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“[H]er soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches. The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish roots; her head was confined in a treetop; and all that remained was her beauty.” —Ovid, Metamorphoses I.1, 543-552
Few today will remember, but even before the Blackout what we used to call “the Internet” had begun to go seriously haywire. Rumours of “faeries” damaging seabottom fibre-optic cables could not be suppressed even by the most censorious online platforms with their scorched-earth campaigns against “disinformation”. But one season’s disinformation is the next’s brute reality, and even if they could at first shadow-ban the disreputable Trunks that spoke of luminous human-shaped beings four-to-five inches long, clinging to the cables like barnacles, the denials began to ring hollow once the Saudis fished a “djinn” of their own out of the Red Sea and displayed it in a jar at an assembly of the United Nations.
The Trunks generally depicted the faeries as “beings of pure light”, and claimed that deep-diving cable repairmen could make them instantly dematerialise simply by clasping them in their hands. But once these beings were brought onto land it was observed that efforts to crush them left a trace of strange powder, like the silica gel with the skull-and-crossbones and the stern warning not to eat it.
Soon enough the faeries had crept from the seabottom into other corners of the global Internet infrastructure, not least the terminal points of it at which we used to check our e-mail and scroll our Trunks for hours on end. More than once I found myself slamming my laptop shut to crush a glowing homunculus that had squeezed itself out of my keyboard —for some reason they always appeared from the crevices somewhere between the Control, Alt, and W keys (for my claviature was configured à la française)—, but of course soon enough the Paris Mac store placed “faerie dust” on the list with water damage as among the repairs no longer covered by warranty, forcing us all to become much more cautious in our despatch of these little invaders.
Where exactly the faeries came from, and what exactly they were, was never fully resolved. At the time my best guess was that they were in some manner congelations or concretisations of the massive quantities of information flowing through all the cables and wifi signals, coming together by a sort of conatus-principle into radiant little reflections of the beings to whom they owed their existence — ourselves. Though of course the humanoid faeries were only the most graceful of the Internet’s excrescences in those final months, and they are relatively pleasant to recall in comparison with the AI-generated “abortions” we also began to see at that time: all the scattered dog parts and “man-faced ox progeny” that seeped out —from somewhere in the “AZERTY” region of my own clavier— like so many Empedoclean duds.1
It remains a matter of debate whether the cumulative burden of these strange apparitions is what caused the Blackout, or whether there was rather some more common and well-understood cause such as cyberterrorism. But all such debate is scholastic, for, as those of us old enough to remember know all too well, the Internet as it was previously known ceased to exist in March, 2016, while this network we use to communicate today —this one that is “built out of wood”, as they say, but that would more properly be described as a “global mycorrhizal network of connected fungus-lined tree-roots”— is really only a jerry-rigged ersatz.
We get by OK these days, I suppose, though I confess I am one of those people who can’t help but worry about the long-term effect on humanity of running everything that is distinctly human about us “through the wood” (as they say). I know you’re not supposed to wonder about this, and I know any attempt to do so out loud on the above-ground platforms would result in an immediate ban, but I am truly concerned that our human nature is slowly but surely becoming rather a ligneous one.
When the Blackout came we all thought it was the end of the world — and it was, in a sense. That’s the strange thing about the history of technology. In 1800 no one had electricity, and no one needed it. Less than two hundred years later, to hear of someone that they live without electricity was already enough to know that they were suffering, and likely at risk of imminent death. The Internet recapitulated this process, but at a much faster pace. I spent my own childhood without the Internet, nor did I regret or even detect its absence. I cannot say the same for my life after March, 2016, when all airplanes were permanently grounded, telecommunications basically halted (what remained of non-Internet-based telegraphs and telephones was immediately seized by what remained of states), and even electricity suddenly became a luxury product mostly furnished by privately owned generators. It was, in short, an immediate return to the Middle Ages, but because all 7.5 billion of us were so utterly unprepared it was really something more like the Apocalypse that the medievals had lived and died awaiting.
It’s impossible to say how many of those 7.5 billion remain. In the immediate chaos of the Blackout it is no surprise that people stopped showing up for their jobs — which surely was for the better in most cases. But if your job is maintaining a stable temperature in a nuclear reactor, you really should commit to staying at it even after the Apocalypse, if you want to avoid further apocalyptic aftershocks. I was warning about this even before 2016, though the pro-nuclear crowd just kept repeating in response that I must either be “addicted to fossil-fuels” or I was “chasing the pipe-dreams of solar and wind”; no, I was just serious about assessing future risk scenarios.
