There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality…
—Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
One Wednesday, I holed up in my apartment— no radio, no television, no phone, no contact. Just me, my ThinkPad, and a 28.8 connection.
It was a test. A study published by Carnegie-Mellon suggested that access to the Net caused family ties to atrophy and social lives to erode. Here was the final proof that the Net was scrambling your orgones. But the subjects in this “Net Bummer” sample were all first-timers. Newbies. No wonder they were cranky— they were lost. (A writer in a recent issue of the Brit mag The Face tried surviving solely on the Net from Wales and ended up sneaking off to the pub or cowering in Compuserve chat.) But what would happen if you were a native, if you knew the shortcuts, arcades, and butt-cheap falafel joints of that electronic city? Would you also encounter the same dunning, depressive force?
For several days, my mom thought I was dead. My friends thought I was crazy or sick. The fever has another name: online.
[Wednesday] Initial conditions: three Choco Leibniz cookies, half-gallon water, half-loaf of bread, one almost empty jar of Skippy Superchunk, one jar grape jelly, 12 onions, a block of cheddar cheese, two centimeters of Jameson
8:05 a.m. Hide the phone in the closet and unplug the radio, TV.
8:20. Read the Times, Wired.com, News.com. All the news I can think of. The “news” is barely that; quantity is quality online. “PC Sales Upswing.” “Aviation Group, Inc. Announces Major Paint Expansion.” If a “major paint expansion” occurs and no one reads about it, did it really happen?
9:10. Netgrocer, thank God, has no problem with outer boroughs. You choose “aisles” like “pasta” and browse images of the products. Most include long lists of ingredients: ferrous lactate, mononitrate, etc. Someone, somewhere, is entering this information into a computer. This makes me sad, briefly. I order enough food for five days (until Monday).
9:25. I’m informed that Netgrocer’s delivery date is six days away.
11:00. I have enough food for two days, a third day lunch, tops. A rapidly intensifying search on Yahoo! for “restaurants” and “delivery” in “Brooklyn” offers this selection: Empress Chocolate Company, manufacturer of assorted boxed and novelty kosher chocolates; Mansoura, offering homemade Syrian pastries; Angela’s Rock ‘N Roll Deli.
11:15. In desperation, I send an e-mail to
Angela’s for a turkey sandwich.
11:25. To: Austin Bunn, firstname.lastname@example.org From: Gbuono6617@aol.com Subject: angela’s rock’nroll deli
sorry, we only deliver locally in the bay ridge area.
12:15. More urgent searching. VegetarianDirect is no longer taking orders. KosherGrocery is also out. Pizzatogo demands a phone number.
12:51. Dominos.com— no e-mail delivery.
12:52. McDonalds.com— same.
12:53. Burgerking.com— ditto.
12:54. Wendys.com— nada. I send a pissy e-mail to email@example.com. It bounces back to me two minutes later.
1:45. Nothing found. Starved, I stop and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Six slices of bread left.
2:30. CyberMeals! Finally I’ve found a site with a local joint that accepts e-mail: Amnon’s Kosher Pizza (what’s with all the kosher Web development?). I can move on from thinking about food to more important matters. Like porn.
2:35. I take advantage of myself in the bathroom. To celebrate.
4:00. Note to self: Where the hell has the day gone?
4:15. Online Originals, a site offering original manuscripts, has one competing for the Booker Prize this year. In all my time online, I’ve never attempted to read something longer than a midsize magazine piece.
“After one year of business, Flying Weasels Software of Los Cerritos, California, was rolling in non-stop dollars… He was becoming the latest computer industry success story, when disaster struck…”
— the beginning of The Jasper Keyboard, from Online Originals
Ugh. One of the Net’s strange modifications of the Real World (RW): You can abandon anything without a word. No diplomacy of rejection, no awkward retreat— just type the next URL, a trapdoor opens. You vanish.
4:30. I download Walden from Project Gutenberg. Vitamins.
