The week of April 5, 2015
A laptop with the Kernel on it

Holding a mirror to the digital age

By Nico Lang

In the age of the Internet, your life is a precious commodity. Tech retailer and ‘80s staple Radioshack plans to sell off consumers’ data as the company gasps its last dying breath. The National Security Agency has invested millions of dollars in a bulk collection effort to find out what cat videos you’re watching. Facebook loves you so much that it never wants you to leave.

While this speaks to the dissolving boundaries of privacy and security, it’s also a stirring reminder of what the Internet is about. The musical Avenue Q famously argued the Internet is for porn, and depending on who you ask, the Internet is for arguing on Facebook, for sharing GIFs on Tumblr, or for procrastinating at work, but volume two of our essays collection powerfully reminds us that the Internet is first and foremost for people.

From its earliest inception, the Internet sought to be a tool of connectivity, one that would bring the world a bit closer together. After the launch of Sputnik shocked the U.S. on October 4, 1957, proving that the Russians had beaten America into the space race, the U.S. government wanted to ensure nothing like that would happen again. Thus, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was devised with the intention of keeping America one step ahead of the technological game.

To do so, computer scientist and psychologist J.C.R. Licklider devised a theoretical method of allowing computers to communicate with one another through the exchange of data. His “Intergalactic Computer Network” would later be known as ARPANET; this would allow researchers at universities around the country to easily log onto a shared information network. While this sounds mundane, the seemingly simple can also be earth-shatteringly historic.

The first communique sent through ARPANET is a great example of that. As engineer and UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock recalls, the conversation between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute went like so:

“Do you see the L?”

“Yes, we see the L,” came the response.

We typed the O, and we asked, “Do you see the O.”

“Yes, we see the O.”

According to Kleinrock, the network crashed after they typed the G, but he claims “a revolution had begun” nonetheless.

While the Internet of today looks considerably different than in Kleinrock’s era—when we now have super-ARPANETs in our pockets, on our wrists, and in our eyeglasses—the Web hasn’t lost its ability to make the ordinary transcendent. The works collected in part two of Kernel Essays issue remind us that in the Internet era, our stories may feel small and personal, but they speak to realities much larger than the boundaries of the self. Whether we are starting fights on Facebook for the sport of it, conquering our fear of missing out, or crafting a version of ourselves that’s happier than the real one, our stories are part of a vast network of people searching for the same things we are: support in a time of need, a feeling of belonging to a community, or simply a way to pass the time.

In bringing together these eight unique, powerful essays, we hope not to just tell our own stories of loss, longing, and levity but also to hold a mirror up to our technological age. You might find yourself laughing or cringing at the reflection, but if you look closely enough, you’ll see something familiar in it.

Photo via Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed