Monday, July 03, 2006

In the Net

We had a certain kind of peace before the internet and the web came along. I miss the days when doing research meant going to a quiet library somewhere, thumbing through old books in a room full of sunlight, occasional dust-motes dancing in the air. I miss hand-writing a letter, mailing it, anticipating the reply, which might take days or weeks to arrive, knowing that both I and my correspondent would have put a lot of thought into what we had to say. I suppose this is what people from a prior era felt, when air travel displaced ocean liners as the preferred way to travel long distances: a sense of having lost the moments of contemplation along the way.

My good friend Mike says that we idealize the past, and that it was never as good as we remember it to be. Yet I have a whole filing cabinet full of old correspondence, and few things give me more pleasure than to read through old letters, and remember. Yes, I could still write the old-fashioned way, but with everything so accelerated, it seems the opportunities to do so are vanishing. I am always waiting, in vain, for that moment of solitude. And, of course, the internet offers us the exhilarating feeling of being able to reach somebody right away in a moment of inspiration (or aggravation). How easy!

The internet, the web, also offer the seduction of having much of the world’s knowledge (albeit leavened with misinformation) right there for the grabbing. Being of the net is like being at an ever-expanding buffet, served up in an infinite warren of rooms, some of them big and bright and bustling, and others dark, dusty, obscure, with the food going stale. I eagerly explore. I can cope with the minor annoyances along the way: As I sample, I dodge the constant stream of touts trying to lure me into their dens of iniquity. And, like many of us, I have learned that some of the delicacies on the tables, even in the brightly lit rooms, are poisoned.

We are bees, in an enormous hive, just emerging from the larval stage. We were, until now, cozy and comfortable, knowing only our own little hexagonal cells, perhaps sensing the vibrations from nearby cells. We were occasionally fed by workers who came from somewhere and went we knew not where. Now we must adjust to the light and the noise and the frenetic hum of the hive. And we must learn to navigate the deluge of new information. I find myself wondering if we have been freed by all this information, or are ruled by it, running ever harder to keep up with the torrent. We run about on our appointed tasks, following the strands of the Web, unaware that perhaps we have been caught in it.

Now that I am willingly and eagerly wireless, I am aware that the internet transcends the very notion of a web, a warren, or even a hive. It is a presence, an ethereal organism, like one of those alien life forms in old Star Trek reruns, enveloping me, talking to me, feeding me, spying on me, collecting little bits of me, depositing little bits of itself on me. Even when I am logged off, I am permeated by it, by the multiplying halos of 802-dot-11, passing through me. Invisible pipes, carrying urgent emails, web porn searches, blogs from the lonely or paranoid, today’s news and non-news…marinating me in a dense drizzle of bits of which I am largely oblivious, until I am reminded of it.

I know I could disconnect, but I am not ready or willing to do so. I can proudly say I have managed to draw the line at hand-held devices such as Blackberries. My old firm issued them to us, and I gave mine back after a few weeks. Carrying a Blackberry around, I did not feel connected, I only felt caught. The organism had wrapped itself around me, constricting me and at the same time blasting me with a relentless stream of nonsense. It was like being strapped into an interrogator’s chair with a light shining in my face. I watched as my addicted colleagues spent whole meetings frantically sending and receiving messages, after which they had to ask what had happened during the discussion at hand. It was not for me.

Still, I connect several times a day. I suppose it is like being in a co-dependent relationship. It’s funny - television, the original icon of electronic co-dependency, never did this to me. I haven’t had a TV in 27 years, and I’ve rarely missed it. The internet is different. It responds, it hears, and then it talks back. It has a mind of its own, a composite mind composed of billions of smaller minds. All of them have their own theories of their place in the organism, or no theories at all. Some of them are human, others electronic. I have never felt so connected to so many, yet I wonder if the depth of those connections will ever approximate that of the old kind, the kind that were hard to plant and long in growing, but lasted.

3 Comments:

Blogger edman said...

Zapato ... well written ! I got rid of my blackberry after a bit also. I didn't feel less capable. The only advantage of a Blackberry is not having to boot up my computer, but then, I switched to Mac. I miss the handwritten word. Now, I just have to get rid of a few TVs.

July 04, 2006 1:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done. Glad you are back.

July 06, 2006 7:04 PM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

thanks. Trying to keep up...

July 12, 2006 7:43 PM  

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