The Electric Webs of Our Great Nest

Who knows what to expect when a sibling FaceTime calls you while you’re buying beer at the grocery store? My best guess is always an accidental dial. Maybe their phone broke or a nephew is playing with it. Maybe they meant to call but selected FaceTime instead. Surprising someone with your digital face, no regard or worry for their momentary situation, is kind of strange. It might just be me.

They’re pregnant. She drops the phone into my prescient hands and squeals as she rounds the wine rack down an aisle. When she returns, she’s flushed, smiling her sharp-eyed smile, almost shining. I’ve seen this face before: once when I gave her a puppy and again when I gave her a ring. She knew it. I knew it. Is there a word for a surprise you know is coming but nonetheless experience exactly as though it came streaking out of the blue?

They laugh. We laugh. They tell us a date and show us a sonogram. No gender yet but it’s early, just the first trimester. What’s the rush? The baby will come along soon enough to change all our worlds. This isn’t our first nibling. If you’ve ever needed a collective noun for nieces and nephews, here it is, as coined by my brother. It isn’t our first and won’t be our last nibling. It is unique and special and mundane and exciting and terrifying all at once, and we’re not even the parents. Are they excited? Are they worried? Does one want this more than the other? The mom bears the physical burden, no one can argue that, so what does she feel? She smiles, laughs, teases. They are beautiful people who will make beautiful children, in no small way because they want children so very much.

This isn’t the thought that lingers. After the excitement, the congratulations, the calls and texts to parents, what lingers is not the little wonder growing inside her but the little wonder that I caught in my hands as my wife bounded down an aisle. It’s small, no larger than a postcard, heavier by a bit but hardly heavy, and it connects me to everything. We were buying beer when the phone rang. Faces appeared. We were instantly beside them as they shared their news.

I suppose a text would do. Or a call, of course. An email feels too formal, too commercial. In older times, they might have sent a letter. We didn’t catch the news on Facebook – that would be odd considering they’re our immediate family. Or would it?

So often, we hear about the millennial horrors that degrade our civilization. Kids bury their faces in apps. No one talks anymore. Apparently, people use emoticons on resumes. I can order a pizza from my phone and have it delivered to my bed. Wall-E’s precognitive illustrations of a supremely serviced and docile humanity strike an undeniable chord. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned sit-down discussions?

Except, who cares? I won’t replace that question with a better-written one. Who cares? Would it have been a treat to sit with them as they shared the news? Of course. But then, we would have traveled. There would have been planning, an obvious lack of surprise, a loss of sheer spontaneity, maybe a hint of dread. This might be terrible news we go to hear. Probably, we couldn’t have attended because of some commitment or another. Yet we were so tremendously privileged in that we got to be there with them, seeing them, hearing them, watching them, in that moment, when they shared their news.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, we meet uplifted arachnids, deaf by nature, whose communication evolves through vibrating webs and dancing forelegs. It’s a strange book, a fusion hard/soft sci-fi novel about the future of humanity in all its forms. Well-timed for this electronic baby news. The nascent civilization’s alien communication shows the reader how critical things like perspective and change are as we experience the world through their Great Nest. What new, better, richer, wilder, different experiences await those willing to embrace the novel, the difficult, or initially terrifying?

Fathers deployed on the other side of the planet sing their pregnant wives to sleep. Astronauts say good morning to their children. Presidents develop friendships and avoid wars of misunderstanding. People who otherwise wouldn’t step outside and say Hi to the postal worker share adventures with friends in different countries who do not speak the same language. People hear each other’s voices. In an always-asynchronous world made closer, not farther, by this new technology, a lover leaves a voicemail they know will be saved and revisited again and again while they’re away. People see each other’s faces. They send quick notes, little memento amor that tickle your fancy as well as any love letter, that beep into existence on your screen as you struggle through traffic or check your email. They end relationships, quit jobs, find gifts, learn about cities and cultures and religions that were just plain out of reach a generation ago. You ghost into their Facebook lives to see how they’re doing or just to see a smiling picture of them.

Our world is growing, not shrinking, but it’s arguably closer than ever. The world is hardly flat. We may be able to fly from Wichita to Sydney in a day but there is so much in the middle. The world is labyrinthine. It is dark and full of terrors. It abounds with life, people, and things to do and see. We wash away with it. Thanks to the wonderful electronic network that some call tethers and others, lifelines, we can cast beacons against the sky for our friends, family, and the random, interesting medley of humanity to find. All things come with a cost. The cost before the Internet Age was isolation. Your world was, for the most part, the world just there around you. Travel meant risks that today are unacceptable. It meant time costs that drain the soul. It meant years or decades between embraces. The cost today is aggregation. I would rather learn to run than force the world to crawl and I would rather hear the good news from a FaceTime call than weeks later, or worse, not at all.

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