Modern Day Glitch
“Yeah, okay, Wikihow. Teach me ‘How to Make Up Your Own Star Constellation’.” I lean forward in anticipation, waiting to be the next great astronomer of our time, right from the comfort of my Android. In the overcrowded cafeteria, the page loads and loads and loads, and while I plan my speech for when NASA inevitably names a planet after me, it hits me: Wikihow hates me. That’s why the page isn’t loading.
In retaliation I hit the back button and click on the page again, thinking that I could outsmart it, that the page would load its content before it loaded its loathing of me. But, if anything, I think that made it worse. Instead of a loading circle that spins at the top of the page, this page is just blank now; it isn’t even trying to load anything. I squint at the screen—maybe the text is too small for me to see? Stupid, I think. When has that ever happened in your life? I open a new tab on my mobile Chrome browser and search in the URL bar: web page won’t load help. I hit enter and before I can even say “Copernicus”, the page gives up on itself. It’s just a blank, white page. Right as I’m about to turn my WiFi off and back on again, I get a little grey notification at the bottom of the screen, a place reserved only for immediate system notifications:
Network “StudentWiFi” has been disconnected.
“I just lost WiFi. Did you?” I look up across the table at my friend Elisabeth who is looking down at her phone, tapping occasionally to the rhythm of DoodleJump.
“I guess I’ll check for you,” she cooes, closing the app and opening Chrome. “No, I still have WiFi, see?” She turns her phone towards me so we can both watch as she loads our school’s homepage. Only it doesn’t load right away like usual. I place my phone next to hers and as our devices attempt to load different sites, we see the same side-by-side identical and incriminating document that proves we are both officially off the grid:
The implications are immediate. “Ah, God,” Elisabeth moans, “I have that paper to write tonight.” She goes through the same steps I did to try and get the WiFi back. We both turn it off and back on, try only using 4G, try moving tables in the cafeteria, try holding our phones to the sky like Simba being offered to his new animal kingdom, but nothing works. Elisabeth takes out her laptop and tries to connect, but even that doesn’t have internet. Elisabeth gently slams her head against the table and a few people glance over in concern. “Just tell me it’ll be okay. I’ve got a paper to write and no internet.”
“Ok, I mean, I know I love the internet as much as the next guy,” I say, attempting to soothe her. “But maybe it’s just bad reception in here? Wouldn’t be the first time. Besides, you’ve still got Word and the whole library at your disposal.” I shrug and pick up our plates from the table, carrying them over to the dirty-plate dropoff.
Back at the table, Elisabeth scribbles in her daily planner. “At least I invested in a good old paper calendar here. You won’t fail me, will you?” she asks the inanimate object staring back up at her, pages wide with homework assignments and club meetings.
As I sit back down, I continue to look around the cafeteria. I meet someone else’s eyes by accident, some freshman filling their cup with a disgusting mixture of MountainDew and ice cream, and we both quickly look away. Immediately afterwards, I catch the eye of someone else and as they look away, I come to my third realization of the day:
“Elisabeth, no one else is on their phones right now. I think everyone’s WiFi is down.”
She looks up and raises her hands in an almost prayer-like way. “We suffer together!” she exclaims to the cafeteria. As she keeps her hands in the air, I see that some people still have their laptops out on their tables and are hunched-in close, hacker-like, desperately trying to reconnect to the elusive internet. But eventually they close their devices and put them back in their bags, too, silently defeated. “We’ll all fail our papers together!”
It wasn’t just a cafeteria anomaly. WiFi’s down all over campus, every dorm, classroom, and office. So now, walking around campus is an entirely new experience. I can’t tell if people are more or less connected than before. No one has their phone out, that’s for sure—except for those select few hopeful Interactive Multimedia majors, still refreshing their pages in the hopes that anything would load. Bless them, those whose majors rely on a network that weaves us so tightly together and yet is so delicate that one day it just up and disappears. The IT department is so swamped with calls about it that every caller now has to leave a message and there’s a student worker sifting through all the WiFi-complaint ones. They’re not sure how to fix it either.
Around campus, everyone else’s eyes are up from phone-level, though not that much higher. Everyone still glances down, not meeting anyone else’s gaze. It is as if the entire campus is going cold turkey from an addiction we are all ashamed of and no one has the guts to address it.
