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The Absurdity of a Net

8th of April, 2024

There used to be a sort of mystique around going on the internet. Computer science nerds have a habit of describing their digital layer of experience in terms borrowed from the popular mythology of science fiction and post-Dungeons and Dragons fantasy works. The most obvious example of this is ‘cyberspace’—a term that managed to pass itself off as normal despite (or possibly because of) its fruitiness. One less well loved example—one I am fond of for its ability to transmogrify the Newtonian time of computer clocks—is the ‘epoch’.

In computer science jargon, an epoch is a fixed point that digital clocks use as a reference for counting time, typically useful for synchronising the internal clocks of many machines. Machines running UNIX family operating systems set their epoch as midnight, the 1st of January, 1970. In a move that feels rather more romantic, Windows NT systems measure time as the number of 100 nanosecond intervals that have passed since the beginning of the previous 400 year cycle of the Gregorian calendar: the 1st of January, 1601. A joke program named ‘sdate’ sets its epoch as the 1st of September, 1993, and formats the date as an unbounded number in reference to that historic month. The genius saxophonist Pharoah Sanders died on the 24th of September, 2022. In other words, he died on the 10,617th of September, 1993.

Before September 1993 the internet was largely used by academics and computing professionals. New users trickled in slowly. The exception came every September when a large influx of new first year university students would pile in, routinely fail to observe proper posting etiquette, and make a nuisance of themselves. September became a by-word for anarchy and ignorance. In 1993, internet service providers began offering access to new users en masse. The September of 1993, in the view of the earliest users, continues to this day. In 1994 a Usenet elder described it as the September that never ended, which has become known more succinctly as the Eternal September.

The absurd date formatting is itself a mechanism of mystique. It calls to mind the unfathomable aching distance of the Hindu kalpa, a temporal ontology of 4.3 billion year cycles that mark the waking and sleeping of Brahma. Where cognition is concerned there aren’t really any possible representations of infinite values. The values instead sometimes get so large that we intuit the limit beyond which further increase becomes irrelevant, so that very large numbers instead begin to behave as though they are infinite. If an immortal man, cursed with continuous sleepless cognition, were left to drift alone in space for a googol years, and then brought home for a year before being left adrift again for a googolplex years, would the unfathomable difference between these two lengths of time even be detectable to him? Could he determine which of the two was shorter? Both timescales defy the touch of consciousness—they are two eternities.

Eternity is one thing, but September is quite another. September is a poetic month; it describes a time of year universally rendered in all world cultures as a period of spiritual ungrounding. It is the time of twilight, and of Earth veering into Heaven’s orbital purview. When we use the internet we do not usually feel as if it is a poetic thing, but that depends on our willingness to engage in its ugly logic. It is a poetry of tunnels; of diagrams and timetables; of panelák steel and flowering ghastly neons. Poetry without nouns or verbs or adjectives, and only of articles and the implied logic of their arrangements. The absurdity of a net, any net, is that it is a surface composed entirely of holes; a substance that exists to support the absence of substance.

“It is a Lovecraftian worm-ridden space that makes solidity the altruistic host of emergence.”
—Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia

Further Reading:

Serial Experiments Lain: A More Optimistic Analysis
Three Trains of Thought From the Barbican, 7th of October
The Historicity of Valley of the Shadows