Internet pioneers, circling their wagons

June 17, 2007

So far as I can tell, the thought actually did pass through my mind once some time ago of how I might possibly store a two month supply of water and food in my tiny apartment. A rehearsal of the failed attempt at sleep still several minutes away from having that thought had occurred a couple hours earlier, and my determination to be among the few still breathing after disaster had befallen all of those around me was unflagging. All of this anguish was set in the bluish white light of my laptop’s screen.

If I were to say that it started simply or innocently, I might be stifling an eschatological lineage that has puzzled thinkers for centuries; but it started by dipping my toe in that raging, inexplicable torrent – following a link on the internet about the avian flu, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or peak oil. And I conflate them all not because they bear an equally plausible threat to our world, but because I have run the same course with each of them, predictably enough without ever having noticed that very predictability when once I give myself over to the hand wagging they induce. One link, as often as not followed for the pure spectacle of somebody else’s hand wagging, has brought me to this state again and again wherein I abandon any sort of reason and give myself over to manifold layers of survivalistic planning.

One followed link accomplishes all this, though, not because a single website could have such persuasive power, but because tight clusters of links form in these corners of the internet: introverted in as much as they all seem to link to each other and to build off of each other’s panic, links – tokens of these websites’ content – pour into them, recruiting new members and onlookers. Yet looking out is done only tentatively and subjected to the approval of the interpretive community.

Like the best of games, there is an incredible level of absorption in the experience of circulating between these websites, reading their discussions, their diatribes, and their advice. And like a game, a sharp distinction is made between those who play and those who don’t – that is to say, a rule-following community is created as an extension of the eschatological belief. We find, on the accepted basis that how one came to believe in this particular apocalypse is irrelevant, a terrific variety of participants in these forums – rural survivalists or ecologists, urban or suburban dwellers bent on protecting their families, otherwise uncategorizable individuals – all adopting a similar vocabulary and mode of interpretation for the sake of these online forums. (You may be interested to know, for example, that one acronym that stretches between these communities is TSHTF: “the shit hits the fan,” used to describe a situation of rioting, looting, and other desperate human behavior.)

For some, this dalliance with the end of the world leads them to buy rural properties, to start massive gardening projects, or take up shooting; but, in accordance with the theory that those most likely to embrace eschaton are those who would have the least to lose in such an event, the vast majority must content themselves with playing online only.

The agglomeration of identities which the internet allows is vital in understanding this phenomenon, and not only in that it allows the creation of an exclusive interpretive- and play-community based on an easily avowed belief. No, the stakes of this game being what they are, participants can add perspicacity to any list of their qualities. It is as if, invitations to the end of the world having been sent out, we play a game of potlatch with apocalypse itself, hoping that it will keep up its end of the bargain.

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