Reading old novels is a great way to immerse yourself in the myriad ways that human thought has changed throughout time. It only takes one quick lookup of what “laudanum” actually is, for example, to realize that the way we look at drugs, medicine, and even parenting has changed dramatically. A reader of Victorian novels encounters all sorts of lost old thoughts, theories of how the world works that have been abandoned by science and time.
There is one old thought, though that I refuse to consign completely to the annals of history. Aether. According to the science of older times, aether (also called quintessence) is the material that filled space and the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. See, before we realized that the vacuum of space was actually that, absolutely nothing, we assumed that the area between the stars had to be filled with something. So we called that something Aether.
Even more intriguing, in some mythos aether was the purest essence that the gods themselves breathed. It filled the heavens and had wondrous, miraculous properties. It’s a magical idea, and one that makes all the old stories about boats floating through the heavens make much more sense. It’s also one that has always teased at the edge of my imagination.
So I’ve adopted it, but with a modern bent. For me, the aether is what fills the internet. It fills the space between websites and code, flowing through and around the text and images and bits of applications, somewhere between a liquid and a gas and always semi-sentient. In my mind, it’s the possible ghostly audience that might always be there when I post a blog, update a status, or share a bit of myself online.
It’s a concept that is similar to that of panopticon, the idea that the things I place online are possibly always being observed. But unlike Jeremy Bentham’s prison, this idea isn’t proscriptive. The thought of some stranger, or strange thing, observing me and my work feels comforting. Logically, I know better than most how unlikely it is that anyone will find a specific blog article or tumblr update that I make. But the idea that someone might and might even enjoy it? It gives me a bit of a warm and happy sensation.
But it also serves another purpose. I don’t like complaining to people. It feels burdensome to tell people about my problems, and it feels weak to acknowledge my failures. And to me, being unable to focus on what I want to do because my pesky emotions are poking me in the squishy bits and the anxiety demons are chewing on my sense of self-worth is tantamount to weakness.
But the aether? It’s not a person. It’s a sentient void, observing without judging. It’s a stranger, passing me on the street, and its passing judgements mean nothing to me. I’m not burdening it, because it doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t matter if it thinks I’m weak, because I don’t care what it thinks. If I write up that I’m feeling shitty and don’t know whether or not I have worth in the world on my Facebook I’ll get support, sure, but also guilt at making my friends hurt. Even more than that, I’ll worry about whether that support is genuine or only given as part of a social contract, that they’re doing what is polite, but secretly think that I have lessened somehow in their eyes.
But when I’m hurting, even when it’s just an emotional reaction that doesn’t make any sense, sharing that fact with others helps to stave off the sadness. Simply writing them down in a journal isn’t enough, I have some sort of primal need to reach out and make a connection- but without worrying about the emotional fallout.
So I create aether sinks. Places on the internet where the only possible audience are strangers, where my name is obsfucated, where my location is masked, where the only link to my identity is the computer I use to log into those accounts.
Places where I can share without sharing, places that can absorb the worst of me like a heatsink in a computer, pulling the dangerous energies of my emotions off and into themselves. These places are those where it is safe to complain, where the only answer is the comforting hum of the internet’s semi-sentient sea, taking my tear-filled tirades and rage-inducing screeds into itself with nary a ripple to show where they’ve passed.
And leaving me free to process my irrational sadness and stress in peace.