Thursday, October 21, 2004

In case you missed those subtle references the last few weeks...

...I'm going drinking tomorrow. I suppose there's nothing terribly out of the ordinary about my intention of consuming liquor -- I've been known to do that from time to time -- but this is a special occasion. Which I've mentioned, a time or, two in my column.

But, if you've missed those references, here is that special occasion.

Ten years of Caught in the 'Net.

Ten goddamn, motherfucking years of Caught in the 'Net.

Approximately 500 columns.

A longer run than many television shows (*most* television shows -- as was pointed out to me the other night).

Damn-near-exactly one-third of my life.

That's a long time.

I probably won't get a chance to blog between work and liquor tomorrow, so I'm going to take a few minutes now to get out some of my thoughts and feelings on the subject, because I think they need to get out. And I may not have the opportunity to do it in the column proper before year's end.

I was 21 years old when I started writing Caught in the 'Net. I was working for a little newspaper that was, at the time, called the Williams Lake Advocate. I'd been there for quite a few years, working in production in spite of the fact that I'd joined the paper hoping I could somehow use to follow my dream of being a writer.

It didn't work out that way, as I was far to shy at the time to properly conduct interviews, and when I tried to quit the job, disgraced by my own failure, I instead found myself designing ads and laying out a newspaper.

In those days, computers were fairly new to me. I needed someone to remind me, constantly, what it was I had to click on it order to start building the ads -- there were so many pretty little icons on the desktop, it was hard to remember what did which thing.

I bought my first computer not long after. I had actually been shopping for a word-processor, and the one that I was demoing had a little two or three line display that would show you what you were writing, and suppored floppy disks to save your work -- remember, I wanted to be a writer, not a computer geek, and all I wanted to get my hands on was a simple little typewriter replacement.

But when I returned the word-processor to the store that had allowed me to demo it overnight, I saw the most amazing thing -- a personal computer. They had just gotten it in the night before, and had it set-up and on display, the screen flashing through brilliant colour photos that couldn't help attract your attention. It looked far, far better than the simple three line screen on the word processor. And, of course, as a computer, it could be a word processor too, but also oh so much more.

I bought it, of course. It was a 386. It had 4MB of Ram (which I later upgraded to five), a 100MB hard drive, and the video card supported a whopping 256 colours, and it ran Windows 3.1.

And I fell in love with it almost overnight.

A few years later, swapped the machine for a 486-66 with 16MB of RAM, a 256MB hard drive, and -- the one piece of hardware that would seal my fate -- a 14.4K modem.

I used the modem, initially, to call the handful of local bulletin board systems that were running at the time, which satisifed my desire for digital conversation. And yet, there was a sense that there could be more -- that there *was* more, just waiting to be discovered.

That *more* was the Internet.

I first heard about the Internet on the news, probably in 1993. It was just beginning to outgrow its early military and university-based origins, slowly becoming something the generaly public might be interested in. I distinctly remember a news show quoting the e-mail address for the president of the United States --

And I remember looking at the address, mystified by the funny symbols, the odd punctuation. There was something about it that looked wholly digital, that looked somehow 21st century. This was the future. I wasn't sure how I knew it, and if asked at the time, I probably would have denied that I knew it, but it was there, burning in the back of my mind. And one thing was certain: I had to get on this thing they called the "Internet".

So I did.

I found an ad in the back of a computer magazine, promoting something called a FreeNet in Washington.

The idea of a FreeNet was that you could use your modem to dial in and access the Internet completely free of charge. It seems like a funny business model to me, and I'm not sure how they made any money (actually, they likely didn't, explaining the noticeable lack of FreeNets in the modern world) but I didn't care. It was going to get me online for the simple charge of...well, whatever the long distance turned out to be.

For the record, the long distance turned out to be in the area of $500.00 for that month. But it was worth it. My God, was it worth it.

My first experience with the Internet on that FreeNet was through a unix-based shell. There were no pretty pictures on the world wide web, no easy point-and-click interface. You logged into the system and used a series of text commands to steer your way around. It was awkward and clunky, and thank God I had a copy of Internet for Dummies handy to help me find my way around, but what I found -- first in Gopher, and then in Usenet, and later through an attempt to access the web through a text-based browser, wowed me.

