Maybe dial-up wasn't so awful after all. True, dial-up is a drain in so many different ways, but at least it imposes discipline. Like the older lady eyeing up the dessert trolley, you gaze at song downloads and video on demand and flash plugins and think: Ooh, I can’t have that. Do you know, if I took a piece of that I’d be up all night. You go ahead, have some, you’re young, you’ll be able for it, I’ll just sit and watch… And after an interval of fascinated scrutiny, you return with a sigh to the twelve staple web-sites you can actually visit– your carrot and celery salads, your cocoa flavoured rice cakes, your ryevita with marmite and cottage cheese. My nightly session on the net used divide neatly into forty-five minutes of expansive frustration, followed by a pleasant quarter hour quietly re-visiting familiar comforts- a few nostalgic smiles at the Onion, a scurry around the blogs of my friends, a pat down in the flattering mirror of Sitemeter, a mail check, a valedictory google and goodnight.
But for the past month, since we’ve moved into our new flat, I’ve been sitting on 8 megs of wireless broadband. To someone brought up in Ireland, that sounds like a big deal, even though it’s BT’s standard package for this part of London (I’d imagine that being so close to the BBC helps matters somewhat). It comes into my house modestly enough, through a clean white box that sits quietly beneath the window. The box has a discreet, pinkie-sized aerial, and a grille on top, as if it were filtering all the goodness out of the aether, and zapping it directly over to my laptop. It reminds me, more than anything else, of the ioniser that a deeply hypochondriac kid used bring into our class in primary school. If I had my way, the net wouldn’t come in like this. If I had my way, the net would come in through a downed electric cable, lashing wildly at the furniture, sending showers of sparks cascading onto the wood floor, because this is 8 megs of broadband, buster, and it’s taking all of God’s creation and pumping it straight into my brain.
I’m not sure I can take all this power, though. All this torque, you know? I’m not sure that I can take it. I knew I was in trouble half-way through the first session. Sure, there was the initial thrill of revisiting familiar haunts and getting the star treatment, all the pages loading straight away, the waiters all snapping to attention now because you’re covered head to toe in bling– 8 megs of bling, baby, 8 megs of bling. Then there was the secondary delight of opening doors on the places I’d previously been refused entry: YouTube, Itunes, ZeFrank. To finish, I thought I might do a spot of freewheeling; a randomiser slalom across the blogosphere. But the bodycheck- the salutory episode of friction or slowness or boredom that makes you sigh and shut up shop and return gratefully to the meaty embrace of the world beyond your monitor– the bodycheck never happened. Instead, I just kept on drifting, mistaking ease for impetus. After an hour or two learning about the lives of proud suburban moms, I dimly intuited that I was bored out of my skull, but I was helpless to do anything about it. A new instinct was driving me forwards: aimless, endlessly expansive, utterly unstoppable. I looked around for an article or post or tune that would provide closure to my session, but I couldn’t get purchase. I was out here on the sargasso sea with the soccer moms and the rafts of floating weed and all the writhing eels, and my face moved above the face of the water, and there was morning, and there was evening: the first day.
The next day was going to be different, though. The next day, I would be disciplined. The next day I would confine my visits to those few sites where I was a regular. Of course, now that I had broadband, that list had expanded a little: from twelve sites to maybe thirty, thirty-five tops. And it was imperative that I went and viewed every one, because I knew that overnight, on the internet, a heavy snow had fallen, and there was a thick carpet of fresh information lying across those forty webpages, information that would shock and inspire and illuminate, and it was my duty as a reader to motor round all sixty sites and soak this information up. Eight hours later, eyes parched, tongue glazed, the snow all deep inside me now, packed tight into my head, I paused in my scrutiny of the top 100 German language blogs, and thought: maybe, just maybe, I have a problem here.
There are two problems really. The first may just be a generational thing- a tic common among those of us who grew up before the net, whose habits were formed before it came along. No matter how much time I spend online, I still treat the internet like a treasure map. I’m always trying to reach the core of it. Each morning, when I stand on the verge of my familiar territory about to click my first external link, I get a frisson of self-importance, as if I were Marco Polo abandoning Venice and turning his feet East. But the comparison doesn’t hold. The internet isn’t China. The internet is Belgium- a Belgium the size of Brazil. The internet is just one thing after another. There are no Himalayas; just thousands of local peaks. Germans, it seems, hardly ever read english language blogs, and yet you can map the top 100 German blogs
onto their US equivalents with little difficulty- there is a German Gizmondo, a German Huffington, a Deutsche Dooce. And the longer you spend on the net, the flatter and more homogenous it will seem. Five minutes looking at today’s most popular videos on YouTube will make you smile at the common values that bind us all together. Five hours perusing random homemade videos on YouTube will bring you to a different conclusion. This, you think grimly, will be the future of the internet: a ball, landing in a groin, for all eternity.
The second problem is a bit more personal. You think, when you first get broadband, that the scales have dropped from your eyes, that you’re seeing the net the way it should be viewed. But should it really be this accessible? From the outset, a large component of the internet experience was delay
. The value of a site or link depended partly on how long it took to load; your anticipation added to the reward. Equally, the slowness imposed limits; forced you to make choices, prioritise, cut your losses if a search wasn’t going anywhere. To some extent, you needed the difficulty, you needed the frustration. Broadband doesn’t make the frustration go away- it just transfers it to the other side of the equation. The ease of surfing means you’re suddenly confronted with your own limitations. You can’t monitor all the blogs that interest you, because that would be a full time job, and the pay is shit and the boss is a wanker who spends all his time on the fucking internet. You can’t comment on all the things that interest you, because, although you like writing, you write very, very slowly, and if you try and write two things at once your mind bubbles up like butter in a pan, and even if you overcame these obstacles, this would be another full timer with only marginally superior working conditions. And if you decide to put your own content out there, broadband is always on hand to show up how limited you are (try as you will, you’ll never write as wittily as Little Red Boat
, as engagingly as Dooce
, as cleverly as Malcolm Gladwell
, as much
as Andrew Sullivan
). So you lose all ambition very quickly, and end up drifting from sidebar to sidebar, from search page to search page– another lost soul on the internet, another hungry ghost.
So, from this week on, I’m setting limits. One hour on the net each day, enough to answer my mail and check in with my mates. Then it’s into Word and back to actual writing. Whenever my attention starts to wander, I’ll crack open a book or even go out for a walk. Because there’s one thing I’ve forgotten with all this internet malarkey. It’s London out there. London, baby. 8 Megs of London, waiting right outside my door.