When I was in college, there was no Internet. Well, I suppose there had to have been, after a fashion, but there was no World Wide Web, no network of websites, easily accessible to me as we envision the Internet today. (I know I'm playing fast and loose with the terminology here, so please, no angry e-mails about the difference between the Internet and the Web.) My point is simply that the network of networks we now take for granted as part of the work, communications, entertainment and social infrastructure of our daily lives was then in its infancy.
I could, sitting before a monochrome computer lab terminal or using the 2400-baud modem in my then state-of-the-art 386sx Packard-Bell computer, dial into the university's VAX system – equipment that the often-wrong Wikipedia defines as "an instruction set architecture (ISA) developed by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the mid-1970s." I could use that VAX system for what I then called "electronic mail," if I sent that mail only to fellow students. (I resisted the verbal shorthand, "e-mail," for months, because it sounded silly to me.) With the addition of a complicated text string it was even possible to send messages to fellow students at other schools.
Through the VAX I could also read the Usenet, which opened up whole new worlds of discussion and access to information. Why, I could even play interactive, multi-user games called "Multi-User Dungeons" – MUDs, the forerunners to today's Internet-linked MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games). Today, instead of glowing amber text on a screen telling you that there are four obvious exits found at the compass points, you can play immersive first-person shooting games using simulations of real-life firearms ... and listen to the voices of teenagers in other countries laughing at how easily they've "killed" you.
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In college, something happened that probably changed the course of my interests and career for the rest of my life. I encountered a fellow we'll call "Dirk." Dirk was, to borrow the movie phrase, an international man of mystery – to hear him tell it. He had led a fascinating life interacting with gypsies, solving occult mysteries and mastering the martial arts. He was such a highly talented and sought-after man, in fact, that he roamed the campus heavily armed, existing in a constant state of paranoia concerning the various faceless, nameless enemies who surrounded him. Occasionally, he would give those forces names, and when he did, those who sought his harm were invariably people who didn't like him or with whom he'd otherwise come into perfectly benign conflict.
As a kid of 19 years old, I had few reasons to doubt Dirk's tales. It wasn't until a year or more passed by that I realized he was, well, a liar. He wasn't the martial artist he claimed to be, nor had he led the life of adventure he was always describing so vividly. His stories simply did not add up. However, back then, there was no way to check on those stories. There was no way to look into Dirk's life, no record of his past words that wasn't on paper scribbled in notebooks under the bed in his dorm.
TRENDING: What a difference a day makes
Today, all that has changed. Today, you are only an Internet search away from being held accountable for everything you've ever said publicly. Human nature being what it is, most of us tend to use the same usernames and pseudonyms. More and more commonly, we use our own names, especially when social networking sites like Facebook encourage us to do so. A few hours or even a few minutes of searching is all it takes to tie most of us to years of history. If you said it on the Web, chances are it can be traced to you – and it's never going to go away.
A popular martial-arts aggregator – a website that archives and shares a variety of information on its chosen topic, including instructional articles from contributors – uses me as their ad hoc background checker. When a new contributor wants to submit articles to the service, the owners ask me to check and see if I can find any reason why that person should not be trusted to do so. I have no special tools; I use only the Internet. You would be amazed what a person's Internet footprint can reveal about him. There is no need to hire a private investigator or pay some online service for public records. Everything you could ever want to know about someone can conceivably be found online.
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There was the relatively unremarkable kung fu instructor who, when I discovered his personal blog, wasn't unremarkable after all; he was, in fact, an ardent black-power activist who held memberships in several agitator groups in the city where he ran his business. Another teacher, on the side, ran a bizarre motivational-speaking business designed to make his customers millionaires; I was amused and amazed to learn that he moonlighted, under another identity, as a wrestler styled for his success with the ladies. Still another instructor had a rather amazing number of exotic dancers or "models" on his Facebook page, because he also ran an entertainment company of some kind. And so on.
For the sake of the theme I've concentrated on the martial arts, which seem to draw no end of bizarre claims and claimants, but we could be speaking of any field of human endeavor. There is nothing we as humans do that does not invite us to say that which is not true; there will always be those who claim to be men and women they are not. We can accept another's words at face value, or we can turn to annals of electrons that betray any human being's public contradictions.
The Internet is part of our lives. As I've written previously, it is now our public square. It is neither friend nor enemy, but it is a constant companion ... and it has the longest and most impersonal of memories.