I hereby confess that I’m an inveterate viewer of CNN.
This embarrasses me a little, because so much of CNN is really nonsense: the hyped-up “Special Reports,” the meaningless onscreen countdowns to mostly insignificant events, the cringe-inducing Lou Dobbs, the endless Whack-a-Mole appearances of a ragtag collection of talking heads the network forever trumpets as “the best political team on television,” as if sheer repetition will somehow make it so. Certainly CNN has its value, particularly in covering sudden major crises in real time; but on a slow news day, lo! the brainless infotainment takes over, to the detriment of the network’s credibility and the audience’s senses.
A couple of weeks ago, however, on the fortieth anniversary of the first communication between two computers—a milestone that would ultimately lead to the World Wide Web—Jack Cafferty, another cringe-inducer, offered a question to his viewers on one of his frequent “Cafferty File” appearances: “How,” he wanted to know, “has the Internet affected your life?”
I realized that I’d never really thought about it.
Not, at least, in those terms. I’ve certainly growled enough over the years about the Internet, about teenagers spending their lives sitting before computer screens, about the unreliability of Internet connections, about the increasing difficulty of protecting copyrights in the Internet age...But to ask me, simply, “How has the Internet affected your life?”
It’s an interesting question.
I grew up, of course, not only well before the Internet, but even before PCs. There was an old Royal electric typewriter in our house, which I used to finger-stab experimentally from time to time; but I actually learned to type as a high school freshman, sitting day after day in front of a rather battered Olympia manual machine in Mrs. Mercure’s Typing 1A class along with some 25 other students. To be honest, I remember virtually nothing about Mrs. Mercure. I can’t picture what she looked like. Can’t recall her voice. Can’t think of a single pearl of wisdom she ever offered me.
But she taught me how to type. And so, by any practical measure, she was the most important teacher I ever had.
Simply put, typing made it possible for me to become a writer. It set me free. It pulled me away from scribbled sheets of schoolboy notebook paper and allowed me to take my work and myself seriously. It gave me the grounding I needed to be able to present professional-style manuscripts which I soon began submitting to real magazines—and which just as soon came right back to me, but at least they’d been read. Occasionally an editor or editorial assistant even offered an encouraging scribble on the rejection slip I invariably received. In that small way, then, I was in the game. I was a writer, if only an unpublished one. And all because of my newfound skill at typing.
I don’t remember the first PC I ever saw, but I know that I first became truly aware of PCs in college. My girlfriend of the time had one, and would occasionally make efforts to teach me to use it; but it seemed impossibly complicated and brain-busting to me, with all sorts of strange codes that had to be memorized to even get the damned thing to work. (This was long before Windows would make computers comprehensible to virtually anyone.) In those years—the mid-’80s—I made no headway with the newfangled technology, which seemed pretty much irrelevant to me anyway. Two years with the Peace Corps, in a remote village in the Kalahari Desert, did nothing to improve matters; a computer would have been impossible there for any number of reasons, including a notable lack of electricity. I was happy enough with the Sears portable typewriter I’d purchased shortly before heading overseas. In fact, though I haven’t tried to use it in fifteen years, I still own that machine today.
It was around Christmas 1990 that I returned to the States, and what I immediately noticed was that in my absence computers had become ubiquitous. Even my terminally unhip father had a Mac of his own, which I—slowly, hesitantly, grudgingly—began to learn to use, though I still held to my Sears typewriter for most of my writing. But when my father died a year and a half later, I inherited the Mac...and the jig was up.
I was forced to enter the modern age.
I still vaguely recall how odd it felt to write on a computer—to not have an actual sheet of paper in front of me, and to constantly see that blinking cursor waiting for my next word (just as it does now, as I write this). At first I wasn’t sure I could handle it. But after a few false starts, I got going on a story called “The Unfinished Music” (you can find it in my collection Thundershowers at Dusk) which seemed good—as good as something I would have written on a typewriter. I was off and running!—and, truly, never looked back.
The arrival of the Internet not long thereafter was something of a blow to me. After all, I was feeling pretty spiffy about my grand technological knowledge—I’d even survived my first system changeover, as my wife (we got together in 1995) convinced me we needed a more contemporary machine than my dad’s now-ancient Mac, and so we switched to some sort of IBM-compatible device.
I can recall first hearing about the Internet in a series of TV commercials narrated by Tom Selleck. “Have you ever sent a letter—without a stamp?” he asked. “You will! And the company that will bring it to you is...” Was it AT & T? Anyway, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. But I learned soon enough.
