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While teaching an intro to journalism class at the University of Alabama sometime in the late 1990s, I invited a colleague from The Tuscaloosa News to talk to my students.
He was well-versed in a new-fangled concept called the internet.
The class took careful notes as he talked about things like Jeeves and Googles and Yahoos. I did, too. I didn’t quite understand the importance of something I wasn’t sure how to spell.
Halfway through the session, we walked down the hall to the computer lab — the one place with dial-up internet access — and made clumsy attempts to put our new-found knowledge to use.
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I’d given them an assignment that required research: Write an obituary for a living celebrity.
They took their places in front of the computers, and a dozen modems squawked to life, screeching like a roomful of cats in a roomful of rocking chairs.
The students, mostly sophomores and juniors, started typing, trying to get the dots and coms in the right order. One guy had success. He keyed the name “Anna Nicole Smith” into the Google search bar.
An image started coming into focus, building from the top of the screen. Poufy blonde hair. Thick eye makeup. Pouty red lips.
The rest of the class gathered around to watch.
Bare shoulders. Bare…Wait, what?! I pushed my way to the computer and tried to cover up the monitor, sure my days as an adjunct instructor were numbered. I’d forgotten Anna Nicole, who at the time was very much alive, first gained popularity as 1993’s Playboy Playmate of the Year.
The Google moved slowly back then. We had to wait for the image to load before my colleague, the expert, could close the browser. The screen went blank. I could finally breathe again.
Somehow, I kept my job. The guy got an A on his writing assignment. And I finished the semester awed by the power of the internet. It’s slow-motion, modem-powered magnificence gave me access to more information than I ever knew existed.
Now, it seems antiquated and quaint.
While progress often seems slow, it’s amazing how much can change over the course of a generation or two.
My grandparents traveled by horse-drawn carriage.
They were born in the early 1900s in the rural South before cars and trucks were widely available.
That people I knew and loved lived under such primitive conditions seems impossible to someone like me, who grew up in a two-car family. I also grew up with television (though not always color), cable (eventually) and push-button telephones, things I’m sure my grandparents couldn’t imagine as children.
It’s exciting, and a little frightening, to think about what breakthroughs will happen in the next century.
I recently told my internet lesson tale to a group of colleagues in their 20s and 30s. They listened with rapt attention, no doubt trying to fathom a world with inconveniences worse than being forced to use data instead of wifi.
As I reached the dramatic denouement, one of the reporters stopped me.
“Why didn’t you just turn off the monitor?” he said. “That’s what I used to do when I heard my parents coming into my room.”
Now he tells me. Where was he 25 years ago?
Suzy Fleming Leonard is a feature journalist with more than three decades of experience. Reach her at email@example.com. Find her on Facebook: @SuzyFlemingLeonard or on Instagram: @SuzyLeonard
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