Recently, our household had the misfortune of being stranded with no regular internet service for a fortnight.
When I say “no regular internet service”, I mean that our main computer crashed. Stopped working. Showed me the famous “blue screen”. Then committed suicide.
I am not one of those fundis who tweet from my cellphone. I don’t even own a smartphone or tablet. Without our main hard drive, we were only able to access the web from a very primitive Nokia, or from an ancient, old-fashioned little laptop that’s so slow it takes five minutes to delete a spam email.
We could only perform emergency IT operations, in other words. Gone, all of a sudden, was the luxury of surfing the world’s information highways, looking at the surface of Mars, checking for birthdays on Facebook, or talking kak with whoever crossed our paths in cyberspace.
In all this time, I updated my Facebook profile only once, and I only tweeted twice. The Facebook update was compulsory, we had to promote an event. The first tweet was to inform everyone that my computer had crashed. The second tweet, about a week later, was of a kind of “Eureka” moment that I felt compelled to share with the world voluntarily. It went like this:
“After 7 days without the internet, I’ve discovered an astonishing fact: Reality is 3D, it has unlimited ADSL, and is absolutely free!”
Since then, I haven’t been back. I haven’t even checked if anyone had retweeted that profound revelation. I was too busy catching up on a mode of being I had almost forgotten. I was re-learning the art of living.
This is quite ridiculous, actually. It’s not as if, before the crashing of my computer, I’d spent hours every day in virtual reality. At most, I glanced at my social media pages once in the morning and sometimes at night. I replied to email, did a bit of research, read the news. It never felt as if this mode of communication or receiving information had taken over my whole existence.
Yet, the moment it fell away, my whole perception changed. It was as if, even though I had never been a slave of the internet, my way of looking at the world had been tinted all along. Life outside the computer was just a website with a different set of rules. One you could move around in. A bit like Sims, but with better graphics.
Everything had been short-term. I didn’t visit people face to face if I could contact them in some other way. I didn’t phone them, or have real conversations, if it was sufficient to email or text them. Except for my very close friends, neighbours and acquaintances that lived close by, or the fans I met in the flesh during CD signing sessions after my concerts, my social life existed in small bursts of visual images and one-liners. I was no longer attuned to the subtle expressions on people’s faces as their moods changed; the only change I registered was when they changed their profile pictures.
The very fact that I relied on this method of virtual communication for an increasingly larger section of my interpersonal exchanges, had, in the course of the last few years, subtly altered my personality without me even noticing the difference.
The moment it was taken away from me, however, things started returning to the mode of being I now refer to as the homo sapiens “default mode”. Just being human. It was a bit like living in the seventies again. I read books. I heard the latest news, not from a “ping” sound coming from my monitor, but in exchanges across the fence with the people living next door, by overhearing snatches of conversation in the street.
I rediscovered the secret, lost knowledge of living outside the virtual bubble the 21st century had become.
During conversations with my gardener, I found out the names of various plants I never knew we had. I discovered that a certain tree flowered in winter instead of spring, producing the most awesome purple blossoms. I spent an almost ridiculous amount of time playing with my dogs. I did lots of meaningless things which in the end somehow wasn’t as meaningless as they were supposed to be, though what exactly the meaning of these activities were would be hard to explain in words.
When I woke up in the morning, I did not rush to the study right away to look at the newsfeeds. I made myself a cup of coffee, simply went back to bed, and stared out the windows. Sometimes, one of our cats would join me, and we’d just lie there, cuddling, purring, breathing, not thinking of anything, not saying anything, not measuring the pleasant experience in gigabytes, or ADSL, or in the time it took to download, or whatever. In the daytime hours when I couldn’t work on my manuscripts, I’d sit on the sun porch with a real notebook and a real pen in my hand, and before long there’d be another cat on my lap. Nothing made any sense. I hardly got any work done. But the cats sure had a good time.
I visited my aged mother, who I had not seen in years, twice in a row. I used an old-fashioned road map to find her retirement flat; previous attempts to get there by GPS had somehow failed.
Once, I caught myself reading Die Huisgenoot, somewhere in a doctor’s waiting room. It was very entertaining, if a little bit scary.
I went to the gym. I walked around the block. I put clothes in the washing machine, and when the machine had finished, I hung them up to dry. I felt the sun on my skin as I did this. I could hear birds singing in the trees. One of them sounded a bit like a cellphone. It was unnerving.
This simple, almost peasant-like existence will soon be a thing of the past, however. My IT genius friend, who takes care of all my computer needs for me, phoned me this morning to tell me he has managed to raise my computer from the dead. He had replaced something that he calls the “mother-board” (whatever that may be).
Soon, I will be reconnected with everyone on Twitter and Facebook! My spell of isolation will be over! Already, I can feel the familiar twitching in my fingers, as I imagine moving the mouse around, feeling the keypad against my skin … I never realised I had actually been suffering from physical withdrawal symptoms, but I am! Good heavens, was it that bad?
The thing is … I’ve grown accustomed to the silence. I’ve grown accustomed to the barking of dogs in the street outside. I’ve grown accustomed to looking at the stars at night. I’ve grown accustomed to listening to the ticking of the clock on the kitchen wall.
I’ve also grown accustomed to sitting in front of the fire every evening with a glass of red wine and just telling my wife about my day. About how I tried to wash the car all by myself, and almost succeeded. Or the interesting bacteria I discovered when I unclogged the drain next to our herb garden. I would ask her stuff like “have you noticed that there’s mildew growing on our bathroom curtains?” and she would say, “yes, it’s pretty, isn’t it?” One of us would sneeze, and the other one would say “bless you”, just like folks used to do in the Victorian era. And then we’d have a whole conversation about sneezing, and she would say that she’s heard somewhere the reason people sneeze is not because they suffer from hay fever, but because it’s God’s way of “resetting” our sinuses. And then I’d think aloud: “Now where have I heard the word ‘resetting’ before?” And then we’d laugh at our own jokes, real hearty laughs, belly-laughs, the laughing of real people living in real bodies in real time in a real house in a real street, not the kind of laugh you spell LOL.
I know that, once I reconnect, this reality will vanish as if it never existed. As if it had been a strange kind of pop-up advert or something. But I HAVE to reconnect! Not doing so would be unthinkable!
I shall always treasure these two weeks of freedom, though. I will think of it fondly, the way I still think of that holiday in Scotland 10 years ago when we went looking for the Loch Ness monster. I will … I will … what was I saying? Here he comes now. I can hear his car stopping outside. He is getting out and walking up my driveway, carrying my hard drive in his arms … my IT hero! My saviour!
OMG, I’m back! And about time, too! I was getting bored out of my skull! LET’S TWEET AGAIN!!