I WAS BORN in 1983, the same year as Microsoft Word. It was also the year the first mobile phones went on sale in the US, and Apple introduced its graphical user interface computer, the Lisa. Not quite a decade later, my parents lugged home a Hewlett Packard 360. It came with a specially shaped opaque dust cover, which my mother insisted on. Most of the time it looked as though we kept a plastic camel hump in our spare bedroom.
The HP 360 mattered to me for one reason: Gorillas.bas, a QBasic game that ran on MS-DOS. Two players, represented by gorillas atop skyscrapers, would set the desired gravity in metres/second, then enter the angle and velocity of their banana bombs and loft them across the skyline, trying to blow each other up. Angle and velocity meant little when I was ten, but the idea that I was controlling these pixelated gorilla terrorists was hypnotic. I played Gorillas.bas daily, until it was somehow erased – the fate of pretty much every DOS program. Despite my tears, my father couldn’t bring it back. It was an early lesson: technology giveth exploding bananas, and technology taketh away. Control is an illusion.
By the early 1990s, a societal shift had occurred: we had these cumbersome beige devices in our homes and offices, and in our schools, though only in classrooms exclusively dedicated to them. They still had specific, limited purposes, much like microwaves, but we should have known from the term ‘computer lab’ that this was all a giant social experiment. As experiments go, the results have been mixed.
MY GRANDPARENTS USED to tell stories about their first memories of television: whose house they were at, who they were with, what shows they watched. Perhaps one day I’ll tell my grandchildren about the first time I went on the internet. It was Year 8. Our computer teacher instructed us to open Netscape and look up something, anything that interested us. I clicked on the icon, a white ‘N’ nestled on the horizon of a discomforting teal sky. A blank screen with a blank internet address bar appeared, the cursor blinking. I typed ‘China’. Netscape gave me an error message. I jabbed the enter key a few more times, the same message reappearing. Looking around, I could see my classmates had made Netscape do something: their screens were filled with text and even the top few centimetres of some images. I clenched the mouse, heart racing. How had my classmates made the internet work? What did they know that I didn’t? That rush of anxiety, that I’d somehow missed something that everyone else around me knew, would become familiar. Eventually the teacher typed in the secret address bar code that accessed the MSN search engine. This internet thing was too tough, I thought. Who needed it anyway? Encyclopaedias were on CD-ROM.
Towards the end of secondary school, computers filled an increasing portion of our days. Alongside assignments, my first novel (an action-horror about killer bees from Mars – surprisingly still unpublished) came to life in WordPerfect, white font on a blue screen. I created my first email address, [email protected], then abandoned it as soon as I started filling in job applications.
By Year 12, my parents had relocated our latest PC to the kitchen, right next to the table, to keep an eye on just what my sister and I were doing on the wilds of the internet. I spent too much time playing videogames, sure (Tetris blocks cascaded inside my closed eyelids for years); but MSN Messenger was my first digital addiction. After school, I’d work on assignments until my parents went to bed. Then I’d log into MSN Messenger. (A better plan would have been for my parents to put the computer in their bedroom, one of them stationed beside it at all times, armed with a Taser.) You never knew who might pop up with what was practically the standard greeting: a/s/l? I never much wanted to share my age, sex or location. The people (let’s be honest – the guys) who were receptive to my introduction as a multi-tentacled Martian were the ones I could have a conversation with.
Using MSN Messenger as a de facto online dating service may not have been the safest decision, but whether due to luck or careful screening, none of the contacts I met in real life turned out to be a sex offender. By my first year of university, I’d found a new boyfriend the old-fashioned way – by simply asking someone I’d met in person for a date. Neither of us had a mobile. We had to call each other on our families’ landlines to make plans. Talk about awkward. My boyfriend’s grandmother would often answer (he lived in her basement), and she, being suspicious of my motives (persuading him to move out of her basement), was always reluctant to pass the phone on. On my end, one of my parents or my sister was likely to pick up another phone in our house and catch part of our conversation, inadvertently or not. It was simpler to email each other.
Whether it was chatting on Messenger or checking my email, by 2000 I was either on the computer or waiting for my next chance to get on the computer, where something more interesting was probably happening. Things had shifted again. Author Douglas Coupland, whose writing explores the effects of the digital revolution on individuals and society, coined the phrase ‘I miss my pre-internet brain’. I can barely remember mine.
WHEN A FRIEND casually mentioned something called Skype at the end of 2005, it changed my life. I was living in Asia, an ocean away from my Canadian family, and suddenly we could talk as long as we wanted – for free. Skype has mediated our relationship for most of the past decade. Sure, we’ve had emails and the 12,763 photos I’ve posted to Flickr, but it’s Skype that keeps us close. My youngest niece knows me only as a digital presence.
For my first several years in Australia, the low-quality internet meant Skype constantly froze, leaving our gap-mouthed images stuck to the screen. My parents and I developed hand signals to inform the other side of audio lapses. It was more efficient to cut the call rather than wait for Skype to sort itself, and we got used to hanging up and ringing back every few minutes, continuing the conversation as if these interruptions were a normal part of dialogue. The rollout of the NBN has made this seem so archaic – and now, with my iPhone, I can Skype or FaceTime my friends and family any time, from anywhere (but I’m still waiting on the app that makes my hair look great on screen).
