Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Matthew Strawn
English 201
Essay 4
December 2003

Why I Hate Online Communication:
A Rationalization

I do not consider myself a materialistic person. My self worth is not contingent on how abundant, or how sophisticated my toys are. I do not drive an SUV, a sports car, or a jacked up 4x4. In my very inconsequential, strictly utilitarian vehicle, you will not find ten-inch woofers, CD changers, amplifiers, or remote controls—as if one needs a remote control when it’s less work to reach over and push a button or two. I do not own a cell phone—I have a simple landline, and use a calling card for long distance—and my house does not look like a page out of an IKEA catalog. Despite my lack of desire for these "toys," I do have some possessions, which are of great value to me. There is one in particular that I do not believe I could live without. It is my computer.

I love my computer. I can literally lose an entire day (sometimes days) sitting at my desk basking in the soft bluish glow of my monitor. I download movies and music, edit and burn CD’s, organize my hard drive, troubleshoot and repair software and hardware issues, and browse the Internet. Notice that I did not mention writing e-mail, responding to e-mail, spending time in chat-rooms, talking to friends via instant messengers or ICQ, nor any other form of online communication. This is because I do not do these things. When I am at my computer, doing my thing, it is my time. It is not a communal or cooperative exercise. There is nothing more annoying than when a little box pops in front of your face, when it’s least expected, followed by that (supposedly cheerful, but truly obnoxious, cartoonish thought-balloon slash idea-bulb, make-you-jump, especially when you’ve been listening to loud music) sound. If I want to talk to someone, or they to me, I have a telephone.

So why does this even matter? It seems to be the understanding of many people with whom I associate, both in my educational career and out, that online communication is the norm. It is the rule, not the exception. I do not subscribe to this particular perspective. There are also others with whom I associate, that rarely, if ever, participate in the electronic communicative boom. A few are of the opinion that it may even be one of the events that signifies the end of civilization as we know it (Armageddon?). I wouldn’t personally take it as far as that, but I am not opposed to the argument that it may be a precursor to the deterioration of language.

I guess this attitude deserves some sort of explanation. I am not a recluse, or a grumpy old codger who hates any form of human contact. Yet I would not describe myself, nor would anyone who knows me, as a social butterfly. I am somewhere in-between. I have many friends whom I spend time with, and communicate with somewhat regularly. I also adore my family—whom I thoughtlessly neglect. Unlike most of western civilization, which is being transformed by the boundless opportunities instantaneous communication via the Internet provides, my ability to "keep in touch" is not changing.

Why is this? Am I too old fashioned? Do I long for a "simpler time, when the world was new?"—as if the world was ever simple. No. In reality, it seems that online communication simply goes against my nature. It is too easy, too accessible, and potentially too intimate.

Even before I became computer literate, which was not that long ago, I was not a communicator. Even in high school I was horrible with these things—I had a pen pal who wrote seven letters/postcards to my one, and then gave up on me. And ever since I moved out of my mother’s house, for the last time—there were probably four or five of these events—my communications with her have become increasingly sparse. I know there is a saying that goes something like, "all things improve with age." Now if cheese, wine, and wisdom are the definition of "all things," then no truer statement was ever uttered. But I am neither Gouda nor Gallo; and never have I heard mentioned Buddha’s teachings regarding telephone use, writing letters, or sending e-mail.

After coming to the conclusion that my computer does not serve as a space age communication device, keeping me in contact with my loved ones, friends, and branching out into the realm of faceless online interludes, I must ask myself a question: What purpose does my computer truly serve? To answer this, I engage in a full-fledged retrospective investigatory analysis of the time I have spent with my brain networked, via user interfaces (keyboard and monitor), to my CPU.

 

Program Running…

Searching…

64,909 files found.

 

After analyzing all the data, (in other words, after looking at the thousands of files, software programs, internet browser histories, temporary files, and other miscellaneous documents permanently stored on my hard drives) I have determined that the time I spend utilizing the limitless resources that the World Wide Web provides, has been for all intents and purposes inconsequential and quite possibly wasted. I am not enriching my knowledge of the world. There is little, if any, evidence that I am attempting to take advantage of the multicultural opportunities the Internet allows—being that I uninstalled all my instant messenger programs ages ago, there are no conversational logs (this absence itself is a glaring bit of evidence that I am a non-participant in the online communication culture). The Internet history records show little evidence of academic searches. There are few inquires into higher realms of knowledge either spiritual, literary, or scientific.

