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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

Dragonfly (p. 17)

From chapter "The All-Seeing Eye"

A couple of years ago, the United States government began bringing together information-gathering programs under a vast surveillance network called Total Information Awareness (TIA). TIA was a program of the Information Awareness Office, which in turn is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), run by the Pentagon.

Those in charge would like to be able to provide their agents with instantaneous access to records from around the world. A lot of records. In its advice to corporations that may contract to provide some of this information, DARPA states, “The amount of data that will need to be stored and accessed will be unprecedented, measured in petabytes.” One byte is the amount of memory it takes to store one letter. One petabyte is one quadrillion bytes. That’s one with fifteen zeros after it. This means that those in power want to maintain a database that would be more than fifty times larger than all of the books in the Library of Congress, or somewhere on the order of a billion books….In response to criticism, the United States government changed the name of Total Information Awareness—though not, of course, its function—to the less accurate Terrorism Information Awareness. Presumably it also began dossiers on everybody who complained about the program.

The Information Awareness Office logo consists of the name of the organization surrounding a blue background against which we have the truncated pyramid and the by-now-familiar all-seeing eye. This eye, of providence, of God, of the police, of the military, of representatives of major corporations, emits a ray of golden light to illuminate and overlook the globe. In the upper right are the initials DARPA, and in the lower left is Scientia est Potentia, a Latin phrase they translate as Knowledge is Power.

* * *

Knowledge is not always power. There are other ways to be and perceive in the world. Knowledge can be love. It can be relationship. It can be connection. It can be neighborliness or familiarity. Knowledge can simply be knowledge.

Last week I had one of the most exciting and wonderful mornings of my life. I live near a pond. I often sit at its edge. I love to watch tadpoles swim, watch them over time grow legs, slowly lose tails, take their first hops onto land, make their first awkward flips of the tongue (sometimes before they learn how to use their tongues, they wildly miss their targets and their whole bodies tumble till they land on their noses!). I also love to watch whirligig beetles who skate in incomprehensibly complex patterns—or maybe in no patterns at all—over the surface of the water, and backswimmers who hang motionless then glide quickly toward potential prey. Newts who swim to the top for great gulps of air, then back down again too deep for me to see. I watch mating dragonflies, the male joining his genitals to the female’s near the base of the female’s head, leaving her back end free to dip into the water and drop eggs even as they mate.

That morning a large brown insect crawled from the pond, covered with mud. I’d seen insects like this, and I’d also seen their skins hanging empty from blades of grass. I didn’t know who they became. So I watched.

I watched as the creature made its way slowly across spaces of bare ground and through patches of grass until it found the blade it wanted to climb. It made its way to near the top, then grabbed on tight.

I waited. I looked away to water skippers and willows and rushes. When I looked back a furry hump had formed on the creature’s back, between where the shoulder blades would be on you or me. The hump got larger.

Again I waited. The wind played with the tips of redwood branches. Wrentits sang, as did sparrows and thrushes, and some other bird I could not name but whose trilling song made me smile. A jay cocked its head and looked at me.

The hump became a head, and over time first one, another, then a third pair of legs became visible. They were all the palest yellow, nearly white. They unfolded slowly.

I had no idea who this creature was. The sun rode the sky. It grew warm on my back. More of the creature emerged, and more. It began to hang from the shell that used to be its skin. Sometimes it would move vigorously, sometimes it would slowly expand, and sometimes it would rest. I wondered if it would keep pushing itself from its former skin until it fell to the ground. Then suddenly it thrust itself upward to grasp the grass with its legs. It pulled hard, and pulled again. Finally it was free.

I still had no idea who it was. It was pale and stubby, with ruffles on its back.

I wanted to take a picture to show my friends, to post on my website. But I knew, because the creature told me, that this would be wrong.

The ruffles on its back began to expand. Slowly. Everything was slow. I’d been sitting by then for probably two hours, but it seemed much less because each moment I wanted to know what would happen the next.

The ruffles unfolded, the abdomen expanded. Longer, longer. The ruffles became wings, four of them. The eyes clarified. Colors came alive.

It was a dragonfly. No longer pale pink but very bright blue. “Now,” it said. “Now get the camera.” I did. It spread its wings. I took pictures. It waited.

I was hungry. I walked the path—three-eighths of a mile through dense forest—to my mom’s. As I walked I pondered how many times I’ve walked this path these past three years. Easily three to four thousand. For the first year or so I used to carry a lantern at night, but then I quit because I got to know the path well enough to walk it at a normal pace even on the darkest nights (hint: look up to see the slight break in the forest canopy that signals the path). This time, of course, it was early afternoon. I got to my mom’s. I ate there. I often do. I made my own meal, but she often cooks for me. She likes to cook and knows how to do it well. She also knows what foods I like, or don’t. Afterward I helped her in her garden. She tells me what chores she would like me to do, and I (eventually) get them done. It works. We each know what helps the other, and want to help the other how we can.

I walked back home, expecting the dragonfly to be gone. But it remained through the afternoon, and into the night.

I awoke around 9:30 the next morning. The first thing I did was go outside, expecting, again, to see only the husk of the dragonfly, clinging to the grass. But the dragonfly remained. I stopped a few feet away. It did not move. I looked down to my feet for just a moment—to make sure I wouldn’t step on any baby frogs if I shifted my weight—and when I looked back up it was gone.

There was only one large dragonfly on the pond. It was bright blue. It circled, then rose up to fly around the meadow, then back down to the pond. Then back up, in wider and higher spirals till it felt it knew the landscape. Higher and higher it spiraled, until it flew over the top of the redwoods and into the world.

Knowledge, whether it is of a dragonfly, a path, my mother, me, a landscape, is not always power. There are other ways to be and perceive in the world. Knowledge can be love. It can be relationship. It can be connection. It can be neighborliness or familiarity. Knowledge can simply be knowledge.