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Could we store the internet on the ocean?
Oblivion, Chapter 12
Welcome to Oblivion, a utopian novel I’m publishing with commentary imagining a more beautiful future. If you’re new here, you can start at the beginning, start right here, or get caught up with the Index.
Quick recap: Elysia, a girl from modern-day San Francisco, finds herself on the island of Fanghu in the far future. After discovering that the people of Fanghu store information on the ocean, now she learns how this strange technology works.
composed a beautiful musical score for this chapter. “I wanted to include a lot more water in this piece,” he said, “and I added little glitchy notes here and there to mirror the sense of water being more than just water”
I hope you enjoy this meditation as you read.
My mother had red hair just like me, but it sparkled gold in the sunshine. People always said she wasn’t strawberry blonde, but blonde strawberry—her golden waves falling through my memories.
Her smile creased as she tucked my own red hair behind my ear. I remembered her smell, peonies and the spring. Perhaps it was only the magic of childhood that suspended her in time like that.
I swam through tendrils of memory, the sun shining between her fingertips as she turned toward the glowing ocean, blocking the sunlight from her eyes. I remembered her just like that—always seeing something beyond. Something I could not see.
When I emerged from the water I was no longer in Penglai, but in the lagoon where I had once swam with Taka and his sister Sanyu. The jungle falling dreamily into the water, the flower petals dancing across the surface, and a canyon of trees wandering into the horizon.
I knelt on the shore. “How do you have that memory of my mother,” I asked. A tear escaped my eye as I realized I had almost forgotten it. So consumed had I become by my last memory of her—the one in which she had been taken—that I had forgotten all the good ones.
“All wisdom lives in the water,” Taka said beside me.
Sanyu smacked her brother with a palm leaf. “My brother has a flair for the dramatic,” she said as she knelt beside me in the water. “Let me show you something.”
Sanyu stirred the waters with her fingertips. “I am a scientist,” she said, “I spend my days trying to learn something new that will help humanity. Today, for example, I discovered a quality that could make it easier for humans to spend even longer periods of time underwater. So I take what I learned…”
A single tear fell from her eye into the water leaving small ripples across the lagoon.
“Now I’ve added it to the water where it is available to scientists around the world. When I pour myself a cup of tea tomorrow morning, I might have discovered that one of my peers has come up with a way to synthesize that quality. The next day, Wao might use that information to modify that quality into a seed or sapling. By next week, we could eat a cherry from Wao’s garden that alters our spleens ever so slightly so that we could hold our breath for an hour or more if we so choose.”
“It is not just information that travels through the water,” I asked hesitantly, thinking about how I got here. How I had been transported to Panglai the day before.
“As humans, we are mostly water as it is,” Sanyu answered thoughtfully. “We only have to step into the water and think about where we want to go. The water in our bodies merges with the much larger body of water, the ocean, and suddenly it has access to the whole of it. One drop becomes the whole ocean, and then we can touch any shore that we want to. Just like the information that we deposit into the water.”
I thought of all the ways I had been connected to the water since I had arrived in Fanghu. Did the people here have access to my every thought, my every emotion? I looked at Taka, the man who knew more about me than I knew of myself. Had he been listening to my mind this whole time? Waiting for me to share my memories. Did he know what I was thinking this very moment?
His dark hair curled against his forehead as it dried, petals falling into the lagoon like rain. I wished I wasn’t thinking that he was beautiful beyond words. That I missed the days when I couldn’t remember my past. That I had been happier then, when I was adrift in this strange paradise, with only his hand to guide me. How peaceful it had been to forget—my fiancé, my mother, and the strange obsession I’d had with finding her—I shivered at the betrayal of my own thoughts.
“And my mother?” I asked.
“That is your own memory, only you had access to it when you touched the coral and connected with your innermost self,” Sanyu answered. “But you should know that things work differently on Penglai. During the tribunal, your thoughts were accessible by the immortals who shared them with the rest of Fanghu. In fact, they discovered something rather disconcerting in your mind.”
