The More Things Change (Or How The Internet Is Like Maine)

Ah, yes, the good old days of the Internet – right? Wrong! The good old days of life in Maine.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 7/1/1997; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

Ah, yes, those were the days. My first time was in 1972. It was not very crowded then. Not too many businesses – or obtrusive advertising. The early adopters were mostly government and educational professionals. But above all, etiquette was taken for granted. Everyone was polite and friendly. I knew many on a first-name basis. Those of us who were there early felt a sense of community.

In the next decade or so, things began to change. More commerce. More people. More traffic. And even some crime, although it never made the cover of Time magazine. Those of us who were the “originals” began to resent the newcomers. The new arrivals didn’t understand this great resource. Just wanted to exploit it. No sense of community, and etiquette was tossed out the window.

The Bush administration was a turning point, for obvious reasons. Sometimes I wish he had never discovered it.

Ah, yes, the good old days of the Internet – right? Wrong! The good old days of life in Maine.

Maine is like the Internet in many ways. Both are steeped in tradition, in odd jargon that only the old-timers seem to understand. Both were – and still are to some degree – their own special sort of paradise.

I have probably been writing this column in my head for the better part of the last three decades. When I moved to Maine in 1972, lobster meat was less expensive than hamburger. We never had to worry about security, never had to lock the doors to our house or our cars. We knew all of our neighbors, and everybody looked out for everybody else. I met one of my best friends – Joe – in 1972, who is now the godfather of my youngest son. He’s also a music professor at Boston University.

Joe and I grew up watching the forests and fields that we played in as children be replaced by cookie-cutter condos. We both still have relatives there, will probably spend our summers there, and enjoy talking about the early days. But I think we also sense that things have changed. Joe understands. He’s an early Mainer.

Years ago, when I was in Maine during a break from college, I commented to Bill and Mary, our next-door neighbors, that things had really changed since I’d been there last. I will never forget Bill’s reply. He said, “Well, Erik, things have always been changing. You just don’t notice the changes as much when you’re here.” A few years later, when they retired, Bill and Mary moved across town to one of those condominium developments. But we still refer to them as Bill and Mary Next Door. Always neighbors. They understand. They are early Mainers.

I attended college in Massachusetts, law school in Maine. I have spent half of my life in and around Boston, and half in Maine. I consider both places home.

When I was in law school, there was a referendum on the ballot about whether or not Maine should widen the Turnpike to three lanes from the New Hampshire border to Portland. Traffic problems were becoming more frequent, especially during warm summer weekends when all of the tourists – newbies – poured into the state.

Maine’s license place reads “Vacationland,” and a sign at the southern tip of Maine proudly proclaims “Maine, the way life should be.”

Should life be gridlock? Clearly the Turnpike needs to be widened. Tourism is the lifeblood of the state in the summer months. And lately, because of the great skiing, in the winter months too! Proponents simply pointed to the gridlock, the resultant pollution, and the sacred Tourism Dollar. Opponents argued that widening the Turnpike would simply move the problem from the main roads to the side roads. They also argued that alternative transportation – such as the Boston & Maine railroad – should be considered and funded.

I have long joked that Maine’s real motto should be “Get the heck out of my state.” Early Mainers – and I include myself in that bunch – reluctantly rely on tourism. But we’d be just as happy if all the tourists stayed at home and mailed us their money. Then we could have our two-lane highways – and our beaches and sense of community – to ourselves.

When I was explaining to my colleagues at law school about how the Internet could be used to supplement the study and practice of law, one of my law school professors asked me how I felt about all the newbies on the Internet. I replied that, on the one hand, I was glad because it afforded me the opportunity to explore a career in Internet publishing. But I also admitted that, on the other hand, I wanted to say “Get the heck off of my Net!”

Of course, the Net belongs to everybody and nobody. Just like Maine. Neither is a secret. And both, for better or for worse, are constantly changing.

I voted in that election – along with about two thirds of the other Maine voters – not to widen the Turnpike. But a referendum can be like a recurring bad dream. It’s not going to go away until you get to the root of the problem. I know it, and I think that other early Mainers know it.

There are 13 overpasses on the Turnpike from its southern tip to Portland. The Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) lacks the authority to widen the road to three lanes, but that does not stop it from widening the 13 overpasses to support the eventual three-lane Turnpike. And since the referendum was defeated, the MTA has been doing just that. In fact, I suspect that the overpass-widening contracts were awarded before the referendum was defeated. There are probably not a lot of early Mainers in the MTA. But when the next referendum comes, they and their overpasses will be ready.

Perhaps it’s just because I’m getting older. Or because my kids are learning how to operate the computer and the VCR. But I do miss the way Maine used to be. And I miss the way the Internet used to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an optimist. I believe that there is good to be found wherever you are. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder, a little longer. I don’t visit Maine as much as I used to, and I don’t participate in Usenet or listserv list discussions as much as I used to. But these days are tomorrow’s good old days.

Now the Maine Turnpike Authority it talking about automated toll booths. I must admit that I have come full-circle in my opinion of toll booths. I used to hate them. A bureaucratic relic of government’s inability to follow up on its past promises, and monuments to society’s addiction to tax revenue. Tax me. Take my money, not my time, I argued. The roads are paid for, so rip down the toll booths. But now I live in a state – Massachusetts – where the toll road is just one of several roads to my destination (usually the office). Guess which road is the least busy during rush hour. So now I am a big fan of toll booths. In fact, I’d support an increase in tolls.

Hmm, paying more for better access. Now there’s an idea that Internet Service Providers could sink their teeth into! The way life should be.

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