I remember the first time I ever saw the internet. It was 1994 and I had a friend in his early fifties who was a journalist and a technophile. He had been using computers since it became possible and one day he showed me this new thing called the world wide web. He typed in (this was before Google so he had to just type in which is much less stylish than Googling – oh, those dark days) the name of a magazine and up came some content. Although I didn’t know that online was a thing, I had used some sort of intranet in the university library to find academic papers and I couldn’t see the difference so I went on my merry way unimpressed.
The next time the internet popped up in my life was at the end of 1996. I had just acquired my first computer and I emailed a friend who was overseas. Emboldened by this success I tried typing something into the little box up the top. It was the first thing I thought of which happened to be the name of one of my favourite childhood authors, Judy Blume. Up came her website. I had a look through and eventually came to a comment box. Because I was now on a roll, having successfully internetted not once but twice, I wrote a message. I said that when I was a child my American cousins had sent me two of her books which had both just happened to be about subjects which were relevant to me at the time, and that reading about other people in these situations had really helped me.
And she answered me. To be honest, I probably didn’t truly believe she was a real person – the author of books written many years ago in a country so foreign that I’m still wondering what most of the food items in them could possibly be, no relation to the real world as I knew it at all – and here she was, in real time, writing to me. I was stunned. And I finally understood what the internet was for.
Still, it was a pretty much non-existent part of my day-to-day life until much more recently. When we moved to the country six years ago the only available internet connection was dial-up that ran at about a mile a millenium. It was literally unusable. Every time you clicked on something it took so long to connect that it timed-out and crashed. Then the computer died and nobody missed it because it was just sitting there gathering dust anyway.
Eventually a new computer was acquired. I was not in favour but was out-voted. By then we at least had access to usable broadband, although not much. And the world was fully in the grip of virtual living. I hadn’t planned on joining Facebook but found that I needed to in self-defense. I’d meet up with friends and find I’d missed whole chunks of things they were talking about because everyone else was keeping up on social media. I missed a house-warming and a christening because people assumed I checked my email. So I was dragged into the twenty-first century by, well, peer pressure.
And lots of it has been good. I have used OldFriends and Facebook to find people who were dear to me years ago and to re-connect, and to keep up with people who live too far away to see regularly. I have read some wonderful blogs. I have been able to avoid the annual nightmare of school stationery shopping by doing it online. I’ve discovered some nice recipes. I have my blog. These are all positive things.
What the internet does most, though, I’ve come to realise, is make me tired. It makes me tired because it’s always on at me to do something. To change something. To be different. And because the wonder of it is that anyone can put anything on there which means that so much of people’s hate, their fear, their anger, their bigotry and prejudice and ignorance is all just hanging out there for me, for all of us, to stumble across and it offends me.
My Facebook feed has some interesting and uplifting content. I’m always happy to see photos of people’s kids and hear about what my friends are doing. But to get to these personal posts I have to wade through swathes of ready-made pleas to care about the dolphins, the refugees, the ozone layer, the government, chemicals in food, organic food, processed food, breastfeeding, rhino horns, natural birth, the state of the education system, the vaccination conspiracy, gun control, religion, poverty and the flag. To name but a few.
Do I care about these things? Yes, of course I do. Do I have an opinion on them? Yes. Do I take an active part in helping those who need help? I certainly try to. Do I need to hear about thirty different causes a day? No. No I don’t because that much harsh reality just makes me shut down.
Please don’t misunderstand. I have no problem with people posting about things they feel are important. Standing up for things is admirable, as long as you’re doing something practical as well as re-posting calls for others to. The problem is at my end. I just can’t process the weight of human need that is presented to me daily by the combination of social media and the daily news.
We have never subscribed to a newspaper, nor have we watched television news since having children. Anything important enough came to my attention eventually. Since having easy internet access, though, I have got into the habit of checking the Herald website each day and overall it’s not edifying. Not much of what we call news really is. A lot of it is just the voyeuristic exhibition of people’s misfortunes and tragedies. Many so-called news stories now use quotes taken from Facebook to pad out the content which to me seems to be plumbing new depths of bad taste. Somebody dies and for ‘research’ the reporter just looks at their Facebook page and copies and pastes comments straight from there. Classy.
People do horrific things to each other. Nature and people do horrific things to each other. We need to be aware that this happens because no man is an island and we have a responsibility, I believe, to stand for those who need it and to teach our children to respect the earth and all its inhabitants. But we don’t need to read in detail about every tragic case of abuse, of rape, of extortion, of violence. Those stories leave me with images I can’t always rid myself of easily. There’s nothing constructive about this sort of ‘news’. It’s just draining.
The other element of the internet that tires me is the way it gives a forum for every idiot to air their point of view with no filtering. There have been morons spouting off since humans learned to talk, I’m sure, but you used to be able to avoid them a bit more easily. If you knew someone to be offensive you just didn’t hang out with them. Now, you can be offended while alone in your living-room at the click of a button. In fact it’s quite difficult not to be. It doesn’t matter what I read online, there’ll always be some comment that astounds me with its ignorance or obnoxiousness. I could just ignore it, of course. It’s nothing to do with me, after all. But I can’t help it. I do get offended when people put their intolerance and small-mindedness out there for all to see. When people are happy to write things that upset others when they clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. When people assume that others need to hear about their prejudices. Didn’t their mother ever tell them, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?
I am not advocating for us all to give up the internet. It’s a powerful tool for good as well as for the more dubious. It can enhance our quality of life greatly. It can be a lot of fun and open our eyes to a huge world we couldn’t access otherwise. Online grocery shopping is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. The change I’m looking for is all mine.
So here’s how it is, for me. I have stopped reading almost all the articles and links about what I should or shouldn’t be feeding my kids because it was making me anxious. I am cultivating a healthy attitude of believing in my own ability to raise my children. I am continuing to do the things I’ve always done to help people, animals and the earth and am not allowing the huge stream of information about causes to make me feel guilty for saying, it is enough. I am consciously deciding to keep away from the news and to go back to my system of assuming that if it’s important someone will tell me and that I’m better off without all the other drivel.
I am not aiming for ignorance and insularity. No matter what the cause is or what evil exists the best thing I can do at the moment to contribute to the betterment of everything is to raise my children well. If I put four responsible, compassionate, aware people into the world I have done a powerful thing. Until then it’s my responsibility to make sure my energy’s directed there and not into dwelling on things that have been poked into my awareness by people with other agendas through the internet. I can take from the web without it taking from me, but I have to change a few habits and be vigilant.
And now, because this has been all doom and gloom and I don’t want to be responsible for putting anyone else off using the ‘net, I’m going to go back and put in some entirely unrelated but hopefully cheerful and uplifting photos of our garden.