Engagement

In 1989 I had my first experience with online bulletin board systems.  I was house-sitting for a couple I knew from my local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses and they were the owners of an IBM PC.  My friend Stacy Jackson showed me how to dial up to a BBS and partake in online discussions.  I found the experience to be moderately interesting but hardly compelling.  Yippee, I could talk to strangers.  Alert the media.

A few years later (1994) I was in the work force writing software at my first real job.  I was the only person in the company with a modem attached to his computer and before too long I had access to the Compuserve Information Service to look up information I might need in order to learn more about emerging trends in technology.  This was the first time I really interacted in real-time chat rooms and bulletin boards.  This time I was given enough time and opportunity to see first-hand the power of this new networked communication medium.  I could download source code (and, of course, very slowly downloaded nekkid pics), post questions I had about writing software, and interact with people from all over the world.  A few months later I was asked to connect to something called an “Internet service provider” and download the software necessary to get “attached to this new Internet thing everybody is talking about.”  I used a DOS-based communications app I had written to dial into a shell account, download Trumpet Winsock for Windows 3.1 and the Mosaic 0.98 web browser, and surfed the web for the very first time.  I’ve basically been hooked ever since.  My digital footprints go back a long way.

My first website, my adoption of the Java development language, my education in HTML and LiveScript (better known today as JavaScript), and all that followed after that first connection to the Internet shaped my life in more ways than I can quantify.  I got into Usenet and met and argued with all sorts of people about all sorts of things.  I surfed and surfed, watching the nascent Web transform from a few web pages into what it is today.  I remember the first time I saw an animated GIF, the first time I encountered an HTML form, the dreaded <BLINK> tag, the controversies about background images, and release of Netscape Navigator 1.0, the battle for client neutrality between the Open Standards brigade and Microsoft, the abandonment of both the DOS tools I started my career with, then the client-server paradigm that had supplanted it, and the ultimate demise of the online services as the Internet became more and more powerful and rendered them more and more irrelevant.  AOL diskettes, then CD-ROMs, the pre-Google world of search engines like AltaVista, I’ve been there making noise and having fun at every step of the way.

I am, in every way that counts, a product of the Internet as much as the generation that is following mine.  Oh, sure, I had a life before the Internet, but I can barely remember how it worked anymore.  I have an iPhone, a MacBook, and more domains than I know what to do with.  I was a dot-com bust.  I have had my music online for 16 years.  Hell, as far as I know, my band was the first one to have a full-length album available for immediate streaming online back in 1994.

I consider this all to have been a Very Good Thing.  I have a great career.  I didn’t miss a day of work through the entire financial crisis of the last few years.  And yet…  and yet…  Two years ago I decided to get out of it.  I had had enough.  I shut down my Facebook account.  Closed my blog.  Axed my Twitter feed.   Unsubbed from my RSS feeds and podcasts.  I essentially withdrew from the cyber-sphere.

I had begun to feel, thanks to various unpleasant personal situations in my life, that maybe all this “ambient intimacy” was having a negative overall effect on my life.  While the Internet was awesome as a way to amuse or educate myself, it was also a place where almost all interactions were a kind of pornography.  Instead of getting involved in politics, anybody with an opinion could “like” a couple Facebook groups, engage in some flame-wars, and get it out of their system without having to really risk anything or change anything.  Where real issues were concerned, the Internet allowed emotional itches to be scratched without any of the repercussions of real engagement.  It was not so bad, even kind of fun, when it was strangers interacting mostly with strangers but more and more it had become the norm for communication even between friends.  Friends could use tweets and status updates in lieu of phone calls or face to face interactions.  The convenience of asynchronous and unfiltered communication had won out over the sometimes messy and inconvenient realities of meeting with people, hugging them, smiling at them, hearing their voices.

I still loved the geekiness, but I wanted reality, not the Interwebs.  In reality there was less posing, less flippancy, more care, more thought.  The novelty had worn off for me.

Of course I continued to use the web as a resource.  I stayed on LinkedIn for professional connections.  I kept my music on the sites it lived on in case anybody wanted it.  But I was more interested in building a boat, hiking a trail, or planting a garden than I was in hearing yet another argument or clever quip.

This still holds true.  And yet I have decided to re-engage, and I’m trying to articulate to myself precisely why this is so.  I can honestly say I haven’t missed the online community.  I have spent more time with people in the real world and that has certainly been more satisfying.  I have more time.  I have learned things I never thought I even wanted to know.  But this world, the blogosphere, the world of ideas and arguments, does offer something.  It does have it’s charms.  It does have it’s role.  It is as important in the history of human development as any other form of communication that has preceded it.  I feel like I can’t be a complete person living in the time I live in without at least finding a way to participate fully in the culture in which I live.  So, here I am again.  I don’t intend to write about religion or politics.  I don’t intend to let ambient intimacy short-circuit real affection and engagement.  I do, however, intend to listen to and hopefully engage with, people I would not encounter in my day to day life.  I intend to use this tool to learn more about the people I know in the real-world, their passions and interests, and hopefully leverage that awareness into richer relationships.  I haven’t given up hope on the Internet and the virtual community it creates as a tool for a deeper, more informed, and more active life.

I ask then, whoever you are reading this, if you can empathize with my feelings about the Internet.  Have you ever wanted to disengage?  Have you?  What changes do you think it would have in your life if you did?