by Jonathan Lethem
I have an Internet within the Internet. It is my very, very own Internet, a place like the one that is known to you except that it is not known to you—it is mine alone. No one else may go there.
Actually, not to make things too complicated at the outset here, but technically the place I describe is an Internet within an Internet within an Internet. That is because I am, to begin with, a member of an élite within the Internet at large, part of an exclusive and private “members only” Internet consisting of a hundred people. These hundred were hand-selected, by a leader who with terrific foresight conceived the need for this private and smaller Internet in the long-ago days of the “early” Internet. In those days, it hardly seemed likely that anyone and everyone would be permitted to use the Internet, or even that many would want to. Nor was it foreseeable, except by our leader, that so many difficulties would arise—difficulties such as those with anonymity and masquerade and the lemminglike migratory waves of popular hatred that have come to define the Internet. (I mean the larger, non-exclusive one, the large general one, on which, it now occurs to me, you are likely to be reading these words.) It hardly seemed likely that these trends would already have been obvious. Yet our great leader foresaw them.
This was, I emphasize, quite early. According to our leader, the Internet at that time consisted of only (and, for some reason, exactly) two hundred people. Our leader then did something technical (I’m not good with technical concepts myself) in order to split the early Internet in half: a hundred persons over here, another hundred over there. At the time, it was, according to him (these are his accounts, his accounts are all we have), an exactly equal split.
Under cover of an air of frisky provocation, our leader proposed something akin to a game of Flag War, or Humans Versus Zombies. He suggested that the two Internets be thought of as two playfully competitive teams, conducting a playfully Darwinian experiment to see which would flourish. The other hundred, those excluded from our Internet, agreed to his proposal. He had them charmed and beguiled by the apparent equity of the arrangement, so that they barely noticed they were being excluded from something. Then, upon the implementation of his technical alteration, our leader promptly took his hundred persons and, for the purposes of the “other” Internet, vanished. Was never heard from again.
It was this “other” Internet that grew into the one you know so well, the one occupied by so many billions of different persons and, frankly, so full of so many confusing situations. (I can barely use it without becoming confused, though I suppose if I were there more often I’d learn to accept the conditions as normal.) Meanwhile, the hundred dwelled within their quiet, higher Internet under the leader’s cultivating hand. Our leader had only two rules, both brilliantly simple: no money, and no animals. The implications are enormous. Picture, if you will, your own Internet subject to those strictures; I doubt you can. Within our tight boundaries, a million flowers bloom. Boundaries typically occasion beauty, and our beauty is like that of a Japanese garden—it might be worth envisioning ours as a sort of “bonsai” Internet. We have, just for instance, our own way of linking to things, one completely different from yours, with a totally different linkfeel—in fact, as I just discovered in a search on your Internet, the term “linkfeel” doesn’t even exist for you. To put it simply, what you do fast, we do slow. It matters. This and other technical preconditions legislating the nature of our hundred-person Internet were insured by a few deft choices made by our leader at the very outset, built into what he calls “the infrastructure.” Again, beyond my purview.
We hundred rely on our leader for accounts of the early days because in truth not one of us was part of that original action. We came along somewhat later, blundering our way into the larger Internet as anyone else might have done. Yet, as the members of that first hundred opted to return to the wider Internet, or disappointed our leader in some way and were banished, he hand-selected, by covert invitation, replacements for those who left. I was one of those replacements.
The founding hundred have been sworn to silence on the matter (for all I know my voice may be within earshot of one of them now). So we current hundred can only speculate on the early days, and compare notes on when it was that we were plucked up by our leader. Our population is quite stable these days, though it does still happen that someone will vanish and be replaced. We all work together to bring the new people up to speed.
Yet lately I’ve felt the urge for a deeper foray, the need for a more profound exclusion, and it is this which has led me to the creation of an Internet entirely of my own. The motivation, though I hardly wish to speak of it, came when I discovered the unnerving fact that after several recent dismissals from our élite group of one hundred our leader had taken not to replacing those lost with new participants but, rather, to “making up” people. I mean to say that he was himself detected pretending to be several of our hundred. I don’t know how many, actually, nor do I know for how long he has been practicing such deceptions. Our leader wasn’t, in fact, caught out in this behavior. Instead, he revealed it in a series of increasingly obvious clues, small taunting gestures that, though unmistakable, he refuses to confirm. Revealed it to me, and possibly one or two others, though the possibility must also be granted that those others to whom it is known are actually faces of our leader as well.
Needless to say, the atmosphere among us hundred (although I’m not sure “hundred” is the correct term anymore) has been slightly but crucially altered. People seem to be speaking in “codes.” Where once I would have said there were no secrets among us (every e-mail within our élite Internet being, in effect, “copy all”), now I’m not so certain. I’m not even sure any longer where “us” begins and ends. I wonder if our leader has properly accounted for how deeply this uncertainty affects our self-definition and our morale around the precincts of our special Internet, given how utterly our strict boundaries have defined us since the beginning. Add money and animals, and I wonder whether we’d be so very different from the larger Internet anymore.
In any event, it is this which has driven me to create my private Internet, an effort of many weeks that is now at last complete. Believe me, for a nontechnical person this was hardly a small matter, and only the direst circumstances could have emboldened me even to attempt it. Unlike the hundred-person Internet, which is, if I understand correctly, sealed in a portion of cyberspace completely quarantined from the other, I have hidden my new and smaller Internet where anyone might see it yet never for an instant guess what it was he had seen. Mine is hidden like a grain of sand on the shore of the larger Internet, which washes over it like surf and yet alters it not in the least. It is here that I can at last breathe free. If “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog” (I had to visit the other Internet to discover this joke, because, remember, as specified by our leader, no animals), then an even more grievous fear may be the unspoken one: “On the Internet, nobody knows how many dogs there are.”
On my Internet, however, no one need wonder.
On my Internet, you know who you are: you’re me.