Only Connect

The story of technological breakdown, a failure of true love, and how an Internet service non-provider ruined my life

Illustration by Victoria Roberts

My phone service and high-speed Internet service started to break down a few months before I broke up with the man I was living with. As stressful as this development in my personal life was, it did mean that I could get a brand-new email account in my new home. Sadly, a trouble-free connection was not to be. Over six months of constantly interrupted on-line service, I was given the following reasons for my Internet malfunctions:

• Sympatico High Speed didn’t work well in my neighbourhood
• a squirrel had chewed the line
• there was a problem down the street with a “box”
• I was supposed to turn off the modem when using my portable phone
• they had given me a password that was “inappropriate for my area”
• I, or someone impersonating me, had cancelled my account
• maybe an extra filter was required on the wall jack
• my dsl cord was too long
• my iBook had the wrong operating system.

Note that my Internet Service Provider (isp) was Bell Sympatico. I want to name names here. I also wanted to make a long, detailed list of every single thing that went wrong, but my editors said no. They told me to use a conventional narrative structure in order to “tell a story.”

That reminds me of the opening line of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Except this isn’t a story about the hideous failure of a twisted marriage. It’s worse. It’s the story of being disconnected through the failure of modern technology.

It all started, as mentioned, in the ex-partner’s house: mixed messages, scrambled signals, and ultimately a complete breakdown in communication. I knew I had to be honest about my true feelings and end it. So I called Bell Sympatico and told them to cancel both my phone and Internet accounts—though I’m not sure they realized they were being dumped. It took three calls to three different offices to cancel, and at the end of each conversation the person on the line would say, “Thanks for using Bell!” at which point I would say, “I’m not using you! I’m cancelling you!” But they had already hung up.

Not long after that, I packed up and moved out. I began a new life in a new home with a new email address: At first, everything seemed to go well. I settled in with a pile of unpacked boxes and yet another configuration in my life of hastily bought ikea furniture. But for some reason, I put off sending out a group email to everyone with my new contact information. It was that address. I hated being fourth. Why couldn’t I have my old email address: Could someone else already have taken it over? After a couple of weeks of wondering, I checked it out on the Sympatico website and guess what? It was never cancelled. And there were a bunch of unread emails sitting there.

I immediately called Sympatico to straighten things out, but the person at the end of the interminable voicemail maze insisted that was in use by someone else. “That’s me!” I kept saying. “I am evanstone!” Finally I gave up and used my old address via web mail—which was a disaster because I couldn’t figure out how to create a contact list that would “autofill” the recipient’s name when I sent a new message. Since it was too much trouble to type the address every time, I ended up corresponding only with people who emailed me first, so I could just press “reply.”

A lot more happened during this period—like readjusting my entire social, domestic, and emotional life—but the main thing I remember is that my email kept breaking down. Various tech-support people changed my various passwords, which got me on-line in fits and starts, but overall led to a very unstable existence. Also, because I was using both evanstone and ellenvanstone4, depending on which one was working that day, all my user names and passwords got mixed up on my monthly statements. One day, a technician sorted it all out and gave me yet another new password—the idiot-proof, standard-issue abc123. And then, for no apparent reason, that one stopped working too.

For a couple of weeks I went without email to show Bell Sympatico that I didn’t need them. But since I work from home, I eventually felt compelled to call the tech-support line yet again. The technician, as always, was very nice. He couldn’t figure out why my password wasn’t working, but he did go to the website himself to access my account and read my emails to me. Privacy was not an issue. At this point in my shipwrecked existence I was beyond trying to cling to any shred of dignity.

Throughout those first few months, one glitch was particularly annoying. Every time I went on-line, a window appeared with my ex-partner’s name solidly entrenched in my sign-in box, left there from the one or two times he had used my computer in happier days. I entered and re-entered my name and password and ticked off the “please remember my sign-in” box about fifty times, but I could not get rid of him.

I decided to buy a new computer and ordered a Dell, which came with three free months of Rogers cable Internet service—meaning, I could cancel Sympatico forever. It was a big decision, especially after getting the address back, but I thought it was important to embrace change in my life.

For a number of irritating reasons, which my editors forbid me to list here, it took much longer than expected for my new computer to arrive. I lurched along with Sympatico in an increasingly frustrated state, until the day half the lights on my modem suddenly died. I think I triggered the problem by using a phone-line extension cord. But even when I took everything apart and put it back together using the official Sympatico cords, nothing happened. I was completely cut off.

Some days during this down time, I enjoyed the solitude. Other days, I relieved the tedium by idly phoning for technical support. I talked to a lot of technicians. They were all excellent. I often think, if only I’d married a technician my life might have turned out quite differently.

