by Chad Armstrong - November 2014
The steady glow from the screen was the only source of illumination in the otherwise darkened room. The feeble light could barely make out the towers of boxes cluttering the room and the sole occupant sitting before the computer. A flurry of chiclet keys being pressed was the only evident sound, a noise portending the coming terminal doom.
Robert was dying. Not so much in the physical sense, even though his heart felt like it had been cauterized out by the soul-sucking entity called Corporate America. He was destroying his electronic avatars, one bit at a time. He was bit flipping his life. One moment he would be there, but with the flip of a switch he wouldn’t. Facebook was the first to go, with Twitter soon following. The crusty remnant of his MySpace page from ten years ago was still lurking around, but he had forgotten the original password. One password reset later, then digging about to find how to delete the account, and then the awful deed was done.
After so many years residing online, he had built up a number of digital personas, enough that he struggled to remember everything he had signed up for at one time or another. He had even once had a GeoCities page at one time, replete with annoying, animated GIFs. Yahoo had already euthanized that entire site of embarrassing starter sites which had been the home to so many teens in the 1990s who were constructing their first amateur web pages.
The computer, the very machine which had been the focus of his craft, the instrument of creation, was now being used as an implementation of destruction. His life was in shambles, he was now just tearing down what little still remained. The road had become rocky over the past several years, which finally halted at the dead end of today. There was no future path in that direction, it was time to backtrack and start over.
The journey had initially begun as an exciting endeavor, enticed by the new possibilities offered by emerging technologies. Young and impetuous, he was eager to make a dent in the universe. After fifteen years of the game, he was seeing the same play reenacted, just with a change in the cast. Companies continually sparring against each other. Competing. Cheating. Stealing ideas and making bold claims of innovation. To fuel the fire of controversy were the legions of fanbois, loudly thumping their chests and claiming their position superior to all others. They might all make excellent politicians one day; if they could find their way out of their parents’ basements, that is.
Robert had had his own time, especially during the early years, espousing the benefits of his preferred web browser or operating system. Now, he didn’t care so much. Age and experience had knocked the blinders off, so he could finally step back and objectively look at the world. Nothing was perfect. One product might have advantages over another, but that did not denounce the competitor as wholly wrong.
As he got older, and occasionally picked up a nugget of wisdom along the way, he realized that time was no longer an infinite commodity, but a very finite and precious resource. Whether he liked it or not, time was continually spent, which made it all the more critical that he made good use of it. Wasting his time, energy, and patience arguing with thirteen-year old boys on the internet was no longer entertaining. The game had become trite and boring.
The daily motions of work and school had become well engrained and automatic. Grade school with its rigid structure was merely the prelude to a corporate world filled with bureaucratic rules and starched, white shirts. The fire in his gut that had spurred on his natural curiosity to explore the ever-burgeoning technological landscape had been quenched after so many years of corporate monotony. The passion that had fueled his earlier academic endeavors had been reduced to the faintest ember.
Year after year, he had continually strived to better himself, keeping his skills finely honed. If he ever faltered or dared to take a break, he would lose his competitive edge and be supplanted by some recent fresh-minted college grad who had nothing to their credit besides unbound enthusiasm and fewer chips on their shoulders.
Technology was quicksilver, perpetually reinventing itself every couple of years. There was no solace in settling with a single niche technology, since it would most likely be obsolete within a couple of years. Rewards were only dolled out to those who kept ahead of the curve and ended up in the right place at the right time — if the particular technology caught on with the mainstream. Otherwise, one might have just wasted their time.
The never-ending cycle had worn him down and made him eternally weary. He no longer had the energy to keep sprinting through the marathons. He had worked the grueling death marches to meet some arbitrary goal.
But no longer. He would no longer subject himself to such pointless exercises of torture.
In the end, it was all for naught. All those years, professionally nodding his head in agreement with managers who were limited by the Peter Principle, too ignorant to realize their ineptness, and too stupid to understand the idiotic decisions they made. Yet, blinded by their own misguided brilliance, they brazenly ignored the advice from anyone but their favored cadre.
Robert had not been in that particular group of ordained rock stars, so it came to little surprise when he lost his job. It didn’t matter a single whit all of the nights, weekends, and even holidays he had worked. It’s not Labor Day if you don’t put in 10 hours of labor! He wasn’t the best or fastest worker, he knew that, but he had always put in his best to ensure that the job was done properly. But he didn’t deserve the treatment he had received in the end when the axe came down. The managers needed a scapegoat to sacrifice, and he fit the bill. By getting rid of him, all of their problems would suddenly go away. Robert knew differently, though, their problems wouldn’t just ‘go away’. The company was rotten straight down to the core, and no amount of slicing or dicing of innocent employees would ever fix the company’s true problems. Not until the company had undergone a management enema would there even be the slightest change for a positive turn of events. Not that he harbored any false hope that would ever happen, especially not with the lunatics already running the asylum.
