For most of the summers of my life I have spent a chunk of time “away from it all.” Until the mid 1990s this often really did mean pretty much away from it all: accessible by Uncle Sam’s mail service, a motorboat, and sometimes iffy telephone lines to a summer camp (a couple on islands) and usually deep in the woods somewhere. Generally I lived in a platform tent, with a flashlight or kerosene lantern to read by—when the moths or mosquitoes weren’t too bad. If my school needed me, well, they knew where to find me—eventually.
In 1993 (having left my PowerBook at home; didn’t want it to get rained on or chewed by chipmunks) I acquired my first cell phone, largely because I thought I needed some privacy when I did have to talk to my school and because I didn’t want to wait in line for the staff pay phone. I believe the calls—because in the end there weren’t very many of them—probably cost me about fifteen bucks apiece. But, when the wind in the Adirondacks was from the right direction (Why did that matter for cell service? But it did), I had 24/7 connectivity—or maybe 21/5.2. It took me a couple of years to work up the courage to buy another celly, but my bag phone became a collectible.
By 1999 I hauled a computer to the island and convinced the property manager to let me use my dial-up service—I can’t even remember what it was—for a while each day. I remember the thrill of searches on Northern Light; Google was just a small competitor with a silly name, then.
Our camp days ended, but summer dial-up was a part of my life until 2010; such is the fate of renters where it costs a grand or more to install permanent service. I moved to AOL and then, thankfully, Earthlink, with a bad few weeks of NetZero before I crawled back to Earthlink—sorry! Earthlink’s phone servers in the boondocks rock.
There’s something kind of sweet about dial-up in the age of high-speed broadband. It forces you to remember what life was like before, when we cared about baud rates. It forces you to consider how much time you really NEED to spend on line, how frequently you need to tweet or check your Facebook page or monitor blog hits. Individual emails, loading lazily, take on new importance—each one seems a little special: more terrifying, more inane, more important. The good ones make you feel like you used to feel in college when you got a letter from your grandmother with a ten-dollar bill folded up inside or an eight-pager from your girlfriend. The bad ones loom into your life like the shadows of attacking grizzly bears.
But last year the cell service where we go seemed to have stabilized, and so I went for a cell modem. The little AT&T stick was kind of my secret weapon—I didn’t exactly make a big deal about it, as my spouse and kid seemed to like starting their days to the sound of the modem “shaking hands” with Earthlink. But I could quietly go out onto the porch and log in, check mail, download the puzzle. It wasn’t high-speed, but it was—marginally, I confess—faster than dial-up. I still had to steer clear of big files and sites with lots of graphics. I didn’t dare look at YouTube or download an iTune. (Ever hear just one of them called an iTune?) And it only cost me sixty bucks a month, with a two-year commitment—just $1440 dollars to be able to sit on the porch and check email for four weeks! What a deal! And I could always use the thing on Amtrak—if I didn’t know that the wifi-enabled Acela would still be cheaper in the long run.
And then came the Holy Grail: Virgin announced its pay-as-you-go MiFi. For just fifty dollars (er, uh, plus the cost of the gadget, which had to be smuggled into the house until I could invent a reasonable cover story for it), I could buy UNLIMITED internet service that included what looked like pretty good coverage on the blotch map. SOLD!
At Christmas I dumped the cell modem, paying whatever the early termination fee was (I tried not to listen) and scooped up the cute little MiFi. With a non-Acela trainride to a family wedding in Virginia ahead of me, I signed up for a 3-day burst of service from Virgin and became (at last) the Favorite Brother as my siblings and I rolled south on the Amtrak, tweeting and Facebooking the livelong day. Richard Branson, I loved you.
That was then, and this is now. As we start packing to return to real life, the little MiFi is still doing its job, but the last few days of the month that started so well as the fireworks burst in air (okay, it was really only a bit better than dial-up or the cell stick) have been reminders that there is no such thing as a free megabyte.
Somewhere a week or so back our family crossed the magic 2.5 gig threshold at which, according to the fine print, Virgin reserves the right to choke off your bandwidth to dial-up, even early dial-up, levels.
So, as vacation comes to a close I am once again pondering life as it was when the internet was new and exotic and hadn’t taken over our lives. I write this post in Word and hope that the upload will go well. Emails once again seem more significant. I am reminded, before heading back to a school where everyone has laptops and ever-more-sophisticated (and bandwidth-hungry, but who cares in a big hip city in 2011?) Web 2.0 tools are getting to be the chief media of instruction, how much of the world—and much of our country, where in many rural areas access to high-speed internet is a hot political issue—still lives.
It’s sobering, and I tell myself this is all good for my character. I tell myself we’re interacting more as family—but in fact mostly we’re all just staring sullenly at our screens and waiting.
But when I get home there’s some music I really want to check out. A lot of it, really. Plus, I can finally download the OS upgrade for my iPhone, instead of waiting the 55 hours it told me it would take to load it up here.
Next year: an iPad. I’m just sure it will be better. Don’t know what the rest of the family is going to do, though.