The week of September 13, 2015

A year in the life of the Internet

By Jesse Hicks

When is it time to release a “greatest hits” compilation—and when is it an act of hubris? Why, without thinking too hard, you could pretty easily compile a list of unwarranted greatest hits collections, arguing that these weren’t really “hits” to begin with, or that there are not enough of them to make a full album, or that the artist isn’t mature enough to have a full body of work, etc., etc. Like canon-formation anywhere, it’s a process open to interpretation.

When the idea of a Kernel greatest hits issue came up, I was initially wary of appearing too self-congratulatory. No one wants to sprain an arm patting oneself on the back. But looking over the past year of Kernel stories, I found a lot that should make us proud. And I thought back to that old saying that if you don’t toot your own horn, who else will? So, on the Kernel’s first anniversary, we’d like to indulge in some low-key horn-tooting.

First, let’s appreciate Kevin Morris’s excellent story about how Dante Orpilla, facing a lengthy prison sentence for trying to buy drugs from undercover law enforcement officials, turned to Reddit and asked for a favor. Members of the site responded in the best possible way, changing the life of a young man none of them had ever met. It’s a great example of a story that literally couldn’t have happened before the Internet.

Dante Orpilla found an unexpected community online; so did Hector Monsegur, who became the infamous hacker known as Sabu. A driving force within Anonymous, he lived a double life as an FBI informant. When his cooperation with the authorities was revealed, Monsegur was essentially blacklisted from the hacker and cybersecurity industry, shutting him out of the only career he’d known. Kevin Collier’s profile of the hacker as outcast shows a man still defiantly trying to find his place in the world.

Sticking in the realm of cybercrime, Chris Stokel Walker met the anonymous online vigilantes who’ve already helped arrest more than 20 suspected pedophiles in the United Kingdom. “Dark Justice,” the pair call themselves, and as Walker discovered, theirs is a peculiar hobby.

The Internet lets the vigilantes of Dark Justice remain anonymous; they spend days pretending to be young and vulnerable. It’s an act, and not a subtle one. But even for those of us not trying to lure pedophiles out into the sunlight, our digital selves can become personae, reflecting only a part of our richest, fullest selves. Selena Larson’s thoughtful essay, “How to be pretend to be happy on the Internet,” illustrates this digital divide—not between a manufactured self and an IRL self, but a more subtle interplay of self-creation.

We’d like to indulge in some low-key horn-tooting.

It’s a phenomenon in some ways unique to people who’ve simply grown up with the Internet, social media, and constant connectivity as given elements of their experience. For those of us lucky enough to consider such problems, it’s easy to remember that much of the world doesn’t have our hyperconnected lifestyle. Matt Stempeck journeyed to Cuba just as the country began to emerge from a technological freeze that will, hopefully, bring it online in new and transformative ways. What connected Cuba will look like in the future, of course, no one can say.

The island nation’s culture is about to be changed—that much is certain. But technology doesn’t always disrupt or transform a culture; it can also be used to preserve and maintain it. As Dennis Scimeca explains in his feature on Never Alone, that preservation can be in the unique form of a video game. The game uses elements from Alaska Native storytelling tradition to create what he calls “a truthful and respectful representation of an indigenous culture that is made all the more powerful for the way it places the player inside their world.”

The notion that technology can create new worlds for us is a common one. But what if you’re someone for whom a world permeated by technology is less a dream than a nightmare? Aaron Sankin profiles a group of people who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a controversial ailment that makes it almost impossible to participate in modern life. Magnetic waves seem to cause them extreme pain; to escape, they have to retreat to electromagnetic dead zones, often far from human habitation. (Sankin also took on how the U.S. Air Force has trouble filling its need for drone pilots.)

If EHS sufferers can’t stand being around technology, at the other end of the technophilic spectrum lie the Internet’s DIY brain hackers, who, as Marissa Fessenden explains, earnestly imagine themselves as bio-machines waiting to be improved. In some cases, that means strapping a 9-volt battery to their heads hoping to boost cognition and concentration. You probably don’t need a spoiler to guess how their story ends.

And finally, after beginning with a story about the power of the Internet to improve our lives, let’s close on a story about—the late-’90s shock website that proved there was an audience for fake pictures of a “dead” Princess Diana, decapitation videos, and leaked autopsy photos. Audra Schroeder comes not to praise the site, exactly, but to bury it. And yet, unsurprisingly, the all-too-human impulses that made a proto-TMZ and a precursor to the most grotesque subreddits—those urges are still with us, and there are places on the Internet that still cater to them. That’s the online world, after all. Good, bad, and everything in between. Human.

So here we are after a year of chronicling online life in all its strange profundity. Thanks go out to everyone who’s contributed, from our staffers and freelancers, to our designers and producers, to the copy editors and photographers. It’s been a wild ride so far, and we’ve still got some surprises planned for the future.

Enjoy the issue.