'I have bought turf online, but do very little of the stuff you're supposed to'
On a winter’s afternoon late in 1994, I sat with two friends in the attic bedroom of an old terraced house we were renting together on French’s Quay in Cork and we listened, rapt, to the gurgle and hiss of a dial-up internet connection inside a gigantic desktop computer.
It sounded like a beast trying to take form in there, and we smiled excitedly through the brownish fug of dope smoke – we were using the attic room also to grow cannabis plants under lamps mounted in the eaves. Memory perhaps elaborates the picture but I seem to remember that it took miles of cables, doorstoppers of computer manuals and weeks of hair-pulling complication to bring us to this moment.
The connection hissed more loudly and sputtered hard, and we held our breaths as the great network that we knew was out there tried to snag its digital hooks on the virgin nodes of Cork city, but it failed, and the room went silent, and we turned off the computer and got on with our lives.
Which, in 1994, largely involved slithering bug-eyed around the walls of Sir Henry’s nightclub until the small hours, sleeping till mid-afternoon, and then trying to lure passing college girls into the house with promises of free dope, playtime with a cute black rabbit called Fluppsie we had bought in a pet store on North Main Street, and (we lied) access to “the Web”.
I was 25 years old and at this time operating fitfully, and at a very stoned level, as a freelance reviewer, writing up notices of gigs and plays for music magazines and newspapers. I would bash out my judgments on a Singer electric typewriter perched on a wardrobe laid on its side to function as a desk. Sentences of Faulknerian complexity would be employed to tear strips off a Frank and Walters show at Nancy Blake’s, or the latest Corcadorca offering at the Triskel.
The Singer, quite snazzily, had an eraser function. I would go to a stationery store off Washington Street to replace the white-out ribbon; Tipp-Ex was history, and the eraser was essential for the obsessive redrafting of my killer intros. I recall a sub-editor at The Irish Times asking whether a notice on some Corkonian indie act at the Phoenix Bar really merited an opening sentence that came in at something like 136 words.
I would carry the typed pages as though they were tablets of stone across the river from French’s Quay, past the hoppy belching of the Beamish plant, to what was then Jury’s Hotel, on Western Road, where the receptionist would fax them through to Dublin for a pound the first page and 50p thereafter.
Sometime towards the end of that winter, just before we all moved to London, we did finally get the internet connected, at least to some primeval degree. I do not remember exactly what I saw when I gazed for the first time into that fateful portal, or what I expected to see, but I do recall that the first thing we did on the internet was look for a recipe for ecstasy.
From screen to screen
Autumn 2003 – the era of the digital quickening, and I am living in a basement flat in the New Town of Edinburgh. My girlfriend is doing her PhD at the university and I am attempting without landmark success to revivify the short-story form. Most evenings, as dusk trails in from the Firth of Forth, carrying on its skirts a near-Baltic chill, I go for a walk around the elegant New Town streets.
Edinburgh has always had a great culture of apartment dwelling: it’s a city that’s properly lived in, that doesn’t clear out after dark, and as I walk along I can see down into the basement flats of the Georgian manses. As it is the custom here for the high sash windows to be left uncurtained, all the domestic scenes are lit and presented to the observer in a sequence of unfolding tableaux.
I have lately been flabbergasted by a report in a newspaper that suggests that people are now spending approximately as much time online as they spend watching television. But the evidence of this is clearly presented in the basement flats in the autumn of 2003. The most typical scene displays a young couple. She is on the couch, watching TV; he is at a slight remove, perhaps in an armchair, or at a dining table, and is staring into a biggish laptop computer, most likely a Dell.
I’m back in Edinburgh frequently, maybe a couple of times a year, and by habit I retrace of an evening my New Town walks, and I look down into the basement apartments, and the TVs have long since been switched off, or have disappeared altogether, and both the he and the she have perched on their thighs the laptop (likely an Apple) or the smartphone (ditto).
Although, these days, I am online all of my waking hours, I am considered among friends and acquaintances to be an amusingly 1.0 kind of fellow, with throwback tendencies and Luddite markings. I am not on Facebook. I am not on Twitter. I do not have a website, or a blog. I steer clear of iTunes – I once wound up there a bit pissed and bought about fifty quid’s worth of Human League songs. I do not maintain a Tumblr, or curate a Flickr account, and I am unsure what words to apply to such things, because I do not know exactly what they are, or what they do.
I check email, I read the papers, and I busy about looking at . . . stuff. I occasionally weep gladly in the small hours having fallen into a YouTube hole of the early 1980s synthesizer acts I grew up with, or the deep house tunes from Chicago and Detroit we used to slither around Sir Henry’s to in the early 1990s.
I have had an iPhone for almost a year and have downloaded no apps. A little flush of triumph comes to my cheek if I manage to email someone a photo, or paste a link into the body of a mail – this, after 18 years of internet activity, is the level of it. I have never looked at porn on the internet, not having the need, as my mind already projects terrifying sequences of phantasmagorical sex images at all conscious hours of day and night. I have never played games online, or arranged dates, or (yet) sought to locate dogging venues in the vicinity of the south county Sligo swamplands. I have lately bought turf online, but I do very little of the stuff you’re supposed to do.
