Whenever I went away to college in the fall, my mother always drove me on the interstate. Each year, at the precise moment we were driving north, Monarch butterflies were migrating south. How did they know the opening date of the fall quarter? Did they read the alumni newsletter? They swarmed toward our windshield, flocks of black and orange wings, heading right for us, swooping up suddenly and sailing over our car. Butterflies soaring over I-75. It was fearsome at first, and then it was magical. I think about it every fall, and in my mind’s eye it remains fantastic and magical.
I remember being afraid of the information superhighway when I first signed up for email. People touted it as magical so why was I netphobic? That was the word I used to describe to my friends how I felt. I feared that the whole world would come right at me through my computer screen and paste itself to my windshield making it hard to see at all.
But after receiving and sending a few emails, I was surfing, as we called it, because the modem made noises like whales whistling in a huge wave of rushing water. There were no laptops, no tablets, so everyone was either surfing at home or at the office. We were into it, creating our address books, clicking on ads, sending each other messages anytime, night or day. “Surf’s up!” we’d shout gleefully. As if we were in a beach party movie, we’d laugh knowingly at the corny joke. Anyone who was still relying on “snail mail” would look at us blankly. The web worked on phone lines, we’d murmur, as if we knew what that meant. Our parents would mention the two soup cans and a piece of string they’d played telephone with when they were children. ‘So what?!’ we’d think, and login to eBay to collect relics of a time before there was a worldwide web.
Some of us began to set limitations. Sometimes. As soon as some of us learned not to throw away our privacy, others showed up looking to steal it. Things we ought to have foreseen surprised us all. We couldn’t find a way to equate typing, alone in our rooms, with a face-to-face conversation; we’d forgotten how to stay civil. Sometimes, a friend would send a long, long, angry email, oblivious to the fact that electronic data is forever. Since you weren’t there to interrupt, they might vent and vent and some friendships died a messy death in that way.
On the other hand, the web connected me to friends while I was a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. People followed me on Facebook, said encouraging things, sent me funds via PayPal so I could take a cab to chemo, emailed to say they’d be bringing me food or visiting me at home or in the chemo ward. For all those communications, I am grateful. Without the net, my recliner, my cable remote and my toaster oven would have been my world during the long months of chemo.
But now, it seems to me, there isn’t a world anymore, just the net, and the many versions of a shared reality to choose from. Now, one documented liar tweets a few times a day and flocks of people follow, like sheep who need to be told which way to march; they assume the proven liar is the one who knows that the news isn’t real. Lately, I’ve noticed some TV programs and a few East and West Coast news sites and magazines fighting back, online and on paper, to regain their status as respected, reliable news outlets. They were established over decades of hard work and hard battles for the truth, in most cases, and now they have to defend their existence.
So is there a world anymore or just the net ensnaring us in malleable data? How would the real world have to cowboy up in order to stick around without succumbing to the force of the internet? I suppose it’s up to educated middle-class people like myself, who were given a Liberal Arts Education, to think for ourselves and ask whether the net has ensnared the world. Is it really the world that’s coming at us through our computer screens and pasting itself to our windshields, until we can’t see anything but the net? Net is short for internet, because when was the last time you saw a butterfly net?
The Monarch butterflies never demanded more of my attention; as long as the car created a slipstream that they could surf and swoop over on their way south, they sailed exuberantly along. They didn’t collect my demographics. They didn’t show me ads of the last species of butterfly I had seen, or maps of the interstate with the campus exit marked. They didn’t tell me their Latin name or send me a link to the Wiki on Lepidopterology (which is the technical term for the study of moths and butterflies). They were fearsome, beautiful and undeniably real. Powerful daredevils, surfers of the superhighway. And then they were gone. A few minutes later, another flock would come along, and maybe a third, but that was it. Gone. You’d have to wait a year to see it again, the lasting source of real beauty and real wonder that filled your field of vision for mere seconds, and your mind’s eye forever.