Even 4G and ethernet are down; it’s like we’re in an entire deadzone just by being on campus, like Green Bank, West Virginia. We’ve got no internet of any kind and the phone lines are down, too. It’s a never ending cycle of trying to call geeksquad to fix the internet but the phones are down, so we try to email the phone company but the internet’s down. I’m tired just thinking about it.
And the school itself hasn’t really addressed the issue yet either, because they would normally send out an email about something like this. Sure, the IT department is trying to deal with it, but there’s been no public statement from the school. I’ve also heard rumors that the WiFi is out off-campus too, and still no word from anyone about how or why it’s happening.
It’s only been two days and people are already skipping class, because, what’s the Professor going to say? Come all the way to campus only to find out whether or not class is happening? It’s not like we can check our emails to see if class is cancelled or not, or even text each other since phone lines are down.
So instead of my usual habits of checking my email and messaging my friends, I use the walk between classes for some self-reflection. What can I do without WiFi? I don’t have any games downloaded because all I ever did on my phone was use social media and make phone calls and send texts.
But then everyone, myself included, simultaneously realized there is one game we all have that never needs an update and never needs internet: the No-Internet-Dinosaur-Jumpy-Game. You know the one—that game that opens if you tap the “No Internet” screen on Chrome with the dinosaur. You end up playing a kind of jumping game, avoiding cacti, pterodactyls, and who-knows-what else. It’s a game where you perpetually run towards the side of the screen with no end in sight, also known as an endless runner, and it’s a grand old time, devoid of an internet connection. My high score is 1300.
Except now it’s called Jumposaurus, a much more eloquent name. I found out about it when Elisabeth and I went to the student center cafe for lunch. My order, a burger; her’s, sushi. We sat next to a packed bulletin board full of dances, giveaways, cars for sale, lost pet rocks, the whole shebang of a college campus collaged on corkboard. I was daydreaming, looking at the conglomerate of missed connections when I focused on a board across the room.
One bulletin board was commandeered in the student center solely for game scores. Someone wrote in really big, 8-bit letters: JUMPOSAURUS. That’s where I first saw the name. It had a lone piece of paper on it, a printed out screencap of someone’s Jumposaurus game—they had 1500 points even. I guess that was something to be proud of, since I could never break 1300.
The next day, I saw more posts about Jumposaurus. The scores were getting higher and higher, to outrageous amounts. 1600, 1700 points became the norm. Is it really endless? People were so simultaneously proud and paranoid now that they were taking pictures of their high scores on their devices with another phone and then printing that picture out to prove it wasn’t a Photoshopped screenshot (because, surprisingly, Photoshop works offline. Thanks, Adobe).
But whenever I get tired of no-internet-dinosaur-jumpy-game (Jumposaurus), I do homework. I’ve been getting a lot of homework done.
Now, other things are popping up on the boards: comics, jokes, and even screencaps of tweets people had saved on their phones. The good ones are getting stolen, photocopied, and, for lack of a better term, spammed all over campus. Although the campus employees have tried to take everything down, since technically none of them are approved postings, there are more copies than employees and the people putting them up are far more determined than the people taking them down (since those taking them down are mainly students making barely minimum wage. And one time I saw an employee pocket one of the tweet pics).
We’re also back to passing notes. It’s middle school all over again—
“Aren’t you in class with Jack? Here, give him this note.” And then you’d pass it to your friend like the most valuable drug deal in history, pocket-to-pocket, no eye-contact.
Professors have obviously started noticing and requested all post-it notes to be left in backpacks. Naturally, we’ve already found ways around this, writing on the top or the margins of notes to get our messages around. We’ve even made a language that the Professors have yet to catch on to, because we’ve adapted normal classroom-talk into a code. A normal conversation might go something like this:
YOU: Did you get that last thing the Professor said? I think it might be different than what I got.
TRANSLATION: I wrote you a message, look at where I’m tapping my notes with my pen.
THEM: Oh, yeah, that is different than what I got. Here, look what I’ve got.
TRANSLATION: Here’s your reply.
It hasn’t even been a week.
