December 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:34:34+01:00November 6th, 2008|At Large & Sports|
On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. Cartoon by Peter Steiner, The New Yorker, 1993.

have lived through the Internet revolution twice in my life. In 1996, when I was in the sixth grade in Michigan we got AOL Version 1.0 and my screenname was MOTOGOCAR. I had mail. I had brightly lit and dark-themed chats that awaited my friends and me while slumber partying. This was before scared parents put security settings on their childrens’ accounts.

I remember my computer dialing up the internet. Dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee, eeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrr-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer, eeng eeng, Welcome! And I remember when a few months later the line was often busy for hours due to the Internet explosion. It dialed and dialed and dialed. By the new millennium, however, I had forgotten about dial-up connections. They were the distant past.

A decade later, in April 2006, I arrived in Rome. I asked my woman host if I could email my family to tell them I’d arrived. I sat down. She connected me. Dee-dee-dee, eeeaaarrrr…

And so began my halting, second cyber-revolutionary experience. The gray, boxy monitor and noisy modem lucidly revived the past and suddenly I was again 12 and dialing-up at a sleep-over. I had forgotten how long it took to access and navigate the Internet. I had forgotten how very, very, very slow the world was when I was born. It had been growing faster with me and I hadn’t even noticed it gaining speed. But in Italy, on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, saying a goodbye, dinner at home, dinner at a restaurant, online, it was hard not to notice Italy’s slower pace.

Hitch-hiking on a turtle I could fly by the technological progress here.

I had been to England, France, Ireland, Germany… it wasn’t a Western European thing. It was a strictly Italian thing. The ushers of technology here are the same pedestrians I’m always stuck behind, who, though in the act of going, appear to have forgotten where and why. Walking in Rome slowly morphs into standing around and talking.

In fact, I suspect that is the underlying cause of all the slowness; everything morphs into standing around and talking. Why do I wait so long for the bus? Traffic? No, no. The bus driver has gone to get a coffee with his bus driver friends.

Why am I still waiting after a half an hour to place my order? I think I see the waiter near the kitchen arguing about politics with his waiter friends. “Why is the road construction begun and never finished?” I asked an Italian friend. “You try holding a jack hammer and a cell phone at the same time,” he said.

The culprit is conversation. No wonder mobile phone use burgeoned terrifyingly quickly while poor, awkward internet, with many charms but no conversational skills, moved instead like hardening lava.

Internet interest was danger of cooling completely it seemed until suddenly, just months ago, the Web sprouted ears and eyes. Facebook. Suddenly with one finger you could tell everyone in Rome what you were doing on a given night, what your status was, how your romance was progressing, and even show off your new jacket. Suddenly the Internet became piazza-nouveau.

Italian usage this year has gone up 961 percent. Since August everyone I know in Rome, from my 12-year-old student to my 55-year-old boss, has requested my friendship. (Don’t even try, Reader. I stopped adding friends after my fifth.)

I like the Internet as much as the next girl. I like that I can search myself on Youtube and find myself.

Yet I find that I’m wholly unenthused by, even hostile towards, this particular social trend and its debarkation on Italian soil. The first time I saw the Internet explode it was like a firework, sparkling with information and opportunities. This time it is more of a mushroom cloud. I see cultural strangleholds. I see the whole western world homogenizing; finally brought together through chatter and networking on Facebook.

Any Jack, Jacque, or Giacomo now doles out global influence once reserved for brilliant authors and innovation. Facebook has already stuck its foot in history’s door by introducing a new word into the Italian language. The Italianization (taggare) of the verb “to tag” doesn’t exist yet in dictionaries but among young people it means to add a picture on Facebook. Two months ago I heard “Ti ho taggato” for the first time. Now I hear it everyday.

When I first moved here the pace enraged me. But it’s really like slowing down the car to catch a better glimpse of what you’re passing. Why replace the piazza with the virtual version? Why replace hand gestures with emphatic typing? The car we’re all in isn’t just passing objects, it’s passing life.

About the Author:

Julianne VanWagenen wrote the "Wonderland" column form 2008 through 2014.