Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871.
Naturally, Carroll had no knowledge of social media, but he had wit, intelligence, and imagination. So it is not too surprising he came up with a scene in Looking Glass that prefigures the ethereal interactions that now are our daily bread.
The scene is from chapter 3, titled “Looking Glass Insects.” It floats in out of nowhere and disappears less than 400 words later, never to be referred to again.
She was rambling on in this way when she reached the wood: it looked very cool and shady. “Well, at any rate it”s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the–into WHAT?”she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. “I mean to get under the–under the–under THIS, you know!” putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. “What DOES it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it”s got no name–why, to be sure it hasn”t!”
She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. “Then it really HAS happened, after all! And now, who am I? I WILL remember, if I can! I”m determined to do it!” But being determined didn”t help much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was, “L, I KNOW it begins with L!”
Just then a Fawn came wandering by: it looked at Alice with its large gentle eyes, but didn’t seem at all frightened. “Here then! Here then!” Alice said, as she held out her hand and tried to stroke it; but it only started back a little, and then stood looking at her again.
“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!
“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.”
“Think again,” it said: “that won’t do.”
Alice thought, but nothing came of it. “Please, would you tell me what YOU call yourself?” she said timidly. “I think that might help a little.”
“I”ll tell you, if you”ll move a little further on,” the Fawn said. “I can”t remember here.”
So they walked on together though the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice”s arms. “I”m a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight, “and, dear me! you”re a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.
Into the woods
What has Carroll’s wood of forgetting got in common with cyberspace? It isn’t the bittersweet emotional connection. Internet encounters come in all flavors, many not sweet at all. It is the “floating in space” feeling. Alice and the fawn have been stripped of their identities and all the baggage they carry.
In space you can forget anything you want, including but not limited to your name.
Out of the woods
I remember the early days of social media. When you did social media in the mid-1990s, you were basically a voice in space, talking to other voices in space. Your thoughts were you. That enabled connections—for better or worse—that would have been impossible/unlikely in the world where everyone has faces and bodies, and histories.
Have you ever known someone only via an internet connection and then met them in life? Most everyone has. There is a little shock—the transition from zero gravity to earthbound. (Before the day of Facebook et al, a common thought was “this person looks nothing like I imagined.”) Then you shrug it off and move on. Or not, depending on how disorienting the transition is. It is easier to make the transition these days, because it is so commonly made.
Futurists who believe perfection will be achieved when we leave our bodies behind (and some DO believe this) are imagining a more sophisticated version of Carroll’s wood of forgetting. I think they must be. You go into that wood and it goes on forever.