Something I hear from people who are closer to 50 (i.e. death) than they are to 25 (i.e. my current age/the pinnacle of existence) is that being online all the time is not really living. My generation: we talk without meaning anything, travel without going anywhere, emote without feeling shit. Can we not turn off Twitter for like one minute? We should just go outside. Without oxygen, you know, we die. Alternatively, we will become addicted to the internet, and then without the internet, you know, we will also die.
These people include both my parents and the man I live with, but let’s talk about my parents, because they’re less likely to read this and send me a growly-hurt text about it. So. Mama and Papa. Strict and crazy-repressive, albeit in that loving way, they didn’t agree to get the internet until I was almost halfway through high school, in the too-late 90s. I said I needed it for homework. Oh, parents. Gifted kids don’t do homework!
Instead using it for homework, I stumbled, past my bedtime, into chat rooms. I changed my font to something purple and curlicued, my name to Alyssa, my age to 18. I became a waitress and a part-time model. I liked Italian food by candlelight and Bronte novels (I really did like Bronte novels, though). I met an older man—all the way in his twenties—who liked smart blondes. Alright, then. I’d be blonde.
I remember that he asked to see my portfolio, seeing as I was a model and all, and when I didn’t have a portfolio, I knew he didn’t believe me. I said I don’t show strangers. He said what else will you show me? I didn’t know, but I knew.
Nothing “happened.” He’d only licked up to my pale thighs before my every nerve went spastic and I shut down, breathing hard. I never went back; I couldn’t. I didn’t need to. It was like someone had dipped me in gasoline and thrown a match. From then on I smouldered under my skin.
How alive was I? Awakened, middle of the night, fourteen years old. Guy probably drove a truck, and not in a sexy way. Didn’t matter. I was new and ecstatic and what was inside me suddenly was everything. After that I felt my strength, felt coiled in wait, and though I stayed quiet and unsexed for years, I was also dangerous with possibility.
I’ve always thought of the internet, then, as this other universe where fantasy is possible. And it’s true, as the old people say, that its fantasies are not like living. Better. They make it possible to live. How you feel about things that are not really happening to you on the internet is no less real than how you feel about things that are not really happening to you in Gus van Sant movies, or Band of Horses songs, or Raymond Carver stories, or Carmen, the opera, or Carmen, the ballet.
And so the feelings of internet children are less believed-in, but no less true than the feelings of everyone who preferred art and fantasy to reality in every time before. You shouldn’t take my words for it, though, cause I’m probably your age-ish. You should trust Virginia Heffernan, the internet critic (by which I mean brilliant, grown-up, traditionally employed critic of the internet, not you, troll) who wrote about “addiction” in yesterday’s NYT. Basically, she said, there’s no such thing.
If a pastime is classy, those who love it are “addicted.” Opera and poetry buffs are “passionate.”
Virtually all non-work activities have, at one time or another, been represented as craven and diseased. Opera obsession leads to delinquency in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film Diva; an intense movie habit deepens the alienation of the hero of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer.
Novels themselves, now the signature pursuit of the sound and literate mind, have also been considered toxic, as in the 1797 analysis, “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity.” The 18th-century worry about female literacy is not unlike the contemporary anxiety that Web use above all makes girls vulnerable to “predators”: “Without this poison instilled, as it were, into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice.” Taken together, these warnings against the very stuff that makes life worth living often seem either like veiled boasts (“I’m addicted to the symphony!”) or just absurd.
So why are authors and educators hellbent on using this shopworn rhetoric when it comes to Internet use?
I think it’s because they’re old, or older; they’ve stopped wanting to make sense of the news; they’re afraid for them, but it’s easier to say they’re afraid for us. I don’t see why we should fear, and I’m not even a person you’d say is internet-“addicted.” I don’t have any second lives and I’d rather read almost everything in print. I feel best in unexpected sunshine. But maybe you feel best in somewhere – or something – that might not exist. There is nothing so beautiful “in ordinary life” that I can’t understand desiring alternatives.
Look at all the kids today, the once-upon-a-small-town versions of you, or you now, escaping realities or realizing it gets better or whatever. There used to be the open road and now the internet opens the whole world, and within it, the real world, too.
And look at a guy like Roger Ebert, who belongs to the pre-, and the anti-, internet age, and yet is three times better at living online than most of us. A month ago he gave a TED talk about how, after cancer surgery left him speechless, the internet saved his life; again, his real life.
“I never gave a second thought to my ability to speak,” he said, and then… “I was forced to enter this virtual world in which a computer did some of my living for me.”
There’s a natural heroism in doing your own living, I guess, and good for everyone who can. For everyone who can’t, there’s the internet. I see it now. Even when I read about people who make internet suicide pacts, I just think: at least they didn’t die alone.