In my experience, the real intoxication of the internet in the 1980s lay in the contrast between the luminescent yellow-green symbols and the fathomless yonder. This is how it appeared on my first computer terminal, a boxy khaki Zenith z-19, which I lucked into when my father bought it on a whim in 1979 and I was the only one in my family who was rapt. Behind the letters there seemed to be a cold, mile-deep mountain lake or perhaps an uncharted galaxy, colder still. I explored the earliest online “conferences”, as the first message boards were known, in the days of the arpanet, the vast network created by the Pentagon in 1969 and considered to be the precursor to the internet. I imagined that the darkness – maybe all darkness – was cyberspace itself. To be truthful, the experience was erotic. As a teenager, such shudders were always close at hand, of course, but new longings were also stoked by the green words that embellished the void. They were not quite “sexts”, more tentative flirtation: what’s your room like? Is your mom around?
That breath-holding apprehension of the sublime – romance, starless night, the internet – returned to me in the spring, at the moment when work, social life, commerce and the exchange of ideas slipped from largely online to wholly online, when the economy shut down in deference to the pandemic. The pathogens choked the air. We ceded the outdoors to them and confined ourselves to the domestic realm. There the internet became mandatory and panoptic. It never let up. Zoom meeting after FaceTime catch-up after e-commerce bender and always email, texts, documents, bill-paying, social media and Netflix. I still have the ticket stub for the last film I saw in a cinema the night before I stopped leaving my house in March: “First Cow”. That’s the same month my tickets for “Mrs Doubtfire” on Broadway were refunded. Now I wonder when I’ll sit in a theatre again.
Thirty-five years ago the internet was a fantasia, to be slipped into like Narnia, at the back of a shameful closet, out of sight of grown-ups. Though socially distanced, you could fall in love and have your heart broken there, but it was all your own very secret, very eccentric crisis. Now, by order of the state government, my daylight hours are supersaturated by the uniformly high-noon screen of my Macbook, as far from my Zenith interface as a craggy cave wall is from glossy magazine paper. I crave the time when the internet was a lacuna in regular existence, and not the entirety of it.
We left New York City, my two kids and boyfriend and I, soon after the virus peaked there. Hundreds were still dying of the disease every day. Thousands were on ventilators. An 18-wheeler that had been converted into a mobile morgue was still stationed a block from our apartment. We saw people pile in bodies. I had lost my aunt and my job by the time we drove to the countryside in my boyfriend’s battered Honda Odyssey. Sirens wailed as we headed north. I still sometimes get a skullful of their Doppler effect. As a casino-worker I met told me the night before we left, I had the advantage of being a “soft pants” worker, whereas he – a pit boss in Las Vegas – was a “hard pants” one. As a soft-pants worker, I could make my living online at home in Tencel leggings that our grandfathers would not recognise as workwear. The pit boss, however, needed to suit up in trousers made of a more dignified fabric, monitor gamblers at arm’s length and glad-hand with regulars. Risk disease, in other words. Maybe he had identified a categorisation that ought to supersede the one between blue and white collars.
For me, what’s changed? I’m at my computer as I’ve been for 35 years, through adolescent longings and university paper-writing, through message boards and gifs and attempts at actual sexting and Bumble and the development of my cheerful Bitmoji and my current truly adorable Animoji, a rendering of me which I can animate and give my own voice. I open the dear old world wide web, born 1993 to father Tim Berners-Lee. Here come the tabs: news of the presidential election, videos of violence, data on the pandemic, the antivirals, the promised vaccine. Sometimes I’m on a sofa. Sometimes I’m on a deck by the creek, batting away mosquitoes. But really I’m on – or more like in – Twitter, where the world’s ascendant autocracies are always top of mind. How extraordinary that this internet, my first true love, is no longer a guilty infatuation. It’s work! Meanwhile, my militantly Luddite son Ben is not too far behind, even though he disdains a smartphone, teases me for being a “screenager” and uses a manual Royal typewriter to keep off Google Docs. “Can I get an ‘um’?” he sometimes says, when I’m deep in an internet trance.
