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A net kind of hungry

May 7, 2010

This is me. This is where I am. I sit on a curb at 4th and Driggs, cracked concrete beneath my boots, the crisscross of chain link tattooing my back. I squint at my laptop beneath midday sun. In the road yellow cabs yowl, across the street a warehouse siding graffiti art exhibit, down the block a hipster girl hocks vintage paisley print applique skirts hanging on chain link. A lurch in my gut. I squint. I fold my laptop. I wander down Marcy, up Broadway, that empty lurch crowding out every other thought. I am hungry. I am not poor. But I am hungry. I am starving. A child of solid bourgeois stock starving for the first time in his life. This is me. This is where I am.

This is the thing: I’m not talking food. I’m talking wi-fi. For the past week and a half since my move to Brooklyn, I have lived on the brink of internet starvation. In my 3rd floor subleased boho digs all the wireless networks in range are password-protected (a good thing, too, given what they’re saying about cyberterrorism). There are of course the coffeeshops, the public library, the friend’s apartment a few blocks down–even a local laundromat. There are smart phones. But there’s a limit to the caffeine you can ingest, the laundry loads you can run, the welcome you can overstay–and when the library is further than the subway entrance you need directions for, it’s not just inconvenient, it’s impractical. But my compulsive (though inconsistent) frugality means I can’t ken paying $89.99 a month for a data-streaming iPhone. And let’s not forget: while I can’t ken it, plenty can’t afford it.

Now you’re thinking this guy’s an asshole-and-a-half for applying a word like “starvation” to web access. He probably is. Google “child starvation” and you get 27,600 results.

A complex computer model of the global food system quantifies the link between–

Child starvation in third-world countries isn’t limited by the parameters once believed to be–

Argentina has reported the deaths of scores of children from malnutrition, with thousands more hospitalized and fighting for–

“Internet starvation”? 490 results. Now 491. Use ironic in a sentence. It was ironic that he made his point about internet starvation with a Google search. Yes. Asshole-and-a-half. All the same he’s got a point. At least I, for one, think so.

Let me tell you something. I’m wandering. California, New Mexico, Texas, Lousiana, New York, all in the past four months. The Germans have a word for it. Zugunruhe. Literally, the frenetic anxiety of migratory birds that kicks in like clockwork each year. My zugunruhe is in full force and I don’t see it letting up anytime soon.

Let me tell you something else. I’m writing a novel. It’s about our online lives and identities in the social networking yadda yadda that is our twenty-first millen gen lifestyle. I’m publishing the novel online. Use “metanonsense” in a sentence. All the same, the internet has been an integral part of the zugunruhe. I’ve found each of my living arrangements on craigslist.org and couchsurfing.org, I’ve mapped my way through unfamiliar cities with google.com, I’ve written my travels in a blog, and yes, there’s the online novel thingy. All of it contingent on regular internet access.

In California, I left a 15mbps connection—think HD streaming Netflix–to shack up with dial-up in the mountains of New Mexico. If dial-up is only a memory dredged up alongside MC Hammer and Monica Lewinsky and AOL chatrooms, some context: nowadays, streaming a ten minute youtube.com video with dial-up takes half an hour. For a guy who spends one day a week just coding his online novel, dial-up is like one of those milk-only diets. Texas and Louisiana were significantly more nutritious, but then I arrived in the largest urban conglomeration in the nation and malnourishment soured into starvation.

Because you can’t Western Union someone a couple hundred megabits of interconnectivity. You can’t split a web fare for your trip to hulu.com. And this is why I sit on streetcorners mooching. WEB-HUNGRY PLEASE HELP reads my cardboard sign.

They (whoever they are) call the internet a democratizing force, the great equalizer between region, language, education, class. But I say no. I say hi-speed internet has the potential to be the next great segregator, the sign of haves and have nots, and while rural America is starving most, I can attest to urban hunger, too.

They know it. They know about the schoolkids who can’t do their online homework. The FCC has a plan. Hi-speed access in every pot, they say. By 2020. Life, liberty and the pursuit of megabytes? All connections created equal? Certain inalienable sites? Maybe not. In the big scheme, the starving kids matter. In the big scheme, my in[ternet]conveniences don’t.

But maybe what I’m getting at isn’t really about a kind of starvation. Maybe it’s more about how my brain (yours too?) has changed, been rewired, jangled up so that the old skill-set of consulting a printed map, of asking subway commuters whether to take the A train or the N, of making dinner plans, karaoke plans, looking up the definition of ‘yowl’, finding long lost far flung friends, finding a job—finding, period—has atrophied and dried up. I’m proud, downright proud of my web savvy. But I’m starting to feel something was lost in the deal, that those old synapses are living on life-support. Is this true? Do you know?

Last week I sold my car. In Brooklyn, a car’s just a hassle-and-a-half. It makes me wonder. Which is the more significant innovation: the internal combustion engine or the internet?

I’d like to Google it. I really would.

Mark Fullmer

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