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2020-11-22 10:26:51 (UTC)

Prompt 101: The Internet's First Users

101. The 1980s brought the invention of the internet. What do you think it would have been like to be one of the web's first users? In what ways might it have been different from the internet today?
Not too long ago, I watched a documentary called "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World." It was directed by one of the filmmakers I admire, Werner Herzog. The doc is about the advent of the Internet, and how that technology has sculpted our culture, habits, and lives.

One of the things that the documentary didn't cover was the notion of the "eternal September," supposedly the nickname given to the era when the Internet became available to the general public: September 1993. This is thanks to America Online: the United States' most prolific supplier of mirror-shiny, plastic drink coasters. From that point on, the Internet no longer served as a tool for academics, researchers, and college students, and transformed into the world's most effective sales tool.

Back to the documentary: Herzog interviews a number of the progenitors of the Internet, and even visits the "holy temple" or erstwhile birthplace of the Internet: a basement computer lab of UCLA. The subject of the interview discusses the first tests of Internet data transfer - and how it crashed after sending two characters: "L" and "O" (which inspired the documentary's title). It was also explained that Usenet - the version of the Internet that existed since the early '70s - was a forum and message service for primarily scientists and college students. Amazingly, there was - for a time - a printed listing of every email address, barely two inches thick. ...Just imagine if there were a "telephone book" listing each email address and location for email addresses today. Herzog mentions in the documentary, if I recall correctly, that such a book would have enough pages to reach to the planet Mars and back.

So that's where we are today. And fortunately, we have enough history recorded that we can read accounts of what it was like to be at the birth of such a tool. I suppose that's the bigger picture here: what would life be like for someone who discovered a world- and culture-transforming tool? In terms of cultural shifts, I imagine this is on the same level as discovering fire, or discovering agriculture. Doubtless there are others who have written as much about the proliferation of the Internet.

If I were one of those braniacs who had created the Internet? Or maybe a corporate drone at America Online? Well yeah, I'd have a massively-different life than the one I have now. Were I one of the scientists, I'd wrestle with the dilemma of how to harness this technology for the good of humankind, and likely the entire planet. I'm certain I would have visions of interstellar travel, communication with aliens from other solar systems, other galaxies... Of the potential to teleport like the officers of the USS Enterprise - if data can be transferred, why not physical matter? It would be just a matter of time, in my mind, until sustaining life beyond the envelope of the Earth's atmosphere would be possible.

If I were an AOL executive: "Hmm... This is kind of like a printing press for money that will fall right into my pocket. Who will pay me the most money for this? How do we broaden our customer base? How can we make it easy for people to sell stuff using our platform? How much can we charge them to rent space on it? What offshore bank account is ready to handle the influx of all my sweet, sweet loot?"

Scientists were shouted down, essentially. Eternal September, it seems, will last for all eternity.

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