By Harsh Pareek May. 29, 2017
When an online search turned up nothing, it led me down a contemplative path. I realised that even in this connected age, there’s much to be learnt from things you can’t find on Google.
At one point during Eddie Murphy’s 1983 comedy special Delirious, the then 22-year-old asks for a camera from the members of the audience and gets one from the first row. The comic then proceeds to take a couple of photographs of the crowd gathered at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. People stand up, some wave their hands, a guy lifts his shirt up.
Like a good comedian, Murphy makes a hilarious segment out of taking these photographs. Then, of course, he proceeds to take a selfie of his crotch. “I’ll see you explain the last one to the guy at the Photomat,” he jokes while returning the camera. Although parts of it haven’t aged well, Murphy’s performance has acquired a legendary status and is now considered one of the best comedy specials of all time. Imagine being in one of those photographs.
I paused the video at that moment and googled for the photographs. I assumed a simple search would suffice, but to my surprise, the photographs were nowhere to be found. I scanned through all the usual places (Reddit, Quora, archives of old magazines), but nothing. I discovered a few others had attempted to do the same, but without any satisfactory results.
I was struck most by how sure I was of finding these photographs with my first search query – how it never crossed my mind that a few photographs, taken in 1983 on a disposable film camera of an anonymous audience member, might not exist on the internet. The thought that the internet might let me down had never occurred to me.
It’s a humbling thought, especially if you have used the internet for half your life, seen it grow from looking like NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake to the Justin Timberlake. You’ve kinda forgotten that the NSYNC version ever existed and have adjusted to the always–spiffy Justin.
Between Wikipedia and 4chan, Instagram, and YouTube, surface web and deep web, you can learn what happened when Beethoven was challenged to an improvisation duel by one of his rivals named Daniel Steibelt, learn the lyrics of Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” or employ a hitman. How could there not be photographs from an exceptionally famous event?
Sometime after the disbelief/disappointment had passed, I started thinking about all the times when the zettabyte of the internet seemed to have failed me previously. There had been close calls in the past, like when Coachella’s official channel took down Bon Iver’s 2012 performance a few days after it was uploaded but a kind soul then uploaded it on Dailymotion. Life carried on.
The internet had never really let me down. The reason then, why failure stumped me, is because the internet has come to play the role of Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat for most of its users. When things are going down, the internet is the 24/7 comfort blanket at your disposal. Compared to real life, it is a place with all the answers, where things are more permanent and seemingly more in your control.
There is also a thrill in knowing that there is someone out there who has the pictures that Murphy took during the show or knows what happened to them.
So when there is a glitch in the matrix, it’s like a child being failed by a parent they look up to. It shatters the illusion of all-pervasive grandness and reveals the flaws, the fragility, and the impermanence of an organic life.
But today, perhaps more than any time in recent history, these fleeting moments of vulnerability are essential to human experience. In an age, where it feels like everything is just a few finger taps away, sometimes it’s good to hear an “I don’t know”. These empty search results then act as a reminder of our individual nature and limitations in the grander, connected-through-fibre scheme of things. And although it may not sound very appealing, it can be liberating. These are the moments that give us a chance to let go of the hunting cap or imagine Sisyphus happy.
With such a mighty sense of ease and power at our disposal at all times, it’s easy to forget to contemplate the fragile and temporary nature of our own memory and existence – and a blank look from the internet is perhaps the trigger you need. That indeed, you cannot know or have it all in your lifetime. That there are limitations. It’s a good feeling. Like waking up from a deep slumber with panic but slowly grasping reality as your eyes adjust to the light.
There is also a thrill in knowing that there is someone out there who has the pictures that Murphy took during the show or knows what happened to them. That you are not the centre of the universe and there is much, even trivial things, to be discovered. Things that demand more time, effort, and a personal touch rather than a simple internet search.
In the third episode of Jonathan Goldstein’s wonderful podcast, Heavyweight, he speaks of a short experimental video he watched in college (he is now 47) in which a little girl named Tara sat in silence while her parent sobbed. Goldstein could never forget her and wanted to know if that girl was okay. But he had been unable to locate the video over the years to start looking for her. What follows is a moving story of discovery, identity, and deception.
Goldstein’s journey wouldn’t have come to pass if he’d found the girl’s details instantly on the internet and looked her up on social media.
William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition follows a similar premise where the protagonist navigates the streets of London, Tokyo, and Moscow looking for the creators of intriguing film clips anonymously posted to the internet. There is an inherent joy in mysteries, whether you end up solving them or not. A blend of calm and adrenaline.
I came away from my not-so-fruitless search with one learning. There’s much to be learned in this learned age – not from what you can find, but sometimes, from what you can’t.