By Andrew Spaulding
In 1998, the year the first 56k modem was available for purchase, I was 13 years old.
At that age anything that was not a video game was useless to me. Most of my reading material was still on paper. Porn was still the occasional nipple floating beneath a scrambled TV miasma. It was a simpler time.
My father had a nerdy obsession with gadgets and was always getting the next new thing. CD-ROMs were such a big deal to me in 1995 that I nearly choked to death on a wayward pearl in some oyster gumbo because the graphics on Sims were so fresh. Throughout my high-school years my father insisted upon handing me down his old Palm Pilots and then asked why I never took them to school with me. The 56k modem just kind of appeared beside the family computer one day and poof the internet was "super fast".
When I was first approached about using a 56k modem for a period of time, I got all cyber-machismo and upped the ante from the suggested three days to a whole week. I felt like seven days would make me really feel the burn; would make me check my privilege. In actuality, this was possibly the most panic attack-inducing bullshit decision I've ever made.
The only rule of the 56k challenge is this: THE SUBJECT MUST, AT ALL TIMES, USE A 56k MODEM TO CONNECT TO THE INTERNET.
That means: no data transactions on the phone, No Wi-Fi in coffee shops, no high-speed internet whatsoever. I have an iPhone 5 and a Macbook Pro – these are my primary instruments for connecting to the web. Being a hustling New York City resident, I'd say my iPhone gets most of my thumb-traffic. In order to accomplish the challenge I would have to turn off my phone's data plan and hide my computer at a friend's house across town. I was only allowed to send or receive 56,000 bits of information per second. That means that one gigabyte of information would take about five hours to receive. To put that into perspective: approximately 1 gig of HDTV data, delivered at 2015 speeds, amounts to seven minutes of video.
In reality, finding a working Gateway computer is tough, as is figuring out how to locate and connect a working modem. The solution was to load a laptop with a software called NetLimiter that slowed its web access down to between 5kbit/s to 25kbit/s. The much slower speed of the software was to compensate for great leaps in data packing invented since 1998. In those days, when you loaded a website you'd load every single little part of it; today our computers store tiny bits of data from webpages in a cache. When the user returns to that page, the computer displays the previously stored data and then loads any new content, which dramatically cuts down on load times. I'd have to clear my cache once a day, as not to benefit from the technological advancements.
The first day of my challenge began on Sunday, March 9th. The previous evening I had set my alarm for 6.30am and turned off my phone's data collection. March 9th, by coincidence, was daylight savings in the US. Most people that night lying cozy in their beds had their helpful smartphones gracefully dematerialise an hour for them. Mine did not make the leap. Guess who was late to work? For the rest of the day I heard people who'd woken up at 2pm saying, "Oh, its daylight savings? Why, I had no idea!" And thus began my constant battle with what I like to call "The Bubble".
The Bubble is not the internet per se. The Bubble is internet residue. The Bubble encroaches upon us as timed street lights, iPads in cab seats, plane flight paths, the lights atop buildings. The Bubble exists everywhere now, it is inescapable. Entering a Burger King made me question my responsibility to the 56k challenge: the menus behind the counter were all hi-def panels that cycled through food items, ads and the weather. Technically, by just ordering a Whopper I could have inadvertently lost the challenge. The 56K challenge had transformed my city into a bizarro LCD screen obstacle course.
My Friends Were My Enemies
I can't tell you how many times I got YouTube ambushed. They'd jab some Aaliyah video or a clip from an AirBud movie right into my face. At first I would hold up my arms and screech but after a while I realised that was a tad dramatic and it would compel me to explain the challenge to sane people, which was exhausting ("Wait so... why do you want to do this to yourself?"). I succumbed and allowed the R&B and slam-dunking dog vids to happen.
I had no choice.
My girlfriend was a temptress. She would coyly suggest, "Let's watch Adventure Time," and I'd have to turn my back to the screen. I was holding myself to a higher standard of journalistic integrity, I was going to make it through the 56k experiment with my oath in tact. Well, I did squeeze in one episode of Gravity Falls.
