In composing yesterday’s post and creating the links, I took some time to read most of them (and even resubscribe to the Joyce and Finnegans Wake discussion groups, in which my membership lapsed when we changed e-mail programs at school a few years back). One of the problems doing this blog is becoming transfixed with the information I can connect us to with a simple link. And then I use a link there to go somewhere else and learn stuff at that site. Wikipedia can be unconscionably addictive for me that way. Tuesday I learned more than I wished about American gun nuts, including Timothy McVeigh, Waco and Ruby Ridge, Aryan Nations, Christian fascists and even more assorted other American evil. I got scared, believe me. However, that’s not my topic for today (please).
I want to talk about the internet and the World Wide Web.
Yesterday, almost immediately after the posting of the blog, my old friend from high school, David Edwards, evidently prompted by the post, sent me a little quip on Facebook: “I thought Al Gore invented the internet.” Once I informed him that so did many Republicans, I started thinking and checked out my link to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who did not invent the internet but who did, by combing hypertext and domain names and the internet, invent the WorldWide Web (that little www. once mandatory in URLs, for us tech illiterates).
In the Tim Berners-Lee article on Wikipedia, the authors give the address of the first web page that Berners-Lee posted. The astonishment for me isn’t what you get if you click that link today (the Web’s moved on, after all, and we’re in the 2.0 unreality now), but that I remember going to that site back when the school first got online.
Our tech guy (the revered and profound Mr. Robert Everding—then as now) wanted us early adopters (perhaps the only aspect of life in which I came anywhere near to being such—after all, I only got a cell phone a year and a half ago and I’ve never so much as thought of sending a text message; and we only got online here at home the summer before I got my cell) to acquire skills in FTP and other internet protocols (which I have forgotten), and he had learned some himself about a very new one—HTTP. He didn’t want us messing around with this newfangled nonsense, so that brand-spanking-new aspect was of course immediately of interest to me. And it was gorgeous! It was visual! It didn’t require me to enter so much garbage to do anything! And the appearance of what I would eventually learn to call pages or sites was… logical!
There weren’t very many pages around anywhere, and most of them were some college professor’s conglomeration of interest items (often making his—possibly her, who am I to know?—FTP collection of pornographic PICT images available; ah, blissful nostalgia… those old PICTs were so tame and so badly scanned). But there was information out there! And I could find it.
I fell in love with the Web immediately and even imagined myself taking some halting steps toward using this hypertext mark-up language, using the CERN website as my source for code I never actually used. Like so many others I went to his page dozens and dozens of times, evidently not too long after it went up.
I just don’t really remember when all this was. I would have said 1991 or possibly 1992, but Berners-Lee didn’t even post the CERN website until August 6, 1991—at least according to Wikipedia. I wish I were a diary-keeper (one of my motivations for maintaining this blog is to improve my records of my life) so I could refer to something other than my evidently failing memory.
Since I had to visit Andrew School yesterday (my big activity for the day before heading to Dubuque to have lunch with my lovely Janet), I tried to talk to Mr. Ev and discover when the school first got online. After I dropped off my two magazines for the school library—one of which is important for this article—I saw him heading down the hall toward me, just like the old days: Mr. Ev in the hall at any time of any day (when does the man actually teach?). I asked him my question, and he had the answer in an instant: “1990 or ’91, it was. I was myself online since… oh, 1988, but the rest of you…”
Okay, so he was the early adopter, the cool and technologically sophisticated one (and he is). My memory still had to be faulty: I couldn’t almost immediately have gotten enmeshed in the Web…
So I still don’t know. Our main goal getting online was to start school e-mail. My Web initiation was probably the next summer, 1992, or the second semester previous (still 1992), but either way, that still meant Berner-Lee’s innovation had an immense, instant impact if there were web sites for me to find and read (it was pretty much all text in those early days).
Embarrassingly, it wasn’t all text. Yeah, I did check some of those collections of FTP porn pictures (and just about all of them had .edu URLs). I am not actually admitting to being a digital peeping Tom: I was getting paid to find porn on the internet. Seriously: paid to find dirty pictures. That seems crazily innocent and ironic these days. However, my superintendent at the time was concerned just how easily students might get into such things once the school opened online access. So he challenged me to spend about two weeks seeing what I could locate… for pay. I remember that as being summertime, but now I wonder. Honestly, the fun part was investigating all those sites that actually held information (I guess I was cheating on my pay packet, learning stuff instead of ogling naked lovelies).
The result of my investigation was all too positive (or negative) even in those innocent days: there were inappropriate pictures discoverable within minutes, without much effort—though more difficult than today (and the superintendent had located, much earlier, much worse stuff that I ever found, by going into posting sites, the precursors of online forums). So the school right from the beginning had to draw up an internet-use agreement for students and parents to sign before a kid could go online (although with all the computers students could use gathered into the one computer lab and the incredibly slow download time of images—I can still recall the nearly minute-long pause as line by line a picture would slowly appear after clicking on an FTP link, much like rural dial-up connections to this day, I hear—I don’t know why we were worried then).
However, back to what actually interested me—the worldwide knowledge and information web. There were about two or maybe three idyllic years of roving the internet from site to site to site, reading the most fascinating things (and trying to decipher French or German on my own—instead of just copying a foreign-language site’s text wholesale and popping it into any translator program). Astonishingly, in those first twenty-five months or a little more, students weren’t all that interested in the internet. Hard to believe, in just as many more months slightly younger youths left us oldsters choking on their digital web dust.
Advertising started to appear. Then there were moving images (dad-durned Flash). And by then it was all over. Commerce had conquered the internet, and information was relegated to World Wide Web slums. And everyone loved it. Except me… (although I liked being able to download program updates and new programs, even though that meant sending my credit card information across the digital netherworld*). The internet had really arrived, and I longed for the good old, innocent days of yesteryear, just a few months, then years, earlier…
Then Jimmy Wales devised Wikipedia, and for a few years (I may still be living in those years) information again had presence. Kind of. Which may help to explain my fondness for Wikipedia (and all wiki projects).
Anyway. All that isn’t what got this article started. If you look toward the end of this week’s Newsweek magazine, the one with the cover on “the conservative case for gay marriage” (the next to the last article, right across from the review of Book of Eli, I believe, but I don’t know because that issue was one of the two I dropped off for the school library this morning), a book review considers how one digital pioneer has come to believe that technological progress may be benefiting machines while sapping our souls. The review begins with a reference to print, E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” the_machine_stops_e.m.forster_2 and the Newsweek review are both worth a read.
You can even find it on the internet.
I did actually include a link to download a PDF of the Forster story above. This linking thing is, as Berners-Lee realized, amazing. And fun.
I am no technocrat, but I have been in love with information, including digital information, for a long time. I once imagined and tried to develop a poem that worked by unfolding new information through clicking on lines or words. I have an unfinished story on the digital machine unreality that I may just schedule as tomorrow’s post…