On my long-term relationship with the internet


As a child of Generation Z, I do not remember 9/11, but I do remember my parents downgrading from our “beep beep” Road Runner High Speed Internet to our “screech screech” dial-up internet. My family was pretty early to the home-internet game, so at my elementary STEM magnet school, I was one of the only kids in my kindergarten class who knew how to access the internet. Therefore, I was the girl who proudly showed all the boys how to play computer games on the Playhouse Disney website.

Five years later, it was 2009. Ethernet, desktop internet, was still king. “Zoom” was just a television show on PBS Kids and “Google it” was not in my vocabulary. My most memorable internet experience was the fateful day that my stock-tracking buddies in my math class and I logged on to our desktop classroom computers to learn that the market had crashed and our imaginary investments had vanished. (Except for that one quiet kid who invested in a stock we’d never heard of called “Netflix.”) 

In middle school and early high school, I really only used the internet for recreational purposes. Back then, it was perfectly normal for me to leave the house without my phone and go for an entire week without using the internet. I only began regularly using the internet in the 11th grade when I went to boarding school. At home, I occasionally borrowed a computer from my parents; at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, however, every student was required to have their own laptop. Despite dreaded 1 a.m. WiFi cutoffs, I relied on my institution to make sure I had sufficient internet access to submit my assignments on Canvas and to upload coding assignments to the server in the computer science department.

Fast forward six years. Everything, including WiFi, was big in Texas. During my gap year, I lived at an Austin seminary where my rent was $250, utilities and internet included. WiFi was pretty simple. My housemates and I simply picked up a modem and plugged it into the wall. We made our WiFi password something along the lines of “WeHaveInternet!” to mark the momentous occasion.

Back in school at Middlebury, I never had any particular problems connecting to the internet. I only used FaceTime about twice a year, and I used Zoom once this past January to interview for a consulting internship. I don’t have an Instagram, Snapchat or Tik Tok. Even at Midd, I really only used the internet to check my email. If I needed to complete an intensive technology task, I was headed to a campus computer lab.

My relationship with the internet was fine until Middlebury announced that it would be closing as a precautionary measure due to the Covid-19 crisis. It is now 2020, and the world is officially in a WiFi era. With the extended spring break, I decided to start a new virtual workout program. Sadly, my Covid-19 self-quarantine resolution met a brick wall with my parent’s internet. It could sometimes take minutes to refresh my email, so accessing HD Video Teleconferencing platforms such as Zoom was a far-off dream.

On Wednesday, March 25, I reached out to the CCI about the Middlebury Student Emergency Fund, but I was told to seek help elsewhere. The judgement was that my slow internet was not an urgent situation, and I needed to try harder before coming to the college for help. Thus, I was annoyed by President Laurie Patton’s March 29 email, praising the initial success of the Emergency Fund. Even decisions about whose emergency merits a response reek of privilege. 

Yet other institutions are responding to student needs in the Covid-19 crisis quite differently. For instance, UC Berkeley’s Student Technology Fund is rapidly deploying laptops and WiFi hotspots with service plans to students in need free of charge. In addition, students can request a Cost of Attendance Adjustment if they need to purchase a new device or take on other expenses to participate in remote learning. 

During the second week of spring break, the provost sent out a survey asking if students had access to home high speed internet. I now realize that I provided false information because I naively assumed that  all internet access of any speed was equally sufficient. Post-epiphany, I now plan to take advantage of internet service providers who are giving households with at least one K-12, college student or teacher two months of free high-speed internet access. Still, this leaves me wondering just how many low-tech users like myself may have overestimated their access to high speed internet, not realizing that a WiFi connection that can connect to Facebook cannot necessarily reliably support an hour long Zoom conference call.

Christine McDow is a member of the class of 2021.