by Mark A. Rayner
Professor Roger Chandra’s hands never left the small keyscreen. He let his car and the London road system take care of the driving as he worked on lecture notes for his first-year class in media history. He barely noticed as his Honda zipped over the CanWest bridge to Western University. He entered the tunnel underneath University College hill to the Manulife Memorial parking complex. Unfortunately, his hands were not typing; words failed him, as he couldn’t think of a way to describe what the world was like before the internet became pervasive.
At fifty-five, Chandra felt like an anachronism.
For the last few years, he’d found the students taking his first-year course at the Faculty of Digital Arts and Sciences were unable to understand even the most basic concepts, such as “mass media”. They were all convergence-era kids; they had grown up in a world where separate forms of media – TV, radio, newspapers, websites – no longer existed. In their experience, information, entertainment, communications – everything – was interconnected and their sources were practically invisible. First on their phones, and then in their brains.
In his work, Chandra called it the datasphere; for his students it was like gravity. Its pull was always there, and they couldn’t escape it. For Chandra, explaining a world before the datasphere was like trying to explain General Theory of Relativity to a fish. He could do it, but they wouldn’t understand.
The quiet whir of the engine stopped and went silent. Chandra sat there, fingers still poised at his keyscreen. But nothing came to him.
Chandra sighed and slipped the screen in his satchel, careful to ensure that it was hidden. He was marginally ashamed of the device, given that his area of expertise was digital culture. Most of his peers had taken to AI composition years before, and only a few luddites insisted on actually using a keyboard for their work. Most of his undergrads didn’t even know how.
His watch chimed to let him know that he needed to look at it. He sighed again. It was a message from his Nike – his office assistant AI – letting him know a student was waiting.
Chandra had refused to have a permanent DataLink surgically implanted in his brain to connect him to the datasphere. They were expensive, but it wasn’t just the money that gave him pause.
And a slight defect in his eyes meant he couldn’t wear dataglasses; the device was almost as good as the implanted link as it projected information directly on the retina of the wearer. He only had his watch and his keyscreen to keep him connected when he was out of his office, car, or home, where there were screens and holos to keep him linked 24/7.
Concealed scanners in his office door identified the student visually and by the student’s IdentiCard signal. (It was just too easy these days to fool facial recognition AI, so all security systems used them.) Jaron Leonard was a mature student in his fourth-year seminar, Web Browsers and Other Transitional Media of the 21st Century. This cheered Chandra up immediately. He found Leonard personable and intelligent and he enjoyed his Caribbean accent. It was not the first he’d heard – there were many refugees from the intense hurricanes that scoured the islands each year. Plus, Leonard had one of the finest minds he’d taught in years.
The people-mover brought him to the Coca-Cola wing of the New Middlesex Disney building, and he took the stairs up to his office.
“I consulted your schedule, Professor Chandra, and it said you would be stopping by your office, so I thought I’d take a chance. Can you meet with me for just a moment?”
“Certainly, come in,” said Chandra as the scanners recognized his IdentiCard, (Like his student, he was mandated by the University to carry one if he didn’t have a DataLink implant.) The door opened. Inside there was a desk, an office chair, a couple of comfortable reading chairs, and a small, archaic library. Very early 20th century Bauhaus.
They sat down and Chandra asked: “Now what can I do for you?”
“I was here to ask you about a reference I came across while studying for the mid-term. Apart from a standard Wikipedia description I got from my Nike, I can’t find a thing on it. What was ‘linotype’?”
“Ah. Well, linotype was a kind of composer for newspapers. It produced lines of type in metal that they used to print the paper.”
“But why metal?”
“For use on the press. It was really clever. I’ll send you the references on the whole process.” He said to his unseen Nike-branded AI: “Send Jaron Leonard my ten best references on ‘linotype’. Just do it’.” The AI would do the search from Chandra’s personal teaching files, collect the relevant articles and virtual reports from the datasphere, and send it to Leonard’s student Nike AI.
“Thank you,” Leonard said, “you know I couldn’t find anything on it, sir.”
“Sure. And please. Call me Roger. And this is exactly why I keep saying it’s a such a shame there isn’t free search software or library access for undergrads anymore. Those student Nikes are hopeless. Now, do you mind if I ask you a question?” Leonard nodded, but he looked nervous.
“I believe you told the class that you grew up in Antigua, right? Did you have complete internet access when you were growing up?”
“Oh, no sir . . . Roger. When I was a boy, they were just starting roll it out. In All Saint’s we had to connect to the web on an ancient computer. It was much like you describe in the class holos. We had to go to a terminal – you know – just to get access. And then it was usually just two-dimensional viewing on a screen. Then Margot hit us, and we came to Canada.”
“So you remember what it’s like living without the datasphere?” Chandra asked.
“If you mean the net. Being connected all the time in virtual. Yes. Yes, I do, sir.”
“How would you describe that?”
Leonard thought for a moment and said: “It was more imaginative. Now everything is presented to you on your glasses, or through your link, if you can afford one. Everything is just presented to you.”
Leonard was about to leave and said, “You know. I think I miss those days.”
“Me too, Jaron. Me too.” The student left Chandra sitting in his reading chair, surrounded by his books. And the datasphere. It was all around him. Pulling on him like Earth’s gravity. Except for deep space, there was nowhere Chandra could go without feeling either.
He thought about that for a moment, and then finally he had his answer. He contacted the building supervisor, and asked: “Can I get my classroom disconnected?”
“I’m sorry, Professor Chandra?”
“I’d like to disconnect a room from the net entirely for at least one hour of my lecture.”
The supervisor looked shocked. “I don’t know, professor. We could do it, of course. But we’ll have to cut the power, and the back-up systems. And then their implants will probably pick up a signal from the Weston wing. You’d need some kind of shielding, or a signal interceptor. Besides, I’m not sure how students would react; it might freak them out. Besides, why would you want to?”
“I need to explain the gravity of their situation.”
This story was originally published in the Fall 2001 edition of the Western Alumni Gazette. Terry Lavender, then the editor, commissioned it; he asked me to imagine what might life might feel like in the future, after the internet had developed. The story was nominated for a 2002 Aurora Award in Short Fiction (English.)
My first two published pieces, The Amadeus Net and Any Port in a Storm, both featured the internet and AI. But you can see how this piece really became a burning question for me – how would young people handle a complete disconnection from the internet? See The Fridgularity for my answer!
Photo by David Cassolato via Pexels.