Networked lives: navigating interstitial online spaces in times of disquiet

Searching for the horizon in a network of loss, decay and fragments

I.

The horizon.

The farthest point visible in the physical world.

When we seek a place beyond this point, our aim should always be to first meet up with the horizon. It can be our guide.

Some say, if we ever dream of traveling toward the horizon, we hold a desire for self-empowerment in order to achieve a future ambition.

Alternatively, some also say when we dream and are unable to spot the horizon, this represents a clouding of our minds, a narrowing of opportunities, and perhaps even a future death in some capacity.

II.

Linear narratives are no longer equipped to respond to constant and rapid globalisation. We’re one tiny part of an immeasurable hypertext, navigating our own story through an infinite spiderweb of micro-narratives, jumping, often blind, through hyperlinks, images, audio and video.

Films and television series, with ever increasing popularity, utilise nonlinear narratives to more accurately portray the way our brain processes information and our memory recalls events.

More so than ever, we live and grow inside multiple mosaics composed of online and offline fragments, which build up to (hopefully still) create a personally coherent, contemporary narrative image of our lives.

But in our ever-expanding online network, where is the horizon? Which direction do we turn towards to try to look for it? How can we map the ever-changing, ever-growing, ever-morphing?

Although both play with depth and surface, the shift from horizon to hypertext ensures we are aeroplanes floating through the abyss.

If we look long enough at the horizon it can become a vortex, luring our gaze into infinity. Does this mirror the way in which we all bore through digital space? Clicking or tapping further and further into a black hole of connected information.

Will the ever-expanding internet mark the boundary of a hypothetical event horizon? Where nothing inside the internet can ever cross the boundary, nor escape, the internet.

III.

Often brought on by rapid network decay or an enforced rebrand, a TV channel can cease to exist once it suffers network death.

Sometimes, after a merge the dominant network absorbs programming elements of the deceased network and certain shows can embrace a second life.

However, if a show does not generate sufficient viewers the new network is extremely likely to cut the cord completely.

Think Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me (and these are just Bryan Fuller’s shows).

If a network dies without a rebrand, it pretty much guarantees the show will die along with it.

But, if the show is popular enough, backed by an enthusiastic and tribalistic online community, it can have the power to channel hop, outlive its old network and survive on another one, with the potential to continue to live perhaps even a more prosperous second life.

Think Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The Expanse, Lucifer or Designated Survivor.

IV.

Death has increasingly become part of our digital world.

Publicly grieving online, often on Facebook and Twitter, allows us to perform an open and collective performance of mourning and recovery through a shared #connection.

This potential for a connected mode of recovery isn’t because of the technology or medium per se, but the technology or medium has become a tool to aid this recovery.

An online community can bring people together. The bond between existing friends, or friends of friends, or those limited to an online relationship of the person who has died, or even between complete strangers, can be strengthened through communal communication across digital channels.

Social media platforms help to close a gap, while simultaneously building a barrier, which enables us to connect with one other through another person’s public POV and grief. We are able to see what others are going through and this process helps us to begin to heal as one part of a much larger whole.

The particular cause of death has the ability to increase or decrease the connection between the deceased and their online community. Accidental death, prolonged illness or suicide, for example, can drastically change the tone and frequency of the network’s shared grieving experience. Cause of death can also effect the resilience of the network and its ability to cast a greater light of redemption and hope over a digital community. It also affects how long the network continues to maintain a flow of engagement.

An online network, however large or open, will only ever be able to show a fraction of their loss, because we only ever get to see a small personal part of the network, found in our feeds or timelines.

We travel as far as we wish down our chosen channel, censoring ourselves as little or as much as we wish, until we reach a threshold whereby we hit an emotional resonance or roadblock and remove ourselves from the network, continue in an edited capacity, disengage in conversation and lurk, or simply stop checking in.

It is a method of grief where we get to chose the moments when we dip in or dip out from it.

We’re a single tear in a billion virtual tears, filling up an endless void of geopbytes.

V.

