I saw in the new decade wrapped against the English Channel chill under one of the few surviving Timeball Towers in the world. It was hardly a Times Square ball-drop, but my personal nod to a piece of 18th century tech which was a part of communications history and ergo, a link to the Internet. For years this slim landmark signalled navigators off the White Cliffs of Dover to set their chronometers to Greenwich Mean Time. It was a Twitter ball with just one message to relay.
History is my way in this year. I am answering this year's Question against the deadline, as the answer slips as defiantly as time. The Internet has not only changed the way I think, but prompted me to think about those changes, over time, weighted by the uneven-ness of technology take-up and accessibility to the Net.
I encountered the Web as a researcher at Oxford in the mid-1990s. I learned later that I was at Tim Berners-Lee's former college, but I was pretty blase about being easily online. I saw the Internet as more a resource for messaging, a faster route than the bike-delivered pigeon post. I didn't see it as a tool for digging and remained resolutely buried in books. But when I visited non-academic friends and asked if I could check emails on their dial-ups, I began to equate the Net with privilege, via phone bill anxiety. As they hovered nervously, I dived in and out again. The Internet was not a joy, but a catch-up mechanism. And for a while, I couldn't think about it any other way.
In 2000, something happened. I found myself drawn to write a book about Silicon Valley. Moving frequently between the UK, and America's East and West Coasts, I began to think about the implications of the Internet and, moreover, about how not being able to get online was starting to affect me. What was I missing intellectually, and culturally by being sometimes out of the game. I began to appreciate a new hunger, for a technology which was still forming. I knew all that information was out there, and I couldn't realise its potential. Sometimes I believed ignorance was bliss. Travelling around America by bus and train for several months was a revelation. At every stop I tried to get online, which usually meant I waited in line. I relished my login gifts: a precious 30 minutes at New York Public Library, a whole hour at small towns in the mid-west, a grabbed few minutes in a university department before giving a lecture somewhere.
Then â€” joy! â€” luxuriating in the always-on technology at my friends' homes in the Bay Area, where even the kitchens had laptops panting to 'go search'. But as I made those flights east, the differential was widening. I lost hours trawling the streets of European cities for an Internet cafe, to feel it was merely a brushed kiss from a stranger; there's always be someone else in line. I had the taste and knew tech was building on tech out there in the ether. I was like some Woody Allen character, gazing out of an empty carriage window into a train full of revelers. Being barred from the Web felt like a personal blow; I'd lost the key to the library.
In 2004, I moved to Rome just as the tsunami was showing how the Internet could be mobilised for the good. I made my first ever post. I began my own blog, charting Rome's art and culture for Stanford's metamedia lab. The Pope was declining and by March, 2005, St.Peter's piazza was mushrooming with satellite dishes. In the Sistine Chapel, God and Adam were connecting on Michelangelo's ceiling, outside fingers were twitching on laptops and cellphones for one of the Internet's seminal news moments. But I heard the news the old fashioned way. Walking with a bag of warm pizza, I heard a sudden churning of bells, when it was not the marking of the hour. As I ran with the thousands to St.Peter's, I recall feeling moved by these parallel communications, where people could still be summoned by the bells. A few weeks later, watching wide screen TV in a Roman cafe, white smoke rose from the Vatican chimney. The ash drifted over the Vatican's ancient walls, morphing into a messaging cacophony of Italian cellphones, and clattering keyboards in heaving Internet cafes.