467: How much remains the same is the scariest question

Is it really true? I think it is, though I’ve never truly known what it’s like to grow up in a generation unmarked by technology. That as young people nowadays, we are generally shitty conversationalists, having been prone to over-analysing, over-thinking, writing and rewriting endlessly those text messages that flow from our phones. Or our computers, back when it was the medium of choice.

So, that I remember. I was eleven when the Internet really took off. Suddenly the school sent round flyers urging parents to give their kids the gift of Internet; all the better to do their projects with, all these newfangled individualised research projects (God, too many of those…). I got my first e-mail account. I listened to that familiar tone, the same one I heard as a young child over the fax machine with its replaceable reams and rolls of smooth paper, I listened as it became the first recognisable ring tone of the decade, complete with the grey box window that would pop up whenever you tried to dial up. How, as a child and an irritating sibling, one would deliberately pick up the phone during critical moments in order to disrupt the connection. It was exhilarating. Thrilling. The promise of something new over the horizon, all this new and wonderful information, all these sources of information, and a whole new world. My cousin, 6 years older and infinitely wiser at 17 to my 11, introduced ICQ to me at a family gathering. I remember his number — it was 6 digits. I remember mine too, the way I don’t even remember anybody’s telephone number these days. I caught on to a whole new way of speaking. I was eleven. I talked to my friends but also random strangers who asked me how old I was. I always added two years to my age. I got sent porn videos. It’s also kind of disturbing now that I think about it, but back then the world was so big and I had so many things to learn. Back then there were no pop-up blockers, parent-child filters, and the web was a cowboy town and a lawless place. In a way, the Internet forced me to grow up faster than I ever would. That familiar sound (“eh-oh!”) — I still smile when I hear it, and it has become a sign of solidarity, for those who still remember and still recognise. As with “rehi”, the use of the slash to denote an action (“/slaps around with a big trout”), to make someone an op, and back when the hash sign was only used for channel names. A different generation. 

I was from an all girls’ school. Everything was unknown, including boys. Yet somehow they figured in our lives prominently, not least because the Internet helped to speed things along. I remember being in one of those enrichment classes when I was twelve, on a Saturday. There was a boy I thought was cute, in a bright blue t-shirt. We had been in the same programme for years (I had also been eyeing him for years). The programme ended; we turned thirteen. I forgot about him till I went for one of those stupid GEP camps, and there he was, amazingly. I have an excellent memory. I generally consider that a shortcoming. I think I used the age-old line (“Hi, you probably don’t remember me, but …”) — he responded. I think we had e-mails; we exchanged them. I don’t exactly recall what happened then, but we found each other on Napster, back when it still existed, back in its hey day. He sent me music. We talked. I told him I only listened to Class 95 and Jacky Cheung. He sent me more music. (I think we see where this is going.) Then MSN Messenger came on, in a big way. I added friends. He introduced his. I started chatting with more and more people I had never seen, back in the days when there were no digital cameras, no data messages, no way to identify anybody at all other than from the way they spoke online. So much overthinking. The way the change in your username, your font, your font colour, your font size, whether you used alternate caps or a full stop at the end of your sentences, meant everything and nothing at the same time. How you would agonise over whether to initiate the conversation given that there was no such thing as “last seen” and you would never know if he was just busy or did not want to reply, and nobody at 14 could handle that kind of mental trauma. There were times when it made me happy just to see someone log on, even if there was no conversation. This continued all the way up till I left school and stopped using MSN Messenger. A good ten years. There were also handphones. Snake, Snake II, and then Space Invaders, on that indestructible Nokia phone that everybody had. The way your parents knew you were dating someone because your monthly message count went through the roof. How you would avoid the phone ringing in the middle of the night by calling his mobile phone, then he would use his house phone to call your mobile phone, and then finally you would drop off and connect the land lines. Nobody needs that anymore. The art of sneaking thus has disappeared, simply because there is no more need for it. All around Singapore there were shy school going teenagers who arranged to meet at the crossroads of secondary schools — Popular, Junction 8, Orchard MRT, Starbucks — kids who had no idea how these strangers looked like, bringing along an entire army of friends for moral support, heart racing nonetheless. It occurred to me recently that this was more than ten years ago, and more than ten years later people are still doing the same thing. (The other day someone asked me, hey, have you ever met anyone from these dating apps? I replied no. Because I have no interest and no need. But you see.) Blogs came. We over-analysed further. There were all these words I didn’t know what to do with, words that are still floating around on the Internet somewhere, I think. Throughout all this my heart raced and my heart broke. More than ten years later I’m still talking about it. Now I still pick apart my emails. All my sentences are a test.

What’s so different? Nothing much. I’ve been having strange and meaningful conversations with strangers lately. It reminds me of the times when I was younger and I believed that these things would lead me somewhere. There have been requests to call. I refused, not only because it is not necessary, but also because speaking on the phone is a full-time endeavour, and I can’t write, rewrite, analyse. Think. I greatly prefer to write. Now you can’t meet someone for coffee and also bring an entire gang of friends along and like most people, I am a better conversationalist on paper. It occurred to me that the last time I had to deal with this sort of situation was more than ten years ago, and I’ve forgotten how to gently tell someone that I don’t want to meet them without sounding impolite. Or maybe society is just less forgiving towards 26- rather than 14-year olds. Who am I kidding, it totally is.

Just ten minutes ago I went searching for a quote in my archives that I wanted to re-use. I came across a list I made when I was 17, of books I had wanted to read. It now occurs to me I have read none of them still. How much we forget without knowing, only to remember at the strangest times.

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