with thanks to Alex Grosse
‘They literally want us permanently trapped in their Time Cube’ a friend had told me, when I had asked him for the thousandth time what on earth was going on with the internet.
It seemed like the best answer I had come across. It was a Time Cube. Or a Time Prism, or maybe Time Prison, but ‘Time Cube’ felt most palatable. It was that. A box for us to climb inside, all the walls comfortably within arm’s reach, inoculated from the past, unconcernable (despite our recently multiplied protests to the contrary) with the actual future, only always sifting, open-mouthed, through the shrapnel of the present.
The Time Cube had been part of a primordial bargain struck by our ancestors a very long time ago – although it is worth noting that we’re still unclear on who or what we actually struck said bargain with. What we do know is that the deal had gone something like this: ’Pick up this rock and hit something with it, and eventually you’ll know how to make a Time Cube full of cat gifs and porn and everyone you ever knew, and you can live out the rest of your days in it.’ There might have been some fine print about being forever rent from the natural world and something about having to kill God at some point, but it’s hard to be certain. Whatever the terms were, our ancestors consented enthusiastically.
Inside the Time Cube it was, admittedly, pretty fucking nice. There were animals doing hilarious things, and unimaginably beautiful people, and this cool thing where you could jettison your troublesome body and its embarrassing mannerisms and if you were lucky maybe even a couple of your inhibitions too, and make a direct and beautiful connection with one of the small handful of other human beings ever born that find the paintings of Mark Rothko to be unbearably erotic, and finally know what it meant to be understood. And our friends were there! Even the dead ones! All of our art and music and culture, and all of the thrilling and dangerous new forms of expression and rebellion were happening there now.
It had a universal stoa where we could each finally express our private genius. There were all the best things from the old world too, like sex, and revenge, and the public persecution of people who had said unimaginably stupid things just moments earlier. Sure, these things were slightly different to how we remembered them from outside the Time Cube, but that was to be expected, right?
However, being in the Time Cube wasn’t really making us happy. In fact, many were arguing that it was actively making us miserable. We couldn’t really come to a consensus about whether this was a predictable turn of events or not.
Some of what was making us unhappy could reasonably be told as our own fault. In the old world outside of the Time Cube we had often found ourselves frustrated at the seemingly arbitrary spans of time separating any two events. Between ordering pizza and eating pizza there had stretched an excruciating span of negative space populated only with anticipation and quiet resentment and our old friend Hunger (who had been there at the start, egging us on, when the ‘Rock/Time Cube’ deal was being negotiated). We had, all of us, silently felt that it was undignified, all this waiting, and probably beneath us, and felt collectively that we could not wait to be rid of such a thing, and as such ‘no more waiting’ was very high on the list of features that we had desired the Time Cube to have.
It turned out, though, that the negative space of waiting had served some kind of purpose that we couldn’t really understand until it was gone.Turns out, having to deal with everything in the world happening simultaneously (or so close together it may as well have been simultaneously) was kind of stressful. The present moment, and the space that had facilitated its distinction from the future, had in fact served a purpose insofar as enabling ‘reflection’, which was a word people had previously developed sound reasons to be suspect of.
This stress was increased exponentially when something Very Bad was happening, and we had to deal not only with the tragedy itself, but the statistics and tributes and speeches and policy reforms and outrage and grief that came with it, all in the tiny breadth of time where we had previously just sat slack-jawed, turning the horror of the immediate event over in our minds.
Other things about the Time Cube that were making us unhappy were perhaps more concretely identifiable as inherent to the very function of the Time Cube itself. They had built the Time Cube in such a way that we had to know that it was watching what we did inside it. This seemed like a problem of the same persuasion as having a stranger standing outside our lounge room window (back when we had lounge rooms and windows) looking in. But the thing is, the watching was entirely necessary for the Time Cube to work. The thing we liked about being in the Time Cube – unlimited access to a geyser of personalised titillation with none of the waiting we had come to resent from the old world’s titillations – required the Time Cube to be looking at us, constantly, so that it could provide exactly the right thing at exactly the right time (that time being not a split second after we asked for it but rather a split second before we thought to ask for it).
Nonetheless, we didn’t particularly like the idea of being watched. There was good news on this front though: we only noticed that we were being watched when the Time Cube failed to deliver us the right stuff at the right time, and the Time Cube was getting better at not making those mistakes. So surely, pretty soon, we would stop noticing that we were being watched entirely, and then the uneasiness would go away.
Either way, even if we could agree on if (or why) life in the Time Cube wasn’t working out, it didn’t look particularly likely that we were going to climb back out of the Cube. At least not voluntarily.
For one thing, in the intervening years since the primordial deal had been struck for the Time Cube, our forebears had suffered a lot for the Time Cube. They had endured feudalism and plagues and war and aspic salads to get to the Time Cube. So we could probably just suck it up and endure a couple of decades of minor awkward events – like seeing our high school teachers on dating apps or having our personal information fed into a giant telepathic computer that determined the outcomes of what remained of our democratic elections.
We owed something to the people who ate all those aspic salads on our behalf and then died in the waiting room outside while the Time Cube was still being finished, clutching some sort of primitive low art, like a copy of New Idea, or a Bible (All books had been, of course, a sort of dry run; A proof-of-concept for the structural feature of the Time Cube called ‘written language’, that conveniently doubled as a fun distraction until the Time Cube was finished). But the fact remained: so much suffering had gone into the Time Cube that we could not climb back out of it without spitting in the faces of every one of our ancestors. So we remained in the Time Cube, and began to metabolise for it.
There was another factor that had made us reticent to leave the Time Cube: shit outside was getting weird, if not downright terrible. The grand arc of history (which, as we now understood, had just been a prolegomenon to our lives inside the Time Cube) had yielded some troubling artefacts.
We had built a wi-fi hotspot on the moon, and soon it was going to be getting mobile coverage too. A very strange and very famous man had put a computer chip inside a pig’s brain and then told us that he was going to do the same thing to us in a couple years and that we were going to thank him for it. We discovered that we had, for many years now, been ritualistically harvesting the alien-blue blood of the noble, ancient, and handsome Horseshoe Crab to keep ourselves healthy, and then releasing the poor bastards back into the wild where they tended to die from, y’know, lack of blood. We discovered that, at some stage in the last couple decades, a colossal antenna array configured in a shape that was uncontestably occult had been erected on a section of coast 6 kilometres north of Exmouth. It was one of many, very literally part of a globe-spanning machine designed to ensure that certain parties could, if they deemed it necessary, end all life on earth.
Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty tonnes of unfathomably explosive ammonium nitrate had sat unsealed in a warehouse in the port of Beirut for six years until it realised its potential in the form of a historic and unspeakable tragedy.
So we found ourselves, in the so-called ‘present moment’ between a rock (the one we picked up to set this whole chain of events in motion) and a hard place. The Earth was becoming increasingly unsettling and baroque and hostile for reasons we were fairly confident had nothing to do with us, migrating to other planets would be an awful lot of work on our part, and would necessarily involve getting shithouse wi-fi for a few centuries, and the Time Cube was giving us a whole spectrum of new and troubling feelings that we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about.
But the choice was – is – in a way, already made. We have let the genie out of the bottle, but we’re not even talking about trying to get him back in there. We’ve climbed into the bottle ourselves, and now we’re just waiting (our final act of waiting) for the genie to seal the lid.