HOW THE INTERNET CHANGED US
The kitchen is quiet, cold, and blue with pre-dawn light. The mess I’ve made over the past few hours begins to show by the window, the empty packages of food, milk, tea, and writing. The kitchen table is strewn with paper, and I stand there like an Ozymandic ruin, feeling accomplished and unsung at once. The Korean neighbours are already awake, at work, shuffling around on cardboard floors in subzero weather, stocking their store from the early morning market trip. Many of the people in my neighbourhood still have livelihoods that are connected to the survival of the community. I wish I could say the same for myself. I have, in compliance with doctor’s orders, waited out my nervous episodes all night, the byproducts of which are scrawled into tablets, the old-fashioned kind, on the table before me. In ink. The computer monitor’s standby light flashes like an insect, all too easy to catch. It takes every ounce of strength I have to resist it.
Let us go back about twenty years, to the beginning of all this.
I sat upon my father’s lap, pounding [run] commands from a keyboard into its attached black void screen and reeling with excitement as my variables turned up one by one, followed by the kind of obscenities that only a six year old will never tire of. [IF…] [THEN PRINT “fuck”]. I had been programming simple adventure games in the Basic language, taking great and repetitive joy in the commandeering of a machine to bid my wishes. It was science. I was never one for playing with dolls, nor with other people. The main differences between the terminal and my talkie doll were that the terminal didn’t have eyes you could pop out with a spoon, and the doll could not perform mathematics.
The eye gag was only good for so long, but math was an infinite adventure.
Later, in high school, I had a separate desk in the corner to save the teachers from having to send me there. High school was about believing the world was a romantic place, of carving slogans into desktops (the wooden kind), of writing bad poetry in secret and testing the boundaries of human compassion by orchestrating difficult dialogues with just about everybody. There was a small computer lab on the third floor, in which we spent 40 minutes a week honing our word processing skills. Words, I felt at the time, were not in use to be “processed”. Booting up the Apple IIe, I couldn’t help but wonder what better uses this tanky little machine could be put towards. I read reams of socialist papers.
Being young is a fragile state. Your convictions fight to become your own, but they fade and waver like illusive apparitions. We used to have a love affair with the future. We were convinced, as university students in the early 90’s, that we were sitting in the bloodlines of a new age, that we had privileged access to both the classroom and the network terminal, and through both of these we could determine the immediate outcome of the universe. We lined up outside computer labs to check our email, publish our papers, read the papers Bosnian students were publishing, and engage in the novelty of online sex. We relied less on the lectures of the classroom, and more heavily on the new and instant access we had to every library in the world, to the new Alexandria - to our ATM of knowledge. We could not discriminate, at the age of 18, that knowledge and information were not the same thing. (In fact, after having reunited with peers ten years later, I see that some of them have still not detected the difference).
The campus was, for most purposes, the same as it had been for years, which created an eerie illusion of stability. Its new flourishes were insidiously appearing in the form of Internet kiosks, automated service centers, and towards the end of my degree, online classes. Meanwhile, however, big changes happened in the world, during these my most sensitive ages. I had a computer set up at the foot of my bed and watched the virtual community grow and buckle upon itself like salt crystals. Television changed, journalism changed. The stories became shorter, harder, and began using the tools of the movies. The rules of language were sloughed off one by one, and the new mass media environment became a vulgar frontier, an irregular, mutating life form that exploded onto the continent’s screens like a cultural cancer. Social detachment became chic, and went hand-in-hand with technological savvy. I began to have erotic dreams of a cybernetic nature. Love, instead of being the foundation of all humanity (as our parents believed it to be), suddenly seemed nothing more than a variable. There was renewed interest in 1950’s and 60’s intellectual life, especially in the field of cybernetics. Norbert Weiner texts, in all their wordy guises, were pulled from the backrooms of second-hand bookshops everywhere, and traded until their spines fell off and their pages dispersed like seeds in Fall.