“So, as I assume you’ve all figured out by now, the school’s WiFi is down,” Professor Johnson says. We all sigh in unison. Some people also laugh quietly, others mumble their regrets about not downloading their docs and necessary journal articles from the cloud. I lean back and whisper to Elisabeth, sitting at the desk behind me.
“Maybe she’ll move the paper?”
Elisabeth leans forwards. “What else can she do? I can’t email her my submission WiFi. What’s she gonna make us do, etch it into stone?”
“As such, I’ve extended the paper,” Professor Johnson says. And as we all collectively take in our breath and hold it, she continues, “and am now requiring a hard copy of the paper. Printed or handwritten, either is fine, but it is still a 10-page minimum. Due next Friday, not Monday.”
“That’s not nearly enough time to finish the paper!” Elisabeth hisses to me. Before our revolt can start Professor Johnson closes her laptop, puts it in her bag, and looks back up at us: “Class dismissed.” We let out one last, collective sigh.
“She wants me to write by hand?” Elisabeth says as we pack our bags. “Not in script, right? I don’t remember how to write in script! Why’d we even learn script?”
“I think print’s just fine. And anyway she said we could type it, we just have to be able to print it out without WiFi. You know, there are other ways to print besides just WiFi.” I put my binder back in my bag. “I’ve got a printer with a USB, remember? We might just have to steal some paper. I wasn’t planning on printing anything else for the rest of the semester.”
“You brought a printer with no paper?”
“Do you want to etch your paper into stone?”
Elisabeth and I walk back towards our dorm, stopping at the library cafe for coffee. Though usually empty, the cafe was full of students who had nowhere better to be these days.
“James said he got a bar of 4G standing on the roof of the physics building,” someone says in one of the larger groups. His friends respond with dismissive grumbles.
“I heard Steve’s got a router in his dorm.”
“Routers don’t work without a connection, stupid.”
In all this chaos, Elisabeth and I had taken to spending more time in our dorm. With everywhere else packed with people, the best place turns out to be our shared dorm. Who knew?
“Hey, are you going to see Melissa today?” Elisabeth asks, scribbling something down on a post-it and folding it in half, sticky-side hiding the message. That’s customary now, to make sure your message wasn’t opened by anyone else on the way.
“No, I’ll be here all day. No class until 5,” I shrug, planning out my paper that’s still due in a few days. I roll my wrists and grab a pencil, drafting the introduction. I figure I might as well improve my handwriting in these trying times.
“I wish there was a way to get my post-it across campus without having to walk,” Elisabeth sighs dramatically, falling back on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. “I don’t want to walk all the way to the Social Sciences building.”
I look over at her, then to my planner on my bed, then back to her. “Meagan’s on the track team, right?” I ask, reaching for my phone out of habit to text her, but realizing I can’t.
“Yeah.” Elisabeth turns to look at me.
“And she’s practicing today in the gym?”
“And we could get her to run our messages?”
“We could get her team to run everyone’s messages.”
It starts with the track team just running messages around campus, for a measly fee of $0.25. But that’s $0.25 per message, every time, as I’ve orchestrated it. Suddenly we’re making $0.25 every time some Joe-Schmoe wants to talk to Whoever-Wallace in the next building but doesn’t want to get up. And Runners can easily take more than one message at a time, often running across campus for hours. That’s an easy $20/hr for every runner, and coaches have come to consider it as practice. Everyone knows to wait by the front doors of the building and to write the name and location of their recipient on the front if they want their message taken when the next available runner arrives.
I get the Calligraphy club on board too, and they start a homework-writing business—English major with no printer? No problem! Speech-to-Text, right from the comfort of your own English building. They charge differing rates, depending on how long the paper is and how fast or slow you speak and you can pick whether it’s handwritten or typed. They even got out the typewriters, but that’s an extra fee. Your standard 5-page paper goes for about $10. And yes, before you ask anything, they’ve all signed NDAs. You won’t get plagiarized (and if you do, you can take it up with the school—we’ve got a pretty solid contract, drafted by my friend who’s studying for the LSATs). I also think they upcharge you if they don’t like you, but I have no evidence for that yet. Either way, I’m an entrepreneur now.
Those are the two businesses I manage, since my friend Melissa is on the exec board of Calligraphy club and Meagan is only a Junior but everyone knows she’ll be team captain of track and field by next semester. So I basically I was just in the right place at the right time.
