By BEN R. WILLIAMS
The year was 1998, and my family got our first personal computer.
This wasn’t the very beginning of the internet — it had been around in various forms for a couple decades — but it was the first time I had easy access to it. Easy was relative back then, of course. That 1998 Compaq Presario still had to slowly dial into the internet on its 56k modem, unleashing a slew of electronic crunches and beeps that made it sound like a gut-shot R2-D2, and it slowed to a crawl at peak times (which was pretty much any time except for 3-4 a.m.). Nonetheless, I was beyond thrilled.
In those days, the internet had limitless promise. It was going to level the playing field. Computers were growing smaller, faster, and cheaper by the day, and the internet was eventually going to allow everyone to access our planet’s collective wisdom. You would be able to tour a museum, or take a college class, or learn a trade, and you’d be able to do all of it right at home!
Admittedly, I mostly used the internet back then to obtain the latest up-to-the-minute information on upcoming Nintendo 64 games, but I could still appreciate the potential. Sometimes I’d just sit at the computer thinking of things to search for. I’d open up my search engine of choice (RIP Altavista) and type in “old Cadillacs.” Suddenly (well, not suddenly, but eventually), I’d find dozens upon dozens of websites about old Cadillacs! I’d find photos of stunning ragtop ’59 Coupe Devilles! It was like being plugged directly into the Library of Alexandria, assuming it skewed heavily toward 14-year-old boys.
Everything was on the internet, and if you couldn’t find something on the internet, you could create your own website and add it. It was beautifully egalitarian.
Of course, my generation was always taught to be wary of the internet. I remember writing papers in middle and high school and having adults tell me and my classmates not to trust everything we read online. If we saw on the internet that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, we were told to double-check that in a book; anyone could have posted that to the web, so how could we possibly know if it was true?
I am far from the first to point this out, but it’s now painfully ironic to look back on that advice. Many of the same adults who told my generation not to believe anything on the internet now believe everything on the internet, no matter how ridiculous or outlandish. They believe that Hillary Clinton operated a child slavery ring out of the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor that, for the record, does not have a basement. They believe prominent actors and politicians eat children. They believe things so patently insane that they make moon landing deniers seem quaint by comparison.
No one saw the inherent flaw of the internet, and no one could have predicted the damage it would do to our society. The wonderful, terrible thing about the web is that no matter what you’re interested in, you’re just a few clicks away from a huge group of like-minded people from around the world. If you’re interested in repairing old hit-and-miss engines, that’s great. If you believe that you’re not a human being but actually a 3,000 year old dragon trapped in a human body, maybe it’s not so healthy.
In the internet age, anyone who can manage a halfway-respectable looking website is an authority. Crackpot news sources are virtually indistinguishable from legitimate ones. If you saw screaming human fireplug Alex Jones on the street, you would poke your keys through your fist and give him a wide berth. However, put him behind a desk and throw the videos on infowars.com, which depressingly claims to be the number one independent news source in the world, and suddenly his demented ravings carry an air of legitimacy for many people.
For a long time, the crackpots were almost funny. Maybe they legitimized insane ideas, and maybe they called for violence against imagined enemies occasionally, but it was easy to dismiss them as the fringe.
The pandemic, however, has proven that the fringe is a whole lot bigger than anyone would have believed.
As I write this, Henry County has a COVID vaccination rate of 42.6 percent. Patrick County is worse at just 35.6 percent. When I got my first shot nearly five months ago, it wasn’t all that easy to lay hands on it. Today, it’s hard to muster an excuse. You can walk into virtually any drug store and they’ll be more than happy to give you the shot, completely free of charge.
I’ve read multiple articles interviewing doctors and nurses in counties with low vaccination rates, and they’re all essentially identical. Medical staff were already burned out when COVID blew through last year. They were battle-scarred and traumatized by all the death and suffering they had to witness. Now the horror is roaring back, but it’s a struggle to muster sympathy since it all could have been prevented. About 99 percent of the COVID cases that make it to hospitals are people who never got vaccinated, and the remaining unfortunate one percent are people who got vaccinated but were immunocompromised.
In two separate articles, I’ve read the exact same anecdote. Two nurses related that they had patients come in struggling to breathe, forced to be connected to ventilators in the hope that they would get enough oxygen to survive the disease. These were patients who read online that the vaccine would harm them or alter their DNA, but when suddenly faced with the real possibility of death by COVID, they begged for the vaccine. The nurses had to explain to them that the ship had sailed; vaccines prevent you from getting an illness, but they do nothing once you’ve already got it.
We didn’t have to beg half the country to get vaccinated against polio or smallpox. Back then, there weren’t concerted efforts to skew the truth, or echo chambers where doubters could create feedback loops of misinformation.
No, we largely have the internet to thank for our present situation.
Back in 1998, it seemed like the internet was going to improve our lives. In 2021, it’s become clear that it’s going to end millions of them.