Living through the Paleozoic Era of the Internet

| June 29, 2011

We are living through a communication revolution. It is like the Gutenberg revolution of the printing press, but at a thousand-times greater magnifold. The Internet. Arguably, this technology is beyond the discovery of copper, the discovery of bronze, the discovery of smelting iron. It is beyond the technology of paper and gunpowder. It is beyond the advent of the steam engine and the conduction of electricity and radio and radar. The Internet has fundamentally altered space and time; it has changed how we work, how we socialize; and potentially human consciousness (see Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated).

Probably similar to most people born in the 1980s, I remember the gradual introduction of computers into our lives. My dad, an electrical engineer for General Electric, was always interested in technology, and we had a heavy, beige-colored Commodore 64 in our house; this was a computer that when powered on, displayed blinking green command lines over a black background. I remember typing the rudimentary commands in elementary school in order to load games, my favorites being Moon Patrol (we had an Atari console) and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. I also remember visiting one of my parent’s friends’ houses when I was a kid, where the husband worked in RTP (research triangle park), and he showed my mom e-mail for the first time through the computer system of his workplace. It was painstakingly slow, taking what seemed like forever to send a single message.

At school we had early Macintosh computers, also heavy and beige with blocky and bare start-up screens; and while we potentially used them for constructive activities like word processing or math flash-card games, my recollections of those lessons are hazy. Of course I do remember the Oregon Trail. This was a game involving milemarkers such as Independence Rock, activities like hunting deer and fording rivers, and obstacles like attacking Indians and dysentery. Oregon Trail, despite its pixelated wagons and the cruel fortunes it would deliver (i.e. oh no! your entire family is dead!), was fun. Now, Oregon Trail can be played through an ironic/nostalgic Facebook application, I believe with friends (so you can circle wagons together?), although I’m not sure because I have not actually participated in this most recent iteration.

Computers continued to expand. In the mid-1990s, my family had a computer with Microsoft Windows. I remember AOL, and the unforgettable garbled, electronic, and high-pitched sound of connecting to the Internet. I remember chatting with people on AOL, and that was how I learned to type without looking at the keyboard. I even became pen-pals with someone in Virginia who I met through an AOL chatroom, someone also in middle school, (can’t really remember what we had in common or what we talked about). It seems so alien to me, because I can’t imagine communicating in any sustained way with random people on the Internet now.

Later, when I was 16—and this is a family story that we laugh about now, but at the time it was serious—my mom appeared at my school, extremely upset, wanting to make sure I was okay because “people wanted to kill us with knives.” What was she talking about? Apparently five police cars showed up at our house that morning, after I had already left for school, investigating murderous threats. The truth emerged eventually; my younger sister and one of her friends went into an Internet chatroom (they were 12 years old), messing around, pretending to want to kill people with knives. Someone in the chatroom reported it to the authorities, who traced the IP address, and the next morning our house was swarmed with Orange County, North Carolina police officers.

I have other anecdotes, including the early days of pirating music through Napster; taking some of the first online courses in undergrad; joining Friendster, MySpace, and then Facebook; and the absolute true conviction I have that I would not have survived living in rural Alaska without the Internet (even when I lived without a phone and running water for a stint). Anyway, it is 2011 now, and my smartphone connects me to the Internet all the time, in most places, and my workplace computer has 2 terabytes of storage (and is hooked up to a station with another 2 TB of storage), and I need that space. So much has changed, and it is such a fascinating time to be living through, while the Internet is still fomenting. It is so uncertain what will happen in the future…how economics, knowledge, politics, language, and our social fabric will shift and change as the Internet evolves. [Perhaps singularity will be achieved, where we shed our bodies and upload our minds into computers].