Before the internet, there were dragons in all the corners of the maps we could not remember or had never seen in the first place. We would leaf through our atlases and they would tell us where to find bauxite, or bananas, or uranium. They would tell us about arid and forested zones in countries that no longer exist: Rhodesia, Yugoslavia, the German Democratic Republic. Before the internet, there was inertia in print. Before the internet, there was the phone book, and even before that, there was the post coming twice a day. You could write to someone, but it was absurd to think they might respond any sooner than within the week, or the month, depending on how far all that paper had to move, and how much you were willing to pay to move it.
Before the internet, I wrote on bread bags, on postcards, on posters for regional traveling circuses featuring stoic horses. Before the internet, I would buy stamps from stately or ratty government counters, and I would drop cobbled-together collections of paper-scraps into cast-iron mailboxes or inscrutable slots in walls. I would hear them flutter or thunk down, and the rest was a long line of physical operations I more or less implicitly trusted to convey the thoughts I’d written down while sitting at a café table, or on a thin mattress in a room painted half-green, or on a train, or all of the above.
Before the internet, if you wanted to find somebody, you really had to work at it. Have you seen Bohemian Rhapsody? Well, the part at the end about trying to track a lover down via a massive directory of all humans bearing the same shared name? That happened to me, too, just like it happened to Freddy Mercury. I met a pair of brothers from Yorkshire in Leh, Ladakh. I liked the older one, and so before they left to go walking over Himalayan passes back down to Manali, I kissed him on the neck. He gave me his mailing address, writing it down in the notebook I used for everything at the time. Then, that very same notebook was stolen off my little fold-down table while I was in the toilet on the Boston to New York train. I couldn’t believe it. Who would steal a stupid notebook? Actually, it was a very smart notebook, and maybe the thief could tell. Or maybe this was a serial journal-thief. Anyway, now I no longer had a way to contact the boy I had played Scrabble with in the adobe apartment of a Buddhist scholar, while Shiite exiles flagellated themselves with chains someplace nearby.
I got to London to visit another friend and told her about my problem. Somehow, she knew that the thing to do was to visit the central branch of the post office. Before the internet, looking for someone named James Wilson, without any clear memory of a town name, was nuts. I was a little nuts. I went through dozens of James Wilsons, running my finger down the columns of narrow type. There! Mytholmroyd rang true and I knew I had found him. I took the train from London to Hebden Bridge, then asked the nice lady at the information office. She pointed up the road and offered to keep my backpack safe.
Before the internet, people had to trust each other for directions. Before the internet, you took chances with not-knowing. I got on a night flight to Bangkok with only a book to tell me about a place where I might be able to spend the night. I knocked at midnight: yes, there was a room. Before the internet, planning and nailing everything down wasn’t possible and consequently, many more things felt like grace.
Is that true? Not really. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve found families willing to put me up in Rhinebeck and Roanoke, and they’ve decided that’s an okay risk to take. What is it then? Maybe it’s that I formed my habits of trusting other people and the wisdom of the road before the internet existed. Then after the internet, I kept going. Maybe.
Before the internet I read more, but then again, before the internet I was a Yale undergrad, and reading was basically what I had to do. I painted more. I spent more time feeling lonely. Are those internet-related observations? Maybe they’re just time-of-life related. I waited till I was forty-six years old to get a smart phone, and I still hardly ever use it for the internet. I value being in the space where I am, and most email is basically annoying. I look around and notice someone has stuck a piece of green tape on the back of their jacket. I think about not-much or run around checking things off the made-up list of projects that I generate every day.
Before the internet there was TV and that was way worse, until The Simpsons came along and sort of started digesting the medium from the inside out, like a strange and brilliant parasite. Twin Peaks was another parasite, feeding on a different part of the bloated organism that had gotten away with Benson and whatever that show about Cousin Balki was, for so long. Before the internet, we watched truly terrible TV. Now we still watch pointless things, but they’re often a lot shorter, so we still have time for more.
Before the internet, mail-order was just that: you would pick the thing out, mail back the order form, and then after a while, the thing would arrive, only browner and larger than you’d hoped. Or, more often, you would go to The Mall and look at whatever was on the sale and clearance racks. Let’s say you thought you were looking for a new pair of pants, or a dress to wear to some dance. You might instead get squirted with Estée Lauder. You might eat pizza under unnecessary parasols. You might find much of the day had passed in air conditioning, and all memory of your car’s location was gone. Plus the pants you’d bought – the ones with the ankle zippers? – they might not be as rad as you thought. The mall-daze would wear off slowly, like a poison ebbing, and often you would feel as though you’d missed a chance at something great. As though there were some non-suffering way of going to The Mall, and you’d screwed it up. Even when you found the best thing ever, it wore out. The Mall carried a powerful spell of causing people to be unable to visualize a thing after it had been sat in, spilled on, or washed at the wrong temperature. In that atmosphere, ephemeral things masqueraded as the permanent, just-right solutions to all your problems.
Before the internet, it wasn’t possible to be writing someone a note and quasi-accidentally direct-order a jumpsuit from a sweatshop in China. Before the internet, if you wanted to share a picture of your dog, cat, baby, or daily flower arrangement, you had to have extra prints made at the drugstore and hand or mail them to people. Which made you think twice about how important the whole impulse was, in the first place. There was no such thing as just hopefully dangling some photo in front of a nebulous number of people, on the off chance that they might, in the course of wasting time, notice. For that shit, you had to stick posters on actual walls. You had to move through space and take risks.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now