For someone who, like so many people, is obsessed with and totally dependent on the internet, I have been strangely resistant to it at various points. The first I ever heard of the internet, though I’m not even sure it was called the internet yet, was at my friend Mike’s house in 1992. He and his housemate Laughlin used to log into “Bulletin Boards” on their 386s, much to my annoyance, as the occasional seventeen-hour download prohibited playing linked death-matches of Doom II – a favourite pastime whilst smoking bongs and eating Lebanese takeaway. The only thing that got my interest back then was the mention of the word “porn”, which at the age of nineteen still afforded rare titillation.
During the following years I came increasingly to hear talk of the “internet”, yet it remained something seemingly obscure and unnecessary. What, really, was the point of it? If I wanted to contact someone, why not just pick up the phone? What information could it provide that I couldn’t get in the university library? I still shudder to think of my reaction to seeing, c. 1997, a web address listed beneath a film title in a cinematic trailer. All I could think was – Why the hell would anyone want to go to the web-page of a film? It all seemed rather pointless.
By the end of 1997, however, my stance on the internet had softened considerably. I don’t know exactly what brought about the change, but one day, sitting with my friend Stephen in the Psychology department at the University of Sydney, I asked him if I could send an e-mail my friend Gus. I had become curious enough and self-aware enough to realise that actually my resistance was a kind of knee-jerk jealousy born of my technologically backward state – I was still writing on my dad’s massive old 128k Hitachi HiSoft word processor, which dated from 1982. It’s fair to say, considering how primitive that word processor was, that I actually lacked a computer.
My excitement at Gus’ receipt of my e-mail seems ludicrous in retrospect, but within months I had set up a hotmail account – the very same one I still have – and my interest in the internet was born. I still resisted getting it at home, but regularly began to use the net on the university computers, almost exclusively for e-mail. This use of e-mail became obsessive when my then girlfriend moved to Cambridge at the end of 1998. By early the following year, we had broken up and I started seeing someone else who, heaven forbid, actually had the internet at home. I still recall the garishly colourful pages of the many Geocities sites she used to visit – back in a time when ICQ was all the rage.
It was only in September 1998, when I myself moved to Cambridge to study, that I finally got an internet connection in my room for the first time. The whole of Cambridge was already wired up with broadband and I was fortunate in having a very fast cable connection to my house. The internet of those days still retained much of the clunkyness of its infancy, with less slick and dynamic web-pages, and it lacked many of its now dominant staples such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, yet it had at least evolved into the great communication, ticket-booking, holiday-planning, information gathering tool that it remains today. It wasn’t long before I was utterly dependent on the internet and it became impossible to imagine living without it.
When I returned to Australia in 2003 I was shocked to discover that most people were on dial-up. I struggled for a while with my parents’ connection, but when I moved to a flat in Glebe – just a few doors down the road from where I now live – I eschewed getting the net. This was partly because most plans were both slow and expensive, but really it was because I was doing a Masters in Creative Writing and writing a lot and I was afraid that it would prove a major distraction. It was the right decision, and I don’t doubt that my huge output at that time, both in writing and photography, were in part due to not having my computer time interrupted by constantly checking the web. I had access all day at work and so could get most information I needed during those hours. Still, it was frustrating not having it at home, and I often regretted it.
What frustrated me most was the inability to have any question answered immediately when writing. If, for example, I wanted to set a scene in Kinshasa, as I was doing at the time for the novel I was then writing, I couldn’t simply Google images of the city, nor articles or blogs from which to get further insights. I could do this at work, but it was annoying having to wait to have a query answered and to get information as soon as the question entered my head. Again, however, there were advantages for productivity, as I was able to write for hours without distraction.
When I moved back to England in 2006, it became immediately apparent that living without the internet in a foreign country was simply untenable. Apart from wanting to stay in touch with people, the new novel I was writing seemed continually to throw up queries that wanted quick answers. Since reconnecting shortly after settling down again in Cambridge, I have never looked back and lived without the internet. This has, of course, been the mixed blessing I imagined it might be. The access to news, information and social media is of course, wonderful, but the amount of time consumed by surfing and the scale of distraction it can cause is breathtaking. When Facebook got my attention in early 2007, I was, for a while there, gone for all money.
I have since come to the rather spurious conclusion that I can’t in fact write without the internet, because I constantly like to check facts, details, definitions and the like. I know, however, that this is not quite true, and sometimes I still switch off the router when I need to have a very intense focus and work on something without interruption. It is worth mentioning that in 1997 and 1998 I read, on average, 120 novels a year. Now I average around ten. Shameful.
So all this brings me to the subject of smart phones. From the moment they appeared on the scene, I wanted one. I was terribly jealous of those people I saw sporting them and my friends who rushed out and got them, because of their ability to have their queries answered almost instantly. This capacity to Google anything at any time, reception permitting, was too exciting to dismiss – yet I dismissed it for some time.
