There’s no denying how much the Internet’s manipulation of time and distance has altered our understanding of the world. In our upcoming themed issue, we’re interested in reading about how the Internet has changed your daily lives, on- and off-screen. Atticus Review’s CNF team offers these six micros to serve as a jumping-off point.
–The CNF Team
I love that the act of chasing informational threads into the depths of the Internet is termed “falling down a rabbit hole,” which makes me think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the original rabbit hole chaser. What would Alice make of our Internet, its endless corridors full of endless doors? So much of Carroll’s seminal story centers on Alice’s feelings of disorientation in Wonderland, a place where anarchy reigns, a place where recognizable structure recedes. Is our current Internet so different? The Internet is populated by vast crowds of strange characters, many of them menacing, but even more alarming is the multiplicity of incongruent facts to be found, the plethora of alternative “truths,” each in conflict with the others. How are we remaining tethered to reality when we dive into the digital depths? How are we mooring ourselves, girding our minds against this chaos? I doubt Carroll could have ever imagined the Internet of the twenty-first century, but if that’s true, then how could he have left us with such a pointed warning?
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” —Lewis Carroll
The Internet is a realm of infinite curiosities, the ultimate rabbit hole, and exploring it is a joy best experienced in terms of the ladder we’ve left in place, the one that leads back to the blue sky we recognize.
I went to a writer’s retreat several years ago, to a cabin in the mountains above Santa Cruz. Surrounded by nature, silence, and, once the sun set, total darkness, it was a tiny space with a comfortable bed and windows that looked out onto shaded woodland, a kerosene lamp, and an Adirondack chair on the tiny front deck. It seemed perfect until I realized there was no electricity. Which meant no Wi-Fi. Uh-oh. How would I research whichever mundane fact I needed to verify for the story I was working on? The title of a book my character was reading or the spelling of a word I needed to use? How would I distract myself when the words weren’t coming, the sentences flat, the voice subdued? I was accustomed to having facts and information available to me at any moment. My irritation over something so meaningless eventually began to feed on itself, my mind branching off into other insignificant reasons to be mad at the world. I didn’t write a word that night and went to bed as soon as darkness fell, unable to sleep as I tried to block out the sound of the night creatures outside my window: owls hooting, foxes screeching, crickets chirping. Ordinarily I would have found these sounds comforting, but now they were just another reason to stay irritated. The next morning I was still angry, but at myself, not at the lack of Internet access. Okay, I thought. Let’s start over.
Over the next few days I didn’t miss it at all. I kept track of the minutiae that needed clarification and moved on, letting creativity flow while ignoring the urge to edit as I went. Since that time I’ve tried, not always successfully, to find a balance between technology and creativity. Don’t be an idiot, I tell myself when I can’t get out of my own way, when I’m focused on toxic thoughts or am too stubborn to chill. Just sit down and write. The Internet isn’t going anywhere.
My first real job after earning an MFA in fiction was with America Online (AOL) during the age of digital dial-ups. I was hired to create content for AOL’s Digital City, a series of city-specific webpages populated with entertainment content, mostly restaurant reviews.
When I told my former MFA classmates what I did for a living, their eyes filled with envy.
“You’re an entertainment writer? A food critic? That’s so cool.”
They imagined me secretly dining at fine restaurants, taste-testing all the dishes with my bottomless expense account.
“Yep,” I’d say, “putting that MFA to good use.”
And boy was I. Most of what I wrote was pure fiction. There was no expense account. I never ate at any of the restaurants I wrote about. In fact, I rarely left the computer where I sat crammed elbow to elbow with other writers, tucked in a windowless conference room deep in the bowels of an office complex in rural Virginia.
“We don’t need reviews, exactly,” said Max, my boss. He was twenty-three, drove a Porsche, and wore shorts every day, even in winter. “We need descriptions.”
It became clear, however, that if my descriptions read like reviews, he would keep me busy. And I needed to stay busy. I was strapped with student loans; I lived in DC, one of the most expensive cities in the country. The more I pretended to eat at fine restaurants, the more I could afford to actually eat at home.
