Was there ever a sweeter serenade than the song of dial-up internet? After hearing the ghostly sound of modems past floating around my office today, I thought about how that sound has disappeared into the technological past.
In a country where only 3% of Americans still use dial-up, the song is almost a dead language, one that used to communicate to us that we’ve arrive at our destination: The Internet. But, is the internet a place? Is it a somewhere we can arrive at? Does it come to us when we enter a URL or check our email?
Imagining what the internet looks like is a popular source of creative material for television, books, movies, and games. And, while no two works seems to have the exact same image, media from the early millennium seemed to agree on the idea that the internet is indeed a place.
The episode of the children’s television show The Fairly OddParents, Information Stupor Highway, centers on the main character, Timmy Turner, trying to recover an email that was accidentally sent to his elementary school crush, Trixie. Without Gmail’s undo send feature, Timmy opts to travel into the internet, with the help of his magical fairy godparents, to retrieve the email before it arrives in Trixie’s inbox. Ignoring the rather instantaneous nature of sending emails, Timmy’s fairy godparents transform him into streams of data and send him online. Traveling from desktop to desktop, Timmy searches until he finds Trixie’s computer and snags the email before she can read it. Here, Timmy leaves the real world and enters the Internet. He can’t exist in both places at once. In fact, if he can’t get back to his original computer, then he would be stuck on the internet permanently.
Meanwhile, the video game Mega Man Battle Network, shows a world where humans can see and interact with the internet, but they can’t actually go there. Instead, humans have an intelligent artificial intelligence called a NetNavi (Internet Navigator) who acts as the proxy for the human’s actions online. NetNavis surf the web, read emails, take phone calls, and “bust” viruses in battle. NetNavis can be “jacked-in” to other machines and wander inside where humans can’t go. From televisions to refrigerators to subway trains, there are very few places NetNavis can’t jack in to. In this world, humans witness and interact online through the actions of avatars with their own personalities. The internet world and the physical world are mixed, but distinct. Because humans cannot enter the Net and NetNavis cannot enter the physical world, the boundaries between them are quite clear.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a cyberpunk Japanese anime about an elite police unit that investigates cyber-terrorism in 2025 Japan. A robust show that raise many questions, Ghost in the Shell portrays a world where many individuals have cybernetic body parts that allow them to interface with the Internet directly. Through connecting their brains to these networks, people can communicate, send information and data, and go “diving” through the net. In Ghost in the Shell, the Internet is not a separate space, but one that is seamlessly integrated into the human terrain. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi (known as “The Major”), gazes out and sees not only the physical world, but data files, text messages, and visual conversations with her unit in her field of vision. When the Major dives into the Internet, she can create a digital avatar that can see and interact with other avatars online in round-table chat rooms or just appear as a stream of data as she passes through secure firewalls.
In this show, the Internet is ever present and seamlessly integrated into everyone’s field of vision and experience. The Matrix creates a similar image of the net where all humans are connected to a shared, networked reality. The main difference, however, is that The Matrix creates a simulated reality of which no one is aware. While the people of Ghost in the Shell exist in a composite reality where the boundaries between the internet and the “real world” blend, the people in the Matrix have an simulated reality so seamless that only a chosen few can intuit the difference.
As the internet has become more of an integral part of our daily lives, popular media no longer seems as interested in the question of the internet as a place. It seems to me that of the various representations out there, we have more closely adopted the view of Ghost in the Shell – the Internet is a space that is now experienced as a blend of the physical and the digital.
Our smart phones and tablets have become extensions of our bodies. We wear Bluetooth headphones that allow us to rock out to music without a cord. Amazon Echo and Siri allow us to talk to our computerized assistants (I’m temporarily putting aside the questions of corporate and State surveillance). The discontinued Google Glass allowed users to interface with the Net just like Ghost in the Shell. You can see the Web right in front of you, even as you walk down the street.
Is our popular media no longer as fascinated with the question because we think we already found the answer? I don’t believe so. The question is not so much resolved as it is debated. Countless articles exist on the dangers of smart phones, tablets, and other connected technology. Many of them report on technology’s effect on the brain or on communication or on its effect on labor and productivity. Adolescence and childhood, in particular, become sites for the debate on technology as we worry about the effects of an interconnected digital reality on the physical, mental, and social well-being of children.
I think this is evidence that we’ve moved away from thinking of the Internet as a separate space to an integrated network so pervasive that it becomes a cultural battleground.
What do you think? Is the internet a place you go to? Or, is it something else entirely?