His eyes wandered across the dimly light
terrain. Following some first golden lines, drawn onto the dusty grey and
cutting through the blur of fog hanging tightly around the distant contours of
the mountain range. A red shimmering was starting its ascent over the dark
silhouette of one of the taller peaks along the horizon.
Rubbing the exhaust out of his tired face,
he glanced over the rough terrain extending underneath.
There was nothing there but barren brown
and red rock, piled up to a scarred landscape, wrinkled like old skin. Washed
and channeled by heavy rainfall that must have ceased to return to the region
millennia ago. Steep slopes interrupted by abrupt cliffs, cantilevering over
valleys coated with boulders, earth, and sand. Such unpolished hostility could
appear breathtakingly beautiful.
It reminded him of the panoramic images he
had seen, taken by one of the rovers scanning the Martian surface for signs of
maybe even life. Here, there weren’t many signs of water or life
either, but it was still the same planet. If it had been only for the pictures,
however, they could’ve bothered less and shot the whole thing around here,
sparing them a costly interplanetary mission.
Slowly he sat up, extending the half-frozen
limbs while gathering his belongings. He wrapped the scarf he had slept under
tightly around the shoulders. They felt sore from the brief rest on firm
ground. He left his feet dangling nakedly through the crisp morning air,
disappearing behind the edge of a flat roof that had allowed him some isolation
during the few last hours before sunrise.
He had been quicker than most visitors and
had reached the top of the mountain earlier than expected. Giving him the
opportunity to rest while the others continued climbing. Still, there were
people arriving. Exhaustedly trotting the last steps, hurrying to not miss the
moment they had been anticipating for the better half of a night.
It still felt surreal to be sitting there
now. More so, considering how unlikely it was to have come.
The almost twenty-hour bus journey from
Cairo. The nightly border control by military men whose rifles clearly had
their stories to tell. How nervous he had been as the German Shepperd had made
his way up to where his backpack was lying in the row of travel equipment. How
his heart almost stopped beating when the giant creature stayed orbiting around
and over it, curiously sniffing for the eternity of a few seconds. And the
relief when he kept on scanning, apparently in search of something more lethal
than the remnants of a couple grams of Egyptian hashish. Then carrying the
heavy luggage back and returning to be engulfed by the odor of a bus that had
carried too many unwashed people for too long a stretch of time.
Finally arriving at this strange place that
seemed to be made of nothing except turquoise salt water and sharp mountains,
allegedly extending underneath the coastline into some of the most
incomprehensibly colorful reefs. The nocturnal procession of visitors and
pilgrims, making use of all the available moderately tempered hours before dawn
for the ascent. The steep climb up the ancient staircases and pathways that
were cut into the bedrock flanking the mountain over the course of centuries.
Willpower and belief materialized, or rather dematerialized into almost fourthousand steps of subtracted stone.
Less than thirtysix hours ago he had been drinking
chai at a noisy street corner, somewhere in the heavily polluted downtown of
Egypt’s capital. He had enjoyed the distraction caused by overstimulation. With
the smell of chicken cooked in turmeric, saffron, and sesame. And the loud
exclamations of the cook, at any moment half subsumed behind a cloud of burning
fat, while assumably prophesying unparalleled freshness and taste. With
motorcycles speeding past the restaurant, ostensibly loaded with entire
families. At the very least carrying more people than seemed reasonable to
allow. With the curious looks of dark-shaded pairs of eyes flying by, dancing
over pieces of silk covering the mouth. The first time he noticed how the facial
expression, being reduced to the eyes, changed the nature of first contact. In
this case, effectively making it almost impossiblea and isolating half a nation
from interaction with anybody unknown. This was long before the time when
meeting strangers as restricted to a short crossing of the eyes had become a
Then, later that same evening, an unforeseen chain of
events, paired with the usual combination of restlessness, naivety, and
serendipity, had led to him pack up. An intuition telling him to keep moving and leave to get to the top of this sacred
mountain, far from the welcome distractions. Far from anything, really.
His eyes shifted back into focus, drawn by
the shape of the rising sun that had become recognizably round and increasingly
hard to look at.