To hell with all of it. He was sick of the high school politics. The blatant favoritism. The shiny, gold rock stars. Since he wasn’t in the proper clique, he didn’t matter. Robert could have told the management the building was actually on fire, but they wouldn’t have believed him unless one of their valued toadies confirmed the fact that the building was indeed, on fire.
Another rapid succession of key strokes. Another account gone, marking a chapter of his life that had come to an end.
The fire had been ignited by the fury of his anger, but he intimately realized that he was wasting his hate on the simpletons who had cast him aside. He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last. In an intoxicating dream of Americana, employees were loyal to the company, and the company would take care of the employees in return.
Company loyalty was an ancient concept, long dead and gone. Companies were always willing to let their employees work their way down to their hypothetical bones, before tossing off their withered husks to the winds of unemployment. There would always be more resources to draw from. The universities kept churning out new batches of eager grads, anxious to make their mark on the world. A mark that could just as easily be wiped away, without the slightest trace of it ever existing.
Robert had spent years etching his digital signature across the internet, but it was going to be his own hand that would erase it, not that of some soulless entity. Next up were the source code repositories. Several minutes of work, and all of the contributions he had made on GitHub and SourceForge were obliterated. He wasn’t just eradicating his presence, but taking everything he had created, as well.
Day in, day out. Weeks and months rolled over into years, which bled into decades. Then one particular job, Robert found himself to no longer be the confident upstart who was intimately familiar with the latest and greatest of technologies, but now found himself to be closer to the cynical graybeards he had once mocked.
Where do all the old programmers go? A common question, but left without a proper answer, one that Robert would have liked to have known. Programming was an endeavor best left to the youth who had spare energy to burn. He had burned the candle at both ends for too many years, leaving a sodden, waxy mess in its wake.
Since he was effectively removing his online presence, he figured he might as well do the same for his physical self, as well. It was well past time to disconnect from the rat race of society, decompress for several months and focus on more leisurely pursuits, rather than spending his days ferreting out software bugs.
Finally seeing things with a crystal perspective, he observed the desolation of years gone by with little to show for all of his efforts. Like Thoreau, he was going off the to the woods to live deliberately, so that when it came for him to die, he could claim that he had truly lived, and not squandered his life on petty frivolities.
Perhaps now was the moment for a well-timed mid-life crisis. He had been traveling on the same career path for so long that he had never taken the time to consider other options. The further he traveled down the road, the more difficult it became to start over. But that might be the best thing for him, to begin anew. Cast off the chains off a former life, and embrace the excitement of a new venture.
It was time to get back to the basics. Remove the technological hurtles and simplify life. Thoreau had his pond. Robert had his mountains.
He had always loved going to summer camp during his youth. It was the one week out of the year where he could extract himself from the rut of daily life and live in a more carefree fashion. It was a time of reinvention where the other kids had no preconceptions about him, which allowed him to be whatever type of person he desired. It was blissful freedom, the type that was not offered by the constraints of his normal life. A small valley of paradise was surrounded by mountains, which formed an impenetrable barrier around an idyllic alternate reality based on faith, hope, and charity. It was time for him to return to nature.
His severance package had not been overly generous, but he wasn’t going to be overly hurting for money for the next several months. He had rented out a small cabin at the camp, where he would spend the summer relaxing by reading and playing guitar. His life had been so consumed by his work, leaving him exhausted each night, that he rarely had the time or inspiration to pursue the hobbies of his youth.
This was his declaration of personality bankruptcy. By wiping away his past and allowing for a time period of adjustment, he would rise from the ruins to begin a new life.
The laptop’s dim, TV-static light cast an ghostly pall throughout the room, outlining the pillars of boxes which contained nearly all of Robert’s possessions he had slated to go into storage. Only a small pile of books and a guitar remained unpacked. The light was too weak to read the book titles, but Robert knew which titles he had carefully selected that would be taken on his sojourn: Fahrenheit 451, Walden, and a Led Zeppelin tablature book.
Now for the final account, his e-mail address he had used longer than any other. Tens of thousands of e-mails, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, each message detailing a small figment of his life. All of those correspondences and memories, to be wiped out by a single motion. His finger hovered over the DELETE key, momentarily pausing like a guillotine blade.
A single soft click heralded Robert’s demise. His digital presence was gone, wiped clean away. Bit flipped to 0. Zero, nil, the empty set. He was expecting a wave of regret to smack him smartly upside the head, but it never came. With his past now a memory intended for the dustbins, Robert readied himself for his new future. He had purified his mind by releasing the past to allow for new memories to flood in.
As the computer prepared itself for shutdown, Robert picked up the books and guitar. The computer’s grey screen winked out, cloaking the room with darkness.