When you live fully online, you assimilate the offline world into the galactic internet, the latest proxy for the mind of God
He’s right, though. I can hardly hear a brook babble or a kid’s demand for lunch as I open tab after tab after tab. When I break the spell to rejoin the sensory world of bread and mustard, it’s often a rough transition. Offline, my family seems to want stuff so densely material that it verges on caricature. It’s everywhere: fungus that thrives on the countertop in the form of sourdough yeast; silty, shoe-wrecking mud from the banks of the creek; beer cans studded with bbs from a gun we found in the garage.
The pure abstraction and infinite possibilities of online existence still suit and excite me, and returning to material things and the obligations of creaturely existence can feel like a comedown. But it’s a necessary one. In these days of digital supersaturation, there’s a new, almost yogic poignancy in dropping back into the body. I become embodied again. The sounds that flood in are almost too sweet: my daughter’s made-up songs about the cat and the hardware store; my son’s dinging typewriter; a circular saw my boyfriend uses to, I don’t know, make things. And then everyone’s in for lunch, including the always hungry cat, chewing and slurping.
When you live fully online, you assimilate the offline world into the galactic internet, the latest proxy for the mind of God. Yes, I long ago threw my lot in with cyborg living – and you, more sane, may still consider the internet to be the enemy of real life with its birds and sandwiches. But measure your screen time against your waking hours (I’ll wait, smartphones keep a tally), and you’ll see that “majority” barely covers the waterfront. Since I play white noise on my phone while I sleep – pink noise, actually, it’s the latest thing, recommended by the meditation gurus – my screen hours now actually exceed my waking ones. If your screen-time count still amounts to a meagre two hours each day, don’t forget to include Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video and all that Excel and PowerPoint work you do that’s not on your phone.
I just this minute took my eyes off my laptop and found a text from Sarah, a friend, on my phone: “We just went outside for the parade and a neighbour passed us in no mask telling us that masks decrease our immunity to *other diseases* and that Anthony Fauci – the eminent American immunologist who is a target of anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists – “has a patent on the vaccine, which is why we will all be forced to take it.”
I’m happy to picture Sarah thumbing this elegantly furious message from her sofa near her window with its blue-green view of the Hudson river. “She said she’d just signed a petition on Facebook to make masks not mandatory.” Facepalm emoji. “Moral of story: never leave the house.”
“Never leave the house” is not an uncommon punchline in this group text. Since Donald Trump was inaugurated we have all toggled among the latest political shocks, photos of children and dozing pets, quips and sighs of malaise (that’s usually me). Being in the house means, as for almost everyone, being online, with breaks for undigitisable physical events like showers, snacks or heart-to-hearts.
The suggestion that the risks of offline life exceed the risks of life on the internet is nothing new. I realise the sourdough is better out there – but then there are the ideas. If not subjected to the merciless stress test of Twitter, which lays waste to bad takes almost as soon as they’re posted, ideas seem to me to get undisciplined, derivative, sloppy and even – when it comes to conspiracy theories which thrive online – dangerous.
Our not-so-distant forebears balked at the thought that civilised humans hadn’t abandoned their animal past, that they belong to nature every bit as much as other primates. No wonder it’s hard to imagine that something as human as the confounded internet is co-extensive with nature and not at war with it. Richard Rorty, a philosopher and my mentor at university, taught that what distinguishes the experience of some animals from that of others is that some, like humans, use language. Language always precedes us, Rorty believed, and we use it to invent the world, to “construct” it, he used to say (though that moved his students close to the practice of deconstruction, which some of us, good foes of continental hocus-pocus, resisted).
The idea that a symbolic order at once mathematical, emotive and bewildering – the sublime force called language – surfs the absolute mystery of nature, of things in themselves, brought to mind my old z-19. Those letters, bioluminescent as the glowing ferns by the creek here and embellishing the depthless night sky, are still the internet to me. Only this spring, when we retreated from disease and humans bearing disease, did we yield wholly to the ecstasy, agony and tedium of life on the internet. This place is both an extension of nature and a map of it.•