There was some slight discord with one guy, but that was my fault. We’d been on the phone for about half an hour, and getting along pretty well. I’d gotten into the habit of asking the technicians about themselves while waiting for my computer to reboot or my modem to light up. Anyway, this guy, John in New Brunswick, at one point asked me something like “When you attempt to log in to your account via the Internet, what appears on your screen?” I answered, “The same little box keeps appearing. You know—the little box that tells you to quit trying and fuck off.” I could feel the ice through the line. Wow. I thought everyone said fuck. Hasn’t it entered the language? Not in New Brunswick apparently. Maybe he was a Bible student or something. I felt terrible. I also wondered if it was illegal to use profanity over the phone with a technician and if Sympatico would cancel my account on grounds of moral turpitude before I got a chance to cancel them first.

The next time I spoke to a technician, Mustafa in Montreal, I was careful to be correct and dignified. Mustafa, however, seemed positively flirtatious. Could he tell from my file that I was single? Or was I just so out of it that I was now mistaking technician pity for a come-on? Still, it was a strangely intimate exercise. Mustafa went through all my connections with me. He had me go around the apartment unhooking phones and doubling up filters on extensions, disconnecting and then reconnecting the modem and so forth. I had to move furniture around because the phone jack is behind the couch and then I was crawling around under the desk making sure everything was snugly attached. I wondered if these guys were ever tempted to say something like, “Okay, now hold the modem over your head and lift up your right foot and shake it all about.”

I talked to a friend about this. She wondered if the technicians had a lot of women coming on to them. We imagined the kinds of things an improper technician might say: “What is your phone number with area code, please? What is your operating system? What’s the number on the bottom of your modem? What are you wearing? Are you wearing a bra with an underwire that could be interfering with the signal? Do the lights on your modem keep flashing after you have removed your brassiere?” And so forth.

It sounds as if I spent my life talking on the phone with pleasant technicians. Not true. I spent days at a time without email access and too demoralized to phone Bell yet again. What would I say? “Please, please, help me . . . I’ve fallen into a deep depression and I can’t get up.” At one point, I kept thinking of the feeling I had in grade school, when our daily dose of catechism featured mesmerizing tales of martyrs being tortured to death and the inevitability of being tempted to commit a mortal sin which would stain our souls and consign us to eternal damnation if we died without confessing in time. As a child, I sometimes imagined the whole world was a trick that God was playing on me to test my faith—that I was the only person on earth and everyone else, even my mom, was the devil in disguise, put there to lead me into temptation.

I guess you could say I was feeling a little paranoid. Also, I couldn’t stop talking to people about my email problems, including all the people in my condo building. The man who lives above me said that Bell Sympatico had told him he had email problems because of a “dirty line” and that maybe I should get a technician to come out and see if my line was dirty. I wasn’t entirely sure how to take this advice.

Meanwhile, in the months after my move, as my email repeatedly broke down, a few friends and editors became irritated because they couldn’t reach me. I eagerly related my tragic email history, delighted to have a captive audience, but even to my ears it began to sound like the dog ate my homework. So I stopped making excuses. I let them assume I was too inept to sustain a simple email address, let alone a relationship. It was true, wasn’t it? I started to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have moved out. Maybe if I hadn’t been forced to disconnect my modem every time the phone rang, I might have had the emotional wherewithal to make the relationship work. It was all Bell’s fault. I wondered if failure to provide Internet service contributing to the breakdown of a relationship was grounds to sue. If this were America, I bet it would be.

Aside from impatient friends and irate editors, most people were sympathetic. They listened attentively and told me their own isp horror stories. None of us felt we could do anything about it. We were sheep, and corporations like Bell and Rogers were our masters.

That reminds me of a line I heard on the old hbo sitcom Dream On: the odious Australian boss, Gibby Fiske, taunts the beleaguered protagonist, Martin Tupper: “What’s wrong with you? You look rougher than a sheep’s arse on ‘Farmers Drink Free’ night.”

Do you get what I’m saying here?

We are at the mercy of monopolies like Bell and Rogers, and the promise of new technology to make our lives better is a lie. In fact, we are in a battle; technology is a tool of profit-mad corporations, and when Yahoo and Bell send little messages to us subscribers (“Welcome, ELLEN!”), it’s an insult because nobody there actually knows me, or cares. The technicians and other wage slaves who deal directly with us customers are nice (and God help them if they aren’t, because their calls are monitored by corporate-style Big Brothers), but ultimately there’s no accountability. There is the appearance of a civilized world, with the tool of technology at our fingertips, but it’s a sham. There is no order, no authority, no system. Chaos rules. This is why the world is in the state it’s in today. The war in Iraq is a direct result of the same kind of capitalistic, money-grubbing, worker-screwing, morally irresponsible, heartless greed that has led to my own isp failure-induced trauma.