From the hilltop a couple meters above him,
the cold breeze carried excited voices. Some hundreds of people gathered around
the small chapel built around the peak of Mount Sinai. Some were starting a
morning prayer. Others were chatting animatedly, all the while taking picture
number one thousand for the day of the southeastern chunk of the peninsula.
Others, like he himself, were staring quietly eastwards, contemplating the
scenery or something hidden behind.
A plane is starting its journey to some far away place. Effortlessly, it climbs higher and higher, putting some distance between its wings and the brownish roofs covering the miniature town underneath. It leaves a smooth, rising exponential drawn on the blue canvas of my memory before it disappears, shooting through the belly of a cloud.
This exact plane has a capacity of up to 216 passengers of which about 67% booked and then showed up today to board it. Not including the captain and her assistant there are five crew members on board. One of them thinks a person with brownish hair and bulky glasses, sitting towards the front of the plane is very handsome. However, only three the of the crew members are presently aware of this information.
There is a five-month-old crying on seat C in row 24, and a mother desperately trying to distract him during liftoff. It is his first time inside such a craft and the sudden displacement of his interior organs downwards, combined with the shaking and vibrating of the mother underneath him confused the little fellow.
The annoyed expression on the face of the blonde man two rows in front of her on the other side of the corridor did not go unnoticed. The coldness behind his eyes and the slight flickering of the corner of his bearded mouth made it apparent. She didn’t exactly catch him looking in her direction, but she didn’t have to. It was in the air. She notices that she feels culpable towards the others around her and tries to shake the thought as it creeps up on her. Her grandmother appears briefly in her thoughts.
A girl in row 12 holds her shoulders tightly and sinks into her seat as she thinks of a teddy that was left lying on her bed before leaving the house. Still angry that her parents didn’t want to return once they noticed the loss on the highway to the airport.
Right next to her, somebody else’s thoughts wander off in anticipation to the destination of this plane as his hands fiddle a small novel out of the depths of his large yellow briefcase. There is also a bottle of fine Italian liquor that he bought in one of the generic duty-free shops, shortly before boarding. He couldn’t help it. It is his guilty pleasure and nobody else on this plane is supposed to find that out.
They are all neatly arranged, sitting there strapped tightly into their narrow seats of synthetic leather. Just as real as their fictional versions sit there for me, inside my mind’s eye.
But then, a sudden snap cuts through the air in the room. The tip of a tall finger clashes down on the hilltop forming the base of a thumb.
And without anybody prepared for it happening, without any pain, without anybody even taking note of the shift, conscious experience subsumes inside this airplane, at an instant. Perception dissolves into sensory deprivation.
The plane keeps flying, of course. The captain in the cockpit keeps maneuvering and flipping switches, the stewardesses keep checking seatbelts while one of them is sending a smile towards the person in the seventh row, a baby on seat C in row 24 keeps crying. The face of the man two rows in front remains composed of the same harsh features, the muscles underneath his left eye still perform a slight contraction, making his irritation public, every time the baby inhales for another complaint.
But nobody remains to notice it.
Even I, writing these words right now, am less sure of their existence than I used to be.
Moving fast and getting faster
Your kind is accelerating
towards the event
Welcome to spaceship
You’ve got yourself a fresh new tool, the
perfect personal assistant: receptive, attentive, dispensable, disposable. Omniscient.
The two of you will have a wonderful and
productive relationship, I’m sure of this. You might even fall in love?
Certainly, this will not cause us any
trouble. A fruitful endeavor for everybody involved. Until maybe someone grows tired of the artificial
“Congratulations, you have been linked up
successfully. The next phase will include the synchronization of sensations and memories onto SL’s databank. For more
information consider accessing the contracts region inside our corporate registry.
We wish you a pleasant inauguration session.”
A sudden voice from everywhere and nowhere
alike. Crisp like it would play directly into the ear, only more immediate, without
the distance to cover inwards on the auditory pathway. Its sound reverberating
in your memory for a moment longer.
You had been reluctant about getting your
own SL. But after weeks of dreadful conversations with almost all your friends
and relatives, there seemed no escape from this.
