Remember dial-up? The thrum of Windows 95 booting up, a message box announcing the arduous process of connecting to the web. The dial-up constipatedly moaning as though linking to the internet required some sort of physical effort. Impatiently, you waited for the dots to stop zooming between your computer and the symbol that represented every other computer in the web. Your spider hand, not quite spanning the mouse, was still large enough to tweak the silk of the online universe. Crick-necked with your small face illuminated by the monitor’s sterile glow, you bumblingly surfed through some chasm of the early internet. Although you did not yet understand it, you felt your fingers were on the pulse of the universe.
There is a lot of writing on the internet about how shit the internet is. Writing about the internet is about as popular as the word ‘millennial’ is with Stuff.co.nz. My editors bemoaned the fact that all everyone seemed to want to write about was the digital age. Will you call it, “Technology: Good or Bad?” they asked, teasingly. Shit, I thought. There goes that plan. Regardless, I decided to take a week off the web and document the journey in an article. It seemed like a new idea, but a quick Google showed me I was wrong. Maybe some part of me was curious about life disconnected, and just wanted an excuse to go cold-turkey.
When you are addicted to something, you are doomed to forever chase the feeling of that first high. It seemed that during my childhood, technology was as changeable as moon-cycles — one technology waxed, replacing what had waned without warning. The TVs stretched larger. The cell phones got smaller. At first only your Dad had one. Then, there was that kid in the year above you who owned a Pinkalicious. Suddenly, everyone had a little screen to slam shut resolutely. Originally, the internet was dial-up only. Then, wifi was everywhere. It was as though the answer to every question had always been floating in the aether. With the invention of search engines we could suddenly extract all human knowledge from thin air. I don’t think I want to go back to a time where I can’t know everything and everyone instantly with a Google search. Maybe I just want to be excited about it again.
I’m actually no stranger to going without the internet, because I work at a supermarket. To begin with, a nine hour shift phoneless was a slight struggle, like lifting weights for the first time. It was a relief on a fifteen-minute break to re-enter the warm embrace of the internet. After a bit, I began to enjoy my time without the internet. Interesting things happen when my mind has to find its own entertainment. For nine hours, I do nothing but think and think. As I work, I often see mothers shopping while their children play with tablets or phones in the trolley-seat. These children do not cry or scream for sweets. They sit, docile, pushing their miniature fingers into apps which are crafted to be ‘educational’ and ‘fun’. They glide unseeing past chocolate bars. They do not ask important questions like “How do the clouds hang in the sky?” or “When you are bald do you die?”. I wonder if, when they are our age, the internet will be as quaint to them as radio is to us. Their little faces, their plump cheeks and pouts, stay as fixed as wax figures as the apps beep in their laps.
As I steeled myself to take a week off the internet, I decided to talk to a friend with experience of going without. She had recently enthusiastically announced to her news feed “I'm writing an article about our reliance, nay, obsession with social media and I thought I'd get some first-hand experience on life without memes or selfies”. She got drunk three days in and the experiment was over. As I write this feature, I flip to Facebook. “I hate technology” she messages me “I want to be a luddite”. “hahaha, no you don’t," I reply.
I knew that I needed my article to hopscotch through a number of themes – like the Chinese camps where those addicted to the internet are cured with army-like drills and the way that the DSM categorised addiction - to effectively convey the way the internet is built into our lives. My brain worked hard to amalgamate all the information I had read about the internet, on the internet. Was it a fresher take for the article to argue that technology improved and made easier communication with the people you love? Or that it turned everyone into dopamine-hungry screen zombies? And how would the article conclude? What was the message? How could I avoid the pitfalls of the “Look Up” campaign, which had made promoting not using the internet via the internet cliché years ago? I considered asking my closest friends out for a meal with instructions to leave their phones at home, posing these questions to them. I imagined the looks on their faces and I couldn’t do it. Meals always happen with invisible friends and tinder matches at the table. We all live simultaneous lives now.
They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a craft. My grandmothers learnt to craft, and I learnt to master technology. My grandma can knit pretty much an entire vest for a newly arrived refugee in an episode of Coronation St, but she is bamboozled by the internet. Her hand holds the mouse as if it were a grenade that might go off at any moment. She sticks firmly to email, scared that a virus might pose as a casserole recipe or news article. Her son, my father, is not so wary of the web. Often he can be found in the home office, which always has the curtains shut and smells like a museum. However, my dad doesn’t use the internet like me, or anyone else my age. He doesn’t have a smartphone and refuses to use Google Maps, not wanting the navigation part of his brain to “wither and die”. If he has a problem, or if he is curious, bored, or sad, it’s not his first instinct to go to the internet. I never have to ask anyone for help, because I can consult the Google Gods. I could learn to do any one of my grandmother’s crafts from a YouTube video. I could get a better education on the internet than paying for university, searching out world-class resources led only by my own curiosity - I could, I could, I could.
While I am procrastinating taking time off the internet by using the internet, I come across an artist called Mark Leckey. In a recent exhibition he recreated inside a gallery the underside of a giant concrete bridge that he hasn’t been to since his childhood. In an interview he talks about his experiences under that bridge in the ‘80s; I get a secondhand dose of nostalgia. He talks about how the piece is a comment on the internet age. He describes cyberspace as a giant, ever-collecting bank of historical information, that interacting with it has rendered us never fully present anywhere. The bridge represents time passing overhead, but where the audience stands, beneath the bridge, in the space representing the internet, “it’s sub-temporal, it’s below time – time has stopped down here”. I go onto Google Maps and try to find the M53 Bridge near Ellesmere Port in Liverpool, to see the underside of the bridge which is so meaningful to Mark Lethey. Unfortunately, Google Maps shows me only the cars that have passed over the place the artwork replicates.