I’m still not entirely sure why, though it was a combination of factors. There was my concern, having been a heavy MMO addict for some time, that a smartphone would just be another obsession. I spent enough time on the internet already – did I really need to be surfing whilst on the bus or train? And those journey times were, after all, my last bastion of dedicated reading time. I feared that if I had a fast internet browser in my pocket, I’d never read a book ever again.
Another reason was cost. I inflated this in my head as a barrier to acquisition, despite the fact that it would have only cost me five more dollars a week than what I was paying already on my pay-as-you-go dumb phone. It wasn’t so much the cost that I found prohibitive, but rather the idea of committing to a two-year plan and not being sure about where to start or what to commit to. If I was going to upgrade, after all, then I should want to do it properly, and yet I found the entire world of smart-phones to be dauntingly diverse. Where should I begin?
This leads quite naturally to the next issue I had – the fear of being a noob again. Nobody likes being a noob, let’s face it, although a truly exciting new pastime does allow for once-in-a-lifetime enthusiasm that cannot be sustained or recovered. I hated the thought of having a new phone and not knowing how to use it, almost more than I hated the idea of not having one and feeling materially and technologically backward and isolated.
This peculiar blend of not especially serious objections somehow teamed up to keep from getting a smart-phone for several years after their appearance on the market. Even when they had become utterly commonplace and were far cheaper and better than in their first flush – even then I resisted and opted out. And then, about a month ago, having witnessed for so long the convenience and utility of having access at all times amongst friends, I decided I couldn’t wait a moment longer and started looking.
It was worth the wait. After a few days spent researching the phones on the market, I had narrowed things down to a choice between the HTC Sensation, the iPhone 4S and a couple of Samsung Galaxy variants. During a lunchbreak at work one afternoon I began to ask around the various shops in town to see which networks had the best deals, when I discovered that the Samsung Galaxy S3 had been released that very day. There were a slew of good deals flogging this phone, with bonus data, plenty of credit and no upfront costs for the phone itself. I ran back to work to use the internet – an irony that wasn’t lost on me – and read as many reviews as were available of this new phone. I was astonished to discover just how well received it had been and, without further ado, signed up after work for a two-year contract.
Sure enough, I love my new phone. It is a beautiful piece of machinery, with a smooth, slim design and gorgeous screen. The quad-core 1.5 gig processor is almost laughable overkill – it’s so good it’s broken, and on wifi it absolutely rips. There’s little need to wax lyrical about the convenience and pleasure of having internet access at all times, suffice to say that it has already proven extremely useful. Sure enough, as predicted, I felt like a complete noob for several days, holding the thing very delicately and clumsily getting used to its features and inputs. I must shamefully admit that I have occasionally allowed my noobish enthusiasm to show in the company of others, but feel reassured that I haven’t become completely obsessed with my phone. I feared becoming hooked on using social apps such as Foursquare, that I’d be tweeting all the time and updating Facebook like I’ve not done since 2007, yet since getting it I’ve had little enthusiasm for such things. In fact, my use of the phone has been most satisfying for being informative – I’ve primarily been using it to read the Guardian and Al Jazeera on the way to work – which has, of course, cut into my reading time. And yet, I’m reading, aren’t I? Can I really complain?
And so, finally, the internet is in my pocket. It is a great leap forward, if a significantly delayed one. I cannot now imagine ever being cut off from the internet again, even during a bus-ride. Yes, I do need to know the name of that film I can’t remember – now, not later. Yes, I do need to have Google maps to guide me whenever I get lost. Why put up with a lack of information in a world where we can outsource both our memories and information gathering at a negligible cost?
The kids I teach after school, all aged between fourteen and sixteen, have never lived without the internet. They are often so immersed in it that they seem to have little contextual historical understanding of just how recent a phenomenon it is. A part of me shudders when they say – “But what did you do without the internet?” and it feels like an even bigger question that what did people do without the gramophone, cinema, radio, or television. I’m left wondering – “Holy shit. What on earth did we do?”
So much of my youth was spent agonising over not knowing the answers to things, wishing I could watch a video again, longing to learn about the world at large, wanting to hear a song or just know the name of something. The first port of call for general information was my father and mother, then the encyclopaedia. It was frustrating, especially as there was little control over the sources of information, without access to a world-class university library and hours of time at my disposal, and even that could not help with contemporary pop cultural information.
When I was eighteen, we used to talk about how great it would be if there was a place where we could get the answers to all our questions. My then girlfriend told us there were some guys on the radio you could phone called The know-it-alls.
“You just have to ring up and ask,” she said. “They can answer any question.”
“Dunno. They just know a lot of stuff. Maybe they use encyclopaedias.”
If they even existed, and you got through, during their obscure radio timeslot, you might just have had your query answered. Mmmm, well, thank fuck for the internet, which will not be leaving my pocket any time soon.