When I was a kid, I loved science fiction and spent hours speculating about the future, imagining how the miracles of science would change my life. Cities on the moon! Jet packs! Flying cars! I could hardly wait.
Of course none of those wonders ever came to pass. My utter failure to predict the real engines of change that would define my life in the exotic twenty-first century can be excused, though: no one else figured them out, either. Even the pioneers who developed the world-wide web never saw its potential, or guessed at the dominant force in modern life that it has ultimately become.
The internet was intended for secure military communications, for sharing of academic research. Dismantling the music business, revolutionizing the book business, supporting insurgencies, inciting uprisings revealing government secrets and hooking people up with the old girlfriends from high school?
Not so much.
Not to mention putting people’s favorite movies, their business and personal correspondence even their banking and their taxes onto their computers.
The world-wide web changed everything for everyone and I realized recently that I’m the perfect case in point. Everything essential in my life is caught in that web. I communicate with my friends through e-mail and Facebook, keep track of my money with Bank of America on-line; everything I buy read and listen to drops out of cyberspace. I check my e-mail four or five times a day and my favorite websites almost as often.
The standard complaint at this point would be that the internet has eaten my life, dissolved it into pulp of procrastination. I often read about writers valiantly disconnecting from the web in order to get any work done. But that reminds me of the people who adamantly refuse to watch television for fear of becoming TV junkies, hopelessly tethered to and endless series of CNN crisis reports, Weather Channel updates and Law &Order re-runs. If you have an addictive personality I suppose you can get hooked on anything. One grizzled contractor I used to work with told me “I used to be addicted to booze. Now I’m addicted to coffee and work.”
For those of us who don’t share that particular personality disorder, the web is nothing to be afraid of. I use it as I write, checking Google and Wikipedia a dozen times over the course of a morning’s work. When I’m describing a field I haven’t mastered or a city I’ve never seen, I use a combination of attitude(usually debunking; people tend to dismiss ort take for granted the places and things they’re most familiar with) and well-chosen details. I know what sounds convincing to me, which little sound-bite or factoid has the ring of truth. From the peeling blue trim at Corcoran State prison, to key computer geek terms like “hanging a worm” and Jedgar, I get everything I need from the search engines of the net.
I think about the dim old days when people actually had to go to libraries, and use the Dewey Decimal system and be polite to astringent squinty librarians and page through dusty books for these same few snippets of information, and pity them as I would pity people who have to haul water out of a community well. “Google” is a common verb now – that’s much more astounding to me than flying cars or jet-packs.
But the internet has had a much more profound effect on my writing life than this unlimited effortless well-spring of information, vital as it is. I connect to my agent and my editor entirely through email, and the public writing I do – it’s hard to call it ‘published’ in this new world – is mostly bound up with various web-sites and e-zines (Numero Cinq, The Good Men project, Big Glass Cases Blog, Salon) that feature my work. Even the print magazines like Pulp Modern and Big Pulp that run my stories take submissions on-line and pay with Pay-Pal. All my novel submissions – including the one to Poisoned Pen press which has advanced to the third full re-write stage – take place on line. I don’t even bother with publishers or magazines that use snail mail. So Twentieth Century!
The best thing about this new world is the interaction with readers. Social media may not really ‘build a platform’ for selling my work (I have three twitter followers), but a good post on Open Salon generates a lot of comments and my four years on the site have allowed me to be part of a community of friends who read and appreciate each others’ work. As an audience, it’s small – I seem to get a steady fifty or sixty visits for every post. But if that many people showed up for a reading on Nantucket it would make history. The friends I have made on this site, unlike my two hundred and something Facebook friends (most whom I don’t even know), actually like and respect each other, based on something real: the words we string together to express ourselves.
As for Nantucket, itself, the island has suffered with the rise of the internet. “Buy local” used to mean to go off-island to do your Christmas shopping. Now it’s a pallid protest against Zappos and Eddie Bauer and Amazon. Sorry, everything is cheaper on line and I only buy ink and paper books when there’s some special reason … like I want the maps in A Dance With Dragons or I like the design of the newest McSweeny’s book. For text, you can’t beat the e-book. And for convienience. I see Jon Stewart interviewing someone about a Bin Laden biography; before the interview is over, I’m reading the book. You can’t compete with that, brick and mortar stores. I even read the New York Times and The new Yorker and Entertainment Weekly on my Nook. I haven’t bought a printed newspaper or magazine in years.
People say, your whole life is tucked away in some internet ‘cloud’ – what if it fails? But I remember the days when I typed my manuscripts – with carbon paper! – and I still managed to lose most of those hard copies without any help from some technological apocalypse.
If something horrendous enough to take down the internet happens, checking the comment trail on my latest post will be the least of my worries.
For the moment, I’m addicted to the internet and more than happy to stay that way.