Sunday, January 06, 2013

Hi, My Name Is Ken B....

and I have an Internet problem.  It’s been six hours since I was last online.

I know, it’s a bit absurd to think of the Net as a drug like alcohol and cigarettes. (Then again, website page views are referred to as “hits”, aren’t they?) The Net is a drug of choice for over twenty years.

I remember the first time...1992. I’d previously used that computer only for word processing -- a version of WordPerfect so old, even then, that you could smell the must with each keystroke. My first good friend Tim had a TRS-80 Model iii in his basement. This university computer didn't feel much different. 

Until it hooked up with another computer somewhere else. So help me, I remember wondering, with naivete pure as the driven snow, why anyone would want to connect to another computer when everything you needed was already on the computer in front of you.

I was young and shy, detached and sad
Spent my days indoors, a homebound lad
Hardly spoke, few friends, I kept myself to myself
Quite alone...

And the night was alive with a thousand voices
Fighting to be heard
And each and every one of them connected to me
And my life came alive with a thousand voices
Tapping out each word
Like a thousand people joined with a single heartbeat

 --'Proposal/The Night Was Alive', TITANIC: The Musical

Things were a tad different back then. Tim Berners-Lee was in the process of inventing the Web, which -- being is it is a 'net of nets' itself, is often mistaken for the Internet. My school was two years away from being connected to the Web--even then, an eternity in computer time. I subsisted on Usenet,...but you couldn't really call this endless feast 'subsistence'.
It's hard to explain just what kind of galvanizing effect this connectivity had on me. The song excerpt above (which refers to Marconi's telegraph) gives a little indication. I can't deny that part of the appeal, perhaps even a large part, was simply exposure to opinions other than those of my professors...and the ability to voice my own. (My sig. file, appended automatically to all my Usenet posts, read for a time 'The BREADBox/ Wilfrid Laurier Day Care Center -- oops, University, Waterloo Ontario/ These are my opinions, and my professors think they are wrong'.) Immature, eh? In my defence, I found my first and second year university classes endlessly stifling, and I lashed out at every opportunity, looking for and taking freedom wherever I could find it. Mostly I found it in the computer labs. Brickbats or bouquets, it didn't matter--I could say whatever I wanted on virtually any topic I could think of and people halfway around the world could hear me. 
Much of my opinion-venting, it's true, was on frivolous topics and momentary obsessions. I was a regular in rec.arts.pinball for a while, not to mention (that one's more than a momentary obsession!) I 'met' and conversed with a wonderful person on alt.horror whom I'm still friends with today.
But I also spent a decent chunk of time trying to define myself. I subscribed to several religious newsgroups as well as alt.atheism, and I regularly contributed to alt.polyamory, and I was forever skulking around on can.politics. 

I do a search on my name in Google Groups, which has archived old Usenet posts, and I'm amazed at some of the stuff that comes up. I wrote that? Really? Me? Suffice it to say my political views have changed  a LOT in the past twenty years. My views on many things, actually. In some cases they've come full circle, and that's a weird feeling, to see something you wrote twenty years ago that you agree with completely now--but that you know you disagreed with, vehemently, ten years ago...
The other thing that's amazing, and a tad disquieting, was the sheer volume of posts. A deep search yields over 1500 of them. That's not counting private messages, of which there were many. This from a guy who was supposed to be in class, or in his room studying. My burgeoning Internet addiction was probably the biggest reason I never completed my degree. (The disgust at my classroom environment fuelled that addiction, true, but who am I kidding? I would have gravitated to the Net even if every class was a joy.)

It wasn't all about the opinions, though. I never lost sight of the people on the other side of the screen, even though I couldn't see them at all. I met one long-term girlfriend through soc.penpals; I read her personal ad in the same room in which she composed it. And, of course, damned and damning distraction-flowers that marked my relationships back then: all of them, without exception, bloomed online. There's a good reason for that. I don't make friends easily in real life even today: back then it was a Herculean task. It was ever so much easier to let my words speak for me online, free of the taint of my ugly mug. 
But man, did you have to be cautious. All the more so if you were female. That girlfriend I first contacted on soc.penpals? She responded to me not just because I happened to go to her school, but also because my blurb was one of very few she got without a marriage proposal somewhere in it. (I thought she was kidding about that. She showed me the thread. She wasn't. Most of the marriage proposals, oddly enough, seemed to come from the Indian subcontinent.)

I had my own run-ins with the seamy underside of the net. One girl who worked for a now-defunct airline in Georgia was all set to send me tickets to come meet her--and then she told my mom online that once I did meet her, I was unlikely to want to come home. Needless to say, we never met. One girl I flirted with turned out to be a guy; another from upstate New York sent me a rather racy picture through what even then was known as snail mail. (There were pictures besides ASCII art on UseNet back then, but finding them and downloading them wasn't worth the effort, at least for me.) Never met her, either; as intrigued as my male hindbrain was, the rational part of me really had to wonder about the kind of person who would do that on extremely short notice.

But the friends, the friends.The sense of community within a specific newsgroup on Usenet (not to mention ISCABBS, my first true internet home, was palpable. (I introduced one housemate to the site; she's been with someone she met there a good deal longer than I have been married.) Both places were essentially in miniature...which is probably why I spend so much time on Reddit.

