A brief history of the Internet as I know it so far, J. R. Carpenter
From Vol. 2, No. 4
When I started university in 1990 I knew almost nothing about computers. I could not imagine what went on inside of them. I typed term papers on a typewriter; I wrote letters with a fountain pen. I took my undergraduate degree in fine arts with a concentration in fibers. I never meant that to turn out to be fiber optics. That joke isn’t even funny any more. Here’s what happened:
In 1992 one of my fibers professors forced all her students to get Internet accounts with the university so we could visit an alt.art. newsgroup she had started with some cultural theory types the year before. I was furious. Knowing full well that computers were evil and having no intention of coming under their power for public control, I resisted. But to no avail. The professor insisted. We were all trundled off to the dingy pavo lab on the eight floor. It was another world up there.
Pretty much any kind of writing was right up my alley so I thought, OK, I’ll go in there and see what this news group thing is all about. The internet was a totally textual scene back then. It had no interface. The joke of the day was: On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog. Everyone was talking about gender politics and how, on the internet, you could role-play and construct your own identity. At the same time that everyone was obsessed with sexuality they were all claiming disembodiment, which seemed like a contradiction, even then.
OK, so I see you watching me, but are you listening to what I’m showing you?
Before long I was hooked on the Internet thing: at least everyone was talking to each other. Written communication through a series of interconnected machines didn’t seam too much of a leap of faith. Technically speaking, I still had a lot of ground to cover. During my early Internet excursions, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing there. I knew nothing about directory structures or, well, anything. I never even knew DOS. And it drove me crazy that I didn’t know so I pushed and pushed. After a while the Internet started to seem like a natural habitat, albeit an adopted one. I didn’t have a computer of my own. By 1993 I was accessing the Internet from the UNIX lab. My professor said I was a grad student in order to get me in there – I needed a higher-level account for my “research.” Mostly I just I wanted the UNIX account so I could use the talk function to chat with this guy I knew doing his Ph.D. in Rochester. The UNIX lab had X-Windows on Sun stations with huge monitors that made you feel like you were falling. I was surrounded by computer science students. I knew I was fumbling around in the dark so I harassed them constantly. I wanted someone to show me how this thing really worked. No one would tell me anything useful.
Hey, how come this anonmous ftp thing doesn’t work?
You spelled anonymous wrong.
Hey I heard about this thing called pine for reading email. Do you know about that?
Well, how do I get it?
Pine is for weenies.
I’m a weenie.
vi editor rules.
I want pine.
I’m sure I used to think the Internet was up in the air. Not literally, but in the early days, the way they described things, it always sounded like the data traveled through space. I knew all these machines were connected but I wasn’t sure how. I messed around with Archie, Gopher, Telent and FTP without ever finding a really good use for any of it. I gleefully sent packets over protocols I didn’t know existed and, since I didn’t know how to delete files properly, I surreptitiously stored data somewhere on the university network. When I first heard about Mosaic I went hunting for it. I didn’t get it at all that it was a piece of software, an interface, something I would have to download. I thought I could just sign up for it like a chat room or a MUD. Finally some grad student helped me out. He manipulated my account information to make it appear as if I had enough space for this thing. I was extremely disappointed. Not only did I have no idea what to look for, but everything I found was lame. And black and white and very, very slow. By the next time I logged in the program was deleted from my account.
I made my first website in 1995 for Netscape 1.1 It’s still online somewhere. The things is, HTML leads to harder stuff. I started designing websites for an art gallery or two and one marketable skill lead to another and before I knew it I was working in Corporate America. I’ve spent a lot of time under desks over the past ten years, hooking up peripherals and plugging into networks. The romantic idea of cyberspace is long gone. I don’t believe in the invisible walls of software anymore. I know exactly where the hard lines lie. Cultural theory has given way to the need to make a living. It’s a slippery slope: from the internet to the world wide web; from art to design; from freelance to full time; from front end to back end. I felt like a fish out of water when I was a Fine Arts major in the UNIX lab. Now I swim with software developers, systems administrators and even weirder, sales guys and middle managers.
I’ve been watching a multimedia city springing up in the oldest industrial neighborhood in town. Bordered by a hill, a highway and a now defunct canal, an 18th century industrial neighborhood becomes a 21st century multimedia city. Warehouses are gutted and reconditioned. Factories and foundries are refurbished to hold design houses, e-commerce complexes, telecommunications conglomerates and software companies. High- tech companies are moving in faster than they can find bodies to fill the jobs. Disembodiment my ass. There is a shortage of technical people. From executive staff right through marketing and the sales force, many people still take the web at face value. No one wants to hear the details. WYSIWYG is not an e-commerce solution. They don’t want to understand the technology but they expect it to do things for them. They are changing the face of the landscape based on these expectations.
