On the durability of ephemera

If 30 years ago a merchant had told me “We’re sorry, your shopping cart no longer exists” it would have freaked me out. I don’t have a screen shot of the message I just received because it wasn’t until after blowing past it that I paused to consider how odd it is that we now accept such a statement as routine. It isn’t “I had a shopping cart but now it’s not here. It was taken by another shopper or by an overzealous employee who has returned it to the cart bay but we expect it still exists somewhere.” Now it’s more like “I had a shopping cart but then suddenly it winked out of existence.”

Back in the 80’s or 90’s I could have at least argued that regardless of what you’ve done to the shopping cart, it still exists. You could reduce it to individual atoms or even to energy but Newtonian physics and and Einsteinian relativity demand that, one way or another, it remains in existence. Now when the merchant says “your cart no longer exists” it’s pretty close to the truth.

The merchant had generated a pattern of zeros and ones that delivered the functionality of a shopping cart in a purely ephemeral form. I can still select items and “put them in the cart,” then pay and eventually the atoms that I purchased are moved through space and end up in the same place as if I’d physically gone and purchased them in person. All the functionality remains but it’s just an idea of a cart, not an actual thing. When it’s gone, it’s really gone.

It could be argued that the online cart was never more than the idea of a cart and that because we can reflect on it after the fact it isn’t really gone. You and I now have enough information about it to preserve the idea so there’s a certain amount of durability. It’s not as durable as energy or atoms since it requires sentient minds to perpetuate the concept and when we forget the idea it’s gone, but important concepts like “fire” or “wheel” tend to exhibit a high degree of durability nonetheless. Simply relating my tale of the non-existent cart revives it like a zombie.  Since I can revive it over and over as many times as I have readers, it’s also as prolific as a tribble.  Ideas are born pregnant and almost can’t help but reproduce themselves.

(Incidentally, this is why I’m the best philosopher in all of human history.  Socrates, Plato, Kant, Neitzesche, Confucious, Locke, Voltaire, Leibniz, Beauvoir, Hobbes? All hacks. Not one of them ever came close to zombie tribbles which is sad because it’s the ultimate metaphor for the ephemeral yet durable existence of concepts that live in and through sentient beings.  If you want to make distinctions based on durability and fecundity, your typical popular memes are really just viral fucking zombie tribbles.  This is almost as important an idea as “fire” or “wheel” so now that I’ve coined the term I expect the phrase viral fucking zombie tribbles(c)(tm) to remain extant so long as we humans are around to ponder such things.  Or wear shirts.  I think I’m gonna put that on a shirt.)

Alas, the common understanding of “exists” is closely aligned with the ideas that reducing a shopping cart to its constituent atoms is equivalent to making it not exist, and that a digital cart was never more than a concept and therefore cannot be destroyed, especially because the act of merely considering it perpetuates it.  To that argument I respond by observing that the instance of a digital cart that was created expressly for my benefit earlier today had functionality.  I could put items in the cart, check out, and then receive the purchased goods.  That version did stuff whereas we cannot perpetuate that functionality simply by pondering the idea of the cart.

It seems that while the concept of a digital shopping cart is durable, a particular instance of one is as ephemeral as it gets.  That’s actually jaw-droppingly profound if you pause to consider what that means.  As a child I used to read and watch Sci-Fi stories in which advanced beings could effect actions and create things with the power of their minds.  As an adult I can, with nothing more than the power of my intention, create a digital cart which is at once an concept and a functional object. I can then cause it to carry out actions that transfer value tokens and then cause physical movement of atoms through 3-dimensional space, then finally cause the digital cart object and its functionality to disappear from existence entirely.

We’ve wrapped our digital constructs up in metaphors of desktops, browsers, cursors, and of course carts, but the fact of the matter remains that behind all the graphics we are using our intention to call digital objects into existence and imbue these with meaning and function through the power of human thought.  Their functionality and uniqueness makes them “real” things in ways that mere concepts cannot match. We can make perfect copies at zero incremental cost, and when we destroy an instance of a digital thing we do it so completely that reducing a physical cart to its constituent atoms looks incredibly durable by comparison.

These are completely new capabilities which would have been considered god-like at any other time in all of human history except for the last 30 years or so.  Any person in Star Fleet presses a few buttons on the Replicator and a physical instance of whatever they wanted just shows up.  Gandalf waves his wand around and a physical instance of whatever he wants just shows up.  I wave a mouse around and a physical instance of what I want just shows up.

Of course if you are in Star Fleet or are a wizard, your stuff shows up with almost no delay.  A couple years ago I would have posited that it was this time delay that makes digital commerce less magical than Gandalf’s wand or Star Trek’s replicator.  Then Amazon blessed my home town with Same Day Delivery and that line got much finer. Amazon Now is pretty darned close to Star Trek’s replicator.

After further consideration and the imbibing of much alcohol I have developed a better model of what’s going on.  We evolved in a world of atoms with the engrained idea that function follows form: behavior implies a physical thing that exhibits it.  In the digital world we can have behavior with all the function of a real thing but with no actual physical form, and we can call it into existence or destroy it with the power of our intention.  Why are we not dumbstruck with awe at our ability to do these things?  What could possibly make us take all this for granted and not see it as the advanced magical ability that it is?

Short answer: it’s that little picture of a cart we use to represent the physical thing.  That simple little icon invokes the grandest suspension of disbelief possible for a human to make.  One glance and we treat the icon as the physical repository of all the functionality we are manipulating with the power of our intention and a few waves of the mouse.  You can have a physical cart with no functionality easily enough.  The reverse is not true.  You can’t have the functionality without the cart.

Just add a crappy, lo-res, 32-pixel representation of a cart though and it’s all good.  Our ability to create and destroy functional digital objects at will is just something we perceive as unremarkable ubiquitous infrastructure once we have an icon.  Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” but he got it only half right. What he should have said was “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – until you add an icon.”

My first computer sat on a desk against a wall.  An aquarium was against the opposite wall.  From time to time I swiveled around in my chair and asked the fish the proverbial question: “how’s the water in there?”  To which he’d have given the proverbial response: “what’s water?”

Today that fish would see me shopping and working on the computer and he might have some questions for me.  The first of these would be: “what’s it like to have the power of the gods?”  To which I’d reply: “What power?  I have a mouse and I click this icon and stuff appears.”  He’d then reply “{facefin}” and then ask his next question: “Got any of those ‘viral fucking zombie tribbles‘ tee shirts left?  Do you offer a discount for schools?”

About T.Rob

Computer security nerd. WebSphere MQ expert. Autist. Advocate. Author. Humanist. Text-based life form. Find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
This entry was posted in General, Humor, Tech and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On the durability of ephemera

  1. DwH says:

    Rene DesCartes thought, therefore he was; your atomic shopping cart was because you thought.

    • T.Rob says:

      I normally try to cover territory the classical philosophers missed, like digital technology. They aren’t here to defend themselves and it would be be rather unfair of me to do otherwise unless necessary to prove my own point. However this once I’ll make an exception since you brought it up.

      Rene DesCartes: I think, therefore I am.
      T.Rob: I think, therefore a yam!

      [drops mic]

  2. Morag says:

    Philosophy is always best encountered after the imbibing of much alcohol.

    • T.Rob says:

      Where “alcohol” is shorthand for all sorts of mind-altering substances. I knew I’d have to quit all the exotic stuff when I started a family and had something to lose, so I took enough of them as a kid to last a lifetime. They continue to inform my philosophy to this day.

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