Codes, prophecies, countdowns: from John Titor to today, the network creates stories about the end of the world, which we always like to believe in, at least a bit. The Apocalypse on the Web. The first two stories related to Internet that I remember to have heard in my life, in the late ’90s, before I even had a connection, were quite unusual and interesting, albeit in different ways. The first concerned an erotic movie by Pamela Anderson filmed with boyfriend Tommy Lee; the second a man who had returned in 1998 from the year 2036 to save the world. The distinguished gentleman was John Titor and had appeared online in 1998 with the name “Timetravel_0”. The home video of Pamela, however, was on one of my friends computer. The phenomenon John Titor began with a message, this one:
Greetings. I am a time traveller from the year 2036. I am on my way home after
getting an IBM 5100 computer system from the year 1975.
My “time” machine is a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by
General Electric. The unit is powered by two, top-spin, dual positive singularities
That produces a standard, off-set Tipler sinusoid.
I will be happy to post pictures of the unit.
We all recognize two essential details of Titor’s narration: the obscure reference to the IBM 5100 and other electronic components; the fact that he came from the future. I do not mean that the story of Titor impressed me more than the Anderson-Lee one but, even today, in 2015, when we have cyberspace in our pockets, it is among the first things that I connect to my approach to the Internet. Titor took the concept of the Net, at the time of its beginning, and gave it a mysterious and dangerous charm, that of a powerful technology used by travellers in time or able to ruin your life by showing everyone your intimate moments. Timetravel_0 thus begins an online question and answer session, avoiding “uncomfortable” questions (such as “who will win the Super Bowl in 2001?”) but telling much about himself, his world, the problems of the future. A sprawling story in which classic references to the decline of the West dance with nit-picking techniques, helping to make the fictive pill easier to swallow. This is the Ur Conspiracy Theory of the Internet, of course, but also a classic tale with a clear moral: John Titor had to save his world but especially ourselves. In his online confessions he enthralled readers with a scenario in which the United States are divided into six parts, broken up by a second civil war and then destroyed by Soviet atomic bombs. So he needed an IBM. Etc. Today is a special date: not only we are still alive and the prophecies of Titor proven absurd but exactly fifteen years ago, on Nov. 2, 2000, Timetravel_0 published some of his major releases, including the heraldic symbol of his organization of the future. Here it is:
Titor is a particular theme, the kind of topic on which there is nothing to say, and, simultaneously, a lot of documents to read: there is this debunking of his “mystery“; there are the titorists, who until 2008 were hunting for evidence of our suffrage; or, again, this list of 88 people suspected of being Titor. Personally, I fedigrafo any time traveller unable to predict the new Star Wars – so why are we here? We are here to talk about the end of the world.
There is this eternal return of the same on the Internet, a steady recovery of apocalyptic themes, a constant sounding of dark prophecies that seem to be trumpeted on the web. Rather, they seem to sprout in the network. Timetravel_0, the man who returns to the past and then acts as a customer in forums, blurting out his secrets, is a tragic figure: an incompetent who does not respect – or understand – the only rule that the time travellers would follow, if they existed. The rule is very simple: DO NOT GO ON THE INTERNET TO TELL. Yet the network, at that innocent and pioneering time, chose to believe his story, and to share it and tell it, adding to several other pieces of legend (like the IBM component in question, which for some had really secret features that no one could know #enlighten). By doing that, the story has become “legend” and then “mystery”, which is one step below the “maybe it really happened.” And in fact, we are still here, trying to free ourselves from its dark shadow, a shadow that we have created, to follow a different and more credible path, one that links the apocalyptic to the web.
Investigators of the nightmare
The latest example dates back to just two weeks ago, when a “mysterious” video appeared online, containing hidden messages. A bludgeoning clip hints at the end of the world with dates and places and unpleasant masks.
The video, uploaded last May, began to go viral this October – on Halloween – when Johny Krahbichler wrote about it in blog Gadgetzz, presenting it like this: “Someone sent me this video.” In the following days, the second step of the Internet apocalypse began: some guys began to discuss this on Reddit. Reddit is an important point in the spread of these mysteries, the kind of place where the lazy, the junk and the nerds live together in harmony, creating a society that they perceive as Eden. If Reddit had existed at the turn of the 90s and 2000, “Timetravel_0” would have a dedicated subreddit (well, actually he has it), and thousands of people would analyse in real-time his communications. Even more: John Titor would be a redditor.
“A mysterious video found somewhere” is a horror film premise. Our thoughts turn naturally to The Blair Witch Project (1999, John Titor had been in our timeline for a year), an indie film which become a world wide hit thanks to the web, namely the site BlairWitch.com, which sold a short home movie for “true “and” mysteriously found on the site. “As regards the state of its authors, was a mystery, he said. The web and its drive to seek the deadly did the rest and boy, I found myself fearing the movie.
