaric and savage.
The sheets were crisp and white, and the hospital gown looked horrible against his sunburned skin. Dwayne had been an athlete, but he would never play rugby or football again. He had life in a wheelchair to look forward to.
His eyelids fluttered. His mouth moved, although I doubt he was trying to speak so much as suffering from involuntary muscle spasms. I had spent my childhood playing with this kid. When we were 12 we had egg-bombed neighbouring houses and spray-painted trains. This couldn’t be happening. It was so surreal.
I started to think. Dwayne, this whole situation is fucked up to the sky, so would you mind if I added one more fucked up thing to the pile? Two days ago I found a website called The Information. Type the name of anyone into it and you get a complete record of their life. I looked up my name and it told me things I hardly even remember about myself. But that’s not all. It told me what I’d do in the future. It told me that you would have this accident, and that I’d take time out of my schedule to visit you in hospital.
So why didn’t I fucking say something?
“I’m sorry, Mr O’Campbell, but visiting hours end in five minutes.”
On the freeway back from the hospital I almost wrecked Lisa’s car. My hands were shaking badly.
The comment was gone from my Livejournal, and I’d nuked everything off my internet cache.
I got home, and fired up the computer. Three hours of Googling “The Information” and trying to remember the URL got me nothing. The Information would supply information to me no longer.
That all happened two weeks ago, and I’ve adjusted. All crazy people say that, don’t they? On one of Lisa’s suggestions I talk to a specialist two times a week, and I think I’ve figured out what to tell him to keep him happy.
If you find that website, you’re in for quite a trip. You could probably type “Jesus Christ” and find out if God exists. Or type “Earth” and learn the date that the human race will end.
I’ve told you so much already. Should I tell you more?
When I looked up my name, there were a few dates in the future. But not too many. The final date was the 10th of October. The day I will die.
The website didn’t specify exactly how I’ll exit stage. Suicide can mean so many things. But I’ve been researching it.
I am an expert on the subject already.