Digital Divide

by: Frederick Foote

What if the internet was capable of harvesting energy? What if the energy of every human’s attention that is invested in the internet stays in the internet?

“Help! Help me! Please help me. I know you can hear me. I see it on your face. I’m not part of this story. I’m not digital. I’m real. They are dragging me in here. I don’t belong here. I’m real like you. Please, get me out of here. Please!”

Dena Walls and her mother, Madison, look eager, anxious and a bit predatory. I’m already regretting my decision to do this interview.

Fourteen-year-old Dena has a prepared speech. I don’t want to hear it.  I usurp her statement with a hearty hello that I don’t mean at all.

Madison is gushing. “Mr. Washington, I just want to say what a great honor it is to us for you to grant Dena your first interview in twenty years. I’m so pleased that you invited us to share in this historical moment.”

I suppress a strong urge to walk out of this room, out the front door, and hitch a ride to the airport and then race back to my remote cabin in the woods. I give a smile that’s not very convincing, even to me.

“Please, call me Wallace. I published my very first story in the Pio Pico High School Gazette twenty-five years ago. I feel a sense of obligation and opportunity in contributing to the last edition of the paper.”

Dena lurches into her speech. “Mr. Washington, on behalf of the Pio Pico High School students, faculty and staff and the San Juan City Consolidated School District—”

I interrupt the soliloquy. “Dena, my mother’s currently in the kitchen preparing her famous high tea. Why don’t we adjourn to the sunroom and your mother and my mother can chat while you conduct the interview?

The glass that divided the two rooms allows us to speak, fully visible to both parents, without being overheard. Madison looks disappointed. Dena seems delighted. My mother’s pleased to share her tea and pastries and an evening with another fan of her favorite and only son.

Dena looks plain of face and slight of body until you notice her sly, sharp eyes and wicked-loooking canines. The young journalist is visibly relieved to be out of earshot of her mother.

“Thank you, Mr. Washington—”

“Wallace. Call me Wallace. Dena, your article in The Gazette on stoners was excellent work. How did you gain their trust and get such intimate access to their community?”

Dena leans forward in her wicker chair. “My brother was a druggie at Pico, and they knew me from him. Even then, I was, like, really surprised how open they were.”

“Well, your article treated them with respect, care, and kindness. You let them speak for themselves. You tried to keep your opinions and prejudices out of the article. Outstanding work.”

Dena’s blushing with pride. “I, I thank you. I was—do you think, like, I could, I’m good enough to be a professional writer, Mr. Washin—Wallace?”

I take my time in responding. “Yes and no. You could, but…you may be too good a writer. Maybe it’s not the best career choice for you.”

Poor Dena looks like I gave her the best present ever and then slapped her face hard as hell. “What? I don’t understand. You said I wrote a, an, outstanding story. So, like, why—”

I give the teenage reporter my most serious expression. “Look, this is going to sound, sound whack. Did I use that expression correctly?”

Dena smiles, exposing those ready to rip canines. “If you mean, like, crazy, yeah.”

“Alright, so, you put your energy, love, desire, hope into your writing, right?”

“Of course. I mean, I want to be a writer. Like, I always have. Didn’t you always want to be a writer?” She’s so sincere and so naive.

“No. When you pour your soul and your essence into something you become a part of that story or picture or poem. Understand?”

She cocks her head, takes a deep breath. “Yeah, I, I think so. Like you breathe life into the story. You make it special. Is that what you mean?”

I give her a real smile this time. “Yes. Yes, and yes. So, when other people read that story they use their imagination and personal history and situation to add their spark of life to your story.”

Dena frowns as she responds, “Like, the story has more life, more energy, more vitality?”

“Absolutely. Look, in the era before radio, television, movies, and the internet, the energy in stories was diffused. There were individual readers, listeners, and viewers. But mass electronic media allowed millions of us to observe the same events at the same time.”

I stop and wait for Dena to catch up. She will get the point. She’s a very bright and intuitive young woman.

She studies me. She’s reappraising me. I wonder if might just get through to her. Another frowning answer, “Supercharged. The story is, like, supercharged with energy with everybody contributing their energy at the same time.” She holds her breath waiting for my response.