In 2006, American friends suggested I join Facebook. We were living in Asia, and my only friends using this newfangled website were those same Americans. A year later it caught on at home, spreading across the country like brushfire. Soon, the email updates I’d received from family and friends – a rough digital equivalent of letters – trailed off. Nothing has replaced that style of one-to-one personal exchange. Friends from around the world post every day, but aside from bolstering each other’s ‘like’ tallies and occasional bursts of staccato messaging, we hardly interact. But then, why would anyone want to interact with me on Facebook? I’m a washed-out version of myself, unsure how to act in the simultaneous presence of everyone I’ve ever met.
IN MY TWENTIES, my work, social life and entertainment merged onto one screen.
Now, digital technology is everything: it’s my workday, my professional and social network, my diary, recipe book, bank and television. It’s the basis of my relationship with my family and my supplementary memory archive. It’s the driver of my fumbling to craft a personal brand, and also the vehicle for it.
Douglas Coupland describes technology as rewiring our neural pathways. I can feel this happening. The more I use Twitter, the more my focus splinters. The compulsion to check my phone is constant. And I’m not even someone who would be considered a heavy user. In an attempt to preserve the remnants of my concentration, I leave my phone at home once a week. Discovering this, my (younger) colleague asked incredulously, ‘Don’t you worry that there’ll be an emergency?’ This as we sat in an office surrounded by communications technology.
It turns out my computer habits had been shaping more than just my brain. In my early thirties, tiny internal lightning bolts began zapping my hands as I typed, the intensity increasing until computer work became unbearable. In 2015, I invested in what I thought was the top-of-the-line voice-dictation software (it took up half my computer memory and nearly all of its processing capacity, so it had to be good, right?). Though I struggled to learn the program, it insisted on writing phrases like ‘Mar’s bachelorette’ as ‘Morris Barts the rat’ (my friends were quite confused when they got the invitation). I ended up spending as much time correcting mistakes as I would have typing the original.
Even tapping on my phone began to cause tingling pain. I took a holiday, certain I just needed a break – but back at my Macbook a month later, the lightning bolts returned immediately. I had RSI, the result of a decade hunched over a laptop. If I couldn’t afford regular physio sessions, I’d be stuck with the voice dictation.
Spending increasing hours on digital devices comes with an ever-evolving burden of worry. How long can I stave off carpal tunnel? Am I doing everything I can to prevent identity theft? Is the blue light from all this screen time damaging my eyes? Are my neighbours’ Wi-Fi routers causing my insomnia? Are we all living in the Matrix? At least two tech billionaires believe that last point to be true, and are funding research to bust us out. (That is a fact as reported by The New Yorker in October 2016, though I see how you might have mistaken it for a joke.)
SWEPT UP, SOME people exhaust themselves by fighting against the technological tide. Like my husband, one of the final holdouts managing without a smartphone. On a broader scale, however, change seems inevitable. In secondary school, I walked from shop to shop, filling out job applications on paper. Not so many years later, we’re contemplating the looming realities of self-driving vehicles, virtual immersion technology and the robo-revolution of the service industry. From my perspective, it feels like a tsunami on the horizon.
Today already feels like yesterday. At thirty-three, I feel nostalgia for things that aren’t even gone yet, because I know they soon will be. They’ll vanish one day, or maybe be randomly updated. We become accustomed to the aesthetics of platforms like Facebook, only to have them suddenly altered, as if we’ve woken to find someone has redecorated our lounge room. Currently, when Chrome loses internet access, a miniature t-rex appears in the browser window. Pressing the space bar launches the t-rex into a 2D desert, where it jumps over cacti and under pterodactyls. I find myself dreading the inevitable disappearance of the t-rex, when Chrome updates or replaces it.
But there’s reassurance: some tech-savvy nerd will love the t-rex just as much, and I’ll be able to find it online whenever I fancy – like with Gorillas.bas, something I’d barely thought about for twenty years, but found within three seconds (by typing ‘gorilla banana explosion game’ into my browser’s address bar, for the record). Everything will vanish, but everything will be accessible, at least in theory. So why am I so anxious?
It’s not as though older generations didn’t experience technological shifts (I remember my parents talking about their 8-track player and being unable to comprehend it. Was it somehow like an octopus? Did it play eight songs at once?). But it does seem as though the digital revolution has accelerated the pace of change within my lifetime. Things I regularly did a decade ago, like having a roll of film developed, feel anachronistic now. I have the sense that much of what currently fills our days will feel equally outdated within even less time. Perhaps it will soon be normal to exist completely within a virtual world, only leaving it to attend to the minimal necessary maintenance of our physical bodies. There are already ‘bio-hackers’, people with tiny radio transmitters implanted under their skin that allow them to unlock doors, and start computers and even vehicle engines.
In a culture featuring mobile phone ads that encourage us to ‘accidentally’ toss our perfectly functional mobiles into a blender so we have an excuse to get the latest model, it feels as though all our current technology, both hardware and software, will continually be swept away. This MacBook I’m typing on, my iPhone 5c (that was glorious when I bought it and turned into a boxy piece of junk as soon as I held the sleek new iPhone 6) – when will they be replaced by a device the size of a sugar cube that projects holograms? Why am I still aggravating my hands typing letter by tedious letter?
I want things to change; I want things to stay the same. I don’t want to miss out; I don’t want to constantly reinvent myself. And not since I was a ten-year-old commanding pixelated gorillas have I felt any sense of control.
Now excuse me, I need to get back to Twitter.