5:26. I’m frustrated and debate the merits of taking advantage of myself again. I keep hammering on CyberMeals, distractedly. Magically, Two Boots Pizza appears. What have I done to deserve such luck?
6:25. Food has not arrived yet. I have no choice but to call Two Boots and confirm my order. I plug in the phone. The Two Boots guy tells me, “We don’t do e-mail orders.” I hear my voice for the first time today— obnoxiously loud and direct. Our mouths are brutal modems.
6:45. The pizza arrives. I eat, fascinated by the Two Boots menu— the first printed matter I’ve allowed myself all day.
7:00. Just looked out my window, at the last bit of reflected sun. Across the way, in another house, a television is on. I can’t help but feel it: appliance envy.
7:45. I download the Acrophobia app (approximately 10 minutes), a game where you play against people to invent the most ridiculous acronym inside 20 seconds. In the “Adult” section, the 10 of us playing are handed “TSIGTBP.” The answers roll in: “Tom Seelak Is Going To Bone Peewee.Herman” and “Tight Sucking It Gives To Better Pussy.”
8:30. Yahoo! Chat. There must be about 10,000 people in here, crowding into the multiple “Lobbies” and “Adult” rooms like “Married and Flirting” and “LoneBoner.” Me? I’m waiting for Stargate SG-1 star Richard Dean Anderson to get on at 11.
9:00. I’ve scrounged up stale Drum cigarettes from a corner and I’m smoking. Eating crusts of the pizza. Looking at porn. At Wifey’s World, a nubile young couple named “Hubby” and “Wifey” in Oregon market their amateur porn. Wisely, they have 72 screen grabs available online to satisfy all comers— don’t ask me how I know there are 72.
A word about online erotica: the explicit rush of sex and the graphic photos are no doubt its biggest attractions. But Net porn has another character: it is a welcome outpost of humanity online. After you’ve been staring at text and computer-generated graphics all day, porn is one of the few places where you can see the soft, inconsistent edges of bodies.
10:45. There is a natural black to the RW, but the only darkness online is the drop shadows.
I crawl into bed and sleep. I miss Richard Dean Anderson, but there will be another B-list actor on tomorrow, I’m sure. There is always another one.
Food supply: six slices of bread, two centimeters of Jameson, cheese, onions, peanut butter, jelly
6:30 a.m. I spend 15 minutes with my head under my pillow wishing I hadn’t agreed to do this article. Check my e-mail and learn I have nine messages from people sent after midnight.
6:43. I decide to wash dishes and be proactive.
7:45. The sun streams into my apartment. The Net needs a natural cycle, a dawn at least. Even television slept once, late at night when the American flag would wave and the screen turned to static. Then came infomercials.
9:00. Underworld MOO Connect to 208.148. 73.5 5000 What’s your name? Phrisky
Choose a Race: [D]warven [E]lven [H]uman [G]nome h[A]lfling For help, and level limits, type ‘help.‘ RACE? > a
I have telnetted into the Underworld (a kind of autonomous 24-hour Dungeons and Dragons). There are hundreds of these environments residing on machines across the Net. I choose mine at random. I’m looking for company, but bored with being myself.
H:19 M:106 V:62> look statue
What you see is the Midgaard Worm, stretching around the Palace of Midgaard.
H:19 M:106 V:65> examine worm
You do not see that here.
After bumbling around, I encounter Hargrim, “a tall dark man, leanly muscled, with a haunted look in his eyes,” who, the text explains, is not “a player-killer.” Hargrim, telnetting in from Australia (he’s about to go to bed), decides to give me all of his possessions: a “dwarven” ring, leggings, Moorish “bracers.”
We are visited by a god, Lucky, “who licks Hargrim.” My computer freezes and the trapdoor opens. I drop out instantaneously.
Noon. Irritable. More porn.
12:55. I’m at fitNOW, an exercise site. I have to get another plug-in first to watch a clip of “Abs of Steel.” I spend 15 minutes getting the player. Then, in a tiny, jittery box, Tamilee Webb (M.A., Exercise Science) tells me about her career. I can’t hear a word.
