You, the protagonist, are on a small fishing schooner off the coast of Norway. This is an Edgar Allan Poe story, so things aren’t going well. Your ship is trapped in a mile-wide whirlpool that grinds whales into pesto. Your younger brother just drowned in a perfunctory half-sentence. Your elder brother is clinging to a ringbolt near the bow. You’re astern, hanging on to a lashed-down empty water cask. The ship rides the maelstrom like it’s in the Indy 500, keel centripetally pinned to the black lane of water. Up to one side is the whirl’s edge, open sky, a brilliant moon. Down to the other is a rainbow, which smiles across the roiling mist of the abyss.
Fear has driven your brother mad. You, however, take this chance to reflect on the romantic hopelessness of your situation. Turning and turning in the narrowing gyre, you begin to feel that you could get excited about dying this way, about being consumed by this great vortex of violent energy. It’s pretty fucking tremendous, right? Aren’t you and your brother lucky, in a way, to be finding out what’s down there?
But the run-me-over moment passes. You start contemplating the other debris that got sucked into the vortex along with your ship—home furnishings, construction materials, the snapped-off trunks of trees. Some stuff plunges quickly down into the funnel. Some stuff holds its place. Smallish cylindrical things, you notice, hardly descend at all. And look, here you are atop one of Poe’s favorite cylindrical literary devices, a cask.
You signal your brother to join you, waving an arm as if to semaphore: Hop on! I found us a ride! He refuses to let go of the ringbolt. Grief-stricken but stoic, you lash yourself to the cask and wait for your moment. When it comes, you cut loose into the unknown alone.
You watch the ship spiral down and disappear below you. The maelstrom subsides. Hair gone prematurely white, you live to tell your tale to a reporter.
Marshall McLuhan, the adopted seer of Silicon Valley—and at one time WIRED’s official patron saint—loved this story of Poe’s. Employed as a professor of English in Canada, he understood his job as awakening the masses to the “vortices of energy” exerted by different communication technologies (TV and film, radio, the printed word) and helping people “program a strategy of evasion and survival.” He preached that participants in “the electric age” must be like Poe’s fisherman. “Pattern recognition in the midst of a huge, overwhelming, destructive force is the way out of the maelstrom,” McLuhan once told a roomful of students. They had two choices: Learn to make the leap, or die paralyzed by the whirl.
It’s a shame that Saint Marshall didn’t live to tweet. What would he have said as he watched the electric age become the networked age, the age of a dirt-cheap, globe-spanning communication technology riding around in people’s pockets? What patterns would he have spotted as the great human network—with its political enmities, racial hatreds, economicuncertainties, climate fears, wars, pandemics—drove the walls of the maelstrom higher? What buoyant objects might he have pointed out on deck? When would he have said to jump?
The story you’re reading now is not about McLuhan or his obsession with vortices. This story is mostly about Balaji Srinivasan, a technologist and investor in his early forties, who does tweet, prodigiously.