Such videos often begin the same way, with a middle-aged man voicing all of the hypothetical questions you must be having: The computer was like a portal that you approached when you wanted to travel somewhere.
Scattered throughout these videos is the occasional surfing montage, in which the director tries to make visiting a series of web pages appear as dynamic and exciting as actual travel. This is not as easy task, given a flat screen and a stationary surfer. Your calendar is actually a calendar in Microsoft Bob Much as the internet was imagined as a superhighway, marketers of internet how-to books and videos portrayed its individual capacities as extensions of things we already knew: This reminds me of the environment of Microsoft Bob, a short-lived Microsoft software product that imagined the computer desktop as a house with rooms containing calendars, checkbooks, a Rolodex, and a desk with pen and paper.
Instead I sit here with a coffee and a bagel, getting work done. To me anyway, such descriptions immediately bring to mind films of yore where the viewer learns how to use a telephone: In fact, the most recent examples I could think of were the PSAs during the digital television transition of Various local channels patiently explained to owners of older TVs that they might need to buy a set-top digital converter, otherwise their TVs would not receive a signal after September 8.
These how-tos often have corporate product placement, or their makers are hoping for some, usually listing an email address for business inquiries. Whatever trappings of informality that remain are carefully contrived, more symbolic than anything else.
We could call this the sponsored how-to. Why do these how-tos make me so sad? These videos make me sad because they are so heavily mediated, and what got people excited about the internet originally was how it allowed relatively unmediated access to regular people.
In his talk at Internet! Someone else was typing. We got excited about talking to other people, especially people far away; now Target is talking to us, via a year-old girl in her living room. Of course all communication is mediated.
There was no context, and the screen offered no explanation. In the video documentation of Hole in Space, an interviewer finds an onlooker, an older man, standing in disbelief in front of the screen. They look like young people in a show. Remembering this installation now, it suggests that what is magical in telecommunications is not the machinery itself, but the voice that is heard, or the face that appears on the other side. He wrote a great piece on it for Real Future that you can read here , or you can listen to this Note to Self podcast.
They may have been accidentally uploaded or forgotten, and they have no obvious narrative structure, ending as abruptly as they began. We find ourselves on a sidewalk in Eastern Europe, with a saucy old woman beckoning the cameraman to slap her butt.
This video contains a sandwich, some frogs, and bad Spanish pronunciation Holes in space, no. But these might be pinpricks. Otherwise, there was very little information: But I remember it vividly because it had a completely different quality than photos I saw on Instagram or Facebook.
This photo seemed somehow more real than I was used to. Now all I have left are a few of the images my students got when I made them use it back in After the purse, I got a photo of a computer screen on which someone was carefully drawing an anime pony. I saw the top of a pint of ice cream in Ireland. There were almost no selfies, just incidental scenes captured in moments of boredom.
The photos were their own tiny holes in space, the circular shape of the photos rendering them like portholes into an alien everyday. My last example of randomness online is from Second Life, which has emptied out since its heyday in the mids.
But one day, in one of the few crowded places I was able to find, I discovered a glowing blue skeleton named Bo Luk Lak. He stood out among the mostly naked avatars wearing thongs and grotesque anatomical enhancements. Our conversation was halting, because the skeleton was putting everything I said and all of his responses through a translator.
Bo Luk Lak was in Russia. Although it was late at night and I was tired, I delayed logging off because the connection felt as fragile as the long lost worlds he was attempting to describe. Again, there was nothing technically miraculous about using the internet to communicate with someone in Russia, but because I spotted this skeleton in the midst of a virtual crowd — because we encountered each other by chance and now someone was really typing at a computer somewhere in Russia — I felt unable to sever the connection.
In fact, the highway always seems to loop back around to your own neighborhood. Originally, I ended this piece with a story about a train trip that Joe and I went on — the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Oakland to Los Angeles — where we visited the dining car and were randomly seated across from a military vet and his teenage grandson, both from Oklahoma.
It was difficult to have a conversation with them; there were many topics we had to tiptoe around, and just as much as we assumed about them being conservative and quite probably Trump supporters , they seemed to assume about us being some hipster couple that had of course gotten on at the Oakland station. But we made it through OK. The story was supposed to be an illustration of the importance and difficulty of talking to strangers.
I was arguing for more dining cars on the internet. While profanely Instagramming, I realized they were saying grace. In a real and physical sense, we had to acknowledge each other. Online, in the comments section of some article, it may have turned out very different. In light of this, what I was originally suggesting — more randomness, more holes in space, more chance conversations with strangers — began to feel not necessarily wrong but naive or incomplete.
It makes a lot of assumptions about the types of connections you can make, and the shared reality those connections would necessarily be based in. Just after the election, the first reactions my students described to me were of horror: Perversely, the hyper-acceleration of a certain kind of connection has led to the deepest disconnection possible; social media in particular has created a haphazard, uneven topography across which lateral connections have become ever more difficult.
There are facts, and then there are beliefs. One of those is having a heyday right now, and the internet is helping. So, instead of ending with the train story, I will end with a different example of connection. Obviously somebody who has only lived, like most of my family has lived, in one town in Pennsylvania for most of their lives — so their sort of reality is constructed very differently.
But it is more objective than I have seen and done more. I have read more. I have been exposed to more. I have been exposed to different ideas, belief systems than other people. I have more data and background in my mind that allows me to reach conclusions that are more accurate. At the end of the day, people use the internet to find what they want. A queer teenager feeling isolated in the Midwest can use it to find solace and community.
I still want to see the purse from Korea and the glowing skeleton from Russia. Perhaps we could find or create new kinds of avenues for organizing, or platforms for debate for those who are level-headed enough to do so.
The role of the internet, and of reimagining how we use the internet to talk, is as crucial as ever. All I can say now is that doing it right will require a great deal of imagination, caution, and fortitude. This is a version of a talk I gave at Internet!