Every time we die in the labyrinth, we must begin a new game. We need to start from the beginning and run again. Our next experience in the labyrinth will be similar but different. Both old and new.

The sub-genre of role-playing video game known as Rogue-like is characterised by a dungeon crawl through procedurally generated levels, turn-based gameplay, tile-based graphics, and permanent death of the player character.

Alternatively known as a Procedural Death Labyrinth (PDL), which includes games such as Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, FTL and Rogue Legacy, it describes the virtual experience of running, dying and being reborn, until we find a path which either matches our ability to travel further than we did before, or it diminishes our enthusiasm and efforts and forces us to give up playing (at least for that particular gaming session).

VI.

We only have to dig a little into Greek mythology to find out that the labyrinth was an complicated and confusing structure designed and built by Daedalus for King Minos. Its purpose, of course, was to hold the Minotaur, eventually killed by Theseus. Daedalus though, so elaborate was his own design, almost could not escape the labyrinth after he built it.

We often think of the terms labyrinth and maze as being one and the same, but there is a clear distinction between the two.

  • A maze is a complex branching multicursal puzzle with choices of path and direction.
  • A labyrinth is unicursal and only has a single path to its centre.

In a maze we can get lost, in a labyrinth we can find ourselves.

The history of labyrinth construction goes back more than 4500 years. Their intriguing pattern appears in rock paintings, on old vases and as decoration in palaces and churches. They have been a form of fascination across fiction and non-fiction, from architecture and design, to the arts and literature.

Much like a horizon, a labyrinth can symbolise a death or rebirth in our lives, a new beginning or perhaps a transition to a new phase in life, physically or spiritually.

VII.

Wiki: Hawaiian for fast; quick.

Noun: a website that allows anyone to add, delete or revise content by using a web browser.

Verb: if we wiki, we are either researching a topic on a wiki or contributing to one.

When we browse from topic to topic while browsing Wikipedia we travel down the wiki rabbit hole – think Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, think the White Rabbit, think: “I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date!”

But, if like Alice we ever do find ourselves in Wonderland, when do we know we have reached the point when we have lost our sense of trust in which way is up and which way is down? Which way do we choose to go, when left no longer feels like right and right is no longer left?

If the horizon is melting and one world seems to pour into another, does it mean we are destined to just bounce from one rabbit hole into another?

What happens to us during times of high emotional stress, during a bereavement, after the loss of a loved one? Do we swap one channel for a slightly different one? If so, when do we reclaim the capacity to stop channel hopping?

When we are suffering from a great loss, do we continue to share and re-use our networks for support, or seek something else?

VIII.

According to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, there is nothing permanent except change. Everything we experience (and do not) is in flux and nothing ever stays still.

Never do we step into the same river twice, because different water is always flowing. And much like this river, never do we step into the same life twice.

If we look towards the Hindu idea of reincarnation, we, in fact everything, forever mutates. We continually die and are reborn, die and reborn.

So what connects us through this constant flux? What is the thread that joins us? Originally it was rope and roads, sewers and telephones. Before we gradually moved away from the physical towards the invisible: fibre optics and wireless communication, broadband and 5G, antenna-based communications and satellites.

We traversed the Greek sewer systems and walked along Roman roads, to float above and around everything in a weightless, digital space. A cyber labyrinth.

Everything we experience is in flux and nothing ever stays still. Life is forever constant and death forever is the shadow that follows and calls.

VIIII.

So what connects us through this constant flux – through these linear narratives ill-equipped to respond to globalisation?

Which way is life?

Are we in a maze, continuously becoming lost?

Which way is death?

Or are we in fact navigating a labyrinth in which the correct path can only be discovered by ourselves?

Seeing as everything we experience is in flux and nothing ever stays still, how do we seek this place beyond the horizon? Especially when the horizon is currently invisible to us?

We keep searching. We keep running. Until order emerges from chaos.

Grief is a labyrinth, with a way in and a way out, but it is part of a long journey and it takes time to reveal itself.

For A.H

Words and noise. Loops and leaves. Jump cuts and scribbledehobble. Inspired by language, sound, and memory. Writer and content designer.