Sighing in Cyberspace

December 16, 2008

As on a plane, in cyberspace there is little room to maneuver when split-second decisions must be made. Fasten your seatbelt, breathe deeply, and don’t alarm others. I relearn this lesson whenever I log on.

At a college where I teach freshman English, we had a rousing discussion by email about a new textbook option. The finalists included a traditional reader with text-heavy articles, the kind of book that was a staple of freshman English in the past. A young upstart was a serious contender, aiming to teach literacy with new media: email, listservs, blogs, chats, wikis, and other terms that formerly were random Scrabble tiles.

We are a flexible department. After our flurry of emails and rush copies ordered, the new text won.

A feeling of serenity enveloped me when I handled the book. It had dark type on durable paper, not interrupted with charts or graphics. Some research suggests that traditional, slow reading is at risk, and with more than 50 percent of my students in one class saying that they would not be upset if the library vanished tomorrow, I'd better keep up with the trends. So, I will continue to fly in cyberspace, with a book at my side. I need all the help I can get. Let me tell you why.

Taxiing

I was imprinted early with fear of technology. One day, as a first grader, I walked home for lunch and found that my mother, a part-time bookkeeper, had borrowed the adding machine from work. In a moment of sheer abandon (attempting to play “Chopsticks” or positioning my own exact age?) I simultaneously pressed the “6” and the “7.”

No prodding or crying would loosen the stuck keys. The trauma of a winding cab ride downtown (we didn’t drive), the repairman’s scowl, the sharp tools, the gobs of smelly, lubricant: all to undo the consequences of spontaneity. I have never lost the fear of pushing the wrong button.

Liftoff

On the other hand, my fingers can fly. My mother insisted that my sisters and I learn to type at an early age. But flying at 80, even 100 words a minute doesn’t protect you from those whose fingers fly back. Not long after getting a simple email device, I joined a spiritual listserv. My then 7-year-old son and I stared at the green message light as if it indicated life on another planet. The first post was from someone overseas describing her loneliness on her spiritual path. A responder from another country offered support and counsel. My mind embraced a caring, global community.

Each morning at breakfast I reviewed geography on my son’s plastic placemat of the world. Reading posts from remote places on the listserv, my lofty aspirations (delusions of grandeur?) took flight. Soon I was making friends in cyberspace. Or so I thought.

Turbulence

My enthusiasm was too obvious and I was offered a spot on the list management team. Keep an eye out for offensive posts, escalating conflicts, or violations of Netiquette. Simple. Having a contemplative bent, and enjoying the idea of pacing imaginary corridors of an electronic monastery day and night, I accepted.

My first panic attack was when a member had an onscreen outburst, objecting to my writing in the third person about the need for civility. He had taken a boilerplate reminder personally. Bingo! He threatened sanctions, such as going to the board of this organization. He threatened to leave the listserv and seek a better forum for free speech.

Rather than bouncing delightedly in cyberspace, some people wear boots or stilettos, eager to kick the gossamer net of human relations. Around this time a friend told me that he signed off another listserv -- on meditation -- because it was so contentious.

Head in the Clouds

It is good to Google oneself now and then. The phrase calls to mind something that is not physically possible, to tickle one’s self. (I know it’s impossible. I’ve Googled it.) A teacher who’s always learning, I heard of a site that allows students to “rate” professors. I checked it, saw nothing, exhaled in relief. And then, I visited the site again to find a tangle of typos and judgments. Some students saw me as too easy … too hard … too nice … even “cracked out.” Ignorance was bliss.

The Descent

A nightmare? You decide. A well-meaning contact wrote an entry for me in Wikipedia and proudly sent it to me, thinking I would be pleased. Instead, I was shocked, tried not to hyperventilate. Uncertain what to do, I waited.

A few weeks later, I did the unthinkable again -- I Googled myself -- to find that details had been added. Panicked, I began to whittle the entry down. I considered deleting it all, leaving only my name. A few hours later, a red and black message hovered above my bio, like a telegram announcing a death. A discussion was underway to boot my bio. Destined for the void, I found myself reciting Emily Dickinson: “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”

As in ancient times one might have consulted the Oracle of Delphi, I Googled “notability and Wikipedia." I found that a Slate columnist, Timothy Noah, described a proposed deletion of his own bio. In his case, readers rallied, generating a discussion that (if transferred to paper) would span a short runway. The debate on me was limited to one small, folded tissue, the type in a travel pack. I expected it would soon blow away. It has; I am gone.

Almost.

One Last Bump

I have been resuscitated on something called “Wikibin.” Perhaps, just as birds search for bits of ribbon or twine for their nests, a search engine saw something colorful in my profile.

Or maybe, as my now-teenager put it: “Mom, it’s as if you’re in the dust bin.”

Was my unsuccessful attempt to unjam 6 and 7 on the adding machine prophetic?

Is technology in anyone’s control?

Wherever we go, there we aren’t. Or are we?

Bio

Maria Shine Stewart is a freelance writer in Cleveland who also teaches English. She has taught writing for 20 years at public and private universities throughout northeast Ohio.

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