It got...pretty bad. I would spend the vast majority of my day, every day, in the computer lab, mainlining the online world. After twelve hours, I'd get up to use the bathroom, intending to go home, and while sitting in the stall I'd wonder if someone had emailed me, or responded to any number of discussion threads...and back I'd go to the lab.
Ironclad proof of just how hellishly strong that addiction was: for the year after I completely dispensed with  the classes I was supposed to be attending, my girlfriend granted me access to her account. Technically I was trespassing on school property, but I wasn't afraid of getting caught; I still looked for all the world like a busy student. I learned enough Unix Kom shell scripting to craft a six thousand line program that created a second layer to her account, allowing me to surf undetected. (Should have majored in Comp Sci and not English, right?)

After she graduated, though, I was suddenly left without my lifeline. Home internet access in those days--well, my parents had it; I didn't even have a computer at home, and had no means to get one because of the other addiction that damn near ruined my life: wasting money on frivolous shit. Every meal out. Every least whim catered to. Like one song on an album? Buy the album. And phone bills! In this era of unlimited (landline) long distance, it'shard to believe I used to rack up $300/month or more in phone bills. I scoff at kids today and their incessant texting. But I understand the inclination. I've lived it.

I managed to go four years with only intermittent Internet access, mostly from an Internet cafe up the street. I truly felt half-dead in those years: I'd sabotaged most of my friendships and I was living in near vacuum. I started up a diary with a red cover and dubbed the manuscript 'Past, Present, Fuschia'. It's the direct descendant of the Breadbin, and it was the only thing that kept me nominally sane. Well, that, and and books, mostly spiritual books like A Course In Miracles and, especially, Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God series
.  Those books, and my own reflections, changed my life just enough to allow me to meet the woman who saved me from myself and remodelled my world , the woman I'm eternally grateful for. Eva saw through the wreck I'd made of myself and gradually, ever so gradually, returned me to something approaching an even keel. That she managed to do this with an absolute minimum of naggery still astounds me.
Over the fourteen years of our marriage -- and I still feel like a newlywed -- I must confess to some guilt about how much time I've spent online. The Internet still defeats my intentions at self-betterment. If I'm ever to become the serious writer I feel certain is buried somewhere in my soul, I'll need a computer to write on that is NOT connected to the Internet in any way--preferably one on a different floor of the house, behind a locked door. Oh, really, says the addiction. How do you plan on doing research, then, hmmm? Just in the course of writing this blog you've accessed, what, ten websites? Not to mention falling down the Google Groups hole and marvelling at a tiny fraction of your old USENET posts? Wonder what else you wrote about back then. Wanna go look? You've got hours to kill, you don't have to work tod---


That insidious wheedle. That damned whine. Spend more time online...what's in your friends' Facebook feeds, what just got posted on Reddit, what's happening? You don't want to disconnect yourself, you'll be an island, alone in your own head. Don't starve the beast! WE WANT INFORMATION!

It's strong, so strong. I have to fight it every day. I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering what's happening behind the screen in my living room. It's such a colourful, vibrant world, you understand. It...evolves. And it begs, cajoles, demands participation in its evolution. If I get out of bed, relieve myself, and get back into bed, I feel simultaneously proud of myself for resisting and guilty because I resisted.

What kind of jitterbug do you make of the 12 steps when your higher power is your goddamned addiction? I mean, the Internet is gradually assimilating the whole of human knowledge, all of our keenest insights and most appalling tendencies. It connects all of us, it allows for endless creation, and it judges harshly. That's not a half-bad approximation of a god.

And so I've made three rules, to keep my life in some semblance of offline order. Rule # 1:  NO SMARTPHONES. I'd crochet that in a sampler and hang it on the wall. Give me the means to go online away from this desk and sure as shit I'll be powerless to resist. I'll be online all the time, and the prospect of that terrifies me. I value my wife and the life she and I have built far too much to even place the temptation in front of me.

Rule #2: Limit my peregrinations. I interpret this rule loosely--my most visited site is a news aggregator, after all--but all the same, there are artificial limits I've created for myself. I use Google Chrome exclusively. Its homepage consists of my top eight visited sites, and there are maybe twelve others -- at most -- I occasionally check on. Those are broad limits, especially when Reddit, Facebook or Twitter might lead me through a looking glass. And some of those sites are freakin' HUGE, entire worlds in and of themselves. But any new site on my homepage means another has been removed....and even twenty sites is just a tiny, tiny fraction of what's out there. I'll spiral through my sites, checking up on them, and then be able to leave them alone for a while. Without that limit in place, who knows where I'd end up.

Rule # 3: The information you crave comes from people. Never forget that.

So many people appear to have depersonalized the Internet. I'm always trying to personalize it, myself. I have my share of Facebook friends I wouldn't recognize if I met them on the street...but not too many of those, and I feel close to most of them regardless. I've grown to love more than a few of these people, and I make sure to connect with them at intervals. I'm slowly working around to meeting my closest net.friends in real life. There are people not a hundred clicks from me I'm really eager to spend time with. Offline time. Real-life time.

The addiction is still here. It's still strong. I recall reading Stephen King, reflecting on his alcoholism. People would ask him how much he drank, and he'd look at them as if they'd grown two heads and say, "all of it". What other answer could there be? He'd watch in disbelief  and, yes, horror, when somebody three tables away would get up and leave with half a glass of wine still sitting there. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, he'd want to shout. DRINK THAT.

I understand this implicitly. I fight it constantly. Am I winning? I'm holding my ground. Against the whole of the Internet, I think I'm doing okay.

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