Picture me eating a cookie for breakfast. You know it’s the holiday season when you do ridiculous things like eat a cookie for breakfast. And with impunity. Like, I really must eat this. There are all these cookies around. Just piling up. The world may never understand, but that is my burden. It is my duty. I will do my part. But later, after you’ve spiked your blood sugar first thing in the morning and your body is like oh we’re a sugar body now GIVE ME MOAR!!! for the rest of the day until you crash land bitterly, you realize that your cookie decommissioning campaign should really be a non-proliferation act. Next year, fewer cookies. Or, maybe just not first thing in the morning. You’ve got all day. Take it slow.
My first time on the internet was in the fall of 1988. I was eight years old. I’d just moved to a new house, in a new town, in a new state. We’d arrived late at night, the house shrouded in darkness, and went straight to bed. The next morning, I woke up not clear about where I was, exactly. From my bed, I looked around my new room and imagined the space around it — the house, the street, the town — as a black void that would slowly fill as I explored it, each step throwing a bit more light ahead. Civ players will get the picture. Later that first day, having shed light on every corner of the house, I stood on the front porch and watched a skinny kid with glasses and blond hair whiz up and down the block, stand-riding a girl’s bicycle with a banana seat. I thought he looked a bit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story. Or, actually, much more like how I’d always imagined Johnny Dixon would look in real life. A day or two after that, I learned his name was Robbie Purple. He lived up the street on the corner. He was my first friend.
A few weeks later, Robbie and I sat in front of a humming, beige Hewlet Packard. Robbie stuffed a yellow-stickered floppy disc in one of the computer’s drives. It buzzed and purred and then a blue and yellow screen appeared. Robbie entered his ID — p u r p l e — and hit [RETURN]. Then his password — p u r p l e — and hit [RETURN] again.
He looked at me and said, “This is the fun part.”
From a smaller box next to the computer came a dial tone. Then, a speed-dialed number. Bee-bo-boo bee-bee-ba-ba. Then, wurrrrrrr … SCRREEEEEEEE! bee brrrrr aweeeeeee eeeeeeee eeeeeeeeee crrrrrrrrrrr eeeee NNN eeeee NNN csshhhhhhhhh…
Welcome to Prodigy. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was another doorway to an unexplored space, as vast as we imagined it to be.
“What do you want to do?” Robbie asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “What can we do?”
“Maybe we can find something about the Beach Boys!” Robbie said. So earnest. In that, “let’s go see what Santa left under the tree” kind of way. 1988 was the year the Beach Boys released their hit single, Kokomo. It was on the radio a lot. We both agreed the song was great. Robbie began clicking buttons. Newsgroups. Bulletin boards. For almost an hour, we peered at screen after screen, searching for anything that might lead us to those steel drums. No such luck. We had no idea that music over the internet wasn’t a thing yet. We gave up. Robbie’s mom wanted the phone line back, anyway.
Every day the following week, I came home from school, turned on my little radio with a cassette deck and waited for Kokomo to come on. It was inevitable. And every time, I’d hit [REC] on the deck as fast as I could. After a few days, I got it. Right on that first downbeat. Before the Aaaahhhruba… Jamaica…. Nailed it. Three-and-a-half minutes later, I grabbed the tape, ran up to Robbie’s house, and rang the doorbell. Mrs. Purple answered and called up the stairs, “Rooooobbbbiieee! Chris is here!” Robbie tumbled down the stairs.
“Hi! Wanna come upstairs and read Garfield books?”
“Yes!” I said.
As the door of his room shut, I said, “But first, do you want to hear Kokomo?” Robbie looked at me with wonder. What magic was about to be unleashed in this room?
“Oh, yes. PLEASE!”
I put the tape in his little boombox and hit [PLAY]. And then again. And again.
We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow. “That sounds pretty great,” I thought. Still does.
In the first in a series of episodes of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything podcast — a series he calls “The Dislike Club” for its emphasis on questioning the value of the “social” web that has completely taken over our lives — Paul Ford talks a bit about the beginnings of the web, and why it gave rise to the very thing Walker dislikes. He frames his comments within the story of a somewhat accidental discovery. After a quick Twitter volley with a friend about the tilde — the text character that used to precede online handles in the early days, a la “~Purple” — Ford tweeted, “Yes, I have registered http://tilde.club and will give anyone a shell account who wants one.” He finished the glass of bourbon he credits for lubricating this plan in the first place, and went to bed. But the next morning, he woke up to hundreds of requests and more enthusiasm than he ever expected. He’d drunk-tweeted the start of a cultural happening — the birth of a determinedly retrograde digital village. Today, Tilde Club includes over 600 sites and a waiting list of thousands and thousands more.