The video from a few weeks ago, with its disturbing codes, reminds us of another great unsolved mystery of the Internet, Cicada 3301, an obscure organization looking for cryptographers and skilled puzzle solvers which recruits young talent by sowing the network with treasure hunts. From 2012 to today, different theories have emerged about it, but there is a general consensus that this is a recruitment tool created by an organization (the CIA, MI5, according to taste). Cicada 3301 has no threatening content – indeed, the tone is playful and exclusive, warning beginners from participating in the mystery quest – but it is its elitist nature that have made it a legend on the web: Who are the heroes who managed to understand the code? What are they hiding if not the damn end of the world?
Speaking of codes, and going back to Reddit, there is the recent (2012) case of the user of the site “u / A858DE45F56D9BC” who for months published only lines of code without meaning, generating considerable gossip by programmers around the meaning of his action. Phase 2, the collective survey, seems to have led to a partial solution: binary codes were often images, as this kind of Stonehenge.
Some of his most recent post has become more enigmatic. According to the user who unveiled part of the mystery, “those may be encrypted data or random data, there is no way to distinguish them” – which is a nice phrase, if you think about it.
Unlike these messages in bottles, Cicada 3301 is an endless enigma: clues ranging from GPS coordinates (which we also find in the “scary” video from two weeks ago) to Kabbalah through William Blake: it is as if someone had opened a well of conspiracy and had emptied it telling people to have a plan. In all these cases one perceives the threat of an imminent danger, the dismantling of the order that can be reinstated only by solving a mystery. This is not available to everyone: they are technicians, new Alan Turings, special agents. It is a war – and you can take part from your own home!
In addition to Reddit, what goes for Internet Apocalypse also goes for YouTube, as seen with our friends with the threatening masks. Here we meet for example another apocalyptic puzzle, Pronunciation Book, a YouTube channel which for years has published short videos explaining the pronunciation of an English word by repeating it three times. “Tobias”, for example:
But also “Yes”:
Thus, for months the channel has attracted attention, creating perplexity. On July 9, 2013 it released another video, entitled “How to pronounce 77”:
Instead of the usual word repeated three times, the robotic voice this time says: “Something will happen in 77 days.” The next day, the same thing but with the number 76. The thing continued for another 75 days.
A countdown is the worst possible countdown: absurd and mysterious, animated by a robotic voice, cold and ticking. In few days, the case was called “the most interesting mystery of the Internet” by Buzzfeed, while someone suspected to be a publicity stunt for the launch of Halo – hypothesis that is also returned in recent days with the video of the mysterious masked figures. 77 days later, while a small part of humanity was diligently holding the fort, awaiting an Apocalypse planned by a YouTube channel, the unveiling occured:
The creators of Pronunciation Book are therefore the same as @Horse_ebooks, Twitter accounts of worship which – it was said – published meaningless excerpts from ebooks on horses, and which had become viral (and religion for me) thanks to zen-nonsense masterpieces as:
The two phenomena decided to die together on that day, only to launch a fucking video game. But we digress, let’s go back to the apocalypse.
All these obscure prophecies hide a threatening soul and are made to multiply on the Internet: they share part of their DNA with the creepypasta – which we’ve talked about here – and in fact our next case is just a creepypasta, Sad Satan.
Sad Satan is a video game which popped up in the deep web and become a global event, important enough to be played by Pewdiepie himself: threatening and disturbing, it hides a meaning yet to be deciphered. From what we know, it involves Jimmy Savile, British television personality accused of pedophilia after his death.
However, it is the second video related to Sad Satan that give the willies and really talk about death. In one of the flashing screens that flashes the player, a redditor (still Reddit) has found a coded message. A series of phrases, including: “I can track you”, “Good luck,” “You’re on my list,” “5 victims !! 🙂 🙂 “and so on, suggest a The Ring type scenario in which those who play Sad Satan dies.
Then there are the passive mysteries. Not threatening, maybe even peaceful, but understandable. WebDriver Torso is a YouTube channel that for years has intrigued many people: every now and then it publishes a video of 11 seconds in which rectangular shapes (blue and red) move on a white background in a different way. Stop. The frequency of publication did the rest, creating the mystery: it is a code perhaps? Or a tribute to Mondrian? Or are they aliens? And what are those strange audio signals accompanying the movement of rectangles? After months of investigation and almost 80,000 clips published, it took Google, which owns YouTube, to calm things down and confess to having created the channel to “control the quality of videos uploaded to the site.” The usual bluff. Not even this time were there the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The adage suggests that humans do not realize the power of new technology. And indeed we act as if we did not. But scratching at the surface of our simple reactions, there appear these spasms of panic, uncontrolled reactions to imperfections, mysteries or simple pranks, evidence that our subconscious has understood all about the Internet, its immanence. A small part of us remember that the Internet began as a military vehicle, knows that if the world were to end, it would also be through the network, or because of it.
Therefore we follow the clues. We all want to find the Riddler. We started with John Titor trying, as a noisy condemned community, to save the world from our uncertain future. During the months when John Titor was still active online, we were surprised by another end of the world on a television screen, with the attacks of 11 September 2001. At that time we could not imagine that our relationship with the apocalyptic video on the Internet had just begun.
Translation of the original version published on Prismo.