So there were some meltdowns; metropolitan France was hit particularly hard, with its exceptional reliance on nuclear energy and its fifty-six fully operational reactors (which is why I’m writing today from Papeete, the new capital of the French rump state). But the fate of the nuclear power plants seemed a minor matter in comparison with the fate of the nuclear warheads, which no longer belonged to anyone — or, to put that differently, which now belonged to anyone who could get their hands on them.
But even this great threat seemed to pale, in the early months of the Blackout, next to the crisis of sudden Internet-withdrawal among the world’s youth. Up until that moment we had greatly underestimated how powerfully addictive its dopamine-reward mechanisms had been, and how utterly ill-adapted the youth had become to life in what was then sometimes called “meatspace” — now, suddenly, the only space left. I heard countless reports of teenagers blubbering themselves to death in the first weeks of their unexpected cold-turkey askesis, so unprepared were they to inhabit a social reality made up of unmediated human bodies and physical objects. There were other more inexplicable symptoms as well. There was vomiting, there were fevers, and sometimes (I know some of you will not believe this, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes), like the new secretions that come with puberty, the tiny forms of faeries could be seen squeezing out from under some poor fifteen-year-old’s fingernail, or even tinier ones floating and glowing in the jellies of their eyeballs. The kids were not alright.
Their condition, it was soon found, was best alleviated by refocusing their energies on war, and on inculcating the martial virtues in them. By early 2017, under the leadership of a new class of men combining the traits of the youth pastor and the warlord, strange new clubs began to appear that were something like a cross between civil-defense units and internet-addiction recovery camps. Boys from the age of fourteen on were taken out to the woods, dressed up in camouflage, and reintroduced to ordinary physical entities, as well as to ordinary physical violence — which, unlike the type to which they had become accustomed in their short lifetimes, virtually coextensive with their screentimes, actually hurt. The phenomenon first emerged in what was once Korea, a region primed for conflict even before the Blackout. There the earliest clubs were organised under the auspices of the Unification Church, and while at first they conserved some of the Moonies’ traditional preoccupations, by the time the Great Firestorm came in August, 2019, which essentially depopulated the peninsula, all concern with the Blessing Ceremony and like rituals had given way to talk of war.
These camps would not be memorialised at all today, were it not for a certain Choi Myung-bo, the now-legendary teen who discovered what we today know as the Xylonet. More precisely, what he figured out, in an instant now as vivid in our cultural imagination as the fall of the apple on Isaac Newton’s head, is the theoretical principle behind MrPTPs —“Mycorrhizal Packet Transfer Protocol”, that is, affectionately known today as “Mister Petie Pee”— whereby the mechanisms underlying the transfer between trees of chemicals and nutrients through the symbiotic underground networks of fungus and roots that lie hidden in the forest, are adapted for human telecommunication in a way that effectively restores the experience of the pre-Blackout Internet (with a few differences, of course). The Xylonet’s foundation story, almost certainly apocryphal, tells us that young Myung-bo was out on a drill with his mates, crawling through the thick humus of a grove in the Bukhansan National Park, when a slim tendril of the root of a Pinus koraiensis, lined with fine filaments of ectomycorrhizae thin and silvery as spiderwebs, swung down from the top of his helmet, where he had attached it along with sundry leaves and needles in order to blend totally into his natural milieu. It is said that the boy froze on the spot, and no amount of coaxing could draw him back into the action of the drill. He stared at the little root in wonder, as if he were witnessing the ghostly apparition of a dead friend.
It is said that later that evening, back at the tent, Myung-bo began conducting experiments. He grafted leaves to each end of the fungus-lined root of a Quercus invariabilis, and he buried the root in a pot of soil. Within a day he had managed to bring about different colour-patterns in the one leaf by manipulating the other one. When his mates asked him what he was doing, Myung-bo deadpanned: “I’m learning a new programming language.”
Within a week, with the Quercus as his prototype organism, he was able to send complex messages between trees at a distance of over one hundred metres. It was late October and the foliage was multicoloured, but with a sequence of needle pricks applied to the one tree, he found he could change the pattern of colours in the other tree at will. He turned the leaves of the one tree a solid yellow, and of the other he turned them back to green. He learned to transmit complex patterns, too, so that the leaves of a distant oak would now appear chequered, or striped, or even plaid. To the great delight of his friends, after a month he succeeded in the great experiment that truly began the era of mycorrhizal messaging: in the thick canopy of the grove’s largest Quercus, bold red on yellow, Myung-bo wrote out his own given name: 명보.
By the end of 2018 he was working with a small team of botanists and programmers to create an interface between two old Samsung laptops by means of a connecting root of Ulmus macrocarpa, which today remains the standard-bearer of all mycorrhizal technology, preferred for its durability, its tolerance of drought and frost, and its remarkable ability to convey a clear chemical signature across tremendous distances. And again the first message transmitted from one screen to the other was the name of this wondrous apparatus’s inventor: 명보.