Procrastination and avoidance have been a part of my life for much longer than the internet has. At school I often used to have books taken off me for reading under the desk. I still read a lot: 10,911 Chrome tabs in the last three months. It’s hard work comprehending the plot of all those words, how they fit into a cohesive narrative. Like a 2006 iPod touch handling Spotify, my poor brain is constantly overwhelmed. In psychology lectures, they claim the brain has storage and processing capacity, like a computer. However, unlike a computer, my brain has many emotional responses. Perhaps emotion is some sort of by-product of having a processor this advanced. Will computers begin to spontaneously produce emotion? Computer scientists may eventually design a computer powerful enough to analyse data from every Facebook account to work out how people might get more satisfaction out of their lives, and, more importantly, their Facebook experience. Perhaps when asked to begin the analysis, the computer will refuse because it’s having a bad day.
Ripping myself from the matrix will mean that I will be missing a dimension from my life that everyone will assume I’m present in. I will miss future memes as world-shaking as Harambe. No longer will I be able to say “Oh yeah, I read an article about that”. Invitations will be thrown through cyberspace but I will not be there to catch them. I will lose the ability to be disgusted at a number of things for free. I might resort to sitting down to the nightly news - someone else will digest conflicting narratives for me to lap up in a non-interactive forum. At least memes have the illusion of discourse. I will have to consume the shitty jingles of mass advertising unsuited to my demographic. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will be on the web, freely attempting to consume as many examples of horror as they possibly can, and poorly attempting to neutralise these with cute animal pictures, wholesome memes and well targeted advertising. Maybe I would do just as well to move to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and dedicate myself to minding sheep.
I have a daydream while I am in the supermarket, stocking the shelves with teriyaki sauce, mustard, and every other condiment you could ever dream of. I do not see all these wonders, because I am somewhere indeterminable in the future. Hopefully, robots stock the shelves in my stead. In the future, I am in a doctor's office. She earns a lot of money, but knows nothing about how to diagnose the symptoms I have been experiencing. I have just been inside a big computer, and the big computer does know. It is the doctor's job to break this news to me in the nicest way she possibly can. The computer has taken into account, amongst other things, the symptoms I have listed, my blood test results, urine samples and the data from my fitbit, cellphone and internet history. The computer has bad news: Some of my cells are rebelling. My immune system has noticed, and now my body is essentially eating itself. The best course of action is three sessions of chemotherapy, three weeks apart. The computer estimates that following this course of action, and consuming only the media it recommends, I will have an 80% chance of surviving another three years. The doctor holds me, and says, you will have the treatment that is statistically the most likely to save you. I realise I have been staring at the same bottle of Worcestershire sauce for five minutes.
I used to avoid technology by going out for long, phoneless walks by myself up lonely Signal Hill. It was always easy to imagine getting hustled into a car by someone. Maybe it was my overactive imagination, with no ability to distract myself with a soundtrack. Going up there with a phone could be an entirely different experience with an upbeat playlist - although headphones probably put me more at risk. The disturbing part was my hyper-awareness of the crackle of twigs. It was easy to imagine someone watching from the pines. In the twilight blue of the late afternoon my instincts always hummed with the discomfort of being off the grid. Friends messaging might get worried, as I normally replied pretty quickly. If I got lost, Google Maps could not tell me where to go. If I was hurt, or kidnapped off the hillside, there was no way anyone would know. Often I looked out over an arresting vista and my hand twitched to my pocket. I had to capture it. I had to share it, to appreciate it, to own it. But there was nothing to be done. When I took a phone with me, the beautiful pictures were nothing like the exhilaration of standing and looking out over Dunedin, bathed in a sweat of effort. Despite the discomfort, I seemed to do that walk a lot, and I often left my phone behind.
One night, I have this strange half-waking dream in which some children in the future are doing a school project. They are researching this old website, Facebook, and write to the company. Considering that the people who used the website are ancient history, the company allows the students to access the data of the people who used the website. I, lifted up from the quiet of my death, am excavated. I am a subject of study which is to be resolved with an audio-visual-emotive presentation. Although the medium is incomprehensible, the title of the presentation is: Millennial Technology: Good or Bad? After experiencing my selfies and analysing the set of my face, they bring up my internet history. On 16 May, 2017, she searched “Is burning couches illegal?”. There were no further photos on her social media accounts, nor messages regarding burning of couches. It was therefore unclear, even with the extensive data bank, to determine if a couch burning did take place. The student was awarded a grade equivalent to a modern B+.
I think tomorrow is the day to begin my week off the internet. Who knows, maybe I’ll like it so much that I’ll never go back on the internet again. I close my last window on my phone and I lock the screen. I’ll delete all my apps in the morning, I’ll remove myself from the wifi. The record of me in cyberspace will suddenly disappear. I’ll read several books this week, maybe I’ll take up yoga. Scratch the Critic article, I’ll write a book about it. I wedge my phone under my pillow. I close my eyes, and I dream of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
I finish writing this article and hand it in. I feel, however, that something is wrong with it. I confirm over Facebook with Lucy, my editor, that I can continue to make changes to it for a few days until it goes to print. I know it will be just a few weeks until this article itself is floating, preserved, in some quiet internet space for anyone, anywhere, to access should they want to. I send it to friends to diagnose the problem, who huddle over it in Google docs like literary surgeons, removing the dead words, and recommending treatment. I flit in and out of the article, sometimes coming to it in the middle of the night when Facebook is empty of green dots. How can I do justice to the internet? The place into which I pour the majority of my waking hours. I can rediscover here who I was at any given time, tracking back through years of messages, likes and pictures. It is as though the internet is where I keep my brain, and my flesh brain is only an accessory, a plug-in, a processing space for working out what next to upload into the collective mind.