Today's nefarious necessities

How did anyone ever survive without the Internet, cell phones and Napster?

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2000

It is only since my family entered the computer age that my life has mirrored my favorite movie.

"The Gods Must be Crazy" tells the story of a Coke bottle that, tossed from an airplane, lands in an isolated Bushmen village in the Kalahari Desert.

"The one characteristic which really makes the Bushmen different from all the other races in the world is that they have no sense of ownership at all," the narrator says. "Where they live, there's really nothing you can own -- only trees and grass and animals."

The Coke bottle becomes a roller to cure snake skins, a stamp to mark circles, a musical instrument, a mallet for pounding roots.

"Here, for the first time, was a thing that could not be shared, because there was only one of it," the narrator says. "Suddenly, everybody needed it most of the time. A thing they had never needed before became a necessity, and unfamiliar emotions began to stir -- a feeling of wanting to own and not wanting to share. And other new things came -- anger, jealously, hate."

A tug-of-war erupts, and the winner smacks the loser with the bottle.

Xi, the leader of the clan, concludes it is evil. He throws it back into the sky, but the gods will not take it. It smacks his daughter on the head. He buries it, but a hyena smells the blood and digs it up.

I'm not sure now how I survived for 40 years without the Internet. We finally got it after my daughter Amanda's teacher said that would be the greatest thing we could do to enrich her life.

In no time, we were watching the astronauts live repairing the Hubble telescope. My daughter Bonnie developed a passion for Dragon Mud, an interactive game with wizards and monsters and the opportunity to chat with players around the globe. Amanda developed e-mail friendships with girls in Australia and Taiwan. My wife, Shana, started using e-mail for work. I ordered books and music on-line and e-mailed stories to the paper.

Then came ICQ, where we could trade instant messages with people all over the world, and AOL Instant Messenger, a similar service spanning the United States. My mom in New Mexico got a computer, and I began trading e-mail, too.

Soon, no one could live without the Net. To end the bickering, we had to divide it up. Amanda gets the even hours, since her birthday is on the sixth. Bonnie gets the odd hours, since her birthday is on the 21st. The missing daughter invariably wanders in a few minutes before the top of the hour.

"Bonnie, what time is it?" Amanda asks.

"5:40," answers Bonnie, without looking up.

"Can you reset it, because it's 10 minutes behind. This clock says 5:50."

Nine minutes later, Amanda is back.

"30 seconds, Bonnie."

The parents get it whenever they can drag a kid off the chair. Sometimes, the only way is to turn the switch, let the kid stamp off and restart the computer.

To avoid a tussle, I've resorted to the circuit breaker in the basement.

I'll be typing, and suddenly, I'm sprouting extra arms like a Hindu god. They click on AOL and type messages I know nothing about. I push them away. Five minutes later, they're back.

"Can I just check my e-mail?"

I relent, forgetting she will have 20 or 30 e-mails to answer. Half an hour later, she is still checking e-mail and conducting AOL conversations with four or five different people.

It's no longer possible to go to the bathroom or even to fill a coffee cup. Just scratching the dog may allow someone else the opportunity to slide in. Then, extraction requires at least 15 minutes.

We had to install a power-on password, a closely guarded parental secret, so that sometimes we can turn it off -- at 10 p.m. on a school night, or when the laundry hasn't been folded for days. Still, there are insidious excuses.

"I have to do my homework," Bonnie says.

Of course, it is physically impossible to type a term paper without simultaneously playing Dragon Mud, chatting on AOL and playing Minesweeper to occupy the time between e-mails. It becomes impossible to finish the term paper, which means we can never kick her off.

We finally got a cell phone so friends and family still could call. We meant to make outbound calls on the regular phone, but that means kicking someone off the Internet, which can take half an hour. At least, it could before they found Napster, where we can download all sorts of music.

The problem there is that we live in Kasilof, where the telephone lines were installed in 1953. We're on the information driveway, where downloading a tune can take an hour-and-a half. Download three at once, and they take three times as long. Meanwhile, music clogs the line, so it is impossible even to check e-mail, let alone make a phone call. AOL still works.

However, any attempt to do anything else can cause music downloads to crash. Often, they crash by themselves, so, it is good insurance to queue up five or six copies of any given tune.

Now, Napster runs continuously. Anyone who manages to assume the coveted chair finds three or four downloads in progress and a long list queued. It no longer is possible to interrupt to make a phone call. Nor is it possible to hang up the Internet at bedtime. More often, someone queues up a long list of downloads and Napster runs all night. In the morning, there's a tussle over who gets to check which downloads have succeeded.

In the movie, Xi finally decides to toss the bottle off the edge of the Earth. After numerous tribulations, he arrives at a cliff overlooking a sea of fog and pitches the evil thing over. Someday, maybe I'll take our computer to the bluffs in Clam Gulch.

Doug Loshbaugh is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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