Me, around age 11.
Let me set the scene for you.
It’s 2008 and I’m dangling my dad’s Compaq laptop out of the upstairs window, cradling the device in the crook of my elbow as I attempt to connect to my neighbor’s unsecured Wi-Fi network.
I wasn’t crazy, I just happened to grow up in a home that didn’t have internet until 2013.
Little did my parents know that my internetless upbringing would quickly turn me into the Macgyver of internet-sneaking.
Determined to find a way online, I was soon slyly suggesting we move the home office upstairs, closer to both an open window and the chance of an open Wi-Fi network.
I had to be careful, because while it would be a few years until my parents could fully comprehend what Wi-Fi was, they had made it clear that they truly didn’t want the distraction of the internet in the house.
My parents are a bit old-fashioned, and in many ways the internet represented a can of worms they’d just rather leave unopened. Worried that my older brother and I would end up glued to the computer screen every day after school, my parents instead encouraged more traditionally creative activities such as reading, drawing, and spending time outdoors.
Because my parents stressed the importance of nurturing creativity and avoiding complacency, lazy days spent watching movies or playing video games quickly became our forbidden fruit. In many ways, I felt a bit like Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes,” oftentimes being reluctantly pushed outdoors and into the sunlight.
This is what happens when you spend too much time outside…yes that’s a hand brake.
Earlier on in my childhood, it was easy to forget that I didn’t have the internet or cable TV.
Instead, we had a PlayStation, a temperamental VHS/DVD hybrid player, and an offline Compaq desktop running Windows Millennium Edition, an operating system legendary for its terribleness.
It was enough to give me a taste of technology, however, and I knew I liked it.
Once the world moved online, I began to focus on solving the problem of sneaking a reliable internet connection.
The Wi-Fire internet extender
Eventually, I would end up buying a device to extend the Wi-Fi range of our desktop computer, attaching the dongle to a 10-ft USB extension cord and running it out the window and along the house siding. When my parents asked what it was, I told them it was “a fan to cool the computer when playing video games.”
Creative, right? To this day, I’m still not sure they bought it.
In hindsight, it usually wasn’t a bad way to grow up, and it certainly made me a more creative person.
My older sister and I loved watching things that made us laugh, so once we had watched and re-watched SNL’s “Best of Chris Farley” and our meager DVD collection, we began making our own videos.
Armed with a camcorder and our imagination, we found ourselves trying to make our own media to laugh at. My parents had no fundamental issue with watching things on a screen, they were just worried that we’d overdo it.
Of course, the older I got, the more attuned to the internet and its potential I became, and for the first time I started to feel left out.
I was in the sixth grade when my friend Ross showed me AIM instant messaging.
I immediately realized that I was missing out on a fantastic way to flirt with girls. I still remember being shocked when I watched my friend sign off a chat session with a casual “AML” (All My Love) and being shocked. He had only been “dating” this girl for a week, and he was already tossing around the L-word? I can only imagine my look of confusion as he insisted that it somehow didn’t mean as much over the internet, that is was just how people talked.
So I quickly realized that there were separate codes of conduct in Internet Land, and it would be up to me to catch up.
Without smartphones, AIM was the easiest way to chat with people that didn’t involve picking up the home phone, and I wanted it.
After seeing a Newsweek ad for Motorola’s IMfree “wireless personal instant messenger,” I was dismayed to realize that the device, which only allowed you to send instant messages, required Wi-Fi to work.
Out of luck, I was left to bumble my way through middle school armed only with the hope of my own cellphone in a couple of years.
Until then, I was left to conduct my flirting in-person or over one of the family’s landline phones (“Here’s my number, just a heads up, my mom answers the phone a lot, sorry.”)
From middle school onward, I began to spend most afternoons and evenings after school over at my neighbor Brian’s house. Not only did he have internet, but his parents had a home office with three desktops computers that could run modern computer games.
Outside of my parent’s peripherals, my friends and I were free to surf the web and play computer games as much as we wanted. To my adolescent self, it was heaven. Once Xbox Live was launched, we simply had to move upstairs to my friend’s living room to enjoy “Gears of War” and “Halo” multiplayer matches.
Thankfully, my parents’ strict “no internet” policy never affected my schoolwork. Any time I needed to use the internet for a report, I was free to head over to my dad’s office, which was five minutes away.
I’ve always been an outgoing and social person, but I’ve always been curious how social I would’ve been with the internet at my fingertips.
Technology was always a shiny new frontier that I loved exploring, but I think it was a good thing that it always went hand-in-hand with hanging out with friends. With so much undiscovered, I could easily imagine my 13-year-old self opting to stay inside and online.
Somehow gaming in a basement home office, next to two friends, made the experience slightly less anti-social.
My last year in high school, my moment for reliable internet arrived, no window-dangling required.
After trying out an iPad in an Apple Store, I saved up and purchased my first 3G iPad.
The first thing I bought was a Netflix subscription. And thanks to AT&T’s then-unlimited data plans, I was soon devouring the first season of “Lost” from the comfort of my bedroom … and then every season right after that.
While the limitations of growing up without internet were certainly felt throughout my later childhood, it’s tough to regret its absence during those early years. I still find reading one of the most immersive forms of entertainment ever, and I have plenty of fond memories of passing the time in interesting ways with my siblings.
I’ve come to realize that the ease of the internet can be an issue, because plenty of other forms of entertainment require so much more effort to fully appreciate them. Reading the first two pages of a chapter is easy enough, but it takes far more pages before you’re enveloped into the worded world and you’re transported away.
I think everyone is thirsty for immersion and escapism to some extend, and I’m glad my parents encouraged me to put in the work early on so that I still value those forms of entertainment that require a bit more effort.
Let me be clear, I would never dream of implementing a similar no-internet policy in my future household, but the positive effects I’ve experienced at least ensure I won’t be buying an iPad for my kid out of the gate.
My parents finally caved and got internet last year. Once my mother returned to teaching, they both realized that it was time to bite the bullet and flip the switch.
It’s been nice, and while I inherited the duty of explaining over the phone what a phishing email is to my mom, I’ve actually noticed some positive results. My dad, for example, no longer has to drive over to the office to check his work email, and it’s meant more evenings at home with my mom. She’s a fast learner too. She’s already learned to uncheck all of the sponsored spam programs when downloading a new program.
The biggest ironic twist, of course, is that now I’ve completely overcompensated. My job as a reporter for an online news publication literally requires me to be online for much of the day.
The roots of my upbringing still exist, however, and it’s made for a nice balance.
While I’m still a doe-eyed early adopter when it comes to technology, I’m still wary about how creatively or not I spend my free time. I’ve been slow to make the jump to Twitter due to its continuous nature, and I’m constantly annoyed with myself every time I put down a book and boot up Netflix.
But in many ways, the internet is truly my generation’s great frontier, and I’ve been thrilled to be able to explore its creative potential through my work.
I just like to call it making up for lost time.
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