Someone on reddit recently posted the question, "What was the thing that made you realize you were living in the future?"

I'm not sure if I had an exact moment for that, but the other day I had to dig through my room to find where I had put down the phone that was actively streaming music to the earbuds I was wearing at the time, so 'the future' is probably here. I expect it's going to involve me misplacing a lot of things that are no longer physically tethered to my body and/or the wall. Detangling headphone cords is a pain in the ass, but at least I always knew where the wire led.

The turning point where tech became truly impressive and magical, rather than just a new and improved version of a thing I already knew about, was sometime around when everything suddenly went wireless. I'm not entirely sure why. My family had cordless telephones so early that I don't remember the main house phone ever being any other kind. Television and AM/FM/shortwave radio, of course, were all invented long before I was born. I have never existed in a state of literal 'radio silence'. Signal is everywhere, and as far as I'm concerned, it always has been.

I do remember first getting the Internet. I was fourteen, old enough to realize how useful it was, but too young to properly appreciate how vastly different it was from all the media we already had. I'm thirty-five, and I'm about the oldest person you'll find who had proper internet access that didn't come through a large corporation or research institution -- we signed up for America Online, in fact. Installed from a floppy disk. I suffered through their "web interface" for a while before I got bright and downloaded Netscape Navigator. I later performed a miracle and managed to remove Internet Explorer completely from an installation of Windows 95, which somehow broke the internal AOL browser. I considered this a distinct improvement.

Most of AOL's stuff was either geared towards grown-ups (news, sports, stock prices) or children (most of the games), but one of the few places I hung around on a regular basis was Keyword: Straight Dope. The Dope was not particularly meant for high schoolers and I probably shouldn't have been there ca. age fourteen, but my parents already had most of Cecil's books, and anyway nobody asked.

The thing about the internet, though, was that I could only get to it from one place, and that place was out in the open. The second phone line was run from a jack in the family room, and that was therefore where the modem resided, attached to my father's computer. It wasn't that the only computer in the house was Dad's; there was a second computer that we kids could use for games and homework, and by high school I also had a primitive laptop that my father had brought home when it fell off the end of the equipment audit trail at work. (My sister wasn't interested, so laptop mine, thankyouverymuch. It lived in my room. I wrote a lot of very bad fanfic on it.) But the computer with the internet connection was the only one I could use to talk to people. That was incredibly important to me, seeing as my in-person social landscape was made up almost entirely of isolation, interrupted occasionally by someone being cruel. The people on the other end of the internet were my only real escape from that.

I understand if my parents kept the arrangement because they didn't want their 12- and 14-year olds fucking around with strangers online unsupervised. I'm not sure that was their actual logic, as I remember having quite a lot of messy snotty-crying breakdowns that everyone else in the room with me completely ignored, but I'm not ruling out that it was their intent. Because of the bind I was in, though, the end result was that it just wasn't possible for me to talk to any of my (geeky, harmless, age-appropriate, already known to my parents) friends with any measure of privacy.

It was a constant tug of war. I was sad and scared and lonely and very depressed as a teenager, and I generally wanted nothing more than to go huddle in my bed and sob hysterically for a long time. But if I hid in my room, I lost access to everyone and everything online. The internet may not be a 'real place' in the sense of having walls and doors, but a chat window is a real enough place to have a conversation. So my choice was to alienate myself even more, or have a lot of very important and sensitive exchanges in what felt like the middle of Times Square, where at any moment, anyone could walk behind me and read what I'd been typing. Aside from the violation of privacy, the specific people involved were likely to pick a fight over it at some point, mainly because they were the thing I was typing complaints about.

You know how Dan Savage has his "It Gets Better" project? It's mainly aimed at LGBT* kids and teens; people make short videos explaining how they got it in the neck at your age and then survived long enough to realize that "it gets better". There's a second half to that, which is generally left unspoken. Most people would assume it's ",,,when you grow up." It's not. If you watch a lot of those videos you notice a common theme: "When I went to college..." "When I left the church..." "When I moved to the city..." It doesn't get better when you grow up, it gets better when you get out. The single best part about being an adult is that if I am stuck in the middle of something -- a place, a situation, a social group, whatever -- that is making me miserable, I am not obliged to stay there. I can pick up my shit and move.

You underestimate how important it is to have the ability to move whenever you want, even if it's just into the next room. You can't do that if your lifeline has to be tethered to a particular spot on the wall. You can't do that if all of the data you need for work or play is physically stored on one drive in one computer that can't be moved from the desk. You can't do that if your headphones need to be plugged into a rack-mount amplifier to work.

There is a reason my entire life is stored in Google Drive, Google Play, Amazon Document Services. a thing that is technically a telephone that I can cram into my pocket, and a computer that can be closed like a book and jammed into a bag. Everything is always charged, insofar as I can manage it. The memories of what it's like to have no way out, even in the flimsiest of psychological senses, are still very vivid. It's like the people who grew up literally starving in the Great Depression, who always need to have that one extra jar of peanut butter or box of cookies stashed somewhere in the house, even if they have plenty of food now and have no reason to worry about groceries. Lacking something that necessary, and really understanding what you're missing, marks you for life. Just for my own peace of mind, I need a "bug out bag" fill of widgets that will work anywhere, even if I only ever get as far as the library.

So yeah, we're in the future now. The world I live in physically and the world I live in mentally now more or less coincide, which makes my life a hell of a lot easier. I could be halfway across the planet and still access everything that keeps me from going insane. Because of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and USB chargers and batteries with multi-hour capacities, I don't have to fight with myself over and over about whether it's more important to get this thing done or get out of the house before I lose my mind.

Comments

  1. Battery is life! I never used chat rooms, but my brother did. The day his chat room girlfriend flew several states to live with him, I realized it was a valid way to meet people.

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  2. It doesn't get better. It gets differently bad.

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    1. If you mean 'it doesn't get better when you grow up,' then I agree. People who were consciously asshole children tend to be consciously asshole adults. There's not a lot you can do about them other than not be in their sphere of influence.

      If you are arguing that it doesn't get any better when you get out, or that getting out isn't possible, then I respectfully disagree. I cannot fix things for you, nor can I tell you how to fix yourself. My experience, however, is that being under chronic stress in an environment where I belong is orders of magnitude better than being under chronic stress in an environment where I was continually unwelcome. I didn't say it magically got great; I just said it was less terrible.

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  3. Is it also true that a large enough chunk of your life is actually stored on this foldable computer thingy that even the network connection is only needed to do some website work and emails?

    I was fortunate enough to not have any traumatic experiences; but convenience of getting internet access (and access quality) varied with periodic lows. I still assume that if I want to have access to something which is not primarily communication, it has to be stored locally in a fully-offline-capable form; communication should preferably have a local copy.

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    1. More or less, yes. Games, media, word processor, graphic design programs, etc. Computer, phone, Kindle, and a few portable thumbdrives/hard drives that fit into a messenger bag with them, if necessary. As a bonus, I also have a DS and a 3DS. I also own a Kindle Keyboard, which has 3G of document storage, and comes with lifetime 3G service from AT&T. It doesn't load everything in the browser, but it does load Wikipedia, reddit mobile, and TV Tropes, which keeps me from going insane on long train rides.

      Part of my "getting out" also involved moving to a place that feels pretty much the same way I do about technology and its role in communication. Boston literally has free internet in the parks, and that's not even considering all the various universities and branches of the public library system that offer guest WiFi. If something goes horrendously wrong, I can get myself out on a temporary basis, and still access all the resources I need to remove myself permanently. In less dire circumstances, there's a million places I can go to clear my head.

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