1:00. Another PB&J.
1:35. I’ve decided to create my own club on Yahoo! A scan of the list of created clubs reveals this: most have just one person in them.
Bay Area elite singles: 1
NJ Married ISO what’s missing: 1
No Morals: Have genitalia? Want cock? Come on in: 5
2:00. My club, called Solitudinous, is up. Now just waiting for guests!
3:00. Beautiful. I’m stretching in my first online yoga class at Timages (in Shockwave). The laptop is propped up on the desk so I can still see it while in I’m in warrior pose. An illustrated woman leads me through the asanas, accompanied by the sounds of gulls and an animated crashing shoreline behind her. For the first time since I started, I feel actually tired. Not the shallow exhaustion of looking too much.
4:00. My first new friend: girly-sounding (23/F/ New York). She’s become so sick of the Net, she says, that she “called up [BBSs] the well (and echo, and drizzle) and asked the help desk to change my password.” Both her Web sites are on “hiatus.” “I need more… air,” she says. Somehow, though, she still has time to post in my club.
4:30. Girly-sounding is responsible for one of the more moving sites I’ve found: bittersweets.org, where folks write about the endings of their
romances. “Joe” writes in:
Date: 95-03-01 21:23:57 EST From: *her* To: *me*
I can almost feel you at my side, and I can almost feel your lips brushing against mine. Not too much longer. Gotta run, I really do love you Joey, I hope you know that. Trea.
Date: 95-04-07 01:37:35 EDT From: *her* To: *me*
I didn’t ask for this relationship to be over nor did I ask for it to begin. I could never imagine myself ever being with you and I couldn’t play that game any longer.
Vulnerabilities aren’t hard to find online. But they are always, somehow, news.
5:30. I escape onto the roof of my building, to catch some unfiltered day without the machine around. I hear the sound of a flushing toilet, the djembe drums outside the Key Food— all sounds I don’t control or “request.” I’m tired of driving the machine. As powerful and culture-shaping as the Net may be, it doesn’t do anything unless you ask it to. It is more of an engine than a medium, and it fuels off our curiosity. Without questions, it does nothing.
6:00. I have struck up an e-mail correspondence with the webmaster behind food.from.net. “I don’t want your blood on my hands,” he writes. He offers to contact a local Chinese restaurant and call in the order for me.
6:55. I’m playing the interactive game Wag the Dog (shockrave.com): It’s terrible— as amusing as a scratch-off lottery ticket. This is typical. The Net is full of entertainments but is not exactly entertaining.
7:43. More porn. I give over my credit card number to the monster “adult playground” ClubLove because they advertise one free week and because they’ve got the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee honeymoon video that I’ve heard so many good things about.
8:10. I don’t know what Pamela and Tommy are so worried about— there is no sound and the video is spastic and interminable: here’s Pamela opening the fruit basket. Pamela in the bathtub. Tommy naked on the boat. Somewhere along the line Tommy gets a blowjob, but it’s hard to identify. Tommy appears to be making it with one of the pixelated clouds that figure so prominently on criminals on COPS.
8:30. The SeXXXvision strip show is now on— I can choose to watch “live” women in the “dungeon,” “two-girl shower,” or “health club.” The brunette in the dungeon is the same girl in the health club. She strips immediately and says (in a chat window), “I wish you could feel this shirt coming off me.” She begins jacking herself off with a dildo.
9:00. It takes a good 10 minutes just to find Member Services on ClubLove so that I can demand the cancellation of my membership,
9:41. The Pink Panther— not quite Richard Dean Anderson, but down there, certainly— is now chatting on Yahoo!:
Hornitos 98: is there going to be Pink Panther movie?
Ppanther: I’m currently working with Ivan Reitman on the script
10:15. I finish off the last drips of Scotch and embark to find more alcohol. Evidently, you can buy wine (virtualvineyards.com), but not beer and liquor. On a similar note, you can purchase marijuana seeds, but not the actual plant. Where is the underground when you need it?
