Alice in Webland: Notes towards a Modest Fiction
"I THINK I see what you mean," said Alice doubtfully.
"That's just the trouble," the Spider said. "Some meanings are sensitive. They prefer to be heard and not seen. Like children,” it added.
"I thought children were meant to be seen and not heard," Alice said politely.
"Well, YOU’RE certainly being heard," the Spider said nastily. "You have an uncommonly loud voice for a Tyro.”
Alice wasn’t sure that her voice was really all that loud, and she wanted to ask what a Tyro was, but it was too late. The Spider was already scuttling off along the Web again.
“Oh dear,” thought Alice, “I hope this isn’t a Crash.”
“Aren’t YOU depressed when you’re rejected?” the Pixel asked.
Alice thought of the time when her sister wouldn’t let her wash the computer, and nodded.
“Well, think how HE must feel,” the Pixel said. “He’s a Rejected Application. He’s ALWAYS rejected.”
Alice looked at the button that said Open.
“I just do what I’m told,” the Cursor said defensively. “I go where I’m sent. Don’t blame ME if some of the Files find me a drag.”
The Mac’s hair was untidy, and his clothes seemed flung on all anyhow, but he had a large friendly smile, and Alice thought that he must be proud of where he came from, for there was a label on his bottle with the word “Scotch” on it.
“If it feels good, do it,” he said genially, waving the bottle.
“But I want to do what’s RIGHT,” Alice said
“May I ask you something?” Alice said diffidently.
“Certainly, young lady,” the PC said, stiffening his stiff back even further.
Alice thought she was probably very ignorant, but she said, “Why are you called PC”?
The PC nodded his head approvingly, and said, “A thoughtful question. Always take the opportunity to improve your mind.”
“Well, “ he went on, “it MIGHT be because, like a police constable, I do my best to make sure that everything proceeds in an orderly fashion—not that there’s anything to be done with HIM”—and here he glanced disapprovingly in the direction of the Mac. “But the REAL reason, as you may already have perceived,” and here he gave a small smile, “is that I am always Posturally Correct. “
For a moment Alice thought that she heard the Mac mutter, “Priggishly conceited would be more like it,” but she knew she must be mistaken, since obviously no-one would say such a thing about so important a personage.
Alice had looked behind the screen once when her sister was out of the room, but there was nothing there.
“So this is what it is like being Resized,” Alice said to herself sadly.
More and more Programmes were running around by now, all of them looking much too busy and important to want to stop and talk with Alice.
“I wonder if they ever bump into one another,” Alice said. No sooner were the words spoken than there was an odd kind of grinding clattery slithery noise, and all the Pixels started shouting “Crash! Crash!” at the tops of their little voices.
“Oh dear!” the Folder said, “it’s that new Programme, just as I predicted. Much too ambitious, you know.”
“Why do they all sound so happy about it?” Alice asked.
“Well,” said the Folder “Pixels don’t have much sense of responsibility, I’m afraid. Every time there’s a crash, they get to have a holiday while the inquiry is going on. So THEY’RE happy enough. Not that they’re unkind, mind you,” it added hastily. “They just don’t seem interested in the whole picture.”
Alice thought to herself, “Everyone keeps telling me that I need to understand the System. I wonder if it will ever try to understand ME.” But she knew enough by now not to say this out loud.
“I’ve done it,” Alice said proudly when the Resizing was finished. “I’m now EXACTLY thirty-nine-and-a-half inches high, no more, no less. They’ll HAVE to Access me now.”
“In whose eyes?” asked the Nerd gently. When Alice looked puzzled, he went on, “In whose eyes, my dear young ever-hopeful lady, are you exactly ANYTHING? You might just as well say that the time now is exactly” (and here he gestured towards the sundial) “what that sundial tells you it is. But suppose my watch” (and here he pulled a large watch out of one of his pockets) “tells you something different. What then?”
Alice was relieved to find that the ticking that she had been hearing wasn’t just inside her head, but she thought the question was rather silly.
“Well, ONE of them has to be right,” she said firmly.
“Ah, but suppose that my other watch” (and here he dragged an even bigger one out of another pocket) “says that BOTH of them are wrong?”
“Well,” Alice began, but when the Nerd started reaching into yet another pocket, she closed her mouth again.
The Nerd nodded approvingly.
“Let me give you a piece of advice,” the Folder said, pausing for a moment in its Folding. “Don’t EVER presume to ask a Geek a question, not unless you have a Transposer accompanying you, and probably not even then”
“But don’t Geeks know all the answers?” Alice asked.
“They do indeed,” the Folder said. “There is NOTHING a Geek doesn’t know. But in order to understand their answers, you first have to know their language.”
Alice was puzzled. “They’re not—they’re not GREEK, are they?” she asked, for she had heard the saying, “It’s all Greek to me.”
“No, they’re not Greek,” the Folder said. “But what they speak is Crypto, which is to say, Crypto-English. At first it will sound to you like the English that you and I speak, since it has words like ‘And’ and ‘But’ and ‘First’ and ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Because’ in it. But when you listen more carefully you will find that you understand nothing at all that they are saying. Nothing. Unless, that is, you already know Crypto.”
Alice was even more puzzled. “But don’t they WANT to be understood?” she asked.
“Oh, they do indeed,” the Folder said “and they believe that they ARE being understood, since no Tyro would dream of looking puzzled while they are speaking. Being addressed by a Geek doesn’t happen every day, you know. It’s a great privilege.”
“So does nobody understand them?” Alice asked.