“Your fiancé—I believe you called him Quinn?” Sanyu took a deep breath. “It appears Ama recognized him from your memory. He is not some boy studying the Peach Blossom Spring. He’s Qin, the emperor who was once lost in his pursuit of Fanghu, and his pursuit of his wife, Ama.”
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I’m not a big fan of the “chosen one” trope. It’s very common in fantasy novels and it usually involves the main character being uniquely blessed with some kind of otherworldly power and then being trained to use that power by some powerful mage. Once the main character has reached greatness, they usually save the world.
But I hate that. Because it means that only this chosen person born with this otherworldly power can save the world. That’s why I always knew that when I finally wrote a fantasy novel I would find a way to democratize access to magic and make it available to everyone. Every single person can save the world if they want to, so I wanted that magic to be available to all my characters. Not just to my main character but my minor ones.
In real life, one of the best ways we have democratized access to magic is through technology. I think the internet is one of the most powerful things we have—it’s access to wisdom! And everyone with an internet connection can have access to that wisdom! But I also didn’t want to imagine a future where that wisdom was transmitted to me via screens—or worse, a computer chip in my brain.
There’s a reason I prefer fantasy novels over science fiction novels and that’s because technology feels dystopian to me most of the time. I want to keep all of the benefits of technology, and I want it to be available to everyone, but I also don’t want to see it. I want technology to be happening in the background. I’m going for a “high-tech pastoral” aesthetic here, but where the technology powers the pastoral, and is largely invisible to it.
That’s how I came up with the idea to store the internet on the water instead of on data servers. Maybe then we could access it by drinking a cup of tea, rather than a computer chip. Because there is always water—it is a fact of life—and because the ocean makes an excellent metaphor for the subconscious it seemed the perfect way to do it. Interestingly, I asked Google whether the internet could be transmitted via water and I found this fascinating video.
Then I asked ChatGPT whether data could be stored on water and this is what it told me:
It is theoretically possible to store data in water, but it is not a practical solution for data storage at present. Water has been explored as a possible medium for data storage because it can be manipulated in various ways to represent binary information, such as changes in its density, surface tension, or refractive index.
One approach that has been explored is using laser pulses to create nanoscale changes in the surface tension of water, which can represent binary information. Another approach involves using light to create tiny bubbles in water that can be read as bits of information.
While these methods have been demonstrated in laboratory settings, they are not yet practical for real-world data storage. Water is a relatively unstable medium, and changes in temperature, pressure, or other environmental factors can cause the encoded information to be lost. Additionally, the resolution of the encoding is currently limited, and the technology is not yet scalable to the levels required for practical data storage.
If that seems implausible, it’s at least possible—and that is more than enough for me to go on. After all, when Jules Verne invented the submarine for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea it was highly implausible—but it was at least possible! A few experiments in submersibles had been made by his time, and Verne only continued that thread far into the future. Eventually, Verne’s creation inspired the inventor John Holland (and his competitors) to make the submarine a reality! Holland called his first experiment the Nautilus!
If we can store and transmit information through the water, maybe we will also be able to transmit people through the water. It’s totally implausible, but nearly everything we have today once seemed that way and it seems likely we will eventually come up with some way for humans to travel much faster than they do today. Given enough time into the future, maybe we will store information on the water. Maybe we’ll even teleport through the ocean! In any case, this is a work of fantasy so I’m taking this liberty. If Star Trek can do it, I can too.
As for humans evolving to be able to hold their breath for much longer periods of time, that’s from the fascinating article, “Sea nomads may have evolved to be the world’s elite divers.” Apparently, the Bajau people who live on houseboats off the coast of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are able to hold their breath for up to five minutes. (“In comparison, average people might be able to stay underwater for one to two minutes, and world-class free divers can hold their breath in competitive settings for up to three or close to four and a half minutes.”) Scientific American attributed this ability to the fact that the Bajau people have evolved to have spleens that are 50% larger than the nearby nondiving Saluan people.
Also, I may add this chapter to the last chapter for the print version. I think they make more sense together.
Thanks so much for reading! I’d love to know your thoughts!