This is a creative writing exercise, I told myself. It’s all about imagination, voice, and the suspension of disbelief. I got really good at pretending to be a food critic. I could glean the ambience of a restaurant simply by studying a picture of its dining room; I could imagine the presentation and appeal of certain dishes simply by perusing the menu.
Restaurants loved my reviews. I started seeing pull-out quotes in other publications. I was a fake food critic star. A true fiction writer.
My cousin posed in a high school locker room for an older girl’s smartphone, rackets and balls held suggestively. When my uncle found out her Facebook account became a silhouetted gray icon, but those pictures are out there, forever.
I thought about eleventh grade, when a classmate drew a comic strip in which I was a character. Another classmate showed me, his laughing mouth a band of gleaming teeth. The new quiet girl in baggy secondhand clothes who was terrible at French, the only class the cartoonist and I shared. I was drawn square-shaped, my head, shoulders, hips, and ankles all the same width, while others were regular people. I never imagined I’d think of myself as lucky. The comic wasn’t texted to the entire school or online for the whole world. Pencil sketches on a sheet of notebook paper, the fuzzy blue lines horizontal through my block-body and wild hair. Paper that was passed around one social group at school before our economics teacher crumpled it into a ball, threw it in the garbage. My new friends didn’t hang out with that group or care what they thought.
My response only a shrug because who cared, who would see it? Had it been posted on social media would I instead have been haunted by snickering students taking sidelong glances in class, turning from me in the hallway to tilt their phone toward a friend? Would it instead exist as a continuous echo of a single moment of awkward youth?
Your friend request wakes the ghost of a boy I knew and loved three decades ago. You’ve been tucked away in memories, fading in dusty albums in the Rubbermaids downstairs, but your name conjures our last snapshot together. You—the jacket of your rented tux hooked on the crook of your finger—stand next to the girl I used to be—fire-engine red lipstick and too curly hair, her eyes tired and hollow. Always scheming of ways to disappear because if she didn’t leave that town, escape those people, those memories, the nightmares would eventually kill her while she slept.
My stomach pinches. I rarely think of the girl I was. The girl I buried. You used to hold me in the dark, the veins in your arms throbbing against my skin. In daylight, you became the handsome boy, always poised, but I remained the chubby girl who acted tough in plaid and denim, who could drink anyone under the table. We never quite managed to piece one another’s broken parts back together, but pledged we’d never grow apart.
I squint at your profile picture and grin. I never imagined you’d go bald, but you’ve still got the same wolfish eyes, sharp nose, confident tilt to your chin.
Who do you see in my photo—eyes bright, face glowing, silvered hair? Surely not the girl you remember.
Maybe there’s no way of escaping who we’ve been.
I accept your request. The three dots beneath your name pulsate.
I was dreaming of sipping retsina at Anatoli Souvlaki, where my new boyfriend and I were supposed to be celebrating my birthday. Instead of a romantic dinner, we were huddled together with his three partners from their new Internet start-up, staring expectantly at the 9-inch screen of his new MacPlus. It was April 23, 1993—seven days before the Internet went public. There was a zap of excitement that had nothing to do with me turning thirty.
My boyfriend had found a way to have a “video chat” with an Australian guy he had never met, who also had a MacPlus and a magical connection to a program called “CUSeeMe.” After some fiddling with wires and beeping noises, the unknown man and his wife appeared from halfway around the world, waving like we were long-lost friends. After a short church-like silence, my boyfriend clapped his hands together as if in prayer and said, “Can you believe this?” Then spreading his arms wide, “and this is just the beginning!”
Even though we ended up eating lukewarm takeout chicken souvlaki, something special happened that night. They saw their future, and I saw mine. I fell in love with this visionary, who could make the impossible seem possible. Who, the next night, made up for “missing” my birthday with a chilled bottle of retsina and a huge bowl of home-cooked spaghetti Bolognese.
Twenty years later, before he slipped into a coma, my husband was still envisioning the future. One of the last things he said was, “I think the Internet gods will soon create some magical technology that will allow the living to communicate with the dead.”
I’m still waiting.
Photo by Peter Tully, used and adapted under CC.