Before the Internet
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Before cellphones and the internet, we'd arrange a time for my mom to pick me up from the mall, and I'd be where I said I'd be at the time I said I'd be there. I probably just asked somebody for the time. Or she waited, probably not happy with me. Or I waited, wondering how I was going to get home. Or I'd call collect on the payphone and in the space where I was supposed to only say my name so the recipient knows who's calling, I'd instead say: "come pick me up from the mall!" and then quickly hang up so my dad wouldn't incur any charges. He hated being charged for collect calls or ambulance rides. In any case, we figured it out—I've never been left at the mall indefinitely. Before the internet, I started and finished things a hell of a lot more efficiently than I do now. And yet, before the internet, I wouldn't have been able to share this piece of writing with you.
Before smartphones, I didn't feel the need to check my email 17 times a day. I used my Nokia only to play Snake, text and call. I'd print out directions from Mapquest to take in the car with me. I think that was a pretty ideal time—we were able to enjoy the benefits of the internet without constantly being beckoned by it from the back pocket of our jeans.
I'm of the generation who's childhood/adolescence was split in half: before the internet and after. I was coming of age just as the internet was becoming the internet. As a kid I rode my bike and played tag and spent entire summers at our neighborhood pool, and I'm pretty sure that our family didn't have a computer until I was in high school. I went to the physical library and used the huge set of encyclopedias with green and khaki binding that my family owned to write my papers. I didn't use the internet that much for research (or anything, really) until I got to college. My university was one of the first to gain access to Facebook, back when you had to be a college student in order to set up an account.
I'm 31 now. I have my phone on me at all times. Sometimes, I'll say to myself right before taking my kids outside to play or take a walk: "I'll leave my phone at home for a bit, take a break for a little while." I tie shoelaces and grab the sweatshirts and get all the trash bags by the door. By the end of those few minutes, I've remembered "oh yea, I need to look up that recipe or email that person back or what if someone calls me?" I almost always end up bringing The Phone. Hardly anyone ever calls me. And that's not so much a ha ha self deprecating remark—it's just that there are so many other, less personal yet convenient ways to get in touch these days.
I've written and have been thinking a lot lately about what my 30's are going to look like, about what my existence looks like outside of motherhood. As I've thought and weighed options, I've also been asking myself: what did I do before the internet? What did I care about before I started caring so much about likes and traffic and creating a strong online presence and trying to go viral? For me, I read a lot and wrote bad poetry and played sports and watched A Baby Story on TLC after school on the days that I didn't have practice. One time I tried to write a book on my mom's typewriter. I don't even think I cared about belonging or being known on a larger scale, I already belonged to and was known by those I was immediately and physically surrounded by. And that was enough.
But then the internet did come. And with it Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. And I began viewing those platforms as a way to increase my visibility and garner a following so that I'd have an audience to show my work to. But then it started to become less and less about the work, and more and more about the best times of day to post. I was becoming more and more results oriented (and not even results directly relating to the work, but results relating to likes/shares/traffic), rather than focusing on the process and letting the work lead me to where I was supposed to go. And it left me feeling really gross and discouraged and frustrated, but most of all and worst of all—it left me feeling unmotivated and apathetic. This was not only because I wasn't getting the attention I craved, but also because it wasn't even about the work anymore. It was about stuff I truly didn't care or feel passionately about, but I felt compelled to care in order to not be left behind and to feel like I was still relevant.
It always has to be about the work. The process. The words. The stories. The people behind those stories.
I'm a writer; an unpublished, unpaid and un-famous one, but I write, so I suppose I'm a writer. It's just what I know how to do, what I keep coming back to. And so I write. I have become better at separating my work from my social channels. My social channels help my work to be seen, yes (and I do want my work to be read), but my social channels are not my work. My work is my work, and during working hours, whenever I can grab them—that should take the bulk of my time and thought and energy.
On Facebook, my brother linked to a New York Times article by Ross Douthat titled Resist the Internet, which I'd encourage everyone to read and was the catalyst for this essay. He refers to our phones as "the tyrant in your pocket" and argues the following: "Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not."
Like anything—sex or food for example—when used, consumed or exercised appropriately and within moderation, they can be good, fulfilling, beautiful and necessary things. But when we develop unhealthy obsessions with even good things, we become slaves to our compulsions. Our lack of focus and thoughtfulness is not the internet's fault, no more than it is the fault of a slice of cheesecake for a person fixated on food. It's up to us to enforce boundaries and limits on ourselves in order to save ourselves.
I realized today when my phone dinged! I impulsively and immediately stopped what I was doing and turned eagerly towards it, like a Pavlovian dog.
I don't want to be a Pavlovian dog.