We didn’t have Internet crashes like this back in ’93

There was a major, life-changing crisis in my office last week. (Well, maybe not life-changing, but close.) Our entire computer system shut down, and get this ? for four hours! I know, these are the times that try people?s souls. If you?re lucky enough to either work at home without a network, or even luckier to work at a non-desk job out in the real world, you may not fully appreciate the catastrophic, ultra-diabolical, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it dilemma that we faced. Just imagine. No Internet and e-mail for half a day!

I?m still getting over the trauma of it all, as we speak. Maybe you can tell. They say if something doesn?t destroy you, it will make you stronger. But this was an Armageddon-like experience, I fear, that may stay with me for years to come. Which got me to thinking (something that rarely happens when I?m online). If this were barely a decade ago, most of us would not even have computers dominating our desks with their flashing, mesmerizing screens basking us in the glow of the often-vacuous online world. If it were only seven or eight years ago, most of us would not even have an e-mail address. Or know what ?e-mail? meant.

But the future is now and going for an entire half-day (just thinking about it still gives me chills) without e-mail and Internet access is something I hope none of you will be asked to confront in your lifetimes. If you already have, congratulations on being one of the true survivors of the modern age, when surviving something somewhere seems to be the name of the game. They talk about anthrax? Try no e-mail for till lunchtime!

As much as we try, online and e-mail access is a given these days, seven days a week. And when we?re not online or checking e-mail, we?re on the computer doing whatever it is we seem to do all day, every day (such as writing newspaper columns). And, of course, it?s hardly all work and no play. More than any other office medium ever invented, online activity allows most of us to routinely mix business with pleasure. It?s not like we even try to be secretive about it. Sprinkled into all those officious office messages are the other ones from friends or family (which, in some families, are one and the same).

It?s not uncommon for us to type out at 9:10 a.m., ?Yes, JD, another meeting on the Acme Project is prudent,? to be followed at 9:11 a.m. with ?Hey. Just downloaded the pics from the reunion and Janet sure put on the weight. Better her than me! LOL.? This is followed a minute later with, ?We do need more vertical thinking on this, JD, as you so wisely said. But let?s keep the horizontal thinking in pocket, too, because of our upcoming beta-test of the new database archive.? Then, three minutes later: ?Hey. You get those pics from Bill yet? Think Janet isn?t exactly starving these days, LOL!?

And try as we may, separating the personal e-mail from the less important business stuff is virtually impossible. Sure, we can set up separate e-mail boxes for work and friends, but that?s no fun. (Dare I say it? It may even be un-American.) So when an office network crashes, we instantly lose our indispensable daily tie with friends with such life-and-death queries as, ?So what are you up to? Hardly working? LOL.? Oh, and the office stuff, too.

If you?re a journalist or some other fairly useless individual, checking out a dozen Web sites a day is also part of the daily routine. I still called this type of work ?checking Web sites? until I was informed by a much younger (and therefore, somehow wiser) colleague that what we really do in 2003 is ?data-mine for information? ? much like a miner digging deep into the Earth?s core for coal. When I asked this colleague if it may be just a teeny bit pretentious to compare us latte-sipping keyboard jockeys to people who actually put their lives in harm?s way every day down in coal mines, he said something quite earnestly about the constant threat of carpel tunnel syndrome. (To this day I choose to believe he was kidding.)

Yet what spoke volumes about how quickly we become dependent on things we didn?t even have until a few years ago is what most of us at work did when we learned we?d be without Internet access for another couple of hours: We went home to work online. This defiant act alone tells us a couple of things. First, we are now unable to function as humans without access to what the rest of the world accesses online, regardless of how trivial the transactions.

Secondly, regardless of war on two fronts, SARS, an uncertain economy, and a boss who?s waiting for that final report on the Acme Project, there still are those reunion pictures to download from Bill and distribute to others with the deadly urgent message, ?Hey. We?re sending these around to everyone. Except Janet. ?Friends? and ?Will & Grace? are new tonight. About time! LOL.?

John Merli has been a Prince William County resident since 1984, and a Potomac News columnist since 1985. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years. E-mail him at: [email protected].