Last week, my next-door neighbor rang my bell and asked if he could use my Wi-Fi for the night. Sure! No problem! But he's still poking around on my network right now. Why are you still on my network, neighbor?
Let's get one thing straight: I'm fully committed to being a good neighbor. I make sure the guests at my bacchanalia don't get too rowdy, I don't leave my trash sitting out before trash day, and I play my music at a reasonable volume. And while it's not like we nosh on a regular basis, my neighbors and I always have a nice chat when we cross paths on the stairway. We're friendly! So last week when Steve—we'll call him Steve—told me that the thunderstorm raging outside had knocked his internet out and asked if he could use mine for the night, I didn't hesitate to lend a hand. But things were already kind of awkward! Let me back up a bit.
Steve and his girlfriend had borrowed my internet for a week or so a few months back when they switched from Verizon to DirecTV. It turned out that Steve worked from home, too, so I developed the vague and probably unfounded notion that he was using up precious bandwidth as I went about my important Gizmodo business, but generally things went without incident. Steve and his girlfriend used my internet for about a week, bought me a six-pack of beer for my trouble, and that was that. Good neighbor mission accomplished!
But apparently the mission wasn't over just yet. After the beer-gift had been given, I'd still see Steve's MacBook pop up from time to time in my network's list of Shared Places. I assumed it was due to some inadvertent connection on his part, but his computer started showing up so regularly over the following few weeks that I decided it had to be deliberate. And soon it had me pretty incensed! Like who was this guy, thinking he could just waltz on over to my Wi-Fi whenever he pleased? I imagined him determinedly switching to my network when it was time to download his dozen-gigabyte Blu-ray images or the weirder varieties of porn he enjoyed. And while I was fine letting him visit my network in a time of need, I didn't think that I should have to hand him the keys to the whole goddamn castle. So I changed my password. That was that.
And then, a few weeks later, I was the one who needed my neighbor's network.
It was in the middle of some Apple event and we were blogging fast and furious and sure enough, because it always does when I need it most, my Time Warner connection shitted the bed. After a brief but intense moment of panic, I ran next door and implored Steve's girlfriend to let me use their internet. She was happy to oblige, of course, and I got through the Apple event without incident.
But let me tell you, having access to their internet connection had a strange effect on me. My Time Warner service is reliably awful, and for a period of maybe six weeks my connection would cut out everyday for about 15 minutes sometime in the early afternoon. After a week or two of what became a daily ritual—restarting modems and routers, muttering under my breath, yelling at some hapless Time Warner call center employee—I gave in and directed my AirPort to Steve's SSID. Out of some combination of frustration and laziness, Steve's internet became my safety-net network. I never used it with a totally clean conscience, mind you, but I started depending on it with regrettable regularity.
Anyway, flash forward to last week. There was Steve, whose access to my Wi-Fi I had vengefully rescinded, guilty only of a crime that I had gone on to commit myself, asking again to borrow my internet. How could I say no. And then came the awkward:
"The old password doesn't seem to be working any more..." he said, bringing our entire history of shared and stolen internet connections flooding into the hallway between us. Did he begrudge me for changing my password? Was he aware of my surreptitious usage of his network? How had I let the goddamn internet undermine my whole Be a Good Neighbor initiative?!
"Oh, just change the 'a' at the end to an e,'" I told him sheepishly as I sneaked back in my apartment.
So now, one week on, watching his name pop up occasionally in my Shared Places, I've kind of come full circle on the whole thing. I was perturbed when Steve overstayed his welcome on my Wi-Fi, but then, despite my best intentions, I had become the one overstaying mine. I guess in some way the saga sheds some light on what a weird place the internet holds in our lives today. On one hand, I'm viscerally protective of my network—not necessarily because I worry about security or anything like that, but just because I think of it as a private space where I don't want people lingering, like my bedroom. But there's another sense in which I feel totally entitled to internet access wherever and however I can get it, like it's sunlight or tap water or something. I guess that's why I kept on using Steve's network even after my unspoken lease was up.
In reality, I suppose the internet really exists somewhere in between those two extremes. It's like a 21st century cup of sugar—something you can and should ask your neighbor for when you need it, just not every time you have a sweet tooth.