Written in the stars

I’ve spent the last hour avoiding writing a story due tomorrow by posting on Facebook, tweeting and now, writing on my blog. In the midst of my procrastination I went outside to smoke a cigarette (yeah, my New Year’s resolution failed). Like I always do while smoking on my porch alone, I stared at the stars.

Light travels approximately 186,282 miles per second. The closest star to Earth (apart from the sun) is about 25 trillion miles away (Alpha Centauri). That means the most recent light I could have seen tonight is roughly four years old (I’m no astronomer, but this is what Google told me). Most stars are much farther away. That means even if a star I’m looking at no longer exists, I can still see it years after it’s gone.

Whitney Houston

Speaking of dead stars...

It’s a possibility, then, that I could be looking at dead stars (no, not you Whitney). It’s fascinating to look at something that may no longer exist–imagine looking across the East River and seeing the WTC. Looking at the stars is like looking back into history. The stars I see exist in a time when a Google search for Justin Bieber resulted in “Did you mean Joseph Lieberman?”

While considering things that don’t exist, I remembered an article I recently wrote about Utherverse, an online world similar to Second Life. Users create an avatar and navigate thousands of virtual worlds where they can meet others, have (weird) cyber sex, get drunk and even get legally married. People live their entire lives in an online universe, one that exists nowhere in the physical world. The idea of a non-existent world boggled my mind. As I talked with the creator of Utherverse I struggled to comprehend why someone would participate in such a meaningless life. Then he mentioned Facebook, and it started to make sense.

We all, in some way or another, like to create another version of ourselves–an ideal version. On Facebook we reveal only what we want the world to see. We untag photos that make us look fat and post only articles or websites that make us seem clever, funny or educated. We display ourselves how we want to be perceived. Facebook allows us to ignore or hide the aspects of our personality that we don’t like (which are usually the parts that make us human). Our online personas are just dead stars: others can see them from a distance, but they don’t really exist.

Fail Whale

When the internet fails

The internet began as the world’s largest collection of knowledge. More and more, however, it’s becoming a collection of our universal consciousness. Sites filled with facts and information are rapidly being eclipsed in popularity by those filled with thoughts, emotions and conversations. Our existence is being digitized. Newspapers, magainzes and even teenage diaries are converting to online platforms. Libraries no longer compete for the largest collection of books but the largest online databases. The history of our civilization can be accessed from a cell phone and our thoughts, dreams and hopes can be summed up in 140 characters.

So what happens when the lights go out? When the router fails? When the network goes down? When the internet ceases to be, will any of us really know who we are any more? Or will we be merely the enduring light of a long-dead star?