On other parts of campus, students are taking advantage of their major’s resources, things I had less connections with and less experience in. One such example is the extraordinary work the Computer Science majors have done to monetize use of their USBs for file transfers. If you need to hand in a paper, some Professors are requiring the use of a USB, and guess who’s renting them for $15/day? They’ve even got CDs and DVD drives for rent or purchase, all under the table, all cash-only.
Other majors have other skills too, and considering that no one really downloads porn in this day and age, well, there are a lot of art students profiting off the void that created.
And if you were lost off campus before, now there’s absolutely no GPS. So another group of students, the hiking club mainly, established a system where there’s always someone in the front building on campus to answer any of your directional needs. I overheard someone asking for directions to the ShopRite the other day. Poor freshmen.
In conjunction with the Directioners, as they’re called, there’s also an impromptu taxi service; commuters and students with cars are ferrying people back and forth from campus to practically anywhere within a 10 mile radius, a kind of offline-Uber, for a nominal fee. Make sure you ask your driver how much it’s going to cost to get from point A to point B, lest they screw you out of more money than you have, because even Venmo is down. Again, cash only.
Other students are coordinating stamp collections for free, public use so students can contact their parents. And along with stamps, other students can get you a flight home if you’re out-of-state pretty easily. Not sure how that one works, but I hear they’re making a boatload—or I guess, in their case, a planeload.
The school so far has seemingly not made any interventions on any of these business transactions. Neither of my networks, the Runners and Calligraphy club, have been shut down in any way, even though all the money is moving under the table. I guess they’re just turning a blind eye to the natural progression of society. That’s probably their safest option. And what else are they going to do, email us about it?
I heard rumors about an underground network, though. Even more underground than anything I’m doing. One where you can get messages to your friends during class, even during a lecture, during a test. They say there are Hands, as they’ve come to be known as ready, willing, and able to take your message whenever, wherever, to whomever, within minutes on campus. My Runners take generally 30 minutes to get a message where it needs to go. I’ve never used this underground system and I don’t know anyone who uses it either—but then again, I also heard that if you’re in it, you’re not supposed to say anything. Something like a Fight Club rule. I don’t run that business, but I’m sure they’re making a killing.
I found out about it when a letter landed on my desk from a quiet kid I never spoke to before. I think his name was Jonathan, but I wasn’t even sure about that. What I was sure about was that he wasn’t a Runner. He dropped the note on my desk as he walked by and I was about to ask him if it’s actually for me when I saw my name, tiny and fine on the envelope. My first thought was Calligraphy club, but then I realized no one there had the purple ink that I saw on the note in front of me. I held it; a heavy paperweight, 32 lb. bond. The good stuff, like for a capstone paper or dissertation. I opened it.
BIS 007 0938
I looked back over a John, Jonathan?, and he was already seated as his desk, making his usual moves to avoid eye contact with everyone else in the room. I slipped the note into my backpack for future concerns. There was yet another piece of paper in front of me, this time a test. For now, I had bigger fish to fry.
As an English Liberal Arts major, I had no good reason to be in the Business building. But if I’ve learned anything during my time in college, no one really cares where you go. Like, ever. Some people say act natural, or pretend you’re supposed to be there and no one will bother you, but in reality, you could act confused and people will still not bother you. Actually, you could be legitimately lost and people will still avoid you like the plague. People just don’t want to talk to each other, whatever it takes.
So it’s 9:33 the next day, I’m pretty sure I passed my test, and I’m headed across campus from my dorm to Business 003. I guess that’s in the basement, since most of the other buildings follow standard room numerating protocol, with the floor being the first number of the room.
I walk into the Business building with confidence, but also going out of my mind, because what’s going on here? Why’s this like some kind of mafia movie? They even picked room double-oh-seven. Classic.
I stand in the lobby of the Business building, and although all these students are studying how to work with people and make business transactions, not one of them offers me any help. All the doors look identical and the only way I determine where the stairs are is by the ‘FIRE EXTINGUISHER’ sign. Those extinguishers are usually in the emergency stairways for easy access. I head in, find the industrial-style stairs where the interior designers obviously gave up, and head downstairs.
