Running on empty: 30-minute write 3 January 2019

The prompt was, “running on empty”. I’m not as happy with this write as some of the others. It took me quite a bit less than 30 minutes and was too long and too technical for my listeners.

Running on empty

“I give up.”

That’s how he ended the blog post, the post he’d written in the “community”.

Was it a community, really? He used to think so. Back in the late 90s, the web had been an exciting place, a wild west. IRC chat rooms, images you had to size down to postage stamp size so Netscape could render them, the sound of the modem dialing.

It had felt fun, and dangerous. More than one late night had been spent in a chatroom recommended by his partner at work. He took on a new identity there. Although the room was called Sex Chat, hardly anyone ever talked about sex. There was some innuendo, some clever wordplay, but the participants lived around the world. The chances they’d ever meet each other was exactly nothing. He felt free.

The web arrived, and speed and capability improved. Web 2.0 meant you could not only read stuff, but post things others would see, even if you didn’t have money. As a teacher, of course, he didn’t have money. He found communities there, especially when he’d had that family crisis and didn’t know where to turn. There were many groups of former alcoholics on the web. Not crazy people. For a couple of years, he was supported and supported others.

Then Second Life had happened, a program that let you take on an avatar, a character. Lots of people chose a fox with a long tail, then spent Linden dollars dressing up and teleporting to other parts of the virtual world. He’d attended a teaching seminar there (the speaker was a dragon in a top hat), and wondered whether he could use the program to teach his students.

But he couldn’t manage it like he had the chat room. Controlling the avatar wasn’t easy. The learning curve was not only high, but embarrassing. More than once he’d trapped himself in a chair, or a swimming pool, and been unable to figure out which sequence of arrows to press to get out. Other avatars stood around. You couldn’t tell — could they see? Did the people behind them care?

He blogged about it, then about other things. He blogged about his job, though he couldn’t name the students, of course. He had to be careful, to say the right things, but as he realized how small his audience was, he stopped being careful. He joined a teaching “community” online, and was surprised at how hard he worked, how many hours were spent helping others with their teaching problems.

And not just that — they seemed to find the technology more difficult than he did. So he helped with that too. Till 2 a.m., sometimes. And he met some of these people in person. He went to the conferences, he became known, he was asked to do a TED talk. He talked about open publishing, open education, open community. He wanted everyone to share their work, their creativity, openly. Openly, of course, meant free. All his work on the web had been free. It was all about sharing.

Then TED was bought out by a corporation. His school was bought out by a corporation. The chat room, the community, now belonged to a corporation, which had started as a bunch of radical teachers, but had ended by offering shares. They didn’t care about him, or anyone in the community. All the open stuff he and his online friends had created, with their open licenses, were taken as content by the corporations and packaged. He found one of his own lectures, freely posted, inside a paywall system, being sold for $18.95 by a company he’d never heard of.

He knew the web was closing. It felt like a physical space to him, the home where he’d lived for over a decade. His vacation spot, his coffee house, his staff room. He wrote about it. He blogged. A few sympathetic heads nodded. Most people didn’t get it. He had two dozen comments a week, then a dozen, then three, then none. The web coalesced, like it was sucked in by gravity, like a dark star. Everything he posted was somehow owned by someone else: Facebook, Google, Apple.

And then it happened. The executive order. The emergency powers. He’d anticipated the corporate enslavement of the web, but not this. It seemed like the impossible had happened. He was asked, in forum after forum, what to do. He thought. He’d solved so many problems before: pedagogical, technical, personal. But he couldn’t solve this one. How could he fight national security? He couldn’t.

So on the now government-run forum, where panicked people were asking so many questions, where so many of them hadn’t seen it coming, there was nothing else to say.

“I give up,” he posted, and turned off the machine.