Inbox: The Film -or- How the Internet Taught Me German

Screenshot from YouTube

The year is 1994 and you see me sitting behind the desk my Grandfather’s secretary used when I was a little girl. It has a section of flip-top with a little shelf inside of it where her typewriter sat and she could fold the whole thing up, hiding the machine and clearing her desk for sorting papers. A lovely piece of walnut furniture rendered decidedly less useful by the advent of monitors and keyboards.

I am staring at my new Apple Quattro and modem. Off to the side is a pile of diskettes and a stack of user’s manuals, because that is how we learned – way back when, in the Twilight Days.

Handshake? What is a handshake and how can I tell if my computer has one? How will I know if I know? Kshhh doooodle-loooo Bleeeeep. What the Dickens was that? <page flip, page flip> Hmmm…

The remarkable thing about the internet in 1994 is that there was nothing going on. None of my friends were “there”. I cruised around alone for several weeks like a visitor to outer space until one afternoon I randomly found a mailing list - sort of. It didn’t actually mail anything to me, it was just this long list of question and answer conversation.

Introvert-I gathered up about a bushel-basket full of courage and looking first left and then right, stepped timidly out on the data highway. I wrote an email to an unanswered question. “I hope you don’t mind if I reply to you privately”, I began and continued to tell a little something about myself, why I felt qualified to give an answer and then my answer.

After sending it I remember I felt a slightly sick to my stomach but also, strangely happy.

Days passed and I nearly wore out my check-mail button before a reply finally fluttered into my mailbox. The number thanked me for my mail, told me a little bit about itself, including the fact that it was sitting five thousand miles away in a tiny dorm room in Southern Germany finishing it’s university degree in Elektrotechnik (whatever that was). The mail was signed with a first name I had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce.

This. Emily Dickinson’s –This–, is what happened when I talked to an invisible stranger.

Well, then of course, I wrote back and I learned how to pronounce his name. He wrote again and I did too and before you know it a friendship bloomed. It felt very much like the film: Inbox (#edcmooc). It felt hopeful and exciting, we laughed a lot while he improved his English and I my technical skills. He invited me to visit. I did. We got along famously. It didn’t take long to sell my house, quit my job, pack ten boxes of books, two sweaters and one very large dog and return to Utopia. And I am still here, eighteen years later, we are happily together, fluent in each other’s native languages and utterly amazed by the whole thing.

But Wait! What Happened to Our Internet?

Woah, Daddy, it changed. We watched it change and we helped it along in little ways, both loving the changes and hating them. Now, everyone is trying to sell something and I miss my old internet, but I sure was grateful to Amazon and Ebay for access to English books during the Twilight Days.

Now, if you want to have a “successful” blog, A blog?, you need a theme to be heard, you need SEO to be noticed, the NSA and the MIx move freely among the public watching and listening, the mafia is laundering money, new forms of which are springing up every day, and dating sites where it is easy fall for the wrong person without even going into a bar, are a dime a dozen.

The current condition of the Internet is, and is not, what I expected back then. Life wants to Live, and as soon as some of us moved our lives online and began doing part of our living here it was a short and foreseeable step to sales pitches, money laundering and shoe-filled celebrity gossip columns. The Internet today mirrors what you find when you walk outside your door - without the trees and fresh air. It is and will remain inferior to the real thing as long as the flowers don’t have petals soft as a lovers cheek.

Questioning the utopianiaty or the dystopliness of Technology is like asking those questions about real life. Technology, like Society is a lens on human nature, a perspective, and as such it provides supporting proof. No matter your claim. Erich Heller might equally have applied his famous quote to technology when he said: Be careful how you interpret the world: It is like that.