Is There Anybody Out There?

Photo of author by Anita Horan

I can remember a time when there was little doubt the person communicating with me was a human and not a machine. It was unlikely the hand-written letter I received in the mail was written by an android. Phone conversations, while a marvel of communication, still had to take place between me and someone else. To think I was engaging with an automated process rather than a human would’ve been paranoia.

So, it’s strange to now find myself living in a world where paranoid notions are everyday reality. Case in point, my recent interaction with a stranger. I opened one of the social apps on my phone in response to the notification a direct message was waiting for me. Beyond my professional life, I use social media to create opportunities to engage in my favourite pastimes — underwater photography and freediving. With a twinge of anticipation, I tapped on the direct message and read an introduction from a stranger.

He thanked me for sharing my images with the world and expressed a mutual interest in underwater photography. He’d also like to meet up for a dive. Well, this is my jam! I’m touched my art has had an impact on this person. Before replying, I share my excitement with my partner. She showed me a direct message from the same person. The EXACT SAME MESSAGE, preceded with what is no doubt an insert name here field.

The message no longer felt special. I didn’t even reply.

In the past when I’d post to social media, any interaction with my update would result in a physical sensation, a hit from my drug of choice. Likes would correspond with warmth in my belly, comments: a pleasant tingle up my spine, and direct messages, a sense of precious clarity, as if dusty cobwebs were just removed from the eaves of my dwelling.

The direct message I received from my mysterious fellow photographer reminds me that reaching out to people can now be automated. An internet bot or web robot, known simply as a bot, is a piece of software that allows people to automate inconvenient tasks such as you know, engaging with people. Likes, comments and direct messages can all be bot-handled.

As a result, I feel disoriented when I realise most people don’t want to converse with me, they simply want to stick a pin in my abdomen and display me along with their other butterflies, I mean ‘followers’. Is the universe awash with bot-automated messages? Will other lifeforms dismiss our efforts to reach out with the angry retort: Not another fucking automated message!?

While we message the great beyond, we’ve cultivated a fear of the impending arrival of a cold intellect closer to home. Not alien beings, rather Artificial Intelligence (AI). I laugh when I read hand-wringing think pieces on what AI will or will not do when it wakes up. The machine is already here. Our behaviour is an obvious clue, we now act like software, finally surrendering inconvenient human contact to bots. AI’s coming out party is a mere formality, it has already shed us like dead skin cells.

When I feel disheartened about humanity, rare events present themselves and remind me to look outside of the electronic babel we soak in, day in, day out. A memorable example occurred this month as the local water temperature shrugged off summer.

I was snorkelling in the middle of the day with my partner. We both approached a foam float bobbing on the surface, a signal to boat traffic that scuba divers were below. No scuba divers today. The spherical piece of foam looked mournful and lonely, anchored over a vast, sterile sandy bottom. No nearby kelp, rocks or fish life.

A different impression came into focus as our fin kicks brought us closer. The foam ball was covered in marine life. Plants, shellfish and tiny darting specks like vinegar flies above a fruit bowl. The float was ripe with life! A tiny oasis in a vast desert. While gazing at the sphere, I had the overwhelming feeling I was looking at our planet, a wonderful anomaly in a seemingly lifeless corner of our galaxy.

The foam sphere was host to a thriving ecosystem. Photo by Anita Horan.

I stopped kicking and drifted into orbit, my neoprene contained consciousness marvelling at this rich and thriving outpost. One of the specks peeled away and came straight towards me. It was bigger than a vinegar fly, but not much. A tiny, juvenile Sergeant Major fish, the size of my pinky fingernail. The tiny being darted back and forth in front of my face, desperate to be noticed. An overwhelming sense of inferiority washed over me. I was humbled to be in the presence of this animated speck who was attempting contact, risking its very existence by leaving the shelter of its biosphere. No farming out contact to a bot, this ridiculously small creature was putting its life on the line to catch the attention of an enormous and frightening creature, freshly emerged from the gloom — me. I hoped the little fish felt my blooming aura of gratitude. Perhaps it did as it soon returned to the sphere, spent from the effort.

Look closely and you’ll see the tiny fish, far from its home, above the ‘i’ in the word ‘Cressi’ on my chest. Photo by Anita Horan.

Back in our own home, my partner and I sorted through the images from our digital camera. I noticed she’d managed to capture a photo of the wee fish in the same frame as me. She was unaware she’d even taken the photo.

I’m certain there was something in my eye as I stared at the back-lit display, my heart aching.

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