If you thought the designers gave up on the emergency staircase, they definitely did not know what to do with the basement. The drop-down ceilings are half-done, half-filled. The tiles that are up there are practically dissolved from water damage and wires weave in the darkness above them. The lights flicker so much I’m surprised there isn’t a seizure warning somewhere.
I stand my ground until I identify the room I’m headed for, unsure how much time I really want to spend in the dingiest location on campus. I guess it makes sense why there’d be some kind of underground society here. No professional offices, no professors, not even a water fountain.
I knock on room 007’s door before letting myself in, as if it’s some kind of office. But it’s not; it’s an abandoned classroom, clearly overtaken by the roots of an underground movement. The walls are tacked with memos and plans and a huge map of campus covers almost the entirety of the back wall. To get something like that printed means they are either absolutely rolling in it, or they know someone with unlimited access to the Print Room. At this point, it could really go either way.
There are clusters of desks all over the room, some set up conference style, some loner ones in the corners, some haphazardly jumbled up. I guess they move the desks when necessary. There are some people at the desks, some I’ve never seen before, and some I recognize but can’t really place their names.
I check my watch, 09:38, right on time.
Then it hits me: These are all the people in the back of the class. The underground system has been right in front of our faces the whole time. The introverts have made their own network, and are profiting off it. “Glad you could make it,” one of them said, getting up and offering me a chair. “I understand you are running two of the most profitable systems on campus.” They motion to a table next to me, near the door; it’s full of refreshments and hot water and coffee and water. “Grab something, take a seat. We’d like to make a deal.”
I take a styrofoam cup and fill it with hot water, then grab a tea bag to steep before sitting down. “What’re my businesses to you?” I narrow my eyes, looking over my new host. I think his name is Anthony, but just like the rest of these people, I know their faces, not their names. “And aren’t you going to introduce yourself?”
He laughs, sitting back down in his seat across the desk from me. “You don’t need to know my name,” he smiles, “and even if you think you know it, I assure you, you don’t.”
I pause. So that’s why I don’t know who’s working with the Hands, who’s running this underground system. They’ve purposefully recruited wallflowers so as to stay anonymous, even when they’re out in the open. “All right, fine then. Let’s get down to it: what do you want my businesses for? What do I possibly have that you don’t?”
“A public image,” he says. He opens a file on the desk in front of us and looks through the papers. “You’ve got a 3.65 GPA, connections with the track team and the Calligraphy club, and are known as the first person on campus to establish one of the under-the-table businesses. You practically wrote the book on how to start a company off-the-grid.”
“And what’s that got to do with you?”
“I want to offer you more,” he says, holding out his hands as if displaying all the riches in the world. I look around the room, one of the dingiest I’ve ever seen on this campus. At the same time, these guys somehow got a hold of a huge campus print-out and refreshments.
“More of what?”
“Money, mainly.” He closes the file on the table and I notice it has my name on it. I glance behind him to see a pile of similar files, a whole range of different colors. “I want to consolidate.”
“You mean like horizontal integration? Like a monopoly?”
“Precisely,” he says. “I don’t believe this whole thing’s just a technical difficulty. I know something bigger is going on, and I figured we should profit off it. I can tell you for sure this isn’t going to last much longer. So, what do you say?” He then sits there, patiently waiting for my response, his face completely blank from any kind of emotion or reaction.
“They tried to make it like some kind of scene from Godfather, like there’s some kind of bigger conspiracy going on,” I tell Elisabeth back in our cafeteria as I stab some broccoli with my fork. A few potatoes launch off my plate as the recently underboiled broccoli doesn’t give way to the tongs. “And the revolution is still in motion, I guess. I’m not really sure what they’re getting at. They want to consolidate our companies to put pressure on the school or something.”
“What, they think the college is in on this whole thing?” Elisabeth squints, trying to understand such a massive undertaking by an institution that has yet to figure out how to shorten the sandwich line. “Wouldn’t they want internet and all that jazz? Doesn’t that make it easier to run a school?”
“They said it’s all a publicity stunt or something. I wouldn’t put it past this place.”
Elisabeth stays quiet, pushing some rice around her plate and making faces in her beans. “Again, how could they even profit off this?”
