At first it’s all rainbows and plenitude. This internet meme (a YouTube sensation, for those of you unexposed to the current viral media blitz) of a man recording his own delirious repsonse to a double rainbow captures a culture-wide sense of joy at being able to experience miraculous nature and capture it too, master it, make it seemingly our own even as we know we are going to share it as it ours. One can readily imagine the rainbow man thinking, even in the midst of his rapture, “I can’t wait to upload this!”
Recording and sharing our response to natural beauty promises a kind of feedback loop; it rechannels our reactions back to ourselves almost as they are occurring and starts them echoing. The response is amplified with the addition of its replication, becoming ever more intense, until we’re sobbing and shouting, “It’s so beautiful! Oh, my God!” into the wind. It’s mastery and surrender simultaneously.
Giving ourselves over to the internet can evoke that same unstable mixture of feeling. We can be overwhelmed by all the available information even as it seems we can make it dance at our command. The apparent miracles of discovery, of uncovering details you can’t believe someone else thought to organize, of stumbling on the fact that some piece of cultural detritus from your youth that was so inane and obscure, you thought it was virtually a private memory, and finding it lovingly restored, preserved and shared. It can feel like conjuring magic, the ability to think of something hovering on the verge of being forgotten and immediately summon it in digital form. We can pick our way along lines of inquiry not merely for as long as we have the imagination to invent new connections but for as long as we tolerate all the connections the network throws back at us, trusting them to carry us along, on from the desire for any final destination. Inquiry dissolves into raw curiosity, or into the mirage of pure invention. Natural beauty is almost superfluous. Instead, beauty on demand.
But eventually our interaction with the internet precipitates a crisis. It begins to dawn on us that we pilot our way through the infinite alone, like Carl Sagan in his dandelion-seed space capsule in Cosmos, passing endlessly through billions and billions of galaxies, trillions and trillions of solar systems, looking for new life, or life that is new to us. And it’s lonely out in space. We look through the telescope to the edge of the visible universe, only to see that there is so much more beyond that that we will never be able to glimpse. At some point the game of pretending to assimilate infinity ceases to amuse and becomes a bit terrifying. In Pensée 72, Pascal attempts to describe how humbling the infinite can be:
Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and lofty majesty, let him turn his gaze away from the lowly objects around him; let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself to be no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.
Our imagination can only be staggered by limitlessness if it attempts to take it seriously rather than cut it down to the imagination’s size. The internet, and the digital reproduction and reduplication of experience that fuels it, tempts us into this contemplation of the infinite, the exhilarating abyss that pulls us in.