Life Before The Internet Essays Online

Life Without The Internet

I am writing this essay at a pizza shop

When friends come to my apartment, they’ll often ask for the WiFi password. Most are baffled by my response:

“I’m really sorry — but I don’t have any WiFi.”

One of my earliest memories with my dad — I was probably five or six years-old — was him loading up on Netscape Navigator to show me stills from my favourite movies. I was electrified with amazement.

My dad was a tech-obsessed software engineer, so we were one of the first houses in the neighbourhood to have dial-up internet. Years later, we were one of the first to have high-speed broadband too. Trips to were eventually replaced with MSN conversations, visits to Habbo Hotel, and marathon sessions of video game mayhem on Xbox Live.

While these days, I probably wouldn’t fit the profile of a “tech nerd” (I don’t own many gizmos and, unlike my father, I can’t code), as a child, I was enthralled with the World Wide Web and its eminent vastness. I remember downloading my first MP3 on Kazaa, I remember the magic feeling of opening my first Hotmail account, I remember creating my first website and going on my first binge watches on I remember the social-life-shaking effects of getting my first Webcam, and of creating a Facebook account as a high school freshman.

Somewhere along the line though, I became disenchanted with my old pal, the internet. Today, we see less of each other than ever.

I am inside a pizza shop in Neukölln, a crusty neighbourhood in East Berlin. The proprietor has a nose like an onion bulb and is eyeing me suspiciously now that he knows I can’t speak German. I am asking—clumsily, futilely, Canadianly — for the WiFi password. For one of the first times since childhood, I am internet-barren: no phone with 3G access, no internet-connected apartment to go to.

My pepperoni-slicing compadre eventually figures out what I’m looking for, and hands over the password.

Like an addict in withdrawal (only hours deprived of internet, mind you) I’m reflexively refreshing all of the usual pages: Facebook, Twitter, Hacker News, Reddit, Medium, Gmail. I’m also madly trying to contact my Airbnb host who later, it turns out, isn’t even in the city.

It’s not that I’ve never been without internet before. It’s just never been so hard to find a connection. I got rid of WiFi five years ago when I moved into my first apartment. Browsing the internet required a trip to a coffee shop, the campus library, or an expensive 3G data session (my phone bills were always obscenely high.)

Not having WiFi in your apartment is a pseudo-deterrent, and cuts down on the most insidious forms of online dickying like video games and Netflix. You feel less connected. More apt to pick up a book. You feel alone and bored and alienated from the world and all of its tedious anger. You don’t feel compelled to constantly check your messages and your notifications and your likes and emails and pageviews.

But if you still have a phone there’s always this lingering temptation to turn on your data and see what the world’s been up to.

As if anything that happened in the last 15 minutes could even remotely matter.

Before the Internet, you would just sit in an armchair with a book open on your lap, staring into space or staring at a decorative broom on the wall—kind of shifting back and forth between those two modes of being.

Before the Internet, you might take it upon yourself to do a drawing. You’d quietly start sketching something in a notebook, not sure what it was, but you’d let inspiration guide you and then—woop!—turns out you’d drawn a squiggly alligator with a cockeyed approach.

Before the Internet, you’d have yawning summer afternoons when you’d flop down on one couch, then flop down on another, then decide to craft a fake F.B.I. card. You’d get some paper from your dad’s office, copy the F.B.I. logo and your signature, laminate it with Scotch tape, put it in your wallet, take it out of your wallet, look at it, then put it back in your wallet with a secretive smile.

It was a heady time!

You’d be in some kind of arts center, wearing roomy overalls, looking at a tray of precious gems, and you’d say, “That’s cat’s-eye,” and your friend would say, “Nope. That’s opal.” And you’d say, “That’s definitely cat’s-eye.” And there would be no way to look it up, no way to prove who was right, except if someone had a little booklet. “Anyone got a little booklet?” you’d ask, looking around. “Is there a booklet on this shit?”

Then you’d walk outside and squint at the sky, just you in your body, not tethered to any network, adrift by yourself in a world of strangers in the sunlight.

Before the Internet, you could move to a new state and no one at school would know anything about you. You’d have no online history. You could be anyone. You would lean against the lockers with a faraway expression on your face and let people assume whatever they wanted. Like that you were a girly girl but could also be a tomboy. Or that back in your home town you’d been friends with a bunch of crows. And everyone assumed that if they saw a crow it probably knew you, because you had some kind of understanding with crows owing to undefined telepathic abilities that made you look troubled now and then but also really important.

And if anyone wanted to track down an old friend of yours and write her an actual letter to find out if any of this was true, well, best of luck to them.

Before the Internet, you could laze around on a park bench in Chicago reading some Dean Koontz, and that would be a legit thing to do and no one would ever know you had done it unless you told them.

Before the Internet, if you were in need of some facts you might actually decide to consult an old person, like the one living in your finished basement. But then you’d find yourself watching “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which you agreed to do because the old person asked in such a fragile way that you couldn’t say no.

About ten minutes in, you’d say you needed some water, then wander up to the kitchen, where you’d get caught up staring at a refrigerator magnet. Then, for no reason, you’d do a little dance. You’d wonder if you should expand that dance right then and there. “Maybe I’ll direct music videos,” you’d say to yourself. But you’d have no way to follow up or to look it up; you’d just be standing in the deafening quiet of your kitchen at midday, alone with your thoughts.

“Should I test out these pens on this turquoise pad?” you’d ask yourself, staring at some pens by the phone.

Instead, you’d take a sip of your drink and say, “Aah,” like a person in a commercial. Then you’d go do that in front of a mirror, to see how it looked. Because that’s what it was like before the Internet. You made your own fun. ♦

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