Friday, 27 November 2015

27/11/15 - Grumbling old Luddite

There was no internet when I was a student.

Actually, no, that’s a pointless lie. But back in the year 2000, in the wake of the Millennium Bug, when Tony Blair and the Queen Mother stalked the earth, internets were hard to come by. At home we had a desktop PC in the spare room upon which you could find an internet by running a dial-up cable in from the phone socket in the hall, but this did mean that nobody could use the phone while you were checking your email. Using your home phone was important back then, people actually used their landlines as a form of communication. And dial-up took FOREVER – kids these days don’t know how lucky they are to have immediate connectivity in the palms of their hands. I remember the days when it took twenty minutes to open Internet Explorer, your only browser option, and there was no such thing as Facebook. (And when this was all fields. And so on.)

So anyway, I was an analogue student. I never once used a computer in a university building, I never used Google to research my coursework, I submitted my essays on brittle papyrus with ink from crushed baby octopi and shellac beetles, or something. I didn’t and couldn’t go online recreationally. ‘Social networking’ meant going out into the real world and talking to people. Jesus, I sound old. Sorry.

In my first year, we did actually have the luxury of internet in our student house for a short time. Much like at home, the information superhighway (as people still referred to it then, bless them) was accessible via a BT socket and a really long cable that could be unfurled to reach any room in the house. In practise, this meant that if anyone was using the internet upstairs, any other housemate going up or down stairs was likely to trip over the serpentine wire and fall thudding into the hallway. See, your modern wifi router isn’t just convenient, it’s a potential lifesaver…
Again, much like at home, the glacial pace of BT dial-up meant that using the internet for anything at all in 2000 was an arduous and fundamentally irritating affair. Once the sleepy computer had been coaxed into life, it’d take quite a while for the Explorer icon to react to having been clicked on. Then the digital penny would drop, the PC would have a little chat with the phone line, and you’d be treated to a good few minutes of ssshhhhhKRRREEEEEE-shabong-bong-SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEE noises which, at the time, appeared to be a necessary evil, but seem ridiculous now. Interestingly, it was pretty much the same set of noises you used to get when loading a game from a cassette on a Sinclair Spectrum. Roughly the same speed and likelihood of crashing too, come to think of it.
Once you’d got the World Wide Web fired up, you could then enjoy the sort of watching-paint-dry connection speeds that meant it’d take an annoyingly long time to, say, log in to your Hotmail and, once you’d spotted that you had three new emails (for there was no spam back then, really), it’d take you a good half hour to open and read them all, with the screen loading pixel by agonising pixel from the top of the page downward. Clicking the ‘back’ button when you got bored was no help either, as it’d then try to load the entire previous page from its creaking and forgetful memory. At this point, the internet connection would drop for no obvious reason and you’d have to start all over again; either that or one of your housemates would trip over the cable, ripping it from the socket as they fell down the stairs.
Invariably, halfway through your journey to discover that you had no worthwhile new info to glean from your inbox, your slightly less emotionally balanced housemate would insist that he needed to use the phone to call his girlfriend back home, and would then spend the entire day crying down the telephone to her and thus robbing everybody else of the opportunity to stare frustratedly at a loading screen. (I’m sure this quite specific set of circumstances can’t have been unique to our house.)
In the second and third years, we just didn’t have any internet at all. Every now and then we’d pop to a mate’s house – say, once a month, maybe – to check our emails, but it was such a faff and hassle that we generally didn’t bother. We knew that there was internet access in the university buildings, but that involved trekking all the way across town. Sod that. You might accidentally find yourself doing some work or something. Far better just to go to the pub.

In 2001 I bought a laptop to type my essays on – it was a second-hand beige Toshiba with an 8” screen that I procured from a1cheaplaptops4u or some similar quality emporium, for the sum of twenty pounds. Ah, those were the days. It could run Word, Minesweeper… er, I think that was it, actually. I’d type up my work in Word For Windows (as Word was called back in the halcyon days of Windows 95), save it onto a floppy disk, drive across town to the English department building, print it out and hand it in. Retro.
But there was no way that little old box could have handled the whizz-bang excitement of internet. To be honest, Word For Windows was rather more than it could generally cope with, and that used to make it fizz in an unsettling manner sometimes.

Nowadays, universities have to develop increasingly cunning and complex systems to circumvent the problem of plagiarism, given how enormously easy it is to find answers, pre-written essays and what have you online; a simple global cheating resource in which an equally cunning student body may plunder and borrow in seconds merely by copying-and-pasting. It’d be quite embarrassing to fail a unit because you were guilty of digital plagiarism – but is that more or less embarrassing than failing on the grounds that you were crap, like in the good old days…?

It must seem ploddingly archaic to the students of today, the notion that people went through their entire university careers without handy internet access. Cables, phone lines, desktop PCs… how quaint. Today – and again, I’m aware that I sound like a ridiculous old man – students (and everybody else) have access to the entirety of mankind’s knowledge, everything that has ever been thought, pondered, postulated, argued, disproved, reworked, developed, patented, shared and enjoyed, on a quick and easy little device that fits right into the pocket. It’s changed the way we absorb and retain knowledge, forcing minds into specialisms and encouraging people to only learn about the things that they’re really interested in; why do you need rhymes to remember the planets or Henry VIII’s wives, why would you retain the difference between mitosis and meiosis, why learn how to wire a plug, why remember anything at all, when it can be Googled in seconds?

We never had this kind of luxury when I was a student – you had to learn things, because things had to be learned; it’d be a bugger to go and find out for yourself, so it was far easier to remember stuff.
Not that I did remember much, of course, I was in the pub most of the time. But, y’know, in theory…

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