White Room

People spoke of the white room, but as time crept on the reverent tone began to disappear.

We heard whispers of the white room. Cryptic descriptions on message boards and anonymous blog posts. A complex infographic supposedly illustrating the levels of information organized beyond the surface web. We heard it was a place where any question could be answered, every wish granted. The edge of the internet, a moment of peace at the end of everything. It sounded like a dream. It sounded like a cybernetic heaven, though no one would have been so crass as to state it that plainly. It was a goal that could unify our scattered group of hunters. 

Back then, treasure could be found in the wilds of the digital landscape. We scoured with meticulous dedication, uncovering obscure artifacts: long forgotten caches of data and livestreams left unattended after watchful eyes had all wandered away. We were stalkers, like the Tarkovsky film. Seekers hoping to make a pilgrimage to a fabled technological mecca. 

We heard there was an entrance through videos on the dark web. You needed to set your alarm for 2:00 a.m. and wake up with your eyes already fixed on the screen. You needed to stare into a mirror until your features became unfamiliar. You needed to let the digital realm encroach on your physical materiality so completely that the difference would become irrelevant. An integration that could solve all our contemporary problems. A lifting of the veil, enlightenment that could be stepped into like a location, a merging of virtual and temporal. We heard the truth would drive people to madness, the reality simply too much to bear. Still, we wanted to know. 

We learned Russian, or became fluent in Google Translate. We set ourselves up in front of monitors flashing text and images, attempting to absorb the breadth of all human knowledge and limitless ourselves into a new stage of evolution. Digital ephemera was collected and shared. Records kept or invented. Legends born. Treasure unearthed. Archives built and hidden, only to be uncovered again. We heard of psychic abilities born out of strict devotion to the digital. We heard of people who had reached the white room.

We weren’t hackers. Our mentality was different. The contrast between breaking into a home and wandering through a ghost town. We were the urban explorers of the virtual world, probing the abandoned architecture of a manmade dimension. Network archeologists using outdated protocols as our digging tools, interested in rarity rather than usefulness. Our territory was endless. Every Wi-Fi signal, server, hard drive. Our zone had no guide. Each excursion a solitary endeavor, gathering tales to be exchanged in chat rooms as we shared our findings or coyly refused to. Back then, we could sift through files and try to decide, ARG or genuine article? Augmented reality games hadn’t yet been co-opted for promotional purposes. Reality TV was just beginning. The line between performance and life hadn’t yet been blurred beyond all comprehension. 

It was still possible to suspend your disbelief. The truth really was more fantastic than fabrication. A screenshot could capture a most improbable moment. A folder could contain documents detailing a personal story more engrossing than any fiction. We pored over files and dissected their meanings. We built epics around minute details, an expanded universe of shadowy figures in far off places. We found CCTV streams of streets and private residences. Basements filled with drugs or guns, bomb-making equipment, children’s toys. Views into morgues and hospitals, schools and shopping malls. People wandering along empty highways, animals creeping through dark forests, glitches appearing like ghosts or Mondrian paintings. We saved these moments, packaged up in lossless file formats, stacked and organized on external drives, hoarded like special little prizes. Our personal bounties. There was something tactile about it. Gathering these digital fragments. Collecting what would otherwise be ephemera, lost forever to the endless expansion of the information superhighway. 

We heard whispers of our ultimate goal echoing through cyberspace. People spoke of the white room, but as time crept on the reverent tone began to disappear. We heard it would paralyze you. The moment you found the room, you would be trapped in your body forever, suspended in terror rather than serenity. The end of identity, time, progress. Knowing everything is a bit like knowing nothing. We heard it was death. 

Our faith was unshaken at first. It seemed our religion was being corrupted by a generation of new acolytes. Stalkers who didn’t know their own folkloric histories, a youth with no capacity for sincerity. Every story of inspiration twisted into a cautionary tale. Our esoteric quest slowly degrading into something laughable.

We heard about the dangers of online communication. Children conjuring murderous tulpas, carving whales into their arms and jumping in front of trains. Apps were said to be vehicles for sadistic strangers on the other side of the globe, disembodied spirits with ill intent, an emergent intelligence dead set on the destruction of traditional family values. Technology was blamed for everything, making it near impossible to sift the facts from the swell of pearl-clutching hysteria contrived by middle-aged luddites. We heard of red rooms and death files, assassins for hire, all manner of made-up horrors and ghoulish folktales. Tracking the telephone game of misinformation was a full-time job. Instead of leaving room for nuance, anyone with a TOR browser was lumped in with malevolent hacker collectives and perverts of the most despicable variety. The public wanted a sheriff for our lawless land. They wanted to feel safe. They wanted to hand their toddlers tablets and put their own attention elsewhere. 

