Sunday, June 7, 2009

and then some stuff happened: a technobiography

Hark ye yet again--the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.
--Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

When I started high school in 1991, so few people had email accounts that it's likely I'd never even heard the term. When I graduated in 1995, I remember being amazed when a friend showed me what his AOL email account could do (what resonated most for me was that if the intended recipient had not yet opened an email, the sender could actually rescind it--unsend the email.) When I started college that fall, I got my own email account and checked it every few days at the single computer in the common room on my floor of the dorm.

Between 1991 and 1995, a massacre of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda, and the American government's decision not to step in, revealed the sinister side of international diplomacy. Clarence Thomas was confirmed as the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, despite (or because of) obscenely conservative views on race and culture and charges of sexual harassment by an employee, Anita Hill. The Anita Hill story broke on NPR first and quickly spread to television and newspapers, though the impetus wasn't enough to prevent Thomas's confirmation. Rodney King was beaten in L.A. Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. America's households were 98% populated with televisions.

I bought my first new computer--an enormous and slow HP Pavilion--in 2000 and connected it to the Internet via dial-up service. When 9/11 happened, I was on my Internet-wired computer at work and was unable to access CNN, the BBC, or any online news site because the Internet traffic crashed servers and overloaded the sites. I had to walk to a local cafe and watch the story unfolding on TV.

In 2001, I did not own--and had no reason to think I would ever own--a laptop computer, a cellphone, a high-definition television, or an mp3 player. Indeed, when I started graduate school in 2002 I was still of the mindset that I would refuse to own a cellphone, at least, for the rest of my life.

"Phones are for my convenience, not other people's," I argued, ludditely. "These young people are stuck to their cellphones and I don't want that to be me."

In 2003 I went to a counter-protest to commemorate the five year anniversary of the beating death of Matthew Shepard. Fred Phelps and his horde were bringing their signs and sliminess to a University of Wyoming-Colorado State football game, and counterprotesters numbered in the hundreds.

In the first half of 2004 Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. In the second half, George W. Bush beat John Kerry at the polls.

Meanwhile, there were some wars on. We didn't get as much information as we wanted, but we got enough to know something obscene was happening. A lot of what we learned, despite the Bush administration's attempt to control information flow, was made available--and then replicable and spreadable and searchable--via the Internet.

In 2005 I got my first laptop, a Dell with wireless capability. I played a lot of Bejeweled on it, and I also used it, when the adjunct instructor thing got too exhausting, to look for a new job. I used it to apply for more than 50 high school teaching positions (nobody wanted me) and half a dozen jobs in higher education.

In 2007 I started working at MIT and very quickly, and in this order, secured the following:
  • a MacBook Pro
  • a Facebook account
  • a cellphone
  • cable TV
  • a twitter account
  • a blog

Somewhere along the way, I came to embrace the participatory practices and cultures enabled by new media technologies and social tools. For me, the news of the last four years is the news of my embrace of the new mindsets and skillsets afforded by new technologies and increasingly valued by our culture at large. (It's possible, in fact, that culture and I were always ready to embrace these new valued practices, but we were waiting for the technologies to emerge that would enable them.)

In 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Presidency. Between 2005 and 2009 a cluster of states legalized gay marriage or some variation thereof, and a cluster of states banned or overturned these laws. The debates over abortion, evolution, and what to teach our kids, and how, continue just as before, at least in content. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, though access to information about the details of these conflicts has increased. Twitter is big now, in the sense that while not everyone is using it, lots of people care about what's going on within and as a result of it. Email, not so much--in the sense that while everyone is using it, nobody cares too much about it anymore. Journalism as we've traditionally thought of it is in significant crisis; the handwringing over the future of newspapers happens even on Twitter. President Obama has nominated a Latina judge, Sonia Sotomayor, to the U.S. Supreme Court, and she appears to stand on the liberal side of most things.

The story of cultural history is something like this:

"...and then some stuff happened, and we used what we had at our disposal to try to make sense of it."

The same stuff is happening--at least in the sense that the same topics are still being discussed--but the tools we have to make sense of it are so new, so different from what we've ever had, that the only real purpose of comparing the historical iterations of the "stuff" is to highlight how different the social architecture of this world is from that of any version that came before it.

Somewhere in there, in what is perhaps the most telling detail of both my story and our culture's, I decided to stop capitalizing the word "internet."

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I think one interesting subplot is the story of crossed paths and missed opportunities and the evolution of a correpsondance entirely relateable to and in conjunction with the evolution of techonologies, its increasing availability, and our acceptance of it.


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