MAXWELL:  An inner geek yearning to surf free

3/2/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

“When was the last time you read your computer screen in the bathroom?” _ Yahoo! Internet Life

I discovered a few days ago that something has gone awfully wrong in my life _ that my very existence has been altered by clicks and bounds.

Having always fancied myself a rational being who resists fads and other mass silliness, I fought the heavy sickness in my stomach after realizing that I am fast becoming addicted to the Internet and the World Wide Web.

This information utopia, writes Michael Neubarth, editor-in-chief of Internet World, “is where the action is, and where it will be in the future.”

Yes, I have become a “newbie.” Not just any newbie, mind you, but the news-junky type, whose life is governed by the acquisition of information. We newsies, you understand, can fall for fads harder than anyone else. When we surf the Internet, we vroom-vroom around like Net-surfing fools.

Utter dread invaded my space at about 3 a.m. last Monday. That is when I began to sense the growing seriousness of my affliction, when I jumped out of bed, ran to my computer, fired up the modem and logged onto Netscape Navigator, my Web browser. Three hours later, I was visiting the 11th of 12 Web sites focusing on African-Americans that I had lucked up on during a weekend trip to South Florida.

The final site, The Conduit (http://www.imohotech.com/ TheConduit), would have to wait because I still had to read the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times for the regular 9:30 a.m. editorial board meeting that kicks off my day gig at the paper.

Reluctant to pull myself away from the computer, I suddenly heard myself saying aloud: “What in the hell am I doing? It’s pitch-black outside, and I’m sitting here hooked on this Internet crap!”

Turning off the machine, I grabbed the New York Times, poured that first cup of coffee (the time was 6:15) and read the editorials, the columns and the front-page stories. But my thoughts kept returning to the Web.

How had my life devolved to this moment?

Searching my memory, I pinpointed the first time I knew that the Net was taking over my life: I was in Virginia on vacation in late December last year and felt the overwhelming urge to hear that familiar screech of my modem connecting to the information highway. I wanted to check out some of the new Web pages I had found in my first-ever issue of Yahoo! Internet Life magazine. Ordinarily, I would have wanted to stay on vacation another week. This time, however, I wanted to get back to my 486 in St. Petersburg.

For one who began his writing career in 1964 on an Underwood manual typewriter, adapting to cyberspace, by way of a 1980 Amstrad personal computer that still works and still weighs 90 pounds, has been torturous. Like the late humorist Lewis Grizzard, I initially had a hard head and refused to change, believing that an Underwood or a Smith-Corona could produce as much eloquence as a Bill Gates super gizmo. Now I am enslaved by one of those gizmos, a slick computer tower with a 486 processor.

Grizzard was right, of course. But he, along with others like him, was wrong in a way, too. Yes, a writer can pound eloquence out of a manual, but he or she cannot command that machine to travel _ in a matter of seconds _ to the Library of Congress and retrieve just the right line from a Rainer Maria Rilke poem or the haunting imagery of a William Butler Yeats stanza.

Neither can my old Underwood (which I still have) take me to one of my favorite Web sites (http://www.macom.co.il/index.html). From this Jerusalem-based site, I can link to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the children-oriented Peace Pictures Project, the Israel Democracy Institute and other places in the Holy Land that I love.

Now, too, instead of driving many miles or calling the public or university library for statistics and demographic trends, I can use a search engine, such as Infoseek Guide or Alta Vista, to find much of what I need for my work.

I generally avoid “chat” and “conference” rooms, where what one user types on his screen appears on the other person’s screen. I avoid these sites because many are cesspools, where the communication is either stupid, foul or too asinine to be of use.

Trust me, though, I am not a true “netizen.” Nor do I wear nerdy glasses with a piece of tape on the nose bridge. And I have not learned many words in cyberspeak and do not plan to.

I am, however, quickly apprehending the elitism pervading the Net. When asked, for instance, why he wrote the book, Cyberspeak: An Online Dictionary, Andy Ihnatko deftly summed up his intention and described the utility of cyberspeak to boot: “The true purpose of language is to re-enforce the divisions between society’s tribes, or at least to make things difficult enough to understand so that the riff-raff keeps out.”

Click once if you are riff-raff. Double click if you are not.

The Internet’s inherent elitism _ its online jargon, technical terms, high-tone merchandising, obfuscation, obscurity, obliqueness and opacity _ is the least of my problems.

Again, I am scared to death that I am becoming addicted, that, at my age, I am finally discovering my long-repressed inner geek.

At the rate that I am being mesmerized by the Internet, the only safe place in my house is the bathroom. There, I cannot read the computer screen.