The Prodigal Returns. Slaughter an Electric Sheep!

*SPOILER ALERT* — If you don’t want to learn whether our dauntless hero gets the girl, DON’T read below!

". . . gave him a gentle push that sent him flying down the hole . . ."

Once upon a time, there lived an unassuming English professor, electronic text editor, and digital humanist. A sometime craftsperson of what in those far-off and benighted days were still most often referred to as “hypertexts,” he laboured industriously, if mostly quietly, in his tiny little digital workshop, working from dawn to dusk — well, more truthfully from after breakfast to just before dinner — creating modest but lovingly-fashioned electronic editions and digital interfaces.  Sometimes, when a neighbour or villager was so foolish as to inquire about his day, he would rattle on for hours about his craft.

All went on in this modest but productive manner until at last one day  an old crone came by his workshop, and promised to show him a strange cave, a place where he could make his fortune.   Foolishly, the electronic editor followed the old woman deep into the forest, where she showed him a deep, dark, hole . . .  “Venture down into that darkness, and you will find a whole new world,” she said, “A virtual world, a Second Life, full of wonder, ready for exploration, and pining for electronic texts. It is the world of the future, and it awaits you!”

Tentatively, our hero made his way to the edge of the hole, and peered down into the gloom.  Could this be a brave new world in which to make his fortune?  He was still pondering the choice that lay before him when a white rabbit employed by his university’s ITS division stealthily crept up behind him and, giving him a gentle push, sent him spinning down the hole . . .

“Curiouser and curiouser,” he thought to himself as he fell . . .

". . . a strange and whimsical land . . ."

And so for four strange years he dwelt in a bizarre and whimsical land of pixels, plying his trade in three dimensions in a land marked both by terrible kitsch and real beauty, and inhabited by vampires, nekos, furries, tinies, and librarians.  He built things — a printing shop, a coffee house, a theatre — and he produced electronic texts that were read by a surprisingly large number of people.  He learned much that he had not known, and discovered many things of which he had never conceived, yet alone considered.

At last, however, the professor found himself homesick for his old workshop and his old world.  And so it was that, at last, he re-emerged from the hole.  Blinking in the harsh glare of the sunlight as he surveyed the land about him, he was disconcerted to see that, while much remained comfortably familiar, much else had changed, sometimes subtly, and sometimes so completely as to become all but unrecognizable.  The humble “hypertext,” upon which he had once lavished so much care and attention, was sadly out of fashion; in its place, people paraded glossy “digital media” packages through the streets of the villages and cities.  All but gone too were the unwieldy desktop computers for which our hero had once designed his electronic texts, replaced by sleek notebooks, laptops, and, strangest of all, tiny eReaders, tablets, and smart phones.  Data mining, it seemed, was no longer the sole preserve of the hungry capitalist and the entrepreneur, but was now also a tool of the academic. And, most strange of all, he discovered that his fellow craftspeople now sang strange bird-like songs to each other in 140 characters or less. Could he also train his thumbs to sing such songs to his former friends?

Cautiously, but still undaunted, the professor returned to the web-haunted scene of his former days as a craftsman; resolutely and with bold purpose he dusted off his workbench, and took up again the tools of his trade — the XML editor, the WYSIWYG interface design programme, the Javascript and PHP manuals. And with a few only slightly tentative taps upon his keyboard, he announced his return to an online world that was (truth be told) largely indifferent.

Yes, dear reader: that professor was I.

Did you miss me?

PS. There is no “girl” in this story.


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