Through the box my brother bought, I saw a bunch of guys in the BBS — it wasn’t porn — they were jabbering about technical stuff, freely sprinkled with jibes at each other. It was all only text. It was all about the joy of this fascinating, liberating new technology which gave direct power to people’s minds. I kept myself discreet, a silent spectator to what seemed like a perpetual bachelor’s party.
There was a programmer’s forum I could access via the BBS where I could go for help if I was stuck somewhere in my own programming explorations. If I asked my question clearly and politely, after having made reasonable attempts at solving it myself, invariably some kind stranger from somewhere in the world had just the correct answer to resolve my problem.
A girl whose circle of interaction had only been friends in school and then colleagues in office for a couple of years, who knew only those strips of the city that led to school and office, and the roadside food along those roads, who having left her job was now bereft of even that slim slice of the outside world — was suddenly looking into a box of magic. I also got my first two software development clients on the BBS.
Then came The World Wide Web!
Content from places around the globe, about diverse topics, was now available to me sitting in a small room. I started exploring. Project Gutenberg, probably the original archiver of literature online, gave me complete classics to read. I saw people exchange the joys of Urdu shayari in Usenet groups, in roman script. It made enigmatic Urdu all the more enigmatic. Some Usenet groups had already decayed into a series of flame wars about which operating system is holier. They were amusing for a few reads, but I did not linger there. Geocities was community housing for netizens across the world — possibly the first free service that enabled people to make and upload their websites, long before blogging came along. People were using it to make personal homepages which listed their favorite books and movies. Some pioneers used it to share their original writing.
It was virgin territory then, the internet, akin to vast open meadows with a few humble settlements. The desire arose — I too want to plant a humble dwelling on this vast land. Thus “Kaavyaalaya, The House of Hindi Poetry”, the first Hindi poetry collection website, was born on the internet. For some reason, now obscure to me, I put it in the Tokyo section of Geocities.
Thanks to Kaavyaalaya, I started receiving heart-warming emails from NRIs — some homesick and soggy, some sunny and surprised with this new offering on the web. The son or daughter (I don’t remember which) of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, the erstwhile national poet of India, wrote to me. Pandit Narendra Sharma’s daughter from USA shared poems of her late father, the man who had penned sublime lyrics for Hindi movies. I even received an email from a real, live physicist.
I was hooked. Every day, as soon as I woke up, I would go straight down to that little room, without even brushing my teeth. It was the place where people interacted with me for my mind, not for the safety of my body.
The lure of the internet deepened further still when I started Interact Inn All India Mailing List. In Silicon Valley, John Buckman was in the initial stages of making his superb software Lyris. He wanted to host email forums of interesting topics that would demonstrate the prowess of his software in practice. I got a free ride. He agreed to host Interact Inn. Now I was connecting to pioneers of the Indian internet scene, whether they were in India, or in Germany pursuing their Ph.D., or somewhere else that I did not even know, or care about. What mattered was the exchange of ideas.
All during this time I had no interaction with people in person. No school or college friends, no office colleagues. I had no school, college, or office to go to. I had quit my software development job a few months back, bringing my one-year-old career to a halt. Although in the same house, interaction with family members was also at near-zero levels.
The internet is the foundation of my career, the source of friendships that have drastically changed the course of my life, my canvas of self expression, my connection to this vast world and to my roots. I am also a slave to the internet, and I’m now trying to break free.
Yes, it is a real thing — addiction to the internet — addiction to Facebook, to Whatsapp, to seeing memes after memes, addiction to simply just checking your mail. These are all real and they have the ability to crumble my mind to sand.
It is sublime and powerful, the internet. My mind is sublime and powerful too. My mind is the most powerful tool given to me. For my own sake it is imperative that I take care of my mind and reclaim it from the internet.
Each meme that I see, each harmless Whatsapp message I read, each luring video I watch on YouTube, fragments and chips away at my mind one more tiny bit. When I throw away thirty, forty minutes scrolling through meme pages on Facebook, if I keep awareness towards my mental state, I can almost see this happening literally — this fragmentation, this chipping away of mental strength. This is just the same as the erosion of a cliff by repeated waves of water. We may not see the erosion happening, but the cliff does undergo change and can ultimately become just sand.
Reading articles about varied injustices in society seems to fulfill a crucial purpose, but it actually does not. Yes, the articles generate outrage, or discomforting bile at the least — and they also steal my focus. Once I know the news item of the fellow in Sirsa’s Dera Sacha Sauda for example, how does it serve anyone if I read about all his varied extravagances? Compulsive time spent on the internet turns my most powerful tool, my mind, into limp cabbage.
What is at the core of this addiction?
I have observed this time and again in myself — the days when I spend more time on Facebook are the days when I am more lonely and sad, or scared.
“Give this up, give that up, does not work. Take up something higher and the lower will fall away,” Parthasarthy ji had said in a talk I attended years back. This year, I have taken up three things to counter wasteful time spent on the internet.
The first is books. I noticed that the greatest regular time spent on social media needlessly was when I retired to my room after dinner. It was my way of relaxing. Now, I try to always keep a book available to read, a book that I really do want to read, even if it costs me money to keep buying those books. Reading a book focuses the mind, is relaxing, entertaining and a more concrete contribution to the honing of my abilities. When I do not keep a book I want to read handy, I find myself easily slipping back to relaxing on the internet.
Some recent reads that have been specially worthwhile:
Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
The second frequent vulnerability for internet addiction is being mentally disturbed or being clueless about what to do with my day or the present moment. It is so easy to open social media and numb away the vague discomfort when that happens. I now turn to adult coloring books instead. While coloring, I can focus on my breath and be in a space devoid of words. This enables me to re-gather myself.
Two pieces that I finished recently:
Lastly there is the urge to check mail and turn to social media as soon as I wake up. Despite belonging to the software world, I kept delaying owning a smartphone for this one reason, for I knew I can easily fall into this trap. But now I have two smartphones, and so, I have fallen into the trap. This urge is especially strong when gratifying comments have been showered upon me the evening before. It also occurs when I go to sleep feeling lonely, when I am hoping to receive some feel-good email in the morning, which I do not receive. Opening Facebook as soon as I get up can be specially damaging to mental strength and focus. To counter this vulnerability and to work directly towards my objectives, first thing in the morning I now sit down to write. It has been so fulfilling ever since I started doing this…
That is a lie. First thing in the morning I am groggy. Ok, so I had to adjust matters a bit. First thing in the morning I just sit and stare out of the window. Thoughts run through me listlessly. Then I sit in meditation, groggy or not, whether the mind chooses to comply and meditate or not. Then I do some exercise, but I skimp on this one so easily. Then I sit down to write, and yes, it has been very fulfilling ever since I started doing this.
With all these counter measures, am I free of slavery to the internet yet? No. I still turn to the internet wastefully more often than I would like to. But things have improved. The mind is less muddy, more clear and quiet. The real question is, however, as it always was — what can I plant on this vast landscape, that may be of some value to some fellow-traveler.
Are you addicted to the internet? How do you counter it? When and how did the internet come into your life? Share your nostalgia and self-therapy measures in the comments below.