It seems instead I have an obsession with the collection of things. Not material things, for I still do not see myself as materialistic, but instead they are trivial conglomerations of binary code, put together to create files, that serve no other purpose than to distract me from the realities of my life. I collect media.

Of the 64,909 files that are stored on my two hard drives, 30,398 are media files. That means that 46% of all the data on my computer is an audio, video, or image file. By itself this seems to be a large percentage, but it’s even more substantial when compared to the amount of actual hard drive space these media files take up. I actually have two hard drives, one holds about 60 gigabytes (GB) of data and the other holds 20 GB. With all files included, both media and non-media, I am using about 81% of all available hard drive space; that’s 60.6 GB.

For those unfamiliar with how much storage space this is, I will put this into a more visual context. The paper I am writing, when complete will take up approximately 30 kilobytes (Kb) of space. There are about 1100 Kb in a megabyte (Mb), and around 1100 Mb in a GB. So if we do the math, 60.6 GB would be equivalent to 9,865,680 pages of text (for me, this would be four or five lifetimes of e-mails). That is no small amount of data. So, of this used space, the media files take up 54GB. That means that 89% of the space being used on my computer is filled with unimportant, insignificant, petty nonsense in the form of movies, music, and images. This of course, does not include the hundreds of discs I have burned, in order to free up hard drive space for the acquisition of even more of the same, non-utilitarian pseudo-materialistic, files.

So what have I learned? In the creation of this virtual document, for it does not really exist except in how it is interpreted by my computer, I have come to realize that my spare time is spent in an alternate, virtual reality. One, which has no physical form, other than the tan metal box that houses it. It is a machine with dormant, unutilized potential to change my life. I could extend myself beyond the bounds of anything I have ever imagined. I could gain boundless knowledge and experience, as long as I used the proper criteria for assessing reliable information. I could connect with people from all corners of the globe—if a globe has corners. I could maybe even write to my mom, or get in touch with that long lost pen pal—what was her name? But do I do these things? No. Instead, I am content to fill my unutilized time acquiring music I may or may not listen to, movies I sometimes don’t really like, and other miscellaneous garbage I don’t really need. I find it, seize it, and keep it. I do this because I can.

I cannot say that coming to this conclusion will change my behavior. Maybe it will, but outcomes are sometimes hard to predict. What I can say is that I have a greater understanding of why I do, what I do. My life is busy, chaotic, and sometimes overwhelming. I work two jobs, go to school full time, have relationships to maintain, and my sanity to preserve—really very much like most other people. Using my computer as a communication tool would only serve to remind me of the drama that is my life. Instead, my computer, with its pearly white tower, serves as my equalizer. It is the distraction that helps me to escape from the complexity of my life when I need it most. I enjoy losing myself in the digital reality that it generates. The soft blue glow of my monitor fills my room like candlelight, and regular the purr and hum of the hard drive soothes me to sleep at night, like waves rolling into shore…

Besides, when it comes to my computer, I am like God.

So in the end it seems to come down to an issue of control. In my life control is minimal. Things tend to happen with or without my consent; there are just too many variables to anticipate all possible outcomes and plan for them. However, in my own personal digital world, everything is predictable. My computer is a machine that uses math to determine all outcomes. What could be more predictable than that? The variables, while extensive, are not unlimited. I can learn by trial and error how to prevent adverse outcomes (crashing hard drives, unexpected viruses, and faulty or malfunctioning hardware).

In reality—if in regards to computers, there is such a thing—the end results are entirely up to me. Every keystroke has a result. Every bit of data entered has a predetermined outcome. In the digital world there is, unlike anywhere else in the universe, the possibility of perfection. In terms of communication what more could one ask for? Message delivered, message received, action taken.

 

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Copyright 2003
Matthew Strawn

 

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015