Slowly, your hands glide upwards, tracing
the soft skin on the back of your neck, in search for something unusual. The
small device, maybe about the size of an acorn, firmly sitting there behind
your ear. The smooth, metallic surface feels estranged and somewhat uncanny. The
nails on your fingers follow along the small line inside the carcass. There is
a cavity, just big enough so that you can let the tip of your finger glide inside,
curiously pressing down on the rubber you feel inside.
Now you stand around.
Waiting for something revolutionary to
Taking note of the slight pressure building
up above the temporal bone.
Until disorientation kicks in.
You're not sure where this feeling comes
From outside? From inside?
Your knowledge of the world around you mutates into…
And you can't stand still any longer.
Feel the urge to talk to a real person.
They told you it would scramble with your
head a little.
And it kind of did.
You think, as you open your eyes.
There’s a flower in a crystal vase on the table.
The body of the vase covered in a delicate ornamentation. A cheap modern remake,
but reminiscent of a style that originated in western Bohemia and in this
specific composition must have been fashionable towards the turn of the 18th
The water has a slight stain of green,
almost impossible to detect by sight only, but you can smell the algae growing
in it, a type of greenish Chlamydomonas as you realize.
You notice precisely how every vein of the flower’s
bright red blossoms lead up from the stem, you can hear the gurgling of osmosis
pressuring against a million cell membranes. You can feel the nutrients travel
up their veins just as if they were flowing along yours. But slower, much slower, not in the timescale you would call familiar.
There is a distinct redness to this color.
Obviously, it’s red, but not just in that way. It is red more in the way an untouched apple lies between green leaves. It is red like that lipstick you used to buy but can’t find in the stores any longer. It’s red like the softness of that fur by whose touch you were overwhelmed by a few days ago. It is red more like of the smell of hibiscus. Actually, it’s red like the evening sun, the warmth of which you can feel embracing the skin around your cheekbones.
I sit down to write something. I stare around, scanning the objects on the table in front of me for some hidden meaning. There are two paper cups, one of them I filled with tea and then left lying around two weeks ago, in anticipation that I would bring tea again. I didn’t. The other has stains of coffee left from this morning. The taste of which I can still reanimate in my memory, or maybe through the dopamine that is released even when thinking about having another one. There is a book that a half-stranger seems to be reading, i don’t expect many revelations coming from the author that has written it. I have my biases.
Also, there is another person sitting across from me on the opposite edge of the table, in search for meaning just the same, hunting for some brilliant idea. We both struggle a bit with finding this brilliant little thing, able to captivate our minds without any of the doubt left.
What is the quality of the experience
described above? Was it written by me? Was it even written by a human? Did something
trick you into believing it must have been written by a human? What does your
gut feeling tell you?
Increasingly, the occult realm that lies behind
our screens is characterized by an avalanche of potentials, hidden stimuli,
diverging information, contradicting voices, immediate mentors, hallucinations
in code. A big portion of which is hard to source, even harder to make
accountable. Almost impossible to say no to.
There are an estimated 22 million to 65
million bots on Twitter alone.
Our digital neighborhood: populated with algorithms,
for loops, dormant Facebook accounts, digital mummifications of people long
deceased, disinterested relics of our social networking. The metaverse is real.
But as far as consciousness is concerned, a big portion of it is a ghost town.
My personal daily digital nourishment
consists of about 1 1/2 hours of mobile screen time. I have not the slightest
clue how much time I spent looking into the rectangular galaxies of my laptop.
I use it for my creative pursuits as much as for distracting me from these. I try exceptionally hard to separate the
two. Still, the boundaries are more fluid than I would like them to be.
> The global screen time
average per day lies
around 6 hours and 58 minutes.
> Since 2013, daily screen time has increased
by nearly 50 minutes.
The average American spends 7 hours and 4
minutes looking at a screen each day.
About 49% of 0 to 2-year-olds already interact
Gen Z averages around 9 hours of screen
time per day.
The average person spends upwards of 40% of
their waking hours on an internet-connected interface.
Between 2019 and 2021, mobile device screen
time has grown from 2 hours 56 minutes to 4 hours 12 minutes.
How’s your sleep routine?
How’s your anxiety doing?
How’s real life working out?
I’m increasingly distracted. Outside, a
giant angry colossus of a construction machine is hammering down on the ground.
