I keep having this nightmare where I wake up in the morning, come downstairs to use my computer, and instead of having a cool laptop, it’s my family’s first computer from when I was growing up at home. I try to get online but the AOL number is busy, over and over again, and I’m stuck just staring at a boring boxy monitor.
OK, I’ve never had that nightmare. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the early Internet and how, regardless of how new and incredible everything was, it wasn’t nearly enough. Of course, what I’m referring to as the early Internet isn’t really the early Internet. I know that before AOL the Internet was just a bunch of nerds networking their college computer labs through modems.
AOL wasn’t even like real Internet. I mean, there was a browser in there somewhere, but AOL was its own software, and it tried to tailor the Internet experience for you as it saw fit. Chat with your friends through AOL Instant Messenger. Read some news articles by clicking on the AOL news button. There were buttons for everything. AOL was basically a huge catalog.
Thankfully, that only lasted for a few years. New York got hooked up with fiber optic Internet pretty shortly afterward, a golden age of Internet exploration. Whereas before I could never really stomach non-AOL straight Internet, mostly because everything took so long to load, now I could do whatever I wanted.
Which is why I think it’s weird, the way the Internet is going now, almost backwards. When everybody had dial-up, we, by necessity, looked at the Internet through these filters that we paid for, AOL, MSN … what else was there? Prodigy? I don’t really remember. But it’s not important. Once we started paying for direct Internet, there wasn’t anymore need for these filters. You have your browser and you can do whatever you want.
But with cell phones and tablets I feel like the Internet is, like I said, it’s going in reverse, back into a world of ready-made preparedness. Instead of opening up a browser, we just tap a news icon on our devices. It doesn’t feel open anymore. It doesn’t feel like there’s a whole world out there. I feel limited to what apps are on my iPhone and what they can do over a 3G or WiFi network.
Facebook isn’t the same anymore. Not that it was ever anything great, but now I feel like it’s just people posting meme jokes and videos that I’ve already seen before. And who’s making these memes? Is there one centralized source where all of this stuff is being disseminated?
And now I’m going to sound a little conspiratorial, but we’re still going through the frontier years of the Internet. Business models are still being established. The main players, companies like Google, they’ve only been around for a couple of years. The government has yet to really restrict any access. But what if that changes? In China, whole swaths of the Internet are blacked out, unable to be accessed. What if some clever politician convinces all of us that that’s what we need?
And then they’ll put in limits on the hardware, on our phones and on our computers, so that even if we wanted to go outside the limits of our devices, we wouldn’t be able to. Is it so hard to imagine a future with no Internet browser, no individual web sites, just buttons on your phone, a news app, a music app? What if companies start charging huge licensing fees to start your own web site? It’s not how it is now, but it’s not at all outside the realm of possibility.
What is the Internet, just a bunch of connected computers, right? Maybe I’ll make my own Internet, a new Internet, and I won’t let anybody connect to it. And little by little news of my new Internet will spread, until people are driven crazy, lining up down the block to ring on my doorbell, begging to be granted a high speed new Internet connection. And I’ll wait and deliberate for years, making gestures like I might open it up, but I never will, it’s mine, because I’ll be the only one that can keep it safe.