My own consciousness became a cluttered and frenetic mess. I stopped writing in complete sentences, stopped thinking in words, and began to drift in the pleasing ether of waiting for the world to define itself again. Everybody was there. The writers stopped and listened. Painters took HTML courses. And, while I waited, I let the fun unravel online. Intellectual confidence soared, while social skills went the way of the dormouse.
I graduated and took a job programming software.
It was the funeral of writing, of speaking. It was the funeral of the woman I was destined to be.
During Stalin’s paring of Russia’s heart, a massive quiet took place in his territory that allowed him and his forces to carry on their murderous stroll through Eastern Europe. Solzhenistyn described the first civil arrest as complacent. The man, suddenly flanked by two officers ordering him to come down to the station for questioning, was aghast and nervous and offended, and defaulted to an honest position of complacency – he had done nothing wrong. ‘Yes, let’s go to the authourities!’ Surely there must be some mistake. They will straighten everything out. The man never saw the light of day again. These civil arrests that took place grew in number until Moscow had successfully imprisoned a quarter of its cities. By this point there was such a widespread fear in the hearts of every man that the terror alone was prison enough. The psychological environment served to keep people in their houses, adherent to curfews, from talking to one another too much. It let the body politic get on with whatever it wanted to get on with.
What’s been happening here over the past ten years has had a similar effect on our confidence. The mass distraction of our original aims, the flickerings of chat rooms, portals and pop-ups that swallowed some of our better ideas and spat back nothing but static and flabby asses. The raw combat of news corporations to keep their audiences hostage with eye candy and dumb a.m. loops. The branding, co-branding, re-branding of America that kept mousing for our dwindling attention. What a difference a year can make, but what a difference ten years made! They say that genius, pulled from its course and propelled in the wrong direction, travels at an exponential speed in the wrong direction.
Do not, for money, accept those jobs you know will erode your speech.
Complacency is poisonous. The first man arrested in Moscow could have remained free, could have elicited an uprising of support against officials, and possibly could have prevented the genocide that took place just by opening his one yawp and howling. Howling like an animal in restraints. But he reasoned himself into a corner that enslaved his children – and murdered a whole generation.
The morning sun picks at the snow crusts and I am deciding if I am well enough to work today. Icicles tinkle and it is as if everything is made out of glass. I moved the mouse by accident. Yes, I went into that little room and just brushed the mouse quite by accident and all of a sudden I am searching the web for hypergraphics. Hypergraphics are people who have an incessant compulsion to write. It is a byproduct of epilepsy, a glitch of the temporal lobe, that causes its victims to madly chronicle and theorize, list and journal. They could very well be our shamen. I want to find some of these souls and read, madly, their prose - bask in their fever. Yes, write! Go ahead! Write a great flood!
Write for all of us who can no longer write.
I used to have secrets. I used to keep my opinions to myself. I especially used to keep my ambitions to myself. I bumble in my life and talk about anything to anyone who’ll listen now. I want the room to listen to me. I’ve outgrown the sharp, quietly judgmental poise, loping through the elder’s societies, and falling asleep in it. This has less to do with growing up than it has to do with the erosion of privacy. And the erosion of privacy, of course, has everything to do with the Internet.
Postscript: Nobody’s afraid of the FBI anymore.
The FBI has a technology it calls Carnivore, which evolved from its wiretapping technology it once called Omnivore. Both of these beasts made front-page news in their time, as if to ask the American population for its permission to unleash them on its little conversations. Surprisingly, there was little objection. A few privacy advocates and coalitions yelled ‘bloody murder’ and then quietly exploded. Since September 11th, Carnivore has evolved from a technological practice to a form of law-enforcement that has unquestionably pervaded the public domain. It has been passed into law. “We had no privacy anyway,” you all said. Your employers have owned your email since 1992. Your very appearance in public is likely to be recorded by someone. But had the Internet not conditioned us for this mass mentality, would we still have been so many millions of compliant proletariats? Would we not have objected, at least a few million of us, in order to protect ourselves, protect our children?
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Background by Julianne