Between 1999, when my father first had it installed with a great deal of pomp, and 2004, I treated the bulky desktop computer and whirring dial-up internet in my house with suspicion and disinterest. What was its purpose, even? TV had Cardcaptor Sakura and Ally McBeal, which I found much more engaging.
For those first five years, I used the internet only when I had to – for homework.
School projects were never the same after internet-enabled computers became common in every student’s home. Pre-internet, our teachers had to choose topics that were easy to research using the books in the small school library. Now they could give us any topic under the sun, all thanks to Google.
If they were expecting our projects to become lush works of never-before-seen insight and expertise, however, they were mistaken. What they got instead were files filled with pages that had clearly been printed directly from Wikipedia, logo and all, and projects that were word-for-word copies of articles to which they themselves had referred us. Of course, with time, we learned how to properly write a bibliography, and well, how to plagiarise our school projects with a little more skill.
I soon found less academic uses for the internet though. I joined Hi5, a social media platform where I uploaded blurry photos of myself in a saree with witty captions about how much I hated wearing sarees. I got Limewire, through which I made my first-ever contribution to online piracy by downloading my two favourite songs at the time: Linkin Park’s In the End and Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne.
I got on Facebook, which succeeded in consuming every ounce of my attention from then on until it became a cesspool of idiotic discourse and advertisements, forcing my move to Instagram and Snapchat in early 2010. I also built a career in writing and social media marketing, making the Internet not only a part of my social life but central to my passion and earning capacity.
What hadn’t changed in all that time, though, was the anxiety that accompanied my use of the internet.
I didn’t recognize it until the end of last year, when I plugged my phone into an outdoor socket at a terrace party and returned an hour later to find its display obliterated by a spider-web of cracks.
At the time, I had just moved back home, from Bangalore to Chennai, and wasn’t making a lot of money. Sitting in my bed, staring mournfully at my departed device, I resolved to live sans phone until I could save up enough to buy a decent one.
I entered this period with trepidation. But it turns out, it was oddly pleasant to wake up to my own thoughts and not to the menacing buzz of incoming text messages from work. Once I remembered that I had been at a party the previous night but had no access to everyone’s social media posts from it. Instead of feeling keenly deprived of post-party reminiscing, I felt peaceful. My mind remained curiously quiet as I went about my morning routine.
I remained phoneless through Christmas and New Year’s Eve—my most social time of the year—and did it without feeling the usual panic that I had too many people to meet and not enough time to do it. I had no social media to remind me of what I was missing out from the parties I had chosen not to attend, and I was virtually unreachable to anyone who had any last-minute plans or requests, work or otherwise.
It was my most tranquil holiday season in years.
When I finally did get myself a new phone and reconnected with my social media platforms, I felt newly powerful. I didn’t need this to be “cool.” I could see so clearly how I had associated my taking a longer time than average to learn how to use social media the “right way” with my low self-esteem growing up. I saw how my desperate need to overcome that had shaped my entire life—from my career decisions to my persona.
I didn’t regret it, but I knew that I was no longer at the mercy of that old fear.
I saw the internet for what it was again—not a train I was always about to miss, a battle to fight, or even an exclusive club to which I must earn entry, but a leveller. A playground with no gate. A wide, deep, and never-ending source of information. A tool, to use only when I need.