I wonder if I’m turning into a crank. I remember reading an article by Peter Gzowski years ago about how he had just bought his first computer but then couldn’t make the printer work. He got out his old typewriter and copied the article off the screen so he could fax it to his editor. I thoroughly enjoyed that article, but my young self at the time also felt a congenial disdain for Gzowski’s old-fogey attitude toward new technology. I grouped him with all the other Luddites who were churning out peevish articles about how these newfangled “word processors” would inevitably lead to lazier writing.

And now I am the Peter Gzowski! I am the fogey who fears and loathes new technology! Soon I’ll be writing my own aging-hack articles, grumpily addressing such burning journalistic issues as: “Hey, do you know what the younger generation is doing? They’re typing ‘u2’ for ‘you, too’! Isn’t that wild?”

I really want to make another list here, because I don’t know how else to do justice to the fiasco that my relationship with Bell Sympatico degenerated into during the dying days of our association. But the editors here refuse to discuss the list thing anymore. And I do realize it’s pointless. But when one has been through a terrible experience, it’s so soothing to make a complete record of all the transgressions—the treachery, the injustice, the heartbreak of disconnection. Perhaps it’s a bid for control or a need to convey to you, whoever you are—to prove beyond any doubt—that none of this was my fault. Not that assigning blame is a useful exercise. It never is, of course. But just let me say this: I arranged bill payment through pre-authorized chequing-account withdrawals and Bell Sympatico never made the withdrawals, and then they threatened me with collection agencies and a bad credit rating; and then when I finally did get my Dell computer with Rogers cable access and phoned to cancel Sympatico, they said I couldn’t cancel anything until I called a different business office to cancel my digital bundle, even though I didn’t have a digital bundle because I don’t have a cellphone or Bell ExpressVu satellite service, and then they said I had to pay a cancellation charge(!), and finally, at the very end, they said they had no record of my ever having an account with them, so they had to start a new file and send it to “the department that handles special problems” and someone would call me back in a few days, but no one did. But then when I went on the Internet to check for any lingering emails, I found that they had cancelled it after all.

A few weeks later, as I moved unpacked boxes around my apartment to see how I could arrange the space to accommodate whatever now-mysterious contents they held, I found a pile of unopened mail, including a notice from Sympatico telling me to pack up my modem, phone filters, and everything else, and send it back to them in the original packing, as if people kept their original packing around. Though, in fact, mine was still sitting on the table in my front hallway. I still had the modem I’d used in my ex-partner’s house, plus the new modem I’d gotten for the condo. I stuffed both into the box along with any other bits of cable and electronic debris I could find, taped it shut and took it to the post office. The Sympatico notice said they would charge me a cancellation fee of $180, plus applicable taxes, if the stuff wasn’t returned within fifteen days, which it wasn’t, obviously. I hate them. I’m so glad I’m in a new relationship now, with a different Internet service provider.

Mind you, life with Rogers isn’t perfect. When the technician came to hook up the cable and a new modem to my computer, he refused to set up my email account. I told him the Rogers business office had promised he wouldn’t leave till I was successfully on-line. He nervously explained he wasn’t allowed to touch my computer in case something went wrong and he was blamed for it. He started to edge his way out. I blocked the exit, called Rogers, and put him on the phone. They told him not to charge me an installation fee. I told him I wasn’t supposed to pay the fee in the first place because installation came free with the Dell. He nodded, shrugged, mumbled, and backed up slowly toward the door. I didn’t know what to do. I had a real, live technician in my clutches and he was getting away! “Please,” I said. “Don’t leave. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it all!” It was useless. He left.

A few days later, after several calls to Rogers’ tech-support line, I got my email to work—though it kept deleting attachments due to the over-zealous virus scanner that came free with the Dell.

So here I am in yet another challenging relationship. I can’t open attachments and I can’t even begin to understand the bizarre behaviour of the PC. Unlike my old iBook, the Windows operating system features endless bleeping pop-ups and ding-donging security updates, and a balloon—which I cannot for the life of me figure out how to remove—that wants me to sign in to msn messenger. Which. I. Do. Not. Want. To. Do. Sometimes I almost suspect that maybe it doesn’t matter what you buy or whose system you go with because underneath they’re all the same—the hardware, the software, the isps, the printers that cost next to nothing—till you run out of ink.

But at least my email works, pretty much, or will, someday, if I can just figure out a couple more things, and, of course, get the right help . . .

Ellen Vanstone