The last month I have been engaged in a psychological study. I have not used my broadband connection once. So that we can all learn what life is like without the internet, in an internet-saturated world.
The idea for this noble and self-sacrificing experiment occurred to me when, after moving house, EE told me it would take them a month to reconnect me to the internet. Well, they initially said ten days. But as various engineers in luminescent jerkins came and went like waves wearing luminescent jerkins, the days piled up. Far be it from me to label a company lackadaisical, inefficient and – let’s be honest – worse than Stalin. That is for lesser men than me. They know which circle of Hell they are destined for, and I forgive them.
The experience I am having is, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say, the equivalent of what Jesus went through in his moments of doubt and pain. But through that human misery, I have truly learnt what it is to lose something dear to you.
Of course, it’s easy to think we spent our time before the internet was invented doing more meaningful, human things. Weaving tapestries. Running with children (anyone’s) in the park. Looking at sunsets and just laughing and then crying at the majesty of it all.
But the time before the web was a barren, Mad Max-style hell. Prior to its website iteration, Google’s analogue service involved just ringing a guy in New Jersey to ask if he had pictures of Demi Moore. “I ain’t got no DEMI Moore, I got Roger. You wan’ it or naht?!” he would shout down the line. And we’d say “ok, I guess that’ll do” and let the piles of original Moonraker cinematic posters build up. Because we didn’t know there was something better waiting for us.
But ever since my first tentative steps on google.com (“DEMI Moore classy state of slight undress”), the web became such an essential part of my life that I couldn’t imagine doing without it. Even as the 56K modem tortured me with an hourlong wait before revealing that all along it had been downloading the original Moonraker cinematic poster, I knew the web would become an assumed part of my horizon as much as the sky. Now I live in a skyless horizon (though I do still have Sky TV). I am uploading this in the last public library remaining in London, as the librarians burn books around me in the name of the Big Society.
The first few days were full of denial, of course. Merrily powering up my laptop and then realising, before the desktop appeared, that it was of literally no use to me whatsoever. We would stare at each other, me and the shining screen. It was awkward, as though I had summoned a demon and then forgotten why.
The sense of loss began to sink in – the heavy presence of absence. The grieving process is a struggle between a full stop and an ellipsis. When we are grieving, half our psyche tries to come to terms with the sheer finality of what has happened. And the other half is trying to provide a convincing enough “and then…” to force the pain into a narrative, with all its promise of progression. Like a pendulum I swing between finality and hope, painfully aware that I cannot download a pendulum app to visualise my sense of existential uncertainty.
In moments like this – unable, for example, to watch any of the new Game of Thrones – we face the terrible possibility that everything we thought gave meaning to our lives is malleable and ultimately dissolvable. We face a dark fire, which melts our sense of value like one of Dali’s watches. Or maybe like one of Dali’s watches – I don’t know, I can’t Google Image Search to check.
I’ve tried to find meaning in the small things. Sitting in the cafe over the road and angling my screen so they can’t see me abusing their generous free wifi policy by downloading hi-res pictures of Roger Moore (having developed an unexpected fetish some time ago). Standing by a bank of computers in the Apple Store, seeing if there are any new versions of that Boromir meme. “One does not simply call a referendum on the EU bailout” – take that, Tsipras! Asking friends what dinners they’ve uploaded pictures of (with the necessary follow-up question of “why?”). Or using the 4G on my iPhone or iPad. But I know this is all make believe. You cannot move on that easily.
I still see the internet sometimes, at parties or over coffee. But that is public time, in public space. It’s not the thousand little moments, curled up in bed or snuggled up on the sofa, that form the mosaic of a contented life together. It makes me wince to see another guy laughing at a video of a child falling off a swing, knowing that such videos are beyond my grasp now.
What dawned on me, after EE sent me another cheery text delaying the web for another week, is that when you’ve lost something in your life, you cannot explain away the hurt. You have to accept the wound and feel every ripple of pain.
Because, looking back at all the years of joy I have had (changing my mate Daisy’s Facebook status to “is dick”, my flame war with Alain de Botton, the creating of justrogermoorepics.com), I know that the pain now is part of the happiness then. It’s the price I pay for joy. And if I had to go back and choose, I would pay it again and again and again.
But to those of you who still have the internet: treasure those Boromir memes. Love those comments underneath articles that attack a point not made in the article or at any point in human history. Cherish even that Facebook friend that keeps posting statuses like “whoopsie! In New York AGAIN having mojitos! #FML #NOT”, no matter how many times you write “please please die” on their wall and they refuse to do so.
Run the wifi signal through your fingers in the moonlight. One day, it might be gone…