Damn, I wish I had kids, maybe a daughter like Dena. “Yes. There’s a huge investment of attention and imagination. But when the event is over the energy dissipates. Except with the internet because—”

Dena chimes in. “Because the internet is always on. Like, it never shuts down.” She claps her hands with glee and her sly eyes are aglow with personal satisfaction.

I smile with her. Now to the hard part. “Listen, this is the conjecture. This is the part I have no proof for. I believe that the energy of every human’s attention that is invested in the internet stays in the internet.”

Dena rolls her eyes. “Like, that is whack. I mean, if that were true stories and stuff on the internet would just keep getting, I don’t know—stronger. Like, how would you even attempt to measure something like that?”

“Okay, okay fair enough. But, I believe that when you posted your stoner story on your school’s website you gave that story life because of your own personal energy investment. Don’t you agree?”

Dena nods yes.

“But you also shared the energy of the stoners you wrote about. Because you used their words, thoughts, and passion, and because you’re such an exceptional writer you used your energy and their energy to create a new reality. A new digital stoner group based on the physical, realworld stoners, yet different.”

Dena is up from her chair and pacing. “Like, this is hybrid digital reality—a bit of me and a lot of them. This is getting weird.”

“Indeed, and it gets weirder. Your stoner story has so many more viewers online than real life stoners. The consumers of your stoner story will reinforce your digital reality.”

“Okay, bigger than life on the small screens. Like, I get it. Totally cool.”

“What if the digital stoners grew so powerful that they could reach out and touch their creator? What if they could bring you into their world or they could come into ours?”

“Wow! Like, now you are off the hook. Whack. This is like, crack crazy.”

I let her walk around some and calm down. She returns to her chair eventually. “Like, Mr. Washington, are you saying that you don’t write anymore or give interviews or accept prizes or do book tours because you fear that the characters in your stories might attack you? Is that what you believe?”

“I do. Yes. Think about this. I put a bit of my essence or soul online just like you did but with millions of readers. That’s a lot of concentrated energy. I avoid television, the internet, even radio.”

I feel queasy telling my story to someone outside my family. I can see by her dour expression and the tension in her face and shoulders that I have lost her.

Dena’s standing a few feet away from me. “Mr. Washington, like, why single me out for this warning. I mean, this is a warning, right?”

I’m sweating. I wipe my forehead on my sleeve. “My mother believes me. She saw your story, printed it out, and sent it to me. My mother and I believe that my digital creations might, might attack you in order to eventually get to me.”

We just stare at each other for a minute or two.

Dena, shrugs, “Wow! Like, what do you want me to say? I mean, are you for real?”

Dena, bites her lower lip, lets on a low moan. “Like, this—okay just for argument’s sake. Why would our creations want to harm us? I mean we gave them life. We are like their gods.”

“Look, Dena, what if a creation becomes more powerful than its creator? What  appears to us to be attacks may simply be our creations seeking unity and control of their own fates without our meddling ungodly interferences.”

“Like, you are so into this. This could be the best story you ever wrote.”

“Dena, I had to try. Just think about it. That’s all. And, remember, you are a part of the internet already.” Shit! I might already be too late.

“Mr. Washington right now, people think of you as an eccentric, a modern-day JD Salinger. I mean, you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner and a National Book Award winner even if you don’t accept or acknowledge these awards. Like, you can’t hide from your accomplishments or your work.”

“Sure, I just think…I believe that our best protection is to limit our involvement and contact with mass electronic media, especially the internet. Please, just think about it.”

It’s clear she’s thinking about it in terms of writing a once in a lifetime interview with a famous, eccentric, whack-job writer. Dena eases toward the door as she gives her final comment, “Mr. Washington, I don’t believe that stories can somehow, like, control their writers. You’re an amazing writer—I hope you get help.”

Dena and her mother decline tea and depart shortly thereafter.

I’m glad my mother sent me Dena’s story. But, I almost regret that I spent the money, time, and energy to warn the teenager about things that I hope she never confronts.

“Hey, you, reader! I’m real. Like you. Look at me! I don’t belong in here. Please help me! I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m real. Call my mother, Madison Walls. She’ll tell you I’m real. Like you. Hey! Don’t go, please! Don’t leave me in here. Please! Oh, no, no no, don’t go.”

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