The most twisted task, however, was actually using the slowed down computer. I avoided it for several days but about mid-week there were too many emails piled up in my inbox for me to ignore. Piled up emails make my left eye twitch. Gmail was surprisingly forgiving, the emails loaded fine and I started going through them. This got me thinking that I'd get in and out, no big deal, but then my starved internet addiction raised it's emaciated head and demanded that I browse, goddammit. For the next four hours I experienced a devastating tug-of-war between my cyber-ego, who wanted me to update social media at all costs, and the pragmatic human side of me who whispers, "Yolo… Yolo… carpe diem."
Nothing in 2015 works with a 56k modem. Facebook tried its best but often withered and became a jumble of links and text. Tumblr was just too slow to be even remotely entertaining. I tried to load a YouTube video with just a static background image and sound. It took twenty minutes before the computer decided it wasn't going to bother.
This makes sense – a standardised form of streaming media (Flash) wasn't even accepted at large until 2002 and YouTube didn't emerge until 2005. Even though streaming had been around since the early 90s – fun fact: one of the first streaming events was a concert for the band Severe Tire Damage in 1993 – you had to have a pretty powerful processor the likes of which wouldn't be widely affordable until the mid 2000s.
The same rang true for streaming porn, although I was a little bit more successful. Rather than an outright rejection PornHub let me click on links and would actually take me to videos. The first link I clicked on was a video called "Do your chores or suck my dick, your choice." Alas, I never found out which was chosen.
Keeping it 90s, I tried downloading Metallica's The Black Album, but it was impossible. I found a .rar file for download on a Dropbox-like site but after twenty minutes of downloading I had only downloaded 10MB worth of music. Then I had to set the computer aside because I was mad. I tried to get a Marilyn Manson record, too, Smells like Children, which is actually a pretty good record, but alas I was shorted again.
To keep myself occupied, I watched a couple of DVDs and VHS tapes. I watch VHS tapes all the time anyways because they are cheap and I have a VHS player, but the DVD was another story. It was this weird Jean-Luc Bozzoli film, with dolphins flying through a crappy 3D world with some sort of new-age extraterrestrial religious message I still don't quite understand. It was called Voyage to Infinity with Dolphins and Whales. The irony is that I would have never have known anything about this guy if it hadn't been for a high speed internet connection. Was I still technically not breaking the rules?
The Bubble Consumed Me
As the week rolled on I slowly began to shed scruples. Because of The Bubble I literally couldn't not use high speed internet. Almost every single credit card transaction I made used high-speed internet. Almost every cab I rode in used GPS. I began to have visions of vast distribution chains controlled by supercomputers, driving chickpeas from the field to the cannery to the aisle, and how even buying a can of beans was breaking the rules. If nothing else, the challenge made me acutely aware of how much we've become a cyborg culture almost overnight.
While my online avatar was starved for attention, the biggest take home message I got from this experiment is that it was easier to avoid my computer all together than to go back to 56k. Getting on the computer became arduous, and my frustration turned into apathy. In the beginning of the week, I didn't even use my phone but I began missing texts from work and it was fucking my shit up. You can't go home again.
For me the slip into using the internet constantly was seamless and it coincided with puberty. That meant Instant Messenger for friends, Napster for downloading Metallica, and porn. Lots and lots of agonizingly slow loading porn. But I was good, man. I knew how to sneak to the computer at night, make sure the stupid dial up tone was muffled by a blanket and cover my tracks. I was a multiple window click-out ninja. If I even heard the dog coming down the stairs, boom I was gone, whisked away into the shadows. Nevertheless, that same year at Christmas my Dad gifted me a Barenaked Ladies CD because he had somehow picked up on my night moves. To my horror in front of my whole family he proclaimed that he gave it to me because he knew that I "liked barenaked ladies". Indeed I did. But I hated that CD.
I'm pretty sure I threw it out the window of my car.