First time I ever “got on-line” was with the old Commodore 64 dial-up service, Quantum Link. That was in 1987, when I was only 13 years old. I didn’t do much with the service back then, other than to hop on a few times to ask technical questions about troubleshooting certain video games I was into. Eventually my parents let the subscription lapse. But I kept the 300 baud modem, using it to get back on-line in late 1990 when some of my friends with PC computers began telling me about some of the local dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) available in the Salt Lake valley.
It was a fun adventure then. Being “on-line” was still somewhat cutting edge — a game for geeks and the technology culture. Graphics were ANSI at best, and if you had anything above 2400 bps you were moving at warp speed. I happily whiled away many hours on-line, at a time in my life when it was easy to while away the hours and not notice. I even ran my own BBS using the beloved old Citadel software port for the PC, Fortress. I think somewhere out there someone is still maintaining a legacy list of all the Citadel BBSs that ever operated in the United States, and mine — which I appropriately called Super-Dimensional Fortress 1, or SDF-1 — is on that list.
I was more or less off-line from 1995 through 1996, then my wife and I got a Windows95 computer with a 14,400 bps modem and suddenly we were able to log on to that nascent super-BBS: The Internet.
I’ve been a web junkie ever since.
The Internet — which I often derisively refer to as the InterToob, due to its mind-sucking ‘Boob Tube’ qualities — is a near-infinite playground of images, sounds, information, and people. Since 1996 I’ve been amazed to see the Internet bring the formerly tech-geek culture of the BBSs into the mainstream, such that everyone is a tech-geek now. Everyone is on-line all the time, and with the explosion of wireless personal devices like the iPad and Blackberry (Crackberry!) the committed nerd can literally carry the Internet with her or him everywhere she or he goes. Everywhere! Free (and not so free) wi-fi abounds, and we’re awash in a light-speed flood of microwave transmissions perpetuating and distributing data as fast as the world’s collective servers and routers and switches can make it.
Yet, in spite of it all, I have gradually come to accept the fact that, for me anyway, the Internet is not necessarily a good thing. I’ve run gross calculations before, about the total time I’ve spent on-line — in lieu of other things, like writing or working on projects unrelated to the computer — and I’ve easily spent many, many thousands of hours “plugged” into this endless informational arena.
As fun as it’s often been, the older I get the more I get that creeping voice of wisdom in the back of my head, and it sounds like Elvis: shoot your computer, son, before it’s too late!
Who am I to argue with The King? He was right. The InterToob is a fiendish thing. A double-edged sword. Practically all the information you could ever want or need, easily and instantly referenced, but how often have I spent time surfing the web when I should have been doing something more concrete? More productively real? Less transparently ADHD in flavor?
I struggle to read books now, because I’ve trained my brain to want quick, snappy bursts of text instead of the more concentrated, more focused flow of the printed page. I get frustrated when I can’t log on and check e-mail — for any period longer than an hour or two. When away from keyboard and screen, I walk around with this strange sensation, as if the time spent doing things and working off-line is time I am “missing out” on what’s “really happening” on the web.
Recently my wife and I were up late and as I sat hunched over my laptop, poking around on one of the (many) web forums I frequent, my wife put down her newspaper and looked at me over the top of her glasses and said, “What the hell are you looking at now?” I sort of mumbled something stupid, which I can’t recall, and she effectively pointed out that not only had I been on the computer for hours already, I was compulsively clicking and scanning through my favorites list, searching for… what, I am not exactly sure.
That was sort of a gut check, for me. I was pissed at the time, but as most often happens when my wife looks at me over the top of her glasses, when I calm down I realize she’s made a very, very good point. And as the year 2010 begins to slowly winds down to the year 2011, I am thinking that I seriously — and permanently — need to change my InterToob habits. As in, limiting how much time I spend, what I spend it on, and in what ways I am willing to spend it.
I did something similar a few years ago, when I self-banned from reading political blogs. During the earlier part of the ought-decade I was a compulsive web politics junkie, which I finally terminated when I realized it was making me very pissed off, all the time, with no discernible cause. Like the funny (and sad) little web ‘toon sez: someone is wrong on the internet! Alas, I’ve found other ways to keep my foot in the waters of web argument, as this blog well demonstrates. And even if I am not surfing politics per se, I’m doing far more conversing on-line via text, often with people I don’t even know, than I am with real live human beings face-to-face.
I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Geek culture insists that it’s just part of the new “mode” of how human beings interact. But having seen and participated in numerous flame wars and dust-ups, I am slowly coming around to my wife’s view that the web is an oily lens — a warped, truncated means of interacting with my fellow human beings. That few people are ever really “real” on-line, and that expending time or energy in argument or debate on-line is a bit like pouring fresh water into the Atlantic ocean, one cup at a time.
I noted above that I have trouble reading books now. Recently I moved my basement desk — and the wall shelves above it — to a new part of the downstairs. I realized that almost all of the paperbacks on those shelves are books I’ve never read. I keep buying paperbacks, but I’m not reading them like I used to. When I was much younger, I ripped through paperbacks like nobody’s business. Now? I honestly can’t remember the last time I actually sat and read a whole paperback from cover to cover. As a teen, I can remember reading whole paperbacks in a single day. Now? I have half a dozen of them “in progress” and I am so often putting them down and returning to them much, much later, I feel as if I ought to just start all over and try to recapture the novel from the beginning. Because it’s literally been too long a time for me, as a reader, and the story has grown cold. Like stew left out too long on the dinner table.
I think it’s probably time to get serious about changing my patterns. I’ll be 37 next year, and I’m beginning to realize I don’t have all the time in the world for everything. My daughter is growing up before my very eyes. I’ve got my own books I want to write. I’ve got a marriage that requires love and attention. I have a house that needs fixing up, and I also have parents who won’t always be here forever. Sooner or later, they will be gone. And what will I regret most? Spending more time engaging with them, or spending more time engaging with faceless, nameless strangers on the InterToob?
I think the answer is a pretty easy one.
I won’t pull a cold turkey. I know my personality and it’s not the cold turkey type. But I do believe that when you recognize a problem exists, it’s generally a great idea to try and do something about it immediately. Don’t put it off. Don’t think about doing it. Just do it. And I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I am now quite sure the time is ripe for change.
If that sounds like goodbye, it’s not. I’m going to be rather active on this blog, and in e-mail. But I’m going to prune down my favorites, start giving myself defined “windows” of web time, and more properly defined limits on how I will use that web time. I have too much going on and too many things I need and want to do, for me to not get disciplined. At last. After 20 years of this shit.