“This whole thing started as a really retro joke,” Ford said. “But as more and more people showed up, I realized that there might be a point to this more than nostalgia. I think what happened was that the nostalgia got everyone back to their younger selves, and their more vulnerable selves.”
Tilde Club, after all, isn’t anything sophisticated. There’s no liking, or commenting, or sharing, or reblogging. No APIs. None of the temporal hyperconnection of the contemporary web. Just a cluster of old-fashioned web pages. Just people doing a little show-and-tell, without the immediate feedback that almost always turns the sincere into something else. Something striving, or cynical, or worse. This little village is running a historical simulation — of what it was like when we took it slow. Before we learned that when you get there fast, you tend to take it faster. Ford says, “We went in with the best of intentions… We just want to talk openly without getting yelled at.” And who wouldn’t? The internet today is a constant channel of regret. One story after another of people hurting each other, in part because the speed of things makes it so damned easy to do so. To lash out, instead of holding back. Now, not later. To shout rather than listen. To jump into the fray and add to the noise. To pile on. Safe in our little pockets of seclusion, we can effortlessly push an endless supply of whatever — vitriol, perhaps, or even just our usual “harmless” chatter — through the tubes. Effortlessly, maybe. But is it really? The idea behind every internet thing today is that it’s so easy. It just works. All you need is two thumbs and 140 characters and you’re publishing. From anywhere. Twitter. Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. FourSquare. (And for goodness sake, really? Why does anyone use FourSquare?) Spotify. Hangouts. FaceTime. Messages. This. An endless list of places to connect, to express, to fill in every moment. To never be alone. To never stop and wonder, why? We got there fast and never slowed down. Because it was easy. But now, it doesn’t feel easy anymore. It’s exhausting.
About halfway through that Theory of Everything podcast, after Paul Ford describes how being on the internet today is like being under siege, he says, “I just can’t keep building my personal brand. It doesn’t work.” And then, a deep, deep sigh. As if his confession released the accumulated weight of years and years of fruitless digital striving. With speaking the truth that no one dares speak in public — that this is slavery; that we can stop if we want; that maybe that’s a good idea; that maybe, we should — came relief. The Internet was supposed to engage and empower everyone. To give everyone a door to a limitless space. Where there is freedom to say anything. And there is, sort of. But it’s difficult to feel empowered when your little drop disappears into an ever-deepening, churning sea. With every drop are millions more. And there’s always another source. Louder than you, bigger than you, with more attention than you. Another source whose freedom to express becomes your oppression. Just like it was before we built the internet.
We got there fast. We haven’t taken it slow. Not even close. We’ve gorged on information and we’re starting to crash. The signs are all there. Tilde Club is one of them. Social attrition, too. The human attention span dwindling to the point where today, a goldfish has greater patience than you or I do is another. What should we expect, the statisticians say. “It’s no surprise attention spans have been decreasing with the increase in external stimulation.” Because more tends to beget more, until it begets less. And it gets there fast.
It’s time for us to take it slow. The internet’s not going to do it for us.
Heavy Rotation: This week, I’ve been listening back to Burst Apart, by The Antlers. It’s a slow album. It’s slower — literally, in pace — than I remember it to be. But it’s also about slowly emerging back into the world. Coming back from grief. From hiding. From protecting yourself from the pain of living. Accepting that life and pain go together, and that the shields and bunkers and armor we fashion for ourselves only cut us off from living, and within them, we wither and die.
Recent Tabs: Life just might be an emergent property of the universe, says an MIT physicist. “He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” says another. Pretty interesting stuff. I’d love to be around their coffee table hashing it out. Inside an internet addiction treatment center in China. Also filed under “Woah,” real time translation with Skype. Yes, the NSA is listening to every word. A year in a Tokyo capsule tower. 41 questions on the ethics of technological artifacts. Bittorrent’s browser is called Maelstrom, which is probably one reason why it won’t take off. The other being, like, capitalism, mannnn. Here are a few thousand of Einstein’s documents. Computers can recognize a penguin, but they can also hallucinate a penguin. And finally, because you need to cry today, watch Derby the dog run for the first time in his life, thanks to 3-D printed prosthetic legs. Go on, let it all out.