“It’d make a pretty good TV show,” I say. “As if we’re all stuck back in 19-whatever, some year that doesn’t have internet or anything like that. Like an experiment about millennials surviving in that time.”
“First of all, aren’t we Gen Z? And second of all, they couldn’t possibly do that. They’d need our permission.”
“Well, actually, they do have our permission. By signing your student handbook, among other documents, you give them explicit rights to use images and video of you, that they take, for school purposes, whether that be ads or anything, in perpetuity. Forever. We’ve already given them the rights to do something like a TV show, if they wanted them.”
Elisabeth stays silent. I look out at the sea of students shuffling around to get their lunches, looking for some kind of hidden camera, unsure who to trust anymore.
There was a sudden incline in activities hosted by the Student Activities Department ever since everything went down. SAD, as we call it on campus, always had a sad turn out to their events. But now, without WiFi or any kind of wide-spread communication, us students need new, more innovative ways to procrastinate besides just staring at a wall or watching water boil (which it does eventually). And that’s how SAD’s budget became un-sad.
Elisabeth packs for one such attempt for SAD to provide so-called “safe-spaces” for students—in reality, they’re just the school’s attempt to get us not to drink on the weekends. This one’s got a cool theme though, Stargazing on the Quad. Elisabeth manages to stuff a blanket into her backpack, along with some water and snacks. “You still don’t think the college orchestrated this whole no-WiFi thing, do you?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that they haven’t fixed it yet and it’s been what, two weeks? I wouldn’t put it past them to have done it all along. And besides, consolidating with the Hands has been marginally more profitable. I barely have to do any work any more, since they’ve got so many people working for they manage it, I profit.”
“The school never fixes anything. Our faucet still doesn’t turn off all the way and we’ve already been here for a semester and a half,” Elisabeth says. “But you don’t see me going around offering to fix people’s sinks for a profit.”
“You don’t know how to fix a sink,” I frown.
“Yeah, but if I did, I wouldn’t be charging people.” We don’t talk for the rest of the way to the event. I can tell she’s steaming, but as we walk, she gradually calms down. I can’t remember the last time we fought like this, but I know we’ll be fine. We have been since we met in freshman year. After three years, there’s no way this is what takes us down.
On the quad, it seems like everyone and all their fraternity brothers are out here. I stick close to Elisabeth since she brought her picnic blanket to protect us from the already-forming dew on the grassy quad. We find a spot between a group of freshmen and the improv comedy troupe, lay on the blanket, and get comfortable.
Spread out, I rest my hands on my chest, my head on my backpack. “Welcome to Stargazing on the Quad!” some student worker booms from a microphone somewhere not too far away. I wonder how he can be so happy and yet part of SAD. His broadcast falters with feedback for a second before he regains control. “All right, there we go!” he says, regaining control of the system. Awkward laughter. “This is your captain speaking—your captain of the cosmos, that is!”
And I’m not sure whatever else he’s saying because I tune him out at this point.
“The International Space Station,” Elisabeth whispers, “is that little light, holding the world’s bravest people.” She points past the bell tower to a little pinprick in the black construction paper of the night sky. “They go up in a little rocket, propulsed by explosions, only to be left alone, thousands of miles away.” I squint, following her finger. The ISS doesn’t blink like an airplane and doesn’t change direction like one, either. But it moves quickly, unlike a star. It’s an outlier in the universe.
I say nothing, and neither does Elisabeth, and I don’t even think the student worker is talking any more. It is just me and the ISS, a blip among the thousands of stars I take for granted every single night. I wonder how I could have missed something so bright every night for my whole life. I think about the entire conspiracy of this school, and I glance at Elisabeth, the only one I’ve trusted this whole time. I reach into my backpack behind my head to grab my phone as a light, and just as I’m about to write a note on a PostIt to the Hands, I get a little grey notification.
Connected to network “StudentWiFi.”
I stare at it, unsure what to make of it. I check around the quad to see if anyone else has noticed, and I see a sea of students staring up instead. They’re all looking at the darkness looming above us, and instead of ruin it, I lock my phone screen, put it back in my bag, and lay back down. I blink up at the astronauts who are hundreds of thousands of miles away, and yet probably one of the closest things to Earth in space, and I swear they’re blinking right back.