Question: Do you remember the first time you used the internet?
It’s been said that our generation is the first to be fully immersed in the Information Age. Indisputably, we depend on technology far more than our distant predecessors, but even our immediate antecedents weren’t as tech-savvy as we are.
p. Compare, say, students circa 2000 to students circa 2007, and you’ll find that we’re markedly more reliant on electronic devices of all sizes and functions. Likewise, I’m sure the Class of 2018 will be “connected” in ways that will make us feel ancient and out of touch.
p. What’s remarkable is that we haven’t just grown up with the internet; the internet has grown up with us. When I was in fifth grade, the internet — at least as a tool for mass communication — was in its nonage. Now that I’ve matured (relatively), it has too (also relatively).
p. I’ve been struggling for the past few weeks to recall my first exposure, and despite my best efforts, I’ve come up empty-handed. Presumably it was sometime between 1995 and 1997. There must have been a discrete moment when some adult took me aside and said, “Dan: This is the world wide web. Take a look. We think it’s going to be pretty big.”
p. As a result of being introduced so early in our lives, we seldom think about the basic act of navigating through virtual space. We take the internet’s structure — a series of pages, traversable via hypertext links — for granted. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, though, cyberculture theorists were abuzz with ideas as to how the internet might come to look and feel. Perhaps it would resemble reality; maybe it would be entirely text-based; corporations could dominate it.
p. The history of the medium is fascinating, but it’s too complex to pursue without seriously violating my word limit. (In true Information Age style, I recommend that you read the Wikipedia entry “Information Age.”)
p. During the past 15 years, roughly, the terminology and taxonomy has become daunting in and of itself. Capitalizing “internet” is passé; references to the “world wide web” are similarly antiquated, despite the fact that “www” is still a prefix for most major URLs; and if you so much as think the phrase “information superhighway,” you might as well move into a cave and start using your cell phone and laptop as a makeshift mortar and pestle.
p. Despite the unprecedented growth of the web and our inability to function without it, few are able to remember how they got started. A friend of mine recalls feeling uneasy when an older relative designed a personal website for her. It had a pink background with a few other images, and it played a poor MIDI imitation of a hit song. The relative told her that everybody using the internet could view it whenever they liked. He thought this was the paragon of cool; my friend found it frightening.
p. Frightening, indeed: I perceived the nascent internet as a deviant, anarchic place. (But is it a “place,” really? What does it mean to imagine it as such?)
p. Like many of my peers, I would go into chat rooms and pretend to be 18 or 19 — given the prominence of shorthand, it was easy to act older. But the warnings, even then, were myriad. Don’t open any suspicious e-mails. Don’t go to any unrecognizable websites. Don’t speak to strangers or, if you do, don’t tell them who you really are. Even in its comparative infancy, the virtual realm held threats that correlated with reality. The virus and the pervert, two of America’s biggest fears, were alive and well in cyberspace. No one’s identity could be verified, and the precepts of simulated selfhood became continually more amorphous. There was an underlying dread that the internet existed solely to deceive us.
p. Maybe that’s why so few of us remember our inaugural experience: The thrill is gone. Like cars and airplanes, the internet feels safer now, and its increasing popularity will only make it more so.
p. It would be prudent, I think, to be skeptical of its grasp on us. Discerning whether we’re captivated or enslaved by it might soon become impossible. After all, most of us are no longer posing as someone when we go online — another term whose expiration date is fast approaching. At present, we endeavor to be “ourselves” in the parallel universes of Facebook and AIM, and we’re seldom (if ever) disconnected. I’m wary of any system that conflates the public and private spheres.
p. One request: If you can recollect your introduction to the web, please e-mail me at email@example.com. I’m interested in reading your stories. Our generation’s relationship with technology is unprecedented in scope and complexity. The more aware of this we become, the more we stand to use it judiciously.
p. __Dan Piepenbring is a Confusion Corner columnist. He may not remember his first time, but Facebook notifications remind him of everyone else’s latest moves.__