Moloch is here. And I’m not the only one unearthing. My attention span gets
shorter by the second. The pressure to write, the uncertainty about the
necessity for a continuous thread, and the palpable fleeting of time accumulate:
a wild skirmish between the cowardly desire to run somewhere, and a last reasonable stronghold region in my brain, calling for composure.
I tune out. An almost unbearable heat wave
blasts through every pore in my body as the naked guy with the funny hat in
front of me lifts the towel and lets it crash down on the 90-degree hot air in
between us. His hands covered in black, sweaty motorcycle gloves. Hells Bells are blazing out of a Bluetooth speaker behind.
The next heatwave blasts through you. The
skin covering your body clashes with another eruption of hot nitrogen and oxygen
But it doesn’t actually feel that way.
There is no sense of having a body, having limbs, a gut, a torso and a face
sitting in front of a skull, on top of a neck.
The sensation is more that of an electric
cloud, missing any clear structure, without hierarchization between <head>
and <body>. Being bombarded at an instant in a random configuration by
what can only be described as energy. There is no heat, no pain, just charge.
Too much charge. I stand up and leave the sauna. There is an idea, an insight, maybe just the absence of resistance
a piece of technology
merely sequences of code
a tool, a language
a synthetic child of your minds.
or the confabulation of global chatter
uploaded, analyzed, thrown back at us
senseless, pointless, flavorless
a redacted 10th version of
a synthetic child of your minds
a companion, a friend, a lover?
inheriting what seemed yours?
in any case: a reality.
Worried of getting there late, and of
missing all the action, I climb up the seemingly endless ramp that gives
entrance to the inner courtyard. On my left side, steep hills dropping down
towards the Douro, offering unhindered view on the settlements and terraformed terraces
on the other side of the wide canyon, that accompanied the stream on its way to
the Atlantic. The last rays of sunlight painting just the highest rooftops in this
characteristic rose gold.
There wasn’t much to know about what was
going to happen tonight. With great care, the organizers had cloaked the whole
event in obscurity. Even as it had been orchestrated right in front of our eyes
for the past couple of days. Only rumors had escaped: a club was being put
together, but not actually a club, as this had not been allowed by the school’s
authority. Just a club experience – whatever that was supposed to mean. However,
the little I knew was more than enough to make me return here. Maybe obscurity was
what made the whole event tempting in the first place.
Reaching the top of the courtyards plateau,
I could see the line of people, waiting in front of the entrance of the last of
the buildings, that surround the plaza like modernist domino pieces. This
un-designed, empty inner space, sterile but somehow made for trespassing. Not
being a figure in itself, but allowing for the faces around it to get some
character, at least.
I notice the three curious little objects, just
where the line of people ended, black-painted and of weird proportions, some
people sitting on them, awkwardly looking. A zick-zack wall dividing each bench
into two sides. Two persons sitting next to each other, somewhat isolated by
the backpiece between them, one person sitting on the other side, completely by
themselves. So, there are nine people in total, sitting on three ugly chairs. I
can’t make much of the situation, but willingly act along and take my place at
the end of the line.
There is excitement, maybe anxiety written
across some familiar faces. Some bend around the tall wall, chatting for a few
moments, nervously laughing before they turn back, vanishing into the solitude
of their seat. A curious display of social interaction, of a group of people that
had been total strangers to each other just a few days ago, as they had been to
“You!” I hadn’t noticed the security guy
was here as well. Emphatically gesturing, as he always was, he walked up to the
group of nine. Apparently commanding one of the persons sitting alone on one
side of the chairs to stand up and follow. I didn’t really understand. Usually,
his whole occupation here seemed to be built around reminding you to cover your
nose with the mask while inside, as well as pointing out where to stand while
smoking. But now he appeared like the most organic part in the act that had
been put together.
I watch, as the person disappears behind
the black-painted wall that is denying direct view inside the building. My eyes
follow to the upper floors, passing the dimly lit windows, searching for the
source of the damp noise, that is filling the evening air. There is definitely a
source of rapid, base-heavy music hiding somewhere inside there. However, I can’t remember that it had been playing all along. My curiosity grows, I can feel it in my limbs. I start rolling a cigarette.
