I'm typing this from my brother-in-law's Cape Town house on his computer, using his high-speed Internet connection. Anthony is as tech-savvy as Steve Jobs's assistant. He gets every new gadget, is aware of every new toy and picks apart and puts together computers.
Yet even he is held prisoner by Internet speeds that would make 1994 web users wince and whine. For those of you in the States who are at work and complain when a web site takes two seconds to load instead of one, and wonder what in the hell is wrong with your IT department, please, just today, suffer quietly. For those typing away on a bedroom computer who express disgust that your home Internet connection is so much slower than the one at work, and that it takes five seconds for a YouTube video to load instead of two, please, just today, say nothing more. For those of you listening to your dial-up connection - that noise many of us haven't heard in probably five years - who are stuck dealing with dial-up speeds, please don't complain today. And for those of you stuck playing the Oregon Trail who wish your parents would get up to speed with technology that was at least relevant in the 1990s, please, just today, keep shooting the buffalo and dying of dysentery in silence. All of you, appreciate what you have.
And appreciate what South Africans experience every day they dial in or connect to the low-speed Internet service. Each web page I click on takes nearly two minutes to load, no matter how few graphics litter the page. Loading, loading, loading, loading. That mantra lingers on the screen, tormenting and teasing. In the time it takes for a web page to finally appear, someone could use the time reading two pages of a novel, or typing two pages of their own as-yet-unpublished Great American Novel. The system teaches patience and persistence. As I tried paying our cable bill online, I waited five minutes for the log-in screen to appear. Conspiracy theorists might suspect Time Warner itself of causing the delay, hoping my frustration would make me give up, leading to a small but painful late charge. But I won the clash, remembering similar Internet battles of the past. Like the time in 1996 when I waited four minutes for ESPN's home page to appear so I could see if Shaq finally signed with the Lakers.
In Firefox I opened three windows at once, so I had a trio of pages refusing to open. At Louise's parents's house, the connection's a bit faster - the pages will load within a minute - but there's a catch: They purchased a set amount of units. When those expired, we were done for the week and have to wait until the first of the month for it to reset. The units aren't based on time. In fact, no one really knows exactly what they're based on, other than pages with videos or complicated graphics will drain more units, so avoid those pages. And if there's one thing web designers in 2010 do to help out with this problem, it's limit graphics and videos on their pages...
But all of this actually helps us disconnect from the rest of the world a bit, which is something we actually appreciate on this trip. I'm already a veteran proponent of limiting my exposure to technology, though it's not like I advocate it with a Kaczynski-like fervor or anything. I don't have a cell phone an iPod or a Facebook page, and I sometimes enjoy simply being isolated from the constant barrage of media that confronts everyone. So with our Internet options somewhat limited on this trip, we're able to focus on enjoying the scenery and the experiences and the new foods and Louise's family and the beach. Leisure time is spent with a book instead of online. I've already finished four books and could probably finish a fifth if I spent an hour surfing the Internet, waiting for the pages to load. On the other hand, this is 2010. And as a spoiled American, I can now firmly state that high-speed Internet isn't just a privilege, it should be a basic right for all people.
Some other Cape Town notes.
My limited exposure to online media has not meant a decline in my consumption of traditional media, specifically newspapers. And Cape Town remains a dream world for lovers of real ink and two-column headlines. I buy the Cape Times every day. Holding it feels like I'm clutching an archaic object. Most U.S. papers long ago switched to a narrower product, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by using less paper. The Times remains as big and broad as ever, forcing a person to stretch their arms wide when it's finally unfurled.
The Times also ignores a decade's worth of consultants who have preached shorter stories for an audience with shortened attention spans.
No jumps! 10-inch stories! That's what papers have been told for years, though I'm not sure how these ideas have helped newspapers with relevancy or circulation. I mean, the ideas sound right; in today's world, who wants to read a 30-inch story on a city council meeting or a 100-inch human interest story? I don't know. But judging by the number of layoffs, bankruptcies and closings that have haunted the industry, no one wants to read short stories either. So maybe try writing stories with some meat?
Anyway, the Times does just that. On the op-ed page, one of the columns must have been 50 inches; it took up a quarter of a page and had nary a pull quote or graphic. I read the whole thing, but I don't know how many others did. Regardless, I was glad to see that there are still papers who let writers write. Too bad few of those papers are located in North America.
In addition to the Times, Cape Town's home to countless tabloids, siblings to the New York Post and Daily News. Here's where readers find the more tawdry tales of the city, complete with pun-laden headlines and outrage that's usually real but occasionally feigned - the type of thing tabloids have specialized in for more than a century. In one of them, the first inside page is home to a nude woman, who's just standing there, being nude. Smiling. Perhaps pouting. Promoting nothing but her assets, her body probably does little to raise circulation, though it might provide a lift to the male half of the paper's audience.
A unique feature in Cape Town - unique in that I haven't seen it in the U.S., though it might be more prevalent overseas - is that the papers promote themselves on signs throughout the city. So as we drive around, oversize front pages from every tabloid are attached to signs, announcing the day's major stories. Today I saw one that read, "DOG POUNDED TO DEATH." Grotesque, surely a horrific story. Made me want to buy the paper. Another announced the resignation of South Africa's cricket coach. Another read, "HOW TIGER WAS TRAPPED!" That one made me want to stop the car right there and find the nearest newsstand. Was the paper talking about an actual orange beast that got trapped in the wild or on a city block, or was it about Tiger Woods being ensnared in a new scandal?
For anyone who ever makes a trip to Cape Town, be sure to buy as many of the papers as possible. They're entertaining and informative. More importantly, you'll need something to do while surfing the net.