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I saw something shocking painted on the roof of a barn as I was driving through the heart of Yolo County’s farmland. It was an advertisement for the upcoming Dixon May Fair. What caught my attention was the last line of copy, painted in thin red letters, down by the edge of the roof: http://www.dixonmayfair.com.
It’s finally everywhere, I thought, as I continued down the deserted, dusty road. No place is safe. Not even the country. Over the last couple of years, those tiny, mysterious clusters of letters have snuck up on us, like a sneaky race of aliens preparing a world takeover. First they crawled from a computer and found their way onto the bottoms of billboards and magazine ads, cleverly hidden away from the casual glance, amidst the small print. Once you had to have sharp eyes to notice them. But the little things grew and multiplied and now you have to be blind to miss them. They’re on our books, our newspapers, our cereal boxes, our CDs, our clothing, our dairy products, our garden supplies, and our movies. It’s hard to go anywhere or do anything without bumping into our new friends “http” and “www.” But do they come in peace? Or do they have something else up their cyber-sleeves? Are they a blessing or a curse?
For anyone with a strong computer phobia, like my father, or even with a mild techno-aversion, like the one I’ve inherited from him, it’s easy to read conspiracies and invasion plots into every new computer advancement. It’s also easy to feel that we’re caught in a dangerous tug-of-war, and that the machines are winning. My father, Vernon, is the head of the chemistry department at West Virginia State College, and he refuses to use computers any more than the bare minimum his job requires. While the rest of his department (and the rest of the world) fire off quick e-mail notes and memos to one another, he still writes with pencil and paper and licks just as many stamps and envelopes as he ever did.
Except for the letters I send to my dad, most of my outgoing mail these days is electronic.
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Another reason that many e-mail messages seem slight is the speed at which they are written. Composing a letter used to be a big ordeal, so you would have to save up a collection of important events from one letter to the next and then try to weave them together into a cohesive narrative. Most e-mail isn’t like that. It’s more immediate and requires less concentration and effort (on both the writer’s and reader’s parts). Many e-mail messages consist of nothing more than a single jotted idea or half-formed impression. As e-mail shrinks the size of our letters, it also changes their contents—letters are now less about individual voices and more about a conversation. This is good in some ways, but maybe not so good in others. E-mail encourages us to write more letters, more often than we would have in the past; but we probably say less in those letters than we did in their soon-to-be-obsolete paper counterparts.
Another major concern of computer-phobes everywhere is that the internet will seduce us away from our real lives by making virtual reality more appealing than actual reality. It’s already easy enough to imagine a future without books. If letters can disappear up the cyber-chimney, why not books, too? Numerous on-line libraries and bookstores have already popped up on the internet that let you download titles onto your computer screen. Although the future may give us freedom from late fees and strict librarians, isn’t it possible that we might also lose something in the bargain? I can’t imagine, for instance, wanting to huddle around a computer screen on Christmas Eve to listen to a favorite relative read A Christmas Carol. Especially if that favorite relative happens to be dialing in from Toledo at the time. If books go the way of Jacob Marley and become ghosts, we’ll lose their rich, mysterious smells and textures forever. Future generations may never know the multi-sensual pleasures of picking up a good book. As a lifelong lover of books, I would hate to see ink and paper disappear. But I fear they might as the computer becomes our preferred source of all media.
Since it is already possible to download music and video images onto disc, how long should video and record store employees wait before looking for new jobs? Grocery shopping and banking can already be done on the computer, so there is now less need to go out into the real world. There is something ironic about advertisements like the one I saw painted on the barn for the Dixon May Fair, that send you back to your computer. Obviously the more time you spend at the computer, the less time you’ll have to go to the county fair, or do whatever else the billboard asks you to do. The more the computer gives us, the less we’ll want from the outside world. It seems now that everywhere we turn, on every billboard, building, and passing bus, there’s a sign reminding us to go back home and switch on our computers, to find out more about Chevrolet’s new line of cars or the Alaskan Tourist Council. But as browsing the web becomes its own time-consuming pastime, we have less time to do the things we used to do. Why limit yourself to Alaska when you can visit the whole world from your bedroom?
If the internet gives us the world on a platter, as seems to be the promise, it’s only a tv-dinner version of the meal (at least at this point in the game). As we click mid-sentence and mid-thought from a Swiss web page on clock-making to a German page detailing the history of the waltz, the potatoes are bound to come out a little unevenly cooked—cold as ice on one side and hot as coals on the other. Not to mention the tendency of that delicious little apple dessert to spill over its inadequate partition into the gravy. It’s hard to keep the peas separate from the turkey and vice-versa, and it’s the same with the internet.
When we get accustomed to pointing-and-clicking ourselves to a fresh web-site whenever we lose interest in the old one, we shorten our attention spans. It’s disappointing to any web-surfer to realize that in the real world you can’t point and click yourself out of a dull afternoon. With the World Wide Web, we become so used to having an infinity of choices at our fingertips that we condition ourselves against making a single choice and sticking with it.
When he’s not teaching and researching chemistry, my dad spends a good deal of his time in the outdoors, fishing, backpacking, and building houses. When I told him that he could now buy his bait, tackle, and gear on the internet, he chuckled. I told him that he could also keep his feet dry and prevent his skin from chapping by casting his fly in a virtual river on one of the many simulated fishing games on the internet. I don’t think it would be quite the same experience, though. A big part of what makes fishing what it is is the determination to hike out to a certain spot, stand there in your hip-boots or on the shore casting your line over and over all day until you finally catch something. The joys of fishing, like the joys of building a house, depend on patience and perseverance. You only appreciate the reward if you’ve put in the hours. The same can be said for almost any pursuit, from writing to playing the clarinet. The problem with the World Wide Web is that you can spend hour upon hour moving sideways on new tangents, never making any progress.
I don’t want to sound like an inflexible stick-in-the-mud, so I will try to say something in favor of the internet. There is clearly a world of benefits that the internet can bring us—it can reunite us with lost friends, teach us history, and expand our cultural horizons. But it’s up to us to use it and not let it use us. As the world rapidly shrinks around us and we find ourselves only a mouse click away from a cozy candle-lit table at a Parisian café or a breathtaking view off the Great Wall of China, we must remember that there are some experiences that simply can’t be downloaded. Even if someone figures out how to write a binary code for smells and textures so we can add scratch and sniff to point and click, I still predict cold potatoes for some time to come. The only way to get them to come out just right, with no lumps or icy spots, is to make them yourself.
So the next time you find those squirrelly little letters “http” or “www” sneaking up on you, fight the urge to run back to your computer. Summer’s on its way. Go out in the sunshine and throw a frisbee with a friend. Or take a nice meandering walk in the evening and bring a picnic (maybe some homemade mashed potatoes). Explore the world the old-fashioned way and bring a good book along for the trip. Whatever you do, don’t point and click.