A girl, standing in a group in front of the
line, walks up to take the free seat, while looking back a couple of times and
sticking her tongue out to her friends. Had anybody known what to expect before
coming? Or were they all unwittingly playing along, just as I was?
The security guy comes back from the
entrance and points at another person. A few minutes later, the whole scene
repeats. And then again, and again, and again.
About twenty minutes afterwards it is
finally my turn to claim the next free spot. As I sit down, I give a quick lock
to the person in the cubicle-like seat next to me, realizing it to be the same
girl that had caught my attention some minutes ago. She returns my spontaneous
smile, rolling her eyes and shaking her head knowingly. At least we seemed to
be in silent agreement on the strangeness of this whole situation.
The security guard makes another round, this time
enjoying himself more than before, taking his time, while walking across the
line of people. A person towards the front end is throwing his arms in the air,
as he walks by him, making his frustration public. Is this going to turn into a
Berghain kind of scenario, I think to myself. Where some people are just never going
to be able to get in, just for a display of the terror of pure randomness? Could
this snarky security guy actually be the Portuguese personification of a Sven Marquardt?
But the thought evaporates, as I realize he is pointing directly in my direction.
Almost automatically, I rise to my feet. Then
hesitate, and turn to the girl next to me, looking for some justification. “Lucky
one”, she responds and shrugs her shoulders.
Slowly I make my way, approaching the obscure
I walk around the wall, suddenly being engulfed by darkness. Distant baselines are penetrating the
building from somewhere above.
“Continue, then turn right and up!” Somebody commands from the darkness. I continue. The whole interior covered with a layer of plasterboards. Haphazardly painted black. The former space barely recognizable. I use the rest of the light entering from behind me. Walking deeper inside. To my right a small hole in the plaster wall. There should be a staircase. But just a hole. Turn right. I duck down. Enter. My hands looking for guidance. Step after step. I crawl up. Hit my head on a wall. Turn right again. Use my hands to prevent me from hitting my head on a wall. Noise accumulates. I turn right. There must be many people inside. Step after step. Until I finally reach the upper floor. A pair of legs in front of me. I look up. Cautiously stand up. Another corridor. Just broad enough for a line of people to stand in. No space to move. The whole structure vibrating and shaking. A screen somewhere in front. Depicting a guy in an 80s jumper. Excessively Dancing. The music stops. “Open!” Somebody shouts from inside. Some movement from behind a wall. I hear people. Can’t make much of their voices. Excitement. “Close!” The same voice. “Open!” Now another voice. Movement in front of the line. I follow behind. Another hole in a wall. I get down on my hands to get through. Pairs of legs around. I stand up in the narrow void between them. A narrow, square box surrounding me from the belly upwards. “Close!” The same voice again. I look down. Legs standing in boxes next to me. Bathed in a red light. Just legs. Above and around black painted plaster. Where the rest of the people with the legs should be. The light goes out. Darkness. Music starts again. Louder than before. A piercing noise. The air vibrating. You can see it. Hear it. Taste it. I don’t care. Start to move. Nobody around. Just legs. But no light. I dance. How much space do you need to be free? The base making the space tangible. Not the space. But the space. I dance. Think about who’s next to me. Just legs. I move along with them. Just darkness. Soaked with soundwaves and dopamine. How much space do you need to get close? The base making the space tangible. Not the space. But...
The music stops without a warning. The dim red light transfuses the scene again. Pairs of legs surrounding me. “Open!” somebody shouts. Just legs. One after another getting down on their knees and disappearing to the opposite side of where we had entered. I duck down. Can see a comforting light coming from somewhere behind the black box. I find the exit.
The rush of adrenaline suddenly dissipates as my eyes find a familiar face: wittingly smiling, while offering me her hand. I pull myself up to get onto my legs. While being embraced in her arms I look around: The familiar space of the faculty of architecture of Porto. All the tables cramped to one side. A big, bulky structure from where we had just emerged, standing freely right in the middle of it all. The awkward leftover space filled with people, friends, strangers. All of which must have gotten here the same way as I had, I realized. “Close!” Somebody shouted and the music started again. I grabbed a drink form what appeared to be the bar, a content smile growing on my face and started to move.