Being a good writer is 3% inspiration and 97% being able to stay off the internet.
– Something I read, um, on the internet
I guess that makes me not a very good writer. Okay, okay, don’t all agree at once. But what’s puzzling me is how I managed to procrastinate and waste time before the internet was invented.
The first time I heard I heard the word “internet” must have been around 1986 or 1987, at the Shred of Dignity warehouse in San Francisco. Tom Jennings, Gilman volunteer, founder of Homocore zine, and all-around technological genius, was trying to explain it to me.
As near as I could understand, it involved hooking a lot of computers up so they could talk to each other. It made no sense to me: even if computers could talk, which as far as I knew, they couldn’t, what could they possibly have to say to each other?
I’d just bought my first computer, a Macintosh 512k. For those even less computer-savvy than me, that means it had approximately one tenth of one per cent of the computing power of an average laptop today. It was a big clunky thing that weighed 20 or 30 pounds and took about half an hour to change a comma into a period, but it was one of the marvels of the age.
I used it to produce issues of Lookout magazine, which, prior to 1986, I’d done by writing the stories by hand, then typing them, correcting mistakes either with white-out or starting the whole page over, then shrinking the text on a xerox machine, cutting it up into pieces and pasting it onto sheets to create the final layout.
A computer, once I began to figure it out, could do all of that in the same operation, which meant I was going to save enormous amounts of time. Curious, then, that while I used to get an issue of Lookout out every month, once I switched to the computer, it started taking me six months, then nine months, eventually a year or more between issues.
True, the computerized issues were bigger, had more graphics, were flashier and more widely read, but probably not enough so to explain why it took me five, ten, even twenty times as long to produce them, especially now that I had all that modern technology at my fingertips.
And that, I stress, was long before the internet came along to distract me. Yet my memories of the late 80s and early 90s involve enormously long hours of sitting at the computer doing, erm, something or other. What could it possibly have been? Even computer solitaire hadn’t been invented yet.
I do recall whiling away a great deal of time changing text from plain to italics to bold and back again, or seeing how my as yet unfinished article looked in every font available, including Zapf Dingbats. And the early Macintosh had some rudimentary puzzle or game that was slightly more complicated than tic-tac-toe. That was usually enough to keep this monkey fascinated into the wee hours.
Now that I think of it, it’s a wonder that I got anything done, but somehow during those years I managed not only to publish 20 issues of Lookout, but also acquire a university degree, start a record company, and release some 75 records. Not to mention going to about a thousand punk rock shows, taking three trips overseas, and, oh, almost forgot, playing around 100 shows and recording two albums and two EPs with my band.
And the main thing I remember is wasting time on the computer? The human memory is a very selective thing. But it’s true that I wasted an awful lot of time on the computer back then. Probably nowhere near as much as I do nowadays, but still enough that I can’t help wondering what I might have accomplished if the electronic idiot box hadn’t constantly sucked me into its orbit.
Ever since the internet it’s been much easier to justify spending half my life staring at a screen. It’s “educational,” I swear, and if you give me a minute, I’ll provide you with an example of the vitally important things I’ve learned while randomly surfing around. Here, I’ll just type it into Google: “Useful things I have learned on the internet.” Um, it says, “Your search did not match any documents.” Yes, well, Google doesn’t know everything, does it?
Here’s something: on the rare occasion when I’m writing some sort of fact-based article, I might suddenly need to know the date Napoleon was crowned emperor or what year the first Bad Religion record came out (nah, I already knew that). It used to be that I’d have to drag myself down to the library (assuming it wasn’t the middle of the night, which is when I did much of my writing), plow through the Dewey Decimal System and who knows how many books, and maybe, just maybe I’d find the answer.
On the internet, however, I need only type a few words, press a button, and I’m presented with thousands of answers. There are only two drawbacks: first, the thousands of answers will probably all contradict each other; and second, before I get round to actually looking at them, I’ll end up checking my e-mail, reading my hometown newspaper, seeing what some bonehead said about me on some bonehead message board, compose some irate reply to said bonehead message that will get accidentally erased while I’m checking my e-mail again, and then, realizing it’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m totally exhausted, fall into bed having totally forgotten why I was on the computer in the first place.