“Geeks do,” the Folder said. “Geeks understand each other. Some of them, anyway.”
“I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to be a Geek, then,” said Alice sadly, since she had quite enough trouble with English as it was.
“There are worse things than not being a Geek,” the Folder said.
It thought for a moment and added, “I suppose you could say that something was all Geek to you.”
“Is a Zoom really so terrible?” Alice asked. “Couldn’t you just hide until it was over?” She was thinking of hurricanes, you see, which she knew occurred from time to time in far-off places like Jamaica.
“My dear,” the File said, “you have no IDEA how terrible a Zoom is. For you never know when it is going to strike or what will happen. You may suddenly find that your neighbour, someone you’ve known all your life, is ten times taller than you, or that one of your feet, your own precious feet, is so small that you can hardly see it. Sometimes the whole landscape comes towards you like a wave that gets bigger and bigger until everything is sucked up into it.”
The File shuddered visibly at the thought.
“I suppose,” said Alice, reflectively “it wouldn’t be so bad if EVERYTHING changed. Then you wouldn’t know if you were bigger or smaller.”
“You mustn’t joke about such dreadful, dreadful things,” the File said indignantly. “My own dear mother was Zoomed once, and she was never the same again, I can assure you.
Alice hadn’t been joking, but she was too polite to say so.
She must have accidentally touched one of the forbidden keys, for as she watched, the screen quietly grew bigger and bigger, until it was like an archway with a silvery grey curtain hanging in front of it, and Alice, who was scared of bats, and needles (the doctor’s kind), and two of her maiden aunts, but who knew an Adventure when she saw one, took a deep breath and stepped through.
By now the Google’s many arms were whirling and darting so fast that all you could see of it was the kind of wrinkling in the air that you sometimes notice above the road on nice hot dry summer days.
“Please,” Alice said to a Folder who seemed to have his Files organized to his satisfaction. “Please, what is it doing?”
“It’s gathering data,” the Folder said.
Alice particularly liked dates, which arrived at Christmas neatly packed in little boxes with rounded ends that you could use as boats or as cribs for your littlest dolls after all the dates had been eaten up. But try as she might, she couldn’t see any dates up there on the Web.
“It must have very good eyes,” Alice said. “I can’t see any dates at all.”
“Data, not dates,” the Folder said, a bit impatiently. “Get in line there, you,” it suddenly shouted, startling Alice. But after a moment she realized that it was addressing one of the Files.
“It goes in search of facts,” the Folder said, relaxing again. “It takes them from the Web and redistributes them. Passes them around,” it added by way of explanation, seeing that Alice was looking puzzled.
Alice could see now that some of the Files were growing bigger, as more and more facts were inserted into their pockets. One or two Files were getting VERY big.
“A new File needed here,” the Folder shouted. Evidently its eyes didn’t miss much.
A small and very young-looking File trotted up hopefully.
“Sometimes when a File gets overloaded it can’t get out of the way of an Application fast enough and there’s a crash,” the Folder explained.
At this point Alice heard an odd humming noise, as if everything were quivering gently like a glass when you wet your finger and rub it around the rim.
“Would you mind telling me what that noise is, please?” she asked. It didn’t SOUND unpleasant, but all the Folders were looking apprehensive and speaking more sternly to their Files.
“Don’t you recognize a Scan when you hear one?” the Nerd said.
“I’m afraid not,” Alice said. “I’ve always been told that it’s only lazy readers who scan books.”
The Nerd looked puzzled for a moment, and then frowned and said, “How do you expect words to respect YOU if you don’t respect THEM? Scanning is not the same thing as skimming, which is indeed what lazy readers do. Scanning is the ANTITHESIS of skimming. It is the exact opposite. To scan something is to examine it with particular care.”
It glanced skyward and cocked an ear as if to make out whether the humming was changing at all.
“For all we know, you may be being scanned at this very moment,” it went on.
Alice wasn’t sure she liked the idea of that. “I’m not FEELING anything,” she said, a little defensively.
“Oh, you won’t FEEL anything,” the Nerd said. “But you can be sure that by the time it’s over, the Scanner will know everything about you that there is to know.”
Alice thought that this would be taking rather a liberty, and she was glad that she was wearing her best clean cotton underthings.
“What happens to what it finds?” she asked.
“Sometimes a Dupe is made,” the Nerd said.
“A Dupe?” Alice asked.
“A Dupe is an identical copy,” the Nerd said. “Which is to say, a copy that is the same in every way as the original. A Duplicate. Don’t they teach Tyros ANYTHING these days?
What a lot of new words I’m learning, Alice thought, and how anxious everyone is to improve my mind.
“For all you know,” the Nerd added, “you’ve been Duped already.”
Alice thought for a moment that it might be rather jolly to have another Alice to play with, since it would share all her interests and wouldn’t need to have the points of jokes explained.
Then she reflected that there might be a problem about going back through the Screen, if she could ever find it again.
Why, she thought, the Other Alice might go through it first, and where would she herself be THEN? For there couldn’t very well be TWO Alices sitting down to tea. Cook would never stand for it.
Furthermore (a word she had never ventured to use before), people might even think it was she herself who was the Dupe, and how would she go about convincing them that she was really HER?
At this point, when she was beginning to feel rather put upon, a piece of sky with a fluffy cloud and some birds in it suddenly vanished, leaving only a blank grey square—or rectangle, as she knew she must properly call it.
“So that’s what it was about,” the Nerd said, with a note of relief in its voice. “Well, THAT’S over. So, where were we?”
Alice realized that the humming noise had ceased.
© John Fraser