Construction crews are everywhere. Near my office, the streets are impassable. Ragged and dusty road crews have been working all summer. They sweat and yell. My desk shakes with their heavy machinery. Periodically the facilities department sends out a mass email to apologize of any inconvenience the noise and/or lack of parking may incur. The old pulleys and winches still hang idle over waves of desks, a sea of programmers, an ocean of engineers. Outside my window is the weathered gray stone wall of one of the oldest warehouses in the city. It used to be a prison. I’m sure it still is for some poor bastard working there. Staring off into space, through my window into theirs, I can see the low ceilings and the wide oak beams of another century. Outside, they are digging up the narrow streets to lay fiber optic cable: broadband for the narrow streets of the old quarter. In many places you can see the cobblestone beneath the paved roads. You can see the solid stone foundations and the crumbling old pipes. Lead, sometimes even wood: a cross-section of three centuries of industry exposing a massive contradiction in infrastructure.
I used to sit in the computer lab at the university on some already ancient terminal and cruise through alt.art. newsgroups and feel like I was part of something, like I was connected to a world out there. Receiving email was exciting; the internet was a social event. It was a free way to stay connected to family and friends. When did it become a way of life and working environment? I dread email now. Everyone knows where I am. I sit at my desk and work flows through the network at me. Low level white noise is everywhere: hundreds of air vents, machines of every nature, telephones, cell phones, pagers, Palm pilot alarms and always in the distance, construction workers and their heavy machinery, laying down pipe. Somewhere below me is the server room. I’ve got five live web servers running in there. I watch the stats coming in through my browser – data generated graphs, log files and the endless emails.
I would like to know who died and left me in charge of all this. All this what? It’s still so hard to say. Yeah, anyone can make a web page – go ahead, but could you please also take over this web infrastructure crap because it is wearing me out. If something goes wrong, people holler and gossip and complain. I am often the first to know. I’ve got root access to the only hardware sitting outside the firewall. Everybody wants a piece of that real estate eventually. I can’t help but know things. Sometime I feel inadequate to be so intimate with it all – all the servers and switches and where they are on the gig. The router and the local loop and the vagaries of the pipe. I feel like a switchboard operator, a camp counselor, a match maker, a goddamn babysitter sometimes. The future is now. Yeah.
I have secret helpers in the product development team, in research and development and in IT. In some ways not much has changed since my days in the UNIX lab. I can only do so much myself. I rely on a lot of people to keep the site alive. Network, firewall, mail server, the LAN, the WAN – I don’t take care of any of that directly, but if something appears to be wrong with any of it, people call me. I had a guy call me from India call me to tell me that our site was slow for him even though he was on an ISDN. No kidding. I wonder how many machines the data goes through between here and India. The funny thing is, he called. Why didn’t he write me an email? He must have had to do some planning to get a time of day when we would both be at our desks. The Internet never sleeps.
I used to think that the internet was full of limitless possibilities, endless information – if only I was clever enough to uncover it all. Now I find I have to say no a lot and no one understands why. Few people seem willing to accept how expensive the internet is, how fragile it is in places, how permeable and how slow. It is almost embarrassing to admit the failings of infrastructure. The backend remains a murky secret, a subconscious unwilling to be explored. This frustrates me. My boss is always telling me to look at problems from 30,000 feet. He flies a lot. So do I.
Sometimes I look out the airplane window way above the continent – the wingtip shudders over some imperceptibly still prairie – and I think: is this where the Internet is? We are constantly flying over boarders, across time zones, through billions of signals. Data. We take taxis to the terminal to taxi down the runway to lift off to soar through space. We are on schedule, on auto-pilot, on radar. We work on our laptops in midair. We catch up on yesterday’s email and prepare for meetings later in the day. We are neither here nor there.
At this moment in the history of the Internet as I know it so far I am 37,000 feet above the Nevada Basin. I crane my neck to can a glimpse of a detail – any kind of data point at all. How can I possibly understand this landscape otherwise, this new cartography of information? The continent feels so empty. Despite the hype. I try to sit back and relax. All my baggage is stored safely in the overhead bin. As we start to cross the mountains it strikes me incredibly funny that there is turbulence, even in business class. What will they think of next?