As time went on and I read more about this mysterious Internet, I discovered that there were servers that allowed people to access the 'Net using programs that actually ran in Windows -- no more annoying text commands! Not long after I found another freenet service, this one offering exactly that kind of access, and I cheerfully signed up, happily paying the telephone company another $500 in long distance charges so that I could access the online world.

And the day I finally logged in through was all over. I was hooked. I could feel the rush move through my body, tingling my brain, glazing my eyes over, bringing a faint but very real smile to my lips. There was more information out there than you could imagine, and it was suddenly oh-so-easy to get at. Point-and click. Point-and-fucking-click, man.

A few months after that, I got word that Internet service was going to be available locally, and I couldn't sign up fast enough. My addiction would have gladly forced me to continue spending $500 each month for 'Net access, but I was grateful to be able to shave off 95% of that bill. I knew I was going to need to buy groceries eventually.

At this point, I pitched the idea of an Internet column to the then editor of the paper, Bal Russell. I thought it would be a brilliant way to merge two of my passions -- writing and the Internet -- and actually get some words published in the paper for a change. I wanted to start the column right away, to get people ready for the Internet a few weeks before it actually arrived in Williams Lake, but Bal vetoed that, and told me that while he'd run the column, it would have to wait until Internet service actually existed in Williams Lake.

Waiting was hell. I spend weeks thinking about the first line for that first column, trying, desperately, to come up with just the right words to draw people into, first the column, and then the wonder, the magic, of the Internet in general.

Ten years ago, I wrote these words:

You've probably heard of it before — the Information Superhighway. These days it's hard to watch the news, read the paper, go to the movies, or do just about anything without hearing about it, and how much its changing the face of communication forever.

It's real name is the Internet, and if you're like a lot of people you're probably wondering how to "get connected."

It's a lot easier than you might think.

And that, my friends, is now officially a piece of history.

The column has gone through a lot of changes in ten years. When I started, my goal was to have it function as a kind of guide-book for people, helping them understand and get the most out of the Internet. I pointed people towards valuable software and wrote reviews of the coolest web sites. During the first year of the column, I held weekly IRC chats, where local readers could come and hang out, and ask question and get advice.

As the years went on, and Internet became increasingly more mainstream, the column didn't need to focus quite as much on being a guide-book. It began to change into more of an opinion-based column, while still focused on the Internet, allowing me to share my thoughts on everything from the Netscape / Internet Explorer rivalry, to the legal and moral issues of using a little program called Napster.

At its peak, it ran in five newspapers. It's been printed in two different papers in Williams Lake, it's run in Quesnel, it's run in Prince George, it's run in Sycamouse, and it even ran illegally in Merritt for a few weeks, when an editor breached copyright law and printed the sample columns I sent him without permission. Which, given the number of songs I've downloaded, is probably more than fair.

I've received fan mail (though never as much as I would have liked) and once inspired someone to mail-bomb me. I can't count the number times I've been out somewhere and had someone say to me, "Hey, you're that computer guy, aren't you?" And I have never once gotten tired of hearing a complete stranger tell me, "I really liked your column last week."

I've been through one girlfriend and then a break-up, and then another girlfriend and then a marriage and then a breakup, all during the run of this column. And outside of a Valentine's Day column that, in retrospect, ended up being more than just a little bit embarassing, almost none of that has had a noticeable impact on my writing from week to week.

The world moves and changes; there are ups and downs; but Caught in the 'Net remains solid.

I've sent column to my editor, not sure it was the best I could do. I've sent column after too many drinks, and have, occassionally, completely forgotten to send columns because I'd had even more drinks.

I've written good ones, bad ones, and far, far too many that were just kind of okay. I even went through a period -- probably five years ago -- when I felt like I was cheating anyone who read the column, because I wasn't putting enough into.

I almost quit the column then. It had somehow stopped being a labour of love, and had, instead, become a chore.

God knows how it turned into a labour of love again, but it did. And I'm glad.

This last year has been an absolute blast for me. Throwing caution to the wind, and writing anything I wanted, whether it connected to the Internet or not, has been a surprisingly freeing experience, and I feel as if I've done some of my best writing -- in any medium -- during these last 300 days. And that makes me, very, very happy.

