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Commentary :: Technology
Don't Be Net Neanderthals!
28 May 2008
The world that you see is an interpretation product of your intelligence. The time of stinking steel-and-oil machines is over. Rejoice, the net will be your car, airplane and spaceship.

E-mail from a future where the Internet is a car, spaceship and time machine and in which all the rubbish we put online today unfortunately still exists

By Juli Zeh

[Juli Zeh, 34, became well-known as an author with “Eagle and Angel” and “Play Instinct.” Her 2007 novel “Ship” raised the question: What if there are several worlds? This article published in: DIE ZEIT, May 2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Dear 2008ers,

The net speaks here. We write in 2050 and send you an e-mail because you are the parents and grandparents of our users. It is high time for you to understand a few basic things. The decision to make contact with you was not easy for us. Whoever writes from the future has a grammatical problem. For your sake, we must battle through the complex layers of “was,” “is” and “will be.” What will be our future?

As you can imagine, many people are concerned about you. In the old tradition, they are called historians although that has long been an anachronistic term. To blurt it out very bluntly, what you imagine as past doers not exist any more. The present, this fictional moment that is always past or not yet, is extended. It already covers several decades. Nowadays time is not a line any more on which one glides from point to point but a surface that extends to the limits. Extending what was always the case is called “space-time,” the know-it-alls among you shout. How beautiful, dear 2008ers! We don’t speak here of physics. We want to speak about people, about you and us. We want to explain why we and you are the same, not space and time. Perhaps we are a little slower.

You carry on this cute discourse about virtuality. You find “virtual worlds” privately rather charming and publically rather naughty, especially when young people are involved. Don’t grieve, that is normal. When the first trains ran, your ancestors believed that travelers would become mad with speeds over 35 mph since the human sense organs could not cope with the information flood. Now you believe the new information flood on the Internet will isolate people one day and make them unrealistic, sociopathic or mad. No one understands today why communication should lead to growing isolation.

Virtuality is a virtual term. It has no equivalent in so-called reality. Hand on your heart, dear 2008ers, more than half of what you regard as memories is freely invested. A person builds his own biography according to narration or communicative models, not by a mapping of actual events. The world that you see is an interpretation product of your intelligence. When you talk with your neighbor over the garden fence and each thinks he has understood the other, you share a happy space of shared virtuality. When you hear the name “Angela Merkel” and think of a certain person, you encounter an avatar. When you read a text, play a game or solve a mathematical equation, you use your ability to deal with abstraction. The list of examples could be continued endlessly. You stand at the threshold to the realization that multifaceted virtuality and reality resemble and telescope one another. A further step suggests itself. Virtuality is reality. Virtuality is the very normal, good old reality in a new garment, not a different foreign, new or partial reality. The person is now an information machine. Data processing is not a new technical process but has filled our heads for hundreds of thousands of years. So much for presuppositions.

Soon the crude oil will be all gone. You erect wind turbines, stage raps, wage wars and discuss nuclear power plants under new coordinates. You can’t see the forest from the trees. Do you remember the Google Earth? You still have it in front of you. A Google Earth can depict the earth three-dimensionally as live stream in real-time. Forget the flat screens. “Flat” may only be a preliminary stage. Imagine your monitor as a room, eight to two-thousand square feet depending on your need and budget. We don’t have to explain how this functions because you will understand shortly. For us, people no longer go to work or to the net. They are the net. They are in Frankfurt for work, New York to shop and Thailand for the vacation. The time of stinking steel-and-oil machines is over. Rejoice, the net will be your car, ICE, airplane and spaceship. You lived for a long while with minute- and hour-contingents for the telephone and Internet. We live with mile contingents. Something is nearly always left over at the end of the month. If you are now fearful, remember your grandparents did not perish because they could not drive 30,000 miles a year. They didn’t even have fax equipment.

Perhaps you slowly suspect where we are going. Movement is mediated information and vice versa. We no longer drive cars but move intellectually to any place we like. We are really less “virtual” than you. We refer directly to information and as little as possible to the coordinates conveying information. In other words, the mountain now comes to the prophets. We no longer race around in dirty machines to chase information but let information come to us clean and easy. We can move freely in this way. Data does not age. “Yesterday” and “today” have become floating terms. Be careful, we control all your e-mail traffic.

In your time the writing of history was a romanticizing and completely virtual process. Before the invention of the Internet, writers carried about letters for weeks in a leather case and polished them again and again because they knew the letters would probably survive them. They labored on their post-humous fame. Now, dear 2008ers, you can do everything on the Internet! We don’t have any sentimental fantasies about how the past could have been. The net did not create the data on which human life has always depended. The growing identity of life and net only provides documentation. The central discovery is that you work on your future past with every e-mail you write. We know many things about you and everything about your children whether they are (were) pop stars or export liaisons.

The future can never be an educator to the past. We write these lines to give cautious instruction. Dear 2008ers, race through the Internet like there is no tomorrow – in loincloth with club in hand, controlling your instincts. Human language is hardly powerful. On the net you act as you would never dare outside. You tell everyone everything about yourself and a heap of lies on top of that. You publish your most intimate absurdities for the little dream of immortality. But there is no only-dreamt-of-taste and immortality is only fun in a cute dress. Stop your hysterical error about virtuality. Civilize yourself before civilizing others. It will cost us much blood, sweat and tears before the traffic rules between citizen and state on the information superhighway become as democratic as on the street outside. This will be possible when there are citizens on the net and not only informational Neanderthals who believe a naked man has nothing to lose and nothing to hide.

Be engaging, speak in whole sentences and carry your head high. We are glad for you even if we know the greatest and most famous among you were incredible bloody bastards.

Will see you again soon with sweet kisses,
Your net
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