We've Come a Long Way from the Oregon Trail
I love the internet.
Netflix. Amazon. The Oatmeal. Wikipedia. Chrissy Teigen on Twitter. YouTube videos of lions and tigers playing with cardboard boxes. Otters. So many otters. Makeup tutorials. Instantaneous (and not at all accurate) WebMD diagnoses. Everything.
It wasn’t always like this.
The world wide web, circa 1999, was a minefield. Trust no link. Beware the pop-up. Hide your kids. Hide your wife. Everyone’s getting violated up in here. (Again, YouTube, love you, mean it.)
My parents signed us up for that sweet, sweet 56 kbps dial-up connection in the late 90’s. We were living. The amelodic sound of that modem reaching out to the world beyond Jonesboro, Arkansas still rings mellifluously in my ears. Sure, it was waiting-for-Christmas slow, but to kids who’d only ever used a home computer to write a paper or play Carmen Sandiego, it was magical.
Aside from the obvious uptick in speed, I would posit that the greatest online innovation is the advancement of search engines. Sometimes, I just throw words at Google, hoping for the best, and immediately, she directs me to “that movie with the guy with the weird hair and the slight speech impediment.” Before Google, everything was porn.
Well, you had to proceed as if anything might be porn. You might ask WebCrawler for CrockPot recipes, and the first 72 results would absolutely, positively, yield naked folks. For those of you who missed these days, it’s not that we were all complete dumbasses. You’d encounter a website synopsis, detailing completely innocuous content, under a perfectly harmless URL: “Oh, here’s a three-bean chili recipe at www.slowcookerchili.com. Let’s have a look-see.” Click. BOOM—porn.
Worse still were the pop-ups.
In 1999, every click could pry open Pandora’s box of genitalia. Just as the digital solitaire cards multiplied and danced across the screen after a victory, so too pranced the bare human anatomy, unsolicited and uninvited. Such was the nature of the pornographic pop-up. These were tricksy little hobbitses, too. “Close” and “cancel” were often clever disguises for "Oh, sure, I'll take some more dongs, please." One click could bring forth a landslide of viruses and malware, so the nefarious windows had to be avoided like brain-thirsty zombies in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
Adult supervision was absolutely required.
My 10th grade English teacher assigned a group project. A few of my girlfriends and I were tasked with creating a presentation on African author, Chinua Achebe. My computer had both Internet access and Encarta Encyclopedia, so I hosted our project jam session one fateful Tuesday night. (I don’t actually know that it was a Tuesday, but just roll with it.)
As I fired up the modem, my mother stood sentry over my shoulder—my classmates seated at my sides. I navigated to Ask Jeeves or Yahoo or something of the sort, and carefully typed: “C-h-i-n-u-a A-c-h-e-b-e.” (Without the dashes, obviously. I’m painting you a picture, you dick.) Mom meticulously analyzed each search result, finally settling on a page which appeared to offer biographical and historical information about authors of African origin.
With great trepidation, I hovered...and clicked.
Then, just as quickly, all the penises.
Pop-ups danced across the screen, swirling and filling each void with genitalia of every race, color, religious creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, and age. If United Colors of Benetton sold penises, this could have been the catalog spread. We sat, unmoving, in real-world Tornado Alley, while our brains were swept up in a virtual Pornado.
I froze, mouse in hand.
No click could save our eyes from this full-frontal visual assault.
My mother shrieked.
SHRIEKED. The sort of shriek one might shriek if one saw a rat—with a gun—and a very large, very naked penis.
She shoved my friends aside, desperate to shield our innocent minds from further damage.
Mom snatched the mouse from my motionless hand and clicked furiously, frantically, desperately.
But each closed pop-up yielded dozens more. There were SO. MANY. PENISES.
Between shrieks and clicks, Mom screamed at us to “LOOK AWAY!”
We could not. This was the proverbial car wreck of all car wrecks.
Realizing the futility of her pop-up blocking efforts, Mom threw herself at the monitor, sprawling and stretching her arms to cover the screen, still shrieking.
She made one last desperate move: Stretching far beyond her reach, Mom thrust her arm between wall and desk, and, still shrieking, yanked the power cord from the wall.
The monitor buzzed and popped that characteristic power-down sound of those old tube monitors.
The penises retreated.
My mother gasped for breath.
For the life of me, I cannot recall what followed. I am certain we finished the project. I imagine my mom informed the other mothers of the weinerpalooza. I suspect there was awkward discussion of what we’d seen.
But as I reflect, more than 20 years later, I remember only the penises and the shrieking.
The penises and the shrieking.