Chapter 3.2: Internet Age

My family got a Gateway Windows ’98 sometime around..’98 I suppose. I remember coming home to it one day and imagining what this new machine could do. For a time we just had a computer with no web connection. My dad brought a few games, all of which were educational, yet still enjoyable. I’d sit at the computer for hours until my eyes burned out. The rule was unofficial, but whoever finished their homework first, between my brother and I, could use the computer after school.

My favorite games were a Pinball game based on Hershey Theme Park and The Incredible Machine: Contraptions. Incredible Machine was, as the title stated, all about building contraptions. There were lots of puzzles to solve. Each level, the complexity of the contraptions increased, and the resources one was given to create the contraption decreased. That was probably the only game I played into adulthood from those original games that my father brought. To this day, I still haven’t beat it.

My brother played just about every game. He wouldn’t read the manual or listen to the cutscenes. Only thing on his mind was beating each level as fast as possible. My dad sometimes played an F-16 fighter pilot game. He even brought this complicated six hundred-button controller (well maybe 20, but it still seemed just as intense) designed specifically for flying simulations. You’d probably think he was a legit gamer. But nope, just a crazy interest in aircrafts. I want to take him to a flight school one day. 

I don’t know what came first: the availability of the Internet at my school or its availability in our home. Since I remember the home experience so vividly, I suppose that was my first encounter.

“Find us on the Web! At America Online keyword, ‘all that.’” I remember hearing these kinds of slogans at the end of my favorite television shows. They would usually be accompanied with a screenshot of the actual website. I always thought about what those websites were like every time I’d see one of those spots. I don’t remember really ever bothering my parents about getting the Internet, like I did with other toys. It was hard for me to imagine how it worked. Therefore, I thought it was something way too expensive for my family. Put it up there, along with being a GUTS contestant, as one of those things I’d probably never get to do.

One day when I came home, from summer camp most likely, I saw an unusual screen on the computer. It was the logo for America Online. “Yo, Malcolm. Take a look at this.”

He typed in a password and pressed a login button. I then heard some fuzzy, static noise. Then the sound of someone typing in a phone number real fast onto a keypad. More static and then a dial tone. Over the white noise I heard a boing! here and ping! there. A minute later and there was complete silence.

“Welcome!” said the robotic voice. “You’ve got mail.”

For the first time ever, I was in.

I really didn’t know what to do with the enchanted tool I was currently wielding. I think my dad realized and clicked on the games tab on AOL’s homepage. We took turns for a bit playing some sort of word-matching game. When I noticed you could upload your score to the leader board I was amazed. It was just like an arcade. But instead of it being local, it was global. For the first time I actually felt connected to people around the world. All thanks to some word-matching game.

I started using those keywords I kept hearing at the end of my favorite cartoons. Google had been created by then, as well as Ask Jeeves and Yahoo. So the Internet could actually be navigated, no one search engine felt particularly superior than the others. Even still, you had to know how to search your ass off if you actually wanted to find what you were looking for. At school in computer science class, we had lessons on how to search the web. Nowadays, I can type in exactly what I want to find and it shows up on the first page 90% of the time. If it’s not on the first page then I just slightly tweak my query.

When our family first got America Online, the only people really going online were me, my brother, and sometimes my dad. My mom didn’t see any use for it, or any computer in general. Up to a certain point in my childhood, she would still pull out her typewriter if she needed to write up a document. Having dial-up also meant that the house line was inoperative whenever someone got online. My after school web surfing time was limited if my mom was expecting a phone call. Surfing altogether was limited during those dial-up days. You’d never know who could be calling and not getting through.

Every website looked the same; basic as hell. Now there’s so many easy to spot warning signs on sites. A two-second look over and you already know whether or not you can trust the information on the site. Back then, I believed just about anything I came across. While browsing for lyrics to a Tupac song, links to the “Illuminati” popped up. I was fascinated with this crazy cult. For years after that I was absolutely convinced that Tupac faked his death and was currently chilling out in the Bahamas. I believed just about every conspiracy I came across on the Internet. Except those which rung dissonant with my religious views. After all, I was still a young kid deeply integrated into the system in which I was born.

It’s amazing what a strong belief system can do to you. In my wanderings through the World Wide Web, if I ever came across an article or a piece of media that went against my spiritual beliefs, I’d avoid it entirely. Cognitive dissonance effectively kept me in my comfort zone of knowledge. On the contrary, if I did come across media which affirmed my viewpoint, I’d eat it right up. In the same ways many liberals watch NBC and many conservatives watch Fox, I was also the same way about my media consumption as a kid.

As I moved up through school grade levels, my research projects started to include more Internet sources. But I was still using the library in middle school. It was still really difficult to find reliable information on the Web. Just about anyone could make a website and moonlight as a professional in whatever behind the screen. When Wikipedia rose to prominence in my high school days, things became even worse.

One summer afternoon sometime during my high school years I was walking back home from work after a long day at the local summer camp. The only thing on my mind was video games. I had to get home to my X-Box. When I arrived, my brother and our friend Qadar were already in the basement, flipping through channels.

“Turn this off. Let’s play a game” I said. I was thinking Smackdown vs. Raw. We all loved to play that. As Bubba flipped through channels he stopped at one channel playing an episode of Raw. We were surprised that it was on at this time of day, so we tuned in. They were showing highlights of one of the best wrestlers to ever do it: Chris Benoit. But the vibe was a little off. The montage of Benoit doing suplexes and leg locks in a way seemed sentimental. We joked around thinking that the wrestler died, and that this was the WWF’s cheesy way to honor him. As the montage faded to black, J.R. showed up on our TV screen. His face was serious. He opened his mouth and said something along the lines of, “You will always be missed.” A picture appeared of Benoit. Below it were two dates with a dash in between.

“What?? He really is dead?!?!” the three of us shouted in unison at the television screen. We kept Raw on but there was never a mention of the cause of death. We hopped on the desktop in the basement and started a search. It just didn’t make sense that this legend would die so unexpectedly. In the back of our minds we were kinda just wishing it was part of a promo. He would rise up out of nowhere a few episodes later, saying he faked his death just to steal the championship title. Yet all news sites we searched confirmed that it was a real death; of causes not yet known.

“Unknown causes” wasn’t enough of an explanation for us. I don’t know what it is about celebrities, or any death for that matter, but whenever it occurs unexpectedly people always need to know exactly how. I kept searching and finally stumbled upon Chris Benoit’s Wikipedia page.

“OK I found it! It says he, his wife, and son died from…poisonous snake bites?” Of all the things one could die from, in their own home, this was beyond me. But I believed it and we cut off the television and popped in Smackdown. Later that afternoon during a load screen break, I checked the Wikipedia page again to see if there were any updates. This time it said something along the lines of, “death by steroid overdose.” This made more sense, I guess. But now I didn’t know what to believe. The last (and finally truthful) cause of death came later that evening. He murdered his wife and son, and then committed suicide.

This incident got me realizing that I couldn’t trust every single thing on the Internet. Anyone could just go in and create information and present it as factual. Things have changed a lot though since that incident. There was a time when a friend of mine in high school created a fake bio on Wikipedia. It was up for a few days or so until Wikipedia caught it. Yet it served as another example that anything goes on the Net. Even if a site ranked high in a Google search, the quality could still be low. Staying vigilant was essential.

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