Even so, I become extremely twitchy if force of circumstance keeps me away from the internet. My thoughts will stream then through the classic addict ruts: when can I next get a connection, where can I find it, and how long will it take me to get there?
The online divide
Let’s posit two extreme and contrary arguments, both of which I believe to be entirely true.
1.Our complete immersion in the online world is largely benevolent. Loneliness has been vanquished by social media. Intense connectivity breeds a freshness of thinking – we open ourselves to new influences, we make brilliant new friends, we are exposed to the vast pools of human talent. We have immediate access to great film, music, and literature, and to the artists behind the works. Education, healthcare, in fact every area of civic governance can potentially be streamlined and made better, and these things are already happening in measurable ways. Rebellious political will can express itself with a furious immediacy. The opaque screen that covered the workings of officialdom has been shattered. Sexual emancipation is complete and all of our tastes and peccadillos are revealed to be broadly democratic and can be satisfied at a click. Love is all around.
2.Our complete immersion in the online world is largely malevolent. The leprous spread of social media does not represent a new connectivity or openness but merely emphasises (and reinforces) the epidemic levels of social isolation in our post-industrial world. Our constant online presence breeds a new timidity, a herd thinking, in which we are afraid to stand apart from the crowd. Meek consensus quickly comes to dominate every conversation; perhaps the most common phrase on Twitter is “Agreed!”.
Filmmakers, writers and musicians are being economically raped by the expectation that if something is online, it must be free, with the consequence that, artistically, we have entered the era of the amateur and the part-timer. Our concentrational abilities have been shattered and they will never recover – the people’s smartphones can be taken only from their cold, dead hands. There is no longer any real learning. The internet has made us all so very prickly and paranoid – how long can someone take to respond to an email? And why, coz they’re too busy f**king tweeting? Also, perverts are everywhere, and they want to masturbate all over us.
Europe’s grand cafes
I have hauled myself to Spain every winter for the last 12 years or so: by late January, I can simply take no more of Ireland, and I run screaming from it for as many weeks or months as I can afford. By the early 2000s, my desperation to locate an internet cafe as soon as I arrived in a Spanish city had become all the more intense and neurotic: I would throw my bags into the pension or rented flat, and immediately dash out to scour the backstreets of Cordoba, or Malaga, or Cadiz until I found the @ symbol on the frontage, and then I could breathe easier again.
I would slink in and out of the cafes three or four times a day, and often late on – those magic hours, with our faces lit by the glow of the screens, as the nights of the Spanish cities passed by outside, obliviously, and when I think of my old trips now I think not of the great cathedrals, or the bustling alley life of the barrios, or the sweet wines, or the fried fish, or the beautiful people: I think of the internet cafes.
I mailed Seamus and Gene, my old housemates from the days on French’s Quay in Cork. They were far more tech-savvy than I, and both ended up working at digital stuff, and so I asked them for their memories of our first internet connection, which would no doubt be more precise than mine.
Apparently, we used to look mainly at alt-dot newsgroups, and most likely those that focused on cannabis cultivation in damp climates. The news-groups had a very basic interface – dull greyish blocks of rolling textlines. The computer was a Gateway 200 PC, specifically a 486ss33 with 2mb ram and a 100mb hard drive. The modem, bought in from Holland, ran at 14k per second, too fast for Telecom Éireann’s network, which ran at 9.6k per second – this was the snag that f**ked up our access for most of the winter.
Our primitive connection was eventually made by hitching on to some local lady’s network in Cork. We did not have a browser as it would be recognised now but a green-screen app through which you could perform basic hypertext linking.
Seamus went to the Telecom Éireann office on the South Mall and asked about setting up an ISP and he was told the best thing he could do was emigrate, which he promptly did.
I allegedly threw the black rabbit, Fluppsie, down the stairs one morning when I woke up with it sitting on my pillow – I do not recall this, and deny it.
We apparently did find the recipe for ecstasy, but the next problem was locating the ingredients.
Towards the end of writing this piece, I visited friends who live in the dusty, dry, lizard-coloured hills south of Athens. They do not have an internet connection and I decided against the expense of allowing my iPhone to roam. So I spent just over four days entirely offline, which I believe is as long as I’ve been offline in more than a decade. And, you know, it wasn’t so bad.
In fact, internet addiction turns out to be very similar to cannabis addiction. For the first day or two without, you are a little bit irked, and vaguely impatient, and susceptible to a kind of why-bother-with-anything ennui, but there is no physical withdrawal; there are no sweats, and there is no shaking.
And after a while, you pretty much forget about it, and you just get on with your life.
This is an extract from The Skin of Anxiety, a piece by Kevin Barry in the Dublin Review number 49, available now