Midnight. I settle into bed and prop the laptop up on my legs to read Walden.TXT.
I have trouble with the opening chapter, “Economy”— it’s too dry and knotted. But in “What I Lived For,” Thoreau manages to forecast the particular narcotic of the information age. He writes, “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap
after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ ”
Food supply: three slices of bread, chunk of cheese, onions, jelly
7:30 a.m. I dream of an expedition through Roman ruins. My first thought: no outlets.
8:00. Music! Glory unto God! I’ve downloaded the Spinner plug-in— the 10th plug-in— to play my own personal radio station of classical, jazz, funk. The one that comes in decently is the classical one. I surf to Tchaikovsky.
8:15. Tchaikovsky is hitting Net congestion. It’s coming in 10-second bursts, which defeats the point, really. I hear more silence than music. Potholes in perception.
8:45. Tchaikovsky has stopped and I can’t get it to load.
9:15. Now I can’t get Spinner to work without signing in again.
10:00. A tiny brown mouse scuttles across the floor.
11:23. Trap and Toss Disposable Guillotine Mouse Trap $10.00 SAFE. No snapped fingers. 24 traps to a box.
— at eBay, an online auction site
I take a box.
1:00. I’m running out of food, so I post a message in desperation in my club.
1:30. A friend posts in “Solitudinous” how to make bread pudding. I set about slicing the bread, lay it in a baking dish with the onions and cheddar. And wait.
1:50. I eat the bread pudding, which tastes… like bread plus onions plus cheese. A meal without hope.
2:05. My Netgrocer package arrives, miraculously.
I can now go on indefinitely.
3:00. I take a shower to reboot. First time my body has moved from the chair today. I open the contents of the box from Netgrocer and feel total elation: Pop Tarts!
5:00. The Starr report is perfect reading for online: compact, easily searchable for “kiss,” “breasts,” and “oral.”
7:00. I’m trolling about, looking for a place to talk Lewinsky, and I feel abandoned. I drop into a Yahoo! chat, but it’s full of ravings. The closest I can come to describing what I’m feeling is that I’m hungry for the media. I want to be confronted with opinions, interpretations to absorb or reject.
I rarely surf without company. How often I have remarked out loud to people, pointing to my screen, “Check this out.” Alone, I can’t put the Starr report into context. Not because there isn’t an audience— in fact, there are 6 million of us looking at the same thing. But we have no “sedes,” as Thoreau says— no “seat.” How can I put this story into focus when I’m in constant motion myself?
7:47. I drop into IRC (Internet Relay Chat) for a quick statistical sampling. A search on “Starr” in the room name reveals 52 different matches. A search on “gay” returns 136.
9:15. I reconsider the cancellation of my ClubLove account.
11:00. It only gets worse: I’m entering my own name into search engines for kicks. I unearth the fact that my high school literary arts magazine is, horrifyingly, online.
[My father] turned his face to the window and stared into the sky, demanding rain and release…— Austin Bunn, Glyphs, 1991
11:15. I put myself to sleep, nostalgic for a world without cyberspace. A world like 1991.
4:45 a.m. I can’t get back to sleep, which has started to mean less and less to me since my waking hours are anything but waking. I go online. Girly-sounding has not returned— she’s gone.
5:00. I can’t believe the numbers of people up at this hour in Yahoo! chat. One of the largest rooms is mensuckingmen1, with 67 people. Jesus, this early? I encounter 17-year-old Graceroo in Lobby13. I ask her what she’s doing up at 5 a.m. She tells me she lives in Malaysia, and hopes to marry an American boy one day.
6:15. I leave the apartment and walk to Prospect Park. I’m breaking the rules, but I can’t help it. This test is over. I’m not sick exactly, but still definitely in need of a cure.
A calico cat brushes against my leg on the sidewalk. My first thought: What a small operating system. A page from the Times blows by me and it seems so foreign, like a relic. The sloughed-off skin of a slow-moving animal.
6:50. Dawn. The sky looks the color of my desktop. I vanish.
One of five articles in our Cyber feature.