What would it be like; what would our twenty-something university lives be like without the Internet, cyberspace, www’s and dot.com’s? This query has haunted me lately as I become increasingly aware of my own participation in this phenomenon, aware of my existence as a slave to the techno-culture.
As little as seven years ago the Internet was only available to me at the public library. My family owned a computer, which had a very basic typing program and a dot-matrix printer. I hardly ever touched it. That seems like a million years ago now as I sit at my desk (designed aesthetically and functionally to house a computer), typing this article on my desktop while researching online material, listening to downloaded Bjork and chatting on MSN. What would I do if I didn’t have instantaneous access to the Internet at almost every moment of the day? Read more I suppose, and that’s never a bad thing, but what did we do before all this, before the Internet became so central to our lives?
Personally as a kid I played outside, went to school on weekdays, and watched a hell of a lot more television. I ‘tuned in’ when I was bored, when the weather was bad, and when my friends visited. I watched before and after school, and during dinner. There were even shows I looked forward to and enjoyed. To this day I can remember dancing around the living room to the Dallas theme song and singing along with the intro to Cheers. Television was a huge part of my childhood, and however much it might sicken me to admit it now, I was raised in part by the “boob tube”.
So if television is where our devotion used to lie, why has Western culture switched its focus to the Internet so suddenly and what does that say about the future of the medium? Many people, academics and amateurs alike, consider the World Wide Web to be a much more democratic arena than TV-land. The Internet is interactive: we can participate in online conversations, create websites, leave comments or send letters for a relatively small monthly fee. The ‘Net can be educational or purely entertaining; it is a site of instant gratification, and in many ways the possibilities it affords are infinite.
We can, as users, ‘plug-in’ or ‘log-on’ whenever we choose and instantly gain access to all that Cyberspace has to offer. We can even use it to watch TV! People are no longer bound by time-specific programming or pesky VCR’s. In fact Networks have been churning out full series DVD boxed-sets and introducing things like T-VO in an effort to give their waning viewers more of what they want, when they want it – you can almost smell the desperation.
I think the freedom associated with the Internet stems largely from the very fact that we can ‘log-on’, choose our own adventure, and then ‘log-off’ at anytime; when contrasted with the increasing didactic commercialism and absurdity of television the Internet does seem like the ‘smarter’ choice. As cultural studies critic Tiziana Terranova says: “there’s nothing wrong in believing in the superiority of one medium of communication over another, especially when one (like television) is heavily dominated by a commercial, monopolistic culture and the other is perceived as a free, anarchic universe almost uncontaminated by the powers-that-be”. However the key word in her analysis is almost. Advertisements, SPAM, pop-up’s and viruses infect the invisible space we love to ‘serf’ and the potential for Orwellian censorship controls and surveillance initiatives makes the Internet a frontier as frightening as it is exciting.
Is our divorce from the tired ‘reality’ of television truly a democratic venture rich with potential, or are we inviting into our homes two-way tele-screens that only offer the illusion of choice? I don’t have definitive answers, but as one of the converted I’d have to say that it’s a bit of both.
We can use the technology available to us to foster lines of communication, community and discourse; we can sift through content, examine context and decide for ourselves what is worthy of our attention, but most importantly we can ‘log-off’ completely. We can choose how to act, live and learn if we remember to sift through the garbage and remind ourselves that there is a choice, and that we don’t have to accept the Network-ordained lifestyle propaganda that is projected into our living rooms. Most importantly though, as we move towards an increasingly virtual world, we should take time to reflect on the real and remember the circumstances that have shaped us, and the things that came before.