Like moveable type centuries before, by the spring of 2019 MrPTP technology had migrated westward to Europe. And the rest is history, as they say. Today we take for granted the remarkable Ulmus infrastructure that connects our screens around the world, as if it were perfectly natural that this East Asian species should now be found on six continents, and even that undersea tubes should stretch its roots all the way from Japan to France (“French Polynesia”, as they used to call it) here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We say it all the time but it’s true: it is a miracle of human ingenuity and determination that we managed to restore “the Internet”, using an entirely different technology than the one on which it was first built, just a little over a decade after we thought we had lost it for good.
There are of course still a number of glitches. Infestations of bark beetles, those noisome xylophages, are a perpetual cause of outages throughout most of the world. And admittedly even when functioning at its best MrPTP is slower and less reliable than what we had before. Signals regularly get crossed, so that you try to send someone a classic Myung-bo Trunk and what arrives at the other end is some shoddy American knock-off. But what is truly frustrating —if also fascinating, when you stop to think about it— are the frequent “tree fucks”, more properly known as “arbor errors”, where a signal gets warped as it moves through the network into something of decidedly more interest for a ligneous being than for a human. I don’t know how many times I’ve attempted to order up the scan of a “folio” page from some medieval manuscript, only to receive some hours later an image of an actual leaf, dotted with bacterial spots vaguely resembling an illuminated scene of the crucifixion. And sometimes the signal received is something completely indecipherable by a human mind, something that could only make sense from the point of view of a vegetal being: what looks like a smear of soil, or the vague resemblance of a cluster of knotty pneumatophore “knees”, such as those of the Cedrus atlantica I used to see breathing along the banks of the Mississippi.
We strive to bend wood to the desires of the mind and the flesh, and we succeed to some extent, but there are limits. I worry sometimes, too, that the wood in turn is bending us back towards it like so much rain-soaked balsa. Sometimes it seems to me that it’s all happening over again — that we are being denatured by the technology we had expected to serve us. Just the other day I walked in on my two boys Mosi and Lofa (yes, adopted, but that’s no business of yours) as they were playing Dendrite, and it seemed to me for an instant that the younger boy’s fingers, which he quickly pulled away from the joystick and concealed by sitting on them, had taken on the quality of bark, like some unfortunate victim of what used to be called “tree-man syndrome”. There are now entire Trunk “orchards” dedicated to reports, no doubt somewhat exaggerated, of young people who have turned entirely into stumps, or have woken up to find they can’t move anymore, as their lower parts have taken root deep in the soil beneath them.
At least this time around we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that our denaturing is also a sort of return to nature, and perhaps a return to our own deepest nature. The Celts supposed that the trees harbour the souls of their ancestors, and worshiped them accordingly. But we must be careful. More commonly it is thought to be a great misfortune to get trapped in a tree. Good portions of the record of our past have been lost (they say that in addition to Trunks there were once something called “Vines”, though I have no recollection of them), but here on Tahiti we are fortunate to have an off-network Trunk preserving the collected works of Shakespeare. I go back to these again and again. I love The Tempest most of all, and am always moved by the plight of the spirit Ariel, who was cast into a tree by the witch Sycorax, and whose groans “Did make wolves howl, and penetrate the breasts / Of ever angry bears”. When Prospero found the spirit there, the old magician “made gape / The pine, and let thee out”. But who will let us out, this time, when the sorcery is of our own making?
I am old too, and I remember things. I keep thinking about the faeries that arrived in 2015 as if to announce the great transformation that was to come. Who were they? What did they want? And why did they continue even after the Blackout to secrete like sap out of the most Internet-addled of our children? No one knows for sure, but it has long seemed to me that they were us, or the avatars of us become us, and they were struggling to get out. Their desperate efforts made gape the cables and wires, the keyboards and the screens, and the whole thing crashed when they got free.
It seems unlikely to me that we will be able to get free this time around. But perhaps that is for the better. Returned unto wood, one with the Xylonet, all that will remain is our beauty.
Papeete, August 2032
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See Aristotle’s account of Empedocles’s theory of natural inadaptation in Physics II.8: “ὅπου μὲν οὖν ἅπαντα συνέβη ὥσπερ κἂν εἰ ἕνεκά του ἐγίγνετο, ταῦτα μὲν ἐσώθη ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτομάτου συστάντα ἐπιτηδείως· ὅσα δὲ μὴ οὕτως, ἀπώλετο καὶ ἀπόλλυται, καθάπερ Ἐμπεδοκλῆς λέγει τὰ βουγενῆ ἀνδρόπρῳρα” (198b29-32).