It took us a long time to get around to going online. Again, I was resistant. What was the point? I remember seeing the Internet on a computer at work, and a few times in the local library; it seemed a sort of amusing toy, nothing more. Someone—it may have been my wife—showed me what Google was, and how you searched out information using it; naturally one of the first searches I ever did was on the words “Christopher Conlon,” and when I found nothing, it was obvious that this great new technological marvel wasn’t worth much.
Still, the Internet slowly took over the world—our world, at least—and in 1999 we purchased a modem and got ourselves a dial-up Internet connection at home. We’ve modernized again and again since then, of course, but as with learning to use a computer in the first place, once we had the Internet available to us, there was no turning back—neither of us would ever dream of suggesting that we disconnect ourselves, certainly. And of course it would be all but impossible for a writer today to not be connected to the Internet, if for no other reason than e-mail.
E-mail! That was one aspect of the World Wide Web which I embraced from the very first time I used it (in an e-note to the poet Lyn Lifshin). For years I’d mourned the loss of the kind of correspondences I’d enjoyed in the Peace Corps, and even earlier, with friends—old-fashioned letters written (or typed) on old-fashioned paper, put in an envelope, stamped, and mailed in a process that back then no one ever thought to prefix with the word “snail.” No one wrote to each other anymore, I groused—now it was all just phone calls. But, at least for me, e-mail quickly proved to be the rebirth of personal correspondence, with the added benefit of undelayed delivery of message. While some claim that it’s impossible for a lengthy, seriously considered, revised letter to be written as an e-mail, I’ve never found this to be true; indeed, some of my personal e-letters are as long as some of my current blog entries, as a few of my (possibly unfortunate) correspondents can attest. All it takes is a liberal use of the “Save” button, after all.
I loved e-mail right from the beginning. I still do, even as new communications technologies threaten its dominance and force me to begin grumbling again about changing things that already work just fine.
The Internet certainly altered some of my shopping habits as well, if not as profoundly as some of the early Silicon Valley gurus said it would. (Remember the wild claims that brick-and-mortar stores would soon be a thing of the past?) It’s an enormous boon to the book collector; before, if one wanted to find an out-of-print book, there were few alternatives to simply searching for it in shop after shop. There were “book finders” who advertised in the pages of Harper’s and the like, and I used them occasionally, but I discovered that they typically charged four times the volume’s market value. As a result, there were countless books I’d wanted for years that the Internet allowed me to find with a point and a click. It was wonderful.
But it didn’t feel right, and quickly enough my wife and I discovered that, while the Internet was a superb tool, it was only a tool. There’s no substitute for actually walking into a bookstore and browsing the shelves. None. It’s how the magic happens for us book people. Even the most sophisticated Internet “browse” feature is a feeble substitute for actual hold-it-in-your-hands book shopping.
But I think the way that the Internet has most affected me is how it’s affected my use of time.
Like millions of others, I spend too much time in front of the computer—and I’m online virtually all of that time. For all its valid and practical uses, the Internet is surely the greatest time-waster ever invented by mortal man—far greater than television, exactly because of the Internet’s “interactive” nature. It’s truly frightening to think of how many hundreds—thousands?—of hours I’ve spent simply clicking on things, following links to no real purpose, Google-searching information of no importance (including, inevitably, about myself). Early on, before I learned to discipline myself at least somewhat, I would sometimes get ready to leave the computer, thinking I’d been staring at the Internet for twenty or thirty minutes, only to realize that I’d been there for over two hours. There’s always something new to see and discover in the Wild West of the World Wide Web.
I don’t worry about this too much in connection to myself—as I say, I got a handle on “Internet time” early in my discovery of the Web. But I do feel concern about younger people, those who never experienced an unwired life. If the Internet is the greatest source of information on the planet—and it is—it’s also the greatest attention-buster, the profoundest source of young people’s fragmented and incomplete focus. I worry that they may not ever know the pleasures of sinking deep into a long novel for hours and hours on a summer’s afternoon, or of going for a long walk in autumn woods with the earthy smell of fallen leaves rich around them. It’s so very difficult to be here when the Internet, now accessed by tiny handheld devices most kids use incessantly, so enticingly beckons us to be somewhere else—anywhere but here, now, which is the only place and moment any of us ever really have.
How has the Internet affected my life? Very profoundly.
But the more important question may be how it will affect the lives of those who’ll never know a world without it.