I know I’m not the only one who uses – or misuses – the computer like this. Apparently they now have 12-step groups for it, Internet Addicts Anonymous or something like that? Yes, I can confirm that I just typed that one into Google and got over 50,000 hits. Better yet, you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your computer to join: many of them offer online discussion groups.
Oh my, I’ve got iTunes set to play songs at random and it just came up with “Artificial Life” by Operation Ivy. The refrain keeps echoing in my head, but I can’t remember what comes next. I haven’t got the CD with me, so I’ll look up the lyrics on, where else, the internet:
American culture, Disneyland freak show
Screen in your living room
A window for your tomb
I remember the “American culture, Disneyland freak show” bit, but not the “window for your tomb” part. In fact, I don’t remember most of the lyrics to the song; it’s like I’m reading them for the first time, and I put that record out. Is this finally a case of learning something useful on the internet, or am I merely getting a reminder of how easy it is to drift away from real life into an electronic simulacrum?
Some people argue in favor of the internet because it enables you to communicate with millions of people all over the world. Others argue against it because it can keep you holed up in your room, not even communicating with the people you live with. Both are true, of course, but arguing against the internet is pretty much a lost cause, wouldn’t you think?
I remember people having similar arguments about television in the 1950s, my father especially, when he was trying to justify our being the last family on the block to get a TV. “It’s only for people who haven’t got the brains to entertain themselves,” he’d claim. “You’ll get a lot more out of reading books.”
He may have been right, but we finally got a TV anyway, and now most people under 50 could barely imagine a world without television. Someday it’ll be like that with the internet, too. It probably already is for people of college age or younger. And yet books keep getting written and read, people still find reasons to go out in public to socialize instead of sending e-mails and instant messages, and the much-vaunted “information overload” hasn’t yet caused the human race’s collective nervous system to melt down.
But for me personally, it’s a problem. Writing is the most important work I’m doing these days. And while it’s possible to use a computer for writing without constantly being on the internet, it’s not easy. At least not for me.
It’s a bit – no, a lot – like drugs or alcohol. I used to go out intending to have just a couple hits of dope or a couple lines of cocaine or a couple swigs of whiskey, and the next thing I knew it’d be a few years later and my life would be even a bigger mess than it was the last time I looked at it.
But I don’t need drugs or alcohol to function. I can cut them out of my life entirely if they’re a problem, and that’s what I ultimately did. The internet, well, it’s not absolutely essential, but it’s a huge aid to the kind of work I do and want to continue doing.
Just getting this column to you, for example… If it weren’t for the internet, I would have had to have if finished a week or two ago, would have had to type or hand write it and put it in a letter to send to the States, where somebody else would have had to typeset it, probably adding a few more mistakes to my own. Even though newspapers and magazines managed to operate that way for a couple centuries, it seems so ponderous and complicated now.
Instead I can get a last-minute e-mail from the editor shamefacedly admitting that he’s forgotten again to remind us that the columns are due and payable immediately (his header: “I’m going to hell this time”), and we geniuses could sit down at our terminals, come up with brilliant concepts for columns, write and proofread them, and e-mail them back to the editor in a matter of hours.
In theory, anyway. In reality, you’ll be reading this sometime this winter, by which time you’ll probably be finished moaning or gloating about the results of the election, while I’m writing it a week before said election, without a clue as to who or what will win. By the time you read this, President Kerry might be sending 100,000 more troops to Iraq or President Bush might have been found to be a space alien. But I have no way of knowing this, so in case you’re wondering why I’m babbling on about computers and the internet when the fate of western civilization might appear to hang in the balance, that’s why.
Instead I present you with this piece of relative fluff, a meditation, however shallow, on “these modern times,” and a demonstration that the internet is more than a vast, swirling cesspool of trivia and misinformation. Despite its pitfalls and perils, despite its ability to suck endless amounts of creative energy out of billions of people and turn it into the cyberspace equivalent of hot air, it does have its uses.
Well, it gave me something to write about, didn’t it?