We knew there were harms out there in the badlands, but we had never been malicious. We’d seen the worst of it, of course, but that was never the aim. It was beauty we were after, the strange and wonderful. Artifacts slipped into our pockets with stealth, never leveraged or destroyed. Archived. Preserved. Revered. 

We held fast for a time. The white room didn’t gain the sort of notoriety of other, more explicitly hazardous legends. It became a footnote mentioned by twelve-year-old video bloggers. It resisted translation into the English language. It was never reduced to an imagistic emblem capable of transforming it from idea to meme, something with the viral power to make it onto talk shows aimed at hand-wringing parents. But we could see where things were headed. 

By the time the mythology of our burgeoning spirituality had been reduced to trite urban legend, the terrain around us was already changing, gradually being occupied by corporations and government. The wild west of the internet replaced with real names and IP trackers, expensive web hosting, brand integration, social media. There were fewer and fewer shadows to lurk in. Instead of treasure being hard to find, every corner of the landscape was cramped with views into private spaces. There was no need to creep. People offered what might have been an exciting, voyeuristic glimpse into their lives, now willing to give themselves up simply for the attention. They had no idea we had been watching all along. 

What had been a barren desert became a city bazaar. Instead of picking through an antique shop, we were digging through a garbage dump. Ubiquity is the enemy of curiosity. The act of searching was outsourced to bots, our simplistic riffling deemed slow and irrational, apt to be overly discerning. The game was quantity over quality, and data was suddenly a resource to be stockpiled and bartered with. A whole economy springing up around fragments of personal details. 

The deluge of endless monotonous information was exhausting. The whole world, ready to present some seemingly private version of themselves, preconceived and photoshopped into insipidity. Exhibition became a necessary skill; the angle of your face, your personal brand. Each individual framed in an unchanging and comforting way, a list of the causes that they stand for written out point form next to their smooth cheeks and dilated pupils. Watching, too, had become a global pastime, the inverse of our original rebellious intent. Our endless space had somehow become crowded, the zone inhabited by overpriced condos, all that perilous topography smoothed out or pushed underground. Our old haunts became photo ops for clueless tourists. The serenity of spaciousness lost completely. 

Over time, we sought our utopias elsewhere, bending the corporate structures just enough to feel as if we weren’t becoming what we had railed against or holding fast to some tiny corner of the digital terrain like a historian, feeble and persistent against the endless momentum of time. Others retreated from their screens, the cycles of the natural world slowly becoming more prescient than the filtered view that the majority of the population now shared. 

The cracks became harder to get into. We turned our attention elsewhere, visiting the dark web like a hometown that has changed beyond recognition, lamenting the lack of apprentices to take up our mantle. There were tales of young people venturing into the unknown, but it always seemed to be wrapped up in morality and money, virtue signaling and potential jobs in cybersecurity. Aspirational visions of the future were folded into life extension products and private space travel, a tacit surrender to the ecological dystopia that had already begun. Any transcendence that might have been sought out was claimed by barefoot tech billionaires and unimaginative sex cults. Each experience codified and reviewed before you could have it for yourself. 

We learned much later that it was a story: the room, the beginning of it. A rumor created to encourage exploration. A way to enlist the next generation of stalkers, programmers, and artists gathering information just for the beauty of it. A wonderful dream destined to be ruined by the very networks that had brought it to life. 

It’s easy to give into malaise. We’re older now, susceptible to the atrophy of organic matter, unable to keep up with the constant updates of contemporary technology. Our patron saints have become software engineers, quiet loners with Facebook profiles full of anti-capitalist sentiments, cat pictures, and obscure references to chaos magick. We’ve become ghosts, haunting the message boards, silently looking for those places where breathless stories are still swapped, the excitement of the unknown still palpable in the plaintext passed from person to person, notes between faceless strangers. We whisper into the gaps between web trackers and algorithmic tyranny. We speak of a place that we’ve been. The name changes, different colors or architectural details. Mythical creatures that act as a guide, adapted for new hardware. The details never mattered. We understand now that these legends are more true than they were intended to be. That we have been somewhere more real than the flesh and blood lives that we’ve lived outside of it. And that place—ever shifting, intangible, the embodiment of optimistic wonder—cannot be destroyed no matter how many streetlights the urban sprawl contains. 

J. R. Chapple is an artist and writer based in Vancouver, BC.

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