If I were to die on January 1, 2005, I could go with one fewer regret, knowing that I had put my all into this column, and did everything with it that I could think of and had time to do in that last year.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess, depending on how you look at it) I'm not dying on January 1, 2005, which is what is making this whole thing so goddamn difficult.

I announced last January that I was going to retire the column at the end of 2004, when it reached its 10th anniversary. I decided this for a number of reasons.

The first and most obvious was this: When I realized that the end of 2004 was going to mark the 10th anniversary of the column, I did the math and realized that I'd been writing it for one-third of my life. And if I were to do it for another ten years, then I would reach the point where I had done it for half of my life.

And the little voice in my head, that's desperately afraid of getting old and eventually dying, said this: "Don't ever, ever, ever do anything for half your life."

On top of that, there had been a feeling for the last few years that perhaps the column had run its course. It started as a How-To guide, became a vehicle for my opinion, and then finally turned into a series of ramblings with vague connections to the Internet.

It had been a good run, I thought, but its time was over.

That is still something I feel. The Internet has, in many ways, become like the telephone. It's a tool we use every day, and it's lost a lot of its cool factor. We don't so much "go on" in the Internet as much as the Internet as always kind of there, in the background, waiting to be used.

No one needs a weekly column about the telephone anymore.

On the other hand, there are still television columnists, and maybe that's a more accurate comparison for the Internet. And as long as there's an Internet, there will be issues that some one, and particularly me, will want to sound off about.

People often tell me that they can't believe I've found something new to write about every week for ten years. I usually just smile and try to explain that when you're dealing with a global network, as diverse as the Internet is, most weeks it's not a question of what you're going to write about, but what you're not going to write about.

I'm desperately afraid of ending this column. Can you tell?

After ten years, it's not a responsibility, it's not a nuisance. It's not a joy either. It's just...part of my life. I do it ever week. Wednesday night, there's two hours set aside to browse the 'Net, looking for any late-breaking news I might have missed, followed by madly typing up 300-400 words as I stare out the window at the setting sun (or a pitch-black sky, depending on the season).

I don't know what I'm going to do with those two hours now.

I've had a few people e-mail me, asking me not to end it, telling me they'll miss it, and I appreicate those words, but it's hardly been an outpouring of support for the column. If there was one, I'd probably use that as a perfectly reasonable excuse to not end it.

Instead, at I'm staring at the next two months, realizing that at the end of December I'm going to have to express all of these feelings with some kind of great, wonderful, profound goodbye.

I could change my mind if I wanted to, I know. I'm sure I have that authority. I've never spoken, explicitly, with my editor about the end of the column, and I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I decided to keep it running.

But at the same time, there remains that overwhelming feeling like it's over. The column has done what it set out to do, and has done it for far longer than I ever would have imagined. And closing doors is not something that we should ever be afraid of, because it's something that always leads to opening a new one, and starting out on some great new journey of discovery.

Maybe I *should* go with what my gut says, and let this door close, as terrifying as it might be, wondering what's behind the next door.

Whatever I decide to do, these ten yeras have been great for me. I will take so many fantastic memories with me from this, memories that wouldn't have existed without this column.

And to all of you -- whether you've read ten columns, or 100, or 500 -- you're the ones who've made this worthwhile. It's a funny relationship between a writer and his audience. In theatre (as I learned earlier this year) the relationship is far more intimate. You get to see and hear how people react to what you say and do. With this, there are two days and more than a few miles between when I write my words and when you read them, and as much as I know you're out there, it's still a strangely lonely experience doing the actual writing.

But the point is that I *do* know you're there. Every time I get an email from someone, or someone stops me on the street to tell me they loved last week's column, or someone smiles at me in a bar and says, "Hey, you're that computer guy," and then they shake my hand, I am reminded that my words do have an audience.

So to you, that audience, I say thank you. Thank you for being there, for listening to what I had to say, whether you liked it or not, whether it made any sense or not. You are the vital second half of this strange thing that writing is, and you have always ensured that I wasn't standing alone in a room, screaming at the top of my lungs, at no one except myself.

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