Computer Science

by Michael Bywater

If any number can be said to encapsulate our times, 404 is it.


That's our number.

And if any number can be said to encapsulate our times, 404 is it. There are other contenders. 999 might sum up the edgy jitteriness, the nobody-is-safe neurosis of the early twenty-first century; but it is halted at the boundaries of Great Britain. In Europe, 999 becomes 112; in America, 911. 999 (unlike the violence, the intrusion, the burglaries, lurking shadows, closing footsteps, crackling flames, smoke, crunching metal, broken glass, and shrieks in the night which invoke it) does not travel. And, in a world given to globalization, 1 not traveling will simply not do.

101?  That, too, has a case to be argued. We (particularly politicians, who have a vested interest) may declare that we now inhabit a giant, pan-national version of Orwell’s Room 101 from Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which that which we most fear will surely come to pass. But 101’s case must fail. For most of us, the world has never been safer, our lives never fuller, our span of years never longer. If we inhabit World 101, it’s 101 with chintz, a sofa, and soap, sanitation and antibiotics; and nor need we live in fear of World 102, the terrible, minatory Life to Come, when debts will be paid with a finality and ineluctability that taxmen can only dream of. That many of us do live in that fear (or its whorish sister, hope) is a matter of faith or choice; science, and physics in particular, has given us an alternative:  that this great globe itself (yea, you will recall, all which it inherit) is simply a glorious mistake, the product of cosmic happenstance, the biggest winning payout in the history of ... history.

No. 404 it is. Globalizers and one-worlders:  both are mistaken. We inhabit not one world (whether to exploit or guard it 2) but — at least — three. The philosopher Karl Popper classified those three worlds as:

World 1:  The physical world, the world of continents and oceans, of rocks and shrubs and rainfall and volcanoes;

World 2:  The psychological world, the world inside our heads, of love and hope, of anger and desire, faith and dreams, judgments, fantasies, and delusions;

World 3:  The — in its broadest sense — philosophical world, the world of art and books, statues and music, maps and algorithms; the world of theories and proofs, of postulates and refutations.

World 3, by its very nature, requires some sort of transcription, some kind of permanence. The writer Jorge Luis Borges isolated the problem neatly in his reference to non-existent works. Why bother (he asked) writing an entire book when one might more easily imagine the book and write a review of it? 

So where is that imagined book? Is it in the World 2, with the dream I had last night when the dead came back from World 102?  Or is it in World 3, along with all the books ever really written, the music really composed, the sculptures really chiseled out of real stone? 

The question is important for our times. Ask yourself:  where is cyberspace? The computer guru (and sometime lyricist for The Grateful Dead) John Perry Barlow famously answered:

"Cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the phone."

You might prefer — or not prefer — to think of it as where your money is. 3

But the key thing about cyberspace is ... 404.

404. On the Web, it means:  Page not found.

"Not found." That is to say:  lost. Not World 1. Not World 2, or World 3. World 2.9, perhaps; or World 3.1. Somewhere in between. Beyond our reach. The Greater Cyberspace of which our paltry little electronic bit is just a tiny fragment. Here live the dead, the unborn, the never-conceived; the books never written, the love never made, the television broadcasts flung into the infinite ether. Here are the molecules, lost on the wind, of a lover’s perfume, an enemy’s breath, a lost supper, a déjuner sur l’herbe. Here are the ideas that never made it onto paper, here is the rubbish they give you to read in dreams, here is the longed-for reconciliation that will never happen, lost youth, missed opportunities, the golden age, the snows of yesteryear.


Not found.

For this most documented of all ages, 404 is the Warhol Number:  the sign that your moment of fame (or at least of your existence being made available to others outside your immediate circle) is over. You typed out your story, your thoughts, your theory of conspiracy or angels, your tales of triumph or defeat, laboriously, perhaps. You scanned in your photographs. You checked your links. You worked out how the hell to get the stuff into ... cyberspace. For a while, you were, if not known, knowable.

The something changed. Your account expired. You remarried, moved away, died; your internet company went bust; a hyperlink broke; something. There is always something, the third man in the diabolical trinity:  death, taxes, and ... something.

So you became 404:  Not found. A blank where something once was. And in due course the web-crawlers, the spiders, and the netbots will give up, and even the link to your unfound memory will cease to appear; presently you will become unfit for consideration and disappear into the void beyond the reach even of Google. World Aleph:  the infinity of infinities.

Like all good taxonomies of loss, like all ways of vanishing, 404 has a history, a mythology, is impenetrable to the uninitiated, possesses an inexorable logic. The first "4" is the minatory voice of denial, appearing in cyberspace, much as one of our ancestors, bowing before Marduk in the fertile crescent of Babylon, might have hallucinated the voices of the gods who told him he was mistaken; that he was doing something wrong, that his petition would be denied. 4

If all had been well, the distant computer would have sent the code "200." This, you would never see; just as you never see a healthy person in a health food store. But all is not well. But not well how? The "0" tells you that there is a "general syntax error"; the command was issued wrongly ("Please please let her love me again") or maybe even just misspelled.

And finally comes the terminal digit. It could have been "0," a Bad Request ("Let me be editor of the Daily Mail"). It could have been "1," Unauthorized ("I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High God") ... .

But it is not. It is "4."

Denied. Syntax Error. Not Found.

The logic is inexorable; and there is no appeal. The myth says that the code was numbered in memory of the room at CERN in Geneva, where the World Wide Web was, in effect, invented. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who, in effect, invented the World Wide Web at CERN in Geneva, says not. The web was not invented in Room 404.

There is no Room 404.

Which would be a delicious note to end on, were it not for one remaining truth.

404 is not all there is. "Not found":  the phrase indicates a certain … uncertainty. Beyond 404 lies a further level of nothingness, a certainty of vanishing.

410:  Gone.

But nobody ever sees 410. The best (or worst) we get is the defiantly uncertain 404.

As The History of 404 puts it:


1 Foolish phrase. The world has always been global. It's merely that we are only just noticing, and not necessarily in a helpful way either.

2 Beware, though, of those who would save the planet. The planet doesn't need to be saved. The planet is doing fine, and, if the comes to it, would shrug us off with a whisk of its climatological tail. What they mean is:  us. Humankind. Not "Save the Earth" but "Sauve qui peut."

3 Except when it's gone from your account but hasn't got to the account of the person you've paid it to, despite the transaction really only taking a few milliseconds. Then it's not in cyberspace. It's in your bank's sclerotic, greasy fingers — and they're lending it out to heaven knows who. You want to stick it to them?  Try cash.

4 As in The Onion's majestic headline of June 15, 2002:"God Answers Prayers of Paralyzed Little Boy. 'No,' Says God."

Reprinted from Lost Worlds:  What Have We Lost, & Where Did It Go?, by Michael Bywater © Michael Bywater. Published by arrangement with Granta Publications.

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Michael Bywater is a writer and broadcaster and writes the Lost World column for the Independent on Sunday in the UK. His books include The Chronicles of Bargepole, Godzone, Over the Outback and Into the Drink, and Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go? He currently teaches at Cambridge.

Where loss is found.

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