“You think this machine is your friend, but it’s not.”
— Me, Frank Navasky, in You’ve Got Mail (1998)
While much has changed in the past 20 years, I do still quite enjoy quoting myself, and the above warning — delivered to my naive ex-girlfriend Kathleen Kelly — may be the most brilliant prophecy in my illustrious-but-underappreciated career.
I knew then, and I know now: the computers are not here to help us. To this day, I have no internet connection. I produce all of my work on an Olympia Report deLuxe electric typewriter here in my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon — mostly for my self-published zine, A Hot Dog Is Singing. I offer this column to you technology-addled morons in service of the urgent mission of gloating. I was right, and this is my victory lap.
Remember when Fox Books was the bad guy because it was a chain bookstore? Ha! Now the internet has crushed Fox Books. Any physical bookstore is a quaint idea. Fox Books was not “the end of civilization as we know it,” as Joe Fox feared his Upper West Side neighbors would say. Online retail sure as hell might be, insofar as it separates hordes of you people from meaningful employment and face-to-face interaction.
Kathleen was so sad when she got home to her dark-gray laptop and found no new mail. What a dream that would be now.
Today, there is no delight in hearing “You’ve got mail” — only a mounting anxiety every time you hear yet another notification on your phone, which you carry everywhere. Ping! Ping! Ping! The pounding of my typewriter keys, agonizing to Kathleen, is a thousand times quieter than the constant digital cacophony that consumes our entire universe.
The affectations Kathleen and Joe put on — his insipid monologue about Starbucks orders providing a sense of identity, her insistence that a subway butterfly was heading to Bloomingdale’s to buy a hat — have given way to the population at large engaging in a never-ending pageant of fakery over social media. At least back then Kathleen and Joe were only trying to impress one another. What is with you people in 2018? Do you think the whole world is going to sleep with you?
They went on and on about anonymity in their vomit-inducing flirtation. “No specifics, remember?” Now, the machines know everything about you. But you can play Scrabble on the toilet, so you feel it’s a fair trade.
By the way, do you still suppose I stepped over the line by gently criticizing Kathleen about not voting? Oh, has voting turned out to be important over the past couple of years? I hope that was a very nice Election Day manicure, Kathleen, you dolt! And, of course, the internet has done politics no favors either. You don’t need the common people spreading their political opinions far and wide. You should get your opinions from qualified thinkers — professional columnists like me.
My Observer column about the Shop Around the Corner lured additional coverage from the Village Voice, and it was a big deal. We thought it might save Kathleen’s store. Now? The internet ate the Village Voice, just as it is eating everything else.
Back in the glory days of physical media, having a printing press was practically a license to print money. Maybe if Kathleen and Joe had met via classified ad instead of the internet they could have kept the publishing industry afloat a few moments longer.
“The only thing we’d fight about,” Joe told Kathleen as he pictured the life they could live together if only he didn’t run a bigger brick-and-mortar bookstore than her, “would be which video to rent on a Saturday night.”
There is a single Blockbuster left in the whole country, Joe. You destroyed the life you imagined you could live. The world You’ve Got Mail promised, in which the internet offers new possibilities rather than a massive digital prison, is dead.
Also, Joe Fox’s dog is dead.
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