On a seemingly normal summer afternoon in Shanghai, the Welding household was thrown into disarray after young Martin asked one of the questions universally dreaded by parents.
Mum, Dad, he said, in that voice he puts on when you know he’s about to do something annoying.
Rodger and Norma Welding did their best to distract the little boy, but nothing could stop what was coming; the little terror was determined to ask his question.
Mum, Dad, he said again. How does the internet work?
Rodger and Norma, who are avid users of the internet, begin to see in that moment that that they actually had no idea as to how the internet functions. Like traffic patterns, or the seasons, they had accepted it as just one of those mysteries of life whose functioning doesn’t need to be reasoned out.
Rodger tried joking, to stall things. “Voodoo magic, of course!” He looked to Norma, feeling that it was her turn to broach the subject, after he’d successfully explained to Martin how to spell “Wednesday” the week before. “No, but seriously, Martin, I’m sure your mum can explain that one.”
As she began to think of a response, Norma realised that she had never even given the actual workings of the internet a second thought. A vast, invisible web, somehow catapulting movies and emails and pizza orders, without wires, from Space, and Germany, and Netflix… if any of those places even existed, come to think of it… it was too much to handle. Stammering, she began to feel the overwhelming magnitude of a something, invisible and all around her, transporting more information every single second than any human brain could comprehend in a lifetime. Beginning to feel paranoid, she checked their surroundings, wondering if they were in the internet right at that very moment.
Rodger was experiencing similar emotions. The internet was something that invented fantasy football and Wikipedia and the News. It wasn’t something to be comprehended, like elevators or sandwiches or airplanes. Now, however, he started to wonder about airplanes, and with a sickening feeling in his stomach, he had to confront the fact that a gigantic mass of steel and glass shouldn’t be able to fly, like it’s a bird or something. It was literally impossible.
Becoming flustered, Rodger tried to go back to the internet-as-voodoo-magic idea, which seemed more plausible than anything else at this point.
Not quite satisfied with the answers thus far, Martin followed his initial question up with a final knock-out punch, asking how can a phone make Mummy’s voice come to his school from her office. Rodger and Norma paled, looking at their phone-boxes, which were increasingly seeming more and more magic as the afternoon went on.
As they began to make up an answer, Martin, thank God, found a lizard, and stopped asking questions.
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