17 July, 2016

The Rise of the Internet: A Personal View

Several key points in my life were defined, in part, by the internet.  You might say I grew up with it.  I certainly wouldn't have been the same person without it.  At key points, changes to the internet opened new doors just as I needed them.  I've been very lucky.

I graduated from high school in June 1976.  In August 1976, the internet was born.  At the end of that month I began my Freshman year at what was then called the University of Missouri-Rolla.  It was the science and technology school--the state's closest equivalent to MIT.  And it was connected to the ARPAnet.  I took my first computer science course, learning Basic and compiling programs on punch cards.  It was also the first time I had seen dedicated computer labs--rows of terminals, facing the walls, with dot-matrix printers.  Another lab had a "microcomputer" about six feet tall, among other things.  The mainframe--which processed the cards--filled a room so large I don't recall ever seeing the far side of it. Since I figured I was majoring in the sciences I bought a personal calculator.  It could add, subtract, multiply, and divide.  It cost me $300 dollars (in 1976 dollars).  One of my professors was envious because the year before he'd spent ten times as much for a tabletop calculator with the same capabilities.

I loved that computer lab, and while in retrospect I couldn't do much more than play Zork and Star Trek it was my favorite spot on campus. We did have BITnet (which used the excess computer time--it was called what it was Because It's There), but email was a hassle--and who would you send it to?

Aside from that lab I was pretty much miserable my Freshman year.  It gradually dawned on me that I didn't really want to be a physicist or an engineer, and those were pretty much the options at Rolla.  So I left abruptly, half way through my third semester, and eventually went to the St. Louis campus to "find myself".  I remember looking through the schedule, purposely ignoring any liberal studies or graduation requirements, and signed up for anything that seemed interesting.  I had no idea what sociology was, but it sounded cool, so I took it.  I was always interested in current events, so I signed up for intro to international relations.  I eventually ended up double majoring in political science and sociology, with a shared concentration in IR that I put together for myself.  I was having a lot of fun.  I remember sitting in the IR class, watching the professor and thinking--I want to do what he's doing; I could do that for the rest of my life.  But I was also going home every night to live with my parents, and that began to cramp whatever little style I had.

(It was also at UMSL that I saw my first video game--Asteroids, packaged in a tall fiberglass tower shaped to look like a mid-1970s version of what "21st-Century" furniture might be.  It wouldn't have been out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.)

So I moved on to the main campus: University of Missouri-Columbia.  There were plenty of classes I liked, plenty of people I liked, and I learned some more things about myself.  It was also here that I clearly remember seeing the first computer terminal in a home.  The father of a girl I knew was in the computer science department, and the terminal, complete with CRT display, was set up on a desk in the corner of the living room.  He was fully plugged in to the campus, and the internet, with a dedicated T1 line.  It was fast.  It was global.  And I wanted something just like it.

Graduate school started with a card catalog and ended with a terminal.  My dissertation was started on a typewriter and ended on a Mac.  A 128?  A 512?  128, I think.  And modems working at a blinding 1200 bps.  And Compuserve.  And GEnie.  And Byte.  And the Well.  I had conversations with some of my favorite SF authors, because they were of course among the early adopters.  There was a guy who I hadn't heard of before, but he was very engaged with fans and he was developing a new TV show called "Babylon 5" that sounded like it could be very good.  And AOL was mailing CD-roms and disks to everyone, simplifying the email and internet connections.  Pages would have frozen color images, occasionally, but messaging was through email and bulletin boards.

Two problems:  a fast modem was still around 2400 bps, and the internet providers were charging by the second.  So people developed write-arounds, to download everything at once, disconnect, and when you had all your posts read and written it would reconnect, upload everything, and log off.

I was in one of my temporary teaching jobs, in Indiana, when I got involved with GEnie.  There was a bulletin board on earth religions I found interesting.  Not my usual kind of stuff, but the people were smart and civil and I'd already had my fill of flame wars.  There was one girl in particular: she was smart, she was creative, she would point out new and interesting things I hadn't thought of myself.  I didn't know much about her, but I knew I liked her. And then I got an email from her.  To this day, I remember the full text of the message:

Subj: Hello.

And the rest was blank.  That happened sometimes. Between the networks and the download/upload software things could get lost.  I thought about it for a while, and I wrote back.  I complemented her for the brevity of her message, and we started a conversation.  The more I learned about her, the more I liked her.  A lot. I started to think I might actually meet her some day.  I tried to be honest with her: who I was, my flaws, my dreams.  Things I hadn't told the people around me.  I was a near-complete introvert, but somehow I _wanted_ her to know these things.  And she was honest with me.

(Note that this was BEFORE on-line dating sites. Before cyber predators became a topic for conversation.  Before complete jerks set up false profiles on line.  It was also before you could attach a photo to email, so neither of us knew what the other looked like, other than how we described ourselves.  And each of us knew even an "honest" self-description was biased by how we saw ourselves, and that wasn't the same as reality.)

The internet and I were completely in-sync.  It was words, and I was good with words. And they weren't even _spoken_ words.  I could revise whatever I sent before I sent it.  We didn't have body language, or fashion, or any of those visual cues we use to judge one another.  I couldn't trip over my own feet.  Eventually we started with phone calls, but at this stage neither of us would have recognized the other's voice.  It was simple enough even _I_ could do it.  Five years earlier, and we couldn't have found one another.  Five years later, and I wouldn't have had the nerve to try.

Like I said: lucky.  Or fate, take your pick.  As you probably guessed, we eventually married.  The wedding (already scheduled) was the first weekend of my new job, a faculty position I've held for twenty years.

But one last story.  We were talking by phone now, as well as all the internet connections.  I'd finished the adjunct job in Indiana, but I was unemployed and she lived in North Carolina and I didn't have a way to get there.  We still wouldn't have recognized each other on the street.  I suppose we could have snail-mailed photos to each other.  I just hadn't thought about it.  Or I was afraid she'd see a picture of me and somehow things would go wrong.  But I had a political science conference to attend in D.C., and some job interviews.  I was surrounded by friends--and there was a train to North Carolina.  She and I arranged for me to visit for a few days.  If she didn't feel comfortable, I could check into a motel for a couple of days.  If it was OK, I'd stay with her.  Maybe sleep on the couch.  I was so anxious about this meeting that I was probably the last one off the train.  And when I stepped off, there was this girl in the center of the platform.  She had a smile that melted all the fear.  She glowed--at least that's how I remember it.  And she was holding a sign: "IT'S ME".  I hugged her so long and so hard that we popped a lens out of her glasses.  I spent the night at her place.  I wasn't on the couch.

Each step of the way, the internet opened a door.  Just a bit more each time.  Just enough to manage the transition.  Netscape and the Web took off about the same time as Susan and I got together in the "real" world.  So when I think about the development of the internet, it's personal.  In a sense, we grew up together.  At each point, what I saw was then the cutting-edge of technology.  It was always clearly better than anything I had seen before.  It opened doors.  And I was in just the right place to take advantage of it.

How the internet was invented | Technology | The Guardian

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